The Sierra Trek Ends with Its Biggest Surprise Yet!

In my last post on the Sierra Trek, our trip had come to a sudden halt because the Army Corps of Engineers was dynamiting in the American River Canyon in preparation for building a new dam. Not being able to move on, we had done the next best thing— had a party. We were lucky that the Corps was knocking off for the weekend. Our adventure continued…

Wanting to spend more time in the woods, I created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program. For several years, it would become one of the top special event fundraisers for the national organization and provide an opportunity for thousands of people to experience the outdoors while backpacking and bicycling. I was leading a Trek into Yosemite when the above photo was taken.

Early the next morning I had an important decision to make: whether to wade across the American River in water up to our belly buttons and then follow the river or climb up the steep canyon following alternative trails. I let the Trekkers vote and they voted to cross the river. No surprise; beyond getting wet, it was easier.

One woman was deathly afraid, however— and broke down in hysterics. It was the same person who had initially refused to ride the Squaw Valley tram. We offered to carry all of her gear. We even offered to carry her. All to no avail. Finally, I decided we would all hike the canyon route. I was not about to split our group again. (It was the only time in my years of leading Treks that I ever allowed participants to vote while on the trail. Treks, I decided, were not a democracy.)

Our last night was fifty-fifty on the plus and minus scale. On the plus side, I knew that we had succeeded. Our Trekkers, except for the two or three who were now riding in the jeep, had made it— survived if you will. We had managed to solve each of the crises we had faced along the trail. I could say goodbye to the Trekkers the next day knowing that I had put everything I had into getting them through the nine days. On the minus side, Steve had taken a few of the ‘cool’ Trekkers to camp away from the main group. I hated seeing this, it was a really bad decision, but it was already a done deal by the time I came into camp as rear guard. I could have hiked up the canyon and insisted the group rejoin us, but I just didn’t have the energy to do it.

Sunday, we hiked into Auburn Fairgrounds as a group. The Trekkers were in high spirits and sang the Ham Cheddarton song. In cadence. They had a bar-b-que chicken feast to look forward to and then they were going home— home to hot showers, clean clothes and loved ones. They had enough tales to fill the next week and possibly their lifetime. As we approached the fairgrounds, our Auburn volunteers, several Board members and Jo Ann were there to cheer our arrival.

I didn’t know how things would end. At best, I hoped our Trekkers would recognize that even though we had made enough mistakes to fill a book (or at least a long chapter), we had tried as hard as we humanly could to rectify them. And I had learned, boy had I learned. Mainly, I felt relief. I was going back to focus on our mail fundraising campaigns with a vengeance. What took me by surprise, however, were the responses as Trekkers started to leave.

“Thanks, Curt, for the most incredible experience in my life. Where are we going next year?”

“You and Steve were great, Curt. I would like to help with next year’s planning.”

And on and on. People were excited about their experience. It was one of the most difficult things that they had ever done, and they had succeeded. They left feeling better about themselves, and that feeling translated over to us and the Lung Association. Instead of the negative comments I expected, and in some ways deserved, we were getting rave reviews. While not everyone was eager for next year’s adventure, most were asking, even demanding that we repeat it.

I left that day not quite convinced but leaning toward doing another Trek. One thing was for sure. My experience had matched that of the Trekkers. The event had been one of the most difficult things I had done in my life from both a physical and mental perspective. I came out of the Trek with a new confidence in myself and a new understanding of what I was capable of accomplishing— and an increased love of the wilderness.

That night as I took my first shower in nine days. It was everything that I had dreamed it would be, but when I reached around behind me to wash my fanny, something was wrong. It wasn’t there. It had disappeared. I felt like I had lost a limb. Between the trail review work, my trauma with Jo, and the Trek, I had lost 20 pounds in two weeks! It was a fitting end to the experience.


We would go on to hold our Trek the next year and many, many years afterwards. In 1977, I added a 500-mile bike trek to complement the Sierra Trek, and later a three-day bike trek. By 1980, I had gone national with the program and Lung Associations were holding treks across the nation. Millions of dollars would be raised for our organizations and thousands of people would experience backpacking and bicycling adventures. Of equal importance, the Trek program recruited a whole new set of dedicated volunteers to the organization. And— from a purely personal perspective— it provided me with a 30-year excuse to play in the woods!

Now that I’ve told the story of the first Trek, it’s time to head back farther in time and relate how I first fell in love with wandering the woods. It all started when I was kicked out of the first grade for a year and started escaping to the jungle-like graveyard that was just across the alley from our house with only a grumpy dog for company. It was a long, long time ago in another world. Please join me next Monday as I kick off Section 2 of “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.”


Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Ever stop to think about what role your DNA would play in determining who you would grow up to be? I came from a long line of wanderers. Heading off to Africa seemed like a natural thing to do. I’ll introduce some of my ‘wilder’ ancestors including Great Great Grandfather George who struck it rich in the California gold rush and was then thrown off a ship into the Pacific Ocean and Uncle William who had his head chopped off by tomahawks.

Friday’s travel blog: Peggy and I are over on the Oregon Coast, this time in Brookings. So… there may be more ocean photos. Or… I may break out some more desert photos.

25 thoughts on “The Sierra Trek Ends with Its Biggest Surprise Yet!

  1. Before I even reached the end of your post where you related the benefits, I was already reminded of an acquaintance who developed a very successful business, sort of an Outward Bound experience for corporate executives. I guess it is the sort of experience that makes you better — if it doesn’t kill you.

    • Never had anyone killed out there, Ray. 🙂 Knock on the biggest tree one can find. There were several directions I could have taken the trekking program, But working for the Lung Association enabled me to follow two other passions I had, the environment and public health. Later, on the three day bike treks, I encouraged corporate teams to sign up and had good success with them. It was a win-win-win for the Lung Association, the companies and the participants. –Curt

  2. So glad my ‘drop in’ moment on your blog co-incided with the end of your first trek. What an achievement and what a lifetime of work for people and the planet you initiated – great to look back on – or forward to more treks!

    • And I’m glad your timing coincided, Hillary. With the exception of Section 2, where I talk about the lead up to trekking, There are many more ‘wild’ outdoor adventures coming, including my 700 plus mile backpacking trip I went on two years ago to celebrate my seven dates of life. 🙂 –Curt

    • You hit it on the head, Alison. It’s like walk-a-thons except longer. After the first year, I required that they raise a minimum in pledges but they still raised the money on a per mile basis. Thanks. –Curt

  3. Well that’s one way to lose twenty pounds! If I was as adventurous as you I’d give it a shot, especially after gaining the Covid 10 (or so…) lol. Can’t wait to read about your roaming around the woods!

  4. So… did you ever find your fanny? I laughed at your comment about “this is no democracy.” It reminded me of life aboard. The Captain is the Captain is the Captain — provided there’s no mutiny.

    • My fanny came back, Linda. Grin. I banned it again on my 700 mile backpacking adventure two years ago. I think it has been afraid to come back ever since… afraid I might go out and repeat the trek.
      Yep, the captain is the captain. I ran an easy ship, however. Only reverting to my captain is captain role when critical.
      I’ve sailed with a couple of Captain Blighs… Not much fun. I’m not made for taking orders, although I understand (and for the most part avoid) situations where it ranges from important to critical. 🙂

  5. I love reading about your adventures of the wanderers like you that I would tolerate for a few days. Clearly you have it in your blood to have wandered off to the jungle like graveyard in the first grade. Your poor parents. I could have been like that woman not wanting to cross the FREEZing no doubt river or heading straight up the mountain. Good thing you didn’t have 2 of those. I think i’d have opted for the hills. Wait I missed your trauma with Jo?
    Wow, what butt is right after that hike is right. A few 6 packs and I’m sure it was back. 🤣🤣🤣🤣

  6. A great story Curt, I have enjoyed every day of your Trek. You were definitely born to manage dealing with extreme situations, in a way or another. And I bet you have endless stories from those 30+ years of wilderness🙂

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