Revisiting "My Last Smoke"

It's the day after The Great American Smokeout. In my experience, Day Twos are always more difficult that Day Ones, and so I offer this bit of experential encouragement for anyone out there who is mired in the struggle. I just happened upon the blog post below this morning as I searched my computer for anything that would give me the year that I got lost in Baxter State Park. But that's a story for another story…

I initially wrote the piece for my "Elephant on Main Street" blog sometime in 2005. My daughter was 19 then, and it contains a letter I'd written to her when she was 15. She no longer smokes but I cringe every time I pass a teenager taking a drag on the street. I fight the impulse grab him or her by the shoulders and deliver the sort of lecture that I know will only reinforce one of the reasons I started smoking in the first place which, of course, was to get someone in authority to want to grab me by the shoulders and lecture me so that I could tell them to fuck off.

Along that vein, I happened to catch an HBO special on the subject last week that was filled with gruesome facts, wry humor and telling interviews and wondered how much impact it had on the problem. Not much, I'm guessing. Truth is, if one kid stopped smoking because of it, it was of far more value than just about any other programming I see.

One last observation from today's news. How is it that there was even a consideration of criminal charges against a 19-year-old girl with a drug dependency for possessing a small amount of heroin for personal use when tobacco companies blithely push products that kill more people in the U.S. each year than "human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes, by the way, about 50,000 deaths a year from secondhand smoke. 


My Last Smoke

I tried to stop smoking many times before I eventually did. The first time that I recall was in the spring of 1971. My buddy Mark and I took a two-week camping trip in New England and Canada. On the way back, we stopped at Baxter State Park, which is a huge green inset smack dab in the middle of any map of Maine. It contains the 5,200-foot-high Mount Katahdin, which is also the beginning (or end) of the Appalachian Trail, depending on where you're coming from.

Mark and I camped at the foot of North Traveler Mountain, a 3,174-foot peak. We did not know it at the time, but over the years, quite a few hikers have lost their lives climbing in Baxter. For one very long night, I thought I was destined to be one of them. I described what happened to me in a letter I wrote to Carrick a few days after she entered a wilderness therapy program.

December 3, 2000

Dear Carrick,

I hope that things are beginning to seem better for you. I know it's difficult. I also know that you will be able to do it, physically, mentally and spiritually.

We miss you. I look at your empty room and feel a hollowness in my stomach. But you are in my mind constantly, and I know you'll be coming back renewed.

Did I ever tell you about the time I spent a night lost on a mountain in Maine, thinking that I'd never see daylight again? I was thinking about it the other day because this is a time of year when I think about Mark (his birthday is this week), and I went to Maine with him. We were camping during Spring break. I was 18. It was still pretty cold up there at that time of year. We decided to climb a mountain in Baxter State Park called North Traveler. Mark was ahead of me for most of the way. He had better wind, not only because he always did but also because he only smoked a pipe at that time. I smoked cigarettes, but wanted to stop. My plan was to get to the top of the mountain, have one last smoke, bury my pack, and set my lungs free.

About three-quarters of the way up the mountain I found Mark waiting for me. He'd had enough and wanted to turn back. I told him I wanted to go on to the top to bury my cigarettes. So he turned back, and I continued on. When I got to a spot I thought was the top of the mountain - it was hard to tell because this wasn't a mountain with a perfect peak - I buried my cigarettes in the foot or so of snow on the ground and started to head back through the pine trees.

All of a sudden, I got the feeling that I was headed in a different direction than I came from. Then panic set in and I started running downhill, having absolutely no idea where I was going, just a vague feeling that I needed to get there fast. Well, that was obviously the exact wrong thing to do and by the time I came to a stop, wheezing and coughing and feeling sheer terror, I was utterly lost. I later found out that this sort of panic reaction is not uncommon, but even if I knew that at the time, it would not have done me any good. Of course the first thing I wanted to do in that situation was light up one of the cigarettes I'd just buried, but I couldn't find my way back to where I buried them. I probably also would have liked a good swig of whiskey, too. I hadn't brought any. What I wanted, of course, would not have helped me one bit, but that admittedly didn't stop me from wanting it.

I could go on about the things I saw on the mountain that day, and the emotions I felt that night as I huddled under a tree in the snow, shivering with a steady, hard drizzle falling all night. I'll save that for another time, though. Perhaps we can share our experiences of feeling that things couldn't get any worse, on the one hand, and realizing how good such simple pleasures as a warm bed can be on the other. I will say now that my one regret was that I didn't stop smoking, then and there. I had a couple of cigarettes the next day. Then a couple more the day after that. Before I knew it, I was back to a pack a day. Eventually, two packs a day. I don't know if you remember how violently I would cough in the middle of the night when you were a little girl. I tried to kid myself that it was primarily allergies. It wasn't. So I hope you are enjoying your smoke-free lungs, and, in general, beginning to feel the glory of your body as it repairs and strengthens itself.


The emotions that I did not write to Carrick about were sheer exhilaration and abject fear. At one point, I was climbing up a cliff. I reached a plateau and peeked over. My head panned up until I was looking straight into the eyes of a bull moose munching on grass just a few yards away. It seemed unreal, perhaps a hallucination. In any event, it was too much for me to handle, so I ducked down on the ledge I was standing on and waited a few minutes. When I looked again, the moose was gone. I think there's a metaphor for the way we sometimes lead our lives in that scene: I had a glimpse of absolute majesty but turned away out of fear and ignorance.

That evening, a plane circled overhead in the twilight. I tried to start a fire to signal my whereabouts, but my lighter was soaked from the rain showers that had punctuated the day, and the brush was wet, too. The plane took one last loop and disappeared. Dark descended, and an incessant drizzle began. 

I dug a cubbyhole in the snow at the base of a pine tree. The branches provided a flimsy canopy. As the night progressed, I felt like the rain was penetrating my marrow. I shivered mostly, but dozed off from time to time. Mostly, I lamented all the things I wanted to do but had not done. I don't remember what they were exactly, but I suspect that they were not much different from what they would be today.

Yes, I have loved and I have been loved. But what have I done to truly make an impact on the world I'd leave behind? Back then, I probably would wished I'd written a searing piece of fiction, filled with inventive language and insights into the nature of adolescent existence. I'm not sure what I'd aspire to now, except to leave this work in readable form. I was 20 then, a year older than Carrick's age as I write. I am 53 now, three years older than the age George Morris Forbes, the great grandfather with whom I've always felt a particular bond, was when walked in front of a trolley car while on assignment for a newspaper in New Jersey. He was bitter, broke, ill, perhaps suicidal and, if not inebriated at the time of the fatal accident, an inebriate of long standing. I don't know if he smoked but I'm betting he did.

I'm not exactly sure when I finally stopped smoking cigarettes because I'd tried so many times and failed that I stopped keeping score. It was sometime in the late '80s. I smoked a pipe for several years after that. Again, I'm not sure what year I stopped but I do remember the moment because I made sure that it was dramatic in a way that would make me look foolish if I were to retreat.

It was around the holiday season. I gathered all five or six of my pipes, opened the door to the wood stove in the family room we had added onto the kitchen of our century-old house a few years before, gathered my two kids as witnesses, tossed in the whole heap, and watched the fire slowly eat away at the crooked stems and bulbous ends.

My lungs eventually got better. My hack dissolved. I didn't wake up in the middle of the night in a coughing fit. My asthma disappeared (except, for some strange reason, when I laugh a lot). I even took up running for a while — a sport I'd hated since boyhood in any distance over 220 yards — and would routinely jog 20 to 25 miles a week until it began to bother my knees. Nowadays, my aerobic exercise is mostly confined to racquetball — I've played up to ten games a day without feeling winded — and occasional runs. I still wonder, though, if someday all that crap I inhaled won't crystalize into a cancer.

Twenty years ago, when I first read—and wrote about—some of the magazine exposes of the patent medicine industry that ran a century ago, I was struck by the similarities of those hucksters to the tobacco industry. But despite similar exposes, profits at tobacco companies are surging to record levels.

I watched my mother die from lung cancer. My father developed emphysema and, despite a few other ailments, in the end it was his lungs that failed him. Every time my daughter went to the back porch and lit up, I cringed. I know how hard it is to stop smoking once you start. I know how easy it is to think that you've got plenty of time. All I have to say is know is what I saw on the deathbeds of my parents. Both of them would have liked a little more time.

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