Hell's Gate. Even the name conjures up images of danger and daring. Only the toughest hikers even take on the challenges of this wilderness area with its steep trails, rocky ridges and deep emerald pools. Roger Ballard is one of those hikers brave or crazy enough to tackle this wild and dangerous terrain rated as "most difficult" in the Arizona Trails Guide.
But that's not the whole story. Ballard also is 65. And he also has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
More commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease (after the American baseball player who suffered from the illness), ALS is a progressive disorder that leads to muscle weakness and atrophy.
"I feel very blessed because I have a rare type of ALS," Ballard says. "It usually goes into limbs and muscles. The last place is your throat. I want to take advantage of that and make people more aware of the disease."
Ballard, who was diagnosed with ALS four years ago, says he didn't tell his girlfriend, family or friends until eight months ago.
"I didn't tell anyone," he says. "I told them I had dental surgery. I didn't want that kind of attention."
Ballard finally decided to divulge his secret when his doctor told him he only had six months to live.
Obviously, the doctor was wrong. In fact, Ballard looks healthy and fit. Wearing jeans, neatly pressed shirt and cowboy boots, Ballard looks every inch the military man he once was. An ex-Marine, Ballard is proud of his military background, as his USMC belt buckle testifies.
His military training recently helped Ballard survive a night in the wilderness. Ballard wrecked his bicycle coming down a steep incline on Cracker Jack Mine Road and spent the night in a canyon near the East Verde River. He had packed food and a space blanket for the trip, so he was in good shape when a couple of news helicopters spotted him the next morning. "Actually, I was three miles from Highway 87 and on my way out," he says, "so it's not like they found me. It's more like I found them."
Ballard has been taking advantage of Payson's outdoor opportunities since moving here from the Seattle area a year ago. Payson was the compromise that he and his girlfriend, Marilyn Rude, agreed upon when they left Washington. He had been thinking of Montana because of the mountains, and she had been considering Sun City because of the social activities. They don't regret choosing Payson.
Ballard's two children from a previous marriage Brooke, 23, and Brandon, 18 are still in Seattle, and Rude also has two children living there, as well as one in California. The couple met two and a half years ago at a singles dance group, where they both enjoyed West Coast Swing. But it was a year before they started going out. "Dancing was a big attraction," Rude says. "That was the first thing. We danced well together."
Ballard says he didn't tell Rude about his illness because they were just dating at first so why ruin it?"
Rude smiles wryly at this comment and says, "He got me hooked first. He gave me my way out, but by then it was too late."
Today, the couple share a blue-and-white house in Payson. In fact, on this particular day, they are even dressed in blue and white, thus completing the motif. They share the house with their Siamese cat, Lee Kay, who adopted them a few months ago. Lee Kay refers to Ballard's pseudonym, Lee Kross, which he uses for his poetry. Ballard, a jack-of-all-trades, even built the cat house that sits on the front porch.
Ballard humorously refers to himself as a "retired stationery engineer," which as he puts it, is a "fancy title for a handyman."
Working for Bon Marche department store in Washington, Ballard was plumber, electrician and all-around handyman.
He's also a bit of an inventor. Because he suffers from neck cramps, Ballard doesn't like wearing a backpack on his hiking trips. No problem. He invented and built himself a cart that he uses to carry his camping gear. The camouflaged cart is attached to a long pole, which Ballard hooks to himself by means of a harness and tool belt that he wears around his waist.
Ballard is planning his Hell's Gate trip in mid-April. But, never one to remain idle, he is already planning ahead. In May, he plans to celebrate his birthday, which falls on May 12, and raise awareness of ALS by doing a walkathon from Payson to Phoenix. Ballard is currently looking for sponsors, and he also invites others to join him on the walk.
"I want to do this for the challenge and to have a spiritual feeling," he says.
The following poem was penned by Lee Kros, (Roger Ballard), in December 1998:
l. Remember, you are what you are.
2. Remember, you make what you are.
3. Remember, no one else can make you.
4. Remember, you don't want to be made.
5. Remember, life is a moment long.
6. Remember what you want in life.
7. Remember to love what you make.
8. Remember, you create emotions.
9. Remember, you have all choices.
10. Remember, you are not perfect.
11. Remember, you do the best you can.
12. Remember, needs are from within.
13. Remember, fair or not, life is.
14. Remember what real love is.
15. Remember to remember.