THE TACHYCARDIA TRAIL, Part II
Two Sides to Every Coin
Brian “Grumpy” Jensen
So live your life that the fear of death never enters your heart.
“What in the hell to do mean you don’t have your meds with you?!” I was awestruck to hear this reply back from my friend. Scot had introduced me to this country and finding old things in it, some years back. I couldn’t believe he was unprepared.
We had started the second day descending into the canyon from the West access, looking for old stuff we hadn’t seen from the other side. We had parked the Jeep off the side of the road and started cross-country to get to the rim, where we could find a way down from the top. Like normal in this country, it’s not always easy to get to where you want to go. Ledges, sheer drop-offs, and just plain mean country stands in your way. But it’s the desert and if you look hard enough there is usually a way.
After sliding, scaling, and boulder hopping we had found our way to the bottom, finally walking on solid, somewhat flat ground. It was warm for early spring but that may have been from being in the bottom of the canyon. Sheer, sandstone cliffs blocked the cool breezes. We worked our way further down canyon looking for what we had come to find, laughing and sweating the whole way.
Down canyon, we stumbled onto a stream. There’s water in this arid country and you can find it if you know where to look. Following it east we walked into an old cowboy camp. Rusted cans, broken bottles and other artifacts littered the ground. We spent the better part of an hour poking around the debris field and Scot found an old pocketknife in the sand under an overhanging ledge. We talked about how hard it would have been getting into the backcountry on horseback, bringing in all your goods in pack saddles and carving out a living running cows in country like this. We stared east down canyon, quietly wondering between ourselves: “where did the trail start and end?”
Lunch and the beginning.
We ate our food, waited out the hottest part of the day in the shade, and talked about how we wanted to approach getting out of where we were. We didn’t want to backtrack – takes too much time and it was getting later in the day. In this country you can find yourself lost on the route home: so many trails you start up end in a canyon and a pour over you can’t get out of. So backtracking sometimes has to be done. We chose a direction and started that way.
We had gone about a half-mile when Scot stated that lunch wasn’t agreeing with him and asked if we could take about a half hour break and a quick nap. We found a shaded spot and he lay down for a bit while I looked for a way out and other treasures you may find on the ground. Returning after a bit I found Scot sitting up but not looking much better. He said he was fine and wanted to get moving. Another quarter mile and he needed a break. And so it begins – 100 yards and a break, 100 yards and a break. He keeps telling me it just feels like indigestion. And we still have no idea how to get out of this canyon.
An elk track. Holy shit! An elk track in this arid country; but then, it is part of one of the better draw units in the state. Well, if the elk know a way out of here, better follow them. This is their country. I was just an interloper.
Daylight is fading and we’re still working our way up and out. The elk tracks are staying constant and seem to be heading in a straight line up this sort of ridge and face. Now if we just don’t come to a tricky section that things on four legs can navigate better than things on two legs, one of which is half wounded and not moving very well.
Still trying to coach Scot up the hill, “Come on buddy you can do, it just a bit further.” The best we are making is 100-150 yards before a rest. My mind is reeling on what options we have in front of us. It’s getting darker by the minute and cooling down as it does when the sun sets in this country. It can go from the mid-nineties to the mid-forties in no time because the country doesn’t hold the heat well.
Finally, the flat or mostly flat top!. We’re out of the steep stuff and now we can make better and faster progress – or so I thought. We had ambulated about a quarter mile when Scot said he wanted to lie down and rest. As he was lying on the ground he asked me to take his pulse. This came as an odd request, but I did as instructed. First time, no that can be right. Second time, no still not right. Third time, same reading. Well I couldn’t have screwed it up three times. My degree is in sports medicine so I really couldn’t believe what I got. Scot looked up and said, “Well what did you come up with, man?” “Two hundred forty beats a minute.” “No that can’t be right; take it again.” “Scot I took it three times, double-checked my math and that’s what I got, give or take two to three beats.” Scots reply was to roll on his side and vomit.
Shit. Now what? Options rolling around in my small brainpan. One, build a fire and leaving him here with enough wood to keep it going and head for the truck alone and get his meds. Decided against that one on the off chance Scot would pass out and not keep the fire going, and I wouldn’t be able to find him on my return trip. Two, spend the night where we were at, with what we had in our pack and move out in the morning. Nope Scot needs his meds. Three, just continue at whatever pace Scot can keep and just get as close to the truck as we could so it took less work to get his damned, rotting carcass out by the rescue team. Four, as I usually hunt alone a lot, I carry a GPS locator in case I get into trouble. Activate the 911 mode on it and bring in EMS. Scot was against except as a last resort. Ok, guess we are walking out of here.
As Scot rested for a little more I walked to the top of a small hill to get my bearings before it got too dark. As I crested the rise I was a bit relieved to see the pour over we had walked around the day prior. Now I knew we could get out and to the road but it was further away than I would have liked. Back to Scot telling him the good news and lying through my teeth on the distance. “Not much further buddy, think we’ll make it.”
All right let’s get you up, your headlamp on and I’ll carry your backpack. Where is your headlamp? Top compartment on the pack. Nope not their friend, where else? Try the lower big compartment. Nope not there either. All right it must be in the front compartment. Nope try again. Well, maybe I didn’t remember it put it in. “Are you shitting me?” is what I believed slipped out of my mouth, pretty sure another word came before that but don’t want to offend readers.
With the contents of my pack dumped on the ground I started looking for a backup light. From amongst the pile of gear I was sorting on the ground, like a child moves coins around looking for a quarter, out rolls a very small flashlight. Pushing the small red button on the end it glowed to life. “Well, it’s better than nothing,” I thought. Handing it to Scot, I felt like I had just handed him a dagger and asked him to move up front and lead the Braveheart charge across the open field. As he stared at it blankly in his large hand, I told him it was time to start moving.
Darkness had fully encompassed us and it was a few hours before the moon would rise. In the desert, darkness is a usually a soft cool cloak that wraps itself around you and brings you comfort. Tonight it was more of a hindrance. Scot’s meager light was only shining about five feet in front of him and not illuminating the tripping hazards. The vomiting is increasing and I’m starting to worry about dehydration in addition to his condition. Shit. I’m really going to kill this man when we get out of here and get him better. With my headlamp splitting the night like a light on the front of a train moving through the darkness, we moved forward at a snail’s pace.
I had taken a good bearing before darkness had engulfed us and felt like I was following true to it. To my left should be the canyon edge and I had been purposely easing toward where I knew the rock pushed the dirt and trees back away from the edge. The red rock kept its promise (or, the red rock won out). One small hill and we should be out of this soft dirt and on solid footing, I hoped.
Talking Scot up the last little hill while swearing in between each word of encouragement, we crested the last hill and walked out on solid rock. One more obstacle cleared. No more soft dirt and sage to trip us up. By this time I had used up every swear word I knew and had made up a few new ones. The moon had started to rise and would help illuminate the rock path. A full moon would have been nice but I’ll take a half moon over nothing. I decided to give Scot a good rest period and see where we at after the moon had ascended a bit higher in the sky.
I walked out where the rock became sheer and fell straight down to the level where we had been the day before, I squatted to wait. A cool wind penetrated my light jacket, caressing my skin, bringing goosebumps, and sending a shiver down my spine as it dried the sweat that had accumulated during the death march. A bit more time and the moon would be up and I could reacquire my bearings – we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. Scot was lying down on the rock letting it cool him off and slow his breathing. I looked over my shoulder to ask how he was doing and he rolled on his side and vomited. Guess I got my answer. Shit. This has to end soon or I’m using the GPS and get help on the way whether he likes it or not. Time ticked on, moonlight was finally pushing darkness back among the trees and rocks.
My heart skipped a beat or two as the rising lunar orb revealed the country to me. I was standing on the rock ledge that we had taken a break on, where the birds had bombarded us the day before. After we had found an escape from the lower bowels of the canyon, Scot and I were surveying the terrain when from out of nowhere the little black missiles were on us. Swallows, the feathered bullet of the desert. What seemed like hundreds were above our heads darting this way and that. Some would come screaming down over our heads, missing us by mere feet only to get past us, make a hard left or right closed pattern, go upwind, and do it again. Others just seemed to be chasing an unseen bug to Scot or me, but it was mesmerizing. Monkey head, a formation we had named the day before, would be about two hundred yards to my right. We were closer than I thought.
I turned back to see if Scot was still among the living or if I was going to pile rocks on him so the coyotes didn’t get to his miserable corpse until I could lead a recovery party in the next day. Luckily he was still conscious; guess I didn’t need to go start finding burial rock and make my night longer. “Hey buddy we aren’t far from monkey head, so not much further to the head of the canyon and road. You ready to travel a bit and get to the road and the hell out of here?” I’d need a whiskey, or several, after tonight. A “yes” through ragged breaths was all he could muster. Getting to his feet, still clutching his little light, like a child holds their parents’ hand for safety, we moved forward.
As the ice formation under the pour over came into view, I knew we were almost out. Now just to get him down a small hill and up the other side. The going down went ok to cross the streambed but the going up was a bit tougher. I’m sure it was like climbing Everest at 22,000 feet with no oxygen to Scot, but he finally crawled to the top and rolled over onto the two-track road we had driven in on. We were almost out.
After making him comfortable I told him I was heading for the Jeep. I asked if he wanted me to build a fire and he said he could manage, plus it would give him something to occupy his mind while I made the jog, run, fast walk, back to the outfit. Dumping my pack next to Scot and lightening my load, I headed out to grab our carriage out of here. He may just live yet.
Where in the hell is the damn Jeep? I know it should be right here. Things look different in the dark but I knew I was close. The mile and a half or so trek had been full of tree roots, hidden rock, and multiple minor tripping hazards. My shins and feet were hurting and I wanted my way out of here. I wanted it now. Moving a bit further down the road I stepped past a cedar tree and there, bathed in the moonlight, was the Jeep. Now where did he tell me he put the damn keys?
Found them and slammed them into the ignition. The motor and headlights fired up, pushing the night further back. I dropped it into gear and smashed the gas to the floor. The jeep launched out of its resting place of the last several hours and rolled onto the two-track like it had a purpose.
Driving the outfit as if I stole it I rolled up the road, finding all the tripping hazards, rocks, and tree roots I had found on the run down. After navigating a few blind curves, gulley’s, and low hanging trees I had forgotten about, I rolled up slowly to Scot as not to cover him with dust. His head was hanging over his knees and the fire wasn’t lit. Nope, not happening buddy, I’ve brought you too far for you to expire now. If you are, I’m leaving you to mummify in the desert heat. Rolling the window down, sticking my head out, I asked if he was lost and need a ride, in my best mountain guide sort of voice. Slowly his head started to rise and small crooked grin touched one side of his mouth. Well, I guess you can rise from dead. “Well shit man, don’t just sit there grab you gear and throw it in!” The smile started to touch the other side of the mouth. Yip, he’ll live. We loaded up and headed out.
You read about the bickering during the ride out in Scot’s rendition of the fun-filled night so I won’t go into it. Once we could keep his meds down and his heart rate dropped to something that resembled normal, things got better. Back at I camp rolled him into his tent. I think I gave him a whistle to wake me if he didn’t die in his sleep and needed something. I mixed myself several drinks, walked by his tent to make sure his breathing hadn’t stopped, climbed into my bag, and forgot the conscious world until the sun drove me back into the world of the living the next day.