Yesterday I took my dog for a run on the rolling flats to the south of Windmill Lane, just to the east side of the freeway in Baker City. Although the north side of the hill beyond the flats was snow-covered, I decided to hike up to get a good view of the valley.
As I approached the hill, memories came flooding back to me. The old 4-wheel trail up the side of this slope had become a pair of ragged ditches, eroded away over the decades and threatening to high-center any foolish adventurer trying the climb. It is visible for miles around.
But back in 1971, it was different.
I was assigned to the National Guard unit in Baker, and finishing up the last year of my 6-year enlistment. I lived in Grant County then, and Baker was the nearest armory. At the time, it was a transportation unit. We drove and worked on trucks.
One sunny fall Sunday, a few of us lower-ranking enlisted men got permission to take some trucks out for exercise on local country roads. That “exercise” turned to be an impromptu hill-climb. But, as usual, an unsupervised mix of 20-something men and big military toys always leads to mischief!
As I recall, 6 or 8 of us took out two 5-ton trucks and one deuce-and-a-half for the afternoon. Because these were all-wheel-drive rigs, and very heavy, the leaders of our little adventure wanted to test out their hill-climbing abilities. You never know when that knowledge might be useful, should our unit ever be activated to the jungles of Viet Nam.
Some of us were reluctant to take that ride because those old rigs had automatic transmissions and we did not know how much to trust in them. But of course we rose to the challenge and hoped the other guys would go first. Boys in uniform sometimes adopt an anonymous, group-mentality where individual accountability and good sense are strangely abandoned. This was one of those times.
The deuce-and-a-half went up first, to test the grade and the traction. There were no seatbelts in those days and the worst-case scenario that we were imagining would not have been mitigated by the riders being securely strapped in place. There appeared to be but little slipping on the steeper parts of the hillside, so we had confidence that the heavier 5-tons would get even better traction.
However, that confidence quickly eroded as we ascended.
I rode shotgun in the next 5-ton truck, mentally preparing to bail out at any moment. At times when it was especially steep, the driver was looking up at blue sky and could not even see the “road”. But the old truck just kept on grinding up the hill, all wheels churning. And it was not long before we were jockeying for a place to turn around on top.
But the “going-back-down” part of hillclimbing was a different story! It is one thing to use power and traction going uphill, but the descent had a different set of concerns. The grade must be at least 45 degrees at some places. If the driver started to slide on loose soil and locked up the brakes, it would not be pretty. In addition, the automatic transmissions may not hold all that weight back under such engine compression. And it looked awfully damned steep from the top looking down.
So I made a personal decision that had an unexpected side effect. I, being strong and athletic, chose to jump out and run down that hill. I guess you’d call that a survivalist mentality. Yea, that’s what I had. I was accustomed to running UP hills, so I thought nothing of running down. It would be kinda fun, and I could watch the trucks descend from a safer perspective at the bottom.
What I did not think about was the fact that my heavy footfalls at such an angle downhill would, over many repetitions, stretch my outer shin muscles to the point that they would not function. When my heel would hit the ground, my toes would be severely stretched downward to make contact.
Did you ever wonder what that muscle at the side of your shinbone is good for? Well, I hadn’t either. But I found out. It is used to lift up your foot when you walk, so that your toes are in the air and your heel hits the ground first. In the absence of the use of that muscle, your foot just flops around at the end of your leg when you try to walk!
When I got to the bottom of the hill, I was almost an invalid. Trying to walk, I discovered that I was suddenly a spastic, Frankensteinian zombie! I had lost control of my feet—I was dragging my feet off to the side. It must have been a weird and funny sight for the others to see, and they presumed I was just screwing around and trying to get a laugh.
But the only way I could “walk” was equally as noticeable and comical! I quickly learned to snap my knees forward in a sort of nazi goose-step, the inertia of which would fling the end of my floppy foot out, so that I could then drop it to the ground in a relatively straight position.
I can laugh about it now, but it turned out to be a bit of a dilemma. When we assembled in the afternoon for inspection and dismissal, I was pretty worried. I did not want to be noticed by the “brass”, and be questioned about my bizarre behavior. I did not want my explanation to turn into an indictment of our group participation in the questionable activities of the day. Surely some heads would roll for endangering lives and equipment. Mostly equipment, I am sure.
How could I admit what I was doing on the top of the steep hill and what would cause me to run all the way down while I was on duty? I could not think of any other plausible, reasonable explanation for my condition. I could not just pretend to be getting laughs. Comical antics while on duty are universally frowned upon in the military, even the Oregon National Guard.
To avoid my being noticed, some friends took me by the elbows and slipped me into formation while all attention was directed elsewhere. I was able to get safely back to my rig after the drill without being noticed. I recall having a trying time driving back to John Day. I had to go over Dooley Mountain at that time, and it is pretty tough to get a boot on the clutch when you can’t point the end of your foot up.
It was several days before I could walk normally, and I am sure that provided some entertainment to the local folks.
I’m glad to see that the old hillclimb site has not been used for a very long time. However, its jagged scar will likely be there forever, as nothing will stop its erosion. Maybe, as you notice the old track as you drive past, you will think of it as having a story of its own.