A Grand but Insane Idea… The First Sierra Trek: Part 1

It’s Blog-a-Book Tuesday. Now that I have provided an introduction to my book, it’s time to start rolling out stories. I’ve chosen my first ever 100-mile backpack trek across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range for my kick-off. Given that I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing was crazy enough, that I chose to take 61 people aged 11-71 with me as a fund-raiser for the American Lung Association was pure insanity. I was lucky to survive with my career and life intact.

As promised, I am going to blog the book in bite sized pieces with each post ranging between 500 and 1000 words. Some of these stories may be familiar to you since I have written about them before in my ten years of blogging.

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 in 1969, I started a lifetime of backpacking. Here, the setting sun lights up the Black Buttes.
I was camping on this little lake when I was inspired by the idea of raising money for the American Lung Association of Sacramento by running a hundred mile backpack trip.

During the early summer of 1974, my life took a dramatic shift. My friend Steve Crowle and I had used a long summer weekend to go backpacking into one of my all-time favorite destinations, the Five Lakes Basin, north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a beautiful area with towering cliffs and jewel-like lakes that were carved out by glaciers some 20,000 years ago.

We were lazing around our campfire on the last night and bemoaning the fact that we had to return to civilization and jobs the next day. Glowing embers provided warmth and pulled us closer to the fire while a full moon bathed the Black Buttes in silver light and focused our attention outward.

“God, wouldn’t it be great if we could make money doing this,” Steve sighed. He had replaced me as Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center when I had become Executive Director of the American Lung Association of Sacramento. In addition to his boundless energy and intelligence, he was a bit 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. 

Suddenly my mind took an intuitive leap. The lights came on, the bells went off, and four and twenty blackbirds sang the Hallelujah Chorus.

“We can, Steve!” I managed to get out as my thoughts played hopscotch. “Look, as Executive Director of Lungland, one of my main responsibilities is fund-raising.” It was a fact I was painfully aware of.

The once Tuberculosis Association and now Lung Association had spent 70 years happily sending out Christmas Seals and waiting for the donations to roll in. While the Golden Goose wasn’t dead, it was ailing. We had conquered the dreaded 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 insult to injury, several 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 and might fire people’s imaginations. It did mine.

“Why not,” Steve had finally said with more than a little awe in his voice as a new fund-raising program was born. It was an event that would keep me happily running around in the woods over the next 30 years and raise substantial funds and friends for the American Lung Association. But all of that was in the future; Steve and I just wanted an excuse to go backpacking. How to get from point a to point b was the question. As folks like to say, the devil is in the details.

My first challenge was selling the event to a reluctant Board of Directors. Running a 100-mile backpack trip as a fundraiser was a huge leap from sending out Christmas seals. At 29, I was the youngest Lung Association Executive Director in the nation and I had already ruffled enough feathers to dress a turkey. For example, a research doctor on my Board was foaming at the mouth because I wanted our organization to focus on reducing the primary causes of lung disease: air pollution and tobacco use. What would he think of me running off to the woods on a backpack trip? Another Board member loved his pipe and was irritated at me because I had persuaded the Board that our meetings should be smoke-free. His irritation was nothing, however, in comparison to a number of California Lung Execs who were livid because I was proposing that Lung Association offices should be smoke-free as well. What a radical idea that was. I heard an older woman exec proclaim at a conference, “I am going to kick that young man in the balls!” She made sure I was within hearing distance. 

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

I echoed wild Steve, “Why not?”

NEXT POSTS: On Thursday’s travel blog we continue our back roads’ journey along Highway 50 across the Nevada Desert and camp out at the Hickison Petroglyph area with its strange petroglyphs and unique rock structures. Next Tuesday it’s back to blogging a book. The Lung Association Board approves the Trek, I hire Steve, and we begin a recruitment effort. People come out of the woodwork wanting to go…

NOTE: Peggy and I are heading over to the Oregon Coast to celebrate Thanksgiving and our Anniversary, camping out in Quivera the Van at a site that may not have cellphone or Internet connection. If so, I will get back to responding to comments and reading posts next week.

33 thoughts on “A Grand but Insane Idea… The First Sierra Trek: Part 1

  1. At first I thought it somewhat amazing that Lung Association executives would object to a smoke-free environment even that far back but then: I thought of all the old TV program reruns we see on TV from the era when most if not all stars were smoking; and then to a 1995 trip to New Mexico when there were fewer non-smoking rooms in motels than smoking rooms and smoke-free restaurants weren’t to be found.
    I remember your post from when you first wrote about the hike and look forward to the rest, Curt, but my how far we have come on the dangers of smoking!

    • Someday, I have some great stories on the tobacco wars, I want to tell, Ray. I smoked a pipe when I first went to work for the lung Association. I loved that pipe. But then the Group Against Smoking Pollution convinced me that tobacco smoke damaged their lungs. I set out to help them and my pipe became a victim. 🙂 –Curt

  2. Oh my Curt, crazy is as crazy does and this looks like an insanely amazing trip. You were brave to take that range of ages too. And I love your self assured response to the Lung Association,. why not., I’ll be back to read thoroughly, just skimming through., Beautiful pics as always. ❤️ Cindy

  3. Love this sentence: Suddenly my mind took an intuitive leap. The lights came on, the bells went off, and four and twenty blackbirds sang the Hallelujah Chorus.
    Looking forward to the next instalment!

  4. You know, I’m trying to remember the last time I received Easter or Christmas seals in the mail, and I can’t. Your description of the various groups nailing down their markets was hilarious, and you’re right. The poor lung associations didn’t have a chance against the kids.

    • It’s been a while since we have received Christmas or Easter Seals, either, Linda. A quick contribution would cure that however. 🙂 Once a fund raiser has your number, watch out! 🙂 We donated generously in the Presidential campaign and we ended up getting solicitations every day!
      It’s a tough business. I can’t count the number of fundraising letters I have written. Treks actually made it easy. –Curt

    • Definitely going to publish, Christie. When is always the question. 🙂 As for revolutionary, it’s more like forward looking, thinking a few steps ahead. And having fun along the way. –Curt

  5. I love reading about your hair-brained ideas, and you have to admit, most have turned out richly, rewarding you with spectacular scenery and great memories. The stuff good blog posts are made of! Looking forward to reading more, although I’m sidelined with Thanksgiving and Christmas duties right now. Don’t give up on me — I still love trying to keep up with you!

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