Heading into the cross country season of 1976, I elected to join the team training trip out west to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. The previous year’s trip to South Dakota provided compelling accounts of runs in the mountains. It also delivered a story that became legendary in the program.
One of the runs took the team to the top of Harney Peak, the tallest point in South Dakota. The site was renamed Black Elk Peak in 2016 in honor of the Native American tribe leader. But what interested the cross country team in the fall of 1975 was the challenge of running up a mountain.
The guys all gathered at the top and someone announced, “Now I’ve got to take a dump. And I want to do it over the edge of this mountain.” By various reports, the drop off the edge of the lookout where they stood was more than one-thousand vertical feet. Straight down.
Most of us are cautious in such circumstances. But not college kids with adrenaline in their veins or a full colon. So they held this guy by the arms as he leaned back over the edge of the mountain and let it rip. The laughter, as you can imagine, was uproarious.
The next part of the story is partly hearsay, but whether it is true or not, the concept still makes me laugh. Because after the guy wiped his ass and tossed the toilet paper over the edge, it remained suspended in an updraft that lasted until someone pulled up in their vehicle and wondered what it was floating in the air.
See, I don’t care if the second part of that story is true or not. I wasn’t there to witness. I only choose to believe it because it’s too damn funny not to want it to be true.
That’s the thing with college antics and training trips. They take on legendary aspects through the retelling of stories. This is also probably how 30-40% of holy scripture works, because people want to believe shit even if it isn’t true. Some stories are too good to be true, and others are too good not to be true.
So my expectations for the trip out west that next year were colored, you might say, by the cautious realization that crazy things could happen. But mostly I was excited to go west for the first time in my life. I’d never been further west than Iowa up to that point. Going past the 100th meridian meant the chance to see all new birds and pad my life list. And do some running too.
We piled thirteen of us into the pale green Luther College van. As I was getting into the vehicle, I looked down to notice a bubble sticking out of the tire. “Should that be like that?” I asked. But no one answered.
We drove through Iowa to western Minnesota and west through South Dakota. The further we traveled the more I pressed my face to the window in hopes of seeing new birds. I was a rabid birder at that point in life. All it took to get a new species was a glimpse of a wing or a pattern of plumage. That’s how I found my first magpie while traveling seventy-five miles an hour.
The rest of the team could care less about birds, so I was on my own in that venture. Then I finally fell asleep for an hour or so as sunset neared. When I woke up for a minute, I glanced out the window to spy an antelope running alongside us. I was mesmerized.
We drove all night and arrived to set up camp in the morning. Yellowstone was crowded with late-summer campers and we parked the van and found some suitable campsites. The park was loaded with warnings about bears. On one hand, I was thrilled at the thought of seeing one. On the other hand, I’d read about park maulings and figured it was best if a grizzly did not come visiting.
The first thing on the agenda that first day in the park was to go for a run. We took off at some insane clip toward a distant bluff. Hopping off the road, all thirteen of us clambered up a dusty, rocky trail to the top of a hill and posed for a first-day picture. My head was throbbing from the altitude and I was in a seriously bad mood. It is with much regret that I gave up the opportunity to keep the photo slides from that trip and other years. A team member named Bill Higgins was an avid photographer and his slide collection bounced around between teammates a few years. I wish I’d kept them.
But I recall the grumpy, depressed-looking visage of my own face that morning. I was boiling with frustration at being asked to run so hard so early in the trip. The drive had been long and sleep was weak. But we never ran slowly at Luther. Almost ever. Every run was like a geyser of energy erupting all over again. Day in. Day out. Like Old Faithful, running hard was a daily occurrence in all circumstances.
We kept ourselves so busy those first couple days of running there was little time for sightseeing, much less birding, as I hoped to do. But at one point we were headed into town or such to buy food and stopped on the roadside to look at a moose or bison on a hill above us. The van’s wheels sunk into the roadside gravel on the right side of the road and the entire vehicle tipped to a 10-degree angle. It quite well could have flipped and rolled down the hill if I had not jumped out and told everyone to push the backend while the driver pulled ahead. A tragedy was averted.
The next morning I awoke at 5:00 a.m. with a pre-approval to take the van out and go birding on my own. I grabbed my binoculars and started up the van only to hear the passenger-side door open. In climbed one of the older runners on the team. “Mind if I go with you?” he asked.
I was surprised, to say the least. But we drove down the road toward a wetland I wanted to visit and within a minute or two, I realized that my companion was not interested in birding at all. He pulled out a bag of weed and an apple. Then he rolled a joint and stuck it in a hole bored in the apple, and proceeded to eat the apple after the joint was smoked to a nub. I didn’t join him because I’d never smoked pot in my life. But I was fascinated at his apparent ingenuity.
He happily sat in the van enjoying his high while I walked around a small lake listening to the calls of kinglets and thrush in the woods nearby. By then, I’d added twenty new species to my life list just by keeping my eyes open, and it was relaxing to get away from the haggling crew of runners and soak up nature on my own.
Back in the van, my companion asked for a vow of secrecy and I promised that I would not say a word. We returned to camp in time for the morning run and I marveled that he could go out and run eight miles at altitude with a marijuana buzz.
To close out our time in Yellowstone, we set up teams within the squad and did a 50-mile relay within the park. I was paired with a big, tall freshman named Jeff Dotseth. He was running really well on the trip and I admired his ability and focus. But he was always hungry. One morning our breakfast was a big kettle of oatmeal. The stuff came out really thick and after one bowl, I was stuffed for the morning. Jeff was still hungry, and I recall watching him dig into that kettle with fervor. I don’t know how anyone could eat that much thick oatmeal. But he needed it apparently.
After the big relay, it was time to move south to the Grand Tetons for the second phase of the trip. I added a few more bird species on the way, and we delighted in spotting herds of elk in the meadows. The air each morning was fresh and clear. The mountains were sinking into our bones.
We camped at Jenny Lake at the base of the Grand Tetons. In town, we shopped for groceries and a few of us decided to go for a swim in the Snake River. The water was straight out of the mountains and the melting snow, so it was bracing to dip up to the shoulders in just our running shorts. Yet it felt so good compared to the hot western air we all splashed around. I dove in for kicks and came up for air after a few underwater breaststrokes. To my surprise, I was twenty-five yards downstream by that point, and out of reach from the bare beach where we’d entered. It was tough swimming and clawing my way back against that current. I realized that when it comes to nature and humanity, the West does not mess around. “It would be easy to die out here,” I said to someone upon climbing out of the water.
That night, we partied in town, playing pool and foosball at a local bar. As the evening passed, the games got more competitive and the mood among the locals got a bit darker. One of our younger team members, a freshman from Illinois, got a little mouthy after a foosball game and his opponents asked him if he wanted to fight. We all grabbed him and exited the bar and climbed into the van. “I could have taken him,” the drunken young runner, all 135 lbs of him insisted. “I wrestled in high school.”
We drove off into the night and immediately noted two sets of headlights following us up the road. We kept our eyes on them as the two trucks rolled up behind us. Then we turned into the park road and the trucks pulled to a stop. Apparently, they knew that the park rangers would not welcome a bunch of local toughs beating up some park visitors.
The final big run of the trip was scheduled and we decided to run from Jenny Lake up to Lake Solitude and back. The route was nine miles and the climb went from 6000 to 9000 feet and back. All of the route was on trails.
We took off running and the climb was gradual at first. Then it shot up some switchbacks and climbed some more. Nine miles in the mountain air was challenging, especially with the climbs. But the excitement kept us all going.
All of us, except a few tired members of the team that were feeling the week’s training. We’d already put in sixty miles of running, and one of the freshmen was feeling it pretty badly, but we didn’t stop to consider how it all might go for him. He lagged behind during a long climb in which a giant moose was lying next to the trail, and we arrived at Lake Solitude high in the Grand Tetons. The bigger peaks still towered above us. The lake water was freezing cold. Too cold to swim. But a small speckled trout swam past me as I sat on a rock staring at the calm turquoise water.
We couldn’t drink the water in the lake or any other source. All the streams contained giardia, the infectious parasitic germ that causes wicked diarrhea. None of us carried water either. So we’d run nine miles in thin air with nothing to drink. Now the task was running the nine miles back down.
The last two guys in our group were just arriving as we turned around to head back down. Perhaps someone checked on them, but I’m not sure to this day that anyone was paying much attention. So much of running back in the day was survival of the fittest and the devil take the hindmost.
We jogged and ran and clambered back down the nine miles toward camp. The sun was now behind the mountains and the shade started to mix with darkness. I don’t recall how long the total run took us, but we hadn’t planned anything about the trip well, so why start then?
I knew that I’d make it back down after six miles on the trail. But I began to think about the guys behind us. At some point, the fatigue got great enough that I cried a little. Not sure if that was relief, anger, joy or fear that made me cry. But I didn’t have much water to spare in my system, so it didn’t last long.
I recall my toes feeling like they were about to come out the front of my shoes. I’m pretty sure I wore Nike Waffle Trainers, those blue and yellow staples of mid-1970s distance running. They were not built for trail running. Coming back into camp, I was elated to realize the run was over and picked up the pace the last 400 meters to show that I wasn’t beaten. There was no need to do that. Everyone was clearly beat, if not beaten. “Good job,” someone muttered.
Then the waiting game began as we started to worry whether our freshman and a couple other less-fit guys would make it back before dark. We thought about running back out to find them. But it got dark. I sat on a rock eating a bag of Oreos that I’d purchased at the store because there were no plans for making dinner yet. I also downed three Mountain Dews.
Then came Tony, one of the last two guys on team, rolling out of the darkness like a ghost.
“How far behind is Matt?” someone asked him.
“Well, we had to climb up over a boulder to get around the moose. It was lying on the trail when we came down.”
“Holy crap,” someone muttered.
“Yeah, holy crap,” said Tony, wandering over to grab something to drink. He did not appear too happy.
And finally, the thin-looking freshman Matt came trotting into camp. He didn’t look all that tired, as I recall. Perhaps he’d paced himself? If so, quite intelligently. But he admitted. “That moose was big.”
And so it went. We’d all run eighteen miles with 6000 feet of climbing and descending in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. With no water. No nutrition. No nothing. Know nothing.
That night, a massive storm came roaring over the Tetons. It rained so hard the drops hitting the ground at first sound like slaps in the face. Then the streams began through our campsite. I pulled my feet up off the tent bottom and held a flashlight up to look at the water pouring through our space. It was a long night, for sure. But even so, I finally fell asleep.
We drove back to Decorah, Iowa with that bubble on the van tire still whapp-whapping around like it was ready to pop any minute. I still don’t know how we didn’t get a flat, or let the van slide down the hillside. I don’t know how someone didn’t die up in those mountains or get beaten to a pulp by townies at the bar that night. The whole truth and nothing but the truth of the matter is that stupidity goes a long way in some circumstances. And the rest gets chalked up to legend.