Part III: Water, Rock, Man

“Weather is one of the things that goes on without you, and after a certain amount of living it is bracing to contemplate the many items not dependent upon you for their existence.” Thomas McGuane, Weather

Where I live, we do not observe the changing Autumn leaves with melancholy, or wait out the cold, dark Winter, or burst with life at the coming of Spring. We have days short and reasonably cold, and then days long and unreasonably hot. But I know there are seasons up high, and my year turns around following the melting snow, and beating the first flakes of September, and seizing the moments between that new life and the long, silent sleep that follows. You can confirm an entire life in that breach.

And here I am, inside my tent, waiting out the rain. Wind River surprised me with the quantity of water I’d have to deal with, water in every facet of your day. Rivers to ford. Melting glaciers pouring water across and along the trail. Biblical plague-level mosquitoes. And light rain showers every evening as the clouds spun by mountains cooling at the end of the day.

Backpacking is full of ironies. I stop to rest in the shade during a long hike, worried that I won’t find a good place to camp before nightfall, and suddenly realize that there are no mosquitoes, there is a breeze across this small patch of flat ground, and I am sitting in a perfect spot to pitch my tent. And the instant my tent is up, the breeze stops and mosquitoes swarm. They are undeterred by pants and long-sleeves, requiring me to don my rain gear to eat. They cover my spoonful of food before it reaches my mouth, and blowing them off just sends one up my nose. I blink, and trap one squirming between my eyelids. Ironic.

Wind River mosquitoes do not care where you are. There are mosquitoes in mountain passes. There are mosquitoes in the morning, at noon, and at night. There is a smaller species that swarms the instant you stop moving, requiring you to pace back and forth to eat your dinner at the end of the day, when all you want to do is sit down and rest. And there is a larger, malevolent species which you will not see until you are zipped safely inside your tent. You will look out the mesh entrance, and they will have covered it and filled the tent foyer, waiting until you need to come out to pee. In Wind River, you will have the unanticipated opportunity to kill a mosquito with a snowball.

I hadn’t realized it from my reading or from studying the map, but there are two roaring rivers pouring into Island Lake, both of which you will have to ford. You cannot believe the quantity of water released by the melting snow up high. You see entire mountainsides covered in snow, and waterfalls at their bases pouring out millions of gallons of melt-water, without a hint of diminishing snow cover. As I came up to the first ford, there was a guy standing there, eyeing me suspiciously, which is a strange sensation when you feel so entirely immersed in original innocence and wonder. I greeted him, noticed that he was wearing a holstered Glock handgun, with the safety snap undone. I wanted to know why anyone would feel the need to carry a weapon in this place, but kept my mouth shut. I marveled at the irony.

You can make out the two rivers flowing into the tarn above Island Lake. Without a reference, it is hard to picture how big they are, but they are big–especially when you have to ford them.

We talked about where we were standing, about the mountains, and he was amazed that I was solo. “Aren’t you afraid?” I just said “no,” but didn’t ask of what. As I started to leave, he said “wait a minute, I want to show you something,” and pulled out his iPhone to show me pictures of his trip last year to Yosemite as we stood there, surrounded by mountains. Ironic.

To make it out and back home, I needed to leave my hidden campsite above Island Lake on Saturday, which would get me within a day’s hike of the trailhead that evening, my car, and the two hour drive to the airport at Jackson and my plane home. I woke up at sunrise, thought “there’s no rush today, I’ll sleep another hour,” but when I woke again I could hear light rain falling. It is not easy crawling out of a cozy tent into rain, so I lay there another 15 minutes. Unfortunately enough time for a wall of cold air to pass through my plateau and bring on a hard rain. Now I was suddenly in trouble.

Luckily I’d slept with my pack inside my tent (I was not worried about bears; this would never have worked in Glacier National Park), and was able to pack all my gear while covered. But once I started taking down the tent, my shelter itself would get soaked, and I didn’t want to try and sleep inside a wet tent that night. And so I waited, angry at myself for sleeping in, watching the time, setting a limit of 11 a.m. if I was going to get far enough to make it out the next day.

I think about a lot of things as I walk, but mostly I think “don’t mess up.” You feel so small and insignificant surrounded by mountains indifferent to your existence. You feel humbled by water that shapes rocks over spans of time incomprehensible to you. Backpacking solo is a very selfish enterprise, and it is a gift to be able to receive that kind of understanding. But during the time alone you understand how many people you carry along with you, and how some depend on you coming safely back. And so at 11 a.m. sharp, rain still pouring down, I angrily got out of my tent, broke it down–rain-soaked and heavy–and headed down the drainage, back onto the map, and down the trail out. Five minutes later, the rain stopped.

Part II: Trailhead

I’m standing near the deep end of Titcomb Basin, a tiny, tiny speck surrounded by these enormous mountains, feeling like the Ice Age never ended, and a twenty-year old girl saw instantly who I was: “Did you have an ice axe?”

After turning around at the foot of Knapsack Col, I’d hiked back down toward Peak Lake, past Stroud Glacier and its thundering waterfall. I’d heard that there was a great campsite up there, but who’d want to sleep with that constant roar? Fifteen miles later, I came into Titcomb through the front door, like a normal person. And here I was, once again, well past the end of the actual trail, seeing what that “hard” side of Knapsack was going to look like when I ran into some of those rare, incredible people you meet far from the trailhead.

I hadn’t seen anyone except a Forest Service trail maintenance crew since passing Island Lake, so I was surprised to see these two coming out of the dead-end of Titcomb, each carrying full-size climber’s packs, at least a 70-lb load. “Did you guys just come over Knapsack?” I asked, because I thought that was the only way into that deep end of Titcomb. I suddenly felt guilty about aborting my own attempt. He was tiny and dry and wiry and smiling and very alive, and standing there like he was walking the dog with that pack on his back. “No, we just did Gannett,” which did not compute at the moment, because Gannett Peak is the highest point in Wyoming at 13,810 feet, and would have required going straight up from there to the Continental Divide through all that snow that had stopped me lower down, navigating between Mammoth, Dinwoody, and Mirror Glaciers and over Glacier Pass, and then summiting Gannett. With those packs. Did I mention that he was at least 70 years old?

That’s when I explained my attempt on the other side, and the girl–who I’m going to assume was his granddaughter–looked straight into my eyes and asked the question which I had learned by this point was obvious: no, I did not have Charles’s ice ax. I am thinking hard, but I can’t recall ever meeting women like this anywhere other than far past a trailhead. For some reason, she made me think of Sandra Day O’Connor, a woman who knew precisely who she was. Grandfather cut the tension when I explained that it had been two days earlier, when the storm passed. “Oh, yes, that was a heck of storm to be up high. We were up on Dinwoody and had to come all the way out. Let me tell you, we drank some brews that night!” That’s the second time an old-timer has mentioned the joy of beer after a long spell up high ( ), making me feel much better about my own love of beer. If I can just end up like these guys, I’ll be alright. He had that pure, unpretentious love for being alive, being outdoors, for the gift of beer. Or, as Barry Lopez wrote of the Eskimos, “that quality of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive.” The girl just stared at me silently, a look of contempt tinged with pity, and I loved her for that.

Past the end of the trail

I am always amazed at the trails in our National Parks and Forests. I look at them and think “how did they ever do this?” So I was happy to run into the trail crew earlier on my way in. I stopped and talked to the guy who appeared to be in charge–he seemed slightly older and had the fullest, bushiest beard. There were two pack horse trains there in the process of resupplying them, and I watched these 20-somethings digging and lifting and working together, smiling in the rain and mud. He asked where I was going, said they’d be there three days and then move to another section, we talked about the trail, and I thanked him for what they were doing, which seemed to surprise him. “Hey, do you have any recommendations for a good place to camp down there?” I asked as I was leaving. You’d be surprised, but you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere. You need some flat ground, access to water, but you have to obey the rules and stay at least 200 feet away from a trail or a lake. “Well, right there at the eastern tip of the lake, there’s a little trail veering off from the main trail that’s not on the map. Follow it up, and a mile or two in you’ll find a really cool spot.” Excited, I thanked him and the crew again, started to take off, and then he paused, looked at me out of the corner of his eye, and asked “do you have a good map?” I knew what was coming. I was so happy. I felt like I had just been accepted into the cool kids group.

He told me to keep going when that trail ran out. Just keep going, higher and farther, following the drainage, which actually turned out to be more like hiking up a waterfall. He said “you’ll eventually camp overlooking Wall Lake, there definitely won’t be anyone else, and it will be amazing.” Trail people are amazing.

My campsite. You can see my tent, pretty much at the center of all that.

Part I: I Will See How It Looks When I Get There

“The route over Knapsack Col, really is just picking your own way. It is a bit southeast facing, but I think it is going to hold snow. You might be able to come to the head of Knapsack from Peak Lake, but not sure you are going to want to descend down. You’ll have to see how it looks when you get there.” –Meredith M., National Forest Service, Pinedale Ranger District

Looking back, from the base of Knapsack Col

The route over Knapsack Col into Titcomb Basin is not on the map, because it is an aspiration, not a route. To get here, I had already hiked over Lester Pass and Shannon Pass, which weren’t particularly difficult but now gave me pause to reflect on the difference between a “pass” and a “col.” Both indicate low points between peaks, but standing in the clouds as a rain began to whip around me, looking at the snow-white sheet of mountainside in front of me, I understood that you can pass over one, but probably not the other.

Most people get into Titcomb Basin by a direct route out of the Elkhart Park trailhead near Pinedale, WY, a two-day, fifteen-mile hike, but I’d taken the long way around: down Pole Creek to the Cook Lakes, up the Highline Trail and over Fremont Crossing, and off the top of my map to Peak Lake at the urging of Charles Kemp, an amazing human being ( Charles had taken this route almost a decade ago, had inspired me to start backpacking when my time was finally right, has inspired me to many, many things. Everyone should have a Charles Kemp in their lives.

Shannon Pass

I researched Knapsack, and worried about the lingering snow, and worried about the steep eastern side, with or without snow. “I’ll give you my ice ax” Charles had cryptically written. I realize now–as in many things in my life–that what seemed cryptic to me was clear to everyone else.

I had crossed a couple from Kalispel on the trail, among the surprisingly few people I saw in eight days. They said they had just come from attempting to go over Knapsack, had made it to the top, but had turned around due to extensive snow on the other side. “It’s a 1,700 foot drop, and a 70 degree slope, and there’s an enormous cornice of snow running the width of the other side. But you look sporty; if you’re comfortable down-climbing and have an ice ax, you can probably make it.” That “probably”: you either do or you do not make it. I thought about that for a long time. And about Charles’s ice axe, which I did not have.

And now, facing the way up that Meredith from the Forest Service had expressed doubts about, well past the end of any trail, I realized that even if I did make it up this “easy” side of Knapsack, I would never make it down the “hard” other side. It was like standing before what I’d always imagined the Greenland ice pack must look like. Before turning around and heading back down to Peak Lake, I noted that there were unquestionably no tracks whatsoever left by anyone else who may have gone up Knapsack, including the couple from Kalispel. I really stood there a long time, scanning the snow, looking for proof that what I hesitated to do was possible, looking for someone else’s confirmation that I should continue on. But lacking that, I took a moment to take it in–the black rock faces, the unmarked snow field and mountainsides, the clouds and rain I was standing within, the glacier and waterfall to the south, close enough to touch. For a moment, I had everything I needed. Except an ice ax.

Peak Lake campsite. You can see my tent on the rise, just below the little copse of stunted trees, a bit right of center.

A Single Flower

IH35, 7:30 A.M.

“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly our whole life would change.” Buddha

Early Saturday afternoon, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Mopac–It’s Saturday folks, for Chrissakes! What are you all doing out here?–and I suddenly understand what Jesus meant by loving one another.

I had just picked up my race packet for tomorrow’s Cap2K Open Water Race, and decided I wanted to get a haircut. I don’t really care about my hair, but when it starts looking a little shaggy I’ll decide I need to cut it in case I run into an ex-girlfriend. I don’t know why it matters to me that I’ll look kept-up in case we meet; it has been a long time, and we’re never going to run into each other. But I’ll see pictures of her occasionally with her current boyfriend, and I guess he decides that he gets to relax on weekends, so he looks a little rough and isn’t always shaved in their pictures together. So I’m always shaved, and try and keep my hair trimmed. Is that weird?

Anyway, of course people are trying to enter this wall of automobiles from the on-ramps. It is intimidating, trying to merge in and join the flow, and if you live here long enough you can easily begin believing that you have to be hard and cold just to get through each day.

Sitting in my car, I was still absorbing what had happened during my packet pick-up. Let me preface by saying that I am not anything special as a swimmer. There is no reason for anyone to remember who I am. But Sandy Neilson, the woman who organizes the Cap2K every year with her husband Keith, had recognized me last year at the check in, visibly happy to see me back. She remembered my face, attached it to a name. I had come up to her at the end of the prior year’s race while she was still in full organizational mode during the awards ceremony, dealing with all the people and issues and handing out awards. “Sandy, thank you so much. You have made something special for me. This is amazing, so much work. Thank you.” She looked at me, stunned, and asked what my name was. You could feel something shift in the air, and I knew I had understood something I had never thought about before. I just didn’t know what.

Sandy on the chair, pre-race briefing

If you’ve ever loved a child, loved a parent, been in love, you understand already that there are different kinds of love, different degrees perhaps. I started loving fairly easily a few years ago–something just freed itself up inside me–but have learned that you can’t throw that stuff around willy-nilly. Love can get out of hand; and I knew I could not love everyone. I harbored very high standards for love.

This year, I told Sandy she looked good, but she told me she had been in a bad car accident since the last time I saw her, and hadn’t been the same since. “It’s the names mostly” she said, pointing to her head. “I can’t remember names.” We lose people, we are lost to people. But somehow, something remains.

“Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth.” Buddha

So I’m sitting in this traffic, which is actually ok with me because I’m almost never in a hurry to get anywhere and my car is the only place I get to really listen to music. And I’m thinking about Sandy, wondering why we can’t help people. I’m in the right lane, where people are trying to enter the flow. You can feel the stress–“Look at the traffic! No one is going to let me in.” And so I paused, and let a car in, and understood instantly that I had fallen upon the easiest way to by kind, to help people–to love one another. It felt wonderful, an accomplishment ex nihilo.

That ex-girlfriend’s mom died recently, shortly after my own mother passed. I loved my mother the way a son does, but my mom was ready to go. It was the girlfriend’s mother’s time, too, but I still felt bad for her. I’m 60 now, she is too, and we each start to know a lot of people who deal with sadness, and loved ones dying, and the slow tapering off of life’s fullness.

I am about as Buddhist as I am Christian; let’s call me a student. Buddhism encourages non attachment, not so much to physical things, but in a spiritual sense. You have to let go of the idea of a perfect person, holding others to some impossible standard. You have to accept people for who they are unconditionally. Each and every individual person.

And so standing before Sandy today, and sitting in that traffic surrounded by total strangers, thinking about my mother, and getting my hair cut for a girl I will never see, I understood what Jesus meant about love.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The Current Carries Us All, Together

Before this morning’s race, I compared last year’s roster to this year’s, trying to see who I’d have to beat so that I could finally at least place in this year’s Cap2K. It is totally stupid that it matters to me: the entire swim is just a mass of anonymous swim caps and flailing arms, so you have no idea who is in front of you in the water or behind you. You just swim as hard as you can. But his name was Marty Richardson, and he’d beaten me by 5 seconds last year, and I was going to beat him this year.

It’s important to note that I’m talking about age-group competition: I am measuring myself against other swimmers my general age and gender. The actual winners of the race–generally 19-20 year olds–are out of the water, dry, and texting by the time I get out a quarter hour after them. This year I bumped up to the 60-64 men’s group. Yea!? My thinking is that you just have to be persistent. Eventually, no one is left to beat.

It’s a five minute walk down Redbud Isle after the briefing before you either jump in and swim the 350 yards out to the starting line, or get on a shuttle barge to take you out. I’m a confirmed shuttle barge man–I decided years ago, at the race’s finish, that I couldn’t have swum another yard, and was entirely grateful for not having added on another 350 at the beginning.

The water was “noticeably” colder this year. That means I noticed when I jumped off the barge that I could not inhale to breathe. Fortunately, I was in the water at precisely the five-minute warning horn, and had time to swim a few strokes and get my breathing under control. Also different this year, there was a strong current. But the current was pushing the mass of swimmers past the starting line, everyone out there just treading water, trying to breathe. I saw what was happening, and backstroked hard to stay behind the line, but found myself alone with only one other grumpy old lady who was yelling “stay behind the line, folks!” No one seemed to care, but they had at least 50 yards on us at the start. I am sure that Marty Richardson was in there, taking a 50 yard head start on me.

The swim itself was not hard. The Cap2K is perhaps the hardest thing I do physically each year, but not bad this time, thanks to that current carrying us all along, together. It takes a while to get your breathing and stroke under control, but from then on you just keep going until it’s over. This year was unusual because I’d occasionally have swimmers randomly crossing in front of me at acute angles to everyone else. I couldn’t figure out why, but it did break up the terror, sort of like climbing El Capitan and watching someone else falling past you from above to their death. “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.”

When I got home, my wife told me all about her garage sale. She told me about the tree limbs she’d cut back–that needed to be done, and she’s a trooper. When she paused to inhale, I said “the swim was cool. I finally placed!” That is sort of hard for me to say, because “I placed” means “I did not win,” but the Cap2K is in it’s own category for me. I will never do better than simply completing this thing that I am not particularly good at. I just need to do it.

“How did that happen?” This took me a second to process, because as much as I like praise, I do not like to brag. “Normally, there are all these really old people finishing way before you–like forever before you ever show up. Was there some mistake?” She spent the rest of the day occasionally popping in, just to tell me how proud of me she was, but I would just smile and say “too late! You can’t un-say those words. You’re the star of my story about the swim, now!,” which she already knew and dreaded when she heard me typing away.

And at the awards ceremony, when they called my name, right after they called Marty Richardson, I knew I’d be back next year. The current had carried both Marty and I along together, still separated by those same 5 seconds, pulling us all along in the right direction.

UPDATE: The results are in, folks, and there’s good news and there’s bad news! First, I beat that bastard Marty Richardson by almost 2 minutes! And I swam the course, thanks to that current, at my fastest time ever, 7 minutes faster than last year. The bad news is that the guy who finished first absolutely creamed me, finishing 6 minutes in front of me and 14th overall, which is amazing.

  • Men 60-64
  • 1 Randy Rogers M 60 0:24:27.38
  • 2 George Schools M 60 0:30:34.24
  • 3 Marty Richardson M 62 0:32:20.10
  • Dwight Munk M 61 0:32:53.41
  • Paul Scripko M 62 0:41:38.71 0:42:11.69 Stephen Julian M 63 0:42:11.69 M

Prostate Cancer, Exercise, Cold Water, and Just Plain Old

Too much exercise may cause erectile dysfunction. Depends on the shorts.

As I was leaving to train at Barton Springs on my day off my wife said “Hey cowboy, don’t do too much, and remember that water is very cold.” My wife normally doesn’t give a shit what I do, so I asked for clarification. “Ahem. Um. Don’t take it personally, but you know when you workout too much, it sort of maybe causes circulation problems in other parts. Like, the parts you need to use when you get home today.” I didn’t think she was talking about mowing the grass.

As you know, I am getting ready to swim the Cap2K Open Water Race again (, in support of UsToo Intl (, a prostate cancer awareness and support organization. I had my prostate cancer scare several years ago–scary, because I was uninformed and suddenly faced with things spinning rapidly out of my control. Worse than worrying about death once the word “cancer” is introduced, you worry about never, ever again having an erection. A boner, hard-on, stiffy, tent pole, wood–none of that, ever again.

My wife was referring to my “circulation,” but privately I heard “my prostate.” Here, I would like to recommend to anyone wondering about a prostate cancer diagnosis to read “I Want My Prostate Back” . This is an award-winning article that deals honestly with the aftermath of prostate cancer treatment, chiefly erectile dysfunction.

My wife told me once that if there was ever a question of breast cancer for her, she’d lop ’em off illico presto, no regrets. “I don’t need them for anything, and they’re not worth dying for.” Personally, I like women’s breasts a great deal, but I get her point. I would miss them, but I’d rather have her if it came down to a choice. But perhaps because a man’s self-identity depends on an erect penis, the situation is not the same once prostate cancer becomes a possibility. I think.

I wouldn’t find my wife any less of a woman without her breasts, or her uterus for that matter. It could be that–beyond simply feeling sorry for myself–I would feel guilty of cheating her out of something because of my own personal problem. Sex is giving. And if giving is good, isn’t giving the full variety of gifts even better? But then I realized that there are plenty of satisfied lesbian couples out there. Or am I missing something?

It is particularly irritating that so many possible causes of erectile dysfunction present themselves as a man ages. Ten years ago, if I came home from work and said “man, I am exhausted,” my wife would say “you do too much! Don’t work so hard.” Last night I got home and her response was “well, you’re not so young any more.” I am learning to never complain to her, but you can’t hide a missing erection. It is most definitely not the boner of a 24 year-old, but I like to think I am quite healthy and virile in a sort of studied, dignified way. That just means I’ve kept the weight down, exercise a lot, and still get excited by intelligent, strong, witty women who know what they’re about. Here, if you’re a normal woman who doesn’t really understand an ageing man, I suggest reading John Updike’s classic “The Disposable Rocket”

The doctor didn’t even check for prostate cancer my last physical. Everything seems to work correctly. And when I left to swim today, I didn’t change my plans one bit because of what the future might hold (and when I think about what I’d do as a younger man just for the mere possibility of sex . . . .) But at my age, finally, I’ve learned to never depend on someone else for my happiness, and so I swam. And then, because the day, and place, and world were all beautiful, I went for a run. What happens when I get home afterward is like trying to see beyond the horizon. But I am happy that the issue is up in the air still, not settled forever.

“You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went, you can curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.” But not quite yet.

Make It A Masterpiece

“Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art.” John Wooden

I did not feel like swimming this morning. No one feels like swimming at 5:00 a.m.–ok, once I happily swam in the pre-dawn, but I was naked and drunk. But when my alarm went off this morning, and I looked at my phone and saw that so many friends had contributed to my pledge swim for prostate cancer awareness, I told myself “you need to do this.” Friends, you lift me up.

Honestly, it’s pretty cool to swim under the moon, alone except for one half-awake lifeguard

I have amazing friends (and family, who I think are cool enough to also consider “friends”). I have friends who live inspiring lives, and have shared some of it with me. Friends from Canada, Australia, and Africa have donated; friends from Colorado and Texas, of which the parts outside of my hometown in Austin are like another country. Thank you all so much. I am so proud to have you in my life.

All this training is a good thing, although I hope I have learned my lesson and will scale way back as soon as the race is over. I have blown my shoulder out post-race three years in a row, and I am going to need those things. But I would like to do “well” in the race, which right now means I would like to swim well enough to honor the sacrifice made by these donations. Twenty-five dollars, a hundred dollars–none of us has money we could not be using for something else. This matters. You matter.

I would just like everyone to know that, by your friendship, by your caring, you make a difference. I’m going to write something about prostate cancer soon, and I hope no one ever feels the desperation that kind of diagnosis can bring. But you made me want to wake up every morning and make the day a masterpiece worthy of your friendship.

Soft Water

Life is just a search for content; it is a story you are writing. When the story starts to get a little boring, it is the author’s fault. To paraphrase a friend, it is because the author chooses to write a boring story.

That is what got me out here this morning. I resisted going, because it would be easier to not get up early on my day off, to not swim in the cold water, to not turn blue. But I love to read a good story.

I am not a particularly good swimmer, but I have been told that my form is beautiful. Several times: the little old ladies in the frilled onesies doing their Watersize; a lifeguard; a couple of the old guys trying to work their way through heart disease or cancer or loss.

I ran into one of those guys this morning on my way to train for the Cap2K at Barton Springs. By some strange alignment, I run into Craig pretty much every time I train at the Townlake YMCA indoor pool, no matter what day or time. He’s in his 80’s, thin and tanned. He is one of those old people who always have this subtle smile on their face, beneath his still clear blue eyes. He is always alone, and I assume he has outlived friendships and loves. I tell myself the smile is because he has not stopped working on his story.

And so as I walked into Barton Springs, there was Craig walking out. We chatted a bit, surprised to run into each other, and then he told me that he was just there testing out his new wetsuit. He’s headed to Florida in May for a US Masters Open Water Championship race. You have to see this guy; he’s really old. He says he can’t take the cold anymore, so he won’t be swimming the Cap2K at the end of this month, and he thinks he needs a wetsuit even for Florida. He’s got that smile.

Me, I am a straight line in the water–a very, very straight line, textbook form, because that’s where I learned it: in a book. There are three phases to the crawl swim stroke: the “catch,” the “pull,” and “recovery.” For the catch, reach like you’re trying to grab a rung on a ladder just a little beyond your reach. The pull, you have to actually grab the water with your open palm, anchor your hand and pull yourself through. Throughout, your body needs to be perfectly horizontal, rolling onto your side when you pull, all in a effort to engender as little resistance to the water as possible. Water is resistance, and everything comes down to mastering resistance. I take it personally. I asked my wife once to watch me and see if she could figure out why people hesitated to share a lane with me, and she said “they’re afraid.”

But something happened today, maybe thanks to Craig, maybe not. I did not find the water terribly cold. I felt the resistance, took it personally, but relaxed and the water softened. It literally felt soft. It was a unique feeling, to be immersed in resistance, to feel it envelope you, but to accept that as the way of water. It made me smile.


What I will do for a coffee mug

It is on again. This will be my seventh Cap2K Open Water Swim Race since my first in 2012 (one of the mugs is missing in this pic because it was full of coffee, in my hand, as I took the picture). I did it the first time, if I recall correctly, because I had learned there was a distinct possibility that I had something wrong with my prostate (I didn’t), and somehow, as I was researching the issues, I came across this race here in town, and it all made perfect sense: “I have blood shooting out my ass; I should enter this race.” You need to know me to understand.

That is why I began, but that is not why I continued. Swimming can be very solitary, but within a week of training seriously I realized that it was worth doing because of the people I meet. I have met wonderful people, extraordinary people, and despite the weeks of getting up in the dark, and swimming in the cold, and shoulders hurting so much I was afraid to go to sleep because I would move them in my sleep, I am back for number seven. I am back for these people.

This will be my first year swimming in 60-64 year old category! This is a wonderful thing about age-group racing: you just have to live long enough, and eventually there is no competition. I didn’t even place last year in the 55-59 group, but the same course time in the 60+ group would pretty much have put me in first place. I don’t know why that matters. Again, you would have to know me, to understand why I do not know why that matters.

It is on. I swim a lot. But everything depends on those first 200 yards or so, that group-start out there in the middle of the river, surrounded by dozens of flailing arms and legs in that brown, cold water. If you get through that–if you are able to breath, and find a rhythm, find your stroke–you will make the rest. So tomorrow I am up in the dark and out in the freezing water at Barton Springs the remind my brain of what it must do so that my body can do this one more time.

There is so little time to know people, out there in the middle of the river. You just have to get through the hard part.

The Sun, the Stars, and the Fall

McKittrick GMNP 027The sign just before the Guadalupe Mountains National Park entrance said I had entered the Mountain Time Zone, and then the Ranger who issued my backcountry permit let me know that the clocks were set back one hour further last night for the end of Daylight Savings Time.  In the space of a few minutes I had traveled back in my life two hours, although the sun had not moved at all.

It was going to take about four and a half hours to get up to McKittrick Ridge from the canyon trailhead, and I needed to make it up the unfamiliar trail before that sun set.  When darkness falls higher up, it gets very dark and very cold, very fast.  You need to be ready to curl up in something warm while your hands still work.

McKittrick Canyon is known for its Fall colors, and the first few miles up the creekbed are easy and beautiful.McKittrick GMNP 007 The first few miles are also embarrassing, because you’ll be thinking you’re some kind of badass backpacker, but you’ll be passing families dragging along the 80-year old abuela to see the pretty leaves, and little Chinese schoolgirls dressed like they’re going to Disneyworld.  But almost no one continues further into the backcountry from this side of the Park, and because you’ll stick out with your pack and tent you’re going to draw the attention of the authorities.  I hadn’t even made it to the actual trailhead from my car when I heard “heading into the backcountry?  Let me just check your permit,” which was sort of cool because the Ranger got all excited about my itinerary.  He called it “ambitious.”  No one has ever called me “ambitious.”

The grandmas and schoolgirls and families out for Fall pictures peter-out after the first three miles or so, and you’ll see a lot of moms or dads carrying exhausted kids for their long walk back, which also made me smile because I will never have to do that again.  At 3.4 miles the path shoots up, narrows, and shoots up some more.  You eventually hit The Notch, which looks like an actual notch cut in the mountainside.   You step through The Notch, and you are mountain-goating the next few miles on a narrow and rough cliffside ledge.  It is an impressive climb.

McKittrick GMNP 098

The Notch

I will be turning 60 soon.  I’m not really happy about it, but accept that it is as inevitable as the sun rising and setting, the stars moving across the sky, and the leaves changing with the seasons.  I had put off all of this hiking for years, put off many things, waiting for circumstances to be just right, but circumstances are never just right.  You are either going or you are not; there is no “want to go,” as Yoda says, and so I decided that I was never going to get any younger, and I should just get going.  When you see sixty coming but still have so much you want to see and feel, you know you have not timed things right.McKittrick GMNP 009

I never saw the sun set that first night.  It dropped behind the mountains, with still a ways to go before it disappeared below the horizon and took its light with it.  But when I arrived at my campsite I realized there had been no transition, no evening, just night, and the suddenly cooled air brought the strong winds that the Guadalupe Mountains are known for.  I had planned on sleeping beneath the stars without my tent, just to feel that freedom, but at that moment all I could think of was getting out of that wind.  I quickly pitched my tent and dove in, leaving dinner for breakfast tomorrow.

It is an astounding wind.  In the Guadalupes you are aware that you are high above the surrounding land, because everywhere you look beyond the mountains, all you see is low, flat desert, and you know you are sort of sticking out up there, nearer to heaven.McKittrick GMNP 033Laying in your tent at night, you hear that wind just overhead, like a jet sitting on the tarmac with its engines at full power but the brakes locked.  And then you’ll hear this suddenly lower-pitched roar as the wind drops down out of the jet stream and hits the surrounding peaks, and you know you need to hunker down because in about five seconds it will be upon you–one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three . . . and when it does hit your tent it is as though the hand of God has smacked down on your little fabric cocoon, noticeably smashing a bit of the air out of your lungs.McKittrick GMNP 052

I knew each day’s leg of this trip was going to be a long haul only because the trace on the map I’d follow was long, and so I planned to be up with the sun.  But the sun never really rose.  I would see the glow below the ridgeline, and then the next time I noticed the sun was up.  It would seem to hover there, all day, somewhere between 1/3 and 3/4 of the way up, never crossing straight-up noon.  The temperature at those elevations in the Fall doesn’t vary much–high 40’s to mid-50’s–and so without that mid-day cue I could never really tell whether I was hiking in the morning or in the afternoon.  I just walked, deaf and blind to east or west, bathed in a sunlight that looked and felt filtered by a soft gauze through crystalline air.

You don’t meet other hikers in this part of the park.  Perhaps an authority, checking the fucking permit of the only backcountry hiker in the whole 86,000 acre park.  But on my way down to Dog Canyon to re-supply with water, I met a guy hiking up for the day about five miles from the Dog Canyon trailhead who looked like he’d spent a good life outdoors.  He was happy, amazed at the beauty, and then he said “I’m just out with my dad.  He’ll be along.”  I swear, his father looked like Gandalf the Grey.  Long, whispy beard, hair pulled into a pony tail, wide brimmed hat–and so happy and at peace with who he was, shriveled and tanned and very old.  We chatted a bit, and I told them how to get up nearby Lost Peak.  As we parted I said “just be sure to get down before dark,” and Gandalf laughed and said he was not worried by time and distance, but there were beers on ice waiting for them when they got back.  When I left them it was as if the miles I’d already hiked had never happened, as if the day were just beginning.

Dog Canyon over the Marcus Overlook, where the wind was so strong it blew off the backcountry permit tag wired to my pack and kept it.  Up the Marcus Trail, which I thought was going to be the most difficult but wasn’t bad at all.McKittrick GMNP 013My pack seemed oddly empty at the start of this trip, and there was not much left to carry at the end.  My last night, back up on McKittrick Ridge for the hike back over The Notch, the tent was rolled and my pack was ready by 4 a.m.  That moonless night was so very, very black, and it is amazing to recognize that there are such degrees of blackness.  Where I sat, against a stump on the forest floor, my eyes took in only an absolute absence of light.  Where I knew there were trees or ground, I saw only an empty black field with no depth.  But looking up through the trees, where I could clearly see the millions of laser-bright stars, I realized they were set in a softer darkness that permitted me to experience the total blackness of the forest.

I wanted to time my descent of the McKittrick Ridge goat trail for the aurora, and so I brewed myself a cup of coffee and watched the stars.  If you have ever sat for very long beneath a desert night sky, you realize that the stars are moving across the sky, and the expanse of their canvas and arc of their journey can make your legs wobbly if you look too deeply and begin feeling the Earth turning beneath you.  But this night the stars were not moving across the sky, just hung there in precisely one spot, as though time had stopped.  I sat and waited, waited for the stars to move, and for the sun to come up, but eventually I just said “well, it’s never going to get any lighter than this.  I should get going,” a statement which I immediately knew was untrue yet true at the same time.  I asked myself why, but it was hard to argue a frozen firmament, and so I hoisted my pack and found the trail.

I never saw the sun rise on my trip down from McKittrick Ridge.  The sun went up as I went deeper down the canyon, a few steps ahead of the light.McKittrick GMNP 090