Uncle Mac and the Mountain, Pt II
It was early morning, and chilly, as we drove away from the “Last Chance Food and Gas Café.” A few white puffs of clouds hung in a brilliant blue west Texas sky.
Uncle Mac was pretty quiet after the long drive the night before and a big breakfast. So I was the first to break the silence.
“When do we hit Mountain Time?”
“When we get to the mountains.”
That didn’t get very far.
“So what time is it in Mountain Time?”
“You gain an hour crossing over from Central Time to Mountain Time. You lose it coming back.”
“Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you lived right on the line between two time zones?”
There’s not a lot to look at on the highway past Salt Flats on the way to the Guadalupe Mountains. The flatlands can play tricks on you. I stared, trancelike, at the highway in the distance and it looked like water on the road.
Every time I’d see that, I’d ask Uncle Mac, “What about that, is that water?”
Pretty soon I wasn’t even asking before he’d just randomly shout out, “It’s not water!”
When we finally got close to the Guadalupe Mountains, we crossed over one of those shadowy water mirages I’d been looking at for 15 minutes and … Splash!
“Hmmm,” Uncle Mac commented, “sometimes they’re real. Who would’ve believed it?”
The highway curved wide around the front of the ragged El Capitan Mountain, which jutted out in front of the range like a giant rocky train engine, its front grate ending right at the highway. We turned off the highway onto the park road and then pulled into the National Park. It was about noon and a chilly wind whipped through the canyon as we walked into the Park Headquarters.
The Park Ranger was a tall, leathery-skinned older man, dressed in a tan uniform.
“What you fellas here for?”
I started to shout, “Sailing!” But Uncle Mac cut me off. “We’re here for just a couple of nights, hiking up in the range.”
The ranger smiled and said, “You’re lucky. Hardly anybody here today. You’ll be pretty much all alone. Should be r-e-e-a-a-l nice up there! Maybe a little chilly tonight.”
And then he casually added, “Just watch out for mountain lions and bears.”
Uncle Mac looked at me and laughed, “Sounds like fun!”
We grabbed our gear and started up Bush Mountain Trail, elevation 8632 feet. The trail was a steep, 4 hour hike and the mid-March sun was getting pretty warm that afternoon.
The tricky thing about doing a mountain hike on a whim is that you’re doing a mountain hike on a whim. We left Ft. Worth so fast the night before I only had about 15 minutes to pack. So, I opted for the “Just Throw Everything into the Pack and Decide Later What’s Needed” approach — several pairs of heavy warm jeans, long underwear, 4 long sleeve shirts, 6 t-shirts, 5 pair of socks, more underwear, extra boots, a couple of books to read (only had hard backs), a hammer (for the tent stakes), my own tent (I remembered Uncle Mac snored), sleeping bag, several cans of beans and soup (I hope Uncle Mac brought a stove), utensils, several knives, a billy club (for the bears), one canteen . . . and my portable radio/cassette player (though I forgot the cassettes and batteries and that there probably wouldn’t be a radio signal in the mountains anyway).”
Not even a third of the way up the trail and I was already regretting my packing decisions. My thighs burned, back ached and I was out of water.
“Tommy, what did you pack in there?” Uncle Mac smiled as we stopped for a quick breather.
“Just the essentials,” I gasped. “I’m good.”
Several hours later we finally crested the top of Bush Mountain Trail and a sudden blast of wind blew us both backwards. Luckily, I grabbed a nearby tree branch and managed to stay upright. Uncle Mac rolled a few yards back down the trail, though, howling like a coyote.
“Ahrooo! What a ride!”
We scampered down into the woods to get out of the wind and set up camp. I helped Uncle Mac with his tent, and left mine in the pack — something the ranger said about bears.
Late that afternoon, we hiked through pine tree forest and around boulders and I asked, “Are we gonna run into any bears?”
“I doubt it.”
“But they’re out here?”
“We’re in the woods and mountains. Bears live in woods and mountains. They’re out here somewhere.” He just kept walking in front of me.
“This is crazy,” I complained. “We’re in bear country.”
Uncle Mac turned to me, “What’s crazy is what you’re missing because of your fear. It’s amazing out here is what it is. It’s just different. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. It’s an adventure. Every moment of life should be interesting. Doesn’t matter where — in the city, in your house, on the streets, at a little café in the middle of nowhere. If you get too comfortable, you stop looking for it. You get lazy and you forget the adventure. Everything starts looking the same. You forget your place in the big picture — the stars, the desert, the forest. Try to think of being out here as learning to be aware of stuff. Like trees and wind and boulders . . . ”
“I doubt we’ll see any bears, anyway,” he added and turned back to the trail.
“Okay. But what if they are out here?”
“Just stay out their way, Tommy.”
“But how will I know if I’m in their way?”
Uncle Mac just kept walking, “They’ll let you know.”
That night we used Uncle Mac’s backpack stove and cooked some of my soup and a couple of freeze-dried meals he brought. It tasted amazing — or I was just really hungry.
The weather turned cold so we bedded down early and I read for an hour or so. The wind whipped at the tent all night, but I finally fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, the wind had stopped but it was much colder.
Uncle Mac wasn’t in the tent. Then I heard him holler, “Oooeee!” He opened the tent flap and threw a snowball at me. “Did you know it snowed last night? I’m gonna make some breakfast.”
I looked up from my sleeping bag. The snow was at least two feet deep and covered the sides of the tent! I just started in wonder.
Suddenly Uncle Mac shouted, “Well, possum spit!”
“What?” I asked.
“Food’s all gone. Guess I didn’t hang it up high enough in the tree and the bear got it!”
“Bear!! What bear?” I looked out and saw Uncle Mac picking up pieces of a nylon bag and some trash.
“Well, Tommy, I believe his name was Smokey. Or maybe it was Bob.”
He laughed and grabbed up the gear. “I guess that does it. No food and no snowshoes. Soon as the sun’s up, we’re heading back down.” Then he threw another snowball at me.
The trip down the mountain was much faster and easier, and we were in the pickup by 2 p.m.
Uncle Mac smiled and said, “Hey, I bet we can make that ‘Last Chance Food and Gas Café’ before they close. Get something to eat.”
I added, “Best biscuits and gravy anywhere around!”
And Mac replied, “Cause they’re the only place anywhere around!”
The sun was across the sky and heading west toward the mountain ridge as we drove east toward the starry night. It was quiet for a while when Uncle Mac finally broke the silence.
“Tommy, did I ever tell you about this little town in Arizona, Tuba City? They have two separate times zones — Main Street runs right down the middle of time. There was this fella there who was always late on both sides of the street. One time . . . ”