Tuesday, December 31, 2019


Out on a ledge at Machu Picchu
The ones that got away are always the most elusive. Their importance seldom diminishes over time. Instead they become encased in this fantasy framework of ‘what if’ and ‘I think I could have.’ For someone who was never athletic nor a team player, these fantasies of mine always seem to include incredible feats of endurance and mind-fracturing challenges. I’ve tackled a few but many more have managed to get away. Recently my kids reminded me what a thrill it is to actually complete such a challenge.

It’s called ‘C2C’ for those in the know, ‘Cactus to Clouds’ for the rest of us. One of the top ten toughest hikes in North America. It is, by far, the hardest and most challenging mountain climb in the Coachella Valley. This thanksgiving week my two kids, Brian and Melanie, completed ‘Cactus to Clouds’ in just 13 hours, which while not a record, still a remarkable time.

Granted, neither of my kids are novices at this sort of endeavor. Brian has climbed all 54 fourteeners (mountains over 14,000 feet) in the State of Colorado. Melanie has run numerous road races, marathons, half marathons and run up Pikes Peak. C2C was a gift to herself for her 40th birthday.

There’s a family argument as to who really brought up the topic of C2C. I’m convinced that I did and Brian is just as certain that he found it on his own. No matter, they did it after first talking for several years. So scratch one more fantasy venture that I probably won’t complete in my lifetime. To think it began with a Life Magazine article way back in 1961.

Hong Kong Ferry

Growing up, one of my many fantasies in land-locked Saint Paul, Minnesota was to sail the seven seas on a tramp steamer. At the time I probably wasn’t even sure what a tramp steamer was. But the name conjured up images of beautiful brown girls, swaying palm trees and vast blue oceans. Perhaps it was some ‘50s Errol Flynn movie that warped my malleable mind into wondrous thoughts of riding the high seas.

By my mid-teens, it had become a feverish dream burning a hole in my idle hours. I began perusing magazines, novels and seafaring books for clues on how to enter that maritime world. I devoured Joshua Slocum’s ‘Sailing Alone around the world’ and ‘Moby Dick.’ Jack London’s ‘The Sea Wolf’ gripped my imagination more than Dick Tracy or Tarzan ever could.

In fall of 1961, a Life Magazine article pushed me over the edge. It was entitled: ‘Before the Mast’ and subtitled: ‘A farm boy ships aboard a freighter.’ The article went on to chronical the adventures of an Iowa farm boy who was selected by the Seafarers International Union hiring hall in New Orleans to work aboard the M/V Del Monte that was sailing off to Brazil. By the end of the article the young sailor was in Rio de Janeiro and getting a tattoo. I was hooked.  I sent off an introductory letter to some maritime union in Detroit seeking employment on any ship available. Their form letter response demanded an in-person interview in Detroit and I didn’t have the bus fare to get there. Totally dejected, I went to college instead.

Fast forward several lifetimes and after college I went to live in Europe. I ended up working at a Danish laundry outside of Copenhagen. Weekends were spent wandering the harbor and talking to the marginal characters who inhabited that strange dockside world. After a month or so I applied for employment on a Norwegian freighter bound for who knows where. I can’t remember why I was turned down; lack of experience, my glasses or my foreign status. The only available work was as a deck hand or dish washer and I didn’t qualify for either. Go figure. A couple of rough weather weekend runs to Germany by ferry boat got that seafaring wanderlust out of my system for good. Or so I thought.

I began running at age 21, completed a couple of marathons, dropped out at mile 25 of a 50 miler and then read about the Western States One Hundred. I was hooked again.

The Western States 100 mile endurance run is the world’s oldest 100 mile trail race. Starting in Squaw Valley, California near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics’ and ending 100.2 miles later in Auburn, California. Following the historic Western States Trail, runners climb more than 18,000 feet and descend nearly 23,000 feet before they reach the finish line. No, I never get in good enough shape to even apply for the Western States One Hundred.

The Tram Road
Then there was the Tram Road Challenge in Palm Springs. It’s a road race on the road leading up to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Station. Beginning at 400 feet elevation, the road climbs to over 2,600 feet of elevation. With over 1,500 participants each year, ranging in age from 5 to 95, this road race is a local favorite. Still, I never got in good enough shape to compete. When my wife discovered my intentions, she put the kibosh to any future plans of running it.

Brian and Melanie ready to go
All of which leads me back to C2C and the tremendous pride I feel in my kids actually doing it. Also known as the Skyline Trail, Cactus to Clouds has the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the United States. It climbs 8,000 feet in the first 12 miles from the desert floor to Long Valley, then joins with the main trail to gain another 2,600 feet to the summit of San Jacinto Mountain.

Back in another lifetime, I had intended to do the climb with my kids but a lack to hardcore training, writing commitments and other distractions prevented me from getting in shape. In the end, I could only travel with them vicariously through their photographs.

Brian and Melanie began their climb at 2:00 am. They carried water, snacks, extra clothes and a treasured GPS to help stay on the trail in the darkness. They encountered and passed two other groups that had started ahead of them.

Sunlight greeted them around six in the morning.

Daybreak on the trail
The views were spectacular.

Snow, ice and windy conditions on the last 5 miles of the trail meant they had to wear their crampons and proceed cautiously to the top.

Putting on crampons

When they got to the summit, a ranger informed them that the mountain was being evacuated because of dangerous windy conditions. It took them and hour and a half for a normal fifteen minute tram ride to the bottom.

Brian and Melanie at the top
Now, what was probably the final conquest of my ever-searching imagination, the C2C, is just another missing notch on my belt of ‘hopeful wishes.’ So I’ll have to file away my three marathons, half of a 50 miler, numerous 10k and 5k races and 45 solid years of pounding the ground and call it my running past.

Thankfully, I’ve still got the Garstin trail among others here in town along with the Triple Crown (The Henderson, Shannon and Garstin loop) to satisfy my weekend jaunts. Nevertheless, C2C, the big one, passed me by.

Oh well, I’ve still got my kid’s pictures to ease the pain.

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