Near Death in the Gila National Forest
© Copyright 2020 by Don Lubov
Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash
“It took a week to get across Texas. Of course, I visited the most famous places. Have you ever heard of Muleshoe, TX? It’s just east of Clovis, New Mexico.
Whatever you call it— God, Spirit or universal force— I’ve found something wonderful. Or, has something wonderful found me? Was my journey west just a metaphor for a spiritual quest? How come I wasn't conscious of looking for such an awakening? Why was it such a surprise? What am I supposed to do now? Is my trip over now or is it just beginning?
Something is different about me now. I’m still backpacking, and I’m still on a physical journey west. I feel lighter— freer and no longer alone. I haven't felt lonely very often on this trip, but now I feel even less alone and not at all lonely. Now that my spiritual journey has just taken a giant leap forward, I suspect that it, too, is now part of my overall trip.
I seem connected to almost everyone I meet on this trip. Perhaps that is what enlightenment is—a realization that all life is connected. It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve gotten to this very spot. Right here, right now. I’ve hitchhiked, camped and worked one day at a time.
Camping in the Gila National Forest gives me time to reflect on recent events. I feel I have a purpose now, although I’m not quite sure what it is.
How ironic. Spiritually, I’m recently found and now physically, I’m completely lost in this place. This area is rocky and rugged. Now my life depends on me getting out of here soon. I head south. The faster I try to leave; the more lost I get. I’m hot, sweaty, dirty and tired. My diet of about five hundred calories per day isn’t enough to keep me going for long.
Panic is beginning to set in. Exhausted, I collapse by the side of an old, dirt road. I can’t go another step. I just sit there, too tired to move…too tired to even deal with my thirst and hunger. I haven't eaten anything since yesterday.
I feel like a marionette whose strings have just been cut . . .all of them at once. I’m a worn-out, painful heap of a human. I slump there for thirty minutes before summoning the strength to take a drink.
The water is warm, but surprisingly refreshing. After my drink, I’m ready for what might be my last meal. It consists of one can of warm peaches. The peaches are spooned out with great care. I cut each piece into smaller pieces. I savor every morsel. This small and otherwise simple can of peaches is my wilderness banquet. I eat slowly, attentive to each and every bite. When the last bite is swallowed, I drink the thick, syrupy juice they were packed in for desert. I may well be at the end of my rope but, dammit, I'll dine before I dangle. God, those peaches taste great.
I’m lost, exhausted and out of food and water. My physical condition demands that I accept my situation...Before I take my last breath, I must accept death. Although there’s time for brief reflection, there’s no time for regret. There’s only enough time to cozy up to death. The fact that I might die, soon, right here, in this spot, on this day (whatever day this is), is a distinct possibility.
I haven't quite made it to the west coast. However, I have completed about three-quarters of my trip. I've toured Amish country, attended a rock festival, been invited to a lynching, visited Mexico, survived the Texas desert and had a spiritual awakening. So far, it’s been a rather successful journey. If death is imminent, I'd best prepare myself for it.
The rock formations around me, the sparse stand of trees, the big sky and the horses all make this a tranquil, beautiful place to make my final goodbye. I prefer this to some filthy urban back alley. Yes, this is an acceptable place to die. Yet, aren’t I salvageable? Especially after my awakening, aren’t I worth reclaiming?
I’m half asleep and can feel myself getting weaker. My breaths are shallow and brief. The end must surely be near. It’s too bad my parents will never hear from me again. They’ll never know what happened to me. That’s got to be tough for a parent. There will be no remains. Bear, mountain lion and other nature’s creatures will see to that. I’ll just be labeled another missing person who was last seen at a wilderness supply store in the Gila.
I close my eyes. So tired, so weak, so sleepy.
It’s then that I hear it...the faint sound of a truck. It’s slowly coming down the road. It takes all my remaining strength to stand up and wave for it to stop.
The truck finally stops and the driver waves for me to approach. I try to lift my pack, but I don't have the strength. Seeing my predicament, the driver exits his truck.
He appears to be in his mid-sixties, with a weeklong growth of facial hair, almost shoulder-length gray hair, old work boots and faded bib overalls. His face and hands are lined and brown from the sun. Together, we throw my pack over the tailgate and into the truck. He then helps me into the passenger side of the truck.
"Howdy. My name’s J.R. O’Conner. You sure look like hell."
"I believe I do." I croak. "I know I feel like hell."
"This old logging road is how I get to town for supplies. Once a month, I drive to town for gas, food, magazines, tools if I need 'em, batteries and one bottle of Old Charter whiskey. That bottle has to last me for 30 days, until my next trip to town. You’re one lucky S.O.B. Today's my once-a-month trip."
The next morning, after about ten hours of sleep, I hobble out to the road. I decide I survived for some purpose. Logically, I shouldn’t have lived. I limp about, dragging my pack behind me. I’m anxious to get on with my journey and to find out my purpose.
I sit in the hot sun for hours waiting for a ride. Finally, a car stops. If I can make it to the Interstate, I feel I can continue my trip west.
Please stop. I need this ride. Please, please stop.
Screeeech! A filthy, nine-passenger, station wagon stops so quickly it’s engulfed in its dust cloud.
“You were goin’ so fast; I thought you were gonna blow right past me.”
“Not a chance, boy.”
“Well, whatcha waitin’ on? Ya comin’ or not?”
The car is so loaded down with cases of beer; the tailpipe almost touches the ground. The driver and pit crew are juiced and ready to ride. Ma and Pa Budweiser and their son Sixpack are anxiously guzzling beer at a furious pace.
“Just set yourself down next to the beer. You can put your pack on top o’ that case next to you.”
“Here ya go, Pa, chug this,” says Ma.
Pa chugs his new beer and heaves the empty out the window. Ma chugs a few herself. Her empties also make a hasty exit.
Not to be outdone by his seasoned parents, Sixpack shouts “Ye- ha!” as he chugs and tosses his empties. The floor of the wagon is sticky with beer that never quite made it out the windows.
“Here ya go, boy. Have a brew.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. 10 a.m.’s a bit early for me to start drinkin’.”
“Suit yourself. That just leaves more for us.”
The goal of all this seems to be the most beer consumed, in the shortest amount of time, at the highest rate of speed, with the radio as loud as it can be.
“Ye-ha!” says Sixpack, as we carom up one side of the narrow, meandering road and down the other. The battle between inertia and thrust is ongoing. It keeps us teetering on the brink of rolling over.
“Have yerself a beer.” “No thanks.” I reiterate. The family Budweiser isn’t much for conversation. All concentration is focused on consuming beer and discarding the cans.
“It’s a good thing nobody’s comin’ from the opposite direction,” I say.
Nobody seems to care. Our insane and erratic pace continues, mile after mile, for at least thirty minutes.
We’re all gonna die! A horrible death...upside down in a ditch with vast amounts of blood-filled pools of beer.
We’re bouncing around like Ping-Pong balls in a lottery machine. I don’t know how much more I can take of this.
Aren’t they ever going to run out of beer?
“You done good, son.” “You too, Pa.” “I gotcha both beat.” shouts Ma.
I’m all for family togetherness, but this is just plain bizarre...and dangerous. We’re hitting speeds of 55 and 60 miles per hour. The car is off the gravel road as much as it’s on it. Dust totally obscures our rear view and the heat is oppressive.
I can’t believe it. I survived 2,500 miles of wilderness and adventure only to die sober in a Beerwagon. After about 45 minutes of this hair-raising ride, we come to a screeching halt at the interstate. Thank God.
I’m six hours baking in the sun when I hear the unmistakable sound of a Harley in the distance. As the sound grows louder, a lone rider appears. Soon I can make out a chopper, glistening in the setting sun. The biker slows and stops right in front of me.
"You want a ride?"
I put on my pack, walk around to the rear of the bike and prepare to mount up. I see he’s flying his colors. There it is: "Hell's Angels, M.C.", Los Angeles chapter. It’s too late to change my mind. I get on, my hands on my thighs, and lean as far forward as I dare, to balance my pack and to keep it from pulling me off the bike.
We blow by Needles and Blythe, roaring through the hot, pitch- black Arizona night.
I’ve lost myself, and found myself, in 1971. Where to now? To do what? I was eager to discover my purpose. Still a loner, but never again to feel lonely. Ready to serve, but how? Not the same person who left the east coast some 4,500 miles ago. Leaner, tanner and, hopefully, a little wiser. Now I feel a part of something greater than myself.
In time, all will be revealed. For now, I’m ready, willing and able to serve. California, here I come. Screaming into L.A., on the back of a “hard-tail”, piloted by a silent warrior. It’s dark when we arrive. I’ve made it to California.