By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
An expedition not unlike our own, Robert Falcon Scott’s failed ordeal in Antarctica in 1912.
When I was a kid I had a friend named Raymond Schuckle. He lived at the end of the block, closest to the park, from me.
Winter had come and it was harsh. We were not much older than 11 or 12. Raymond and I shared an interest in model airplanes. Boredom from the long winter had set in, and there was little to do. So, we decided to launch an expedition on foot across four miles of suburban territory to Harb’s Hobby Shop on Monroe Street in Downtown Dearborn.
I had read Maurice Herzog’s book, “Annapurna”, that I bought from Mary Fera’s Dad’s shop, Little Professor Book Store, near Harb’s. The book recounted the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in the Himalayas by a group of bold adventurers. To my 11-year-old mind, our expedition across Dearborn to Harb’s Hobby Shop would be exactly like Maurice Herzog’s brutally difficult expedition to climb Annapurna in the Himalayas.
We prepared. I had a crude, blue, nylon anorak and a pair of mittens made of some kind of cheap shearling that came from a flea market. I also had a gray wool balaclava, that I got from K-Mart specifically after reading about them in “Annapurna”. It was $3.97. I had inexpensive vinyl “moon boots” insulated with foam. We wore blue jeans, T-shirts and sweaters as our technical base layers. I was careful to wear two pairs of sweat socks. Raymond Shuckle, my lieutenant, was better equipped. He wore an impressive snorkel jacket and snowmobile boots with special felt liners. He also had covertly reapportioned a pair of genuine skiing gloves from his older brother. He wore a bright red knit stocking cap, useful for signaling in the event we would need rescue.
We had plotted our navigation and ranging based on car trips we had made over previous months and years in the region. We knew the route, up Cherry Hill, then to Outer Drive, and eventually a long slog along Michigan Avenue to Monroe over piles of frozen, plowed snow. These massive ice and snow formations were our version of Herzog’s crevasses and sastrugi on Annapurna. There was a secondary route we could take through Ford Field, but that meant a dangerous descent of the icy sled hill and grueling climb up the steep gradient of Monroe Street toward Michigan Ave. This, however, was the most direct route, although it was significantly more rigorous and involved greater risk.
After sunset, we set out.
Our first obstacle was crossing the open, wind-blown snow field of Levagood Park. This could have become an immediate disaster, as blowing snow limited our visibility. Luckily, being only a block from our houses, we were familiar with the terrain and able to effectively navigate to our first landmark, Sea Shore Pool. It was bitingly cold and the snow was deep, perhaps six inches, with a hard-frozen crust on top. After our successful trial-by-fire crossing of the Levagood ice fields, we pressed on.
Crossing Telegraph Road was a risk. Passing cars threw torrents of salty slush on us as we waited for our chance to dart across the lethal passage. It was our analogy of crossing deadly crevasses. We continued undaunted by the risks and managed to cross as a pair, making it to the other side. This is where we entered untraveled territory. In no uncertain terms, Telegraph Road marked the outer boundary of our neighborhood, and the entrance to the hinterlands.
We charted a course through side streets, abandoning the sidewalks as they were largely impassable and, instead, took to the streets themselves. This meant increased risk, but we were willing to accept it in exchange for greater speed. At one point, we came across a group of kids we had never seen before, dressed similarly to us in moon boots and snorkel jackets, but older. They were a rough looking bunch, standing at the edges of the street. Their plot was to wait until a car slip-slid down the street, then run behind it with the hope of grabbing the bumper. This would give them a wild, careening ride, sliding on the soles of their boots, until the speed became too great or the distance too far, at which point they would let go and tumble to a stop. We stopped to watch them for a while but judged that this unknown group of older indigenous kids could become dangerous at any moment and engage us with tightly packed ice-balls. We pressed on.
47 years later, I return to the scene of the Levagood ice field crossing from the original 1973 expedition.
Schuckle, for his part, was an excellent lieutenant. He seemed largely non-plussed by the ordeal, pressing on with neither complaint nor rancor. That is, until I looked at his face, drawn in discomfort and the agony from the biting wind. Although he said nothing, he was clearly near his limit.
We had made it to the open expanse next to the Dearborn High School athletic field. This was the gateway to the Rouge River basin. There were rescue facilities there in the form of a fire station where we could, presumably, surrender to the elements, declare our mission a failure, and turn ourselves in to the firemen at the station for what would be a humiliating defeat at the hands of mother nature and human endurance. They would offer rescue but at the cost of humiliating repatriation to our parents. Whatever sanctions accompanied that were too horrible to imagine.
So, we pressed on.
Despite our condition, we were resolved to our fate under our own destiny. Ice spicules blew from east to west, assailing our bare skin around our eyes like frozen wind-borne razors. Our endurance was waning. We had both spent the day at school and would have to return tomorrow, so it was necessary to manage our physical resources. Exhaustion from our adventure, no matter how bold and heroic, would not grant clemency from a day of school.
It was at this point, in the open ice fields just north of the fire station along Outer Drive, that I took matters into my own hands and regretfully signaled retreat. I remember, to this day, the exact moment I admitted defeat. This capitulation was at least better than surrendering to the firemen for rescue, as we could return home- if we survived- covertly manage our maladies from the ordeal, and equip ourselves for another attempt as conditions improved.
I don’t remember much from the trip back. Humiliation, the harsh elements and fatigue must have blocked my recollection as with any trauma.
I do remember getting home. My boots and socks were heavy and soaked. My rag-wool balaclava had likely meant the difference between survival and oblivion, as it was encrusted with ice around the breathing hole and covered in snow. My mittens were sodden, and my hands bright blue from cold, the skin wrinkled from immersion in the damp mitts. I stripped from my jeans and T-shirt in the bathroom, and ran a steaming bath. I remember that bath. I remember it well. Plucked from the arctic hell-storm and immersed in opulent, hot water in the safe haven of my house was such a bizarrely polarized juxtaposition of fate that I could hardly wrap my young mind around it. We had survived, our dramatic failure remained undiscovered, and we had gathered valuable information to try again. Despite our failure, there was a meager inventory of success from the ordeal. It was on this I chose to focus as I made plans to check the weather forecast and begin preparations for another attempt.