by Lewis 'Red' Greene
part one: a long day's night
Of all the times for the change to happen, Tuesday, January
23 at 12:00 Mountain Standard Time, is not when I would have picked.
Rocky Mountain National Park was nearly deserted. That might be because almost all of the roads in the area are closed. Then again, it might be because only an idiot would chose the dead of winter to go mountain climbing. Call me an idiot. Winter was my favorite time to visit the national parks. You might have to deal with subzero temperatures, 5 feet of snow, and hiking an additional 15 miles because of closed roads to the trail head, true. What you didn't have to deal with was people, and that's a trade I will make any day of the week.
I came here to reach the summit of Long's Peak. At 14,100 feet it is the tallest mountain in the park, and I wanted it. The trail was completely buried, but was discernible because of the lack of trees. Once I broke 11,000 feet and the tree line however, it was just playing it by ear and the features of the mountain. I had started early in the morning from where I had made camp at the Long' Peak trail head. It was a grueling 6.5-mile trail that gained 5,000 feet of elevation before reaching the summit. By 11 AM I had reached Boulder Field, a campsite that (not surprisingly) looked like a boulder field. It was at 12,900 feet, and I set up my tent in between two rock walls that previous visitors had used to break the wind. After that and a quick lunch of ramen noodles, I left most of my gear in camp save for my ice axe, boots with crampons, and my expedition wear. I was passed the Keyhole and was about halfway through the most treacherous part of the climb. From the Keyhole to the summit is a 2-foot-wide path covered in ice that drops 1,000 feet off the side of it. I had planted my left foot and was raising my right, when my boot just slipped off my foot, and then I slipped. I rolled onto my stomach and planted my axe. When I stopped, my other boot flew off the edge that my legs were now dangling from.
"Shit, shit, thank you lord!" How in the hell did that happen? Those were $220 boots! I pulled myself onto the ledge and let out a sigh of relief. "Well, there's another year of my life gone." I looked around and took stock. Then I saw why my boots, which had been so tightly attached and form fitting that they were like an extension of my body, had slipped off. In place of my feet were now two paws, covered with thick white fur that had started to extend up my leg. I had two simultaneous thoughts: What in the hell? and It's a good thing my feet and lower leg are covered with fur now. I would have frostbite in them by the time I made it back to the Boulder Field if they didn't. I slowly got up and steadied myself with my ice axe. My new paws seemed to have some nice traction on the ice, but they weren't as good as my crampons had been. I was going to have to be very careful making my decent. I spent the next two hours slowly making my way back down to camp, in which time I lost 3 inches in height, and although covered by my pants I could feel the fur up to my middle thigh.
I sat on a pile of stones, the sun slowly fading on the horizon. The wind was picking up, making the apparent temperature about -30, but I was comfortable. In the hours between making it back to camp and now, I had finished my change. I had lost a total of 7 inches in height, making me 5'4", and thick white fur covered my entire body. The fact that I was comfortable was a problem. I mean, it's all well and good to be an arctic fox when you're alone on an ice field at 13,000 feet, but I seriously doubted that I would be comfortable when my vacation ended and had to go back to Florida. That's not even taking into account what other people thought of me. I had packed away my expedition wear, it was simply too expensive to throw away even if I didn't need it anymore. So I sat on the rock, watching the stars come out and twirling my ice axe in my hands/paws. I had lost a finger on both hands and they weren't quite as dexterous as they had been, but at least I still had thumbs. I had four days to decide how I was going to proceed. Four days' worth of food, and it was a three-day hike to my car. I most likely wouldn't run into anyone else during that time. Like I said, I am an idiot, but then the tough choices would have to be made. How would people react? How would my family react, and even if they accepted me would they accept the fact that I would need to move much further north in order not to roast alive? I wondered if there are any good colleges in Canada that would accept me, Florida State was starting to sound just a bit too warm. What was I talking about? I turned into an arctic fox, and I am worried about transferring schools? Maybe I'm cracking up, maybe I'm freezing to death up on that ledge and this is just a hypothermia-induced delusion. If this is a delusion, then I am as good as dead and don't need to worry about it. What do I know about arctic foxes?
I know that their fur is the most insulating of any land mammal. If I am like a normal arctic fox, then I should shed this coat in April and regain it in late September. Even the summer coat, however, was going to be much too warm, the southern range of the arctic fox was the northern tier of the Canadian mainland. The one plus was that they ate practically anything, so I wasn't going to have to worry about dietary constraints.
It looked like I was pretty screwed. Sure I had dreamed about this transformation, and I was excited about it. I couldn't stop looking at myself in awe, I couldn't wait to get to my car so I could see my face. There was just a simple logistics problem. I was fine up here where the temperature is -5 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind-chill is -40, but I think I am going to start getting pretty uncomfortable in this coat above about 20 degrees. In the summer I should be able to take temperatures into the 60s, but where I am from, that is a winter temperature. Well, I wasn't getting any answers by sitting up here, I decided to make for my car come morning.
The trip down the mountain and to my car was uneventful. I didn't see any signs of other hikers. I did notice that as I lost elevation and the temperature got a little bit warmer, I could feel the circulation to my legs and arms increase to try and radiate more heat. I made it to my car and decided to first go to the ranger station at the park entrance. Before I started the engine, however, I took a good fifteen minutes looking over my face in the side view mirror. Absolutely amazing, I just hoped the ranger would confirm that I was not hallucinating. I put on my wide brim quicksilver hat to help people know I was still human, and walked in.
As would be expected for this time of year, the office was deserted save for the on-duty ranger that was behind his desk. He had yet to look up. I didn't feel the heat yet, insulation works both ways. If I stayed in the office another 10 minutes or so though, I would probably start to overheat.
"Excuse me," I said. The man looked up and then fell out of his chair. "I know I may look a little different from when the last time you saw me, but my name is Red Greene and I am the hiker that filed a permit for the Long's Peak hike a week ago. I was checking in to tell you I made back out all right, if you can call my current condition all right." My real name was Lewis, but everyone called me Red because my hair put some fire engines to shame. I guess it didn't really apply anymore.
While I was musing over the lost meaning in my name, the man had picked himself up and started to regain his composure.
"You must be one those people that changed! They say that there's like hundreds of you or something, are you all right?" the man said, getting more calm as he progressed.
"You mean I am not the only one that changed?" In my mind it didn't really matter. If it had been just me or if it had been the entire planet, it still didn't make sense. Then again, there was a whole new definition of what 'making sense' meant.
"Do they know what's causing the changes?" I asked, not really wanting or expecting an answer.
"No they haven't found any cause yet, and like I said there's hundreds of you, all shapes and sizes." I took a moment to digest this.
"Mind if I use your phone to call my parents?"
By the time I got off the phone, I was burning up. I thanked the man quickly, and stepped outside panting. My mom seemed like she was in shock, and had wanted me to come home immediately. I told her that I didn't think that was a good idea with my current temperature tolerances, and that I was going to go to the University of Colorado in Boulder to see if they could give me any answers. I wrapped up the conversation as fast as I could, and told her I would be staying in touch. I hopped into my Blazer and started the 2 hour drive to Boulder. On the way there I listened to the radio; the changes were all over the spectrum. There was even one guy in Connecticut that turned into a silver dragon. After hearing this I doubted that I would be of that much interest to the university, but maybe they would still try to help me out. During the drive I tried to think of the ramifications of it all. Sure I loved the wild wilderness of the far north, but would this mean I would never get to enjoy a Caribbean sunset? Would I miss out on Thanksgiving and Christmas, because my family lived in Florida and I couldn't take the temperatures down there? These and a million other thoughts were circling in my brain as I drove onto the University of Colorado's campus. I rolled up the windows and hopped out. I was still only wearing my hat, but when your fur was as thick as mine nothing could be seen anyway. I walked through the campus while everyone I passed stopped and stared. It took me a while, but I found the Science quadrant and thus the Biology building.
"Excuse me, I would like to talk with someone that might have some information on arctic foxes," I said to the momentarily dumbstruck receptionist at the desk. She almost, but not quite, fell out of her chair. Damn. Well, one out of two ain't bad.
"Hold one moment Sir, I'll, I'll try to find someone," she stammered. Yeesh! What's the big deal, it's not like the fox is one of the most intimidating creatures on the planet. I wondered what kind of reception that dragon got? I was panting by the time a man that was balding and looked to be about 50 came up to me.
"You were looking for information on the arctic fox?" he asked with a mixture of excitement, trepidation, and humor in his voice. The irony of the situation was obviously not lost on this man, but it was a bit too warm for me to fully share the comic value of it.
"Yes, and I am sure you can see why. Do you mind if we continue our conversation outside? I'm starting to fry in here."
"Of course -- let me grab my coat, and I will meet you out on the steps in a minute." With that I nodded and walked out of the oppressive heat. Definitely no Caribbean sunsets -- the aurora will have to do.