Near-Death Vacations (Intermission)
The last time I got stung by a bee, I was taking a piss off the side of a mountain. And I damn near fell off of that mountain. Everybody has those moments in life when the universe just seems to want to fuck with you, just to see what will happen. I tend to run into those moments when I am far away from civilization, places where if things go sideways, you’re pretty much screwed.
This is not me falling off a mountain. For one thing, I don't own that brand of ski jacket. Also, he has the wrong color eyes. And he's clearly not holding his dick.
My family was on vacation in Colorado with some friends. They had this awesome cabin in the San Juan mountains, which I’ve always enjoyed more than the Rockies, because the San Juans feel like working-class mountains to me: not as pretentious, more accessible, rich in character. One of my favorite things to do in the mountains is to take out the ATVs on really difficult trails. (ATV, in case you are not aware, stands for All Terrain Vehicle, commonly referred to as a four-wheeler. Which I only ride in designated areas, to keep my environmental impact to a minimum. If you don’t like it, suck it, hippies.) My favorite ride is up to the summit of the Wheeler Geologic Area, high up in the La Garita Wilderness area of southern Colorado. The road up is strictly for four-wheel drive vehicles; preferably driven by people who aren’t quite right in the head.
Calling it a road is being kind of nice. It’s more like a trail. A really shitty trail, with rocks and fallen trees, and gullies and washouts and loose dirt, and any number of natural impediments just waiting for you to lose your concentration for a second. It’s also a ton of fun, and one of the few times in my life when my brain is absolutely laser-focused on the task at hand. The trip from the bottom of Pool Table Road, where the trail starts, to the summit (the last mile of which you have to walk, because vehicles aren’t allowed inside the Geologic Area) is about 27 miles. Which doesn’t sound like much, until you’re actually on that trail, bouncing your kidneys into renal failure and loosening the crowns on your teeth. You’re already exhausted when you reach the summit, and it’s usually not until you walk back down to your ATV that you remember you have to drive that same shitty trail all the way back down, which in some ways is even harder than the ascent, because headed down you are twice as likely to lose your concentration, making it ten times more likely you’re going to do something stupid, which generally on a mountain translates to fatal. (I am not overemphasizing here, nor am I trying to be tough or cool. Any serious rider will know I’m telling the truth, which is why I also say those people – myself included – ain’t quite right.)
My friend and I reached the summit, walked around the area for a while (to look at the incredible beauty of the place AND to try and recover a little from the trip up), and then started walking back down to the four-wheelers. As we rounded a bend in the trail we came to a small clearing, into which walked three full-grown bull elk. I had only ever seen elk on Wild Kingdom, and they were TV-sized elk. These things were fucking huge. Don’t think deer; think mastodon. They froze, and we froze, maybe twenty-five yards apart. And that’s when I had the very humbling realization that I wasn’t Grizzly Adams, or Daniel Boone, and if this elk gang decided to get all territorial and shit, we were fucked with icing on top. (I should mention it was mating season, the time when bull elk get very aggressive, and are always looking for something to fight or fuck. I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of either of those options.)
That was when my friend pulled out a handgun. A fucking handgun against three horny bull elk. We might as well have had Nerf darts, or fired rubber bands from our fingers. What we needed was a rocket launcher, and I was just thinking that I should have insisted on packing heavy firepower along with protein bars and water before we ever set out on this trip, and now we were going to be gored to death by a gang of bull elk, but probably not before they prison-raped us first. And that was when the three of them bounded across the clearing and out of sight. And I do mean bounded, just like they did in Wild Kingdom. They hit the tree line on the other side of the trail and simply vanished, like ninjas. But with horns.
We breathed a sigh of relief, and continued down to the four-wheelers. Had a good laugh about the experience, fired up the ATVs and headed down. About thirty minutes into the descent we stopped to take a piss. We were on a steep switchback, hugging tight to the mountain on one side, while the other was a fairly sheer drop for a very long way. The idea of peeing off the side of a mountain was appealing to me at a very elemental, juvenile level, the same logic behind standing at a distance from the urinal to see if you can make it. I unzipped and let fly, feeling as close to a god as I ever will, when something sharp and hot stabbed me in the neck. My reflexive action was to take a step away from the pain, which was a terrible idea because there was no ground to step onto, just empty space. Halfway into the step I realized my mistake, and twisted violently to the left while trying to hurl myself away from the precipice. (I very clearly remember holding onto my penis the entire time, as if it were somehow in danger of falling off the mountain without me.) I landed on my side on the trail, between the ATVs, and screamed, “GODDAMMIT!!!” at the top of my lungs, which was very muted and unimpressive because I still had my helmet on, so it sounded more like, “Cole Blammit,” which is either an actual person’s name, or something the old prospector character would say in a Western. (I just Googled “Cole Blammit.” I was directed to several posts where people use the term “blammit” as a sort of substitute for “dammit,” but found no one by that name. So: no royalties for you, Cole. Tough shit.)
It took me several more seconds to realize that I had, in fact, been stung by a bee, during which time I had also considered the idea that my friend – a self-medicating type who was a walking ball of stress and anxiety – had snapped up here at altitude, decided that he needed to murder someone, and had stabbed me in the neck. But no. As I rolled over to get to my feet, I saw him doubled over. Laughing his ass off. At me. Which is when I briefly considered pushing him and his fucking ATV off the side of the mountain, with a solemn promise to look after his family. I didn’t push him off, and we’re no longer friends, though not because he laughed at my near-death experience. Opportunity missed, I guess.
I should point out that I was completely covered head to toe in outdoor gear: long underwear, jeans, button-down shirt, leather hiking boots, full-on rain gear, a helmet and gloves. The only place I was even marginally exposed was the back of my neck, where the helmet met the collar. And that’s where the little fucker got me. Which is why I firmly believe that it wasn’t happenstance. That was the Universe, wanting to see whether I would let go of my penis or not.
Well, I didn’t let go of my penis. And I never will. In your face, Universe.
Next Week, Chapter Twenty-Four: On The Origins of Making Shit Up.
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