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8. Road Trip 2008, Day 6: Strider and the Great White Menace

“Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street.”

William Blake

I continued looking out of the tent, searching for some sign of Paul, but couldn’t see much. I decided I needed to do something. I knew I couldn’t just sit there in fear, hoping for his return. I would have to go on a search mission. As I began stepping out of the tent, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye next to a log. I quickly looked over to find a pair of eyes staring back at me. I squinted, and made out the face of Paul, lying against the log, cuddled up in his sleeping bag. He didn’t say a word, just looked back at me in the shadows.

"Don't mind me Paul. I'll make sure things are safe in here."

I returned to the tent and zipped up the door. I knew exactly why he decided to sleep outside. He told me he would think of a solution to our bear problem, and he did: he would sleep next to the fire to keep the flame burning. He told me earlier in the evening that bears are afraid of fires (I have no verification on this claim). Nestling back into my sleeping bag, I felt kind of like a coward, letting him lay out there to face the wild beasts of the woods. I didn’t feel bad long though, returning back to sleep, feeling a little safer with a guard outside my tent. The remainder of the night, I woke up about once every hour to the piercing sound of cracking wood. It no longer scared me; in fact it comforted me. I knew it was just Paul breaking branches to feed to fire.

In the morning, I came outside to find Paul eating dried apricots next to the remaining embers of the fire. He looked up and smiled, “Man, do I have a story to tell.” He went on to describe his night. After I went to bed, he sat next to the fire and began reading “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (homo). While sitting there, he heard strange growls and rustling branches. The noises became louder, but came to an abrupt stop when they were interrupted by a loud thumping sound nearby our camp. He grabbed the flashlight and shone it into the woods.

There stood an enormous elk staring out into the woods, stomping his hoof against a rock in defiance. He seemed to be angry at something in the woods. Paul ventured to guess that some type of beast (bear, mountain lion, bobcat) had wandered into the area, which also happened to be the home of the elk and his family. After witnessing this exchange, Paul’s fear grew, and he decided he better pay up on his promise to “figure something out”. The remainder of the night, he kept our fire raging, collecting firewood whenever he saw it dwindling.

“Dude, I felt like Strider in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. You know, the part where he stays up all night toking the fire to protect Frodo from the Black Riders…oh yeah, you never finished that book, douche.”

"Sleep well, young Douche-bo Baggins."

While we ate breakfast, he continued telling tidbits from his crazy night including a shooting star that lit up the entire night sky and a moth the size of his fist that flew into the fire and exploded. I regretted missing out on all of the excitement.

Once we had camp all packed up, I grabbed my pack and threw it onto my back. My aching body wasn’t fully prepared for another day of hiking.  I desperately needed a cup of coffee and realized how serious my dependence upon the black concoction had become.  I began clipping the straps, when I noticed Paul heading toward the path leading up the mountain. I figured we’d just head back down. The walk to our campsite took seven hours alone. Now we were going to go three more hours up, then come back down the same 10 hour walk, resulting in 13 hours of hiking in one day.

“Paul, where you going?”

“…up the mountain?” he answered annoyed.

“I thought we were just going to head back down.  If we go up, we probably won’t be getting back to the car until like 10 at night.”

“Whatever,” he said as he turned and continued up the path.  I couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t even going to be mature enough to have a conversation?  As much as I wanted to reach the top, it just didn’t seem feasible with our plans to see Aimee Mann two days away in Boulder.  Yet there he was, disappearing up ahead into the trees.

What choice did I have?  Start climbing.

While re-treading the same path we walked the night before, I decided I couldn’t be too angry at his choice to act like a child, avoiding a discussion.  I mean heck, he stayed up all night protecting me.  When someone saves your life, they kind of have the right to do whatever the hell they want.

Thinking of the possibility of missing the Aimee Mann show, I threw on my ear buds and listened to “Lost in Space”.  Ever since Paul’s story about the monster moth, I had Aimee’s song “The Moth” running through my head.  The song talks about the careless, risk-taking life of a moth, flying straight into a flame without a concern.

The Moth don’t care when he sees The Flame.

He might get burned, but he’s in the game.
And once he’s in, he can’t go back,

He’ll beat his wings ’til he burns them black…
No, The Moth don’t care when he sees The Flame.

Dragging my feet and listening to the song, I thought about how Paul lives life much like a moth, following his instinct, even when he knows he’s probably going to get burned in the end.  I looked up ahead and could see him in the far distance, walking into the great unknown, thrilled with the uncertainty that lay ahead.


The moth heading toward another flame.

We eventually passed where we gave up the night before and continued on our way.  Soon we were surrounded by snow and mountain flowers.  It just seemed like such a strange combination, enemies co-existing side by side.  Two hours into the hike my hamstring began to hurt again, forcing me to slow down a bit.  I didn’t know how I would be able to walk another eight hours.

As the morning progressed, the peak became closer and closer and my hammy pain disappeared gradually. The grass progressively changed to rocks, and the peak slowly disappeared behind the steep mountain walls.  I could hardly contain my excitement: we were almost there.

Coming around a rocky curve, we came upon our first obstacle of the day: a steep wall of snow, smothering our path.  To our right laid a steep incline that would take some skillful rock climbing.  We couldn’t climb the mountain side with our packs on. We needed to devise yet one more plan.  Paul decided he would leave his pack with me, climb up and over to assess the situation.  I didn’t mind; it gave me a much needed rest, sitting on a rock and heaving in the thin mountain air. Five minutes later I heard a loud hoot coming from the West. I looked over to see Paul standing atop the snow covered ledge.



And we thought crossing a stream was difficult...

I looked at the white menace before me, noticing how it went up at a 45 degree angle.  I climbed through a lot of snow as a kid, but never in my life had I attempted maneuvering across a steep snow pile atop a mountain ledge.  I walked over to the snow’s edge and screamed back, “WON’T I SLIDE DOWN?”


I walked up a bit to a spot where the thinnest area of snow laid before me, took a deep breath, and began my first ever snow-wall climb.  I stuck my left foot into the snow and it instantly slipped out from under me. Fortunately I grabbed a hold of a near by rock.

KICK YOUR  FEET IN!” Paul yelled, watching me on the verge of my demise.

I kicked my foot several times in, forming a strong foothold and made my first step.  The difficult part was crossing my other leg over to form the next hole.  I continued across, starting to get the hang of it, although my hands started to freeze, gripping onto the chilly snow.  About half way, I felt as if my hands were going to fall off.  I needed to get across, and quickly.  The faster I moved, the weaker my footholds became, and soon my hastiness came back to haunt me.  With only a few steps to go, my foot suddenly slipped out from under me.  I grasped for snow and dragged my rampant foot, hoping to catch hold of something before falling to my death.  With a pigeon-toed stance, both of my feet came to a standstill and calm returned to the mountain peak. I looked over at Paul with my eyes wide-open.


The final few steps I returned to my careful ways, despite my hands losing all feeling.  Once close enough, Paul grabbed my hand and helped pull me to the ledge.  I looked back at my snow path, proud of my feat and glad it was over.


If you look closely, you can see where I became a careless ass.

While rubbing my hands together, he explained his plan. “I’m going to climb back down to my pack, and try doing what you just did.”  I told him good luck while rubbing my frost bit hands, and he went on his way.

I turned and took in the view, a breathtaking display of a dozen snowy mountain tops. The ancient peaks sat all around me, like I was the dealer at a poker table surrounded by the most stoic of competitors.  Looking down into the green valley, I noticed another path, winding down the mountain side…the other path….the horse shit path!  Maybe our climb down wouldn’t be another 10 hours, but four like we were originally told.

A few minutes later, I turned back to see Paul beginning his snow climb.  Knowing about my frozen hands, he used two sticks as ice picks.  He took a lower path, thinking it would be easier, but as he went along, it became apparent that he had a much longer and more difficult journey ahead of him.  At one point, he seemed to be standing straight up and down.

"I'll take a picture if you fall!"

When he finally came to the rocky ledge, he sat down, sucking in air desperately.  It was the first time the entire trip I saw him fatigued.  We sat down for a while, not talking, just looking around at our amazing surroundings, our composure slowly resurfacing.  Finally, I turned to him and asked, “Do you want to climb up a little higher?”

He agreed, and soon we were crawling up the rocky side of the mountain, hopping from rock to rock and occasionally slipping on pebbles.  I stopped when I came upon the perfect resting spot: a large pointy rock, jutting out over the valley below.  I lay down and looked out on the sprawling mountainside while Paul continued climbing up.

I couldn’t believe I sat here, on this mountain, high above the world.  I thought about the rest of civilization, family and friends, all down below going about their normal business. I wished they could be here with me, away from the suffocating grip of modern society. Compared to this place, blessed with the heavens of Montana, everything else seemed so miniscule and unimportant.  All of the possessions, all of the worries of daily life, all of it didn’t matter.  Nothing compared to where I sat at this moment.  It felt like I was in a different world, different air, different smells, different sights.  There were no sounds, just the cacophonous whirring of the crisp wind rushing all around me. I gazed up into the cloudless sky, listening to the wind’s drone, speaking to my soul as if it were the voice of God.

After almost an hour, we decided we’d better head back down the mountainside.  Refreshed and rejuvenated, we walked to the horse shit path, and began our return trip.  A little way down the path we came across a mountain stream, flowing down the valley.  Neither of us had taken a shower since Nebraska, five days prior, unless you count our venture into the waterfalls in Spearfish.  I took my shirt off and began splashing the icy cold water up into my stinky armpits.  I grabbed the soap from my bag, and began washing my arms, then dipped my head straight into the stream, letting the water rush over my face.  I lifted my head and felt the tingle rush through my head.  I’ve never been so refreshed.  Who needs coffee when you can dip your head into a fresh mountain stream?

Nature's Starbucks

Once Paul washed his hair, we returned to moving down the mountainside.  Our new path seemed to descend much more swiftly, and after and hour it seemed like we were already halfway down.  I found the scenery on this path to be more beautiful, although I didn’t regret taking the adventure path less traveled.  It made for quite an adventure: fording rivers, fighting off grizzlies with fire, and climbing walls of snow.

With our conversation at a standstill, I pulled the i-Pod out again, in search of the perfect soundtrack for my return trip to civilization.  I decided to listen to the “Into the Wild” soundtrack performed by Eddie Vedder.  With all of the lyrics dealing with connecting to nature, I knew I had made the right choice (yes, I get the irony that I was one with nature while listening to my i-Pod).  No song fit more perfectly as a backdrop for my day than “No Ceiling” and its lyrics:

Comes the morning when I can feel

That there’s nothing left to be concealed
Moving on a scene surreal
No, my heart will never
Will never be far from here

Sure as I am breathing
Sure as I’m sad
I’ll keep this wisdom in my flesh
I leave here believing more than I had
And there’s a reason I’ll be
A reason I’ll be back

The mountain climbing exploit had been Paul’s idea, and I originally felt lukewarm about hiking up into bear country.  But now, with the beautiful valley before me and the experience of the mountaintop still alive in my soul, I knew I would return.  Maybe not to this peak, maybe not even to Montana country, but I knew I had to return to the wild for another taste of real vulnerability, real adversity, real freedom.


"No, my heart will never, never be far from here." - Eddie Vedder "No Ceiling"

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1.Road Trip 2008, Day 1-2: WWJKD?

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

I was sitting on my parent’s deck, enjoying the intermittent glow of the Iowa lightning bugs and the smell of brats on the grill when my mom came outside with the phone in her hand.

“I think it’s Paul,” she said as she handed it over. Paul is my eccentric friend I met my junior year in college at Northern Iowa. Just a goofy little freshman wrestler at the time, crazy Paul kept my roommate Tony and I entertained with his juvenile antics. Of course, our constant goading and assistance in the debauchery department didn’t help matters. Those were great times, but unfortunately he transferred the next year to some community college in Kansas.  I don’t know whether he left because he became homesick for his western Nebraska hometown or if it had something to do with failing most of his UNI classes (I take some fault in his failure, always urging him to skip class so we could play “Mario Kart” or watch “Men In Black” the cartoon).

Instead of receiving his MBA from UNI, Paul got his MIB.

He would go on to attend four different colleges in four different states. After an eight year college career that resembled that of John ‘Bluto’ Blutarsky, Paul finally graduated the spring of 2008 with a degree in History and Spanish, hoping to become a teacher/wresting coach. His monumental graduation is what prompted the phone call on that calm summer night in mid-June.

“Dude, when are we going on this road trip? I finally graduated. We have to celebrate.” Since meeting Paul in 1999, he had been bothering me about taking a road trip through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. Two of those summers we weren’t able to take the trip due to Paul serving jail time for one of his many crimes: stealing cars, streaking, and of course a multitude of DUIs. These drunk driving excursions also led to several summers with no license, which would have resulted in driving the entirety of our road trip. Other summers I turned his master plan down due to prior plans or a fear of what unpredictable Paul would do. One summer I even passed up the opportunity to see Neil Young at Red Rock’s because I wanted to attend the wedding of Bobbi Bahr, a former high school classmate. To this day Paul curses, “I can’t believe you missed Neil Young for fucking Barbie’s wedding!”

Now that he had finally graduated from college, he found it absolutely necessary that this road trip come to fruition. He grabbed my interest by suggesting we visit micro-breweries along the way and go to a few concerts if possible (the key to my heart comes in a pint glass). These both enticed my nomadic side, but I still questioned whether he could actually afford the trip. I knew he owed Dana College $4000 dollars since he didn’t get financial aid his final semester, and I was privy to his mounting credit card debt, meandering just below the $10,000 dollar range. How could he ever afford a road trip with the outrageous gas prices?

I tried calming excited Paul down, saying, “Yeah, we can go, I just don’t want to make it too long. Maybe we should just hang around Colorado for a week or something, that way gas doesn’t kill us.” This was my nice way of saying, “You’re broke dude.”

“I want to go to Montana though! Montana!  Don’t worry about money, I just got paid $3000 dollars for being a lab rat.”

“What are you talking about?” I knew he wasn’t bluffing as images ran through my head of Loreal products being poured into Paul’s eyes.

“Yeah, I had to take Alzheimer pills for like two weeks and they monitored me and stuff. I’m good to go on money now. We can split the gas right down the middle; I’m not going to mooch off you or anything.”

"Now where did I put my razor..."

As we continued talking, I thought about how he should be using the lab rat money to pay off some of the money he owed. What was he thinking – a road trip amidst all this debt? Plus, being a newborn college graduate, shouldn’t he be using this time to find a job? I spent my entire first summer out of college lost in a sea of job fairs and applications.

I would have pointed these common sense ideals out to Paul if I knew I wouldn’t come across as a preachy douche. I told him I was all in for a road trip but reiterated the fact that driving to Montana may be a bit much. He asked me to keep thinking about it and we’d make a decision in a couple weeks when July arrived. I was off the hook for the moment, but I knew he wouldn’t forget about this trip; not with Montana dreams running through his head.

A few days later, he sent an email featuring a list of all the bands we could possibly see in Colorado and all the surrounding states. As I skimmed the list, I came to a sudden stop when I saw a name in the Montana section: The Dodos. Was this a ruse to get me to go with him to Montana? I had been raving to Paul about the greatness of the latest Dodos album “Visiter” for the past few months. To see if I was being had, I went to The Dodos MySpace and lo and behold, there it was:

July 4th- Bozeman, Montana at the VFW

I read it over and over again in shock. Dodos…Montana….VFW….4th of July…it was too good to be true. I looked up how many miles it would take to get to Bozeman from Omaha and the 1,000 miles didn’t settle well with me. I began to think about how we would pay for gas, which brought back thoughts of Paul’s money situation. Going to Montana and then down to Colorado would suck his lab rat money dry. What should a good friend do: look out for his pal by giving him advice on managing his money or aid his financial demise by joining him on a cross-country road trip? Is a true friend there for support or to join in on the irresponsible fun?

I mulled over this issue for another week. At one point, I wondered what my hero Jack Kerouac, the ultimate Bedouin, would do? WWJKD? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Paul is just like the character Dean Moriarty in “On the Road”, an athletic car thief who spent time in prison, has a mind jam packed with outlandish ideas, and is fascinated by raw, organic music that tests the limits (jazz in Moriarty’s time). Throughout the book, many of the characters around Moriarty find him offensive, rude, and mostly just trouble. But Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter-ego, loves Moriarty and his harum-scarum ways.

Sal could have told him it was time to grow up, settle down, and find a real job. But he didn’t, no matter what page of the book you are on. No, Paradise admired his childlike wonderment with the world so much that whenever Moriarty showed up on his doorstep with a big road-trip in mind, Paradise threw his writing to the wayside and joined his wild friend on another joy-ride.

Paul didn’t need me to be his mentor; he needed me to be a friend willing to hit the road without worrying about what lies ahead.

This realization came to me on July 1st, which meant we had little time to reach Bozeman, Montana by the 4th. I called Paul and let him know I was in on the Montana trip, but that we would have to heading out Thursday in order to reach Bozeman in time for The Dodos show. He was ecstatic. I figured out I could pay for the trip with the $600 dollars I got from my tax refund (Paul insisted the entire trip that I thank George W. for each beer I drank), and another $600 dollars from Paul’s friend Mando who bought my electric guitar. I knew with Paul’s lab rat money, we were both set.

"Beers are on me boys! Just put it on my tab."

The next morning I headed to Blair, Nebraska to pick up my comrade. We had planned to use the day for preparations, buying the necessary food and supplies. Once we arrived in Omaha, I took Paul to his friend Lindsey’s apartment where he planned to load my I-Pod with some of his choice cuts (Judas Priest and ACDC?!). After dropping him off I weaved through Omaha traffic to the Honda dealership to get an oil change. Then I had to go return to South O to pick Paul back up.  By the time we were at the grocery store searching for the granola aisle, I was fed up with all the driving and aimless wandering; I was ready to hit the road.

“This sucks dude. Let’s just leave now. We can get supplies as we go. I’m sick of all this traffic,” I complained.

“All of the camping food is going to cost more as we get closer to Montana. I’m ready to head out now too, but we have to get everything prepared.” These were wise words from a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants type of guy, but I couldn’t take it any longer.

“I know…I just hate the anticipation,” I conceded.

“Dude, it’s like ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, you know, when there is like a hundred pages on the meeting in Rivendell.”

“Yeah, I hate that fucking part! I’ve never actually read past that part,” I scowled.

“Ahh!  You’re KIDDING! You’ve never even actually read the rest of Tolkien’s masterpiece?! YOU suck. Wow. That’s embarrassing. The entire Rivendell scene is there to set up the rest of the book. Right now, we are in Rivendell. We must prepare before heading out on our quest,” Paul answered annoyed. I didn’t respond. I guess I prefer The Hobbit with its simple premise of a treasure in a mountain. The dwarves arrive, sing a little song about a dragon, and they’re off. Simple, quick, painless.

By the time we did all of our shopping at various stores, we got back to Blair around 10 p.m. It was then that I realized I had forgotten my phone at Lindsey’s. Damn it! Paul called her up and she said she’d bring it over in the morning.

Completely exhausted from the day, I laid down on the couch, ready to pass out. Just as I was slipping into dream-land, the door to Paul’s apartment flew open, and a sweaty, stout little man with long greasy blond hair and a creepy moustache came bounding through the entry way like a Kramer stand-in, holding a giant can of Old Milwaukee.

In a crackly bark he shouted, “Where’s Paul?”

I sat up like a bolt. The room suddenly reeked like alcohol and cheap cigarettes. Why was there a strange homeless man in Paul’s apartment? Before I could answer, Paul walked out from his bedroom.

“Hey Gale! What’s up man!” Paul knew this guy? Before I could comprehend what was going on, the two had a conversation, none of which I understood, and then the homeless dude was gone.

“What the hell? You let that guy just walk through your door?! He could steal all your crap.”

“Nah, Gale’s a good guy. He lives upstairs and likes to stop by to hang out and drink a few beers,” Paul said as if it was commonplace.  I didn’t feel like arguing, but I did make it a point to lock the door after Paul went to bed. I knew better than to try understanding what had just occurred; Paul has always befriended a strange cast of characters (me included). I quickly fell asleep, cranky and drained from the long day of preparation. I still think Rivendell sucks.

The next morning Lindsey arrived with my phone bright and early, a sign that our day would be much better than the one prior. I started packing up the car while Paul cooked breakfast, when the door crashed open once again. Gale came stumbling in, now holding a giant can of Natural Light. “Wherez Pul?” he howled. He was still drunk or drunk again, not sure which. Without hesitation, Paul welcomed him in and sat talking to the belligerent fool for a while, even offering him a blueberry smoothie.

Gale took a seat next to Lindsey on the couch and began touching her hair. He whispered to her in a gravelly voice, “I like your hair…don’t ever cut your hair…I like loooong hair…it’s bootiful.” She smiled politely and scooted away from him. Like a four year old, his attention quickly shifted to our luggage. “Whar are ya goin Pul?”

Lindsey smiled wryly and said, “Him and Andy are going to Brokeback Mountain.”

“HA HA HA HA (cough cough) HA HA HA! BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN! HA HA HA!” I could hear the phlegm curdling in the back of his throat. Gale then stumbled toward the kitchen to kid Paul about Brokeback Mountain when he caught sight of me looking at him with both horror and disgust.

“What happ’nd to yer head? Where is yer hair? HA HA HA! (cough cough)” Paul began cracking up at Gale’s observation, which just egged the old drunkard on. “HA HA HA! Why don’t you grow sum fuckin hair man? Ha, ha, (cough, cough) Ha, HA! Shouldn’t he grow some hair Paul?” I put on a fake smile and went outside to continue packing the car.  I didn’t have time for this crazy kook.

I may not have as much hair as Gale (right), but at least mine is clean.

Paul later attempted to make me feel bad saying he thought Gale was a Vietnam vet. He of course had no proof to back up this claim; I think he just based it off the fact that Gale is always wearing 70s era clothing and seems to always be drunk.  If that’s all it took, Andy Dick would fit into the vet category.

After slurping up his smoothie, which dripped all over his already stained white shirt, Gale shouted, “I got something for ya Paul!” Two minutes later he returned with a carton of eggs and a handful of firecrackers. “Enjoy! These are for your trip to Brokeback Mount-tin, hehehe.” Paul tried explaining that we couldn’t take the eggs with us, but the lush didn’t understand and left feeling proud of his random act of kindness.

When he finally left it was almost 10 a.m. “Let’s get going!” I said in frustration.

“Okay, okay, okay!” Paul responded, setting the dishes into the sink. After filling the cooler with ice, we threw it in the back of my car and finally took to the highway. Our trip had begun. We had already hit a few bumps in the road, but I knew the perfect remedy for getting our trip rolling on the right foot: The Magnetic Field’s classic album “The Charm of the Highway”.

Soon the smooth baritone voice of Stephin Merritt filled the car as smiles crept onto our faces. With lyrics like “The world is a Motor Inn in the Iowa highway slum” and “Lonely highway, only friend, You’ve got me to keep you warm again”, I knew I had made the perfect musical choice. When “Sunset City” began thumping out the speakers, Merrit was singing for fools like us, throwing caution to the wind and hitting the road just for the hell of it:

Well I don’t care what people say
Life is too short to hang around
So I stay so long in a place
And then move on to the next town

And in the morning I’ll be gone
For other towns and other lives
I’ll catch the first train, bag in hand
And I won’t miss you, and you won’t cry

Oh Sunset City
I’ve got to see the world
Don’t hold me too tightly
Don’t whisper my name

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