Feb 08 2016

THIRTY MINUTES FROM TOTAL DARKNESS: A TRUE STORY

Published by at 7:41 pm under Uncategorized

Published by under Uncategorized

THIRTY MINUTES FROM TOTAL DARKNESS:
A TRUE STORY

The dark, dreary days of winter had taken over. Just beyond the longest day of the year and the shortest amount of daylight to commune with nature. Not to mention the unusually cold days and freezing nights. A month ago Northern California was experiencing temperatures in the Seventies. Now, it was half that in the evenings and lucky to break into the 50s by day.

Even ‘sunny’ Californians can experience cabin fever and John Dutton literally hadn’t been out of the house in over a week, except for a short walk or two before the elements of cold and darkness became too much, even for this rugged outdoorsman. Each day for weeks he had planned to get out on one of his ‘Bay Area Backroads’ adventures – usually a several-hour bike trail ride in one of the Bay Area’s amazing regional parks. Obligations didn’t permit him to get out before afternoon but John was determined this day to finally leave early enough to be able to enjoy at least a couple hours in the wilderness, away from the everyday grind and increasingly limiting city life to which he was accustomed.

Dutton had been to nearly every East Bay Regional Park since discovering the nation’s largest and maybe finest system of parks. Morgan Territory – so remote it isn’t really in or near a city- was one of his favorites and best known ‘unknown’ places where one could escape for a totally un-city-like experience. With more time, he would have gone to a warmer coastal clime, such as Half Moon Bay or Monterey. After a last minute, unexpected phone call from a relative, he finally left home around three in the afternoon, which would give him an hour and a half of daylight biking time after the 45 minute car ride to the desolate area located somewhere between Livermore, Pleasanton and Concord. With warm clothes and bike light he might even be able to grab another another 15-30 minutes after darkness had settled
John had only been to Morgan Territory once before, having approached it via Concord. This time he came to it, driving from the south-eastern side beyond Pleasanton and Livermore. After a slow final five miles of single-lane (for two cars) winding road, he came to the Morgan Territory Regional Preserve Staging Area where there was a sizable number of cars parked near the main trail head. That would be the Valvon/Walker trail.

There were no available maps this day . Perhaps the rainy and wet conditions of late didn’t allow for maps that were usually left in boxes near the trailhead. But there was only the one main trail which John had been on and enjoyed even if only once. Without wasting any more time, he got out his bike from the car, put on two layers as it was probably not even 50 degrees and not about to get any warmer. He followed a few other hikers to the beginning of the Valvon/Walker trail.

The beginning of the route was quite muddy. So much so that the nearby hikers appeared to cut back to a shorter, drier area. But Dutton continued on, hoping the muddy conditions would subside as he climbed the hilly trail, with the bike tires absorbing the mud more than his own shoes.

Due to the relatively late hour – even for Dutton who was used to getting out even later than this to ride – the plan was to stay to the main trail and not dare venture out on one of the many tributary paths that can get one in trouble. He’d only known too well what can happen when one doesn’t plan the time; just mention the words ‘Rocky Ridge’ and Dutton would start to tremble as if a soldier experiencing a war-related flashback. Yes, he had once hiked an area not unlike this one where he lost his way at dusk and had to be rescued by helicopter just before a possible unwanted night in the mountains. Now, Dutton was more experienced, smarter and wiser.

After the 1000 feet of muddiness, Dutton would climb into a drier wide road bed. He remembered it like an old friend from the time before – maybe a year ago. This was truly one of the classic trails, probably more so for hikers than bikers, but Dutton was good at turning at making a bike path out of a hiking path, even usually sticking by the park rules.

John was making good time. Only 4:15 pm now, it was relatively light out, considering the overcast conditions. For a very brief moment or two there had even been a sliver or two of sunlight show through the clouds as he climbed above the darker canyon below. He figured on another good hour of light as he approached what figured to be, perhaps, the half-way point of the trail. He closely followed the trail posts, staying true to the ‘Valvon/Walker Trail’ signs and not the numerous trail ‘branches.’. He was especially buoyed when he came about ‘Valvon Loop.’ He was pretty sure this main trail would loop back as they usually do and this all but confirmed that. Further confirmation came when the next trail sign was again ‘Valvon/Walker,’ indicating that the Valvon trail was the same as the ‘Valvon Loop.’

It was a spectacular late afternoon. Often cloudy, overcast conditions can be more picturesque and photogenic than sunny days. He stopped to chronicle some of these kodak moments with his trusty all-in-one smart phone/camera. Some of the off-shoot trails, such as Whipsnake, looked intriguing, too. On another day, he would have probably gone off course and checked them out. But, it was starting to get late, and he now knew better than during his earlier trail days.

After awhile the trail seemed to be going on longer than John remembered the first time. He didn’t have a compass with him this day – not that that would have helped him much. Perhaps that it was getting darker made the surroundings appear different than he remembered. There had also been a slight problem with his bicycle’s gearing and chain. Even though he had just had the bike tuned-up recently, he would have to stop more than several times to readjust the chain that would come off the spokes. With maybe a half hour of daylight left, all he needed was for his gears to jam and have to walk the bike all the way back; this had happened recently near the top of Mt. Diablo, but he was able to somehow slowly coast down the hill on only tire tread. But this trail was too ‘ up and down’ to coast very much. What if the same thing happened here and he’d have to somehow get back before nightfall without the benefit of a hill – or clear direction- to get back?

As the time approached 4:45 pm, it appeared to John that he wasn’t getting any closer to returning back to the trail head. He may have even have been further away. Was this really a ‘loop’ trail?, he began thinking. Suddenly, he remembered having ‘lost’ the trail near the end of his last trek here. Somehow, the trail marker ‘skipped a beat’ and it took him a long time to get back on track. But, that time it was earlier in the day with less fear of running out of time. In ‘skipping a beat,’ he would ‘lose’ the trail. Instead of the signs continuing as ‘Valvon/Walker’ he came to a ‘Blue Oak’ trail as history seemed to be repeating itself to his dismay.
‘Oh no,’ he said to himself. Just a half hour ago, things were going well and he was enjoying this long-awaiting outing with no reason to believe he could be in any danger of another ‘Rocky Ridge.’ But, now, he really didn’t know where he was. He was off course. And he hadn’t seen another person to help with directions in over an hour.

Realizing that time was now becoming of the essence, he quickly decided to back track to the previous trail sign to double check that IT was still the Valvon/Walker trail. Sure enough, it was. So, he continued on, but somehow it seemed like he was starting out again the same loop he began over an hour ago. He could keep going or turn back before risking getting even further off course and miles from civilization.

It was now evident that John was not going to make the 5 pm park curfew. But, of more concern, was he going to make it back this night, period? True feelings of panic began to envelope him.

He had been saving the ‘juice’ on his phone but now was the time to use it. He remembered having to do the same thing with Rocky Ridge. It was this phone call that perhaps saved his life, or at least an overnight in the cold mountains with out a coat. This time, at least, he had warm clothing.

He would simply call his girlfriend and have her call the ranger station to send a truck up to get me. After all, it couldn’t have been very far from the start, no helicopter would be needed this time. Thank God for cell phones. But, when he tried to call her, all he got was her name to appear in the caller ID box; the call would not go through. Now it was full-blown panic. Add to this that rain was beginning to fall; that’s right, there was a forecast for rain this night.
Now, the odds of getting out of the Morgan Territory this night were looking slimmer and slimmer for John. He began to think the worst scenario was about to become the likely one and what would he could still do to prevent it. He hadn’t seen any mountain caves that he could sleep in along the way. And, now with the rain, he MUST have shelter.

With 10% cell battery left, he made one more call but, unlike Rocky Ridge, that ‘saving’ call was not to be. He tried calling the Park District but couldn’t make any outgoing calls, period, from this remote outpost with, now obviously, no cell service. He began questioning himself. How could this happen? Again? Did this happen to anyone else? ‘Why me?,’ he thought. In this modern society with technology why couldn’t he use his cell phone and what options were left, if any?
His only hope, he figured, was that his girlfriend, who he spoke to hours earlier and told he was going to Morgan Territory, would remember and call the rangers. But that probably wouldn’t happen until much later, if at all, he reasoned. It may be ‘do or die’ right now, he thought. He started feeling guilty of going out so late and without a map. But no use in pointing fingers at this point, he quickly deduced.

Obviously, there was something wrong with the signage for Valvon/Walker trail, having suddenly been interrupted. This had happened twice. Or, maybe he had read the sign wrong, but twice?

He had a window of maybe 15 minutes to find his way out this maze of trails before darkness settled in. Thirty minutes before total darkness, at which time it would be impossible to see more than the three feet ahead that his bike light illuminated.

In a last ditch effort, he thought , to avoid a night with the wolves and elements, he had to try those three (not four, it turned out) off-shoots and hope that one of them would eventually lead back down the hill to civilization. If there was just one person around who could point him in the right direction. But no. Not this night.

He would try each of these remaining ‘branches’ and hope one of them would lead out.This would totally exhaust the remaining 15 minutes of twilight. He went for it.

The first branch would take John back to ‘Blue Oak.’ But, to get there was an uphill effort, retracing his earlier route. John’s head and heart pounded as he struggled up the rocky climb with his bike. At many points he had to demount to avoid the high rocks and mud. When he finally got to the entrance of Blue Oak he could see that his was not the ‘lucky’ entrance to escape.

Back down the hill, next John would try Whipsnake, but he had no greater hope that this would get him back to the staging area, even though he remembered coming by the sign at the beginning of his journey. That’s why he KNEW he was not that far from the trailhead. But , as they say, ‘close only counts in grenades and …’ Whipsnake proved just as disappointing as Blue Oak , only somewhat less tiresome as it was flat.

Now, with darkness only a blind eye’s breath away, there was only the one ‘door’ left. This one was the least likely of the three, thus John chose it last. It didn’t even have a name. It hardly even looked like a trail, directly across the now-muddy valley. This would use up any remaining light – and probably energy- that John had, but he had to go for it.

Struggling to ride his bike through the mud, John traversed the hardly-visable path to get to the opening on the other side. He would ride a ways and hope that this would be the path that would drop down to the staging area.

Hope can be a wonderful thing, but too often it ends in disappointment. John had seen this many times with members of his family losing precious lives when hope finally gave out in the case of serious medical conditions. At least John still had his health this night, and, hopefully, something good would result this time. John had to go for it as the little remaining sand of time dwindled down the hour glass. The risk here is that by going for it he could end up further away. But, at this point, it didn’t look to John like his savior was anywhere near, even only two days after Christmas.

Corny as it sounds, ‘when the going gets tough the tough get going.’ After making it across the meadow, the final ‘path’ was pretty narrow but there was a glimpse of ‘light’ ahead. Now, at least there was no mud but the path seemed to go on and on. There was barely enough light for John to realize that this appeared to be the widening path he had come up on at the very beginning of the trail! Just another quarter mile or so should bring him back to the staging area. As he continued there was still no noticeable descent, though the path continued to seem familiar.
But, now, another decision loomed ahead. It was, literally, another fork in the road. The trail was about to split off in two directions. Which, if either, of these paths would be the one that would finally bring John home, if any? Not up for any new adventuress at this point, he noticed a small sign off to the right. As it was nearly dark, he would have to get close to read it, hoping the words would say ‘Staging Area Ahead.’
And, that’s EXACTLY what the sign read! John was elated, to say the least. Yet, he wasn’t home free, yet. How much further would his weary legs have to peddle? Would the park gate still be open and would the car still be there?
A thousand feet later that might have seemed like many more – but feet that he would gladly ride – down the hill John could make out the parking lot and his green car, the only one save for what appeared to be an abandoned one off to the side. Not even a ranger in sight.
After a final coast downhill, John arrived at the cattle gate before finding the right one. After finally opening the gate to the parking lot, he kissed the ground, unlocked his car and loaded his muddy bike. And, yes, the gate was still unlocked. And, now, as he left the park and quite a bike ride behind him, John was back in the REAL word, charging up his smart phone so as to help find the way out of this remote area.
John was never a big planner, enjoying the spontaneity of it all, but if there’s a lesson to be learned from his second experience of it’s kind, it’s to get a map and DON’T DEPEND on modern technology. And leave a little earlier next time.
John knows better and can vouch for all the above information because John is ME.

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Nov072015

11 6 15 Remembering the ‘Race’ to get better between Don and Pucky

Published by under DON,Pucky

It’s been a bittersweet weekend with the 11th anniversary passing of Don.

It seems like yesterday I drove Don to   attend
religious services not long after the passing of mother (Pauline). Don was
already in the throes of  his cancer treatments, yet he was
able to hobble down the isle and sit with me as we prayed for Mom and
sister Joan, who had passed two years earlier.
I remember Don having a really good spirit that night, as he did most of the time,
even despite his serious illness. Despite grieving for our family members
there was the strong hope  in both of us that Don could beat his illness and that positive attitude would give him more time that most. I remember that night, again, like yesterday,
hoping beyond hope that Don could beat the odds; if anyone could he could.
The other thing I remember  especially well during the time when Don was going
through his illness and treatments was that he continued to put others ahead of
his own problems.  Every time I would talk to him he wanted to know how
Pucky was doing.  Pucky was Joan’s dog for whom I took over guardianship after
Joan passed in 1999. Pucky, a chihuahua-fox, had that same indomitable spirit like Don
and was going through her own tough times with kidney failure
Sadly, she would pass this same week as Don,11 years ago, after her own long struggle.
It was certainly a double blow to lose both Don and Pucky at the same time , while
Dad was beginning to experience his own medical problems; it was certainly no easy feat
for Dad, who had been looking after Don, daily, the past years, after losing his wife
and daughter. Words don’t come to describe the empty pit-in -your-stomach feeling losing your closest people/pets (I had lost Joan’s older dog, Roscoe, just two years earlier,
not long after four cats in their infancies).
I learned a lot from both Don and Pucky, and TRY to live by the qualities they
showed me, especially in their later years as I got to know them better.
 I still miss them a lot, and always will.
While Pucky had a full life, for a dog (18 years)  I always feel especially bad
for Don, who spent so much of his time caring for others in his short-lived medical profession as well as being a dedicated father and friend of many-some of whom may not always have been there for him, especiailly when he was in need . Don did live longer with
his cancer than the great majority of people with  his kind of cancer.  I just hope he got more than a little back in his shortened life; for sure two great kids that will
perpetuate his legacy.  We know he was appreciated by many, including his co-workers at Kaiser Hospital who  awarded him Doctor of the Year. Dad and I went to accept that award in Don’s posthumous honor. As they say, Don was  ‘chip off the old block,’ much
revered by his patients as was Dad.  If Don had any enemies I never heard of any.
but lots and lots of admirers. 
I like to recall certain memories and ‘living thoughts’ of Don (and others no longer with us) that inspire if not daily then at least once or twice a year on these notable days. And, I always enjoy hearing stories about Don and my other family members which keeps them ‘alive;’  I cherish my brother Don, Pucky along with all my family members; just because they may not be so-called ‘active’ participants in society today they remain very ‘active’ in my hearts and thought processes, and , hopefully, some of yours’.
Thanks for caring and sharing,
With Love,
Burt K.

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