Zero Limits State Of Mind #01:
The Beauty Of The Fail
By Ras Vaughan
Ninety-Eight Days All for Naught
On June 11th, 2017, Team UltraPedestrian achieved the biggest fail of our careers. After 98 days and 1300 miles on the trail pushing our minds, bodies, gear, finances, and relationship far past their limits, we were forced to admit that we would not be able to complete our goal of becoming the first people ever to yo-yo the Grand Enchantment Trail. (Yo-yoing a trail means traveling it from one end to the other and then back again, thus completing the trail twice in a single push, once in each direction, like a yo-yo running out to the end of its string then returning to your hand.)
The GET runs east and west between Phoenix, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, for approximately 770 miles. But the GET isn’t an official trail: it’s a route that links together existing trail, unmaintained trail, two tracks, roads, bushwacks, and cross-country sections that traverse both vast deserts and vertiginous mountain ranges. It’s an incredibly difficult and indelibly rewarding route. Being in the heart of the American Southwest, the Grand Enchantment Trail presents a very limited window of opportunity in the spring and fall, between the freezing snows of winter and the blistering heat of summer. On our final day on the trail, when Kathy inadvertently left her sleeping pad in the direct sun and it melted we knew that our window of opportunity had slammed shut.
Our GET Yo-yo attempt was the second in a series of four desert trail yo-yos that we planned as part of our multi-year Desert Yo-yo Grand Slam project. This included the Arizona National Scenic Trail, which we had successfully yo-yo’d between September 18th and December 20th of 2015, the Grand Enchantment Trail, the Oregon Desert Trail, and the Hayduke Trail. Each of these trails is approximately 800 miles long in a single direction and traverses some of the most challenging and unforgiving terrain in North America. We were attempting them in order of ascending difficulty, and we were under no illusion that our success was a given. These are extremely challenging routes, and there’s good reason why no one had ever yo-yo’d any of them before.
Not only did we aspire to being the first, but we planned to do it in “Feet On The Ground” style, not hitchhiking into resupply towns, not accepting rides of any kind, and not using public transportation or any other form of conveyance (we even avoided elevators in motels). Our goal was to cover every step of the way under our own power and on our own two feet. In or minds this would be the highest ethic we could attain, the best style, the fairest means, but it could also be summed up rather simply as, “cray cray is as cray cray does”. We had invested months evaluating the physical, mental and logistical challenges involved in the overall project and had concluded that it was Humanly possible. We wanted to find out if we were the Humans to do it.
When Kathy and I realized that the tide was turning against us, we knew it was more than just this one project that was on the line. We had announced our Desert Yo-yo Grand Slam project all across the state of Arizona during a speaking tour in February of 2016 and had called our shot on the interwebs for all the world to see. We had pitched proposals to sponsors to garner the support necessary to make it happen and had signed contracts promising results. We had put everything on the line, personally and professionally, for all the world to see, and now it was crashing down around our ears.
Agonizing Decisions and Cosmic Confirmation
Kathy and I had seen the end coming, and it didn’t necessarily catch us by surprise. It could even be argued that failure was the most likely outcome from the start. Our progress had been slower than we had hoped from the very beginning, and the weather never cut us even the slightest bit of slack. We began in triple digit weather and ended in triple digit weather, but the time in between was filled with postholing through knee deep snow, sheltering in culverts to wait our blizzards, hundreds of icy creek fords, painfully cold fingers and toes, and wind, wind, wind. I’m sure Mother Nature had other elemental forces with which she could have confronted us, but I’d be hard pressed to name them off the top of my head.
By day 98 Kathy had lost a drastic amount of weight and was suffering an unslakable thirst which no amount of water or other beverages was sufficient to quench. Kathy is a pancreatic disease survivor who had 40% of her pancreas removed ten years ago, so she is even more susceptible to dehydration than the average person would be even under normal circumstances, let alone when living in and moving through the arid deserts and mountains of the Southwest for nearly 100 days. This adventure took a heavy toll on her physically, and on both of us mentally, as we watched our goals slipping further and further into the future as we struggled to cover ground.
We were constantly evaluating our progress and adjusting our plans accordingly, yet slowly but surely the math turned against us. Our goal of 70 days had been backed off to 80 days fairly early on. Then 80 days was bumped back to 90. Once 100 days became our target not only was the math becoming bleak, but the weather was as well. We couldn’t keep stretching out our finish date because we could feel the hot breath on our necks from the impending maw of summer.
Finally, we had the discussion that we had hoped never to have; at what point we had to call it quits, and if that time was now. As we neared the mining town of Morenci there was the opportunity to bail out before committing to another multiple day stretch of blistering heat before the next chance to drop. We devised a couple of if/then statements and litmus tests to apply over the next twenty-four hours and agreed that if they didn’t go the way we needed them to, we would make the call we didn’t want to make and drop off the trail. And it didn’t go. The next day and night were brutally difficult, and we were both additionally burdened with the tension of sensing our impending failure. We hiked through the night to maximize movement in the cool hours, but then couldn’t find proper shade deep and cool enough to rest in. Then Kathy’s sleeping pad melted. Then we sat in Eagle creek and talked out the horrible reality of choosing our well-being and health over the drive to stubbornly solder on. We cried and hugged and held hands as we sat in the water, that being the only tenable place to wait out the heat of the day. A friend had messaged us to say he and his son would be surprising us along the route that evening, and we decided that instead of simply thanking them for their kindness, we would ask for a ride back to Phoenix.
As fate would have it, that tortuous decision had been entirely unnecessary, and all our agonizing over whether or not to give up was in vain. Wildfires sparked by lightning in the Pinaleño Mountains had closed a key section of trail, and, as it would turn out, would not be extinguished for weeks. Regardless of what we had decided earlier that day, our Grand Enchantment Trail Yo-yo attempt would have come to an end no matter what. We thought we were making a decision, but, in fact, the Universe had already decided for us.
Embracing The Fail and The Unnecessity Of Proffered Solace
Neither Kathy nor I consider ourselves extraordinary athletes in any way. Our UltraPedestrian ethic promotes not what superlatively trained and supremely talented athletes can achieve, but the amazing and extraordinary things of which ordinary Human Beings are capable. (While the immediately obvious meaning of UltraPedestrian would be, “covering distances greater than that of a standard marathon on foot,” an ancillary interpretation could be, “exceedingly commonplace”.) Whether it be ultrarunning, fastpacking, thru-hiking, mountaineering or some agglomeration thereof, our quest is to explore the boundaries of Human endurance. Our goal is to find The Thing That We Cannot Do. In a sense, failure is our highest aim. Ticking off doable adventure after doable adventure doesn’t capture our imaginations, doesn’t cause our hearts to sing, doesn’t make the blood thrum in our ears. Guaranteed success is just a training run for the kinds of challenges that truly engage us on a deep and resonant level. The question marks are the entire point of our adventures, not just punctuation.
While I’m as impressed with and inspired by the accomplishments of elite athletes as anyone, I’ve long understood that their best performances are beyond the ken of the vast majority of bipeds. Our lives are the accumulation of the stories we live, and, “I had a great day, everything went perfectly, and I won,” is neither a very engaging nor a very resonant story. The challenges and the struggles and perseverance through adversity are the key ingredients of the Hero’s Quest. It’s the relating of weaknesses, foibles, and stumblings to which the mass of Humankind can relate, and it’s exactly those moments, when everything seems to be going wrong, wherein one most completely experiences his or her Humanity.
That’s why I love the word fail. That’s why Kathy and I have made it part of our value set to be open and public and even explicit with our failures. It’s not a matter of self-denigration or melancholic brooding or self-flagellation, nor is it fishing for comfort or compliments. It’s because the fails are where the Humanity is, and experiencing and connecting with our fundamental Humanity is the goal of adventuring, as we see it.
A Winningly Epic Fail
Our GET Yo-yo attempt was a fail of grand proportions and in full view of the public. It was a belly flop off an Olympic high dive with the gold medal on the line. It was Vinko Bogataj’s cataclysmic ski jump wipeout in the opening sequence of ABC’s Wide World Of Sports as Jim McKay intoned, “… and the agony of defeat.” It was a failure so big that it negated our previous AZT Yo-yo completion, took our planned ODT and HDT Yo-yo projects off the table, and nullified the multi-year Desert Yo-yo Grand Slam project we had been brainstorming, planning, and working toward for more than two years. And failing our Grand Enchantment Trail Yo-yo attempt was the biggest, most brutal, most beautiful, and more wonderful adventure Kathy and I have ever done together. With fails as epic and rewarding as this, who needs a win?
Ras and Kathy Vaughan are Team UltraPedestrian.