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Today's Story

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Offline okiehiker

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Today's Story
« on: September 27, 2006, 10:06:41 AM »
Here is a little story from summer of 1980 on a GUMO trip.

Nun of the Above
I had not spent much time contemplating the subject of angels prior to that trip.  And this seemed an odd place to learn about them, much less encounter one.  We were at the end of a fabulous backpacking trip.  There were just three of us here.  We had spent a week in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains, climbing the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the South Colony and Sand Creek Basins.  Four summits over 14,000 feet, rock faces on Pico Asilado, Broken Hand, Music Mountain and others.

We spent an additional week in the Guadalupes of southern New Mexico and western Texas.  Both ranges are grand in their respective ways.  The Guadalupes rise 6,000 feet above the sere plains of the Chihuahuan Desert.  The mountains are as rugged due to their plant-life as their rocky slopes.  From rain, sleet and hail in Colorado we moved to drought, desiccation, and heat...oppressive heat.  It was west-Texas in August...and it was hot.

It may not have seemed so to the natives of that area, but it did to us.  100 degrees the shade.  But not at our little oasis in the sky.  We were in the southern part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Our campsite lay near the summit of Bush Mountain, 8,000 feet above sea level.  It was the last morning of our two weeks together in the wilderness.  I had carried nine gallons of water up from South McKittrick Canyon five days earlier.  We cached a five gallon jug on top, and hiked down to Dog Canyon, at the northern end of the park.  We were able to refill canteens, and camp once more high in the mountains, with adequate water to get us from McKittrick Ridge to Pine Top, Bush Mountain and out at Pine Springs.

From the trailhead at Pine Springs I would hitchhike to the McKittrick Canyon visitor center, at which we had parked my little brown Chevy Citation a week earlier.

I packed my gear and departed Bush Mountain at a quarter 'til six that morning.  I wanted to get as much of the hike done in the cool of the day as possible.  I fairly flew down the trail to Pine Springs.  It was cool in those early morning hours.  To the right Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan loomed over the desert, a full mile below.  Rolling sand hills and barren salt flats brightened under the rising sun.

Despite the near absence of humidity, the mountainsides remained remarkably green.  The agave, juniper, madrone, ocotillo and other plants soften the visual impact of the terrain.  They do nothing to soften its physical coarseness.  But today I am on a trail, going downhill.  I covered the nine miles, pack and all, in an hour and forty-five minutes.  I could push hard on the run to the trailhead, because I now had only to hitchhike the twenty-three miles back to my car.  It was not yet 8:00 A.M. and there would be plenty of traffic on U.S. Highways 62 and 180.  This was the main route east out of El Paso.  It was the only road between two national parks, and it was still the vacation season.  

I took a short break in the parking lot at the Pine Springs Trailhead.  I sorted out the minimal gear I wanted to bring with me.  It was early.  I would not be out long.  I would be on the main road.  I didn't plan to bring much.

Once, while returning to the trailhead following a backpacking trip in the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, I had spent an eternity attempting to get a ride.  Finally, a truck driver stopped and picked me up.  

"My gosh," I said, "I didn't think anyone was ever going to pick me up."  

"Small wonder," the trucker replied, pointing out the window at a large sign on the side of the road.  "WARNING HITCH-HIKERS MAY BE ESCAPED CONVICTS."

Today would be different.  There were no convicts waiting to entrap unsuspecting motorists, just a few kids enjoying the end of their first summer out of college.

It was 9:00 A.M.  I was on the main road between two national parks.  It was late summer, and though the tourist rush was past, there still was significant traffic through the area.  But no one stopped.  

Perhaps it was an aversion to picking up someone who hasn't had a bath in a week.  Sometimes in trying to out-smart the motorists we out-smart ourselves.  I am never sure whether people are more likely to offer a ride to someone just sitting there, or obviously trying to get someplace.  I continued to run all the while.  When I heard a car approaching, I simply turned and jogged backwards for a moment, with my right thumb extended.  As it became obvious that each successive car or truck was not stopping, I turned and waved as they passed.  

Was there something I could do which would be more effective?  There certainly was nothing I could do to be less so.

And the hours dragged on.  I had not carried my pack, for an extra forty pounds would have transformed a four-hour run into a ten-hour hike.  But there were disadvantages.  Without a pack I could carry only minimal water.  As the sun rose higher in the sky, the air and the pavement warmed up rapidly.  

"Water does more good in your body than in your canteen!" was my standard camp lecture.  It sounded good to me.  I drank all of my water (only two quarts) in the first five miles.  It was about four miles more than I had anticipated covering in order to get a ride.  There was after all that August morning less traffic than I had anticipated, all of which seemed hell-bent on getting somewhere.

But they were no more hell-bent than I.

I moderated my pace a bit.  I now had covered a good fifteen miles since sunrise.  I was out of water.  The prospect of getting a ride was seeming ever more remote.  I could shorten the trek to McKittrick Canyon by running straight across the desert.  But that involved giving up hope...hope which sprang eternal with every approaching vehicle, never quite crushed by the tires as they spun by, fast as ever, ten feet to my left.

It also represented taking a chance.  Suppose it was too far for me to make, without any water.  I would find neither water nor human assistance out in that flat of desert scrub separating me from McKittrick Canyon.  I continued down the road, drawing no closer to my car, but approaching the turn-off into the park.

10:00 A.M., twenty miles, thirty degrees (centigrade) and climbing.  The time, the distance, the temperature, the disillusionment grew in direct proportion with each step.  At times I felt invigorated.  The distance and terrain posed no great difficulty, but the lack of water was the unknown.  Sitting in the shade I might get by with a gallon a day.  With moderate activity, two gallons.  Doing what I was doing in that time and place, five was a more reasonable estimate, and I was out of water, out of time, out of temper.

Mary and Lisa probably were at the trailhead by now.  I had assured them that it would only take a couple of hours for me to get to the car.  It was, after all, the major highway between national parks.  Backpackers, and other wilderness purists, are venerated in such places, are they not?

What was wrong with this picture?

11:00 A.M., twenty-five miles, thirty-five degrees.

What was wrong with the picture was me.  I now had turned off the main highway.  I was seven miles from my car.  It soon would be over 100; and I was not going to make it.  

My chances of catching a ride disappeared once I turned off the highway.  Perhaps a passing car, or dumb-founded ranger would be kind enough to pick my prostrate, over-heated body up from the edge of the pavement, and give my head the soaking it deserved in the spigot at the McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center.

There are, even in the worst of circumstances, some cars you would just rather not ride in.  There are some you'd rather not even approach, because you know just what sort of person is driving.  This was one of those cars.  They all look the same, somehow.  They've got just enough under the hood to outrun the tow-truck to the salvage yard.  They cost $150 and you'd never catch yourself dead driving more than three blocks from home, because you know you would end up walking.

The driver probably meant it when he put the "Ass, gas, or grass, nobody rides for free" bumper sticker on.  And you hope he'll accept the gas.  It was about a 1968 Galaxy.  It had more metal in its construction than some of the tanks in the Battle of the Bulge.  It was that green color which must have been popular once, but you don't know anybody who actually bought anything that hideous new.

And it pulled over to the side of the road.

What was the worst that could happen?  He could kill me.  That didn't seem so bad at that point.  On the other hand, he might not be high.  I might make it to my car alive.  Mary and Lisa might not be too put out with me.

I lumbered up to the passenger door as gracefully as I could stumble.  My thumb pressed in the protruding chrome button as I pulled back the mammoth steel door.  It took me a moment to recover my composure.  He was rather petite, and somewhat strangely dressed to be driving this junk-heap across the desert.  He was a she...and she was a nun.

My own condition suddenly seemed unimportant.  I was no longer hot, and did not seem particularly tired.  I was awestruck and grateful.

Are nuns born in their fifties; never to age or die, just to disappear in a veil of grace?  I have no recollection of our conversation, or even her name.  I know I explained my situation and thanked her profusely.  

What was that solitary sister doing, on my path between Pine Springs and McKittrick Canyon that day?

I refilled my canteen and had a long drink at the faucet on the side of the visitor center.  I got back in my car and drove somewhat less hurriedly than I ordinarily might.  I did not immediately see Lisa and Mary.  As I loaded my pack into the back of my car, the two girls came ambling down the trail.  Our timing was perfect, as was the timing of that entire day.
Funny... I have a story about that...


Offline Picacho

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Today's Story
« Reply #1 on: October 01, 2006, 02:22:58 PM »
Nice story.  9 miles in 1 hour and 45 minutes with a 40 lb pack on, wow.



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