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Things Done Changed

A story centered around a trip by three friends to run the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim.

By on October 7, 2013 | Comments

On September 13, 1994, Christopher George Latore Wallace (better known as The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls) released his debut album, Ready to Die, on Bad Boy Records. The second track and first song track was titled “Things Done Changed.” He laments in the song how different life in his neighborhood had become since his childhood and references his mother, Voletta Wallace, and her battle with breast cancer. Three years later, March 9, 1997, Christopher Wallace was shot dead in L.A. by a still unidentified gunman.

On May 10, 2013, Rob Krar ran 42 miles across the Grand Canyon and back in 6 hours, 21 minutes, 47 seconds, setting the new Fastest Known Time and breaking Dakota Jones’ previous record by more than a half hour.

“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” said Arizona governor Jan Brewer, speaking of the deaths of 19 firefighters in a wildfire near the town of Yarnell, Arizona. On June 30, 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire, ignited by lightning two days before, overtook the Prescott Fire Department’s interagency Granite Mountain Hotshot crew. This tragic event was the highest wildland firefighter death toll in 80 years and one of the deadliest firefighting disasters in our country’s history. “Drought and climate change have turned western forests into firebombs that go off every summer,” wrote Kyle Dickman, in his recent article on the Tahoe Hotshots for Outside Magazine.

On March 27, 2013 I traveled to Arizona to run the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim with Tony Barbero and Tirso Rojas, two friends and wildland firefighters on a California hotshot crew. Each of our individual lives had been in flux for years. Our paths had zigzagged, precipitously at times, to get us to where we were that first night together on our Grand Canyon adventure. The changes had been mostly positive, or at least thankfully were trending that way. The events around the trip, the people we met, the geography, and the resonating stage of the desert and canyon all seemed to reiterate a theme and feeling of change. We could feel it; it was March and spring was in the air.


We fled the lights of the Las Vegas Strip as soon as we could and drove off into the desert. Tony and Tirso had driven from California to pick me up at the airport there, the three of us bound for Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim.

near Kingman

Oh give me land, lots of land… Photo: Willie McBride

We got out into the darkness and slept under the stars at the end of a dirt road off the highway north of Kingman, Arizona. I had been eagerly awaiting the trip, excited to get back into the desert, to smell the sage and soak in the sun. I’d been looking forward to meeting Tirso too; Tony’s stories of their work together on the fire line and of Tirso’s legendary status in general had piqued my interest. I was thrilled to spend four days camped on the South Rim and to be running the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim with two inspiring characters.

first night

Tirso Rojas and Tony Barbero in the desert outside of Kingman, Arizona. Photo: Willie McBride

Part of Tirso’s legend was of the hard life he’d led, the dark days he’d endured. Thankfully he managed to get things in check; his hard work has paid off and now Tirso is better than ever, earning a reputation as one of the best wildland firefighters in the country. I was hoping that just by hanging out with him I’d manage to gain some of his positive traits. Tony, too, has worked extremely hard to be where he is. He’s toughed it out, rising above his own difficulties. It is inspiring to see the drive and determination that these two guys have cultivated within themselves, how they can embrace pain and suffering and just take it. They would have been at the top of Shackleton’s crew. Being around them made me want to go harder, be stronger, and give more of myself to challenges than ever before.

The last time I had been to the Grand Canyon was with my now-ex-girlfriend and going back to this desert full of memories was daunting. For many tough months I had been struggling mightily, in emotional turmoil. I was grappling with letting go, reluctantly trying to embrace the fact that the passage of time is the only constant that assures that change, and hopefully healing, will come. I feared the dark clouds of my melancholy would shroud the canyon and rain upon the 31st-birthday getaway of mine.

The Grand Canyon knows something about change and the passage of time; the whole red rock layer cake is a museum of natural history, an undeniable physical reminder that life is not stagnant; things change, things done changed. It is an appropriate setting for an adventure at this juncture in our lives, for looking back and looking ahead while enjoying our time in the present, our feet striking the earth in concert as we fly along red-ribbon paths.

the road

Driving the desert highways en route to the South Rim. Photo: Willie McBride

We stopped in Kingman for a few things. Tirso ran into the bank; I stood beside the truck while Tony did dips with his hands on the open door and the roof of the cab. An older fellow was walking by and raised his eyebrows at the display, evidently impressed at Tony’s strength.

“I used to be able to do that,” he exclaimed. “No, not any more for me,” he smiled, shaking his head. “Oh, I’m just a old guy now.”

The man started to tell us stories of his life: injuries, work, war, drug-and-alcohol addiction, health issues. We tried to connect with the man to make him feel good, told him he was still looking tough and strong, still ticking. Eventually we said our farewells and he walked away toward the bank. Tony and I then shared one of those tacit moments where you pause and are forced to remind yourself to enjoy your youth and health while you have it. We knew our strong bodies and trained, agile legs weren’t a permanent pleasure to be enjoyed. We knew the changes of age would come; we’d already begun to feel them to a lesser degree. It’s all too easy to forget the variety of life experiences out there, to forget how many people struggle with staggering tragedy, physical and mental disabilities and disease, addiction, poverty and government neglect, the overall harsh and brutal inequalities of our country, and just generally lead unthinkably hard lives.

Things done changed; ask that old guy.

After the bank we made another stop and again were hanging out beside the truck, enjoying the sun and gazing off at distant desert peaks and scrubby skylines. A woman in a pick-up pulled into the parking space next to us. She got out to smoke a cigarette, leaving an older man in the front seat. We struck up a conversation while she smoked and she, too, began to share her life, standing there on the blacktop. She had been a truck driver, running top-secret deliveries for the military. She told us that once she’d drove a full-length semi and the only cargo inside was a single envelope strapped to the floor in the center of the space. She never knew what the contents were, of that mysterious envelope or any of what she transported. Her daughter faced drug addiction, both she and her husband had serious health problems. Her husband was dying, sitting there in the front seat with some sort of cancer. The woman said it was related to chemicals he’d been exposed to in the military. Her health issues were from driving around hazardous cargo day after day, she said, and other work she did with the military over the years.

“So they provide health care for you, right?” I asked, knowing of course, that I was probably wrong.

“No, nothing at all. Even after all those years working for them.” We just looked at each other and shook our heads, not saying anything. I tried to infuse my words and the space between us with compassion. We wished her well, her husband, her daughter, then got in the pick-up and drove on to the east. For better or worse, things done changed; that woman knows it, too.

scoping from the rim

Tony Barbero and Tirso Rojas scoping the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim. Photo: Willie McBride

We went for a run as soon as we got to the South Rim. After weaving through hundreds–maybe thousands–of people on our way toward the Bright Angel Trailhead, we realized that it was spring-break time; clearly many people want to experience the magic and immensity of the place and no one can blame them for that. We hit the trailhead and started down the switchbacks, instantly drooling with pleasure, jumping off the water breaks and yipping like coyotes. Down we ran for five miles to the oasis of Indian Garden Campground, giving a little wake-up call to the quads in the process. There was a nice breeze and so we sat on an old bench under a big cottonwood tree and drank water and let the sweat cool on our shirtless bodies.

What a treat to be here! What a playground! A real playground, where safety is not assured, mindful focus and instinctive skill are demanded, repercussions are mighty, and life is heightened by the uncertainty of it all.

Tony Barbero

Tony Barbero kicking back at Indian Springs Campground on a warm up run on Day 1. Photo: Willie McBride

After hanging out at Indian Garden and listening to very loud frogs of some sort that sounded more like sheep, we ran back up 3,000 feet to the rim.

As we neared the top, Tony began speaking with another runner who was heading down on a short evening reconnaissance run. Craig Spivey introduced himself and we soon learned that the next morning he was setting off solo to do a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim of his own. We hadn’t thought to reserve a campsite so Craig generously offered to let us share his; we accepted, told him we’d see him later in the evening, then went to the lodge and spent a couple hours eating pizza, drinking beer (Tony and I, not Tirso), and watching March Madness.

I had to fly back to Portland in a few days but Tony and Tirso, as seasonal workers on a fire crew, had the freedom to extend their road trip for another couple of weeks. They were going to be running many miles, getting themselves in top form for the fire season, heading to Zion and Bryce Canyons and points beyond, exploring the myriad magical mysteries of northern Arizona and southern Utah. Because of that, and because the three of us were going to be running about 48 miles the following day, they wanted take it easy and not overdo it. I just couldn’t resist, though; after all, my training was ramping up for some spring races and this was a perfect opportunity to rack up some big miles. Besides, I was in the Grand Canyon so I wasn’t about to just sit around and make prudent decisions.

While Tony and Tirso stripped their shirts off and lounged in the sun to “get chocolate,” as they put it, I headed over to the South Kaibab Trailhead and ran down into the vast expanse. The first time I did the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, I took the Bright Angel Trail both out and back so this was my first time on South Kaibab. Of course there were tons of hikers that I had to weave around as politely as possible, but as I got lower the crowds thinned and I was able to fly down the long, low-angle sections between the lightning-bolt switchbacks, arms gliding through hot air, giddiness welling within at every turn.

I reached Skeleton Point, where I initially told myself I would turn around, and took pictures and talked with two European runners at the airy overlook. I gazed down at the switchbacks that ran down below our perch and was tempted to go on. I simply couldn’t stop there; I was having too much fun to go back already and I wanted more, fatigue be damned. The temperature was rising and I didn’t have much water but I was confident I had things in control so I joyously sped down the additional mile and a half to the lower plateau and the intersection with the Tonto Trail. I took shelter in the shade of an old, locked, park-service outhouse and soaked up as much of the reviving shadows as I could before heading back up. I could feel how even a short jaunt could turn deadly down there as the heat enveloped my body like a grizzly-bear hug even in mid-March.

I ran back up 3,000 feet to the truck to meet the boys, then off we went to watch more March Madness and feed the raging metabolism of our hard working, young-ish bodies.

Tirso Rojas

Tirso Rojas flexin’ on the North Rim. Photo: Willie McBride

Tirso grew up in the town of Tulelake in northeast California–Modoc County–and he is proud of it. They have premium alfalfa there, he loves to say with his large grin, and horseradish and honkers geese. These things he made sure I knew and they became the inside jokes of our three-man crew. He told me of his years as a lineman, pointing out as we drove along the different types of electrical lines that stretched into infinity beside the road. I listened, fascinated, learning things I’d never known, real things with real applications, nothing hypothetical, no academic frivolity. He eagerly shared his love of logging big trees, showing me pictures of his chainsaws on his iPhone and telling me their nicknames: Honker, M.I.A, Jack Daniels, WhiteBoy, Pickle Eater, and the Hammer. “Pickle Eater is the newest of the collection.” he said. “He is a big saw–660 with 36-inch bar–made to cut big wood! Bad-ass saw rips.”

Speaking of nicknames, Tirso himself has a few. One is “The Turtle” because of his legendary endurance during the long, brutal shifts on the fire line. Tony told me that Tirso almost can’t take lunch breaks, or any break at all, for that matter. He just wants to keep working, even on the hottest days when guys are being evacuated with heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and the like. He might sit for 10 minutes at most, so the stories go, sharpening the chain on his saw with a file while Tony made sandwiches. Then the two of them would be back on their feet, raring to go. All day long, day after day. Crazy heat. Brutal conditions.

Another nickname of Tirso’s is “Turbo,” which came from his one and only night as a stripper. He was 19 years old, partying in Chico, California when we was propositioned to attend a bachelorette party and take his clothes off for $130. He needed the cash so, of course, he accepted.

Those were the funny stories, though, not the ones about the hard times. As a self-titled mama’s boy, things took a turn for the worse when she passed away on his birthday, November 29, 2004. “Mom died before I got picked up, but she helped me with my application for the [Alaska smoke] jumpers that winter. After she died I just ran wild for about four and half years. Really wild!” He became known as the life of the party and others celebrated and encouraged his behavior and so it was easy to hold on to that identity. He had begun fighting fires and was excelling at it even while continuing his hard-partying ways. One of his biggest regrets is getting ‘washed out’ of smoke-jumper training in Alaska in 2005. “It was to do with exciting the airplane, a Casa 212.” He made the same–potentially fatal–mistake a few times. He was still in a dark place and being reckless with his safety. After that, they just couldn’t take the chance with him.

“I was told to get my shit together and, once I was told that, I just choked,” he said. “The pressure I felt up in Alaska was huge. The Tahoe Hotshots and Alaska Smokejumpers have a long history of getting guys from the crew and making them bad-ass jumpers.”

After the Alaska experience, things got worse. He had trouble with repeated drunk driving and finally got jail time for it. Due to his location, not the severity of his crimes, he was put in one of the worst prisons around, near Reno, Nevada. “I was sentenced to three years in state prison, did almost 20 months of it… While sitting in the High Desert State Prison, I told myself I would never party again! That prison is a level-four prison with killers and rapists in there that will never be free again. Gross. Something that I will never be able to explain to normal people like yourself. Crazy in there. Not a day goes by without thinking about my vacation time.”

Some of the other Native American inmates wanted to test Tirso and see what he was made of, to see if he was legit, so they challenged him to run a timed mile, the records of which were kept throughout the entire California state prison system. Tirso had been a runner before but, needless to say, wasn’t trained at the time. Regardless, he ran like his life depended on it, as that literally appeared to be the case. Tirso went for it, arms blazing, barrel chest churning, legs firing like pistons. Five minutes and 21 seconds later he was a made-man; he was never messed with again after having put down one of the fastest times in California state prison history.

“My life became a lot easier after that,” he said with a smile.

I asked him how much of these deeply personal anecdotes I could include in this story and he said, “I trust you Willie, to write a great article and if my story helps someone one day, I will be happy. Never give up, never give up!” I could feel his words’ weight; when someone who has endured so much talks, you listen.

We awoke early, three-something, piled into the pick-up and drove over to the Bright Angel Lodge with the namesake trailhead nearby. We made coffee on the tailgate and ate food, then spent a few minutes warming ourselves and using the bathrooms. Finally it was time to set off into the abyss. Just after 5 a.m., with headlamps on, we cruised over to the trailhead and started our descent. Pure joy ensued; the switchbacks flew by, the canyon demanding our senses, the water breaks lending a staccato rhythm to our gaits. The world around us grew light, shades of pinks, purples, blues, and teals, a multitude of unnamed hues on the canvas of sky. We let out animal cries of delight, our yips of joy rang in the air. We were mindful to be quiet as we passed through the sleeping camp of Indian Garden, where we’d been two days before.

The canyon was cool; the sun had not yet touched our skin. We reached the Colorado River and then rolled along as the trail worked its way over to the footbridge that lead to the north side and Phantom Ranch. We started seeing a few more people, hikers getting early starts, tackling the precipitous footpaths through the famous space. We had one of them take our picture against the fine backdrop of river and cliff. The three of us looked surly and strapping, frozen in time, a single moment in the tumultuous ocean of our crazy existence. It was one of those photos where you think, I’m going to look at this when I’m an old man and feel with an aching, bittersweet pang how lucky and fortunate I was to have my youth and freedom, my strength and my knees. We knew how good we had it; we made acknowledgements for our great fortune many times during our trip.

the trio - Colorado River - Grand Canyon

The trio, outbound on the Bright Angel Trail. Photo: unknown hiker

I met Tony while working at an elementary school in Berkeley, California right after he returned from a stint traveling in Peru and South America. We became fast friends, setting off on epic, grueling adventures shortly into our relationship. He had stories of tough times of his own. His parents’ divorce and subsequent family changes made him an angry young man for many years; he’d been in lots of fights, made stupid decisions, gotten into some hairy situations. Luckily he survived.

His career path was varied but was always impressive. Tony needs to be challenged, majorly, and relies on it in order to exist. He went into teaching after we worked together leading the after-school program in Berkeley. He pushed himself to delve into his new role but of course he wasn’t about to teach at some affluent school; not meaningful or impactful enough, simply not challenging enough. Consequently he picked third grade in one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods of the Bay Area, a place referred to as the ‘Iron Triangle’ in Richmond, California.

It was deeply inspiring to see how hard he was pushing himself, how hard his students were pushing him. It was painful to see the challenges the students faced beyond academics; one day Tony had to draw the blinds to the classroom so the kids didn’t see the body that had been dumped in the parkway. The horror stories went on. He did three years there before deciding to make a change. During this time, Tony was also coaching a high school baseball team, taking them to the state championships two years in a row, for the first two times in the school’s history.

I remember telling Tony how I was bummed out, bored with the after-school program job, after he’d already left to become a full-time teacher. He told me to stop whining and do something else, take a chance and follow my passions and find what I truly love to do. We were both still searching for what that was at the time but I recall how much his words meant.

Tony and I met a guy at the Skyline to the Sea 50k in California who was a chief of one the fire crews in the state; he told Tony that he was just the type they were looking for. That planted the seed of working on a fire line and soon Tony had a new goal. He became a Wilderness First Responder then an EMT. He applied to the most renowned crew in the nation without any fire experience at all, then drove up to the base, introduced himself, and offered to train with them for the day. They were so impressed at his grit and strength that he got hired… which was unheard of. He never stopped believing him himself, taking extra classes, learning the trade, training himself like never before, going from extremely strong and tough to freakishly so. Things done changed.

Once past Phantom Ranch, we wove our way through the box canyon all together, following the gentle grades in the rising temperatures to Cottonwood Campground. A guy working on the trail near Cottonwood informed us that the water was off at the ranger residence on the way up to the North Rim, which was a pertinent piece of info given it’s a key source of the invaluable liquid. He said it was being worked on, though, and that it would likely be back on in a matter of hours. We forged on, hit the ranger residence and found the rumor to be true: no water. I was feeling tired after my running the couple days before so I resigned myself to hike most of the ascent to the North Rim. Tony and Tirso took off and I settled into a nice, hot rhythm, starting to feel the strength of the desert sun. Tony was out of sight but I eventually caught up with Tirso.


Details of the desert. Photo: Willie McBride

Small patches of snow started appearing as we neared the rim. I grabbed handfuls and stuffed it into my water bottles. Once melted, the water was delightful and did a fine job of reviving me. Finally, I arrived at the rim to Tony sitting there with his shoes off and bare feet in the snow. I quickly followed suit and happily sat down and relaxed. I pulled off my pack and indulged in an apple (delicious and worth the weight) and jalapeño goose jerky (delicious and homemade by one of the chiefs on the hotshot crew).

For as badass as Tirso is, I was a little surprised at how slow his pace was at times during the run. That was until I was reminded about his knee issues and that the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim was about 15 miles longer than he’d ever run before. He’d had surgery in his right knee three times before; first he tore his ACL during high school football, then did it again as a logger when he was 20 or 21. The third time he was running down a washboard road in Tulelake in 2003 when the ACL and MCL were both torn in half. His doctor said he needed surgery right away. Tirso was only a week away from starting the fire season so he asked if it would do more damage to just push through the season and get surgery afterward. The doctor told him that he couldn’t possibly hurt it any worse, “but doubted that I could deal with the pain. He was wrong. I dealt with the pain and worked until November. Hard summer, I remember crying when no one was looking many times. Triple B (Brad Moschetti) helped push me [literally] up the hill many times that summer. Surgery put a cadaver ACL and MCL in and it seems to be holding up.” Slow and steady, the Turtle. That’s what I’m talking about when I say these guys are tough and can handle pain. It was amazing to me, too, that Tirso basically didn’t stop running at all that day; he knew Tony and I were faster, especially on the downhills, so he would just keep moving while we took breaks, to even things out. Tirso arrived at the North Rim, where Tony and I were lounging with our feet in the snow, said hello, took a sip of water, and then turned around and headed back down, saying he’d see us soon.

It was around the North Rim that we ran into Sean Meissner’s crew of runners from Durango, Colorado–Marco Zuniga, Leah Fein, Ryan Lingg, Nate Christiansen, Marisa Asplund, Aaron Keller, Beth Wolff, and MK Thompson. (Sean was doing some exploring on a side trail and we wouldn’t see him until later.) What a bunch of awesome people! It was a fun atmosphere, sharing the mind-blowing trail with runners and hikers enthralled with their own epic journeys, pushing their bodies, testing their capabilities and limits.

North Kaibab

Willie McBride and Tirso Rojas descending the North Kaibab Trail. Photo: Tony Barbero

When Tony and I caught up to and passed Tirso on the way back to Phantom Ranch, he was calmly jogging along with a wad of tobacco in his lip. I would be interested to know if any other Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim runner in history has ever run along with a ‘lipper’ in… I would guess not. Tirso’s knee was clearly bothering him but he never complained or mentioned anything about it. The next time we saw him, Tony and I were stretched out under a large cottonwood tree, the breeze cooling the sweat on our bodies.

It was perfect temperature there under the trees and we were thoroughly enjoying the cool down after pushing our pace running the past handful of exposed miles in the mid-80-degree temperatures. From Cottonwood Campground to Phantom Ranch, we had run the serpentine, gently downhill path beside the river, weaving endlessly through the steep-walled chasm etched deeply into the rock. A thousand shades of red, ochre, and chocolate brown surrounded us. I started to get a little worried about the heat with my heart pumping hard and my body temperature rising like a boiling kettle but then the oasis came, first the outskirts of Phantom Ranch, the old cabins, maintenance sheds and then the real hearth of the it, the little convenient store, water fountain, and picnic tables, and sitting rocks in the blessed shade.

We hung out here for awhile and enjoyed the relaxation. Tirso came and went without stopping at all, not tempted by the icy Arnold Palmers, Snickers bars, and the like that many folks were stopping to purchase and enjoy. Off he went, Turbo, the Turtle, the legend.

Tony and I finally rousted ourselves with some of Sean’s crew and headed down to the wide, brown Colorado. We crossed the bridge and wove our way along the river, readying ourselves for the nearly 5,000-foot climb back to the South Rim. We were still running pretty well, putting our heads down and grinding it out. I ran and hiked along with the bad-ass Leah, chipping away at the looming ascent. Soon enough we were back at Indian Springs Campground, looking up at the final push. I kept thinking I was going to catch up with Tirso, but to no avail. I was amazed… slow and steady, slow and steady wins the race, I guess. My climbing legs were pretty spent, running-wise, so I decided to take the opportunity to practice my powerhiking and set to the task, swinging my arms and trying to find that perfect, unstoppable rhythm. It felt great and I managed to pass all of Sean’s people, eager to close the gap on Tony and the Turtle, small figures above me on the accordion switchbacks.

A helicopter swooped in and landed midway up the massive canyon wall, kicking up red dust as it tucked itself into what looked to be a tiny perch somewhere along the Bright Angel Trail. Something was up; soon enough I found out as I rounded a bend and saw a few rescuers attending to a middle-aged female hiker who had fallen on the trail and broken her leg. I scooted by them, sorry for her misfortune, nothing to be done but keep moving and stay out of the way.

When I finally reached the rim and ran over to the truck where Tirso and Tony were waiting, I also found a beaming Craig Spivey, thrilled to be the first to congratulate us with a handshake/hug and a cold beer. Seriously, he had a whole cooler of drinks and snacks that he’d brought to share with us. What a thoughtful, generous person!

The next day was Sunday, the end of our journey together through the magical Southwest. We drove over to Sean’s site in the morning and hung out with new friends, sharing stories, a celebratory morning Guinness or two, a few of us comparing notes as running coaches. Tirso, Tony, and I finally said our goodbyes, then packed up and ran a four-mile shake-out run on fun, pine-needled, rolling doubletrack through the forest on our way out of the park. Those were the last miles of the trip for me, though I still had some endurance traveling to do before I made it back to Portland the next day.

hanging with Sean

Post-R2R2R celebrations with Sean Meissner and friends. Photo: Willie McBride

We headed south to Flagstaff, bumping hip hop on the stereo as the sun lowered in the sky and cast a fiery light over the land. Just like that the Grand Canyon had vanished, already a memory. The landscape had become flat in comparison with pine-covered peaks making the new horizon, no bottomless chasms to be seen, no giant red crags and cliffs to dwarf us. I sat shotgun as Tirso drove and he told me more stories, filled in the details of both his good days and bad, on and off the fire line, painting vivid pictures in my head, weaving narrative tapestries in my mind. I asked if he was afraid of death.

“I am not afraid of dying,” he said, “but surely don’t want to die. I want to live until 100. Want a wife and kids and a ranch. Couple of my own kids and then adopt as many as I can afford.”

Once more I listened with transfixed ears as the land changed outside the truck windows. There were burned forests, charred snags all around us now. Tony and Tirso critiqued the scarred land, or rather the management of it that could have curtailed the fire’s sprawl. Mount Humphreys stood tall and seductive in the evening light, luring us toward it; we almost had to stop for a go at the summit but time wouldn’t allow.

We strolled the streets of Flagstaff on stiff legs, asking for restaurant suggestions. We found a spot, ate, then headed for a hotel. Tony and Tirso were heading north and east, not returning to Vegas so I had booked a ticket on a 1:30 a.m. Greyhound back to that crazy place, arriving there at 6:30 in the morning. Then a plane to Portland, with other buses, trains, and taxis interspersed along the way. It was going to be a long day.

I had some time before they dropped me at the bus station so we used the hot tub in the hotel, then lounged and watched TV in the room until it was time for me to go. Because it was March Madness, there was a special on ESPN about Jimmy Valvano, one of the most famous coaches in NCAA history. I had never heard of him before but Tony told me it was worth watching. Soon I was drawn into the rich story of his life, while I laid there on the bed, sleepy and contented, engulfed in post-adventure come-down.

Jimmy Valvano felt the highest elation of victory as a coach, leading the North Carolina State ‘Wolfpack’ to the win the 1983 NCAA Championship by an epic, last-second basket. Years later, he became ensnarled in controversy and fought hard to clear his name, his reputation, and the school’s. Then, in 1992, he began another fight: a 10-month, life-ending battle with cancer. In one of his famous speeches, near the end of his days, he said:

“I just got one last thing, I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going. To be enthusiastic every day and, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Nothing great could be accomplished without enthusiasm,’ to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems, whatever you have. The ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.”

The words poured out of the cheap television speakers and into my ears; I saw his lips moving on the screen and felt the weight of his message. “We are starting the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research,” the dying man said, standing there in front on the crowd, “and its motto is ‘Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.'”

Those were Tirso’s words, too, that he’d spoken to me.

I thought about how Tirso could have given up–given up on living, given up striving for better–and how Tony could have settled for less, not pushed so hard to learn and grow and achieve lofty goals. I thought about both of their wild enthusiasm, their absolute love of their selfless profession, their tireless determination to do things like literally crank out hundreds of pushups before breakfast (I saw them do it) to prime themselves to be the best, most fit, wildland fire fighters possible.

Right there next to me in the hotel room in Flagstaff, Arizona were two men who embodied the don’t-ever-give-up spirit more than anyone. This year Tirso was the number one choice recruit for smokejumper for a number of different crews around the West; a handful of years ago he was hitting rock bottom, crashing cars, surviving the hell of prison. Things done changed. For worse, for better. The bottom line is to ride it out, whatever waves come your way.

I had and have my own challenges, insecurities, and uncertainties, but when the darkness hits and the path looks daunting, I can think of Tony, Tirso, Jimmy Valvano, the old guy and the woman in Kingman, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon itself. I can think of Ralph Waldo Emerson too–”Nothing great can be accomplished without enthusiasm”–and fight to keep motivated, to keep striving for better.

We said our farewells outside of the tiny Greyhound station. We hugged, then I shouldered my pack and watched as the white pick-up slipped away into the night. I would miss them a great deal and think about their safety during the season. I would hold them as examples to emulate, icons of grit, Shackleton’s all-star team.

I sat under the fluorescent lights in the little room, waiting to board the bus. I had a colorful Grand Canyon mug with ‘William’ printed on it (a gift from Tirso) and a cool print of an etched image of the Bright Angel Trail (from Tony) to remind me of the trip; tokens from a 31st birthday adventure. Once on the bus, I took a seat and laid my head back. Outside the window, stars shone and the vague shapes of mountains huddled in the inky depths. The wheels began to turn and soon the highway passed by, the ground moving beneath us. The future lay ahead, holding endless possibilities.

Things done changed. Things will keep changing.

I closed my eyes, the words ringing in my head: “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up…”

North Kaibab 2

Willie McBride and Tirso Rojas descending the North Kaibab Trail. Photo: Tony Barbero

Willie McBride
Willie McBride is an avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner who now resides in Portland, Oregon. He owns and runs Animal Athletics, a personal/group training and coaching business, with friend and fellow ultrarunner Yassine Diboun. The two provide services to aspiring outdoor athletes and people of all abilities in the Portland area and beyond. You can enjoy more of his writing and photos on his blog and Animal Athletics' blog.