Last week I flew across the country to LA, met my friend Kate, got on a boat, and stepped off on Santa Catalina Island. The plan was to walk the 38.5 miles across the length of the island, climb over 10,000 feet, with everything we needed to survive strapped into packs on our backs. We were going to hike the length of the Trans Catalina Trail in five days and four nights. It was the first time either of us had done anything like this.
That is not what happened. The first day went well. Close to 11 miles, 3,000 feet of elevation gain (and like 2,000 feet of descent -- what the fuck, Catalina). But the clouds rolled in early on our hike and stayed there. And by rolled in, I don't mean above us, I mean around us. We walked for five hours through a thick cloud layer, misting and lightly raining on us. It was cold and damp, but the bigger problem was the mud.
The soil of Santa Catalina is largely three different types of clay, or so we were told. They're all bad. By mile six or so, the clay had fully hydrated from the cloud layer and began to stick to our shoes in huge, wide, heavy rafts. They'd fall off every fifteen steps or so, but would reform immediately after. It felt like hiking with ankle weights on. Very slippery, very unstable, ankle weights.
But we perservered and made it to our camp site right as the sun was setting. We set up under the arching branches of a beautiful pepper tree, cooked our dinners, and marveled at the beauty and majesty of eating dehydrated noodles under starlight and a huge, bright moon.
Around 3 am, the rain started for real. A torrential downpour that went on for hours. The wind whipping through the campsite. My tiny ultralight tent started lifting off the ground at points, the fabric snapping in the wind, the rain hitting the sides a steady roar. The water pooled around the base of the tent and turned the ground around me to that same slippery clay until between the mud and the wind, one of my tent stakes popped out, my trekking pole that holds up one side of the tent flopping over and whacking me in my face as the whole structure came down on me.
I struggled out, reset the stake. I could see the headlamps of other campers in the distance as I would later learn their gear flooded, their tents collapsed. An hour later my tent collapsed again and as I was struggling to get it re-set in the pouring rain, one of the other campers came over and told me that someone had called 911, the rangers were going to come get us in three hours.
So we all packed up our gear and hid in the bathrooms. It smelled bad. Eventually someone figured out that the wind had broken the door open to a storage shed and we all hid in there. Five hikers – a couple, a solo hiker, and me and Kate all huddled in a dark, damp woodshed filled with mysterious beams, dangling ropes, and gear hooks. A leak steadily dripped on my shoulder as the rain slowed and stopped.
We were all having a bad time. A very bad time. The storm was scary. The couple had a foot of water inside their tent, their gear floating away. The solo hiker had her tent blow over, like mine did, her stakes lost to the wind and water. We didn't know if we could push on, or if we could make it back. We were uncomfortable, cold, wet, with nothing dry to change into.
But the vibes were good. We were laughing in that shed at the absurdity of the situation. We introduced ourselves and asked where we came from and talked about why we were there. The solo hiker brought out snacks, we made makeshift seats for each other, I passed around a flask of whiskey I brought to celebrate at the end of tough days with. We drank and ate clementines and made jokes and took selfies.
My friend Kate was a perfect adventure buddy. The kind where you could pause and yell about how tired you were, how awful the mud was, how wet and cold you felt, and she'd be like "me too" and laugh and you'd laugh with her. And then an hour later it would be her turn to complain. We'd stop and marvel at the insane beauty of the landscape and talk about what a good time we were having in spite of the conditions, in spite of the trail being harder than we expected, in spite of our inexperience and uncertainty.
Things could have gone very differently. Someone could have gotten hurt. Someone could not have called the rangers to come get us. Someone didn't have to bring snacks. Someone didn't have to share their booze (listen, it was very fancy whiskey okay). That shed could have been five damp, shivering, miserable people. Instead we all had dinner when we got back to town and shared phone numbers and made plans, offered advice. Two of them turned out to be fresh out of school, one moving to New York in a couple weeks. We bought them dinner and I gave all my survival tips for the big city.
My favorite people are the people who are good to have a bad time with. The ones where you have three flights canceled in a row so you find yourself at a resort filled with screaming children, staying for free on your buddy's Marriott points. Or the ones who leap into action when you carve into your hand instead of the spoon you were working on and take you to the emergency room, without a moment of hesitation, or doubt, or panic. People who don't let crisis ruin the vibe. Who are ready to take action, to help, to do things instead of fret about them.
A lot of people in this business are having a bad time. Even when things are going well, writers are often having a bad time. Even when they're successful, publishing folks are having a bad time. We're overworked, underpaid (please go support the HarperCollins Union: https://linktr.ee/hcpunion), stressed, and up against it pretty much all the time. Authors are dealing with the vicissitudes of the market, the mechanics of a publisher, the difficulty of making good art.
We're all having a bad time. But we can choose who we have a bad time with. And we can choose who we want to be as we have a bad time. Who I surround myself with, who I understand myself to be, these are the important things. Yes, we should be trying to improve our conditions, but that is its own bad time. I look at the union workers striking for better treatment and they are sacrificing their livelihood, putting their careers at risk, to make the industry a better place.
I look at writers commisserating on Twitter (for now at least), in Slacks and Discords, and I see the ones where the vibes are good and the ones where the vibes are rancid. I see bitterness and recrimination take over peoples's perspective. I hear friends complain, endlessly, visciously about injustice, about poor treatment. And I know the ones who see the problems just as clearly, but also are ready with a joke, a kind word, and remember to ask "how are you doing?"
This isn't toxic positivity. This is standing on a ridgeline and yelling "fuck" out into the void because what you thought was the end of the climb turns out to be another steep incline, disappearing into clouds. This is huddling in a shed, the wind howling outside, sharing clementines and protein bars. This is the ranger showing up and telling you that the roads have been closed for days and why the hell are you out here. This is realizing no one told you you were in danger, no one told you you shouldn't be here. This is realizing systems failed you.
But here's the thing – in my experience, the key to survival is endurance. It's a long road to success, a steep climb with no end in sight. And bitterness, doubt, anger that stays on simmer for a long, long time, those things sap your endurance. They drain you, make it harder to take the next step. When you stop to think about how long you've been on this road, when all you can think about is how far you have to go, the impossibilty of trying to achieve your goals will overwhelm you.
You take hits. This is inevitable. This is the cost of doing business, of making art, of existing in the world. The world is unkind, uncaring, and often cruel. You're gonna have a bad time. Who are going to do that with though? You can be miserable and alone. You can be miserable with other people who are determined to be miserable. Or you can find folks to hunker down with. You can make your own shed gang. You can laugh and have a good time and talk about when you're coming back to try again.
Because I'm going to try again. And maybe I'll get rained out again. Maybe I'll fall and hurt myself. Maybe it'll be blisteringly hot and I'll have to bail for dehydration and sun exposure. Maybe an angry Catalina bison will decide it's finally had enough and make me the specific target of its ire.
But I know I'm not going to be alone. Because I know so many people who are good to have a bad time with. Because I know I'll find more.
Find your own shed gang.