Being Humbled: An Opportunity for Growth and to Reveal An Untold Story
I am lying in a hospital bed in Las Vegas, NV as I write this post. I am a couple days post-op (November 27, 2018) and about five days from a solo hiking accident in the Lake Meade Recreational Area at a magnificent place called ‘The Bowl of Fire.’ Not far from the more famous ‘Valley of Fire State Park,’ these areas are well known for their beautiful and mesmerizing topographies and especially the high (red) Aztec Sandstone formations – that make one feel that they are on an alien landscape. Alien landscape enough to warrant some famous science fiction film sequences being shot there – from some original “Total Recall” Mars sequences to some for “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (film sequences) and others.
I am a proud solo, backcountry hiker. I have hiked solo my entire life and have hiked solo much more often than I ever have with a buddy or in a group. It’s just my nature. I’m sure other solo hikers would agree. We’re kinda ‘hardwired’ for it I bet. And no changing it. We only ever get to taste real (or as close to it as possible) ‘individual freedom’ every so often – and this particular activity is more of a spiritual practice or Sadhana for me. This too I’d say other solo hikers would attest-to as well. It’s a ‘calling’ of sorts. And a life-affirming and fulfilling passion. Being alone in Nature has always been – since I was a little boy – my main form of ‘Prayer’ – and one that I didn’t need to be taught. And it continues to this day. I’ll never give it up. It sustains me.
I have never had a broken bone before in my life. No surgeries aside from wisdom teeth extraction while still in my teens and a knee scope for a shredded meniscus (former long distance runner) several years back. I am 52 years old and have always had this somewhat misguided, tough guy thing of ‘indestructibility’ due to my sheer luck in this department (but I guess luck eventually runs-out!). Granted I’ve also tried to take decent care of myself (yoga, gym, spinning, HIIT, diet, etc.) to maintain these and other rugged, outdoor related activities – and toyed with more ‘extreme’ sports a bit while younger (long-distance running / Marathon training, parachuting / skydiving, SCUBA, mountain biking, martial arts, etc.), and I have a military background. In short, I am comfortable being alone in the wilderness – in varying terrains – and varying weather conditions. If something were to go sideways – as it did in this story – I feel that my background prepared me for the ordeal. More so, my mindset and spiritual ‘work’ of the last decade or two came to my aid (to a great degree) and informed the experience in such a way that I will try to relate here as best I can. I think the analogy of “A Dark Night of the Soul” is appropriate here. One that was condensed into literally a single night – as opposed to a protracted journey or season that is normally the case. Been there too. This was a condensed ‘re-visit’ I feel and imparted some rather startling lessons and deep insights – and awakened a slumbering story, just waiting to be finally told.
I had planned a half-day or so hike out at The Bowl starting late morning, Friday, November 23rd. The day after the Thanksgiving holiday. ‘Black Friday’ to a lot of people. Ironic. I had originally intended to visit a spot, a high overlook / promontory, where I had scattered some of my beloved English Bulldog, Lefty’s ashes earlier this year, on my birthday in April - a heartbreaking loss that is still very present for me. He left this realm on December 21, 2017. I changed my mind at the last minute and decided to explore ascent and descent routes on a mountain across from that formation – across The Bowl on the south / south-east side. A mountain I’ve affectionately called “Hanuman’s Mountain” for its domination of The Bowl’s landscape and topography – as well as some interesting ‘insights’ during Ceremonies (Prayer Rituals) performed in the Bowl (with and without Sacred Medicine). That particular mountain and my beloved Lefty are inherently intertwined in a personal ‘mythology’ (Epic) that has developed over the years – a relationship and story that defies explanation – rather – it is more akin to the late, great Terence McKenna’s cornerstone of consciousness - “the felt presence of immediate experience” – and I apologize if this gets to be a little ‘out there,’ but I know some readers will understand and relate. I ask you to indulge me a little here. Personal mythologies are powerful tools for me – tools I use in my life and Sacred Ceremony to a great degree. They allow me to somewhat contextualize certain circumstances and experiences that simply defy explanation – and challenge belief systems. While this can border on idealization and fantasy - and requires work to appropriately ground such things – I find personal mythology to be a fertile field for deeper explorations. You could say it’s my way / one way of exploring Karma and Karmic (and Cosmic) relationships and ‘contracts.’ My relationship with The Bowl of Fire and my relationship with Lefty grew and deepened at almost the same time and the same rate – over the course of a decade. I was lucky enough to have taken Him out there a couple times while He was still young and strong enough for the trek and the more accessible routes. For an English Bulldog, He was one tough hombre (Jai Hanuman-ji!) and was always up and eager for a good hike. Mind you, I planned them out for Him / took Him into account as I had to work with His limitations and His well-being and comfort / safety was always paramount. He was never pushed beyond His comfort zones and He loved time in Nature and the wilderness. We were a matched pair. It was pre-ordained. It is Karmic / Cosmic.
“Hanuman’s Mountain” got its name from me several years back on a trip out to The Bowl with Lefty. My beloved Step-Father, Mel Johnson, died from cancer June 10, 2012 and I spent a lot of time at my Mother’s and his home in Henderson, NV – providing as much support as I could during his transition. Subsequent to Mel’s passing, I would come-out from the East Coast (NYC) to spend extra time / extended periods with my Mother as she was now alone, far from any family and she has had, and continues to have, her own health challenges. She is now 83 years old. On a couple such trips, I was lucky enough to bring Lefty – driving cross-country from New York on two separate, round-trip, road trips. They were grand adventures! And we both loved them beyond measure. We were best friends, allies, comrades, and confidants.
On these extended visits, I would often take Lefty for a hike just to get some personal time – to take a break – as many can relate to the myriad challenges of spending extended time with family – especially elderly parents! One time I took Lefty out to The Bowl to perform a little Full Moon Ceremony – to pray for Blessings for my late Fathers (Don & Mel), my Mother, my Loved Ones, Our Great Mother Earth, and myself. To simply 'walk in a Sacred manner' and ‘talk to Nature’ – which is my primary way to pray. I would often pack what I call my ‘portable altar’ or mesa – in order to facilitate and sanctify these prayers in the ritual ways I’ve learned over the years.
This occasion like so many others was ‘charged’ with many emotions as well as the Power of the Celestial circumstances and the Full Moon. The Power of this Place. The loss of Mel was a difficult experience that wreaked havoc in my family – repercussions that are still felt. And my own guilt and felt sense of certain responsibilities in creating that havoc – during his passing – was also very present. My family is challenging to say the least, but probably no more ‘dysfunctional’ than many others (although I often wonder!). Dealing with the traumas of childhood woundings around poverty, alcohol, violence, abuse of all types, terrible allegations, addiction, family secrets, generational traumas, ancestral traumas, pain, abhorrent behaviors, etc. is a life-long endeavor and is the most difficult ‘work’ to undertake. I applaud all those whom are doing it. Keep going. Keep. Going.
I lovingly laid-out my altar and opened Sacred Space and began my prayers. Often free-form singing, chanting, movement like Tai Chi Chuan / Qigong (I think I can begin to understand the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ of Mystical Sufism and the Mevlevi Order), rattling, drumming, etc. make up my time in prayer – as well as a constant ‘dialog’ with the Spirits of the Place / the Land and with Great Spirit. On this particular occasion I was so overcome with emotion, with such profound grief and sadness, that I fell to my knees and bowed my head to touch the magnificent sandstone plateau (a raised platform / altar in and of itself) in the very bottom of The Bowl - that is certainly an ancient place for prayer. The tears were welling-up and streaming down my face as I begged my Lord Hanuman, my chosen deity or object of worship (Avatar of G-O-D), to take away my pain and sorrow – and to show Himself to me – His Humble Servant. I’ve been a Hanuman devotee for years – and that’s a story for another time – but suffice to say that He ‘revealed’ Himself to me, He 'came-through.' As I opened my tear-filled eyes and looked-up, the first thing that filled my vision, the very first thing I saw, that could be made out through the profuse tears, was Lefty’s Wise, Benevolent, Noble face – as He had come right up close to me to provide comfort – almost touching my face - to ‘tell me’ that everything’s OK. The second thing I saw was the Great Bulwark of the Mountain directly behind Him, literally ‘crowning’ Him, filling the periphery of the scene - magnificently illuminated by the fading desert Sun and the rising Full Moon – glowing in the many hues of the glorious desert sunset. And in that very moment, in that exact instant, the ‘Three’ (the 'Holy Trinity') became One – Supreme Devotion, Unconditional LOVE, and Awesome Majesty. My Great Lord Hanuman, My Beloved Lefty, and that Mountain - Hanuman’s Mountain.
This was February 22, 2014. And ever since, and forever more, it was the day I met my Great Lord Hanuman in Form. He chose Lefty to reveal Himself to me – and I was finally able to ‘see’ It – to ‘comprehend’ It – to Behold Him. It was so far ‘beyond’ me, so far beyond this World and everything in it. It was All and Everything, All at once. And it was an absolute Perfect Moment. Ecstatic. Great Joy and Great Sorrow – and all emotions all at once. All human experience all at once. Again, as the Great Bard would say, “the felt presence of immediate experience.” The Great, Cosmic Order, Hierarchy, and Plan opened for me – and I beheld the Glory of R-A-M.
I believe – for me – that it took many, many years of Devotion and deep, deep ‘work’ to be able to have this experience. I do not believe it is necessary for everyone. It is just my Path. And my Path is not your Path. And your Path is not my Path. May this Peace be upon you.
You can choose your own story at this point, your own interpretation. It is your right and prerogative. I choose to believe that I met an Avatar of G-O-D (R-A-M) that day – and was forever blessed to have that experience and ‘knowing’ to carry with me for the rest of my days. And that my Noble, Beloved, Immortal, Magnificent Lefty, was His ‘Divine Instrument’ – was in fact – if only for an instant – the Living, Manifest Embodiment of Hanuman – Great Servant of S-I-T-A, Great Servant of LAKSHMAN, the Breath, Hammer, and Great Servant of R-A-M.
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After a tricky ascent to the accessible secondary summit just above the beautiful, red, Aztec sandstone formations (really just an escarpment or high ledge) of “Hanuman’s Mountain,” the vantage point allowed me to see what appeared to be some good options for descent – better than the hardscrabble approach I had taken on the hike up. I had met – actually gotten above – a few pairs of Big Horn Sheep during my hike in, and the final and closest encounter was one where I took them completely by surprise – having occupied one of their high path precipices. Probably something they’ve rarely, if ever, experienced. The pride of a backcountry hiker swelled in me as I thought of how the Ancient Pueblo Peoples / Anasazi probably hunted these Big Horns long ago just like this – having to take them completely by surprise in the elevations in order to have any chance at bagging one at short range.
I saw a few different lines for descent options and began to make may way down after offering Sacred Tobacco to the Mountain and The Stone Peoples – and to ask for Blessings. I took my time and explored the Aztec Sandstone formations as I went – deviating here-and-there, but still coming-back to the line(s) that I saw from above. One line ended-up being completely false – a 200+ foot sheer drop-off a cliff, another was a very difficult and tricky looking, hand-over-hand climb-down, and I knew that the sandstone could be rather unforgiving in that situation – slipping and falling being a very real danger – and a chance I was not willing to take. The third option – and in my mind the last ‘line’ I saw from above – presented a ‘chute’ of sorts – a crevice created by run-off – that then dropped 4-6 feet down to what appeared to be a sandy, somewhat reasonably soft landing. I decided this was my option. It was getting to be mid-afternoon and I wanted to make it back to my Mother’s at the ‘allotted’ time – I said I’d be back late afternoon / early evening. So I was in a bit of a hurry. Mistake. It was now approximately 2:30pm or so. I stepped-down into the ‘chute’ and lowered myself to the point where my arms were extended above my head, gripping the lip or rim of the chute – in order to minimize the drop distance that I had gauged to be about 4-5 feet with this maneuver. I had planned to fall, hit in a ready-roll position (thank you parachute / skydiving training), fall on my ass, and get up, dust-off, and be on my merry way. Two things went wrong in this situation: first, I was quite literally a stiff, ‘spear’ shape in this maneuver – not having time to tuck into a ready-roll position, and second, my upper body strength wasn’t up-to-par since I hadn’t been strength training for some time – so I lost my grip earlier than anticipated, thus having things move a bit faster than I would have liked. I hit the bottom - with speed - in what I can imagine as only a straight stick or spear would, taking all the impact in my straight / tensed-up feet, ankles, and legs – but still ended-up on my ass as planned. Except, when I sat up, I was quite surprised to see my right foot completely twisted perpendicular and the sole of my trail runner facing 'up' somewhat. The surprise continued as I immediately grabbed my foot - which felt completely 'loose / almost unattached', and twisted it back into position – feeling the telltale shift of bone, ligament, and muscle in the process – and in several places. A bad break. "Spiral fracture," I immediately thought. The second thought – and I kid you not – was that I was gonna walk out of there – mainly because I told my Mother I’d be back and I didn’t want her to worry. I was going to walk out. Simple as that.
These were split-second, second-nature thoughts and decisions. A cascade of them actually:
- “Good thing I don’t have a protruding fracture or messy bleeder. Or an internal bleeder that will fill my foot and ankle like a balloon. This could have been a LOT worse.”
- “I am about 2,500 – 3,000 feet up and about 4 – 5 miles in. A ‘Search & Rescue’ operation will take some time (at least late the next day / after the 24 hour, 'missing person' waiting period ) and will end-up costing me $10K - $20K+ because my insurance won’t cover a wilderness Medical Evacuation (Medivac). No way in hell can I afford to pay that!”
- “How the hell did this happen? That was a simple, short drop. Why did my ankle completely collapse? Is there an underlying condition that I’m not aware of? Do I have bone cancer!?!?!”
- “WTF!?!?! Is this what it means to be getting old!?!?!?”
- “I can get myself out of here before Mom gets too worried. Probably by 8 or 9pm.” (Ha!)
- “Good thing I pack for limited emergencies and extended timeframes – wish I bought more stuff though (food & water).”
- “I wonder if I can pick-up a mobile signal down in The Bowl? I don’t think I can. I think I only get one once I’m most the way back to Henderson on the Northshore Road.”
But the one thought / decision remained constant: “I’m gonna walk out of here. No way in hell am I sleeping out here tonight.”
Turns-out I didn’t sleep out there overnight after all. Instead, I spent the overnight getting myself out of there. I had to crawl-down from elevation – as there’s no material for makeshift canes or crutches until you reach bottom and the rare desert brush appears (of reasonable utility). And once I did secure a cane / crutch, they were typically small and brittle making full load-bearing a bit risky. And I did wipe-out a few times – displacing the ankle – and invariably ‘lighting-up’ my body with the shock / pain. Fun. Fun. Fun. I had carried a day pack with essentials and had a cotton hoodie sweatshirt that I then cut with my handy survival knife into 4-inch-wide strips to then wrap and somewhat immobilize the ankle. I chose not to splint it – which I probably should have done in retrospect – except splinting material wasn’t readily available when I had the accident – or for several hours afterward. Instead, I chose to simply relieve the ‘pressure bandage (wrap)’ and re-wrap it better once I was down out of elevation. And I really didn’t think I’d be out there so long to warrant a more thorough, comprehensive treatment – or the extended time necessary to find and fashion splints in my condition. I was out there for a longer time than I’d thought – so that was a little mistake – but I still had adequately immobilized and protected the ankle / foot / leg.
Once I got down from elevation – and the typically razor-sharp sandstone, ‘Martian’ landscape – I was able to then hobble a little in an upright position with the aid of desert brush limbs ('canes') – regularly taking breaks and regularly taking ‘crawl breaks’ to at least keep moving. In the places where soft sand was available, I gratefully crawled and rested. The hours ticked-by and I realized that I was within view of where Dana and I had scattered some of Lefty’s ashes – way up above in a ‘Temple Formation’ of the Aztec Sandstone - across The Bowl from me. And I began to talk to Him. It was a beautiful several hours – regardless of the immediate circumstances – a kind of ‘communion’ with Him in the Full Moon light – in a magnificent place that I love so dearly. By this time, it had been several hours since my accident and I was exhausted – so I asked Him for Strength. And in the proceeding hours, every now-and-then a refreshing, sweet, desert breeze would envelope me and I had the strong sense that it was Lefty (Hanuman), giving me a boost and encouragement. As I made my way down and out through the ravines and washes – I could always look up and see where we had given Him over to this magnificent place and to Great Spirit – and I could sense Him looking down on me – sending me His Great Strength, Courage, and Tenacity. It was as if He was ‘returning the favor’ of my (our) watching over Him during His last, difficult year of life with us.
The Sun was beginning to rise as I was approaching the last turn towards the last mile to my Mother’s van – parked on the Northshore Highway across from the shielded-view approach to The Bowl. That last mile took all that I had and much longer than anticipated – probably a good 4 hours to cross the hardscrabble / hardpan and navigate the shallower, but still difficult in my condition - washes and ravines. I stopped to rest many, many times that last mile - all frustratingly in view of the van - "It's just right there! Ugh!" The exhaustion had reached a level with which I had little familiarity – one that I’ve since come to learn is the ‘playing field’ of the extreme endurance athletes. But I did know this with certainty – if I had to, I could keep going. I could keep going as long as was necessary. Lefty / Hanuman had my back.
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I had broken my ankle (Bimalleolar fracture of right ankle) at approximately 2:00-3:00pm on Friday, November 23 (‘Black Friday’) and emerged from the desert at the van at approximately 9:00am Saturday morning, November 24. Typically, it would only take me 2-3 hours to return from a deep hike in The Bowl. This return required approximately 18 hours and overnight. The (interesting) drive to the Emergency Room took another hour or so. I had a few blessings in my favor that fateful trip:
- It was a Full Moon that Friday night / Saturday morning, so visibility was good. It was actually a beautiful, magical night in its own, unique way!
- Because of my solo, backcountry experience – and significant experience in The Bowl, I knew the topography / landscape very well – so there was little-to-no guesswork with regard to the best route options out.
- Because of my basic and advance trauma training – in the military – and from a former SEAL Team member in a professional workshop a couple / few years ago, I knew how to treat my injury – and that level of confidence significantly reduced any potential anxiety. Even if the injury had been worse – I feel I had the training necessary to deal with the situation. Thankfully, the injury was NOT worse.
- Because I have been a solo backcountry hiker all my life, I have learned that ‘preparation’ is everything. That ‘Murphy’s Law’ does rule backcountry hiking, and that even for a relatively simple and short day-hike, you should prepare (pack) for emergencies. I did pack my minimum backcountry, day-hike gear and I will share it below. This is my absolute minimum gear pack.
- I have a very strong mindset (stubborn streak?) and a calmness under extreme duress that gives me a significant advantage in emergency situations. Never lose your cool. Never panic. Never give up. Assess the situation and take the next, best action. One thing at a time.
I drove (with the aid of one of the ‘canes’ I fashioned – to press the gas pedal) to the closest Emergency Room when I was finally able to contact my Mother and profusely apologize for making her worry so much. She had an A.P.B. / Missing Person’s Report filed that would have eventually activated a search & rescue effort, and I’m confident that if my injury had been truly traumatic and life-threatening – and it would have been better for me to simply hunker-down and wait for rescue – that I would have been found by late afternoon / early evening Saturday at the latest.
I was transferred to an Orthopedic Surgery Center and had my ankle / foot / leg repaired (lots of hardware!) on Sunday, November 25th at approximately 5pm. This was a full two days from the time of my injury / accident.
Interestingly enough, I am still in the hospital – not due to the broken ankle, I was cleared by the Orthopedic Surgeon on Monday, the day after surgery – but due to a syndrome / condition known as Rhabdomyolysis. It is a condition that occurs when muscle tissue starts to break down for various reasons – one of them being extreme exertion. An enzyme is released into the bloodstream (creatine kinase or ‘CK’) that can cause severe damage to your kidneys and liver (renal failure) – and in extreme cases, cause death (take note you Ultra Marathon Runners and Extreme Endurance Athletes!). My ‘CK’ levels were pretty high due to the extreme exertion of my ‘crawl-out’ and I had to have my system continually flushed with IV fluids to naturally discharge the enzyme and drop those levels to acceptable parameters. (Incidentally, I am 'blown-up' like a balloon with fluid! NOW I understand being bloated!) But today I am going to be discharged as those levels are trending-down now. It is Wednesday, November 28, 2018.
I will continue to be a solo, backcountry hiker – and even go so far as to say, I will be upping my game too – with even more adventures with probably greater degrees of difficulty. One thing that will now be required gear is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that works with GPS / Satellite – as well as a Global Wilderness Search & Rescue Insurance Policy to ensure that I have the resources necessary to get a Medivac if necessary and not go bankrupt!
Hiking Nature in solitude has been a lifelong form of Prayer and Communion with Spirit. I will never give it up, and hope to continue to do it until my dying days. And if at all possible, I hope to die outside, in Glorious Nature, Wilderness even, under a blanket of stars, during a Full Moon.
Jai Hanuman-ji, The Breath, Hammer, and Great Servant of R-A-M
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My absolute minimum gear pack for hiking:
- Extra clothing for the season - preferably high-performance / lightweight. This typically means a good, lightweight, insulated jacket with a rain shell - or a separate rain jacket. And an extra hoodie sweatshirt. Always buy jackets with hoodies. Always.
- I packed a wool knit 'watch cap' (you lose a lot of heat / warmth through your head) and glad I did.
- My 'life savers' are 'Gorilla Grip' gloves - as I had taken into account the sharp, stoney landscape of The Bowl. They lent extra warmth as the desert cooled-off (you lose a lot of heat / warmth through your hands as well). If I did not have gloves / hand protection - the 'crawl-out' would have shredded my hands (!)
- I took 3 liters of water on this hike. It turned-out to be JUST adequate. I should have taken 3.5 - 4.
- I took one RX Bar and two apples. One of the apples I used as a ritual offering. So, I did NOT bring adequate food (calories). I will carry 3 - 4x that now at minimum (bars).
- I had two headlamps. I have an extra in case I'm with someone that doesn't have one, or if one dies.
- I have a good survival knife (Gerber Bear Grylls).
- I always pack lighters / fire-setting and building material.
- I always wear layered clothing, with good trail runners or hiking boots, and always wear a web belt - it can double as a tourniquet.
- A decent first-aid kit (minimal trauma). I usually pack one, but I did NOT have one with me on this trip. From now on, I will pack a more advanced trauma kit (lightweight / backpacker).
- From now on, I will pack a GPS Satellite, Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and I will buy a good Search & Rescue Insurance Policy.
- I have an adequate compass, barometer, and altimeter on my SUUNTO watch - and had advanced land navigation training in the military. I highly recommend that you learn to read a topographical map and use a compass.
- I will from now on, carry collapsible trekking poles. They can double as splints and canes / crutches. Yes, I'm a convert now...
- I packed my phone - but it was useless.