Sarah on a road less traveled
Wheeler Peak, within reach
Among the marmots
“I went to the woods because I wished
to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when
I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” —THOREAU
We went into the Wheeler wilderness to live among the marmots.
Eighteen years old, my boyfriend Evan and I were already veterans
of those mountains. I had been weaned on Mount Wheeler, New Mexico’s
highest peak, and I knew more about marmots than I did about people.
I tended to enjoy their company a bit more, too. Marmots and I
understood each other, for the marmot mind distilled all of my
desires. “Scout!” the mind would order its marmot.
“Sniff, scamper, squeak, scurry, steal that child’s
chocolate!” And when night came, softly the marmot mind
would murmur, “Snuggle, sigh, sink into slumber.”
Now that’s a life. I too would happily pass my days perched
on chubby, hairy hind legs, surveying Taos’ treasures from
on high. Indeed, I suppose that is exactly what I did do over
the course of the next four days of backpacking: I became a marmot.
Our trip began as a human enough endeavor, of course. Evan and
I planned it out a whole night in advance, having been overwhelmed
by a wave of restlessness while watching “Top Chef.”
We needed an adventure, an adrenaline rush that artistically-diced
celery could never provide. We needed to be tired, starving, and
miserable. I suggested that we flee to Taos, where we could happily
be all three. We started searching the Internet for the appropriate
topographical maps, and then we searched the maps for the wispy
blue threads that meant water. Where water flowed, we could count
on a campsite. We picked out three camps in a flurry of joyful
acquisition, the way I had often seen my sister pick out clothes
in a J. Crew catalogue. The next afternoon, we headed out.
The first two miles of backpacking hurt, even though the terrain
was the easiest we would encounter. We trudged past the Taos Ski
Valley lifts, shut down for the summer, and up a gravel road that
dwindled to a forest footpath. The two of us walked beside each
other until the track became so narrow that our packs bumped.
Then Evan took the lead. I silently cursed his obscenely large
lungs, but as I settled into the rhythm of his gait, I began to
enjoy the serenity of following. Following freed me from the burden
of speed-walking in order to show off; it let me hike at a brisk—rather
By the third mile, we were back in shape. We laughed delightedly
at the adaptability of our bodies, happy to be young, fit, and
in love. We remembered aloud the last time we had hiked that path;
it had been winter, and I had slipped and shivered while Evan
slid merrily along on an imaginary snowboard. He had even had
the grace to catch me sometimes when I fell. Now it was warm out,
though, and monsoon mud lay in patches on the path instead of
We reached William’s Lake before we were ready to stop
hiking and scrambled to a site above a waterfall to pitch our
little blue tent. Evening fell as we cooked dinner. We made too
much rice and made ourselves finish it. In the dark, we washed
our dishes, smiling secretly at nothing. At everything. Then we
crawled into our tent and fell asleep as close together as we
could get despite our separate sleeping bags.
The next morning, we clambered up Mount Wheeler. We passed a
single hiker heading in the opposite direction; he greeted us
with the encouragement, “You should try going down, it’s
much easier.” To be sure, going up was anything but easy.
Going up was an hour on the Stairmaster with fifty pounds on our
backs. The marmots peeked over their rocks to watch our ascent.
I can only assume that they heard my panting and thought that
I was either dying or going into labor, neither of which they
wanted to miss. When the marmots realized that I was not about
to expire, however, they began whistling their support. I, like
they, had decided to pit myself against the mountain in hopes
of finding a cozy place to make my home for the night. The marmots
sensed our kinship. As their squeaks continued, Evan grinned and
started squeaking back in conversation.
A hailstorm reached the summit just as we did. For a moment,
we stood still at thirteen-thousand feet and basked in our accomplishment.
Then thunder shattered our spell, and we took off running down
the ridgeline, glancing often at the sky as if we could dodge
the lightning. Two soggy miles and one near-electrocution later,
we hit the La Cal Basin, our campsite. We ate lunch and fell asleep
for four hours, waking just in time for dinner.
By the third day, we were following a routine. I woke up first
and boiled water for hot chocolate, which we sipped as our oatmeal
simmered. After breakfast, Evan and I pumped water, packed up,
and hiked until noon. Then it stormed, and we slept. When we emerged
from our nap on that particular day, camped in a valley behind
Gold Hill, we froze as we realized that we were not alone. Three
hundred yards away, a mountain lion stalked across the reborn
earth, pausing to lap at the stream from which we planned to pump
our water. Evan and I sat on a rock, too scared to move, and promised
to defend each other. Finally, the lion prowled away, and later
that night we dared to draw water from its stream.
So it was that we survived to see our fourth day, on which the
trail abandoned us in the middle of a boulder field. The mountainside
was rough, and the surrounding growth dense. We went the only
way we could: up. It was like Wheeler Peak all over again. Three
times we thought we were summiting, only to discover that we had
reached a false peak. Just as my feet began complaining, we popped
up on the ridgeline that led to Gold Hill. Long Canyon unfolded
below us, a path snaking down its center: our road home. We reached
the trail’s end three hours later and stepped out onto the
main parking lot of Taos Ski Valley, a ten-minute car ride from
the trailhead where we were parked. We hid our packs on the side
of the road and started walking. As our backpacking adrenaline
subsided, we realized how much it hurt to walk, and we decided
to hitchhike instead. Four cars passed us by before a Ski Valley
truck took mercy on us. Welcome back to the human world.
The human world. The world that was supposed to hold “big
things” for us: grand plans, deep meanings. But back in
the city, I found myself at a loss for meaning for the first time
in a week. The meaning of life had been so terribly clear when
we were living among the marmots: stay alive. Survival had been
struggle enough to give life meaning in itself. We needed no complex
creed, no radical philosophy. We found our daily purpose in routine,
in companionship, in good food and warm nests. Only when we returned
to civilization did such a purpose seem wanting, for civilization
so distanced us from our struggle to survive that we had to search
for a meaning beyond life itself. And to be honest, I still haven’t
found one. So here’s to the marmots; perhaps they’ve
got it right
Mike Huff (left) captains his Alberg 30 sailboat
into Fairport Harbor, on Lake Erie.
Cruising Lake Erie
—TY AND BARB BELKNAP
You may have noticed a conspicuous absence of big news stories
in this issue. It wasn’t our fault. Mayor Jackson finally
quit in July, so we can’t kick him around anymore. We beat
up on Sandoval Broadband again last month, and monsoon flooding
did not wash out the crossing on Las Huertas Creek. No news is
All that, and we spent most of August in Ohio—a lot longer
than we usually stay when visiting relatives. Our long-time New
Mexico friend Mike Huff (another Ohio boy) had his thirty-foot
sailboat docked in Fairport Harbor, east of Cleveland. We had
planned enough time in our vacation for a little cruise down to
the west end of Lake Erie, where I come from.
Mike has been planning for years to live on a sailboat when he
took early retirement and quit his teaching job. Recent conversations
with him always seem to swing around to sailing—after he
finished railing about the war, corrupt politics, and social injustice
that were driving him to sea.
He read stacks of books on the subject. He picked his fully-keeled
Alberg 30 from a book about “boats under thirty feet that
are best for sailing solo around the world.” According to
much of what Mike read, it is possible to live like a king in
some tropical ports for even less money than he would get from
Social Security. Mike said, “I didn’t retire—that’s
for people with money—I just quit working.”
Unfortunately, he found that he was working harder than ever.
Rigging his boat for ocean sailing was also much more expensive
than he planned. Worst of all, sailing solo was more difficult
than he had envisioned.
When we arrived on the dock, Mike announced that he hated his
boat; that he was selling it, and flying to Vietnam to live in
a grass hut for even less money than he gets from Social Security.
“I guess I screwed up,” Mike allowed. “Owning
a boat and house are the only things holding me back.”
He hadn’t been sailing during the previous week—not
since he and his brother-in-law were pulled off the rock pier
by the Coast Guard. Mike came to his epiphany about the boat while
dangling from a bosun’s chair, sweating in the heat and
humidity, while untangling rigging at the top of the mast. Record-breaking
rainfall also cut into his plans.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t raining that day, and there was
a nice breeze blowing off the lake, so we went sailing. According
to the original plan for our Lake Erie cruise, I was to lend my
sailing expertise, while Mike honed his skills for his eventual
embarkation to paradise. I was a bit rusty after all these years
away from Ohio, and the thirty-footer handled much differently
from my windsurfer, but we managed to clear the pier, go swimming,
sail around, and dock the boat without any major problems. Mike
was starting to think that his idea of sailing around the world
might work after all.
He downsized the planned trip to western Lake Erie to a less
ambitious cruise along the north coast to somewhere exotic, like
Ashtabula, maybe later in the week.
We left him there and drove to Port Clinton—the town where
I was born and raised. It was suggested to our son that if he
would move to his ancestral home, he could be a sixth-generation
Port Clintonite. Evan did not show much enthusiasm for the idea,
even though eighteen-year-olds, accompanied by their parents,
are allowed to shoot pool and drink beer at Bel Mel Tavern. His
girlfriend made the understated observation, “It’s
interesting how beer is such an important part of the Ohio culture.”
That aspect of the culture was still the same, but other things
had changed a lot. Wal-Mart had destroyed most downtown businesses,
and the infrastructure is crumbling. A huge influx of tourist
dollars and residential developed in “Vacationland”
has bypassed Port Clinton. City fathers plan to renew prosperity
by building a giant water slide park, condos, a marina, and a
hotel on the historic lake shore where my great-great grandfather
climbed aboard a warship to fight the British in the War of 1812.
Developers promise three hundred low-paying jobs and a good casino
location when gambling becomes legal.
But the homegrown tomatoes, sweet corn, and peaches were still
the world’s best. We had a good time visiting my mom (the
last Belknap in town) at her old house across the road from the
aforementioned water slide. We avoided the other tourists by recreating
during the week, while cutting grass and fixing the plumbing on
the weekends. On the clear moonless night of Barb’s birthday,
we celebrated by watching the Perseid meteor showers from an old
friend’s Bertram, adrift in a dark part of the lake.
Then it was back to Cleveland to stay with Barb’s parents
on the night before the cruise. Upon returning to the dock in
Fairport Harbor, we found that Mike had done some more thinking
while we were gone and decided that his boat wasn’t really
ready for cruising—sleeping berths filled with tools and
cans of varnish. Anyway, he was busy fixing up the boat for a
quick sale (not sail), so he would have some money to live in
Mexico this winter. He figured he’d eventually move back
to his home in the South Valley and maybe even go back to work.
Mike missed his dog and the bosque. He missed happy hour microbrews
with friends downtown and the music scene. He will probably write
some good songs about what he did during his retirement.
So the great cruise of ‘07 never happened. No news is good
news. Mike did, however, take us for another nice sail. His relationship
with the boat had improved considerably, although he still had
not given her a name. (I suggested, “Maggie Mae.”
Remember the Rod Stewart song? “It’s late September
and I really should be back in school.”) We hope the intrepid
retiree moves back to New Mexico and keeps the boat in Ohio. Maybe
we’ll cruise Lake Erie next year.
All New Mexico State Parks now fitted with defibrillators to
help save lives
New Mexico State Parks announced today that all thirty-four state
parks across the state are now equipped with at least one Automated
External Defibrillator (AED). An AED is a portable electronic
device that automatically diagnoses life-threatening heart-related
issues by applying electrical therapy which stops cardiac arrhythmias,
allowing the heart to re-establish an effective rhythm.
“Visitor safety at State Parks is our top concern,”
said State Parks Director Dave Simon. “We hope that we never
have to use them, but AEDs are worth having if they save a single
State Parks are equipped with a total of fifty-one AEDs (some
larger parks have more than one), which are the Philips “HeartStart”
model. State Parks First Aid/CPR instructors are now qualified
and equipped to provide AED training and do so biennially to all
State Parks Department field personnel. Funding for purchase of
most of the AEDs (forty-seven units) came from federal funds administered
through a grant to State Parks by the Rural AED Consortium, while
the remaining four units were funded by the State Parks Division.
AEDs are highly computerized; the system uses voice prompts to
instruct the rescuer on how to apply the two electrodes to the
victim’s chest, and then monitors the victim’s heart
rhythm. If a defibrillating (shocking) rhythm is detected, the
machine will charge itself and instruct the rescuer to stand clear
of the victim and to press the shock button.
State Park’s AEDs meet the American Heart Association’s
newest (2005) guidelines which direct a ratio of thirty heart
compressions to two rescue breaths (updated from the 15:2 ratio
that was used previously).
Studies have shown that bystander CPR plus defibrillation within
three to five minutes of collapsing can improve survival from
sudden cardiac arrest. According to the American Red Cross, more
than two hundred thousand Americans die of sudden cardiac arrest
every year. Up to fifty thousand of these deaths could have been
prevented if an automated external defibrillator (AED) had been
For more information, contact New Mexico State Parks at 888-NMPARKS
(888-667-2757) or visit nmparks.com.