About 3 hours into a 4-hour hike around the southern stretch of Shenandoah National Park, I realized that I’d been wasting valuable soul-searching time thinking about absolutely nothing. I could be big-headed and call it being zen. At times, I’m sure I was.
Jones Run Falls in Shenandoah National Park.
If I had to guess, I’d say about 20% of my time was spent thinking about nothing and being in the moment, which is very, very noble. Another 5% was dedicated to the shower and meal I was wanting with increasing desire, 35% was spent having imaginary arguments with people (catcallers, men I’ve dated, my sister, Thomas Jefferson), 2% about painting my nails, 18% thinking about bears and serial killers, and the rest of the time spent counting to 10 over and over like in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, just trying to get through whatever rocks on whatever hill were keeping me from calling the hike a day.
“Sheer profundity,” as a former boss of mine would say.
I wish Mindy Kaling wrote the descriptions for the National Park trails: “This one’s kinda like ‘rock-y climb-y,' but, like, in a steps way? Not, like, a crawl-y way?” That would be helpful.
Still, it was a fantastic hike with stunning scenery, and offered the level of exhaustion I apparently need to fall asleep at night if I’ve had any coffee that day. (I had.)
I'm learning that epiphanies don't come from hours of solitary contemplation. Usually, they arrive to me in quick flashes as I'm doing something mundane, like fishing trail mix out of my sports bra.
(Yes, I eat it. No, I don't care what you think.)
Being in the car for more than 2 hours starts to make me feel like a human sofa. I get restless and hyper, and can't sleep that night. So if I can’t go for a vigorous hike, and if my knee decrees me unfit to run that day, then I look for a YMCA.
I found one in Silver Spring, MD, on my way to seeing family in nearby Laurel. It was a convenient stop when leaving DC, and an enticing one given DC’s lack of (free) parking and absurd need to charge visiting Y members a $20 guest fee. Fuck. That.
So I rolled on up to Silver Spring, lulled by its innocuousness and the promise of a lap lane. I did not bargain on a jolting wave of reminiscence and homecoming as I got the tour.
The Silver Spring YMCA was a time warp. Built into a comparatively tiny, U-shaped building, it was a masterpiece of low drop ceilings; fluorescent lighting,; narrow hallways; and labyrinthine halls of small gyms, storage closets, and locker rooms.
Silver Spring YMCA hallway to the pool / setting for next Stephen King novel.
I opted for the lower-level locker room next to the pool, which was about half the size of a typical Y pool. The pool tile was a good thirty years old, and the lanes were short enough to make me feel overly confident in my ability to maintain a brisk butterfly stroke. I shared the only available lap lane with a man in his 70's; the rest of the pool was dedicated to swim lessons and zaftig grandmas treading along the walls like slim hippopotami.
In the locker room, the blunt, ruddy camaraderie of the local women bounced off the vaginal-pink wall tiles. (The guarded but polite persona of the female Marylander leaves me permanently confused.)
This unapologetically unglamorous building slung me back 25 years, when my sister and I went to a Jewish summer camp at the Clifton-Passaic YMCA in New Jersey. The activities weren’t remarkable, but the facilities were.
That Y was a dingy facility last renovated some time in the 60's, if I'm being generous. Everything was brown and the entire place smelled like chlorine. The staff hated having the campers around: squads of squalling, shrill children leaving puddles and wrappers everywhere they went.
Windowless, concrete, and dim, it was more a fallout shelter than summertime play-space. Several camps used the building as a home base. Our bunks would awkwardly stand in line next to rows of other Jewish kids from Passaic, Russia, wherever. I was mystified by the Russian girls' thick braids and cagey tension. We regarded each other and moved on, relieved when each other's foreignness was further away.
A rusty old locker for which a citified someone would gladly pay too much.
There's plenty of ugly shit to see in my hometown area of New Jersey, and I got eyefulls of it on the regular. As I climbed up a rubberized staircase in that Y in Maryland, I thought about how my habitat growing up skewed my nostalgia to the unlikely: smells of gasoline, mechanical grease, and trash; hanging fluorescent lights; aqua metal and algae-green painted cinder block. This is what shaped my aesthetic and filled my memory bank.
I left the Y, happy to see flocks of kids wreaking havoc on the lawn, landing like birds on any flat surface to shout and complain and wait for their parents to come get them. Seven-year-old me sat with them, sipping my juice box and feeling the weight of my wet swimsuit in my bag, dreaming of the next day when I could practice diving in the deep end again.