He yelled at us to stop, seemingly from out of nowhere. I was startled by the sound, but frightened when I saw the ragged looking man standing only 50 feet to our side, but thankfully across a dry gully. I was leading a group of 9 teenage backpackers down the trail, headed back to our Base Camp facility after a week out in the Lost Creek Wilderness. We’d be back in less than an hour except for whatever was about to happen. The lone man was probably in his 40s, unkempt, and had a Pit Bull by his side.
Lightning streaked across the sky and was followed instantly by an explosion of thunder, telling me that the thunderstorm was somewhere right above. It was unsettling, but there wasn’t time to worry about it. I didn’t see a lightning flash hit the ground but wondered if there was one up there that had one of our names written on it. The wind kept blowing relentlessly, and the constant gusting made the whole situation seem all the more chaotic. But, where’s the rain, I thought? The Tarryall Mountains needed it. A real downpour might put an end to both the Hayman Fire (Colorado’s largest wildfire ever, up to that point), and the smaller thing that was visibly burning on the nearby mountainside.
We were backpacking on the Big Island of Hawaii along the Mulawai Trail. The first night out, we camped in Waipio Canyon. Then, the next day we headed toward Waimanu Canyon and stopped for the night to camp on a rustic camping platform provided by the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife. The shelter was conveniently located on a mountaintop within a day’s walking distance of the trailhead and was a welcome sight after our long and hot climb through the jungle and up the Z Switchbacks. We reached the elevated platform in the middle of the afternoon, and since there was still plenty of daylight left and we were all physically drained, everyone picked a spot and stretched out on the shaded and relatively clean plywood for a quick nap. As I dozed off, I thought contentedly of gentle breezes, juicy Lilikoi fruit, and thick clouds. Josh and I were the guides for the group of 8 teenage boys, a fact that would eventually come into play. But for the moment, we all just slept.
If all went as planned, we’d get to our Wind River Range campsite by late afternoon, which would leave us with plenty of daylight for setting up the tents, organizing gear, and even resting a bit before cooking supper. Our backpacks were heavy, but being mostly young and fit, by lunch we’d already covered 10 of the 15 miles planned for the day. At just a little after 1 o’clock, we crossed Roaring Fork Creek and stopped on the other side to change out of our river shoes and eat our midday meal of tuna, Bolton Biscuits, and gorp. Among other things, the stop also provided a nice break from the uphill grind we’d been on for the past several hours.
Thankfully, we only got a few miles up the Wind River Range’s Middle Fork Trail, before we stopped and set up our first night’s camp. As it turned out, the whole treble hook situation would’ve been way more complicated had we gone further into the backcountry on that first day.
I set off from Batopilas, at the bottom of Copper Canyon in Mexico, intent on riding my mountain bike up the 40-or-so-mile gravel road ascent to the intersection with the paved highway that connects Creel to Batopilas area and Guajochi. My plan was to ride it as fast as possible and break the unofficial record of 4 hours. Whether or not my quest was realistic will forever remain unknown.
As I rode, the bike made a sickening squeaking sound as I pushed the pedals down. The road was dry and dusty, so I figured the chain just needed more lube. Even though the noise was irritating, it provided a distraction from the incessant uphill riding tedium. Initially, the ride was just that– tedious, but that soon changed.
After less than a third of the way into the ride, my legs were already feeling “heavy.” Each time I approached a bend, I hoped to be greeted by a flat or downhill section just around the corner. But time and again, that hope disappeared when I was greeted by the sight of yet another long, painful-looking, and persistently uphill straightaway. Thankfully, besides my mistaken assumption that the riding was about to get easier, I did have other things to think about. But unfortunately, those “things” mainly involved the physical pain I was experiencing in my right leg. I kept trying various mental tricks like visualizing birds flying or my legs pedaling in smooth circles to mitigate the pain and monotony. But doing so did nothing to alleviate my pain, although it did lead me to ponder the concept of a loop that was all downhill. My mind continued wandering more and more as I rode, but my lungs and legs stuck to the reality of the situation, and they soon began to scream.
After a couple of hours of riding, I realized that my goal (and the high point on the road) was still more than 20 miles away and a couple of thousand feet higher. Then, as I rounded a corner near an old graveyard, a mongrel of a Border Collie came at me out of the brush quickly and deliberately. I yelled, stopped abruptly, got off my bike, reached down, and picked up a rock to fake throw at it. Thankfully, with my rock-grabbing motion, it retreated to wherever it had come from, and I was able to move along, bite-free.
The temperature was almost ideal, not too hot, and not too cold. The sun mostly stayed behind the clouds, and there was just enough of a gentle breeze to keep the air fresh. And so, at least the weather wasn’t an issue. Up until this point, I’d avoided looking at my watch but finally did so and saw that I’d been riding for nearly three hours. After some mental ciphering, I decided that I was several minutes ahead of the record pace. I was overjoyed and decided I could relax and slow down a bit. I figured I could soft-pedal the rest of the way to the top and still break the record. After a few euphoric moments, the sad reality of the situation became apparent as I realized that I’d miscalculated the time, and going easy from that point and beating the record was not an option.
The bike didn’t have the same choice of whether or not to ease up and began squeaking louder as it continued to climb. Once again, I thought about how the noise must be a result of the fine dust of the road getting into the chain. I grasped at any sort of thought or idea that might take my mind off the pain that continued developing in my right leg. And then, my knee on the other leg began hurting, and I suddenly concluded that perhaps what I was feeling wasn’t actual physical leg pain.
“Is the sensation I’m feeling just a thought in my head?” I wondered.
I knew for a fact that both knees hurt, or at least they seemed to. I realized the pain and fatigue had developed after first seeing and then pondering the route. So, I began considering that the pain might have blossomed in my head (and not my knees) after I looked toward the top and saw what lay ahead. All the while, I kept looking at my watch and projecting the numbers. The longer I rode, the worse the arithmetic of my performance got. The record was just over 4 hours and after 3 hours of struggle, I hadn’t even gotten to the midway point. I was depressed by my situation, but then decided to let go of my record quest and just ride and enjoy the moment. So, I just lowered my head and rode, and avoided doing any more arithmetic, thinking about my leg pain or fretting about the lung burn that was developing in my chest
Right then, as I neared the halfway point, a faint flute sound came into my ears and seemed to float right through my head. It was as if it was coming in one ear and then out the other. The flute melody was just suddenly there in the air, and I felt like my ears were just going along the dusty road and scooping it in. In an instant, I went from looking ahead and above and thinking about my pain to pondering what was going on somewhere out there in the brush and cactus with the flute.
The flute player was a scrawny teenager who’d been sent out to watch the family’s little herd of one single sheep and nine goats. The animals were content to slowly graze their way through the brush toward the Screaming Lady spring. Herding was a boring business to the kid, especially with the dogs running around and doing most of the work.
The new flute the old blind man had made for the kid was begging to be played. So, since there wasn’t a lot of running around or rock throwing to do, the young shepherd sat down in the wide-open on a big flat rock and pulled the new flute out of his shirt, and let it play. The mouthpiece tasted sweet, and the flute player’s breath was all it needed to send its song out into the air. It seemed to play itself. At first, the boy wasn’t sure what the melody was. He played but strangely didn’t consciously know the song coming out of the flute. Each time he went to the following note, the right one just seemed to flow out. He was confused, but he kept blowing and letting it happen. The boy found the unknown melody soothing and noted how the goats and old ewe also seemed to be relaxed by the sound? Soon, once the refrain had repeated itself a couple of times, he started to know how it went.
“Have I heard it before?” he wondered. It seemed so familiar. Why and how did he know where each following note was? He had a lot of questions as he continued repeating the melody. After doing so five times, he finally realized the combination of sounds was something he knew and held deep down in his gut. Maybe he’d heard it at the church during Semana Santa. Or perhaps he’d heard it when he was younger, sitting around a fire outside his grandfather’s house. It could be that he’d heard it at a Dutuburi. Whatever the case, he suddenly understood that it was an old well-known melody that he and the others probably knew.
Eventually, I rounded a corner, and as I looked up the next straightaway, I saw the little mud hut of a house and store that marked the top of the steepest part of the climb. I knew I was almost there because I’d passed that way before. There was no mistaking the scene that was suddenly before my eyes- the large red Coca-Cola sign near the road contrasted with the surrounding canyons.
At that point, the flute music had drowned out all my pain, it seemed to have consumed the dust, and my squeaking chain moved in silence. Now, there was just the picture of a cold Coke and smooth sailing along with an unseen crow cackling somewhere up above in what had become my immediate future. Once I got to the store, I took a break and had a soft drink before tackling the second half of the climb.
Ultimately, I reached the top, although not in record time. After the cold Coke, the second half of the ride went smoothly, and the pain in my legs and the burning sensation in my lungs just went away. The remainder of the ride was by no means all downhill but was less steep and tedious. Even without the flute playing during the final part, the melody kept repeating itself in my head. Then, almost abruptly, the dirt road intersected the highway, and I was at my destination, energized and feeling stronger than ever.
I could tell the story from the trip about the Swiss barmaid hovering around outside my tent late one night asking for my tentmate and co-guide, Matt. Or the one about Matt and I racing our Swiss guide/hosts down from the top of the Argentine Miroir (a famous rock climb) to a nearby café where our group was waiting. Both occurred amid an adventure trip that the two of us were leading which included teenagers, my non-alpinism-experienced wife, and a doctor who was even older than me. As one of the leaders, I was making every effort to look out for the group’s well-being, but various off-kilter “things” kept happening.
We called it the “Valley of the Dinosaurs,” mostly because of the humongous rock formations scattered all around. They dominated the remote high valley in Colorado’s Tarryall Mountains with their sheer size. And they breathed a strange sort of life into the area that had convinced me early on that the whole place was somehow on the move. I could never pick out any one thing that caused me to think that—it was more like a general, overwhelming, and deep gut feeling that had me convinced. I was consumed by the place’s pure and simple beauty and sensed the place was more alive than me from the first time I blundered into it. Through the years, I took every opportunity to return. And while the physical cost of getting there was never cheap- without fail, it was always worth it.
Rico, or “Tarzan” as he preferred to be called, hadn’t felt very strong since lunch. His backpack seemed exceedingly heavy, and the big uphill into Pinto Park was yet to come. He’d never been a complainer before and was intent on not becoming one right then. The feeling was new to him, and he wanted to figure out what was going on, so he could keep moving ahead in his accustomed dominant and carefree fashion. Perhaps, he reasoned, his weakness problem had something to do with the creek water he drank at lunch.
He recalled the Strep he had back during the winter and began to wonder if maybe this wasn’t that. But since there was no sore throat, he was pretty sure it wasn’t. “No, this is something different,” he decided.