Monday, July 19, 2010

Death and Dirt

(A view from the fourth summit of Buford Mountain)

Buford Mountain is the third highest mountain in Missouri, and the trail that climbs it and loops back is 12 miles or so in length, if measured from where you have to park. The first two or three miles of the trail is a steep and relentless rocky ascent, with a 700 foot gain in elevation. Once you’ve climbed to the top, the trail continues for about three miles along the ridge of the mountain, then descends on the eastern side, making its way through dry creek beds, until it ascends again 700 feet steeply to the crest and retraces the path to the parking area. So two ascents up the same mountain that are not so bad if you’re in shape, unless it’s 95 degrees and humid, which it was.

I’ve hiked all over the world, and this is by far the most remote hike I’ve ever been on. I saw not only no other hikers, but no signs of hikers – no footprints in the two or three spots where the ground was soft, and this being a Missouri “conservation area” and not a state park, very few hikers know about it or make the hour-and-a-half drive from the suburbs to walk it, especially on a weekday where the heat index was well over 100. Even in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the back trails of Washington’s Mount Rainier, or a canyon in the outback of Western Australia, I’ve always come across other hikers. But not on Buford Mountain.

I had about a gallon of water with me. But to my surprise, I had drunk all of it by the time I was only a third of the way into the hike. I did not have my dog, as I was planning on going from Buford Mountain to Imperial, Missouri, to see my daughter Kerry play in a basketball game. My cell phone had a signal throughout, and so I forged ahead, even after running out of water, thinking that the oppressive heat and humidity would not take too terrible a toll, since I was out of direct sunlight except for when I was at the rhyolite balds at the peak.

But things started to go bad.

I had been praying and writing the plot of our latest play and enjoying the walk, and even though my shirt was soaking wet and even though my sweat running down from my chest had made my blue jeans begin to look like I had wet myself, I was doing fine without water, until the second ascent of the mountain. The loop had taken me about two-thirds of the way through the hike, and then the fierce re-ascent began. I had to keep stopping and resting, and by the time I had gotten to what must have been 100 feet or so from the crest, I knew I could go no further. I collapsed beside a boulder along the trail and looked at my cell phone clock. It was 3:40 pm.

I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and agitated. I was breathing very rapidly and shallowly. A kind of panic was threatening to set in. I knew I could easily pass out at this point, so I decided I would simply sit in the shade beside this boulder until my respiration improved and I could climb the rest of the way to the top, after which the path to the car was mostly down hill. But by 4:00 – after twenty minutes of rest – my breathing had not improved. It was just as rapid and shallow as ever and I knew I was not cooling off. I was in a serious mixture of physical pain and agitation the whole time, praying and praying. “I’m not getting cooler!” I said to myself! “I’m not catching my breath!”

I knew throughout this whole twenty minute span that I was in the midst of heat exhaustion, very close to heat stroke, and that considering where I was, I would probably not make it out of the woods alive. Even a call to 911 would have meant an ambulance dispatched from the nearest hospital, which was probably 45 minutes away, with the paramedics forced to hike to me, and I was perhaps two hours in if they took the most direct part of the loop to get to me. I was deep in the forest, in a spot inaccessible to helicopters, and even the bald dome of the peak was covered with too many jagged boulders to make landing on the mountain feasible. I would have been better off in the midst of the Arizona desert where copters are often sent to rescue hikers.

This was all on the anniversary of the death of Hilaire Belloc, one of my favorite authors, a man who devoted his life to walking, and whose feast day I was about to share.

And so in the midst of this, and in the midst of my fervent prayers, I thought, “What would Bear Grylls do?” or WWBGD? He’s the host of the wilderness survival show Man vs. Nature, and though I had not seen enough episodes to recall how he dealt with extreme heat and humidity, I said to myself, “The only thing cool that’s anywhere near me is the soil underneath these leaves.” So I stripped off my soaking wet clothes, began digging in the dirt, and covered myself with soil from head to foot, throwing dust on my head like the Old Testament mourners.

And I immediately began to cool off. Within five or ten minutes my breathing was back to normal, and I knew I would be OK. I left my sopping wet t-shirt and blue jeans and underwear on the boulder, put my cell phone, wallet, keys and sunscreen in my backpack, put on my sweat soaked socks and hiking boots, and continued to tackle the ascent.

So there I was covered with dirt, walking naked through the forest, brown from the mud from top to toe. I was not worried about running across any other hikers, as I knew I was nowhere near people. I had seen no power lines, fences, litter, footprints. I also knew I had a pair of gym shorts in the car, if I could indeed make it back. The trail all along had been unmarked and unmaintained, with fallen trees frequently blocking the way and blackberry bushes growing in the path any time there was enough sunlight to make it through the canopy. The blackberries were welcome and helped sustain me, but the thorns were not, with my bare legs now getting pretty scratched up.

I came upon a small stagnant waterhole on my left just before the summit, filled with cat tails and frogs. It was two feet deep at its deepest, but deep enough for me to submerge myself and find a thin layer of cool water on the bottom.

By 5:45, I had made it back to my car, where I sat in the full-force of the AC thanking God for my rescue. I brushed off the dirt, put on the shorts and an extra t-shirt that was in the front seat, and drove to the nearest gas station, which the GPS told me was 7.4 miles away, and became almost sick after drinking a cold sports drink. The 90 minute drive home was difficult, as I kept feeling nauseated and either too hot or too cold all the way.

I had missed Kerry’s basketball game, but I had made it out of the woods.

And while this was not my first brush with death, all of my other near-misses have happened within a few seconds here or a few seconds there. Never have I had a full twenty minutes of knowing that my chances of survival were less than my chances of dying.

And what was the lesson of all of this?

First, there’s the obvious practical lesson that we can all learn. Don’t mess with Mother Nature. We are so used to our pampered, climate controlled lives that we forget how awesome and unforgiving nature is. It was stupid of me to attempt this hike on such a steam bath of a day. It was stupid not to have more water, stupid not to turn back as soon as the water ran out. I did have my sunscreen, bug spray, and Bactine with me, along with my cell phone and hat and a good pair of hiking boots, as well as a topo map of the hike; but a remote 12 mile hike with 1400 feet of vertical elevation gain on a day with a heat index well over 100 is simply foolish.

(picture of a rattlesnake that confronted me on a Missouri hike two years ago)

And then there’s the symbolism of burying myself in order to save myself. The ashes to ashes, dust to dust experience of covering myself with mud in order not to die is very humbling.

But what amazes me is that at my worst moments on this hike I had God and my saints and angels. I did not want to die, and I was grabbing onto Our Lord more tightly than ever, and I knew He was there for me. And although I felt a physical and emotional agitation, the agitation I felt was not a fear of death, oddly. I was praying to avoid it, and trying to figure out how to avoid it, but I was not afraid of it. It’s a hard thing to explain, but if you can trust God at the brink of death, then you can certainly trust Him with things like booking shows or paying the mortgage or sending your son off to college – all things that have recently been giving me anxiety.

So now it’s back to work, and all of the adventures that come with that. But as hard as a typical day running two businesses used to seem to me – by comparison it is now a (pardon the expression) walk in the woods.

(these were all pictures from my cell phone, including this one that I took in a Kansas church a few years ago. The glowing crown of lights to the right of Our Lady came physically from nowhere I could determine.)