WEEK ELEVEN: AT THE BOUNDARIES OF REASON
It was the moment of truth… or at least a compelling approximation of the truth. I had wrapped my right heel in athletic tape and added wads of foam torn from a foam paintbrush, hoping to create an empty pocket within my hiking boot where the sensitive part of my heel could avoid feeling pressure. As desperate tactics go, this was pretty desperate. The bout of insertional achilles tendonitis that affected me in Glacier National Park had failed to heal over the last three weeks. In fact, it had gotten worse. I couldn’t wear shoes or boots because the area where my achilles tendon attached to my heel had become damaged and inflamed, and even light contact was painful.
I carefully slipped on a sock and a boot, then nervously took a few steps. My foot felt… almost normal. This just might work. If I could climb the mountain in front of me - which happened to be Boundary Peak, the highest summit in Nevada – it meant that I could go on to climb the highest in Wyoming and Montana, effectively completing a major chapter in my life… the culmination of eleven years spent chronicling outdoor adventures.
I needed to be able to climb without pain, though. I wasn’t blind to the fact that I might be causing permanent damage to my tendon, but if I could make it up Boundary Peak painlessly, then I could justify postponing the healing process for a few more weeks.
I never claimed to be a paragon of common sense.
Time to hit the trail. I said goodbye to my jeep Charlie, promising an oil change to repay him for his hard work in driving me up to 9,800 feet. Charlie had put in a lot of extra effort to shorten my journey, though the road was washed out and treacherous. I suspected the exertion had cost him, however, for his ventilation system sounded a bit louder than usual.
Soon enough, I had my own afflictions to worry about. My Frankenstein splint showed early promise, but the soreness returned, and I leaned on my hiking poles like crutches, limping up the mountain. I tried to focus on the scenery, but I’d seen plenty of sagebrush landscapes before, and Boundary Peak had little to offer in the way of technical challenge or physical beauty. By many standards, it was a poor excuse for a state highpoint. The 13,147-foot peak could be considered a bump on the extreme north end of the sixty-mile White Mountain range, almost all of which was at a higher elevation and situated in California. The summit lay only a half-mile from the state border, and because of conflicting surveys, many believed it to be a California mountain until the issue was legally laid to rest in 1980.
Its status as a “mountain” was still questionable. Technically, Boundary was a sub-peak of its close neighbor, the taller Montgomery Peak. 13,065-foot Wheeler Peak on the east side of Nevada had a more credible claim as the state’s highest mountain. But I’d already been there. Today’s hike had more to do with stubborn list completion than glory.
The trail skirted past a grove of bristlecone pine trees, famed to be the most long-lived species of tree in the world. Specimens older than five thousand years grew along the spine of the White Mountains further south. I reflected on my own advancing age, but then paused in the middle of the path as I noticed something amazing: my heel had stopped hurting. The taping job had actually worked. I’d just needed to warm up the joints a little.
This was huge. With renewed optimism, I threw myself at the upper slopes of the mountain. By now, all vegetation had vanished except for a few scattered daisies. The rocks looked like the color had been sucked out of them, leaving a paler version of a formerly vivid mountainside. Only near the top did Boundary Peak start to make drab look good. White outcroppings like the Sharkstooth gave the summit some fanged charisma, and when I stood on the official state highpoint, I truly felt I had accomplished something epic. Especially considering my injury.
A succession of arid valleys stretched to the east and west. On one side, the Sierra Nevada dominated the horizon, rising up from the smoke of a small brush fire. In the other direction, a mirrored tower at the center of a solar power array burned like the Eye of Sauron.
During the descent, I thought about the remaining two state highpoints and decided that journeying back to the Rockies to attempt them was worth the risk, so long as I was willing to abort either mission should my condition deteriorate. Rupturing my achilles tendon was a scary possibility… one that could happen while I was twenty miles deep into the backcountry if I didn’t play it safe.
Herds of wild horses and mule deer bachelors bore witness to the successful completion of today’s quest. After reaching the trailhead, I pulled off my boots, threw on some sandals and guided Charlie back to the lowlands of Nevada. To celebrate, I took us to Fish Lake Hot Well – a hydrothermal feature created by accident in the 1880s when ranchers were drilling for oil in a barren desert wash. I rewarded myself with a long soak in a concrete tub, but I didn’t forget my promise to Charlie for his unselfish support. The following morning I brought him to the first auto shop I could find and inquired about getting an oil change. Unfortunately, they were booked for the day, but they said I’d have no problem finding help in the next town down the road. A few more miles then.
Two blocks from the shop, at the only traffic light in the village, I detected an acrid smell coming through the vents. Another block later, smoke began pouring out from beneath the edges of the hood. I guess there would be no next town. Charlie had finally reached his limit.
I made a U-turn and nervously guided the jeep back to the front of the auto shop. The moment I came to a stop, a loud and definitive SNAP shook the engine and made my heart leap into my throat. I hopped out and raised the hood. The serpentine belt was a tangled mess. It seems the idler pulley had seized up some time ago, and the stresses had ultimately caused the belt to snap. That explained some of the hissing sounds I’d been hearing over the last few weeks.
Poor Charlie. Essentially the largest tendon in the vehicle had ruptured, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between his injury and my own. Maybe the decision to take my overused body up these last two mountains wasn’t such a smart idea after all.