Epic journey reinforces lifelong friendships
For the fast-moving Jared Clark, it all started with the need to see some national parks that he’d missed on last year’s 16,000-mile road trip in his pickup truck. It ended up being an epic journey neither he nor his lifelong friends would ever forget, taking them to the edge of death.
And that was after the motorcycle he was riding was hit by a truck – and before the massive storm and bridge-busting flood in Yellowstone, which they missed by two days.
The plan was to do it all on the motorcycle – but right before he hit the road, an accident totaled the bike and thankfully left the Trinity University student with only a broken wrist.
“So I was like, well, I would still like to travel this summer, but I guess I'm back to being in the truck,” recalled Jared. “And once I realized I wanted to do this, I was like, ‘Well, I would love to have some company help split costs.’ That was one thing, especially with the rising price of gas. And then I thought it'd be great to have some friends on the trip.”
So naturally he thought of Travis Wu, his fellow ROTC cadet and buddy since Cub Scouts. Travis was studying at USC and needed to end the trip in LA. But once Travis said yes, they had to invite Richard Falloure. Richard, a recent Texas A&M grad, was the third member of the trio that had palled around since they met at age 5 at Horn Elementary, completing their Eagle Scout projects together for Troop 222.
“Honestly, these two guys are the foundation of my life,” said Travis. “Every time I want to do something adventurous or push myself, these two are always in my life. They’re definitely lifelong friends.”
So the idea of traveling together was a no-brainer. The problem was the size of the truck. With two bucket seats in front and only a jump seat in back, it would be a tight squeeze, and one that would need to be endured for thousands of miles. But Jared bought a smaller cooler, and his travel companions conceded to taking turns in the jump seat – so they were on.
“I think this trip was an interesting way to test how far we can push ourselves, and it went without a hitch – we had so much fun,” said Travis.
Well, except for the time they almost froze to death in a freak late-May snowstorm on Colorado’s Mount Elbert, while their families sweltered in 90-degree weather in Houston. And except for the pitched battles they waged, three guys in the cab of a small pickup traveling cross-country – but overall, they agreed, it was a great time.
They called the adventure “Man vs. Nature,” and they left on May 17. The first stop was Balmorhea State Park, where they took a refreshing dip in the crystalline spring-fed pool before heading to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas. There they camped after the grueling 10-hour drive from Houston. They got up before dawn and hiked the tallest peak in Texas before breakfast.
“It’s typically a five-hour climb, but we were really refreshed, so it didn't take us too long,” said Travis. “I’ve always wanted to say I’ve been to the top of Texas. Guadalupe Peak and Mount Elbert were two of my must-do’s.”
Travis’ goal – indeed, his requirement for the trip – was to climb a Fourteener. That’s mountain climber jargon for a peak 14,000 feet or over, and at 14,440, Mount Elbert is the tallest peak in Colorado and the second tallest in the Lower 48.
After climbing Guadalupe Peak, they packed up and headed for Carlsbad Caverns in neighboring New Mexico, where they did a tour of the caverns – “a great way to cool off after the hike,” remarked Jared.
“I went there a long time ago and I don't think I really appreciated it,” said Travis. “But once we were down there, it was a different world. It was insane.”
They camped at Lincoln National Forest, and the next day continued their northward trek. White Sands National Park was magnificent, with its silky white sands. Next the trio headed for Great Sand Dunes National Park, where they went sledding on the spectacular, 1,000-foot dunes before setting up their camp for the night.
“Honestly, that was awful,” confessed Travis. “That whole night, while Jared was in his truck in a peaceful slumber, me and Richard were getting blasted by sand. We woke up with a thin layer of sand on our faces, and we were like, ‘We need to leave right now.’”
As bad as that was, it was about to get worse.
They were excited as they set off for Colorado. To their surprise, it was snowing as they reached Leadville, the closest town to Mount Elbert. Surprising, because it was late May, and the thermometer in Houston was reading 90. “But we were like, well, we’re here,” said Jared, so they stocked up on winter gear in Leadville and hit the trail.
“We made it within 400 feet of the summit. And unfortunately, I had to turn around because it was whiteout conditions at the top,” lamented Jared. “It was about 9 degrees before the wind chill, and there were about 20 to 25 mph winds up at the top. It was bad. So we made the decision to turn back around, and it was definitely the right one.”
Jared’s version of the story is quick, like him. But Travis doesn’t spare any details, and it’s clear the boys were in a dangerous situation.
It was already cold and dark when they got to the campsite, and the food they cooked on their camp stove was cold almost as soon as it left the burner. It was a rough night, especially for Jared, who was sleeping in the truck; Richard and Travis managed to keep from freezing thanks to a little “platonic cuddling,” but Jared didn’t sleep much. Travis got up early and went to check the trail and ran into a guy from Florida, who suggested they hike together for safety, so the four of them joined forces.
“It was okay at first, under the tree line,” recalled Travis. “It was pretty cold, but we were doing fine. And then we hit where the last person had turned around and there was no way we could see the trail. It was covered with two feet of snow. So we had to get creative. All our phones got zapped away by the cold – we had no batteries in any of our phones and so we couldn't navigate on the trails. So we started saying, that looks like it could be a clearing for a trail. And then we were just making the best judgment. It got a little shifty in terms of what direction we were going.”
“It was definitely guesstimating where the trail was,” added Richard.
“Yeah, it was really cool because I’ve never done any exploratory hikes before and this was definitely the first time we had done it,” Travis continued. “And so we reached a stopping point and we were just trying to get reoriented. And these two guys come from out of nowhere, in the middle of the wilderness, and they’re from Colorado and they’d climbed the mountain before. So we got really lucky that they showed up at the right place at the right time, because we're about to turn around because we were so lost, but turns out we were right on the trail and we didn't even know it.
“We let those two guys lead, and so it was the six of us, and the conditions were just getting worse this whole time.” Here Travis paused and invited Richard to continue.
“I'm the most out of shape out of any of these guys, so I was dying before we even got to the tree line, and we weren’t even close to the hardest point,” said Richard. “But right when we cross the tree line, we kind of give up on trying to find the trail because it switchbacks all the way up, which made the climb way easier. But we just see the four false peaks and we just beeline for them. Which was extremely more difficult than what the switchbacks take you through. And as you go up, it's getting colder. The wind's picking up. There were a couple of points where we had whiteout conditions.”
“So fog or snow would roll in and I could not tell the difference between the ground I was standing on and the sky because it was just all white,” said Travis. “And I have to admit, that was kind of disorienting. I've never experienced anything like that before. So we just kept trucking along, Houston boys that lived at zero feet of elevation – being at past 12,000, 13,000 feet, breathing became the most difficult thing ever. We would take like 10 steps and then 10 deep breaths, and it was like that just about all the way up.”
“And we had a little can of oxygen in case we needed it,” Richard chimed in. “And yeah, we really needed that. We would have stopped way before without that oxygen.”
“Yeah,” said an animated Travis. “And you know, seeing Richard, I kind of knew he was done by the tree line, but seeing him constantly, like, keep fighting, I was like, that’s why I’m friends with this guy, because he always pushes himself so hard. And it gave me the motivation to keep pushing too.
“So we finally reach the false summit. And Jared starts telling me, ‘I’m feeling sleepy. I’m going to lay down right here.’ And that’s when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s pretty bad. He’s definitely asphyxiating.’ And Richard had the can of oxygen, and he was just trying to battle his way up the mountain and get us that oxygen.”
Richard jumped in. “I was probably 20 minutes behind because I changed my socks in the middle of the climb up to the peaks. And so they went on and I was changing my socks, which took like 20 minutes because my feet were frozen, so it hurt a lot. And I knew they needed oxygen, but they left it with me. And so I was trying to truck up as quickly as possible, stop as little as I could. Then I got there and Jared was on the ground.”
“Yeah, he was on the ground, and he’s like, ‘I can’t,’” recalled Travis. “Because we reached that false summit. And it was pretty heartbreaking because we reached it, and then you could just see the actual summit, like – what, 150, 200 feet away?”
“Probably like 300,” speculated Richard.
At that point, the two climbers from Colorado decided to turn back, and Jared went with them. Travis, Richard, and the climber from Florida battled on to the top of the false summit, about another 100 feet.
“We were trying to summit,” said Richard. “We wanted to, but right when we got that 100 feet, I think the temperature dropped below zero and all of our CamelBaks, the water in the tubes froze.”
“I mean, it was below zero,” said Travis. “So it was pretty incredible, because that 100 feet was probably the most difficult part of that whole thing. Because the wind absolutely picked up. I mean, it was to the point where it was kind of moving us. And it was just really scary because I had one moment when I was drinking out of my CamelBak just fine. And then maybe a minute later, I couldn't …because it was frozen solid, and all our feet were just frozen. None of us had actual summiting boots, snow boots. We were just wearing army combat boots. So, I mean, they did great for as long as they did, but then they froze, and we all decided the safest option would be to turn around. It was pretty hard to turn back, but I think it was safer that we did. And the experience regardless was amazing.”
The trip down was rough – their feet were frozen, they had given everything they had to get to the summit, and it was much further than they had remembered. When they finally made it back, Travis said, “Oh my gosh, I can feel my feet again.’ And we checked the temperature, and it was like 33.”
They caught up with a rested Jared, who was ready to cook a meal over the campfire.
“We were like, ‘Absolutely not. We're not going to cook. We're going to go out to eat.’ We were about done,” said Travis.
“Yeah, because we’d been running down the mountain,” said Richard.
“And then that's when we had our only really serious argument, when we were just trying to take down the campsite,” recalled Travis. “We were just so tired and like, ‘We're getting a hotel, we're getting food.’ We just need a break. And Jared was not on board with that. But we won.”
The next stop would be one of Jared’s must-do’s: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, one of six that he needed to be able to say that he had visited all of the national parks in the Lower 48.
“That was a great one,” said Jared. That park can be mostly appreciated from the highway, so after their intense exposure at Mount Elbert, they were happy to appreciate Black Canyon from the relative comfort of the truck.
And then it was on to Utah’s “Big Five:” Canyonlands and Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. To that lineup they added Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Escalante was among their Utah highlights, with an unforgettable hike down a slot canyon called Spooky Gulch, filled with dark winding passages and one so narrow they had to remove their backpacks in order to squeeze through sideways.
“It was really interesting because we were like, you know, what could be special about this one?” reflected Travis. “And then we'd go and we were like, ‘Wow, yeah, that's pretty impressive.’”
The other Utah standout was Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park. For this one, they had to register in a lottery and pay $7 apiece. Crowding is a major concern on the trail edged by a sheer cliff, where a small number of people typically fall and die every year, park officials told USA Today last year, when they implemented the lottery. Richard got a winning ticket, and with that the three did the hike, which entailed holding onto chains and climbing on the side of a ridge with a thousand-foot drop at their feet. They started before dawn and crested as the sun came up over the peaks.
“That was so easy after everything we had done on the trip,” said Travis. “Usually Angel's Landing is pretty difficult, but I mean, we sailed through that.”
After that, it was time to take a break from the wilderness and immerse themselves in its exact opposite – Las Vegas. For Travis, at least, the whole experience didn’t hold a candle to what they’d just lived.
“What's really funny is that we went to Vegas and it's not a highlight for anyone. Vegas is okay,” he said with a laugh. “And when we went over the last budget and saw that Vegas took half … we were like, ‘Oh, man, that wasn’t even worth it.’”
If they had to do it over again, say Travis and Richard, Vegas wouldn’t be on the list.
That’s where Richard took his leave – he had to head to Virginia for his brother’s wedding – and Fernando López, who had made friends with the three during their years at Bellaire High School, joined them.
Now it was back to the wilderness, with stops in Joshua Tree, east of LA, and Channel Islands, west of LA. They stayed at Travis’ apartment, taking a kayak tour and having some unforgettable encounters with some baby harbor seals.
Finally, Jared and Fernando were on their way, with the mission of hitting Jared’s last three parks: Great Basin National Park in Nevada, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and Saguaro National Park in Tucson.
Their first stop was Yosemite, where they did the Upper Falls Trail. Then they stopped at Mono Lake, with its towering tufa formations. Then it was north to Lake Tahoe, where they spent a day before heading to Great Basin to do a glacier hike.
The next day they explored a lesser-known part of Nevada – the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway, which passes through the heart of the Ruby Mountains. There they took a hike and passed the night before heading for Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.
“That was really pretty,” commented Jared. “We got to go into some nice caves.”
Then it was off to Yellowstone, just two days ahead of the historic flood waters that “changed the course of rivers, tore out bridges, poured through homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of visitors from the nation’s oldest national park,” as the New York Times wrote on June 15.
Storm damage also led to the closure of Angel’s Landing. “I got really lucky … for both of those,” Jared reflected. They didn’t escape the storm entirely, however, getting caught in a hailstorm on their way through Grand Teton National Park.
From there they continued south through Utah, stopping in Salt Lake City and touring Temple Square, home to the impressive temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They headed to Park City, where they were snowed on and enjoyed a tour of an abandoned mine. They continued south, stopping at Arches for Fernando’s first visit to the national park.
They continued southward to Natural Bridges National Monument, and then crossed over into Arizona and meandered through Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and on to Navajo National Monument. Then they headed for Sedona for a few days.
“That was great,” said Jared. “We did some really awesome hikes there, did a hike through the canyon to get to a really nice swimming hole … and we did some like 30, 35-foot cliff jumps.”
Finally they headed south for their last national park – Saguaro, near Tucson – and then it was time to wind their way home. For Jared, it was a 39-day, 8,200-mile journey.
The trip had a major impact, but for each one, it was different. For Jared, it was a continuation of last year’s trip, expansive and exciting, with more focus on the Southwest.
For Travis, the trip strengthened his motivation to go after the things he wants – “and right now, I think that's exploring nature… And I feel like this trip reinforced the idea of, `don't make excuses, just do what you want to do.’”
Richard echoed that sentiment. For him, the trip reinvigorated his love for camping. For Fernando, who had never traveled like this and had been immersed in the big city for years, the chance to sleep under the moon, observing the changes in the landscape, the trip was a real eye-opener.
“Living in the forest or just camping out, you really get to take a look at your life from outside,” Fernando continued. “Whatever may be happening in the city, you get to look at it from outside and reflect on it. And it's almost like a chance to reorganize, re-strategize. It’s just taking a break and looking at the baseline of what the world is, you know, just woods and mountains and streams. You really realize, things are all right.”
Editor’s note: Buzz travel columnist Tracy L. Barnett is a Lowell Thomas travel journalism award winner and longtime travel and environmental writer. Email her at [email protected] to share your own travel tales.
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