It was the summer of 1995. My good friend Joel Pomerantz (now a cognitive behavioral psychologist and certified EMDR therapist living in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel) and I were home visiting our parents in Cleveland. We were both still single, in our early twenties, and looking forward to unwinding before heading back to yeshiva.
Having learned some important lessons (the hard way) during many previous camping trips, we felt well prepared for a three-day backpacking trip in the nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area.
I remember our sense of excitement as my father dropped us off, with all of our gear, near our trailhead. We told him we’d be in touch in a few days. We re-checked our trail maps, hoisted our over-stuffed packs onto our backs, and embarked on a hike we had meticulously planned out.
An old Yiddish expression goes something along the lines of, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.’ Little did we know how good a laugh we were about to give God.
Our first day went exactly as planned. Late in the afternoon we found a good spot to set up our tent, and we relaxed by a great campfire. Enjoying the fresh air and the still summer evening, Joel and I feasted on a flame broiled dinner before settling down for the night. That’s when we started hearing the sounds of Ohio’s wildlife.
No, this was not the sound of squirrels and raccoons scurrying around. This was some kind of wild barking. And then it hit us. At the trailhead we had seen photocopied brochures titled “Coexisting with Coyotes.” We hadn’t bothered taking a brochure, but we sure began wishing we had. Just what do coyotes eat? Did they smell us? We had plenty of granola bars, tuna fish, and bread – but that was all carefully sealed. We did, however, have aromatic salami sticks from Boris’ Kosher Meats (just ask any Clevelander) with us. We sure weren’t about to share our salami with a wild pack of coyotes.
I still marvel at how our little pocketknives – together with the tent’s flimsy fabric walls – lulled us into a blissful sense of security. We ended up sleeping like babies that night. Somehow or another, we must have really intimidated those coyotes, right?
We awoke the next morning, davened, and ate a quick breakfast. That’s when it started to drizzle steadily. We weighed our options and decided we weren’t in any hurry. We figured we’d stay dry in the tent until the rain stopped. How would we pass the time? I was prepared for this contingency. Each year in yeshiva we were responsible for learning a certain number of pages of Talmud with our afternoon study partners. I was several pages behind my quota and figured I’d make up what I “owed” during my summer vacation. I had photocopied several “lighter” pages of the homiletical sections of that Talmudic tractate taken them along with me. Joel and I brought all our gear into the now-cramped little tent, lay down on our sleeping bags, and began studying those pages of Talmud together.
We soon realized we had made a wise decision. The drizzle quickly turned into a torrential summer thunderstorm. On and on, the rain kept pouring down on our little domed shelter. I’ll always remember huddling over our photocopied pages of Talmud in that tent – thunder, lightning, Abaye, Rava, and feeling the tent’s fabric seams to make sure the water was staying outside.
I don’t recall just how long the storm lasted, but Joel and I covered most of the pages I’d brought with me. By the time the downpour stopped, the tent was waterlogged and rain had started to seep inside. We packed up our now damp sleeping bags, the rest of our gear, and our soaking wet tent. We found our trail and resumed our hike.
That morning’s thunderstorm changed everything in the woods around us. The trickling little streams that had intersected the trail the day before were now raging rivers. Crossing them – while attempting to stay dry – proved to be a very difficult task. It wasn’t long until we slipped into one such river and became completely soaked. (This actually made things easier, as we no longer had to be so careful to stay dry.)
When we stopped for lunch we realized we would need to change our plans. We, and all of our belongings, were soaking wet (thankfully, our tefillin were in waterproof bags and remained dry). There was no way we could stay out in the tent that night. We studied the map and saw there was a youth hostel just a mile or two from our trail. We adjusted our plans and soon arrived at a beautifully remodeled 19th century farmhouse called the Stanford House.
After checking into the nearly-empty hostel, Joel and I strung up our tent and sleeping bags in the yard to dry in the sun, threw everything else we had in the washer/dryer, and each took a good long shower. Being clean and dry had never felt so good. We enjoyed a hearty dinner. I vividly recall the taste of the salami sticks (which we had valiantly defended from that fierce pack of coyotes the night before). We cut them up and fried them in our pan, together with chopped onions. The mix of exhaustion, a full stomach, and the clean (and dry) sheets on the hostel’s beds all made for a terrific night’s sleep.
The next morning we headed off for Brandywine Falls, just a short hike from the hostel. While those falls are usually quite sedate, the torrential thunderstorm of the previous day had added an incredible amount of water to the streams that fed the falls. We stood near the bottom of the falls amazed by the thunderous noise they were producing. Seemingly unending amounts of water were pummeling the huge rocks at the base of the falls, producing a mist that enveloped the immediate area.
Joel and I felt drawn to the sheets of water crashing down just ahead of us. Keeping just our boots and shorts on, we were soon wading in the deep pools of water that had formed near the base of the falls. The roar of the water was amazing, and we had a terrific time enjoying this completely unplanned experience.
Eventually, it was time to head back to the hostel and pack up our gear. I called my father and told him our itinerary had changed, and that we would need to meet at a different pickup location from the one we had previously arranged.
Within an hour or so, Joel and I were once again in my father’s car, on our way back to the world of sidewalks and civilization. Though we had to leave the wonders of nature behind, our batteries had been recharged and we felt ready for the new term in yeshiva.
On previous backpacking trips, Joel and I had learned plenty of lessons relating to proper equipment and food, water filtration, and dealing with rain. On this trip we learned to roll with the punches. Due to a set of circumstances completely out of our control, our meticulously designed plans required major readjustment. We were forced to take stock of the new set of realities we faced and change gears. As a result, we enjoyed some great fun we would not have otherwise experienced.
Whenever I find myself forced to adjust my plans, I think back on the lessons of that summer camping trip twenty years ago. Changing one’s previously planned itinerary doesn’t always lead to a frustrating experience. Sometimes, the new route one finds oneself forced to take can prove far more rewarding than the path one had originally planned to follow.