A contribution by Rusty:
We got pulled over on the way to the trailhead. Swan was so excited to start hiking that his foot was a touch heavy on the accelerator (nine over). He explained to the officer that we would be hiking through the red desert, who let us off with a verbal warning on account of insanity. We made our way shortly to the trail, and my mom hugged me tight while Swan strummed a backpacking guitar.
“I don’t want leave now that there’s live music,” she said.I laughed and hugged her again. She had a lot of miles to drive and she needed to get some done today so she wouldn’t be too tired tomorrow. That knowledge hung heavy between us. I hiked the Appalachian Trail last year, which was a 6 month journey. I met the love of my life, Swan, while on that trail. I was so lucky to go on that hike, but it had been too long since I had spent much time with my mom. I was loathe to say goodbye again.
“I love you mom,” I said.
“I love you, SO much,” she said.
I waved and blew kisses as her tail-lights disappeared. It was time. It was really time. I took my first step on the trail, which crunched on the hard, desiccated dirt. The wind swept around my legs, swirling and urging me forward.
The high desert was bursting with life, in defiance of the wind and the sun, which simultaneously whisked away every drop of moisture. The air was so dry it made my nose bleed, and it made me proud to be alive. The land was so vast, I could pinpoint landmarks 5 miles away, maybe even farther if I was more familiar with the region. The flowers were hardy, plucky little beauties – red, yellow, purple, and white.
On the second day we found a dead horse by the trail. A patch of spiky red flowers had shot up around it. I wondered if it was thirst or old age that got it in the end. The wild horses seemed healthy (with the one notable exception). They were proud, unshodden and unbranded. They were free, and my heart leapt to be free like them. We passed several herds, all of them kept their distance; a few stood on the ridges to guard their herd, their tails flying regally like flags behind them. A stallion caught sight of us and bluff charged us; he began to dance, showing us the force of his muscles, the glean of his coat. We marveled at him. I asked Swan if we were free like the horses, and he said he thought we were more like the cows, dependent on the food in our packs, processed in a factory, just as the cows were dependent on the ranchers to toss them grain. I thought that he was right, but even so I was more free than I was a week ago, in an unrewarding corporate job. In the absence of mindless work, I began to understand the real urgencies of life. I think if I attend only to my real needs – food, water, shelter, love, and creative expression – that then I will be free. Maybe the freedom will be overwhelming, as it often has been in the past, but only by facing it everyday will I ever figure out what to do with it.
After a few days of hiking, we noticed that the heat of the day sapped our energy, so we came to a spring and set up the rain fly of the tent to take an afternoon siesta. We made love and bathed in the spring afterward. I sat outside the tent and sketched. When we stopped for the night we started a fire, and washed our clothes, closing our eyes after the perfect day.It rained overnight so the clothes didn’t dry. After so many days of being almost too parched to speak, it was laughable.
The desert was still thirsty, and it reached out lovingly to the sky, begging the storm to bring even more clouds. It rained down on us all day, and we stayed in our tent most of the day, hoping to wait it out, but we were running low on food and would need to start moving. We packed up and made it 2.7 miles before we got hit with freezing rain and needed to camp again.
The following morning the sky was moody, but the sunrise dropped breathtaking golden light on the mountains so we decided to hike. We intended to hike 19 miles.
Five miles into the hike we saw a tent. Swan hollered, and a fit woman in her 60s emerged from the tent. We were surprised, expecting to see a male hiker we knew was ahead of us. When she came within speaking distance we all commented that we hadn’t seen another soul in a week.
“My husband is sick, sick,” she said abruptly.
Coronavirus? I wondered.
“He can’t keep anything down,” she continued. “He hasn’t eaten anything in a week.”
I dropped my pack and rummaged through it to find my pepto bismol. I offered it to the woman, who told me her name was Karen. She took it with gratitude. Her husband, Rob, who I would rename Seadog, emerged from the tent. Clearly he’d had enough of us talking about him only a few feet away with a very thin layer of fabric between us.He looked tired, but he seemed like a vibrant man under better circumstances. They both had the bright fervor in their eyes that I remember seeing in my own eyes on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a passion for life that I have not seen in many people.
Seadog assured us that the pepto bismol and meal replacements that Swan offered would do the trick. I offered them my satellite phone, but they didn’t know anyone in the area. They said they would hike back to a highway 2 miles south of where we were standing if Seadog didn’t start feeling better. With a few worried backwards glances we went on our way. We had miles to do.
The storms, we thought, were over. As we climbed in elevation the sky turned darker and the wind colder. Without any more warning than that, hail began pelting us.
“Let’s go behind that rock!” I yelled over the wind, pointing to the only cover in the expanse before us. We dodged under the rock and began putting up the rain fly as quickly as we could. The hail stung at us viciously and the wind whipped the fabric out of our hands. Even when we did get the rain fly erected, we had to physically hold the tent poles down so we didn’t fly away. One tent pole bent from the wind. I shivered miserably, wet and windswept.
Eventually the worst of it passed. Swan and I looked at each other incredulously, and asked the sky if she had taken her medication as we packed to move up the trail. We carried on, determined to face the storm because we were running low on food and couldn’t afford to waste the day. As we neared the summit of a larger hill, lightning cracked. Swan, having recently been struck by lightning, swore.
This time we got behind a large rock and pulled a tarp over our heads. We wrapped tight around each other, staying warm enough. We popped our heads over the rock, convinced that surely now it would be safe to move forward.We were wrong.
We got caught by the full brunt of the storm while walking the ridge at 7500 ft. This elevation is the beginning of high elevation, and it is enough that a flat-lander like me feels sluggish, even a little drunk in the best conditions. Constantly whipped by rain, wind, and hail, I felt weak. I felt weak in a way that scared me.
I have been very, very cold before. I lived in Michigan most of my life, and I hiked through the mountains in Maine in November. I know cold and I’m tough, I can deal. There is something fascinating about being terribly, desperately cold, though, and it is a heightened awareness of the internal flame. The constant combustion that keeps me alive beats with a determination that I take for granted, except when I am afraid that maybe, just maybe, I am really too cold.
I began running. I was carrying 35 lbs on my back and my knees complained, but I felt panicky. I needed to warm up. Brandon ran behind me, concerned and cold as well. I had to slow to a walk quickly, because I was tired. More, I asked of my body, more heat.
It tried, but I got colder. I looked miserably out at the the clouds I stood among, and knew they had hours of storm left in them, and I had miles and miles to go before I could descend from the ridge. What were we to do? We could set up camp and be windswept and wet all night, possibly earning a permanent cold weather injury. We pushed on, my teeth chattering. I began to sob. As I climbed in elevation again, anxiety and exhaustion began to feed one another, I struggled with every single step.
“That’s camp!” Swan said, pointing to a few shapes about half a mile out.
I smiled, we did it! We walked rather quickly on to the camp, and it was a camp, just not the one we expected.We came up on a small, home made camper, a truck, and a four wheeler. In my delusional state I suggested we move on, because we didn’t know this person. I changed my mind though, when I shivered a little harder and I contemplated that I was 50 miles from the nearest town.
“Hello!! Please can you help us? We are very cold, we are almost hypothermic,” Brandon yelled. “Hello!”
I knocked. Enough time later that I wondered if it was abandoned, a head popped out of the camper. He was an older man wearing a brimmed hat that shaded his eyes. His clothes were practical and well worn. My instincts were conflicted. The camper was small, the man was strange, but I was so cold.
“Let me go first,” Swan whispered. I nodded.
The man, who never told us his name, waved us inside. As I stepped up, I saw that his eyes were so light blue that they were almost white next to his tan skin. There was a stove, a small table, bed, and closet in the room. The room was dark because because of the storm, and it smelled of old wood and cloth. There were no distractions, no books, no cards. Just some food on a bench, and blankets draped over the bed. The stove was burning propane without any pots on the fire to warm the space. As soon as I entered the warmth I began to shiver violently.
Graciously, the man pointed to the bench by the table, and Swan and I huddled together for warmth. We tried to explain between shivers that we were hikers, and we had been caught up in the storm.
The man nodded “supposed to snow,” he commented. The sentences seemed to be difficult for him.
He got a call and answered in Spanish. He told the caller he would call back soon, but I couldn’t place his accent.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.“I came from Spain in 1963. I’m Seventy-five,” he said.
My eyes widened. “You look much younger,” I said.
He grinned. “They told me it was good money in America, but no more than in Spain.”
I laughed and after some time I asked, “do you know how long this storm is supposed to last?”
The man looked concerned and repeated, “supposed to snow. Maybe a couple of days. You should go to town and get drunk for a few days.”
Swan grimaced, “but how do we get to town? We have to walk.”
“You should catch one of those horses, ride it to town,” joked the man.
“We’ll be okay, we’ll camp by the reservoir. Thank you so much, getting warm is really helping,” I said.
“Would you like some bread?” The man offered.
The man directed Swan to pull a loaf of French bread from the top of the small closet. We both shook as we ripped off more and more of the bread and chewed it slowly. It was good bread, but my body was so alarmed by recent events that it was difficult to eat. I forced myself to eat more of it. Fuel for the flame.
Swan spoke to the man about getting a ride to town, but it was too far. The roads would be too muddy, the man said. “I can take you to the reservoir,” the man conceded. “Get you pretty close.”
“That would be amazing!” I said.
“Warm your hands,” the man said with a stern look, holding his hands above the stove with the blue propane flame. “Not too close. I’ll go warm the old truck.” The man got up and walked painfully with stiff joints to go start his truck.
I held my hands above the stove, and the heat was so sharp and painful that I could only hold them there for a few seconds. I asked Swan if he wanted to hold his hands above the fire, but he shook his head. He had been so worried about me, it seemed to surprise him that his own hands were stiff from the cold.
When the man came back in Swan and I shifted uncomfortably until the man said,“Okay, we can go.”
Swan and I climbed down from the camper, and as I put my pack back on and shivered in the cold, the man offered me the rest of the bread and some peaches. I took both with a heartfelt thank you.
He drove us over the extremely rough two track road we had been hiking on, offering us more propane for our stoves, but we didn’t need it. “You’ll be okay?” the man asked.
“We’ll be okay. We have warm, dry clothes and a tent.”
“Okay,” the man said. “Do you see the sheep?”I didn’t, but Swan did. The man herded 3,000 sheep in the valley of these mountains. He asked if we had seen wolves. No, we had not. I remember thinking I didn’t realize I even had to worry about wolves in that area. We pulled up to the reservoir and hopped out of the truck, profusely thanking the man.
I pulled my sketchbook out of my pack and began tearing out the best drawing I had in there.“I don’t have much money,” I began.
“No, no money,” the man said, waving his hands.
“It’s not money,” I said perhaps a touch more forcefully than I meant to, “it’s from the walk.”
I passed the ink drawing of a landscape from the local area to the man and he smiled brightly. It was a smile that came of it’s own accord, from the heart. He nodded.
“Nice. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, thank YOU” I said.
He hesitated as he drove away, but eventually he disappeared back into the dreary mist. I waved as he drove away.
Swan and I got to work putting up the tent. Swan was emotional from the cold now. We changed into our dry clothes and drank hot water, we also filled a bottle with hot water and put it in his sleeping bag. We coiled around each other, and even so it took us hours to get warm. When I woke the next morning I was warm, but profoundly fatigued and still 50 miles from town. The only way out was to hike.