"Fly fishing is my passion, hunting is my weakness, and mules are a perplexing addiction."

Saturday, July 14, 2018

NORTH BY SOUTHWEST ( BY WESTEAST, BY…)






NORTH BY SOUTHWEST
( BY WESTEAST, BY…)

“Cañón de no Retorno,” he said, his cold, steely eyes piercing through me like a pair of daggers.  “HA HA HA HAAAAaa, haaaa, haaaa, haaaa, haaa, haaa, haaa, haaaa, haaaa…”
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     It was my own fault and I should have known better.  In fact, I did know better.  So why then did I agree to tag along with Duncan in the first place?  A hike into the rugged Santa Rosa Mountains I knew, without a doubt, couldn’t possibly end well.  A hike that would more than likely be the death of me, or worse?  A hike where my guide, one Duncan Harkleroad, would undoubtedly attempt to do me in at every turn in the trail, and where I would have to be ever-vigilant if I was going to stay one step ahead of his madness and prevent my being another of his casualties.  A hike where my dearly beloved, my soulmate, my sweetheart, my wife, Cathy, would now certainly get her itchy little hands on my life insurance and immediately jump on an airliner to head off on that Caribbean vacation she’s always wanted.  Why then, you ask, did I agree?  Because, I fear, it is just as Cat has steadfastly maintained for nearly twenty years; I’m an idiot!
     “Saw Duncan in town, he wants you to call him; he said he has someplace he wants to take you,” chirped Cathy, just back from her daily religious work out at The Yak and Cackle Fitness, Workout, and Gossip Center.
     “Aw geeze, dear, ya didn’t tell him I was home, did ya?”  I groaned.
     “Yessss, and I also told him you’d call.  He said it was important and that he had something he wanted to show you, so call him,” she said.  “Besides, what’s wrong with Duncan?  I think he’s a very nice man,” she added.
     “What’s wrong with Duncan,” I said, wondering what color the sky was in my bride’s world?   “Well duh, he’s nuts; that’s what’s wrong with him!”
     “Oh, that’s mean, he is not; he’s very nice.  Besides, he couldn’t be any more nuts than the rest of your goofy friends.  Lecil Hadley, there’s a Rogues scholar with a Mensa I Q.  And what about Harold Burch?  I'm surprised he even walks upright!”
       “Duncan is too nuts. I don’t mean crazy nuts; I mean he’s smart nuts; what’s a Mensa?”
     “So Duncan is smart, what’s wrong with that?  You could take a lesson you know,” she quipped, as I detected a slight note of sarcasm.
     “What’s wrong, my dear, is that he’s got to tell you about it, that’s what’s wrong with it,” I proceeded to explain.
     “Tell you about what,” she asked?
     “About anything, that’s what.  Duncan is a marathon talker.  Why do you think we have global warming?”
“WHAT?"  You’re not making any sense,” said Cathy.
     “I am too making sense; Duncan is the cause of global warming and I can prove it,” I said.
     “Oh boy, I can hardly wait for this,” she muttered.
     “See, Duncan talks so much that he’s sucked up all the oxygen out of the upper atmosphere and it’s created a hole in the ozone.  That’s why we have global warming!”
     “Gee honey, you should let Al Gore know about this.  Now call Duncan, please?”
     “And besides that, he’s killed at least five people that I know of.  Bet ya didn’t know that, did ya?”
     “What?  Oh, he has not.”
     “Yep, two from talkin’ `em to death and three from hikin’ `em until their legs fell off and they laid there on the trail and starved to death `cause Duncan didn’t even know they were dead for two days, he was so busy walkin’ and talkin’.
     “Oh he did not, just call him.”
     “Well, he almost did.”
     As I stared out the window, the phone ringing, I wondered what maniacal plot Duncan was up to.  I couldn’t let on that I was on to him, so I’d just have to play along and politely bow-out.
     “Hello,” answered the voice on the other end.
     “Hi, Duncan, Cat said you wanted me to call ya; what’s up?”
     “Tom!  Hey listen, I’ve got something I’d like to show you.  I think you’d really find it interesting.  It would mean a little hike, but nothing you couldn’t handle.”
     “Thanks, Duncan, but I don’t think…”
     “Besides, Tom, I need a real outdoor type to hike in with me.  Someone who’s tough and up to the challenge.  Right away I thought of you, Tom.”
     “Certainly you did, Duncan, and who wouldn’t, but I…”
     “Great, Tom, I’ll pick you up at five sharp.  We need to get an early start tomorrow.”
     “Five A.M.?  In the morning?”
     “Yeah, and don’t forget to pack a lunch.” Click!
     As I stood from my chair, Cathy was standing in the doorway, leaning up against the wall with her hands folded across her chest, and that annoying smirk on her face. With a downward glance, I grabbed a handful of waist in each hand.  Maybe I wasn’t as flabby as I thought, I wondered?
     “Honey, do you think I’m in shape?” I asked.
     “I’ll set the alarm,” she said, as she spun around and disappeared like a politician’s promise.
     Duncan Harkleroad truly is the toughest person I have ever known.  I don’t mean bar room, arm wrestling, cage-fighting tough.  I mean Energizer Bunny tough.  Duncan is the kind of tough that when common sense tells you to stop, you’re done, you’ve had enough, Duncan keeps right on going.  So you can imagine my joy when he pulled up in front of the house at 4:58 in the morning and honked his horn.
     “Get up, Thomas,” said Cathy, poking her elbow and three of her feet in my ribs with one of her jujitsy-pilate moves she’d learned at Yak and Cackles’.               “Duncan’s here, get up!”
     Now, the next to the last thing I needed that morning was Duncan’s annoying cheerfulness.  “Good morning, sunshine,” he chirped, as I opened the door and stuck my head inside.
     “What-ev-errr, Duncan, how long is this little hike of yours gonna be,” I asked?
     “Oh, seven or eight miles I’d say.  No more than twelve or fifteen,” he added, with one of his maniacal grins.  “That’s one way, ya know?”
     “Yeah, well hey, I got an idea; how about we take the mules and ride in?  It’ll only take a minute to load‘em up, and we can take my truck; whatta ya say?  It’d be a lot easier, Duncan.”
     “Naw, too dangerous,” he said.
     “Why, too rough of country to get mules back there,” I asked?
     “No, I’ve just seen you ride before; now get in and let’s go.”
     And the last thing I needed that morning was the contortion act it required to finagle my way into Duncan’s 1965 Fiat 500.  For those not old enough to remember, or simply unable to recall, the Fiat 500 was the forerunner to today’s Smart Cars; only smaller.  Actually, I think it was powered by a rubber band, and the 500 referred to the centimeters of room inside the cab.  Duncan had only owned three cars in his life, and this had been his third, and last, according to him.
     The truth is, Duncan isn’t exactly an imposing figure.  Shorter than a Taliban book on hygiene, he looks like someone who's been sawed off at the pockets.  He stands in at five-foot-a-minute-and-a-half in his hiking boots.  He was crammed into the driver’s seat with his hands at the ten and two position, and his chin jutted over the steering wheel, nose touching the windshield.  At six-two, imagine my glee at the prospect of attempting to squeeze into an area the size of a tuna can.
     Having a slight degree of difficulty as I wormed head-long into the front seat, it was much the same experience one might have crawling into your dryer at home.  Thankfully, Duncan lent a helpful hand to my struggle as he stomped on the gas pedal, and the momentum of the door smacked me in the fanny and catapulted me into a twisted ball against the floorboard, as his cartoon car sped out of the driveway.
     For the next hour-and-a-half I heard little to nothing of Duncan’s continual prattling about everything from politics to more politics.  From what I gathered, as I spent the better part of the twisty, ride down the mountain to the desert floor attempting to untangle and upright my twisted body from the floorboard,  was that the “Gummitt” is out to get us.  My only hope was that the “Gummitt” would come to my rescue and save me before the day was out. 
     Duncan pulled off the pavement and followed a desolate, dirt road for a couple of miles until we arrived at a locked gate.  Mercifully, Duncan stopped and yanked on the parking.
     “Here we are,” he announced.  “Grab your pack out of the trunk and let’s get going before it gets too hot,” he said, bouncing out of the car.
     Prying my way out of the front seat, I tumbled out of the car where I got my first look at the rugged Santa Rosa Mountains jutting abruptly from the desert floor like so many shark’s teeth.
     The hike up the sand wash to the base of the mountains was entertaining to say the least.  The fact that Duncan never seemed to run out of breath was annoying, to say the least, and while I was breathing heavier than an asthmatic watching a porn flick attempting to keep up with him, the really annoying part was the fact Duncan hadn’t shut up the entire way.
     “That’s Pennisetum setaceum, commonly known as Fountain Grass, over there, Tom.  It’s an invasive species that doesn’t…”  “To your right, Tom, is Tamaricaceae, you know it as Tamarisk …”  “I’m sure you recognize the Phoenix dactylifera, or Date Palms over there, Tom…”  “Now Tom, these are Synvanius comantasus, an interesting fact about…”
     We trudged steadily up the sand wash, gaining about a thousand feet in elevation and it was beginning to warm up.  Huffing and puffing like a Model T on Pike’s Peak, I stopped briefly to cough up a lung; it was at that point I noticed something oddly different.  At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but suddenly it hit me; no Duncan!
     It was absolutely tranquil and quiet, and Duncan was nowhere in sight.  Upon catching my breath and slowing my breathing to that of a Chihuahua in heat, I began following Duncan’s tracks up the wash.
     I continued following the wash about another half-a-mile.  It had now narrowed in width, and was rapidly becoming more of a canyon with its walls steepening.  About the time I was beginning to think Duncan might be twenty miles away, I rounded a corner and there he stood, his back to me, prattling away and unaware I was ever missing.  His neck was craned back and he was looking up a fifty-foot vertical, rock cliff, pointing.
      “And then up over there, Tom, is a charcoal pit dating back hundreds of years.  It’s where the Indians used to cook the agave plant, sort of like a big, pit bar-b-que.  And then over there, Tom, is…”
     As certain as prayers are answered, Duncan paused long enough to take a breath.  “That’s neat, Duncan, are we headed back now?” I asked, seizing the opportunity to chime in.
     “Oh no, Tom, we’re not even half way there yet,” he said, matter-of-factly.           “You see, Tom, we have to…”
     My heart sank faster than a bowling ball on the Titanic.  By the time Duncan began explaining how we were going up the rock face confronting us, and slither across the side of a mountain beyond it, then hike straight up the peak beyond that to the half-way point, and I forget what else, I got a sense of what hiking over the Alps with Hannibal must have been like.  I also couldn’t help but become aware that I had accumulated a sizeable collection of blisters on my feet as I took a swig of water from my canteen.
     Much like a lizard scampering up the side of a barn, Duncan grabbed a handhold on the rock and began climbing.  For the next forty minutes Duncan said nothing; constantly.  At last we managed to reach the top of the first outcropping and I plopped my fanny on a rock to take a breather and drink some water.  Panting like a dog on a rabbit hunt, I pulled my boot off to inspect my screaming feet.  Imagine my delight to discover one can indeed grow blisters atop of blisters.
     Before I could catch my breath and finagle my boot back on, Duncan was scaling the rock peak before us.  Steeper than a cow’s face, he was marching over rocks and boulders with all the obnoxious enthusiasm of a born-again vegetarian at a salad bar.
     “And over there, Tom, is where we’re headed; Canon de la Muerte.  That means Canyon of Death.  It got that name back when…”
     We hadn’t progressed a hundred yards and my tongue was hanging out a foot and forty inches.  “Duncan,” I panted, attempting to put a word between breaths.
     “Yes, Tom, what is it,” he answered, cheerful as a chipmunk.
     “Duncan,” I said, “Do- you- know- - - C-P- - -R?”
     “I sure do, Tom,” he chirped, not missing a stride
     “That’s- - - what I was- - - afraid of.”
     The forced march continued.  By the time we reached the mouth of Canon de la Muerte, Duncan’s half-way point, my kisser was drier than a mummy’s pocket and the temperature was in the mid-nineties.  Hopelessness turned to futility as I discovered my second canteen was now as empty as my first, so I quickened my pace to approximately that of a snail on fly paper in a frantic attempt to close the ever-widening gap Duncan was putting between us.  I needed water, and since Duncan was still keen as a Camel with three humps and hadn’t even touched his canteen, I felt it my duty to help lighten his load a bit.
     It wasn’t long before desperation set in.  Try as I might, I simply couldn’t catch sight of Duncan.  My situation was that of a duck in the desert.  My lifeline, in Duncan’s canteen, had long since disappeared and I was as wore out as a neck-wrung rooster from crawling and clawing my way over boulder after boulder.
     “D-un—can, Dun---c--an,” I called out.  There was only silence and a deafening stillness.  I was alone and Duncan had done it.  He had accomplished what he set out to do.  Without water I was a goner, and no one would ever know where I was.  In fact, Cathy was probably online at this very moment, making reservations for her trip to Tahiti!  Exhausted, and using every bit of strength I had left, I managed to drag myself under a tiny patch of shade beneath an overhanging rock to await the inevitable.
     Delirious and hallucinating, I drifted in and out of consciousness.  I could almost taste that cold beer waiting for me at the Pearly Gates.  Resigning myself to my fate, I drifted peacefully off to sleep.
I hadn't been asleep long when, from out of nowhere, a mountain lion, seizing opportunity, began clawing at my lifeless body.  It was like being prodded with a javelin pole.  The pain was excruciating and cause for alarm.
“Thomas, Thomas,” I heard a distant voice scream.  The screaming voice was growing louder.
     “Thomas, WAKE-UP!” the voice yelled, “Duncan is outside honking his horn!  Get up, THOMAS!!!”
     I was having a slight degree of difficulty as I squeezed head first into the front seat.  Thankfully, Duncan lent a helpful hand to my struggle, as he stomped on the gas pedal and the momentum of the door smacking me in the fanny catapulted me into a twisted ball, against the floorboard, as his tiny Fiat sped out of the driveway.  It would be a long day, and I’d have to remain ever vigilant!












 







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