Intelligence becomes ours in the degree in which we use it and accept responsibility for consequences.
John Dewey (Human Nature and Conduct)
Sometimes you need others to make you appreciate things about yourself. Sometimes you meet people who stick in your mind, folks who come to symbolise a wider social movement or feeling. And sometimes you get to spend time with human beings that astound you beyond realms you ever previously thought possible.
I met a guy the other day who was one such person… He was perhaps the most incredibly disorganised, ignorant and blindly unaware man I have ever had the fortune to meet. His name was Keith. I’d heard people talk about him but I never really believed he existed. He is a living nightmare, yet still, I am incredibly glad to have met him.
It was a bit after half four on the afternoon of May twenty-seventh when Keith stumbled into my consciousness. I was casually lounging about outside Eielson Visitor Centre on the Denali Park road, interspersing periods of ‘Crime & Punishment’ with Jaw Harp practise. The sun had been beating down all day, with temperatures topping about 75 degrees. In the finest English tradition I was drinking beers while happily blinding the local wildlife with my winter white torso. This is when he arrived; a ragged looking character who lurched around the corner to rudely interrupt my meditation. Desperation filling his tired eyes, he begged to know where to find a vending machine.
Keith screamed ‘New Yorker in the wilds’, he lacked any semblance of the naturally mellowed, Eastwoodesque look that outdoor folk generally carry. It was immediately obvious that he did not belong out here on the Denali Park road, not at this mile post at this point in the season. His feet were encased in a pair of budget faux leather black boots, that hung heavy from a couple of Aspen trunk legs. Wrapped in what looked to have once been compression tights, these aged limbs steadily thickened until disappearing up into a tent of sagging lycra. With a left knee encased in an industrial looking powder coated metal brace, its right-sided companion appeared vulnerable and exposed as it lunged inwards on every pace. Beneath a well fitted twilight blue buttonless cotton shirt, two adolescent breasts kept century duty over a rounded belly intent on escaping its abdominal berth. From broad rounded shoulders hung long cotton-clad arms that tapered off into thickly haired masculine hands. Whilst above, an oversized head sporting Jewish features and an unkempt greying beard, anxiously cowered in the shade of a wide-brimmed military green sun hat. The look was completed by a flimsy and overstuffed black rucksack that clung with long thin arms to the small of his back and a battered silver drinks can clutched in his right hand.
Bemused as to why he should be looking for a vending machine in the middle of a wilderness area, my enquiries were met with strained tones that relayed his need for water. There was no vending machine at the visitor centre but I was happy to point him in the direction of the drinking fountains and toilets. Keith gratefully followed my direction, dragging himself into the building. It was clear to me from the mans mildly broken gait that he had pushed himself to a physical point beyond which he’d seldom reached in his previous fifty odd years. I waited a couple of minutes before following him into the centre. Bart (the centres night janitor) had discovered him and they were in conversation. As they spoke Keith intermittently filled his can from the tap, used his finger to cover a hole in its base and gulped down the contents, he ignored all together the drinking fountains fixed to the opposing wall.
So what was the deal with this strange creature from the urban east and why does he deserve my attention here? Basically it was his complete ineptitude and lack of respect for the environment and conditions he was entering that left me absolutely gobsmacked. It turned out that he had planned to ride his mountain bike from Toklat down to Wonder Lake, an undulating distance of just over 30 miles on a harsh gravel road. You can read my post on that journey to appreciate just what it involves. I had set out with a heavy-duty expedition bike and a load that afforded me near complete self-sufficiency. Included in this was over 4 litres of potable water, a water filter and purifying drops. In addition, I like to think I am fit and strong. Keith on the other hand had gone to Wall Mart and bought a bike, packed three changes of clothes and a can of drink into a rucksack and boarded the bus to Toklat. Without ever having ridden the bike before, he straddled it at mile 53 with the expectation of hitting Wonder lake (mile 85) in time to presumably find a way back east down the road that night.
Keith had managed to ride the bike for two miles before realising that either it or he wasn’t up to the task. At this point he chained the bike to a ‘rock that looked like three fingers’ and continued on foot. Any sane man would take into account the fact that there are no buses travelling past Toklat, appreciate the limits of his supplies and physique (I’m sure the knee brace wasn’t there for fun) and maybe modify his expectations. Not Keith, he just kept on walking west towards Wonder Lake and away from his certain ride back to civilization. An admirable sense of adventure or foolhardy? We’ll see…
By the time he’d reached me at Eielson, Keith had walked about twelve miles. An unremarkable distance on a relatively kind road surface for hikers. His exclamation on finding out just how short a distance he’d travelled demonstrated further his ineptitude. Just because you can walk 25 miles in a day on one kind of terrain doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll manage the same on another. Also, it should come as no surprise that twelve miles feels like thirty when you’re exerting yourself in the punishing sunshine for hours on the strength of one measly can of drink. Surely even a child would know that hydration is the bedrock of our strength and continued existence.
In addition, he was carrying no defence against bears. He explained to me at length how he was going to buy a gun in Alaska but I fail to remember why he hadn’t, instead I just thank both his and the rest of the world’s lucky stars he didn’t. Apparently he’d gone to a store but the guy told him that bear spray was useless and dissuaded him from getting some. Although not such a major folly, this still put him and the bears at risk, and taking into account Keith’s other failings, probably put the National Parks enviable reputation for zero bear attack deaths on the line.
So Keith sounds a bit naive, blindly over ambitious and helplessly ill prepared. But this really isn’t the worst of his crimes against sense. Either he didn’t bother to check that he’d manage to get transport back out to the Park entrance that evening or he arrogantly assumed that someone would give him a lift. I know this as not only was he carrying no food, shelter or sleeping bag, he was diabetic and carrying no insulin. That is a pretty serious state of affairs and the bargaining tool that would ultimately get him out of the Park that night.
Bart quickly saw Keith for what he was and explained to him the reality of his plight to get back to his lodgings that night. Before long the clock had ticked around to five o’clock, leaving only an hour and a half until the last bus would depart Toklat for the Park entrance. Keith found himself on the cold end of Bart’s compassion and was soon hobbling back up towards the road he’d staggered down half an hour previously. If he could walk back to Toklat then he could hunker down in the Rangers recreation room there. Unsurprisingly he quickly returned to the comparative safety of the centre complaining that it was a physical impossibility him trudging back to the bus stop. I went and fetched Bart. By this stage it was clear that Keith was sensing the animosity we held towards him. Bart had known all along that he’d more than likely be forced to drive our wayward wanderer back to Toklat but had dug his heels in out of principle. Previously that day he’d completed the painstaking task of wrapping his truck with chicken wire to stop the pesky squirrels gnawing through his cables and getting under the bonnet. A job he really didn’t fancy having to repeat.
It will come as no surprise that Keith eventually found himself in the passenger seat of Bart’s truck and that he and his bike were on that last bus from Toklat. He is a lucky man.
The worrying thing is that there are loads of Keith’s that turn up at the Park every year, only during the season when the road is completely open to buses they are indistinguishable from the other tourists. I just hope that Keith returned home with his tail between his legs and not with ‘a great story’ about how he risked life and limb to walk the Denali Park Road.
Think about Keith and think about your sense of responsibility to yourself and those that may have to pick up the pieces when you fail or when you are gone. This is important for anyone planning or living an expedition. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting this character in a while, he provided a point of context that makes me understand why some people may perceive my adventure to be dangerous.