Guadalupe Mountains, continued

Rob, I know it’s not really your fault.  I think you’re awesome.  I didn’t understand why you had to tell me that you were leaving for a week trip in the Collegiates when I told you about my trip to GMNP;  now you understand that when you say “one week,” I hear “57.68 pounds of water.”  But you’re still my inspiration.

So I’m at my “oh, shit” moment on the trail, wondering how I’m going to continue to carry this much weight up that big a climb, and the logical thing to do is continue to reduce the load by drinking a pound or so of water.  A pound sounds like a lot of water to drink, but it makes surprisingly little difference to the load you’re carrying.

I surprised myself on the way up when I realized my heart was pounding.  Not beating really fast–pounding, like it used to do when you were a little kid and you’d run around playing and then you thought your heart was going to explode when you finally stopped.  “Cool!,” I thought, “this reminds me of my childhood,” until I remembered that I am 55 years old and was perhaps having a heart attack.  There was definitely a feeling of accomplishment when I made it to the top of that ridge, so I celebrated by drinking some more water.guadalupe mountains 010My plans were pretty fluid at this point, limited only by my inability to walk any farther.  When I’d checked in at the Park Visitor Center, the ranger had told me that I’d have the entire backcountry to myself (you have to obtain a Backcountry Permit, so they know pretty much who’s in there most of the time).  You need to let the rangers know your itinerary, but at this point I figured I could go anywhere I pleased; it pleased me to stop at the first designated camping area.  As I suppose most people do, my first act upon arriving at Pine Top was to take off my pack and sit down.  Once I’d recovered a bit, I decided to walk around, see if I couldn’t find a more perfect spot to pitch my tent.  After about 10 minutes of checking out the possibilities–in an act so typical of me that I now find it hilarious every time I do it–I spent the next half-hour trying to find the spot where I’d left my pack, food, water, and shelter as the sun began to set.

Once the tent is pitched, there’s not a lot else to do up there at first other than seeing how much water you have left.  I was disappointed to find that a third of my load was already gone, while my pee was about the color of spicy brown mustard, so hydration was going to be an issue.  I figured now was the time to think through the problem for future reference, because I probably wouldn’t give a shit once this was all over.  I tried writing this down in my tent that night, but when I tried to roll onto my stomach to write, my feet would cramp; then when I tried to roll onto my back my hands would cramp into claws.  So here goes:  if multiple nights in Big Bend or GMNP are the goal, then you’ve got to pack with only that goal in mind.  That means Step (3) is water.  Food gets reduced to a “sundry;” nothing that needs hot water added to it.  You can live on energy bars for 3 days, although you might not poop for a week or so.

guadalupe mountains 013Sunsets are beautiful up high in West Texas.  You share them generally with flies, but these were really cool flies.  I’ve never seen such a variety, none of which bit.  They remind you that Nature abhors a place to sit.  Rob, you’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, so you tell me if I’m wrong:  in Nature, you will never find a spot truly flat enough, of the right height, not swarming with ants or covered in sharp little rocks, upon which to comfortably sit and watch a sunset while you swat flies.  You have to stand there, and after a while you sort of start to wish the sun would just go ahead and get it over with so you can go in your tent to escape the flies, but you know the big finale is coming so you stick it out.  It’s always worth the wait.  And then it gets cold, really fast.

So then you’re lying in your tent, looking up at the flies trapped between your tent and the tent fly (I just realized why it’s called that!).  You have a lot of time to think about just how stupid flies are.  I also wondered how you manage to take whiskey on your trips, because at that point I was figuring it also weighed around 8.24 lbs/gallon.  Priorities, I suppose.

I was up with the sun and ready to continue the next morning.  I awoke a little disappointed in myself, because my favorite thing to do out west is to get up in the middle of the night and look at the stars.  You really feel like you’re walking on a distant planet at night on a mountaintop surrounded by that many stars.  But I didn’t want to wake up the 20 or so flies still trapped above my tent, so I just opened my eyes a little at some point and stared up through the mesh.

I spent a bit before starting off again, trying to calculate how far I could go on the water left, thinking a step or two ahead and looking at the map for alternatives so I’d be sure to not only get where I wanted to go, but get back.  But mostly I thought about how you’ve done these incredible walks, hundreds of miles, days on end.  Even knowing that you didn’t always need to carry all your water, I don’t know how many times I said to myself “how the heck did he do that?”  I don’t think I really appreciated what an incredible accomplishent all you’ve done has been until now.



An Open Letter To Rob Graham

guadalupe mountains 021

Dear Rob,

Well, I followed your advice and have gradually reduced the weight of my backpacking gear to pretty much nothing.  The sleeping bag weighs 3.3 lbs and is super comfortable no matter how cold (or not) it gets.  My tent is probably a little bigger than you would choose, but I was figuring maybe some day I’d be sharing it with one of the boys so got a two-person tent–packed weight 4 lbs 3 oz., and I’m glad for the extra room when I’m by myself.  The best addition has been the backpack, which is awesome.  When I slung it on the first time before taking off down a trail upcountry, I immediately wondered if I had really put the tent and sleeping bag inside, because the pack felt empty:  the ULA Circuit, 4200 cu. in., 39 oz.  Just totally awesome.

Rob, I’ve known you for a long time.  I admire you.  You are one of the few people I have known in my entire life who is totally, completely honest with me–with Rob what you see is what you get.

So why, Rob?  Why did you hide this ugly truth from me?  It’s a “lie by omission” Rob.

We both know there is no water in either Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.  We have discussed this before.  We both know a backpacker will need a minimum of one gallon of water per day.  Rob, you are the one trained as an engineer.  My degree is in Liberal Arts, god damn it, you knew I was not going to do the math.

My goal was to spend three nights upcountry.  So three gallons of water, right?  Three is a small number.  Then why Rob, with all the emphasis on weight that any conversation with you concerning backpacking gear ultimately devolves to, why did you not clarify to me that the real number I needed to think about was 8.24 lbs?  You knew that is what one gallon of water weighs, and for some reason which only you will ever understand, hid it from me.

My usual preparation for things like this is to throw everything I could possibly need in the back of the minivan and go.  I know I have enough stuff in the van when I say “fuck this, I’m done.”  But once I’m face-to-face with the trail, I’m quite methodical.  Step (1): you have to carry everything you’ll need, so start with the backpack.  Step (2): sleeping bag and tent go in the pack, because I’ve learned that they are always necessary no matter the weather.  My first mistake was thinking that Step (3) was food, because I like food and what I eat is totally integrated into my idea of what it means to spend time outdoors.  So food is what went in next, which isn’t much:  mostly energy bars and instant breakfast cereal and ramen.  Lightweight stuff you just add water to.  Step (4) is then “sundries,” which is an easier way of saying a change of socks, shirt, toilet paper, toothbrush, and a bunch of etc’s.

Which leaves only water, and I’m thinking about that magical number 3.  Three gallons of water doesn’t sound like much, so I’ll just put that in the bag and I’m off.  About this time, this is also where I looked up and said “I had planned on doing this trip a couple of weeks ago when it was cooler; it must be 85 degrees today.”

Rob, you’re going to perhaps do an involuntary little Engineer’s Laugh here, but I have learned that an 8.24 lb gallon of water takes up only 231 cu. in. of volume, which sounds inconsequential inside my 39 oz. Circuit backpack’s 2400 cu. in. main compartment.  Unfortunately, that is a “book number.”  In the real world, standing at the trailhead in 85 degree full sun, contemplating a 2300 foot elevation gain in four miles of trail, those three gallons of water, all 691 cu. in., 24.72 lbs. of it, are substantial.  My 15 pounds of gear now weighs 40.

So, what can come out of the backpack?  Sundries go first.  If sundries were truly important we’d name each item individually.  They take up a fair amount of space, but weigh perhaps a pound all taken together.  Next comes food, things I had planned on eating not only for calorie replacement, but for the intangible value things like drinking coffee brewed on a mountaintop at dawn or chocolate slowly chewed at the end of the day add to being outdoors.  I am not risking leaving the tent or sleeping bag behind (which turned out to be a good decision), so all that is left to pare down is water.  This is how the thinking goes:

  1. if I’m very disciplined I can get by on less than a gallon a day.  You remove some water, but there is still not enough room and too much weight.  So,
  2. I know I can go a long time without much food, and I can eat as much as I want when I get back, so about half of those calories are staying here.  Still not enough room , so
  3. you strap as much water in bottles to the outside of the pack as you can, and start walking.

About one hour later, less than half-way up and feeling both the weight and the heat, I come around a bend and have my “oh, shit” moment when I see this: guadalupe mountains 009To be continued.

Why Not?

Middle Age is that perplexing time of life when we hear two voices calling us, one saying, ‘Why not?’ and the other, ‘Why bother?’
Sydney J. Harris


I asked the smartest person I know to give me three good reasons why I should not enter the Cap2K Open Water Swim ( again this year. This friend amazes me every time I ask her something like this, instantly cutting right to the heart of the issue, which may not have had much to do with my actual question. But I am a wiser man in middle age than in my youth, and the reasonableness and maturity of her response simply reminded me that I am not as smart as her, and so I entered the race.

It took a lot of crazy organizational skills for me to do the race this year because of my screwed-up job, but I had trained a lot and was physically ready. Mentally, I was terrified of getting as cold as I had gotten in the race last year, which was a refreshing thought because I do not recall being scared of anything in a long time. I mentioned this to another smart person I know, Mike the ex-surfer guy I see in the weight room every morning (“John, Mike, Tom, Catherine and her Husband“).  Mike asked “what’s the worst that can happen?”  My response was that I could die from severe hypothermia, while Mike answered his own question reasonably enough with “you’d get out of the water.”  Mike does not know me well enough to understand that once I started the swim I would never get out before the finish, so that makes two times  I’ve asked people more reasonable, mature,  and intelligent than me for advice and disregarded it.  I really need to stop that.

Race morning I got to work early, totally wired and ready to make the day happen like Tom Cruise Mission Impossible clockwork.  Got everything set up, made sure the guys that were there were ready for the day, then jumped in the mini-van to make it to the starting area in time for the pre-race briefing.  My workplace is on a pretty busy street, and as I pulled out into traffic I was right on schedule and determined to make it happen.  Ahead, the first light turned red, my brain instantly said “red light/stop,” and I smoothly braked to a halt.  After several seconds I realized I was still about 150 yards from the stoplight, and decided I’d had enough coffee for the morning.

This is the third consecutive Cap2K I’ve competed in (“Swimming with my Prostate“).  I can’t say it has gotten any easier, but the familiarity is comforting.  I know what’s going to happen, know I just have to survive the first 5 minutes or so of the start, and know I’ll be glad when it’s over.  I don’t know swimmers as a social group all that well, but this is a really great group of people.  The Cap2K is also a fundraising event in support of prostate cancer research, and my involvement and new awareness of the overwhelming abundance of men and their families affected by prostate cancer has profoundly changed the way I look at people.  So many of these guys at the race are survivors, there with their families cheering them on.  I wouldn’t call it inspiring–more a realization that life can be difficult, but people find a way to go on and find happiness.

As in most of my events, the race itself is anticlimactic compared to the training, preparation and organization required to get there.  I had intended to swim out to the start line as a warm up this year, but at the last second realized that every year I arrive at the finish pretty much unable to swim another 10 feet, so why add an additional 350 yards at the beginning? “There’s no reward for that extra work,” said another traveller on the shuttle Barge of Shame out to the start.  As usual, the start is a struggle no matter how carefully you position yourself.  This part of the river is bordered by sheer cliffs on the southern bank, and just when I started to lose control amid the flailing arms and legs, I looked up to my right during a breath and saw two hawks soaring smoothly along the updrafts.  Don’t know why that should calm me, but the image stuck and I was alright after that.  There was a pretty big crowd this year, and it seemed like everyone was pulling to the left as I tried to pass them on their left.  Everyone.  I finally suspected that perhaps it was me who was pulling to the right, and things went better after that correction.  About two-thirds through the race I realized I had fairly open water in front of me, which either meant I was toward the front of the pack, way in the back, or totally lost.  I won’t know until later, because I just had time to finish the race, walk the two + miles back to my car, and return to my stupid job.  Missed the post race picnic, which I don’t normally care about too much before the race but miss greatly afterward when I realize what great people I’ve just been around.  I’m not social, just sentimental I suppose.

I’ll probably go through all this again next year.  I’m pretty proud to have jumped up one age group this year, and it’s always nice when young college girls say stuff like “I wish my granddad was in shape like you, sir.”  This swim always reminds me that life is a struggle, that it is supposed to be that way.  You can hate your job and quit it, or fight to make it bearable, but you can’t just hate it and continue to let it suck.  You could let the years inevitably march on, give up and say “what’s the point?” and let them fall away as though they somehow were not as valuable as those of your youth.  But that’s the amazing thing about being alive:  even when really bad things happen, you always have choices about how you will live your life, right up to the end, I suppose.

In Benjamin Button, a movie made for people bothered by getting old and full of stealable quotes, Captain Mike said “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.”

But only at the end.

With your entry fee you get a cool coffee mug to remind you that you are eternal, and a plastic cup from Team Urology to remind you that you are not.

With your entry fee you get a cool coffee mug to remind you that you are eternal, and a plastic cup from Team Urology to remind you that you are not.