Old & Bold Men: backpacking near the Colorado River

Filed under: backpacking,Outdoors |

story by Phil Madonna, Will Miles, Bill Schmidt
photos by Phil Madonna unless noted otherwise

The scene was the usual winter Friday morning coffee get-together at the Bliss Café. Three guys with graying hair discussing something, the loudness dependent on whether Phil had in his old hearing aids. The topic of the moment was the proverb: There are bold men and there are old men, but there are no bold old men. The discussion ended when Phil (age 73) offered a way to test the saying. He threw out the bait, and Will (64) and Bill (58) bit hard.

Three months later Bill and Will were on a muddy beach on the west bank of the Colorado River shivering uncontrollably from hypothermia. They desperately needed to cut the rope that tied their backpacks to the inner tube in order to get into their sleeping bags to survive. Meanwhile Phil was strutting naked, shouting: “Fat is good! Blubber is useful! Whales and seals know this. Look at my 215-pound body; it floated across the river. You skinny guys at 160 pounds should add some weight. That wasn’t as scary as I imagined.” He was not scared because he did not see us being swept by the strong current past the beach down to the rapids one mile below. As Bill and Will were swimming with all their might, he told them to relax and take it easy. Without his hearing aids he could not hear the roar of the approaching rapids.

When Phil offered a way to test the proverb he told us that he had read of a man hiking eight miles from the Needles Visitor Center at Canyonlands National Park, swimming across the Colorado River with a raft, and hiking in the Maze District. Will was too cheap to buy a raft, so suggested that we tie the packs to an inner tube and swim across the quarter-mile-wide river. Bill called three Park Ranger stations to get permits, and all three rangers told him in the strongest words: “Do Not Do That! You will die.” On the fourth call he reached a young male intern who told him that the Park Service could not stop us and certainly did not recommend it, but it sounded like a great adventure. That was all we needed to hear to continue our planning. We knew it was meant to happen when Curt Ward offered us an old truck inner tube.

After we recovered from the swim, we hiked around the Maze for the next five days.  Bill, who had hiked there twice before, was our careful guide through the pristine wilderness where we met one other party. We did meet one back-country ranger who, when told that we had swum across said: “Wow, I have never heard anyone doing that before.”

Finally we hiked 1,200 feet down from the Doll House site to Spanish Bottom, and stared at the river that had risen after three days of rain. Will’s mind kept repeating the refrain from the old Laurel and Hardy movies: “A fine mess you have gotten us into now, Ollie.” Bill thought back to what Suzanne, the Crestone librarian said when he told her about the trip: “Stay home, you will live longer.” We decided to have a long lunch and study the situation.

Will walked a half-mile up river to see if there was a better launch site. He saw an old campsite off the trail and decided to check it out. Then he heard a motor, and saw an outfitter from Moab dropping off a party of hikers. He ran shouting and waving, but the jet boat had already cast off. The hikers, though, heard Will, waved at the boat, and the captain returned to shore. Will explained that we had a 73-year old overweight, half-blind and nearly deaf, old guy on his last backpacking trip who would probably die swimming across the river. For the love of God and a $50-dollar bill, would he please ferry us across. The young Mormon captain said yes, but $50 dollars was a problem. Will offered him his credit card for any amount he wanted. The captain told him that a $20-dollar bill plus the inner tube was all he could take in good conscience. The deal closed in a microsecond.

After an exuberant repacking on the east bank, we hashed, rehashed, and re-rehashed whether that was coincidence or providence. Phil thought it was due to accumulating merit from his years of Buddhist practice. Bill thought it was the result of a lifetime of Baha’i faithfulness. Will could make no personal claims, but was convinced that God responded to his saintly Baptist mother-in-law who has been praying for her wayward son-in-law for nearly 50 years.

When the Arctic explorer Steffanson was asked to recount his adventures, he replied that he had none since adventures were due to poor planning or a deficit in intelligence, and usually both. We survived our adventure and settled the issue. There are no bold and old men, but, there are a few old, bold, fools.

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