Winding Down the Journey… Hiking on the PCT at 75

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!

 

Bone Travels the PCT Looking for His Home… Backpacking the PCT at 75— and 40

Bone found this convenient PCT marker on the trail leading south out of the Echo Summit area on Highway 50 going south toward Carson Pass, about five miles from where he was discovered 40 years ago.

It was always assumed that Bone— the diminutive four-inch, five-ounce dynamo that was once part of a horse’s foot— would one day return to his home along the PCT. What’s surprising is that it took 40 years. He’s been riding along with me on my trek this summer and meeting backpackers with that goal of visiting his birthplace in mind.

My friend Tom Lovering, the owner of an outdoor/wilderness store in Sacramento, and I found Bone in 1977 hiding out in a young corn lily patch near the PCT between Echo Summit and Carson Pass.  At the time, I was scouting a new route for the 100 mile treks I led in the Northern Sierras. Tom and three women were hiking with me for company. It was early in the season and the trail kept disappearing under the snow.

Tom and I take a current photo with Bone outside the Fox and Goose Restaurant in Sacramento. The goose seems particularly interested in what we are up to. Alpine West, one of Tom’s outdoor/wilderness stores, was located in the 10th and R Building in 1974 when Tom became a sponsor of my first Sierra Trek.

Here’s the story of how Bone was found from an earlier post:

Our fourth day started out as a typical backpack day. We climbed. It was gentle at first and then became more serious. Once again snow covered large segments of the trail. We spread out and searched for tree blazes. I scrambled over a particularly steep section and found myself in a high meadow.

Something half buried in a field of young corn lilies caught my eye. A few days earlier it would have been covered with snow. Curiosity led me to detour through the still soggy ground. Mud sucked at my boots.  My treasure turned out to be a disappointing, short, squat bone. Gnaw marks suggested it had been part of someone’s dinner. I was about to toss it when a devious thought popped into my mind.

“Trash!” I hollered at Tom and held up the bone. We had a game where if one person found a piece of trash, the other person had to carry it out. But first you had to catch the other person.

Tom sprinted down the trail with me in pursuit. Once we had made it over the mountain, our route ranged from flat to downhill. Tom was very fast. We had traveled two miles and were almost to Showers Lake before he stopped, concerned about leaving our companions too far behind. Very reluctantly, he took the bone and stuffed it in his pack.

“How can you classify a bone as trash,” he whined. I figured Tom would toss his new traveling companion as soon as I was out of sight. Wrong.

Here’s Bone’s perspective on the occasion:

“I didn’t plan on seeing the world and becoming famous. Once I was part of a horse located just above the hoof. I had no freedom; I had no glory. Wherever the horse went I went, a mere slave to his desires. During the summer this meant carrying greenhorn tourists into the backcountry of the mountains above Lake Tahoe. The added pounds gave me bone-jarring headaches. Then the horse died; I like to fantasize that a large bear with big teeth and sharp claws ate him.  Hopefully he ate the tourist as well.

Whatever happened, I was free to be me, Bone. Yes, that’s right, Bone is my name. A kindly coyote picked me up and carried me to a high meadow filled with corn lilies. It was there that I discovered my Zen-like nature as I meditated through the seasons. I was alone except for a mouse that came by and nibbled on me occasionally. That hurt. In fact, it interrupted my meditation and scarred me for life; you can still see teeth marks. I blame all of my subsequent bad behavior on that flea-bitten miscreant.

My annoyance at the mouse, however, was minimal in comparison to my anger at the large, two-legged creature who yanked me from my meadow home and begin yelling I was trash as he ran down the trail in pursuit of another two-legged creature.  Can you imagine the insult? I had no way of knowing that this was the beginning of my world travels or that the two creatures, Curt Mekemson and Tom Lovering, would become my servants.”

When I arrived home and emptied my backpack, there was the bone. Tom had slipped it into my pack. I had been carrying him for several days. Small b bone had become large B Bone and begun his 40-year odyssey! A year or so later when Tom arrived in Japan and unpacked his suitcase at the beginning of a three-year journey through Asia, Africa, and Europe, there was Bone. And thus it has gone. He has never stopped traveling. (For those of you who are new to Bone’s world, I’ll list his travels and an interview with Bone in the last two posts of this series. Long time followers will have read these posts. Go here for the complete series of posts on Bone’s discovery: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

The past couple of weeks, I have been exploring the area between Donner Summit and Carson Pass, retracing paths I have been hiking since I started backpacking in 1969. In many ways, I think of this area as my home. My 13-year-old grandson, Ethan, joined me two weeks ago until a sprained ankle cut short our trip. (Ethan carried Bone and now thinks of him as an heirloom. Forget great, great grandmother’s silver.) I went back in to finish this section of the PCT last week, and, of course, go on detours. Why hang out on the busy freeway when there are country roads to explore?

Bone, happy to find a new traveling companion, perches on Ethan’s knee.

When I came out at Echo Summit, my wife Peggy and I went on a day hike toward Carson Pass to take Bone back to where he was discovered. It was a sentimental journey. Bone was very excited.

While I’ve been posting photos to follow the progression of my journey down the PCT, I am skipping forward to honor Bone (and my youth) this week and next with a look at the area between Donner Summit and where Bone was discovered. I’ll then return to my trip between Castle Crags and Burney Falls. I’ll start today with my hike between Donner Summit and the Granite Chief Wilderness.

The PCT follows a ridge line south of Donner Pass. Here it makes its way up toward Tinker’s Knob.

I used to start 100 mile treks near Mary Lake, shown here. The Sugar Bowl ski area is nearby. I cross-country skied for several years along the distant ridges and down through the forests.

Wagon trains into California once made their way up and over Roller Pass. It wasn’t easy, as suggested by information sign located on the PCT. The sign notes that the “drawing is not an exaggeration.”

I’ve included this because I want to recognize the thousands of hours volunteers spend on maintaining the PCT, with some, like Don and Pat Malberg, actually adopting sections of the trail.

The folks who build and maintain the PCT take the ‘crest’ part of its name seriously. The result is great views, lots of ups and downs, and not much water, especially later in the season. I’ve often found myself hiking 10-15 miles between water sources. Anderson Peak is in the distance and Tinker’s Knob on the other side.

A closer view of Anderson Peak.

Another photo of the trail near Tinker’s Knob. The trail cuts to the left of the peak and then drops into a canyon of the American River.

A view back down the trail.

Normally, the PCT is like the ‘freeway of trails,’ broad and well graded. It can get difficult at times, especially when heading across rocky slopes like this. Hiking becomes challenging. Each step needs to be placed to avoid a sprained ankle or a tumble. Care becomes almost instinctual. The granite boulder trail reached the lava cliff and then switchbacked up the mountain.

A snag near Anderson Peak. Peggy thought ‘three witches.’

By now (late August) most flowers are past their blooming stage and have gone to seed. This fellow was still blooming, however, and goes by the rather quaint name of pussy paws because of its resemblance to cats’ feet.

Large volcanic rocks are found along the trail, speaking to the area’s volcanic history.

The trail switched back rapidly down from Tinker’s Knob and I came on my first water of the day. This rubber boa was there to greet me. Known for their gentle nature,  they are sometimes used to help people get over their fear of snakes. I picked it up and repositioned it for a photo-op. 🙂 I filled my water bottles with five liters of water knowing I would be dry camping for the night.

I didn’t have to hike much farther, finding a lovely campsite beneath Tinker’s Knob with great surrounding views.

Looking out from my kitchen as the sun set…

And another photo, a few minutes later.

Slightly later, this was my bathroom view looking in the other direction. Not bad, eh?

Early the next morning, I was treated to a sunrise view of Tinker’s Knob.

It’s for moments like these that I have spent 50 years backpacking.

My hike the next morning took me towards the mountains that form the rim of the Granite Chief Wilderness and back up to Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Needle Peak is seen to the left. I will have hiked across those mountains and several miles farther by night.

My morning walk took me through a meadow filled with drying mule ears that rustled in the wind.

Sierra thistles were looking quite bushy as they prepared to disperse their seeds.

I caught these thistles, along with mule ears, backlit by the sun.

A lone tree decorated a gap in the mountains.

Looking back, I could see Tinker’s Knob and the mountains I had camped beneath.

Looking forward, I was faced with mountains of granite and one of the Northern Sierra’s more wild areas, the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Next two posts:

  • The Granite Chief Wilderness Area
  • The Desolation Wilderness Area and Bone’s home

 

 

 

A Choice: Graduate or Go to Jail… The MisAdventure Series

I wasn’t expecting a tour of Placerville’s City Hall and the police parking lot on my day of graduation from high school. But as they say, “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray…”

As you read this, I am out on the road doing some last minute route checks for my thousand mile backpack trek. So, I am effectively off the net until I put up my first post from the trail in a week or so. See you then! –Curt

 

My graduation from high school almost didn’t happen. The student strike I had organized wasn’t the issue. It was good practice for my future at UC Berkeley. Nor was it my grades. While mine had dropped somewhat when I simultaneously rediscovered girls, developed an aversion to algebraic equations and became allergic to chemistry labs, I was still floating along somewhere in the top ten percent of the class.

My problem was with the law, or, in this case, Mike De Natly, the Placerville Chief of Police. I had my run in with him on the very day I was to graduate. Of course, it was a goof off day. All the tests were over, yearbooks signed, and caps and gowns fitted. There really wasn’t much to do except revel in the fact that we were through and to say goodbye to friends. Lunchtime meant a final cruise of Placerville’s Main Street to check out girls, to see and be seen.

What happened was out of character for me. I normally keep my comments on other peoples’ driving habits to myself and car-mates. The horn is for really bad infractions and, on very rare occasions, a single digit comment is appropriate. I would never stick my head out the window and yell at someone. That can get you shot.

But we were hot stuff on graduation day. When a blue car decided to stop in the middle of Placerville’s crowded, narrow downtown street right in front of us, it irritated me. When the driver nonchalantly got out to have a conversation with the driver of the car in front of him, it pushed me over the edge. Out went my head as we edged around the two cars and I had an attack of uncontrollable Y chromosome aggression.

“You SOB,” I yelled, “get your car out of the way!”

So what if I didn’t recognize the Chief of Police out of uniform in an unmarked car. So what if he had stopped to offer help to a guy who had managed to stall his car on Placerville’s busy main street. So what if I had suggested he had canine parentage in a voice that half of Placerville heard. It was an innocent mistake.

“That was Mike De Natly you just cussed out,” our driver managed to stutter with mixed parts of fear and awe.

As a teenager, I had pulled some fairly dumb stunts. Teenagers have a responsibility to push the envelope. It’s the rather awkward method evolution has provided for growing up and developing unique personalities. Mistakes are bound to happen and it’s okay. But I was carrying my responsibility too far; I had gone beyond dumb and plunged into really stupid.

How dumb do you have to be to cuss out the police of chief of a town that is known as Hangtown?

A hundred years earlier, I might have found myself next to this guy. He was hanging there in 1961 and is still hanging there today.! Would-be hoodlums beware!

“Keep driving,” I uttered with all the hope of the irrevocably damned, “maybe he is too busy and will ignore us.”

Sure, like maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow. The poor stalled guy could still be sitting in the middle of Placerville for all of the attention the police chief paid to him after my little admonition. De Natly jumped in his car, slapped his flashing light on his roof, hit his siren and sped after us. Not that he needed to speed fast or far. We were creeping up Main Street in sheer terror about one block away. I am sure my car-mates were wishing fervently that one Curtis Mekemson hadn’t gotten out of bed that morning, had never made their acquaintance, and was, at that very moment, facing a group of starving cannibals in some far-off jungle.

We pulled over with De Natly literally parked on our rear bumper and resigned ourselves to the firing squad. Luckily, for my friends, the Chief had no interest in them. He appeared at my window red-faced and shouting about five inches away. Under the best of circumstances, he was known for having a temper and these were not the best of circumstances.

“Get out of that car,” he yelled. “Get out right now!”

I moved fast. This was not the time for bravery and stubbornness. It was a time to be humble— it was groveling time. And I groveled with the best. I blathered out apologies and managed to work “sir” into every sentence, several times. I trotted out my friendship with his stepson, I threw in the City Treasurer who was a mentor, and I even brought in Father Baskin, the Episcopal minister, as a character reference.

“Get in my car,” he ordered. My groveling seemed to be having minimal impact. At least he hadn’t handcuffed me.

We drove up to City Hall and I had visions of being booked and thrown into a cell with some big hulking giant who either didn’t like young men or liked them too much. I thought of having to call my parents and explain how their son had become a common criminal. But De Natly had an even more diabolical plan in mind. We slowly made a turn through the police parking lot to give me a sense of my future fate and then, to my surprise, hopped on Highway 50 to Canal Street and drove up to the high school. I was going to have to explain my actions to the Principal. My chances of graduating that night slipped another notch. I doubted that the Principal would have much of a sense of humor about one of his students cussing out the Chief of Police. But explaining my inexplicable actions to the Principal would have been mercy in comparison to what happened.

It was a beautiful late spring day, this last day of school, and it seemed like half of the student body and a significant portion of teachers were enjoying their lunches on the expansive lawn in front of the school. De Natly pulled up to the sidewalk beside the lawn and ordered me out. The Chief of Police arriving with me in tow was enough to capture the attention of several students sitting close by. Then he made sure that everyone was aware of our presence.

“Do you want to spend the night in jail or graduate, Curtis?” he asked in a voice that was easily equivalent in volume to the one that I had used in suggesting he move his car. Conversation on the lawn came to a dead halt. Every ear in the place honed in on us with the intensity that a cat reserves for a potential mouse dinner. And I was the mouse. This was a Kodak moment, not to be missed. My answer was easy: Of course, I wanted to graduate, SIR. And so it went, De Natly barking questions with the voice of an army sergeant and me responding as the lowest of recruits. Finally, after a few minutes that felt like eternity, the Chief got in his car and drove away. I was left to deal with the not so gentle humor of the students and faculty plus a Principal who wasn’t quite sure whether he should take over where De Natly left off or laugh at my predicament. At least he had the grace to wait until I left his office before he chose the latter. I could hear his laughter echoing down the empty hallways. And yes, I was allowed to graduate that night.

This concludes my MisAdventure series for now. On Sunday, I start my 1,000-mile backpack trip and in a week or so, my posts from the trail should start arriving. Please join me as I make my way south following the Pacific Crest Trail.  It will be an adventure!

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On Dates, Squished Skunks, and Flat Cats… The Misadventure Series

At this point, down where the speed limit sign is, I ran over a skunk in the summer of 1958, undoubtably impressing the young woman I was on a date with.

Do you remember your first dates in high school? Were they roaring successes or unmitigated disasters? I suspect probably somewhere in between. But I doubt you ran over a skunk. As you may recall, I had no dates my freshman year. In fact, girls scared the heck out of me. Things began to brighten up the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, however. Read on…

 

I actually had a couple of real dates the summer of my freshman-sophomore year thanks to Paula and mom. Her mother was obviously encouraging the process. Our first date was a joint activity that included Mom, Boyfriend, Paula and me going out to dinner in the small town of Sutter Creek, about twenty miles away from Diamond Springs over curvy Highway 49. After we filled up on Italian food, Mom and Boyfriend promptly climbed in the back and suggested I drive home.

Small foothill towns like Sutter Creek along California’s historic Highway 49 are fun to visit and often have great restaurants.

“Um,” I noted nervously, “I only have a learner’s permit.”

“That’s okay, it will be good practice,” Mom jumped in and stated before I could add that I had just obtained the permit the week before.

Paula, meanwhile, was waiting for me to open the door for her on the passenger side of the car. She gave me an encouraging smile and my options dropped to zero. Any further hesitation would appear wimpy. After doing the gentlemanly thing for Paula, I dutifully climbed into the driver’s seat and miraculously found the keyhole and lights. Minimal gear grinding got us out of town and I breathed an audible sigh of relief. We had made it just past Plymouth when I ran over the skunk. He reeked revenge by becoming a virtuoso of glandular activity.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Boyfriend said as the first powerful whiffs of eau de skunk came blasting through the air vents, “it happens all of the time.”

“Yeah, sure,” I mumbled to myself through tongue-biting teeth, “young men always run down skunks on first dates, especially first dates with Mom and Boyfriend along.”

Fortunately, I made it home without further incident. Before continuing my ‘Perils with Paula’ story, however, I am going to digress to a similar odoriferous event that took place in the same general area some 25 years later. While working for the American Lung Association of Sacramento, I had created what is known as the Trek Program, a series of multi-day outdoor adventures that people go on as fundraisers. At the time this particular event took place, I was living in Alaska and ALA Sacramento had hired George and Nancy Redpath out of Davis, California to run its Treks. They had a popular three-day bicycling event that incorporated a portion of the same route that I had traveled the night of the fateful skunk incident. To add another element of fun to their Trek, the Redpaths had incorporated a roadside scavenger hunt with a sail-cat as one of the items.

To the uninitiated, a sail-cat is a cat that has had a close encounter with a logging truck’s wheels, after which it resembles a furry pancake with legs. Given several days of curing in the Sierra foothill sun, the cat can actually be picked and sailed in much the same way you would a Frisbee, hence the name. Although tossing one has provided dogs with a new way to chase cats and play Frisbee at the same time, it is a sport without many adherents. Even dogs have serious reservations.

Not surprisingly, one Trekker managed to find a sail cat, load it on his bike, and dutifully turn it in at the end of the day. The person won the scavenger hunt, which he should have considering his extended association with an umpteen-day dead cat. But this is not the end of the story. Two other couples became involved in the dead cat saga. I’ll call them Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice to protect the innocent.

Bob and Carol finished the Trek, hopped in their car and naively drove home that evening unaware that they were carrying a fellow traveler. When they arrived back in Sacramento and opened their trunk, lo and behold, there was the dead cat. Bob and Carol had a good idea it was Ted and Alice who had stowed the unwanted passenger in their car. They vowed to get even. As it turned out, both couples had spouses who worked for the State of California. A devious plot was hatched. The next day Ted received one of those large, inner office forwarding envelopes in his in-basket. It was rather bulky so he opened it with interest. Out slid the sail cat, your tax dollars at work.

Unlike Aunt Tilley’s fruitcake, the cat apparently ended his strange after-life journey at that point.

Likewise, one might assume that running over the skunk would have ended my relationship with Paula. But there was one more date. It is a testimony to how much Paula’s mother was committed to the relationship that she loaned us her car, which I drove illegally on my learner’s permit. Paula and I went on an old-fashioned picnic to Buck’s Bar, a 49er-mining site on the Consumnes River. I actually had a young woman, out in the woods, alone. It was my fantasy date. As far as I can recall though, and I would recall otherwise, I behaved myself disgustingly well. So did Paula.

The Consumnes River. My kind of place to go on a date.

You won’t want to miss next Friday’s post where I wrap up my MisAdventure series for now. I actually survive high school and on graduation day am offered a choice (in front of the student body): Graduate or go to jail.

TUESDAY’S POST: It’s time. My thousand my trek starts on June 17th! Am I ready?

A Pear Picker’s Guide to Mental, if not Physical, Balance… The MisAdventures Series

I am in the middle of the top row, here, looking a bit awkward and geeky. The group is our men’s ensemble from chorus. My brother, Marshall, btw, is in the center of the bottom row. He was a senior when I was a freshman and this was about the only time our paths crossed in high school.

 

As I have reported in MisAdventures, my freshman year of high school was something of a disaster. My social life tanked, dance class sucked, my political aspirations were reduced to running a friend’s campaign, and my success in sports was mediocre at best. I became depressed, although I didn’t recognize the condition at the time.

 

A number of things combined to pull me out of the doldrums. For one, I ceased being a freshman. Hormones slowed down, my voice abandoned octave leaps and I bought a pair of contact lenses. Academics were a plus, even during my freshman year. Lacking a social life, I studied full-time and managed to get straight A’s. If I couldn’t be ‘ruler of everything,’ ‘sex symbol’ or ‘sports hero,’ maybe I could at least be ‘the brain.’ Was I driven or what?

I also believe that having a job helped. I began working in the pear orchards around Placerville starting the summer of my eighth grade graduation and continuing through high school. The general rule in our cash poor family was that basics were covered. We were responsible for the extras. My income went toward clothing, books and entertainment. Later, the money I earned paid for my college education.

Pear picking consisted of hazardous duty without hazardous pay. We were each given a 12-foot ladder, a sizing ring, and as many boxes as we could fill. The pears we plucked from the trees were placed in a canvas bag that fit around our front like a pregnant belly and carried up to 50 pounds. We had the option of working by the hour at $.90 per hour or by the box at $.20 per box. I chose the latter under the assumption I could earn more.

The ladder was a suicidal three-legged device with two legs playing standard ladder while the third served as a balancing arm we threw out to provide ‘stability.’ I use the quote marks here because the stability was questionable. There was always a chance that you, your bag of pears, and the ladder would come crashing down. The first few rungs were solid; it was on the top four that life became interesting. Even here it was tolerably safe, assuming you focused on easily reachable pears.

The problem was that the best pears had a way of hiding away in the highest, most unreachable part of the tree.  Such premium fruit couldn’t be left hanging, even if it meant taking risks. Success meant performing a one-legged-ballet-balancing act. I became quite proficient at the move. Only once did I reach beyond the imagination of my ladder and follow a rapid descent path straight to the ground. Fortunately, the only limbs broken belonged to the tree. I wrote the experience off as a lesson in Newtonian gravity.

A greater challenge was entertaining myself for nine hours a day. Reaching out and picking a pear requires a minimum number of brain cells and very few of those are located in the frontal lobes. My favorite ploy was singing at the top of my voice. Harry Bellefonte’s tune about picking bananas was a natural but I also belted out many other popular tunes of the day.  “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight” was a mistake. I couldn’t get it out of my mind; I would wake up in the middle of the night humming it. To this day I have to be careful in bringing it up or it is right back there on the tip of my tongue, waiting to escape. Like now.

A more productive form of amusement was challenging myself to pear picking contests. The more I picked the more money I made. When the fruit was plentiful and well sized, I could pick 60-80 boxes a day and earn big money, $12-$16. Once I even reached a magical 100 boxes. My goal was to try to match the professional pickers, the folks who made a living helping harvest crops. On really good days, I almost could. Over my five-year career in the pear orchards I worked with Filipino crews, Braceros, and the usual contingent of semi-nomadic types who followed the various crops as they ripened from state to state. Most were good, even excellent workers. Of course, there was also the occasional guy who worked just long enough to buy a gallon of Red Mountain Wine and then disappear.

After my first year of working in the fruit orchards I graduated to swamper status, which meant I delivered empty boxes to the pear pickers and took out their full boxes. I also learned such fine skills as tractor driving, tree trimming, sprinkler changing, post hole digging and crew bossing. And, I might add, enjoyed most of it. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from doing hard work, challenging your body, and being dead-tired at night. I also gained a farmer’s satisfaction that comes from seeing a crop evolve from spring bloom to fall harvest. And finally, as my pear orchard responsibilities increased, the work helped me overcome the puberty blues and regain my confidence. Becoming buff didn’t hurt either. Picking pears and stacking 50 pound boxes above my head guaranteed muscles from my big toes to my hair follicles.

Almost on cue, girls reappeared in my life. Admittedly it was a slow process, in fact far too slow for my hormone driven fantasies. But there the girls were, tentatively giving me the eye and practicing a wiggle or two to see if anyone was home. There was.

TUESDAY’S POST: I will finish up the Rogue River series

FRIDAY’S POST: I go on my first high school date the summer between my freshman and sophomore year— and promptly run over a skunk.

Bleeding Like a Speared Mammoth… The Chemistry of MisAdventures

Miss Wilkerson, my high school chemistry teacher, whipping up a batch of something stinky. Oops, sorry, I mean performing a scientific experiment. I liked Miss Wilkerson, in fact, I might have had a slight crush, but I just couldn’t get excited about lab work.

 

Looking back, (hindsight, mind you), I am not too surprised about the paths I chose to follow in my life. But given that science is one of my favorite subjects from a lay perspective (Scientific American, for example, is the only magazine I read cover to cover), I find it a bit perturbing that I was so ready to drop science as a high school and college student.

 

I’ve never required much help in eliminating options from my life. Chemistry was like that. I would have made a good Greek Philosopher, working out problems in my head. Lab work and I don’t get along as a general rule. I quickly learned in high school that I am not particularly fond of long dead frogs pickled in formaldehyde or chemicals that smell worse than an old dog’s fart. But there is more to it than that; I am convinced that good lab technicians are mechanically inclined. They like to tinker.

I have lots of friends like that. They love to take things apart and put them back together. They can fix anything and go out of their way to find things that need repairing. I knew kids in high school that enjoyed tinkering with automobiles.  Ask them anything about carburetors, water pumps, generators, horsepower or timing and they have a ready answer. I admired them for it, but my interest in carburetors was zilch and my primary interest in automobiles was that they get me from point A to point B without breaking down. Still is.

My friend, Tom Lovering, is a dedicated fix-it-man. I can’t imagine him going anywhere without his tool chest. He breaks it out at there slightest provocation and begs to fix things. Here he is with a pickled frog that doesn’t need dissecting. We were in Mexico sampling tequila.

I feel pretty much the same way about other fix-it items. I am just not excited about getting into the bowels of a toilet and replacing its thing-a-ma-bob. Nor am I interested in replacing light switches to see how much voltage I can send coursing through my body. Yeah, yeah, I know; you turn off the electricity first.

I am not sure where this lack of enthusiasm for things mechanical came from but it was probably a combination of aptitude and attitude. My father wasn’t particularly fond of working on automobiles and some of that may have rubbed off. But he was very handy. In addition to being a skilled electrician he loved puttering around outside making things. I classify all such activities as chores to be avoided if at all possible. In fact, over the years I have developed a number of strategies for not having to fix things. Here are a few. You may find them valuable if you are a mechanically disinclined male.

 

  • Don’t own any tools. You might be tempted to use them, or even worse, someone such as a wife might suggest that you use them.
  • Don’t buy a house. Every scientific study ever done confirms that the single most important reason for having to fix things is owning your own home. I was 53 years old before I made that mistake, and then it was a condo with minimal fix-it responsibilities.*
  • If something doesn’t work, go buy a new one.
  • Plead ignorance. “What do you mean there is more than one kind of screw driver?” As a corollary, hide your repair manuals. Peggy has the irritating habit of looking up things that need fixing and then saying sweetly, “Oh, this looks easy to do, Curt.”  My manliness has been challenged. It doesn’t matter that this ‘easy’ chore requires that I make four trips to the hardware store, purchase $500 worth of new tools, work ten hours straight and injure myself at least once.  I have to do it.
  • Curse a lot. Your partner may figure that leaving something broken is easier than listening to you.
  • Stall. “I’ll do it right after I cook your dinner, honey.” Stalling is easier if you are doing something the other person finds desirable.
  • If all else fails, compromise. I have an agreement with Peggy that I will do one manly chore per month. That’s my quota. Some activities such as fixing toilets even earn two months of credit.

 

* Unfortunately, these rules no longer apply. Eight years ago, Peggy and I decided to buy a home on five-acres of property. Everything I feared about home ownership has come to fruition. I now have a shed full of tools and have to use them. Sigh. The good news here is that Peggy loves to repair things. Just a wee bit of procrastination…

Even my hobbies as a kid reflected my non-mechanical tendencies. Building model ships, airplanes, cars, trains, etc. had no interest. My concept of a great hobby was rock collecting. I would hike along the Southern Pacific railroad tracks and pick up interesting rocks until all four pockets were bulging and my pants were about to fall off. I would then go home and smash them apart with a hammer to figure out what I had found. Geology became a life-long interest.

I do understand the arguments for being able to fix things: saving money, being self-sufficient, and obtaining satisfaction from a job well done. These same arguments, however, apply to going out in the pasture, shooting Elsie the Cow, gutting her, bringing home the meat, grinding it up and throwing it on the grill. Just think of the satisfaction involved and dollars saved! Or, you can go to the local fast food joint and help employ a kid who might otherwise turn to a life of crime.

Now, back to chemistry, one day we had to shove little glass tubes through rubber stoppers. Apparently, this is an important skill for budding chemists. It’s not a difficult task if you ignore the fact that the holes in the stoppers are approximately half the diameter of the glass tubes and, more importantly, you have a gallon of Vaseline. I was half way through my first masterpiece when the damn tube broke and ended up jabbed into my hand. Bleeding like a speared mammoth, I was carted off to the emergency room of the local hospital and sewn up.

There was plenty of time while sitting in ER to contemplate my future as a scientist. My conclusion: there wasn’t one. I decided that the best way to avoid long-dead animals, smelly chemicals and miscellaneous dangerous objects (not to mention higher level math skills) would be to choose a career that depended on verbal agility. In other words, my future would be based solely on my ability to bullshit. I determined then and there I would either become a politician or a writer.

TUESDAY’S POST: Part 2 of the Rogue River Trail series.

FRIDAY’S POST: MisAdventures: I rediscover girls and run over a skunk on my first ‘date.’

How in the Heck Did I Get Here? Part 1… The MisAdventure Series

I’ve always enjoyed writing. Here, some of my fellow journalism students are conducting a practice interview with me at El Dorado Union High School where I wrote a column for the newspaper. I have often wondered what my life would have been like had I pursued a career in writing. It’s never too late, right.

Many things determine who we become in life. Sometimes it seems like destiny, but I am more convinced that it is predilection and happenstance. I am a great believer in Joseph Campbell’s ‘follow your bliss.’ Do what makes you happy. Do what you are good at. Genetics can play a big role here, and circumstances even more. It’s much easier to become a billionaire if your parents are. But mentors, the times you are born in, situations you experience, luck, and hard work all have a role to play. I’ve already explored some of the factors that led me down the path I have followed. In today’s and next week’s MisAdventure posts, I continue the exploration.

 

In the fourth grade, I discovered that long division was nasty. I got beyond that but word problems gave me a real complex. Two trains are hurtling at each other on the same track with Train A going 90 miles an hour and Train B going 70. They are 252.5296 miles apart. How long will it be before the Train A conductor says, “Ooooh shit!”  Not nearly as soon as I did. My own expletive arrived on my lips .0000001 seconds after seeing the problem. There was no waving of hands and saying “me, me.” I concentrated intently on sending vibes at the teacher. “Curt is not here today. You do not see Curt. You will not call on Curt.”

Spelling was another personal bugaboo in early elementary school. I inherited my spelling genes from my father who fervently believed that words should be spelled exactly as they sounded. “The hors cant come in the hows becaws he is to big to fit in the dor.” It drove Mother, whose grandfather had been a newspaper publisher, crazy. I learned in the third grade that I could compensate for my handicap by writing the really tough words in the palm of my hand just before spelling tests. After I aced several quizzes, my success became a little too much for my main competition.

“Miss Jones, Miss Jones, Curtis is cheating!” my nemesis announced loudly to the teacher, class and world. Boy, I was beginning to dislike her. Miss Jones solemnly checked my hand before a fast tongue and pants wipe move could destroy the evidence. She was not happy with her Godchild. Apparently, Moses had come down off the mountain with an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shall not cheat on your spelling test.

“Curtis I am giving you an ‘F’ on this test and you are to stay in class during recess the rest of the week,” she announced to me while the competition smirked. It was more than embarrassing; it was devastating. And what valuable lesson did I learn: no amount of effort is too much for revenge.  I spent an exorbitant amount of time on my spelling assignments after that with the sole purpose of beating the obnoxious little fiend. Unfortunately, she was equally inspired. I don’t think either one of us missed a word the whole rest of the year.

There’s an old adage that we are supposed to work hard at those things we find difficult, that it gives us character. My belief is that I already have plenty of character. If I had any more, little men in white coats would be chasing me with nets. I prefer to spend my energies on things I enjoy, like reading a good book or hiking in the wilderness. I have little tolerance for doing things that I don’t do well or fail to interest me. In other words, the Protestant Ethic and I have serious compatibility problems. But I can be stubborn. Math is a good example. I continued plugging away up to my junior year in high school. I even managed to get As in Algebra 1 and Geometry. That’s when I ran head on into Miss Caste, or Nasty Casty as she was known. It was definitely a character building experience.

Miss Caste taught Algebra II and, according to those who were seriously into math, was very good at what she did. Students leaving her class were reputed to have a solid foundation in the basics and be well prepared to move on to the ethereal worlds of calculus and trigonometry. Basics, I quickly learned, meant that there was one way of coming up with answers and that way was chiseled in stone. One did not diverge from accepted formulas or leave out steps; right answers obtained the wrong way were wrong answers. Wrong, wrong, wrong! This created a problem. I had a talent for coming up with right answers the wrong way— and this brought me unwanted attention. I could have lived with the extra attention except for another problem, Miss Caste’s teaching technique. She oozed sarcasm. My response was to freeze up. I started dreading her classes and developed the proverbial ‘bad attitude.’ I received my first C in high school and vowed never to take another math course. Life is short and then you die.

Of course, it was my loss. It was one of those life-altering decisions that speak to the power of teachers to turn students on, or off, to various subjects. I wasn’t a total dunce at math; in fact, I scored in the 98th percentile on the Iowa Test in math the same year. But I certainly wasn’t a genius. I was not going to make a career out of mathematics or jobs that were primarily math based. Unfortunately, I eliminated a number of options, particularly in the fields of higher education, almost all of which required further math.

Next Tuesday’s Post: Hopefully, I will have glowing things to say about Peggy and my 40-mile-hike down the Rogue River: Things like ‘piece of cake,’ ‘no problemo,’ and ‘let me at the PCT!’

FRIDAY’S POST: Bleeding like a speared mammoth, I decide to skip chemistry in the future. The MisAdventure Series

From Captain and Quarterback to Second String Guard… The MisAdventure Series

The 1959 school yearbook had this photo of Junior Varsity members of the EL Dorado Union High School football team. I am on the upper left corner.

 

I discussed my elementary school desire to be ruler of everything in my last MisAdventures’ post. I wrapped up my blog by mentioning that since I had cornered the market on being president of this and that, I should also be a sports hero. I’ve made better decisions in my life. Lots of them.

Sports presented a totally different type of challenge in meeting my need to be leader of everything. I am not a natural jock. It isn’t so much physical as mental. You have to care to be good at sports and I find other things more interesting. Part of this evolved from a lack of enthusiasm on the home front. There was little vicarious parental drive to see us excel on the playing field. Being as blind as a bat didn’t help much either. Like most young people I was not excited about wearing glasses. When Mrs. Wells, the school nurse, came to class with her eye charts, I would memorize the lines and then breeze through the test. As for class work, I would sit close to the black board and squint a lot. While I got away with this in the classroom, it became a serious hazard on the Little League field.

I remember going out for the Caldor Team. All of my friends played and social pressure suggested it was the thing to do. Nervously, I showed up on opening day and faced the usual chaos of parents signing up their stars, balls flying everywhere, coaches yelling, and kids running in a dozen different directions at once.

“Okay, Curtis,” the Coach instructed, “let’s see how you handle this fly.”

Crack! I heard him hit the ball. Fine, except where was it? The ball had disappeared. Conk. It magically reappeared out of nowhere, bounced off my glove and hit me on the head.

“What’s the matter? Can’t you see?” the Coach yelled helpfully. “Let’s try it again.” My Little League career was short-lived. I went back to carrying out my inventory of the number of skunks that lived in the Woods. This didn’t mean I was hopeless at sports. In the seventh grade, I finally obtained glasses and discovered the miracle of vision: Trees had leaves, billboards were pushing drugs, and the friendly kid waving at me across the street was flipping me off. I could even see baseballs. It was time to become a sports hero.

My brother, Marshall, actually made the Caldor Little League Team. He is shown here with our dog, Tickle. (Looking back on it, I think Tickle may have been a publicity hound since we have few photos without him.) Marshall also had vision problems that made it difficult to play. He was born blind in one eye.

It says something about your future in sports when your career peaks in the eighth grade. Thanks to Mrs. Young kicking me out of school in the first grade, I was slightly older than my classmates and, thanks to genetics, slightly bigger. More importantly, I had mastered the art of leadership: make noise, appear confident and charge the enemy. As a result, I became quarterback and captain of the football team, center and captain of the basketball team and pitcher and captain of the softball team. I even went out for track and ran the 440 but they didn’t select me as captain. That honor went to a seventh grader. I was severely irritated.

A Penguin’s Guide to Long Distance Running

When I arrived as a freshman in high school, I still had the desire to be ‘ruler of everything in sight,’ but my success in this field of endeavor was about equal to my success with girls. It wasn’t hard for me to remember I had come close to my desired goal the year before. Now I lacked the confidence to run for Home Room Rep. Instead I managed a campaign for my friend Ron Williams to become President of the Class. His parents owned a small ranch on the southeast side of Diamond. The year before he had taught me how to milk a cow. I owed him big. I put a dog collar on Ron’s neck, attached it to a chain and led him from class to class. Of course, he won.

Sports were another area where I blew it. Any red-blooded American male knows that you have to go out for football to become a high school sports hero. There’s some glory in basketball and a little in baseball, but other sports are pretty much on the level of “Oh I didn’t know you did that.” What did I do? I let Jimmy Butts talk me into going out for the cross-country team. Now if you are really, really good at cross-country, like best in the state, you might get a mention in your high school paper when you win the state meet. But say you are the quarterback of the football team and you throw a winning touchdown pass in the final seconds of the homecoming game against your school’s primary rival. You are immortalized. You get the front page of the school paper and major coverage on the sports page of the community paper. As for the babes, they come out of the woodwork. Fifty years later, classmates are still reliving the experience at the class reunion. It doesn’t matter if your team lost every other game that year.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the best runner in the state, or in the community, or in the school, or the freshman class for that matter. In fact, I am not really built for running. My friends sometimes describe me as penguin-like. I have the upper body of a six-foot-six basketball player and the lower body of a five-foot-five VW bug racer. It was only excessive stubbornness that usually found me somewhere near the middle of the pack in my cross-country races. It certainly wasn’t a love of running. There was to be no glory in the sport for me, and certainly no babes. But a lot of character building took place. Great.

Smashing My Way to the Top: Not

By my sophomore year, I decided that I would have more fun playing football. But it was too late. I didn’t eat, dream and sleep football. I lacked the necessary motivation to smash my way to the top. I would come to practice after a long day of work in the fruit orchards where I had put in nine hours of hard, physical labor. The first thing I did was don miscellaneous body pads that were still slimy with yesterday’s sweat and smelled like week-old dead fish. By then the coach would be screaming at us to hurry up and get out of the locker room and on to the field. He did lots of yelling. I decided there must be a high correlation between football practice and boot camp including push ups, wind sprints, humiliation and more push-ups— everything it takes to turn a wild bunch of undisciplined young men into a snarling group of fanatics eager to go out and win one for the Gipper. (Remember the Ronald Reagan movie?)

The hard work was okay, but I was highly allergic to being yelled at. I still am. My rapidly waning enthusiasm took a sky dive leap when the coach decided my position would be second-string left guard. Now don’t get me wrong, guards and tackles are critically important to the success of a team and I confess that smashing into opponents and sacking the quarterback resembled fun. Where else could I practice physically aggressive, anti-social behavior and be applauded? I even remember feeling proud about breaking some unlucky kid’s rib. Shame on me.

Even second-string made sense. The other kids had played freshman football and earned their places. But I lacked the psychological orientation for being second string and had something else in mind in terms of position. I envisioned myself charging down the sidelines with the people in the stands on their feet cheering wildly.

It was not to be. I dutifully put in my time, finished out the year and decided to forgo a career in sports. I am glad I played. I gained new friends and new experience, both valuable. But I can’t say I learned anything of great significance. What I recall from the season was there was little ‘thrill of victory’ and lots of ‘agony of defeat.’ We were not a team destined for glory.

TUESDAY’S POST: I review the second part of my Thousand Mile Trek.My route will take me from world-renowned Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney, where I will finish my journey by climbing the 14, 505-foot (4,421 m) mountain— the highest peak in the contiguous United States.

FRIDAY’S POST: In my next MisAdventure’s post, I explore some of the things that led me to choose the path in life I did. It’s a question that always interests me, not just for myself but others as well. For example, what role did Miss Casty, aka Nasty Casty, play in my deciding not to pursue a career in anything involving higher math?

Dog Bone Diplomacy and Other Tales of Power Politics… The MisAdventure Series

The West was won with the six-shooter, or so the gun folks like to claim. Our equivalent as children was the two-finger six-shooter. It had an infinite number of bullets and no one ever died, at least permanently, from being shot by one.

 

The desire to control our environment, to have power, starts at a very young age, like right after we have been pushed out of the womb. At first. out primary means is to scream loudly. It works. Later we learn more subtle techniques such as a smile or magic words such as Mama, Papa, and please. The first time I remember consciously thinking about power, I was in the third grade.

We were deeply engrossed in an intense game of Old West cowboys and outlaws during recess and it was my turn to be a good guy. Unfortunately, the bad guys had the tactical advantage. They were located on a slight embankment that formed the west side of the playground and were shooting down at us with devastating results.

“Bang, bang you’re dead,” they kept shouting ecstatically as my cohorts bit the dust. Drastic action was called for.

“Let’s charge them,” I yelled while beating my imaginary white stallion on his flanks, a.k.a. my butt, and charging up the hill with Rough Rider abandon. Amazingly, the other good guys, including older fourth grade boys, followed.

“You’re dead, you’re dead, you’re dead,” I screamed as I charged into the nest of evildoers with two-finger guns blazing. Third and fourth grade boys dropped all over the place. What a rush. I had discovered the dark art of leadership: if you make a lot of noise, appear irrationally confidant and charge the enemy, people will follow. I had power… and I liked it. I became a power-hungry third grader, a Trumpian character of vast proportions, and vowed to become ruler of everything in sight: President of the class, Boy Scout patrol leader, committee chairperson, and team captain. I wanted it all!

Prior to my charge up the hill, most of my experience at giving orders had been with Tickle.  He was a well-mannered dog and, like most Cocker Spaniels, eager to please his human servants. For example, one day he accompanied me to Dub Walker’s grocery store when I was on a mission to pick up a quart of milk. As I went inside, I told Tickle to sit down and wait, which he dutifully did. When I came out, the little brown and white dog was nowhere in sight. I figured he’d gone home but when I arrived there, he wasn’t to be found.

“Mother, have you seen Tickle?” I asked, explaining what had happened.

“No,” she responded, “and you know what that means.” I shook my head yes. It probably meant Tickle had sniffed out a potential girlfriend. It was the one situation where he normally felt justified in ignoring any request we had made of him and whatever the consequences his behavior might lead to. Most of us have been there.

“We’d better get in the car and go looking for him,” Mother had noted with a sigh. Otherwise it might be hours before we saw him again. As we drove down town I glanced over at Walker’s store. There was Tickle, waiting faithfully at the door and wagging eagerly at folks as they came out. Whatever the momentary distraction had been, possibly an errant cat, he had quickly returned to his post and had been waiting for over 30 minutes for me to reappear. That’s how good a dog he was.

Even Tickle had reservations about being ordered around, however. Sit down, come here, lie down and heel were fine the first time around and tolerated the second. On the third time, he got that very distinctive “I don’t want to” look in his eyes. Dogs have a clear understanding of the power game from their wolf heritage. As the challenged leader of the pack, I became more strident in my demands and Tickle became even more resentful. Mother intervened with a suggestion, “Try dog biscuits.” Like magic, Tickle’s attitude improved and I learned the art of dog biscuit diplomacy: the right incentive, offered at the right moment, can snatch victory from the jaws of an irritated Cocker Spaniel.

I’ve used this photo before on my blog of Tickle, me and my mother sitting on the edge of the Graveyard. If you hang out long enough on this blog, you will likely see it again. Tickle was my dog and an absolute sweetheart.

As part of my political education, I decided that there had to be more to the art of leadership than bossing my dog around and became fascinated with the world of realpolitik. My parents were semi-serious Republicans, semi in the sense that they didn’t devote their lives to the cause but they did vote the party line. The family tradition went back to Abe Lincoln who had been a family lawyer. My indoctrination started young with the 1952 campaign of Dwight Eisenhower against Adlai Stevenson. According to Mother, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were responsible for most of the bad things that existed in the Country and Ike was going to right the wrongs of the previous two decades. I, of course, accepted this view whole-heartedly and had all the makings of a fine Young Republican. Naturally I was eager to share my correct or ‘right’ perspective with fellow students.

They weren’t particularly interested.

After all, what do nine-year olds know or care about politics? One student, whose parents were avid Democrats, was ready to take me on, however. Our debate started in the boys’ bathroom when we were lined up at the urinals and continued on to the playground. Things began well. Even then I was a high-verbal and points I didn’t win on logic I was taking with volume. But the situation deteriorated rapidly. My fellow debater did what most politicians do when they appear to be losing ground; he started slinging mud.

“Eisenhower is a blankety, blank,” he declared with a smirk to underline his cleverness. It was his mistake, now we were talking my language.

“In that case,” I argued with glee, “Stevenson is a blankety-blank, blank, blank.” Marshall, Allen and Lee had taught me every swear word in the English language and a few in Spanish. I could go on for minutes without repeating myself. In fact, Allen and I had challenged each other to a contest once to see who knew the most swear words. There was a vacant lot filled with tall grass down on the corner where Missouri Flat road ran into Highway 49. We got down on our hands and knees and chased each other through the grass while shouting obscenities at the top of our lungs.  We were so engrossed in our efforts that we didn’t note that Marsh had time to go home and retrieve Pop to listen in on the exchange. He was not impressed with our command of the language.

Anyway, I was not to be outdone in the mudslinging department; I had a bright future as a campaign manager. It demolished my opponent. Regrettably, I was about to learn an important Hobbesian lesson in power politics: Never start political arguments with a person carrying a baseball bat. He let go with his and whacked me across the leg. Down I went onto the playground and off I went to the hospital as my leg muscle knotted up to the size of a softball. Fortunately, nothing was broken and my man Ike won the election.

My scramble for power peaked in the eighth grade when I ran for Student Body President. Diamond Springs Elementary School had consolidated and become Mother Lode Elementary School. (Later it would be named after Allen’s dad and become Herb Green Elementary School.) In addition to a new school, we now had kids from El Dorado and Missouri Flat.

My opponent was a Doctor’s kid from out of town and across the tracks, so to speak. The campaign turned nasty.  “Curt’s a Flirt” and “Curt Eats Dirt” posters made by a fourth-grade class, sprang up all over the school grounds. I resented being used as a lesson plan in rhyming and retaliated by recruiting a one-man enforcer to go around twisting fourth grader’s arms. I even made an inflammatory speech. About what, I haven’t a clue, but it must have been effective. I won the election.

And I still wanted more power. The principal asked me to take over as president of the schools’ new square dance club and I immediately said “yes” even though dancing was just above (and possibly below) going to the dentist on my list of favorite activities. To paraphrase Thoreau, I dance to a different drummer. Other people’s downbeat is my upbeat. As for the square dancing, I confess it was fun. “Stop where you are, give your honey a swing” went the call and I loved giving girls a twirl. The only down side was that the woman of my dreams, the girl who had captured my 13-year-old heart, was assigned to a different square.

Even being President of the Mother Lode Twirlers wasn’t enough, however. I wanted to be a sport’s hero, too, which is the subject of next Friday’s MisAdventures’ blog.

TUESDAY’S POST: A trail review of the first 500 miles of my thousand mile trek.

A Terminal Case of Puberty Blues… The MisAdventure Series

As a freshman at El Dorado Union High School, I decided to take PE Dance Class so I could go to events like the 1957 Sock Hop and be more than a wall-flower. It wasn’t to be…

 

In my last MisAdventure’s post, I took you through my early ‘romantic’ adventures up to my competition with Eric over the exotic Judy in the fifth grade. I carry on today, where I became hormonally challenged. Read on!

A pair of twins took up my sixth and seventh grade passions. I started out with Gail but she dropped me. That was a shock. Fortunately, her twin, Lynn, was interested in me so my suffering was short-lived. Like about a day.

By the eighth grade, my previously semi-quiescent hormones begin to stir. They weren’t boiling yet, but they were bubbling. Girlfriends were becoming serious business and new emotions suggested slightly more adventuresome behavior on my part. Holding hands, an awkward kiss or two, and snuggling up on the dance floor were about as far as I got in the parlance of the day, however.

Ann was my serious eighth-grade flame. She had dark hair, dark eyes and a ready smile. She cried when she wasn’t assigned as my partner in our square-dancing club. I liked her a lot but I was going on to high school and high school boys don’t date elementary school girls. I dutifully, if reluctantly, ended the relationship. Payback time came at the eighth-grade graduation dance in Placerville, a big event attended by seventh and eighth graders from throughout the region. Ann showed up dressed in white and was radiant. A steady stream of boys lined up to dance with her. I hid out and sulked in a corner with a bad case of instant jealously. I did get the last dance, though; it was ‘Love Me Tender’ by the latest singing sensation, Elvis Presley. The year was 1957.

For some reason, I decided to go out for Cross Country my freshman year. I am second from the right in the top row.

Something happened between the eighth grade and high school. And it hit me right between the eyes with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Here I was a happy, well-adjusted and relatively successful young man one day and a serious candidate for a strait jacket the next. Pimples popped out on my face overnight and my voice became dedicated to practicing random octave jumps. Teenage-hood, which had promised to be a mild adventure, arrived with a vengeance. I was being hormonally challenged; I had a terminal case of puberty blues. Things I had taken for granted became illusive, almost impossible to obtain. Take girlfriends, for instance.

I expected to lose a little ground in the field of romance when I became a freshman in high school. Sophomore, junior and even senior boys cruised the hallways in a mad scramble to check out the new crop of freshmen girls. And the older girls weren’t about to date a freshman boy, that lowest of low creatures. But I didn’t expect to bomb the way I did. I became intensely, almost painfully shy. I would walk down the hallways staring at my feet in fear that some young woman would look me in the eye. If a girl tried to talk to me, I would mutter inanities and make a run for it. The strangest statements came out of my mouth. As for asking a girl out, the odds were a little less than being struck by lightning and the latter seemed like a less painful alternative.

It wasn’t that I didn’t notice girls. My body was one huge hormone. I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. I pined for a young woman who sat in front of me in Mr. Crump’s Geography class. She was gorgeous and came with a full complement of accoutrements: smile, brains, hips and breasts. I was in deep lust. My knee and her butt were mere inches apart and her butt was like a magnet. I had the most intense fantasies of moving my knee forward until it made contact. In my fantasy she would of course turn around, smile at me and suggest we get together after school. In reality, she would have turned around and bashed me with her geography book (rightfully so), or worse, told Mr. Crump. I would have died. I kept my knee where it belonged. It is a strong testament to my love for geography that I didn’t flunk the class under the circumstances.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and I was a desperate man. I signed up for dance classes in P.E. I would learn to dance and become a combination of Arthur Murray and Elvis Presley. Step, step, slide and swivel your hips. Girls would flock to me. It wasn’t until the day of the class that I learned the magnitude of my mistake. I would have to dance with girls to learn how to dance and there they were, lined up on the opposite side of the gymnasium floor, staring at me.

“God, why did I do this to myself,” I thought as I stared across the distance at twenty females who I knew were thinking, “anybody but Curtis.”

“Okay, boys,” the female P.E. teacher announced in a stern voice, “I want you to walk across the room now and politely ask a girl to dance with you.” Wow, that sounded like fun.

Reluctantly, I began that long walk across the gymnasium floor. I was a condemned man and the gallows were looming. I walked slower. Maybe an earthquake would strike. Maybe the Russians would shoot off an IBM missile. Maybe one of the surly seniors would throw a match in a wastebasket and the fire alarm would go off.

Maybe nothing.

I approached the line and looked for a sign. One of the girls would smile at me and crook her finger. But the girls looked exceedingly grim. A few looked desperate, like deer caught in the headlights of the proverbial 18-wheeler rushing toward them at 90 miles per hour. I picked out the one who looked most frightened on the theory that she would be the least likely to reject me.

“Uh, would you care to dance,” I managed to blurt out.

“Uh, okay,” she responded with about the same level of enthusiasm she would have if I had offered her a large plate of raw liver. It was P.E. Dance Ground Zero after all, and she wasn’t allowed to say no. We were destined to be a great couple.

“You will put your left hand in the middle of the back five inches above the waist line.” The teacher, who was now sounding more and more like a drill sergeant, carefully described what we would do with our hands. It was quite clear that there would be minimal contact and no contact with behinds. “With your right hand and arm, you will hold the girl away from you.” There would be no accidental brushing of breasts either. I assumed the correct position with marine-like precision. I was going to get this right. I studied the chart the teacher had put up to show me what I was supposed to do with my two left feet. I listened carefully to the lecture on rhythm and down beats. I watched with intensity as she demonstrated: step, step, slide, step-step.

And all too soon it was our turn. A scratchy record blasted out a long-since-dead composer’s waltz. I didn’t know who it was but it wasn’t Elvis or even Benny Goodman. With one sweaty palm in the middle of the girl’s back and the other sweaty hand holding her a proper distance away, I moved out on the floor. Step, step, slide, step-step. One, two, and three, four-five the coach barked out. My feet more or less followed the prescribed pattern as I avoided stepping on the girl’s toes. I tried a turn and managed to avoid running into another couple. Ever so slightly I relaxed. Maybe things would be okay. Maybe I would have fun. Maybe Hell would freeze over.

“Stop, class!” the teacher yelled as she blew her whistle and yanked the needle across the record, adding another scratch. We dutifully came to a halt. What now?

“I want everyone to watch Curtis and his partner,” she announced.

“Hey, this is more like it,” I thought to myself. Not only was I surviving my first day of dance class, I was being singled out to demonstrate. I smiled, waited for the music to start, and boldly moved out on the floor where many had trod before. Step, step, slide, step-step. We made it through all of three progressions when the teacher abruptly blew her whistle again.

“And that, Class,” she proclaimed triumphantly, “is not how you do it. Curtis is moving like he is late for an important date with the bathroom.”

The class roared— and I shrank. I don’t know how my partner felt, but I wanted a hole to climb in, preferably a deep hole with a steel door that I could slam shut. And I was more than embarrassed, I was mad. My normal sense of humor had galloped off into the sunset.

“You don’t teach someone to dance by embarrassing him,” I mumbled. An angry look crossed the teacher’s face and she started to reply. I turned my back and walked for the door.

“Where do you think you are going, Curtis? Get back here!” she demanded in a raised voice.

“I am leaving,” I replied without turning, calm now the decision made. The class was deadly quiet. This was much more interesting than P.E. Other kids might challenge teachers, might walk out of a class, and might not even care. But not Curt. This was a guy who always did his homework, participated in class discussions, was respectful toward teachers and aced tests.

I reached the door and put my hand on the handle.

“If you walk out that door, you may as well walk home,” the teacher barked. “I will personally see to it that you are suspended from school.”

I opened the door, walked out, and went straight to the office of the chairman of the P.E. Department, Steve O’Meara. Steve worked with my Dad in the summer as an assistant electrician, but I knew him primarily as my science teacher.  He was a big man, gruff, and strong as a bull elephant, a jock’s jock. He demonstrated his strength by participating in the annual wheelbarrow race at the El Dorado County Fair. The race commemorated the fact that John Studebaker of automobile fame had obtained his start in Placerville manufacturing wheelbarrows for 49ers.

Steve O’Meara.

The County’s strongest men would line up with their wheelbarrows at the starting line and then rush to fill a gunny sack with sand at the starter’s gun. They would then push their wheelbarrows and loads at breakneck speed around an obstacle course that included mud holes, a rock-strewn path, fence barriers and other such challenges. In addition to making it across the finish line first, the winner had to have fifty plus pounds of sand in his gunny sack. Underweight and he was disqualified. Steve was always our favorite to win and rarely disappointed us. He had a very loud voice.

“What’s up, Curt,” he roared when I entered his office. I knew Steve didn’t eat kids for lunch but you always wondered a little.

“I think you are supposed to expel me,” I replied. He started to laugh until he saw my expression. Mortification and anger on the face of a 14-year-old are never a pretty sight.

He became serious. “Sit down and tell me what’s happening,” he suggested in an almost gentle voice.

Ten minutes later I walked out of his office with a reprieve. I didn’t have to go back to the dance class and could finish out the quarter playing volleyball.  Steve would have a discussion with the dance instructor. I imagine she ended up about as unhappy as I was. At least I hoped so. I entertained a small thought that she would hesitate the next time before traumatizing some gawky kid whose only goal in attending her class was to become a little less gawky. It would be a long time before I would step onto a dance floor again.

TUESDAY’S POST: The world of Ultra-light Backpacking Gear— Preparation for the Thousand Mile Trek!