Monday, December 17, 2012

Winter Wonderings

One of the most beautiful winter walks I’ve ever taken was in the mountains just east of Cuba, New Mexico.  This trip was not planned nor was I properly prepared for the experience that I had.  No, this walk was a result of impulsive and foolish behavior on the part of a young and excited 21 year old kid that wanted to explore these mountains that were so different from the Appalachians.

The story actually starts a few weeks prior to my woodland walk when I stopped at a diner in the little town of Cuba on my way back to Albuquerque from visiting some friends further north.  As I headed for a seat at the counter, I noticed an older gentleman sitting there and the words “Butler, PA” caught my eye on the back of his jacket.  I straddled the stool next to him, placed my order for a slice of pie and cup of coffee, and then asked the man about his connection to Pennsylvania while explaining to him that it was my home state.  He was a friendly gentleman and explained that he used to work at a radio station back there.  Then when the waitress brought my order, he introduced me to his wife and said he liked to come to the diner and spend a little time with her while she worked.
We continued to chat and exchange information about our lives and eventually, the conversation turned to my enthusiasm to explore these rugged mountains of the Continental Divide.  This is when my new friend gave me a list of advice about heading into those mountains.  He explained that these mountains were very different than what I was used to in PA and how that more than once he’s had to head into the hills to pull out some over-enthusiastic and uninformed east coast individual that has managed to get themselves stranded.  Rule one was never to go into the mountains without a CB radio – this was 1986 and the cell phones weren’t commonplace like now – and that way I could always call him for help if it was needed and he provided his CB call sign.  Rule two was that I shouldn’t go out there alone because there were dangers, especially from stalking mountain lions.  Rule three was to be aware that the roads in these mountains were often impassable during bad weather or winter conditions and to heed the warning signs posted at the beginning of such roads.  He also explained that many of the roads had springs that arose in wet conditions right on the roadway and they could wash out sections of the road or you could be driving along and sink right into one of the springs.  I finished my pie and coffee, thanked him for the company and conversation and then waved good-bye to him and his wife.

About 3 weeks later, on a long Thanksgiving weekend, I was again southbound from my friend’s house in Aztec and was approaching Cuba when I noticed a sign to a lake.  I was in no hurry to return to the city and the sun would soon be setting, so I thought I’d try to find this lake and maybe I’d be fortunate enough to see some elk or other wildlife coming to the water to drink.  As I followed the signs eastward to the lake, it didn’t take long to realize I was heading into the mountains and higher elevations.  I pulled off to check my map and noticed that there was a forest service road that should take me all the way through the mountains and I could catch Interstate 25 on the other side near Espanola and head back south to Albuquerque from there.  Why not?  I beautiful detour through the mountains, the potential to see wildlife and it would slow my re-entry into the city.  Yep, sounded like a plan!

As I turned onto the forest service road, I noticed one of those warning signs about the road possibly being impassable during winter conditions.  You know, the do not attempt without 4 wheel drive and please turn back kind of signs that you know if you ignore you’re headed for trouble.  For a brief moment I remembered my conversation in the diner and the gentleman’s warnings, but hey, I’ll be alright.  There isn’t that much snow on the ground and it’s getting dark and below freezing, so all the water will be solid anyway.  Besides, this looks like a pretty well maintained forest service road and it’s only a mile or so up to the lake, so if it starts looking bad there, then I’ll turn around.  It’s amazing how youthful inexperience can talk you into doing the stupidest of things.
Well, things were fine for a while.  I came across a parking area with a port-a-potty and got out of the car assuming that this was where the lake could be found.  I walked around and looked in every direction but could not see any lake.  Finally, I got back in the car thinking that maybe I hadn’t gone far enough.  The sun was setting and the road conditions weren’t bad; there was a light layer of compacted and frozen snow with those occasional frozen puddles that form in the tire tracks.  I could hear the cracking and crunching of the ice as my wheels passed over them, but believed that shortly the temperatures would freeze these little puddles solid and I wouldn’t even notice them.  Still, I knew enough to be cautious about sliding on the ice and turned my high beams on to watch for deer or elk crossing the roadway. 

It was beautiful even in the dark with the ice crystals glittering in my headlights and towering pines lining my path.  I was now totally absorbed in scanning the edge of the roadway for any sign of life and was enjoying myself immensely.  I barely noticed the crackling ice anymore and paid no attention whatsoever to how many miles I had driven.  There were no road signs and I didn’t have a care in the world.  Until… (you knew it was coming.)
There was a crack followed by a thud as my car suddenly descended into a hole in the road.  I sat there spinning my wheels and attempting to get myself free alternating between reverse and drive to no avail.  So, I placed the car in park and got out to take a better look at my situation.  I swung my leg out the door and planted it on what looked like solid ground, but as I leaned forward and brought the other leg out of the car, the ice gave way and I found myself standing nearly knee deep in freezing water.   I climbed out of the water and using the light from my headlamps and taillights assessed the situation while trying to watch out for anymore unexpected pools of water. 
At one point, I thought maybe if I could place some fallen branches under the tires, I might get enough traction for the car to climb out of the hole.  So I grabbed my first branch and poked it under the right rear wheel, only to discover that it just sank deeper and deeper into mud.  It was obvious rather quickly that I had no way to get the car out of the hole.  It was cold, dark and I wasn’t even sure how far into the mountains I had traveled.  I had no way to communicate with anyone for help, so I knew I was going to spend the night in my car. 
The next step, of course, was to assess what I did have that would be helpful for my night’s stay.   In the bed of my hatchback were a synthetic sleeping bag and a faux fur coat.   I had about ¼ tank of gas, so I would have to conserve fuel to stay warm and turn off the lights to conserve the battery power.  My feet were freezing and I knew I needed to get warm and dry to avoid hyperthermia, so I got back in the car and took of my sneakers and socks and started trying to dry them using the car’s heater.  I gave up on the shoes early and focused more on my socks and getting the lower part of my jeans drier.  After about an hour of drying, I shut the heater off because it was getting way too warm inside the car for my comfort, but I didn’t want to let too much heat out the window as I knew it would cool down quickly with the temperature outside dipping lower.
So, I took one last look through my steam up front windshield at the world outside, turned off the headlights and crawled into the sleeping bag in the back seat.  I used the faux fur as a pillow and lay there mesmerized by the stillness and quiet of this winter wonderland.  I thought about how I was going to get myself out of this situation and knew that the only logical thing to do was to work my way back into Cuba, hopefully find the gentleman who I had met earlier and humbly ask for his help.  All I had was his and his wife’s first names, but I knew where she worked and I knew small towns…everybody knows everybody, so it shouldn’t be too hard to locate them. 
In the meantime, there was nothing I could do, but wait until morning.  I wasn’t scared and looking out into the darkness, I noticed that the stars were shining so very brightly above the trees that it almost seemed you could reach out and touch them.  I actually felt very peaceful and thankful to be able to spend time in such a beautiful place.  I said a prayer of thanks and asked for favor and guidance for the next day’s journey and went to sleep comfortable, warm and satisfied.
Come morning, the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was half inch long icicles hanging on the interior of the roof.  I thought to myself, “Wow, it must have really gotten cold last night.”  Then I crawled up to the front seat to start the car and get the heater running to warm up.  My sneakers were lying on their side on the passenger’s floor and when I rolled them right side up, the laces remained standing straight up as they were frozen solid.  I grabbed the shoes and began trying to thaw them out so I could put them on.
The windows were also totally frosted over, so I couldn’t see anything outside the car but there was enough light seeping through to know it was daylight outside.  That’s when that funny little feeling of slight paranoia and fear grabbed me.  Not knowing what might be outside, your eyes widen, your breath deepens, your heart starts quickening and your imagination starts playing games with your rational mind.   I wanted to open the window or door to get some fresh air, but didn’t know what might be waiting right outside.  I shifted the heater vents to start defrosting the front window and hoped that the noise of the car might scare any lurking creatures away.  Finally, that small round hole of melted ice appears; you switch on the wipers to aid in widening the visible area.  “Ah, good,” and a you let out a sigh of relief when you are finally able to peer out and see there is nothing looking back at you.
After the shoes were warmed enough to be flexible, although not dry, I forced my feet into them and rolled the driver’s side window down slowly.  Oh, that fresh air felt so good.  Another look around to be sure nothing is waiting to startle me and I opened the door.  This time, I’m much more tentative about my feet placement, but realized that my original theory of the ice freezing solid over night was correct.  I even stomped on it to be sure I wasn’t going to take another dive into those icy waters. 
I get out of the car and it is absolutely gorgeous outside.  The sun is shining brightly and promising to warm the day.  The sky is blue, the air is crisp and clean, and I am standing in the most crystalline pure environment that I have ever seen.  I stood there in wonderment and took several deep breaths as if I could draw this pureness into myself.  Then I walked around the car only to find that it was now incased in a block of ice nearly up to its axles.  Yep, there is no way I was getting it out on my own, so I had better get moving to find some help.  Which way?  Do I go back toward Cuba or have I come so far that it would be closer to continue forward to help?  Without keeping track of the mileage, I wasn’t sure where I was on the map, so I prayed for guidance and decided to head forward.
A turkey gobbled in the distance in response to the closing car door.  The sound seemed foreign and like an invasion on the peace that was over the woods.  I locked the doors and headed down the road basking in the beauty that surrounded me and thinking about how much time I had to fix the my situation.  I had to be at work in the city the next morning and that was still about a 2 hour drive away.   The stillness was so serene that it was easy to think there; no distractions from televisions, phones or appliances.  Not a sound could be heard but the crunching of my feet on the frozen ground and an occasional song bird announcing the new day.
Guessing mileage based on my average walking speed, I would say I had covered about 2 miles when something big went crashing off through the forest to my right.  I only saw the underbrush moving as this large creature took flight from my presence, but my best guess was that it was either an elk or a bear.  I briefly thought about climbing down that side of the road to go look for tracks to satisfy my curiosity, but wisely decided against it, telling myself to stay focused on the task at hand.
Another couple of miles and I started to hear a faint mechanical sound drifting on the breeze.  No doubt about it, there was someone ahead operating some kind of machinery.  The sun was much higher in the sky now and despite the dampness of my shoes, I was keeping fairly warm despite having no hat or gloves and wearing only my high school jacket, semi-damp jeans and a sweatshirt.  The roadway was fairly level with no major changes in elevation and the snow and ice were starting to melt again under the sun’s warmth.  I was very happy and content and enjoying every moment of my walk in the woods.
About 11:30 am, I finally discovered the source of the machine noise as I came across a small logging camp with about a half dozen men in it.  They had a fire going and allowed me to warm up there as I explained my situation.  Though they spoke Spanish to each other, at least two of the men spoke English well enough to let me know that they would try to pull my car out once they went on their lunch break.  So, about 30 minutes later, three of us hopped into a four wheel drive truck and started making our way back to where I started that morning.
It was a lot easier walking than it was riding in that truck.  As the sun warmed the road, it became a slushy, slippery mess and twice we got the truck stuck.  The first time, the guys had to get out and cut some limbs to place under the wheels for traction before we could continue.  The second time, we slid part way off the road and had to winch the truck back up onto the roadway.  The owner of the truck decided at that point to give up.  He wasn’t willing to risk continuing on with the conditions and I couldn’t blame him.  So, at the next area wide enough to get turned around, we headed back to the camp.
The other logger who was in the truck said that he would be going home for lunch and would drop me off in the town of Coyote at the gas station where I could possibly get help or a ride into Cuba which was about 5 miles away.  This was agreeable to me as it got me closer to my goal and I would not have any problem walking the 5 miles before sunset.  So, once he dropped me at the gas station, I walked in and bought myself a snack cake and a drink for my brunch with the couple dollars I had on me and started walking toward Cuba.
I had barely moved a 100 yards down the road, when a lady with a couple kids pulled over and asked if I needed a ride.  I quickly explained my situation and that I needed to get to Cuba.  She said that if I didn’t mind waiting about a half hour or so, she would give me a ride.  Well, of course, I accepted her offer as I certainly wasn’t going to walk to Cuba that quickly, so I went with her to her house which had an added surprise waiting for me.  As it turns out, this was the wife and home of the logger who had given me the ride into the gas station.  He was as shocked as I was when I entered the house.
The entire household spoke Spanish except when speaking directly to me.  They took my wet sneakers and started drying them by the fire of the stove.  The oldest daughter ransacked her room looking for some other shoes for me to wear in the meantime and finally came up with a pair of pink, jelly shoes as the only thing that would stretch big enough to fit me.  They served me a meal of beans, tortillas and coffee which was absolutely delicious and I was amazed not only by their generosity and kindness, but that I was getting a glimpse into a culture that, at that stage of my life, was fairly foreign to me.  All I could think was “Wow, this day just keeps getting better and better.”
With lunch behind us, the logger waved good-bye and headed back to work.  His wife finished up some more household tasks and then she and I headed toward Cuba.  On the way, she asked me if I knew anyone there who could help me and I explained to her who I was attempting to locate.  As soon as I mentioned that man and woman’s names to her, she said, “Oh, I know them and I’ll take you right to their place.”  Gosh, I love small town communities!
We pulled into the driveway of a mobile home on the south side of town and the woman waited as I went to the door to be sure they were home.  Once the front door opened, the women waved to each other and the gentleman’s wife invited me in.  I humbly told her what I had done and that her husband offered to help me if I ever needed it.  She explained that he was in the shower and that I would have to wait a few minutes.  This, of course, made me feel terrible, as I knew that getting the car out of the mud, snow and ice would not be a clean process and who wants to get dirty, wet and cold after just taking a nice warm shower?
After a few minutes, the gentleman emerged with his still wet, but combed hair with a bit of disgust on his face.  He asked how far up into the mountains had I gone and I told him that I wasn’t sure, but that I had headed up to see the lake and when I couldn’t find it, had continued on.  He said, “You can’t see the lake from the road; you have to hike about a mile or so from the parking area to get to it.”  He donned a hat and coat and all three of us got in his truck to begin the journey back into the mountains.  The sun was beginning to set and there was almost a sensation of deja vue as it had been a full 24 hours from the time I first decided to make the turn to the lake.
During the ride, the gentleman proceeded to give me the didn’t-I-tell-you lecture which I had anticipated receiving from him.  I sat there quietly and occasionally answered “Yes, sir” while feeling like I was twelve and being lectured by my grandfather.  I had absolutely no leg to stand on though, so I took the tongue-lashing with no rebuttal in my defense.  He wasn’t excessively harsh about it and eventually, we joked about giving me the CB handle of Pennsylvania Mud Puppy. 
Finally, we arrived at the car and he was able to wrap a chain around the rear axle and pull me out.  Turns out the car did not have a single wheel touching a solid surface but was balanced on the undercarriage.  The kind couple took the lead and I followed feeling good about the problem being solved.  A short while down the road, they stopped.  The gentleman got out of his truck, came back to my car and said, “I suppose you haven’t had much to eat today, have you?”  I told him about my brunch at the gas station and lunch at the logger’s house.  He said, “Follow me back to our house before you head back to the city.”  So, I did and when we arrived, they invited me in and served up some cheese, summer sausage and crackers to eat while we socialized a while longer.  About 8:30, I finally said my good-byes, thanked them again and drove back to Albuquerque.
Now, here I am, 26 years later, a little older and a hopefully a little wiser.  Winter in the mountains can be a deadly situation and I certainly have no intention of taking the same foolish risks as I did back then.  Still, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the experience of that day & night in those mountains.   I had a lot of peace within and was not riddled with worry.  Maybe it’s because I’m more optimistic than most.  Some would say I’m just darn lucky and totally naïve to the possibilities that could befall me. 
But me, I wonder.  I wonder if fear of the possibilities keeps the many from living and having some of the most wonderful experiences in life.  I wonder at the people who give so generously of themselves to help a stranger.  I wonder at the beauty that God has created.
I wonder as I wander.