pure hell adventures #311

by problembear:

chapter 1

First time I met Walt, he was beating a pack mule to its knees with a two by four. The trail was dangerous, a switchback near indigo creek in the Hells Canyon Wilderness and that antsy mule threatened to topple the entire string two thousand feet into the rapids of the Snake River. His tour group of fourteen; all Sierra clubbers and Audubon Society members, watched in horror as Walt cursed and beat the animal into a passably safe form of submission. One of the braver women named Amy, petite blonde wife of a district attorney wilderness nut from Roseburg Oregon, raised her voice in protest.

“Sir, is that necessary?”

Walt put the two by four back in his bedroll. He pulled his beaten Bailey hat off revealing an enormous bald sunburned head, which he proceeded to patiently wipe dry with a red handkerchief before clapping the hat back on. He displayed his biggest possible smile under the circumstances. It was a professional outfitter’s smile that showed everyone he was in charge and to not worry about a thing. A smile that also showed all of his massive white teeth which featured prominent incisors in all their primitive glory beneath a bushy drooping mustache that dripped with sweat and chew stain.

“Yes, maam”, Walt answered with a polite tip of his hat. His eyes and teeth seemed to glint with crazy in the sunlight as he remounted his horse.

No one disputed the claim.

A group of out of shape and grumbling geology students I was leading on a hot afternoon death march stepped off the trail gratefully into the shade of a ponderosa and allowed Walt’s string to reform after the mule melee and ride through. Walt and I exchanged worried commiserating glances as he spurred his lead appaloosa gently down the steepest hairpin turn past my line of backpack burdened tenderfoot college kids. With a silent wave of his hat, Walt led his chastised and now pliant mule with his mutinously murmuring group of obediently traumatized environmentalists. The ultimate outfitter dilemma: trying to lead a pack of spoiled elevator riders who probably never faced real danger in their lives by somebody who has probably faced it too much already.

Every outfitter has their own methods.

Sometimes I wonder how some guides and outfitters stay in business behaving like Captain Ahab but it was none of my business that day so I stayed out of it. After all, it is a thankless job- this guide business, and Keeping them all alive sometimes takes extreme measures that the survivors seldom appreciate. Myself, I like to have return and referral business so I tend to be more responsive to the urban sensibilities of my clients than some outfitters. But I know that there are many ways to survive in this business. I have known outfitters who are so good at finding elk for hunting parties that they can literally abuse their clients to the point of cursing and fist fights one year and still count on their loyal checks arriving before each new hunting season. In fact, many of the sociopathic guides are the most successful financially. a certain curious fact is that subgroups of wealthy clientele actually enjoy being abused. Years later, when I came to know Walt better, I found that he certainly magnetized himself to that particular clientele, but I also found that Walt  certainly succeeded at finding money but it always came with trouble.

The second time I met Walt was at the Prairie City High School football field in Central Oregon. I was working with an engineering detail on the Whitney-Tipton road out of the Malheur National Forest doing timber surveys to make a little extra money between hunting camps and one of the kids who held a rod for the lead surveyor asked me to come to the homecoming football game. He wanted everyone in the crew to watch his kid brother play. I had nothing better to do, so I went and sat in the stands and sipped a decoy coke with considerable fortification while i watched the teams warm up in what looked like a rodeo arena converted very hastily into a football field.the assistant coach driving the lime cart swigged the foamy dregs out of a quart of beer in a brown paper bag as he ambled past me casually applying some very crooked yardage markers and sidelines.

Walt was fuming mad at some tall lanky kid in a lineman’s jersey that looked a lot like him. They were arguing about something but I couldn’t hear what they were saying with all the crowd noise. After the kickoff, Walt picked out a seat right in front of me. We nodded and locked eyes that mutually said “where the hell do I remember you from” while we both silently hoped it wasn’t from some drunken forgotten sinister activity. I spoke first.

“Get that jenny to calm down any better?”

He pushed his hat back and looked back at me and smiled.

“Sure did. And she’s real trail gentle now. That’s been a few years back hasn’t it? How ya doin’”, He said. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. Walt looked at my coke like he wished it were a cold beer, But Prairie City Oregon is a dry town.

“If you’re thirsty here’s a coke.” I handed him a can of coke out of my lunch cooler. “ I’ve got some additive.” I said.

I briefly flapped my cruiser vest open to give Walt a glimpse of a couple of flasks in the inside pockets. He took the bait and we commenced to jawing over some old trail days. I could see he and his boy were having some friction and I didn’t want to pry but after the proper amount of inter-guide boasting and outdoors shop-talk, Walt came right out with it. Since his divorce a few years back, Walt and his boy named Garret were at each other like billy goats on a steep cliff. It frustrated Walt that the kid wouldn’t listen to him anymore. I don’t remember too much from the conversation; a lot of familiar stuff like a new stepfather getting in the way and Walt’s ex-wife spoiling the kid. It was the kind of soap-opera stuff that bores me but I did pay attention when he said something that reminded me of the many tests of will between myself and my own daughter Ginny as she was growing up.

“Warren”, Walt said as he sucked down his third velvet soaked coke, “I thought I would be pretty trail tested and heat forged by this time in life. I can usually handle any amount of discomfort and aggravation and come out on top, but there’s nothing quite so trying as competing against your own genetic material.”

The third time I met Walt was when I served on the jury that put him away for life. In between those last two meetings, things got steep and dicey enough to hold the average person’s attention. But then, certain acquaintances will tell you that I have been given to hyperbole on occasion so I guess I should let you judge for yourself.

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