A Grand but Insane Idea… The First Sierra Trek: Part 1

It’s Blog-a-Book Tuesday. Now that I have provided an introduction to my book, it’s time to start rolling out stories. I’ve chosen my first ever 100-mile backpack trek across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range for my kick-off. Given that I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing was crazy enough, that I chose to take 61 people aged 11-71 with me as a fund-raiser for the American Lung Association was pure insanity. I was lucky to survive with my career and life intact.

As promised, I am going to blog the book in bite sized pieces with each post ranging between 500 and 1000 words. Some of these stories may be familiar to you since I have written about them before in my ten years of blogging.

The Black Buttes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are lit up by the evening sun.
Inspired by the beauty of the Five Lakes Basin found north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California in 1969, I started a lifetime of backpacking. Here, the setting sun lights up the Black Buttes.
I was camping on this little lake when I was inspired by the idea of raising money for the American Lung Association of Sacramento by running a hundred mile backpack trip.

During the early summer of 1974, my life took a dramatic shift. My friend Steve Crowle and I had used a long summer weekend to go backpacking into one of my all-time favorite destinations, the Five Lakes Basin, north of Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a beautiful area with towering cliffs and jewel-like lakes that were carved out by glaciers some 20,000 years ago.

We were lazing around our campfire on the last night and bemoaning the fact that we had to return to civilization and jobs the next day. Glowing embers provided warmth and pulled us closer to the fire while a full moon bathed the Black Buttes in silver light and focused our attention outward.

“God, wouldn’t it be great if we could make money doing this,” Steve sighed. He had replaced me as Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center when I had become Executive Director of the American Lung Association of Sacramento. In addition to his boundless energy and intelligence, he was a bit on the wild side. He had hobbies like jumping off high bridges into shallow water and experimenting with various mind-altering drugs. But mainly he loved life and had a vast appetite for new experiences. One such experience was backpacking. 

Suddenly my mind took an intuitive leap. The lights came on, the bells went off, and four and twenty blackbirds sang the Hallelujah Chorus.

“We can, Steve!” I managed to get out as my thoughts played hopscotch. “Look, as Executive Director of Lungland, one of my main responsibilities is fund-raising.” It was a fact I was painfully aware of.

The once Tuberculosis Association and now Lung Association had spent 70 years happily sending out Christmas Seals and waiting for the donations to roll in. While the Golden Goose wasn’t dead, it was ailing. We had conquered the dreaded TB and selling lungs wasn’t nearly as easy. Easter Seals had kids, the Heart Association the most appealing organ in the body, and the Cancer Society the scariest word in the dictionary. We had emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, the remnants of TB, and diseases with unpronounceable names such as coccidioidomycosis. Adding insult to injury, several non-profit organizations had added seals to their fund-raising arsenals. Competition for bucks to do-good was tough and the well was running dry.

“What if,” I pondered out loud, “we ran a backpack trip through the mountains as a type of multi-day walk-a-thon with people raising money for each mile they hiked?” I liked walk-a-thons. They involved people in healthy activities as well as raising money. They gave something back to the participants.

Steve’s attention jumped from low watt to high intensity. “When? Where? For how many miles and days? How can I be involved?” The questions tumbled out.

“I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know,” I responded, laughing at his enthusiasm although mine was hardly less. “But,” I added, throwing out some crazy figures, “what if we made it for nine days and 100 miles?”

That quieted us down. Neither of us had ever backpacked for nine days straight, much less 100 miles. A long trip for me had been six days and 30 miles. I threw out the nine days because it included a full week with both weekends and the 100 miles because it sounded impressive and might fire people’s imaginations. It did mine.

“Why not,” Steve had finally said with more than a little awe in his voice as a new fund-raising program was born. It was an event that would keep me happily running around in the woods over the next 30 years and raise substantial funds and friends for the American Lung Association. But all of that was in the future; Steve and I just wanted an excuse to go backpacking. How to get from point a to point b was the question. As folks like to say, the devil is in the details.

My first challenge was selling the event to a reluctant Board of Directors. Running a 100-mile backpack trip as a fundraiser was a huge leap from sending out Christmas seals. At 29, I was the youngest Lung Association Executive Director in the nation and I had already ruffled enough feathers to dress a turkey. For example, a research doctor on my Board was foaming at the mouth because I wanted our organization to focus on reducing the primary causes of lung disease: air pollution and tobacco use. What would he think of me running off to the woods on a backpack trip? Another Board member loved his pipe and was irritated at me because I had persuaded the Board that our meetings should be smoke-free. His irritation was nothing, however, in comparison to a number of California Lung Execs who were livid because I was proposing that Lung Association offices should be smoke-free as well. What a radical idea that was. I heard an older woman exec proclaim at a conference, “I am going to kick that young man in the balls!” She made sure I was within hearing distance. 

“You want to do what?” with a decided emphasis on the first and fifth words is the best way I can describe the Board’s reaction. It was easy to translate: “Why would a 29-year-old executive director with less than a year of experience under his belt want to risk his career on such a harebrained idea?”

I echoed wild Steve, “Why not?”

NEXT POSTS: On Thursday’s travel blog we continue our back roads’ journey along Highway 50 across the Nevada Desert and camp out at the Hickison Petroglyph area with its strange petroglyphs and unique rock structures. Next Tuesday it’s back to blogging a book. The Lung Association Board approves the Trek, I hire Steve, and we begin a recruitment effort. People come out of the woodwork wanting to go…

NOTE: Peggy and I are heading over to the Oregon Coast to celebrate Thanksgiving and our Anniversary, camping out in Quivera the Van at a site that may not have cellphone or Internet connection. If so, I will get back to responding to comments and reading posts next week.

The Story of How Bone Was Found… Reblog

While Peggy and I are at Burning Man, I am reposting the story of how Bone was found. This is the first of the series. I will respond to comments when I return from Burning Man.

Backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness… Or, How to Forget You Are Being Divorced

It was the summer of 1977 and my wife JoAnn was divorcing me. Apparently I lacked in stability or at least in the desire to pursue the Great American Dream. She was right of course. I had absolutely zero desire to tie myself to an eight-hour a day job and a large house in the suburbs. None of this made the divorce easy. I was prepared to spend my life as a happily married man.

To keep my mind occupied, I was working on the route for the Fourth Annual Sierra Trek, a challenging nine-day 100-mile backpack trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that I had created as a pledge-based fund-raiser for the American Lung Association in Sacramento.

“So what’s your problem?” my friend Tom Lovering asked over a beer at the Fox and Goose Restaurant. He’d been-there-done-that with divorce and dated a number of women since. Tom owned Alpine West, an outdoor/wilderness store in Sacramento, and sponsored the Sierra Trek.

I had persuaded him to go backpacking with me for six days to preview part of the new route. Our plan was to start near Meek’s Bay, Lake Tahoe and work our way southward 70 miles following the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail.

Tom had invited his girlfriend, Lynn, and Lynn was bringing along her friend Terry. Terry was nice, not my type.

“I have a friend named April who wants to go backpacking,” Tom offered. “Why don’t I invite her to go as well? Maybe you two will hit if off.”

The implication was that this would help me get over my wife.  Actually, I had already met the woman who was going to help me recover but I humored Tom.

A friend drove the five of us up to Meeks Bay. April was gorgeous and Tom was right. I followed her long legs and short shorts up the trail. My gloomy focus on the Soon-to-Be-Ex faded like a teenager’s blue jeans.

Hot feet and screaming fat cells were even more potent in forcing me to live, or at least suffer, in the moment. As usual I’d done nothing to physically prepare for the first backpack trip of the year and I was paying the price.

We climbed a thousand feet and traveled six miles to reach our first night’s destination at Stony Ridge Lake. I crashed while Tom broke out some exotic concoction of potent alcohol.

After consuming enough of his ‘medicine’ to persuade my fat cells they had found Nirvana, I fired up my trusty Svea stove and started cooking our freeze-dried dinner. It wasn’t hard. Boil water, throw in noodles, add a packet of mystery ingredients, stir for ten minutes and pray that whatever you have created is edible. That night it didn’t matter.

Afterwards, we headed for our beds. The next day would be long. I slid into my down filled mummy bag and looked up at what seemed like a million stars. There were no city lights or pollution to block my view and the moon had yet to appear.

I traced an imaginary line from the Big Dipper and found the North Star. It seemed far too faint for its illustrious history. A shooting star briefly captured my attention. Thoughts of divorce, short shorts, the next day’s route, a rock digging into my butt, and sore feet jostled around in my mind for attention.

Sleep finally crept into the bag and captured me.

Next: A pounding heart and a sprained ankle.