As I type these words, I’m looking at an internet browser page with nearly a dozen tabs open: Hayduke Handbook, Hayduke Trail Alternates–Caltopo, The Hayduke Trail Reference, Hayduke Water Report, personal blog pages. Next to me, on a low wooden table, the official Hayduke Trail guidebook sits half opened, and 100 pages of maps–USGS quads printed in full color on sturdy stock paper–maps full of dots and lines and contour ridges and place names and cities in the desert. Of course, the canyons are represented on these pages as well, their number stretching to infinity.
(Read more about the Hayduke Trail or watch some neat videos)
And then there is the matter of my mind, which is similarly is full of Hayduke. Mental images of places unseen, schemas of how best to arrange data and interpret numbers, mileage charts between rivers and springs, distances between outposts and towns, challenges unnamed and unmet, but waiting nonetheless. A whole landscape, complete with physical and logistical trials–to say nothing of the mental or emotional variety–laid out in my head as if the place exists there as well. The Hayduke Trail, in my mind. For months, this is how it has been.
The place itself–this Hayduke Trail–is a westerly, watery, dusty mix of desert and canyon: a warm breeze pushing past a towering wall. Part whimsy and part two-thousand ton stone. It’s a trail that stretches somewhere between 800 to 1,000 miles from Arches National Park (NP) in eastern Utah to Zion NP in southwest Utah, and makes the not-so-subtle detours through Canyonlands NP, Capital Reef NP, Grand Staircase–Escalante, Glen Canyon, Bryce Canyon NP, and finally to (and then through) the Grand Canyon. The barriers between these locations are real and made of rock, but the route between them is free and open and subject to whatever direction the wind, and one’s spirit, happens to be blowing. A traveler on the Hayduke has no path to follow, and must keep their eyes to the horizon and their ear to the ground. If the landscape says, “Here, this way,” he must follow until the mood of the earth changes and shifts and it says, “No, not this way at all, but that way,” and then the traveler, likewise, must adjust the sails and follow the tailwind.
At least this is how I believe it will be. I’ve not done the thing yet–but as I’ve said, my mind has been there for quite some time now.
“Let me be always who I am, and then some.”
Those are words written by the late poet Mary Oliver, who died in January of this year. In the months leading up to this thru hike I’ve built up something of my own personal essential reading list: online trail journals (Katherine Rose Cook’s is the best and is a standalone piece of nature literature–it deserves publication), the official Hayduke guidebook, The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, and finally, Upstream by Mary Oliver. Each brings something different to the Hayduke conversation: wisdom, beauty, philosophy, ideology, conservation, survival, story-telling, poetry. Of these, only Oliver’s collection has nothing at all to do with Utah’s backcountry, but it certainly has everything to do with the wilderness of the mind and soul.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve only recently become acquainted with Oliver’s work. A friend gave me Upstream the day before the author died, and during a moment in my life which I would describe as a crux. In the world of climbing and backpacking, the crux of a route is the journey’s most essential part. The Hayduke Trail is full of many such cruxes–places where a route becomes nearly impassable, where further progress requires care and devotion and one’s cup fills to the brim with focus and energy. Put simply, it is the most difficult part, the part where an adventurer must summon all their strength and push up against that most imposing obstacle. Overcome it, and the route is unlocked and laid bare. At times, if the way proves too treacherous or the effort too daunting, one must stop, step back, and pause. Then find another way.
The crux I found myself on was of the familiar variety, and while pushing up against it, struggling to find a way, the world itself seemed to push back with some heavy weighty significance. Perhaps you’ve felt moments like this as well and if we’re being dramatic, we might refer to them as periods of life which come to define us, as a crux defines a route.
The details of each crux are irrelevant, for I believe they are universal and each of us can fill in those necessary personal shades to make them self-evident. Sometimes they are bright and made of the afternoon like a broad ditch in the middle of a field, easily spied. Other times its an old dusty sofa in a quiet room with the blinds drawn. Or maybe its hidden away in a wooden shed at the edge of a yard, with rusting tools and old boxes of sticks and glass and broken plates. Perhaps it can even reside in the body’s intercellular space, both of a person and separate at the same time. But maybe this is all wrong, and it’s none of these thing at all. Maybe it’s just deception.
We are lucky then that we have tools, for cruxes can be bendy things and even a million nails can be hammered. Sturdy shoes and tightly woven rope can lift a person up and leave them with wise, calloused hands. And in moments of twilight we even have partners that can spot the way and shout out when the hazy outline of the crux grows clear, after the canyon walls have lifted up around us and the world is completely exposed and bare and dark. We can form cadences and say aloud, “Hold on, hold on, now push. Hold on, hold on, now push!” in an effort to drag our bodies up and over. Or, if we become silent and listen to our climbing partners we can hear their mantras as well. I was lucky just then, during this personal life-crux, to have Mary Oliver beside me urging herself on and urging me on as well. She said:
When the chesty, fierce-furred bear becomes sick he travels the mountainsides and the fields, searching for certain grasses, flowers, leaves and herbs, that hold within themselves the power of healing. He eats, he grows stronger. Could you, oh clever one, do this? Do you know anything about where you live, what it offers? Have you ever said, “Sir bear, teach me. I am a customer of death coming, and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the western hills to know what you know.”
Rather than say, “Hold on, hold on, now push!” I started saying, “Sir Bear…Sir Bear…Sir Bear…” and changed my course, ever so slightly. Soon we climbed up onto the ledge and looked at each other, triumphant. “Sir bear!” I thought. “I know him!” But it wasn’t until Oliver told me who he was, and where to find him, and what he offered, that I realized what he meant to me. Better yet, she told me how to talk to him. I’d been travelling along a path with an impassable crux–the route did not go–but here was this wilderness explorer who knew a different way, and in exchange for a sweet meal and a room with a sunset view he’d shown us a way out.
Which is to say, the story of Sir Bear had actually come full circle. In the final days of September 2018 I went on a completely different sort of adventure. I walked a 90 mile path known as The Wonderland Trail, which circumnavigates Mt. Rainier in central Washington. The world was alive with blue skies and the burnt oranges and yellows of early autumn, even while the Pacific Northwest was firmly in the grip of an Indian Summer. The trail was mostly abandoned–it was late in the backpacking season–so I had plenty of time for uninterrupted thought. I was, at the moment, also taking an evening class in fiction writing and my first workshop was due the week I returned from the trail, so I set about composing a story. I wrote entirely in my head, working out the details as I crossed handsome meadows and gazed upon the giant glaciers covering the mountainside. The eventual story is titled “The Patrolman,” and it tells the tale of a solitary backcountry ranger (known only has Ranger 252) tasked with maintaining a trail system in the most remote corner of the country. Nobody ever goes to this particular wilderness, but it doesn’t seem to matter to the man as he devotes his entire working career to caring for a forgotten landscape. Slowly, a great darkness encompasses the ranger and he realizes, too late, that he’s in the grip of a great depression and he is powerless. The trails become meaningless and his work loses all value. Desperate and alone, the ranger decides to take action (note: pictures are from the 2018 Wonderland Trail hike):
The summer season was quickly coming to an end and Ranger 252 found there was no reason to stay any longer and set about tidying up the small cabin. The chores didn’t take even half the morning, so as he walked over to the small shelf and pulled off a pen and notebook the sunlight was still pouring through the low windows. In their place he slid four paperback books, the two handed down to him and two of his own contribution. This was the building’s modest library. For the next hour he sat at the table, writing and looking up through the window and into the meadow beyond. After the letter was finished he walked over to the cast iron tea kettle, half full of cold water, and slid the note between it and the gas burner below. Next, he reached under his small cot and pulled out a ladder. Setting it against the loft, he slowly made his way up to the landing, where he kept a few personal items, including all his extra clothes, food, and a tidy little handgun, already loaded. He spent a few moments picking through his supplies, loading certain items into his backpack and placing others in a small suitcase until everything was put away. The cabin was neat and in order. Firewood was stacked in the clearing outside and covered with a tarp. Ranger 252 finally picked up his pack and walked off into the wilderness, tucking the gun into his belt behind him.
He took his favorite route, one that required a good deal of climbing but led a hiker to high country with a good view of the tallest mountain in the park. The blueberry bushes were full of fruit and he stopped often to eat, so the way was slow. One final big effort and he’d send himself off into whatever came next, he told himself. Carry your load to the very end and finish the job. Take pride in that.
After a few hours of hiking the trail finally leveled off and curved around a ridge. Ranger 252 picked up his pace. A meadow was just ahead, and the stream that runs through it would be low and flowing evenly with cold water. He’d stop and take a drink. Over his left shoulder the low light was resting on the mountain tops and he looked upon them for a long while as he walked, only occasionally checking the trail and his footing. So it was a surprise when he glanced over, near where he planned to stop, and saw the bear cub.
It was young. Probably only born this spring, and after a moment he saw the mother a few paces away, camouflaged next to a spray of grass that was throwing off a glare in the late afternoon light.
“Bear.” He said softly to himself. For a moment he admired them. The animals hadn’t noticed him, or if they did, they didn’t care. “Hey bear!” He shouted loudly this time to finally get their attention.
No one moved, neither human nor animal, until he shouted again and banged his trekking poles together.
“Go on, bear!” He yelled, “Get out!” The cub moved first, but it wasn’t the agile movements he would have expected. As the animal ran, it held up its right hind leg and hobbled along next to its mother. It was hurt.
“Oh bear,” he said, knowing winter was nearly here and wondering what chances a maimed cub had against this rough country. The cub was slowly limping toward the cover of trees, with its mother behind and nudging it along. As he watched the scene, something stirred in him. When the animals reached the treeline after a minute of agony, Ranger 252 set his pack down.
He pulled out his two way radio and adjusted the knob.
“Ranger 252 to control, over.” He said. The world was quiet and he worried the two animals would disappear from view entirely.
“This is control. What’s on your mind? Over.”
“I’m up in the meadow along the Windy Gap Ridge Trail, about ten miles north of the Wenahatchee patrol cabin and I’ve come on a wounded cub. I’m going to attempt to take it, but you’ll need to get a crew up here to get the little guy out. Looks like a broken leg or something. Over.”
“You’re going to attempt to what? Over.”
“Take it. Take the cub. Over.”
“Just keep a look out, ranger. Don’t do anything to get yourself killed. Hold tight and I’ll see about getting a crew up there. We’ll track it using the mother’s collar. Windy Gap Trail? Meadow at, lets see here, 5000 feet? I’ve got the location. No promises though, and it’s getting late in the day so if you have other business I’d advise you to take care of it and mind the animals. Over.”
“I’m taking that cub. I advise you to get people up here as soon as you can, because there’s going to be one hell of a pissed off mother here in a second. Over.”
For a moment the communication was silent until the radio cracked.
“Hell.” The dispatcher said. “Alright then, I’ll contact management but you know…” Ranger 252 clicked off the radio device and pulled out his gun, and the bear spray along with it.
He walked slowly along the trail, among the blueberry bushes with bright red leaves in the autumn light until he saw the bears tucked away in the trees. He stepped off trail, and began walking cross country through the meadow. “Alright then,” he said to himself and took a deep breath. The animals began moving. He pulled the gun over his head and fired a shot.
At once, the bears were up and running. The mother bolted away, ran out of the copse and into the open space beyond the trees. The cub struggled to keep up, using its three legs to move away from the ranger as quickly as it could. The mother paused and waited for her cub, but the ranger was closing the gap between them. He’d reached the trees by the time the cub caught up to its mother and was picking his way between the rocks and fallen branches as the two animals continued to move away from him, side by side now.
“Alright then,” he said again and he moved into the meadow beyond and trotted into a jog. He held the gun up a second time and pulled the trigger.
Again, the larger bear bolted and left her cub to limp along after her, but the ranger was too close and too quick now and in a few brief moments he was on top of the cub and had thrown his body over its back. The cub screamed out and moved frantically back and forth in his arms. Ranger 252 used his forearm to pin the bear’s head back as he lay across its body. He had to move quickly now, and knew there was only one chance to pull off what needed to happen next. The mother had taken notice of the attack on her child and reared up on the opposite end of the meadow. The ranger pushed the cub down, and then released it altogether so he could reach for the pepper spray, holstering his gun in the process. He began walking directly toward the mother bear, who was now charging at both him and her limping cub. He let the cub run on ahead and waited until the older bear was only thirty feet away and still at a full gallop.
The ranger aimed low, held the can firmly, and pulled the trigger as he slowly swept the spray up and into the face of the charging bear. A heavy mist lingered around the animal. She hollered out and turned to run. Blinded, she cared neither where she was, nor where she was going but simply tore off into the forest. He could hear her lumbering body crashing distantly through the brush. The cub tried to follow, but wasn’t fast enough. The ranger was upon it in no time and quickly pinned it to the ground again. He tossed the aerosol can aside and reached for his gun, still tucked safely in his belt.
“Four shots left.” He said aloud as the young bear moved frantically in his arms. “Mother, I don’t want to do it, but I will put a bullet into your leg to keep you away from us.”
The North Cascades get cold at night, but his heart was beating fast. His body pulsed with life. He wasn’t sure how long the cub would keep fighting him, but the struggle would keep him warm while it lasted, and the thought of a distressed mother bear somewhere in the woods was more than enough to assure he remained alert.
The sun was low, just over the shoulder of the mountain now, and the hillsides were bright with orange, yellow, red. Ranger 252 thought about the stretch of trails the rescue crew would have to rush over to get here: worn, eroded, overgrown, but still there–the trail network was still good.
“You’re going to be alright,” he whispered, “You’re going to live.”
And that’s how it ends. Sir Bear had been there all along, circling my subconscious, building a nest for itself, waiting until it was needed. I’d inadvertently written him into a story to save a fictional character until Mary Oliver showed up and said, “No, not Ranger 252.”
And so we find our way around cruxes. Sometimes with the aid of hiking partners, or stories, or sometimes we pass through them all by ourselves with nothing more than busted up shoes, rope, and maps. I’ll do my best to breath life in this old website and fill it with pictures and words and cruxes. After the Hayduke Trail there’s still a whole summer left with nothing but open country to explore. Provided the quicksand doesn’t swallow me whole first.