Recently, the Saints, a Super Bowl caliber team that has never touched the Super Bowl in over 40 years of play, were defeated by the Chicago Bears, a cold, mean grizzly team in a stadium built for soldiers, not saints. I shouldn't have bet against the Bears, even with the Grossan and Griese. And so I am writing this reflection as promised, and all of this football gets me thinking about Chicago, the city in which Ferris Bueller took his day off back in the 1980's and several years later, in my imagination (I wasn't there but we all know the story), I see Jim and Donna Stein setting about building a very special company. They are sitting with that illustrious "yellow legal pad." This was a very important first conversation. That legal pad became an office. And it was from that office, in that home, all written down on that yellow pad, by now turning brown, that I got a call from Sarah.
Sarah was my first leader and a memorable one. I was 14, and she called me at my house in St. Louis. I was lying on my new white carpet, probably reading something like "I Heard the Owl Call My Name" or "1984." I was listening to Pearl Jam's "Black." I got up and grabbed the phone. Sarah and I spoke briefly -
I told her my hiking boots were broken in (I had not yet purchased any), and I told her that I didn't have any questions. I really didn't.
So, a few weeks after speaking with Sarah, I left my family and flew to Colorado Springs to meet up with my group. We played a game that associated names with likes - ice cream, Sarah suggested. I said coffee. Everybody else said some kind of Ben and Jerry's - like Phish Food, or Cherry Garcia. I never had Ben and Jerry's. It hadn't made its way to St. Louis by 1998.
I remember the first van ride, out to the Sand Dunes. Somehow, even though I was the quiet kid, I got my tape played first. It was a mix, but all I mixed was a bunch of Led Zeppelin and Van Halen songs together. I did put one U2 song on, probably, almost unconsciously choosing, "In God's Country." When it came on, the prettiest girl on the trip, named Jay, a New Yorker, who I think I recently spotted at a breakfast place on the Upper East Side, told me what a good choice it was. The other seven in the van, Brad, his cousin Jeff (my tentmate), Rush Battle (Faulkner character?), Ilana, Jamie, Joanne, and Madeline were pretty quiet.
We got there late, and I started by helping unload the roof rack. I did it well, and Ken Seng (Scooter), my other leader, was impressed. We would be friends.
From there I recall blurs here and there until the San Juans. I remember that I very much liked to use my gear in the prettiest way possible. I had the yellow North Face daypack in the Mohawk style, with the cords running down the back. I always kept my climbing shoes in there, because they looked good. All my pictures from the Sand Dunes are of me from the back, with that pack on. Evidently, I asked people, strangers, to photograph me from the back - a lot. I must have seemed weird.
I recall the first few steps on the San Juan trail heading to Red Lake, the first lake on the loop, under the weight of my beautiful North Face Badlands backpack. I still have this pack - it has survived hungry porcupine, Rainier twice, the Talkeetna Glacier, Alaska, the Bitterroots twice, the Pioneers twice, a run across Norway, a trot through the Azores, a trip across Europe, and the sands of Israel and Jordan, and who knows how many times it has been peed on by the guys who shuttle your bags on the Green River. Well, she (the pack, still unnamed) felt new to me. And my legs hurt so much, I thought I might have to go home. Not my style!
At the first break, I ate a Granny Smith apple in a snow field and looked out into Colorado - home of cowboys, Telluride, my Aunt and Uncle, the Denver Broncos - I had no idea where I was other than on the way to Red Lake, and on for 42 more days. It was great how long those trips used to be!
We were hiking and hiking. At this rate, I fear you may stop reading, so I will only stop for the best from now on. The next day we took a rest day, ahead of schedule! We spent the day playing games in the rain under the trees, and Rush Battle went fishing. In some sort of game we were playing, I did a very fine Michael Jackson impression. Sarah was literally shocked. They had thought I was quite a brooder. I had been pretty silent in all that beautiful country. That is when the Road Less Traveled realized I was a funny guy.
The rest of this section of the trip really exists only as a dream for me. I think I am a smart guy, but I could have gotten lost forever on the way to the bear hang! I had no idea where we were in the mountains. Our bear hang was the highest bear hang I have ever seen, a full 60, maybe even a hundred feet up on a pine tree in the middle of a clearing...I don't think I remember correctly. As I was gathering the bags for hanging, I came across the female bag. A brown bag, duct tape, and a stuff sack. Sarah took it from me and explained what it was. This was my first memory of menstruation.
We did some climbing in Cottonwood Canyon. I was the second best. A girl, Ilana, was far better. I was jealous. After the San Juan Mountains, we drove to the Italian Peaks. The first day of hiking was maybe the fastest I have ever hiked. I was on a mental high, way out in front of the group. And I mean way. I remember this as one of the most positive days of my life, psychologically, and do you know what I was fixated on? One-A-Day multi-vitamins. I was on vitamins for the first time. Man, I was thinking about all those 100%'s got me moving, and I was singing "Welcome to the Machine" by Pink Floyd. "Come on My Son, Welcome to the Machinnnnnnnneeee....
That night we camped on a green slope, again in who knows where" We set up the green A-Frames with the wind, and Eureka!, that wind came blowing right through. Scooter was quickly becoming a friend. I continued to be a fine navigator, and step by step was falling in love with the Italian Peaks, the endless grass and low green landscape. Scooter and Sarah made us dinner that night, and I ate my mac and cheese in the light of my Petzl Duo headlamp, burning the halogen.
We crossed fences and posts marking the Continental Divide. Other than that, we saw no signs of a human planet.
I was done being photographed from the rear, and now had shot after shot taken of me suspending myself in the air, legs split over the Continental Divide and the little rusty pipe that marked it.
I was shooting for the back cover photo on the RLT brochure, an honor I am still denied.
I was feeling strong when we reached the van, now named Polycronopolis (I wasn't in on that one). My tent-mate, Jeff, was a real sleep talker, and my group journal entry was basically a transcript.
The next thing I recall is in the gear rental at RMI (Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.) I got my plastic boots, and those old crampons, not the Grivels but the ones with the orange strap. A guy named Link was my guide. He had climbed Everest, and looked like he could be the violent guy on "Days of Our LIves." The hike to Muir was tough. The hike to the summit wasn't. I was in the lead rope team, I thought at the time it was because I was so good (ridiculous), but there I was behind some random guy, and in front of Sarah. I looked back during that first stretch in the dark.
When we hit the rock, the snake lit on fire, several hundred crampons striking the rock with trails of sparks. There was an orange crescent moon, something out of Goodnight Moon, at my back. The sun began to rise on Disappointment Cleaver, and I saw more natural colors of light at once than I ever have since. After that, I don't remember too many kicked steps, much pain, cold or doubt. I just remember the sky.
We hit the crater on schedule, and it was quite bright, with tiny waves of ice that broke beneath our feet. I took a brisk walk across the crater to see the other side and the actual summit. On my way back, in my yellow North Face jacket, which matched my other gear so well, and my North Face mountain pants, ice axe in hand, I was feeling pretty intense. Sarah and Jay said they thought I would climb Everest some day. I believed them.
I gave you a lot of detail, and not so much reflection. I even got impatient with the detail. But it was given as proof. This was almost fifteen years ago, and I was brief. What other adventures of my life do I remember so well? I could do this year after year with RLT. It is staggering what I have done with this program that began on a yellow pad of paper...
It was fantastic.