"What I Did On My Weekend": Building Character
Contributor
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012
Contributor
Written by
Kendra Bonnett
May 2012

I promised in yesterday's post that I would put my "What I Did On My Weekend" story demons to rest. This is it.

Sunday I went for a hike. Not a leisurely stroll through the woods. But a gut-wrenching, muscle-burning climb straight up Tunk Mountain (small by western standards but tall enough to qualify here in Downeast Maine). We traversed 1157 feet of elevation in just a mile and a half. We hiked a half mile to our point of ascent, so the round trip was a four-mile hike.

Perhaps I'm making a mountain out of molehill. In truth, it was me, not the mountain, that was the problem. I ride my bike in summer and occasionally walk downtown, but the last time I got out on a serious hike was to walk the Appalachian Trail some 20 years ago. The only muscles I exercise religiously these days are the ones I use to type.

Am I crazy? I had to wonder as I pulled on camo pants, tee shirt and socks. The phrase "use it or lose it" rattled in my head. Had I lost it? At 60, I'm certainly not the adventure-crazy woman I used to be. These days, I'd rather surf the Web than navigate the waves. No doubt about it, I'm crazy, I thought, as I laced up my 25-year-old leather Vasque hiking boots. My only salvation was that I was going with an experienced hiker who said I didn't need to carry much in my pack.

Experienced? Heck, he was my task master the whole way up the mountain. Jim is a 6'1", 196-pound, 46-year-old former Marine artillery gunner.

Knowing I'd need all the energy I could muster, I ate two Cliff bars before I'd even cleared the parking lot. "Don't load up on water, Ma'am, you don't want to cramp up." Jim hails from the hills of western North Carolina. They grow `em polite down there. He always calls me "Ma'am," and I've gotten used to it.

We started down the trail. The state had built a split-log, plank path that was fun to walk on. I was starting to feel better. "This is a well-maintained trail," I said. "Yes, Ma'am, this is for the fishermen who want to get in to the lake." I'm not a geographer but even I know that the lakes are usually not on the mountain. This nice walkway was not going to continue.

When we reached the lake, Jim pointed out the mountain we were going to climb. I started wishing I'd eaten more energy bars. But I had committed to this. I would press on.

"See that spot on the opposite shore?" Jim said. "We'll just walk around the lake and stop there for a break." So far so good. I reached the first rest spot, dropped my pack, ate a few dried apricots and took a long pull on my canteen. "Are you ready, Ma'am? The black flies are out and eating me alive. It'll be better when we get up the trail a bit." He was patient, but insistent. I moved out.

Okay, here's what you need to know. You can't gain 1157 feet of elevation in the space of a mile and a half without a lot of climbing. Up we went. And up. And up. We scaled chunks of granite, crossed a little stream three times and just kept going up. After about a half mile we came to a large outcropping of granite. My next rest stop. I ate another energy bar. But the black flies were bad and we pressed on after a short breather, praying for some breeze to drive off the bugs.

I learned a lot about Jim on this trip. Gently he prodded me on. He's not much of a conversationalist on the trail. He'd stop, turn, wait for me to catch up. "You're doing real good, Ma'am," he'd say and march on. Jim's not a show-off, but all the time I was hauling my sorry body up the trail, Jim was carrying an 80-pound backpack, fully outfitted with a change of clothes, enough food to keep us in the wild for a week and a complete medic's pack. If necessary, Jim could have performed wilderness surgery. Did he know something I didn't?

My quadricep muscles were starting to burn. Not even another energy bar was going to fix this. I sucked it up, slowed my pace and keep moving forward. "My legs feel like Jell-o, Jim." I figured if I started reporting changes in my physiological condition, he might decide that I'd gone far enough for one day. 

"What Ma'am?" Jim called over his shoulder. Sometimes I don't think he really hears what I say. This was one of those times. He claims that years of shooting the big guns has left him a little deaf. Selective hearing, I think. And by this time I'm grabbing my pants legs and pulling my legs forward with my hands.

"We'll rest now," Jim announced when we reached a nice flat area. From here we would start climbing for the summit. "Damn these black flies." Even though we were covered in Deet spray, the little flies swarmed. They came, they bit, they died. Their little corpses stuck to oily skin. Well, to Jim's skin. For some delightful reason, the black flies didn't like me. Some things you don't question; you just enjoy the bliss of being bug free. "I run my hand through my hair and drag out a mess of dead flies." Jim was now the complaining one. I had to laugh because with his bushy handlebar moustache, Jim almost has more hair on his upper lip than his head. I have a head of hair so thick no bug could penetrate. "If you're rested, Ma'am, we'll start for the top."

Now Jim is about the most honest person I know. He wears his conscious like a medal of honor. What you see is what you get. But when it comes to coaxing the troops on, he can lie with the best of them. Suddenly his whole sense of distance seemed to be off. What he'd tell me was just two-tenths of a mile was a lot longer by my measurement. And one summit turned into three. Either the elevation was playing tricks with his mind or he thought hiding the truth was the way to get me to the top.

By the time we reached the second summit--an oxymoron in my vocabulary--I suggested that perhaps I should sit and wait while he go on to the top. You'd have thought we were on maneuvers and I'd told him to go on, forget about me and save himself. "No, Ma'am, the first rule of the Corps. We never leave a man behind." I tried to explain that he'd have to pass right by on the return trip; he could collect me then. But Jim wouldn't have it. If I didn't go, we'd both turn back.

So now the success of this mission was squarely on me. If I didn't make it to the final summit, neither of us would. We pressed on.

After three hours of walking and four short rest stops we made it to the summit. And it was beautiful. Jim stretched out in the sun to rest. I drank half the water in my canteen and ate a few more dried apricots. I had made it. After a few minutes, I felt restored enough to walk around the summit and snap a few photos.

By 4:30 we were ready to start down. Jim had mentioned something about a northern summit that we hadn't seen...well, that I hadn't seen. I put my vibram sole down. Another day. And there would be another and another. I was so elated to be on top of the mountain that I was starting to warm to Jim's suggestion that we bring a tent and camp out some night this summer. The black flies would be gone by then...only to be replaced by the mosquitos. In Maine the mosquitos are large enough to carry off a small child. Well, I'd worry about that another day.

I basked in my achievement all the way down the climb. Jim praised me. I'd done better than some of his male friends. I hadn't complained. "You're not like most girls." That was Jim's way of giving me a compliment. I accepted it. "And especially for a 60 year old." I ignored that last part.

 

Building Characters Helps Bring Your Stories to Life

I really did learn a lot about Jim's personality yesterday. And I wanted to capture some of it in my story--something I'd never have done when writing a "What I Did On My Weekend" story back in the third grade. To get a better idea of what made Jim tick, I put him through the paces of a Myers-Briggs personality test. He's an ISFP--Introversion, Sensation, Feeling, Perception and closely linked to an ISTP (replace Feeling with Thinking). According to the test, he has deeply held values that guide his life. He is carrying and sensitive, and yes I believe he would have given me Novacane if I'd needed wilderness surgery. And Jim has a strong sense of self. He's strong, confident but not boastful. He's logical and practical of mind, and great at fixing things. I got a hot spot on my foot on the way down, and Jim was quick to fix me up with moleskin.

This is just one of the ways we teach writers to bring more personality, behavior and motivation into their writing. Our new book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep brings social science research to writing.

 

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Comments
  • Kendra Bonnett

    Maggie, do you brave the waters? Between crocks in the rivers and swampy lake areas and Great Whites in the ocean, I'm afraid I'd quickly become a landlubber. Then again, you have, what? Six of the world's most poisonous snakes. I think I'd have trouble leaving the house.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Hi Eileen, Midcoast, where you were, is beautiful and there is a lot to do. Downeast we have to make our own entertainment. Not many restaurants once you get past Ellsworth and Bar Harbor, and even fewer stores. But the ocean, rivers, mountains and forests are very special. I may be tackling Tunk again this weekend. I think I'm up to it and my blister has healed!

  • Eileen Obser

    I love Maine, Kendra, and last visited in September -- Boothbay Harbor, Camden, and places in between.  I envy you the special beauty of the state and really enjoyed reading o your hiking adentures.  Lovely photos and yes, a good character in Jim.  Thanks for this.

  • maggie brooke

    Kendra, in North Queensland I don't even get frost in my winter. Sometimes I have to close all my windows and I even have a little electric heater for warming my tootsies in the morning. However, New South Wales has the Snowy Mountains and a few popular ski resorts. They also have snow-making machines for the lean years...

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Maggie, do you get snow in your winter? Is there enough for skiing?

  • maggie brooke

    It is lovely to look at your photos and remember what a beautiful place Maine is! Even when snow is covering the pines.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Yes, it is a beautiful state. As for the cold, that's a good time to stay inside and write. I'm glad the scorpions won't kill, but I still don't like them. I'll stick with the black flies and mosquitos!

  • maggie brooke

    I lived in the Portland area. Actually left once and came back because the people are so great but the cold (that was it, really) finally drove me down under once and for all!

    ps scorpions won't actually kill ya.

  • Kendra Bonnett

    Thanks, Maggie, for your kind words. So you left the black flies for a land filled with Great White Sharks, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and goodness knows what else. Now that's funny. :) I'm sure there's a bit more to your story than the pesky black fly!! I've been told Australia is beautiful and the people are nice, but some of the creatures frighten me. Where in Maine were you?

  • maggie brooke

    great story! you said so much in so few words. i lived in maine for 7 years-til the black flies chased me to australia!