A Ballerina, a Witch, an Ex-Ice Hockey Player, and a Wood Elf… The Sierra Trek

It’s blog-a-book, Tuesday. On my last post I hired wild Steve to work with me. In this post we pick a name, discover a route, and recruit our participants.

A view of the Northern Sierras near where we would start our Trek.

We were now six weeks out from our 100-mile backpacking event. The clock wasn’t ticking; it was running. We didn’t have a name, we didn’t have a route, and we didn’t have any participants. 

The name part was easy. While thinking of backpacking 100 miles in nine days the word trek popped in to my mind. So, I looked it up in the dictionary. “A long, arduous journey” was the definition. That seemed appropriate, and since we were doing our long, arduous journey through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, I decided to call it the Sierra Trek.

Where to go posed a more serious challenge. There were three criteria: one, it had to be 100 miles long; two, it needed be in our territory; and three, the trail should be easy to follow. The hundred miles was a given. ‘Being in our territory’ seemed feasible since several of ALASET’s (the American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails) nine counties encompassed a significant portion of the Northern Sierras.

The clinker was ‘easy to follow.’ I had nightmares of participants lost all over the mountains while Steve and I scrambled to find them. We’d be lucky if we avoided becoming lost ourselves. Serendipity came to the rescue. I was reading the Sacramento Bee when I found a possible solution. The horse people were planning their annual 100-mile horse marathon across the Sierra Nevada, the Tevis Cup Race. The event kicked off in Squaw Valley and ended in Auburn. Horses had to follow substantial trails, I reasoned. Squaw Valley had been the sight of the 1960 Winter Olympics and would provide an internationally renowned resort to kick off our event. Auburn was one of the main foothill communities in the Association’s territory and would make an excellent ending place. The trail had the added advantage of being an early trail used by pioneers. We could use the historical angle and tie it in with our name. It seemed ideal.

The only fly in the soup from my perspective was that the trail might be filled with horse poop. I’m not a fan. 

Steve made contact with the woman in Auburn who was organizing the Tevis Cup Race. “Yes, the trail is easy to follow,” she told him. They marked it with yellow ribbons and the ribbons would still be up for our Trek. As for my concern about horse manure, “There should be plenty of time between the race and your trek for the manure to dry out.”

“Fine,” I said to Steve when he reported back, “our Trekkers will be shuffling down trails in dry horse shit.” On the other hand, I thought, look for the silver lining. We could tell them to follow the horse droppings if the ribbons ran out. The important thing was we had a route and could begin publicizing the event. Steve and I agreed to preview the route in advance of the Trek to pin down campsites and reduce the possibility of nasty surprises. Nor would it hurt for the two of us to get some backpacking in before we played Moses in the wilderness.

So now we had a route and a name, it was time to recruit participants, obtain food, and preview the route. Our first challenge was whether we could recruit participants. Were there people in the Sacramento area crazy enough to go on a nine-day, 100-mile backpack trip up and over mountains? 

The answer was a resounding yes. Steve got an article published in the Bee. All participants had to do was raise funds for the Lung Association. Naively, we failed to suggest experience would be valuable, set an age limit, or ask for a minimum number of pledges. People came out of the proverbial woodwork! We held an orientation session at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District auditorium with close to 100 people in attendance. Sixty-one signed up.

Among them were a 16-year-old ballerina with legs of steel and a 250-pound, fifty-four-year-old ex-ice hockey player who had also had a career defusing bombs in South America. At the time, he was dodging the IRS.

“Send any mail to my hardware store,” Charlie told me. “I don’t want the Feds to know where I live.” Or us either, apparently.

Four small 11-year-old boys came as inseparable buddies and I wondered what kind of baby-sitting service their parents assumed we were providing. There was busty Sunshine who had a skinny partner named Bilbo. (Decades before the movies, people were already entranced with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I was.) Lovely L could be defined as a perfect 10 in the language of the time. Even the 11-year olds noticed.

Another woman, who claimed to be a witch, informed me, “I’ll be over to bite you around midnight on the Trek.” And no, she never came over to bite me; but had I encouraged it, I am sure it could have been arranged. We had a 40-year-old teacher from Auburn who would never sit down during the day because she claimed she would never get up, and a 45-year-old teacher from Davis who claimed he could carry his weight in booze, and probably did. There was also a young man named Dan with flaming red hair who wore moccasins, juggled and played a harmonica as he walked down the trail.

And then there was Orvis.

Three weeks before the Trek, an elderly, white-haired gent with a long flowing beard and twinkling eyes walked into my office and announced he wanted to go. My first thought was that he was a wood elf. His name was Orvis Agee. He was 70 years old and a carpenter. He couldn’t have weighed over 100 pounds fully dressed and soaking wet. I made a snap decision.

“Uh,” I said searching for a gentle way of telling him I thought he might be too old for the Trek, “this is going to be a very difficult trip. Do you have any backpacking experience?”

“Well,” he announced proudly, “I went on a 50-mile trip with the Boy Scouts last year.” That was 20 miles farther than I had ever backpacked. “And,” he added as he warmed to the subject, “I’ve climbed Mt. Shasta several times since I turned 60.” I had never climbed Mt. Shasta or any other mountain of note. Mainly, over the past five years, I had been sitting around becoming chubby.

Mt. Shasta

“Welcome to the Sierra Trek,” I eked out. What else could I say? (Seventeen years later at age 87, Orvis would do his last Trek with me. He had personally raised the Lung Association over $140,000.)


Thursday’s Travel Blog: We continue our exploration of America’s backroads on Utah’s Highway 24 with a stop off at the stunning Capitol Reef National Park.

Next Tuesday’s Blog-a-Book: We find an unusual food source, recruit a reluctant sponsor, and preview the route— where I get blisters on blisters and my dog companion, worried about a bear encounter we had, chews up my new Pendleton shirt.

The Peace Corps Leaves us Behind in New York City…

There's an old saying: "When treed by a lion, you might as well enjoy the scenery." My trip to the 1965 World's Fair in New York City resembled that. In this photo, Jo Ann poses with Rex.

Having successfully completed Peace Corps Training, our next task was to fly to Liberia, Africa. The thought was both exciting and scary. We didn’t need was another major adventure on the way…

Our reward for completing Peace Corps training was one week at home.

We were supposed to complete whatever business we had before disappearing into the jungles of West Africa for two years. Since there wasn’t much to do, Jo and I relaxed and recovered from our tumultuous year that had begun with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

We wrapped up our brief visit with a going away party in Jo Ann’s back yard.

Surrounded by friends and family we talked into the night. It was one of those perfect summer evenings that California is famous for, complete with a cool breeze tainted with a hint of honeysuckle flowers.

Jo Ann’s parents drove us down to the San Francisco Airport the next morning for our flight to JFK where we would meet up with our group. Her mom slipped us a hundred-dollar bill just before we climbed on the plane. “Just in case.”


Now we were disembarking at JFK, two country kids who had traveled a long way from Diamond Springs and Auburn, California. All we had to do was check in at the Pan Am desk, grab a bite to eat, and catch our trans-Atlantic flight to Africa.

Ah that life should be so simple. Oh we managed to find the Pan Am desk all right, but no one was there.

“Excuse me, could you tell me where the Peace Corps group is?” I asked a harried attendant.

“I don’t have any idea,” was the brusque reply.

Have you ever had the sinking feeling that you have blown something critically important in a very big way? It starts with the hair follicles on your head and works its way downward to your toes. Every part of your body jumps in to let you know you aren’t nearly as smart as you imagined you were.

It’s the stomach that serves as the real messenger, however, and mine was rolling like the Atlantic in a hurricane.

“Check the instructions again, Curt,” the voice of reason standing beside me directed. Good idea.

“Well, it says right here we are supposed to be at the Pan Am desk no later than 5 PM.” It was only 4. My stomach calmed down to a respectable jet engine rumble. “Let’s have a bite and check back.” I suggested, working hard to be the man

Five PM came and no one, nothing, nada. It was serious panic time. “Wait here Jo in case anyone comes. I’ll go check the instructions one more time.”

We had stuffed our bags in one of those drop-a-quarter-in-the-slot storage lockers while we ate. I freed my shoulder bag from captivity and reread the instructions. Yes, we were in the right place at the right time. Then there it was, the answer, staring at me in black and white. “You will fly to JFK on August 7th.”

It was the 8th.

Uttering swear words on each step, I slowly climbed back up the stairs.

“I’ve found them Jo Ann.” A look of relief and the beginning of a smile crossed her face.

“Where are they?”

“They’re in Liberia.” Waaaaaaaaaa!

Let me say this about the two of us; we were both stubborn as mules when we thought we were right. This could create problems when we disagreed but the potential for disaster was miniscule in comparison to when we both agreed we were right and we weren’t. Reality didn’t matter and certainly a little date on a piece of paper we had each read a dozen times wasn’t going to deter us.

The 7th was our going away party and that was that, period. While we were kicking up our heels in Auburn, our compatriots were crossing the Atlantic. Now we were stuck in New York City.

“What are we going to do?” Jo asked in a shaky voice. The only thing that came to my mind was a double vodka gimlet

It was probably a good thing United Airlines let us on the airplane in San Francisco without noticing our tickets were one day out of date. Had we called Washington from home, the Peace Corps may have been tempted to say, “Why don’t you just stay there.”

As it turned out, the Peace Corps representative sounded amused when we called the emergency number after our visit to the bar. “Did we have enough money to get through until tomorrow?” Yes, thanks to Jo Ann’s mom.

“OK, call this number in the morning.” We decided to sleep in the airport to save our scant resources. It was a resolution with a short lifespan. I had one extremely unhappy young wife on my hands and my sleeping habits were unwilling to accommodate a deserted airport lounge.

Somewhere around midnight I said, “Look, Jo, I am going to see if a cab driver will help us find a hotel we can afford.”

The first guy in line was a grizzled old character in a taxi of similar vintage. I told him our story. He studied me for a moment and then said, “Go get your wife and I’ll find somewhere for you.

A more cynical observer might note we were lambs waiting to be fleeced but what followed was one of those minor events that speak so loudly for the positive side of human nature. The taxi driver took care of us. He reached across the cab, turned off his meter and then drove to three different hotels. At each one he would get out, go inside and talk to the manager. At the third one he came out and announced he had found our lodging.

“This place isn’t fancy,” he reported, “but it is clean, safe and affordable.” Affordable turned out to be dirt-cheap. To this day I am sure the cab driver finessed a deal for us. Two very exhausted puppies fell into bed and deep sleep.

The Peace Corps representative we talked to the next morning wasn’t nearly as friendly as the one the night before but at least he didn’t tell us we had to go home. A commercial flight to Liberia would be leaving in three days. “Could we hang out in New York? Did they need to send us some money? Could we follow directions?”

A very skinny Curt and the US Pavilion at the World's Fair

Yes we could hang out; no, they didn’t need to send money, and yes we could probably find our way to the proper airline at the correct time on the right day.

Jo and I visited the World’s Fair, checked out the City and considered the three days as an extension of our all too short honeymoon. As the old saying goes, all’s well that ends well.

Next up: Warm coke and cookies for breakfast in Dakar, Senegal

Picking Your Kitty African Style or How Brunhilde the Cat Became Rasputin

(This is my third travel blog writing about the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa and celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps.)

Second year Volunteers in Liberia ran off and played during the January break. Being new kids on the block, my ex-wife and I were expected to stay home and work. One of the escaping couples, Dick and Sandy Robb, left four female kittens in our care.

Our pay was to have the pick of the litter. Whoopee.

I built our temporary cat family a three-story cardboard mansion. It was a maze of rooms, hanging toys, hallways and ramps. The kittens would disappear inside and play for hours. We could hear them banging around as they stalked each other and attacked the hanging toys.

In a creative moment inspired by the evening cocktail hour, we decided to use the house as an intelligence test to determine which kitty we would keep. First we waited until the kittens were appropriately hungry and then brewed up their favorite meal, fish head stew. Here’s the recipe. Take several ripe fish heads and throw them in a pan of boiling water. When their eyes pop out, they’re done.

Next, we encouraged the kittens to sniff their gourmet feast and showed them that the meal would be located just outside the ground-floor door. Now we were ready for the test.

Each kitten would be placed inside the third-story door and given a nudge. I would then close the door and time how long it took the kitten to reach her dinner. Our theory was that the kitten with the quickest time through the maze was the brightest.

Grey Kitten #1 was a pudgy little character that never missed a meal. My money was riding on her. She breezed through the maze in three minutes sharp and set the time to beat. There was a chance that the sound of her munching on fish heads might inspire the other kittens to greater glory, however.

Grey Kitten #2 was one of those ‘whatever it is you want me to do I am going to do the opposite’ type cats. Not surprisingly, she strolled out of the door seven minutes later and ignored the food altogether. (Afterwards, we were to speculate that she was the most intelligent cat and blew the race because she had no intention of living with someone who made her go through a maze for dinner.)

Grey Kitten #3 was the lean and mean version. Scrawny might be a better description. She obviously needed dinner the most and proved her mettle by blazing through the house in two minutes. The contest was all but over.

Kitten # 4 was what pollsters normally classify as ‘other.’ To start with, she was yellow instead of grey. She was also loud. In honor of her operatic qualities, Jo nicknamed her Brunhilde. By the time her turn arrived, she was impatiently scratching the hand that was about to feed her and growling in a demonic way.

I gladly shoved the little monster in the third story door and closed it. We heard a scrabbling on the other side as tiny claws dug into the cardboard floor. Her race down the hall was punctuated by a crash on the other end. Brake problems. Then she was up and running again, but it sounded like toward us. Had the crash disoriented her?

Suddenly the third story door burst open and one highly focused yellow kitty went flying through the air. She made a perfect four-point landing and dashed to the dinner dish. Her time? Ten seconds.

And that is how Brunhilde became our cat. Our decision to keep her led us to turn her over and check out her brunhildehood a little more closely. Turns out she had a couple of furry little protuberances where there shouldn’t have been any. She was a he. In honor of his demonic growl and generally obnoxious behavior, we renamed him Rasputin, after the nefarious Russian monk.

This brings up a related story, think of it as a blog bonus.

James Gibbs, an anthropologist from Stanford, was living in Gbarnga and studying the Kpelle people when we first arrived. One evening he and his wife invited Jo Ann and me over for dinner. We appreciated the invitation. I should also note we were recent college graduates and over awed by academicians. We dressed up in our best clothes and walked the mile to their home.

The Gibbs had an impressive house for upcountry Liberia. They were sophisticated, nice folks who quickly put us at ease. Among the hors d’oeuvres they served was a delightful concoction of mashed avocado, tomatoes and peppers that Jo and I found quite tasteful. We made the mistake of asking what it was.

“Why it’s guacamole of course,” Dr. Gibbs declared. We must have looked blank because he went on, “Surely anyone from California knows what guacamole is.”

Surely we didn’t. I felt like Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl when she learned that pate was mashed chicken liver. After all, what do a couple of country kids from Diamond Springs and Auburn know? (It was 1965 and Mexican food had yet to storm the area.) Yes, we’d graduated from UC Berkeley but dining out to us meant beer and pizza at La Val’s.

To change the subject I called attention to their cat.

“Nice cat,” I noted.

“Oh that’s Suzy,”[1] Mrs. Gibbs gushed. “She’s in love.”

Dr. Gibbs jumped in, obviously glad to leave the subject of guacamole. “The boys are coming by every night to visit. We hear them yowl their affection up on the roof.”

Suzy looked proud of her accomplishments. She strolled over and rubbed up against my legs. I reached down and scratched her head, which served as an invitation to climb into my lap. While arranging herself, she provided me with a tails-eye view. Staring back at me was the anatomy of the most impressive tomcat I’ve ever seen. In comparison to Rasputin, Suzy had the balls of a goat!

I could hardly contain myself. “Um, Suzy isn’t Suzy,” I managed to get out while struggling to maintain a straight face.

“What do you mean Suzy isn’t Suzy?” Dr. Gibbs asked in his best professorial voice. Rather than respond verbally, I turned Suzy around and aimed her tail at Dr. Gibbs. Understanding flitted across his face.

“We never thought to look,” he mumbled lamely. We were even. While the kids from the hills might not know their guacamole from mashed avocados, they did know basic anatomy.

[1] Since we are talking academics here, I will insert a footnote. My memory of the event may be faulty and the cat was named something other than Suzy. It was definitely a female name, however.