It’s Blog-a-Book Tuesday, again, and I am continuing to blog “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”— one story at a time. In my last post Steve and I began our recruitment efforts for the Sierra Trek, our hundred mile backpack trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sixty one people signed up, a true cast of characters. In this post, we recruit sponsors, figure out what we will feed our army, and preview 80 miles of the trail.
As the Trekkers rolled in, Steve and I focused our energies on the next task. What were we going to feed the army that we would be leading through the mountains? Breakfast and lunch could be pulled off the shelves in 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 Ann (my first wife) and I did a taste test. Except for the Ham Cheddarton, they were actually decent. The Cheddarton, while edible, was in serious need of improvement. 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 minimum wage 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 don’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 Alpine West and him?
Back at Lungland, the clock continued to tick and tock. 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.
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 61 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, Socrates, 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 Sierras. I left the pickup there for him.
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 6000 feet into the Sierra Foothills where incense cedars, ponderosa pines and white oaks 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 ever 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, looked out from between my legs, and started barking. Great. The bear growled his displeasure and ambled back into the brush. Slowly.
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.
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 55-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.
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 Lowas. Given that 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 in the Datsun. He was beaming and grabbed me in a breath-robbing bear hug 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 he been smoking. But now, Steve was on the same natural high I was. We were ready to Trek.
I’ll be featuring photos from our various adventures this year between now and the New Year on my Travel Blog but I will keep Tuesdays for blogging my book. Next Tuesday we discover that Lipton has only sent us Ham Cheddarton, Jo Ann takes a detour to LA, and I take a detour to Canada. All in the week before the Trek.