The Sierra Trek Ends with Its Biggest Surprise Yet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EPILOGUE

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

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

NEXT POSTS:

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

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

A Sheriff and Dynamite… The Sierra Trek

A photo of Leland Stanford and his store in Michigan Bluff from the Stanford Museum. This photo was likely taken in the summer. Can you feel the heat sizzling off the ground? 120-years later our Trekkers hiked by here on a similarly hot day.

On day seven of the Sierra Trek, we hiked into Foresthill, a small community 20 miles above Auburn. It was a long, hot, dusty 15-mile hike in and out of steep river canyons with temperatures soaring over 100°F. Along the way we passed through Michigan Bluff, which had once been an important gold rush community. Leland Stanford got his start here in the 1850s, running a grocery store for miners. It was a much surer way of striking it rich than gold panning. For example, eggs cost $3 each. Expensive huh? Taking inflation into consideration, the price would shoot up to $100 today.

Stanford continued to prove his smarts. His future included becoming one of the Big Four in building the Transcontinental Railroad, serving as the Governor of California, becoming a US Senator, and giving Stanford University its name.

In Foresthill, we had arranged to stay in the little city park that came with a swimming pool. Given the excessive heat of the day, I looked forward to diving into the cool, refreshing water. But my plunge was not to be.

First, I had to make sure we could find our way out of town and back onto the trail the next morning. We were now into the territory that Steve and I hadn’t reviewed— me because I was off on Vancouver Island deciding on my future, and Steve because who knows why. I hiked out of town for a mile or so down the road until I found the trail and then followed it for another half mile. It seemed well-marked, so I said headed back toward camp. It would be Steve’s job to lead the next day. He would have to deal with any surprises.

Back in camp, the situation quickly made me wish I had just kept hiking. Charlie came charging over. My always dependable backup, ex- ice hockey player, ex-bomb de-fuser and IRS dodger looked like he was about to break down and cry.

“Someone stole my grandfather’s watch at the swimming pool,” he blurted out.

It was a valuable family heirloom, precious to him. I did what I could to console Charlie and headed over to the pool to ask around. None of my Trekkers had seen anything suspicious, or Charlie’s watch. I had a hard time imagining any of them stealing it. He had done everything possible to help them down the trail. There were other folks at the pool, however. Fortunately, Charlie found the watch at his campsite, where he had left it.

My next challenge was Lose-Yourself-Dick, the forty something school teacher who had wandered off on his own. He had tackled his ample supply of snake bite medicine and was feeling no pain. In fact, he was challenging the teenage boys to wrestle him or at least jump on his stomach. I was sorely tempted to join the latter activity. He had also discovered a flagpole he insisted on climbing. I reasoned with him as best I could, but even when he was sober, persuading Dick not to do something was close to impossible. I had just completed my highly ineffective effort when a Sheriff’s car came cruising in to camp. I walked over. One of our Trekkers was sitting in the back seat.

“Can I help you?” I asked politely.

“Yes,” the Deputy Sheriff had responded, “I need to talk with the person in charge.”

I had another of those gut-wrenching feelings. Just three more days, I thought. Just get me through three more days. I desperately wanted to tell the deputy that the man in charge had checked out and gone home or was still on the trail.

“You’ve found him,” I said, putting on a brave smile.

“We just caught this young woman shoplifting,” the deputy reported in his official lawman voice.

“Damn!” I thought. But I said, “Okay, what do I need to do about it?” My unhappiness and resignation must have shown.

“Nothing this time,” he replied. “Because she is raising money for the American Lung Association, we are going to let her off with a warning.” And me as well, I read into his statement. “I am sorry, Curt,” she apologized and I just sighed.

Could anything else go wrong? Of course it could and likely would. I escaped by leaving camp when Steve came in and wandered off to a restaurant in town where I wasn’t likely to find any Trekkers. I drowned my sorrows in a large steak and a couple of well-earned beers. I seriously considered drinking more but I let my adult over-rule the temporarily insane me. He was demanding a six-pack.

We rolled our Trekkers out of Foresthill early the next morning. I breathed a sigh of relief as I followed the last one past the city limits. Once again, Steve was leading and I was playing rear guard. Fortunately, we had a short day. I was quickly reminded that being trail leader was a lot more fun than being rear guard. For one thing, you tended to get into camp a couple of hours earlier. For another, you weren’t constantly being bombarded by the question, “How much farther?” I had begun to respond with a stock answer, “Oh, it’s about twenty miles,” and had found that Trekkers stopped asking. If they persisted, my next response was, “It’s all up hill.”

Steve told me he had been moving some of the slowest Trekkers down the trail by telling them rattlesnake and bear stories and then walking on ahead. He said people made a real effort to keep up. Years later I would use the same technique in Alaska with grizzlies. I suspect that neither of us would have qualified for the Boy Scout Leader’s Seal of Approval. Or even the Sierra Club’s.

Around three, I came on Steve and our Trekkers milling about a closed gate. A vehicle was parked behind the gate and two official looking people were leaning against the vehicle. I was about to learn what price we were paying for not reviewing the final section of the trail.

“What’s up Steve?” I asked, wondering if we had managed to do something else to bring officialdom down on our heads.

“No problem,” Steve said, “they are just blasting with dynamite in the canyon.” Steve’s idea of what constituted a problem and mine were lightyears apart.

His words were punctuated by a rumbling sound. The guards were blocking the road so big rocks wouldn’t come rolling down on people using the canyon trails. It sounded like a good idea. In 1974, plans were underway for building the Auburn Dam and flooding another section of the beautiful American River canyon. Land speculators were greedily selling ‘lake front’ property along the future edge of the lake. Later, building the dam— or not building it— became one of the most contentious environmental issues in Northern California. The dam still isn’t built, and will likely never be. It had been planned on an earthquake fault.

“Um, how long do they plan on continuing to blast?” I asked as I pictured our Trek coming to an abrupt end. It wasn’t a totally unpleasant thought.

“We are in luck,” Steve reported. “They are just closing down their operations and won’t resume until Monday.”

Since it was Friday afternoon and we would be out of the canyon by Sunday, I had to agree. Luck was leaning our way for a change. It made me nervous. That night we celebrated the winding down of our adventure by feeding our Trekkers steak and fresh salad. The feast went off without a hitch, except it was amusing to see people gnawing the meat off the bones. Even vegetarian Bob! I was surprised that they weren’t growling. It wasn’t pretty, but no one seemed to mind. Civilization had definitely taken several steps backward. Everyone went to bed happy, including me.

NEXT POSTs:

Blog-a-Book Wednesday: The Bush Devil Ate Sam… I speculate how my DNA and my family’s wandering ways led me to join the Peace Corps

Travel Blog Friday: America’s backroads… Peggy and I discover interesting Native American rock art at Lyman State Park in Arizona along Highway 191.

“His Dong Goes All the Way to His Knees,” Orvis Told Me in Wonder

In my last blog-a-book post from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me,” I wrote about finding our ‘lost’ Trekker and declaring a layover day. It was just what we needed. Feeling refreshed and rested, the group was ready to hit the trail. Today, I cover our 4th and 5th days. And the dong.

At the end of a long, hot day on the trail, a lake like this provides a powerful incentive to jump in— with or without clothes.

We hit the trail early. I took over leadership since we were now covering a section of the route I had previewed. It was where Sparky and I had the bear encounter. I was glad to leave the grueling chore of bringing up the rear to Steve.

It felt good being up with the hotdogs, all younger than I was by a decade. The miles sped by as we maintained our three to four-mile an hour pace. Of course, we were egging each other on. As the old man of the group at 29, I had to prove that the kids couldn’t outrun me. My only problem was blisters. My feet were still doing battle with the new Lowa boots, and the boots were winning. Since I couldn’t ignore the blisters in the same way I was ignoring the piteous cries of my fat cells, I kept slapping on moleskin. There wasn’t much bare skin left.

Camp that night was at an old mining area called ‘Last Chance.’ Obviously, some disgruntled forty-niner had named it as his dreams of wealth were fading. The area was a major checkpoint on the 100-mile Tevis Cup Horse Race. Veterinarians checked horses to see if they could continue on. I wandered around and carried out a similar effort with the Trekkers, paying special attention to their hooves. There were a couple of people I assigned to the jeep for a day and several whose feet I patched up. I was becoming quite the expert on blisters.

People were in an amazingly good mood. I set up camp next to Charlie, which involved unrolling my ground cloth, ensolite pad, and sleeping bag. We were sleeping out in the open at the time, which I almost always did unless weather forced me into my emergency tube tent. We lay there, looking up at the sky and contemplating the myriad of stars the clear Sierra night made available.

“What an experience,” Charlie offered. “I can’t believe I am out here. Someday, people will be doing these Treks all over the nation.”

My thoughts were more along the line of “Thank God we made it through another day.” But things were definitely getting easier as Steve and I adjusted to our group and the group adjusted to its long hiking days. The next day even found several of us trotting along the trail in sheer joy with Orvis trotting right along with us. We still had our share of challenges though.

Food was one. I spent a lot of time listening to complaints about Ham Cheddarton, which the Trekkers were eating every other day. They had even composed a little ditty about the meal and what I could do with it. I don’t think Lipton would have found it useful as a marketing song. Nor did I find the suggestion of where I might put it particularly enticing. At least the Trekkers were developing a sense of humor.

Three young teenagers from Auburn, a girl and her brothers, had the most legitimate gripe. I discovered they had broken their stove and were eating the goop with cold water. I turned down their ‘generous’ offer to sample a bite and loaned them my stove. We had three in our cook group so it wasn’t a problem. (The stove never quite recovered from the experience, however.)

Keeping the troops clean provided another interesting challenge. Some people simply didn’t bother. I suspected our Four Mouseketeers weren’t overly concerned about missing a bath or eight. But nobody was squeaky clean. People have a way of deteriorating in unison on the trail. Even the most conscientious develop a certain look, a certain patina. You don’t really recognize this state of deterioration until you arrive back at civilization and meet disgustingly clean people at trailheads. They smell so good…

Probably the easiest solution to bathing in the woods is to jump into a convenient lake or river. The major drawback here is that one can’t use soap because it damages the water supply. Truly lazy or tired Trekkers may jump in with their clothes on, thus rinsing their clothes as well as their body. I’ve used that option often. By now, I am sure the reader is beginning to grasp why backpackers gradually (quickly) become scruffier as the trip progresses.

One issue that is always present is the question of privacy. Do you slip off into the woods by yourself and take a sponge bath or do you shed all of your clothes and jump into the lake. The latter range from folks who jump in and make lots of noise, to more shy folks who quietly slip in business like. Our first Trek, a true 70’s type adventure, incorporated all types. I already mentioned the woman and her coterie of the Four Mouseketeers. She would have preferred a private bath but had to put up with her youthful admirers.

Two of our Trekkers, who I will call Y and Z, were definitely of the Hippie Generation when it came to bathing. Y was an amply endowed woman who floated in a most interesting way, but it was her boyfriend Z, who drew the most attention. Orvis, at 70, still had a fine appreciation of the female body and could be depended on to check out the action at the local swimming hole. We were camping on the middle fork of the American River when he came up to me with an impish grin on his face.

“Did you see Z, Curt?” he asked with wonder in his voice. “His dong goes all the way to his knees!” I just started laughing and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t help myself. But I also made an innocent trip by the swimming hole. Sure enough, Z had equipment that would have sent a mare running in the opposite direction.

NEXT POST:

Blog-a-book Wednesday: Now that I am well into my book on wilderness adventures, it’s time to start re-blogging the book on my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, The Bush Devil Ate Sam. I’ve been making major revisions in the book: rewriting some chapters, adding chapters, updating my section on Liberia’s history since I left the country, and expanding the section on the Peace Corps in Liberia today. Perhaps you were around when I first blogged the book or maybe you have even read “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.” If so, much of this will be familiar to you.

Travel Blog Friday: We return to my ‘backroad series’ and journey down highway 191 through Utah and Arizona.

How Could It Be Only Day Three… The Sierra Trek

In the last blog-a-book post from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me,” I had split the Sierra Trek with two thirds of the participants following an easy, jeep-supported route into Robinson Flat. My task was to follow the group that had gone on a much more difficult route without water and without leadership. I arrived in camp to find one Trekker lost and the others in a state of rebellion against the leader. Me. They had discussed hanging but thankfully decided on giving me the silent treatment instead…

After two days of trekking, I was beginning to feel like this twisted tree trunk. Old. What would day three bring?

Before going to bed, I insisted that the Trekkers gather around so I could learn what I could about the missing person, Dick. Silent treatment or not, I needed to think through an action plan for the next day. Dick was the school teacher who had claimed he could carry his weight in booze. He had been hiking alone and hadn’t talked to anyone about leaving the route. The Trekkers could only give me an approximation of where they had last seen him.

I decided to get folks up in the pre-dawn hour of around 5 the next morning. As soon as I could see the trail, I would high-tail-it the two miles into Robinson Flat and see if Dick had made an appearance. If not, I would check with the ranger station and help organize a search party. Two of my strongest hikers would stay behind in camp in case Dick showed up there. Charlie would bring the rest of the Trekkers on to Robinson Flat.

I was exhausted and couldn’t go to sleep but somewhere in the wee hours I must have dozed off because I woke with a start as a rock pinged my head. Charlie was lobbing pebbles at my sleeping bag. I was up and packed in a zip. The troops had made a miraculous recovery over night. After a few encouraging words, I was bounding off up the trail like a hare with the hounds of hell in hot pursuit. Just as I came into camp at Robinson Flat, Dick came hoofing in from the opposite direction. I didn’t know whether to kiss or to kill him, but he was too ugly for the former and possibly too tough for the latter.

I settled for, “Are you okay, Dick?”

“Sure,” he replied in a why-wouldn’t-he-be tone.

“What happened,” I demanded, allowing my irritation to surface.

“I got thirsty,” Dick explained. “I could see French Meadow Reservoir at the bottom of the ridge so I hiked down to get a drink. When I got there, I was tired so I set up camp.” And, I am sure, dug into his booze reserves. Why worry?

My irritation boiled over.

“Why didn’t you tell someone you were leaving? Didn’t you realize we would be worried sick and mounting a search and rescue effort?” I was on a roll and Dick was on the receiving end of a great deal of frustration I was feeling. Fortunately, guilt had driven him to get up before dawn and make his way to Robinson Flat as quickly as he could. It might have been worse, much worse.

The crisis was over, but I still had chores. First up was to go back and collect the rearguard I had left at Duncan Creek. I could have sent Steve but I needed time to recover from my anger. As I hiked, I made my second command decision of the day. Even though we had only hiked for two days, the group could use a layover day. Hell, I could use a layover day. In fact, I needed a layover day. I deserved a layover day. The next day could wait for its turn. What else could go wrong? Hah! Along the way I met the rest of the Trekkers and told them that the lost Dick had found himself.

“I am beginning to understand what it means to be a manic-depressive,” I told Charlie. My life over the past three weeks had been one constant roller coaster. I allowed myself a slight glimmer of hope that we had made it beyond the low point of our adventure.

The other Trekkers had made it to Robinson Flat the day before without a hitch and I now had everyone back together again. A layover day gave all of us, including me, a chance to recoup. People were able to wash clothes, take baths, read, and just lounge around, swapping lies about their terrible ordeals.

Even the Four Mouseketeers were back in high spirits. I came over a hill and found them gathered around one of my older female participants as she sat in the middle of a tiny stream without a stitch of clothes on. They were struggling to appear cool and carry on a conversation while she bathed. I sent them scampering back to camp. At least I had answered my earlier question as to what kind of babysitting services we were providing.

Nan, one of my staff members from the Lung Association in Sacramento, showed up with resupply about midday, including food, cold beer, sodas— and Jo Ann. It was good of her to come, but we were uncomfortable. Still, I was glad to share my adventures and frustrations to date with her. I left out any references to hiking and holding hands with Lisa. After Nan and Jo departed and I had people settled in for the evening, I headed over a hill, loaded my pipe with Balkan Sobranie pipe tobacco, and settled in for a smoke. I hadn’t totally abandoned my pipe (adult pacifier). At that point, I needed the solace it provided. I must have sat there for an hour staring up at the stars, alone in my thoughts, sad.

By the end of day three, I was still in a funk…

But the sun was shining the next morning, as it usually does in the summer Sierra. I felt glad to be out in the woods and happy to be alive. My body was beginning to tone up and I could almost hear my pampered fat cells screaming in protest.

NEXT POST: On my Thursday Travel Blog I will take you over to the beautiful, geologically interesting, and slightly weird Sunset Bay on the Oregon Coast.

A note on photos: Since I don’t have any from the first Sierra Trek, I am using other wilderness photos I have taken from over the years. I found the two stumps on my 700 plus mile trip down the PCT two years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is…?” he asked grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, We Were Not Running a Pot Smoking Orgy in the Mountains…

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.

Years of backpacking and wilderness travel have taught me that a burbling brook makes an excellent sound maker to lull you to sleep. It’s even more valuable when you have noisy companions that like to party late or a sleeper whose snores could make the ground shake.

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.

NEXT POSTS:

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.

When Alpacas Eat Alfalfa: It Isn’t Pretty… Welcome to 2021

Look at this handsome fellow. Check out the fine grooming and immaculate mustache. Or maybe it was a stiff upper lip.

What better way to kick off a new year than with a bit of humor. Especially given 2020. Our daughter Tasha, her husband Clay, and their two boys, Ethan and Cody, live near a farm store that occasionally features alpacas. They are handsome animals with a unique look. When Tasha suggested we pay a visit, I quickly agreed. So off we went: Tasha, Peggy, Cody and me.

Cody, Peggy and Tasha at the Butterfly Hill Farm Store.

We walked over to the alpaca pen and this is what we found.

They were dumpster diving for alfalfa. As every one knows, the best alfalfa is at the bottom of the bin. Right? The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
So much for the handsome, dignified look. You get the picture.

Actually, I took lots of pictures…

The cast of characters.
Another fine photo of the guy above. Looking ferocious here— “Stay away from my alfalfa,” he seems to be saying.
“See my teeth.”
The ‘dumpster diving’ guaranteed that the alpacas were covered in alfalfa.
A nose close-up. Looking smug in spite of his ‘decorations.’
I thought this girl was rather pretty, and being lady-like in her consumption of alfalfa…
Until she stuffed her mouth with it.
Mmmm, mmmm, good.
And the prize for diving the deepest goes to…

While the alpacas loved their alfalfa, they quickly abandoned it for alpaca treats that Cody got from a nearby dispenser with a quarter.

The alpacas joyfully (and gently) ate their treats out of Cody’s hand.
When Cody ran out, he teasingly held up his empty hand…
And got this look. “Watch out Cody,” I warned. Too late. “Yuck, he spit on me!” Cody yelled. It’s not nice to fool an alpaca… 🙂

I was lucky, in comparison. All I got were weird looks.

I’ll conclude with this shot of the weirdest look of all. I stuck my tongue out in response. May your year be filled with fun as well as the serious stuff!

NEXT POSTS:

On Tuesday I present the next chapter in my book about backpacking. I am awakened by Charlie at 6 AM on our first day out who says, “We’ve got a problem, Curt.” It’s a refrain I was to hear over and over during the Sierra Trek.

On Thursday, I return to my travel blog and feature some monster waves Peggy and I found at Cape Arago on the Oregon Coast.

The Calendar Continues… More Photos from Southwest National Parks

Monument Valley

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having fun reliving our trips to the Southwest and it’s gorgeous national parks. I’ll wrap this calendar photo journey up today and tomorrow. In 2021, that’s next week, I’ll return to our backroads adventure, this time traveling down highway 191 as it winds through Utah and Arizona. Or maybe I’ll cover our most recent trip to the Oregon Coast where we watched impressive waves roll in and crash against the shore.

Petrified Forest National Park
Monument Valley
Canyon de Chelly
Capitol Reef (Very Recent Blog!)
Grand Canyon

NEXT POSTS:

The final calendar photos tomorrow on New Year’s Eve.

Next Tuesday I return to the Sierra Trek with a tale you won’t want to miss. And no: The American Lung Association was not running a pot smoking orgy in the mountains!

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Steve Go Astray… The Sierra Trek

I had visions of a small steam like this at our first campsite. It wasn’t to be.

Steve’s job for the first three days of the Sierra Trek was leading since we were going over the route he had previewed. Mine was to be trail sweep, or rear guard, as we called it. Our rules were very simple: Don’t get ahead of Steve, follow the yellow ribbons left behind by the horse people, and don’t get behind Curt. We also required that Trekkers hike with at least one other person and let someone know if they had to leave the trail to ‘serve nature,’ which was what my students in Africa called potty breaks.

I was not going to march people through the woods like an army. By allowing them to travel at their own pace, they could move at a speed their bodies and minds were comfortable with. It also allowed for something of a wilderness experience even though we were hiking with a large group. Sixty-one people would be spread out over 2-3 miles of trail.

Rear guard duty is always the toughest job on a Trek since it’s where the problems accumulate. That first day we made it exactly 50 yards before the first one popped up. The ‘witch’ had shown up with an old boy scout pack with a rope tied on for a belt. (Remember she was the one who was going to come over in the middle of the night, bite me on the ear, and turn me into something. I think she had a sex-crazed maniac in mind.)

We were still in a transition stage where a few belt-less backpacks were wandering around in the mountains with people attached. Following the dictates of my backpacking Bible, “The Complete Walker,” by Colin Fletcher, I had insisted that all of our Trekkers have the belted kind. Not surprisingly, the witch’s ‘belt’ broke immediately. I was tempted to suggest she use her occult powers to fix it but Charlie Colin, the ex-ice hockey player/bomb defuser, cheerfully took care of the problem. My contribution was to give her some suntan lotion and insist she use it. In addition to having lily-white skin, she was wearing a tiny mini-halter, no bra, and short shorts with close to total exposure.

“But Curt,” she objected, “I want to go home with a complete tan.” Right. I told her she would be one roasted chickadee by the end of the first hour and I didn’t want to be accused of burning witches.

By the time we had taken care of her problems (or at least the ones we were qualified to take care of), and those of several other Trekkers, Steve had covered a mile plus and was about to disappear over Emigrant Pass into the Granite Chief Wilderness. All the way up the mountainside, I could see our charges struggling with thin air, a steep trail and heavy backpacks. Some, having traveled for 20 minutes and a few hundred yards, were taking their first 10-minute break of the day. I resigned myself to a long, slow hike.

An hour or so later, Charlie and I crested the pass. Up ahead there may have been people having the easy day I had promised, but they certainly weren’t the 20 or so Trekkers I was now herding along the trail. I looked back at the now distant floor of Squaw Valley and sent a small thank you wafting upward that the first 2000 feet and two miles had been by tram.

I also sent up thanks for the fact that we truly did have a short day. Having cut off two miles from the beginning on the tram and hiked another mile up to the pass, we only had four more to go. Steve had carefully described our first campsite and I had reviewed my topographical map. We were going to drop down into the small valley behind Squaw Valley where the American River begins its journey to the Pacific as soggy ground, and then climb up the ridge that forms the side of Granite Chief Mountain and Needle Peak. Eventually the trail crossed a small, glacier-caused hanging valley perched several hundred feet above the American River. A spring-fed creek was running into the valley with “ample water for our Trekkers,” Steve had assured me.

Apparently, I had used up all of my credit with thanks, though. When we arrived at the proposed campsite, there was only one Trekker present, Bob. I was about to learn what the ‘just in case’ part of his job description meant. This particular just in case was my arriving in camp and finding no one there.

“Everyone has gone on, Curt,” Bob reported. “There is no water. Steve has taken the Trekkers another two miles to Hodgkin’s Cabin.”

I wanted to whine. People had been whining at me all day. Certainly, it was my turn. The possibility of the small stream running dry must have been apparent two weeks before, I complained to myself, and wearily began rounding up my charges. They had scattered out and plopped down on the ground like rocks. And they were about as hard as rocks to get up.

There were two bright spots to my day. One was Charlie.  What a character and what a help; he told me his life story as we placed one foot in front of the other. Every once in a while, he would break out chanting: “cold beer, cold beer, cold beer.” It was pure fantasy but the thought kept us going.

The other was the fact that Lisa had joined us and was playing sheep dog with Charlie and me. We kept everyone moving forward with at least a semblance of humor. By this time, Charlie and I had set up a pole between us and were carrying two broken down packs in addition to our own. Somewhere along the trail I offered Lisa my hand to get over a rough spot and we had continued to hold hands. I felt guilty— a little. The rawness of Jo Ann’s confession was still burning a hole in my soul.

Eventually, we arrived at Hodgkin’s Cabin. We had survived day one. Barely. Had I only known that it would be a piece of cake in comparison to day 2, I might have hiked everyone back over the mountain the next day and declared the Trek a success. Sometimes it is best not to know what fate has in store.

I found this old tree blaze behind Squaw Valley. Early pioneers, cowboys and miners had used them to mark trails with their handy-dandy hatchets. Our Trekkers were following yellow ribbons left behind by the horse people for the Tevis Cup Race. Lots of them. Daniel Boone would have been disgusted, or at least amused..

NEXT POSTS: On Wednesday and Thursday, I will finish posting photos of Southwest National Parks and Monuments.

A Sad Tale… The Sierra Trek

This is a tale I wouldn’t tell, except it is relevant to the Trek story. In my last Blog-a-Book post from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me,” I told the tale of how Steve and I previewed the first 80 Miles of the trail with each of us covering 40 miles in three days. We had both come off the trail on an absolute high, one that Sparky the Springer Spaniel shared with us.

The first Sierra Trek would follow a trail on the other side of the distant ridge. Needle Peak is on the left.

I couldn’t wait to share my experience with Jo Ann. I hurried home, dropping off a tired Sparky and a pooped Steve. I burst into the house full of enthusiasm. In comparison to my bubbling noisiness, Jo was funeral quiet. I made enough noise for both of us and suggested we head out to Chuck’s, our favorite steakhouse. After three days of backpacking food, I was hungering for a mouth-watering T-bone. We were in the middle of our first Scotch when Jo Ann looked at me miserably and announced she had something to tell me.

“Curt,” she confessed, “I didn’t go to San Francisco over the weekend. I went to Los Angeles and spent the weekend with a man I met at a workshop last month.”

My world stopped. My heart broke.

There was no Trek, no future, no me. The steak in my mouth turned to sawdust and my stomach became a tight, heavy knot. Jo Ann went on to tell me about the psychiatrist she had met at a conference in San Francisco and how she was scared about losing me, about how she still loved me. Maybe, but something broke that night, something that could not be mended.

I had to get out of town, to think, to recreate myself.

The next morning Jo dropped me downtown. I called Steve, Nancy and Nan into my office, closed the door and gave them enough details so they would know why I was leaving. In addition to being employees, they were all friends. It was hard for me not to break down. I promised that I would be back in time for the Trek and discussed what needed to be done in my absence. Steve’s primary job would be to review the last section of the trail. He drove me to the airport.

My choice of where to go was determined by the first airplane leaving Sacramento. It was a Western Airlines flight to Seattle and I was on it. It was Tuesday, 12 days before the Trek.

Lonely and confused, I walked the dark, rainy streets of Seattle. I missed Jo desperately and had a hard time imagining the future. I hit the bars and drank. It wasn’t that I was naïve. I knew people could grow apart as well as together, that Jo might have needs I wasn’t filling. The issue of not having children was one and may have created a deep, non-addressed chasm. Nor was I innocent. I had been tempted more than once in the ever-present world of sexual attraction of the 70s: a hand touched here, a smoldering glance there, an innocent peck turning into a passionate kiss. My world was one filled with bright, attractive women.

I had started drinking early on Friday afternoon when the words of a Jimmy Buffet song caught my attention. “I spent four lonely days in a brown ugly haze and I just want you back by my side.” I returned to my motel and called Jo. She was on the next flight to Seattle. We grabbed a ferry and headed over to Victoria where we had spent happier times. Maybe we could pull our relationship back together.

When I arrived back at the office, I found that our food from Lipton had arrived, which was the good news, or so I thought. Steve, for some reason, had failed to review the last 20-miles of the Trek. That was the bad news. Who knew what mischief that might create? As for Lipton, I eagerly opened one of the boxes. Ham Cheddarton. I opened the next box and the next and the next. They were all Ham Cheddarton. Some zealous warehouse manager in Chicago had solved a part of his overstock problem by shipping us the one meal Lipton couldn’t sell and the Trekkers wouldn’t want to eat. Steve called the President in a panic. He agreed to replace half of the Ham Cheddarton.

And then, far too soon, it was Trek time. I spent Friday night packing and worrying. My pack had ballooned up to over 60 pounds. I fell into bed at 1:00 AM but didn’t sleep; by 5:00, I was out the door. I met my support crew at a small restaurant just outside of Squaw Valley at 7:00.

Steve had recruited two friends to help out. One was Steve Locke, whose family owned large sections of Sacramento River Delta farm land and had a town named after them. The other was Bob with no last name, strong quiet Bob who was an excellent man to have along in an emergency, who loaned us valuable equipment such as walkie-talkies and a jeep, and who, as I was to learn later, made his living by smuggling marijuana out of Columbia. Crowle was to be my assistant leader, Steve Locke was going to drive the back-up jeep, and Bob was to be there just in case— in case of what I wasn’t sure.

We drove the last three miles into Squaw Valley to meet our fate. The Trekkers were arriving in droves and milling around like lost sheep. There was fat Charlie, skinny Orvis, beautiful Lisa, and 58 other people ready to follow us across the mountains. I felt a little like Moses must have felt in leading folks off into the wilderness, except I didn’t have his guidance system. I also wondered how Moses might have fared feeding the Israelites Ham Cheddarton instead of manna. We might have a different religion today.

Steve called the Trekkers together and I gave my first ever Trek orientation. I started by pointing out the tram. The first part of their day was to be spent saving 2000 feet and two miles of climbing. Steve had finagled free rides for all of us. This put the participants in a good mood. I then made a serious mistake. I told the Trekkers they should have an easy day.

Rule number one of Trekking is never, never, never tell people they will have an easy day backpacking. Each day is grueling and people may just survive. Period.

Soon we were on our way, crammed like so many cattle onto the Squaw Valley trams hanging high above the ground as we bounced our way to the top. One of our Trekkers with a fear of heights had wanted to walk. She hid herself in the crowd and refused to look out, frightened that we were going to go careening down the cliffs. Her instincts were good. Four years later, the world watched with apprehension as a rescue operation pulled people off of one of the very same trams as it dangled 100 feet above the ground.

We made it without any problems. They started when we got off of the tram, which is my next story.

The Squaw Valley tram. Not a place to be left dangling.

Next Posts:

Tomorrow: A Christmas Card I created a few years back. Are you ready to be mooed?

Christmas Eve: A present of more photos of National Parks and Monuments taken from the 2021 calendar that Peggy and I created for our family from places we visited in 2019-2020.