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.”
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.
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!