Preface: This story originally appeared in Death Zone and Other Stories, Pantoum Press, 2011. It’s the story of an ordinary guy, pushed to his limits and beyond.
Hope you like it.
I’m Badger Man
Yosemite National Park in California is my favorite place to vacation. Everything is on a different scale while you are in the valley, surrounded by huge granite walls and towering trees. The distant sounds of waterfalls are a reminder that not only is this a spiritual place, but I am a spiritual person.
I was sitting on the Yosemite Valley Shuttle when it pulled up at the Happy Isles stop and He got on board. He was a young guy, maybe 21, unwashed, unshaven, and hair long and unkempt. The duct tape on the knees of his pants was evidence of his poverty. On his back was a gigantic, red backpack that looked like it weighed more than he did. The massive backpack swayed as he stepped to a spot on the shuttle and grabbed a nearby handrail.
He was a mountain climber. The battered carabineers hanging on his pack were evidence of that. Clearly, this guy was hardcore. Not like the desk jockeys that pay $40,000 to have someone capable hold their hand to the top of mountain. This guy was real. He was living it.
As the shuttle started up again, he noticed my stare and quickly averted his gaze. I may have had a disapproving look on my face, but I don’t know why that mattered. Maybe he felt inferior. I, with my corporate haircut, clean Columbia shirt and new North Face hiking boots with nary a scuff on them betrayed me as a tourist of the highest magnitude. I was a poser. I tried to hide my camcorder. I felt inferior to him.
Me – I work a year, sitting in a cubicle, looking forward to spending five days in Yosemite. This kid saw this place and made it his home. Not a home as I know, as I doubt that he has any place he slept regularly, but The Yosemite Valley was his home. Probably everything he owned was in that pack.
When he looked up at me again, I nodded approvingly; a nod of recognition that he could do something I have never done. Were I his age and without my obligations, yes, I could have been a vagabond mountain climber, but that opportunity was long past me now. I didn’t seize that moment, but this kid did. It was a nod of admiration.
He didn’t look away and he smiled a little; not a smirk or a grin. He didn’t say anything and neither did I, and he got off at the next stop.
I think he understood that I was trying to communicate that I respected his life choice – the sacrifices he has made to stay in such an incredible place and embrace it fully. Either that, or he thought I was offering him a blow job. In which case, he was sorely disappointed. But I chose to think he understood what I meant.
The next day, I was in the shop looking at souvenirs. This shop caters to serious hikers and climbers, but a small portion of the stuff is for tourists. I rummaged through the t-shirts, key chains, coffee mugs and the like. I pick up a shirt with a graphic of the landmark granite face of El Capitan on it. It says, “LIFE. LIVE IT. Yosemite National Park.” That’s so you can show you were here. As the saying goes, “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”
A couple of guys in the store were talking to the clerk. Animated and enthusiastic, they recounted their recent climb of El Capitan. Both were small, limber-looking guys, disheveled to be sure, probably from the eight or so days they had spent ascending the sheer granite mountain.
I took my t-shirt up to the counter and listen to the conversation as one of the shabby climbers talked.
“Man, so many times I just maxed out. Just fingers and toes on the cold rock, you know, and there’s nothing left. I’m just spent, you know, and I just willed myself to reach out and do it. It happened over and over and I just kept going.”
The other climber interjected, “and that’s the defining moment. The moment you know you are a climber! There’s nothing like it, really. You’ll never feel more alive than at that moment.”
The store clerk nodded in agreement. “It’s more than the danger. It’s more than the fear. It’s finding the point where you can’t go any farther, and then you go on anyway.”
The clerk turned his attention to me, “Can I help you, sir?”
“Just this, thanks.” I handed him the shirt and he rang it up and put it in the bag.
“Are you a climber, man?”
One of the climbers asked this. It’s obvious I’m not.
“No, I’m just a want-to-be. Never had the defining moment you were talking about.” I forced a smile.
“Do you know anything about climbing?”
I thought about telling him I have watched documentaries on Discovery Channel about mountain climbing, and decided against it. “No. No experience with it at all, just an interest.”
“Well no time like the present! You’re here, the rock is here, and we’re here.” He thumbed at his climbing buddy. “My name is Daryl and this filthy dude here is Daryl.”
Immediately, my mind flashed to the old Newhart TV show. “You are both named Daryl? Let me guess. You aren’t brothers, are you?” I shook hands with them. Their hands were hard and calloused, Their grip was firm.
They laughed, “Yea… both named Daryl. Just worked out that way. But they call me ‘Cat’.”
The other Daryl said, “And they call me ‘Awesome’.” He smiled pleasantly behind his beard.
“Dude, no one calls you that!” Cat laughed. “In your dreams, maybe!”
“Well if you really made it to the top of El Capitan, then I will call you Awesome. That’s no small feat!” I said.
“Well thanks! So, Cat and I would be happy to show you the basics: Start you out with some bouldering and let you get a feel for it. You can’t do it alone. You need someone to hold the line while you climb. You know, if you fall.”
“This guy won’t fall!” Cat said. “Look at him. He a lean, mean climbing machine. I bet he can climb like a badger, man!” They both smiled patronizingly.
I was confused by the badger comment, but I was more confused by the term, ‘bouldering’?
“It’s like… it’s like mini-mountain climbing. You climb a big rock, maybe 60 or so feet high. Harder than it looks, let me tell you.” The Daryls both nodded.
So, after a little discussion, I made plans to go with them the next morning for a climbing lesson. They set the price for the lesson at $150, which I thought was fair. They had all the gear and knew a place to get me started. All I had to do was meet them at the trailhead in the morning. I felt good about it. Excited. Alive.
As I walked away with my souvenir t-shirt, I wondered if badgers could climb.
“One-hundred and fifty dollars!” My wife’s eyes were wide as she repeated the amount. “That seems like a lot, don’t you think?”
“Not really. I mean, it’s a private lesson with two world-class climbers. They climbed El Capitan! Besides, I’m sure they could use the money.” I thought back to the guy I saw on the shuttle the day before.
She looked at me skeptically. “You’re sure they are world-class climbers and qualified to train someone? You are sure they will take the appropriate precautions?”
“Yes, I’m sure. You don’t make it to the top of El Capitan by being hazardous. You worry too much.”
“Look, why don’t I come with you and watch?”
“I have to be at the trail-head at 6 AM, so it will be early. I would feel better about it if you were here, safe in bed. Besides, there won’t be anything to see, really; just me fumbling around on a rock.”
She scowled. “Just promise me you will come back in one piece.”
I promised. That night, I could hardly sleep in anticipation of the next morning.
I arrived at the trailhead a few minutes early and The Daryls were already there. They looked exactly like they did the day before in the shop, same clothes. This time, they had a large backpack, a climbing rope tied in a neat, tight bundle and some other gear. The rope looked like it weighed about twelve pounds and the backpack looked like it weighed a lot more.
“Badger!” They greeted me with a wave. “Ready to grab some rock? The place we are going is about three miles out. The trail is mostly uphill going, but it’s worth it. This rock has a decent incline and really righteous handholds. You’ll scale it like a pro.”
“Let’s do this,” I said, feigning confidence and shaking their hands.
The morning was cool, so the brisk hike felt good and helped keep me warm. It was very early and there wasn’t another soul to be seen on the trail. We were alone, hiking up a well-defined dirt path through the trees and foliage. There were no cars or other people. It was just the sound of our footsteps and the wilderness around us.
After about two miles, we stopped for a rest. Awesome-Daryl had been carrying the pack, while Cat-Daryl was carrying the rope. I wasn’t carrying anything. Awesome-Daryl complained of a shoulder injury acting up. When I offered to carry the pack, he accepted. It must have weighed sixty pounds. I shouldered it and then fastened the waist harness and the one that stretches across the sternum. I adjusted the straps, as I was at least six inches taller than Awesome-Daryl, but not as fit.
We started back up the trail and I was moving noticeably slower, burdened by the pack. I shifted a little under its weight and tried to get comfortable. The Daryls were walking behind me, and we haven’t talked much for the last few minutes.
I looked up the trail and try to gauge the distance, but I can’t. “How much farther, guys?”
“It’s up there. You can see part of the rock from here,” one of the Daryls said.
I strained to see the rock, scanning the trees and trying to see beyond.
My head pounded and I saw a blinding light. I fell sideways onto the ground, pulled off-balance even more by the pack. My ears were ringing and I shook my head to try to clear my vision. When I looked up, it was just in time to see a boot slam me in the side of the head. I rocked sideways and arched against the pack.
The Daryls laughed. “Come on, Badger! Your lesson is starting!”
I shook my head again and tried to get to my feet, but the weight of the pack was preventing me from getting my balance and footing. When I fumbled to undo the harness, Cat-Daryl spun the bundle of rope over his head and struck me squarely in the face with it. Everything went a brilliant white. They laughed again, thoroughly enjoying this.
I’m back in school – It’s fourth grade. I’m on the playground and it’s my first fight, my only fight. I stood opposite a bully who hit me in the nose once and I went down. He fell on me and hit me repeatedly until a teacher pulled him off.
As I lay on the ground then, my dazed mind thought that maybe I can just hang in there until a teacher comes around and breaks up the fight. I moaned and started to undo the harness again, but a kick to my midsection sent all the wind went out of me. I hear something crack. I struggled to inhale, to get my breath back.
“Alright, Old Badger Dude. Give us your wallet and your cell phone. We’ll take the ring and watch, too.”
Really. This was all just to rob me? And I fell for it. I followed complete strangers into the wilderness alone; what an idiot I had been.
They took my wallet out of my back pocket and kicked me in the head again. I wasn’t fighting back. I had surrendered without a fight and would give them what they wanted, but they kept hitting me. The rope pounded the back of my head and knocked me forward until I was face down on the ground.
Awesome-Daryl rummaged through the wallet and seemed satisfied with what he found. My head began clearing and with that came the realization that no teacher was coming to break this up. No one was coming. I felt defeated, like I couldn’t fight back, but they were going to beat me to pulp unless I did something. I had to do something. This was the defining moment.
Awesome-Daryl bent down to take the watch from my wrist and I swung a leg around and kicked as hard as I could, my body braced against the backpack. My hiking boot connected and he doubled over, right in the groin! He shoots! He scores!
I managed to undo the harnesses on the backpack and stumbled to my feet, free of its weight. Awesome-Daryl was on the ground, holding his crotch and moaning. He was out of commission for now, and Cat-Daryl was standing opposite me, swinging the bundled rope over his head.
Something in me snapped; the realization that I allowed myself to be a patsy to these two clowns. I wasn’t scared; I was violated and I was angry. Really angry. My ribs ached, my head throbbed, and I thought of how they mocked me, saying I would climb like a badger. I stood with my feet apart, my arms at my sides with my hands opened into claws.
“I’M BADGER-MAN!” I snarled. “COME AT ME, YOU GREASY PUNK!”
He swung the bundled rope at me and I raised my arm to block and managed to grab it. It slapped my arm so hard it stung and then went numb, but I hung on and yanked with all my might and weight, pulling it away from Cat-Daryl. He staggered back, now disarmed.
Awesome-Daryl had managed to his feet, so I took two running steps toward him and kicked viciously, like some possessed soccer player. My boot struck him in the groin so solidly; he jumped up in the air. His mouth opened to scream but nothing came out; maybe dogs could hear it. He went down.
I clutched my side, trying to ease the stabbing pain from a cracked rib. Turning to Cat-Daryl, I see he is holding a knife. The sharpened, polished steel suddenly became the center of my universe.
“If you’ve got it in you, boy, use that thing. But if you miss, I’m going to kill you with it.” I heard these words and at first, I didn’t even realize I was saying them. This is not something I would say. My voice was a growl and it did not even sound like me. It wasn’t I, it was Badger-Man!
Cat-Daryl’s eyes darted around, assessing the situation. He had a deadly weapon and the upper hand, but could he use it; could he really cut a man or stab him?
I heard a horrible, beastly roar. It was a frightening and unearthly sound, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize it was I. “RUN HOME TO MOMMA, BOY, OR DIE WHERE YOU STAND!”
Cat-Daryl jumped and backed away from me, lowering the knife. “Old dude! You are crazy, man!”
I started towards him in determined, confident steps, swinging the rope over my head the way he had done to me. Cat-Daryl stumbled and ran, going down the trail and finally cutting into the woods where I couldn’t see him.
I went back and got my wallet from Awesome-Daryl, lying on the ground sobbing. Pocketing it, I swung the bundled rope over my shoulder and started back down the path; back to the trailhead where we began.
I checked my cell phone, but it didn’t have any signal. It had been this way since we got to the valley, but I had to check. I shoved it back in my pocket and continued down the path.
The cracked rib would not allow me to run, but I walked as fast as I could, watching the woods and looking behind me, wary of an ambush by Cat-Daryl. I never saw him, but my imagined Badger-Senses made me aware he was there. At one point, I stopped in the trail and assumed the Badger-man pose; legs spread, arms at my side, hands formed into claws.
“BADGERS EAT CATS!” I roared. Do Badgers roar? Never mind, this one did. This one eats cats, too. Who says shit like this?!
When I didn’t hear a response, I continued to the trailhead and then to the road, where I caught the shuttle. Later that day, at the hospital, I told the tale to the authorities. I left out everything about badgers. It was just too weird. Apparently, The Daryls were wanted for robbing others on the hiking trails. They were caught the following day, and I identified them. Awesome-Daryl’s voice seemed a few octaves higher than before and he was walking bow-legged. I smiled.
Even in spiritual places, there are nooks and crannies which demons may hide, waiting to descend on the unwary and gullible. I still love Yosemite and I always will, and I still hold a deep respect for those who go one-to-one with the rock and conquer it. I still believe the climber with the gigantic, red backpack on the shuttle was pursuing a pure dream. But I can’t take it for granted that everyone has a pure intent, and I’ve got the knots, bruises and a broken rib to remind me for a while.
As for Badgers, they are not good mountain climbers, but if you corner one and agitate him, especially an old, cantankerous one; well, you are in for a world of hurt.
I hope you enjoyed this story and if you did, please share.