On a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, I (Nate) was sitting in my living room, binge watching Season 1 of The Man in the High Castle. I knew that getting outside the next day would be good for me, as it always is, but I was feeling a lack of energy and felt a strong pull toward more screen hermiting and knocking off TMITHC Season 2. Then the phone rang. My screen flashed ‘Mateo Coyote’, and I hit pause on the episode.
I met Matt 12 years ago, when some other friends invited him along on a week-long road trip to do some climbing and hiking in Idaho and Utah. Right off the hop, his adventurous, spontaneous spirit was infectious. He was up for anything and stoked about everything, quick to laugh. He was also eager to get real, to talk about the deep stuff, the matters of the heart and spirit that wilderness often brought out for him. At that time, I was a relative newbie on the outdoor adventure scene. I liked being outside and longed for a more adventurous connection with nature, but felt tentative and unsure of myself, nervous to get out there on my own. Over the course of the next few years, Matt became one of my core adventure friends, drawing me out of my cautious shell, stretching my sense of confidence and deepening my felt connection with nature. Whenever he called or visited, I could expect some adventure brainstorming, often a harebrained idea for a wilderness trip or experience.
“Dude! What if we built a traveling, floating sauna? Put an outboard on it, float it up and down the coast and invite people to sweat and swim and find their wilderness spirit?” (We didn’t do this, at least not yet.)
“Nate. Allegiant Air has a seat sale to Vegas next weekend. Think about it. ‘Allé giant’ means ‘Go big’ in French! (It actually translates to ‘Went giant’, but close enough.) Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re hopping on a flight and heading to Red Rocks to camp and climb in the desert for a few days. Allé giant! Let’s go big! You in?” (I was in. We did it. We went giant.)
Matt was living in Oaxaca, Mexico for a while, learning about traditional weaving and studying Spanish. I went down for a few weeks, not knowing what to expect but certain that adventure would be involved. After the first few days eating tlayudas, salty cheese and sampling mezcal from off-the-beaten-path Oaxacan holes-in-the-wall, Matt heard about a village up in the mountains called Apoala that would “blow our minds”. Without any further info, we found a taxi driver that knew where it was and who agreed to take us, dropping us off hours later in this lush oasis village in the middle of the dry desert mountains, via a road that had only been built a decade or so ago. After a couple days of wandering wondrous creeks, canyons and local farms we met Gilberto de los Perros (Gilberto of the Dogs), a local shepherd. He gave Matt a new name, Mateo Coyote (Matthew the Coyote), and dubbed me Pancho Pantera (Francisco the Panther), and then told us about a centuries old trail that ran 42 kms from Apoala to a large town with a bus connection back to Oaxaca.
Mateo Coyote’s eyes lit up as he looked at me. “Pancho! We’re doing it. We’re walking. That’s how we’re getting back to Oaxaca tomorrow. It’s going to be AWESOME!”
Intrigued but hesitant, always imagining the worst case scenario, I asked Gilberto if the trail was easy to follow. “Si! Muy fàcile.” he winked. “I used to take my donkey down for supplies once a week.” He pointed down the valley. “Just follow that trail. Directo directo directo! You can do it in a day.”
As we packed up for a dawn departure, Matt was stoked and optimistic. I was hesitant and skeptical, knowing that it couldn’t possibly be as straightforward as Gilberto suggested, but deep down I knew I wanted to do this. Matt’s crazy idea, while it may not go as described by Gilberto, would be an experience I knew I’d never forget.
It was not as simple as described and I most certainly will never forget that walk. Less than an hour into the trek, the trail Gilberto pointed out split several times going multiple directions. It was most definitely not obvious which one went to the town we wanted to get to. At this first point of confusion, we met another shepherd who pointed south and suggested we just keep heading that direction, following valleys south and downward in elevation, even if it meant switching trails. This became our MO, and we gave ourselves completely to whatever outcome or destination the day’s hike might bring us to. We went into a tiny village where we bought sodas under the terrified gaze of a four foot tall, weather-worn and wrinkled señora. We met a shepherd boy that claimed we were only the second (and third) “blue eyes” he had ever seen, and he led us a good way down the trail, keeping us on the right track. We were attacked by dogs in another village, fending them off with sticks and stones that became permanent fixtures in our hands as we walked. We sat and ate copious amounts of local oranges and avocados under the precious shade of twisted Dr. Seuss trees hung with massive, mossy garlands of some kind of giant lichen.
When we felt lost, sometimes we ran into a local – shocked at seeing two gringos in the middle of nowhere – who pointed us in the right direction. At other times, we just had to shrug, laugh at the uncertainty of it all, and keep walking “south and down”. Twelve hours after we left Apoala, just as the sun was starting to set, we stumbled sunburned and half-delirious with thirst into a large town. We asked a local if there was a bus stop for Oaxaca. “Si,” she said and pointed down the street. We cheered and slapped each other’s backs gleefully, relieved and elated that we’d made it. Noticing our red faces and sun-blistered hands, she asked where we had come from. “Apoala,” Matt said. Her eyes got big and she laughed. “Apoala! Estas loco, gringos!” I remember grinning at Matt as we walked to the bus and telling him “I’m so grateful we did that, thanks for the crazy idea Mateo Coyote.”
So when I saw his name on my phone, I knew I had to pick up. “Coyote! How’s life on the Sunshine Coast?”
“Pancho! What’s up? It’s been WAY too long. Sitting here at home, and I’ve got a sudden urge to get high and hike some snow, and I thought of you. Whaddya say to going up Lady Peak tomorrow? If I leave in twenty minutes, I can catch the last ferry from Gibsons. I’ll crash at yours and we’ll get an early start. You in?”