Cold feet

When I was in high school I got a ton of shit for being a little eccentric. Like anyone else I’ve had the things that I nerd out over. When I was in elementry school I carried around a copy of the U.S. constitution. In middle school I was obsessed with musical theater, don’t tell anyone that was for a girl. In high school I fell madly in love with the outdoors. My love affair with the wild spaces of our planet started because of an almost disastrous trip to Indian Peaks and later was reaffirmed by my attendance on a 30 day long 126mi trek through Wyoming. This is the story of my first backpacking trip and the very cold morning that made me fall in love with wild places.

In 2006 and I was just barely 15 years old. I was an idiot in almost every imaginable way. I had no real grasp on the world and was altogether to opinionated for the amount of knowledge I possessed. I’d been a camper with a local summer camp called the Colorado Youth Program for the previous six years and loved my adventures with them, but by no means would I have considered myself an outdoor enthusiast at this point. I just enjoyed being outside like any other kid. Well through my connections at CYP I ended up hearing about this private school in Boulder, CO called Watershed. Watershed was an alternative high school and middle school with a focus on experiential learning. At the start of every new school year high school students ventured out into Boulder’s backyard, Indian Peaks Wilderness, for a 10 day backpacking and team building trip.

This was my very first backpacking trip and to say the least I really had no idea what I was doing, However, just like any 15 year old what I lack in know how and experience I made up for in over all enthusiasm and energy. Starting at Camp Dick off the Peak to Peak highway just outside of Colorado’s world famous Rocky Mountain National Park, our group of 10 high schoolers and two instructors/teachers  took to the trail. The first few days we took a mellow route because believe it or not or instructors had quite the task of moving 10 high schoolers even 3.5 miles. Our first day was rather uneventful minus the occasional blister. We all got to bust out the whisper-light stoves for the first time in a backcountry context and I’m pretty sure at least one person lost some part of their eyebrows. (Wade?)

By the third day our ragtag crew had made it to the summit of Buchanan Pass, which I must point out is only 7.5mi away from Camp Dick. So to say the least things were moving slowly. The weather was spectacular the day we summited the pass. The skies were the kind of blue that Colorado is famous for. The wind was light and fast with a touch of winter. In early September we could not have picked better conditions to be moving over a nearly 10,000 foot pass. The mountains of Colorado are infamous for fast changing weather, dramatic drops in temperature, and unseasonable snowstorms. But none of this was on our minds as we crushed passed old mining shacks, piles of debris and mine tailings towards the top of the pass. Once there, we were still all in such a way we decided to detour off to the south and summit Saw-tooth Peak.

Saw-tooth Stands at about 12,300 feet and is one of the most unique shaped peaks in the IPW. It’s distinctive southern face cut the sky and stand in sharp contrast to the mellow slope that leads to the saddle and Buchanan pass. Pushing on down the west side of the pass our route started to turn us south towards the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Moving around the cirque of peaks that comprises the Brainard basin our little troop headed even further south towards our end goal of the Fourth of July Trailhead.

With each passing day my level of competency rose and the skill set required be successful in the back country developed a little more. Towards day eight I was feeling pretty damn amazing. I’d meet and begun developing a lasting friendship with Axel Anderson, Devaki Douillard, and many more. Jason Kushner was our primary trip leader and his influence and enthusiasm about the outdoors remains one of the most impactful I’ve ever encountered.

So three days days before we are supposed to be picked up at the Fourth of July Trailhead our little band of school children heads up a steep west facing slope to what is known as Wheeler Basin. Wheeler Basin is a deep set glacially carved basin to the north west of Arapahoe Pass. This little slice of hell is always damp, always cold, and is where I really began to fall in love with wild places. Because it’s in Wheeler Basin that I did my first ever overnight solo. The very first time I spent a night alone in the woods. Now since that night I have spent probably over 100 nights alone in the woods, sometimes in a car other times just on the flat of my back. I’ve been out with motorcycles, with bikes, on foot but this is what started it all. The feeling you get when sleeping in solitude or rather the isolation of the woods is unlike any other. At times the feeling is oppressive as if the dark around you is pushing in on every single one of your senses. At other points it is beyond blissful in how calm it is. The experience is surreal.

But back to Wheeler Basin. Like I said, a little slice of hell. I woke up soaking wet. I’d picked a space underneath a boulder at the edge of a meadow but the soil there had been washed away by the swamp like conditions of the basin. During the night the moisture that accumulated on the outside of my bag was enough to be rung-out and collect .5L. Low lying area I’d selected was a cold sink and only increased the deep seated chill I was experiencing as I woke that morning. But from my perspective I was alive and well and I’d never felt that good waking up.

But waking up on the blue yet crisp morning was the starting point to a series of mistakes that per-usual lead to a place no one really wants to be. Upon waking up I packed my damp bag away per standard practice. I slipped on my boots, crammed my gear into my pack and headed towards the central camp location where we were all to meet up by 9am. We started cranking out breakfast and coffee which soon lead to packs back over our shoulders and the trail underfoot. We descended the nearly 1,000 foot just before 10:15 and on our way down the those blue skies turned gray.

By 11am the ground was being peppered with the white flakes of falling snow quickly turning the trail muddy and slick. The 4mi route we had planned to Caribou Lake that day took much longer than our anticipated time due to constant stopping to warm up fingers and toes or to patch blisters from wet feet. Our feet were very wet. In fact at one point near the end of our slog I slipt off a small foot bridge and was quickly ankle deep in freezing creek water. Anticipating camp within the next hour I was not terribly worried.

Within 15 minutes my opinion had changed. Even moving at a steady pace the cold began to profoundly change my attitude. I was experiencing the wonders of a non-freezing cold injury. Which help to facilitate my introduction with mild hypothermia. And by 5pm mild hypothermia was far from a stranger in our midst. I was one of three students dealing with at least one form of cold related issue. One student, Dan Silverman a dear friend and now high experienced outdoorsman, experienced the far more serious moderate hypothermia in which his core body temperature plummeted to around 95 degrees fahrenheit. This is not joke. These conditions are no laughing matter nor are the consequences if cold is not dealt with effectively. Since we were in no position to evacuate Dan, or myself for that matter, our instructors decided to warm Dan up in the field and keep an eye on me.

We pitched our tarps, set up our sleeping bags and built wind barriers out of our packs to block the gusts that were careening off of Arapahoe pass. The snow was flying and the dark that pressed in around the side of the tarp were complete. The only audible sound over that of the wind, was the sound of my breathing inside of my sleeping bag and the rustle of the trash bag that my sleeping bag was tucked into. Its was right around 8:30 or 9 when Jason and our other leader brought by cups of warm soup made on their stove. Everyone of the kids was tucked into sleeping bags, save for maybe Axel our rather hearty and experienced friend.

As pathetic as it sounds I remember spending a good part of that night wishing that we would be evacuated by helicopter, that someone would come and help us. But no one did come. Nor should they. We were fine realistically. What you don’t realize when you’re 15 is just how bad things actually can get. Because for most 15 year old kids, bad these days has been for the most part removed from traditional experience. It’s hard to be pushed to any form of an end. The way the world is constructed we are protected from anything. The cold, the hard, the wilderness. It is kept at bay by warm houses, bright screens, and fossil fuels. To pick up someone who has spent their entire life in the middle of the cozy world and plop them into the middle of a real blizzard with no real clue about what their doing, well that’s a recipe to push a 15 year old further than they have been before.

Dan was pushed pretty hard that night. Moderate hypothermia usually means prompt evacuation from the field and exhaustive measures to reheat the victim. To slip from moderate to severe hypothermia is a huge deal and usually requires the skill and the equipment that can only be found in hospitals. As the crew was less than a four mile hike out of the backcountry; he received new hot water bottle every couple of hours, he was monitored closely and given totally new and dry clothes. He wasn’t left alone that night.

I heated up pretty quickly once I made it into my bag and had a single bowl of soup. Falling asleep though was tough though. I kept rolling around on my bad under the tarp, wind howling through the blackness. Snow would occasionally blow through our tarp covering or bags in a light dry powder that was mostly harmless. My real lesson though was yet to come. You see, in my haste to get into a warm sleeping bag I stripped my wet clothes off and tossed them right next to my bag with no consideration of the circumstances. I didn’t think about where I left my boots or my coat. Nor did I even consider what to do with my only remaining pair of socks. So the reality I woke up to the next morning was not a pretty one.

From our location at Caribou Lake we had just over a 4.5mi hike out to the fourth of July Trailhead. And much like in the photo below, our route was totally covered in snow. The storm from the night before only left two or three inches. However,with the aid of previous storms and the wind wrecked landscape made for snow drifts that were just about 4ft deep on the trail up and over the pass. That morning I woke up to find my jacket frozen to the ground, my boots hardly malleable enough to move the laces, my socks so frozen that I could have snapped them. I had dry camp shoes, a pair of cotton socks, board shorts, a tee-shirt and a very frozen coat. First thing in the morning Axel put my coat on and started the process of thawing the arms. Better a wet coat than nothing in my current condition.
My boots and socks were so frozen I opted to hike out in my camp shoes, a pair of Vans, and cotton socks. I stuffed everything haphazardly into my pack knowing full well this was the last iteration of its packing for this trip. We headed for the pass watching the snow blown trail disappear in a myriad of switchbacks. Knee deep in loose and flaky powder we slogged up the pass. Once on the summit of Arapahoe Pass and knowing that there was only a 3 mile down hill to our vans there was an immediate feeling of relief. And that down hill flew by. By the time we made it to the parking lot it might have well been our first day on the trail. The level of enthusiasm about being picked up was tangible.
And that is it. We made it out. No one lost any toes. No one died. No one really needed to be evacuated. We made a ton of mistakes, but that’s the basis for greatness mistakes that you can learn from. Whether they are yours or the errors of friends, family, or stories from others pay attention. Because cold feet are hard to hike with.

I hit a deer 7 hours into 5 months on the road

What happened 7 hours into my 5 month road trip.

So flashing back to April 16th, 2013 I was 22 years old, recently started college at CU Boulder, and convinced the only thing I needed in life was a breath of fresh air and a break from reality. It has been three years since I felt that initial urge to ditch the so felt monotony of my everyday existence and chase something a little more meaningful, and I’m proud to say that I finally took a step away from my day to day comfortable, unchanging lifestyle and I jumped into something with a little more risk.

Since 2010 I have held six different jobs, working approximately 15,685 hours, 392 weeks, which is 7.54 years of work in just six years. that’s 1.5 years of working two full time jobs. Aaaannd don’t forget that during these last six years I have have been enrolled in approximately 88 credit hours at two different academic institutions. Needless to say that the exhaustion that I thought I felt in 2013 was lame and has since paled in comparison to what I am calling exhaustion now. But this is not a place for me to complain, just to take stock of where I am coming from. These last six years have enabled me to live thus far debt free, with a car that I purchased almost entirely in cash, and to live an extremely comfortable life. I’ve learned several different skills, meet hundreds of people, and have had thousands of experiences that are all fitting of their own pages and stories.

Just a few random highlights: pulling a man from a burning car in 2011, cutting the tip of my ring finger off in 2012, starting at CU Boulder, renting my very own place for the very first time, loosing my aunt, and falling in love. In 2013 I became a server, bought a car, failed a chemistry class, and realized how much I loved the desert. By 2014 I was most adeptly described as sophmorish, I squandered and partied and was frivolous with no regard to myself or others, I also learned what responsibility to myself actual meant, I became a bartender, worked harder than I’d ever worked. By 2015 I was entering a rhythm and a pattern of success and comfort I had money, time, energy, and was increasingly doing and living with a luxurious style, from visiting friends in different states to spending almost every weekend in the backcountry hiking, exploring, and living well. By the end of that year however, I began to itch again and this time for something more than a break. I’d become accustomed to the life in which I worked hard and played harder, but working as a bartender a job I’d come to love so much no longer held the same appeal to me that it once did. I decided to go back to school starting in January 2016. Six credit hours in the spring turned in 15 in the fall, and my work load never changed but my lifestyle of living and loving in the outdoors took a dramatic hit. By September of 2016 I was set on leaving and doing something completely different come 2017.

Gas pump fire
The scene from Valmont and 30th gas station incident October 1st, 2010.

I cycled through several different plans and finally settled on the Western United States Road Trip Extraordinaire that I started five days ago on December 24th. Well, on day one of this proposed five month road trip I hit a deer and totaled my car. And just like that I’m stuck only 525 miles from my starting point. That’s about an eight hour drive. I hit the deer just about 40 mi southeast of Evanston, WY which in turn is only about 79 mi away from my father’s house in SLC, UT. At about 6:15pm MST, traveling at about 74 mph in the right lane of interstate-80, I collided with a yearling deer crossing from the right side of the road to the left. With so little reaction time I was unable to comprehend what was happening and thus unable to make any stupid decisions that would have worsened my situation significantly. Instead, after having the airbag gently explode in my face and slowing to a stop on the shoulder of the road realized that I had just hit a deer and was now on a very different type of adventure than I had anticipated.

Before I’m able to take any real action, the sound of my car horn ringing ceaselessly in the  frozen night air, the fog lights of a truck light up my stunned face. Reaching into the back of my overly packed Forester I reach for my down jacket just as a woman from the truck now parked behind me starts to ask if I am okay. Angela and Trevor. These two saw the deer run out in front of my car, saw me hit the poor creature, and ran to my aid when I was fumbling around in the dark for a jacket and a headlamp. Together Trevor and I were able to get the hood of my car open and wrench the horn fuse from its housing successfully creating a silence only broken by the engines and rattling chain-linkages of passing 18 wheelers.

The Forester after getting towed to the Motel 6

The blood and guts on the driver’s side of my little white Subaru were still steaming, the airbag still smoking, Trevor and Angela’s child in her car seat still sleeping silently as the gravity of my situation seemed to come down on my shoulders. Before I really know what is happening, Angela has dialed the number of a towing company from Evanston, WY the next town down the road. The rough sounding man on the other end of the phone says it will be a while and to get comfortable. Of course it will be a while, it is Christmas Eve and the biggest storm of the year is on its way in from the West and the Salt Lake Valley.

I return to the driver’s seat after saying thanks and goodbye to Angela and Trevor, their daughter had woken up. The airbag hanging down from the disemboweled steering wheel and acrid smell of burning synthetic material in the air as the dust and other residue from the airbag settles into my skin. Lights again, this time they flash red and blue, signifying the arrival of Wyoming State Patrol Officer M. Adams. Officer Adams is a man of about 65 years with a crisp white, well groomed mustache and a receding equally as white hairline. After giving me a once over and realizing that I was fine and just shaken, Officer Adams and I returned to his cruiser allowing me to escape from the physical reality of my situation. After properly filing his report of the accident, we took a short drive back about 100 yards to the scene of the accident to see if the deer had remained in the road. However, we discovered that not much actually remained of the deer at all. We found just the head attached to the fore legs, and beyond that just bits and pieces of the animal’s body scattered over about a 25 sq yard area. We returned to my car and waited for Jim, the tow guy who Angela had so readily called for me. Apparently everyone in the area knew him. Apparently everyone in the area were also not strangers to rough and tumble situations. Officer Adams recounted a few for me; from the time a man in a Geo hit a bull moose and it bled to death on his lap, or the time that he himself hit a deer and a drunk man from a local bar offered to finish it off with a hunting knife from his truck. These short stories normalizing my situation, I was able to begin to calm down.

Just in time for Jim. Jim was everything but normal in my experience. Jim was 74 years old with a big gray bushy beard, tanned and weathered facial features, and the smoothest and softest hands I have ever shaken on a man who clearly has toiled laboriously for a living. The size of the tobacco chew in Jim’s lower lip was the size of large egg, and everything he said was muffled and stumped of times incomprehensible. quickly loading the truck with my damaged subaru, carrying my entire life on the back of his flat bed wrecker, Jim drove me 42 mi to the Motel 6 off the first exit in Evanston. It was there that I’d slowly, over the course of 36 hours, come to terms with my situation.

The first night was sleepless. I arrived at about 8:35pm to room 124 the second room in from the the furthest Northwestern point of the cheap brick hotel. The room was a combination of cheap linoleum disguised as hardwood, and cheap rattling appliances. The sound of the freeway clearly audible over the constant harassment from the mini-fridges air compressor. I went in and out of the quiet room several times that night, continuously looking at my poor little car as if it would some how miraculously all be back to normal the next time I looked at it. Laughing hysterically at my situation, desperately trying to see a silver lining in what was quickly turning into the single most disappointing accident of my life. Disappointing because everything was actually fine, all my things were fine, my car was drivable but most likely totaled, more importantly I was fine, Trevor and Angela and their daughter were fine, the deer… well that was pitiful sure. But I was 100% okay. Something that seems to have happened to so many people was taking a toll on me emotionally and physically and I didn’t know how to respond. I felt angry that it had happened to me, then I got mad for feeling selfish knowing that millions of other people had suffered far more severe car wrecks and in the schemes of hiccups this was minor. But the longer that I sat dwelling on why I was so upset the more I realized that I was upset because the car that Bambi and I had just wrecked in tandem represented the fruits of my 15,685 hours of hard work. The car had been my freedom, it was the thing that I was taking my road trip in, it had been my reprieve when I only had two hours between jobs and went for a hike, it had been the single largest physical representation of my success as an individual.

I wish realizing this made me less upset but the truth is that night I stayed awake until 4am periodically wiping away a tear or two from my eyes and choking back my self pity. It wasn’t until the next morning at around 10am that the sense of self pity began to diminish. With the rise of the sun came the instinctual urge for task oriented action that I’ve grown so accustomed to. I went to my car and procured food, clean clothes, and other items for the day. I ripped the broken plastic from the front of the car, and turned over the engine; looking and listening for potentially harmful sights or sounds, there were none. I tied up the dangling wires, removed shards of glass and plastic, pulled the entire front bumper from the two remaining pins holding it in place, tied the wheel wells into place, and tied the hood of the car down. as far as I was concerned I was ready to drive again. That was my plan after all. But on Christmas Day, as much as I wanted to be 80 mi along down the road sitting around a table with my family, the storm that had been brewing in the west was starting to wreak havoc on interstate-80 and my plan of driving the rest of the way to SLC was shot down my mother nature herself.

As many of you know for the last 4.8 years or so I’ve been working at Tahona Tequila Bistro, a tequila bar. And on my last day had been given a bottle of my favorite, Tonala four year extra anejo. Aged for two years in sherry barrels and two years in white american oak, Tonala has a smooth, sweet, oaky taste that to say the least brought me a warm and rather disorienting sensation after I drank half the bottle in about three hours.

An MRE and a mostly empty bottle of tequila after a shitty Christmas day alone in a hotel room.

I awoke face down on the hotel bed, sweating bullets, with a raging headache, and roaring stocmah. Walking outside to the car in search of more food I began to see the actual humor of my situation. Nothing like 4pm hangover to put things in perspective. I had been on hour seven of a 5 month road trip and had wrecked my car, escaped unscathed, and was stucked due to inclimate weather 80 mi away from my family, which would be the first time all of us would be together in one place in the last two years. But nothing ever goes the way we think it should.

In 25 years of life that has always been one of the most consistent lessons I have learned and relearned. Once we think we have something figured out or mastered, under control, or predicted, planned or otherwise have our thumb on it, life seems to slip away and smack us upside the head as if to say remember don’t get comfortable. My friend Sabine once told me that kids from divorced or homes often times abhore change in their lives. They look for stability and consistency. The truth in my life seems to be that we all seek stability and consistency, which is grand and fine thing to have. It’s incredibly luxurious to not have to stress about where your food is going to come from, where you are going to sleep, how your are going to get to work, how you can mean something to the world. But like any adventure in the beginning stages of any grand journey I must acknowledge that the reason I am leaving is because the stability that meant so much to me, that I spent 7.5 years of working time to build, has become suffocating in its own way. And that while no one wants to hit a deer and total their car, I would rather have to learn to deal with that and any other number of traumatic, inconvenient, destabilizing and morality punishing activities than to stay stagnant and never know what I am capable of.

My name is James Hansen, this is day five of my five month long road trip and as of now I still don’t have a car. But I’m not stopping.