7. Road Trip 2008, Day 5: Faces of Fear

“It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Bilbo Baggins “Lord of the Rings”

 

Another glorious morning in Big Sky Country.

 

Once again, I didn’t sleep very well with a rock beneath my head and Paul’s jimmy legs kicking me all night. Around 7 a.m. we began hearing cars driving past our tent since we set up right next to the road. Fearing we might be on someone’s land, Paul thought we should get going. I tried ignoring him, grasping for a few more minutes of sleep. My extra slumber didn’t last long with the sun creeping its way over the mountains, shooting waking rays straight through the screen and into my face.

I lumbered out of the tent to find Paul once again taking a morning shit, this time next to a nearby tree: the guy works like clockwork. I went and grabbed some dry cereal and crunched it down while guzzling some water. By the time I finished breakfast, Paul had finished up his business and started tearing down the tent. I walked over to the barbwire fence, and he handed me supplies. While loading the car, I noticed that the scene before me looked like something out of a Honda Element commercial. From where I stood, it looked as if the mountain-scape was pouring out of the back of my open hitch.

 

 

The Element is shitting mountains.

 

We headed back into Ennis because we didn’t know where we should enter Lone Peak; the crazy Montana woman didn’t give Paul any specifics. Once in town, Paul ran into a fly fishing shop to get directions. He came out a few minutes later with a strange look on his face.

“Um…I asked the guy how to enter Lone Peak from here, and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said he’d never heard of such and thing and then asked who gave me such bad information…”

“I told you we shouldn’t have trusted that wack-o! Damn it,” I said. I knew we should have listened to the guys at the brewery, but for some reason, Paul had it in his head that this lady had inside information. “Well, now what are we going to do? We’re already all the way over here.”

“We have some options. The guy said a lot of people climb some mountain called the Sphinx; it’s like a four hour hike to the top. I think we camped right by it. We could climb that, or back track and climb Lone Mountain. It’s totally up to you,” Paul said.

We discussed our dilemma for a minute, weighing our options. To be honest, I didn’t know any difference between the two mountains. The only reason I had my mind set on Lone Mountain is because of the name; the Lonely Mountains are home to Smaug the dragon in “The Hobbit”. I realized my nerdy reasoning didn’t excuse a 100 mile drive out of our way with gas costing $4.10. We decided we would climb the Sphinx, saving Lone Mountain for some other road trip.

After Paul got directions from the fishing store, we went to the gas station to load up on water, and I needed my morning coffee. With all our supplies replenished, we began the southern drive to Sphinx. A few roads past our camping site, Paul turned into a gravel lane that led us along the rim of the mountain range. Around 10 a.m we found a hiking inlet and parked the car.

Seeing another group preparing on horseback, Paul said we needed to get packing quick in order to avoid walking a trail of horse dung. We pulled out our gigantic backpacks, and Paul walked me through the packing process. What seemed so spacious quickly filled up: gallon water jug, clothes, sleeping bag, poncho, more water, pillow, flashlight, and even more water. I crammed the top of my pack with dried fruit, trail mix, a can of soup, and beef jerky. With the bag bursting at the seams, I heaved it onto my back and commenced the tedious task of fastening the multitude of clips and tightening all the straps. My final step entailed hooking a Camelback fanny pack to my stomach. Fanny packs rule.

Walking up to the entrance I saw two trails next to a warning sign: “BEAR COUNTRY!!! The area behind this sign is used by GRIZZLY BEARS”. I didn’t need the three exclamation points to be scared – I saw “Grizzly Man”. I read every piece of text on the sign twice, even the small print. I hadn’t prepared for grizzly bears. It recommended making noise as to not surprise the bears. I hoped the bears would have the same noisy respect not to sneak up on me. It also mentioned hanging all food items 10 feet off the ground. How we’d do this, I didn’t know yet, but I kept mental note: 10 feet, 10 feet, 10 feet.

 

 

I wonder if fanny-packs scare off grizzlies.

 

The horse group made their way up the trail to the right. When Paul saw this, he said, “I hate horses. Did you know they’re not even native to North America?” I ignored his comment, too busy imagining my bald head being ripped off by a grizzly. Paul broke me from my nightmare saying, “I guess we’re taking the other trail.” Without a map to tell us the right way to go, I agreed that dodging horse poop all afternoon sounded like the better option. Making our way up the path, I giggled to myself at the thought of my new modified version of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one with less horse shit,
and that has made all the difference

After climbing up a hill, we found ourselves surrounded by a prairie scattered with wild flowers. In the distance, a range of snow covered mountains loomed. I wondered which peak we would be climbing. It looked so far away. To think I would be standing on top of one of those in four hours. My excitement grew with each step, continuing through nature’s garden.

 

The hills are alive with the sound of douches!

 

The path eventually led us down into a wooded ravine. Entering the forest edge, my excitement turned into apprehension, looking through the trees for a grizzly bear. As we walked along, I would randomly shout, “Hey bears! We’re here! Don’t be surprised!” When Paul seemed annoyed by my yelling, I altered my bear warning strategy by occasionally whistling a little tune. After about an hour of hiking, my fear began to dissipate.

Our hike came to a sudden halt when the path we followed led straight into a bubbling brook. Growing up my family always walked through the local state park, Fort DeFiance, and would occasionally have to hop stones across a creek, but this wasn’t a Fort Defiance creek. The waves crashed into each other, white capping and wrestling with the rocks and logs that lay in their path. I stuck a five foot stick in to test the depth, and I almost submerged it. We couldn’t just hop across this creek like Frogger. We would have to devise a plan.

After locating a few dead trees, we carried them to the creek’s edge and flipped one end to the other side like a pole vault. With four limbs hanging over the rapids, a bridge was born. Paul gave our creation its first test run, maneuvering his way across the logs as they wobbled and rolled beneath him. Seeing them bend under Paul’s weight, I feared what would happen when my fat ass tried crossing.

My turn.  I cautiously crawled on all fours, feeling the bridge buckle. The heavy tree limbs we hauled down now seemed more like twigs. Reaching the halfway point, the middle branch cracked. As my legs dipped down into the cool water, I grasped for the remaining two branches and hung like a stocking. Quickly, I pulled myself up and speed-crawled the remainder of the way. Once to the edge, Paul noticed that the bottom half of my pack also got wet – not good. I kept my camera in a lower side pocket. I pulled it out and dried it off as best I could, then placed it in my fanny-pack.

 

Nice picture camera. Want to take a dip?

 

We were both pretty proud of our little bridge, despite my near-swimming experience. I felt exhilaration from both the water and the adventure of trying to cross the water. We laughed about my clumsy ass, and felt we had dealt with our last issue of the day.

About five minutes later, the path curved back to the right, returning us right back to the creek and yet another white water obstacle. Instead of getting upset, we rethought the process.  We chose to use only two logs but staggering them so that one sat higher than the other. The goal was to create a log to hold onto with the upper body while tight-roping the other. With the bridge complete, Paul gave a suggestion.

“Maybe I should go across first, drop off my pack, and then come back and get yours. That way you won’t weigh as much when you cross.” It made complete sense, but also made me feel like a Boy Scout who needed the Scout master to carry his supplies. I agreed with his plan, with the added idea of putting all valuables in the fanny-pack, which I would toss across the water to Paul to avoid any chance of getting wet electronic devices.

The plan went off without a hitch. Watching Paul cross the logs for the third time with my pack, I couldn’t help but feel like Bombur in Mirkwood Forest, forcing the rest of the crew to carry my supplies (don’t feel bad if you don’t get my “Hobbit” references; I’m a  bit obsessive). I had a much easier time without the added weight on my back.

 

I can't decide whether the bandana makes me look like a bad-ass or a "Luverne and Shirley" reject.

 

Over the next hour of hiking, we would have to create two more bridges, and my role as helpless Bombur continued. The majority of the hike so far had been pretty flat. Either we were just walking in circles around the mountain’s bottom, or climbing up at an extremely gradual incline. The path eventually led us to a rock field, where we took a quick break and snacked. Paul pulled out our plethora of trail mixes. Half of them we bought at the grocery store, and half were purchasd at Target, and let me tell you: Target’s trail mix is the greatest dried food and nut combination you will ever encounter. While Planters provides peanuts, raisins, and M & M’s, the Archer Farms variety features everything ranging from dried cranberries, soy nuts, and cashews. It’s as “gourmet” as you can get while hiking.

Back on the path, the rock field turned into an upward climb. As we came around a mound of rocks, I looked over the edge to see the creek below. I felt relief knowing we wouldn’t have to deal with any more water crossing exploits.

10 minutes later, my presumption was proven wrong with the creek once again raging up ahead. Our problem this time was finding large enough tree limbs to use. After much searching, we came up with one skinny limb. I didn’t foresee myself being able to balance across and let Paul try first. On his first attempt, he tiptoed across like a cat and laid his pack down. After tossing the fanny pack, he balanced his way back and picked up my pack. This time he wasn’t so lucky, falling in right at the end of the log, and quickly pulling himself out. The pack got wet again, but with our fanny pack innovation, it was no longer a problem.

The big deal at that moment was finding a way for me to cross. If nimble Paul couldn’t do it, I knew this lanky klutz wouldn’t be able to. Instead of trying to balance, I just jumped into the waste deep rapids and began walking across, holding the limb to keep from being rushed away. I didn’t care at that point: my jeans and shoes were already soaked. No point in attempting to be a circus act.

After that adventure, I knew not to count out the chances of running into the creek again, and I wouldn’t be disappointed. This time we found a bridge already created by nature with a large tree crossing the creek, although we had to venture a little off the path. Paul walked straight across, and started to come back for my pack when I waved him off. This was not just a limb, but a large tree trunk. I got down on all fours and crawled across the log with little trouble. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this would be our last water crossing adventure. At that point the creek crossing had become a nuisance, but I would look back on the experience as a challenging part of the climb we embarked on.

 

So close, yet so far away.

 

The hike became much steeper and more difficult to ascend. I knew it would only get tougher as we went higher. When we reached a scenic opening in the trees, we sat to take a much needed rest in the shade. After a lunch of beef jerky and dried apricots, Paul laid down to take a nap. I pulled out my I-POD and checked the time – 4:30. That meant we had been hiking over five hours. We were told it would be a quick four hour climb. Looking at the peak in the far distance, I knew we must have taken the wrong path.

As I stared at the mountain in my exhausted haze, a face began to take shape in the side of the mountain. Was I seeing things? The more I squinted my eyes, the clearer the rock face became. I began to wonder if the face in the side of the mountain had anything to do with the name the Sphinx. When Paul awoke, I pointed out my discovery to verify that I wasn’t hallucinating. After a little searching, he soon agreed with me that a face stared back at us from the rocky side of the peak.

I sat there a few more minutes enjoying my discovery as Paul put away his food and prepared to continue our hike. I didn’t know if we were even looking at the actual Spinx Mountain, but I felt proud of what I found. At first it reminded me of Pyornkrachzark from “The Never-Ending Story”, but the more I looked at it, the more it reminded me of Olmec, the talking rock from Nickelodeon’s old school game show “Legends of the Hidden Temple”.

 

If only Nick Gas were around when they went through the process of naming mountains. Mount Olmec? Only in dreams.

 

Back on the trail, my left hamstring began to bother me. At this point, the climb became almost straight up. Paul flew up the incline while I trounced behind. After another hour of hiking, he asked if we should set up camp and just try to reach the top the next day. Sore yet determined, I told him I wanted to keep going. For some reason, I had it in my mind that we could make it to the top. As we came over the crest of a steep hill, a magnificent scene laid out before us with miles of green pasture at the foot of a far off peak.

 

I can't decide if this picture reminds me of the last scene in "City Slickers" or the last scene in "Land Before Time". Regardless, it would make for a great final scene.

 

An hour later, with the mountain peak still miles away, Paul asked again if we should set up camp. My mouth said yes, but my hammy said no. I still had it set in my mind that we would reach the peak by evening’s end. He explained that we could just try in the morning, but I knew we wouldn’t have much time. We had tickets to see Aimee Mann on the 9th in Colorado, and with it being the 7th, we didn’t have days to waste. We came to an agreement: set up camp, empty our packs of everything but food, and continue up the mountain. We would be able to move faster and would have camp set up before sun down.

A few minutes later we came upon the perfect camping area, a wide open plateau, covered with wild flowers, and trees located on the edge where we set up the tent. With our tent set up and filled with pillows, sleeping bags, and water jugs, we continued our climb. Our packs may have been lighter, but our climb became more difficult. At that point, I no longer enjoyed my surroundings, trudging along, staring at my feet, hoping the next turn would open up to the mountain peak. I threw on my i-Pod and listened to some “Opie and Anthony”, letting the radio show chatter occupy my weary mind.

After an hour, we came upon a valley of snow, which lightened my spirits. We must be getting close! With a new pep in my step, we continued up the mountain side, awaiting the arrival of the mountain top. A half hour later, we finally reached the home stretch.

“We’re almost there,” I told Paul.

“Dude, it may look close, but that’s probably another hour or two of climbing. I don’t think we can make it tonight and still get back to camp before sun down.” I looked down at the time – 7:30 – we weren’t going to make it. Bummed and disappointed, I agreed that it would be smart to return to our campsite while we still had light.

The walk back was even less exciting, knowing we wouldn’t be reaching the top after all. But it wasn’t all a loss, after eight hours of hiking, my legs would soon get their much needed rest. Back at camp, I hung my damp jeans and socks from tree branches and changed into clean clothes. I walked down to the field of flowers and sat on a rock, watching the sun set on our long day. I looked to the mountain ledge to my left, and noticed it also resembled Egypt’s Sphinx, with two great legs lying out in front of the mass of rocks.

 

Will the real Sphnix please stand up?

 

Once the sun had set, Paul got a fire started using branches found in the woods. We set a couple cans of soup next to the flames and eagerly awaited a hot dinner. After a few minutes of drained silence, I said,” We’d better hang our food from the grizzlies before it is completely pitch dark out here.”

“Um… I forgot to bring a rope.”

“What?! We don’t have a rope?” Silence. “What are we going to do with our food?!” Silence. “What about the bears?” Silence. “Damn it!” I shouted, throwing my damp socks into the dirt.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”

“How can you say that? We have packs full of food. What should we do? Could we just hang the food off a high branch or something?”

“If we can get to it, a bear can get to it,” Paul calmly answered.

“Fine. I guess we’ll just be bear food then.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”

I couldn’t believe how calm he could be. We were sitting ducks, awaiting our eminent death at the clawed hands of a grizzly bear, hungry for Archer Farm’s Trail Mix. I grabbed my soup and slurped it up in disgust. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t brought a rope. He’s supposed to be the one who knows what he’s doing up here. Instead of worrying about hanging food 10 feet in the air, I should have been more concerned with what device would be used to do it.

Once I finished my soup, I got in the tent and laid down. I knew the polyester material couldn’t protect me from a bear’s claws, yet at the moment, the shelter provided me with mock safety. I tried sleeping but would jump to full alert when I heard twigs breaking and  distant growls. At some point, my exhaustion beat out fear, and I was fast asleep.

In the middle of the night, I awoke to sounds outside the tent. I could see shadows along the wall and hear crackling branches. I sat up for a few minutes, listening for more sounds. Then I looked to my right and realized Paul still hadn’t come to bed. I checked the time – 2 a.m. I took a moment to compose myself, slowing down my breathing, sucking in air, trying to keep my hands from shaking. I had to find out if he was okay. Finally, I unzipped the tent door carefully and glanced out. I could see the fire still crackling, yet Paul was no where in sight. I began to panic. Where had my friend gone?

I stared out into the vast darkness, wondering what I should do next. I was utterly alone.

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