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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. It Takes a Worried Man…

6. A Pot Smoking Orgy in the Mountains?

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

NEXT BLOGS:

Burning Man’s Really Tall Women

Something Fishy

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

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.

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

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.