Trekking America

A few weeks ago I found myself standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunset as the last of the daylight was just turning the expanse of the canyon into a bowl of orange and red.  There are a few “official” overlooks with metal railings and paved sidewalks, but we passed them right by and instead climbed down off the trail and scaled some rocks and ledges to walk out onto a point where we were the only ones there.  No bannisters or railings, just the few of us standing on the very edge of the canyon atop sheer cliffs that dropped a mile down to the Colorado river.  The setting sun was turning the cliffs bright red and we were looking down at eagles circling far below us.  I was with a handful of young Europeans in their early 20’s, all really cool and seeing the American West for the first time.  We had even brought a couple large pizzas with us, which I had precariously carried down the cliff edge and out onto the point.  So we all sat back and enjoyed our dinner while we waited for the sun to finish burning up the canyon and I couldn’t help but think, “I definitely have the coolest job in the world.”

Now the summer is over and I just finished up my first season working in a job that really would be a contender for the “best job in the world.”  I was a “Tour Leader,” which meant leading small groups of 10-13 young international travelers on 2-3 week adventure tours all throughout America.  We went to the best of the national parks, the coolest cities, and roads less traveled all over the country.  We traveled in a 15 passenger van pulling a small trailer loaded with all our camping and adventure gear.  With only a very rough itinerary to follow, we were officially cut loose to explore the country and get into as much trouble as we could possibly find.  Oh what a summer it has been.

It’s a pretty heavy responsibility to be a tour leader.  With only one tour leader per group, we are driver, tour leader, trail guide, psychiatrist, motivational speaker, best friend and rodeo clown, all mixed into one.  Our passengers come from all over the world, though most come from England, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland, and various other countries in Western Europe.  Everyone is like-minded and here for the same reasons; to see the best of what America has to offer and live life to the fullest along the way.  Most of them are seeing America for the first time and it is so much fun to see my own country through their eyes.  All of what they know of America is what they’ve seen in movies all their lives, which makes for some funny experiences.  The main thing everyone is always concerned about is getting eaten by a bear.  And it didn’t help to ease their fears when there seemed to be continuous news headlines about the abnormally high number of bear maulings and attacks that happened this past summer.  And I suppose I am partially responsible for their fears as well, for being the one who was constantly pointing out these news headlines and perhaps not doing as much as I could have to calm their fears.

Random British Person: “Russell, are there going to be bears in Yosemite?”

What I should have said: “Yes, bears are known to be in Yosemite, but there’s really nothing to worry about.  We will take the necessary precautions but keep in mind that they are more afraid of you than you are of them.”

What I did say: “Oh definitely.  Lot’s of them.  And they’re HUGE”

The whole van goes quiet.  Someone kills the music.  Twelve sets of eyeballs are starting at me in the rear-view mirror.  “REALLY??  But it’s safe…right??”

What I should have said: “Oh, it’s perfectly safe.  You’re more likely to get struck by lightening that to have a problem with a bear.  We’ll be lucky to even SEE a bear.”

What I did say: “Weeeeeelll, yeah, I guess.  I mean, it’s pretty safe.  But I can’t promise anything of course, that’s why you signed that liability waiver.  After we lost that one Dutch kid last year, I can’t really guarantee anything.”

“Dutch kid??  WHAT Dutch kid?  WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DUTCH KID???”

“Well, I’m not really allowed to talk about that.  In fact, don’t tell anyone I mentioned him.  God rest his poor chewed up and eaten soul.”

“So is tonight one of the nights we stay in a hotel?  It is, right?  RIGHT?”

“Oh no, definitely not.  In Yosemite we really want to experience nature. You’re going to love it.  We have this nice secluded camp site in the middle of the woods.  And the best part is that it’s pitch black, so you’ll be able to see an amazing sky full of stars.  And you’ll have your nice comfy tents so you can listen to the howling wind and the sounds of nature, like paws stomping around outside your tent in the middle of the night.  It’s awesome.”

Towards the end of the summer we were camped at a dark and empty campground at Lake Tahoe.  We chose a campsite far from the bathrooms, only to find out when the sun went down that there were no lights at all in the campground, and there was no direct path to the toilets.  One had to weave their way through the thick and creepy forest to get there, so everyone kept getting lost trying to find their way back to the campsite, which I found very entertaining.  One night we were all sitting around the campfire and after having yet another lengthy discussion about bears and the higher than average likelihood of getting eaten by one this particular summer.  One of the guys, a fellow who we’ll call “Dave,” got up to make the dark and perilous journey to the bathroom.  No one really paid much attention at the time, until an hour or so went by and someone said “Hey, where’s Dave?  Seems like he’s been gone quite a while.”  We scanned the darkness and in the distance we spotted the tiny glow of his almost-dead and useless flashlight zigzagging back and forth through the forest until it finally died and we couldn’t see anything but blackness.  Clearly he was wandering around lost in the darkness, stumbling through the forest with a dead flashlight, trying to find his way back.  Surprisingly he didn’t cry out for help, but that might have been because I had told the group, in an effort to keep them from making too much noise at night, that bears were attracted to screams of humans.    In the time he had been gone our roaring fire had settled down into a nice bed of coals, not visible from more than a few yards away at best.  We could have called out to him, or at least stoked the fire, but nobody really cared all that much because he happened to be the annoying one who talked ALL the time about the most random topics, so we took it as an opportunity to get a break from his incessant noise.  In retrospect I kind of feel bad, not only for letting him stay lost out there with the bears for so long, but also for howling like a wolf a couple times and throwing sticks out there into the darkness to sound like animals jumping through the trees.  Perhaps that was a bit excessive.   Eventually he walked back into camp and without saying anything immediately replaced the batteries in his flashlight, then cradled it in his hands as he silently sat down by the fire and stared into the flames.  We could all tell that he was pretty freaked out because he just sat there, his eyes stuck in a permanent wide-eyed horror expression,  rocking back and forth chain-smoked cigarettes until he managed to stop shaking.  Nobody said anything and we all just went back to our business of listening to the silence and wondering what eyes might be out there in the darkness looking back at us.

Giant Sequoia Tree - Yosemite National Park

One of my favorite stops is at a place we call the “cowboy camp.”  It is a little outpost in the middle of nowhere on the Utah/Arizona border, a horse ranch with a bunch of camping spots for groups like ours.  And they they feed us a big delicious “cowboy dinner” of burned steaks, baked beans, corn, and biscuits.  The passengers always love it, since it’s just like they’ve seen in the movies.  We send them on a horseback ride led by the trail boss named “Ten Bears.”  He is a white guy in his late 50’s, a crusty old cowboy with a greying hair and a goatee.  Unlike most trail guides who baby and coddle the passengers and over-protect the horses, this guy has a hard edge to him that makes barbed wire seem like kitten yarn.  It’s hilarious to watch.  Everyone climbs up on the horses thinking they’re going for a relaxing little pony ride, and then Ten Bears suddenly starts yelling at anything and everyone.  “EVERYBODY STAY IN LINE!!  DON’T LET THAT HORSE EAT THE GRASS!  IF HE PUTS HIS HEAD DOWN YOU SLAP HIM LIKE YOU SLAP YOUR GIRLFRIEND!  UNDERSTAND!?!?”  And then these poor timid tourists get completely unnerved and focus on nothing but yanking on the reigns if the horse starts to go for a wayward blade of grass, terrified of getting yelled at by Ten Bears.  But inevitably their attention strays and somehow those crazy horses can sense it immediately and they make a desperate lunge for some bush or weed or stick of grass.  And suddenly Ten Bears appears out of nowhere right next to them to smack them upside the head and get in their face.  “WHAT DID I TELL YOU!?!?  YOU BEAT THAT HORSE’S A**!!  DON’T BE A LITTLE BABY ABOUT IT!!”  And once everyone is sufficiently terrified and unnerved, he’ll start flirting with the girls.  “HEY IRISH! (To the Irish girls)  Why do girls put on make-up and wear perfume?”

“I don’t know, Ten Bears, why?”


Grand Canyon, Arizona

It’s so funny to be a part of their first experience in America, where the size of everything just blows them away.  The vastness of the horizon when we’re driving through the deserts, or the emptiness of the prairie, or the massive supermarkets full of  an embarrassingly large variety of  products.  They were shocked by the portion sizes at restaurants and the size of our SUV’s and giant RV’s that fill up the highways in the summer.  And the simplest things amaze them, such as getting free refills on sodas, and actually being able to refill it yourself. One night in Moab Utah I had three Irish girls that went out to a bar and saw at the entrance a sign that said “Only for people between the age of 21 and 106.” Failing to get the humor, the next morning they told me about it and, with concerned looks on their faces, asked me “Does that mean that if you’re 107 they won’t let you in??”

It’s an amazing job, but it’s also a tough job, and it takes a lot out of you.  You never have a real moment of rest because you’re constantly accountable to the needs of those 13 souls that have been entrusted to you.  Even in the middle of the night,you are sleeping with your brain partially awake, ready to spring into action if anyone in your group chooses that moment to have some serious issue you need to address.  And emergencies are never in short supply.  Quite amazingly, I was able to make it through the entire season without a single trip to the emergency room, which is quite rare.  My buddy Ryan made at least one trip to the ER every trip.  The dangers are endless.  You’re taking people out into the desert where your passengers, despite your constant warnings, are always getting dehydrated and in danger of heat stroke.  We are not allowed to go cliff jumping anymore after one too many passengers died.  We went hiking on a trail in Yellowstone where just two weeks earlier a man and his wife had been mauled and killed by a Grizzly bear.  In Yosemite we hiked down past a waterfall where three people had been swept over the falls and died just a few weeks earlier.  In the Grand Canyon and Utah we hike along the edges of massive cliffs where people die every year when they take one careless step.  There are inner-city gangsters and rattle snakes and lightening strikes.  One guy in another tour leader’s group took an African-American Vegas prostitute back to his hotel room and she robbed him blind of everything.  Actually, I think I would have been okay with that happening to one of my guys, just so I could have the experience of watching his face while I made the announcement to the group explaining why we would be delayed an extra day in Vegas while “Dave” went through a file a mugshots of local hookers.  But despite all these possible dangers, somehow we manage to get through it, and they have the time of their lives.  For many of them, this is the first time they’ve ever done anything like this, the first time they’ve pushed themselves to such limits.  Especially when they are lucky/unlucky enough to get me as a tour guide, since I’m right there beside them leading the way up the cliffs, encouraging them, getting them to do things which at first seem impossible.  But then they do it and they look down at the world from this elevated view and find out they are capable of so much more than they thought.  And those are the moments that you never forget.

Top of Half Dome, Yosemite

It has been such a fun lifestyle.  Truly living on the road, no home or mailing address or bills to pay, just back to back tours and having the time of your life as you’re trying your best to show your passengers the time of their lives every single day.  You never know which tour you will be leading next, not until only a day or two before your current tour ends will you find out if you will be dropping off one group only to pick up another the very next day, or maybe you will finish in L.A. and fly to New York or San Francisco or Seattle to pick up your next group and start touring a whole different region of the country.  If you have a few days between tours the company puts you up in a hotel and you mingle with other tour leaders that happen to be passing through town as well.  The tour leaders themselves are a wildly random lot of characters from backgrounds as diverse as it gets.  School teachers and night club bouncers and house painters and boat captains and lost souls, travelers themselves who come together in a tight-knit family of trek leaders for a brief summer, and then it’s off into the world and unlikely that those paths will ever cross again.  And just being on the road is such a fun experience, packed into a van with a bunch of young people from all over the world, blasting music and singing along the whole way, never knowing what adventures or catastrophes or life experiences are waiting around the next bend.  Rolling into dusty little towns in the middle of nowhere, everybody piling out of the car and making a dash for the toilets, filling up with gas and candy and junk food, the poor gas station attendants struggling to communicate with thick-accented and strange Europeans.  Then we all pile back in and turn up the radio and tear off down the road in a cloud of dust and the party never ends.

Something I didn’t expect is how much this experience has made me very proud of my own country, proud to be from such an amazing place.  When the trip is over and we roll back into the parking lot of the hotel, there are a lot of sad faces and people wishing like crazy that they didn’t have to go back home.  “I can’t go home now.  England sucks.  I’m never leaving.”  More than just the incredible natural beauty and scenery, they always talk about how much they love the American people and the positive attitude that everyone seems to have.  They get a kick out of total strangers smiling and saying hello on the hiking trails.  “That would never happen back home.  If you tried to say hello to someone on the street they would just look at you like you were crazy.”  The friendliness of store clerks, the kindness of strangers, just people in general being happy. It’s something that we take for granted as Americans but it’s something that makes us special and I love it.  America often gets a bad rap around the world but when you see it through the eyes of these travelers, you come to see that America isn’t the corrupt politicians or the flawed celebrities or the questionable foreign policies.  What America truly is is the everyday people living their lives, free and happy and optimistic about life and the future.  The clerk in the grocery store who happily runs off to get you a better sack of oranges.  Or the stranger on the bus who goes out of her way to make sure you find where you are going.  On one trip I had an older British lady, Margaret, who said to me “I didn’t expect to like America.  In fact, I’ve spent my whole disliking America.  And now I’ve come here and…I love America.  Everyone is wonderful here!”  On that same trip I had really cool guy named Neil, an older gentleman also from England, who said that Americans just seem to have a positive attitude about everything, a happier outlook on life.  And it’s probably because that frontier spirit that our grandparents and ancestors had still lingers in our minds, the idea that nothing is impossible and anything can be accomplished if we set our minds to it.  And even if some dreams fall short, how much better is life if you at least believe in something along the way?  That’s what America is, and it’s what strikes these foreigners as most apparent; the everyday American smiling on the street, just being happy to be alive.  In today’s world, what a novelty that is.

Grand Canyon Sunrise

So now the season is over and I can’t help being a little sad to see it end.  The nights are getting colder and the leaves are falling from the trees, and it feels odd to actually be in one place for more than a day or two.  The road is a drug, addictive and soul consuming, and as the complications of a sedentary life begin to accumulate and cloud the heart, it becomes a need, a life blood.  The only way to get by is to let the memories of the good times carry you through until you can find your way back to that open horizon.   Walking through spring flowers strewn across alpine meadows beside snow-covered Mt. Rainier.  Listening to the spirits of the ancient Navajos in Monument Valley.  Feeling the cool mist across your body from the waterfalls falling from the sky over massive granite mountains in Yosemite.  Your heart pounding as you traverse the giant sandstone cliffs in Zion, one step away from a thousand foot free fall to the river.  The windows down and the warm summer air as you watch your headlights wash over the stone walls and arches of Southern Utah.  Or just sitting around the campfire and laughing with your new friends and traveling partners about the crazy adventures of the day.  That’s life on the road, and it’s just about as good as life could ever get.



7 responses to “Trekking America”

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  1. Ryan says:

    Well put my man. Really enjoyed reading that. Here’s to next year!!!

  2. Debi Barneck says:

    Russell: You are such an amazing writer! I love reading about your adventures. Since I’m at a point in my life where I can’t just up and travel around the country, it’s nice to be able to live it through your eyes. Thank you and keep up the good work! Love ya!

  3. Britta says:

    I love it Russell! So descriptive and well written. I also laughed hysterically at several points. =) Love you!

  4. Dave says:

    Fun times! I felt that I could relate to the poor fellow who wandered around in the dark for an hour as you stood by and created an even scarier situation. HAHA It provided him with a story, no doubt.

  5. Mom says:

    Well done my dear son. You are amazing and those many tourists were so lucky to have you for their guide. America rocks!
    Love you tons and tons,

  6. David Mitchell says:

    Hey is your crazy ‘Dave’ character who makes all the mistakes based on me? haha, I forgive you if it is. good writing Russell and very cool website!