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.


“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.


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…



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.

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

      • Luckily, I’m not a mind that requires altering, so I save a lot of money!

        The gopher incident reminded me instantly of that moment in Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” where he is paralyzed with fear in his tent by the sound of something outside in the dark…and all he has is nail clippers.

        Oh, and when you do the PCT, bring nail clippers.

      • Nail clippers are good when backpacking. Toes have little sense humor for long nails when hiking, especially on steep downhills. I always advised my Trekkers to trim their nails before leaving home! Cracking branches outside your tent in the middle of the night guarantee an adrenaline rush. Waking up at 4 am with a bear standing on top of you, even more so. –Curt

  1. The photo you’ve captioned “Both live and dead trees decorate the landscape”? The dead trees could be you and Peggy — she, shading her eyes with her hand, and you with your mighty sword raised to slay… well, whatever. Maybe the gopher!

  2. I understand why, but it still amazes me that that part of the Sierra has no wilderness protection! Beyers and Baltimore Lakes were my first Sierra Nevada backpacking trips not in Yosemite when I was a kid. It holds a special place in my heart too!

    • I participated with the Sierra Club in having the area declared vehicle free in the 70s, which was a least something. Fun to hear that the area is a favorite of yours as well. I’ve hiked up from Eagle Lakes a number of times to Byers and also cut back and forth over and around the Buttes in various ways combining trips with the Five Lakes Basin. Thanks. –Curt

  3. Always enjoy your Sierra Trekking adventures especially knowing that your Sierra Trek idea changed for the better many people and a nonprofit. Jane

  4. That was a genius idea, Curt! It speaks of the adage I always like to remember, “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

    When I worked for the Juvenile Diabetes Researcher Foundation, our Executive Director did something similar. She and her husband and two of the board members were avid cyclists, so they created a fundraising Century Ride in Death Valley, CA. The inaugural riding group was fairly small, but it took off from there and has continued to be an annual event.

    • Having ridden my bike through Death Valley, I can see the appeal— at the right time of the year of course. 🙂 When the temps start climbing over a 100, I go somewhere else to play.
      I’ve always loved that particular adage, Juliann, and it has served me well, not so much in creating a fortune but in allowing me to do things I love to do and pay the bills. Really can’t ask for much more. –Curt

  5. Hi, I’m new to this blog and I just want to say that this adventure with all the beautiful photos are compelling reading. This is also my first time following a blog, and I am very grateful that it is so fascinating!

  6. Pingback: A Far Out Excuse for Escaping to the Woods… The Sierra Trek Series: Part 1 – Wandering through Time and Place – Nomad Advocate

  7. In no particular order:
    First I love this line: “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.” Brilliant! Chuckle.
    Second: I too read Castaneda in my youth though never alone in the wilderness night time. Scary! But I am familiar with paranoia setting it 🙂 (reading “We are not alone” I think it was called, or something like that, alone (theoretically) at night)
    Third: Your time with Soc and the gopher reminded me of camping alone in the Australian bush. You’ve no idea how much grazing kangaroos sound like men thumping slowly through the bush, all around your tent. Scary!
    Gorgeous country!
    On to the next installment.

    • I am always amazed how the night magnifies sounds when you are out in the woods alone. Cracking branches get to me. So I have no difficulty imagining kangaroos hopping around, scaring the heck out of you. The Socrates night was weird, to say the least. Hearing the wind move through the area like it was stalking you (Casteneda), and having a great ‘ghost’ tree didn’t help. Actually, once Soc settled down, I was damn glad to have him sleeping next to me. 🙂 Glad you liked my brainstorm analogy. –Curt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s