Hiking

The 64 Dollar?

Have you ever heard people say, “the sixty-four dollar question?”  I heard that for years, never giving it much thought.  I don’t hear it much anymore.  More often hear people say, “the million dollar question.”

After exploring the internet I now realize there was a TV game show in the 1950’s called The $64,000 Question.  Pror to that in the late 1940’s there was a radio show called the $64 Question.  The Oxford dictionary actually defines the sixty-four thousand dollar question: something that is not known and on which a great deal depends.  It is of no real importance except that that there was one day in my life when I did have a sixty-four dollar question?  It may not have had a dollar value, but it most definitely had the 64, and a big question indeed.

There is a state park in Northwest Texas called Caprock Canyons State Park.  Near the park is an abandoned railroad that has sixty-four miles of hiking/trail bike riding available to the public.  I had the brilliant (actually dumb) idea to try and hike the 64 miles in one day.  I had done some very challenging hikes prior to this decision.  One was a 32 mile extremely difficult hike of hilly mountainous terrain.  It took me about 16 hours.  I figured with the flat terrain of a railroad track I could make better time.  The railroad ties and rails had been removed years before.

To check out the trail my oldest son and I completed a twelve mile hike on a portion of the abandoned railway to judge how rocky the path was.  No problem, good traction.  He had been training for a 10k race so he was in decent shape.  There was one major problem however.  The trail is actually a straight 64 miles, not a loop.  To solve this logistical problem I had my wife follow us(about a 3 hour drive from our home) to the end of the trailhead, where I left my vehicle.

She then drove us to the beginning of the trail to drop us off.  Needless to say, a lot of driving for her.  I noticed some clouds building in the distance and gave an uneasy wave as she drove off.  She had a sad look of resignation on her face conveying, “I wish you guys weren’t doing this.” I watched as the car distanced itself from our view.  No turning back now.  We took a deep breath and began our journey.  It was 6 PM.

I figured we could average walking at least 3 miles an hour, so it was possible we could do it in 24 hours.  Everything would have to go well.  Some of my other hikes I had started and finished in the dark, so I experienced that previously.  I also felt I had the stamina to keep moving for 24 hours.  We would rest about 10 minutes every hour and 30 minutes every 4 hours.  I admit it would be tight, but even if we didn’t make it in 24 hours, I thought we could finish the trek.       

The first two hours was no sweat.  Then I noticed the clouds were not dark, they were almost black.  Within minutes we had donned our raingear before the rain hit us.  Fortunately, it was not a downpour so to speak, but it was a Texas thunderstorm.  We keep going, but the path was now muddy.  The rain picked up, and darkness descended.  The trail now had several inches of water covering it so our pace slowed.  It was literally pitch black except for the flash and then burst of lightening.  After about four hours we came to a railroad tunnel but I told my son we did want to linger.  As a matter of fact I advised, “don’t breath too heavily and let’s get through here quickly, this tunnel has thousands of bats.”  You could not only smell the guano(bat poop) but feel it as you walked:  a soft, powdery feel.  I guess the Texas heat had dried it to a fine dust.

tunnel on trailhead of Caprock Canyon state park

Exiting the tunnel we trudged on. We now embarked on the portion of the trail we had hiked in preparation.   It is quite scenic, but not at night, much less in the rain.  The thunderstorm had passed but unfortunately it continued to drizzle.  Not heavy, but it never did stop.  The hours passed.  We had rested several times to change out of our wet socks but it would not last long before our feet were wet again.  After about 24 miles we came to a small town that the railroad used to go through.  About a hundred yards off the trail I noticed a 24 hour gas station.  It was about 2 a.m.  The lone cashier was not comfortable with two wet, dirty guys getting some hot chocolate.  Even though it was June in Texas, we were cold.  We rested about an hour.

I began to access our situation.  Our backpacks were wet including all our spare socks.  It does not take long to get blisters when your feet are wet.  I demanded my son let me look at his feet.  He implied he was fine.  Sure enough, he had blisters.  He wanted to keep going.  40 miles to go: no way.  I too was  no longer up to the challenge.  Every now and then a car would stop at the station and I would inquire if they were headed in the direction where I had left my vehicle.  No one was interested in giving us a ride.  I didn’t blame them.  Several hours passed outside the gas station, which I know made the attendant uneasy.

I remembered there was a Ranger station about four miles out of town.  I know my son was not feeling well.  I also know he would not let me know if he was really hurting.  I made the decision to trek to the Ranger station which my son was able to do.  We got there before anyone had arrived and slept until the Ranger arrived.  I was ashamed to tell him of our misguided adventure as I now realize there were just too many ifs.  Sometimes you have to take risks if you’re going to get out of you comfort zone.  This ended up being too many.  He was very gracious and offered a ride to my truck, which I was so glad to see.  My quest had failed.  Even worse, was having to ask help from the Ranger.  I’m still ashamed of that even though it was the right decision.

My son still tells me he had a good experience.  He loved being out in the middle of nowhere with the lightening blazing.  As for me, I’m thankful for the park Ranger.  I’m also thankful the Lord was watching over us that night.  There is only one ranger station on the 64 mile stretch, just when we needed it.  So there you have it, the answer to my $64?  I was not able to hike 64 miles in one day.  Did not even come close, but it was an adventure.  For a much less challenging and more fun adventure please visit www.TreasureTrovegame.com

Big Bend Trek

Big bend sign

             It was about 4:30 A.M. when the alarm went off.  Not many words were spoken as we gathered our hiking gear.  It had all been set out the night before and now was the time to get on with the task.  Tony was in his mid 30’s, in excellent physical shape, and an avid hiker.  More importantly he is tough mentally which is what one needs on a difficult challenge such as we were about to embark on.  Dave was 52, but a marathoner, so not much question of his endurance.  Then there was me at age 45, in pretty good shape but not an experienced long distance hiker.

          Tony had forewarned us it would a 32 mile trek, but the catch was it would not be easy terrain.  We would have to climb a good portion of the trail, almost 3 miles towards the tallest point in Big Bend: Emory Peak at an elevation of about 7800 feet.  After a descent of about 3 miles we would follow a sandy creek bed for about 5 miles.  At that point the hike traverses approximately 11 miles of desert.  It would be followed by 4 miles of flat terrain, then up and down again.  What type of desert I asked?

          “I don’t know,” he said “I’ve never hiked the desert portion of this trail.  I have done the first 11 miles going one direction and on a separate hike the back 10 miles but not the 11 miles of desert in the middle of the hike.  You can do it he reassured me.”  I know he meant well but I had some reservations.

Hiking the trek

          A few years earlier I had done the hike to the peak by myself and although it went well it was no piece of cake.  Hiking in Big Bend seldom is.  The trails are rocky and often steep but the real problem is water.  You must carry your own water and with the heat that can mean a lot which is heavy.  For a 32 mile hike about 3 gallons is needed to be safe.  Put that on your back and you will quickly see what I mean.

          We were on the trail before 5 a.m. and although we were headed up it was easy.  Good cool weather all the way up and pleasant as we headed down.  By the time we reached the desert portion of the trail in mid morning we were a little behind schedule.  We were a good distance from any help when Tony hollered to forewarn us of the rattler sun bathing on the trail that he almost stepped on.  Not many hikers venture onto this particular part of Big Bend known as the Dodson trail.  A snake bite here could be very dangerous especially with our remoteness.  When hiking in Big Bend that is a risk hikers accept.

       The desert portion which none of us had been on before was anything but flat.  It was mostly steep hills, up and down, one after another, mile after mile.  Thorny scrubs and cacti encroached on the seldom trodden rocky path scratching at our lower legs.  The hours melted away; the temperature rose.  My trick for being out in the sun is to cover up; wide brimmed, hat and long sleeve shirt.  I learned that from my grandfather who worked a small Texas ranch for over 50 years.

          By midday our water was lukewarm at best but we forced ourselves to hydrate.  If you don’t, you can get muscle cramps and even heat exhaustion.  I also forced down some food on our occasional breaks.  Not that one is hungry but you have to snack to replenish needed energy.  I laughed as I told Tony this was anything but flat desert.  He smiled but I could see the concern on his face.  We needed to make better time, and Tony was ready to move. Dave and I unfortunately were slowing him down. 

          By 2 o’clock in the afternoon we had actually reached more of a flat portion of the Dodson trail, basically five miles of dry rocky creek bed with some scraggly plants.  For shade we would occasionally crouch under a bush.  As the temperature continued to rise we began to sweat profusely.  All conversation ceased as we strained to keep focused on the creek bed trail.  Tony tried to encourage us, “the worst part of the trail is just about over, it gets better just around the bend,” he said.  But then there they were.

          It was almost 5 o’clock in the evening when we encountered two men crouched under a bush.  We had had been hiking almost 12 hours and had not seen one person all day.  One had a black eye patch, and neither looked very friendly.  Tony ventured a comment.  “How are you guys?”

          “We came out here to get away from people,” one responded directly.  I quickly shifted to prayer mood hoping this wasn’t the day.  “Where are you from Tony asked?”

          “Houston. Too many people, we came to see the stars not people.” 

          Tony quickly offered, “We’re just passing through,” as he continued on the trail.  Dave was next politely saying “how are you?”  They muttered, “Fine.”  My eyes scanned them as I was the last to follow.  I offered a timid, “hello.”  A head nod ensued.  My head tilted slightly back as we pressed forward.  The thought raced through my mind that we would never be found out her in the middle of, “no wheresville.”  I noticed our gait picked up a bit.  Fine with me as we trudged on while my mind wondered just how did they get out here?  

         We were tired, we were spent, and frankly I didn’t know where we were.  Tony had the map and he was leading.  I did know we were far away from any help should it be necessary.  We had carried our snakebite kits and accepted that possibility.  Black bears are unlikely and unless a mother is with her cubs they are not aggressive.  The wild pig thing if you keep your distance is probably not a hindrance.  The mountain lion has always lurked in the back of my mind but with several of us together we could probably hold our own.  However, I had not anticipated the dreaded “Deliverance,” thing.  I choose not to look back, hoping nothing was going to happen.         deliverance movie poster                 

          Suddenly Dave bent over in obvious pain grasping his walking stick as he tried to keep his balance.  “What is it I asked?”

          “Cramps,” he moaned, his eyes showed a lot of discomfort.  We tucked him under a bush to capture some shade.  I encouraged him to drink which is hard to do when you get to that point of fatigue.  We began wondering how we were going to finish the hike, when and how.  The dreaded thought “what have I got myself into raced through my mind.”

          It was doubtful Dave could do much more trekking so we began to weigh our options.  Tony did not like the idea of being out in Big Bend at night and wanted to avoid that if at all possible.  “Let’s go back to those guys.” he said.  

            “How did they get out here anyway I asked?

        “According to the map there may be a road to that point.  It’s possible they drove out here.  We can backtrack two miles and if they have a vehicle they might offer us a ride out of here,” Tony offered with his usual optimism.  “You guys wait here as I go back,” talking as he headed off.  “Great, I thought,” if he doesn’t come back I will still have to find a way to see what happened to him.  Time passed.  Finally a figure appeared on the distance of the trail waving.  I could tell it was Tony but waited a moment wondering if he was alone.  As he approached his voice seemed reassuring.  “They’re fine and they have a truck to help.”

Tony and I helped Dave back for a mile or so and then told Tony I wanted to finish this thing.  Tony said he was about done and would stay with Dave and for me to press on.  I felt a bit selfish but he understood how I felt.  “Be careful of the area about four miles ahead,” Tony cautioned, “I saw bears there the last time I hiked there.  With dusk approaching they may be out and about.”

            I knew I had miles and miles to go but had found a new desire to press on.  Nighttime quickly descended and with a full moon I tried to travel as much as I could with moonlight in order to save my flashlight.  I did not have a lot of water left but would be fine if I didn’t guzzle it.  The trek back up the mountain was markedly steep but my legs surprisingly felt good.  Tears welled in my eyes.  I felt so alive and at the moment.  I also felt the Lord’s presence.  Tired, thirsty, hungry, and a bit lost (I forgot to get Tony’s map), but I felt all was going to be fine.  The hours passed.  I passed the bear area Tony mentioned but a sign on the trail read, “Beware of mountain lions.”  I was too tired to care much at this point; I would be easy prey. 

             A little concern came upon me about midnight when realized I had ventured off the trail.  It was a dead end.  My flashlight revealed shallow cliffs all around me and my ankles were covered in leaves; obviously a shallow place where water collects, and unfortunately snakes.  I needed to exit here quickly.  Don’t panic I reminded myself, just try to backtrack.  It did not take too long to work my way back to what I hoped was the trail which I followed. 

              About 1 A.M. I could see lights of buildings.  By this time I was going downhill, thankfully.  My adventure ended about 2 A.M.  Dave was waiting for me at the door with some cool Gatorade.  I thought it was a thoughtful thing to have done.  “I had been praying for you,” he said.  I tried to hide my tear of appreciation.  Tony rolled in his makeshift bed and chuckled, “I knew he would be fine,” and rolled back over to sleep. 

                The next morning we stopped at the Ranger station that has a three dimensional map of the trails.  One of the park rangers asked, “Where did you hike?”

            “The Dodson trail,” we responded.  “Tough one,” she said. “A three day hike.  Someone died on that trail last year.  He didn’t carry enough water.”  She asked, “How many days did it take you?”

              “He did it in one,” Dave pointed at me.  “Never heard of that before and I’ve been here years,” she offered.  I didn’t want her to know how miserable I felt, every muscle in my body hurting.  I did have a feeling of accomplishment at the moment.  I was also too tired to respond as I quietly smiled.

               As we left the park my eyes welled with tears.  It always does when I fell the Lord had blessed me with a safe and fruitful adventure.  I will always have my memories of the hike but I mostly treasure the trust I felt with my friends and the feeling that the Lord was with me.  Those of us who walk in the Kingdom of the Lord cherish these feelings.  They are worth more than gold and silver.