You can’t handle the truth (aka John Humphries aka Lizard Head Cycling)
By Bill Stork, DVM
“Just outta curiosity, what the hell qualifies this, as a trail?” gasps Mike, through lips pursed tightly to drive every molecule of oxygen above 10,000 feet across his alveoli to his increasingly hypoxic blood. Framed by a snow-white, Hulk Hogan Fu Man Chu, you’re ten times more likely to hear a laugh like the back room of a bear cave come across the electrician’s lips, than anything resembling a complaint.
Thursday, August 6th had started as most on a Lizard Head Cycling trip. The sun had begun to glow. Travis Tucker had two blue granite kettles of Ophir Spring Water to a rolling boil long before the sun had crept over Teocali Peak to melt the frost off tent flies.
Like reveille at boot camp, “COFFEE!” bellered through cupped hands like an acoustic megaphone set in motion a relay past the twin Aspens and just over the ridge to a World War II ammunition box with a white acrylic lid. The relay baton is a shrinking roll of Charmin in a zip-lock. The Groover is so called thanks to the “impression” it made on campers before the acrylic accoutrement was added.
It is strategically placed 200 feet above Brush Creek, raging with runoff from April snows and June monsoons. It ain’t no bidet at the Ritz, but everyone goes home with six pictures subtitled “Views from the Groover”.
Thirty minutes later, the 12-inch cast iron Mountain Microwave sizzling over the third burner of the Coleman Pro yielded the “off-road omelet”: 7 pounds of coffee-rubbed beef brisket, peppers, potatoes, onions and two dozen eggs. I presented my tin camp plate like a scared recruit the first day of boot camp, with two whole wheat bagels slathered in honey butter, and buried 'em with two shovels of the “rocket fuel”. A bowl of Special-K and a glass of skim wouldn’t get you to the trailhead today. For dessert, there was fresh fruit, yogurt and granola.
The real men of the mountains plowed through bowls of Steel Cut Oats with overhand grips on soup spoons.
John, Travis, and Less-lie recovered the kitchen. In anticipation of the impact of the trail, many of us titrated bottles of electrolytes, threw down handfuls of Vitamin-I (Ibuprofen) and lubed our bike shorts with fingers full of Chamois Butt-er. Terri gathered our attention by demonstrating how to distinguish a housewife from a prostitute, using a banana as a prop. We all crossed hands and bowed our heads as she seamlessly segued into a non-denominational request to be safely delivered back to camp.
Before he rolls out the more conservative (slower) riders, John Humphries gathers his crew around a laminated trail map of Crested Butte. With a broken stick as a laser pointer, he traces a highlighted series of trails that cumulatively look more like Ferdinand Hayden’s original circumnavigation of the Elk Mountain Wilderness looking for gold in the late 1800’s.
The rookies laugh as the guide issues the first disclaimer of the week: “How do you tell when a guide is lying? His lips are moving.”
For the first five years I laughed like it was the first time. In the years since, I’ve sunk from a chuckle to a twinge. This year, I walked away before they got to the punchline. I’ve developed a growing measure of disdain for the light-hearted self-deprecation.
Mountain guides are among the hardest working, most skilled and dedicated professionals I’ve ever known.
It starts with how they describe their “office”. With the reverence of a farmer in his field, they enunciate every syllable when they refer to the Elk, the Maroon Belles or the LaSalle “Moun-tens”.
“We’ll climb up Brush Creek Road to just past the outlet for the Teocalli trail,” he looks around for nods of acknowledgement. “Just past, and on the opposite side of the road could be a sign for Cement or Marble Creek Trail,” he speculated. “Once you find that, go through a gate and take a left; there you’ll start a climb at the base of the 405 trail,” he could not guarantee a marker.
Clearly uneasy at the notion of sending a couple Californians and a flatlander off into the mountains (“if you are ahead of the guide, you are no longer on a guided trip”), John called a Hansel and Gretel, “Find three sticks and make an arrow in the grass next to the trail.”
I leaned in close to look over my bifocals. The contour lines connoting elevation gain merge imperceptibly to black. I thought to myself, though I spoke not a word, “If you ain’t hikin’, you ain’t bikin’”, will be fully enforced until further notice.
Expedition mountain biking is like a week-long equation; the trail itself being a 4-dimensional, 25-mile puzzle. In a very real sense your legs, lungs, mind and mojo are very separate entities. Every ATP is to be carefully budgeted like last week’s paycheck. You sight down the trail to see a hard pitch with off-camber roots toping into a “grave yard”. Be a macho man in the morning, and risk blowing up after dinner.
Mike and Phil opt to push the big hills on Brush Creek Road. I resolve to spin in granny-low, refusing to give up my seat until the single-track. We are blessed with a sign that marks the Perkins trail. Mr. or Ms. “Perkins” is either one heck of a bike rider, or a practicing masochist with a sick sense of humor. In 25 yards, the trail turns straight south, pitches 27% and disappears into the aspens. Grooved deeply by a decade of 250cc “moto-tillers” we are a line of three marching at a sub-glacial pace, pushing our four thousand dollar, full-suspension machines up the first of the hike-a-bikes. In a quarter mile, the trail mellows nicely. We remount, clip in, and roll through a deciduous forest.
Through a cattle gate and pasture, we encounter another bifurcation and call a map session. Clearly our trail continues the contour, but to ensure we don’t do a 3-man “Christopher McCandless”, we gather wind-fallen aspen branches and form another arrow in the grass. As the single track gives way to an ATV trail, the trees part over a mountain meadow shared by bike riders, hikers, and a herd of Red Angus Heifers. We pause at a trail sign to confirm our orientation. As a moto rider in full armor idles up the trail, the sanctity is broken by a war-whoop and pace-line led by John. Tim, Mr. Stu, and the Robs, both B & G, ride up our backside.
When a guide’s lips move, truth may be optional, but is worthy of note: he is also responsible to get your biscuit out. (Not to mention, injured or hospitalized riders do not famously tip well.)
“Now that we’re all warmed up,” he understates, “there is a section ahead Fred calls ‘The Rock Garden’”. Fred has lived in Crested Butte for 20 years; his perspective on the relative navigability and potential perils of a trail is not to be ignored. This “Rock Garden” will not be some backyard art piece drawn up by a landscape architect for a subdivision east of Boulder.
A guide by nature, a teacher by nurture, John begins a mountain meadow physics lecture on momentum, leverage, torque and trajectory, hoping to preserve our tires, rims and shins.
Nearby, the herd bull chewed his cud. Back home I’ve been escorted under a barbed-wire fence and vaulted a gate just a few strides ahead of a couple Holsteins. This guy rose lazily and stretched. He sniffed the breeze and flared his nostrils, at the unmistakable scent of an LH surge. He searched for a strand of clear mucus. Clearly his 18 heifers looked, and likely smelled, better than a troop of skinny, sweaty yahoos on bikes. There was plenty of mountainside for both man and beast, he was hired to get his girls “settled”.
John answered the question before it was asked, “There will be some climbing after the garden. We’ll do another re-group at the “top” and have the first sandwich, before a big descent.” His measured enthusiasm for the downhill and emphasis on “first” sandwich was foreshadowing.
Proving that a body in motion will stay that way, and one who looks at the rock he seeks to avoid, does not, without so much as un-clipping I careened off a boulder the size of a VW Beatle. From the 6-inch excoriation trickled a steady stream of serum into my Smart Wool sock.
Mountains are not to be conquered so much as revered. A tire track, a memory and a small sample of DNA the only trace of our existence. Having achieved our first summit, Frank spent half of his word count for the entire week: “So, how much of the day’s climbing have we done so far?” Useful information, as we toggle between attempting to budget our waning resilience versus staging an injury and playing our $3.00 Colorado Evacuation Cards.
“We did not invent the truth, we just manage it,” goes the old lawyer joke. Surely plagiarized from a guide.
One of the subtly spoken goals of John and Lizard Head is to wean us off our GPSs and watches, and measure our moments in units of suffering and summits rather than watts and miles. By Thursday we all knew better than to expect a quantitative answer. In order to prepare us for the rigors of the trail ahead, without inciting a mutiny, he reached for a metaphor from the world of combat sports.
“Well, it’s a bit like a fight with Mike Tyson. You’ve just made it through the first round,” as if to be encouraging. “The Champ tried to take you out early with punishing blows to the head and body.” He continued the happy news, “after a spectacular downhill, there will be a mile of climbing on a ‘road’”.
There will be climbing. There will always be climbing. On a Jeep trail we should be able to earn some elevation with the only obstruction being a 25% incline.
Or so we hoped.
Back to the battle with the bipolar heavy weight champ, “You will think he’s giving you a break, and then he’ll try and finish you with a flurry of punches.”
We sat 2000 vertical feet above the valley floor. The heartiest whole-grain ham and cheese doesn’t fare too well in a backpack. We sat plowing our sandwich balls and taking long hard pulls from the bite valves of our Camel Backs. West wind delivered the flatulent braap of a Jake Brake from a semi that looked the size of a Smart Car, slowing a delivery into Crested Butte. Through a slit in the aspens we could catch the reflection of Hwy 135, the first evidence of civilization in 72 hours.
My son Calvin calls the national car of Colorado “Rainbow Racers”. Nearly every Subaru into and out of town is drafted by four bikes on the receiver racks. 3-Rivers Paddle Shop cinch straps secure kayaks and SUPs; loose ends dangle in the breeze. Highway 135 is the only route in, and there isn’t a paved road out of Crested Butte, Colorado. There are no water parks or duck-boat rides. The magic show at night is the Milky Way, undiluted and unobscured by light leaks and air pollution. The closest thing to McDonald’s, Starbucks and a La Quinta is The Last Steep, Camp 4, and The Old Town Inn.
It is no longer the best kept secret in the mountain West, but there’re still not shuttle buses and lines winding through velvet ropes. There can be nothing wrong with young families with babies and backpacks hiking down from Jud Falls. From grandpa to grandson, three generations in hip waders stand downstream. They draw sine waves above their heads in day-glo line with split bamboo fly rods. The Gothic river yields Rainbow and Brook Trout enough for a hearty lunch. Others would be gently cradled and returned to the water to swim another day.
Leash laws are as follows: “Please keep your dog within reasonable vocal distance; if he eliminates on the trail, kindly kick it to the side.”
The descent from 409 trailhead would make 4k-Ultra High Definition TV like a mimeograph of a Monet. Ahead of me G-Rob parted fields of helmet-high wildflowers like the Harvard Heavyweight skull on the Thames. Silently the vegetation fell shut behind him as if he was never there. The soon-to-be father spending his last kitchen pass disappears down a trail navigating by blind faith and braille. Fighting to ensure I was looking two lengths ahead, my driver’s side peripheral view was full-fields of Corn Lilies, Mountain Lupine and Monument Flowers, fertilized by historic spring snows and summer monsoons. Their edges, serrated like a Ginsu, were like Grandma’s cheese grater on my newly exposed sub-cutis. The neoprene leg warmers in my backpack would serve nicely as an Ace bandage. Rather than break my flow, I opted to embrace the sensation and employ the Cowboy adage: HDFU (paraphrased and translated: "get tough").
The trail hugged the cliff like the window ledge in the movies. The passenger side view dropped a thousand feet to Slate Creek, winding like a kitten’s ribbon in the valley floor.
Miles of trail and a thousand feet of elevation gained in hours, step-by-step and in granny low evaporate like 90 seconds on a roller coaster. When John appears again he’s pointing up the road, while adjusting the travel on a hydraulic disk brake, “And here begins the death mar…” I caught a corner of his sarcastic grin, “I mean, the second climb.”
Hypoxia had eroded my loyalty when Travis ground to a halt, having over-powered his drive train and stripped his hub. A thought came. If I were to turn down this so-called road, I’d eventually be a part of the paved parade heading into CB. Travis and I could coast into town. We could have a beer at The Steep, and an Americano at Camp 4. We’d poach a piece of binder twine from a construction site, and I could tow Travis up Brush Creek Road into camp. A calculated risk, but surely less painful than the next few rounds with Tyson. I had lost my mojo and mindset to tempt fate and double back through the Rock Garden, this time as a down-hill.
John’s “road” was more painful than two days in divorce court. Folks always want to know, “how many miles?” Believe me, you can’t handle the truth. Trying hard to separate mind from body, I called on Kristofferson, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” and waited for Tyson’s next attack.
Which took one more chorus, “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday.”
In 15 years of travel with John, we’ve hiked over the Continental Divide, been chased off the Indian Ridge Trail on the Continental Divide by a Wrath of God Electrical Monsoon and endured two nights at a campsite known as “The Vortex”.
I had not seen it all.
The “road” came to an unmistakable end and funneled us to the foot of Wallrod Gulch, which more resembled an avalanche chute or climbing camp for Navy SEALs. The nine men ahead of me labored in silence. B-Rob looked for the next footfall and a line to push his bike; he found neither. Mike struggled to find the shoulder technique. G-Rob, with quads like John Kuhn and two years short of the big 3-0, stood bolt upright in utter disbelief.
A guide finds himself accruing and spending cred as if it’s currency. He goes from boom-time to belly up and back again between breakfast and dinner. Sensing his account was about to be overdrawn, John kept it simple: “Pick a number,” sounding like a card-trick magician at a ski lodge. “Take 5 steps, then five breaths,” as if we could find a place to put our feet without tumbling asshole over tea kettle back to Hwy 135, “then repeat,” he assured us we would reach the top.
Once the 405 turned to what could be classified as a “trail”, we collapsed like survivors in a plane crash. Mr. Stu filtered stream water, Tim cooled his bottles in the stream, and John found a hole deep enough to immerse his entire head. Frank and Phil squeezed the last of their sandwich balls from the zip-locks.
We were rewarded with a lush cool pine forest and a trail that crossed the stream and contoured for an easy mile or so. When the trail pitched hard to a cobalt blue sky we sensed that Double Top was in range.
“Look around men, it is said the aspens have eyes,” he begged us not to miss the majesty. Indeed the gnarled, darkened bark resembled the deeply creased brows of wise old men. The trunks leaned in unison like old ladies humming “Swing Low” at a Baptist funeral, as the tops waved to the sky. John pointed and we stopped to pick wild mountain strawberries from the low bushes that lined the trail.
With legs and lungs on fire, the trail on my passenger side dropped off into infinity. I bought the high side of the last rock formation and the trail leveled into a mountain meadow of wheel-high wildflowers. I soft pedaled as my honking and wheezing settled into a heavy pant. When I gathered enough strength to lift my head, I was greeted by an Omnivision view of the Maroon Belles, going off under the luster of the mid-day sun. I leaned on the trail sign to take it all in. The lactic acid flushed from my legs like Monday morning’s coffee down an airport toilet. Hollywood has yet to write a single ending that compares with the summits you come to expect on a Lizard Head trip, every day.
Out of obligation, Tim and John snapped pictures, but fifty megapixels or 35mm can only capture the image of a mountaintop in full bloom. The feel of the breeze instantly evaporating the sweat from every pore and the super-saturation of your olfactory by the mountain potpourri are only to be experienced.
This image belongs on the hard drive in your head, stored in the file with Mom’s kitchen, Dad’s garage, and your kids in footy pajamas.
The wounds and exhaustion inflicted by four hours on the trail are gone like labor pains to a mother cradling her firstborn.
If there are words to describe the triumph of delivering yourself to a mountaintop under hike and pedal power, I’m not the writer to assemble them.
What goes up, must come down.
"All right men, it is all downhill from here. Literally. We’re all tired, we’re all beat up. Look to your right, now to your left. We are off the grid. If you go down, it’s up to us to get you down; if in doubt, chicken out.”
John sensed I was rattled. He clasped my shoulder and headset, “Bro’, when you get to the Rock Garden put your chest on the saddle, your butt on the back tire, sight a line, and trust your bike, you’ve done it before,” his focus, penetrating.
He was spot on. Twelve years old and under-sized, my Specialized Epic bucked over the boulders like a pissed-off rodeo bull with two sore feet, but I managed to stay on top. Sunshine in the meadow and the scent of agriculture signaled physical safety, though cows don’t make the distinction between path and pasture. Tim so accurately called the last mile a “shit show”; fenders were more than a suggestion.
The first sensation upon arriving back in camp intact is that of elation, followed very quickly by starvation. In the time it takes to asses my scuffs, cross my chest and give a silent “thanks”, guides have rolled out a cornucopia of recovery. Bricks of cheese, rolls of sausage, fruits, nuts, and John’s turbo-powered guacamole are vaporized in minutes. Dehydrated muscles begging for analgesia and Vitamin-C pull Orange Peel infused India Pale Ale imported from the Tyranena Brewing Company from their stainless steel camp mugs.
Guests retire to their Therma-rests for a late-afternoon siesta. Guides do not break stride and set about making supper. Two bags of Kingsford are lit on a grate. In Wisconsin I don’t walk a foot, drive a mile or sit for a minute without music. My truck sat 20 feet away, factory-equipped with 176 stations of Satellite Radio and concert sound. This moment begged for no digitally downloaded or live-streamed soundtrack. I sat reading Michael Perry’s “Jesus Cow”, pausing to absorb the roar of the creek, rustle of the breeze and the cadence of the cleaver on the cutting board. The sweet-hot climbed upwind and through my nostrils as the onions and peppers sautéed.
The white-hot coals heated a pyramid of Dutch Ovens like Wolfgang Puck’s Viking range. In 90 minutes the cast-iron kitchen bakes a week of “road kill veggies”, Italian sausage, and lasagna noodles into a delicacy to leave 12 mountain bikers around a campfire bloated like a tick with twins, and silent.
There is no humidity at 9200ft of elevation. On a cloudless night, when the sun perches atop Mt. Crested Butte, bes’ put a good quarter chunk of split oak on the fire and go for your Carhartts and stockin’ hat.
Cave Man TV; 1 channel, no commercials.
Four chunks of oak smuggled from the Dairyland and tended by Phil and his scepter throw just enough light so that faces are reduced to broken shadows. The halo of heat binds 14 folks like a Hindu wedding. Seven are old friends, three are brand new. For six days, we are family. There are no tweets or posts, only thoughts that have been digested and contemplated. In a voice as like hundred-dollar single malt, Mark the Whisperer dispenses his daily perspective. I may not remember his words forever, but I will never forget how they made me feel.
If your image of a mountain guide is that of an uber-fit, under-bathed, poorly groomed vagrant, surrounded like Pig Pen by a cloud of pheromones… you’re accurate, but incomplete.
What you do not learn between breaths on a hike-a-bike, or gazing across a meadow on a re-group is that their on-the-trail education is underpinned by college degrees in everything from engineering to education, geology, business, and snow science. They’re opposed to roofs, walls, fluorescent lights and board meetings. They are driven by a passion to share the outdoors with 60-hour-a-week lowlanders and get us to throw our smart phones to the bottom of a dry bag. Usually at the expense of health-insurance, 401-ks and a mailing address.
Their offices are the mountains of Colorado, the deserts of Utah and the Hill Country of Texas. When he is not riding sweep, loving old yellow labs or managing Lizard Head World Headquarters, Travis guides glacier expeditions in Alaska. I challenge you to find a man in his early thirties who has delivered more Kodachrome moments. He walked away from a full-time gig with 3M to do it; home is a meticulously arranged utility trailer in Ophir, CO.
“What do you call a guide with no girlfriend/boyfriend?”
Indeed, the lifestyle does not lend itself well to white picket fences and 2.5 kids. When they do pair off and procreate, they raise their children to be more comfortable with a fishing rod or a ski pole than an I-Pad. Rather than Chuck-E-Cheese, they hike, bike, fish, climb and ski.
When they are on the road, they work 16-hour days. If they are not meticulously coifed it is because they are crafting four course meals, catering to the carnies, vegans and the gluten-free. Their kitchen is two folding tables and a Coleman Pro off the back of a 12-foot utility trailer, under an easy up in the driving rain. Once we’re fed and paralyzed, they’re rebuilding someone’s bike under a headlamp with frozen fingers, or scrubbing a cast-iron pot with steel wool. Meanwhile, Leslie kneads cramped and painful muscles in her massage grotto.
If it is true, “No man stands so tall, as when he stoops to help an old yellow lab,” then Travis T