Six weeks up the West Coast and into Canada. All selfie video with a GoPro, poorly edited for my enjoyment. https://youtu.be/OAbxKbjs-TM
We came with the cold. It was a 55 mile, FULL FRONTAL southern slugfest to Bryce Canyon National Park from the humble 168 population town of Antimony, Utah. With severe headwinds, long ascents, and sub-freezing temperatures at 8,000 feet elevation we struggled separately to our campground. Never have I suffered so on the bike.
But, perhaps, I might rethink our approach. We came with the cold. It was a 55 smile, FULL FUN-TAL southern hugfest to Bryce Canyon National Park from the lovely 168 population town of Antimony, Utah. With humbling headwinds, beautiful summits, and eye-watering temperatures at 8,000 feet elevation we pedaled independently to our campground. It was a day for growth.
I left Otter Creek State Park alone. It was going to be a short ride day but with the cold front that had moved in overnight - casting the mountains rising up from our Antimony valley in a white layer of soft snow – had wrought a massive headwind. I wanted to have camp set up and relax by a fire before sunset.
So I went. And fought the cold and wet and wind up out of the valley. It was, by all accounts, a tough day to be on the bike. Having eaten all my food and drunken all my water in the slow views that passed at six miles per hour I was reaching an emotional trough.
Knowing little of Bryce Canyon before the trip I did not know that there was going to be a small city before our campground. Nor did I realize that our friend, that man with the van, a Mr. Dakota Gale of traipsingabout.com, had already reserved us a campground and bought us wood for that night within the park at Sunset Campground. But wham! Bam! Thank you Uncle Sam! Bryce City and Ruby’s complex were glittering waves of scrolling neon on my horizon.
Life was looking up. I ate two cheesy sausage roller dogs from Ruby’s Grocery Store, the first real grocery I’d seen in over 100 miles, and bought enough dinner to feed a small platoon of overindulged cyclists. When I walked out of the grocery to behold a frightful flurry of sleet and ice and snow the decision was made to eat another roller dog and call ones whom I’d missed during our cellphone servicelessness stint through eastern Utah.
Dakota was waiting for me at Sunset. We set up camp and wondered about the rest of the group. With his Sprinter van our decision was made easy. Back out on the road via vehicular locomotion. Brady and Rachel were eating hot beans and soup at Ruby’s. Tyler had been holed up two miles away at Subway for an hour, waiting for the weather to pass. Megan and George had made it five miles that day and, feeling an oncoming sickness, opted for a room at a motel in Antimony.
We were five. Dakota took us out to dinner at a buffet, an amazing and appreciated experience that left my belly bulging over the seam of my once-loose travel pants. My legs now look like sausages in them, my stomach some slab of poodge poking out from the navel.
There was no sense in exploring the canyon that night … the weather and accompanying fog rendered outdoor activity hazardous and generally unrewarding. It was still icing and snowing when we left dinner, anyways, and we’d had enough of the outdoors for this one long and cold day.
Instead we watched The Prestige and farted all up in Dakota’s van. It smelled so bad that, even though the temperature dropped to 25 degrees that night, he had to sleep with a window open to allow some of the bad air to escape.
When I woke it was cold. Spring elevated in Utah is unlike any Appalachian April I’d experienced. Snow and ice littered the ground. My tent was one big stiff sheet of freeze. What’s a guy to do but sit in the bathroom and drink coffee?
As the day grew the sun came and warmed the landscape. It was clear and so we took a hike down from Sunset Point over to Sunrise Point and back, a four mile hike through the hoodoos of Bryce. What an amazing landscape. What an incredible canyon. I felt like a small stick of a human set against the vast and sprawling butterscotch spires of sand and stone. We gooshed and mooshed our way along the trail, taking our time with the scenery. I’d never seen such a variety in similar structures … there seemed to be no uniform hoodoo formation. The wind and ice had their own and unique ways of sculpting these sentinels of the canyon.
It was a rewarding hike, a reminder of why we ride for the national parks. Without the protection of these landscapes the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon might have been removed for mining purposes back in the early 1900s. Imagine – no accessible canyon, only the scars of our exploitation upon the rock? It was a reminder of our mission, of what we’re trying to accomplish with Keys to Freeze. Yet I have to see them first to understand them, to feel their impact upon my eyes and body, recognize their beauty and power in our age of growth and progress, to allow myself to slow and think and believe in the silence of the hills and the meaning of the canyon below. These are the moments that we must treasure and share, and so I am happy to tell you here – Bryce Canyon is an amazing place, one I must recommend. If you do go the Sunset Campground is rife with trees and shaded places, perfect for comfortable camping and making new friends by the fire, like we did with our new friend Bret.
Bret was on a ride-about. Having quit his job in Portland he bought a motorcycle and is exploring the southern parks before returning to work in Washington in June. We shared fire and s’mores with Bret, he gave us chipotle popcorn and bourbon. A worthy trade. Food and stories and smoke, the defining moments of our second and final night in Bryce. For when we woke it was on to Zion.
My name is Reese.
Don’t believe a word of this book. There are no facts to be had. They are just words, my words, and I already doubt the validity of much which will be written. The conversations are jumbled in my head. I just hope to make sense of them on paper. What little I do get right shall be so laced into the fabric of false memories – the spins of the psyche – that you won’t be able to tell one lick of difference when fiction turns to fact. So just, from this page forward, assume that I’m snowballing you one big fat rambling lie, and you’re right in its mushy path.
When I think of what direction I want this book to go I have about ten routes in mind, all disjointed, all projecting radially from the central hub of a nucleus. Think of a bike wheel – the spokes jutting out from the hub. I’m going to talk a lot about bicycles in this book. I like bicycles quite a bit. I suppose it has to do with the amount of time I have spent spinning wheels.
Fingers crossed I will be able to connect my topics to a unifying theme, like the spokes bound together by the wheel’s rim.
Speaking of theme, how about we start with awareness. And change. Two broad beginnings, I say. Your protagonist wasn’t a very aware person back in the day. Your protagonist has changed quite a bit since back in the day.
Your protagonist is of course me.
I will let you know if and when the theme changes.
Let me also state that all of the names have changed, except for the ones that I didn’t want to change. You will not know which names are real, and which are fake, because I will do such a good job of forgetting what is truth and what is lie.
Now is a good time to think about what all to expect from this book … we will start with my expectations first: I hope to write 70,000 in eight days in a cabin on Flathead Lake in Montana. I will thank the Plantcis family profusely for their generosity, and dedicate a large part of this book to them. I expect that while writing I will develop blisters on my fingers and some mild carpal tunnel. So it will go. I expect the computer to crash twice and for me to curse with gusto attempting to recover the lost words. I will grow tired of writing and will drink upwards of a hundred cups of coffee to combat the lack of motivation. Once this book is written I believe I shall have a devil of a time finding anyone who wants to read it. But maybe I will get lucky. Maybe you will want to read it. I will not expect you to enjoy it, but I can always hope.
Since I don’t know who you are, I don’t think that I can expect anything of you. However, here is what I think will happen: I think you will hear about the book from a friend. You will check the price, find it reasonable, and you will buy it. This Preface will be the first thing you read of my book. I think you might laugh at parts, like when I tell the Chapel Hill police ‘I’m an underage drinker, please don’t shoot!’ I think you might put down the book in disgust, likely at the part where I discuss my masturbatory habits in churches across the country. Good thing you should assume nothing I say is true, right?
I think you might take away something worth thinking about … I also think you may never buy another one of my books again. There is always that possibility.
Also. I need to say something else: I have been afforded every opportunity in life. My story is exceptional only because I believe it to be so. My goal is to write in such a manner that you too find my tale a compelling one. I was born into a loving family, one where our family unit has remained unbroken, one that has had enough money to afford good food, a good home, a good education, and the comforts of our pampered American society. I know that I’m not special, and that the natural human condition gravitates towards the obscene, the grotesque, the violent, the absurd. But before you put me up, before you shelf me for another time and another place, let me tell you this.
I’m writing for nobody but myself. There are demons inside, memories that need to be put on paper. I have lived, grown, loved, lost, fought, and felt the world change within the space between my ears. I’m writing to sort it all out, to view my very untrue past – fact muddling fiction – and flesh out my true passion, to discover my next step.
If this does not appeal to you, I don’t really care. Put me away then. There are more stories to read than mine. But if you want to see the world through my eyes and remember life as a child and young adult, and remember how the days passed by events and not hours, and remember how the world tasted on your young, fresh lips then I encourage you to stay with me.
So whatever happens – before you turn the page and we ramble on down the road together – I want you to take a deep breath in. And exhale.
My name is Reese Wells, and this is my very untrue life story.
It’s five in the morning and I’m in an unfamiliar place. Montana, how you have called me. I’m in a wood room, surrounded by wood furniture, layered in thick wool. It’s cold in here … fall moves faster in the north, and my fingers ache with the fresh frost on the dark night. I couldn’t sleep. There is too much to do. I have a life story to write.
I want us to start with the beginning. My beginning. My true beginning, nine months before I popped into the world a shriveled, screaming babe. Let me tell you where it all started, where I first became a twinkle in my mother’s eye, long ago, in the humble town of Winston-Salem …
My parents claim I was conceived on a waterbed. I hope this isn’t true. To state the least, the idea of my father’s sperm meeting my mother’s egg as they sloshed around atop a heated, opaque, water wonderland is unfortunate.
They tell the story often, taking great glee in my discomfort. It goes something like this: “We threw a party. We got drunk on Witch’s Brew, which is this nasty combination of liquor and fruit drinks. We fell onto the waterbed, flopped around into the proper positions, flopped around more in our respective positions, and then nine months later you were here, our baby boy.”
When I was born it was at Wake Hospital, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, United States of America, Earth, Spinning Orbit of Our Sun. I came out of my mother’s stomach because my head was so big. She had been in labor for hours, huffing and puffing and sweating while Dad sat around twiddling his thumbs. The rest of my family, who came exclusively from Georgia, sat around drinking wine from the bottle. My grandfather, who would die a month after I came into this world – a life for a life, it seems – was so excited he locked the keys in the car while his rackety old Gremlin ran. His tapestry of profanity, mingled with the wine guzzling in the waiting room, made the Wells family quite the talk of the ward.
So I was born. My mother, smelling of spent adrenaline, asked my father “Is he beautiful?”
My father, an honest man, lied. “Yes.”
This is very untrue. I was a mess, a bloody, wrinkled mass of writhing, bawling babe. Dad later confessed that I reminded him of Yoda, that little green man from all those galactic movies.
So there I was. We were a family.
* * * * *
My life was very uneventful for the first few months. For the most part I sat around drooling, eyes sliding in and out of focus. Notable events did happen, of course. My wrinkles smoothed out. My Grandfather Reese died. I’m named after him. Mom went back to being a nurse, Dad was a stay at home father who kept me busy. I don’t remember anything about these times, but I have been told they were quite nice.
At some point I began sleeping through the night, and then I learned to walk, and then I learned to speak. When I was old enough Dad started putting me up on his shoulders. All normal stuff. I would grip his hair and giggle, get too excited, and vomit.
Oh. We had a dog named Maximillian Bon Fido, Max for short. Max was my best friend.
Every night I would fall asleep in my own bed, wake up in the wee hours of the morning, tiptoe to my parent’s bedroom with my blanket, and fall asleep on Max next to their bed. It was one of the cuter things I have ever made a habit of.
* * * * *
When I was two my sister was conceived. I don’t know where Mom and Dad were when Ava began collecting molecules in Mom’s belly but I know it wasn’t the waterbed. They had sold it after I was born, a sign it was time to grow up.
I was growing up too. I was about to become a big brother. My world was about to change.
When Ava was born I lost about two-thirds of the attention I had been so used to. I was upset and kicked poor Max in the ribs. I lost my best friend for about ten minutes, but he forgave me.
I ignored Ava for her initial six months of existence. Whenever I was in the same room with her I refused to look at her tiny baby’s body. When she cried I would look around, pretending to wonder where that odd noise was coming from. Truth told I really did know Ava was there, but she troubled me.
When I began daycare I accepted Ava into the family. Not spending the entirety of my days with her soft fleshy being fostered an appreciation for my baby sister. In a child’s world, when life is measured within a day’s span, all it takes is a little time away to aid in the heart’s opening.
Simply put, daycare was the tits. I loved it. The world was so big – the playground an empire, the classroom a city of exciting, entertaining avenues worth exploring. One time I got so excited that I shit my pants, and spent an hour crying in the bathroom until Dad arrived and picked me up.
It’s in this daycare that I have my first memory. I was four and exploring a new play castle. It had just been installed outside, and it was a gleaming, magnificent feat of architecture. In my mind it was huge, a colossus of unadulterated adventure potential.
I forged though it with great gusto.
First I climbed high, surveyed the grounds, and took the slide down. I poked around the outside, traversed its little tubular crawlspaces, and finally went inside. Oh, the exhilaration. So many doors to take, so many opportunities worth exploring. At that moment life truly was an open door.
Minutes later I had found a dark dead-end. My fingers scraped the rough plastic castle interior. I realized I was exhausted, sat down in the dark and fell asleep. When I woke it was to the call of my teacher, Mrs. McKnight. Playtime was over, and we were headed back inside. But there was someone blocking my path out. He was big and fat and filling the majority of the doorway leading into the sunlight. He wouldn’t move. I was helpless against his girth. I could peek around and see my friends heading up the hill and into the hospital. I screamed, I bawled, I pushed and punched to get around, but to no avail. I was horrified at the thought of being left in this dark, rough tunnel. It was only when I kicked the heavy fellow in the small of his back that I gained enough space to squeeze around and emerge back into the day.
What a first memory … I still think back to those moments and recognize my fear. Nobody wants to be left alone, to be faced with the black nothingness of their dark hole, faced with walls on all sides. So at a young age I found a fear, my first in a world of joy. A loss of innocence, a recognition that not all paths lead to light. What a pisser.
In truth there isn’t much more to tell about my first five years. My family was complete: Father, Mother, Sister, Me. Mom quit work as a nurse and my Dad started his own metal fabrication business, an environment I would become intimately familiar with in my youth.
On my sixth birthday Dad removed the training wheels from my bike. What a gift he was going to give me … the joy of riding a self-powered two-wheeled vehicle. We walked the bike up the street. I was wearing a thick green helmet. I resembled Martin the Martian from The Flinstones. “Greetings, Earthlings.”
We made the hill, spun the bike around, and picked out my route.
“Alright, Reese,” Dad said. “Just get up on your seat, pedal a few times to get up some speed, and then head towards the driveway. When you get to the driveway peel off into the grass and hit the brakes, okay?”
I nodded, smiled, and hopped up. Dad pushed as I pedaled like a little demon. Oh! The feel of the wind! The smell of air rushing up my nose! The chill of speed. I was on a high. I was invincible, unstoppable, a gargantuan of marvelous momentum. The street whipped by, blurs of green grass and green trees and red brick houses. This was living. This was life. This was an orgasm of locomotion.
Then I lost control. My front wheel grew a mind of its own and refused to comply with my demands. In my struggles I forgot about the brakes. I missed my driveway by inches, a freak gravitation field pulling me straight into our mailbox. I hit it head-on, denting the flap such that it would never close again. My bike flew out from under me and I crumpled into the road, a wailing mess. More auspicious bicycle beginnings have, I suppose, been had by others.
My first crash on the bike left me dazed, swollen. Mom picked out the gravel in my knees and Dad ran a bath for me and Ava. I didn’t want to take a bath with my little sister … but I was six and understood in my blossoming maturity that it was easier on my parents to clean us at the same time.
So there we were. Ava and I, together sudsing up in the warm water. It both stung and refreshed, if that makes sense. Just as the water was beginning to cool I looked over at my sister. She was making a funny face. It was a look of exertion. I knew what that meant … Ava was about to drop a fat load in the tub.
I scrambled up and over the plastic siding, tripped, and cracked the bottom of my chin on the tile floor. I bled all over everything, Ava shat the bath, and thus Mom and Dad were met with a horrid scene when they registered the sounds coming from the bathroom.
It was a tough birthday.
It was a tough year. Six, it turned out, was the beginning of my storied career of boneheaded decisions. They seemed to stack on top of each other.
One of the first bad decisions I can remember involves me and my bicycle again. I had recovered from my run-in with the mailbox, gotten a new helmet, and was feeling froggy. That is, until I rode off a five foot ledge behind our driveway. I fell over front wheel first and bonked my head on the ground. I had myself a good hard cry.
Crying, I learned, helps.
* * * * *
Mom says I had a lot of bad ideas prior to that fortuitous tumble off my bike. I guess I believe her. Apparently I ate Max’s poop when I was two, right about when Ava was born. Remember I kicked poor old Max right in the ribs? That was an unfortunate decision. I got spanked, and Max pooped right where he knew I would be hungry.
I guess it all comes back in the end.
Another six year old folly … once, while we were driving down the highway I kicked over Dad’s coffee mug, the hot dark fluids spilling from their ceramic container and onto his crotch … I hated the way the mug’s painted cows were looking at me.
Whenever I acted on a poor idea, and got caught, Mom would say, “It’s the decisions we make that define who we are.”
Dad would just say, “Ah, shit son.”
Take this, for example: I spent the first half of second grade goofing off. I made a bunch of C’s and D’s and F’s. I didn’t even know that was possible in second grade, but hey! Look at me! I had the bright idea to hide every single bad grade I made. I flushed them down the school toilets; I threw them in the trash cans. On one memorable occasion I ate a flunked math test in front of little Lucy, much to her disgust.
I only brought home the top grades. Mom and Dad thought I was hot stuff. Imagine their surprise when my report card was exclusively C’s.
“Oh, Reese, it’s the decisions we make that define who we are.”
“Ah, shit son.”
I spent the next four months working in the yard, raking up dead leaves and picking up dead sticks. I think it was during this time that Dad saw my potential as a valuable asset to the child labor force.
I was a seven year old janitor in a metal shop. That much is true.
Remember my saying ‘Mom quit work as a nurse and my Dad started his own metal fabrication business?’ I didn’t know what all this meant until the summer after second grade, when father decided that it would be a grand opportunity for me to cut my teeth in the workforce.
I was paid a fair wage, seven dollars an hour, to do whatever heinous task was asked of me. I would ride into work with Dad at six, have Mom pick me up at two, and spend the rest of my afternoon and evening dreading the coming morning.
In two weeks I ruined three pairs of jeans, five shirts, and two heavy duty sets of gloves. I would end my shifts covered in grease, grime, and dust. It wasn’t a glamorous lifestyle, and I pitied myself quite a bit.
Jobs included the following: picking up metal shavings from the ground, transferring piles of scrap metal to the dumpster out back, organizing rooms full of nuts, bolts, and screws, destroying wasp hives, weeding around a rotting metal trailer, emptying out the rusty, sharp, bulky contents from the rotting metal trailer, painting the trailer a smeary white, picking up trash and cigarette butts around the shop’s yard, moving sheets of metal from one wall to another, more convenient wall, and emptying trashcans filled with metal bits, cans of Moutain Dew, and nasty brown bottles of dip spit.
I hated it. Whatever illusions I had of following work in my father’s footsteps flew out the door and into the dumpster with the rest of the scraps after those long two weeks. A good honest dollar, in my young opinion, wasn’t worth the effort. What I needed was an out before next year, before I was roped into another summer of this madness.
I found it on the Little League field the following spring.
When I was eight I attended tryouts for the local traveling baseball team. I had shown my cards as a subpar soccer player and a terrified football benchwarmer … in effect whittling down my sports options at such an age in such a temperate climate to just good old American baseball and good old American basketball. I was short and unathletic, and found the idea of racing back and forth on a wooden indoor court insufferable. So baseball it was.
I had shown just enough hustle on the field and proficiency at bat to place my father in an awkward encounter. There he was, eating a two dollar Little League chili cheese dog, when a tall thin man with a big old red nose came up to him and said that I should show up to the Carolina Devils tryouts. Dad thought it was a scam. I can appreciate that sentiment … who in their right mind forms and organizes and rallies a team of children to travel around the Southeast Corridor every weekend playing five game tournaments against same-aged, similar sized individuals? Hours in the car, hours on the field, night after night in seedy, weedy hotels, week after week practicing hitting, pitching, fielding, and spitting. What adult would consent their time to such a miserable future?
Oh, but the Carolina Devils were real. Only after confirming the verity of the team did we arrive at the tryout field, fourteen children looking to swing their bats and field those balls so that it caught the attention of Coach Todd, founder of the Devils.
At eight years old we had graduated from tee-ball, yet found ourselves a year out from pitching. We were in the awkward limbo of coach pitch. Thus I took the plate against Coach Todd, 65 pounds of youth versus his 300 pound man frame. But Todd had a gentle arm, and I was able to make sufficient contact with that spinning white orb.
Not everyone had it that easy. There was drama. One father screamed at his son when he swung – and missed – five pitches in a row. Another father accused Coach Todd of victimizing his son Alvin by throwing bad balls on purpose. Alvin looked about like he would have hardly more luck hitting water after falling out of a boat, but that didn’t stop his father from standing up for his poor, uncoordinated son. There were screams, curses, words I had never imagined paired together, phrases like “ratdick fat fuck” and “shithammer cod slammer” bandied from behind the chain linked fence. I was mortified. I can’t imagine what Alvin felt.
It was probably just another day in the wormhole for that poor soul.
Alvin didn’t make the team. I did. So began my eight year stint as a traveling baseball player. I don’t think it was an easy transition for Mom and Dad … we went from a happy weekend family to a bunch of traveling fools, spending our weekends and money watching me hit balls, miss balls, catch balls, and run ninety feet at a time. Thrilling stuff. Ava was miserable for these events, and found solace only in Harry Potter, giant Pixie sticks, and watching Dodgeball in the family min-van.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t love it. I did. Almost every inning – even in winter, when the bat swung like lead and your hands went numb in the wind … even in the rain, when delays could last two hours and you were assured athletes foot … even in the drama, when players quit mid-tournament because they were not getting playing time, or when coaches quit because it had been found out they had been sleeping with a player’s married Mom.
Coach Todd was never in the middle of the drama. He stayed out of the muck, only dirtying the water when he got ejected, which happened to be with fair frequency. Maybe once every six games. His favorite parting blow was telling the field umpire to “Take that uniform back to the Rent-A-Center!” And then he would grab his Gatorade and stomp off, leaving an Assistant Coach, maybe Coach Dave or Coach Grady – depending on the year, depending on who had been caught fooling around with a Mom – in charge of the show.
We were pretty good, won two straight state championships, came in second that third year. When I was eleven we came in second at the national tournament in Tennessee. Whenever the team blew up entirely, and it looked as if the Devils were done for, that there had been another scandal rocking the boat, that the treasurer had been stealing money from the bank account, that an Assistant Coach was sleeping with Mrs. O’Callaghan, that a parent had gotten drunk and called Coach Todd a “dirty rotten favorite playing cocksucker” in front of his kid and about five others at an Outback Steakhouse, that there had been a parking lot fistfight between a Devils parent and a Rangers parent and now both the parents and their kids had been banned from the baseball complex for the remainder of the season, that a player had gotten all C’s on his latest report card because he was spending half his week every week playing travel ball and thus was quitting so that he could pass the fourth grade my Dad would step in and assume the role as Hype Coach. Coach Todd and Dad were the emotional equivalents of rubber cement … they kept the Devils marching forward through the knee deep filth that only parents who have suffered through seasons of travel youth sports know. So no matter the season, no matter the new faces of players and parents alike, we excelled as a baseball team, if not at much else.
There were tough games. I hit many a dry-streak. I was a head case, a trait that has plagued me since the days I valued my prowess on the field. I would strike out four times in a row, would make four errors in a game, would walk four batters in a row on the mound. The ride home after these games would be tense … especially those first two seasons as Devil. Dad has since confessed that he was hard on me, that he viewed the way I played as a reflection of his character, and that it wasn’t until a Devil, Don, was hit in the head with a ball and suffered a seizure on the field that my father realized that I was just a kid playing a sport I had learned five years ago.
Don recovered from the injury, but he never hit the same again.
* * * * *
When Ava was old enough to begin weekend activities of her own I found the majority of my time spent with Dad. Mom and Ava would stay back in Winston-Salem to play field hockey, go to piano lessons, and attend playdates around town.
So Dad and I spent a lot of time together, the two of us, in the car. It’s only now looking back that I figure Dad enjoyed the Devils as much as I did. Granted, his view of the team is assuredly more complex than mine was at the time, that he weathered as much hardship as joy during those years, but I think my love for the sport gave him the strength to love it too. These long hours together I attribute to many life decisions made after my time with the Devils ended.
But regardless of the weekend, regardless if the Devils won or lost or got rained out, regardless our conversation, Dad and I were always glad to return home to Mom and Ava, always glad to see the familiar countryside again.
* * * * *
If I ever can collect the stories from Dad, Coach Todd, and others I will write a book about my time as a Carolina Devil. It will be titled Fondling the Buddha. You’ll just have to read it to find out why.
There are those defining days – those days when the universe is pristine, and a divine sense of being forms concrete as the world spins on its perfect little axis – that shape you.These are the days – these defining days – that you remember the finest detail, the splash of red against the swallow’s breast as she fled the woods where which you ran, burned into memory. Here are the days that you consider for a lifetime, a hundred years and more, this day of adventure. And this day – this unforgettable day – for your lonesome author and his Father? June 23rd, 2013 … our shot at the Maroon Bells Four Pass Run.
* * * * * * *
Now, let’s be honest here, one friend to another – I am in no shape for this particular 28 mile extravaganza, this dizzying affair that will slip Pops and I up and over four passes sitting right at 12,500 feet above sea level. I, mistakes learned, chose to drink my way through the senior semester of college. Miles logged at the bar instead of the trail.
And thus I arrive in the quiet city of Aspen with my family – Father, Mother, and Marie – with a good bit of hesitation, body unsure of the coming venture.
Pops, of course, is in killer shape – fifty and spry, thin as a bristle and ready to climb baby climb in preparation for the infamous Leadville Trail 100 Run. This is shaping into a tale of two experiences.
But I swallow the trepidation and suck in the belly roll and walk around the chill town with hands shoved into my pockets, pockets shoved into my pants. Aspen is cold! Where in the world are we, four southerners from the humble state of North Carolina, tiptoeing through this memorialized town? I keep replaying scenes from Dumb & Dumber in my head, of a bucktooth Lloyd telling straw-haired Harry about this magical mountain escape: ‘I’ll tell you where. Someplace warm. A place where the beer flows like wine. Where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called Aspen.’
Lloyd struck out, and I am shivering with no beer fountain and certainly without the harem of women jumping upstream to cling to my pants. And to top it off? We’ve just been told there was no way José the four passes are passable.
Pause for a moment.
What do you mean, it can’t be done?
We are buying energy gels at Ute Mountaineer, and the cashier looks at Pops and I as if we’ve been disemboweled by rabid hyenas after we’d struck up conversation about Maroon Bells. ‘It can’t be done. Chest high snow along the back three passes. We had a hiker up there last week that had to turn around at Buckskin Pass. I don’t want to even think about Trail Rider or Frigid Air.’
Oh snap. We’d just flown halfway across the nation to be told that, well, oopsie poopsie but there’s a shelf of snow keeping you from crossing over to Snowmass Lake? So sorry but check back in late July.
It seems that weather here plays by its own game.
But never fret! We’re hardy folk, us Carolinians … at least, my Father is and he happens to be the one calling the shots. It is decided over dinner to completely disregard the Ute employee and all of her professional expertise and attempt the passes come hell or high, impassible snow. I drink two thick Guinness and watch the cheese on my meaty macaroni bubble and burst atop hot noodles, contemplating the nature of thermodynamic heat transfer. Perhaps if I carried a cauldron of hot cheese to Buckskin and proceeded to pour the contents of this molten vat atop the snow – as one may do a plate of nachos – I would be at the very least afforded a look upon the famous Snowmass Lake?
Of course, the passes being blocked may prove better for one’s general health … there is far smaller chance of my broken body keeling over somewhere in the boonies between Frigid Air and West Maroon Pass, or of my slipping off the narrow pebbly trail along the backside of Trail Rider Pass to plummet down the steepened slope, coming to rest only when I’ve crunched up against a boulder way, way down. Ah, but such thoughts are no fun for consideration, and do little to ease the mind. Better instead to focus on the positive, to repeat a mantra, to grow a bit through the worries.
We’re here, dammit. We’re here and we’re going out there to at least venture the trail and despite my hesitation, despite all I’ve bemoaned, I want this run as bad as Pops – for him to guide me through as we lift each other up and over the snowy slopes. This will be our day, our mountains, and the Rockies shall shake at our ascent.
But maybe that’s just the beer talking.
Regardless, I’m emboldened heading back to the hotel, ready to check in and just as the night is taking hold over the town. Spirits within the ranks are high and I fall asleep early …
… And wake to Father rustling about the room, muttering to himself. A packet of GU slaps my face, thrown from across the room. ‘Get up!’ he said. ‘It’s almost dawn!’
Oh my. What a wakeup call. A quick dress, a bagel for breakfast, one last check of the equipment – three liters of water tucked into a small pack, four Honey Stingers, two sticks of elk jerky, two packets of Perpetuem, a water purifier, and a camera. Socks are up and shoes are on. Let’s boogie.
And so we go, the four of us, headed to the mystery. Who knows what the day will bring? Disappointment and defeat? Trial and retreat? Or perhaps – just maybe – the trail complete?
Us four roll to the park gates and into White River National Forest. I hear the bells toll. Our trial of trail has begun.
We pull up, park, and step out at Maroon Lake. I’m bowled by the beauty of the day. Gaw! Look at this! Mountains! Pines! Aspens up the hills, snow in the shade, and the steel blue waters sitting placid, watching our arrival. I squirm and shout, unable to contain the rustling that’d welled from chest to throat.
Marie and Mom (who are well prepared for their day with plans to hike to Buckskin and back … we hope to all be finishing around dusk) take pictures of us pre-run, a skinny short-haired Father and his skinnyish short-haired Son, and then we’re off, passing Maroon Lake, headed to Crater Lake and then Buckskin Pass, where we’ll find out the day’s fate.
We start slow, each considering the various complexities of the surrounding wilderness. I find thoughts venturing to my equipment, where I’m encumbered by my pack. Straps slap my chin as the bag bounces on my back and I wonder the consequences of shrugging off the bag and continuing upwards without.
Climbing steadily to Crater Lake breath grows heavy, bordering on ragged. We pass few, a couple here with their shaggy black Collie, a woman wearing all neon, all pink clicking along with her hiking poles against the rocky trail. They give us looks as we pass, a man and son hopping ponderously from stone to stone in the morning’s sun. The crisp air turns warm and I shed a layer. We continue up, not so much passing Crater Lake as skirting diagonally from it as we take to the switchbacks, stopping when afforded a view of the shrunken mass. From our height it looks more puddle than pond, more pond than lake. Yet names are names and Idon;t consider it further. There’s not enough oxygen in my brain for such thoughts.
We stop after an hour and eat a caramel waffle. Mmm. I catch my breath and chew, crumbs sticking to lips and mustache. Pops gives me a sidelong glance. ‘What do you think?’
I shake my head, unable to answer him. The words of this narrow-minded hillbilly bumpkin would only serve to sully the beauty laid before us.
Up we continue to Buckskin, drawing above the tree line and into marmot territory. Four of the eleven I spy today are on the ascent to Buckskin – which looms menacingly above, white and dense with snow. They’re furry little critters, not unlike the gopher from Caddyshack. I find myself humming Kenny Loggins in tune to my steps. Fuzzy eyes watch me from fuzzy bodies atop exposed boulders a hundred feet above. I attempt a picture but am rewarded just a blurry shot that could just as well portray yeti’s offspring as it could a bounding marmot.
Buckskin Pass is not chest high with snow. It is, in fact, devoid of snow. A hundred feet to the left, however, is an impressive icy shelf that’s poised to melt and fall as summer takes hold in the Rockies. I hold my arms to the whipping wind and holler, feeling alive. Pops smiles, catches his breath, and points my gaze further along the trail, to Snowmass Lake, sitting tucked between pine forest and mountain. ‘That’s where we’re going,’ he shouted over the wind. ‘About three miles!’ Bring it.
Down we go, giving up in two miles all that we’d worked to climb.
And thus is the theme for our day – climb and fall, sit and see, eat and think. We talk, my Father and I, about life and plans for the future. Ideas surface and sink, wants bursting over needs, dreams rising with altitude. If this is life then I want more of it. Adventure in the purest – uncut, unadulterated, a full blown adrenaline shot to the main vein – is adventure shared, and we continue along this trail from pass to pass, holding apprehension with each climb.
There are harrowing moments – a scramble over, aha, chest high snow atop Frigid Air, a slow trek on slick ice cutting across our trail on the front side of Trail Rider, and romp from drift to drift descending from West Maroon – but we win each pass.
I like to think that the marmots cheer us on, those cuddly creatures with their brown paws and fluffy faces. Our audience of rodents. I find them entertaining, reassuring. Where there are marmots there is hope – hope for this run and for my future, a future so unsure I know not where the next month lead.
And this day, this chill June day, I know where my steps lead. Down from West Maroon Pass to Crater Lake, Crater Lake to Maroon Lake, Maroon Lake to home. Home to the lives we’d left on the east coast – home to the fleas of Chapel Hill, the greens of summer in the Carolina hills, and the baggage of the tethered life.
Yet there is excitement, a sense gained at hour eleven, mile 27, as Pops and I pound the rocks down into Maroon Lake, back to Marie and Mother. A sense of knowledge, a gap filled with the experiences of the day – the simple knowing of the blues and greens and browns of this mountain trail, the realization that there is more to life than the walls of home, that somewhere there are dizzying heights hiding fields of yellow flowers where little marmot houses of rock and earth sit and stand in winter and spring.
There is more than work, more than the comforts of security, more than the norms of society. There are wonders yet to behold, feelings yet to rock the foundations as this day in Maroon Bells rocked me, snowy passes be damned. The marmots guided us through, our hairy friends. They kept the trail clean ahead and the cold far behind as Pops and I ran and considered the wonders about.
Of mountains and marmots, this is the story of Maroon Bells. Peaks and passes guarded by these lonesome critters, allowing passage for a Father taking his Son on a run in the bright light of a June day.
That's right, baby. Time for four months of consistent writing and creation - some good, some bad no doubt. And let the winter come. I have beer.
Hello, my fine friends ... what traction I gained this past week writing is about to go underground. I'm headed back out West, and I'll share with you the spoils of Montana come November. Here's wishing you all a great month.