That's a picture of the place I almost died, twice in one day, during a weekend long run about ten years ago.
My friends and family all know this story very well, but I thought I'd write it out on my blog, for posterity.
My Summers In Moab, Utah
After I graduated high school, my sister made me an offer I couldn't refuse: Stay with her in the picturesque sports haven of Moab, Utah free of charge. The only catch was that there was no catch. Why on Earth would I pass up an opportunity like that?
I didn't. I packed up my essentials and spent two summers in Moab, working a couple of jobs and running, biking, and hiking like mad. It was a fantastic way to spend a brief and formative time of my life.
One of my favorite things to do back then was to study local trail maps for interesting running routes through the wilderness, and then drive out to the trailhead and attempt to run a pre-selected route entirely from memory, without food or water. In other words, I'd try to get lost without any means of survival. The point was to... tempt fate? No, not really. I was confident in my ability to find my way, and there were usually plenty of other people around (usually) in case I got myself into trouble.
I remember once I genuinely did get lost. I planned out a 10-mile route through the La Sal mountains (pictured above), only to discover halfway through my run that the trail had completely grown over and was basically impassable.
It was remarkable. One minute I was running along the well-worn single-track deer path depicted in the topographical map, the next minute I was in tall grass up to my waist with no compass, no food, no water, and no idea how to get back to the truck. I remember standing in the middle of a meadow as the midday sun beat down on me from above, squinting into the distance below, trying to gain some clue as to which direction would take me back to a familiar landscape.
Finally, I essentially flipped a coin. I could go left or right; I chose left. For five miles, I bushwhacked my way through the Rocky Mountain vegetation, descending into a ravine that I assumed would take me "down." "Down" was the relative direction of my truck, the highway, and my ticket back home.
"Down" turned out to be a very good idea. Some time later, I found myself bounding out of the mouth of the ravine onto the empty highway that lead back to my truck. Somehow, I had managed to run exactly parallel to my estimated route.
I was twenty years old, strong, invincible, an expert tracker (I thought)! A god! Without food, water, or compass, I could run to the 12,000-foot-elevation mountain tops where so few had been that the trails had disappeared, and emerge a couple of hours later, no worse for wear. I could do anything.
A Bright Idea
Some weeks afterward, a few friends invited me to join them on a mountain biking excursion. Having already earned a storied notoriety for my ability to humiliate myself on a mountain bike, however, I suggested that instead I would drive up to the trail head with them, run a 16-mile loop in the opposite direction, and meet them back at the truck in time for lunch. After carefully planning our routes on our trusty trail map, packing a lunch, and having a huge Belgian waffle breakfast at the best coffee shop in town, we were off to conquer another weekend war.
The drive was uneventful. We reached my intended "starting point," I hopped out of the truck, and my friends drove away with a laugh, leaving me alone for the next 16 miles. The sky was cloudless, the morning air still cool, and my thoughts good-spirited and serene. It was a great day for a run.
I started out at a relaxed pace, circling around the long highway that runs parallel to the base of the La Sals. To my right, the forest gently rose upward into the sky. To my left sloped the painted basin of Utah's Castle Valley, made familiar to all of humanity by countless Hollywood films and television car commercials. Dividing the two starkly different landscapes was that single, winding highway and my own two feet, in solitude.
The highway circled and gently descended around the edge of the mountain range. Before I reached the nadir, though, I turned off onto a little-known jeep road that simply led upward. Upward, to a fork in the wilderness, where a left-turn would take me back to that same lost path I had discovered weeks earlier, and a right-turn would circle me over to my friends, the truck, my lunch, and many gallons of fresh water.
The jeep road itself is a rather herculean journey, climbing some 4,000 feet of elevation in little more than three miles. It is an excruciatingly punishing climb, by foot or by bike, which few ever consider taking. But it is a beautiful climb, with cool green grass and aspen trees growing along the left-hand upward slope, and a red-soil pasture descending down into a canyon all along the right. There is nowhere to go except up or down the road. The slopes on either side of it are simply too steep, and lead nowhere.
But I had run this jeep road before, and I am unashamed to say it was easier to run it the second time.
My Brief Career As A Rodeo Clown
After an ambitious and punishing climb, I reached the top of the jeep trail, eager to take in the gorgeous scenery at the summit. It is the convergence of three small valleys and three different mountain trails. Running straight ahead would take me to the top of one of the tallest peaks in the La Sal range, and I was already familiar with the fate of those turning left. I was excited to see what lay in store for me to the right. I allowed my imagination to run wild a bit as I rounded the final hump to the top of my climb.
Something was different.
Standing in the center of the jeep road, right at the very summit of the climb, was an enormous, dark, chocolate-brown mass of solid muscle, the single largest bull I have ever seen in my life. It was looking right at me.
Now, I grew up in Utah, where there are many cows. My schoolmates' families raised them for a living. Much of the high mountain wilderness is used for cattle-grazing. That I should encounter cows in the mountains was no surprise of note.
That I should encounter such a large bull with enormous, obsidian-black, intelligent eyes, blowing steamy puffs of air out of its mouth and nose as I drew near was not so common. Sensing a note of perturbation in the bull's posture, I slowed to a walk and moved far to the side of the road, approaching calmly and gently so as not to bother him. That was when my weekly trail run took turn.
As I moved over to the side of the road, the bull stepped laterally to the same side I was, so that it was still facing me head-on. Only now, there was a bit less distance between us. Almost automatically, I continued my slow, calm walk to the other side of the jeep road, leaving the bull even more room this time.
But the bull again matched me step-for-step, all the way to the other side of the road. My mouth dropped open a little. I had never seen something like this before. I ambled back to the center of the road, and the bull followed me, once again blocking my path. There couldn't have been twenty feet separating us. I stopped walking and, with my eyes on the bull, began mulling my options.
I wasn't scared. It was just a cow. I eat these things. They're stupid animals, not even smart enough to step out of the way of oncoming traffic. They're dirty, disgusting, unintelligent brutes that deserve to be eaten. So I wasn't trying to avoid a confrontation, but merely considering how I would get around an obstacle without making the dumb thing uncomfortable. My mind turned its gears for beat.
As I stared thoughtfully at my bovine obstacle, I noted how different it was from the other cows I'd seen. Its hair was such a rich, deep, dark brown, and so shiny that as it moved under the summer sun its hide looked almost like liquid. Its shoulders were wide and strong, and I could see its huge, tense muscles flexing from what seemed to be the tip of its horns, all the way to the base of its hoofs. Above all, the eyes that stared at me had a lucidity that seemed to communicate not just dumb brute animal emotion, but ideas. Furthermore, as I scanned my obstacle top-to-bottom, I was becoming progressively more uncomfortable with the ideas it was conveying.
The next half-a-second is etched into my memory in the same surreal slow-motion in which it seemed to occur that morning. With a quiet puff of air, the bull's entire body seemed to explode into an oily black mass of powerful muscle. Its front legs and shoulders tensed into a frighteningly beautiful bulge that rocketed toward me like some kind of snarling bovine avalanche of power.
Well, what do you do when you're running through the wilderness and a bull charges you? The answer to that question says a lot about who you are. There is no time for further consideration, no time to think, to seek help, to do anything other than engage in self-preservation. Instincts take over. What I did, I did without thinking. What I did was an automatic response. There was no "reasoning" behind it. I simply acted.
I threw my right arm straight out in front of me, and simply resisted a charging bull with a single word: "No!"
Incomprehensibly, this worked, at least for a moment. The bull had obviously never encountered a skinny, half-naked distance runner hopped up on the adrenaline of a good run. It paused just long enough for me to do something other than bark commands at a beast many times my own size, with sharpened weapons attached to the top of its head.
Quickly, I ran into the aspen forest above me, believing that the thick grass and trees, and the steep slope, would be too impassable for my adversary. I was wrong, the bull followed me in. There was no way I'd be able to run around the bull. The only path available to me was back down the jeep hill, the way I'd come, so down I went, as fast as I could.
But it was as though I had given the bull a clear shot at gouging me into oblivion. Unobstructed by trees, and on clear and sure footing, the bull charged toward me. I pumped my legs as fast as they would move, but it was no use. My number was up.
There is no majesty in death, no final purpose, no angels' wings. I vaguely recall my last thoughts on Earth being something to the effect of, "Uh-oh, now what?"
That Moment When You Get A Second Chance And Then Ruin It
But the expected impact never came. Suddenly I heard a mooing sound coming from a meadow down below. There were a dozen female cows - the haggard, stupid-looking cows I was more familiar with - calling out to bull charging me.
When I took note of the fact that there were not two horns stabbing me in the back and I was still running full-force down the road, I hazarded a glance over my shoulder. The bull had slowed to a trot and turned its majestic head to the cheerleading females down below. He mooed back as he ran toward me.
It was the only glance I took. I had tempted fate enough for one day. I dug my toes into the ground and sprinted the full five kilometers back down to the highway. The bull had long since stopped.
I was alone again in the desert heat, on an empty highway, with very little energy left.
I reasoned that the top of the jeep road was perhaps the approximate mid-point of my journey, and therefore told myself that if I ran back the way I had come, it would make for a 16-mile run as planned. I'd make it back to the truck on time with a great story to tell my friends. I was tired, but happy. I had once again cheated death.
But yet again, something wasn't right. Although I had started early in the morning, with plenty of time to make it 16 miles to a truck, it felt like midday. The sky was still cloudless, but the sun had risen to the center of the vast blue expanse above me. It had also seemingly increased in size by an order of magnitude, and the heat perceptibly warmed the surface of my skin to a steady burn. I licked my lips as the thirst set in.
I had completely miscalculated the length of my running route. By the time I had made it to the top of the jeep road and encountered the bull, I was only a mile or two away from my destination, not "half-way." Rather than taking a very-doable 16 mile run through the cool mountain air, I now found myself in the midst of a thirty-mile run in the middle of the Utah desert during the hottest time of the day, at the hottest time of year.
I had heard the stories many times. People died doing things like this. I took some comfort in the fact that I had at least only done something stupid unwillingly. If it weren't for that bull, I'd be fine, right?
Like every drop of moisture in and around my body, those thoughts evaporated into the hellish heat and were replaced by a terrible, persistent, drumming thought: thirst.
We all get thirsty, but few of us have ever felt the thirst of a body that literally might not contain enough H2O to make it the rest of the afternoon. It is a horrible feeling. The mind can think of nothing other than how desperately it needs water. Every muscle burns, every joint aches, over and above the usual pains of a long run. Then, the mouth becomes dry of course, but that dryness in the mouth starts making its way down the throat. It becomes impossible to swallow, because there is no moisture lining the throat. The sides of the esophagus stick together, and one simply chokes.
A real sense of my own mortality had set in. As the miles and the minutes passed, I became progressively more and more aware of the severity of my situation. I could scarcely believe I had escaped a charging bull, only to fall victim to the elements. Nature is a cruel and ironic master.
I squinted ahead at the mirages hovering above the road in the distance. I had reached a straight patch of highway, alone but for the sun and an occasional buzzing insect. My pace was irregular, my steps erratic and clumsy. At length, I heard the sound of a passing car coming from the distance behind me. A maroon SUV passed me and sped into the distance ahead. I reprimanded myself for not having flagged it down.
But the car stopped, went into reverse, and found myself looking at the driver inside, who had rolled down her window.
With a knowing look, she narrowed her eyes, smiled kindly, and pointed a finger at me. "Do you need water?" she asked. Gratefully, I admitted I did, and to my amazement, she reached into her back seat and produced a one-liter bottle of water, which she handed to me, saying only, "I thought so." Then she drove away.
The truth of the matter is, that woman probably saved my life, and I'll never see her again or know her name. How unbelievable fate can be, lives intersecting at random, only for a moment, a life saved, and then two people who have every reason to share a powerful, lifelong bond once again become strangers, never to cross paths again...
I modestly took a sip of water and looked at the bottle. How odd - I didn't think I had had that much to drink. I allowed myself to take a longer draught. The water was gone. Two short drinks and an entire liter of water had disappeared in seconds.
I think that was the moment I realized that if I didn't get back to the truck soon, I'd be through. But with no other human beings in sight, and nothing other than the sun and my parched throat to occupy my thoughts, the rest of my journey passed by as quickly and urgently as my sense of purpose.
I remember glancing down at my stopwatch: I had been running for more than three hours and forty-five minutes. I disinterestedly stopped the watch and switched to clock mode. What was important now was whether my friends would be gone by the time I made it to our designated meeting place.
An Inelegant Finale
I figured I still had time, but I'd have to hurry. So I somehow managed to quicken my pace. I leaned forward. I sharpened my determination. I had out-run a charging bull and somehow managed to cheat the desert out of its next victim, thanks to the kindness of a passing stranger. I could certainly make it back to the truck.
The pain worked its way to the back of my mind. I could make it. At the truck, I had a packed lunch and countless bottles of clear, delicious water. I focused on that and just kept running, faster and faster.
Finally I made it. The truck was there, but my friends were nowhere in sight. I peered into the back of the truck, and there they were: all those glorious bottles of clean, cold water. I smiled, I laughed to myself, I congratulated myself on my ability to cheat the odds.
I tried the hatch.
It was locked.
I smiled wryly to myself and paced back and forth. The insanity of desperation had crept into my thoughts imperceptibly. What seemed a perfectly rational thought echoed over and over in my mind:
"No problem! HA HA! I'm here. I'm saved. My friends will be here any minute. They're just down that trail right there. They're coming! They'll unlock the door for me, won't they? I'm fine! I had a whole liter of water an hour ago."
It felt like I was pacing for half an hour, but it was only more like five minutes. Desperate, I jogged a short way down the trail on which I expected them. Nope, they weren't just around the bend. I trotted back to the truck. Still not there. I paced around a bit more. I nervously tried the hatch again. Still locked.
I ran up to the front of the truck and tried the front door. It was unlocked, so I hopped in and found my lunch: Two peanut butter sandwiches - not exactly the right prescription for someone dying of thirst. I rummaged around a bit more and produced a plastic bag full of baby carrots. The sun and the heat had made them moist as they sat, almost cooking, in the front seat of the truck.
Hey, moisture is moisture. I grabbed the bag of carrots and started running up the road, looking for my friends. Every few steps, I'd eat a carrot. They were deliciously soggy with natural moisture. It was a paltry thirst-quencher, but better than nothing.
I reached a clearing, with a little pond in the middle of some trees. Uneasily chewing up my last carrot, I weighed the pros and cons of drinking pond water. I winced. Could I do it? I slowly approached the shore.
Then, I heard a shout. It was my friends, as they sped out of the forest onto the highway, and spotted me. My heart leaped. I waved them down and deliriously tried to explain my adventure to them. I think I got as far as, "Water...!" One of them unloaded their CamelBak and handed it to me. It was gone in a moment, but I was saved.
We went back to the truck and had our lunch. The others didn't yet understand how desperate I was. I tried to explain it to them, but it was days before the realized that I had just nearly died twice in the same morning in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.