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.
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.