Oddly enough, my hiking story starts on a Grand Princess cruise ship as I travelled solo from Seattle, to Ketchikan, and Juneau along the Tongass Alaskan rainforest. Now I’d always wanted to see Juneau, because my favorite TV show from high school was Northern Exposure. It was going to be a real treat for a Lubbock boy to walk around the town I saw on TV all those years, and think about the neurotic Dr. Fleischman, beauty queen Janine Turner, and Chris, the philosopher DJ, who had my dream job: spinning soul, jazz, and opera records carte blanche, drinking coffee, and discussing philosophical musings and conundrums into a fuzzy microphone, broadcasting over the Alaskan airwaves.
Before we arrived in Juneau, we stopped in Ketchikan and I stopped by a cyber cafe to plug in. This was about the time U2 downloaded their album “Songs of Innocence” onto everyone’s iPhones without asking, to my utter delight. I liked one song in particular, and played it over and over again on the ship (even though I didn’t know the name of it). I also got a chance to make a quick phone call to a close family member who was battling alcohol addiction and suicidal thoughts. In fact, I was already quite irritated with his behavior, having received complaints from my sister about his disrespectful attitude and general idgaf about anything platitudes. A lecture was fiercely snowballing for an avalanche of fire through the phone, but I decided to redirect the chew out for another time. I guess I could still hear the voice of someone hurting buried within that other darker voice.
I made it back to the ship and we made our way to the Tracy Arm fjord and its Hpnotiq waters, and headed towards Juneau after doing the biggest u-turn I’ve ever been a part of in my life. I felt like I was standing on the revolving fan blade of a giant wind turbine. That captain must have owned a 70s era Ford LTD, because he turned that thing around like it was light work. No big deal, just a floating city building turning around 180 degrees in an Alaskan fjord.
We arrived in Juneau, and I remember everything being darker, more overcast, gloomy. We docked in the Gastineau Channel on the Juneau AK dock. And I had zero idea where to go or what to visit. I was actually getting after myself for not preparing for the trip with any sort of itinerary, especially since I couldn’t afford those excursions which were like TV intros to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Damn, I was going to drift around again, like Opey kicking a can down the road outside of Mayberry, put on my headphones, listen to that same U2 song, and look for a bookstore. I know, what a party animal.
I walked to downtown Juneau and figured it was time to slake my thirst with a frosty, sudsy beverage, so I entered a red saloon. The Imperial Saloon. This was a red den of old wood and dark, heavy ales. I ordered an Alaskan Amber and struck up a conversation with a local man who, oddly enough, sat by a stroller that he pushed back and forth, rocking a baby that slept soundly inside.
I felt like I was wasting the trip because, at this time in my life, I really didn’t know how to travel. I asked him, “What do you recommend doing here that I can do on foot.” He stopped and thought for a moment, and said, “Roberts. Roberts Trail.” At first I was taken aback, because my name is Robert, given to me by my father, RIP, Roberto, but I go by Bobby. He gave me directions, but when he said I needed to walk all the way across town till I hit a dirt road just to get to the trailhead, I was iffy. Said there was a restaurant at the top, at the end of the 2 mile trail, by the tramway. Buy something at the restaurant, get a free ticket down. The beer had given me cottonmouth, and I was ready to pull myself out of this dark bar that weighed me down like mud. I walked down Gold St. which felt like it was made for a carnival funhouse. The street curved up so steeply, I felt like my chest could graze the street as I walked.
I reached Basin Rd. and started to follow the dirt road that cut through the forest and what was like a Last Supper of mountains, mountains sitting side by side in a whispering commotion, each one with slender waterfalls cascading down from their summits. About this time, I decided to text a colleague on the ship so someone knew my whereabouts. But the phone died. I wasn’t sure I was in the right spot and came upon a sign. It was a sign asking for help finding a missing hiker on the Mount Roberts trail. This whole time I wasn’t sure if I should continue and that sign sure didn’t help. I was in jeans, and had no water. I found the trailhead and read all the scary warnings and decided to go little by little, and turn back if I needed to. That little-by-little ended up being gone-too-far-it’s-too-late, so I just kept going. It was about 55 degrees and it started sprinkling. I’d never been in the woods like this, and felt like I was in a strange cathedral. I wasn’t a hiker at this time in my life, but I wanted to be. I didn’t understand hydration, moisture-wicking clothing, maps, and safety measures like I do now, but I did have the most important prerequisite, and that was a willingness to step inside the rabbit hole.
I continued to hike up and started getting really thirsty. A young couple just blazed past me like it was nothing and I started praying under my breath, “Lord, please help me find some water.” Immediately after my whispered prayer, an ancy hiker comes over the ridge and walks quickly towards me pointing to my face, like wrestlers did on TV interviews years ago, and asks me, “Hey, man! You need some water?”
“Uh...yeah.” He had a crumpled, empty water bottle that he elongated like a slinky and poured it half full with water from his own plastic bottle. He moved frantically, and said he had to go if he wanted to finish his hike and get to the cruise ship on time. And just like that, he was gone.
I continued up the mountain and found an opening overlooking Gastineau Channel. I’d never seen anything like this. The navy blue-greens, the mountains shoulder to shoulder over the bay. I found my way to the Mountain House and enjoyed a celebratory beer and talked to a business woman from Palm Springs CA who told me she works her ass off just so she can take trips like this.
I finished my beer and took the tram down to the dock. I’ll never forget how Juneau looks at night descending by tram: A charcoal forest on the bay, dappled with hanging lights on a rainy night, by the lapping ocean. I joined a cruise ship worker on a shuttle back to the ship and listened, astonished, as he shared with me how much they work a week, and what happens if you miss the ship.
When we arrived in Skagway, I was determined to relax and chill, and meander around the town. I had earned it. I walked across Juneau, overcame a fear of the unknown, and had put down more miles on a hike than I had ever done before. I was going to find a Starbucks and take in the town without any itinerary. When I got to the center square, I was amazed by the drifting clouds shredding apart over the lower mountains like tufts of white fabric. This was an old mining town and the old saloons and brothels served as museums. At some point I inquired about joining a train ride to the Yukon, but was denied because I didn’t have a passport. I only had a Texas DL, so I was left waving to the train passengers like the poor kid at the fair watching the rich kids lick on candy and rock their legs back and forth on the fancy rides. Oh well. I found some coffee and went for the Venti. I still marvel at how I never drank water back then. What was I thinking? I ended up asking a local again for recommendations and he suggested I do a walking tour. Sounded good to me. Just needed to grab my ticket at the park ranger’s station and wait my turn. As soon as I picked up my ticket, I looked up and noticed the guy that gave me water the day before in Juneau on the Roberts Trail. He was, again, moving around frantically, with a map in hand and about to walk out of the ranger station. I didn’t want to bother him, but I’ve always had a rule about thanking someone in person who helped you. I stopped him as he opened the door, and I had to walk and talk because this guy was on the move. I thanked him for saving my ass with the water the day before and I told him my name was Bobby. He smiled, and told me his name was “Roberto.” Whoa. Ok. I told him that was my dad’s name. He told me that he, as well, had won the trip on the cruise, and was travelling solo. Turns out he was on the same cruise ship as me, directly on the opposite side. He said he was about to hike the Dewey trail and asked if I wanted to go. Shit, I was gonna chill, but there’s no way I was going to turn down an adventure. So, in blue jeans, a tight, white cotton shirt, and my nightclub cowboy boots with the slickest soles, I followed this man I just met, up a mountain in Alaska, sipping on my 20oz Pike Place.
It took forever just to get to the trailhead, and we discussed our backgrounds. I remember I accidentally called him Robert, and he got real serious, fast. He told me his parents were immigrants and if it was important for them to name him Roberto, he would like to go by that name as well. Damn. I had broken my own Mexican rules. You got it...He was from California, in the military. And he had hiked 12 miles the day before in Juneau. And I’m thinking to myself, “I hiked 3 miles yesterday and thought I was a Norse god, and this guy is the real deal Super Mario. Embarrassing.” I still had my guard up. I didn’t know who this guy was and didn’t know if he was legit. He mentioned that he wanted to find the lake at the top of the mountain and jump in and take a picture. He said he and his buddies sent pictures to each other of themselves in far-off places. I was getting a little wary, but he was a cool cat, and I started to notice that he really was making time up the mountain with big lunges, never breathing hard. He said he was a Marine and not having a ruck sack made him feel like a “billy goat” out here. I wasn’t sure I believed him anymore, so I decided to test the guy. I asked him to teach me some marching ditties as we climbed up. MISTAKE. He went from song to song, hitting the cadences jubilantly, in perfect time, and I was basically singing “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care!!!!” like a yelping hobo wino, losing every bit of oxygen I had with every syllable gasped. We stopped just under the mistline of the mountain by a waterfall and I started to sweat. It was 53 degrees and I was drenched.
At the time, I didn’t know he had picked the most strenuous hike in Skagway. A 6 mile out-and-back, with 3100 ft elevation gain. I was flag football and this was NFL. We hiked on, and every sharp switchback had roots that squirmed out of the black earth like giant worms, and jutting rocks like obsidian blades off of which my boots slipped, jarring into other rocks. He was determined to get to that water, but I was getting to the point where though I could inhale and exhale fully, it was like no oxygen was getting in. We passed some wood bridges and staircases, and I finally told him I couldn’t go any further. I was going to rest. He should go on further and see if the lake is nearby. He looked at me with some reservation and went on ahead.
About five minutes later after as I sat there, watching my heavy breaths condense into rapid puffs of smoke, I started to lose sensation in both hands. Like hemlock poison running down the body, I actually felt a moving paralysis run down both my hands, from my fingertips down to my wrists, like they were being drained of blood. I couldn’t close my fists. I panicked a little, and then I started to feel the same thing from the waist up across my abdomen. I could feel it spreading across my flesh. That really scared me and I got up and called for Roberto, faintly. When I stood up and started walking, the sensation started to dissipate. When I stopped, it returned. I started down the trail, staggering down like a rusted-out robot, and I stomped down the trail with buckling knees, completely spent and fearful.
Some time later, I heard rocks tumbling down the switchback behind me, and I see Roberto skidding down the trail. When he saw me, he said, “Thank God. I was worried something happened to you.” I told him immediately that I didn’t think I could make it. I asked him if he had any water. He literally poured the last drops of water that he had in a bottle in my mouth, and got angry at himself. He said, “I feel responsible. I didn’t make sure you were able to do this hike.”
I was spent. I could barely lift my arms. I felt the same weakness and fatigue one feels with the flu. And the mental. Thinking about going down this neverending trail was a wound I repeatedly inflicted on myself with every thought cycle. I feel like shit. I can’t go on. It’s too far. Repeat.
Roberto sat by me smiling, and reminded me he was an EMT. He took control and said we would hike as far as I could go, and take timed breaks. He checked my heart rate vs. my breaths, and led me down the trail. He warned me of falls, and scolded me for wearing my gloves and getting my hands clammy from sweat. When I started to get the chills, he gave me bear hugs, and eventually, when I could barely stand up, he let me put 60% off my weight on his shoulders as I walked behind him down the mountain.
We managed to make a good deal of distance, but once I convinced myself it was too far to the trailhead, I sat down, and told him I couldn’t go any further. I still remember him squatting in front of me. I’ll never forget it. He didn’t tell me, “It’s getting dark.” He didn’t say “We’ve got to keep going.” He didn’t show one eye-twitch of impatience. He just looked at me and said, “I can run to the Ranger station and get help,” and as he looked to some trees just off the trail, he said “or I could make a sled and pull you back.” When I saw him look over at the trees behind me, and I saw in his face, without question, that he would actually carry this out, shame passed over me just like that hemlock poison, and I thought to myself, “This guy is going to give 100% for me, and I’m over here giving 65? Hell no.” I got my ass up, refused his help getting up, started hiking, and snapped out of the defeat in my mind.
We hiked for another hour or so and I recognized a bridge that I knew was near the trailhead and I cracked a smile. As soon as Roberto saw me grin, he turned around and said, “ I knew it! I knew you could do it!” He hopped around me like the jittery, coffee addict I saw in the Ranger station, and grinned ear to ear.
He continued to boost my spirits by taking pictures of me asking me to do a Metallica pose, still working on getting my head out of the pits. He was sewing up the tear the whole time, stitch by stitch, and I didn’t know it.
I now had my mind on candy bars, soda, and gallons of ice cold water. As we walked to the trailhead, he asked me to stop. We heard some running water. “Are you serious???” I said, irritably. He starts undressing and says he has to take the picture. He hands me his camera, gets buck naked, puts on his sunglasses and walks to the stream. He pulls off a branch with leaves from a tree, to cover his “junk,” he says, and lays on his back across the rocks like it was a beach chair, arms wide open. I had to look away like a vampire facing the burning sun, my lips quivering from the horror of this unnatural act. I yelled at him to hurry up as I snapped two photos, and laughed in exhaustion. The dude wasn’t kidding. Marines.
We made it to town and hit up a convenience store. I spent about $20 on candy bars, pop, and a gallon of water, clutching it in my arms like ‘Chunk’ from the Goonies. We made it to the cruise ship, and said goodbye. He was going to get ready for Casino night, blackjack, and I was off to my cabin to lift my legs one by one onto my bed like a hospital patient.
As I walked the deck on the cruise ship the next day, I listened to another song on Spotify, over and over again. An ambient song. Listened to that and the U2 song on repeat as I walked and thought about the hike as we crossed Alaskan waters out of Skagway on to British Columbia. I didn’t know the song titles at the time, but when I looked them up later, one was called “Song for Someone,” and the other, “Song for No One.”
When we disembarked in Seattle, there were over 50 disembarkation groups for the 2600 passengers on the ship. You can imagine my surprise when I saw Roberto in the same waiting room I was assigned to as we readied to leave. I was able to walk off the ship with him and bid my friend goodbye.
I ended up helping that close family member fight through alcoholism and suicidal depression using what Roberto taught me on that mountain.
The strong watch over the weak. The strong don’t let those who are hurting think they are not going to get out of that bad place.
And when you help someone, help them in such a way that they can tell, by your essence, that you’ll do whatever it takes, and you’ll never leave their side or pressure them to hurry out of that bad place.
That family member of mine is now almost 5 years sober. He texted me that first year and said, “I owe you my life. I made it an entire year. I have my mind back, and my strength.”
Thank you, Lt. Roberto Orozco! God bless the Marines and Happy 4th!