Saturday, January 29, 2011

Makes you think

   I just saw “127 Hours” and am sitting at In•gre•di•ent eating my piping-hot smoked jalapeno bbq chicken pizza and ginormous greek salad (half off, because, after all: I’m the Mayor!) and I’m thinking about the movie. First off, my friends are all at home watching the KU game, and I elected to see the movie… proving that I’d rather see a guy saw his arm off than watch basketball. Right on.
   My one-sentence summary is that the movie is hard to watch; not because it’s so gruesome, but because James Franco is a huge tool. I decided that ten minutes in, watching his cocky a** jumping around on that bike. I can’t imagine this was an accurate portrayal of Aron Ralston, The Guy Who Sawed Off His Own Arm. However, I am definitely a Danny Boyle fan, and I thought the directing was captivating, especially the opening credits.  Bravo!
Look at me, I'm a DB!
   The middle of the movie felt fairly tedious considering the whole thing was just over 90 minutes long. I expected to feel flat about the whole thing by the end. But I had this indescribable feeling when Aron spotted the hikers and suddenly knew he was going to be okay. Franco pulled off a wrenchingly accurate portrayal of that mix of elation and absolute, head-spinning exhaustion.
   Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve never sawed off my own arm, or even been forced to spend a night in the wilderness due to unforeseen circumstances. But I’ve had the elation/exhaustion 1-2 punch.
   I still haven’t got my photos online, but back in July I went to visit Kristin, who was interning for the university hospital in Albuquerque. I drove down with the dogs specifically so that the four of us could hike the La Luz trail. Kristin and I are both experienced (though untrained) hikers, and we’re in great condition—and for that matter, so are the dogs—so we were excited about it. We’d hike all day and drive up to Santa Fe the next morning, to spend a much-needed day at the spa.  We packed our backpacks the night before and checked everything in the morning, being careful not to forget anything. We brought lots of water for all of us. We had a nice, big breakfast at Flying Star, which allows pups on the patio, and the dogs were treated to great-dane-sized biscuits. All fueled up on good food and adrenaline, we drove up the mountain to the trailhead.
   We hiked for hours. (The total was over eight hours roundtrip.) Kristin had hiked a different trail solo, but had been on the opposite side of the mountain. Her trail was heavily treed: cool and shady. Ours had cacti and short, scrubby plants but little relief from the 100-plus-degree sun. Not expecting such harsh conditions, we needed a LOT of water.
   By the 5-mile mark at a spectacular overlook, it was apparent that we were going to run out of water. For safety, we started back down. The further we got we realized that dusk was closing in, and if we didn’t hurry we’d be stuck navigating the trail in the dark with no flashlights. The dogs, who were troopers but not fans of the heat due to their double coats, were tiring fast. They were panting heavily, their noses were hot and dry, and they stopped to lie under bushes constantly... sure signs of heat exhaustion. My mind turned to thoughts of, “If this kills my dogs, I will never forgive myself. And if this kills Kristin, Mom is going to kill me!”
   We debated about having one of us stay on the mountain with the dogs, while the other raced down, got in the car, and drove to the nearest gas station (15 minutes away) to get help. Ultimately we elected to stay together. With three miles to go (which I know thanks to the Garmin GPS unit that Olivia & David loaned to me) we ran out of water, and the dogs were too exhausted to continue. So we carried them. We carried their hot, furry bodies for three miles downhill, which can be harder than uphill when you’re tired and navigating loose rocks on the trail carrying 25 pounds of canine. The second I picked up Aki and hoisted her up to my shoulder she began licking my cheek exuberantly.
   We’d carry them as far as we could, as fast as we could, then put them down until we regained enough strength to do it again… like a slow relay down the mountain. I have never been so glad to see my car. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the foresight to leave a cooler of water in it, and had to endure the tortuous 15-minute drive.
   At the first gas station, I led the dogs to a patio in the shade while Kristin ran in to get cups of ice water.  Water never tasted so good. We all drank the cups dry in seconds and I went in to get more water. First the dog relay, now the water relay. We didn’t have any money and hoped the clerk wouldn’t cut us off. Taylor was so sick from the heat that the water made him vomit. We gave him small amounts, but he threw up everything... and still was vomiting a couple hours later. Back at Kristin’s apartment, we tended to the dogs, showered, and crashed. Being alive felt good. And the massages the next day felt even better than we ever imagined.
   Similarly, I ran into a snag hiking the Haleakala crater in Maui over Thanksgiving. The 11.5-mile hike was incredible, with soaring views of several peaks and craters, and more color than I would have imagined. I talked with a ranger at the station on the summit at dawn and she told me about the route I ended up taking. You hike down from the summit at over 10,000 feet, pass between the arid peaks, through a barren, moon-like valley, over a crest, and into a lush, green valley around 5,000 feet. Then you hike back up to 8,000 feet and wait in a designated areas for hitchhikers to be picked up, ride to the top and collect your car. Knowing that it was a designated lane with a sign I never imagined it would be a big deal.
   When the eighth car drove by, driver smiling but not slowing down, I began to worry.
My cell had no reception. There was no way I had the energy to hike another 2,000 feet up, especially because it was up a very long and winding road with hairpin switchbacks, dramatically increasing the total distance. There wasn’t a lane for hikers either, so you’d have to share a lane with cars—and they barely had room to avoid careening over the edge into the clouds as it was. Seeing no other options, I was getting ready to start upward. I knew I couldn’t make it before dark, and I wasn’t sure if my tired legs would get me there.
   Enter Pete and Kathy, my heroes! They pulled their little Honda over and asked if I needed help, then enthusiastically said, “Sure, we’ll take you to the top—just jump in the back next to Charlie!” Charlie was their adorable 4-year-old son. We chatted the whole way up the volcano, and they told me about many of their favorite spots to eat, snorkel and Scuba on Maui. So not only did they save me, they helped make the rest of my trip even better!
   Given the amazing (though sometimes daunting) experiences I gained on these hikes, I know I will take every chance I get to see the world, and the more close-up and in-person the better. But for my own safety, I just signed up for a two-session backpacking class taught by an experienced member of the Sierra Club. After the sessions the group will go on a 2-day, 2-night excursion somewhere to test out our skills. The sessions will complement the hard-won lessons I’ve had so far and make me a much better, safer hiker. And probably lead me into even wilder situations, if I have any luck at all.
   Every experience changes you and shapes your life in ways you cannot begin to imagine or predict. And that’s the fun of it. (Assuming you don’t have to cut your arm off.)