The Wrong Boots

In her celebrated memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed documented her long, eleven hundred mile hike from the Mojave Desert all the way to the Bridge of the Gods near Portland, Oregon. She had lost a lot of things in her life: her mother to cancer; her marriage; and could have lost her life to the queen of forgetfulness, the fruit of the poppy flower, heroin. She had a lot of grief to work through. 

But unlike the average Joe who might decide to take up running or a regimen at the gym to work out the kinks and stress of facing life on life’s terms, this young woman decided to walk alone along the Pacific Coast Trail. Most intrepid backpackers would need to think very carefully about what to put on their feet. Cheryl went to REI where she bought an excellent, sturdy pair of hiking boots. There was only one problem: they weren’t the right fit.

After hiking for six weeks, “those boots had blistered my feet and rubbed them raw; they’d caused my nails to blacken and detach themselves excruciatingly from four of my toes.” She was in such unremitting pain, pulling off one toenail after another, that, after one boot accidentally toppled into the forest canopy below her, she tossed the other one to join it, glad to be rid of them both.

Gene and I had been to every national and state park in Utah. The state parks are actually much nicer because they often come with free showers, and in Utah in the summer, that’s a welcome treat to look forward to at the end of the day.

There’s a reason why Utah is one of the most magnificent geological wonders of the world: heat and dryness. The rock formations are simply dazzling to the eye. We’ve been to a majority of the national parks in the United States, but we keep going back to the parks in Utah. It boasts about forty-five state and national parks in one state. And if you like rocks, it’s a visual smorgasbord. The Vermillion Cliffs, for example, located just south of the Utah border, are aptly named for the brilliant and varying shades of red earth. It’s quite a sight from the highway. 

On a visit in the summer of 2008, we headed west from Moab on a road to Dead Horse Point State Park. Just before the park entrance, we saw a pigmy rattle snake crossing the road. This was our third or fourth trip to the desert Southwest, and I had never seen a rattler even once. But they’re there, all right. Just usually not dumb enough to come out around people during the day. They come out at night when they do their hunting. At night, rattlesnakes are everywhere, and you don’t want to encounter one by surprise.

The campsite was pretty disappointing compared to other places we had camped in Utah. But we’re good sports about accepting what’s available when we arrive at a campsite. So we chose the best possible site, set up the tent, and drove over to see why this park got its name.

Dead Horse Point is situated atop a high plateau at an elevation of about 6000 feet. From the point, layers of geologic time may be viewed, revealing 300 million years of the earth’s geologic history. This is why Gene loves Utah. It’s as if God had taken a knife and sliced mountains and chunks of land right down the middle so that all the erosion of time could be viewed for free by anyone who was passing through. It’s very humbling to remember how short the human lifespan is, geologically speaking.  

According to the legend, Dead Horse Point was used to corral wild mustangs that were roaming the mesa. Cowboys rounded up these horses and herded them onto the point. They fenced off the neck with branches and brush, creating a natural corral surrounded by high cliffs. Cowboys then picked the horses they wanted and left the rest to die of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2000 feet below. Not a very nice way to treat animals, I’d say. I hope some of them had the good sense to leap over the brush to their deaths and die quickly.

Death was the last thing on our minds the next day. We woke up bright and early, ready to enjoy our last day in Utah at a leisurely pace. Why did I put on my winter-weight hiking boots? Well, I didn’t have any lightweight boots. I only had the Merrell’s Gene had bought me back in 1994 so that I’d have more ankle support. I had been healing from a broken ankle and wasn’t gonna let that stop me from a hike with my new boyfriend up Old Rag Mountain in Virginia. And the truth is, our treks in the southwest in recent years hadn’t been that long. Otherwise my feet would have overheated and I would have known enough to get summer boots. But hindsight is 20/20…

That day, in particular, I wasn’t planning on doing any serious hiking at all. It started out innocently enough:

Upheaval Dome/Crater View
round trip2.5 mi (4 km)
elevation gain300 ft (91 m)
hiking time15 minutes to 1 hour

Piece of cake—a relaxing walk along the rim of this crater on a hot day in July. It was really too hot to do anything more exerting that day. We thought we’d start the day with this little stroll to view the inside of the crater and then take the car farther south around the Needles District. Even though dry heat is much easier for me to tolerate than sweltering humidity, we were still pretty tired from a week of hiking and were anxious to fly home. This would be our “wind down” day, a day to decompress before we hightailed it up to Salt Lake City to catch our flight.

Pulling into the parking lot at 10:00 am, we got out of the car and studied the billboard at the start of the hike. With the whole day to kill time, we could dawdle. In our fanny packs were about two bottles each of water and the usual munchies I always carry because I can’t stand to be hungry. We also packed a lunch since all our food was back at the campsite and we knew we’d be gone until dinner. Luckily, the same guardian angel that kept me alive on many other occasions was watching over us that day: instead of leaving it on the front seat, we carried it with us. We had no idea that because of our over confidence and lack of preparedness, we would soon be swallowed up by this crater we had intended only to observe from above—and were lucky to get out alive. 

“Be prepared for a hike as demanding as it is dramatic,” the guidebook warned us. “Expect the initial descent and subsequent ascent to be steep and rugged, though both are brief. The ascent is on a particularly rough route, mildly exposed in two places where a burst of gymnastic effort is necessary to avoid an injurious fall. Alleviate these difficulties—plus gain the benefit of some timely post-exertion shade—by looping clockwise. The counter-clockwise hikers we’ve met here were distressed, admitting the trip was more time-consuming and arduous than they’d anticipated. Which also suggests this shouldn’t be your first-ever canyon-country outing; work up to it.”

Well, this helpful book was, of course, in the car, of no use to us sitting on the front seat. We intended to unwind this last day of our trip and just view the syncline valley from above. We certainly weren’t prepared for a grueling hike on a hot day in July. I was wearing the wrong boots.

We took the easy walk up to the rim described in the guidebook and on our way back to the car thought, Hmm…not much of a challenge there. It’s only 11:00 in the morning. Let’s be adventurous and see where the trail to the left leads.

Gene and I are big risk takers. Some of the risks I’ve taken with him were thrilling, like running rapids in Canada when we were too tired to portage. And some were stupid and self-destructive, like taking up smoking again with his brand, Camel non-filtered, so that we could share. This was one of the latter variety; you don’t mess around unprepared in canyon country in July.

So we took the trail to the left and began the counterclockwise loop, another reason why, as we were nearing the valley floor and met some hikers on their way back, we were “distressed.” And we were only two hours into the loop.

“How much farther?” we asked them, as we were struggling through some boulders.

They looked at us like we hadn’t read the book and offered, “Oh you’ve got a ways to go. Might have been easier to go clockwise.”

Thanks, pal. I already figured that out, I thought to myself, realizing how the sun would face and torture us all along this counterclockwise loop.

 “Gene, we should have asked them for some water,” I whined, already starting to project disaster and panic as I sneaked a peak to the left and saw where we needed to be before the sun went down. Oh shit, all the way up there?

“Don’t worry. We’re doing fine,” he said, trying to shut me up and allay his own growing fears that we had gotten in over our heads. I had a veritable Star Wars battle going on inside of me: good vs. bad. Bad represented the way I had learned to think for most of my life before I got into recovery. Pessimism, closed mindedness, and above all fear and panic. The last two used to drive me into caves of denial, avoidance, and ultimately, despair. 

We were soon to confront a situation that would require a serious change in attitude on my part. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t rise to the occasion on that day; I found myself falling into that familiar cave and trying to take Gene with me. 

The walk along the canyon floor seemed endless. Gene was distracting himself by studying the Chinle formation on the banks of the wash that snaked all along the valley floor. Mercifully dry, or we would have been further challenged.

Straight ahead in seven miles was the White Rim Road, and three miles before that was a campsite. But we had no provisions, no tent, nothing to comfortably make it through the night. All we could think about was getting back to our car, as we neared the seemingly sheer cliff we would need to scale in order to get back. 

It was at this point that I turned into a harpy of major proportions. My mother needled my father relentlessly to quit drinking so much during their marriage, and those nasty tapes found their way to my vocal chords in magnificent stereo. 

“Gene, for Chrissake, what are we gonna do? It’s five o’clock already! How could you get us into this mess? We’ve eaten all our food, we’re almost out of water, and we have a fucking mountain to climb! In three hours it’ll be dark, and of course you didn’t bring any headlamps. Did I leave anything out, Sherlock?” 

I was shaking with fear and panic. No need to look up at the cliff; we were at the base of it in its shadow. It was a long way to the top and the sun would be going down soon. It didn’t help me to see the shed skin of a huge snake on the side of the path.  I knew there were snakes in canyon country, deadly ones. And they come out at night when most intelligent people are roasting marshmallows around a campfire. 

Gene is different from me temperamentally. He keeps it all in. The more I continued hammering away at him, the more his fear and rage built up inside. At some point as we were silently putting one foot in front of the other, he took off in another direction. He just snapped. And he was carrying the water—all of it.

“Gene! Come back here! Where the hell did you go? You bastard! You have all the water!” 

Listening for his footsteps, I stayed on my path, cursing him every few minutes, wishing I had worn a megaphone. I finally gave up yelling, convinced he felt no remorse for leaving me in the lurch to make it out on my own.

This is where the rubber hit the road for me. This is where I drew on the strength that I had gotten from my mother and a handful of others over the years. I wish I could have looked over my left shoulder at the brilliant sunset and enjoyed the shadows and colors moving across the rocks, transforming their shapes as they went. But on this day, sunset meant dusk was coming, a very tricky kind of light followed by darkness. My adrenaline fully kicked in and I was on a mission to survive. I channeled all my rage into a fierce determination to get off this mountain and return unscathed. 

Thank God for cairns—small piles of rocks, placed at regular intervals, marking a pathway to show hikers where to go. I don’t remember when darkness set in but I do know that those cairns saved my life—the cairns and enough common sense to keep going up instead of across which is what I think Gene was doing to find an easier way out. Or maybe he just needed to get away from me. 

I loped my way up, following the trail marked by the cairns. Ignoring the pain in my legs and feet, moving forward and up was my only option. I had no water and was terribly thirsty, but I didn’t dare sit down to rest. I was afraid I wouldn’t get up, so I just kept going. And going, and going…snaking my way up the switchbacks that were endless, until finally I reached the crest of a hill, and I hoped that the worst was over.

Walking through a juniper grove I saw a hiker approaching me and asked him for some water. He gave me a whole liter, for which I was grateful, and I didn’t even ask him why he was going into the syncline valley at this hour. It was 10:00 pm. I made it refreshed into the parking lot and flagged down the last car that was leaving. Gene also had the keys to the car and the phone. I asked the people in the car to call Canyon Rescue to come get Gene off the mountain. Thank God someone was in the parking lot to make that call. Silver linings…

I lay on the cool floor of the public bathroom waiting for the squad to arrive. They went right in with whistles and an hour later they walked out with Gene. He was too dehydrated to walk, had been drinking his own urine, and had just been sitting there in the bushes…waiting. Thankfully he hadn’t passed out and could respond to the whistles.

When I saw them bring him down I ran to him in relief. But those feelings were short lived as the enormity of our mistake sunk in to me. We drove back to our campsite and slept. I think we were in shock from the experience. I forget how long it took for six of my toenails to loosen and fall off, just as Cheryl Strayed’s had in California, but it was painful. 

I have never known Gene, in all the years that we’d hiked together, to be anything less than assiduously prepared, to the point of dragging every topographical map we might need, extra food and water, extra clothing, first aid, and extra books which I told him I refused to carry. That’s why this near-death experience stands out in my mind as the exception. 

I hated him, briefly, afterwards and though I never seriously thought about leaving him, it did take me a while to sort it all out in my mind and use my recovery tools to return to the comfort zone we had been enjoying for many years. I was able to see my part in our disastrous communication that day and I took full responsibility for pushing Gene to the edge; he, too, accepted full responsibility for a horrendous lapse in judgment. I was certainly wearing the wrong boots on this trek and I lost my toenails because of it. But that was a small price to pay for what I found from the experience. We were still the right fit for each other. 

Anger, panic, and poor judgment got the better of both of us that day. And I managed to come out a hero. But for every instance of that sort of thing there have been ten more where he’s rescued me at great risk to himself. And of course it’s the risk itself that seduces us both. Gene and I have been on quite an exciting ride together—and it’s not over yet. I’m at home with him. I can unravel and be myself with him. I can find myself and lose myself and know without a doubt that he’ll still be there when I find myself again. Our adventures have taken us to many places, but so often they were just staging grounds for learning about ourselves. On this trip we saw ourselves at our very worst. And though the Dark Side took over in both of us on that day, we got lucky and survived to savor the lesson—and each other.

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