Day One

We pull up to the ranger station at the entrance of the campground, our SUV laden with new hiking gear and 3,000 pounds of snacks. We brush crumbs off our fleece sweaters and talk to the ranger at the window, a man with friendly eyes and a soft Virginia accent.

“Have you seen any bears yet?” he asks, grinning with an excitement I find troubling, as if he will personally release bears into our campsite if we do not see any by the end of the day.

“Not yet,” we reply. The only bears we have seen are on the various key chains, mugs, and posters at the camp store/gift shop down the road. They also sell bear mace. Shenandoah National Park, we later learn, has the highest concentration of black bears in North America. The ranger continues to tell us that that the previous year, the number of bears wandering through the campground was record-breaking.

“But they weren’t doing anything they weren’t supposed to,” he says. I picture the things bears aren’t supposed to do. Mental images of bears selling drugs, catcalling women, embezzling park funds.

We pay for four nights, and drive into the campground. As the Forester rolls through the spiderweb of single-lane roads, we make note of the dense collection of tents and RVs already inhabiting the woods–families from New York and Maryland escaping for the week, lured by the Shenandoah Valley’s promise of scenic beauty and acceptable bears.

It’s my first time camping, and I feel the awkwardness of the late bloomer, embarrassed that this seemingly universal experience immortalized in comic strips and cartoons has eluded me until well into adulthood. I’ve never slept outside, never even owned a sleeping bag. And I’ve never set up a tent, even though I’ve always wanted to have a fatherly moment of anguish as I become encumbered by impossible folds of canvas and bent metal poles, as was promised by the sitcoms of my youth. Now, as an adult with a desk job and opinions on municipal trash collection, I realize that I hold the power to make this missed experience a reality.

We circle a few times, looking for any un-familied patch of land to stake our tent. Finally, we settle in an area near the entrance, relatively  free of settlers. In minutes, the sleeping bags are unfurled, pots stowed, snacks stored in bear-proof locker mere feet away for quick access. Moreover, the tent is up in a matter of minutes, to my disappointment. I will need something else to go hilariously awry to achieve the desired camping experience.

As we set up for dinner, we realize our area of the campground, empty when we began, is now flooded with multi-colored tents and the sounds of children throwing balls and tantrums. The awkwardness returns, and I wonder if camping is meant for adults at all, or is merely a rite of passage meant to stay in childhood, a lesson used to ease young ones into a world of self-inflicted hardship and tedium. I feel alien. Bear-like, I have wandered onto this campground, and while I’m not strictly allowed, I’m also not doing anything I’m not supposed to, so my presence is tolerated.

Picture of George and Rachel on the campground
My wife is oblivious to the existential crisis behind her.

Undaunted by the battalion of happy families around us, we assemble our campfire, carefully placing our firewood in a formation aimed to provide maximum heat. We stuff it with tinder made of old notes and paper bags and the twenty-eight matches which have proven faulty. However, a short thirty minutes later, our campsite is lit up by the flickering glow a masterfully-constructed fire. My wife and I roast marshmallows and admire our handiwork.

“That’s a great fire,” I say.

“We’re so good at this,” Rachel says.

“Three Michelin Stars.”

“It just comes so naturally to us.”

“Let’s adopt it.”

The conversation continues like this until the fire is a collection of ruby embers, and the moon, nearly fully, casts the grounds in an eerie black-blue light. We retreat to the tent and read, but as I scour the same passage over and over again, I cannot shake the feeling that I have stumbled into a world for which I am wholly unprepared–like learning a foreign language, camping can only be learned in youth, and no amount of discount  gear or vigorous snacking will legitimize my pitiful efforts to conquer the wilderness. I lie in my sleeping bag, and I listen to the sounds of the woods, the hooting of owls, the absence of bears.

Day Two

We wake up early, consume our morning snacks, and load up for the day’s hike: a grueling 10-mile excursion up Old Rag, one of the most popular hikes in the entire park. The park’s literature stresses, explicitly and definitively, the strenuous and even perilous nature of the hike, which turns to exposed rock and demands intense scrambling in the mile approach to the summit. Aware of the danger and intense nature of the journey, we pack up our most calorie-dense snacks and set out for the adventure.

Shenandoah National Park is a 100-mile long strip of wilderness that follows the Appalachian Mountain Range, bisected by Skyline Drive, a scenic byway which runs its entire length. Because of this, accessing areas outside the park requires a meandering journey back up Skyline Drive to the nearest exit, and then back down again to one’s destination. So while Old Rag is only ten miles away from our campsite, it takes over an hour to reach by car. By the time we arrive at the trailhead, it’s 10AM, and parking lot teems with families seeking to commune with nature and vie for the chance to ride in a rescue helicopter. Despite this, we manage to squeeze into a spot and begin our trek up the mountain.

George next to the Old Rag trailhead

For forty minutes we ascend, maneuvering around families and children scattered like land mines. We pass a family resting on a rock–a mother and three teenagers, all clad in pink. PinkMom breaks away and asks us how far they are from the trailhead. I look at my watch and inform her that it’s been two miles.

She looks back to her brood, smiling, and says “Wow, two miles already!” They scowl at her. We push past and continue up the mountain.

The trail is crowded, and we have some difficulty passing the slower-moving hikers, who do not move aside when we approach. We strategize, slow down when the trail coagulates with families, speed up when it widens, try to maneuver around tour groups and MeetUps. Our respites are brief, paranoid, our eyes fixed downtrail, ready to leap up and continue at the first sight of other hikers. It is the adrenaline rush endemic to the most-trafficked trails, the brief panic when, while taking a snack break, you witness a Christian youth group slowly crest the ridge to the south, and you stumble back onto the trail, spraying peanuts and granola everywhere, desperately trying to increase your distance lest you become caught behind an orange wave of “Hikers 4 Christ” t-shirts.

I wonder if I’m hiking incorrectly. I wonder if the families look at us with disgust as we rush up the trail with our trekking poles clacking in perfect sync. I wonder if the bears do not approach me because they are disappointed with my behavior.

We rest, and Clan Pink approaches. They pass us before PinkMom turns back and asks, “Do you know how far it is to the rock scramble?”

We tell her it’s not far. Based on the map, it should be less than a mile. She goes back and reports this to her children.

“Have they done this before?” we can hear the boy ask. He has a pink sweater draped around his shoulders.

“I don’t know,” PinkMom says.

“Have they done this before?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So they don’t know.

Defeated by PinkBoy’s ironclad reasoning, PinkMom leads her clan quietly up the mountain. We let them disappear over the ridge, then continue.

As the sun climbs higher in the sky, I notice an unsettling trend as we, now 24 hours without phone access, incorporate more and more internet memes into our conversation. Slipping in without our noticing, our journey up the mountain is punctuated by references to creepypastas, deal with its and bae caught me hiking, as well as older millennial memes long-abandoned by a the more recent, more cynical internet.

When I relay this observation to Rachel, she replies, “Child reacts nervously GIF.”

We pass Clan Pink, who are huddled at a bend in the trail. Pinkboy glares at us as we pass. “Hey look, mom,” he says. “It’s your favorite people.” I want shake my trekking pole at him and say We are no one’s favorite people.

We emerge above the treeline, and the ground turns to rock, and the mountaintop bursts into chaos. The scramble has begun. We shorten our poles and clamber across the landscape, heaving ourselves over boulders and shimmying through narrow passageways as hikers fan out around us, laughing, chortling as they slip from the rocks. They offer advice to us as they tumble into crevices, as they dive headfirst into the stone, remarking on the danger of the mountain. Children gnaw at boulders, adolescents in Converse sneakers swing from outcroppings, hollering their teenage war cry. Elderly retirees cast aside their walkers, scale sheer cliff faces in loafers and robes. Young parents gleefully toss their babies back and forth across open chasms. There is no law here, only the rule of Old Rag.Going under a rock 1Going under a rock 2Going under a rock 3

Going under a rock 4
45 minutes passed between the second and third picture.

I must compress myself into smaller and smaller passageways. I do not fit on this mountain, any more than I fit on the campsite. Around us, the trail rumbles with the vicious roar of the families enjoying themselves. They cluster, hunched over and gargoyle-like, upon every flat surface; there is no place to rest. We will never rest again.

“MFW we’re surrounded by handsome families,” Rachel says.

After what seems like hours of crawling, climbing, hoisting, and heaving, we reach the peak of Old Rag, and the park spreads out beneath us in a magnificent vista. I tell my wife I love her, and wish her a happy anniversary. We embrace and look to the horizon, where we see another peak, the actual summit, in the distance.

Quietly, we let go of each other and continue the scramble. My arms ache. I haven’t been swimming enough. Around us, parents fling their children over the boulders in their attempts to reach the summit. We’re racing now, glancing over our shoulders to watch our pursuers. It’s too hectic to stop in any one place to admire the view, as even a brief pause can spur a bottleneck here, backing up the families for miles.

Rachel among boulders

We reach the summit, and I wish my wife a happy anniversary, and we amazingly we find an unclaimed snacking place. We sit down and make note of the next peak in the distance, higher than this one, and most likely the actual summit.

Panorama view of the top of Old Rag

It is not the actual summit, but the next one is. A wooden sign points us to the trail which leads to the highest point on the mountain. Already, a line of families has formed there, waiting to get to the top. We ignore it and begin the journey back down the other side of the mountain.

The descent is easier, the technical portion giving way to a winding dirt path that leads down the mountain in an easy slope. Trees surround us once more, and the softness of the dirt is calming beneath my feet, as if to invite me on a safe adventure inspired by the storybooks of my youth. I relax and let the sounds of the forest ease my worries. The violence of the peak is far behind. An old man passes us on his ascent, laughs and says, “They told me this was the easy way up!” Leaves rustle, spurred by the whisper of the wind. Silently, almost ghostlike, a group of young Quakers slips by at impossible speeds.

Somewhere up the mountain, a hiker screams that they have hurt their ankle.

Rachel freezes, looks upward. The scream returns, louder now.

“Hold on,” Rachel says, and listens, waiting for some sign that she is needed to intervene.

The screaming turns to laughter, and a few more screams join in. Ankle jokes are screamed back and forth.

“Cool,” my wife says. We resume our hike.

The laughter turns into tortured birdcall, an excruciating cuckoo. Some hikers below respond in kind, and for the next mile we are trapped between these two competing factions, descending within a bubble of screaming that seems to possess the entire mountain.

“If anyone breaks an ankle,” I tell my wife, “you’re not allowed to help.”

The trail widens into a fire road, where we inexplicably pass Clan Pink again, sans their matriarch, who I assume has been left for dead on the mountain, her corpse partially cannibalized in one final act of teenage rebellion. They say nothing to us as we pass.

By the time we return to the parking lot, it’s late afternoon, and we’re coated in a film of dirt and sweat. We pile into the car and begin the long drive back to camp, stopping for beer at the camp store on the way.

It takes mere minutes to start our fire, and we settle around without a word, exhausted and bereft of words to convey the emotional maelstrom of the day’s climb.

We drink our beers in silence. Rachel looks around. Orange flames dot the wilderness, the fires of our neighboring campers, who have all presumably descended Old Rag.

“Do you worry our fire is too good?” she asks.

That night we sleep bearlessly.

Day Three

I wake up to owls and throbbing pain in my arms and back. Luckily, today my wife has planned a canoe trip, a relaxing six-mile drift down the Shenandoah River to ease out the pain of the climb. We have a leisurely breakfast of snacks and set out on the hour-long drive to the river outfitters.

When we arrive, the dirt parking lot is empty, save for a pair of school buses, each attached to a trailer filled with a rainbow of canoes. The brown river, just beyond the line of trees, churns with menace.

We walk inside the outfitter shack to an apologetic lady behind the desk.

“The river is too high,” she says. “We tried to call you.”

Disappointed, we return to the car and being the journey back to camp, postulating as to what “too high” means in the context of canoeing. We drive alongside the river, which sits safely in its bed, not floating above the treeline in a watery cube as one would expect a “too-high” river to do. As we do not understand canoeing, we assume that the outfitters are merely trying to drum extra business by creating an artificial scarcity, that a too-high river is too much fun, and will inevitably lead to disappointment for other customers who arrive on low-river days.

By the time we return to camp, it is past noon and we have no plans for the day. Unwilling to stay at campground, where we may encounter Clan Pink, we throw together plans for a six-mile hike. We pack the mid-range snacks and trek the Dark Hollow Falls trail, chosen both for its proximity to our campsite and for the branding opportunities should I perish en route.

The trail brims with a line of families shuffling toward the falls. We take our spot in the queue and begin marching, penguin-style, downward to the lookout point.

Dark Hollow Falls

While most of my fellow penguins stop at the falls to take pictures, the trail continues on, a thin, overgrown dirt path plunging down into the valley. After a minute on this path, we are alone. As we descend the natural staircase wet rock, the tumbling falls our companion, I feel the sense of tranquility I’ve been seeking.

In contrast to the scramble up Old Rag, this hike seems tailored for us. We walk at our own pace, stopping at our leisure. The few hikers we see smile at us, wave, partake in the good-hearted fraternity of the trail. We pass families, the fathers of which dispense homespun wisdom as their children bow and step aside for us to pass. A Whippet is there. For the first time on this trip, I don’t feel like an impostor.

Rachel next to Dark Hollow Falls

We return to camp, exhausted yet refreshed from the trail. Despite the pain in our limbs we manage to light a fire, keeping it alive with an unceasing supply of wood, as the growing wind threatens to snuff it out any moment. I find an enormous log on the ground and heave it in. It barely fits into the fire pit.

“I’m in awe at the size of this log,” I say.

“The absolute unit,” says my wife.

We snack.

That night, the wind turns violent. I don’t sleep, only stared bleary-eyed at the dancing, blue-glowing roof of the tent, watching as the shadows of tree limbs pass overhead, bending closer and closer to earth on the urging of the wind. Every few seconds, a gust bulges the tent inward, pressing it into my face, and the trees rustle and creak with delight. I can only think of the sheer number of branches overhanging our tent. My wife, who wakes up at various points in the night, informs me at two in the morning that, barring a direct blow to the head, a falling tree limb is quite survivable. Even a broken femur isn’t that bad, she says.

Unless the bears arrive, of course.

Day Four

We wake up the next morning, uncrushed, unmauled, but exhausted. The howl of the wind has not stopped, and is only getting stronger. Most of the tents around us are gone, the few remaining families quickly packing up. The weather report, a whiteboard tacked to the front of the ranger station, is a warning in blood-red letters.

Tornadoes, thunderstorms, and floods on the horizon.

I don’t know whether to stay or not. Is my camping less legitimate if I leave? Will I be allowed back into the park, or will the friendly, bear-aligned ranger look over his notes, say “Sorry, this is for real campers. Ones who don’t flee at the first sight of tornadoes. Also I’ve notified the other National Parks regarding to your cowardice.”

Between the trees, a tent flips over.

Old Rag roars in the distance.

We make a decision. We gather our supplies and climb into the car, looking for a new adventure. We traverse Skyline drive for the last time, stopping only to go into the gift shop so my wife can purchase a poster to remember our trip.

Poster of bears from Shenandoah National Park

We leave the gift shop, eyes trained on the darkening horizon, and wonder what to do with the rest of our vacation.

Note: This was supposed to go up a week after my first triathlon. Due to some unforeseen commitments, I’ve been unable to complete it until now. Still, a month later, I’d like to share it with you.

In the distance, the tail end of the olympic-distance competitors splash around a green buoy and make their trip back to shore. The officiant gestures for the next wave to come down to the starting gate. I kiss my wife and walk down the beach with the other orange-capped men.

I’ve been working toward this moment for how long? Six months? I only learned how to swim six months ago, so that should probably count as the time I became serious about finishing a triathlon. Or does it start from the first YouTube video I watched because it seemed “interesting”?

I tug at my swim cap. I’ve never worn one before. I went bald long before swim caps were relevant to my life. Do the earlobes go inside or outside? Probably outside. I look to the other men in my wave, try to evaluate their earlobe orientation. (more…)

Well now.

It seems like I haven’t posted anything here in a while. That’s because I haven’t posted anything here in a while. Given my last post, it would not be unreasonable for regular readers of this blog to assume that I was swallowed whole by the crashing waves of the community pool during a routine lap swim. Luckily the only regular reader of this blog is my wife, who knows that I am safe-ish and sound at home as I type this.

In truth this absence is a symptom of an overall retreat from online life. I’ve been in spotty contact with friends and family for the last few months as I’ve been trying to navigate my wedding, my honeymoon, and my relocation from Maine to Pennsylvania. Now, as life is finally starting to become less blurry, I’m ready to pick up this blog again, and try to make a habit of regular posting.

However, before I dive right back into this blog, I feel like I should provide at least a brief summary of the past few months.


Obviously I’ve fallen behind on my blogging.

The past few weeks have been a time warp of holiday cheer. Not to mention that Stonecoast is starting up another residency, and even though I’ve graduated I am still becoming sick, as is tradition.

But I’m persevering. A late post is better than no post, right? Hopefully my fanbase (Hi, Rachel!) will understand.

As I traveled across New England this holiday season, I downloaded a few chess apps to keep myself entertained. I never play chess. At all. But every few years I entertain the notion and download a few apps on my phone, somehow thinking that the intervening time has given me the discipline necessary to become a formidable chess player.

Of course that never happens because chess is impossible.

I keep trying to play games, usually setting the difficulty to whichever level seems most like my speed, usually depicted by a cartoon of an eager boy in a baseball cap with the caption “This level is great for beginners, children, and certain types of livestock!”

And I’m always presented with some puzzle that looks like this garbage here:

White to mate in 1

And usually I jab at the phone screen, emitting a few apelike grunts, before blind luck guides me to the solution, and the app gives me an uneasy advertisement for the Chess 4 Kidz! app.

The theory is that the practice of chess hones skills that can carry over into other spheres of my life. Chess is a game of exploring possibilities, of testing forms as pieces cooperate to achieve a unified end, much the same way stories are constructed from the individual elements of plot, characterization, and prose. The problem is chess requires two things that I think I’m incapable of.

  1. Keeping track of multiple priorities at once.
  2. Fully understanding the consequences of your actions.

So of course, I’m terrible at chess. I’ve gotten to the point where I can solve some endgame puzzle pretty easily, but actual gameplay far exceeds my ability. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before my chess app uninstalls itself, convinced that it was downloaded by an exuberant toddler rather than a functioning adult.

I would fare much better at chess if it relied more on emotional intelligence, or perhaps trivia. If, for example, the app asked me to name all the bosses in Mega Man X and then made the best move possible if I get all the answers correct, I feel like I would have an advantage.

There is a mysticism which surrounds this game. Chess has long been associated with intelligence, reasoning, and wisdom. And I want to think I’m intelligent. I have opinions on contemporary art, damn it.

Of course how intelligent can I be, if I just noticed that in my joke puzzle above there isn’t even a black king to put in check?

Oh God I can’t even play fake chess correctly.

All right, time to uninstall again.

The latest installment of my new frantic tradition brings me into uncharted territory.

You may recall from last week’s lunch post that I established a goal of writing a blog post every Tuesday during my thirty-minute lunch break, posting exactly whatever I was able to eject in that time period–no more, no less. Unfortunately, this Tuesday I have no such break, instead being swept up in the holiday activities of the office. Rather than retreating to the safety of the company computer lab, today I find myself in our largest conference room as I prepare for the annual Yankee Swap, anxiously munching on pizza and wringing my hands at the prospect of opening a Bedazzler in front of 40 coworkers.

It would be just about the worst thing possible for my lunchtime tradition to fail after one post, which means this comes to you via my mobile phone, as I semi-subtly fumble with the WordPress app under the table. It’s fine, I’m sure. Everyone is too busy fuming at each other over minor betrayals and shattered hopes. This year hopes are limited to a $10 maximum.

I’m accepting this as a lesson in tenacity. In order to improve my craft I have to be willing to meet the goals I set for myself, regardless of the anarchy around me, completing posts even as the Finance department collectively seethes about losing the bottle of Fireball for a Stranger Things Funko Pop (Barb, specifically).

My contribution: a copy of Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, a last-minute pluck from my bookshelf, currently in the hands of our befuddled SysAdmin.

I, uh, don’t really understand Yankee Swaps very well.

This past week I wrapped up the first draft of a commissioned project (more on that soon). I took the day off work to do my rewrites. While my morning was a productive, optimistic, inspiring process, by the time late afternoon came around I was ready to disavow not only my fiction ambitions but the entirety of the English language, save for a few essential profanities. But that is, of course, the basis of professionalism: the ability to press forward and write and deliver despite bleary eyes, pounding head, and crippling despair at the realization that you’ve been using the word flanged wrong your entire life.

I got a Minion Funko Pop in the swap. What are these? Who buys them? Is this a kind of code? Am I going to die?

This is the closest I’ve ever come to being in a riot.

The point being, this post is representative of my professional ambition. As my thumbs smear nervous sweat across the screen, the bellows of my corporate kinsmen give me the strength tap out my lunchtime screed. If I can complete a post here, I can complete any story, anywhere, anytime.

No more excuses. Today, I am a professional.

Oh, thank God. Someone took the Minion.


Please include with your submission brief biographical notes.

Perfect. Just a brief line or two about myself. Should be easy.


I know almost nothing about myself. Isn’t the whole point of writing to avoid self-reflection by outsourcing your insecurities to fictional wizards? I’ll take a line from the bio currently sitting on my website.

George Edwards Murray lives on the coast of Maine with his fiancée.

But if the market publishes my story, there is a good chance that by the time it goes to print 1) my fiancée will be my wife and 2) we may no longer live on the coast of Maine, so already I’m living a lie.

George Edwards Murray lives a lie.

This is the ultimate test of self-promotion. Condense my essence into 50-75 words such that readers of this story will flock to my other work. Surely, if I can write a story worthy of publication, then I should have no problem crafting a bio that is succinct, clever, and serves as a suitable endnote for the reader curious about the mind behind the work. This is a coda, an epilogue. The hard work is already done!

George Edwards Murray lives in a fetal position under his desk.

This is tough. After the reader’s eyes savor the pity and heartbreaking final line of the story, they will inevitably look for information about the writer. A poor bio will cast doubt on the quality of the story, making a reader question their enjoyment of the piece knowing it came from a shambling wad of incompetence haunting a dark corner of New England.

George Edwards Murray is a shambling wad of incompetence from New England. He apologizes for this misguided foray into the world of literature.

Good, good. Honesty is the best policy.

The other problem is the matter of my other publications.

George also retroactively apologizes for any other contributions he has made to the field of literature which the reader may accidentally happen upon.

I see other writers out there with witty, clever, charming biographies. They seem like fun people. Their pictures usually show them smiling near plants or coffee cups. They wear tasteful sweaters. They talk about their hobbies and their pets. My hobby is surviving the work week. Also my cat hates me. So what can I say?

George Edwards Murray…egggghhhh, you know what? Never mind. Forget I said anything.

Am I even a writer? Who even wants to know? The issue of writing my biography has slowly morphed into a complete dissolution of my sense of self.

George Edwards Murray wonders if he has earned the right to use his middle name or if it’s just too pretentious.



This has gone on long enough. I’m done being awkward about my bio notes. I won’t apologize for using my middle name. I won’t be to ashamed to talk about myself.

George Edwards Cathcart O’Houlihan George William Chester Murray will use as many names as he damn well pleases. And why do you even need to know so much about him? Huh?

And who’s to say I won’t have more credits by the time publication rolls around? I make some assumptions.

New York Times best-selling author George Edwards Murray published over 200 short stories and 17 novels.

Seems reasonable. Needs a little more, though.

He is one of the founders of the letter ‘⊕’. He receives five cents any time anyone uses the word “akimbo.” He once saved an orphanage from foreclosure through the strategic use of an umlaut.


I send off the submission. Three weeks later, the response comes back:

Please include a brief description of the process of writing the story.

George Edwards Murray lives in a fetal position under his desk.

Below is a transcript of the speech I gave as the Popular Fiction representative of the Stonecoast MFA graduating class of Summer 2017.

Thank you Justin, Robin, Matt, Dean Tuchinsky, and all the family and friends who have come out here tonight.

I’d like to take a moment to talk about Hell.

I have this theory about Hell, I believe that Hell exists on Earth, not in one location, but as a collection of bounded areas that flit in and out of existence, little bubbles of ultimate suffering popping up all over the world in locations and designs of our own making. The BMV. Improv sketch comedy shows. And certain social events, where people find out that I write, because it means I get asked the absolute worst question in the world. (more…)