16 Miles without Water, a Huge Rattlesnake, and a Lost Trekker… The Sierra Trek

Panamint Rattlesnake in Death Valley.
Lacking a photo of the rattlesnake, I’ll substitute this one that Peggy and I found in the mountains above Death Valley. Different in color, it was similar in size. Note the pit viper head. When I spotted the snake, Peggy was driving. Since it was on her side, she took several photographs. I decided to get out to take more. My lovely wife floor-boarded it. No way was she going to let me get up close and personal with the monster the way I normally do with rattlesnakes! (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

In the last post from my book, “It’s 4 AM and A Bear Is Standing on Me,” I related how a doctor out of Sacramento had accused us of running ‘a pot smoking orgy’ in the mountains and threatened to go back to Sacramento and tell the press. While the “pot smoking orgy” was a figment of his imagination, the threat had been real. In today’s post, I am faced with the toughest day of the Trek: 16-miles without water. To meet this challenge, I arranged to have a jeep filled with a water resupply meet the Trekkers on a dirt road that crossed our trail at the half-way point.

After my ‘sermon on the mount’ to defuse the doctor, I sent the Trekkers back to camp to pack up before calling them together for a final briefing. They stood with their packs on as I reminded them of how difficult the day would be and gave them very specific instructions:

“A road crosses the trail eight miles from here. Steve Locke will be there with the jeep and water. If he isn’t there when you arrive at the road, wait for him. Otherwise, you will have a long, thirsty hike.” It would not be the last time in Trek history my directions would go unheeded.

As per plan, I sent Steve Crowle on ahead as trail leader while Charlie and I provided rear guard support. In retrospect, I should have recalled that this was the section of the trail that Steve claimed a hawk had ‘chased’ him for miles, apparently all 16. Far from being a gentle ridge walk, we were climbing in and out of small canyons over hot, dusty trails. By the time we had covered five miles, I was beginning to worry. By six, I knew I had to come up with an alternative. Otherwise many of our folks would be making a dry camp out on the trail.

I pulled out the walkie-talkie from Bob-of-No-Name and pushed down the talk button. The large, unwieldy device came with a long aerial that had to be extended. “Steve, come in please,” I requested— and was greeted by static. I tried again, and again. Nothing. It didn’t work because of all the canyons. My only alternative was to hustle up to the front of the line and catch the Trekkers before they left the jeep. I dubbed Charlie as primary rear guard and took off moving as fast as my legs would go, passing the majority of our group along the way. When I arrived at the jeep, Steve was there with 15 people. “Damn,” I thought, “some of the Trekkers have already gone on.” Maybe I could catch them.

“Hey Steve,” I jumped in as he greeted me, “it’s time for Plan B.”

“Which is…?” he asked grinning.

“We need to send the Trekkers by road into Robinson Flat with jeep back up. It’s only about 5 miles plus the jeep can provide water along the way and shuttle people if necessary. But first, how long ago was it when the rest of the Trekkers left the jeep?”

“I don’t know,” Steve confessed. A group of Trekkers had been walking on his tail and he had let them pass (thus breaking one of our cardinal rules). Even worse, Steve Locke didn’t know either. Apparently 15 of the Trekkers had arrived before the jeep and chosen to go on. Another five had actually waited, loaded up with water and then taken off, approximately 30 minutes before I arrived.

“Oh shit,” I had responded. Thanks to Steve letting people go ahead, we now had 20 people out on the trail in front of us without a leader— and 15 with limited water! I was beginning wonder whether my friend was part of the solution or part of the problem.

Day two, which had started with the doctor and his ‘pot smoking orgy’ had gone from bad to worse. I made a command decision. Steve would continue on with Plan B. I would hike along Red Star Ridge and provide backup for the group who had chosen to hike another 8 miles without water. I had little doubt about what type of foul mood my wayward charges would be in when I caught up with them and who they would blame for their predicament. It certainly wouldn’t be themselves for failing to wait for the jeep. We would camp on Duncan Creek as planned and hike the two miles into Robinson Flat the next morning. (It was five more miles by trail than by the jeep road.)

“No one is to budge from Robinson Flat until I get there,” I instructed with the fervid hope my instructions would be followed this time.

First, however, I had to go back and retrieve Charlie. I wanted to personally be sure that all of our other Trekkers made it to the jeep. I asked Crowle and Locke to hold everyone. I found Charlie a mile or so back on the trail with another broken pack. Boy, were we having fun. If my learning curve got any steeper, I’d need a climbing rope.

“I’ll hike on with you, Curt, to provide support and company,” Charlie insisted.

I knew I was tired and could only imagine how he must feel given his extra 25 years and 50 pounds. I was beginning to realize that older people are often tougher than younger people half their age with twice their strength. The journey we were on was as much psychological as it was physical. Maybe more so.

We initiated phase two of our journey around 2:00 p.m. In a little over 30 minutes Charlie and I caught our four eleven-year-olds, who we had nicknamed the Four Mouseketeers. They were crawling along at a pace that a turtle would have found embarassing.

“Joe is really slow,” one of the urchins informed me.

Yeah, I thought to myself, and you guys are so glad he is because it provides all of you with an excuse to move at the same pace.

After about an hour of moving along at ‘Joe speed,’ Charlie plaintively informed me he wasn’t going to make it into camp if he couldn’t move faster. Having determined that three of our Mouseketeers really were better hikers, I assigned them to Charlie and took Joe on as my personal challenge. The experience was similar to moving my Basset Hound, Socrates, down the trail after he spent a full night of digging up imagined gophers in granite and had raw feet. Joe would go a quarter of a mile and stop, plopping down onto the dusty trail. We had managed a mile of this when I came on Charlie again, standing beside the trail and pointing off to the left.

“Careful, Curt,” he began, “there is a huge timber rattler coiled up there.”

Adrenaline gave me a spurt of energy I didn’t know I had. Huge was hardly an adequate description. The snake was as thick as my wrist and about six feet long. Joe, either out of exhaustion or not caring, came to a shuffling halt mere inches away from the poised pit viper and kicked dirt into its face. Visions of all sorts of bad consequences danced in my head.

“Um, Joe,” I whispered trying to sound calm and not wanting to frighten him or the snake into precipitous action, “if you will look down to your left, you will see a snake. Don’t move.”

Had I received such instructions, I would have been 20 feet down the trail in one prodigious leap. Joe, on the other hand, looked down at the huge, coiled rattler, said ‘oh,’ and shuffled on down the trail. The snake didn’t budge; Joe was neither food, friend or foe. We left the snake guarding the trail.

Charlie went on ahead with his three charges and I continued to herd my half dead companion. It was after dark when I heard the stream that I knew meant camp. It was an extremely welcome sound; Joe and I had been traveling for at least 30 minutes by flashlight. Charlie was waiting for us outside camp.

“We have a problem Curt…” he began for the second time that day, although the day had already stretched out forever and I hadn’t known one minute when the ubiquitous problem did not exist. As supportive as Charlie had been, I had thoughts of killing the messenger.

“What’s it this time,” I asked, struggling to keep the grump and whine out of my voice.

“One of the Trekkers is lost and the rest of the Trekkers are ready to string you up from a tree,” he reported matter-of-factly. But then, it wasn’t his neck. “I’ve calmed them down by telling them all you have done today,” he went on. “Now they are just going to give you the silent treatment.”

I am not a praying type of person but I looked up at the sky and said, “God, get me back to Sacramento and I promise I will go back to running Christmas Seal Campaigns with my 80-year-old, lady volunteers and be perfectly happy.” The odds against any future Trek program had just hit 1000 to 1…

Travel Blog Thursday: I travel no farther than our deck to record a gorgeous sunset.

Blog–a-Book Tuesday: The lost Trekker finds himself; I declare a layover day at Robinson Flat; and babysitting the Four Mouseketeers takes on a whole new meaning.

33 thoughts on “16 Miles without Water, a Huge Rattlesnake, and a Lost Trekker… The Sierra Trek

  1. Great post Curt and Hysterical… well, unless you were there. 🤣 Sounds like you had a bunch of hooluhans on your hand. Loved this line:
    I am not a praying type of person but I looked up at the sky and said, “God, get me back to Sacramento and I promise I will go back to running Christmas Seal Campaigns with my 80-year-old, lady volunteers and be perfectly happy.”
    no water was bad enough and then a rattler too.. yikes.
    Oh man, I near stepped on a rattle snake once an it was terrifying! ❤️ Cindy

    • Laughing. Again, much more humorous in retrospect. 🙂 The Trekkers were fine but the group that went on had been young and inexperienced for the most part. I suspect the guy that got lost had encouraged their going on without water, but I’m not sure. I admit I really was longing for the Christmas seal campaign where I could watch the letters go out and the money come back while I was sitting on my tail. 🙂
      Rattlesnakes are scary dudes! Especially when they start rattling and you can’t see them. 🙂 – Curt

    • Quite a few, although it took ten years and a few other experiences to make them pop out. 🙂 It became more worth it as I wen’t along, Alison. On the other hand, where would the stories be if the adventure had been ‘a walk in the park.’ –Curt

  2. My husband’s a reptile guy and kind of jealous that you got to see the rattlesnake (but not under those conditions :)) The adventure continues! I’m glad that we know that you made it out eventually!

    • Laughing. My feeling for snakes are always mixed, Anne. One, there is that primitive, visceral response that says leap and two is “Where’s my camera?” There is also the knowledge of the valuable roles that they play in nature. The third always comes after the first two, however. I am sure that a “reptile guy” gets all three!
      The adventure does continue. And given the first couple of days, it’s logical to have doubts about me making it out! 🙂 But here I am. Thanks, Anne. –Curt

  3. Yikes! Curt, I never fail to be flabbergasted by your adventures and love your retelling of them! Great writing, catching your increading concern and Joe’s calm/exhaustion in face of the snake had me wanting to scream at him to run! Reckon I better keep to safe European walks! 😀

    • Yes, Safe European walks! 🙂 But I bet those come with their own hazards,Annika, such as adders and asps. Of course one can always go to Ireland where St. Patrick banned snakes. (grin) Thanks. –Curt

  4. Wow. What a mess. Like herding cats. I used to backpack as a young person for months at a time, but never with a large group. And I’m glad I didn’t! They sure kept you running. Great post. 🙂

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