I thought a lot about Robert Falcon Scott the week I was out on the ice. He was part of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. In November 1911, he set out with a team of men, horses, and sled dogs to find the South Pole. It was a long and miserable journey. But in early January 1912, they made it. Unfortunately, the spot was marked by a tent. Inside the tent was a note from Scott’s Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen, dated almost a month earlier. It didn’t say “Ha ha ha, beat you” because no one in a heroic age is allowed to have such a puerile sense of humor, but it probably should have. “Great God!” Scott wrote in his diary. “This is an awful place!”

Scott and his men immediately turned around and started heading back to the ship that would take them home to England. What other choice did they have? They had to cover 862 miles in the roughly two months before the Antarctic summer ended. They’d buried stashes of supplies along the way, but those depots were maddeningly elusive and food ran short. The team that was supposed to meet them never turned up at the rendezvous point. There were blizzards. Men began dying off. The rest began going a little mad. One said, “I am just going outside and may be some time” and then wandered off into a storm. No one stopped him.

In the end, it was Scott in a tent, sandwiched between two other men who were already dead and frozen, with a pen and paper. It appears he spent his last few days writing letters to his wife and mother and the families of his crew members. He left one final diary entry: “Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people.”

Even before I left on my own expedition, I admired Scott’s style. Obviously, it would have been preferable to come back alive (even if Amundsen did win the race to the Pole — and really, what a stupid thing to race for when it would have benefited everyone to work together), but you have to admire his dedication to recording the entire experience up until the bitter end.

Not that anything was going to happen to me on an Outward Bound expedition. The publicity would be awful. We were exploring fully charted territory with maps and a satellite phone for emergencies, and we were never far from roads and hospitals. The thing that always haunted me about explorers was that when they left, they never knew if they were coming back. But I had a plane ticket home for two days after we were scheduled to return to base camp.

My only Scott-like experience happened on the last night we were out on the ice. It was 20 below, but the sky was clear, so we were sleeping under the stars, without the canvas shelter we usually put up every afternoon to protect us from snow. The seven of us had spread out in a star pattern with our heads in the middle because, well, we were stars! We had survived for six days and (so far) five nights out on the ice. This was the coldest it had gotten. The stars — the real ones in the sky — were magnificent, and I was sad I could no longer see them once I took my glasses off. We kept our parkas on as we burrowed into our sleeping bags — double-layered for extra warmth — and pulled the hoods up around our faces.

Inevitably, in the middle of the night, as I had every other night, I had to pee. After a few minutes of trying to convince myself I could just go back to sleep, I unzipped my bag, stumbled out beyond the circle of expeditioners to do my business, and then slipped back in again. 

Except that my sleeping bag wouldn’t zip. I tugged. I swore. I burrowed down again as far as I could, groped for my hot water bottle, tried to lie on the bag in such a way that my weight would hold it shut.

It was no good. It was too cold. It was a long time till morning. At least, it was still very, very dark. Even an hour would have been a very long time. I admit, it did not occur to me to find my notebook and headlamp and try to do a Scott and record the experience of extreme cold, even though I had brought special pens with unfreezable ink. I mostly thought about the guy who said he would be some time. What a fantastic exit line!

Could I get back to sleep? Would I actually die? Did I dare wake someone up and ask them to help zip me back in, even if they might be angry? Or should I drag my bag over to curl up with one of the dogs, perhaps Chinook, who was big and fuzzy and possibly loyal to me because I fed him his nightly lump of lard? Before I had set out, I had fantasies of sleeping in the middle of a giant dogpile. That was before I realized that the dogs were chained up together every night and could only poop within the radius of their leashes.

I considered all these possibilities for a while. My brain doesn’t work so well in the middle of the night. Mostly I kept coming back to what a goddamned idiot I was.  

That was actually what my father said when I told him and my mother that I was going dog sledding, in northern Minnesota, in winter. Specifically, he said, “You’re an idiot.”

This was how he reacted to most things I did. He had a few ways of saying “You’re an idiot!” The first and most frequent way was in the style of Archie Bunker and meant, I think, to express bewilderment and exasperation. My father wanted to be a Character. He had spent his whole life watching television. It formed his inner world, like the main character on the HBO sitcom Dream On who thought exclusively in clips from old TV shows. If he couldn’t be a great professional athlete or sports commentator, he would be the guy with the catchphrase — “You’re an idiot!” naturally — and the laugh track and the sycophantic applause when he made his entrance. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that no one can act like Archie Bunker in real life because in real life, when you are mean, there are consequences, even if it’s something invisible like your children wanting to avoid your company. I also don’t think it ever occurred to him, except maybe in flashes, that I was an actual person, not a supporting character in the TV show of his life. Going camping in the wilderness in winter was just another item in the list of idiotic things I did, like continuing to root for the Cubs, voting for Hillary Clinton, and going to journalism school.

And on this occasion, I must admit he had a point.

Everyone has a reason for going on an Outward Bound trip, and it’s usually more complex than, gee that sounds like fun, because there are a lot of things that are more fun than going camping in the middle of winter and schlepping stuff around in a dogsled, and they are far less expensive. Some people hope that nature can help them settle big life questions. Some go to recapture parts of themselves they’re afraid they have lost in the responsibilities of adult life. I went because I was angry.

My family and I were not outdoor people. We did sometimes take family road trips to national parks, but we always experienced the beauty of nature from the car. This was, in part, because my sister has cerebral palsy and couldn’t walk long distances. But this was also in part because my father claimed to have terrible allergies. I’m sure the allergies were real, but I also suspect he preferred to spend his spare time watching sports uninterrupted indoors. My mother and I did all the yard work. We went camping once, as part of a JCC father-and-child youth group, where food was cooked over actual campfires, but we slept in a pop-up trailer, on beds.

In the summers, I was sent to day camp and one year, disastrously, to overnight camp. I was very uncoordinated and bad at sports and games — in gym class, I had once gotten a special award for learning how to throw and catch a ball — and all the other kids in my group usually hated me. (I’m sure the fact that I didn’t try very hard and preferred to sit in the shade didn’t endear me to them much.) I tried to spend as much time as possible in arts and crafts or in the nurse’s office, which was air-conditioned.

As I got older, I discovered that I didn’t mind being outside, as long as it wasn’t a million degrees and I didn’t have to participate in competitive team sports. I liked going for long walks and bike rides and reading outside in the hammock or on the back porch. My dog Abby was especially fond of long walks by Lake Michigan, especially if she could go swimming, and by the winter I decided I was angry enough to go to the wilderness, she was my usual outdoor companion.

At that time I was spending most of my life cooped up indoors. After 10 years as a reporter, I had become the culture editor of the alt-weekly where I worked, and eventually the film and theater editor, too, after the people who had previously held those jobs quit.

Consequently, I spent every day in the office, sitting at my desk, editing pages and pages of copy. Then I had to lay it out and proofread it once the copy editor was done with it and finally post it online. I kept bottles of eye drops and Ibuprofen in my desk drawer. Our office had formerly been occupied by a podiatry practice. It had no windows. There was no ventilation. The place smelled like body odor and dirty winter coats and sometimes fish paste when the music editor heated up his homemade Thai food in the microwave. There was no place to go out for lunch except for a gas station, the overpriced deli a few blocks away, or the student center at the Illinois Institute of Technology where they sometimes had Indian food. My commute was an hour and a half by train and bus each way. In short, it was still a year before the pandemic and my life was already very small.

The only good thing about the long commute was that it gave me time to read. One morning in January I was reading a memoir by a woman who bicycled across Asia with her best friend. Her true dream had been to go to Mars, but I guess everyone has to settle. Biking across Asia, even with bureaucratic hassles and the Himalayas, sounded like a much better consolation than riding the el to a cramped, smelly office. Though, when I was younger, riding the el had seemed like the height of adventure. That was when I started to feel angry.

It wasn’t fair. But I had no one but myself to blame. There were so many things I could have done. I could have studied abroad in college. I could have tried to get a job teaching English in Japan or Korea. I could have applied to the Peace Corps or taken the diplomatic exam or even found a way to spend a few weeks backpacking through Europe. I did none of those things. Instead I stayed home and read books, and then acquired more books and more furniture and adopted pets and took the editor job because it paid a few thousand dollars more per year than my old staff writer job and I was tired of working a second job to pay the bills. I was very angry, but really, I had no one to be angry with besides myself, which just made me angrier.

Then the train reached my stop, and I stomped off to stand on a freezing street corner to wait for a stupid bus so I could go to work and bury myself in copy and the pettiness of office life, and I forgot all about it.

A few days later, on a Saturday, Abby and I walked down to the beach to look at the ice caves. They form every winter once we get enough accumulated snowfall. The snow mixes with the sand and compacts along the shoreline, and then the waves roll in and carve out little hollows with icicles hanging from the ceiling. If it gets cold enough, the whole lake freezes solid, the waves caught mid-crest and a thick line of white at the horizon. It’s a completely different beach from our regular summer beach, and it always makes me feel like I’ve gone much further than three blocks from home.

Abby and I stayed out for several hours. She ran around with some other dogs, and then we walked out onto the snowpacks as far out as we dared (every winter, there’s always a story in the local news about some poor human or dog who falls through and gets rescued). Abby posed like a heroic Arctic explorer, gazing out at the horizon, and I took many pictures with my phone before it stopped working because of the cold.

As we walked on the beach, a few things occurred to me. First, the temperature was well below freezing, but I had bundled up sensibly in long underwear, fleece-lined boots, and my very ugly shit-colored down coat and didn’t feel cold at all. Second, just about anything is better when you’re with a dog. I stopped thinking for a while and watched Abby play, and then I remembered a Twitter feed I’d been looking at that belonged to Blair Braverman, a writer and musher who posted whimsical stories about her sled dogs and their life on the trail. Maybe I could go dogsledding, too! At the very least, if I were with dogs, I would have friends. Even if they weren’t Abby.

I did not want to turn it into a newspaper or magazine story. I wanted to have the experience, the way I used to have experiences before I became a journalist, without doing lots of interviews or being babysat by a PR person and having to shape events into a story even as they were happening (or, worse, trying to fit events into a preconceived narrative created by an editor).

I went home and Googled. It turns out there are a lot of ways you can go dogsledding. You can go for an afternoon, or for a couple of days. You can stay in a nice, warm cabin or at a lodge where they give you elaborate meals and hot chocolate spiked with whiskey when you come back from your afternoon with the dogs (you could probably get that in a flask for the sled, too). You can get a full spa treatment, with massages. For some reason, I rejected all of these. I’m not sure why. I think I was still thinking of the two women sleeping in a tent they had hauled from Istanbul to Tibet on the back of a bicycle. Real adventure is hard.

And that was how I landed on Outward Bound. I read the website very carefully. I wasn’t quite sure it would make me into a true adventurer or even a better, more confident person, but there were dogs. They also said no one had ever died on one of their expeditions. I was sold.

The sitcommy way was not the only way my father told me I was an idiot. The second way was in disgust after I had failed to do something to his satisfaction (arrived somewhere late, broken one of the many house rules that had been established after I moved out, breathed wrong) and was often abbreviated to just “Idiot!” The third and final way was a scream of rage during fights. My father was very good at fights because he knew exactly where to aim an accusation, right at the painful point of the thing you suspected about yourself but didn’t quite want to be true. Once he hit you, he didn’t let up until you were completely destroyed.

There was, of course, a great distance between the Archie Bunker “You’re an idiot” and the knock down-drag out “You’re an idiot,” but when the only thing you ever hear is what an idiot you are, it all starts to blend together. After all, Archie wouldn’t have been so funny if Edith hadn’t actually been a bit of a dingbat.

I ended up going dogsledding more than a year after I had originally signed up. I was supposed to go over New Year’s when I had time off from work, but then a lot of things changed all at once, and I pushed the trip back to the first week of March. By that point, COVID-19 had already arrived in San Francisco and we were pretty sure it was a matter of time before it started to spread. Outward Bound told us that if we had symptoms, we should stay home. That would have provided a dignified out. I did think about it. But I had already spent a year trying to get into shape by doing a couch to 5K running program and finding all the suggested equipment on the packing list secondhand, even the down-filled booties (I love a shopping challenge), and it would have felt really anticlimactic if I decided not to go. Also, I really wanted to see if I could do it. So the last Saturday morning in February, I got on a plane to Duluth.

At the very last minute, just as I got off the plane and started looking around for my bag, I realized that the people I was about to meet were going to be the only people in my life for an entire week. I stalled getting my things together and stopped by the newsstand to buy a package of cheese and crackers, the same way when I was a kid getting ready for school I would take nine minutes to put on a single sock (my mother once timed me), in order to put off the inevitable.

Outward Bound orientation was mostly about re-learning basic life skills, which we couldn’t do the normal way because we would be living on ice in below-freezing temperatures. The first thing we learned was how to shit in the woods. (Discreetly, then bury the evidence and mark the spot.) We learned how to get dressed. (Lighter layers close to the skin, then midlayers, then a parka, and all covered by an anorak windbreaker, and on the bottom, snow pants with gaiters to keep snow from getting in your boots.) We learned how to put our shoes on. (A thin sock, then a plastic bag folded around your foot, and finally a wool sock, all stuffed into a heavy black Army boot called a mouse boot because it makes your feet look like Mickey’s.) We learned how to get into our sleeping bags. (Take off your boots, slide your bottom half in, remove your anorak, then slide down and zip up as quickly as you can, and for god’s sake, stay on your sleeping mat because the ground will leach out all the warmth.)

Every day of our trip would be like three days. There was the traveling, which we would do on skis and by dogsled. The skiers would set the path and then the sleds would follow with the rest of our gear. Dogsledding was not a passive activity. We would sometimes have to run beside the sled and push it if it got stuck, and we were also responsible for taking care of the dogs. Once we got where we were going we would have to make camp, which would take several hours because not only would we have to do the normal camp things like set up our sleeping bags and feed ourselves and the dogs, we would need to gather a pile of kindling the size of a small car for our fire and gouge a hole through several feet of ice for water. In the morning, we would have to break camp and load up the sleds and go traveling again.

The first night I failed at zipping up my sleeping bags and I failed at sleep by rolling off my sleeping mat in the night. I also accidentally hit one of my fellow expeditioners in the face. I was pretty sure it was a matter of time before everyone decided I was useless and that they hated me, just like all those years at summer camp. Later, the same woman I had accidentally hit in the face, and who already intimidated me because she was loud and confident and could flip a fully-loaded 900-pound sled with no problem whatsoever, snapped at me because I had fastened a compression strap wrong, I decided I would have to avoid her for the rest of the week.

That was how I ended up with Chinook as my lard dog. I was just trying to avoid the woman who clearly thought I was an idiot, so I marked where she was and headed to the opposite end of the line of dogs. Chinook was a big, fluffy white malamute with no neck and had a reputation for being a little bit dumb. Every afternoon when we got into camp, I took off his harness and checked his paws, nose, back, and belly for injuries, and then every night at bedtime, I fed him his lump of lard. The dogs slept in the snow, chained together, except for Sage, who was always chained up in the woods by herself because she was in heat. They made little nests for themselves and curled up and went to sleep.

We didn’t have enough bowls to feed all the dogs at once. Chinook was the first dog in the second shift, and I think mealtimes were torture for him.

I wanted to like Chinook better, but my favorite dog was Huey who, when he wasn’t getting all lovesick over Sage, loved belly rubs like he was a pet, not a working dog. He also didn’t mind when I crouched in front of the team and whispered to him how discouraged I felt and that if I were a sled dog, they would have left me back in the dog yard, chained up in my own little dog house. “Back home, I’m pretty good at stuff,” I would tell him. “I can whip copy into shape. I’m organized. I can solve problems!” He would lick my face and I would fall backward into the snow.

I also spent a lot of time with Turbo, who was older than the others and a little weird and out of sync. He sometimes got cold and had to wear a little jacket while the others had no problem burrowing down in the snow. He also sometimes had paw trouble. He was still a dog, so he was, by nature, friendly, but I think he was too distracted by his many troubles to want to bond with me.

I tried to spend as much time on dog duty as possible because working with the dogs was the only thing I was good at. I took my turn at the water hole, but I never got very far (one of my expedition mates had grown up ice-fishing and was an expert; another one was determined to get to the water, and the last day he finally did and we cheered). I was also terrible at splitting firewood. I never brought the ax down in the same place.

Sometimes I thought about what my father would think if he could see me swinging an ax around. I could hear his voice in my head yelling “You’re an idiot!” Also every time I fell down on skis — because I had never worn skis, ever, until our second day out on the trail — and every time I fell off the moving dogsled. (At least I never landed in dog shit, though I did come close a few times.) And definitely the time I thought I had lost one of my big chopper mittens in the woods when it fell out of my anorak pocket, and especially my inability to zip myself back into my sleeping bag. Every time I pooped in the woods, too, even though I didn’t screw that up. But baring your ass to the elements in below-freezing temperatures is, objectively, not the behavior of an entirely sane person. So many idiotic things I did.

And as luck would have it, I ended up sled partners with the woman who had snapped at me, and she apologized for snapping because she had been hangry, and I accepted her apology and apologized once again for hitting her in the face and then we were friends — although I still found her intimidating — and one morning when we had some extra time waiting for the sled teams, we stood around in the snow on our skis talking about our fathers.

While I was writing this story I thought it would be helpful and maybe even instructive to reread Kafka’s letter to his father. I picked it up at a book sale somewhere, and it had been sitting on my shelf for years, traveling with me from apartment to apartment, mostly unread. (You never know when you’ll need a book. My father found my large collection of unread books idiotic, especially when I had to put them in boxes to move them.) The only detail I could remember was an aside about how high holiday services were the most boring experience of Kafka’s childhood apart from dance class. Like most every other Jewish child, I could totally relate.

The precipitating event for this letter was a fight over a girl Kafka wanted to marry. His father didn’t like her and things escalated. The letter was Kafka’s attempt at a reconciliation, and it begins, “Dearest Father, You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more detail than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking.”

The letter was 45 typewritten pages. Kafka never actually gave it to his father, because, obviously, he was afraid. Instead he gave it to his mother, who was supposed to pass it on, but it’s unclear whether she ever did. At the time, Kafka was 36 years old. You would think a 36-year-old man would no longer be afraid of his father, but for some of us (many of us?), where our parents are concerned, childhood never really ends. At least Kafka could admit it. (Well, to himself anyway.)

Maybe I should have given Kafka’s letter to my own father. It lays out clearly the reasons the two Kafkas did not get along, which were also the reasons my father and I did not get along: Kafka/I possessed many traits that Papa Kafka/my father considered weaknesses and despised, most prominently shyness and lack of interest in business. We were both great disappointments, and we knew it, and our fathers knew that we knew it, and that made us even more timid and fearful, which annoyed them and made them brusque, which made us more timid, and so on, forever. (At least Kafka had a law degree and worked for an insurance company. Those were maybe the only two things my father ever wanted for me.)

This made me think of another Kafka line, the punchline of the story “A Hunger Artist”: “I always wanted you to admire my fasting.” But why would he do that (except on Yom Kippur, when I fasted to prove what a strong constitution I had)? Why would he admire something he didn’t understand? And why would I admire what he did when the thought of selling things depresses the hell out of me and, despite my best efforts, any mention of insurance still puts me to sleep?

But we can also look at things from my father’s perspective. We can say that by a lot of standards, he had been an excellent father. He was a good and reliable provider. He was faithful to my mother. He didn’t drink or do drugs or even smoke. He paid for my education up through college graduation and didn’t force me to major in applied math or economics even though it would have been far more practical than English. He was kind to dogs; he doted on Abby and always gave her extra treats. Aside from early spanking, I can think of only three incidents when he was violent with me, which while not great, caused no lasting harm. This put him far above plenty of other fathers I knew. He always showed up for parents’ night at school — and also the fake restaurant my Spanish class put on when I was in eighth grade — and went to all my soccer games the one miserable season that I played. He almost always took my sister’s and my side against school bureaucracy. He made sure that we never had to suffer the worst indignities of his own childhood: we each had our own room and we never had to wear hand-me-down clothes. He took us to Chicago Stadium and United Center to see Michael Jordan in his glory years and to Wrigley Field every summer and he always made sure we had great seats and told us we could eat whatever we wanted.

We can say all the crap about mid-century masculinity — my father had been born in 1948 — and how real men didn’t eat quiche or talk about their feelings. My grandfather definitely didn’t do either of those things. He was a bricklayer with a high-school education who had served bravely and heroically during World War II (though we only knew that because of his medals and a few newspaper stories we found through random Google searches, not because he told anyone), then went back to Detroit and married an angry woman because he liked her legs, and then they were miserable together for the next 50 years. (“Why aren’t you married yet?” he asked me at her funeral. “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be as miserable as everyone else.”) He and his brothers built houses for themselves in the same neighborhood in northwest Detroit; they were his closest friends, and after they died, he was so attached to the house, he refused to sell until my grandmother was mugged one night coming in from the garage. He went to work every day then came home, took a bath, ate the dinner that had been prepared for him, and afterward wanted nothing more than to sit in his chair in his undershirt, smoke a cigar, and read a mystery or crime novel or listen to sports on the radio undisturbed. He liked to say he was “strong but dumb.” On the weekends, he would sometimes throw a ball around in the backyard or take his kids fishing. (For some reason, my father remained obsessed with fishing for the rest of his life, even though he was really bad at it because when you go fishing, you have to be quiet.) He also liked to say “you’re an idiot.” When he died, my father said, “What’s there to talk about? I barely knew the guy.”

My father made sure we couldn’t say the same about him. He couldn’t stand silence. At home, the TV was always on. In the car, it was sports radio or, if we were traveling, he would read street signs. He took up so! much! space! The Boundary Waters in winter would have driven him crazy, all that empty space with no connection to the outside world, not even any animals to look at besides the sled dogs. (I think the dogs scared all the wild animals away.)

We knew about all his childhood traumas, about how he knew for sure that his parents preferred his brother, who was eleven months younger, about how he was always being compared to his genius cousin who ended up going to Dartmouth and Harvard Law, about how he was the black sheep. We knew how much he hated being left out. He used to say, “I’ve got a wife, two daughters, and the dog’s a bitch.” I did feel sorry for him for not getting a son. I tried to fill the space by watching sports with him, but aside from important Cubs games, I could never become completely absorbed. And I could never bring myself to try to become a sportswriter, even though I knew he not-so-secretly hoped I would someday take him to watch a game from the Wrigley Field press box. (He didn’t understand that cheering isn’t allowed up there.) He was jealous of my mother, who was (and is) charming and adorable. They had been college sweethearts. He needed to be the center of her attention always. He resented how much of her time my sister and I took up. I think I personally annoyed him. I was too reserved, too interested in books (and dear lord, poetry). When I took a career aptitude test in high school, my interests were on the complete opposite side of the pie chart from his. Ah, he said, that explains everything. This one is an artiste. (Did the Kafkas ever have such a moment?) I decided as soon as I graduated from college that if I didn’t take any money from him, I wouldn’t have to answer to him ever again.

It was not that simple because if I wanted to see my mother, I had to see him, too.

My father’s view of the world was very simple. God was an omnipotent old man in the sky. Jews were always good. So was Israel. Everything was either right or wrong, black or white, and he was always right. Why should a good Jew, who only wants to see his friends and fulfill his ushering duties and say a few brocha, have his Yom Kippur ruined because his teenage daughter has declared herself agnostic and refused to go to services? (And so I kept going, to please him. It was easier.) If we weren’t related, what could we possibly have to say to each other? Except perhaps about the purchase of a life insurance policy or an interview about Chicago-area Jewish Trump supporters? We settled for baseball and hockey.

I think it’s only because of my mother that we continued to try to speak to each other.

There’s not much room for bullshitting in Outward Bound. I don’t know if it was because we were all adults instead of troubled teenagers, but everyone was remarkably honest about their reasons for being there. There were seven of us, in addition to the two instructors and 11 dogs. Four were contemplating huge life changes, whether to give up their jobs and cities and the lives they were living to go be with their partners or to go back home and reset and rethink everything. Two others were reasonably content with their lives, but they were thinking about getting older and about parts of themselves they had forgotten about as grown-ups. The first day during introductions, I told the story about riding the el to work in the morning and getting angry at myself for never having had an adventure, and I was sure at least some of them thought I was an idiot, too, for picking something so hard core and clearly of my league, but if they did, they were too nice to say so. I realized later that this was all a trust exercise. When we were out on the trail, we would have to depend on each other for our lives (in theory; I doubted anyone was depending on me, except for the dogs when I had feeding duty, and one evening I even failed them by letting the water freeze in the bowls), so we needed to know and care about each other on a deeper, less superficial level. We learned to admire each other’s fasting.

The weird thing is, it worked. Every morning, our instructors Nora and Peter gave us a Big Question to think about, stuff like, What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given? Or What is a motto you live by? Then we would take turns sharing our answers after dinner, while we sat around the campfire drying our feet. In my regular life as a professional question-asker, I made fun of questions like this. They were too broad. They left lots of room for cliches or bullshit. But somehow they became a pretext for real conversations out on the ice. I think maybe the campfire was part of it, too. It’s easier to talk in the dark.

It’s strange to me that we didn’t talk that much about work. I talk about work all the time when I’m home. I think it’s because I didn’t choose a career until I was 30 so having one means a lot to me. Also, it’s fun to say you’re a journalist. Everyone understands what that means. There are so many movies about us! (I truly believe that all the iterations of Superman formed my father’s basic understanding of what I do all day, without the flying and x-ray vision and routine foiling of criminal masterminds.) Most of my closest friends now are or have been journalists. Work is what we have in common. But out on the trail, there wasn’t much to say about work for some reason, maybe because everyone else either hated their jobs or had jobs that were too bureaucratic to explain succinctly. Anyway, who needs a lawyer or a journalist when you’re trying to move a sled? There were a couple of project managers, and they were strong and competent and always seemed to know what to do, and I admired them immensely.

Instead, we talked about the important people in our lives, the people we loved the most. We talked about the stories behind our names. We talked about survivalist children’s books. We talked about biscuits. We talked about where we’d grown up. We talked about Girl Scouts. We talked about all the food on sticks at the Minnesota State Fair. We talked about how we were cold. We talked about the daily dramas among the dogs. (Sage was in heat, and Huey was very into her, but she kept cozying up to Only instead, which upset Huey a lot and put him off his game, which annoyed Ember, his hitch partner, because she’d once gone out in heat and came back knocked up with a pup that the humans named Whoopsie, and she was so over this shit.) We talked about how tonight we were totally going to gather the kindling and finish the water hole in record time. For some reason, we talked to each other like ski bums about how great the powder was looking and how we were definitely going to get first chair. (The first day they started doing this, I thought they were talking about orchestra and was very confused. I’d never been skiing.)

Sometimes when I think about our trek across the ice, I think about the story “The Things They Carried.” We each carried backpacks and sleeping bags and water bottles and headlamps and snacks that we replenished every morning (the squirrel bag) and a spare set of dry clothes in case we fell into the water (the “oh shit” bag). Everything was color-coded so we knew whose things were whose. In the sleds, we carried food for the dogs and food for ourselves and tarps and canvas that we would sleep under and a portable stove that we set up the one time we spent two nights in the same place. We carried a big cooking pot and a tripod that would suspend it over the campfire. We carried spare eyeglasses, and one of us carried his contact lenses in a pouch around his neck, under all his layers, so they wouldn’t freeze. We each carried small journals that had been issued to us with the rest of our equipment. I think many of us carried talismans and photos from home that we didn’t tell the others about. At least, I carried a picture of Abby with me. She was sitting on our back porch, her tongue curling out of her mouth to lick some snow off her face. I kept it in a plastic Ziploc bag with my notebook and freeze-proof pen.

And then of course there were the metaphysical things we carried, memories and grief and questions about the future that we thought time out in nature would help answer, like somehow our minds would become as clear and blank and still as the icy lakes.

Some of those things I knew about and some of them I didn’t. In a way, that week reminded me of a very well-constructed ensemble play where we all had moments together in different combinations, so by the end, everyone had had at least one significant conversation with everyone else. No one was the main character. Or maybe we were all the main character. It was very different from life with my family.

We had no news of the outside world. Our phones were locked up back at the Outward Bound school. On Monday morning, while we were packing up our gear, we asked each other what we would be doing back at home on an ordinary Monday, but after that, a life with commuting and office work and ready-made coffee started to seem unreal. Nora had a satellite phone for emergencies, and I guess she checked in with her bosses every night to let them know where we were, but I never saw her do it. I was too busy stomping around in the woods gathering kindling. Our world was the ice. All flat and white on the lakes and green and white hills on land. The only other colors were our gear and the bright orange sleds we strapped to our waists and dragged behind us when we skied. The sky was gray or blue or white depending on the day and it was infinite. Unless we were talking, the only sound was our skis or the runners of the sleds scraping over the snow and the occasional yip from the dogs.

The first thing we did as soon as we got back in the van to take us back to the Outward Bound school was demand news of the outside world. Super Tuesday had happened and many of us had feelings about the outcome, which we were not allowed to share because of the official prohibition against discussing politics. COVID had gotten closer. There was talk of lockdowns in New York and San Francisco, but it seemed unreal and impossible. Nothing bad or impure could come to the Boundary Waters.

Then the driver turned on the radio. The only station that came through was one that played pop hits from 20 years ago. It was strange to hear real music again (as opposed to our own off-key singing), and we were all quiet for a while. I looked out the window and thought about everything we’d done in the past week. Now that we were heading back into the world, I began to think about how the story of the week would sound once I told it to people who hadn’t been there. We learned to build fires on ice. I had learned how to dog sled and how to ski (and how to get back up when I fell), and how to skijor, which is when a dog pulls you around the lake while you’re on skis. I had survived in the woods for a night (mostly) on my own. We slept outside, on ice, when it was 20 below! And we were still alive! We were like mythical characters! I thought about telling my dad all about it, maybe skipping over the part where I had woken Nora up at 4 a.m. so she could zip me back into my sleeping bag so I wouldn’t freeze to death. Earlier that morning, in my head, I had heard him call me an idiot as I headed out to the woods to pee, and I told him, “Yeah, but I did it. I did the whole thing.”

Then I remembered that, despite the constant voice in my head, he had been dead for ten months and I would never be able to tell him.

He’d been sick most of the winter. Colds, complications from diabetes, complications from a blood disease he had, preparations for going on dialysis because he had only one kidney (the other had been removed more than 20 years ago because of cancer). The previous summer, I’d taken him to a Cubs-Tigers game for his 70th birthday, and in the crowd outside Wrigley Field, a drunk had toppled into him and they’d nearly gone over like dominoes, and for the first time, he seemed like an old man to me.

He started to feel better when the weather got warmer. He got through Passover and most of The Ten Commandments without falling asleep. He and my mom planned to go on vacation to Myrtle Beach in May with a group of their friends. A few days before they were scheduled to leave, he fell down in the middle of the night while he was going to the bathroom and hit his head. But he’d felt fine afterward, aside from the black eye, so they’d gone anyway. They’d spent the day kibbitzing with their friends. They went to a show, which he didn’t like, so he sat in the lobby and kibbitzed some more. He was having an excellent time.

The next day, he fell down the stairs when they were leaving their hotel room, and then he fell three more times within an hour and started to act dopey. My mother thought he was having kidney failure. He refused to get on a plane — he said it was bad for his sinuses — so she drove him back to Chicago. It took all night. By the time they got to the hospital, he was no longer alive in any way that mattered. He’d had a brain bleed and he was on blood thinners, which made it worse. My mother and I sat in the hospital room with him, but there was nothing anyone could do. He just lay there, hooked up to machines. We spent the time on our phones trying to make travel arrangements for my sister, who was flying in from California and needed a van for her power chair. (It was Mother’s Day weekend and we learned the hard way that this is the busiest weekend of the year for power chair transport. It’s also the busiest weekend of the year at cemeteries.) When he finally actually died, 40 minutes after we told the doctor to pull the plug, we weren’t there. We were driving to the other side of the city to pick up a van and trying to keep track of everyone else’s travel arrangements. Then the house was full of relatives, and we were trying to order enough Chinese food to feed everyone (our first rebellion: my father had hated Chinese food), and the rabbi came by to gather information for the eulogy (I, in an unfiltered moment, told him my father was a pain in the ass, and that, unfortunately, made it into the final speech because the rabbi knew a good quote when he heard one). There were so many people to talk to, we barely had time to eat all the deli food people kept sending, and my mother told the story again and again and was, for the first time I could remember, the center of attention in a room. When I had any time alone, all I wanted to do was sleep. Otherwise, I didn’t feel anything at all, except a bit of relief that I wouldn’t have to worry about annoying him anymore. (Which I had done during our last conversation, when I’d called from the el on the way home from work to wish them a good trip. I’d called too late. Didn’t I know they had to get up at 3 for the plane?)

Or maybe that was the same as not being afraid. I didn’t have to be afraid of anyone anymore. Anytime a man tried to yell at me, I could laugh, because he was never going to be able to get to me the way my father could.

Abby died in December. She was the reason I had postponed the trip: she had cancer that had spread throughout her body and I wanted to be with her until the end. The cancer eventually crushed her lungs. The vet said she might have a few more days on oxygen. We asked her what she wanted to do. In those last few days, I felt like, after nine years of living together, we finally understood each other perfectly and I could read her thoughts just by looking in her eyes. Now she was saying very clearly, “Please. Let me go.” We lay down on the floor of the animal hospital together and I held her while the vet gave the injection and whispered “I love you” over and over. In 30 seconds, her head fell against my arm. We all cried, even the vet. It’s so easy to love a dog, so impossible to tell anyone after her death that she had been a pain in the ass.

(Would my father have wanted that? My mother thinks the last thing he knew was riding in the passenger seat of a rental car on a highway somewhere between Myrtle Beach and Chicago and really having to pee. Would he rather have had someone holding his head and telling him they loved him? My mother, obviously. Not me.)

Even then, I didn’t cry for my father. My aunt had warned me that the grief would come unexpectedly, but she’d also told me I would forget the bad times and only remember the good. “No, I won’t,” I said. Instead I dreaded the grief. Three days after the funeral, I went back to work, weighed down by bags of leftovers. Some of my coworkers looked at me oddly, as though they were worried I would break down and they wouldn’t know what to do, so I resolved to act as normally as possible. Later that summer, I got another job. “I understand,” a coworker said, “when a parent dies, you sometimes need to change other things, too.” I pretended she knew what she was talking about, but that wasn’t it at all. I’d been offered more money for less work and a shorter commute and I would have time to write again. Who would turn that down?

Still, I secretly hoped that spending time out on the ice would unfreeze me a bit. I did cry quite a bit out there. I cried the first morning, before we set out, because I was sure I was going to fail. I cried a few times in frustration while gathering kindling. I cried one night at the campfire when one of my fellow expeditioners told us about her beloved friend who had died. I cried when I arrived at the little cove where I was supposed to spend the night alone and wrote Abby’s name in the snow with my big chopper mitten: Camp Abby.

But I couldn’t bring myself to talk about my father around the campfire. That was a place for warm memories. The only time I talked about him was out in the bright, cold sunlight, that morning with the other woman who had reminded me of my father but who had apologized and so had not been like him at all. Her father had also died a few months earlier. We stood there in the snow on our skis and traded stories. We were both very precise and clinical. It was the first time I had told the whole story since back in the spring, and only then to two close friends. No one else had really wanted to hear it, not the true version. They were really thinking of their own fathers and how they had felt or how they expected they would feel when the time came. It was a relief to tell it to someone else who’d had a father who had not been easy to mourn. We could be honest.

Then suddenly, in the van, heading back to base camp, I realized that this trip was the last thing I would ever do that he would know about.

And then, for some stupid reason, I started to cry. I pulled up my hood and everyone else pretended not to see. (And that was the lovely thing about all these people. We had traveled, eaten, slept, and even peed together for a week and we all knew a lot of things about each other, but we still knew when to offer privacy.) Maybe they thought I was crying about Elizabeth Warren. (I was embarrassed about this and made a point of explaining later.) My father had thought Elizabeth Warren — and all Democrats, as a matter of fact — was also an idiot. We had many horrible screaming matches about this, and I had seriously considered refusing to speak with him ever again, but that would be giving Donald Trump too much power.

I am avoiding talking about why I was crying. It surprised me a lot. I didn’t miss him! In a lot of ways, life was better. No one was telling me what an idiot I was all the time, except in my head. I felt guilty about that, too. My partner Jeff’s father had died about six months before mine did. His father had, in many respects, been an awful father, but Jeff remembered only the good things. He wouldn’t even talk about the awful things his father had done. He mourned him deeply and sincerely. My father would probably have wanted to be mourned that way. Or maybe not in that particular way — he might have dismissed all the tears as maudlin — but he would have liked to have been at the center of my attention for a while longer. I should have said Kaddish for him, but I didn’t. I didn’t belong to a synagogue, didn’t have time for daily minyan. My mother went instead, not because she wanted to, but because the only time she had ever seen him cry was when he thought he would die young and no one would say Kaddish for him. (We gave him a great funeral, though. He would have loved it. Many of his friends and business associates came to shiva, and they sent two fish platters, a sign, my father always said, of the greatest respect, much more than the regular deli tray or, god forbid, the fruit platter.)

I was crying because I would never be able to tell my father about the week I’d had. I’d never be able to tell him about how beautiful and empty the ice was, and what it was like to sleep on it, or how exhilarating it was to ride on the back of a dogsled when the dogs really got going and you had to hang onto your sled partner, Titanic-style, so you wouldn’t fall off. I’d hoped he would be impressed and tell me he was proud of me. I’m told he bragged about me incessantly to his friends, but I didn’t believe it. (Is that it? How pathetic is this?)

After all that time, it was incongruous and even stupid to be crying for my father in a van in the middle of the Minnesota woods with Christina Aguilera singing “Genie in a Bottle” on the scratchy radio. But that’s how life is, I guess. Sometimes things happen in the stupidest possible way. And I am an idiot.

We went back home to the pandemic. One week, I was sleeping outside on the ice, and the next I was afraid to leave my apartment. Most of my fellow expeditioners weren’t on social media, and aside from a few emails, we didn’t really keep in touch. There were a few blurry photos taken with old digital cameras that made the whole experience feel even more like a dream.

My father would have hated the pandemic. The funny thing was, he never left the house much anyway; he’d moved his office into the basement. But he did like to go out to lunch every day with my mother and to go on little errands, like visiting the grocery store. In summer, he golfed, and he had regular lunches with his old man club (SEL: Seniors Enjoy Living).

He had various health issues, though, that would have made him even more vulnerable to the virus (diabetes, blood clots, potential dialysis), so he would have had to be under strict quarantine. There is a huge difference between not going out because you don’t want to and not going out because you’ve been ordered to shelter in place.

And what would he have done all day? All the sports were canceled. In March! The best sports month of the year! No NBA, no NHL, no NCAA, no MLB, no PGA, not even bowling. Just the Classic Sports Network, and what’s the point of watching a game when you already know what the outcome is going to be or that somebody is going to make a great catch in center field in the bottom of the fifth?

Sometimes when I was out and about, I imagined him suddenly appearing and asking why everyone was wearing masks and how fantastical it sounded to say, “We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.” He would have told me I was full of shit.

His first yahrzeit came after we’d been in quarantine for two months. We’d skipped Passover because my mother didn’t see the point of a Zoom seder. We did go to the synagogue’s Zoom yahrzeit service, squares of people on a screen mumbling together in Hebrew. The rabbi was sitting at his dining room table wearing a jacket and a tie, and I imagined him wearing a pair of shorts underneath where no one could see.

I had forgotten to buy a candle online and didn’t know where I could still buy one in real life, a sign of how quickly I had become dependent on the computer for everything. The only candle I had was a glass prayer candle for the Cubs for the 2016 World Series, left over from a holiday gift guide photo shoot at the paper. So I lit that. I wasn’t sure what he would think about that, whether he would think it was disrespectful. (He used that word with me a lot. I have since decided that people who demand respect usually do it from people they have no respect for.) I was sleeping on the couch in the spare bedroom that week because Jeff had an ear infection. It felt a bit like a holiday, at least a change from the normal routine. I watched it until I fell asleep and then when I woke up it was still burning. I told it I was happy he was missing all of this.

When I was 30 and in journalism school, I met up with an old friend from home. My next door neighbor, actually. We knew each other’s families better than anyone. Our fathers still played golf together. Hers could not get through a conversation without mentioning Yale (where she was in grad school) or Harvard (where her brother had gone to law school); I hoped my father appreciated that, thanks to me, he was able to throw in a few Columbias every now and again, even though he hadn’t wanted me to go. This was all news to her anyway; she had no idea her father had any interest in anything that she did.

We were walking along Broadway talking about our fathers and how ridiculous they were. She’d been a rebellious teenager, sneaking out to clubs in the city to see punk shows. At one point, my father had given her father parenting advice, which involved heavy discipline and yelling. “It felt like I was living at your house,” she told me. It hadn’t lasted too long. And look, she’d turned out fine, happily married, barrelling toward her Ph.D. I told her I had always admired how she’d talked back to my father, called him “Andrew” instead of “Mr. Levitt.” She said, “I wish you had, too.”

I spent the next few days thinking about that. It made me too sad to get out of bed. What if I had talked back? Why had I allowed him to have so much power over me? Why couldn’t I laugh at him the way I laughed at every other male authority figure in my life? (All their attempts at imposing authority on me actually did seem laughable.) Not that it changed anything. At my graduation that May, we ended up standing outside the 116th Street gate screaming at each other. It was raining, just like in a Springsteen song. I’m not even sure what I had done to provoke him; I think I had failed to show him proper deference and had been too busy accepting congratulations from my professors and classmates. At least now I had Jeff to scream back at him on my behalf.

Before I wrote this, I went back and looked at my notebook, the entries about my father’s death, the week on the ice, and the early days of the pandemic. All this loss, one thing after another: father, dog, life. And in the middle, that week of blankness.

I wonder if everyone secretly wants to live a heroic life, or at least be the hero of their own story (per David Copperfield). And is it strange that living through a pandemic is maybe the most heroic thing any of us will ever do, even if it was more of a collective than individual project and also one of the most boring things we have ever done? I think my father thought he was a hero. And when he died, it was my job to lay out his clothes for burial. It felt almost Biblical, even though, instead of a shroud, we’d decided to bury him in the clothes he liked to wear on vacation so he would be comfortable and happy — golf shirt, shorts, Tevas, underwear from JC Penney — plus his Bar Mitzvah tallis that was way too small and the souvenir kippot from my sister’s and my Bat Mitzvahs, stacked one on top of the other. The epic, Biblical effect of the whole thing was spoiled, though, because I shoved all the clothes into a garbage bag and handed them off to the funeral director, who was going to dress him and maybe also do the religious vigil. I don’t know about the last part, I didn’t ask. We also outsourced the deathbed vigil to a nurse named Jane, who sat with him after they unplugged the machines; my mother and I had too many errands to run. The sitting and waiting is the most boring part, but it feels the most heroic to me, maybe because nobody wants to do it — even more than trekking through the frozen wilderness in search of… something (a magnetic pole, the meaning of life) or blustering through life to make everyone afraid of you.

But what would my father have thought of all of this? I have friends who can really talk to their fathers, who share a basic understanding of life, or a profession. And now I’m old enough to have friends who can really talk to their daughters. They were lucky enough to land in the right families. I envy them. Since my father died, I’ve been unable to take any interest in sports, except for idly looking out at Wrigley Field or Sox Park through an el train window. That was about all we had left. Although, I suppose my father understood me better than anyone ever has, because he knew where all my weaknesses were and the best way to hit them, and the more I think about this, the more time that has gone by, the more I try to see things from his point of view, the less I think I’ll ever be able to forgive him.

Maybe that is why my sister says he speaks to her (out of the ether), and my mother says she speaks to him (at his graveside), but I have nothing to say to him. All I have is the echo of “you’re an idiot.”

Aimee Levitt is a writer in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Eater, Texas Monthly, and National Geographic Traveller, among other places, and she was previously on staff at The Takeout, the Chicago Reader, and the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. You can find more at aimeelevitt.com.