“Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in the muscles”
Traveling is not only about seeing new sites and having new experiences. Traveling is also about meeting people. Everyone has a story, and in some small way, everyone’s story becomes a part of our story. The result is a thick web of interconnectedness woven by many people. It is the connections we make with others that truly bring richness and depth to our lives.
We met Dennis this week. If you peered closely at Dennis, his face told a thousand words. Dark burnt sienna skin, brown intense eyes, a beanie hat over his receding hairline and a warm smile revealing a loss of top front teeth. His grandfather was full Apache Indian and his grandmother was Spanish. His mother was of Irish descent. At age six, during the 60’s, his parents divorced, and Dennis left his isolated neighborhood in southern New Mexico and headed to Venice Beach, CA with his mom. Dennis walked eight blocks to school and everyday was beat up by older kids on his way home. He was out of place with his dark Indian skin in an African American dominated neighborhood. Initially, Dennis enjoyed school and thought a cut lip or bloody nose was a normal rite of passage and just part of being a kid. He was naive. However, we all have limits, and Dennis quickly learned to survive. Hiding behind a fence with a wooden bat, Dennis took matters into his own hands and did what he had to do. The older kids left Dennis alone after that afternoon. This was his first lesson in survival, a theme that has continued to resurface over and over throughout his life, including now.
We met Dennis in a small National Forest campground outside of Taos, New Mexico. The few campsites were nestled between the road and the rushing Arroyo Hondo River. We pulled in shortly after Memorial Day weekend. Dennis’s old pop-up camper and orange Dodge pickup truck from the late 70’s caught our eye. Two large german shepherds were lounging nearby. Perfect.
Road Rule #23: When deep in bear country,
camp near dogs when possible.
We claimed a spot and headed over to meet our neighbor.
Dennis loved this land. That was quickly apparent. He had a straightforward view of life - keep things simple - don’t complicate things - we can all get along. Over the next two nights and a few beers, we learned that Dennis had worked for Pebble Beach in the late 70’s delivering wood to guests at The Lodge. As a caddie for fifteen years at Pebble, Nick and Denis quickly started exchanging stories. Dennis then worked for the forest service for many summers fighting fires mainly in New Mexico, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. He spent weeks at a time in the woods, sleeping on a mat of pine needles with a tarp tied to the trees for some minimal shelter. Dennis proudly told us stories from his fire fighting days including nights spent covered with scorpions in southern New Mexico and drinking moonshine deep in the Arkansas hills. He loved what he did, both surviving in the wilderness and protecting the wilderness.
Then Dennis was injured while fire fighting. Then his wife died of breast cancer. He is now disabled and unable to work, currently contemplating another back surgery as he wears a back brace and walks with an obvious limp due to numbness and pain in his leg. He is lonely. He has very limited funds. Although he looks way beyond his 55 years, he continually expresses gratitude for the beauty around him. Our conversations with Dennis did not involve politics, entertainment, computers or discussions about cell phone reception. These topics were not part of Dennis’s world. There was nothing superficial or pretentious about him. His days were now about survival, living in the wilderness and fishing for his food.
On our second evening in the campground, Nick joined Dennis for a tour of his camper. It was rough. The smells from the dirty fry pan left after cooking fish earlier in the day, cat litter way beyond the point of dumping (15 year-old, Psycho, had been his wife’s cat) and lingering smoke of various types engulfed the camper. Empty Cheerio boxes, soup cans and other “stuff” filled the small space. Ironically, when we first met Dennis, he had only just arrived at the campground. He had picked the prime spot. It was dotted with some large trees, some sun and some shade and tucked into a fold where the river forked to create a small stream. Dennis said he had camped in this spot before, likely outstaying the fourteen day National Forest limit many times over. When we met, Dennis was raking his site, clearing pine needles and trash left by careless campers the previous weekend. Dennis commented to us, “They don’t know better. They likely live like this at home too.” Dennis welcomed us with a firm handshake.
Did Dennis’s Indian blood keep him attached to the land or was is more out of necessity? I think it was both. Ultimately, it was his love of the land that enabled his ability to survive. The story written on his face was one of both unfortunate happenings and a love affair with nature. His story darkened his already dark skin, created deep lines across his forehead and left a tinge of sadness in his eyes while at the same time it gently covered his face with a blanket of peace. This was Denis’s story. He wanted to share, and we wanted to listen.
The morning we shook hands and parted ways, Dennis revved up his Dodge truck. He was heading to town for some supplies. With some sputtering and jerking, the engine barely caught. We watched the orange pickup jostle and spit as it bumped out of the campground and then turned onto the main road. We knew the truck would survive the trip. Denis will survive his journey too. Survival is in his blood. Love is in his heart.