Steve’s job for the first three days of the Sierra Trek was leading since we were going over the route he had 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 let someone know if they had to leave the trail to ‘serve nature,’ which was what my students in Africa 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-one 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 backpacking 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/bomb defuser, cheerfully took care of the problem. My contribution was to give her some suntan lotion and insist 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 by 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 20 minutes and a few hundred yards, were taking their first 10-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 on the tram and hiked another mile up to the pass, we only had four more 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 trail crossed a small, glacier-caused hanging valley perched several hundred feet above the American River. A spring-fed creek was running into the valley with “ample water for our Trekkers,” Steve had assured me.
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. And they were about as hard as rocks to get up.
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. Barely. Had I only known that it would be a piece of cake in comparison to day 2, I might have hiked everyone back over the mountain the next day and declared the Trek a success. Sometimes it is best not to know what fate has in store.
NEXT POSTS: On Wednesday and Thursday, I will finish posting photos of Southwest National Parks and Monuments.