(New book available here, as seen on American Ninja Warrior, with a portion of proceeds benefiting Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center in its fight against child abuse.)
When the July 18 episode of American Ninja Warrior featured The Man Behind the Mask – a book I crafted in collaboration with Flip Rodriguez and Noah Kaufman – I felt like I’d “beat that wall” and hit the buzzer. Pardon my slip into Ninja-speak here. It’s what I had to do to land the book gig in the first place.
Skeptical of a reality-TV sport, I initially resisted an introduction to these Ninjas. I soon knew they spoke my language, and I soon started speaking theirs. Therein lies the first of several lessons I learned en route to the making of The Man Behind the Mask, shared here to help other entrepreneurs, especially in the creative fields.
That first lesson: Listen.
Listen Amy Manson, a colleague when I led marketing communications at Positive Coaching Alliance, asked me to explore partnership with a group called Wolfpack Ninjas. She offered to connect me with the group’s leader, Noah Kaufman, the physician who starred on American Ninja Warrior as “The Ninjadoc.”
Accustomed to partnership with Hall of Fame athletes, coaches and teams from the major pro sports leagues, hearing a name that sounded more like a WWE character stopped me cold. As the saying goes, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
I relented when Amy explained that the Wolfpack Ninjas were “making the world healthier one kid at a time,” and Noah practically had me at hello. Within minutes we found that we hailed from neighboring suburbs outside of Chicago and that his group and ours both focused on youth-friendly principles of sports and educational psychology.
Noah said he could demonstrate this via video he would send me. Most such promises from other partnership prospects over the years were never kept. But when Noah’s video arrived the next day, I was glad I listened to Amy and glad I listened to Noah.
His well-produced minute-long cellphone video featured him speaking in voice-over shots of his son repeatedly failing to scale a Warped Wall until he finally succeeded. Noah’s video nailed our PCA principles. When I asked how he’d done such a good job so quickly, Noah said, without irony, “I’m a Ninja.”
Throughout that partnership, we discovered similar values and skill sets, often finding the other answering emails at 2 a.m. While co-promoting and attending Wolfpack Ninjas events, I connected with many of Noah’s team of about 30 Ninjas. But that phase of our work abruptly ended when PCA laid me off in August 2017, leading to the next lesson in the making of The Man Behind the Mask.
Say Yes Phoning Noah to explain my departure, he thanked me and said, “This layoff must be sad for you, so I don’t want to seem overly opportunistic, but would you consider contracting with us?” I answered, “Thanks. It is sad for me, and I also don’t want to seem overly opportunistic, but honestly, that’s part of why I’m calling. So, yes.”
Over the next two-plus years, our group worked hard, traveled together, stayed up late, and sweated out mission-critical assignments, quite literally, in the case of a playground build with KABOOM! on a 95-degree day in San Antonio. We forged the sort of bonds that uniquely arise from those circumstances.
The rewards of friendship, achievement, and adopting the mindset of these world-class athletes made me happy I’d said, “Yes,” especially because our San Antonio team included Flip Rodriguez, who is The Man Behind the Mask. One other reward was learning more lessons.
Sometimes Work for Free The pandemic halted our live events. Noah’s financial backers ended our contract. With their blessing I contacted the Ninjas individually and landed a couple sweat-equity-only gigs.
Though I never saw cent one, I enjoyed the work and continued growing, which reinforced the lesson to “Say Yes.” I have no doubt that is why Noah contacted me late in 2021 with an offer of paid work on The Man Behind the Mask, a process that taught me one more lesson.
Play to Your Strengths, and Help Your Collaborators Do the Same Noah Kaufman knows business. He runs it for our collaboration. Flip and I stay out of the way.
Another of Noah’s strengths is that he knew Flip well enough to help him open up in the eight hours of conversation they recorded for the core of the book. Flip’s story is so agonizing that he sometimes had to stop talking, and Noah, The Ninjadoc, masterfully supported and encouraged Flip as he would any trauma patient in the ER.
Flip’s strength is his honesty and courage. It’s not fearlessness. It’s his ability to overcome fear. That he endured his trauma is evidence. That he purposefully re-lived his trauma in the telling of his story shows the strength of his conviction to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” and the depth of his commitment.
Me, I know words. I edited theirs into a coherent narrative, wrote the book’s afterword, and this marketing copy for our Amazon page: “Read the real and raw story of Flip Rodriguez, the ‘Man Behind the Mask.’ In this inspirational story, the American Ninja Warrior star explains how he overcame years of sexual abuse during his childhood and lifted himself from the depths of despair to unimaginable heights.”
After dark on May 2, D.C. wasn’t overly hot, walking from my de facto headquarters at The Hamilton back to Hotel Harrington. The night held just a hint of humidity, a soft blanket that subtly alluded to the city’s notorious sweat soakings.
Nothing even happening at Harry’s, the often-rowdy dive bar in the Harrington, which is a dive hotel like the one where Robert Blake and Tom Ewell lived in the old Baretta TV series. But it’s worth staying there for the old-school “charm” at half the price of anywhere else such a short walk from the White House and even more importantly The Hamilton.
But up in my room, where the blackout drapes almost met closely enough to keep the light out, CNN let me know we’d feel heat the next day. The news broke about the Supreme Court’s draft opinion re: Roe v. Wade.
Sleep with CNN spicing my dreams segued into waking surrealism. The candidate’s team communications platform overflowed with internal messages, mostly of the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth variety. I would have to directly phone the candidate back in Houston to sort this out.
And it would have to happen while walking to the day’s destinations, familiar haunts from my past D.C. visits. I refused to forego the pilgrimages I’d planned on top of a two-day out-and-back from San Francisco to D.C. built around representing my client, Fit Kids, at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit.
The call came at 10 a.m. from the candidate — Cameron “Coach Cam” Campbell, known for the #GridironGrit he brings from his football coaching career to his campaign to “go to state” as the representative for Texas House District 132. Yes, in Texas, it takes nothing less than #GridironGrit grit for a Black man to turn a red seat blue.
Between Coach Cam’s infant and toddler in his office and the street shouts and sirens that started to wane when I walked the gentrified U Street Corridor, we somehow managed to mostly understand each other. I would duck into Busboys and Poets, the progressive bookstore/cafe, for inspiration…
…and I would take my findings — which this time included The Trayvon Generation by Elizabeth Alexander and Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist by Albert Camus — to a proper office to compose a statement on SCOTUS for Coach Cam’s consideration.
In my booth at Ben’s, fueled by the vibe and an Original Chili Half Smoke, I wrote: The Supreme Court opinion that came out yesterday demonstrates the vast overreach and ruthless power grab of the political right, reaching right down into the most intimate and personal aspects of women’s lives. The right, embodied by the Republican Party, does this against the will of the people they are sworn to represent. It is up to us as individuals — politicians and constituents alike, starting at the local level — to use our voice and our vote to protect our legal rights. The Supreme Court stands poised to trigger the worst of what Texas Republicans already have decided. Our best defense against the violation of our civil rights and human rights is to remove Republicans from power, and I intend do so in HD 132.
With Coach Cam more or less signed off on that, a long, hot walk had me hit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian an hour before closing. On the way there, and then to happy hour at Off the Record in the famous Hay-Adams Hotel, glimpses of the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House had me feeling some type of way.
The sight of the buildings themselves are so iconic, so burned into my brain as a patriot-in-training from earliest memory, that they raise a reverence. But knowing what their residents and honorees perpetrated is just as breath-taking.
Sitting in Off the Record — elbow-to-elbow crowd clamor drowning out CNN’s continuing coverage of the not-yet-24-hour-old SCOTUS news — I wondered who around me shaped policy in which ways. In those surroundings, politics feel real.
It was nothing a stop at headquarters couldn’t cure. So I walked back out into higher heat and humidity than the night before.
Drugs helped reduce the characters of Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompson to gibberish in their best-known road books, “On The Road” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” But it wasn’t just drugs. It was also the overwhelm of the road itself, with its expansiveness forcing eyes and mind open and sheer beauty pounding the optic nerve from inside and out until you struggle to share your vision with anyone. Inexpressible intimacies hide under layers but still drive the story like the bass you don’t realize you hear under a band’s thunder.
Drugs played no role in my road trip with my daughter, Eleni, through California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado (CANVUTCO), so if I write gibberish like my writing heroes, it’s only from overwhelm. In my wiser moments, I let pictures speak at least a thousand words, though neither pictures nor words can convey all we saw.
This road trip formed about six months into the pandemic. Eleni’s friends invited her to Colorado, and she asked if I would join her. Restless and road hungry, work schedules scuttled, we would handle our obligations remotely. Zoom let us zoom. We had friends and country to see.
To keep us Covid-safe(r) and cash richer, Eleni outfitted her used Ford Escape with a makeshift bed: four eighteen-inch boards jointed together with a sliding plywood platform on top that created a storage space and left room for a mattress on top of the platform. With the inside loaded and her bike in the roof rack, we headed out on October 16.
She drove us out to Highway 5 via 152 through Gilroy, along the rolling reservoir hills. When her sleepiness settled in, I took over. The car’s ignition challenged me, which brought some daughterly ridicule, so I launched into a quasi-satirical, full Luddite, get-off-my-lawn-guy rant.
“Hybrids have no pickup, and electrics leave us at the mercy of a shortage of charging stations.” Eleni de-bunked that with statistics and said, “but I understand, you’ve already decided not to do the right thing because of the research you haven’t done?” Fake posturing fell into real laughter.
Gauging our time as we sped down Highway 5, we planned to camp at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, which came recommended. That way, we could visit St. George, also recommended, early the next morning.
Hunger hit. Las Vegas was an option. Eleni had never been, and a burger stop on the Strip was about all the Vegas experience either of us would want. Whenever we had cell service, she researched restaurants. Pandemic protocol left us unsure of what was open and how limited the seating might be, so we switched Luddite roles, and I convinced Eleni to use her phone as a phone. We settled on a burger joint in the Venetian, and the setting sun in our rearview mirror soon gave way to Vegas neon on the windshield.
The Strip traffic crawled. Crowds on the sidewalks were much thicker than we’d guessed. Only about half the people wore masks, replicating roughly the presidential polling less than three weeks before the election. Covid concerns crept in, but we persisted with our plan even when I missed the turn into the Venetian driveway. It wasn’t until I misunderstood the parking lot directions and tried to ease the car into a garage that threatened to peel Eleni’s bike off the roof and then had to three-point turn out of there with a hundred honking cars behind us that she yelled, “Dad, let’s get out of Las Vegas!”
So we did. Or we tried. With no dinner-worthy food packed and nowhere between there and Valley of Fire even hinting of a hot meal, we turned around just outside the city limits and settled on Raising Cane’s. The kid with the menu board in the drive-through lane earnestly explained that the product was better than Popeyes but not as good as Chick-fil-A and sold us on baskets of tenders that were no good at all.
Leaving the lot, we noticed the Five Guys down the street, whose sign was invisible from the other direction, and which had not turned up on Eleni’s internet search. She yelled again that same yell as at the Venetian, further frustrated by burger misadventure.
The Valley of Fire campground was full, so we boondocked and had a hard night’s sleep.
The park looked promising in the sunrise.
But now we aimed to reach the Denver/Boulder area by nightfall to connect Eleni with her friends on time. We left about 6:15 a.m., stopping for a McDonald’s coffee to keep us from driving off the road between there and St. George.
In Utah, the coffee took full effect. We had to lower those Cane’s. We pulled into a strip mall that had a combination FeelLove Coffee and Be Hot Yoga studio, which met all of our needs from the plush restrooms to the interesting gift shop to the great coffee necessary to fuel us across most of Utah and Colorado that day.
We talked a lot. We took turns driving and reading to each other when the views lapsed into the less spectacular. Eleni read to me from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Moses, Man of the Mountain.” I read to her from the introduction of a book I was writing about Black America and some chapters she suggested from her copy of “Braiding Sweetgrass.”
The need for gas, to lower more Cane’s, to replenish our beef jerky supply, and to stop in a town called Beaver led us to stop in Beaver, Utah. Inside the gas station convenience store with my Rasta-colored gaiter/do-rag now serving as a Covid mask, I made eye contact and raised a fist in solidarity with a young woman wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. Her eyes smiled back, and I pointed to her shirt and said, “Eleni, look what we found. In Utah!” The other prizes we found there were Scotty’s jerky and an “I Love Beaver” sticker to mail to my father.
Post-Beaver, about twenty-four hours into our trip, the road sensibility kicked all the way in. The scenery swelled my chest. I felt how much I’d missed the road during quarantine and gave thanks in silent prayer.
We next stopped in Fruita, Colorado to eat at an old-school burger joint called Munchies, which also served the first in a series of pumpkin pie flavored shakes we would drink on this trip.
Pushing east across Colorado…
Our last gas stop was at a Kum & Go. When I snapped a photo of the sign, Eleni asked if that was to accompany the Beaver sticker I’d bought for her grandfather.
We landed at the Fetter family household in Highlands Ranch by about 8:30. We had an immediate and delicious dinner with Ross and Karen and their kids, Hayden and Hayley, friends with our family since our children’s grade school days who had left the Bay for Colorado years ago. Eleni soon had to take off to meet her friends in Longmont and left me behind for a few days with the Fetters. Our conversations were deep, intense, personal, and hilarious, not for sharing here. Otherwise, hiking was the highlight. On the first day, Ross took me to Red Rocks for a look-see and then to Three Sisters for more vigorous rises and falls and scrambles.
The next day, we took a five-mile hike in the neighborhood. That night, I convinced Ross to spend the next day helping me tick off a bucket-list item: the Manitou Incline. He researched the pandemic protocol, which demanded reservations and bus tickets from a remote parking lot. We left early the next morning, because Ross decided if we were driving past Garden of the Gods, we might as well stop in. I’m glad he did.
The Incline was spectacular. It’s an athletic challenge I first learned of through a Facebook friend’s comment on a photo I’d posted of myself running stairs. On the site of a former railcar route that was destroyed in a landslide (fact check), the Manitou Incline consists of 2,768 stairs carved into a mile of trail that climbs 2,000 feet to a peak of 8,500 feet of altitude. The average grade for the trail is 45 percent, and sometimes is as steep as 68 percent. The record time of ascent is 17:45. Based on my stair-sprint training, I thought it might take me an hour.
It was a grueling physical and mental challenge. Sweat poured off me. Breath thinned. Quads quivered. Footsteps faltered. I often wanted or needed rest, mindful of incomplete acclimation and hydration and remembering that two years earlier, I’d seized while walking a golf course with Ross. On the Incline, he needed to rest more often to catch his breath, but I couldn’t leave behind the guy who might have saved my life on that golf course, and anyway, resting meant awesome sights.
It took us an hour and forty minutes to summit.
Ross has a few inches in height on me and more than a few pounds, so downhill on the Barr Trail, his momentum through those switchbacks helped him beat me back to the base by about forty-five minutes…including time I took to stop for photos.
Over a well-earned lamb dinner that Ross cooked, he dispensed a life’s worth of advice on National Park choices. Early in our planning, Eleni and I hoped for Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion. But our various friend commitments took at least two of those off the table. Then she added Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde as possibilities, and I mentioned that route should include a stop at Woody Creek Tavern for a Hunter Thompson pilgrimage. With one final yawn and groan as he lifted off the couch, Ross urged me to emphasize Arches and to take Highway 128 down from near Grand Junction.
The next morning, Ross reminded me to sign his guestbook, warning in all seriousness that the last person who left without signing suddenly died. So, I made sure to do so.
For the next phase of the trip before Eleni and I headed home, Ross drove me to Denver and dropped me at the Bresler family residence. Eleni would meet me there after breaking from her Longmont friends, and we would spend a couple days in Boulder with my high school friend, Jan Abendroth North. After a too-quick lunch with Justin, Alison, and their son, Charles (elder children Max and Elie otherwise occupied), Eleni and I left for Boulder. Jan could not host us until late afternoon, and Eleni had never seen Red Rocks, so I visited for the second time. After a quick walk, she took a spin on her bike while I walked and ran the amphitheater rows, another workout as famous as Manitou Incline.
That still left time for an enormous dinner of burnt tips, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, and a burger on the West End Tavern roof deck above Pearl Street mall. We made it to Jan’s in time for a Zoom call she has periodically with a posse of girls from our high school. When we signed off from Zoom, our conversations became deep, intense, personal, and hilarious, not for sharing here.
The next day, I had a real-live, actual, in-person business meeting with Erin Vito, a website designer collaborating with me on a client project. While Eleni hiked and cycled Boulder, Erin and I had a great, productive, fun first meeting at Rayback Collective, a cool space for beer, coffee, and conversation. Erin recommended I eat at Roadhouse Boulder Depot, so I walked the mile or so on Goose Creek Path. On other visits to Boulder over the years, Jan showed me wondrous places, such as El Dorado Canyon State Park, and on my own I had wandered the CU campus and The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, but I never stumbled onto the more urban beauty that also infuses Boulder.
Dinner done, I Lyfted back to Jan’s for another night of conversation. The next morning, Eleni and I scraped windshields as fall had become winter overnight, said our goodbyes and thanks to Jan, and visited my former work colleague, Amy Manson, for breakfast at her house in Superior with husband, Pat, and son, Max. We left there fueled with good cheer, excellent coffee, and breakfast burritos.
A major accident on Highway 70 slowed us down for a couple hours. We enjoyed views of frosted treetops towering above the freeway and those at eye level, maybe just fifty to seventy feet lower, that were still their usual deep green.
By the time we passed that accident scene, all the National Park possibilities melted into the one that Ross recommended. Passing the junction that leads to the Woody Creek Tavern and eventually the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Eleni and I started making plans for our next trip.
Other specific memorable moments were opening the lid on our hand sanitizer and having it shoot a shot that splatted on Eleni’s passenger seat a few inches from her eyes and our search for fast food in Grand Junction leading to Qdoba until the sudden sight of the sign for Freddy’s Steakburgers dragged me across three lanes of traffic and into two rounds of burgers and chicken sandwiches and pumpkin pie shakes. That held us until we hit 128, which winds about forty-five miles along the Colorado River.
At dark, we drove into Moab for a light bite and drove back out 128 to a boondock site.The next morning, we woke up at 6:30, did gymnastics into the front seat, and bee-lined past the rock faces visible in the dawn for the Denny’s at the edge of town. It was closed. I’d never seen a closed Denny’s. It was open the night before. Maybe it was a fluke Covid-related event. As cosmically disconcerting as a closed Denny’s was, we accepted the universe’s gentle nudge toward the much more mom-and-pop Jailhouse Café for coffee and what their menu listed as “soul bacon,” which was bacon.
Arriving at Arches around 8 a.m., it was too late to hike out to Delicate Arch for sunrise or whatever you’re supposed to do, so we just drove and checked stuff out and stopped whenever something awed us more than whatever else was aweing us. We made friends with random hikers, like the guy in a Bears sweatshirt and Cubs hat, who I talked sports and neighborhoods with, and then a little Latino kid, sprinting ahead of his family in a walking cast for his broken foot, but irrepressible and oblivious to pain just to be free in such beauty.
At one stop, Eleni also took off running, boulder-hopping, scrambling, letting her soul dance, and I watched full of joy and love, my chest swelling like a few days earlier when we first crossed Utah, happy and proud to hug her when she came back.
I had to return to Moab by 2 p.m. to run a Zoom class for The Writing Salon, so we drove back down to the visitor center for gift shopping, and I dropped off Eleni and her bike with plans to meet her at 6 p.m. I had a room reservation at The Virginian hotel so that I could run my class.
At the front desk, I asked for Kate, whom I’d spoken to by phone several days earlier about Zooming from a quiet lobby space that might save me the $200 room reservation. The barefoot lady in the peasant dress said, “I’m Kate.” I reminded her of the conversation. “Oh, I remember. No problem. You can have the room for three hours, no charge. Just don’t mess up the bed. When you leave, it has to look like nobody was there.”
Class complete, I dropped off the key with Kate. She would not accept a tip or other compensation. “Just do something nice for somebody else.”
I drove back through Arches to meet Eleni. We used the rest of daylight to wind back down through the park before a giant burger dinner at Moab Brewery to celebrate her cycling every paved mile of Arches that day, and then we fell into a deep boondocked sleep.
In the morning, we took a last look around camp and left by 7:30.
We lingered at Moab Coffee Roasters, Poison Spider Bicycles, and a rock shop and found a dream house on the way out of town.
In Crescent Junction, needing gas and allured by signage, we stopped at Jackass Joe’s Oasis. It was jerky heaven. We stayed a while. Eleni rehearsed her later line, “Dad liked the jerky store more than he liked Arches.” We left with $90 worth of jerky, including wild boar, Alien Fresh Roadkill, Papa Dan’s Prime Rib, and Oak Barrel Whiskey Rabbit.
We mostly sprinted across Utah, until awe stopped us at Eagle Canyon.
We also slowed through a sudden snowstorm outside Price. Our nav directions put us on some state and county roads, and we ended up at Mom’s Café in Salina, where the waitress asked Eleni to wipe our table and tossed her a rag. We were afraid to eat anything other than cherry pie and coffee there.
Weary, we drove through eerie landscapes, winds howling, temperatures dropping, long horizons of salt or sand or both. Near sunset we had a low-gas scare and held our breath downhill toward a distant Philips 66 sign that belonged to the Border Inn Motel in Baker, Nevada.
It was just across the Utah line, one of the most desolate spots I’ve ever seen. On the way to the restrooms, you pass through a convenience store selling every imaginable vice, and some unimaginable, and then a pool room stuffed with slot machines, but all cordoned off due to virus. It screamed of Sam Shepard, and Eleni didn’t know him or Patti Smith, and I didn’t know some of her artists, so we started a Spotify playlist of stuff we knew and didn’t know.
Making our list and the conversational riffs that came with that carried us through the early night until we got really hungry and stopped at Urban Cowboy in Eureka, Nevada. It was about 19 degrees when we got out of the car. We knew we’d need a hotel instead of boondocking, and we also knew we had to hit Fallon before we could sleep if we were going to get Eleni home in time for her next scheduled shift. I had a Jameson and a huge chicken fried steak.
We shared road talk with a couple from Chico, who thought we were nuts to try to make it to Fallon that night but probably never read Jack Kerouac or Hunter Thompson.
We slept a few hours at the Motel 6 in Fallon, fueled ourselves at Stone Cabin Coffee, a place stuffed with taxidermy of fish, sheep, bear, waterfowl, deer, elk, bobcats and Halloween skeletons with Covid masks. We spent our next five hours speeding, working on our playlist and our jerky rankings, and marveling at the crystal shimmer of the Truckee River dancing down the Sierra Nevada. Returning to civilization, we took ugly 80 back to the Bay, listening for traffic reports on the radio between the too-early Christmas carols, stuck in a slowdown in the suburbs, longing again for the road behind us and the road ahead of us.