Buried Alive Under Three Feet of Snow… The Adventure Trek Series

The snow at Donner Summit this year hearkened back to earlier years when I spent a lot of time in the winter at Serene Lakes near the summit. California’s drought had gone, at least for this year, and deep snow had blanketed the mountains. Given that a fair amount had already melted, this late spring photo from Serene Lakes provides an idea of just how deep it had been.

 

I am trying to slip blogging in between my summer of backpacking adventures. It isn’t easy. Right now our guest bed is covered in gear as Peggy and I prepare to head out again. REI is beckoning: new hiking boots for Curt and walking poles for Peggy. I’ll post, catch up on blogs I follow, and respond to your comments between trips. Many thanks.

Today I will provide a break from my petroglyph series with another adventure trek tale, this time a cross-country ski trek. I took the photos I am featuring this May right after my trip to Carmel/Big Sur. All were taken in the area where we did a training trip for the trek.

 

This post takes us back in time to the early 1980s. A friend of mine and her family owned a cabin near Soda Springs on the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Donner Pass off of Interstate 80. The cabin was located close to a pair of small scenic lakes that Mark Twain had named Serena and Dulzura. Together, they were known as Ice Lakes. Between 1870 and 1927 they were harvested during the winter for their ice, which was then shipped to San Francisco via the nearby Central Pacific Railroad to keep things cool in an era before refrigeration.

Serene Lakes looking serene in mid-May. Much of the lake is still covered.

The development of the lakes as a resort area led real estate moguls to change the name to Serene Lakes, which isn’t surprising. Would you pay more for a home located on an ice lake or a serene lake?

I spent considerable time there in the winters. Some of the world’s deepest snow has been recorded in the region. In the winter of 1982, the cabin literally disappeared beneath a blanket of white. Getting into it involved climbing over a 20-foot embankment of snow and entering through the second story. Sometimes it would snow so hard that our vehicles would disappear overnight. We would stake them out with bamboo poles. This wasn’t so we could find them, however. It was to keep the huge snowplow with corkscrew blades from eating them for breakfast.

Imagine this Serene Lakes cabin buried under snow and you have an idea of just how deep the snow can get at Donner Summit.

Before John Slober created the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Area with its hundred plus miles of groomed trails next door, it was a great place for back-country wilderness skiing. We would strap on our skis at the cabin and disappear into the pristine wilderness, an absolute winter wonderland. We even tried winter camping. It’s an incredible experience but you have to be prepared for some unique challenges. The Sierras, which are friendly and forgiving in the summer, have minimal tolerance in the winter. Storms can sweep in with high winds and zero visibility. Hypothermia is always a lurking danger. Avalanches are a real possibility. There were no trails to follow, and no people. Naturally I loved it.

One of our favorite ski trips was following the Soda Springs Road, shown here, down to the American River. It was this wonderful downhill ski for several miles. The bad part came when we reached the bottom. We had to turn around and walk back up on our skis. Ski tracks can be seen in the snow.

I hiked down the road for a ways in May, remembering spring skiing in shorts and a T-shirt.

This is Red Fir country.

And Jeffrey Pine, as this pine cone attested to.

Serena Creek, still bearing Mark Twain’s name, flowed down the canyon beside Soda Springs road and cut a path through the still deep snow.

The rushing water reminded me why early season backpacking can be dangerous. This isn’t something you would cross. The metal looks like someone’s roof that had escaped.

Water from a small dam on Serena Creek was flowing over the spillway.

The lake behind the dam provided a reflection shot.

Serene Lakes provided another opportunity.

My enjoyable experience with backcountry skiing and winter camping meant that I had to create a 60-mile Cross-Country Ski Trek through the Desolation Wilderness so I could do more. If you have been following my blog, you will know that I had created the Trekking program as a fund-raiser for the American Lung Association so I could spend more time in the woods. I’d filled my summers with backpacking and bicycling but didn’t have an excuse for escaping in the winter.

My knowledge of winter camping was somewhat limited, unfortunately. I went out and bought lots of books. I also had the good sense to recruit two experts in winter camping from the National Nordic Ski Patrol, Paul and Diana Osterhues. It would be their job to provide us with training and leadership. They were very serious people. Smiling was not allowed until after we were aware of the dangers that faced us.

As part of our training we had to do an overnight trip. I volunteered the cabin as a starting point. Our group skied out about three miles through a thick fir forest with steep terrain to reach camp. We learned a lot. My first lesson was that when you fall over backwards in soft snow with a 60-pound pack on your back and long, skinny skis on your feet, it is difficult to get up. You develop instant empathy for turtles. As a kid, I had turned over a few and watched them struggle to roll over. Now it was my turn, a little Karma in action.

I also learned that heavy packs have minds of their own when it comes to negotiating downhill turns— especially if they are external frame packs, which is what I had at the time. I would zig and it would zag. Not good.  On one particularly steep, curvy hill, Paul and Diana planted themselves at the bottom to see which of us would crash. It was quite entertaining. I made it, but just barely and without grace.

Our problems were minimal in comparison to a woman on a later Alaska Ski Trek, however. She had to pee and went searching for the perfect hiding place. After selecting what she believed was a secure bush, she lowered her pants, squatted, and initiated the process. The only problem was that her skis were aimed downhill and decided to do a little skiing on their own, right down to where her friends were waiting. It was a very unique and cold way to get caught with your pants down.

Paul and Diana eventually got us to where we were supposed to camp and gave us assignments; we had to build emergency shelters to sleep in that night. Several Trekkers decided on building elaborate snow caves and a couple of guys with construction experience opted to create an igloo. I went for a trench on the theory that in a storm my objective would be to get out of the weather as quickly as possible. Although I don’t care for the analogy, my new home looked a lot like a grave. The snow shelter was seven feet long, three feet wide and four feet deep. It took me 15-minutes to complete. I topped it off with my ski poles, skis, and a ground cloth— and then got out my stove. Within 45 minutes of the time I arrived in camp, I was enjoying a hot cup of soup and hassling the folks who were making more elaborate shelters.

With the arrival of evening, we all disappeared into our various homes. Being outside in the dark and cold makes a warm down sleeping bag more attractive than an ice-cold spring in the desert. I blocked my entrance way with my backpack and shimmied into my mummy bag which was resting on an ensolite pad. After reading for about twenty minutes, I drifted off to sleep in my cozy little tomb. And it was cozy. Snow provides great insulation. Ask a Husky.

I didn’t wake up until the sun was providing a dim grey light the next morning. The first thing I noticed, besides being warm and cozy, was that my skis and ski poles were bent under what could only be a considerable amount of fresh snow. It didn’t take much imagination to picture the whole shebang falling in on top of me. It reminded me of my grave analogy. How do you put on clothes and shoes in such conditions? Carefully. Once dressed, I tentatively pushed on my door/backpack. Tentative didn’t work. So, I shoved with some of the emphasis one might use if he awakened to find himself buried alive. The pack and I emerged from under three feet of new snow. I felt like a reprieved ground-hog as I looked around and saw the bright sun beating down without a cloud in the sky.

There was no sign of anyone else. All 15 people had disappeared under the snow!

“Um, leaders,” I announced hopefully in a loud voice, “we may have a slight problem out here.” I wasn’t going to budge out of fear of falling in on top of someone.

“Mmmph, mmmph,” I heard in a muffled under-the-snow response. Then a head came bursting out of the snow about twenty feet away from my hole. Then another and another. If I’d had a foam rubber bat, I could have played whack-a-mole. Soon, everyone was accounted for and no one was hurt. We had all slept happily through the night. It was a great testimony for emergency snow shelters and great training for our ski trek.

Since I was in the area this past May, I decided to spend some more time wandering around with my camera. Following are some of the results.

Lake Van Norden, which is right next to Soda Springs, is no longer a lake. It was drained. But this year it looked like a lake to me! The mountains on the left are home to the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort.

Another photo. I liked the way the icy bank was reflected.

For those of you who like perspective shots, the Southern Pacific Railroad next to Soda Springs, provides one.

Historic Donner Summit is just a couple of miles up the road on old Highway 40— the Lincoln Highway, the first road to stretch all the way across America.

This historic photo on display at an overlook just below Donner Pass shows a car making its way over the pass circa 1929/30.

I don’t think Quivera, our small RV, would have liked the road, or fit. The backdrop is a peak bordering Donner Pass.

The Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, crossed over Donner Summit before Highway 40. Snow sheds, the dark line you see, protect the railway from the heavy Sierra snows.

A historic photo of the Central Pacific Railroad, later to become the Southern Pacific.

The scenic overlook below Donner Pass, provides this view of Donner Lake. It was down at the far end that the Donner Party was caught in heavy snow in the winter of 1846-47 and resorted to cannibalism for survival. I started a couple of three-day bike treks from the park and told the Trekkers that their dinner on the first night was mystery meat stew.

Another photo taken from the same location in 1942. I wasn’t born yet but I may be in the photo. Can you spot me? The photo is my mother. She and my father were on their way back to Oregon after a quickie wedding in Reno. I’ve sometimes wondered if I was the reason for the hurried trip.

I found this plaque amusing, or make that a bit shocking. Read it through if you can and then let me know your thoughts on the last paragraph.

Not very clear, but definitely worth looking at, this photo shows wagons making their way over Donner Summit. The early pioneers were a hardy bunch!

And finally, this gorgeous bridge built in 1925 and located next to the scenic overlook, which is just off to the right.

Another view.

NEXT BLOG: I’ll return to the Three Rivers Petroglyph site and some rather slithery rock art.

 

What to Do When Attacked by a Herd of Elk… Play Ape

Peggy photographed this herd of elk near the Redwoods last year.

Since I am off backpacking by myself in the wilderness, I thought I would repost a blog from when I was off on another solo adventure. This time I was heading into the Gila Wilderness next to Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southern New Mexico. I had just returned from Alaska and was taking six months off to backpack in the West.

Where I was going backpacking in the Gila Wilderness was something of a mystery to me. I didn’t have a clue.

My pack was loaded with a week’s worth of food and six topographic maps, more than enough to let me wander wherever I wanted and hopefully avoid getting lost. I had started off up the West Fork of the Gila River in the Cliff Dwellings National Monument but soon came across a trail jogging out of the canyon to the right.

Looks good to me, I thought to myself and started climbing. I was determined that wherever I went for the week would be based on random decisions. So much of my wilderness experience had involved leading groups or scouting out potential routes for organized trips that the sense of abandon felt delicious.

Consequently, years later, it isn’t exactly clear to me where I went. I was more than happy to hike 4 to 5 miles in one direction and then 6 or 7 in another. The only thing I tried to avoid was backtracking. I do remember wandering through Woodland Park and Lilly Park as well as climbing in and out of several canyons.

I had brought along two science fiction books for evening and early morning entertainment. Southern New Mexico is UFO Country. I was also carrying my usual field ID book and one serious read, Aldo Leopold’s “Sand Country Almanac.” Leopold had been responsible for the creation of the Gila Wilderness in 1924, making it the first specifically designated wilderness area in the United States, and, I might add, the world. People who love wild country and understand its intrinsic value owe a great debt to the man for his vision. I had read the book before but reading it again in the Gila Wilderness added a special significance.

I declared a layover day so I could savor it all at once. I was camped on a small stream located in a minor canyon and hadn’t seen a soul for four days. It was the perfect setting for getting lost in a book.

At some time in the early afternoon, a loud “Woooeee” shattered the silence.

Big Bird, I thought to myself. Big Bird on steroids. Aldo Leopold would have been up in a flash to discover the source. Of course, he would have had his rifle with him. He was quite the hunter. As usual, my only weapon was a dull three-inch pocketknife. Still, the mountain man in me demanded I get off my lazy tail and go exploring. I grabbed my binoculars and climbed out of the canyon. I was greeted by a broad, flat expanse of Ponderosa Pines but no Big Bird. “Woooeee,” I heard receding into the distance.  I put on my stalking cap and begin to sneak through the forest.

“Woooeee!” Big Bird shouted behind me. I whirled around only to catch a glimpse of something disappearing behind a bush. Big Bird it wasn’t. Nor was it the ghost of Geronimo, whose territory I was wandering through. It looked suspiciously like a cow elk that had morphed from stalkee to stalker. I wasn’t sure that I liked my new role but decided to play along.

“Woooeee,” I called out and jumped behind a Ponderosa.

“Woooeee,” I heard a delayed three minutes later. I stepped into the open to discover that my female companion had come out from behind her bush and was staring intently at my tree.

“Woooeee,” I shouted at her as she once again disappeared. We had a game. A cow elk was wooing me.

Years earlier I had discovered that much of the higher animal kingdom is quite curious about humans that don’t act like humans. I once had a similar experience to my elk chat with a coyote on the American River Parkway in Sacramento. First I would hide and then he would hide. Finally, out of frustration, the coyote plopped down in the middle of the trail, raised its head, and began howling. I plopped down in the trail as well, raised my head and joined him. We had quite the discussion.

The elk and I continued our game for about 15 minutes when I changed the rules. I sat down in plain sight with my back against the tree. Instead of hiding, she stood watching me for several minutes. I could tell the wheels were grinding away in her mind.

Suddenly she charged. I didn’t move from my seat but my adrenalin cranked up several notches. She was all of 10 feet away when she slammed on her brakes, lowered her head, stared me in the eye, and woooeeed again. Half fascinated and half frightened, I didn’t budge. Several hundred pounds of frustrated female were looming over me. I had zero doubt that she could kick the stuffing out of me. She held my gaze, snorted in disgust, shook her head, and trotted off.

While smaller than the bull elk, there is nothing puny about the females. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Whatever conversation we had been having was over. I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to camp. My first chore was to get out my guidebook. Female elks, it noted, can become rather aggressive and dangerous in the spring when they have calves. I’d been both ignorant and lucky.

After dinner, I went for my evening walk following an animal path that ambled along beside the creek. I heard a snort and looked up. Five elk were standing on the canyon rim staring down at me. The old girl had recruited some buddies to check out the weird human.  Unfortunately, this time I knew enough to be worried. I was an intruder in their territory, a possible threat to their precious babies.

My worry level turned to panic when all five came charging down the canyon wall. One moose had been scary; now I had the whole damn thundering herd! Running was out of the question. Think, Curtis, went dashing through my brain. The only thing I could dredge up was something I had fantasized I might do if charged by a grizzly bear in the wilds of Alaska. I started jumping up and down, scratching my armpits, pounding on my chest, and screaming ooh, ooh, ooh! It worked for great apes, why not me.

For the second time that day, I heard the screeching of elk brakes. This time there was no standing and staring, however. The herd turned as one and charged back over the canyon rim, disappearing into the night. Somewhat satisfied with myself, I returned to camp and the security of my tent.

I wandered around for another two days, keeping an eye out for UFO’s, steering clear of cow elk, and visiting sites where this or that pioneer had been killed by Apaches. The pioneers also did a pretty good job of killing off each other, not to mention the Indians. With my food running low, I finally ceased my wandering ways and hiked back to the National Monument.

NEXT BLOG: A beaver comes to visit in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.

Note: I am still out backpacking and will respond to comments when I return.

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Stuck in the Snow with Tania… On Meeting a Terrorist Group in the Sierras

Patty Hearst, holding an automatic weapon, proudly posed for a photo in front of the seven headed cobra symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

 

I’ve now written about two of three adventures from my 20s when I was hunting and fishing: one about escaping from a lightning storm and the other about searching for a lost friend in a snow storm. Both of them were on the scary side. This tale fits the category of being scary, but it was also strange.

“Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.” —Motto of the Symbionese Liberation Army

 

The final of our three adventures was more in the nature of a scouting trip. We had driven up into the mountains early in the spring to look for likely fishing holes. Trout season was only a few weeks away. The mountains were still coated with snow. We drove up an ever-narrowing road until a snow bank suggested that further progress was best left up to animals with big furry feet. Stopping fifty feet before the end, we parked and got out to stretch our legs.

We had wandered no more than a few feet when a white van came roaring up behind us and tried to slip by the right side of our car without slowing down. Normally it wouldn’t have been more than an irritation but the narrowness of the road combined with the snow left just enough room for one and one half cars, not two.  We watched in slow motion disbelief as the van barely missed our vehicle, slid into the snow, and became seriously stuck.

“Yes!” we said in unison, there is justice in this world. Right about then the side door of the van opened and disgorged a polyglot group of rough-looking characters. “Whoa,” I mumbled more quietly, “we had better keep our opinions to ourselves.” While two or three of the men bent down to look under the van, a not so rough, in fact an attractive young woman, disentangled herself from the group and came strolling over to where we were standing.

“I am in love,” Hunt mumbled. Bob and I joined the admiration society while an elusive thought began tugging at the back of my mind.

“Hi, guys,” she smiled at us, becoming even lovelier. “Do you have any guns in your car?”

My tiny elusive thought suddenly became a very large insistent nag. Pretty girls don’t normally start conversations by asking whether you are carrying weapons. Hunt, on the other hand, was beaming. He liked guns and girls that liked guns.

“I have a twenty-two along,” he announced proudly.

“Oh,” she replied, apparently a little disappointed at the size of Hunt’s gun. “My friends taught me how to shoot automatic weapons in the Bay Area. We are up here to practice.” It was stated with the same type of pride a new mother might talk about her child’s first steps or words. My large, insistent nag turned in to a three-stage fire alert. What was a pretty girl doing in the mountains hanging out with a scruffy looking group blithely talking about shooting automatic weapons?

Meanwhile Hunt had suggested that he and his new friend take the twenty-two out for a little practice since it was obvious that the van wasn’t going anywhere quickly. I don’t remember how I managed it, but I pulled Hunt and Bob aside sans beauty for a very quick and quiet conversation.

“I am not one hundred percent sure,” I began, “but I think the young woman who likes big guns is Patty Hearst, aka Tania, and that her friends over at the van are members of the SLA. If I am right, we are in a very dangerous situation.”

The SLA, or Symbionese Liberation Army, was one of the more bizarre and misled of the radical groups to be born out of the ferment of the late 60s and early 70s. Viewing itself as an urban guerrilla movement, SLA’s first action of note had been to gun down Dr. Marcus Foster, the black Superintendent of Oakland Schools, and seriously wound his deputy, Robert Blackburn. Blackburn had earlier served as Peace Corps Director of Somalia and then gone on to work for the Philadelphia School System. He had been responsible for recruiting my first wife, Jo Ann, and I as teachers when we left the Peace Corps. It would have been hard to find two people more committed to helping disadvantaged inner city kids in America than Foster and Blackburn.

SLA’s next major public statement was to kidnap Patty Hearst, heiress to the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearse, while she was a student at UC Berkeley. At some point, Patty switched from being an unwilling kidnap victim to willing participant in SLA and adopted the name of Tania, who had been a girlfriend of Che Guevara. The common assumptions were that Hearst was brainwashed or a victim of the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response through which a kidnap victim comes to associate with his or her captors. Certainly, the young woman we talked with was proud of her skill with automatic weapons and had the freedom to come over and chat with us. She hardly seemed like an unwilling prisoner.

In 1974 Patty participated in a San Francisco bank robbery and then moved to Los Angeles with the SLA where several members of the group met their death in a fiery confrontation with LA police. Some 400 LAPD officers had surrounded a house occupied by SLA and emptied over 5,000 rounds into the structure. Patty, who wasn’t there, watched the whole confrontation on television. She, along with William and Emily Harris, then fled to Pennsylvania for several months before making their way to Sacramento and another bank robbery.

There was enough connection with Hearst and the SLA that I suggested we go over to the van, smile a lot, and help the nice folks get unstuck— which we did. They drove up to the end of the road, turned around, carefully edged by our car and headed off down the mountain. We waved and smiled vigorously as they disappeared.

Was it Patty Hearst and the SLA? The timing was right, the young woman looked like Patty, and the group could have fit a description of the SLA. I have often pondered the question.  In May of 1975, the SLA robbed a bank in Sacramento (Carmichael) and a young mother, Myrna Opsahl, was shot and killed. Patty Hearst drove the get-a-way vehicle. It was one more sad and sordid event in the history of the SLA. In most ways this group of want-to-be revolutionaries was a group of losers. Their murder of Marcus Foster was regarded with disgust by most members of the radical community. It was their kidnapping of Patty Hearst and, even more so, the fiery shootout in LA that gave the organization status.

As for Hearst, I have no doubt that the Stockholm syndrome played a role in her behavior. But I am also convinced there was more. The atmosphere of the time encouraged radical thinking and Patty, who was something of a rebel, was living in a cauldron of dissent at Berkeley. I suspect it wasn’t all that hard to slip into a role of radical chic.

NEXT BLOG: What to do when an elk attacks: Play ape.

NOTE: I am away backpacking and kayaking. I’ll respond to comments when I return.

 

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When Lightning Strikes… Tales of Wilderness Survival

Towering cumulus clouds are beautiful and lightning storms are exciting, but they can also be dangerous and deadly. Numerous forest fires are created by lightning strikes each year and there are approximately 50 lighting caused fatalities annually in the US alone.

 

When you have spent as much time as I have wandering in the woods, there are bound to be situations that qualify as more tenuous, or scarier than others. I’ve already written about some of these, like the time I woke up in the middle of the night with a bear standing on me. Over the next few weeks I am going to relate other incidents on my Wednesday posts— assuming I haven’t disappeared into the wilderness again, which is always a strong possibility.

I’ll start by going back in time with my first three stories, back to when I was still shooting things. My first tale is about being caught in a lightning storm. The second relates to being lost in a snow storm. The third is about encountering Patty Hearst, aka Tanya, and her gun-toting SLA buddies on an early season fishing expedition in the Sierras. Let’s get started…

 

I grew up in the country where hunting and fishing were common. So, it isn’t surprising that I returned to the sports in the 70s. Actually, desperation drove me to the action. It isn’t that I was particularly enamored with catching or killing things. The meat I got from the local butcher tasted much better than anything I could shoot out in the woods. Freshly caught fish are good for breakfast, particularly when backpacking food is the option, but the process of gutting, cooking and cleaning up detracts seriously from the experience, especially when your objective is to get out on the trail. My general philosophy is live and let live unless necessity intervenes. Starvation qualifies, as does discouraging some large creature with big teeth and sharp claws that regards me as dinner.

No, my desperation had to do with my need to escape into the woods on a regular basis. I think of it as going home. It’s what led me to create the Trek program for the American Lung Association, and it’s what led me back to the hunting and fishing.

I am not sure whether I recruited my old friends from elementary and high school days (Bob Bray, Hunt Warner and Chuck Lewis) to go on expeditions or that they recruited me, but it wasn’t very long after I returned to Sacramento that the value of trout season and deer season became apparent: Fishing in the spring and hunting in the fall extended serious outdoor time by another four months. And then there was bonding, the old tribal ritual of going off into the woods with your friends on adventures. Generous allotments of beer consumed around the campfire helped.

Normally our trips involved little more than lots of good exercise and an occasional hangover. I enthusiastically joined in the efforts to entice fish with a Panther Martin lure, but usually avoided shooting anything. Killing a deer meant dragging it back to camp, hanging it up by the feet, gutting it, and skinning it— all of which was much more work than it was worth from my perspective, not to mention the deer’s. I had enough of that helping my friends. Occasionally I would shoot near a buck that was foolish enough to appear in my sights. I figured it was my job to remind him he was only a leap away from the stew pot.

The truth is, deer don’t have to worry about me— and they know it. This buck in one of many that stop by our house to visit.

I photographed this doe yesterday as she rested between flower pots in our back yard. The last couple of weeks, five or six have been hanging out around our house trimming the grass, eating Peggy’s rosebush, and sleeping in the shade.

On three occasions our expeditions became a little more adventuresome than we had bargained for. The first involved a much too close encounter with lightning.

Bob, Hunt and I were deer hunting north of Interstate 80 in the Tahoe National Forest on a high ridge. As usual, we were spread out, the theory being we might jump a deer and send it blundering into another member of our party. Usually bucks are too clever for this ploy. They send their does out into the line of fire while they sneak out the back door. This was apparently one of those days, thankfully. The car was at least two miles away down in a steep canyon. We’d be forever dragging a deer to it. I was wandering along, blissfully thinking of absolutely nothing when the distant sound of thunder caught my attention.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a huge, dark, cumulus cloud had appeared and was ominously working its way in our direction. I sat down on an old white fir stump and watched as it turned a ridge north of us into a battle zone of thunder and lighting. Having a front row seat was highly entertaining and, as it turned out, extremely foolish. Ten minutes later the storm hit our ridge. I was literally surrounded; Blinding flashes were instantly followed by ear-splitting booms. There was no counting 1000-1, 1000-2 to see how far away the lightning was. (Seven seconds is a mile.) It was right there. Pieces of tree were flying through the air and my hair was standing on end with electricity— or maybe it was fright. I was as frightened as I have ever been in my life. I knew I had to get off the ridge, and quickly.

I don’t exactly remember my run down the mountain but I do believe I broke some kind of world record for the two-mile dash. As did Bob and Hunt. We quickly climbed inside the truck to relative safety and called it a day. An ambulance met us as we were leaving. We read in the paper the next day that a hunter had decided to hide out under a tall Jeffrey Pine. Lightning had struck the tree and killed him. It could have been any of us.

Next Blogs: 1) Back to Burning Man; 2) Pt. Lobos Part II; 3) Wilderness survival: It was a dark and stormy night.

 

Bone Is Found— but he is still just a bone… Part III

George, the Bush Devil from my book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” checks out Bone. NO, George, Bone is not edible!

 

This is the third and final post on how Bone was discovered. In last Wednesday’s post my fellow backpackers and I had ended up at the resort on Echo Lake after coming out of the Desolation Wilderness. We had celebrated the first part of our journey with lunch and a beer or three…

 

My system complained about the third beer as we hiked on across Highway 50 and up to Benwood Meadow where we stopped for the night, some 34 miles from where we had started.

Our fourth day started out as a typical backpack day: we climbed. It was gentle at first and then became more serious. Once again snow-covered large segments of the trail. We spread out and searched for tree blazes. I scrambled over a particularly steep section and found myself in a high meadow.

Something half buried in a field of young corn lilies caught my eye. A few days earlier it would have been covered with snow. Curiosity led me to detour through the still soggy ground. Mud sucked at my boots.  My treasure turned out to be a disappointing, short, squat bone. Gnaw marks suggested it had been part of someone’s feast. I was about to toss it when a devious thought popped into my mind.

“Trash,” I hollered at Tom and held up the bone. We had a game where if one person found a piece of trash, the other person had to carry it out. But first you had to catch the other person.

Tom sprinted down the trail with me in pursuit. Unfortunately, we had made it over the mountain and our route ranged from flat to downhill. Tom was very fast. We had traveled two miles and were almost to Showers Lake before he stopped, concerned about leaving our companions too far behind. Very reluctantly, he took the bone and stuffed it in his pack.

“How can you classify a bone as trash,” he whined. I figured Tom would toss his new traveling companion as soon as I was out of sight.

X marks the spot where Bone was found, resting in a high mountain meadow. (Map from the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail book by Thomas Winnett.)

It was a pleasant hike down to Carson Pass on Highway 88, and relatively dry since we were on a south-facing slope. Kit Carson had come through here in February of 1844 along with John C. Fremont. It wasn’t pleasant then. The snow was deep and food was limited. The mountain men ended up dining off of their horses, mules and the camp dog. The dog apparently went quite well with pea soup. Later, the trail they discovered would become a major entry point for the 49ers rushing west to find gold. (Eventually, the trail cut through Diamond Springs, the foothill town where I was raised.)

There was nary a bar, restaurant or gas station near the pass so we hiked on another three miles to Lake Winnemucca. Rain was threatening and I set up my tube tent, a large sheet of plastic shaped into a round tunnel. It wasn’t particularly sturdy, but it was light and dry. Tom, on the other hand, was carrying a luxurious three-season tent. He stacked the women in head to toe and ended up smelling April’s feet all night.

The next day was all downhill— down to Fourth of July Lake, down to Summit City Canyon, and down to Camp Irene on the Mokelumne River. After dropping 4000 feet in 14 miles I found myself bone-tired again.

Camp Irene provided an attractive campsite but turned out to be rattlesnake country. I had discovered the perfect toilet spot, dug my cat hole, and was baring my behind when one buzzed at me. It’s amazing how fast you can pull up your pants. I was lucky the snake didn’t bite me on the butt. I grabbed a stick and chased him away with a couple of sharp prods for good measure. He was lucky I was something of a nature boy. Otherwise he would have been smashed. The next time I did any serious bathroom duty was when I was parked on a flush toilet at Lake Alpine the next day.

Climbing out of Camp Irene is a challenge. The 4000 feet we dropped the day before in 14 miles we were now expected to re-climb in six. Low clouds filled the canyon. It wasn’t raining but it was cold and damp. Somewhere in the mist a male grouse made its familiar ‘whump, whump, whump’ sound, working to attract a female companion. I empathized. Dripping wet Buck Bush grabbed at our legs.

To stay warm and dry we broke out our rain gear. Lynn moved from being cold and miserable to shivering and not caring. She was on the edge of hypothermia, a very dangerous state. The body loses its ability to maintain warmth and the rational mind ceases to function. Coordination spirals downward. It is very easy to die.

Tom and I acted quickly. I fired up my Svea gas stove and Tom had Lynn stand over it wearing her cagoule, a dress like poncho. We positioned the stove carefully. While this wasn’t a solution to hypothermia found in survival guides, it worked. (The recommended solution is to break out your sleeping bag and crawl in naked with the victim.) Within minutes, Lynn was ready to tackle the rest of the mountain.

Hypothermia can strike fast but it can also be quickly cured— assuming of course you catch it in time. Tom was next. “Curt,” he called plaintively from off in the brush where he had gone to pee. I rushed over and begin laughing. He had managed the first half of his chore but couldn’t zip his pants up. His mind was working fine but his coordination had gone south. He was all thumbs. I called Lynn over to help as I returned to the trail chuckling. There are some chores a trek leader doesn’t need to handle.

We hiked the rest of the way into Alpine Lake without difficulty. Since our ride wasn’t coming until the next day, we rented a one-room cabin to share. Rain poured down outside as we relived our adventures and made up tall tales way into the night. Our journey was winding down, but it wasn’t over.

I was shaking the dirt out of my pack at home when the bone fell out. Apparently, I had been carrying it all the way from Winnemucca Lake. “Darn Lovering,” I thought to myself, “I am going to get even.” I decided to keep the bone. There would be an opportunity on a future trip to slip it back into Tom’s pack. I would have revenge!

And that’s it, the story of Bone’s discovery. It started like so many things in our lives often do, as a non-event. Bone didn’t come up as a subject during our night in the cabin. Naked jumping ladies, lost trails, swollen rivers, gorgeous country, rattle snakes, the physical challenge, hypothermia and even the upside-down map were the stories of legend, not a small, insignificant bone that came from who knows what.

But time has the power to rewrite history. When Tom opened his suitcase in Japan at the beginning of a two-year exploration of Asia, Africa and Europe, he found a surprise, the bone. I had my revenge, and the bone became Bone. When I moved to Alaska and was unpacking my boxes, who should fall out but Bone. The tales goes on and on and on…

The Bush Devil has travelled with me since 1967 and Bone since 1977, a combined total of 90 years.

Bone on his pedestal.

From the Sublime to the Weird… Burning Man Murals and Paintings

T-Rex looking for dinner at Burning Man back when the playa was an ocean.

As you might expect, mural art and paintings at Burning Man reflect the event. Much of the art has a mystic feel about it with both Eastern and Western influences. Surrealism also seems to have found a home at Burning Man. Then there is the fun— bordering on strange— art that always appeals to my sense of weird. Following are examples of what I see as I ride my bike or walk around Black Rock City and out in the Playa.

I am going to start with what I call Chakra art that takes its inspiration from Eastern mysticism. A Chakra, simply put, represents seven levels of awareness or spiritual power in the human body that work their way up your spine starting with basic urges and ending with higher consciousness. Meditation is the primary tool that mystics use to reach the higher levels.

Chakra art doesn’t get much clearer than this. Beyond the primary chakra points are a multitude of secondary points. This fellow also comes with an aura.

Maybe you can even get high enough to earn a halo. This one features several languages.

An eagle and a buzzard have arrived here.

This mural portrays a woman meditating. Off to the left is a chakra.

Mandalas are aids in meditation. I feel like this one could take me into infinity.

Of course there is much more to eastern mysticism and myths than meditation and chakras. Traveling farther east to China, we have this magnificent dragon.

What I call Nature art focuses on our deep connection with all life on earth and has a more Western/shamanistic feel to it that is more reflective of what we find in Native American, First Nation, and South American native traditions, as well as other animistic cultures throughout the world.

A shaman sits in a meditative pose while jaguars peer out of the jungle and a snake circles his body. I was amused to see that he is wearing a watch.

This painting also makes me think Shaman.

I am fascinated with the art at Burning Man that combines people and the natural world.

Another example.

How about this for a hair do?

This woman is morphing into an owl, or vis-versa.

Bird eyes.

A touch of green.

The tree of life and death with the left side representing nature and the right side our industrial civilization (sort of like a page out of Dante’s Inferno).

Surrealism is, well, Daliesque.

Mr. Surreal, himself.

A surreal landscape featuring Burning Man founders, I believe, along with several Burning Man icons such as El Pulpo Mechanico looming in the background.

A surreal dragonfly.

And a sort of surreal painting featuring lips, a red candelabra, light fixtures and speakers as UFOs, and apparently people worshipping all of the above.

I will conclude with several paintings/murals that fit my description of fun, funky, and possibly weird.

This mural should easily qualify as weird.

As does this painting of ‘children’ playing.

Peggy stands next to a giant rabbit. One of the events at Burning Man includes a thousand or more people dressing up like rabbits and parading around Black Rock City.

How about ostriches with people heads?

One year Burning Man had a circus theme that led to the creation of all kinds of strange circus art.

My favorite from the circus art.

The fish were fun, especially the one on the right with the teeth.

This was strange…

As was this beetle.

I’ll conclude with another favorite of mine: a 3-D Bossy.

NEXT BLOGS:

Monday: It’s back to the Oregon coast to visit a cave filled with sea lions, plus another lighthouse.

Wednesday: Bone is found and a rattlesnake threatens to bite me on the butt.

Friday: Burners and their costumes at Burning Man.

 

Raging Rivers, Kamikaze Mosquitoes and Naked Ladies Jumping… How Bone Was Discovered: Part II

Bone contemplates a book on the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail and the high mountain meadows he loves. I used this book by Thomas Winnett on several early Treks that I led between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite.

 

This is second in a series of Blogs on how Bone was found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Go here for the first one.

I watched regrettably as April and Lynn headed out. I would miss the inspiration. Soon, however, my mind was more than occupied with route finding. The trail had disappeared under the snow.

Velma Lakes where we parted company with April and Lynn. I took this shot in the evening on another trip.

Tom pulled out his map and compass to establish our general direction. We searched for ancient tree blazes left behind by early foresters, cattlemen and sheepherders. We also watched for ducks where the snow had melted. I’m not talking about fowl that quack and taste good in orange sauce. Ducks, in trail finding terminology, are piles of stone set up to show the way. With a little imagination, they can look like their namesake. Caution is advisable. The people creating the ducks may have had a different destination in mind, or perhaps they were lost.

Tree blazes were the primary way of marking routes by the early explorers of the Western mountains. The short rectangle on top and longer one on the bottom mean ‘this is the trail.’ Blazes were normally within sight of each other.

These are duck ducks, Mallards to be specific. They are not trail ducks. Following them might get you lost, or wet. Check out the eye on the male. He was not happy with my waking him up.

This is a trail duck. The three rocks in the middle are what a normal trail duck looks like. I added a rock on each side to create a Sierra Trek duck so Trekkers would know what to follow. I borrowed these rocks from Peggy’s rock garden and put them on our railing. I had strict instructions to return them to where I found them. BTW, three ducks in a row mean danger to Boy Scouts. We rarely had Boy Scouts follow us.

This is an example of a duck in use. A trail splits. The duck tells you to use the left one. I borrowed our backyard and deer trails for this.

An hour later we found ourselves more or less where we were supposed to be, on the edge of the Rubicon River. A student of ancient Roman History undoubtedly named the stream. Like Julius Caesar, we were faced with crossing it. In a month or so it would be a tame creek inviting a refreshing dip but now it was a roaring river, filled with icy water from quickly melting snow fields.

I entered with trepidation and was almost washed off my feet. Facing up-stream, I used a walking stick to give myself a third leg. Water crept up to my knees and beyond. It was cold; I have short legs. The force was incredible. I set each foot carefully and moved crab-like, searching for solid ground between slippery rocks.  I’d undone my pack belt so I could shuck the pack if I were knocked over. Swimming in freezing water with 50 pounds on your back is hazardous to your health. In a few minutes that stretched out forever I was across. Tom and Terry also made it without incident.

We plopped down on a convenient log to catch our breath and munch down on GORP (good old raisins and peanuts). It was a quick meal. A thick swarm of mosquitoes dive-bombed us with kamikaze abandon.  Slap one and five more landed, gleefully licking off our bug repellent before plunging in their proboscises. We were driven to put on our packs and scurry up the trail. Fortunately, Rockbound Valley is relatively flat and we were able to escape. Stopping was not an option as we hoofed it for the next four miles, crossing the Rubicon two more times before we began our labored ascent up aptly named Mosquito Pass.

Life slowed down immediately as we began climbing. The blood sucking hoards caught up. Near the top, we were confronted with a different challenge, more snow. Eight hours of hot sun had turned it to mush. We spent as much time sliding as we did climbing. It was slow, hard, slogging work. And it was dangerous. Running water, partially exposed boulders and tree trunks melt snow from the ground up and create hidden cavities. More than once we plunged through up to our knees.

Ignoring the danger, Tom and I laughed our way down the other side, glissading in our boots. Control was minimal. Camp was in sight. Terri came along at a much more sedate and careful pace.

There was nothing about Lake Aloha that made me think Hawaii. It was a strange Dali-like creation with a convoluted shoreline and innumerable Rorschach type islands. What’s more, mini-icebergs decorated its surface. Bright white on top, they turned an icy blue under the water. All I could think was cold. Plowing through snow on our way around the lake to camp added freezing to my thoughts.

That night, we built a small campfire to fight off the chill. Terry wandered off to bed. Tom was slightly melancholy. He looked off into the distance over my shoulder.

“I was married on that peak,” he announced to the night. I turned around and stared across Lake Aloha at the towering Pyramid Peak, the centerpiece of the Crystal Range. It was bathed in moonlight. Several years earlier, Tom had met and fallen in love with Hilde, a slight, attractive blonde who shared his love of the wilderness. They decided to get married on the mountain. Mom, wedding party and friends were invited to share their 9983 feet “I do.”

The marriage didn’t last long and Tom was reluctant to talk about it. The fire burned down to glowing embers. We shared the silence in memory of lost love.

This map from the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail book shows our route from Velma Lakes to Upper Echo Lake. The red trail shows the actual route. The dotted trail shows the route we picked to Lake Aloha because of the deep snow going up past Dicks Lake.

I was up early the next morning and eager to hit the trail. My body was starting to adjust and feel good. More importantly, the resort at Echo Lake was calling. A quick breakfast and we were off. I took the lead with Tom following and Terry trailing. Soon we had climbed out of Lake Aloha, hiked past Lake Margery  and worked our way across Haypress Meadows where cattlemen once harvested grass for winter feed. As we began our descent into Echo Lake, I left my companions behind. The vision of cold beer and a hamburger drove me on. Short shorts may have been a factor as well. Lynn and April were supposed to rejoin us at the Echo Lake Resort.

There was a decision to make when I reached Echo Lake. I could continue to follow the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail around the upper and lower lakes or I could call the Lodge from a phone located at the end of Upper Lake. It would send a boat taxi to pick me up for five bucks. The trail was hot and filled with day hikers. I made the phone call. A half hour later, the throbbing of the motorboat’s engine caught my attention as it worked its way up the lake. Soon it arrived, coughing slightly. The boat slowed and bumped into the pier. My ‘taxi driver’ was a 16-year old plus teenager who had managed to snag a great summer job.

“Hop on,” he told me. An elderly couple was along for the ride. I nodded at them. I was halfway between the boat and the pier when I heard a commotion.

“Over here, Curt,” a familiar voice shouted. I looked up. A few yards away alders had hidden another pier. Two very attractive and very naked women were jumping up and down to get my attention. They succeeded. It was April and Lynn. They had come over on an earlier boat and were working in a little sunbathing while waiting for us. The young boatman and the old man were all eyes. The elderly woman looked thoroughly irritated and glared at all of us, especially her husband.

“Uh, I think I’ll stay here,” I told my driver.

“Can I stay too?” he asked and grinned at me. The elderly man wisely stayed silent.

I joined the girls as the boat coughed its way back toward the resort. Tom showed up soon afterwards. We were waiting for Terry and the women were dressed when the ranger showed up.

“There has been a complaint about naked women jumping up and down over here,” he told us.

“Boy, I wish I would have seen them,” Tom responded. I am not sure the ranger bought our story but he wandered off in search of other criminals.

The same boatman picked us up and told me that the first thing the elderly woman did when she got back was to complain loud and long about the perverted people across the lake. She even cornered a ranger. My new young friend speculated that the ranger came looking for us as an excuse to escape. “Or maybe he wanted to see the naked ladies,” I noted.

I happily downed a hamburger and a beer, or maybe it was two. But we still had a few miles to go before camp, so I didn’t want to eat or drink too much. Backpacking is hard enough as is—alcohol and a stuffed tummy makes it harder.

Be sure to check in next Wednesday and learn how Bone was found!

Three more photos from the journeys that Bone has been on since his discovery.

Riding an elephant in Nepal. Bone is hard to see but he is resting on the elephant’s head. He is being held by Mary Johnson who had taken Bone along for good luck. Many people have travelled with Bone over the years.

Iguanas chat with Bone in the South Pacific, where he was taken on a diving expedition by Jose Kirchner.

Bone sits in the sand at twilight on the edge of the Tasman Sea on the South Island of New Zealand. He was traveling with Peggy and me.

NEXT BLOGS

Friday: It’s back to Burning man with some very Burning Man-like murals and paintings.

Monday: A cave filled with sea lions on the Oregon coast and another beautiful lighthouse.

Wednesday: Bone is found! Hypothermia threatens! A rattlesnake tries to bite me on the butt!

 

 

All’s Well that Ends (grin)… The Sierra Trek Series

Treks have always been about adventure. In addition to the physical and mental challenge, there is a more important element of experiencing nature on a very personal level, both the beauty and the wonder. Imagine, for example, coming on this Aspen that bears have climbed and used as a marking tree to establish their territory.

This is my last post on the first Sierra Trek series. Last week left us in the American River Canyon, waiting while the US Bureau of Reclamation blasted rocks off the hill sides in preparation for building the Auburn Dam. (The discovery of an earthquake fault zone under the dam would lead to its not being built.) Today I will take us on into Auburn, California where the 100 mile backpack trip ended.

As in the previous posts, I have selected photos from other Treks since I don’t have any from the first. There are several other areas in California I would lead Treks besides the Sierras. These photos are from the Trinity Alps. 

Another photo of a bear tree in the Trinity Alps of California. And yes, those are claw marks.

Early the next morning we had an important decision to make: whether to wade across the American River in water up to our belly buttons and then follow the river or climb up and along the steep canyon following alternative trails. I let the Trekkers vote and they voted to cross the river. One woman was deathly afraid, however, and broke down in hysterics. She was the same person who had, at first, refused to ride the Squaw Valley tram. We offered to carry all of her gear and even carry her, all to no avail. Finally, I decided we would all hike the canyon route. I was not about to split our group again. (It was the only time in my years of leading Treks that I ever allowed participants to vote while on the trail. Treks, I decided, were not a democracy.)

This shot of the Trinity Alps provides a great perspective on why the mountain range was given its name. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A view from farther away. These are rugged mountains that provide challenging, beautiful backpacking opportunities.

Our last night was fifty-fifty on the plus and minus scale. On the plus side, I knew that we had succeeded. Our Trekkers, except for the two or three who were now riding in the jeep, had made it— survived if you will. We had managed to solve each of the crises we had faced along the trail. I could say goodbye to the Trekkers the next day knowing that I had put everything I had into getting them through the nine days. On the minus side, Steve had taken a few of the ‘cool’ Trekkers to camp away from the main group. I hated seeing this, it was a really bad decision, but it was already a done deal by the time I came into camp as rear guard. I could have hiked up the canyon and insisted the group rejoin us, but I just didn’t have the energy to do it, physically or mentally.

The Trinity Alps includes a number of impressive waterfalls.

Another…

And another.

Sunday, we hiked into Auburn Fairgrounds as a group with the Trekkers in high spirits, singing the Ham Cheddarton song. They had a bar-b-que chicken feast to look forward to and then they were going home— home to hot showers, clean clothes and loved ones. They had enough tales to fill the next week and possibly their lifetime. As we approached the fairgrounds, our Auburn volunteers and several Board members were there to cheer our arrival.

I didn’t know how things would end. At best, I hoped our Trekkers would recognize that even though we had made enough mistakes to fill a book (or at least a long chapter), we had tried as hard as we humanly could to rectify them. And I had learned, boy had I learned. Mainly, I felt relief. I was going back to focus on our mail fundraising campaigns with a vengeance.

What took me by surprise was the response as Trekkers started to leave.

“Thanks, Curt, for the most incredible experience in my life. Where are we going next year?”

“You and Steve were great, Curt. I would like to help with next year’s planning.”

And on and on. People were excited about their experience. It was one of the most difficult things that they had ever done, and they had succeeded. They left feeling better about themselves, and that feeling translated over to us and the Lung Association. Instead of the negative comments I expected, and in some ways deserved, we were getting rave reviews. While not everyone was eager for next year’s adventure, most were asking, even demanding that we repeat it.

I left that day not quite convinced but leaning toward doing another Trek. One thing was for sure, my experience had matched that of the Trekkers. The event had been one of the most difficult things I had done in my life from both a physical and mental perspective. I came out of the Trek with a new confidence in myself and a new understanding of what I was capable of accomplishing— and an increased love of the wilderness.

One final amusing note: that night as I took my first shower in nine days, I reached around behind me to wash my fanny and it wasn’t there. It had disappeared. Between the trail review work, my trauma with Jo, and the Trek, I had lost 20 pounds in two weeks.

This is Sapphire Lake, one of a series of high alpine lakes in the Trinity Alps.

A reflection shot along a trail climbing up into the mountains.

Peggy caught this luscious scene along a small creek where we refilled our water bottles. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

While this rock caught my attention.

I am the fan of the small as well as the large when out in the woods. This is a shelf fungus.

A dandelion. Have you ever picked one of these and blew on it to watch the seeds go flying off?

And a butterfly on a Leopard Lillie.

EPILOGUE

The Sierra Trek turned out to be a success. We hadn’t raised a lot of money on our adventure, but special events rarely do the first time. What we had raised in abundance were new volunteers, the life blood of volunteer organizations. These were people who, because of their Trek experience, would develop a deep commitment to our organization.

I had several ideas on how to increase our returns and reduce our risks. In the future, we would set a pledge minimum and charge a registration fee. I would also set an age limit of 18 unless the minor was accompanied by a responsible adult. There would be no more 11-year-olds wandering in the woods by themselves. This wasn’t a negative comment on the Mouseketeers, they had been great, but the nature of the Trek made it much more of an adult kind of event. I would also limit group size to 20, and eventually 15, making the event much more manageable and reducing its environmental impact. And finally, our veterans would become the backbone of the program, providing advice and help in planning, organizing, and leading Treks.

From a personal perspective, my “far-out excuse for escaping to the woods” succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I happily spent the next 25 years of my life leading wilderness adventures. When I worked it right, I could spend most of my summers out in the woods, especially when I supplemented official Lung events with personal outings. Treks also became an important annual event for many of the participants. Eighteen years after I had told Orvis he might be too old to Trek, he was still backpacking. He did his last trip with us when he was 88 years old. Altogether, he had raised the organization well over $100,000. That Trek also happened to be Peggy’s first long distance backpack experience. “How can I complain with Orvis out here?” she had told me with a grin, and hiked up another mountain.

I went on to create bike treks, winter treks, and canoe treks. I also pushed the Trek Program nationwide with the American Lung Association, persuading the organization that the events were valid fundraisers, and becoming the national consultant on Treks. For a while, Treks became one of the top special events for ALA. Charlie had been right that night we had laid our sleeping bags out under the stars at our Last Chance campground and he had declared: “What an experience. I can’t believe I am out here. Someday, people will be doing these Treks all over the nation!”

Having created the Sierra Trek in 1974, I had turned trekking into a national fund-raising  event for the American Lung Association by 1981. This is a photo of me on the cover of the American Lung Association’s national magazine.

If Someone Steals your Spouse or Cow, Who Do You Call? The Lightning Man!

The Bush Devil is a powerful figure within traditional Liberian Culture. This is a Bush Devil of the Grebo Tribe that visited a Peace Corps Haight-Ashbury Party Liberia circa 1967.

 

I was in serious need of inspiration over the weekend when it came to today’s post. I had a bad case of blogger’s block. And then I was hit by a thought— why not throw in a chapter from my book. Other than the promo I run in the upper right hand corner, it’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” on this blog. If you are new to The Bush Devil Ate Sam and enjoy this chapter, the book is available on Amazon.

 

Sam, the young man who worked for us in Liberia, was enamored with western culture. It fired his imagination. He spent hours listening to the Kingston Trio get Charlie off the MTA and dove into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like a frog dives into water. Still, for all of his excitement about things modern, ancient African was an integral part of who he was. He had the scars to prove it. They marched down his chest in two neat rows.

“How did you get those,” Jo (my former wife) asked with ten percent concern and ninety percent curiosity.

“I can’t tell you,” Sam replied with obvious nervousness as Jo’s eyebrows rose. “But I can tell Mr. Mekemson.”

Aha, I thought, Sam and I belong to the same organization, the Men’s Club! Actually, Sam belonged to a very exclusive men’s organization, the Poro Society, which I wasn’t allowed to join. Its functions were to pass on tribal traditions, teach useful skills, and keep errant tribe members in line. Everything about the organization was hush-hush. Tribal members who revealed secrets could be banned and even executed.

Political power on the local level was closely tied to membership in the Poro Society. On the national level, President Tubman assumed leadership of all Poro Societies in Liberia. Tribal women had a similar secret organization called the Sande Society, which prepared young women for adulthood and marriage. A controversial aspect of the Sande initiation ceremony was female genital mutilation— cutting off the clitoris.

Sam got off easy.

He had been to Bush School the previous summer and learned how to be a good Kpelle man. Graduation to adulthood consisted of an all-consuming encounter with the Poro Society’s Bush Devil. It ate him— metaphorically speaking. Sam was consumed as a child and spit out as a man. The scarification marks had been left by the devil’s ‘teeth.’ It seemed like a tough way to achieve adulthood, but at least it was fast and definitive.

The Bush Devil was a very important tribal figure who was part religious leader, part cultural cop and part political hack. Non-Kpelle types weren’t allowed to see him. When the Devil came to visit outlying villages, a frontman preceded him and ran circles around the local Peace Corps Volunteer’s house while blowing a whistle. The Volunteer was expected to go inside, shut the door, close the shutters and stay there. No peeking.

We did get to see a Grebo Devil once. The Grebo Tribe was less secretive, or at least more mercenary. Some Peace Corps Volunteers had hired the local Devil for a Haight-Ashbury style African party. It was, after all, 1967, the “summer of love” in San Francisco and the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Along with several other Volunteers, we hired a money bus to get to the party. Had we been thinking, we would have painted the bus with Day-Glo, like Ken Kesey’s bus, Further.

The Devil was all decked out in his regalia. His persona was somewhere between a voodoo nightmare and walking haystack. Grebo men scurried in front of him with brooms, clearing his path and grunting a lot. We stayed out of the way and took pictures.

Another area where Sam showed his tribal side was his fear of the newly dead. A person’s spirit was considered particularly powerful and dangerous right after he or she died. Later, the spirit would move away into the bush and fade. But first it had to be tamed with appropriate mourning, an all-night bash. One didn’t take chances. When Sam worked late for us after someone had died, he would borrow a knife and a flashlight in case he had to fight off the malevolent ghost on his way home. I had grown up next to a graveyard and was sympathetic with his concern.

Juju, or African witch doctor medicine, was another area where African reality varied from modern Western reality. Late one evening, in the middle of a tropical downpour, one of my high school students appeared on our doorstep very wet and very frightened. Mamadee Wattee was running for student body president. His opponent had purchased ‘medicine’ from a Juju man to make him sick.

It was serious business; people were known to die in similar circumstances. Had the opposition slandered Mamadee or stuffed the ballot box, I could have helped, but countering a magic potion wasn’t taught at Berkeley, at least not officially. I took the issue to Mr. Bonal, the high school principal, and he dealt with it. Mamadee stayed well and won the election.

The use of Juju medicine represents the darker side of tribal culture. Human body parts derived from ritual human sacrifice are reputed to be particularly effective in creating potions. Cannibalism may be involved. On the lighter side, my students once obtained a less potent ‘medicine’ and buried it under the goal post on the football (soccer) field with the belief that it would cause the other team to miss goals. Apparently, it wasn’t potent enough; the other team won.

Mamadee was also the reason behind our introduction to the Lightning Man. When Jo and I went on vacation to East Africa, we left Mamadee with $50 to buy a 50-gallon drum of kerosene. When we returned, there was neither kerosene nor $50, but Mamadee was sitting on our doorstep. Someone had stolen the money and Mamadee was extremely upset. Fifty dollars represented a month’s income for a Kpelle farmer. Mamadee’s father, a chief of the Kpelle tribe, was even more upset and wanted to assure us that his son had nothing to do with the missing fortune. It was a matter of honor. He offered to have Mamadee submit to the Lightning Man to prove his innocence.

The Lightning Man had a unique power; he could make lighting strike whoever was guilty of a crime. If someone stole your cow or your spouse, zap! Since we were in the tropics, there was lots of lightning. Whenever anyone was struck, people would shake their heads knowingly. Another bad guy had been cooked; justice had been served.

We didn’t believe Mamadee had taken the money, and even if he had, we certainly didn’t want him fried, or even singed. We passed on the offer. The Chief insisted on giving us $50 to replace the stolen money.

Another Liberian Peace Corps Volunteer in a similar situation chose a different path. Here’s how the story was told to us. The Volunteer had just purchased a brand new $70 radio so he could listen to the BBC and keep track of what was happening in the world. The money represented close to half of the Volunteer’s monthly income. He had owned his new toy for two days when it disappeared.

“I am going to get my radio back,” he announced to anyone who would listen and then walked into the village where he quickly gathered some of his students to take him to the Lightning Man. Off he and half the town went, winding through the rainforest to the Lighting Man’s hut. The Volunteer took out five dollars and gave it to the Lighting Man. (Lighting Men have to eat, too.)

“I want you to make lighting strike whoever stole my radio,” he said.

The Volunteer and his substantial entourage then returned home. By this time, everyone in the village knew about the trip, including, undoubtedly, the person who had stolen the radio.

That night, there was a tremendous thunder and lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always tremendous thunder and lightning storms, place yourself in the shoes of the thief who believed in the Lightning Man’s power. Each clap of thunder would have been shouting his name.

In the morning, the Volunteer got up, had breakfast and went out on his porch. There was his radio.

NEXT BLOGS:

Wednesday: I wrap up the Sierra Trek series.

Friday: A look at several major art installations at Burning Man.

Monday: Astoria: A return to the Oregon Coast.

How to Take a Bath in the Woods… The Sierra Trek Series

Many trees take on a certain beauty when they die that matches whatever beauty they had when alive. I often find myself stopping to admire them and frequently photograph them. I couldn’t help but wonder what gave this tree its twisted look. The canyon in the background leads up to Muir Pass.

I am returning to the Sierra Trek today. I told the story in my last post about how our second day had included hiking 16-miles without water, confronting a 6-foot rattlesnake, discovering that one of my participants was lost, and having to deal with a minor rebellion. I was not having fun. I ended on a more positive note, discovering that the lost Trekker wasn’t lost. If you missed that post, or any of the others about the Trek, I’ve listed them at the bottom of this post.

Not having any photos of that first Sierra Trek adventure, I have been posting photos from other backpacking trips I have made up and down the Sierras. Today, I am focusing on the beauty of trees and wood grains that hold their beauty long after they have died.

 

I found this unusual knot that resembled a duck when I was climbing over a pass in the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe.

With Dick, the lost Trekker, back in camp, I declared a layover day and turned around to go retrieve the two people I had left behind at Duncan Creek. Along the way I met the rest of the Trekkers and told them that our lost party had found himself.

“I am beginning to understand what it means to be a manic-depressive,” I told Charlie. My life over the past three weeks had been one constant roller coaster. I allowed myself a slight glimmer of hope that we had made it beyond the low point of our adventure.

The other Trekkers had made it to Robinson Flat the day before without a hitch and I now had everyone back together again. A layover day gave all of us, including me, a chance to recoup. People were able to wash clothes, take baths, read, and just lounge around, swapping lies about their terrible ordeals. Even the Four Mouseketeers were back in high spirits. I came over a hill and found them gathered around one of my older female participants as she sat in the middle of a tiny stream without a stitch of clothes on. They were struggling to appear cool and carry on a conversation while she bathed. I sent them scampering back to camp. At least I had answered my earlier question as to what kind of babysitting services we were providing.

Nan, one of my staff members from the Lung Association in Sacramento, showed up with resupply about midday, including food, cold beer, sodas— and Jo Ann. It was good of Jo to come, but we were uncomfortable. Still, I was glad to share my adventures and frustrations to date with her. I left out any references to hiking and holding hands with Lisa. After Nan and Jo departed and I had people settled in for the evening, I headed over the hill, loaded my pipe with Balkan Sobranie pipe tobacco, and settled in for a smoke. I hadn’t totally abandoned my pipe (adult pacifier?) at that point and needed the solace it provided. I must have sat there for an hour staring up at the stars, alone in my thoughts, sad.

But the sun was shining the next morning, as it usually does in the summer Sierra. I felt glad to be out in the woods and happy to be alive. My body was beginning to tone up and I could almost hear my pampered fat cells screaming in protest.

We hit the trail early. I took over leadership since we were now covering a section of the route I had previewed. It felt good being up with the hotdogs, all younger than I was by a decade. The miles sped by as we maintained our three to four-mile an hour pace. Of course, we were egging each other on. As the old man of the group at 29, I had to prove that the kids couldn’t outrun me. My only problem was blisters. My feet were still doing battle with the new Lowa boots, and the boots were winning. Since I couldn’t ignore the blisters in the same way I was ignoring the piteous cries of my fat cells, I kept slapping on moleskin. There wasn’t much bare skin left.

Camp that night was at an old mining area called ‘Last Chance.’ Obviously, some disgruntled forty-niner had named it as his dreams of wealth were fading. The area was a major checkpoint on the Tevis Cup Horse Race. Veterinarians tested horses to see if they could continue on. It is used for the same purpose today for long distance runners on the Western States 100-mile ultra-marathon. I wandered around and carried out a similar check with the Trekkers. There were a couple of people I assigned to the jeep for a day or two and several whose feet I patched up. I was becoming quite the expert on blisters. People were in an amazingly good mood.

I found this beauty near Benson Lake Pass near the northeastern corner of Yosemite National Park.

I set up camp next to Charlie, which involved unrolling my ground cloth, ensolite pad, and sleeping bag. We were sleeping out in the open at the time, which I almost always did unless weather forced me into my emergency tube tent. We lay there, looking up at the sky and contemplating the myriad of stars the clear Sierra night made available.

“What an experience,” Charlie offered. “I can’t believe I am out here. Someday, people will be doing these Treks all over the nation.”

My thoughts were more along the line of “Thank God we made it through another day.” But things were definitely getting easier as Steve and I adjusted to our group and the group adjusted to its long hiking days. The next day even found several of us trotting along the trail in sheer joy with Orvis trotting right along with us. We still had our share of challenges though.

Food was one. I spent a lot of time listening to complaints about Ham Cheddarton, which the Trekkers were eating every other day. They had even composed a little ditty about the meal and where I might put it. It sounded rather uncomfortable. At least they were developing a sense of humor. Three young people from Auburn had the most legitimate gripe. I discovered they had broken their stove and were eating the goop with cold water. I turned down their ‘generous’ offer to sample a bite and loaned them my stove. (We had three in our cook group so cooking wasn’t a problem, but my stove never quite recovered from the experience.)

This old stump might be a bit frightening at night. I found it in the Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley.

Keeping the troops clean provided another interesting challenge. Some people simply didn’t bother. I suspect our Four Mouseketeers weren’t overly concerned about missing a bath or two. But nobody was squeaky clean. People have a way of deteriorating in unison on the trail. Even the most conscientious develop a certain look, a certain patina. You don’t really recognize this state of deterioration until you arrive back at civilization and meet disgustingly clean people at trailheads.

There are numerous approaches to bathing in the woods. The one I developed on the first Trek and have used most often since is the yellow bucket routine. It simply involves going down to the lake or stream, filling my collapsible plastic bucket with water, and disappearing into the woods.

Like in real estate, location is everything. At a minimum, wilderness ethics require that I be far enough away from the lake or river to avoid getting soap in the water, even biodegradable soap. Beyond that, I tend to wander around searching for the perfect site. I like to find a spot where my bucket won’t tip over. Few things irritate me more than to be standing out in the woods naked and see my bath water go happily splashing off down the hill. It’s been known to make me forget my bath for the day. It’s doubly irritating if I have already soaped up. Having something smooth to stand on is another requirement. My tender feet do not appreciate pine cones and other sharp objects. Being greedy, I also like a view. I actually find such places on rare occasions.

As with location, water temperature plays an important role in determining bathing pleasure. Early season, snow-melt streams guarantee a fast bath with minimal attention to detail. I’ve developed headaches from really cold water. When the water is icy and I am feeling particularly wimpy, I boil up a pot of water and add it to the bucket.

I found this ancient tree blaze in the Desolation Wilderness and could only wonder who had used it to mark their way several decades earlier. Insects and woodpeckers had also marked this wood, telling another story. Speaking of bugs…

The true bane of outdoor bathing, however, is insects. A bare butt in the woods is like a huge neon billboard announcing your presence. You can almost hear the clarion call go out:

Major target located in northeast quadrant. Proceed at once to location. No invitation is necessary, BYOB. (Bring Your Own Beaks)

A half-dozen or so mosquitoes almost always come with the territory. It’s when they swarm in the hundreds that bathing becomes impossible. I’ve mastered the 30 second bath for such occasions. This involves dumping the bucket of water over my head and then whipping myself dry with a towel to keep the mosquitoes off. And no, there is nothing kinky about this. Depending on where I am backpacking, I have also had black flies come after me with a knife and fork, no-see-ums disappear up my nose, and horse flies hit me repeatedly on top of the head kamikaze style. The latter are about as easy to kill as an enraged grizzly bear. When my flying friends aren’t enough to keep me amused, there is usually an ant around to bite me on the toe, or some more tender location that falls under the TMI category, too much information.

Many backpackers today have switched to using lightweight, backpacking showers that they fill up with water and place out in the sun so can enjoy a hot bath. The showers make washing and rinsing much easier and also solve the problem of cold water. But they can’t do anything about the insects.

This old pine reflects the tough life it had led existing on a high granite ridge in the southern Sierra.

Probably the easiest solution to bathing is to just jump into a convenient lake or river. Again, you can’t use soap because it damages the water supply. Truly lazy or tired Trekkers may jump in with their clothes on, thus rinsing their clothes as well as their body. By now, I am sure the reader is beginning to grasp why backpackers gradually become scruffier as the trip progresses.

One issue that is always present is the question of privacy. Do you slip off into the woods by yourself or do you shed all of your clothes and jump into the lake regardless of who is present. The latter range from folks who jump in and make lots of noise, to more shy folks who quietly slip in business like. Our first Trek, a true 70’s type event, incorporated all types. I already mentioned the woman and her coterie of the Three Mouseketeers. She would have preferred a private bath but had to put up with her youthful admirers.

Two of our Trekkers, who I will call Y and Z, were definitely of the Hippie Generation when it came to bathing. Y was an amply endowed woman who floated in a most interesting way, but it was her boyfriend Z, who drew the most attention. Orvis, at 70, still had a fine appreciation of the female body and could be depended on to check out the action at the local swimming hole. We were camping on the middle fork of the American River when he came up to me with an impish grin on his face.

“Did you see Z, Curt?” he asked with wonder in his voice. “His dong goes all the way to his knees!” I just started laughing and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t help myself. But I also made an innocent trip by the swimming hole. Sure enough, Z, who was a skinny guy, had equipment that would have sent a mare running in the opposite direction.

A final photo to wrap up today’s post. I found this tree near Mt. Whitney.

Have you missed one of my posts on the Sierra Trek? Here they are in the order I’ve written them.

1.  A Far-Out Excuse for Escaping to the Woods…

2. What Do Burning Down a Bank and the Sierra Trek Have in Common?

3. From an Ex-Ice Hockey Player, to a Ballerina, to a Witch…

4. Bears, Rattlesnakes, Heart Break, and Ham Cheddarton…

5. It Takes a Worried Man…

6. A Pot Smoking Orgy in the Mountains?

7. 16 Miles without Water: A Rattlesnake, a Lost Trekker, and a Rebellion…

NEXT BLOGS:

Burning Man’s Really Tall Women

Something Fishy

Backpacking in 106 degree F weather, plus the Sheriff comes to visit