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Part 4: ‘If we make it through December’

(Today’s column is Part 4 of an ongoing series, ‘Lost in Yellowstone.’)

It may have been a premonition of things to come. Some distance past the steaming geysers at the foot of the Red Mountains, the four of us divided into two parties. Still, as with all the ‘dividing up’ that would take place in the coming days, it was for the best with the circumstances. At least one group needed to make it to the campsite before nightfall.

Something from a little earlier that evening seemed stuck in my head (It’s funny the little things you remember as you look back and relive events such as these.) We had gone far enough down that mountain that some of us were beginning to struggle, and somebody mentioned “when we get to camp tonight.” I appreciated the optimism, but my legs and lungs were having their doubts. I replied with the little breath I had left, “Lord, help me make it through the night,” which is a reference to an old country song. Roy upped me one, though, and quipped,

“Yep, Coach,” he said, “we’ll be good … if we make it through December.”

I smiled at that, because I knew that country tune well. One thing Roy and I had an upper hand on the other two was old tunes or other matters stored deep in the backwoods of nostalgia. As we said in the beginning, we were ‘experienced.’ You understand.

Merle Haggard popularized that song back in the early 1970s, and I didn’t know at the time that its catchy tune would be echoing in my head during this whole trip, and beyond. The younger generation, I’m sure, will have to Google ‘If we make it through December’ really fast to get up to speed, especially since its message kind of becomes a theme for this foursome’s journey. If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be all right, I know. It’s the coldest time of winter, and I shiver when I see the falling snow …”

Of course, we weren’t going to see any falling snow in the heat bowl we were entering, but Mount Sheridan to the south of us did have snow pockets still up near its crest, snow that is hanging on until the very end. Kind of like we would have to do before things were all said and done.

I also could not help but smiling when I saw that Merle Haggard’s song came out in 1974. That was the year I began another journey, leaving high school and moving on toward that long Yellowstone-esque journey lying ahead for the next few decades.

1974. It’s good to be back there again.

I made it through December then, and I my hope was that we all could make it through this time, too.

At times, I had my doubts.

Todd and Roy forged on ahead of us after the passing of those geysers, now fuming well behind us. Randy stayed back to hike with me on in. Poor Randy Butler never was able to get it out of first gear from having to hang back. At 36 and in great shape, this pace was a crawl. His trip back up, a bit later, would be even slower, far more slowly, in fact. But he was a trooper and understood the necessity of our watching out for one another. Randy is a quiet man, harder to read than most, very introspective. But as I watched him during this trip, I saw a man who seemed to fold himself after the biblical principle of thinking more of others than you do of yourself. Thirty-six years old, in shape with the chest of a super-hero (like my own, I’ve teased, just better, a lot firmer, and higher up), a man skilled with electronics and the GPS (which we relied upon), smart, and a deeply spiritual man. His spiritual nature isn’t something of which he has to boast. It was more of something you could feel in your soul, the boasting, if any, like the apostle who boasted only in the cross of Christ.

Physically, Randy was nothing short of a marvel. He actually keeps track of how many calories he burns every day. If you run into him at noon on any given day and ask how many calories he has burned, he’ll look at his watch and say, “Oh, ‘bout two thousand.” He actually burned – I had never heard of this before – four thousand calories on the previous Saturday driving from Oklahoma City to Denver. Who does that? I suppose there is a great deal to envy about a man such as that, but his quiet confidence, mixed with a certain bashfulness, too, and his deep spirit – those attributes even surpassed even physical excellence.

While Todd and Roy Randy went on ahead of us, at one point we could talk to them because the trail took a sharp almost U-turn right past a stream and we stood directly above them. We thought that stream would provide some water, because by then we had all but run out of water. Randy, of course, had extra and, at one point, poured some of his into my now-empty bottle.

Todd and Roy hollered out to us that the stream we were coming to was no good for water. It was steaming hot, too hot for the touch and would not be clean enough, not even with our filters. We were blessed to have filters that screwed into our water bottles that would filter out almost any impurity. The surplus of creeks and rivers, even Heart Lake, provided a continuous supply of water, except on this one trail.

A little further along, we did catch Roy and Todd, at a second stream, which, too, was a hot stream but not as hot as the first. Randy and I stayed behind and rested at that stream while Todd and Roy went on; and we determined that the water was flowing well enough for us to go ahead and fill our water bottles. By this time, perhaps four hours into the hike, Randy was beginning to have doubts, I could tell, about how far into the hike I would be able to go.

I was already having my struggles. Truth is, putting a thirty-pound backpack on and hiking an eight-mile trail up and down hills in the heat is a pretty good day’s work for anybody, even a young man in good condition – and it was only the first leg of six more days of similar terrain and distance – except there would be no more downhill hiking as what we just traveled.

I suppose I wasn’t thinking exactly the same as Randy, although he was right, for sure. For me, the first step was getting through to the first camp site. I felt that the late start doubled the difficulty of this first day and that Monday, with an early start, would be much more manageable. I don’t believe that ever proved to be true, however. Legs didn’t tend to get better after another day of pounding – except, and this is a big ‘except,’ by the end, there may have been a key crack in that theory, which may have saved me.

The Day One hike took us to the beach of beautiful, expansive Heart Lake by nightfall. Randy put on a headlamp to guide us the last short piece to the campsite; so, at times I went ahead of him and could see by his light, but usually he would stay ahead of me. I’m guessing we were so close to the end we figured it was easier that way than my rumbling through my backpack to find my flashlight. Plus, I really needed both hiking poles to make it safely. Randy and I trudged through the sand for a good half mile, and, there, for the first of only two times during the seven days I tripped up on something and tumbled in the sand, which was as harmless as it sounds. The only difficulty there was getting back up in the sand with thirty-plus pounds draped across your shoulders. Of all the difficulties the trip presented, I think the weight of the backpack was right up there at the top, right with the mosquitoes, nemeses that we have not mentioned until now but were very real.

Randy and I made it to the campsite about forty-five minutes behind Todd and Roy, around 10:30 p.m. I was impressed that they made such good time, but they seemed to be on a mission. When we arrived, I found Roy sitting on a log as you walk in, and he moved over and gave me room to sit.

“Coach, my feet are killin’ me,” he said as soon as I plopped down, thankful to rest my own tired feet. I assumed his hurt just from the difficulty of the eight-and-a-half mile trail behind us. My feet weren’t hurting, per se. I actually didn’t hurt anywhere in particular, amazingly, just my whole body had been battered by eight-and-a-half miles. I didn’t have many more movements left in me, nor did Roy, but I began that slow process of getting shoes and socks off of tired feet and getting ready to call it a night. There would be no campfire gathering on Day one, and no Kumbaya.

After a minute, Roy said, “Well, I’m goin’ to bed,” then added as he eased up painfully, “Steve, I’m really proud of you. You did great today.” I think he told me that three or four more times later.

“Thanks Roy, I appreciate that,” I said, and it truly meant a great deal having someone recognize the grit you had to have to keep going. As Roy limped over to his tent, feet having gone as far as this day would allow, I thought:

Ah, Roy, we did make it. We made it through December after all, I thought, satisfied at the thought. And the tune danced in my head, Everything’s gonna be all right, everything’s gonna be all right, I know.