We arrived two days later at my Uncle Wilford’s million dollar beach side property in Southern California just in time for dinner. Uncle Wilford is my mom’s brother and hadn’t seen Larry and Alice since my mom and dad got married many years ago so, after customary greetings, we made our way into the kitchen. My Uncle's home is amazing. It has two sinks, two dishwashers, two ovens, a wine cellar, a beautiful island to lay out the greatest of buffet’s. There is value in making your dreams come true. Tonight’s value was homemade Pesto, Steak and Salad, pretty much all you can eat. That was my Uncle Wilford’s way. If your going to do it, might as well do it. The party guests also included Wilford’s wife my Aunt Lucy and my beloved sister Sandy who lived nearby.
“Who wants wine?” My Uncle Wilford asks.
“Pretty much everyone.” My sister replied automatically.
He opened his wine cellar and grabbed a few bottles for the table. We all sat down and my Uncle began a prayer. “Thank you God for this food, for having these wonderful guests, it’s a wonderful pleasure Alice, Larry, to host you. And Jack and Matt..” pausing to reflect on the insanity of what we were up to, “we sure are excited to help you embark on this adventure. Thank you. Amen.” “Amen”
Gratitude. There is something important about it.
There is a small pause before my Aunt Lucy, Wilford’s beautiful blonde bombshell of a wife started in, “Guys! Why are you doing this?! This crazy! Do you really think that you’ll make it?”
Sal and I smile. I admire the way he embraces the moment so I gave him a little push. “Sal, you should tell them your man up story.” That was the beginning of this madness, for him at least.
“Oh yeah, the man up story, eh” He looks at me with eyes that say, ‘putting me on the spot, uh fucker?’ I laugh and raise my eyebrows in acknowledgment, yeah. It’s for the best. Better you than me.
“Well, as the story goes... I was living in Boulder at the time. A year or so after graduating from college just serving tables and not really knowing what to do with the next phase of my life and I started doing some soul searching. I sold my honda and bought this forerunner which gave me the opportunity to do a little off roading, you know. And so, I started going out in the woods. Driving out on a dirt road into the middle of nowhere with some friends setting up camp by the car and experiencing the woods. I decided that I wanted to feel what it was like to go out there alone and so I packed up the truck and drove out there, you know. I didn’t know what I was doing so I had too much stuff. My 65 liter pack was filled to the brim and I carried two more bags filled with wood to burn, water, food. I carried them about 100 yards away from where the car was parked. I set up camp and just sat there. What do you when you are alone in the woods? Well, I prepared dinner and...uh...well I’d brought a bottle of Sailor Jerry's with me and maybe did a little,” He paused and pretended to take a couple of puffs like he was smoking a J. “You know what I’m saying, anyways...we’re all adults here right?” He paused for effect. “So, I don’t know if any of you have ever been out in the middle of nowhere when the sun goes down but it kinda creeps up on you….real slow. Pretty soon, it's pretty dark, you know? So I’m feeling a bit scared and I had that moment. I’d better man up or leave. So I grabbed the Machete I’d brought with me.”
Everyone at the table cracked. “You had a Machete!?” My Aunt Lisa shouts! The tension in the room is rising. Sal embraced it with his smile.
“Yeah, of course I had a Machete! Gotta be safe out there, you know! I didn’t have a clue what I was doing!” He paused to regroup. “So I grabbed my Machete, and I walked out into the middle of this clearing about 50 yards and had my man up moment” He was in flow now and stood up at the table. “and I got all big and growled at the darkness. RRRRRaaaaaarrrrrr, if you’re out there come get me.” He laughed. “RRRRRrrraAAAAArRRR.... At this point I was feeling a bit manly... but pretty ridiculous and mostly intoxicated. And then, I just wasn’t scared anymore and so I walked back to camp, laid down to go to sleep and looked at the stars. It was one of the most peaceful nights of my life. That’s my man up moment.”
The crowd was stunned. Who does something like that? And on another note, who would tell about it later? Sal is the man.
We might as well keep the show rolling. I prodded again. “Are there any other stories concerning that Machete?” Sal loved it.
“Yeah, Sal tell us how you got your trail name Sal” My sister knew what to ask. She heard it before.
“Trail name? What is a trail name?” My Aunt Lucy was into it.
“Alright, alright... I’ll tell the story.” He paused to collect his smile, “After my man up moment, I started going out in the woods pretty regularly and started to feel pretty comfortable out there. I was ready to make a big change in life and as you guys know from the last time I saw you, I came out to California to check out a grad-school that focused on consciousness studies but the city sucked and I really didn’t want to get into debt. I figured, if I really wanted to study consciousness I could just study my own, you know?”
He locked eyes with the group. Eyebrows raised. No one said anything. Crickets.
“I’d heard about the Colorado trail growing up. It’s 500 miles long that runs from north-south winding through the most epic parts of the Colorado Rockies. This was a big deal because I’d never done anything like that before. My ‘man up’ moment was about as extreme as I’d gotten. So, I made the decision, what’s the point of spending a ton of money (I don’t have) on grad school when I don’t even know myself? I have to know myself before I can make a decision like that. Anyways, after I got back from California ,I gathered up some gear and food and set off on the CT.”
Here we go again I thought.
“So...I didn’t really know what I was doing and I packed waaaaay too much stuff. I think my pack was 60 lbs! Ridiculous! But, I wanted to be safe out there, you know?” He winked at me. “And I didn’t want to bring a gun, so I brought the Machete. My parents dropped me off and I walked a good ways out the first night, maybe 8 miles and set up camp next to an ex-marine walmart truck driver named Stan. Stan knew what he was doing. He’d hiked the CT before and he’d also hiked the Appalacian Trail which is a popular long distance trail on the east coast. As we were going to bed he says, ‘Make sure to collect some rocks, never know with these Bears being so closed to the road and all, tonight.’ Now, I was prepared for the bears. I’d been real careful and hung my food up on a nice branch so that it would be safe from any Bears.” He paused for a laugh. “I gathered some rocks and layed down in bed. About an hour later, I’m laying in my tent and I hear a “Snort” then another. Loud! And then scratching, right in the general direction of where my food was! My heart is pumping blood faster than it’s ever pumped in my life. I’m frozen. Then Stan, the man, comes hollering out of his tent yelling like a banshee “BAD BEAR BAD BEAR BAD BEAR” like he was talking to a dog, chucking rocks. So, I follow suit and come running out as well and we scare her off. Right, so at this point everything is alright, my food is still there. But man my heart was beating fast. So, we climb back in our tents and couple hours later, again, the bear was back! I follow Stans lead “BAD BEAR BAD BEAR BAD BEAR” nonsense, still, like we are talking to a dog.” Chet paused for a breath. “Now, the third time this bear comes back it was just starting to get light out and by now I wasn’t scared, I was pissed because I hadn’t gotten any sleep!” He made fist in the air. “And I came tearing out of my tent, mad as hell and guess what! This bear comes falling out of the tree with my food sack in his paws. An olympic high jumping bear. Then the bear turned and looked me straight in the eye turns and runs off into the woods with it!”
“Oh no” My Aunt says, “What did you do!?”The whole table shook with shock, awe and laughter.
“Oh, I’ll tell you what I did!” Sal growled through his teeth, building up the excitement, loving every moment of his story. “I went and got my food back! I grabbed my Machete in one hand and my Camera in the other and turned to Stan and said “You coming with me?”
“No way!” My Uncle Al says.
“Oh yeah, that Bear wasn’t getting away with my food! It was the first night and I needed that stuff! There was no way I was going back to the road and call my parents to come get me! My trip would have been over! It would have been a disaster!”
We were rolling with laughter now from the conviction that Chet, even now, displayed so passionately on his face.
“So what happened? Did you get it back!?”
“So I turned to Stan and said “You coming or not?” and then I took off jogging after the bear. Stan followed. We came upon a clearing and could see him digging into my food bag. The bear looked up and his eyes said, “what are going to do?” And, I must admit my confidence on first eye contact became a little deflated, so I turned to Stan.
“Stan, what are we going to do?”
“Let’s gather some rocks.”
We gathered some rocks and came in hot, throwing and yelling like Banshees “BAD BEAR BAD BEAR BAD BEAR.” We did a little dance with the bear and got her about 20 yards away from my food bag.” Chet curled his lips, “Oh yeah, We backed her down...and then...well, Stan yelled at me to go get it. and I have to say, I didn’t want to but we’d gone this far so I yelled back, ‘Oh yeah, well…You keep throwing rocks!’ Then I ran in there and grabbed it and got the hell out of there quick. On our way back to camp Stan said I was craziest person he’d ever met on trail and he had to give me a trail name for the story. Machete man is what he called me. It’s Chete for short. I got pictures of the bear on my camera if you want to see!”
I decided to chime in and end the loop. “So, to get back to your original question, Aunt Lucy, Chete (aka Sal) ended up hearing about the Pacific Crest Trail from a couple of people he met on the CT later on and the idea has been gnawing at him ever since. Last summer, when we all went to go visit my Grandma in Colorado I got to see Chet again for a couple of days and with all of my traveling I was really intrigued by his 500 mile trail experience and of course, he invited me immediately to go with him on the PCT. After these stories, how could you not say yes to that, right?”
Then I continued after a pause, “What intrigues me most about this trip is that I’ve spent a long period of time traveling abroad through human cultures but I’ve never experienced what it is like to be in the culture of nature for an extended period of time. I feel like that experience will add value to my life.”
“Yeah, you know. After I finished the Colorado trail I felt like I had just started. I didn’t want to get off. I’d finally gotten strong. I’d finally become comfortable being out there and then it was over….”
When Sal and I hung out alone he talked about his discomfort with city life a lot. He’d say, “It’s not real man, the “real” world is out there. We gotta get out there...”
I wanted to know what he was talking about.
“Well boys” my Uncle interrupted, “enjoy the steaks and pesto. It seems like it will be your last home cooked meal for a while. I can’t wait to hear how Matt earns his name .” Everyone laughed in wonder for a moment before the table got quiet. Our nerves we’re picking up.