16 Miles without Water: a Rattlesnake, a Lost Trekker, and a Rebellion… The First Sierra Trek

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves." –John Muir

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” –John Muir

 

As the physician who had threatened to tell the media I was running a ‘pot smoking orgy’ in the mountains packed up to leave, my thoughts turned to the challenges of our second day’s route. We were facing a hike where the first water and possible campsite were 16 miles down the trail. Considering how much fun I had getting our Trekkers through seven miles on day one, I was not excited about day two. We had one access point approximately half way where a road crossed our trail. Steve and I planned to have the jeep there to resupply the Trekkers with water for the second part of their journey.

Today’s photos are focused on the mountains of the High Sierra. These towering peaks of granite are topped off by Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet (4421.0 m). John Muir loved the Sierras and returned to them again and again. “The mountains are calling and I must go,” he declared. It is a passion I share. In honor of Muir’s love for mountains and wilderness, I am using a different quote of his for each photo. These quotes were gathered by the Sierra Club.

 

I did a 360 mile trip down the Sierras to celebrate my 60th birthday. Mt. Whitney is in the Background.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir (Here I am, keeping “close to Nature’s heart.” Mt. Whitney is in the background.)

 

When the Trekkers were packed and ready to go, I called them together for a final briefing. I reminded them of how difficult the day would be and then gave them very specific instructions:

“If the jeep isn’t there when you arrive at the road, wait for it.” It would not be the last time in Trek history my directions would go unheeded.

As per plan, I sent Steve on ahead as trail leader while Charlie and I provided rear guard support. In retrospect, I should have recalled that this was the section of the trail that the hawk had ‘chased’ Steve for miles, apparently all 16. Far from being a gentle ridge walk, we were climbing in and out of small canyons over hot, dusty trails. By the time we had covered five miles I was beginning to worry and by six, I knew had to come up with an alternative. Otherwise many of our folks would be making a dry camp out on the trail.

I had quickly discovered that the walkie-talkies from Bob-of-No-Name didn’t work because of all the canyons. My only solution was to hustle up to the front of the line and catch the Trekkers before they left the jeep. I dubbed Charlie as primary rear guard and took off moving as fast as my short legs would go, passing the majority of our group along the way. When I arrived at the jeep, Steve was there with 15 people. “Damn,” I thought, “some of the Trekkers have already gone on.” Maybe I could catch them.

“Hey Steve,” I jumped in as he greeted me, “it’s time for Plan B.”

“Which is…” he asked grinning?

“We need to send the Trekkers by road into Robinson Flat with jeep back up. It’s only about 5 miles by road versus 10 by trail plus the jeep can provide water along the way and shuttle people if necessary. But first, how long ago was it when the rest of the Trekkers left the jeep?”

“I don’t know,” Steve confessed. He’d had a group of Trekkers walking on his tail and let them pass (thus breaking one of our cardinal rules). Even worse, Steve Locke didn’t know either. Apparently 15 of the Trekkers had arrived before the jeep and chosen to go on. Another five had actually waited, loaded up with water and then taken off, approximately 30 minutes before I arrived.

“Great,” I responded. Thanks to Steve letting people go ahead, we now had 20 people out on the trail in front of us without a leader— and 15 with limited water.

"In God's wildness lies the hope of the world - the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware." –John Muir 

“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” –John Muir (Here you are looking from the top of Mt. Whitney east toward Lone Pine and the Owens Valley. The road winds through the Alabama Hills where many Westerns have been filmed.)

This photo looks north from Mt. Whitney into the heart of the High Sierras.

“This grand show is eternal.”  –John Muir  (This photo looks north from Mt. Whitney into the heart of the High Sierras with mountains as far as you can see.)

Day two, which had started with the doctor and his ‘pot smoking orgy,’ had gone from bad to worse. I made a command decision. Steve would continue on with Plan B as I had outlined it, moving the remaining Trekkers via road to Robinson Flat. I would continue along Red Star Ridge and provide backup for the group who had chosen to hike another 8 miles without water access.

I had little doubt about what type of foul mood my wayward charges would be in and who they would blame for their predicament. (It certainly wouldn’t be themselves for failing to wait for the jeep.) We would camp on Duncan Creek and hike the two miles into Robinson Flat the next morning.

“No one is to budge from Robinson Flat until I get there,” I instructed with the fervid hope my instructions would be followed this time.

First, however, I had to go back and retrieve Charlie. I wanted to personally be sure that all of our other Trekkers made it to the jeep. I asked Crowle and Locke to hold everyone. I found Charlie a mile or so back the trail with another broken pack. Boy, were we having fun. If my learning curve got any steeper, I was going to fall off.

“I’ll hike on with you Curt to provide support and company,” Charlie insisted.

I knew I was tired and could only imagine how he must feel given his extra 25 years and 50 pounds. I was beginning to realize that older people are often tougher than young people half their age with twice their strength. The journey we were on was as much psychological as it was physical. Maybe more so.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. (Treks down and across the Sierras are tough for everyone, but especially so for people without experience. It always seems that there are more mountains to climb and more canyons to drop into.)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” –John Muir

"Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life." –John Muir

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” –John Muir (Over the years, I have known numerous people who have decided to change their lives while backpacking for a week through the Sierras.)

"Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue." –John Muir (The same photo as above a couple of hours later as alpen glow colors the ridge. This is in the Dusy Basin near Bishop.) 

“Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.” –John Muir (The same photo as above a couple of hours later as the setting sun colors the ridge. This is in the Dusy Basin near Bishop.)

We initiated phase two of our journey around 2:00 p.m. In a little over 30 minutes we caught our four eleven-year-olds, who we had nicknamed the Four Mouseketeers, crawling along at a pace that a turtle would find embarrassing.

“Joe is really slow,” one of the urchins informed me.

Yeah, I thought to myself, and you guys are so glad he is because it provides all of you with an excuse to move at the same pace.

After about an hour of moving along at ‘Joe speed,’ Charlie plaintively informed me he wasn’t going to make it into camp if he couldn’t move faster. Having determined that three of our Mouseketeers really were good hikers, I assigned them to Charlie and took Joe on as my personal challenge. The experience was similar to moving my Basset Hound down the trail after he spent a full night of digging. Joe would go a quarter of a mile and stop, plopping down onto the dusty trail. We had managed about a mile of this when I came on Charlie again, standing beside the trail and pointing off to the left.

“Careful, Curt,” he began, “there is a huge timber rattler coiled up there.”

Adrenaline gave me a spurt of energy I didn’t know I had. Huge was hardly an adequate description. The snake was as thick as my wrist and about six feet long. Joe, either out of exhaustion or not caring, came to a shuffling halt mere inches away from the poised pit viper and kicked dirt into its face.

“Um, Joe,” I whispered trying to sound calm and not wanting to frighten him or the snake into precipitous action, “if you will look down to your left, you will see a snake. Don’t move.”

Had I received such instructions, I would have been 20 feet down the trail in one prodigious leap. Joe, on the other hand, looked down at the huge, coiled rattler, said ‘oh,’ and shuffled on down the trail. The snake didn’t budge; Joe was not food, friend or foe. We left the snake guarding the trail.

"Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole." (Granite rules in the Sierras and reminds us of our place in the world.)

“Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole.” –John Muir

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." Few chunks of granite are more beautiful and famous than Half Dome in Yosemite.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” –John Muir (Few solid chunks of granite are more beautiful or famous than Half Dome in Yosemite.)

"Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality."

“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” –John Muir

Charlie went on ahead with his three charges and I continued to herd my half dead companion. It was after dark when I heard the stream that I knew meant camp. It was an extremely welcome sound; Joe and I had been traveling for at least 30 minutes by flashlight. Charlie was waiting for us outside camp.

“We have a problem Curt…” he began for the second time that day, although the day had already stretched out forever and I hadn’t known one minute when the ubiquitous problem did not exist. As supportive as Charlie had been, I had thoughts of killing the messenger.

“What’s it this time,” I asked, struggling to keep the grump and whine out of my voice.

“One of the Trekkers is lost and the rest of the Trekkers are ready to string you up from a tree,” he reported matter-of-factly. But then, it wasn’t his neck. “I’ve calmed them down by telling them all you have done today,” he went on. “Now they are just going to give you the silent treatment.”

I am not a praying type of person but I looked up at the sky and said, “God, get me back to Sacramento and I promise I will go back to running Christmas Seal Campaigns with my 80-year-old, lady volunteers and be perfectly happy.” The odds against any future Trek program had just hit 1000 to 1.

Before going to bed, I insisted that the Trekkers gather around so I could learn what I could about the missing person, Dick. Silent treatment or not, I needed to think through an action plan for the next day. Dick was the school teacher who had claimed he could carry his weight in booze. He had been hiking alone and hadn’t talked to anyone about leaving the route. The Trekkers could only give me an approximation of where they had last seen him.

I decided to get folks up early in the morning. I would high-tail-it the two miles into camp and see if Dick had shown up at Robinson Flat. If not, I would check with the ranger station and help organize a search party. Two of my strongest hikers would stay behind in camp in case Dick showed up there. Charlie would bring the rest of the Trekkers on to Robinson Flat.

"When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak." –John Muir (I sometimes backpack by myself in the wilderness and spend nights with nothing but myself and nature. I highly recommend the experience.)

“When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.” –John Muir (I sometimes backpack by myself in the wilderness and spend nights with nothing but myself and nature. I highly recommend the experience.)

I was exhausted and couldn’t go to sleep but somewhere in the wee hours I must have dozed off because I woke with a start as Charlie lobbed pebbles at my sleeping bag. I was up and packed in a zip. After a few words of encouragement to the troops, who had made a miraculous recovery over night, I was bounding off up the trail like a hare with the hounds of hell in hot pursuit. Just as I came into camp, Dick came hoofing in from the opposite direction. I didn’t know whether to kiss or to kill him, but he was too ugly for the former and possibly too tough for the latter.

I settled for, “Are you okay Dick?”

“Sure,” he replied in a why-wouldn’t-he-be tone.

“What happened,” I demanded, allowing my irritation to surface.

“I got thirsty,” Dick explained. “I could see French Meadow Reservoir at the bottom of the ridge so I hiked down to get a drink. When I got there, I was tired so I set up camp.”

My irritation boiled over.

“Why didn’t you tell someone you were leaving? Didn’t you realize we would be worried sick and mounting a search and rescue effort?” I was on a roll and Dick was on the receiving end of a great deal of frustration I was feeling. Fortunately, guilt had driven him to get up before dawn and make his way to Robinson Flat as quickly as he could. It might have been worse, much worse.

The crisis was over, but I still had chores. First up was to go back and collect the rearguard I had left at Duncan Creek. I could have sent Steve but I needed the down time. As I hiked, I made my second command decision of the day. Even though we had only hiked for two days, the group could use a layover day. Hell, I could use a layover day. In fact, I needed a layover day. I deserved a layover day. The next day could wait for its turn. What else could go wrong? Hah!

"God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts..." (Wise words in these troubling times of division.)

“God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts…” –John Muir (Wise words in these troubling times of division.)

"It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods -- trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries ... God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools -- only Uncle Sam can do that." (Something to think about as 'Uncle Sam' moves to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.)

“It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.” (Something to think about as ‘Uncle Sam’ moves to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and the regulations that protect these forests from destruction.)

"Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light." (With 50 years of wandering the Sierra Nevada Mountains behind me, I agree.)

“Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. –John Muir (With 50 years of wandering the Sierra Nevada Mountains behind me, I agree.)

NEXT BLOGS:

Friday: An amazing octopus and rhino. More on the mutant vehicles of Burning Man.

Monday: Sully and his airplane.

Wednesday: Sierra Trek: The layover day where all sorts of interesting things happen.

DMV… Burning Man’s Department of Mutant Vehicles: Part 2

One of Burning Man's more unique mutant vehicles from my perspective is this traveling eye.

One of Burning Man’s more unique mutant vehicles from my perspective is this traveling eye. The only thing remotely like a normal vehicle are the tires peeking out from below. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

 

“A Mutant Vehicle is a unique, motorized creation that shows little or no resemblance to their original form, or to any standard street vehicle. Mutant Vehicles are radically, stunningly, (usually) permanently, and safely modified from their base vehicle. Sometimes the whole vehicle is made from scratch.

Mutant Vehicles may include such non-standard motorized forms such as furniture, other non-street vehicles such as a boat or train, animals, or just about anything imaginable.” —Taken from Burning Man’s website.

 

Eye of mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

The eye up close, checking you out! (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Animals are a favorite theme for mutant vehicles. This polar bear would have fit right in on Valentines Day.

Animals are a favorite theme for mutant vehicles. This polar bear would have fit right in on Valentines Day. (Photo by Tom Lovering.)

Polar Bear mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

A side view of the friendly polar bear. (Photo by Tom Lovering.)

Burning Man takes its mutant vehicles seriously— partially because they are an integral part of the Burning Man experience and partially because safety is a critical issue.  These often-large vehicles must maneuver through and around thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians both during the day and at night.

The permitting process is extensive. To start with, both government agencies and Burning Man place limits on the number of mutant vehicles. Far more people want to bring vehicles than can be accommodated. Participants must meet stringent requirements to bring their creations to Black Rock City. (Go here to learn about requirements.)

The Department of Mutant vehicles is responsible for overseeing the permitting, inspection and operation of Mutant Vehicles at Burning Man.

The Department of Mutant Vehicles is responsible for overseeing the permitting, inspection and operation of Mutant Vehicles at Burning Man.

Headquarters for the Deparment of Mutant Vehicles at Burning Man.

Headquarters! All mutant vehicles must stop here to pick up their licenses to operate at Burning Man and have a safety inspection.

The first requirement is that the vehicle must in no way resemble the initial car, truck, golf cart, etc. (Boats seem to be an exception, but hey, they are ‘floating’ across the desert.) Beyond this, the organization states, “the mutation should aim to provide a level of ‘radical visual stimuli’ or ‘wow factor’ for the other participants of Black Rock City.”

A covered wagon mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

A covered wagon had us running for our cameras. I’d say that there was a ‘wow’ factor.

Conestoga Wagon mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

Another view. The Black Rock Desert would have seen similar vehicles (albeit smaller and attached to oxen) in the 1860s along the Applegate cutoff to the Oregon Trail that ran through the area. This photo was taken in front to our camp.

Cat car mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

The cat car is another perennial favorite of mine at Burning Man that has a definite ‘wow’ factor.

A side view of the cat car mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

A side view. It takes a lot of guts to have pure white upholstery at Burning Man!

Close up of head of cat car mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

And a close up of the kitty’s head.

Interactivity is also considered critical. Giving rides to Burners and providing entertainment are two ways of accomplishing this. For example, one year I saw a fire-breathing mutant vehicle that featured an opera singer standing on top. When she hit her high notes, the vehicle would send flames shooting into the air.

Safety involves many of the things you would expect including good brakes and safe accommodations for passengers. Think of 40 people (some who have spent a fair amount of time visiting Burning Man’s free bars) dancing on top of a vehicle as it drives through the desert night. Falling off is a real possibility. Railings are critical.

Orange bus mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

There are serious railings on this orange bus mutant vehicle. Note the intricate carving of the wood.

Orange mutant vehicle bus side view.

A side view of the bus. I suspect one would land with quite a bump coming off the slide.

Mutant vehicle with beak at Burning Man.

This guy with his boxer-beak and tail feathers also has a well-built railing.

Tail feathers on a mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

The tail feathers.

Vehicles that want to travel at night must have adequate lighting on all sides of the vehicle. But the requirements go further. Lighting is also expected to contribute to the “wow” factor. Many mutant vehicles are more spectacular at night than they are during the day. One of my all-time favorites is a large, travelling vase.

Mutant vehicle that looks like a vase at Burning Man.

This large vase mutant vehicle normally lives in camp during the day.

Vase mutant vehicle at Burning Man with mountain backdrop.

Another day-time shot. This one with a mountain backdrop.

The mutant vehicle vase at night. This was on the night when the Man is burned and vehicles form a large circle around the Man.

The vase at night. Mutant vehicles form a large circle around the Man on Saturday night when he is burned. The flower is part of another mutant vehicle.

Vase mutant vehicle lit up at night at Burning Man.

A different views with different colors.

I caught this shot as the vase left a wedding in Black Rock City we had attended.

I caught this shot as the vase left a wedding in Black Rock City.

As you might imagine, vehicles that feature fire art and shoot flames into the air, must also meet strict requirements. The types of tanks, fuel lines, daily safety checks, and emergency shut off valves are all included. But the effort is worth the extra care when you consider the results. Imagine meeting up with El Pulpo Mechanico as it roams across the playa with all eight arms flaming.

El Pulpo Mechanical as he flames his way through the Burning Man night.

El Pulpo Mechanical as he flames his way through the Burning Man night.

Burning Man mutant vehicle designed to shoot flames into the air.

The ‘weapon’ on top of this Mad-Max look-a-like shoots flames as well.

Dragon head on mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

A front view…

Close up of dragon headed mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

And a close up.

And finally, there are sound requirements. Nothing is more irritating than a mutant vehicle with humongous speakers making its way through your neighborhood in Black Rock City while blasting out music at 2:00 AM. Burning Man notes that there has been an “increase in the number of vehicles with sound systems that would normally be designed for an arena or stadium.” No kidding. Having those systems pointing at you is like deaf city. Fortunately, the loudest systems tend to be restricted to the outer areas of the city where Burners can go deaf to their hearts-content.

Check out the number of speakers on this mutant vehicle. They are the reason it is assigned a position way out at the edge of Black Rock City in the Playa.

Check out the number of speakers on this mutant vehicle! They are the reason it is assigned a position way out at the edge of Black Rock City in the Playa. There is almost always a crowd of people dancing around and on this vehicle, including up on the heart.

And just for fun, I will close today with this googly-eyed, low-tech frog.

Frog mutant vehicle at Burning Man.

 

NEXT BLOGS:

Monday: The airplane that crash landed on the Hudson River in New York City.

Wednesday: The Sierra Trek— Our second day included a sixteen mile hike without any water sources, a lost trekker, and a huge timber rattlesnake that insisted on blocking the trail.

Friday: More Burning Man mutant vehicles including El Pulpo Mechanico and a huge Rhino that would send his African counterparts scurrying for cover.

A Pot Smoking Orgy in the Mountains? No Way… The First Sierra Trek: Part 4

The high Sierras are chockfull of beautiful alpine lakes. Except for very dry years, water is rarely a problem. Often the opposite is true, especially when it comes to crossing creeks and rivers filled with rushing snowmelt.

The high Sierras are chockfull of beautiful alpine lakes. Except for very dry years, water is rarely a problem. Often the opposite is true, especially when it comes to crossing creeks and rivers filled with rushing snowmelt. Obviously, that wasn’t a problem here.

 

In my last blog about the Sierra Trek, I wrote about how we had survived the first day. Often, as I have learned from over 30 years of experience, that’s the toughest part. But on the first Sierra Trek, it was only the beginning of my problems…

A reminder, the photos I am using are from other Treks I have led over the years. I am sticking with my water theme today, given all of the water problems I had on days one and two of Sierra Trek I. 

Steve, Lisa and I set up camp on the opposite side of a small stream from our Trekkers. I am not sure why. Maybe Steve and I were subconsciously escaping from what we had created, but I suspect we just wanted a good night’s sleep. The Trekkers were noisy and the burbling brook served as nature’s sound maker.

I made my evening rounds before turning in. We had divided the Trekkers into food groups of four and I went from group to group checking for problems. Overall, people seemed in good spirits. There were a few sore ankles and knees, but blisters were the problem that elicited the most complaints. I dispensed sympathy and mole skin. I also gave everyone a preview of the next day and warned that it was going to be tough. My last words were to remind people that 9:00 PM was quiet hour. I wanted everyone fresh for the next challenge.

If there was noise, we didn’t hear it. We were zonked out from exhaustion. Early the next morning we were up in the dark, wolfing down our quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, and throwing our gear together when Charlie arrived. He looked serious.

“We have a problem Curt,” he started without preamble. God, I hate those words. My vivid imagination had a stove blowing up, or a Trekker cutting herself, or one of Steve’s migrating rattlesnakes finding a warm sleeping bag. Or maybe the IRS had arrived to grab Charlie and we were to be held as accomplices.

“What’s up?” Steve threw in, cutting short my growing list of possible disasters.

“We had a doctor from Sacramento come in and camp next to us last night,” Charlie reported. “He says he is going back to Sacramento and tell the press that the Lung Association is running a pot-smoking-orgy in the mountains.”

“Oh hell,” Steve said. I seconded his thought and added a few of my own with much more colorful words. A blown-up stove I could deal with. A cut I could bandage. A rattlesnake I could chase off and frequently have. But what do you do with a physician who has infected his butt with his head. Beg? It took absolutely zero imagination to figure out what the Trek’s future and my career with Lungland would look like one day after ‘pot-smoking-orgy’ made the headlines.

“I tried to reason with him but it was impossible,” Charlie threw in as if he were reading my mind and wanted to dash any hope I had. Just then Orvis came tramping into our camp. Uh-oh I wondered, is the other shoe about to drop? Orvis could backpack at 70 because he had never consumed alcohol or smoked in his life. He was almost as pure as his white beard that decorated his chest. I couldn’t imagine him being very tolerant of misbehavior.

“The man is lying,” Orvis said angrily and forever earned my undying love. “I was there the whole night and no such thing happened. If he goes back to Sacramento and talks to the press, I’ll go back to Sacramento and talk to the press and we’ll see who they believe!”

I wasn’t quite as sure about Trekker behavior as Orvis. It was the seventies after all and we had recruited some interesting characters. I had heard the teenagers giving each other a hard time the night before during my rounds.

“Hey Suzy, why don’t you come over here check out my sleeping bag?” But the response had been, “Why don’t you take your sleeping bag and stuff it?” I had also had a discussion with our younger kids about the Trek not being an appropriate place for tobacco. Who knows what the doctor had seen or had thought he had seen?

“Look, I have an idea,” I said to the small crowd that had gathered around our cook stove.  “I want you to go back to the camp and tell everyone to gather near the rock which is about ten yards away from the Doctor’s camp. Tell them I am going to read them the riot act and I want them to look dejected and apologetic whether they feel that way or not. It’s show time.”

My helpers dispersed to do their job and I carefully thought through what I was going to say. At the appropriate time, I marched over to the rock looking like my dog had just been killed and climbed up on the rock. It was Sunday morning and ever after my lecture was known as the ‘sermon on the mount.’ Sixty expectant but properly humble faces looked up at me. I could see that the doctor had also stopped his activities and glued his attention on what we were up to.

“Last night we made a serious mistake.” I started, making sure the doctor could hear me. “It has come to my attention that there was misbehavior in camp which may have included the use of marijuana. I want to apologize to all of you for not being in camp myself and to let you know I will be from now on. I also want you to know that such activity jeopardizes not only this Trek but the possibility of any events like it in the future. I know that you have all worked hard to be here and that you have worked hard to raise money to fight lung disease and support medical research. I want your word that no such further activities will take place on this Trek.”

Charlie, Steve and company had done their work well. “We’re sorry.” “It won’t happen again.” “You have our word on it,” and similar statements were heard from all sides with everyone looking more serious than I have seen any Trekkers look since. I then dismissed the group to break camp.

As I walked away the doctor made a beeline for me and held out his hand.

“I am Doctor so and so,” he announced. “Although things were out of control last night, it appears you have them under control now and probably won’t have any more problems. Good luck on your trip.”

I thanked him for his concern and breathed an audible sigh of relief. He wandered back to his campsite, undoubtedly pleased with his power and influence while I moved away to avoid expressing my thoughts about his ancestry. The next challenge was how we were going to get our Trekkers through the day. It promised to be a doozy— sixteen miles with very limited water. It left little time to contemplate what might have happened had the misplaced medic carried out his threat.

Continuing on with my theme of alpine Sierra lakes, trials like these that wander along the edge are a delight to hike.

Continuing on with my theme of alpine Sierra lakes, trails like these that wander along the edge are a delight to hike.

Alpine lake along the John Muir Trail.

The views aren’t bad either.

Usually, crossing outlets can provide a bit of a challenge, as Ann Nash demonstrates.

Usually, crossing outlets can provide a bit of a challenge, as Ann Nash demonstrates. We spend a lot of time on logs over water. Often it is much scarier than this! Imagine a roaring river below you.

Ann had a nice view of logs...

Ann had a nice view of water soaked tree trunks under the water.

Reflections are also common and can detract from your concentration.

Reflections are also common and can detract from your concentration.

How about rain drops falling on the water...

How about rain drops falling on the water…

Small ponds like this are always a favorite of mine. Mosquitoes can be a problem, though.

Small ponds like this are always a favorite of mine. So, I will conclude with this photo.

NEXT BLOGS: On Friday I will feature more of Burning Man’s colorful mutant vehicles. Next Monday, we will look at the actual airplane that crash landed on the Hudson River. On Wednesday, I’ll return to the Sierra Trek where we cover 16 miles without water, a person is lost, a giant rattlesnake forces me off the trail, and I face a mini-rebellion. Some fun!

It Takes a Worried Man… The First Sierra Trek: Part 3

Water became a major problem on our first two days of the Sierra Trek. It was one of the reasons I decided to hike down the Sierras instead of across them on all future treks. Today I am featuring waterfalls.

Water became a major problem on our first two days of the Sierra Trek. It was one of the reasons I decided to hike down the Sierras instead of across them on all future treks. Today I am featuring a few waterfalls you find along the range. All of these are along the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

When I last wrote about the first Sierra Trek, the morning of the event had arrived. I was a worried man. I found myself singing Woodie Guthrie’s fateful words as I drove up into the mountains:

“It takes a worried man to sing a worried song/I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long/I went across the river and I laid down to sleep/When I woke up, I had shackles on my feet.”

Note: As I’ve mentioned before, the photos in this blog are from other Treks. I didn’t carry a camera on the first year. 

 

I met my support crew at a small restaurant just outside of Squaw Valley at 7:00 AM. Steve had recruited two friends to help out. One was Steve Locke, whose family owned large sections of Delta farm land and had a town named after them. The other was Bob with no last name, strong quiet Bob who was an excellent man to have along in an emergency, who loaned us valuable equipment such as walkie-talkies and a jeep, and who, I learned years later when he was in prison, made his living flying pot out of South America. Steve Crowle was to be my assistant leader, Steve Locke was going to drive a back-up jeep, and Bob was to be there just in case— in case of what I wasn’t sure.

We drove the last three miles into Squaw Valley to meet our fate. The Trekkers were arriving in droves and milling around like lost sheep. There was fat Charlie, skinny Orvis, beautiful Lisa, and 57 other people ready to follow us across the mountains. I felt a little like Moses must have felt in leading folks off into the wilderness, except I didn’t have his guidance system. I also wondered how Moses might have fared feeding the Israelites Ham Cheddarton instead of manna. We might have a different religion today.

Steve called the Trekkers together and I gave my first ever Trek orientation. I started by pointing out the tram. The first part of their day was to be spent saving 2000 feet and two miles of climbing. Steve had finagled free rides for all of us. This put the participants in a good mood. I then made a serious mistake. I told the Trekkers they should have an easy day.

Rule number one of Trekking is never, never, never tell people they will have an easy day backpacking. Each day is grueling and people may just survive. Period.

All too soon we were on our way, crammed like so many cattle onto the Squaw Valley trams dangling high above the ground as we bounced our way to the top. One of our Trekkers with a fear of heights had wanted to walk. She hid herself in the crowd and refused to look out, frightened that we were going to go careening down the cliffs. Her instincts were good. A few years later, the world watched as a rescue operation pulled people off of one of the very same trams as it dangled 100 feet off of the ground. We made it without any problems.

They started when we got off of the tram.

Steve’s job for the first three days was leading since we were going over the route he previewed. Mine was to be trail sweep or rear guard, as we called it. Our rules were very simple: don’t get ahead of Steve, follow the yellow ribbons left behind by the horse people, and don’t get behind Curt. We also required that Trekkers hike with at least one other person and that they let someone know if they had to leave the trail to ‘serve nature,’ as my students in Africa had called potty breaks.

I was not going to march people through the woods like an army. By allowing them to travel at their own pace, they could move at a speed their bodies and minds were comfortable with. It also allowed for something of a wilderness experience even though we were hiking with a large group. Sixty people would be spread out over 2-3 miles of trail.

Rear guard duty is always the toughest job on a Trek since it’s where the problems accumulate. That first day we made it exactly 50 yards before the first one popped up. The witch had shown up with an old boy scout pack with a rope tied on for a belt. (Remember she was the one who was going to come over in the middle of the night, bite me on the ear, and turn me into something. I think she had a sex-crazed maniac in mind.)

We were still in a transition stage where a few belt-less backpacks were wandering around in the mountains with people attached. Following the dictates of my Bible, “The Complete Walker,” by Colin Fletcher, I had insisted that all of our Trekkers have the belted kind. Not surprisingly, the witch’s ‘belt’ broke immediately. I was tempted to suggest she use her occult powers to fix it but Charlie Colin, the ex-ice hockey player, cheerfully took care of the problem. I loaned her some sun tan lotion and insisted she use it. In addition to having lily-white skin, she was wearing a tiny mini-halter, no bra, and short shorts with close to total exposure.

“But Curt,” she objected, “I want to go home with a complete tan.” Right. I told her she would be one roasted chickadee at the end of the first hour and I didn’t want to be accused of burning witches.

By the time we had taken care of her problems (or at least the ones we were qualified to take care of)— and those of several other Trekkers, Steve had covered a mile plus and was about to disappear over Emigrant Pass into the Granite Chief Wilderness. All the way up the mountainside, I could see our charges struggling with thin air, a steep trail and heavy backpacks. Some, having traveled for 10 minutes and 200 yards, were taking their first 20-minute break of the day. I resigned myself to a long, slow hike.

An hour or so later, Charlie and I crested the pass. Up ahead there may have been people having the easy day I had promised, but they certainly weren’t the 20 or so Trekkers I was now herding along the trail. I looked back at the now distant floor of Squaw Valley and sent a small thank you wafting upward that the first 2000 feet and two miles had been by tram.

I also sent up thanks for the fact that we truly did have a short day. Having cut off two miles from the beginning and hiked another, we only had four to go. Steve had carefully described our first campsite and I had reviewed my topographical map. We were going to drop down into the small valley behind Squaw Valley where the American River begins its journey to the Pacific as soggy ground, and then climb up the ridge that forms the side of Granite Chief Mountain and Needle Peak. Eventually the ridge trail crossed a small, glacier-caused hanging valley perched several hundred feet above the now creek size American River. A spring was running into the valley with ‘ample’ water for our Trekkers.

Apparently, I had used up all of my credit with thanks, though. When we arrived at the proposed campsite, there was only one Trekker present, Bob. I was about to learn what the ‘just in case’ part of his job description meant. This particular just in case was my arriving in camp and finding no one there.

“Everyone has gone on, Curt,” Bob reported. “There is no water. Steve has taken the Trekkers another two miles to Hodgkin’s Cabin.”

Ah that I would have come across a small stream. Even this would have provided enough water for our Trekkers.

Ah that I would have come across a small stream. Even this would have easily provided enough water for our Trekkers.

I am not sure this would have worked but many times I've made do with less when hiking alone.

I am not sure this would have worked but many times I’ve made do with less when hiking alone.

I wanted to whine. People had been whining at me all day. Certainly, it was my turn. The possibility of the small stream running dry must have been apparent two weeks before, I complained to myself, and wearily began rounding up my charges. They had scattered out and plopped down on the ground, like rocks.

There were two bright spots to my day. One was Charlie.  What a character and what a help; he told me his life story as we placed one foot in front of the other. Every once in a while, he would break out chanting: “cold beer, cold beer, cold beer.” It was pure fantasy but the thought kept us going.

The other was the fact that Lisa had joined us and was playing sheep dog with Charlie and me. We kept everyone moving forward with at least a semblance of humor. By this time, Charlie and I had set up a pole between us and were carrying two broken down packs in addition to our own. Somewhere along the trail I offered Lisa my hand to get over a rough spot and we had continued to hold hands. I felt guilty— a little. The rawness of Jo Ann’s confession was still burning a hole in my soul.

Eventually, we arrived at Hodgkin’s Cabin. We had survived day one. Tune in next Wednesday when I am accused of running a pot smoking orgy in the mountains— not true.

Here are a few more tantalizing waterfalls. BTW, I took most of these when I did a 360 mile backpack trip down the Sierras to celebrate my 60th birthday.

Tuolumne River Falls in Yosemite just outside of Tuolumne Meadows.

Tuolumne River Falls in Yosemite just outside of Tuolumne Meadows.

I enjoyed this cascading falls...

I enjoyed this cascading falls…

This split falls...

This split falls…

This narrow falls...

This narrow falls…

And this humdinger filled with snow melt.

And this humdinger filled with snow melt.

Friday and Saturday’s posts: I am excited. I have my ticket to Burning Man! So I spent my past week using an old, limping laptop to peruse my thousands of photos I have taken at the event since 2004, eliminate a bunch, and divide the rest up into categories. I actually got my number of pictures down to around 4,000. (grin) Don’t worry, I am not going to throw them all at you. But I will share select photos. On Friday and Saturday I will kick off my Burning Man posts with some of the wonderful— and weirdly wonderful, mutant vehicles that prowl the Playa and Black Rock City. I’ll move on from there to other categories such as sculpture, tribes, temples, the Man, etc.. This is a series you won’t want to miss!

It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me… A Sierra Trek Tale

Oregon Black Bear

Black Bears are much smaller than either brown or grizzly bears, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t scary. This one was cruising our neighborhood in Oregon and  tipped over the heavy Webber Grill on our porch. Our daughter, Tasha, was sleeping in the bedroom next to the grill. “Curtis!” she screamed. Later, our neighbor captured the bear’s photo on a surveillance camera.

 

I’ve been re-blogging older posts while my laptop is at the doctors with memory problems. Today it’s time for another Sierra Trek Tale. Next week, I’ll get back to the first Sierra Trek but today we are jumping ahead five years to the first trek I led into the back country of Yosemite where bears rule.

 

Bears like me, or at least they haven’t eaten me. They’ve had numerous opportunities over the years. It goes with the territory of backpacking throughout North America for over four decades. My scariest encounters, as it turns out, were also my first.

By the fifth year of the Sierra Trek, I had worked my way southward from Lake Tahoe into Yosemite National Park. Since we were utilizing a new route from Yosemite to Kennedy Meadows, I had to preview it. (Plus it was another excuse to head out into the wilderness and be paid for it.)

My friends Ken Lake and Tom Lovering joined me on the first three days from the Yosemite Valley floor to Tuolumne Meadows. Day one found us climbing several thousand feet out of the Valley and camping above the Little Yosemite Valley. The bears dropped by for a visit on our first night in the Park.

Half Dome, Yosemite. Little Yosemite Valley is on the other side.

Half Dome, Yosemite. Little Yosemite Valley is on the other side.

After carefully hanging our food bags from a cable provided by the park service and burying the left over fake freeze-dried raspberry cobbler (it was made from apples), we trundled ourselves off to our sleeping bags. The problem was we buried the food a little too close to Lake. I think Tom may have been up to his usual mischief.

The next morning, a very excited Ken asked if we had seen the bears in our camp the previous night. Neither of us had and we attributed his sighting to an overactive imagination. Believe me, if a bear had been digging up food next to my head, my two companions would have known about it, immediately.

Day two was tough. What I hadn’t counted on was the amount of snow still left on the ground. We spent most of out time slipping, sliding and slogging through it. By three in the afternoon, Tom was ready to set up camp right in the middle of a snowfield. Ken and I threatened to leave him with the bears and he committed to another hour. Fortunately, that night was bear free. They would have found little resistance from the three of us.

Eventually, we made it into Tuolumne Meadows where I was faced with another challenge: hiking over 70 miles of snow-covered trails by myself while Ken and Tom returned to Sacramento and work. The journey was fraught with opportunities for breaking a leg, or losing the trail, or being washed away when crossing streams raging with water from melting snow. None of the above was a desirable outcome for someone hiking alone.

Tuolumne Meadows in the summer.

Tuolumne Meadows in the summer.

My other option was to return to Sacramento with Ken and Tom, which was not acceptable. I had a week off to wander in the woods and I was going to wander in the woods for a week. I compromised by heading back over the mountains toward Yosemite Valley. My fractured logic concluded that it was better to break a leg and get lost where I had been than where I was going. I also promised myself to be really careful. This included keeping my food from bears.

Hiking out of Tuolumne Meadows took me back around Cathedral Peaks shown here.

Hiking out of Tuolumne Meadows took me back around Cathedral Peaks shown here.

The first day was non eventful and the second idyllic. I was exploring new country, doing what I most love to do. As evening approached, I found a delightful campsite on the Cathedral Fork of Echo Creek. Amenities included a babbling brook to put me to sleep, a flat space for my sleeping bag and a great food-hanging tree with the perfectly placed limb. A hot dinner topped off by tea spiced up with a shot of 151-proof rum and I was ready for sleep.

I carefully hung my food bags at the recommended 12 feet off the ground and 9 feet away from the tree trunk and then snuggled down in my sleeping bag. As was my habit at the time, I slept out in the open, only using my tent when rain threatened.

It was somewhere around 4 am and very dark when I awoke with a pressure on my chest. I couldn’t see very far but I didn’t have to. Approximately five inches away from my face was a long black snout sniffing at me. It was filled with grinning teeth and topped off by a pair of beady eyes that were staring at me with a hungry look.

I let out a blood-curdling scream and vacated the premises.

As I flew in one direction, the equally surprised young bear that had been standing on me flew in the other. I don’t even remember getting out of the bag. The next thing I knew I was standing up, yelling and shining my flashlight into the woods where not one, but two pairs of orange eyes were staring back at me. I lost it. Never have so many rocks been hurled with so much vigor in such a short period of time. The bears wisely decided to head off over the mountain.

But the damage was already done. My camp was a disaster area. My carefully hung food was scattered all over the ground with literally every meal torn open and sampled. All I had left was a chunk of cheese and it had one large bear bite out of it. I hid the cheese under a heavy rock.

As a further insult, one of the bears had chomped down on my plastic rum bottle and all of the rum was gone. I couldn’t even drink. With that option eliminated, I policed the area, crawled back in my bag and went back to sleep. When I awoke in the morning it was obvious that the bears had come back into camp to clean up anything they had missed. Once again the previous night’s trash decorated my campsite. At least the bears let me sleep this time. And they had missed my cheese.

So I ate it for breakfast, cleaned the area again, packed up my gear and hiked 18 miles into the Yosemite Valley to resupply. But my week wasn’t over; neither were my bear experiences. And the summer had only begun. (I’ll get back to these stories in the future after I am finished with my series on the first Sierra Trek. You won’t want to miss the time a bear grabbed me by the head.)

NEXT BLOG: A return to my photo series on Burning Man.

 

Bears, Rattlesnakes, Heart Break, and Ham Cheddarton… The Sierra Trek: Part 3

Beauty in the Sierra Nevada Mountains comes in many forms, such as this Red Fir giant I found on Seavey Pass.

Beauty in the Sierra Nevada Mountains comes in many forms, such as this Red Fir giant I found on Seavey Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

In my last post about the Sierra Trek, I noted that the clock was ticking. We had a route that threatened to be covered in horse poop, a sponsor who believed that backpacking 100 miles in 9 days was insane, a barely edible meal of Ham Cheddarton for a quarter of our dinners, and 60 people, aged 11-70, ready to follow us across the mountains.

 It was now time for Steve and me to go out and check the route, to get a feel for how much trouble we were actually in! We had agreed to split the preview: Steve would backpack the first third of the route from Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat while I backpacked the second third from Robinson Flat to Forest Hill. We’d cover the final third the weekend before the Trek.

A note about today’s photos: As I mentioned previously, the photos for this series on the first Sierra Trek are all taken from later treks.

 

Steve had never backpacked alone and I had only been out by myself three times. It promised to be an adventure. In addition to reducing the odds that we would lose 60 people in the woods, we also needed to check out potential camps, water availability, and the difficulty of the trail. I wanted to develop a feel for what we would be putting our participants through.

Nervous is the best word to describe my mood as I packed up. Jo Ann was heading off for a clothes-buying spree in San Francisco. I told her to enjoy herself, threw my backpack in the back of my Datsun truck, picked up Steve, and drove to Squaw Valley. We made a brief stop in Auburn to recruit my father-in-law’s Springer Spaniel, Sparky. I felt the trip might be a little rough on my basset hound, but wanted some doggy companionship. I left Steve weaseling a free ride up the Squaw Valley tram and headed for Robinson Flat, a camping area on the Western side of the Sierra.

Some experiences burn themselves into your soul. This was one. The beauty and the variety of the wilderness captured me. I was starting at around 7000 feet in the heart of red fir and Jeffrey pine country and dropping into the Sierra Foothills where incense cedar and ponderosa pine provided shade.

Along the way I would descend into river canyons filled with inviting pools and scramble out to follow hot, dry ridges. Besides Sparky, a coyote, two skunks, several deer, a porcupine, and numerous birds provided entertainment. I also met my first bear, a big brown fellow that came ambling out of the brush and increased my heart rate twofold. Even the ever-curious Sparky took one sniff and made a quick retreat behind me. Then she growled.

Being alone enhanced and intensified the experience. The days were exciting but the nights bordered on scary. After the bear, I imagined all types of creatures sneaking up on us as we slept. Sparky was even more nervous. I loaned her my new Pendleton shirt to sleep on. She had chewed it to rags when I woke up in the morning. I didn’t have the heart to scold her. Had I known what she was up to, I might have joined her.

This photo taken near Sonora Pass illustrates both the distances and possible solitude of hiking in the Sierras.

This photo taken near Sonora Pass illustrates both the distances and possible solitude of hiking in the Sierras. You can see the trail as it comes into the photo (bottom left), and works its way  down the slope. Look carefully and you will see it on the distant ridge.  The small dot on the ridge is one of my trekkers. Can you find the pass? (Look for the sharp switchback.)

It was the physical challenge that made the deepest impression. I was strong but out of shape. Even had I been better prepared, I wasn’t psychologically ready for the experience of hiking 10-15 mile days with a 50-pound pack on my back. Nor was the territory gentle. I was hiking in and out of 1000 foot plus deep canyons following steep, winding trails that had challenged the 49ers in their endless search for gold. Once I found myself lost on a brush choked mountain and had to fight my way free.

Participants start out squeaky clean on the trek. You can always tell backpackers who have only been out for a day.

Treks are hard. Period. Not one has ever been as hard as my first one, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. You start out squeaky clean, like Marvin, and then the days begin to take their toll.

After several days, they may resemble Marvin here, who I believe is surrendering to mosquitos.

This is Marvin after several days. I believe he is surrendering to mosquitos.

As I approached Forest Hill, temperatures climbed to a scorching 105 degrees. To top it off, I was breaking in a new pair of German-made Lowa boots. All of the backpacking literature of the day emphasized sturdy foot ware and it didn’t get much sturdier than Lowa. Considering my feet blister at the mere sight of a boot, they were not happy campers. By the third day I had blisters on top of blisters and my feet resembled a hyperactive moleskin factory.

But, I made it. I proved to myself I could do it and that the Trek was possible. With the proof came an incredible high. I hiked into Forest Hill singing.

Steve showed up about an hour later. He was beaming and jumped out of the truck to grab me while Sparky did much wagging of tail. The three of us did a little dance and Steve and I both tried to talk at once as we told our stories. Steve had seen ‘migrating’ rattlesnakes and lots of bear scat. He peed around his camping area to mark his territory and warn the bears to stay out. They did. The second day a hawk had ‘chased’ him down the trail for miles. I wondered what Steve had been smoking. But now he was on the same natural high I was. We were ready to Trek.

I couldn’t wait to share my experience with Jo Ann. I hurried home, dropping off a tired Sparky and a pooped Steve. I burst into the house full of enthusiasm. In comparison to my bubbling nosiness, Jo was funeral quiet. I made enough noise for both of us and suggested we head out to Chuck’s, our favorite steakhouse. After three days of backpacking food, I was hungering for a mouth-watering T-bone. We were in the middle of our first Scotch when Jo Ann looked at me miserably and announced she had something to tell me.

“Curt,” she confessed, “I didn’t go to San Francisco over the weekend. I went to Los Angeles and spent the weekend with a man I met at a workshop last month.”

My world stopped. My heart broke.

There was no Trek, no future, no me. The steak in my mouth turned to sawdust and my stomach became a tight, heavy knot. Jo Ann went on to tell me about the psychiatrist she had met at a conference in San Francisco and how she was scared about losing me, about how she still loved me. Maybe, but something broke that night, something that could not be mended.

I had to get out of town, to think, to recreate myself.

The next morning Jo dropped me downtown. I called Steve, Nancy and Nan into my office, closed the door and gave them enough details so they would know why I was leaving. In addition to being employees, they were all friends. It was hard for me not to break down. I promised that I would be back in time for the Trek and discussed what needed to be done in my absence. Steve’s primary job would be to review the last section of the trail. He drove me to the airport.

My choice of where to go was determined by the first airplane leaving Sacramento. It was a Western Airlines flight to Seattle and I was on it. It was Tuesday, 12 days before the Trek.

Lonely and confused I walked the dark, rainy streets of Seattle. I missed Jo desperately and had a hard time imagining the future. I hit the bars and drank. It wasn’t that I was naïve. I knew people could grow apart as well as together, and that we had grown apart. Nor was I innocent. I had been tempted more than once in the ever-present world of sexual attraction: a hand touched here, a smoldering glance there. My world was one filled with bright, attractive women. But I had really believed I was married for life.

I had started drinking at a bar early on Friday afternoon when the words of a Jimmy Buffett song caught my attention. “I spent four lonely days in a brown ugly haze and I just want you back by my side.” I returned to my motel and called Jo. She was on the next flight to Seattle. We grabbed a ferry and headed over to Victoria where we had spent happier times. Maybe it would work.

Back at Lungland on Monday things were iffy. On the down side of things, Steve hadn’t previewed the last section of the trail. Who knows why? Our last three days would be potluck. The good news was that our generous food donation from Lipton had arrived, umpteen boxes of it. It was scattered all over the floor of our volunteer room.

I opened the first box, Ham Cheddarton. Oh well, can’t win them all. I had known the trekkers would be stuck with at least two meals of the stuff. So I opened the next box, Ham Cheddarton. Luck of the draw, I hoped. I opened the third box, Ham Cheddarton. Soon boxes were opened everywhere and they were all Ham Cheddarton. A warehouseman at Lipton had figured out a clever way of moving his unsellable product and we were it. We were faced with giving the trekkers Ham Cheddarton every night. We would be killed. Steve called his Lipton contact in Chicago and pleaded our case. He agreed to switch 50% of our food; we’d only be 50% killed.

From the very beginning, I divided my participants into food groups of 3-4 people. That way, cooking equipment and responsibilities can be divided up. We've tried many foods over the years. Mountain House, shown here, has been consistently good.

From the very beginning, I divided my participants into food groups of 3-4 people. That way, cooking equipment and responsibilities could be divided up. We’ve tried many foods over the years. Mountain House, shown here, has been consistently good.

When we are lucky, trout can be added as a supplement.

When we are lucky, trout can be added as a supplement. My son-in-law Clay had sacrificed himself to mosquitos to capture this fellow. A little butter, a little spice— mmm good!

Saturday came fast, faster than a speeding bullet, faster than Superman could even dream of flying. Suddenly it was just there. There was no sleeping on Friday night. I had to pack and I had to worry. I had to worry a lot. There was no way I had enough time to worry, so I was still worrying when I met my support crew at a small restaurant just outside of Squaw Valley at 7:00 AM. The first Sierra Trek was about to get underway…

NEXT BLOGS: Friday, Burning Man in photos; Monday, a wrap up on historic Boston; Wednesday, the next episode of the Sierra Trek

 

From An Ex-Ice Hockey Player, to a Ballerina, to a Witch: Meet the Sierra Trek Participants

I didn't have a clue what to expect when we started recruiting for the first Sierra Trek. What I quickly found out was that people from all ages and walks of life wanted to hike across the mountains. What I learned one 30 years was that three things determined the success of the program: The people, the challenge, and the beautiful country. That participants were raising money for a good cause was a plus. This is Darth Cathy, who joined us on the 4th year, I believe. Actually Cathy is wearing a a dark mosquito net. Her career was that of an IRS agent.

I didn’t have a clue what to expect when we started recruiting for the first Sierra Trek. What I quickly found out was that people from all ages and walks of life wanted to hike across the mountains. This is “Darth” Cathy (grin), who joined us on the 4th year. Actually Cathy is wearing a dark mosquito net. Her career (now retired) was that of an IRS agent.

 

In my last blog about the Sierra Trek, I persuaded my Board of Directors to support the concept. I then hired Steve to help put the event together and we had located a 100-mile route across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was the beginning of July and the Trek was to take place in the mid-August. The clock was ticking.

A note about today’s photos: As I mentioned previously, the photos for this series on the first Sierra Trek are all taken from later treks. Today’s photos are from the mountains west of Lake Tahoe in the Granite Chief and Desolation Wilderness areas.

 

Our first challenge was whether we could recruit participants. Were there people in the Sacramento area crazy enough to go on a nine-day, 100-mile backpack trip up and over mountains?

The answer was a resounding yes. Steve was able to get an article published in the Sacramento Bee. All participants had to do was raise funds for the Lung Association. Naively, we failed to suggest experience would be valuable, set an age limit, or ask for a minimum amount of pledges. People came out of the proverbial woodwork! We held an orientation session at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District auditorium with close to 100 people in attendance.

Among them were a 16-year old ballerina with legs of steel and a 250-pound, fifty-four year old ex-ice hockey player who had also had a career defusing bombs in South America. At the time, he was dodging the IRS. Four little 11-year old boys came as inseparable buddies and I wondered what kind of baby-sitting service their parents assumed we were providing. There was busty Sunshine who had a skinny partner named Bilbo. (Decades before the movie trilogy, people were already entranced with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I was.) Lovely Lisa was 19 years old and a perfect 10.

Another woman, who claimed to be a witch, informed me, “I’ll be over to bite you around midnight on the Trek.” And no, she never came over to bite me; but had I encouraged it, I am pretty sure it could have been arranged. We had a 40-year-old teacher from Auburn who would never sit down during the day because she claimed she would never get up, and a 45-year-old teacher from Davis who claimed he could carry his weight in booze, and probably did. There was also a young man named Dan with flaming red hair who wore moccasins, juggled and played a harmonica as he walked down the trail.

And there was Orvis.

Three weeks before the Trek, an elderly, white-haired gent with a long flowing beard and twinkling eyes walked into my office and announced he wanted to go. His name was Orvis Agee. He was 70 years old and a carpenter. He couldn’t have weighed over 100 pounds fully dressed and soaking wet. I made a snap decision.

“Uh,” I said searching for a gentle way of telling him I thought he might be too old for the Trek, “this is going to be a very difficult trip. Do you have any backpacking experience?”

“Well,” he announced proudly, “I went on a 50 mile trip with the Boy Scouts last year.” That was 20 miles farther than I had ever backpacked. “And,” he added as he warmed to the subject, “I’ve climbed Mt. Shasta several times since I turned 60.” I had never climbed Mt. Shasta or any other mountain of note. Mainly over the past ten years I had been sitting around becoming chubby.

“Welcome to the Sierra Trek,” I eked out. What else could I say? (Seventeen years later at age 87, Orvis would do his last Trek with me. It was Peggy’s first trek. He had personally raised the Lung Association well over $100,000.)

People from all walks of life joined our treks over the years. Many would come again and again. Nancy Pape, who is an interior decorator, first joined us in 1977. 40 years later, she still calls me each year to see if I am going on a backpacking trip she can join. She's family.

People from all walks of life joined our treks over the years. Many would come again and again. Nancy Pape, who is an interior decorator, first joined us in 1977. 40 years later, she still calls me each year to see if I am going on a backpacking trip she can join. On this particular trip she took a hand full of pills and choked on them. Another long-term trekker, Ken Lake, gave her the Heimlich Maneuver and quite possibly saved her life.

Here's Ken, enjoying a quiet moment. Peggy's sister, Jane, and I hired Ken to run our first 500 mile bike trek in 1977 and help out with programs. Prior to going to college, he had been a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. He, along with his wife Leslie, are also part of our extended family.

Here’s Ken, enjoying a quiet moment. Peggy’s sister, Jane, and I hired Ken to run our first 500 mile bike trek in 1977 and help out with programs. Prior to going to college, he had been a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.

Bill Braun, shown here with Peggy, is one of my all time favorite trek characters. Bill's job was that of chief mechanic on the huge container ships. He, along with Cathy, often helped Orvis down the trail in his later years, once leading him by hand when he couldn't see because of cataracts! Bill and Cathy working together to help Orvis would eventually lead them to get married.

Bill Braun, shown here with Peggy, is one of my all time favorite trek characters. Bill’s job was that of chief mechanic on huge container ships. He, along with Cathy, often helped Orvis down the trail in his later years, once leading him by hand when he couldn’t see because of cataracts! Their work together in helping Orvis would eventually lead them to get married.

Speaking of family, this is our daughter Tasha standing with me in the Desolation Wilderness next to a trail sign. She went on several treks with us.

Speaking of family, this is our daughter Tasha standing with me in the Desolation Wilderness next to a trail sign. She went on several treks with us. And no, she isn’t seven feet tall. She was standing on a rock.

And our son, Tony. When he graduated from Annapolis, I promised to take him on a 100 mile trip including climbing Mt. Whitney. He jumped at the opportunity.

And our son, Tony. When he graduated from Annapolis, I promised to take him on a 100 mile trip including climbing Mt. Whitney. He jumped at the opportunity.

As the Trekkers rolled in, Steve and I focused our energies on the next task. What were we going to feed the mob that we would apparently be leading through the mountains? Breakfast and lunch could be pulled off the shelves in the local grocery stores. Dinner was the problem. Freeze dried food was in its early stages of development and somewhat expensive for my budget.

There was another possibility. Lipton had a lightweight, off-the-shelf dinner, which was inexpensive and sold through grocery stores. The meals came in four flavors and featured tiny amounts of turkey, chicken, beef and ham with gourmet names attached. I bought all four and Jo and I did a taste test. Except for the Ham Chadderton, they were actually decent. The Chadderton resembled something a bird might regurgitate and tasted slightly worse. “What the heck,” I thought, “three out of four isn’t bad.”

Steve suggested that he call Lipton’s headquarters back east and see if we could get the food donated. We would offer to ‘test market’ and publicize their food for the growing backpacking market. Lipton bought it. We had our dinners, and Steve had earned his $16 for the day.

We also wanted a backpacking store as a sponsor. An outdoor store would provide some much-needed credibility and be a valuable source of advice and recruits. I did a scientific search by looking in the Yellow Pages and picking out the first store I came to, Alpine West. It was only a few blocks away at 10th and R Street so I walked over. A bushy bearded, hippie-like character in his mid-twenties was behind the cash register.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “is the owner or manager in?”

“I am the owner,” was the somewhat terse reply. “What can I do for you?”

I did a quick regrouping, “Hi, my name is Curt Mekemson and I am the Executive Director of the local Lung Association,” I said as I offered my hand. He gave me a ‘what donation are you about to ask for look’ but took my hand and introduced himself as Tom Lovering. I explained what we were going to do.

“That’s insane,” Tom had replied with an assuredness that would have intimidated Attila the Hun. It certainly intimidated me. What do you say when the expert you are seeking advice from tells you flat-out that the idea you are already implementing is crazy.

“Um, it’s been nice chatting with you.” Or, “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone.”

I opted for the “Why do you say that?” wanting to know how far out on the limb I had crawled. I quickly learned that the event we were planning was the equivalent of the Bataan Death March. People might do it but they were going to be miserable and say nasty things about the Lung Association and me for the rest of their lives.

After having said all of that, Tom agreed to sponsor and promote the Trek through his store. I left feeling a little confused. Did he want people to say nasty things about him and Alpine West?

Tom and I would go on to having numerous adventures. And he remained as wild as ever. Here is on a trip down the Colorado River that Peggy and I went on with him a few years ago.

Tom and I would go on to having numerous adventures. And he has remained as wild as ever. Here he is on a trip he led down the Colorado River that Peggy and I went on with him a few years ago.

Back at Lungland, the clock was ticking. The Trek was three weeks away and then two. It was time to go out and preview the route. Given Tom’s pessimistic assessment of our adventure, Steve and I felt the preview was all the more critical. We agreed to a long weekend where each of us would hike three days of the route. The final three days were saved for the following weekend just before the Trek. Could we plan things any tighter? There was no room for error…

We took our second trek south through the Desolation Wilderness, which is just south of the Granite Chief Wilderness and both west of Lake Tahoe. Here I am checking out the terrain.

We took our second trek south through the Desolation Wilderness, which is just south of the Granite Chief Wilderness and both west of Lake Tahoe. Here I am checking out the terrain.

And here's Peggy hiking down one of the trails in the Granite Chief Wilderness. The pack looks almost as big as she is.

And here’s Peggy hiking down one of the trails in the Granite Chief Wilderness. The pack looks almost as big as she is.

There is a series of four small lakes in the Desolation Wilderness called the 4 Q Lakes because of their shape. I took this reflection shot from my favorite camp location.

There is a series of four small lakes in the Desolation Wilderness called the 4 Q Lakes because of their shape. I took this reflection shot from my favorite camp location.

Flipped 90 degrees, it reminded me of an African mask.

Flipped 90 degrees, it reminded me of an African mask.

One of my favorite memories of Orvis was his expertise on flowers. Trekkers were always asking him for their names. I didn't know this one on our first trek so I asked Orvis. "Oh, that's a DYC," he told me. I dutifully told other trekkers it was a DYC. At the end of the Trek , I asked Orvis if the DYC stood for anything. He got a twinkle in his eye and said, "Dam yellow composite."

One of my favorite memories of Orvis was his expertise on flowers. Trekkers were always asking him for their names. I didn’t know this one on our first trek so I asked Orvis. “Oh, that’s a DYC,” he told me. I dutifully told other trekkers it was a DYC. At the end of the Trek , I asked Orvis if the DYC stood for anything. He got a twinkle in his eye and said, “Dam yellow composite.”

I'll conclude today with this tree blaze from the Desolation Wilderness. One of the joys of wilderness travel is finding old, long since forgotten trails and following them. Early sheepherders, ranchers, foresters, mountain men and explorers often marked their trails by cutting into the bark of trees. Many of the blazes would last for years and years, such as this one.

I’ll conclude today with this tree blaze from the Desolation Wilderness. One of the joys of wilderness travel is finding old, long since forgotten trails and following them. Early sheepherders, ranchers, foresters, mountain men and explorers often marked their trails by cutting into the bark of trees. Many of the blazes would last for years and years, such as this one.

NEXT BLOGS

Tomorrow: A review of Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job, a book by two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Asifa Kanji and David Drury, on their experience as Volunteers in Mali, West Africa.

Friday/Saturday: The first of my photographic essays on Burning Man in preparation for the 2017 event.

Monday: Back to Boston and the Freedom Trail

What Do Burning Down a Bank and the Sierra Trek Have in Common? … The Sierra Trek: Part 2

Waterfall and pool on Five Lakes Creek in the Granite Chief Wilderness area behind Squaw Valley, California.

The Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics, is an area of rugged terrain and natural beauty. This pool on Five Lakes Creek was an open invitation for a dip on a hot summer day. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

 

The vision part of being a visionary is always the easy part, as any visionary will tell you. It is the execution of the idea that separates the mouse from the moose. In my first blog on the Sierra Trek, I told how Steve Crowle and I had come up with the crazy idea of raising money for the non-profit I was executive director of by running a 9-day, 100-mile backpack trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. I had six weeks to plan and run the event. It would have been a major undertaking even if I had six months!

A note on photos: I didn’t take any pictures during the first Sierra Trek. It was before I became interested in photography, plus I had my hands full shepherding 63 people across the mountains— as you will learn. The photos in this blog and in the rest of the series were taken on later Treks and on personal trips in the Sierra’s and other California mountain ranges where we trekked. They will give you an idea of why I fell in love with backpacking and the Sierras. 

 

My first challenge on the trek was selling it to Board of Directors. Running a backpack trip as a fundraiser was a huge leap from sending out Christmas seals. At 29, I was close to the youngest Lung Association Executive Director in the nation in 1974 and I had already ruffled some feathers. A research doctor from UC Davis was foaming at the mouth because I wanted our organization to focus on prevention programs as opposed to medical research. What would he think of me running off to the woods on a backpack trip?

Leading a group of people through rugged terrain for long distances was a bit more scary than sending out Christmas Seals. Here we are looking south from the Granite Chief Wilderness to the Desolation Wilderness, a route we followed several times on the Sierra Trek.

Leading a group of people through rugged terrain for long distances was a bit more scary than sending out Christmas Seals. Here we are looking south from the Granite Chief Wilderness to the Desolation Wilderness, a route we followed several times on the Sierra Trek. Snow would often be a challenge on our adventures.

“You want to do what?” with a decided emphasis on the first and fifth words is the best way I can describe the Board’s reaction to my proposal. It was easy to translate: “Why would a 29-year-old executive director with less than a year of experience under his belt, want to risk his career on such a harebrained idea?”

I echoed wild Steve, “Why not?”

Actually I had a great Board. Once the members were convinced that this was something I really, really wanted to do, their final response was “OK, go for it!” I called Steve immediately. I had a wide range of responsibilities ranging from administration to program to fundraising. I would have a limited amount of time to devote to the project and I didn’t know anyone else who was crazy enough to take on the challenge.

I had originally talked Steve into replacing me as Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center with a sales pitch that included, “Look, I have this great job where you work 60 hour weeks, have a Board that likes to scream at each other, and has a starting salary of $200 per month. Are you interested?” Minus a screaming Board of Directors, organizing the Trek wouldn’t be all that different.

Steve had a bright, curious mind and was knowledgeable on environmental issues. He also seemed to have unlimited energy and was built like a bear. It had served his well as Executive Director of EIC. In addition to overseeing the Center’s ongoing projects, he had immediately set out to develop a community garden downtown. Initially known as the terra firma Garden and later as the Ron Mandela Garden, it would provide inner city residents with a touch of nature for over 30 years— all the way until the State of California decided to grow buildings on the site.

The downside about Steve was that he existed on the edge. I later learned that one of his friends who he recruited to volunteer on the Trek frequently flew to Columbia and returned with his cargo holds filled with pot. Steve was a ‘person of interest’ to the FBI.

A year after the Trek, Steve called me and told me that the FBI had showed up on his doorstep. My immediate thought was that they had tied Steve to the Colombia operation or that some of the terra firma/Mandela gardeners were growing marijuana. Steve’s concern was that his radical youth was catching up with him. He had been a little too close to the fire when the Bank of America had been burned down in Santa Barbara in 1970 as a protest against the Vietnam War. “And what were you doing with those matches?” Mr. Crowle. (Steve told me the Santa Barbara story a few years ago before he passed away.)

Actually, the FBI had bigger fish to fry. Apparently one of his gardeners had gone from farming her plot to plotting an assassination. Young Lynette Fromme grew up in Southern California where she was a star performer in a children’s dance group, performing at such venues as the Lawrence Welk Show and the Whitehouse.

At 19, a strong disagreement with her dad sent her scurrying off to Venice Beach where she found comfort from an older man, Charles Manson. She soon found herself one of Manson’s clan, taking care of an aging George Spahn at his ranch where the ‘family’ hung out. It was Spahn who gave Lynette her nickname “Squeaky,” because, as legend has it, she squeaked each time he tried to grope her.

Squeaky missed out on the murderous rampage the family undertook in 1969 killing Sharon Tate among others, but she remained intensely loyal to Charles, defending him to the press and anyone else who would listen. After Manson’s conviction and sentence to a lifetime in prison, she moved to Stockton where two of the people she was living with, James and Lauren Willett, mysteriously ended up dead.

Abandoning Stockton, Squeaky moved to Sacramento and rented an apartment with another Manson groupie, Sandra Good. The two of them adopted a new life style and persona as ‘nuns’ in Manson’s latest crusade, saving the earth. Manson even gave them new names with Squeaky becoming ‘Red’ and Sandra becoming ‘Blue.’ It was with her new name, persona, and purpose that Squeaky took up gardening at the Mandela Garden. Steve knew her, of course (she liked his intense eyes), but knew nothing about her background.

It was with her new purpose of ‘saving the earth’ that she left her apartment on the fateful morning of September 5, 1975 and strolled over to Capitol Park where she got within a few steps of the visiting President Gerald Ford before pointing her Colt 45 at him, creating immediate pandemonium. She later claimed she was “just trying to get the President’s attention.” She did. Three months later she found herself convicted of an attempted assassination and in prison.

As for Steve, he informed the FBI that he didn’t have a clue as to who Fromme was or what she was up to other than being a gardener. Like Pangloss, he went back to cultivating his garden.

But all of this was in the future. My phone call to Steve went something like the following:

“How would you like to go backpacking and get paid for it?” I asked.

“Give me a hard question,” Steve responded.

“Are you willing to work for two dollars an hour?” I casually threw in as fine print.

“That,” he replied, “is the question.”

I went on to explain that while the Board members had approved of the concept, they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about spending large sums of money to see if it worked. I could just barely squeeze out the minimum wage of the day for two months to see if we could pull it off. Steve, after ample groaning, allowed that it would supplement what he was earning at the Center and took the job.

My next responsibility was to come up with a name. While thinking of backpacking 100 miles in nine days the word trek popped in to my mind. So I looked it up in the dictionary. “A long, arduous journey” was the definition. That seemed appropriate, and since we were doing our long, arduous journey through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, I decided to call it the Sierra Trek.

Where to go posed a more serious challenge. I came up with three criteria: one, it had to be 100 miles long; two, it needed be in our territory; and three, the trail should be easy to follow. The hundred miles was a given, and ‘being in our territory’ seemed feasible since several of ALASET’s (the American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails) nine counties encompassed a significant portion of the Northern Sierra.

The clinker in our selection process was the ‘easy to follow.’ I had nightmares of having Sierra Trekkers lost all over the mountains with Steve and me scrambling to find them. We’d be lucky if we could avoid becoming lost. Serendipity stepped in and helped out. I was reading the Sacramento Bee when I came across our solution.

The horse people were planning their annual 100-mile horse race across the Sierra Nevada, the Tevis Cup Race. The event started in Squaw Valley and ended in Auburn. Horses had to follow substantial trails, I reasoned. Squaw Valley had been the sight of the 1960 Winter Olympics and would provide an internationally known resort to kick off our event.

A trail sign for the Tevis Cup Trail behind Squaw Valley, California.

A trail sign marking the Tevis Cup horse race. The same route is now used for a 100-mile ultra marathon run across the mountains.

Auburn was one of the main foothill communities in the Association’s territory and would make an ideal ending place. The trail had the added advantage of being an early trail used by pioneers. We could use the historical angle and tie in with our name. My major concern was following a trail filled with horse poop.

Steve made contact with the woman in Auburn who was organizing the Tevis Cup Race. “Yes, the trail is easy to follow.” They marked it with yellow ribbons and the ribbons would still be up for our Trek. As for my concern about horse manure, “There should be plenty of time between the race and your trek for the manure to dry out.”

“Fine,” I said to Steve when he reported back, “our Trekkers will be shuffling down trails in dry horse shit up to there ankles.” On the other hand, I thought, we can tell them to follow the horse droppings if the ribbons run out. The important thing was we had a route and could begin publicizing the event. Steve and I agreed to preview the route in advance of the Trek to pin down campsites and reduce the possibility of nasty surprises.

So now, we had a route and a name. It was time to recruit participants, obtain food, and preview the route— all of which I will include in my next blog, where I will also learn a very valuable lesson from a 70-year old.

The Granite Chief Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Lake Tahoe.

One of my favorite Granite Chief Wilderness views. Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley, and Alpine Meadows are on the other side of the mountain. The flowers are called Mule Ears. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Another field of mule ears in Granite Chief.

Another field of mule ears in Granite Chief. The trail wound its way through here.

A close up of the Mule Ears blooming. There are few places in the Sierra's that can match the display of flowers in the Granite Chief Wilderness,

A close up of the Mule Ears blooming. There are few places in the Sierra’s that can match the display of flowers in the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Washington Lilies found in the Granite Chief Wilderness area behind Squaw Valley.

These Washington Lilies are found on the trail as it makes its way through the Granite Chief Wilderness down toward Five Lakes Creek.

Mariposa Lilies found in dry areas behind Squaw Valley.

As are these Mariposa Lilies…

And Tiger Lilies.

Tiger Lilies.

Indian Paint Brush found in Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley, California.

And Indian Paint Brush.

Lichens add color along the trail as well.

Lichens add color along the trail as well.

Snag found in the Granite Chief Wilderness north west of Lake Tahoe, California.

This old snag provided a different type of photo-op…

Lodge Pole Pines found in the Granite Chief Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

As did these weathered Lodge Pole Pines.

Little Needle Lake in the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Little Needle Lake is a short three-mile hike from the top of Squaw Valley. I enjoyed the reflection here. At night there is an amazing chorus of frogs. I’ve often camped beside the lake.

Five Lakes Creek in the Granite Chief Wilderness area behind Alpine Meadows ski area.

Five Lakes Creek flows along quietly here and provides and invitation to cool off in the middle of summer. Earlier it can be roaring with snow melt and icy water.

Peggy provides an example of how the creek should be enjoyed on a hot August afternoon.

Peggy provides an example of how the creek should be enjoyed on a hot August afternoon.

Canny on Five Lakes Creek near Diamond Crossing in the Granite Chief Wilderness.

The final photo of the day. Five Lakes Creek drops into a canyon a few miles below where Peggy enjoyed her cooling off. The top photo on this post provide a closeup. I often camped Treks at Diamond Crossing near here. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

 

 

A Far Out Excuse for Escaping to the Woods… The Sierra Trek Series: Part 1

The Black Buttes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are lit up by the evening sun.

Inspired by the beauty of the Five Lakes Basin found north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, I started a lifetime of backpacking in 1969.

 

At Five Lakes Basin’s/ Biggest little lake /after all day scrambling on the peaks/ a naked bug /with a white body and brown hair/ dives in the water/ Splash! — Gary Snyder

As I think about backpacking 500 miles this summer, my mind wanders back in time to the first major backpacking trip I ever made: a nine-day, 100 mile trek across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The trip in itself would have been a bit crazy considering my lack of experience. But I ended up leading 60 people aged 11 to 70, most with less experience than I had. It was a new definition of insanity. I was lucky the participants didn’t leave me hanging in a tree somewhere along the trail. It came close.

It’s a good story, one that I’ve been planning to tell for a long time. My Wednesday blog will be devoted to it over the next couple of months. So grab whatever you like to drink, sit back, and join me on the first Sierra Trek.

 

During the early summer of 1974 my life took a dramatic shift. My first wife Jo Ann, friend Steve Crowle, and I used a long summer weekend to go backpacking into one of my all-time favorite backcountry destinations, the Five Lakes Basin north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a beautiful area with towering granite cliffs and jewel-like lakes that had been carved out by glaciers some 20,000 years ago. It’s also a favorite area of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Gary Snyder, whose haiku poem on the area is featured at the top of this post.

Gary Snyders Haiku poem "Old Pond" was based on the Five Lakes Basin.

The Black Buttes looming above the Five Lakes are where the poet Gary Snyder went ‘scrambling.’

My first backpacking trip ever had taken me into the region in 1969 and I had returned again and again, sometime with Jo, sometimes with friends, and occasionally by myself. On one of the latter trips, I had taken my Basset Hound Socrates and camped out on a small lake that is somewhat hidden from the other lakes. I’ve blogged about the Socrates trip. Here’s what I wrote:

One of the five Lakes in the Five Lakes Basin north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

This is the lake where Socrates and I camped and where the Sierra Trek was born. This photo also shows how granite dominates the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Sharing the lake with Soc was close to being totally alone. His concept of a quality wilderness experience was disappearing into the woods and seeing how many holes he could dig. He never seemed to catch anything, so I am not sure of his motivation. I’d get up in the morning and cover his handiwork. I almost felt like I needed to file an environmental impact report. He always limped home on sore feet.

On this particular journey, I packed the Carlos Castaneda book that features things that go bump in the night. Don Juan takes Carlos out into the middle of the Sonoran Desert on a pitch-black night and abandons him. Not long afterwards, the monsters come hunting. It wasn’t the best book for a solo night in the woods. As I read into the evening, I found myself paying more attention than usual to wilderness sounds.

I ingested a little medicinal herb to lighten things up. It was the 70s, after all. Bad idea; instant paranoia set in. Soon I could hear the wind stalking me through the treetops. An old snag turned into a ghoul. Off in the distance something big and ugly was digging and snorting. Socrates, I hoped.

This tree turned into the ghoul as the sun set and night approached.

This Jeffrey Pine turned into the ghoul as the sun set and night approached.

Ghost tree in the Five Lakes Basin of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A close up of the dead ghoul tree.

“Here Soc,” I called. “Come here boy.”

The digging continued and grew more desperate.

“Come here!” I yelled. Still no response but now I could hear large claws scratching at granite.

“Does someone want a Milk Bone?” I added in a quiet, conversational voice.

The digging stopped. ‘Someone’ started coming through the brush toward me. Whatever it was, it was apparently interested in Milk Bones. Soc’s head, long body and wagging tail made their way into the firelight. He might love digging, but he loved food more. There was the reason why our low-slung pooch weighed 70 pounds.

“Good boy,” I said while digging out a Milk Bone. I knew I was buying companionship but it seemed like a good idea on this strange, dark night. Meanwhile, Socrates had started to drool in expectation. Soon he was shaking his head and shooting dog slobber off in a dozen directions. I ducked to avoid being slimed.

Unfortunately, my supply of Milk Bones was limited. I tied Soc up to assure his faithfulness. It was time for bed. I put the fire out and was greeted by a moonless, dark night. But hey, who needed the moon when I had my faithful companion and a million stars. I invited Socrates to snuggle up on my sleeping bag and laid my head down on the coat I was using for a pillow.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

“Damn! What’s that?” I sat up straight and grabbed for my flashlight. Socrates joined in by barking at my sleeping bag.

“No, Soc, out there,” I urged and pointed the flashlight off into the woods. Soc glanced up at me with a curious ‘what are you talking about’ look and started barking at my pillow.

“Look Socrates,” I pleaded, “just pretend there is a garbage man out in the woods.”

Soc had never met a garbage man he could resist barking at and I wanted his teeth pointed in the right direction.  What Soc did with my advice was make three dog circles and plop down on my bag. I gave up and reluctantly laid my head back down on my pillow.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

I sat straight up again. Soc growled at me for disturbing his rest and started barking at my sleeping bag again.

“Fine watch dog you are,” I growled right back at him while straining my ears for the smallest of sounds. When Soc shut up, I was rewarded with a faint ‘crunch, crunch, crunch.’ It was coming from under the sleeping bag. I had a proverbial monster under my bed! Gradually it dawned on me that what I was hearing was a gopher tunneling his way through the ground, innocently on his way to some succulent root. I put my head down on my pillow. Sure enough, the ‘crunch’ became a ‘CRUNCH.’

The ground and the mystic weed were magnifying the sound. Soc had been right all along. I was lucky that he only barked at my sleeping bag and hadn’t started digging.

Don Juan would have appreciated how I had been tricked. Reality isn’t always what it seems.

Jo Ann, Steve and I had ended up camping on the same lake. Steve had replaced me as Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center when I had become Assistant Director of the American Lung Association of Sacramento. In addition to his boundless energy and intelligence, he was more than a little on the wild side. He had hobbies like jumping off high bridges into shallow water and experimenting with various mind-altering drugs. But mainly he loved life and had a vast appetite for new experiences.

One such experience was backpacking. We were lazing around our campfire on the last night bemoaning the fact that we had to return to civilization and jobs the next day.

“God, wouldn’t it be great if we could make money doing this,” Steve sighed.

Suddenly my mind took one of its intuitive leaps where the lights come on, the bells go off and four and twenty blackbirds sing the Hallelujah Chorus.

“We can, Steve!” I managed to get out as my thoughts played hopscotch. “Look, as Executive Director one of my main responsibilities is fund-raising.” (That spring, I had become Executive Director of the Lung Association.)

I was painfully aware my money-raising responsibilities. TB/Lung Associations had spent 70 happy years sending out Christmas Seals and waiting for the money to roll in. While the Golden Goose wasn’t dead, it was ailing. We had conquered TB and selling lungs wasn’t nearly as easy. Easter Seals had kids, the Heart Association the most appealing organ in the body, and the Cancer Society the scariest word in the dictionary. We had emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, the remnants of TB and diseases with unpronounceable names such as coccidioidomycosis. Adding injury to insult, dozens of non-profit organizations had added seals to their fund-raising arsenals. Competition for bucks to do-good was tough and the well was running dry.

“What if,” I pondered out loud, “we ran a backpack trip through the mountains as a type of multi-day walk-a-thon with people raising money for each mile they hiked?” I liked walk-a-thons. They involved people in healthy activities as well as raising money. They gave something back to the participants.

Steve’s attention jumped from low watt to high intensity. “When? Where? For how many miles and days? How can I be involved?” The questions tumbled out.

“I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know,” I responded, laughing at his enthusiasm although mine was hardly less. “But,” I added, throwing out some crazy figures, “what if we made it for nine days and 100 miles?”

That quieted us down. Neither of us had ever backpacked for nine days straight, much less 100 miles. A long trip for me had been six days and 30 miles. I threw out the nine days because it included a full week with both weekends and the 100 miles because it sounded impressive.

“Why not,” Steve had finally said with more than a little awe in his voice as a new national fund-raising program was born. It was a program that would occupy much of my time over the next 30 years, involve thousands of people, and raise substantial funds for the American Lung Association. But all of that was in the future; Steve and I just wanted an excuse to go backpacking.

Here are a few photos from the Five Lakes Basin:

Beautiful flowers such as this Mariposa Lilly...

In the summer, the Basin is filled with beautiful flowers such as this Mariposa Lilly…

Penstemon...

Penstemon…

And a butter cup.

And Cinquefoil.

Snag in the Five Lakes Basin .

Both live and dead trees decorate the landscape.

It was in the Five Lakes Basin

This impressive stump was located about 50 yards from camp.

In addition to their beauty, the lakes make great swimming holes and provide opportunities to add trout to dinner.

In addition to their beauty, the lakes make great swimming holes and provide opportunities to add trout to dinner. This was a view from my campsite.

Fun lakes and interesting reflections...

They are also good for reflection shots!

And interesting reflections.

This reflection of this tree was so clear it could have been real.

This reflection of this Lodgepole Pine was so clear it could have been real.

The sunset on the Black Buttes and, finally...

Another sunset photo of the Black Buttes and, finally…

A dramatic sunset.

A dramatic sunset.

FRIDAY’S BLOG: A photographic essay on the Glass Forge in Grants Pass, Oregon and its beautiful glass creations.

MONDAY’S BLOG: We will return to the Oregon Coast and visit the scenic Sunset Bay.

WEDNESDAY’S BLOG: Part 2 of my Sierra Trek series. I have to persuade a reluctant Board of Directors (“You want to do what?”), decide on a name, hire Steve, and determine our route.

Wandering through Time and Place in 2017… And Some Thoughts on Planning

Curtis Mekemson hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail behind Squaw Valley.

It’s time to start planning and dreaming about 2017. One of my goals is a seven week, 500-mile backpack trip on the Pacific Crest Trail. Here I am in the Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley, California. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

It’s the first day of the New Year. It’s the time to make resolutions and plans— a time to dream.

There was a time in my life when I was obsessive about the planning process. I would lay out goals and objectives. And then I would move into YAPs, QUAPs, MAPs, WAPs and DAPs, or, to spell it out: yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily action plans based on my goals and objectives. I set priorities, created time lines, made to-do lists, checked things off, kept records, and made plan revisions. Things that didn’t work were modified or dropped. New opportunities were taken advantage of. I did it for my personal as well as professional life. It was how I accomplished things I wanted to do, and how I kept some control over my often chaotic life.

Early on I had learned if I didn’t plan out what I wanted to do with my time, someone else was more than willing to do it for me. And I had also learned that there is power in planning, in knowing what you want to do, and in determining what is important, what has the greatest impact.

I am not as obsessive as I once was, but old habits die hard. And, even though I am “retired,” it is still important to have an idea of where I want to go, of what I want to do, and of what is important to me. Of course I don’t exist in a vacuum. Ask Peggy. (grin) Most of what we do is jointly decided.

So given all of this, what are my writing and travel plans for 2017?

Kpelle footbridge near Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

I hope to revise and republish “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” a memoir about my Peace Corps experience in West Africa. Here, a much younger Curt makes his way across a river on a native bridge in the heart of the African jungle.

Under writing objectives, I plan to finish my next book, tentatively titled Tales of an Incorrigible Wanderer. My 10,000-mile bike trip plus other outdoor adventures will be included. (I am sure you will want to buy a copy. Grin.) I also plan to revise and republish The Bush Devil Ate Sam. I will continue to blog two to three times a week on current travels/adventures as well as past adventures. I am thinking in terms of doing one blog each week on current travels, one blog on past adventures, and one blog as a photographic essay. But we’ll see. I have to reduce the time I spend on blogging so I have more time for other goals, like play, for example.

Our travels this coming year will likely go in three directions. One, Peggy would like us to do a more thorough job of exploring the Pacific Northwest. I might add California down to Big Sur simply to expand my Pacific Coast blogging series. (And I really like Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey.) I expect we will also spend more time exploring the East Coast now that our two kids and their families are living there. Finally, I am hoping we can plan a trip to Ireland and possibly England where I would like to continue my genealogical research.

Photo of Scottish pony taken by Curtis Mekemson.

I photographed this pony in Kirkcolm, Scotland when I was doing research on my Scots-Irish ancestors a few years ago. I promised myself at the time that I would return for more research in Ireland and England.

I am also hoping we can make it back to Burning Man. It is one of my most popular blog topics and I would like to write a book in 2018 on my 14 years of experience with the event. We will know in February if we can get tickets for this year.

The Temple of Promise at Burning Man in 2015 is caught by the morning sun.

Morning sun catches the copper face of the Temple of Promise at Burning Man 2015.

Finally, it is time for another grand adventure. I celebrated my 60s by doing a six-week 360-mile backpack trip down the Sierra Nevada Mountain range from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney. It seems only appropriate that I celebrate my 70s by doing a seven-week, 70-miles per week, 490-mile backpack trip on the Pacific Crest Trail. But I’ll have to see whether my 74-year old body is willing to cooperate. Maybe it will be a one-week 70-mile trip, or a one-day 7-mile hike, or a .7-mile hike to the mailbox. Laughing.

Whatever… I am sure there will be many adventures to share!