Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Birthday Story

Well, we're in Montana. I've been here since the first of June, and I've got quite a lot of material built up for this blog. The first thing I'm posting--below--dates back to the summer of 2007. It tells about one of the biggest events of my life, one forever linked to my experience of the mountain West. I would like to add up front that I have recovered completely from my injuries.


To celebrate my sixtieth birthday, Elizabeth and I and eight of our most beloved friends--Bob and Grace Anderson, Cheryl Bader, Doug and Roxie Hart, Bob Kiesling and Chris Nielson, and Lexi Rome--were taking a pack trip to Two Ocean Pass, in Wyoming. Two Ocean Pass is a place of deep significance for me, first in my imagination (in the long story “Desire” and my still unfinished novel of the same name), before I had ever seen it, and later as a destination of pilgrimage, the true Northwest Passage, and surely one of the most beautiful places on the earth.

I say the true Northwest Passage, because with the exception of the ice-choked Arctic and the artificial Panama Canal, it is the only water link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans: From the tiny Two Ocean Lake atop Two Ocean Plateau, some ten thousand feet above sea level, the rivulet Two Ocean Creek runs down to Two Ocean Pass, where, exactly astride the Continental Divide, it splits into Atlantic and Pacific creeks, the former a tributary of the Yellowstone River and flowing therefore to the Missouri and the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean, the latter a tributary of the Snake River, flowing to the Columbia and thence to the Pacific.

There were two particular landscapes I wanted to revisit and to show to Elizabeth and my friends: Two Ocean Plateau, a big mountain whose miles-wide top, comprising meadow and snowfield and krummholz, is so gentle that once achieved--steeply‑‑to explore it asks little more than a stroll; and the valley of the upper Yellowstone, where the wide smooth river winds through a miles-wide plain of willow and meadow and marsh ramparted by volcanic cliffs, like the plateau a wilderness landscape of amazing gentleness. How, I always wondered, had that valley not had a major road rammed through it?

We had booked our trip with an outfitter named John Winter, whom we knew only by his excellent references, because he had a semi-permanent camp near the Parting of the Waters. We were told he was an old-timey outfitter, gruff but good-tempered, a noted Christian, with a string of excellent horses. The morning of our departure, July 20, 2007, the day before my birthday, John sized each of us up briefly and assigned us to our horses. Because in the context of our group I was relatively experienced, he put me on a horse named Chub (the name due to his ample rump), who I immediately sensed would require some conscious application of effort to govern well.

Dude horses, more often than not, must bear loads consisting of people unaccustomed to riding, often big fat hunters, who, in the usual words of some wrangler on every trip, “just set there like a sack of potatoes.” The horses tend to laze along, daydreaming, then realize they’ve fallen behind and rush, trotting, to catch up. It makes for a very uncomfortable ride, from which at day’s end the dudes usually descend sore of butt and exhausted. Doug and Rox were by far our best equestrians, and John gave Doug a distinctly green and rambunctious paint horse, with whom Doug had to struggle all day. My horse had clearly been well trained, once upon a time, but it was also clear that he was not often well ridden. I determined immediately to communicate to Chub that today he was going to be well and consciously ridden. To get that across, I chose an exercise that our great young horsemanship teacher of former days, Buck Brannaman, liked to recommend for the purpose, namely, backing the horse carefully, first straight back, then in a leftward arc, then a rightward. I should also have worked with Chub on the ground, particularly to be sure that he would yield a soft neck, but everybody was in a hurry to get going, because it was already eleven o’clock, the day was going to be very hot, and we had some twenty-one miles to cover. We could, and doubtless should, have left much earlier in the day, but nobody had ever told us in advance where and when we were to gather; we found out only the previous night when John Winter came to Turpin Meadow Lodge and told somebody that we should meet at the outfitters’ trailhead; he was apparently not very specific about the time.

Chub was compliant, but reluctantly. When I rode behind Doug, who kept his horse walking out briskly, Chub was at first still inclined to fall into the old lag-and-trot routine, but he soon enough learned that I was not going to allow him to trot, period, and though I still felt the surge build in him pretty often, I nearly always manage to quell it before he put it into operation. When I rode behind Lexi, however, who was not really riding her horse at all, and was in fact letting him lag-and-trot at will, Chub was almost impossible to keep in line. It was particularly tough when he lost sight of the horse in front of him; then he was almost wild to catch up. For most of the day, therefore, I managed to stay behind either Doug or Roxie, and Chub behaved himself.

The staff did nothing to help us all day. A wrangler named Keith was at the head of our column, leading a long string of pack mules. They should have had another wrangler at the rear of the pack string to watch for tilting packs and accidental unhookings, but that task fell faute de mieux to Doug Hart, and indeed on numerous occasions he had to race forward and help Keith put the string back together. Keith was single-mindedly hell-bent on just getting to camp in good time; and he rarely looked back as he should have done to check on his mules. When Doug had to leave the line to help Keith, Chub would become jittery and skittish. Far at the rear of our procession, the cook, Mary Beth, followed along, out of sight and out of hearing of most of us. Our outfitter himself was a half mile or so farther behind, with a second mule string, and so it was that all day long we had no information about where we were, how much farther we had to go, when we might rest, or anything else. We had also not been provided with enough water, and all of us were dehydrated.

There were two occasions when I sensed trouble with my horse. On the first, when it had been much too long between waterings, Chub bullied his way very aggressively into the midst of the other drinking horses--so aggressively that one of them gave him a remonstrative kick, and Roxie rode her horse out of the traffic jam with a baleful eye on Chub, saying, “That horse bugs me, and I’m just getting out of his way.” The other occasion came when we had all to detour around a tangle of fallen trees. Only a few other horses had been through the deadfall, and the going was delicate and difficult, requiring our horses to step high over the crisscrossed trunks and into narrow spaces between. Where the detour returned to the main trail, it required a powerful bound forward and up, and unfortunately a broken limb was in such a position that it could easily have injured the riders passing through. The limb in fact jammed me in the chest, and I remember thinking that if I hadn’t seen it at the last instant and half-dodged it, it could easily have stabbed me in the chest. I later learned that Elizabeth had had to flatten herself against her horse’s back to avoid it. And Cheryl, who I believe at that time was the next in line after me, though some distance back, had a terrible experience there. Her horse, rather than picking his way carefully through the downfall, jumped each of the trunks, plunged into the narrow space between, jumped again, and finally regained the trail with a leap of such force that Cheryl’s body was whipped back and forth like a willow switch. Her back hurt very badly, and she cried out to me that she wanted to get off and stretch and check herself, but with the other horses, including mine, so far ahead now, her horse refused to stop. We should never have been allowed to spread out in such a fashion, and Keith surely should have stopped and led each of our horses through that dangerous passage.

When I turned Chub back toward Cheryl to help, he resisted fiercely. This, as far as he was concerned, was exactly the wrong direction, and he wasn’t having it. I equally fiercely wasn’t going to tolerate his disobedience, and I forced him to go back to Cheryl, where I got quickly off and held her horse still so she could dismount. After Cheryl had determined that she was uninjured, she remounted, and then I started to do the same, but by then Chub was dancing and wrenching himself away from me so vehemently that I couldn’t get into the saddle. When I finally got him stopped long enough to climb aboard, he whirled again and was ready to charge ahead to catch up with the others, now somewhere well ahead and out of sight. When I made clear that this wasn’t going to be allowed, Chub had the nerve to rear and whirl, almost knocking me off. I pulled him in and assured him that such behavior was not going to be tolerated, and eventually we caught up to the others; but Chub was still angry and restless.

It was getting late in the day--after five by now--and both people and horses were showing the strain. We had no idea where our camp was going to be. At last the Parting of the Waters came, and then it went, and on we rode. Finally we saw a big camp in a grove of trees, with white pyramidal tents scattered in the shadows. Doug and I also noted that there were several people there, and we concluded that it must not be our camp, which we expected to be empty.

For the last hour or so Doug had been leading Chris Nielson’s horse, after she had decided to walk along with Kez (he was nursing an injured leg), and at this moment the horse managed to pull away from him, and Doug dropped the halter rope. He and I then started “playing cowboy,” trying to pick up the lead without getting down from our own horses. I realized later that that horse had pulled away almost certainly because he knew, as we did not, that we had arrived at our camp. Finally Doug dismounted, and I grabbed the loose horse’s bridle. This brought that horse’s head into sudden close proximity to Chub’s head, and he reacted violently, wrenching himself away despite my message, via the reins, that I wanted him to hold still till Doug could come and pick up the other’s horse’s lead. I let go that bridle immediately, but now I found myself in a traffic jam: The rest of the party, their horses also all undoubtedly aware that their long day was over, were piling in behind me, and Chub, feeling crowded, was starting to get crazy.

I decided to try to back him out of the traffic jam, but he was having none of that. To my rein pressure he responded with a violent sawing of his head, and I reacted by increasing the pressure and insisting that he do as he was being told. I know now 1) that if I’d only been informed that we had arrived, none of this would have happened, I would simply have gotten off the horse and led him into camp; and 2) that once the traffic jam had begun, I should not have tried to wrestle Chub into obedience but should instead have relaxed the reins and let him find his own way out of the jam. In the event, however, when Chub couldn’t free himself from the rein pressure by violently tossing his head, he reared again, as though he would climb out of the traffic into the sky.

Instead of releasing the reins, as I now know I should have done, and grabbing Chub’s mane up near the top of his head and pushing him forward and down, I continued to pull on the reins as he rose. I guess this was a sort of panic, my unconscious and very fast reaction being to hold on tight so I wouldn’t slide off backwards. But of course that is precisely what Chub was trying to get me to do, and as he continued to climb the sky I had no choice, and fell backward, from I don’t know what height, hitting the ground hard with my whole back, with a terrible noise.

All of this took place, I believe, in less than a second. As I hit the ground, I looked up and could see the sky full of horse, falling backward on top of me. Somehow I managed to roll slightly to the right, and somehow Chub managed not to fall with his full weight on top of me. Obviously, if he had done that, I wouldn’t be writing this; I would be either paralyzed or dead. Lexi, Cheryl, Doug, Elizabeth, and Roxie all saw him fall, and all were convinced that I was going to die: They perceived that Chub had fallen on me with his full weight. I bore some responsibility for the accident: My having hung on to the reins had helped pull Chub off balance, and caused him to fall backward, flailing, out of his own control--himself, I imagine, in a panic.

I could tell that I was in pain, but I was not feeling the pain. My first reaction was a kind of exhilaration: I’m alive! The second was a determination to stand up and see if my legs and spine and hands were working. Lexi tried to keep me down; everybody wanted me to stay down--what if I had a head injury, a back injury. I didn’t care; I wanted to stand up; and I did. Ascertaining that I seemed to be mechanically functional, I obediently lay back down. Elizabeth was in a panic, squatting on the ground, trembling violently, beginning to sob, desperate for water, saying she felt she might have heart failure. I couldn’t believe it, but I ended up wandering around looking for water for her. Eventually somebody showed up with water for both of us, and I went horizontal again. Where were the staff--Keith and Mary Beth? Certainly not attending to me.

John Winter and his second pack string arrived within a few minutes, and he was obviously very upset. I don’t remember much about what happened in the first minutes after the accident, except that everybody came and had a look at me. Lexi and Cheryl were also crying, both thinking I was hurt much more badly than I was in fact. That was touching. At some point over the next day or so, each of them told me that she loved me. Elizabeth began to recover, and at some point she went up to our tent and set up our mattresses, sleeping bags, and so forth, and then she came and got me and led me up the hill. I remember how badly it hurt my sacrum to walk, especially to put weight on my left foot, and then when I stretched out inside the tent the pain washed over me at last in a great engulfing waves, and I was crying. I had also begun to let myself feel some fear--fear of all the terrible things that could have happened with the slightest change of angles. The saddle horn could have driven into my chest. I could have been crushed by the full weigh of the horse. I could have been paralyzed from the neck down--for life. I could have landed on a rock (there was a good sharp one nearby) and pierced my back, perhaps broken it. I could have had massive internal injuries, sufficient to kill me. I could have broken my skull. Well, the possibilities were endless, and I forced myself not to dwell on them. But how could I not think about the accident? It filled my mind to its remotest corners, and still does, ten weeks later to the day, as I write these few emendations.

And it didn’t have to happen. If only someone--someone on the staff--had said, simply, “We’re here!” I would have hopped down off that horse, led him to wherever he was to be debarrassed of his tack, and sat my butt on the ground with a bottle of cold creek water. Sure, I would have had more trouble with him in the coming days, but this was truly a freak accident, a sudden concatenation of circumstances that were extremely unlikely to occur again.

That night, whenever I changed position--which I needed to do often, because I seemed to be hurting everywhere--an involuntary groan, really quite a dreadful sound, would escape me. Grace, in the morning, thought I’d been having nightmares. She was right in a sense, but I wasn’t asleep at the time. All I had for pain was Ibuprofen. Cheryl had one pill of some sort of muscle relaxant, and Grace had some prescription anti-inflammatory that seemed to have no more effect than the high doses of Ibuprofen I had begun immediately to take.

In the morning--my sixtieth birthday, oh, boy--we had to discuss the option of getting a helicopter to take me to the hospital. Nobody knew what it would cost. Somebody said a thousand dollars, somebody else ten thousand. Nobody knew, of course, whether my insurance would cover it. What I did know was that if I left by helicopter, I would be ruining everybody else’s trip. I found it hard to imagine their enjoying the whole program--party, hikes, rides--while not knowing what sort of shape I was in. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine riding, and in fact at that point I could barely make it walking from our tent to the cook tent, a matter of about sixty feet. I decided to postpone the decision.

That night, before my birthday party began, John Winter offered to say a blessing, which turned out to be quite a prayer, invoking divine aid in my healing. His sincerity was real, and deep. It meant a great deal to me. The party that followed was a riot. Kez had brought funny hats for all, and there were Champagne and good red wine and steaks and even a German chocolate birthday cake that Mary Beth had made in an improvised oven comprising little more than a cardboard box lined with aluminum foil and set on the propane-heated griddle. It was good, too. I didn’t last long, but it was a lovely party, and I felt that if I had to be hurt like this, I couldn’t do it among finer friends. Elizabeth, too, was extraordinary. My present from her was a hand-written “menu” describing a January trip to Paris. She had the whole thing mapped out! Possibly the nicest present I’ve ever gotten.

The next morning, I felt considerably worse than I had yet felt, and it was time to talk helicopter. I tried riding a horse: Walking was barely tolerable, trotting beyond unbearable. John began to conclude that we should at least find out what the helicopter options were. He dispatched a wrangler to ride the ten miles to the Hawk’s Rest patrol cabin. The ranger there was an old acquaintance of mine from my days on the board of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, John Lounsbury; he had been a district ranger in Yellowstone Park. He had already paid our camp a visit, on the morning of my birthday, and had a look at me, and agreed that we might wait a couple of days to see how I did. But now that I was doing badly and thinking of trying to get out, the ranger with the radio was out on patrol, who knew where.

Meanwhile John Winter was trying in all his spare moments to tame Chub, whom the accident seemed rather to have deranged. Chub bucked and snorted and whirled, and, yes, reared. At one point John, on the ground, kicked the horse in the chin, hard. Doug and Rox watched John struggling with Chub, and they said, “Tom, they should never have put you on that horse. Nobody should have been riding that horse.”

I found myself strangely sympathizing with Chub--a sentiment nobody shared. I thought, He has two main flaws, both fixable: 1) He crowds other horses, as he had done when we watered, and yet he also can’t stand to be crowded, especially from behind; and 2) he’s so herdbound that he nearly panics when he loses sight of the other horses. And he had good qualities: He walked right out, though keeping him from breaking into a trot required constant supervision; he had a good strong gait, long steps; he had picked his way meticulously through the tangle of downfall, always steady and careful when it counted; he was relatively comfortable to sit, despite his rather grand girth; he was even affectionate and calm except when he was disturbed by isolation. I wondered also if the fact that he turned out to be missing a shoe could have added to his fatigue and frustration toward the end of the day. (He had huge, dinner-plate-sized, feet, evidently some draft-horse blood--which is so often, at least in other horses, a calming element.)

Our wrangler went back the next morning to see if John Lounsbury had returned, and he had. He said he would have to come to our camp to determine my condition before he could order a helicopter. He had seen me all bushy-tailed and cheerful in the false euphoria of my early shock, and now probably would doubt whether I warranted so dramatic and expensive a measure. So I decided to let it go a day and see how I was. I didn’t get much better, and after another night, in the dim pre-dawn of five o’clock, I heard people talking softly and saddling up a horse. Sure enough, it was John Winter and the wrangler, and they were heading to Hawk’s Rest to take the next steps toward getting the helicopter. I told them that I was feeling much better that morning‑‑and was I? I’m not sure. I asked them not to go, and they agreed, with some relief, I think, and unsaddled their horses.

And so I passed the week in camp, trying a walk only once. In the end we decided that Glenn [Winter?], John Winter’s uncle, a longtime backcountry horseman about eighty years old who had just come along for the ride, would lead me out on the quietest horse in the string, going very slowly so that my horse would never be tempted to trot. Elizabeth decided to come along. It worked very well--a long, slow day, and painful of course, but bearable.

We had a nice farewell diner at Turpin Meadow Lodge, and then I faced another long day, this time in the car, heading “home” to Melville, Montana, where we had rented a house for the months of June and July. (More on that to come.)

I couldn’t stand the thought of a long day in the emergency room in Bozeman or Billings--and I had only two days to prepare for the long drive home, with a great deal of packing and other work to do--so I contented myself with a visit to the Pioneer Medical Center in Big Timber. The doctor there was on loan from the Billings hospital, and had studied at the medical school of the University of California at San Francisco--one of the best--and I felt quite confident in him, but the young x-ray technician, who barely spoke English and seemed hardly to know where he was, inspired no confidence at all, and indeed when the eight films came back, seven of them were virtually opaque. The doctor said that their equipment was quite old, and that in the x-rays he could read only that my spine seemed to be okay. After pressing on me here and there, he said he thought I didn’t have any broken ribs, but I should go to a medical center as soon as I got home to San Francisco. The big thing was that he gave me a prescription for Vicodin, which made a major difference in the pain--a week, now, since the accident.

Cheryl and Elizabeth were both to be flying from Billings on Tuesday, August 7, to Memmphis and San Francisco, respectively, but Elizabeth left the closet door open that allowed our cat, Augusta, access to her hidey-hole, so when the time came for departure and there was apparently no way to get the cat out, Elizabeth decided that it would be better in any case if she were to drive me home. Well, yes, especially since driving on Vicodin wasn’t recommended. It was rather queer that it took this mistake for the right thing to come to pass, but I was still glad. Elizabeth took Cheryl to Billings, and Augusta soon reappeared.

We packed up and prepared to leave early in the morning of Thursday, August 9, but I had had so much pain on the night of the 7th that the doc had given me a new Rx, this one for oxycodone, a real narcotic. It was in fact more effective, but I seemed to have a paradoxical reaction to it: Far from making me sleepy, it kept me awake for hour after hour. At three o’clock in the morning I was still awake, and I left a note for Elizabeth begging that we not leave till noon. I still didn’t get a decent night’s sleep.

But we pressed on, and made it to Elko, Nevada, something like seven hundred miles, with four minutes to go before the great Star Hotel Basque steakhouse was to close. We left Augusta in the car because if we had taken the time to check in to our motel we’d have missed our good dinner. We were giddy with fatigue, but that superb steak and a bottle of Marqués de Murrieta Rioja were wonderfully refreshing.

We slept well. Augusta, for the first time in her long, miserable career of raising hell all night in motels, stayed quiet, and though she wasn’t easy to dislodge from under the bed in the morning, we were on the road by nine, and home before seven. Exhausted, and, in my case, hurting pretty badly.

I went the next day, a Saturday, to the urgent care unit at UCSF hospital on Parnassus, and waited about two hours till finally a “real” city doctor saw me. He ordered up some x-rays, which took a while longer. He said that the good news was that I had no broken bones, but that I should nevertheless see a back doctor as soon as possible because of my still-hurting sacroiliac. Back doctors seem to be scarce in San Francisco in August, but finally my primary doctor’s assistant found me one who could see me that coming Tuesday, August 14. He was not an orthopedist but an osteopath and an internist, but my doc Andereck’s partner, Jane Hightower, recommended him highly. Robert Minkowsky turned out to be very amusing, very thorough, and a perfect image of a Jewish New York doctor; which I found comforting even before he began practicing on me. He said that even though the UCSF doc had told me I had no broken bones, the radiology report made no mention of my ribs--despite the fact that that doc had told me that they also would be x-rayed. Well, so Minkowsky sent me in to the California Pacific Medical Center for what would be my third x-ray session. I didn’t see why I needed to see Dr. Jane Hightower after Minkowsky, but she had asked me to come in, so I did. She poked at me and spent most of the time bragging about her pioneering work on mercury contamination in fish; she assured me also that I had no broken bones.

But later that day Minkowsky called to say that the new x-ray report had come to him, and I had three broken ribs. This was now over two weeks after the accident. It didn’t really matter that much, however, since the treatment was to be nothing at all--just no lifting, please, no hiking, no strain of any kind. Hightower, to her credit, called to apologize and told me that I had very supple bones...for a man of my age....

I’m writing this September 1, 2007. The last couple of weeks have been mainly a time of idleness and of getting adjusted to the persistent core of the story, which is that I came very close to either dying or being paralyzed. When I told the whole story to my sometime psychotherapist, Cynthia Kessler, in greater detail than I had subjected anybody else to, she recommended that I write this. Well, I can’t see that it will ever have any commercial application, but, pace Dr. Johnson ("No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money"), I agreed that it was a good idea.

Well, basically I think I’ve done the job now and so will quit.