Pt. Reyes National Seashore is located some 30 miles north of San Francisco. Peggy and I went there last week to celebrate my birthday. It’s been a go-to place for me since the 60s. In addition to spectacular scenery, great hikes, yummy food, and one of the best small bookstores I’ve ever been in, we were entertained by the wildlife: tule elk, a pair of sushi eating coyotes, and elephant seals (plus some cows). Today, I want to do a teaser on our trip by featuring the elephant seals. I’ll get back to the rest after I finish my Harris Beach series.
Elephant seals are amazing creatures that spend up to 80% of their lives at sea— 90 % of it underwater! If that doesn’t seem remarkable enough, consider this: their normal dives for food range between 1000 and 2000 feet deep (305 to 610 meters). They can dive for up to an hour and a half before returning to the surface for three to five minutes of breathing. Semi-annual feeding binges take the males on a 13,000-mile roundtrip journey to the Aleutian Islands and females on a 11,000-mile roundtrip into the North Pacific.
They were absent from Pt. Reyes for 150 years. In fact, they were close to absent forever. Like whales, they came close to being hunted to extinction for their oil. Processing the blubber from one bull can produce up to 25 gallons. They were saved because the Mexico and the US banned hunting them in the 1920s. Gradually, they have returned to their old breeding grounds. When I first started visiting Pt. Reyes in the 60s, they were unheard of in the area. Today there are over 3000 that return annually to breed.
The Park Service had set up a barrier to separate the seals from the people who had come to admire them at Drake’s Beach. Those closest to the barrier were bulls. You can tell by their size and uniquely shaped noses. One had crossed the barrier and was worrying the rangers. “He’s escaping from the other bulls,” a ranger explained. Maybe.
A little girl next to me exclaimed, “I think he is heading to the snack bar to get fish sticks!”
“I’d bet on ice cream,” I responded. “Look at how big he is.” The girl looked at me dubiously. “Fish sticks” she insisted.
Peggy and I spent an hour watching these wonderful creations of nature who are so competent at sea and ungainly on land. They move like an inchworm, using their dorsal flippers to pull their front half forward and then using their rear flippers to push the rest of their body along like a rolling wave. Imagine moving several tons of fat. The ones we watched would make two or three of these moves and then collapse to rest.
Given their trunk-like noses and appealing eyes, Peggy and I were particularly attracted to the looks on their faces.
Monday’s Blog-a-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I move outside in the summer to enjoy nature but hire the family’s dogs and cats to protect me from the ghosts.
Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Held at gunpoint, I consider the odds of running over the gunman versus getting shot.
The man leaned on the front of my 56 Chevy and rested his rifle on the hood. The message was clear. I wasn’t going anywhere. Ten minutes earlier I had been happily sleeping in my trailer next to the Lake Tahoe laundry where I was working for the summer. I woke up and jumped out of bed at the sound of trucks warming up. Oversleeping was no excuse for being late. I looked accusingly at my alarm clock. It said 6 a.m., an hour before I was supposed to go to work. Glancing out the window, I spotted an armed man standing in front of my door. Several others were wandering around the property. The laundry truck drivers were people I didn’t recognize. Lacking a phone to call my boss, I decided it was time to vacate the premises…
The summer between my freshman and sophomore year at Sierra College I graduated from working on pear ranches to being a laundryman. Every afternoon at one o’clock I would zip over to Placerville, pick up clean laundry and dry cleaning and head over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to Lake Tahoe via Echo Summit on Highway 50. It was a great job for a college kid. I was provided with a new VW van and was totally on my own except for loading up in Placerville and making my stops on 50 and at the Lake. In between was a beautiful drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There was even a touch of glamour to the work.
One of my regular stops at the Lake was Bill Harrah’s home. He was incredibly rich from his gambling empire, and his home seemed palatial to me. Never having mastered the servant concept, I always made my deliveries to the front door and was occasionally greeted by his headline performers who stayed there. This came to a screeching halt one day when a young Liza Minnelli opened the door in her baby doll pajamas. She didn’t seem to mind my admiration, but the major domo directed me to make all future deliveries to the service entry in the back. I had little appreciation for my new backdoor status.
The best aspect of the laundry business was that the pay was four times what I had earned working in fruit orchards. Since I lived at home, I was able to stash most of my income away for college needs. Eventually, this would pay my expenses at Berkeley. Those were the enlightened years in California when tuition was free.
In the summer of 1963, Roger asked if I would move up to Lake Tahoe and work for his son-in-law, John Cefalu. John had taken over a laundry that Douvers had owned, sold, and then reclaimed because of back payments. There was an old trailer sitting next to the laundry ‘in need of a little work’ that I would be welcome to use. I jumped at the chance. What twenty-year-old male given a chance to work in one of the world’s top resort areas wouldn’t? The only disadvantage, from my perspective, was the distance from my girlfriend. At least, I consoled myself, there was a beach three blocks away that was normally filled with scantily clad young women. I’d get by.
Things, of course, are rarely as rosy as they seem. To start with, the trailer was a mess. It was probably twenty years old and, as far as I could tell, hadn’t been cleaned it in nineteen. My first weekend was devoted to twenty hours of scrubbing. There were no scantily clad women for Curt. Monday brought work, and it was work. I no longer had my leisurely trip back and forth across the mountains. It was stuff the truck with a mountain of clean linen, dash out to the motels and make deliveries, cram the truck up with dirty linen, and rush back to the laundry— over and over and over.
Fatigue, by the end of the day, usually meant I would crawl in bed and go to sleep. It was not the romantic lifestyle I had imagined. The second weekend, I did manage an obligatory trip to the beach for Female Body Appreciation 101. But I had no desire for any other relationship and most of what my excursion did was to remind me of what I was missing. I did say mostly, didn’t I? The age of the ‘itsy bitsy, teeny weenie, yellow polka dot bikini’ was dawning, and it was a sight to inspire bad poetry. Not even true love can totally deaden 20-year-old hormones.
My daily routine was about to end, however. I was soon to learn what it was like to be held by gunpoint. I’ll tell the story in my post next Wednesday from The Bush Devil Ate Sam.
Friday’s Travel Blog: I’m going to leave Oregon’s Harris State Beach for a week and jaunt 360 miles south to Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California to visit the Elephant Seals that hang out at Drake’s Beach.
Monday’s Blog-A-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : My love of the outdoors (plus a desire to escape from sharing a bedroom with Marshall) led me to move into my backyard the summer between second and third grade. It was perfect except for the tombstones…
In my last blog-a-book post from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me,” I returned to the first grade, got spanked, and went on a play date/sleep over with my young Hispanic friends Rudy and Robert. A train locomotive engineer tossed us candy from his cab. The adventure continues today and includes tree riding and my first ever solo hike…
If one is fortunate enough to live next to the woods as a child, it’s easy to find ways to amuse yourself. After we had collected our candy from the train, dinner was a long hour off. I suggested to Robert and Rudy that we head out to the woods behind their house and ride trees. Who needs horses? My brother and I had learned that we could climb up to the top of young, skinny pines and make them sway back and forth by leaning out. The farther we leaned, the more they swayed. It offered a free carnival-like experience 10-15 feet up in the air. Even more could be accomplished by throwing our feet out in the direction the tree was swaying and hanging on for dear life. If the tree was skinny enough, we could make it bend all of the way down to the ground, where we would drop off and allow it to snap back up. It took a while for me to persuade Rudy and Robert that the sport wasn’t going to kill them.
I suspect the trees didn’t enjoy the experience nearly as much as we did. When I later read Robert Frost’s poemabout children bending birches, I fondly recalled our pine tree horses— or bucking broncs if you prefer.
“It’s dinner time!” came the call so we rushed back to the house and made use of an outside water faucet to wash the pine pitch off our hands. Sort of. Pitch has a way of sticking like super glue. It’s the pine tree’s revenge. Mother had a box of Boraxo at home for the the task. Hand inspections were held afterward.
“You have to try this,” Rudy enthused, dashing into the house and coming out with a red pepper. I should have been suspicious when the rest of the family followed him outside. But what does a first grader know? I gamely bit into the pepper and was introduced to habanero-hot. The whole family roared as I made a mad sprint for the faucet and drank a gallon of water, becoming a major part of the evening’s entertainment. It would had served them right later had I peed in their bed. I forgave them when I had my first Mexican dinner, however. I still love Mexican food. And I’ve come to enjoy habanero-hot on foods ranging from burritos to spaghetti.
As the night progressed, it soon became time for bed. I was about to flunk sleep-over etiquette.
The boys slept on the same bed. Admittedly it was bigger than my small single at home, but I had never slept in a bed with another person, much less 2 or 3, or maybe it was 10. That’s what it felt like. They put me in the middle. I was mortified, but I tried. I really did. Ten o’clock came and there I was, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, body frozen in place— and midnight, and two, and four. At five, I gently nudged Robert.
“I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept all night,” I confessed. “I have to go home.”
“Ummm,” the half-awake Robert had moaned.
I got up, dressed, and slipped out of the house, careful not to wake anyone else. It was close to dark, with only a dim light announcing the morning. Home wasn’t that far away, maybe a mile. But I still remember the journey from a first-grader’s perspective: long and spooky. It was my first great adventure. I followed the dirt road over the railroad tracks out to the Pleasant Valley highway. Not one car zipped by. Fortunately. They probably would have stopped and driven me home. Everyone knew everybody else in Diamond. “Sorry to wake you up Marge, but I found Curt out wandering in East Diamond.” By noon, everyone in town would have heard the story.
I walked past the hill with the cross on it and picked up Highway 49. Halfway home, I came to Tom Murphy’s grocery store. Sodas were stacked in wood boxes in front, waiting to be moved inside. I looked around furtively; I was totally alone. So, I helped myself to a coke; I deserved it. I continued on my journey, walking by the post office, Dub Walker’s store, the barber shop, hardware store, the historic Pony Express stop, firehouse and Gust Brother’s Garage, eventually reaching the dreaded Graveyard. I clutched my coke and crossed the road, preferring Pagoni’s mean dogs to the ghosts. Arriving home, I carefully hid the soda outside. It wouldn’t do to have overly inquisitive parents discover the purloined drink and ask questions. I happily enjoyed it later in the day, feeling much less guilty about stealing than I did about abandoning my friends. I suspect there was a bit of consternation when Rudy and Robert’s parents woke to find me missing. Imagine what would happen today.
Next Monday, it’s back to the Graveyard as I move outside for the summer to commune with nature. And, escape from my brother. It was the best decision of my young life except for one thing: The ghosts. I had to hire protection.
Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Driving a laundry truck pays for my college education, but it was being held at gunpoint that prepared me for Berkeley and the Peace Corps.
Friday’s Travel Blog: Once again, it’s back to the ocean. Before moving on with my series on Oregon’s Harris Beach, however, I am going to take a brief detour to Pt. Reyes National Seashore, from which Peggy and I just returned. There are some elephant seals we want to introduce you to…
I didn’t start off as a likely candidate for the Peace Corps. My family had conservative values that suggested other priorities. Our Republican roots dated back to the foundation of the Party. My Great Grandfather, George Jr., claimed in his 1920 biography that every Marshall born since the Civil War had been Republican. His big issue in the 20s was immigration. Sound familiar? Too many Italians were crossing our borders and staying. A bit ironic, perhaps.
The Marshalls were still Republican when I came on the scene in 1943. My father’s credentials were tainted. He belonged to a union. But he still voted Republican. Abe Lincoln had been a family lawyer to distant cousins and Pop believed that the worst thing that had ever happened to America was Franklin Roosevelt.
How dedicated was I to the cause? Let me put it this way: My first political debate on behalf of the Grand Old Party put me in the hospital.
I was in the 4th grade at the time. My mom sent me off to school proudly wearing an “I Like Ike” button. It was the 1952 Presidential election and Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson. Another boy’s parents were equally dedicated to Stevenson. He was wearing an Adlai button. The two of us ended up in the boy’s restroom in a heated debate. I learned an important political lesson: Never argue politics with someone carrying a baseball bat. Lacking political sophistication, our discussion had quickly deteriorated into name-calling, the heart and soul of most political campaigns. I had a larger vocabulary of four letter words and was winning when the Stevenson devotee wound up and hit me across the thigh with his baseball bat. I ended up in the hospital with a knot on my leg the size of a softball. Like most martyrs, my devotion to the cause was only strengthened.
I graduated from high school Republican to the core and envisioned a future of wealth and power. It was not the type of future that would accommodate a detour to Africa and the Peace Corps. Had I been old enough to vote in 1960, I would have voted for Richard Nixon. He was running against Jack Kennedy, the founder of the Peace Corps.
I was about to make a left turn from the right lane, however. Old values would clash with new. College was looming. I spent my first two years at Sierra, a community college nestled in the rolling foothills east of Sacramento. I then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, the flashpoint of worldwide student unrest in the 60s. Sierra would liberalize my view of the world; Berkeley radicalized it.
The process of liberalization started during the first hour on my first day at Sierra. The faculty had arranged for a speaker to kick off the school’s Howdy Day welcome. Dr. No Yong Park, a Chinese man with a Harvard education, stood up in front of a sea of white faces and smiled like he had access to secrets we didn’t.
“You think I look funny?” our speaker asked with a grin. His question was greeted by nervous laughter. As naive as we were, we still knew enough to be made uncomfortable by such a question.
“Well, I think you look funny,” he went on to much more laughter, “and there are a lot more of me who think you look funny than there are of you who think I look funny.”
It jolted my perspective. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the South in the early 60s and I was sympathetic with its objectives. Providing people with equal rights regardless of race, sex, religion or other arbitrary factors seemed like the right thing to do. But I had never perceived of myself as being a minority. Instead, I belonged to an exclusive club. In 1961 white males dominated the US and the US dominated the world. It was easy to assume that this was how things should be. The fact that it might be otherwise put a new spin on the issue. What if I, or my children, ended up in a situation where we were in the minority and lacked power? I added enlightened self-interest to my list of reasons for supporting civil and human rights.
More shocks were coming at Sierra. My “rock that was Peter” ended up on an active fault zone; I met an environmentalist before the word was created; and the Cuban missile crisis with its threat of nuclear annihilation forced me to rethink my views on international relations. But these are all subjects for next Wednesday.
Friday’s Travel Blog: It’s back to the beautiful Oregon Coast to visit another state park: Harris Beach near Brookings. I’ve been going through the photos since we got home a week ago. There’s enough material for five posts! I’ll start with an introduction to the park.
Monday’s Blog-a-Book… Another tale from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : Held at gunpoint at Lake Tahoe, I go into training for both Berkeley and the Peace Corps!
In my last blog-a-book post about the Sierra Trek, we survived day one. Barely. Hiking over the mountain from Squaw Valley, our Trekkers had numerous gear problems, especially the witch. I arrived at our first campsite to discover that no one was there and had to hike on another two miles. Charlie, Lisa and I rounded up our slowest, most tired participants and pushed them down the trail.Eventually, we arrived at Hodgkin’s Cabin. We had survived day one. I could hardly wait to see what day two might bring.
Steve, Lisa and I set up camp on the opposite side of a small stream from our Trekkers at Hodgkin’s Cabin. I am not sure why. Maybe Steve and I were subconsciously escaping from what we had created, but I suspect we just wanted a good night’s sleep. The Trekkers were noisy and the burbling brook served as nature’s sound maker.
I made my evening rounds before turning in. We had divided the Trekkers into food groups of four and I went from group to group checking for problems. Overall, people seemed in good spirits. There were a few sore ankles and knees, but blisters were the problem that elicited the most complaints. I dispensed sympathy and mole skin. I also gave everyone a preview of the next day and warned that it was going to be tough. Really tough. My last words were to remind people that 9:00 PM was quiet hour. I wanted everyone fresh for the next challenge.
If there was noise, we didn’t hear it. We were zonked out from exhaustion. Early the next morning we were up in the dark, wolfing down our quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, instant coffee, and apricots. I was putting my pack together when Charlie arrived. He looked serious.
“We have a problem, Curt,” he started without preamble. God, I hate those words. My vivid imagination had a stove blowing up, or a Trekker cutting herself, or one of Steve’s migrating rattlesnakes finding a warm sleeping bag. Or maybe the IRS had arrived to grab Charlie or the FBI to bust Bob and we were to be held as accomplices.
“What’s up?” Steve threw in, cutting short my growing list of possible disasters.
“We had a doctor from Sacramento come in and camp next to us last night,” Charlie reported. “He says he is going back to Sacramento and tell the press that the Lung Association is running a pot-smoking-orgy in the mountains.”
“Oh hell,” Steve said. My words were much more colorful. A blown-up stove I could deal with. A cut I could bandage. A rattlesnake I could chase off, and frequently have. But what do you do with a physician who has infected his butt with his head? Beg? It took absolutely zero imagination to figure out what the Trek’s future and my career with Lungland would look like one day after ‘pot-smoking-orgy’ made the headlines.
“I tried to reason with him but it was impossible,” Charlie threw in as if he were reading my mind and wanted to dash any hope I had. Just then Orvis came tramping into our camp. Uh-oh I wondered, is the other shoe about to drop? Orvis could backpack at 70 because he had never consumed alcohol or smoked in his life. He was almost as pure as his white beard that decorated his chest. I couldn’t imagine him being very tolerant of misbehavior.
“The man is lying,” Orvis said angrily and forever earned my undying love. “I was there the whole night and no such thing happened. If he goes back to Sacramento and talks to the press, I’ll go back to Sacramento and talk to the press and we’ll see who they believe!”
I wasn’t quite as sure about Trekker behavior as Orvis. It was the seventies after all and we had recruited some interesting characters. I had heard the teenagers giving each other a hard time the night before during my rounds.
“Hey Suzy, why don’t you come over here and check out my sleeping bag?” But the response had been, “Why don’t you take your sleeping bag and stuff it?” I had also had a discussion with our younger kids about the Trek not being an appropriate place for tobacco. Who knows what the doctor had seen or had thought he had seen? My guess was that he was irritated because the noisy Trekkers had kept him awake.
“Look, I have an idea,” I said to the small crowd that had gathered around our cook stove. “I want you to go back to the camp and tell everyone to gather near the rock which is about ten yards away from the Doctor’s camp. Tell them I am going to read them the riot act and I want them to look dejected and apologetic, whether they feel that way or not. It’s show time.”
My helpers dispersed to do their job and I carefully thought through what I was going to say. At the appropriate time, I marched over to the rock looking like my dog had just been run over and climbed up on the rock. It was Sunday morning and ever after my lecture was known as the ‘sermon on the mount.’ Sixty-one expectant but properly humble faces looked up at me. I could see that the doctor had also stopped his activities and glued his attention on what we were up to.
“Last night we made a serious mistake,” I started, making sure the doctor could hear me. “It has come to my attention that there was misbehavior in camp which may have included the use of marijuana. I want to apologize to all of you for not being in camp myself and to let you know I will be from now on. I also want you to know that such activity jeopardizes not only this Trek but the possibility of any events like it in the future. I know that you have all worked hard to be here and that you have worked hard to raise money to fight lung disease and support medical research. I want your word that no such further activities will take place on this Trek.” I’d decided that throwing in the bit about raising money for medical care and research made a nice touch.
Charlie, Steve and company had done their work well. “We’re sorry.” “It won’t happen again.” “You have our word on it,” and similar statements were heard from all sides with everyone looking more serious than I have seen any Trekkers look since. I then dismissed the group to break camp.
As I walked away the doctor made a beeline for me and held out his hand.
“I am Doctor so and so,” he announced. “Although things were out of control last night, it appears you have them under control now and probably won’t have any more problems. Good luck on your trip.”
I thanked him for his concern and breathed an audible sigh of relief. He wandered back to his campsite, undoubtedly pleased with his power and influence while I moved away to avoid expressing my thoughts about his ancestry.
A bullet had been dodged. The next challenge was how we were going to get our Trekkers through the day. It promised to be a doozy— sixteen miles with very limited water. It left little time to contemplate what might have happened had the meddling medic carried out his threat.
On Thursday: Peggy and I take a trip to Cape Arago on the Oregon Coast and watch monster waves come crashing in.
On Tuesday: After surviving the doctor and his ‘pot smoking orgy,’ day two of the Trek goes from from bad to worse as our Trekkers face a long day with limited water, one of our 11-year-olds kicks dirt on a six foot timber rattler, and a Trekker goes missing.
On leaving the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area, Peggy and I continued our exploration of America’s backroads following Highway 50 across Nevada and into Utah. Towns and fences were few and far between.
We did, however, discover an opera house in the small town of Eureka, Nevada. (Eureka, BTW, means “I found it!” and is often used in relation to gold and silver mining.) While it may seem strange that a rough and tumble mining town would have an opera house, it wasn’t all that unusual. A number of the wealthier boomtowns built them to demonstrate that there was more to their communities than bars, gambling halls and brothels. Fine examples can be found in Nevada City, California, Silver City, Nevada, and even in Death Valley!
The Eureka Opera House had recently been renovated. Originally built in the 1880s it served as the town’s social center, hosting operas, dances, concerts and other social events. Silent movies were introduced in 1915 followed by ‘talkies.’ The last movie was shown there in the late 1950s.
Today’s post will mainly be photos of our continuing journey along Highway 50. We invite you to sit back and enjoy the scenery.
Tuesday’s Blog-a-Book Day: It’s recruitment time for our 100-mile backpack trek. What do you do with a 250 pound, ex-ice hockey player who once defused bombs in South American was dodging the IRS when he signed up.
Thursday’s Travel Blog Day: Peggy and I pick up Utah’s Highway 24 for a visit to Capitol Reef National Park.
Today, I continue my ramble along the PCT. This time I will finish off my hike through Mt. Lassen National Park. I’ve been posting on our recent trip to Puerto Vallarta. There’s plenty more there, and lots left on the PCT. I intend to continue to mix my posts to provide a variety. And, of course, I am hard at work on my book about this past summer’s adventures and other tales from my 50 years of backpacking. My goal is to have something in hand when I attend the San Francisco Writer’s Conference in mid-February.
Lower Twin Lake was one of those places you don’t want to leave. I was fortunate to arrive in the afternoon and experience its evening and morning beauty before having to hike on.
Forest fires had devastated the east side of the park and I hiked for miles through the burned out area, which isn’t unusual for the PCT in these times. Global warming and draught has taken its toll on the west from California, through Oregon and on into Washington, making forests vulnerable. The horrendous Campfire that just caused so much loss of life and property in Paradise, California is one more example.
I love trees. Who doesn’t. Here are some of the beauties I found on my backpack trip through Lassen.
I met lots of through hikers in Lassen Park. The halfway point between Mexico and Canada is just south of the park. Hikers needed to be in the area or through it when I was there if they hoped to complete their hike during the 2018 season.
Here are a few other photos to wrap up my trip through this section of the PCT.
NEXT POST: A very strange pelican. And some iguanas.
Section N of the PCT includes Mt. Lassen National Park. This series includes portions of the trail leading into and out of the Park as well as the Park. Unfortunately, the PCT passes through the eastern side of Lassen and misses some of the Park’s more impressive features. I was lucky to have Peggy exploring the Park from the road while I hiked the trail, so this post will feature photographs from both of us.
In 1988, I led a backpack trek in Mt. Lassen National Park to honor my old friend Orvis Agee. His family lived near the mountain and he had been working outside on the family ranch when it erupted on May 22, 1915. He was an impressionable 12-year-old. Fifty-eight years later when Orvis joined me on the first hundred-mile backpack trip I led in 1974, the memory was still fresh in his mind.
By the end of that trek, Orvis had become an inspiration for me on what older people can accomplish— and a friend. He proved that an active lifestyle doesn’t have to end at 60, or 70, or even 80, assuming you are healthy. In 1980, Orvis took me to the top of the top of the nearby 14,180 foot Mt. Shasta, a mountain he had climbed many times starting at age 60. He made his 30th and final ascent at 85. He went on his last backpack trek with me at 87! Peggy was along on that week-long expedition. We had just started our relationship and it was her first long distant trek. Given how much I enjoyed backpacking and liked Peggy, I really wanted her to enjoy the experience. I figured that hiking with Orvis would help. It did. As she noted to me later, “It’s really hard to complain when an 87-year-old cheerfully hikes down the trail beside you and sings “Wake Up Little Buttercup” to you in the morning.” Indeed.
Mt. Lassen sits near the southern end of the Cascade Range, a
volcanic chain of mountains that reaches from Northern California into British
Columbia. It is one of only two mountains that erupted in the contiguous United
States during the 20th Century. Mt. St. Helens was the other. (I
flew over Mt. St. Helens shortly after it had erupted and was amazed by the
devastation.) Lassen, still active, serves as a laboratory for volcanologists
and is closely monitored. Oceanic plates diving under the continents and
islands around the Pacific Ocean assure continuing volcanic activity, not only
for Lassen, but for volcanos all around the Pacific Rim.
I found the Manzanita roots along the PCT near Mt. Lassen strange enough to feature on my Halloween post. Today, I want to focus on the rest of the plant. I was raised in what is known as the chaparral belt of the Sierra foothills where manzanita is common. As kids, we went on outings to gather the large mushrooms that grew under the bushes in a symbiotic relationship with their roots. It was like a treasure hunt.We’d bring the mushrooms home, slice them up, and then dry them on the woodstove that heated our house. My mother then added them to a number of dishes like spaghetti and beef stroganoff where they contributed their unique flavor and texture.
Our property in Southern Oregon also includes a number of manzanita bushes, but I have yet to find mushrooms under them. One of the bushes grows just outside our backdoor. Deer like to bed down near it, which seems a little strange since it features a deer skull. Peggy had found a dead deer on the road near our house, victim of an unfortunate encounter with a car. She decided that it would be interesting to cut off its head, bring it up to our yard, and let nature (translate maggots) clean it off. (Think of it as a scientific experiment.) When I had appeared reluctant to carry out the chore, she had persuaded a deer-hunting neighbor to do it, paying him with a can of beer and a Peggy-smile.
The plant is sturdy and can be quite beautiful with its
entangled limbs and smooth, skin-like bark. It is often used in decorations. I
found the dead bushes along the PCT l particularly striking.
Peggy and I are on our way to Mexico for three weeks, so my posts on the trip down the PCT will be put on hold until I return. My plan is to feature some older posts, which will give followers a perspective on the variety of subjects they can find on my blog that I have covered over the past ten years.
I began seeing a lot of bear sign as I hiked along the Pacific Crest Trail through Mt. Lassen National Park. There were the usual large piles of poop and trees had the tell-tale claw marks of bears chatting with other bears. The trees also provided bears with a great back rub. The effort helps remove winter coats and I’m pretty sure feels as good as it does to us when we get out back rubbed or scratched. It also provides the opportunity to leave a scent mark behind, a sort of personal wilderness want ad. “Large male seeks one night stand with attractive female. Don’t expect me to stick around and help raise the kids. In fact, I might eat them.” Doesn’t seem like the ideal qualities you would want in a mate, but it seems to work.
I also found a number of rotting logs torn apart along the trail. Black bears have a real taste for carpenter ants. “Sweet meat,” like my students of long ago in West Africa used to say about termites. And maybe carpenter ants are sweet. While they are known for tunneling through wood with all the enthusiasm of a chainsaw, they don’t actually eat the wood. They are dairy farmers. They raise and milk aphids for the sugary honey-dew they secrete by stroking them with their antennae. “Come on sweetie, give it up.” Naturally they eat other things, like dead insects. They will surround the bug, suck out its juices and then return to their nest with full tummies to share. I read that they sometimes carry the head with them. (I can see them marching in and placing it at the feet of the queen. I wonder if they have a trophy room.) Like other ants, they inevitably find the shortest path back to their nest and mark the path with pheromones which other ants can follow. Big bugs can attract lots of ants, which means more pheromones, which means more ants. It can become quite the mob scene.
But back to the bears. I dearly wanted to see a bear tearing into a carpenter ant nest. I didn’t even see a bear. Peggy who was driving around the park and checking out hiking trails while I was making my way along the PCT, had much more luck. She not only saw a mom and her cubs, she saw them ripping into a carpenter ant nest and took photos. When the bear and her cubs finished their meal, and started walking toward her, she made a rapid retreat to our small RV! Smart woman.
When it comes to food, a black bear is an Omnivore’s omnivore,an opportunistic eater that consumes everything from insects to plants to carrion to any fresh meat it catches— although the latter rarely includes humans. As one of my trekking friends used to say, “If bears wanted to eat people, they’d move into towns where there are lots of people to eat.” Bears, like other members of the animal kingdom, have learned that puny humans are nasty animals with a penchant for killing; they are best to be avoided. They have developed a taste for human food, however. Trash cans are a frequent target. We know. Our property in Southern Oregon backs up to a million acres of national forest. There are lots of bears. Once, one attacked the heavy Weber grill that lives on our back porch and turned it over. As it came crashing down, my daughter, who was sleeping in the bedroom next to the porch, screamed,“Curtis!” It’s an appeal for help I’d heard before. Bears are also fond of backpacker’s food.
They would occasionally drop by our camp for a bite when I was leading hundred-mile backpack trips up and down the Sierra’s in the 70s, 80s and 90s, especially when I was any where in the vicinity of Yosemite. It wasn’t unusual for a trekker to yell my name on his or her first sighting of a bear up close. I spent a lot of time teaching people how to chase bears out of camp and hang their food in trees so the bears wouldn’t get it. We weren’t always successful. The food bag is supposed to be at least 12 feet up in the air and 9 feet out from the tree hanging from a limb that is just large enough to hold your food. Otherwise, Mom might send her kids up to crawl out the limb and chew through the rope. One food bag is counterbalanced with another food bag and no ropes are left dangling. Bears are smart and I am convinced that they have a university near Yosemite where they teach their cubs how to outsmart backpackers.
Today, there are bear canisters that are made of heavy duty plastic or carbon that are theoretically bear proof. They are tested by filling them with strong smelling goodies and tossing them into the cage of a hungry bear that has developed a taste for backpacking food. If the canister survives for an hour, it is given the seal of approval. Now days, when you backpack through Yosemite National Park or down the John Muir Trail, you are required to carry one. Just recently, the same policy was adopted for Mt. Lassen National Park. So, I was carrying one.
The good news about canisters is that they work. Bears are broken of the habit of eating backpackers’ food and go back to eating much healthier food, like maggots and ants. Backpackers are given the peace of mind of knowing that they will be able to make breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day. The bad news is that the canisters are heavy and awkward. They add two to four pounds of weight and are hard to fit into a pack along with other essential equipment. While the folks in charge of protecting our wildlands and their inhabitants would like to see backpackers use canisters all the time, it won’t happen until these problems are addressed.
NEXT POST on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail through Mt. Lassen National Park: When the mountain blew its top, there is more to manzanita than scary roots, and a gorgeous lake struts its stuff.
Some trail names are really obvious. Take Big Red, for example. Peggy and I met him in the Three Sisters Wilderness of Oregon.
Big Red from San Diego towered over my 5’11” height, putting him somewhere up in the stratosphere. Peggy and I met him along the PCT in the Three Sisters Wilderness area of Oregon. He had been hiking for 2,000 miles. “This is my first and last through hike,” he informed us. “There are times,” he explained, “when I camp on a beautiful lake and would love to stay there. But I can’t. I have to keep moving. I have to get in my 25 miles for the day.” Otherwise, he might not be able to finish the trail before winter storms hit northern Washington.
There is something close to heroic about completing the 2600 miles of the PCT in a year. Sacrifices have to be made— like not enjoying the incredible beauty of the trail as much as you might like. Red had also made another sacrifice. His walking sticks were encased in balsa wood that he had planned to carve. But it wasn’t to be. “I’m just too tired at night,” he told us.
Big Red posed for a photo with me, making me feel small.
I understood both sentiments all too well. It’s just hard. At 75, I found hiking 15 miles a day exhausting. In fact, the day and a half breaks I had planned between segments of the trail to allow my body time to recover weren’t long enough. I realized this as I made my way up the humongous hill leaving Interstate 5 going south. I was fine for the first three hours. After that, it was all I could do force one foot in front of the other. I had just completed hiking 100 miles from Etna Summit to Castle Crags and my body was threatening to go on strike. I loaded up on water and decided to dry camp when I reached the top instead of hiking on to the next source. I was cooking dinner on my ultralight propane stove when I found myself nodding off, unable to keep my eyes open. Not good! Can you imagine how dangerous that was given the bone-dry condition of the forests? Three massive forest fires this summer within 50 miles of where I was camping have proved the point.
The thought of creating a life-threatening fire that would burn tens of thousands of acres if my small stove was accidentally knocked over woke me up like a bucket of ice water. It also forced me to rethink my schedule. I would reduce the number of miles I was traveling each day and increase the number of layover days I would take between hiking segments of the trail. If I didn’t make my 1,000-mile goal, so be it. There was another factor as well. I really did want to enjoy the beautiful lakes, and mountains, and trees, and flowers and rocks and streams. That had been my reason for returning to the wilderness again and again throughout my life. And it was my reason for being out there at 75.
Fires and smoke continued to be a reality of my hike, as it has been for all PCT hikers this year. I jumped from northern California to Central California and back to Northern California in an unsuccessful search of clear skies. As my journey wound down, I had a decision to make. Would I head toward Yosemite and the John Muir Trail or would I go elsewhere? There really wasn’t time to finish the JMT and I had hiked it several times over the years, so I opted for the Three Sisters Wilderness of Oregon. I’d never been there plus Peggy would be able to backpack with me. We would finish our adventure as we had started it, backpacking together in Oregon. It was a great decision. The area is drop dead beautiful.
Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood as seen from the Three Sisters Wilderness, which features another three volcanoes of the Cascade chain in Oregon.
I came off the trail last week with close to 700 miles behind me. It has been an incredible experience and I will continue to post blogs on it for the next month. Plus, I’ll start writing the book that will tie this summer’s adventure together with several other backpacking experiences I have had over the years.
Today, I will continue with my trip between Donner Pass and Echo Summit that I started to blog about last week with an exploration of the Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley.
My grandson Ethan and I started our journey through the Granite Chief Wilderness with a trip up the Squaw Valley tram. Squaw Valley was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. I used this same tram system when I began my first 100 mile backpack trip in 1974.
The ride provides great views of the granite that forms the backbone of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Once again, smoke from Northern California forest fires filled the air, promising to obscure our views and poison our lungs. Fortunately, the smoke was limited and we even experienced some ‘clear’ days.
Peggy took this photo of Ethan and me at the end of the tram ride, ready to tackle our first mountain.
Our goal for the day was a short hike over to Little Needle Peak and Lake, both shown here. The lake is a mile or so off the PCT on a little used trail that we had to search for. I’ve camped on the lake several times over the years.
Another reflection shot. Ethan and I were camped in the trees to the right.
Bear scat and other bear sign was everywhere! I wondered if our food would survive. A black bear had ripped open this dead tree to go after the carpenter ants inside. Ethan and I were intrigued by the labyrinth the ants had carved out of the tree. It was worthy of a fantasy novel, or a Greek myth.
This caterpillar had tethered itself to the same tree and was making a cocoon. The claw marks above and beside the caterpillar were left behind by the bear.
The PCT drops into a canyon going south from Squaw Valley. A month earlier, this field of mule ears would have been yellow with flowers. But now they were drying out, predicting the coming fall.
As the PCT returned to crest and climbed above the Five Lakes Basin behind Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, Ethan and I continued down the canyon and followed Five Lakes Creek down to Diamond Crossing. Whiskey Creek Camp greeted us a quarter of a mile after we left the trail. Starting in the early 1900s, the camp had served as a resupply point for Basque sheep herders who were running flocks in the area.
Ethan provides perspective on the height of the door in the cabin. I explained to him that the horseshoe above the door was for good luck.
Fresh bread, baked in this oven, was on the resupply list for the Basque Sheepherders.
The PCT is like a freeway working its way from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. In comparison, most other trails are like country roads. The route along Five Lakes Creek would qualify as a rarely used dirt road— my kind of trail! This late summer meadow had turned to California gold. The Sierra thistles in the foreground were going to seed.
As was this Sierra thistle.
Backlit by the sun.
The seeds are disbursed. Another year in the life of a Sierra thistle is over.
One challenge of hiking in August in the Sierras is that water sources dry up. This can become a real problem along the PCT, which is noted for its lack of water to begin with.
Fortunately, more water can be found hiking among creeks and lakes at lower elevations. Welcome water greeted us at Bear Pen Creek. (I’ve always wondered about the name.)
A close up.
Less water does make for easier stream crossings. The rocks here provided our bridge across Five Lakes Creek.
An old tree blaze on a downed snag would have been used to mark the trail in earlier times.
Bark had grown over this blaze, which is very rare.
A ‘whirlpool’ of wood caught my eye.
Leaving Diamond Crossing, we followed Powderhorn Creek for four miles as it made its way up a very steep canyon toward Barker Meadows where we would rejoin the PCT. I think we counted two switchbacks on the whole trail. It was definitely not the well-graded PCT!
A basalt cliff entertained us along the way. I was teasing Ethan about having to climb it.
The hexagonal basalt columns are similar to Devil’s Postpile. These columns are formed when thick layers of flowing basalt cool slowly.
Photographing goldenrod also offered a break from the hard climb. It was one of the few flowers we found in bloom.
Ethan celebrated when we reached the top.
While I found other interesting rocks to photograph. I thought the outcrop looked a bit like a Scotty dog.
A couple of days later I found one in the clouds!
Back on the PCT, we found more flowers in a spring area. Ethan urged me to take his photo next to the monkshood. “My mom likes purple,” he explained. (Tasha has lots of purple clothes.)
When we reached Richardson Lake the next day, Ethan’s foot was beginning to hurt. Apparently, he had a minor sprain.
Leaving the lake, it hurt more. A few more miles down the trail, we decided that hiking out seemed to be the best decision. We returned to the lake and followed a jeep trail that would take us down to Lake Tahoe.
We were fortunate to flag down a group of jeepers. It turns out they were from Motor Trend Magazine and were filming a TV special on taking a stock 1970s jeep and a stock pickup truck over the Rubicon Trail, one of the toughest jeep roads in the world, made famous by the annual Jeepers Jamboree. Bruce, who generously provided us with a ride, told us that it had taken a full day just to go three miles!
Ethan displays the ankle that I had bandaged. Not a bad job, I thought.
Reunited with his mom, Tasha, his little brother, Cody, and Peggy, the family hangs out above Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay.
NEXT POST: I’ll focus on Desolation Wilderness and Peggy and I will take Bone back to where Tom Lovering and I discovered him in 1974!