A Unimog in Denali

Be forewarned!   If ever your travels should take you to the Talkeetna Roadhouse in Alaska, heed the call and only order a half-portion!   It’s just a cool place to stop off as you head up to Denali National Park; something out of the 1940s.   And as we pulled out of that little town, the Cessnas were buzzing all about and above us, ferrying a constant stream of eager mountaineers up to the Ruth Glacier to climb the famous peak; our bellies were full and our spirits soared in anticipation of what lay before us!

I swear, I could hear old Walt’s poem ringing in my ears…

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
The drive itself is an adventure, the little two lane road meandering around mountains and over the hills, disappearing then reappearing.   We knew that we could get lost and the massive breakfast would power us for two weeks more.
The high latitudes mean that the pines gets skinny and scragly.   Funny looking things and you know you ain’t in Kansas anymore.   Rushing past us, the tourist-laden train speeds on by as we all head north eventually.   Not like the old days, I’m sure.   This park is on every dreamer’s bucket list.  But no worries.   We’ve learned that even a hint of bad weather will likely keep ’em all inside and near the trailhead, leaving only us crazies to push out to get a real feel for the place.
What an amazing wilderness, indeed.   But don’t let the sunny pictures draw you in, the mountain’s shy and rarely shows herself (20%) so adjust your expectations and savor your good fortune to have made it this far.   A hike up and back along the Savage River is so well worth the drive up, but keep an eye out for Mr. Griz!
We’d had our day’s fix of the park, when I spied an adventure vehicle that simply put me in a trance.   If you are out there reading this, sorry for staring…   On the side was painted a crude outline of the world in black with a number of red lines indicating the paths taken thus far.   Oh now…  This is something new as I admired all of the places they’d gone; Along the northern coast of Africa, across Australia and up and down New Zealand, now completing a route up from the tip of South America to … Denali and up, likely, to Barrow; I wonder if there’s a road going that far north?   Now, this is the way to adventure.
Ten years ago, this couple looked to be in their mid-50s.   Tried to sneak a discrete peek.   Both were having a late lunch and hoping that the mountain would “come back out”, at least for a moment; their SLR was at the ready on their dash.   I would love to discover their website so that I may follow their grand adventure.  Perhaps, with a little luck, I’ll catch up to them in Eastern Siberia awaiting the ferry to Severo Kurilsk.   I don’t remember seeing a red line there.
Ah, well.   Another fresh experience to notch on the adventure belt.   Mental note:   Google Unimog when I get back into cell range and sow the seeds with la esposa.
“Cheers, mate.   This looks awfully like the ‘Mog’ that I had spied in Denali back in ’08.”
A grin comes over the elegant chap as he reaches in for a crystal snifter and asks, “Care for Cognac while we wait…?”
~~~
Illustration was a compilation of open source imagery, traced, colored, and filtered through FotoFlexer.

A Chance Encounter with my Younger Self

As an aspiring writer, I’ve come into some articles about writing prompts; one of which is to put yourself back in time and to have a conversation with your much younger self.   It had me thinking just how such a dialogue might go.

~~~

Wandering aimlessly through the Nevada desert, I came upon an abandoned mining structure in the foothills and decided to explore a little.   The forgotten town seemed to have had a robust population in its time, but now there was clearly no one left.   Tumbleweeds had collected on the downwind side of the old main street and a few, rusted cars and pickup trucks littered the back alleyways.

I was about to leave when something odd caught my attention on the outskirts, past the end of the last structure.   It was a rectangular opening to an old mine shaft, its rusty tracks and an old mining cart disappearing into the dry grasses.   The opening was dark and foreboding, but something drew me to it and as I neared its entry, I was suddenly pulled in…

When I came to, I found myself in a strangely familiar place.   Ten or so trailers lined up next to a tall, barbed wire fence.   In front of one was parked a large Cadillac sedan when a cold shiver suddenly came over me…   I was back in time 34 years ago to that dusty, west Texas town to the trailer park just outside of the main gate of Dyess Air Force Base!

Standing in the middle of the road, I looked around at the older cars and pickup trucks as the memories came flooding back and before I could regain my composure to make sense of this, I saw a young man exit the trailer walking to the fancy car.

Holy moly, that’s me 34 years ago as a young Airman in the Air Force!

The young man looked over, seemed deep in thought, and began to look for his keys when I approached.   I felt a sensation that I had never quite felt before.

[Older Me-OM]   “Hey there, do you have a minute?”

[Younger Me-YM]  “Uh…, sure.”  There was something oddly familiar about this guy.   Looks a little like his dad maybe.

[OM]  I just stared for a small eternity before I could put together something.   The young guy sure looked preoccupied and a little down.   “I’ve been looking for you for a while and I have something to say that’s going to sound just unbelievable.”

[YM]  “Sure.  What’s up?”

[OM]  “I’m a 34 year older version of you…”

[YM]  A smile broke out and then he began laughing uncontrollably.  Catching himself and  regaining his composure he says, “Sure you are.”

[OM]  Relieved that he still had the young man’s attention, he continues, “Look, as insane as this sounds, I’m going to go over life from when you, I mean we were born, ok?”

[YM]  Puzzled, his curiosity peaked.   The old boy didn’t feel like a threat and so he says, “Sounds interesting.  So what’s this really about?  Did my dad send you?”  Dad had some strange friends capable of a prank like this.

The old one motions for the two of them to walk down the dreary, dirt road.  The young one’s head begins swirling, feeling a bit disoriented but oddly finds himself trusting the older one.   Coming to the river, they find a large boulder on which to sit under the shade of an old willow tree and they continue to talk about the younger one’s entire life leading to this moment.

[OM]  Turning to the younger, smiling, he says “Strange, isn’t it?  Are you ok?”   The younger one, a little shocked to see how all of the effort put into staying fit will eventually be for not, smiles to himself relieved that he is still young.

[YM]  “Yeah, I guess.   So when do I lose all of my hair?”

And in the mysteries of life, the conversation flows, both laughing at their strange circumstance and the older one pulls out a piece of paper and writes out a list:

  1. Invest in two companies; one called Dell Computer, the other Microsoft.   When they go public.   Keep buying stock for five years.   Hold it for 25 years,
  2. Take care of your mother until her last day,
  3. Finish your education,
  4. Be your own best friend.  Try not to take things so seriously.  And, by far the most important point,
  5. On August 14, 1990, go to the Front Page restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C. and sit at one of the round tables outside, the one next to the main door.    Wait for a pretty young lady to come.   She has a certain look to her one quite different than the other young ladies in DC; something “old European” about her.   You’ll quickly see.   Figure out a way to make your introduction seem natural…   but whatever you do, don’t let Caroline slip through your fingers.   Ever.

The older one folded the note and placed in the younger’s shirt pocket and patted it and said…   “Please, never lose sight of that piece of paper and follow it’s instructions to the letter, especially #5.”

Walking back in silence, the two had had a unlikely and unexplainably strange encounter.   Turning to younger one once more, they simply shook hands and parted ways.   The older turned back to look one last time… but a force pulled him quickly back.

Coming out of the old mine, the old boy squinted as the bright sun bore down upon him.   Suddenly, his phone rang, looking down it read “Capri, Italy”; Caroline had pre-programmed her overseas number a couple of days back.

“Sweetheart, I found one overlooking the sea.   They’re only asking $3,5 million US”, she said excitedly.

“Well, if you like it, go ahead and make an offer.   I’ll call John and have him liquidate a few more shares of Dell.”

Reaching into his wallet, the old boy pulls out a piece of paper, now worn by 34 years, and smiles as he makes his way back to his dusty old pickup truck thinking… there’s still some gold left in that one.

Still My Favorite

Funny how an image can reach into one’s soul and stir up passions.   I can still feel the key in my hand and hear the throaty sound of the engine come alive as I start her up in my mind. It was a simple ride, the car almost an afterthought to the engine that powered it.   That I am alive to tell this tale is almost a miracle in itself.

The ’69 Firebird was a young 10 when I took delivery from a friend.   Poor guy needed the cash for the next semester and I could feel the weight on his shoulders as he handed me the keys.   He was a good sport and must’ve seemed ok with it, given my enthusiasm at the time.  I’d give him a ride to the racket ball courts every so often and he’d ask to drive back.

“Here, take the keys.   Let’s go.”

In an age seemingly hamstrung with caution, the free spirit of this car reminds me of a much simpler and innocent time; a time marked by fewer distractions and worries, but maybe I’m just fooling myself.

So many stories with this beast.   Running a 350HO with a 3-speed racing clutch, I could do 60mph in first gear…  not that I ever did (wink).   It was like riding on the back of a bull.   Left only the driver’s seat in when I ditched college for a high-paying union job in the spring of 1980.  I’d  throw my hard hat, pick and shovel for the two hour ride to the site in south Georgia.   $13/hour was serious cash back in the day.   Just sayin’.

So much caution these days.   Almost as though people are afraid to express themselves anymore.   No law against letting loose every so often.

Nothing since this sweet ride has ever come close.   I can still remember waiting for my mom at Dulles Airport that summer of 1981, having returned from Berlin.   Can still hear that deep, throaty engine coming up and around the final stretch with my elegant mom behind the wheel… a hilarious contrast.

A swore I saw my old friend the other day.   Happened so fast, I wonder if I’d seen a ghost.

High Alpine Lakes & Glorious Summits

Alas, the sand that has accumulated in the lower chamber now exceeds that of the upper, but that has only motivated me to squeeze the most of my remaining days.   And maybe, if we “adventure” more, we may in fact find ourselves scooping some of the sand back to the top!   It’s a nice thought, yes?

I returned to mountaineering ten years ago.   My mother had died recently and she reminded me of her technical climbing days in the Austrian Alps back in the late 40s and early 50s.   Carefully, we turned the pages of that treasured photo album of her youthful adventures.   I often think of her when I climb.

These day hikes to high peaks are a bit insane at this age, but so worth it in the end.   For something like this, I awake at four in the morning, grab my prepared gear, a cup of coffee, and go.   The billions of stars overhead, where I live at almost 8,000′ (2,438m) are so brilliant given the lack of light pollution, that I might almost drive without my lights.   Sometimes, I simply gaze at this in silence and wonder how gravity keeps me from drifting up into space.  Have you ever had this sensation?

Grand spaces make us feel small and temporary and restore a childlike awe and respect for our surroundings.  The big, light-filled cities have so many sensory distractions that we forget.

Here, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises about 6,000′ (1,828m) up from our valley floor to 14,000′ (4,267m), in a few areas.   Extreme forest roads allow us to gain access, but they require 4WD, high-clearance vehicles to properly navigate.  In some portions, the grade is 20° and driving up is assuredly not for the faint of heart.

And as the pirates exclaim… “Without fear there is no courage!”, of course, I’ve not quite learned where courage ends and stupidity begins.   Perhaps, the answer is found in the risk-reward formula?  I never pause long enough to think, because when we overthink we often don’t “do”.

So the first phase of this type of adventure is a drive up one of these roads in the dark.  Best to have a cover to the thermos.   And you turn off from the open valley and onto increasingly bumpy and rocky roads and the silhouette of the peaks is now barely visible with the early rays of the sun.  You finally meet the end and park, exit and now you are in the  thick forests and you begin to wonder who is watching your every move.  Mountain Lions are quite crafty.

Over the rushing creek, you are cold, a little tired, but you press on, knowing that soon the warm sun will light up a fabulous high alpine setting, one that will provide a surprising surge in your spirits and energy.   And you follow your headlamp faithfully until that happens.

Soon, you find ourselves above tree line, the glorious cirque (a circular formation of mountains) now suddenly alight with the early alpenglow and an unbelievable feeling washes over you, reminding you that this is all worth doing.

And up you go, now climbing the magnificent path before you and you look up and simply cannot believe your good fortune; to be alive, feeling alive, and no one else is here to disturb the moment.

humboldt3

Now the mountain lakes are to your left, their waters perfectly still in the early morning, and over there… is a lone sentry on a rock outcropping; a Bighorn sheep looking down at you.   Quietly and gently, you continue your journey upwards, periodically looking down to see that the peaks that had previously towered above you are now below.  This is incredible.  Where are you getting your will to continue?

The early breezes begin, rippling the waters at the lower lake as you approach the upper one, creating moving patterns.   A waterfall connects the two and you look at the snows still remaining from the winter before.   Suddenly, more of the magnificent creatures appear out of the willows and you look up to see eight of them, all stopping to gaze at the human in their alpine valley.

Not a sound to be heard… save for a gentle breeze.

Up higher now, as the sun begins to bring light to the entire cirque, now looking down on the upper lake as you find the trail to the ridge line and you see the final 45° segment to the summit.   Up high now, you have a view over to the valleys below;  the San Luis Valley to the west, the Wet Mountain Valley to the east.

Looking up, the final push to the top comes into view and the worn trail now disappears into the large, steep boulder field, marked occasionally by a rock cairn, but you continue.   Up a few hundred feet with the sheer, north facing slope dropping off thousands of feet to your left, you do not allow yourself bad thoughts.  You know what happens if you do.

sangres-lake

You look up to find an older climber heading down.   Incredibly, you find that he is in his mid-70s, yet seems quite natural in this setting.  You exchange brief comments, he turns to point out the way up and you pass wishing him well; he descending and you finding the last few hundred feet to the top.   Something in the old man reassures you that you have a few more years in the high mountains.

humboldt2

Finally, you find the upper rock-strewn plateau and you are so close.   There!   There it is; the high point.   Happy to drop your pack, you find a flat rock on which to sit and you take in the precious and hard-won view.   Now the upper alpine lakes are so far down below.   Not a cloud in the sky.

For a few minutes, you have this entire summit to yourself.  The two women who have tailed you up for the past three hours arrive and more pleasantries are exchanged, and you give each the quiet space; the code of the mountaineer.

The day has been a long one; 4,464′ feet of climbing (1,361m) to 14,070′ (4,289m) and 14 miles roundtrip (22.5km), but no gain without a little pain.

Way in the distance, I’m sure that I can see my wife sitting on our front porch, our old Newfies by her feet…