Please Don’t Tell the Ranger

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Dear Will:

“WARNING!,” the notice read. “EXTREME ALPINE CONDITIONS. The following MINIMUM equipment, experience, procedures and skills strongly recommended by the US Forest Service and County Sheriff’s Department Search & Rescue Teams.” The list included winter mountaineering training, map, ice axes, helmets, alpine boots, and crampons.

We had none of that. But when you agree to go hiking with Bryn, that sort of lack of preparation does not register even as a minor annoyance. “It’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Let’s do it.”

I suppose this is what I unwittingly signed up for 21 years ago when she was born, but it would have been nice in that moment to have come prepared with a suitably exotic Plan B that might have dissuaded her from her purpose. But here’s the thing: Her original intention was to climb Mt. San Gorgonio—alone—at night—so that she could be on the summit at sunrise. That we were intending to climb Mt. San Bernardino in the daytime was Plan B.

How often have we read about people who disregard expert advice and common sense and venture off where they do not belong, only to be airlifted to the hospital to have their frostbitten toes surgically removed? That was about to be us. Or to be more specific: me. Bryn is a fit and fearless dancer and world traveler. I spend my days building PowerPoint decks and hiking to the Men’s Room.

We weren’t even a third of the way to the 10,700-foot summit when the trail became mostly covered in icy snow. We had to rely on the footsteps of previous hikers to mark the way—footsteps gouged with the unmistakable stab-marks of crampons, I might add. It was about that time that we came upon another hiker—decked out in the sort of regalia that would have filled the Ranger with a frisson of joy—who had turned back, she said, because of faulty footwear. It was like one of those allegories you hear in Sunday School about the angel who comes along to warn the unsuspecting of imminent disaster.

(You saw this coming): Nevertheless, we hiked on. On one particularly treacherous side-slope I remember thinking that if I slipped I could very well end up luging all the way to Yucaipa—unless, that is,  I could MacGyver a handbrake out of my ChapStick and a protein bar. Fortunately for me (and my ChapStick) it never came to that. The first time I took a spill was while trying to cross a bunch of manzanita, so rather than becoming a human toboggan I merely sustained a puncture wound to the shoulder and several other bloody scrapes along my left side. That I could handle.

Eventually we lost the trail altogether. We made an earnest attempt to connect up with a different set of footprints in an adjacent gully, but the hiking there proved to be the most taxing of the entire adventure. When we could no longer confidently identify the peak we were supposedly climbing, the following words of Robert Frost passed through my mind:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And they never found my body.

Actually, I’m not sure about that closing line, but I guarantee you my friends would have paid a lot more attention in English class if Frost had written it that way. As it was, I knew that, although I had not reached the summit, I had reached my limit. I begged Bryn for mercy.

Reluctantly, she relented. We had fallen 1000 feet short of our goal, just as (apparently) others had before us. Now the only trick was to retrace our steps. I will skip the humiliating story of the spill I took on the way down that turned my sunglasses into safety goggles and my nose and forehead into hamburger. And on one other detail I will be appropriately brief: We spent most of the day hiking in sunshine across bright, white snow. We carried sunscreen every step of the way. We forgot to use it.

In all we covered over 16 miles of mountain on a difficult yet glorious day. And while my sunburned face seems to be decomposing like something out of that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I have it on good authority that the damage is not likely to be permanent. Except maybe for that gash on the bridge of my nose.

So what’s my point? I suppose that, in the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, you might select from any of these familiar aphorisms:

  1. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the near-death experiences along the journey.
  2. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—unless you forget the sunscreen.
  3. A journey of 1000 miles begins with the proper equipment.
  4. Nothing ventured, nothing broken.
  5. Just because you got away with it, doesn’t mean you’re not stupid.

To which I would add one other: It’s pretty great to be a dad.

PW

Must. Find. Water.

Dear Will:

When time and circumstance allow, I like to hike up, over, and around the hills in the area as a way to be alone with my thoughts. I keep a small daypack at the ready so that I can pretty much just grab it and go. I leave the pack stocked with a small variety of just-in-case essentials, including a small first aid kit, a tiny flashlight, a compact windbreaker, and a few fistfuls of trail food—most of which I never use and should not need while traversing familiar, local trails so close to home. The real purpose for the daypack is to carry my Camelbak hydration unit, which is a fancy way to say a 2-liter, over-the-shoulder canteen. That item I use every time.

If I were to hike in actual wilderness, I would surely pack more thoughtfully and carry a bigger pack, but even then the most critical item would be the water. Even if I found myself hopelessly lost, miles from the trailhead, I could blister up, break a bone, run out of food, and bivouac under a saguaro for weeks if I had to; but if I ran out of water I’d be in major trouble within hours regardless of how much moleskin and trail mix I had on hand.

Although I’m not exactly what anyone would consider a rugged outdoorsman, I am smart enough to know that if I were to head out on a distant trek I should carry plenty of water with me and ensure that I have a clear idea of where I can obtain more along the way—especially if I know I will be wandering into unfamiliar lands without clearly marked trails. And I would not, under any circum­stances, forgo water unless compelled to do so. Water is perhaps the only essential. Water is life.

Now hold that thought as you consider the following: It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see mortality as the ultimate through-hike—a long-distance slog up, over, and around all kinds of hills and other obstacles. In that sense, Alma probably had it right when he called us “wanderers in a strange land” (Alma 13:23). Usually the trail is clearly marked, but certainly there are times when we amble off and suddenly find ourselves bushwhacking, unsure of where we’re headed. No matter how well-equipped we may think we are, eventually we may find ourselves tired, discouraged, and increasingly thirsty, muttering to ourselves through cracked and bleeding lips: Must. Find. Water.

And well we might ask: As we go along through the various peaks and valleys of life, when we wander off-trail, or when we stumble and find ourselves disoriented and unable to find our bearings, how long will our reserves hold out? What should we do if our canteens run dry? Where, in this journey from birth to death, do we find water along the way?

The scriptures have the answer. In Jeremiah, Jehovah declares himself to be “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13)—a lesson reiterated and magnified by Jesus when He taught: “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). He is saying, in essence, that we cannot live without Him. Literally. When Jesus taught that He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), He further emphasized that point. Jesus = Water. Water = Life. Jesus = Life.

With Him, you will not thirst, you cannot run dry. So take it from one who knows: Should you feel inclined, now or at any time, to wander off the trail, please make sure you take Water along for the journey. You will surely need it.

PW

No Question

Dear Will:

A couple or three years ago a friend of mine sent me the following note:

When you are feeling up to the challenge, there is a place, not far from where you live, that feels like a million miles away, that you must experience if you haven’t already.  Yesterday . . . I hiked up to Black Star Falls with some neighbors. It was a very rigorous climb following the stream bed, but once we hit that 40-foot falls, I couldn’t believe I was still in Orange County and only a few miles from home.  A definite must-see.

Black Star Falls

No question.

When I finally decided to go in search of Black Star Falls, I headed off on a whim, with not much more information than the memory of her email. But the road and trailhead were clearly marked, so I assumed it would be easy enough for me to figure it out along the way. Black Star Falls, 4.1 miles, the sign read. How hard could it be?

The beginning of the hike was simple enough as I meandered along the partly shaded dirt road I shared with various other adventurers. And it was lovely. I like this hike already, I thought to myself. Eventually the shade disappeared and the road began to climb. And climb. As it got harder and harder, I found myself alone but for the occasional mountain biker. When I huffed and puffed to the top of one particularly steep hill and saw that the road continued onto another, steeper one, I discovered a sign marking the entrance to the Mariposa Reserve—about five miles from my car. A passing biker paused to comment: “Wow. Did you hike all the way up here?”

Clearly, I had lost my way. Somewhere “back there” I had turned left when I should have gone straight—or something like that. In any case I had expended a whole lot of time and effort getting farther and farther from my desired destination.

As I retraced my steps, down and down the winding dirt trail, I eventually came to a bend in the road where another man stood. He confirmed that I had (at last) arrived at the turn-off I had overlooked several miles of needless detour ago. Worn out but determined, I trudged off along a new sort of trail: A mile-and-a-half up and over boulders taller than I am. A mile-and-a-half of old-man punishment and light-headed humiliation. “Rigorous” does not begin to describe it. But I persevered, knowing that a pair of beautiful waterfalls awaited. Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Yes. Did I make it harder than it needed to be? Absolutely.

As I think back on that exhausting Saturday morning, I can’t help but ask questions that you have likely asked yourself: Where do I really want to go? What path am I on now, and where is it taking me? Am I making the journey more difficult than it needs to be? Who do I know who might be able to point out a better way? In the end, will it all be worth the effort?

No question.

PW