Ranger Todd was all smiles. He was bright. In this case, I don’t mean smart, although that he was, too. In mean, he was bright, like he emanated his own light or maybe, like the moon, he just had a high albedo. In any case, he was a welcomed sight. It was a time of uncertainty for us. Our time of need, to be sure, and out of the darkness some 20 miles down the road appears a legit Park Service Ranger? I told myself that the desert has a way of taking care of people, answering prayers, giving you what you need when you need it.
Todd was young, wide-eyed, cheery, both talkative and articulate. Good teeth. His jeep was well splattered with recent mud. Not just a little and not accidental. This was a tell-tale sign of confident and adventurous off-road driving. He had a large hand-held radio on the passenger seat and other communications electronics mounted and wired to the dash. It looked official, and yet not overly orderly like a cop or a serial killer. There was credible outdoor gear in the back, some layers and a big first aid kit. It all looked right to me.
I liked Ranger Todd. We had an immediate affinity, he and I, born, no doubt, of difficult ambient conditions and my need for this trip to work. I was certainly predisposed to believe in him, like the feeling you get when the ambulance shows up, but I liked him nonetheless.
I also kept my eye on him. I told him our story, school trip, been here before, scouting the road because we had heard it was in doubtful condition, etc. He said he was down doing more or less the same thing, scouting the road. He affirmed that it had indeed been closed due to a rock slide most of the winter and that only recently had he heard that it was open again, in fact just yesterday he had gotten the news. He had wanted to see for himself.
“I’m going all the way to the trailhead. Hop in if you like. We won’t be gone long.” And so, leaving my two co-leaders in charge, Todd and I galloped on down the road over patches of crusty snow, through mud, and over softball-sized rocks.
Todd liked to drive fast. Part of me was grateful. In his jeep with the lightbar lighting up the canyon and the knobby tires humming over the gravel, we were fleet, invulnerable. This could work. He chatted easily about the canyon, uranium mining, education, the weather.
“We have a sat phone,” I volunteered. “Just so you know.”
“Is it Iriduim?”
“So, at least it will work,” Todd said. He had a likable skepticism of backcountry technology. I sensed a value on self-reliance and a faith in the resources available to one’s ingenuity.
At one point we skidded to a stop not a jeep-length from an 8 foot drop. The road had been washed out by winter runoff that had cut the gravel bank back and left a sheer face. Todd engaged the four-wheel drive and we backed slowly off of our perch. No problem.
“That wouldn’t have been good,” he said, with an innocent awe. “I think they cut a new road back there. I bet I missed it.”
“You think?” I quipped.
The road to the trailhead was indeed greatly rerouted since last year. The slide that had closed the road must have been prodigious. But we found our way on mostly very passable, very friendly road bed. There were two washes with newly cut berms where the runoff had again cut the bank and washed the soil down canyon in its long journey to the Colorado and out into Gulf of California.
Todd was optimistic. “I don’t see you’ll have any trouble,” he said. “You can even take the edge off that lip and if you get a running start with your van, I bet you can get over that berm.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. And I was feeling good. The road looked promising. We could certainly get down to the trailhead and spend the night. I had other questions about getting back out in a week’s time, but I am accustomed to the adventurous spirit, that to-hell-with-your-witches-and-giants attitude that Shel Silverstein wrote about in his poem, The Perfect High.
I have never been a risk-taker, and I have never been cavalier with the risks I encourage others to take. I had with me other people’s children. I have been leading outings for a long time, and I have contemplated all the maxims of outdoor leadership. Examined them, mined them for truth, made them my own. Chief among the kernels of truth in the annals of outdoor wisdom is the dictum against small missteps that can arrest a lifetime’s wanderings : There are old mountaineers and bold mountaineers, but there are no old, bold mountaineers. And it is all true, every word, and yet there is more to it than that. There is this:
You can only answer a certain set of questions with the information you have. Running an outing is a little like weather prediction. You can be certain about present conditions, and based on what you know now, you can make some reasonable guesses about 24 hours from now, but the farther out you look the less you can see. Much beyond 24 hours in the weather and you just don’t have enough information on which to base reasonable decisions. But tomorrow you will have more information, if you are observant and you are willing to continuously reevaluate your plan. Like driving at night: a constant stream of little decisions based on what you can see by the shine of your headlights can get you the whole way home.
So, I didn’t know what the week would bring or what the way out would look like, but I felt we were okay to keep taking steps forward.
“You know, there are two things we are lacking,” I began with Todd as we bounced back up the road to the where my group waited. “A map is one of them. You don’t happen to have a map of this area we could borrow – or purchase?”
Todd had a map. “Just let me check it first,” he said. “Sometimes I write stuff that I don’t really want others to see.” I tried to imagine what Todd might write on a map that could serve to incriminate. I came up empty. Todd checked the map, found it acceptable, and scribbled a P.O.Box in the margin. “Send it back here when you are done, okay?”
“The other thing is that we haven’t logged our plan with anyone,” I said. “Can I leave you with our plan, so someone will know that we are here and what we are doing?”
Todd wrote a couple of phone numbers in the margins next to the P.O.Box.
“You guys will be out next Friday, right? So, when you get out to the road, call this number and leave me a message. If I don’t get your message on Friday, I will know you are still here. But be sure to call because if you don’t call, it will mean something. The other number I gave you is our dispatcher. If you get in trouble, call this number. They will get help rolling.”
With that, I deemed we were set to go. Todd disappeared back up the road and into the night, and my co-leaders and I briefed the students on the newly revised plan, during which one of the students asked with no discernible agenda, “Isn’t there still a storm coming in?”