Sunday, April 26, 2009
I was talking with Chris H, who asked what I have planned after Grand Canyon. I told him probably a festival in late spring or early summer, then the Beartooths about 8/15-8/30 and Wind Rivers 9/1-9/15. Part of the Beartooths and Winds will be with other people (Mike H and Jeff, so far) and part alone. Chris expressed concern for my safety when I’m alone in the wilderness, “What if something happens … it’s the suffering you might go through that worries me.” (Mara?) Okay, what if something does happen? All garden photos taken April 2009.
Like anyone else, I’ve gone through various stages in life: the usual (which is not nothing!), then war, then healing, love, being a husband, momentary glimpses of enlightenment that led me up the path of service for 40 years (hospice, refugees, immigrants – life as a quest), working with Leslie, travel, being a father and my/our relationship with David, getting tired, and now this partial retirement, backpacking and through it all, since the war and all the killing, a deep awareness of mortality – thinking about the fragility of life and considering my own dying and being dead (I’m not sure how I can be dead, since when I’m dead there’ll be no “I” “to be” anything at all, except gone). I’ve studied dying and death and I’ve worked in and written on hospice. So I’m no stranger and I really do know that death don’t have no mercy in this land.
I haven’t written about this all that much, but truly, since Leslie said in 2004, “Why don’t you and David and Jeff go to Vietnam?” it’s been as if my life is complete, though it’s been complete for quite awhile. The trip itself brought several things full circle (war, Cambodians, my relationship with Leslie, David), but her saying that, right then, right there was where I went over the line.
And all this with no intimation of imminent death; but who knows except for people with cancer and like situations? I’m just trying to say, whatever comes, comes and I think about these things. As for the grief, I’m sorry. On some level, at some time, knowing these things may put things into perspective and thus be helpful.
I hope to have a long time left, but if I die before I wake, it’s okay. I’m not looking for it and I don’t embrace it, but I know, having faced this thing before, it’ll be like, okay. Kind of funny when you think about it – all this drama, loving, striving, suffering, joy, dreaming, risk, living, and … okay.
What if there is suffering? What if I have a heart attack and take 2 or 3 days to die alone in the wilderness? Far out, that’s what. I’m sure I’ll be saying, “Oh man, not this much suffering!” But when there’s no place else to go, you can bet it all that I’ll surrender and at worst, it will be, “Okay.” More likely, at this stage of life, it’s, Into the Light.
And I bid you good-night (a little further up the road).
Photo above right, from the right: Chuck, my chair, Julius, Jim, Dave, Bryce, Chris - G5 men's Bible study at Bryce's ranch. We sang (or mostly Jim sang) In the Garden, Old Shep, White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation), Crazy, Streets of Laredo, You Win Again, Ghost Riders in the Sky, Your Cheatin' Heart, St. James Infirmary, Amazing Grace (and so it was).
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Departure: it was a light day at la clinica and plenty of people working (Pat B, Vuong D, Joe C., Aaron M), so I got out at 1100. Leslie and I went to lunch at Whole Foods and then home to put in the ice chest, fix the front seat for traveling and take off. Photo below: New Mexico
West on I20 past Fort Worth, Abilene, Midland/Odessa with oil wells and windmills stretching off into the distance (all that money and all those fools got was bigger pick-up trucks and good football teams) and on to Pecos, my objective for the day. I pulled into one of the new rest stops (clean restrooms, wireless, “watch for snakes”) and set up the Campry for sleeping. It was a little early (8:30) and I couldn’t sleep, so got back on the road and got to Van Horn and another good rest stop. I slept fairly well with the cool wind and occasional splatting rain and the big rigs rumbling past and winding it up in low out of the rest area. Got up to use the restroom in the middle of the starry night and then slept hard for another couple of hours. In the morning I drove on into El Paso, had a taco for breakfast and kept on going.
Across the Rio Grande-O
Into New Mexico – always a wonderful feeling, with changes in topography and vibe. Stayed on I10 through Las Cruces and on to Deming, then cut off on 180 toward Silver City. My original plan was to stop for the night at City of Rocks State Park, but with the early start from Dallas and stopping in Van Horn vs. Pecos I was making good time, so kept on going, figuring I’d find a good place to camp in the Gila Wilderness or Apache National Forest.
Left 180 on State Highway 78 west (trailers not recommended) and followed the narrow winding up and down road with very few other vehicles into Arizona and the Apache National Forest. I found a good campsite and set up the tent for a nap in the forest with the wind and birds and pine forest smells. But it was early and the direction is forward, so when I awoke, struck camp and headed west on 191 toward Safford. Photo: S. Kaibab trailhead
This is odd – there is a 20-30 mile stretch of 191 where the side of the road is almost carpeted in broken glass. It’s as if generations of louts have made a point of coming to this road to throw their empty beer wine liquor bottles into the sand and underbrush. I’ve never seen anything like it. Down the road a piece I spotted the first roadrunner I’ve seen in many a year – run you little roadrunner – run your little roadrunner heart out!
On the outskirts of Safford I caught phone service and talked with Leslie, who told me that a little while ago she was on Paulus, a few blocks from our house and saw what looked like a hawk on the ground. She stopped to see if what she was seeing was what she was seeing and and the hawk turned its head and looked at her. It stared for a moment and then took flight, with a squirrel in its talons. A good many people would say this was a sign – I’d think so, too. Photo: David & me on S. Kaibab Trail
I followed Highway 70 NW through Safford, a seemingly prosperous town, on into a huge (and down) Apache reservation – lots of trailers, TV antennas, dishes, pick-ups, junk laying around in the dust. After the reservation was Globe in the Pinal Mountains. I stopped at a gas station/fast food place to do the dressing change and when I was standing by the trunk putting the new 4x4s on a youndg woman walked over and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Yes, fine.” And she said, “I saw the medical stuff and wondered if you needed help.” We talked for a moment and I thanked her and she walked back to her pick-up. I was left wondering, when I help or offer to help, how many of those people feel as good as I felt with the woman’s offer. Photo: Grand Canyon from S. Kaibab Trail
I stopped a few miles past Globe in a rest area in a town named Miami. There was a continuously yapping dog there, so I gave it up and moved to a parking lot across the highway. Sound asleep in the night I heard wheels on gravel, a dispatcher’s voice and then tap tap on the window. The police officer checked me out and told me I had to move on. Easy enough. I drove back across the highway and with the dog long gone, slept until the maintenance person awakened me banging stuff around. Perfect.
I was on the road out of the mountains and into the desert with cactus and scrub and sunrise. I pulled off down a side road to watch the sun come up and then big highway into Phoenix. Photo: Tonto Platform
Huge breakfast, lingering, writing and then to a mall to hang out at a B&N until time for David’s flight in. I waited at the cell phone lot and when he called me I applauded, pulled around and away we went to Flagstaff with me remembering when Leslie and I drove past there on our way to Nevada and how pretty it looked then and still does, among the pines and foothills. We caught some sleet along the way and got into Flagstaff around 8pm. Got a room at the EconoLodge which was okay at first, but there was no hot water in the morning. Dinner at Chili’s and then the final organizing and packing.
Up at 4:45 and had breakfast burritos in the car driving along 180, which was a beautiful drive, forested with snow on the side of the road and then the road snowy and then icy and the forest mixed aspen and pine and then breaking out onto the main highway with RV parks, fake teepees, souvenir shops, motels and then into Grand Canyon National Park. Photo: Tonto Platform, storm coming
We parked in the backcountry lot and went in to the office and weighed our packs: 39# each, with full load of water (4 liters each). We caught the shuttle bus to the South Kaibab TH. On the bus a girl around 10 or 11 sat next to me, kind of bent over in the way people who are blind do – which she was. The bus took us right to the TH and over a little rise & there is the canyon in all its deep, deep glory & we were walking down, down, down into the canyons. The trail was very steep and scenic, taking us along ridgelines and switchbacks deeper and deeper into the mystic. There were many people on the trail, but the deeper we went the fewer of them there were. Can anyone tell me why people feel free to shout at one another as they venture along a trail. Anyway, thank goodness they fell away as we descended. Photo: sunset from Tonto Platform (storm over)
About three miles into it my right knee began hurting a little. David suggested I step down on my left foot, which helped some, but the pain continued to increase, except for the rare stretches of level trail. Finally, at the Tipoff, about 6 miles down and with the river in sight I couldn’t go any farther – which is when I discovered that going uphill was as painful as going down. Uh-oh. I dropped my pack and crept upward to a level area whil David carried his pack to there and went back for mine. We talked about what to do, but there weren’t many options. David found a good place to pitch the tent and we set up camp in a very strong wind, with me mostly just clinging to the tent with visions of it sailing up and over the precipice.
We saw the girl from the bus, coming down the trail with her parents, so that was a real up for us. Championship parents and daughter. Photo: campsite visitor
A young man (a guide) came over to the tent to find out why we were camping in a no camping area. He suggested we use the emergency phone down the trail a ways to arrange to catch a mule train out. David went to the phone and came back with “good news and bad news.” The bad news was that we would not be able to catch a mule train out and the good news was that my problem is called “canyon knee” and I needed to wrap it, rest it, elevate it and take some take ibuprofen (I already had taken 200mg Celebrex) and then we could take the relatively level Tonto Trail West to Indian Gardens and from there, hike out on the Bright Angel Trail. I was having intrusive thoughts of orthopedists, exercises, maybe surgery, rehab and so on, so this sounded pretty good to me. Photo: campsite Tonto Platform
David asked, “Is rain hitting the tent?” I said, “No” and he said, “I think so” and yes it was. So we hung out in the tent – nice and warm – and after about 45 minutes the rain and sleet stopped. I fixed chili with noodles (both home cooked and dehydrated) with Fritos and cheese for dinner. I took the ace bandage off my arm & elbow where it had been holding the 4x4s on the road rash and tight-wrapped my knee. Asleep by 8:30 or 9:00. The wind died completely in the night and when I got up, it was completely quiet with a billion stars sparkling in the dark vault.
The next morning I was amazed to feel a lot better. We had breakfast and took off along Tonto West, contouring around the cliffs and mesas above the deepest canyon and though a twisty, looping trail, it was relatively flat and I made good time. What a relief! I had been mortified that my infirmity was aborting the trip and to be able to have a Grand Canyon experience (if not the GC experience) was a huge relief and pretty grand. David had taken good care of me throughout and was a golden sport throughout. Photo: hiking out on Tonto Trail
We were low on water and filled up at Pipe Creek about half way to Indian Garden. The water was excellent for a desert and we drank our fill. The hike was easy and beautiful, with sandstone cliffs towering over us and sometimes walking at the edge of steep canyons. We encountered one other person the whole way – a very nice change from the crowded South Kaibab Trail. Photo: along the Tonto Trail
We stopped right before Indian Garden and had lunch under cottonwoods on soft green grass by a rushing stream.
Then it was a quarter mile to IG. We found a campsite, hung out talking and then pitched our tent. Dinner was mashed potatoes, bacon, flatbread, cheese – tasty! IG is the most developed campground I’ve stayed in – people close enough together that you can hear them talking. On the other hand there was a (clean) water hydrant less than 100 feet from our tent. Farther away, fortunately, was a latrine with an ammonia smell so strong it (as one camper said) makes your eyes water. All the waste is composted and I guess that particular latrine was earlier in the process. Photo: along Tonto Trail
Up around 6am. Leisurely breakfast of dehydrated eggs & bacon & hot chocolate for David and granola bar and coffee with a lot of hot chocolate added for me. And then up that dusty trail again. I think it’s about 6 miles from IG to the rim – all uphill, but not too steep. We leap-frogged several times with a couple we talked with at IG for a moment – on the trail, stopping, talking for longer (David talking longer than I because, of course, he had time while waiting for me) – a family practice resident and his public health partner – nice.
The farther we went up the trail, the more people there were (day-hiking) and the less informed some were about common courtesy, like yielding to the person coming uphill, not yelling, not purposely kicking up dust (I’m not kidding). One guy kept yelling up to someone ahead of him, “Mercedes! Hey Mercedes! Slow down!” Sheesh. On the other hand one young couple I’d seen several times saw me plodding uphill and the woman said, “You again – you just keep on going.” And her friend said, “Awesome.” That buoyed me for about 5 steps and trudge, trudge, trudge. Photo: where we had lunch near Indian Garden
The trail became actually crowded close to the top and then I was out at one of the viewing areas in throngs of peeps. Weird. I couldn’t find David, so caught a shuttle to the backcountry lot expecting to find him there because he had the car keys, but he wasn’t, so I sat on a bench to doze for awhile, but here came another bus and this had DK on it.
Grand Canyon was over. My thighs and calves were sore, but my knee was fine. Even Dave’s were sore. I had planned beyond my ability. Would I have made it with a 2 hour rest part way down or going down the less steep Bright Angel Trail. Maybe find out next spring. Here are some of the things I learned (again) – do I have to learn everything 3-4-5 times? Photo: hiking out on Bright Angel Trail
- My son really is a golden sport. He hikes much faster than I, but waits with aplomb. Still, I question inflicting the disparity in strength and stamina on him. Bottom line – a great backpacking buddy.
- I’m a slow hiker – my natural bent is to stop and enjoy the scenery and that + my puff-puff-puff sketchy musculoskeletal & cardiovascular strength means 5-7 miles with a full backpack is a good day’s hike for me and I just have to plan that way.
- I like alpine environments (above timberline) more than sub-alpine or desert. But what am I to do in late fall and early spring? So desert it is.
- I have freezer-bag cooking down. Good to bring some little Snickers along as well.
We drove to Phoenix. Got a decent hotel and traditional post-hike meal (cheeseburger). The next day hung out in Starbucks for a few hours, then to airport where we talked for awhile and then DK to plane and I was on the road again, headed east (bad thing) and home (very good thing). I slept at a rest stop somewhere in New Mexico and again in Texas. Driving into the west Texas sunrise with clouds scattered across the lightening sky. Driving down the old hippie highway with Dylan like an Old Testament prophet: I saw gunshot swords in the hands of young children
I slept again outside Fort Stockton and when I started up again it was cold and windy and grey and I was down. Onward. 60 miles past Fort Stockton the sun was coming out and I noticed in the rear view mirror that the little door over the gas cap was open. I stopped and found the gas cap wedged into the opening – a sign! Yucca blooming, sun coming out and then Hello! Beep beep! Another roadrunner. Alright. Photo above: enchanted forest in Big Bend
Finally in to Big Bend around noon. While I waited for the backcountry permit office to open, I got my pack and gear in order.
I had a permit for Boulder Meadow by 1:30 and took off up the trail. I found an excellent campsite and was set up by 4. Unfortunately there were a good many large black flies buzzing around, so I ended up in my tent earlier than I’d planned. I walked around in the enchanted forest several times, but the tent was the main place. Photo: highway out of Big Bend
The next day I fired down the trail and up the highway to Dallas. Home around 8pm, tired and feeling good and very glad to be home. When I walked up to the front porch, the fragrance from the roses ...