by Dean KrakelEditor’s Note: This story is considerably different than most in the Epic Rides site. It’s longer than most, more serious than most, and less about epic trails than an epic ordeal. It’s worth reading.
When the trail ended in rock rubble I knew my luck had run out. I had come to the desert to quiet my mind and ease the pain of my fatherâ€™s dying but had only succeeded in making everything worse. For hours I had been trying to untangle myself from the maze of single track and jeep roads I had wandered off on, and now the vast Sonoran night was closing in. Earlier in the afternoon I had grazed a Chola, puncturing a tire. My right hand and thigh throbbed with the pain of embedded and broken off needles. I had no light, no matches, no jacket. Forks of lightning split the sky above Samaniego Ridge. In the dark it would be risky moving among the cactus and rattlesnakes, the scorpions and javelina. If I had to bivouac, I decided, I would probably live, but it would be a nightmarish passage.
In twilight I began backtracking, turning towards where the sun had set at every trail junction, knowing eventually I would strike the highway. I rode fast , the rumble of thunder scrambling my thoughts, heart pounding in my temples.
Again, the trail dissolved. I dismounted and carried the bike, slowly making my way cross country until I stumbled across a wash, down a rocky hill and onto a dirt road. Jumping onto the bike, I slammed into the big ring and pedaled, steering by feel and by lightning flash, rain pelting my face. The storm struck before I had gone a mile, a driving blast that turned the road into a slick muck and sent water gushing down every gully and crack.
Taking shelter under a tree with two horses that seemed friendly enough, I ate an energy bar and drank deeply, chucked down some goo. The horses stood silently, watching, rain dropping from the tree boughs onto their coats.
In the spring my father had driven from Arizona to Colorado. A long drive for a seventy-four year old man with bad eyesight in an old station wagon. As if driven by a dark premonition, he had told his friend, Ester, that he wanted to sleep beside the Pourde River one more time. And he did, wrapped in a blanket in the back seat.
On the way home he spent a night at our home in Denver, arriving late and tired. In the morning I woke early and dressed for my morning ride around our hill. Iâ€™d have time afterwards to make coffee and visit before going to work. Wheeling the bike out into the drive, I was surprised to see my father walking slowly out to the car.
â€œCanâ€™t you wait dad?â€ I said, â€œI wonâ€™t be long.â€
â€œNo,â€ he said, heâ€™d heard on the news a storm was coming.
He was limping. He wasnâ€™t wearing socks.
â€œThose shoes are too small, dad,â€ I said. â€œYou walk like your feet hurt.â€
He brushed my concern aside. â€œPoor circulation,â€ he said, then he gestured toward my bike. He didnâ€™t say anything. Didnâ€™t have to. Another one of his middle-aged sonâ€™s frivolous habits.
There was a lot I could have said in that moment. I could have told him how biking had changed my life. How it had connected me to things. I answered his silence with silence; he got in the car and drove away.
During the drive back to Tucson, blisters developed on his feet. Months later, when the blisters had still not healed, he went to the veteranâ€™s hospital and had them examined. He was diabetic.
The blister on his right foot had become infected, gangrenous. To save it would require replacing the footâ€™s constricted veins with healthy ones, increasing the flow of blood.
But the infection had spread too far and my fatherâ€™s veins were fragile as tissue paper. Five weeks and five major surgeries later his left leg had been amputated at the thigh. He had bedsores, his kidneys were failing and the stump was infected. When not heavily sedated with morphine he suffered pain that made him cry out in agony. For days, he had not eaten or been coherently conscious.
During his long sleep, the pulse in his right foot died and a hideous green, black and blue shadow had crept up his remaining leg.
After the storm passed I began riding again, taking any fork that bore left, west. No traffic. No houselights. Just the sound of my tires rolling on the wet earth and the earth eventually rolling back to car, highway and hospital.
In the bathroom of the E.R., I changed from wet clothes to dry. Made my way down the familiar corridors. A right. A left. A right. Follow the red stripe to the yellow hall to the elevators that whisked me to the second floor. Straight past the vending machines. Hang a left. Press the square metal pad. A short electric buzz. Double doors swinging open.
At that late hour, the lights were dimmed. Every cubicle’s curtains were drawn aside, revealing the dramas within. The puker, the shitter, the wanderer, the guy with his chest in stitches, the guy in isolation behind glass walls, all hooked to monitors. The steadily changing numbers and lines of their vital signs the only evidence some of them were alive. My father among them. The dying one-legged guy.
My fatherâ€™s foot had grown cold to the touch. I leaned over him, gripped his hand.
As usual, no response. So I talked to him as I did every day. I told him about the ride. The colors the sunset had painted the Catalinas, about getting lost and the rainstorm in the dark. When I finished I started to take my hand away. But he squeezed it weakly, hoarsely said, â€œDonâ€™t stop.â€
I told him how Alisa and our boys, Sean and Brent, watched the comet, Hale-bopp, streak across the night sky from atop Hamburger Rock in the Utah desert. I told him about biking into Circle Bar Basin near Steamboat Springs. Seven year old Sean had ridden some wicked downhill single track and caught his first wild trout in a stream that we ate lunch by.
â€œWe Krakels have always been great fishermen,â€ he said, opening his eyes.
I squeezed his hand. â€œWelcome back.â€
â€œThis may sound crazy,â€ my father said,â€œ but am I in Colorado Springs?â€
â€œYouâ€™re in Tucson dad.â€
â€œI knew it was crazy,â€ he replied, and closed his eyes. â€œAm I going to die?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know dad,â€ I said. I didnâ€™t know how much time we had. I wanted to be honest. I wanted him to know the truth.
â€œItâ€™s not good,â€ I said. â€œYour kidneys arenâ€™t working. Theyâ€™ve already put in plugs for dialysis. Thereâ€™s no pulse in your foot.â€
â€œThe operation failed,â€ he said. It wasnâ€™t a question. Resignation. He shut his eyes tight. Tears squeezed out.
â€œYou havenâ€™t had any breaks dad,â€ I said, wiping the corners of his eyes with a tissue. â€œNot one.â€
He shook his head. â€œI donâ€™t want any more surgery.â€
â€œIf they donâ€™t amputate, the leg will kill you,â€ I answered.
â€œIâ€™m not afraid to die,â€ he replied.
We talked for two hours before he finally let go of my hand, said, â€œIâ€™ve got to rest.â€
He tried to make a fist and punch me in the ribs but to many tubes and wires held it down.
â€œIâ€™ll never forget the talk we had tonight,â€ he said, â€œand I hate to say this, but for the rest of my life.â€
While the sky was still pink with dawn, I rode up the bike path out of Tucson along Old Spanish Trail into Saguaro National Park. Thereâ€™s an eight-mile loop drive on pavement through the Cactus Forest portion of the park. Halfway around thereâ€™s a sweet two-mile slice of one-track bisecting the loop. The pavement is fast and hilly, with long swooping descents on a narrow one-way road and brief steep climbs. I always expected to surprise some pigs on the downhill, or a diamondback as thick as my arm stretched out warming on the road. All I saw were doves and lizards and quail, a few roadrunners, big Sonoran hares slipping through the mesquite.
The singletrack winds through a gentle forest of saguaro, prickly green giants two centuries old, some of them fifty feet high, arms bent, bodies weathered and picked full of holes. Here and there, one had tumbled to the ground and was slowly decomposing.
Saguaro was my favorite loop. The first trail I had discovered in Tucson. Quick, easy and close to the hospital. My heart started with it in the mornings. It soaked me in sweat, cleared my head, made my legs throb and got me ready to face whatever the day held.
At first, the Arizona desert was intimidating. Waterless, tough and technical, the trails ran through a rough, poisonous, prickly landscape. The heat was brain-searing, the monsoon storms violent. The first big-air bunny hop I ever did was over a snake in the trail.
But there was something seductive in the sweet perfume of the desert air, the heat, rocks and cactus, the raw hostility of it all. If ever a landscape suited my mood, this was it. I pedaled among the saguaro and thought about death. I thought about everyone I knew that had died, the friends and relations and acquaintances. I considered their life and how they had died and the memories I had of them.
A fatherâ€™s dying was a different thing. Deeper then blood. The ending of the beginning.
When people asked me about my father, I told them we were estranged. In a way, we were. We had not been close for over a decade, since the Christmas he had walked out the door and left my mother and brother without a goodbye, any sign, a warning or word. We talked on the phone a few times a year, didnâ€™t write much. Once every few years Iâ€™d get a birthday card. Occasionally, my father would just show up at our house during one of his cross-country jaunts.
Now there would never be time to fill in the blanks. He was dying a terrible death, I thought. In a hospital. Bright lights and bustle, entangled in a web of plastic tubes and electric wires, the bleeping and dinging of medical machines, the blaring of nonsensical television programs, the hacking and vomiting and rantings and ravings of the other living dead.
How peaceful to grow old, fall down and rot into the ground like a saguaro.
If my father had been a warrior in this land a century and a half ago, we would have carried him into the desert, made him comfortable in a place with a good view and left him to dream and contemplate and sing his songs. His women would have slashed their arms and blackened their faces with ash. We would have killed his horses and burned his possessions. Later, we would have cached his body among the rocks.
When I arrived at the hospital my father was awake, waiting for me.
â€œI need you to write something down,â€ he said
As nurses fussed around him changing his i.vâ€™s, taking blood and checking his blood pressure, he dictated his will.
He kept closing his eyes, fading away. I was afraid of losing him.
â€œAre you with me, dad?â€ I would ask.
â€œIâ€™m thinking,â€ he would reply.
It took three hours to write the will, everything he owned and all his last wishes summed up on a yellow legal tablet page. His prized possession was his car, a 1987 Ford station wagon that I had loaned him a thousand dollars to buy.
Afterwards, he refused his usual morning dose of morphine, and in great pain, fought to remain conscious while I rounded up two witnesses, participants in the hospitals alcoholic program whom I found outside having a smoke. A 24-hour on-call mobile notary made the will legal.
My father once crisscrossed the country on private jets and dined with millionaires. He amassed a small fortune in the art business, authored thirteen books. But bad investments, powerful enemies and an increasing number of health problems created a wicked brew in his head. He lost everything. Two suicide attempts put him in a psychiatric hospital for several months. Afterwards, he disappeared. For weeks at a time none of us knew where he was or even if he was alive. Somewhere in the blurry years he slipped and broke his hip, his brother Carl died and my mother divorced him. Sometimes heâ€™d show up on our doorstep carrying everything he owned in a grocery bag. Heâ€™d been sleeping in his car he said, living with friends.
The doctors were working hard, trying to improve my fatherâ€™s failing kidneys to the point that he could withstand the amputation of his remaining leg. It did not make sense. No one expected him to live. A Catholic priest gave my father his last rights and a social worker sat my sister and I down for individual visits.
We waited. In the afternoons I would throw myself into the desert and pound off whatever was in my system. Tucson Mountain Park, just outside of town, became my catharsis, my thrashing zone. Star Pass, Yettman Wash, places without names, gut-busting rocks and loose gravel, dense turns, cactus and thorny trees, the tires clawing and scrabbling for traction, a sound that blocked out everything else. Tired and distracted I often took a wrong fork and ended up somewhere at dusk in the desert and would have to puzzle my way back. That was the good time, cool air against sweaty skin, aching legs, blood trickling down from some scrape or cactus wound.
I liked the hurt. Hurting. Pain had become an affirmation of life.
When the doctors came with the prognosis, my father was calm and clear. He would be well enough to undergo the amputation the following afternoon. His leg would be cut off just below the crotch. Because of the infection, the other stump would be cut off below the crotch as well. He signed the papers and said he would like to make a few phone calls. I dialed the numbers and held the phone so that he could speak. He talked to a few friends, my oldest son, then my wife.
â€œI gotta get out of this place,â€ he told her. â€œThe foodâ€™s bad, plus, Iâ€™m running out of legs.â€
Afterwards he asked for a pain pill and said he wanted to sleep.
That night, I sat out in the cool air in front of the hospital and fixed a flat by streetlamp light. Emptying out my Camelbak and laying tools neatly out on the concrete was soothing. I liked handling all the little bits and pieces of gear and feeling the jolt of memory. Other places Iâ€™d been, doing the same thing. There was a sprinkling of red dust and sand left over from a Canyonlands trip Alisa, the boys and I had made in the Spring. Some pine needles from the mountains. Gravel from Green Mountain. A pretty rock from the Colorado Trail. A piece of bone from Beef Basin. A tire tool I had found on the White Rim.
If things had worked out differently, a friend and I would have been camped at Maze Overlook in Utahâ€™s Canyonlands on this night, halfway through a ten day unsupported trip. When I had called to cancel our permits the ranger on the other end asked me why. I told him my father was very sick. â€œI know what you mean,â€ he had said. â€œIâ€™m going through the same thing. I guess weâ€™re all just getting to be that age.â€
My father did not die. After the amputation, when I saw him for the first time without legs, I had to steady myself against a post. All head and torso and arms. At six foot one, a good part of my fatherâ€™s presence had been his height.
He was awake and looked at me when I spoke his name. He was thankful to be alive he said. Then he closed his eyes and did not open them again, except in pain, did not eat or speak or acknowledge anyoneâ€™s presence for three days. Sometimes his mouth would drop open and his eyes would roll back into his head, making me look up and check his pulse on the monitor overhead. He seemed beyond shock. Hovering somewhere between life and death, adrift in some fevered morphine nightmare. He seemed to be shutting down, slipping away.
Every afternoon I rode Starr Pass. On the third day clouds had already gathered by the time I pedaled away from the trail head. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Lightning crackled above Cat Mountain. Gray sky, gray air. I had to detour around a rattlesnake, so sluggish it only arched its neck and flicked its tongue as I passed around.
By the time I made it to the little divide the thunder was booming and lightning came in brilliant flashes. Rain pelted the ground. But the rain was packing the sand, cooling off the air. The sweet desert scent of rain and wind blowing among the saguaro lured me on. I thought of my father and felt strong and sped downward, through the gap out onto the flats, turning up the dirt road heading for the pass. Lightning struck a high rocky nub to my right.
Oh good, I thought itâ€™s still up high.
Then a crushing boom and white light that nearly knocked me to the ground, a jagged bolt striking dead level a hundred yards out.
The storm was blowing in from the south, a white fog of roaring dust and rain. At a junction of dirt road and asphalt I peeled off, hammering for a a group of trees and rooftops.
When the rain came it was as if the air had turned liquid. So dense I had to turn my head sideways to breathe. To pedal against the wind I had to drop into way low. Torrents of water rushed down the street. Splashing across a swollen gully I dove under the metal awning of a trailer house.
â€œTakinâ€™ refuge?â€ the owner asked when he peeped out the screen door.
He stepped onto the patio with a beer in each hand. Offered me one. While rain drummed the metal awning and rainwater waterfalls poured off the low spots we sat in lawn chairs sipping our beer, taking in the spectacle.
He told me about the two rattlesnakes he had killed in the driveway and how hysterical his wife had become when she came across one in the road in front of the trailer. She just couldnâ€™t stop screaming.
â€œGot bit by a rattlesnake when she was a kid,â€ he said. â€œI suppose thatâ€™s got something to do with it.â€
I told him that my father had lost both of his legs.
â€œDiabetes?â€ he asked.
â€œI thought so,â€ he said. â€œThat gets a lot of â€˜em.â€
After a time, the sun came out.
â€œI better ride,â€ I said and he walked over to the bike with me.
â€œI got to tell you something about that disease,â€ he said, â€œthat diabetes.â€
I looked at him.
â€œItâ€™s hereditary. It comes in the genes.â€
And then he waved me off. Take care. Hope everything works out.
I pushed myself hard, climbing the hill, humping the bike on my shoulder up through the rocks when I couldnâ€™t ride, and then bumping down through the wash, making my legs, lungs and heart hurt, stinging sweat rolling into my eyes.
Afterwards I went straight to the hospital. My father opened his eyes when I touched his forehead.
â€œHey pop,â€ I said.
Lifting his arm he punched me lightly in the ribs.
â€œHow do you feel?â€ I asked.
â€œIt sounds crazy,â€ he replied, â€œ but I feel pretty strong.â€ His voice was weak, a whisper.
â€œIâ€™m not going to have to fight those surgeons off again am I?â€ he asked.
â€œNo,â€ I said, â€œ Youâ€™re all through with that.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t think Iâ€™d live,â€ he said.
I told him I would answer any questions he had as truthfully as I could. He said he would think of some questions. Then he asked me what Iâ€™d been doing. I told him about my ride, the rainstorm and the old guy I had met and drank a beer with.
He covered his face with his hands.
â€œAll my life I never wanted a bicycle and now I want one,â€ he said. â€œI want to go on a bicycle ride with you.”
I asked him if he remembered the Christmas I got my first bicycle.
â€œYes,â€ he said through his hands.
I was nine. The red Schwinn was two sizes too big. My father and I walked the bike through the snow to the top of the hill on a dirt road that ran past our house. He helped me aboard, then we started down. I had never ridden a bicycle but I knew about pedaling. My father held onto the back of the seat steadying me, but soon I was going too fast. I didnâ€™t know about brakes. He tried to keep up, running beside and then behind the bike as hard as he could. I could hear his footsteps fading far behind.
â€œYou were like a little bird,â€ he said. â€œYou just flew away and you never looked back.â€
â€œI crashed,â€ I said.
He made a half laughing, half whining sound, reached down and took hold of one of my hands. We sat in silence, quiet tears streaming down my fatherâ€™s face both of us remembering the legs that would never run, the footsteps never heard again, the closest thing to a bike ride we would ever take together.
Three days after I returned home I drove my wife, Alisa, to the emergency room of Swedish Hospital in Denver. While teaching her second grade class she had suddenly been unable to see the childrenâ€™s faces.
For months her wrist had been bothering her. She had started wearing a brace when we rode and that had seemed to help. We were worried that it was arthritis. While I was in Tucson the pain became unbearable. At the clinic they had taken blood and done tests. Her blood sugar was high. She was borderline diabetic. Nothing that diet and exercise wouldn’t take care of.
She had told me the news when I had called home from the pay phone outside park headquarters at Saquaro. The sky was turning pink. I slumped against the bricks and cried while from inside the john a janitor sang a sad Mexican song while he rattled a mop in a bucket and cleaned the floor.
In the emergency room a nurse gave Alisa a shot of insulin to bring her blood sugar down. Her vision cleared. Her wrist stopped hurting. Just like that she was a diabetic and our lives changed forever. Within weeks the refrigerator contained small insulin bottles and in the cabinet was a package of syringes. The future weâ€™d taken so much for granted had become a pit of yawning uncertainty.
In November we drove to Tucson to do some riding, soak up the warmth and see my father. We wanted to be alone together to sort things out. And conversations with dad over over the phone hadnâ€™t been going well. Something wasnâ€™t right.
Fran, my fatherâ€™s main nurse in the rehabilitation wing, said he wasnâ€™t doing as well as they had hoped. At first, he had been dealing with his loss, coping and focusing on the future.
Now, he seemed to be giving up. He was refusing all physical therapy, wasnâ€™t chinning himself or feeding himself or wheeling his own chair down the hall. He had quit learning to transfer from the bed and spent every day, all day, flat on his back. His muscles were withering away. His arms and chest were swollen with fluid. He was depressed and cried a lot. He said that he wanted to die.
We did not speed to the hospital that first morning. I hungered for the desert and a ride with my wife. Taking a ride before seeing with my father had become a ritual for me. No matter how strong my emotional armor felt, it would shatter upon seeing him. For Alisa it was much worse.
â€œThat could be me laying there someday,â€ she said.
We rode the Fifty Year Trail out of Catalina State Park, a nice head clearing rolling stretch of single track varying from hard scrabble technical rock to speedy flats, shady sandy washes, hard-pack cactus turns, small climbs and a number of weird deeply rutted chutes-the first semi strenuous ride weâ€™d done since her diagnosis. An adventure in caution, we were loaded down with water, Gu, peanut butter and energy bars.
I stopped often to watch Alisa pick her way gingerly down through the rocks and cactus. She was hesitant. I worried about her. I wanted our lives to be like they were, knowing all along that they could not.
The desert was perfect, the heat deliciousâ€”weâ€™d left three feet of snow in Coloradoâ€”and the singletrack so enticing that we overshot a turn and sped off through the mesquite and saguaro for miles before wising up and turning around.
Afterwards we were both relieved that nothing terrible had happened.
My father cried when he saw us. When Alisa asked him how he was, he threw back the sheets, covered his face with his hands and lifted the stumps up for us to see.
â€œIâ€™ve been through the mill,â€ he said through his hands, making that half crying half laughing sound.
After that he was better. Two nurses brought in a hoist, lifted my father in a sling and swung him through the air over to his wheelchair, gently lowering him to the seat.
â€œJust like a side of beef,â€ my father said. His black hair was graying and he looked frail and frightened and old.
We wheeled him out of the hospital and around the building, talking. He talked mostly about himself, various pains and sores and fears he had. The dark humor was gone. He had been in the hospital a hundred and ten days. He was tired of it, he said. Then without warning he nodded off for a few seconds, woke up and said he wanted to sleep so we wheeled him back to his room.
There was nothing more to be said, I guess. And perhaps we had said it all. I love yous and all that supportive gibberish can only carry things so far. In the end, weâ€™re all on our own.
Alisa and I drove to Old Spanish trail, parked the car at a church and rode up the bike path into Saguaro National Park. We pedaled hard in the twilight, rolling over the asphalt hills under pink and orange bellied clouds, a forest of dark cactus shapes jutting into Technicolor sky.
My mind was screaming and I pedaled fast trying to outrun it. I always think that when I ride I will figure things out, come to some conclusion about life. But I never do. All those rough miles and I had no answers to anything yet.
Somewhere between dusk and dark I found the emptiness I sought, and stopped. The first stars were coming out and the rising moon was glowing on the horizon, the pounding of my heart the only sound in the still desert air.
Halfway around the loop Alisa veered off onto the single track and I followed. Night caught us but it didnâ€™t matter. We rode silently, fast, the trail a moon sliver luminous ribbon. Shining.