My fourth night up I was furtively camping in a place I really shouldn’t have been, very near a trail juncture next to Gottfried Lake, which is really just melted snow trapped in a pocket between a bunch of mountains. The Forest Service asks that you not camp within 200 feet of a trail or water source, but this was the only flat spot I could find as night fell, and in the Winds there is water literally everywhere. Anyway, I hadn’t seen anyone for four days, and didn’t think my campsite was going to bother anyone.
But sure enough, the next morning just before sunrise I heard a noise coming down the trail, and judging by the racket it had to be somebody with a pack horse; there is not a creature in Nature that makes that much noise. I just laid there in my sleeping bag, listening to these rocks getting kicked and things banging around, and I thought “geez, it’s not even light yet; this guy would have had to have gotten on the trail hours ago.” So I popped out of my tent in the faint light, and met the world’s clumsiest mule deer. If there was a rock in his path he stumbled over it, and I swear he actually tripped a bit at one point. But then he looked up a realized he was not alone, and instantly assumed a more deerlike demeanor and bounded off.
I think this is the latest in the year that I’ve ever taken an extended hike, and I was worried about the cold. After “do not break a leg,” “do not die of hypothermia” is next on my list of solo hiking rules. The forecast just before I left was for lows in the mid-20’s in Jackson, and I’d be higher up so I was a little intimidated. But it wasn’t that bad, and I was beginning to doubt that it was even freezing most mornings until I noticed the inside of my tent was covered in thick frozen frost.
It is just cool to walk in these places. I simply like to walk. There is no logic to it. I carry just what I need to live for however long I plan on being out, and then I walk in these amazing places we are blessed with in this country. You see wondrous things, and if you are fortunate meet wonderful people. The picture above is near Elbow Lake, and those are called “glacial erratics.” The big one in the foreground, the one that looks like the chair in George Jetson’s living room, is taller than me–you have to re-set your references for everything in the mountains. A glacial erratic is a big rock that a glacier just left in some preposterous spot many thousands of years ago, and this part of the Winds is littered with them. You look at these giant rocks that couldn’t have fallen from any nearby peak or been pushed there by a river, and you just shake your head and say “how did this get here?,” and you feel so fortunate to be there.
I was disappointed with myself this trip. I am constantly so grateful for my body; it does amazing things for me, carries my brain where it desires to go. But I found I was moving at a glacial pace the first few days; I kept saying “any slower, and physics won’t be able to explain your forward motion, George.” I resent growing old, although I accept it. But then near the end, somewhere above Palmer Lake near Doubletop Mountain, I looked back and saw where I’d been two days before (the little arrow above the peak in the middle), and thought only “How did I get here?”
So, about those bears: I could be wrong. I came across this pile of black bear poop (the bear is black, not the poop) somewhere along the trail between Summit Lake and Dean Lake, which is a new part of the Wind River Range for me. That scat looks like it’s at least 5-6 days old–I’m not showing off my mountainman skills by saying that, it’s just that I’ve seen still steaming-fresh black bear poop before and I’m extrapolating from that. Still, you don’t see the fauna here you see almost constantly in more protected national park backcountry such as Glacier. In a single day there I have seen close-up mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, deer, bear, eagles, and elk. Here, I am fortunate to see poop.
I deeply enjoy being in a place where I am not the apex predator. And I don’t need to actually see them, I just like knowing that they are there, and that they are so much better at being there than I am. It keeps you humble, and helps you find your place in the world you are passing through. They are to me a natural resource, like timber or oil, but worth so much more than their meat or mounted head. When they are gone, they are truly gone. And with them, a part of who we are as a species.
In the Winds you can get up high and be alone fairly quickly, but it’s a lot of work first to get there. I’ve always said things don’t turn cool until you’re at least one day out from a trailhead, but even before that long first day’s lightening-filled night I knew I was pretty alone. That’s the attraction of hiking solo in wild places, the knowledge that a certain amount of risk is present, and no one to help you if things go wrong. But then once you’re actually out there, all you can think is “don’t mess up.” I don’t know how many times I repeated to myself this trip “Solo Hiker’s Rule Number 1: do not break a leg.”
I sort of mis-calculated the effort involved in “getting up high” this year; I made only eight miles horizontally my second day, but 2,000 ft. vertically following Clark Creek. Once you leave the valley of the New Fork River, the entire rest of your day is spent walking uphill until you get to the ridge above Clark Lake. I had expected colder weather, and so my pack was a little fuller than usual with extra calories and foul weather gear, and believe me when I say that the longer you walk uphill, the heavier each extra ounce becomes. But as relieved as I was at that point to finally stop walking uphill, when I got to the top and saw the mountains before me that I was headed for dusted in fresh snow, I reflexively said “oh shit.”
Well, no, you’re not. This was my third trip to the Wind River Range, and I promise you there are probably no resident Grizzly Bears. There are Black Bears in there somewhere, but you’re probably also not going to see one. This is the difference between a National Park and a National Forest. More on this later. I’ve flown in to Jackson Hole each trip and rented a car for the hour and a half drive south following the Hoback River down to Pinedale. It is a strange drive, because the Hoback is right next to the highway and in places you will appear to be driving uphill yet the river is clearly flowing the same way. I’ve yet to figure out the physics on this. But it’s a beautiful drive, an overwhelming place. It is all mountains and surprising prairies between them and austerity. Wyoming is not yet conquered.
That night there was a lightening storm, and it was so cool to be right up there in it. From inside my little tent, it’d flash and it was like it was right there, like right there outside. You got to hear Nature come at you.
The next morning I lay there in my sleeping bag, waiting for the sun to rise above the surrounding mountains and warm things up. I’m sort of a pussy about getting up cold and wet if I don’t have to, so I just lay there, waiting for something so much bigger than me to get things going. But I finally crawled out into the wet morning, knowing I’d get soaked just walking a few feet to pee. And then that sun came up in that clear, clear sky above the mountains all around me. At first, I didn’t understand what was happening: I could see steam or smoke or mist rising on the other side of the stream, but I didn’t understand what it was. But I watched it coming my way, like a wave, like a wall–a wall of fog rising with the advancing morning sun. It was an amazing way to wake up.
Whenever I get down about what is happening to my son, I remind myself that I am not the one in the wheelchair. He never complains. If this was happening to me, I’d rage. But he just says “this is the way things are.”
I suppose if you have to be disabled, you couldn’t choose a better place than the United States, thanks entirely to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The Act reflected a change of American attitude and mentality: rather than hiding our disabled away and out of sight, the ADA made “normal” life accessible for the disabled. When you see all those “Disabled” parking spots in front of the store, don’t think about the person getting out of their car whose only disability appears to be obesity (that’s mean, but we all think it occasionally). Think instead about the guy in the wheelchair who needs extra space to the side of his vehicle to get in and out because of the chair.
And think about him when you’re in the locker room at the gym, and you see that nice, wide shower stall with the fold-down bench: in addition to parking spaces, the ADA makes businesses render themselves accessible to the disabled in a number of ways, ways you and I would never even consider because we are not disabled. Although that nice, wide shower stall is not there exclusively for the use of the disabled, it is exclusively the one they are able to use. So if all the other “normal” shower stalls are occupied, sure, go ahead and use the wheelchair accessible stall. Disabled people usually understand that they have to wait their turn like everyone else. And if you’re the only one in the showers and you just really want to use that wide stall, go for it.
But please, please, please: if you are not in a wheelchair, do not use the wheelchair-accessible stall for a 30-minute session of manscaping. I just cannot understand this. It already bothers me when someone is taking a longer shower in the gym than I have ever taken in my entire life, even when I’d blown an unbelievable amount of money on a hotel room and thought “I deserve this.” Sitting there with my son, waiting for the stall to be free while there are three other normal stalls available, I feel bad for thinking “I know this fucker is going to step out of there with a big beard, and a bag of skincare and hair products, and he’s almost for sure from California and in his mid-20’s,” but damn if I am not always right.
Please, don’t make me hate you for something that is not happening to me.
We’ve made it over Cottonwood Pass, and it will be dark soon so we really need to find a place to camp. We find a less-than-ideal spot up here at 12,000 feet, and Rob and Ed have their tents up in a jiffy and are starting dinner. They have an obscene amount of energy.
Me, I am standing in some scrub, looking at the ground. I can’t decide whether it is flatter and more rock-free here, or in an identical spot ten feet away. I shuffle over to the other spot, and spend five minutes staring at it. Then I shuffle back to the first spot and stare some more. I am too tired to decide.
After a while of standing there, I see Rob silently considering me. Rob and Ed are eating dinner now. Rob is fairly inscrutable, but I believe I can hear him thinking “is this fucker getting ready to die on me? That’s going to complicate the rest of the hike.” Imagining what Rob is thinking is one of my favorite pastimes when I hike with him.
I finally decide that one spot is as good as another, silently pitch my tent and crawl inside. I stare at the ceiling, hear Ed say “hey George, you have to see this sunset!,” and Rob asks “are you going to eat?” I say “yeah, in a minute.” I know they are looking out for me. I am unconscious in two minutes.
I was fine the next morning–well, fine enough. The stretch from Cottonwood Pass south to Tincup Pass, about 16 miles in all, is the best of Collegiates West. It is all above tree line–12 to 13,000 feet–and the views are stunning.
There are still a few snow fields to traverse; the one below is at Sanford Saddle. Early in the morning, the surface is frozen solid, so you want to hit it once it has warmed a bit so your boots get a grip, but not warmed so much that you sink through. I bought micro-spikes for an ice crossing years ago, and have so far carried them across many miles of beautiful mountain scenery without ever using them. I intend to continue avoiding the need to use them; who wants to cross an ice field where a slip will send you sliding . . . downhill? Like, way downhill.
That snow is deceptive, all nice and smooth like that. But most of it is covering scree and boulders, and occasionally you’d step in the footprint in front of you and sink up to your crotch. Sinking up to your crotch is exhausting, and so you soon find yourself pretending that you are crossing eggshells: plant your foot gently, shift your weight onto it gradually, wait to fall through, and then when you don’t you take your next step.
In five days, we met no one travelling south like us on the Colorado Trail (CT), but we met wave after wave of amazing people hiking the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT) northbound. We had been unable to start our southbound trip sooner because of snow in Lake Ann Pass, and they had been halted by snow in the passes south of us in the San Juan Mountains. They’d each walked perhaps 1,000 miles so far, alone or with varying temporary partners, but had bunched up waiting. When the high passes opened, it was like opening the corral. We’d cross perhaps 20 a day, energetic, enthusiastic, and very happy to be doing what they were doing. Rob, who has thru-hiked both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail (his wife won’t let him thru-hike the CDT. “Enough’s enough!” I also enjoy imagining what Sue says to Rob), remarked that thru-hikers were a different breed now from when he had hiked his thousands of miles: highly trained, incredibly fit, true “world-class athletes.” Three thousand miles is a long way to walk, and we knew that only a small percentage (about 150 complete the thru-hike each year) would actually make it all the way to Chief Mountain Canadian Customs Post, but these amazing people had already hiked a third of the way and were to a person enthusiastic to keep walking. Well, except that one guy–he was cooked. We talked to this tired, down guy a bit, and after we’d parted I said “I don’t think that one is going to make it” to general agreement.
I awoke the next morning to find my tent full of water, soaking my one pair of pants and shirt. This is not the first time I’ve woken up to find water standing snuggly in my tent as though it were a plastic bag holding a goldfish. Thusly I spent the cold morning breaking camp in my underwear while my clothes dried and Rob and Ed went out of their way to make no comment.
The first couple of days at altitude are hard for me, and I worried that I might slow the pace for my two Colorado-based friends. Ed is a natural athlete–an athlete who by his own repeated appraisal needs to lose about 30 pounds. You look at him, looking at his pronounced belly, and you can see him thinking “how did this happen to me?” But Ed gets up in the morning like a puppy, all energy and enthusiasm. I have never known anyone who pushes themselves as hard as Ed did every day on this trip. Rob however is truly unique, the single person I know most attuned to backpacking high mountain trails. He makes it look like he is not even trying, which in this case was probably true.
So Ed took off–BOOM, gone. Then Rob would be back there behind me, and he’d disappear for a while, but suddenly there he’d be again, literally strolling along like he was just going out for the mail. I suspect that my slower pace had allowed him to occasionally veer off the trail and follow his whimsy, perhaps summitting 14,003 foot Huron Peak unnoticed as Ed and I made our way forward. It was a good feeling, knowing that these two were looking out for me by cradling me between them.
I am “fitter” than Ed, but I take the “slow but steady wins the race” view of hiking and life in general. Ed however starts fast, but then there is a noticeable crash as the day progresses, and slowly Ed doubts his stamina. I am familiar with this, being 62, and so I introduced my hiking partners to the Mid-Day Nap Rule: “it is hot, and we’re going to find a flat spot in the shade and take a nap until the sun is lower and it cools off a little.” So Rob reluctantly humored me, and Ed seemed grateful, and curling up on some shaded pine needles mid-day became our custom for the rest of the trip.
It was still hot after our nap. You have to wrap your mind around the fact that even though you may be sitting next to a bank of snow, the UV light is quite strong up high, and you may not be sweating much but you are surely baking from the inside out. You feel “hot,” but the heat is all inside of you, and trying obstinately to come out. And so we paused again next to a small stream a few miles before our big climb of the day, up and over Cottonwood Pass.
I don’t know what came over me sitting next to that stream–the need to be alone, the desire to get it over with, maybe just wanting to prove something to myself. But after a brief rest, I raised myself up and started walking, without saying a word to Rob and Ed. I’d look back occasionally to see if they were back there; they weren’t, but I knew they’d be coming. When I got to the base of the big climb up over the pass, I said “that doesn’t look so bad,” looked back and saw Rob and Ed coming over a rise, raised an arm in affirmation, and took off up the climb.
Hiking alone, I’ve gotten discouraged as each step became a shuffle, reduced from a 30″ stride speaking power to a perhaps 20″ step that said “I am old, and tired, and I should not be here.” But I roared up and over Cottonwood Pass. I was so very happy at the top, because each pass is a marker, a tangible symbol that you have done something significant. Rob was not far behind, and I will admit to a certain sense of awe as I realized that even Rob had needed to reach down deeper to come over the top. And then finally Ed, beautiful Ed, coming up to the top, not looking up at all as I’d said “smile for the picture!,” willing himself to get there. And then Ed paused and said “you brought us all over the top!”
Within an hour I’d be standing exhausted in the dark, too tired to even decide where to place my tent, much less to actually pitch it. But at that moment, I felt quite good.
Ed Mahoney picked me up at the Denver airport and drove us several hours west to meet Rob Graham, who was waiting for us at the Hancock trailhead, which is close to absolutely nothing, and where we intended to finish our 50-mile or so hike in Colorado’s Collegiate Range. This generosity amazed me, that Ed would pick me up and drive me all the way out there, and have cold fruit juice and beer in a cooler in his car just in case. And that Rob would be there, in the middle of nowhere, waiting on us just so we could leave Ed’s car at our terminus and drive Rob’s several more hours north to the start of our hike near Sheep Gulch.
I normally hike alone, so this trip was different for me. Rob and Ed allowed me to turn my brain off. They may have preferred that I leave it on, but bless them I just turned it off and let them do all the heavy organizational lifting. Me, I walked. Day One I asked “which way?” and that was about it for me. When we first started talking about this trip, I’d ask for details, try and decipher what might actually happen as opposed to what Rob and Ed said was going to happen, but I eventually decided that there were too many unknowns to be certain that Rob would not simply get us killed, and I surrendered myself up to all that was possible.
I don’t remember much of that first day’s hike up and over Lake Ann Pass. We followed Clear Creek’s South Fork past Huron Peak, past the Three Apostles, and things only began to climb as we passed Lake Ann.
The picture above was taken as I stood on what is called a cornice of snow. A cornice of snow is what you have in a high pass, where the snow hasn’t melted yet and the wind has created a sort of overhanging wave of snow that you really can’t get around or over. That cornice had made Lake Ann pass unpassable up until just the prior week, but Rob had “scouted” the route earlier that week (that means that Rob drove 243 miles each way from his home in Durango and then hiked 20 miles or so roundtrip just to look at the pass and decide that the three of us would be able to get over it in a week. Rob really likes to hike). That’s Rob in the yellow shirt, and Ed in the blue. Ed is very satisfied to be alive.
Rob basically ran up the corniche and was first over the top, followed by Ed. But Ed hit a spot just beneath the melting snow that had turned the underlying ground into a sort of slippery mix of rock and dirt, and Ed was ominously and inexorably moving from a vertical to a horizontal position. As for myself, although I had appreciated enormously Ed’s companionship and general good humor, I was directly beneath him, and so moved slightly to the left where the footing seemed firmer, and where I would not impede his apparently inevitable fall. As Ed struggled–undoubtedly picturing his wife, his two beautiful daughters, his upcoming grandchild which he would now never meet–I looked up and saw Rob evaluating the situation. I would like to think that Rob was rapidly analyzing how best to come to Ed’s aid, but I’m pretty sure he was thinking something along the lines of “let’s see what happens. It really comes down to how Ed takes the first bounce once he starts to fall.”
But Ed didn’t fall. I did not see Rob’s expression change from evaluation to relief–perhaps only a mild loss of interest–and we continued on and down the other side.
You know the feeling when you were a kid and you’d been outside playing all day and then ran inside and gulped down a big glass of milk because it was the best thing in the world and it was exactly what your little body knew it needed right then? Well, you will never know that feeling when you are eating backpacking food. You just choke the stuff down because you have to eat.
Sure, you might be on the trail for a couple of hours and know you need to eat something, do a mental inventory of the different snacks you have readily accessible in various pockets—dried apricots, no; another trail mix energy bar, blech, no; beef jerky!–but at the end of the day when the tent is pitched and you think about those pouches of freeze-dried entrees you have to choose from, all I can come up with is a mental image of my choking one down with a long-handled spoon.
Most experienced backpackers have a favorite brand of prepared meals, and if they’re like me they all used the following process to come to their conclusion:
Go to www.rei.com and pull up a list of all the backpacking foods REI sells. REI is the Amazon of the outdoors, and if a brand is not sold there it does not exist.
Eliminate all the brands from the list you’ve tried over the years that are disgusting.
If you’re lucky enough to have one remaining, that is your favorite.
I have my go-to brand, which has never really let me down over the years, except I only buy the ones with noodles, never rice (like the stuff in the picture above). The rice just never re-hydrates completely, and there’s not much you could do to make a backpacking meal worse than to eat it with uncooked rice.
I was buying supplies for a trip this year and a hiking buddy said something like “I can’t gag down another mouthful of (your favorite brand here), I’m trying a new product from Maine,” which reminded me that I have received multiple word-of-mouth recommendations of Austin-based http://www.packitgourmet.com brand trail food, which you cannot find at REI. You just have to know about it. I first heard of it through Paula McCoy, a crazy-creative and industrious mother, entrepreneur, dyslexia therapist, and karate black belt who had tried it at an outdoor entrepreneurial exposition. Then I met two guys up near Boulder Pass in Glacier NP who wouldn’t stop talking about PackitGourmet once they knew I was from Austin. “Oh, you’ve really got to try the Cajun Gumbo” they must have told me five times.
So I gave it a shot, and let me start by sharing a secret: I hate okra. There is no creature in the animal kingdom that eats okra as part of its natural diet, and I don’t see why I should either. Occasionally my wife will announce that she is making gumbo, and because I love her and want her to know it I’ll say “ok, but you know I really hate okra.” But she truly loves okra, so she is sure I must be lying, sarcastically suggesting in my irritating way that I would actually like to eat nothing but okra all week and she’ll go out and buy 20 pounds of it, serving okra in all its possible forms for days that never seem to end.
I had forced down a bag of “Chili Mac With Beef” of my preferred brand the night before, so I was surprised to find myself getting excited at the prospect of eating something new my second night. The instructions said “Add Tabasco Hot Sauce to your taste,” and I thought “I would if I had any,” so opening the bag and finding the Tabasco actually included in the bag was like discovering a note from my wife in my backpack saying “have a great trip, I love you!”
There’s another packet in there labeled “broth concentrate,” and a drop spilled out as I added it to the mix. I dabbed it with my fingertip off of the log it fell on , and when it touched the tip of my tongue my body instantly remember what it was like to salivate.
Look at that stuff! It really does look like Debbie prepared it using “ingredients dehydrated from the family garden,” rather than the glop prepared by ConAgra in my Chili Mac With Beef. I enjoyed the okra–I think the key is chopping it small so us okra haters don’t feel like we’re putting slime in our mouths. I hope my wife reads this. Also, the rice rehydrated perfectly!
The only negative to PackitGourmet I can come up with is the cost. My REI-bought meals sell for an average of perhaps $11 each. If I buy 10 or more I get a 10% discount and get free shipping or can pick them up at the store, and if I buy them with my REI credit card that’s another 5% cash back, which brings the cost down to $8.50 or so each. The PackitGourmet meals I bought for this trip average $12 each, plus $7.64 shipping. They do offer free shipping for orders over $150. But let’s face it, this stuff is way better–you can feel and taste the quality of the ingredients. There are some slight differences in “Nutrition Facts” data, but generally in PackitGourmet’s favor (lower saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, for example). But perhaps most importantly, this is exactly the kind of business I want to patronize, particularly because it belongs to real people with a real connection to the outdoors. That is worth $4.50 extra a meal for a week. I want to be sure they’ll be around to supply my next trip.
Which reminds me, I need to order some more. I always have a reserve for spur-of-the-moment trips, but this will not be enough for next month’s Rob/Ed/George Deathmarch Redux. And I’m out of Cajun Gumbo.
It takes precisely two hours and seventeen minutes to hike from Pine Springs trailhead to the Pine Top campsite carrying a full load of water and gear for two nights in the Guadalupe Mountains backcountry. I know this because I had written that time on my map from a trip there three years ago, and that is exactly how long it took me this year as well. I do not believe in coincidences.
Pine Top is the first designated backcountry campsite after you’ve made it up Tejas Trail, only a 4 mile hike but a 2,300 foot elevation gain up a very rocky trail. Carrying all that water, you are happy to stop. As usual at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GMNP), I had the place to myself–and by this I mean the entire 86,000 acre backcountry.
My plan was to go from Pine Top to McKittrick Ridge for the second night, then backtrack the ridge and come down and resupply with water at Dog Canyon Ranger Station on the isolated New Mexico side of the mountains. From there I could complete a loop of the Park on the west side, necessitating another 2,000-plus foot climb and two more nights. When I told the permitting Ranger that I needed permits for four nights, she professionally assessed me as possibly an idiot, but warmed up to me once I explained my plan and she realized how charming I am. Mostly, it was the plan.
On a side note here, on a GMNP trip I made a couple of autumns ago I was stopped by a Ranger on the trail who said I had an “ambitious itinerary” after he’d checked my permit (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/the-sun-the-stars-and-the-fall/). At the time, I was pretty proud that a Ranger thought I was doing something “ambitious” in the backcountry, but I noticed this time that “ambitious itinerary” was actually written on my permit. I don’t know if this is some kind of NPS official terminology for potential fools or if I started something, but–again–I don’t believe in coincidences.
Although Ranger LeAnn was reassured that there was at least a minimal chance that I knew what I was doing, she was clearly extremely worried about fire in the Park. “You’ve been here before, so you can see how incredibly dry it is this year. We’ve had fires almost every week, and we’re just waiting for the big one to come roaring down the canyon and wipe everything out. Have a nice trip!”
That first night up in Pine Top, I awoke at 2 a.m. in a lightning storm. Curiously, in my little tent up high on a ridge, with white-bright flashes and instantaneous crashes of thunder seemingly just the other side of my thin fabric shelter, it didn’t register with me to be afraid. I was tired, and I just lay there thinking “this is so cool.” You feel close to something.
I was up early the next day and made the eight mile hike to McKittrick Ridge fairly easily; you are already on top, so although there is some up-and-down you do not really gain much altitude. I had come in to McKittrick two falls ago from the other end, and that is one of the most beautiful hikes in the Park, something I definitely recommend. After I set up my tent I had time to kill, and so hiked further down the ridge overlooking McKittrick Canyon. On my return I could hear a small plane buzzing circles back toward Pine Springs Canyon, and sure enough the lightning storm the night before had started a large fire near the trail I had come up–and needed to go back down to return to my car in three days.
That night I went to sleep worried about my route out, but I was already deep in the Park and really couldn’t do anything but go to sleep and take it a day at a time. A light rain began around 3 a.m., relieving my fire worries a bit, but shortly afterward I heard two small explosions not far away and instantly thought “what idiot is shooting fireworks out here?,” followed by “that’s the stupidest thought you’ve had in a long time.”
The next morning I stumbled out of my tent to find that the ridgetop was now in the clouds, and the rain was simply the moisture in the clouds accumulating on all the trees and precipitating out. My morning ritual is pretty much just sitting quietly stunned and staring into space as I wait for that first cup of coffee to reconnect me to the world, so the gradual realization that there was a very large tree lying across the trail in front of my tent that hadn’t been there the night before was consternating, but explained the explosions I’d heard. I suppose all that moisture and the drop in temperature finally sent the burned-out snag down. I have always thought that a tree coming down on your tent in the middle of the night was one of the stupidest ways to die in the backcountry (this is not as rare an occurrence as you would think), so I took the miss as a positive sign. Life is better when you look at a tree that could have randomly killed you but didn’t and think “well, that’s a good sign.”
The third day’s goal was to descend to Dog Canyon and fill my water bladders, take a short break, then head off to the Marcus campsite for the night. This section of trail would be the longest day of the trip, but I’d done it before and knew it wasn’t all that hard. I had just gotten past Lost Peak when I looked up and found a horse and rider blocking my path. But behind the wrangler in front were two mounted Rangers behind.
You know you’re in deep West Texas when you are having a conversation with a real working cowboy on his horse while you stand to the side to let him get on with his work–Dennis the wrangler, who would later offer to transport me in his truck to get me back to my car on the other side of the Park. “You’d drive me all the way to Pine Springs?” I asked, and he just looked at me and said “I don’t see what else we can do.”
The Rangers were wonderful, a credit to our already amazing National Park Service. “Have you heard about the fire?” the one who looked like a reformed biker asked, long braided beard and tatted up including “Live Free” on the knuckles of his left hand. I knew what was coming. “They’re asking everyone to exit the backcountry,” which I knew meant specifically me. We talked for a while, thought about me going back up to McKittrick and exiting at McKittrick Canyon, which would still put me 10 miles or so from my car. “You could try hitchhiking,” said the lady Ranger, who I was slowly falling in love with, long braid in back, those incredibly white and straight outdoorswoman teeth, up there on her horse wearing that hat. She was just totally rocking that Smokey Bear hat. But I laughed at the idea of someone picking me up out there in the middle of nowhere, and she laughed too, so we just left it at me needing to resupply with water at Dog Canyon and I’d figure it out from there.
There is not much to do in Dog Canyon, except resupply with water. It’s a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to stay there; I did notwant to stay there. There was not a cloud in the sky, but I could see the clouds spilling over the tops of the mountains like waves over a seawall, all that moisture I had come through in the morning trapped on the side of the mountains with the fire, and I was pretty sure the Rangers would tell me in the evening when they got back that I could continue on.
But of course I was dealing with a governmental agency, and so that evening I got the bad news from rough people, who nonetheless repeatedly thanked me for my “understanding and patience.” I just said “it’s not your fault, you didn’t start the fire,” but went to bed with a plan.
I figured that the fire was probably fairly drenched by all that moisture in the air on the other side of the mountains. I also figured that I could skirt whatever fire there was by following my planned route well west of Tejas, and would only have to pay close attention for that last section from the mountaintops down to my car at the trailhead. And I especially figured that I needed to get up early and pack my gear so I could sneak out of Dog Canyon before those Rangers showed up to work.
But Rangers and cowboys start work early. Dennis was there first, to take care of the horses. Then the other two starting work before anyone I know clocks in, driving up and pretending not to notice that my pack was completely packed and I was obviously getting ready to hit the trail. “Well, the entire Park backcountry is closed,” tattoos said evenly. “Let’s find out what can be done.”
From then on it was just an exercise in remembering how wonderful people can be. Dennis wouldn’t be able to drive me out until they’d finished their day of work upcountry clearing trail and fighting fires, but he was happy to help me when he came down. But the Park Host volunteer, Kevin (who is the only nice person named “Kevin” I have ever met), said he’d take me to Pine Springs. We had an incredible hour and a half drive across the New Mexico and Texas high desert, passing herds of elk and old mining roads while talking about retirement, and beer, how Jeff Bezos destroyed the West Texas cowboy economy, what truly matters, and many, many other things. You could do worse in a fire.
My hiking buddy Rob Graham thought it would be motivational to remind me of a 2017 trip up Humboldt Peak, one of Colorado’s easier 14ers in the Crestones of the Sangre de Cristo Range. You could quite reasonably refer to it as a “walk up”–absolutely no technical skill is required, just keep walking up until you’re out of “up.”
That position is known as the “Sun Lizard,” or sometimes the “Dead Lizard” if you’re just walking by and see someone like this. “Looks like a dead lizard” they say as they check to see if your chest is rising and falling. Then they just leave you there. It’s not even embarrassing, because you truly don’t care about anything but not moving at this point.
This is a less refined version of the Sun Lizard, known as the “Dying Turtle.” You’ll note the jeans and cotton hoodie, things I’d never wear hiking now, but you can also see my headlamp attached to my chest strap, which means we’d started this Death March pre-dawn somewhere near Grey’s and Torrey’s Peaks in 2015, two other walk-up 14ers. You perform the Turtle rather than the Lizard when you are unwilling to remove your pack prior to collapsing. The thinking is that it is so much work to put it all back on, and if you can just lay down for a moment, just get some oxygen back into your lungs, you’ll be fine.
But you’re never fine. You lay there a few moments, and your heart stops pounding so you stand dramatically back up. But three or four steps later your heart is pounding itself out of your chest again, and now even the “Dying Turtle” seems like too much work. The shadow is of Ed Mahoney, another Colorado resident who–like Rob–never once made fun of me for assuming the position.
A lot of backpacking is about seeing how much the machine can bear. I don’t know, it might be different for younger people still feeling things out; that’s just me. Most of my solo trips are more-or-less a series of days walking as far as I can, and despite the extraordinary places my legs will take me I always eventually run out of gas. The feeling of accomplishment is in going just a smooch farther–sometimes a big smooch–on that empty tank. It is a nice feeling, and totally self-directed, so even if you don’t get as far as you’d hoped, you end each day knowing who you are just a little bit better.
Not so, Sun Lizard and Dying Turtle! These acts are entirely the result of external forces, and it is that helplessness when faced with oxygen levels I am unaccustomed to that I find highly irritating. I want to keep walking up the mountain, my legs are strong enough to keep walking up the mountain, but my heart is trying to explode out of my chest and so I think I’ll just lie down for a second. I really have no choice.
Each season it takes me a few days to get acclimated, and generally by the third day I feel much better. This kind of thing only happens in Colorado, by the way, where the mountains start high and go higher. Wyoming and Montana mountains are big and humbling, but they start lower and so even at their peaks you don’t notice that you’re being cheated out of some oxygen. Stopping is a choice you make.
The choice is not always based on being tired or finding a good place to camp. Sometimes, you just make a decision about gravity. Gravity is a physical property that is external to your will, very much like the amount of oxygen in the air you are breathing. But with gravity your body doesn’t let you know that the amount is not optimal until it is way too late. Choices like “if I fall here, I will die” or “if an avalanche starts here, I will die” leave it entirely up to you. You haven’t fallen yet, and so far there has been no avalanche. When you choose to stop you’ll never know if either of those things would have happened. Again, irritating, but not like that boom, boom, boom in your chest that you can’t do anything about.
I of course have plans for this coming season, none of which include images of me sprawled helplessly on a mountain peak. Funny how the mind works: I can imagine myself dealing with choices like turning around when the pass looks too dangerous, or deciding to carry bear spray even when I think the chances of me running into a 1,000 pound enraged carnivore do not outweigh the $40 expense. But I just can’t see having to stop because of something I can’t do anything about.