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.


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.”


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.

“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.


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.


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.

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 Reluctant Sponsor, A Bear, and Much Wagging of Tail… Blog-a-Book Tuesday

It’s Blog-a-Book Tuesday, again, and I am continuing to blog “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”— one story at a time. In my last post Steve and I began our recruitment efforts for the Sierra Trek, our hundred mile backpack trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sixty one people signed up, a true cast of characters. In this post, we recruit sponsors, figure out what we will feed our army, and preview 80 miles of the trail.

We would start our journey hiking up and over granite mountains.

As the Trekkers rolled in, Steve and I focused our energies on the next task. What were we going to feed the army that we would be leading through the mountains? Breakfast and lunch could be pulled off the shelves in local grocery stores. Dinner was the problem. Freeze dried food was in its early stages of development and somewhat expensive for my budget. 

There was another possibility. Lipton had a lightweight, off-the-shelf dinner, which was inexpensive and sold through grocery stores. The meals came in four flavors and featured tiny amounts of turkey, chicken, beef and ham with gourmet names attached. I bought all four and Jo Ann (my first wife) and I did a taste test. Except for the Ham Cheddarton, they were actually decent. The Cheddarton, while edible, was in serious need of improvement. What the heck, I thought, three out of four isn’t bad.

Steve suggested that he call Lipton’s headquarters back east and see if we could get the food donated. We would offer to ‘test market’ and publicize their food for the growing backpacking market. Lipton bought it. We had our dinners, and Steve had earned his minimum wage for the day.

We also wanted a backpacking store as a sponsor. An outdoor store would provide some much-needed credibility and be a valuable source of advice and recruits. I did a scientific search by looking in the Yellow Pages and picking out the first store I came to, Alpine West. It was only a few blocks away at 10th and R Street so I walked over. A bushy bearded, hippie-like character in his mid-twenties was behind the cash register.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “is the owner or manager in?”

“I am the owner,” was the somewhat terse reply. “What can I do for you?”

I did a quick regrouping, “Hi, my name is Curt Mekemson and I am the Executive Director of the local Lung Association,” I said as I offered my hand. He gave me a ‘what donation are you about to ask for look’ but took my hand and introduced himself as Tom Lovering. I explained what we were going to do.

“That’s insane,” Tom had replied with an assuredness that would have intimidated Attila the Hun. It certainly intimidated me. What do you say when the expert you are seeking advice from tells you flat-out that the idea you are already implementing is crazy?

“Um, it’s been nice chatting with you.” Or, “I’d really appreciate it if you don’t tell anyone.”

I opted for the “Why do you say that?” wanting to know how far out on the limb I had crawled. I quickly learned that the event we were planning was the equivalent of the Bataan Death March. People might do it but they were going to be miserable and say nasty things about the Lung Association and me for the rest of their lives.

After having said all of that, Tom agreed to sponsor and promote the Trek through his store. I left feeling a little confused. Did he want people to say nasty things about Alpine West and him?

Back at Lungland, the clock continued to tick and tock. The Trek was three weeks away and then two. It was time to go out and preview the route. Given Tom’s pessimistic assessment of our adventure, Steve and I felt the preview was all the more critical. We agreed to a long weekend where each of us would hike three days of the route. The final three days were saved for the following weekend just before the Trek. Could we plan things any tighter? There was no room for error.

Steve had never backpacked alone and I had only been out by myself three times. It promised to be an adventure. In addition to reducing the odds that we would lose 61 people in the woods, we also needed to check out potential camps, water availability, and the difficulty of the trail. I wanted to develop a feel for what we would be putting our participants through.

Nervous is the best word to describe my mood as I packed up. Jo Ann was heading off for a clothes-buying spree in San Francisco. I told her to enjoy herself, threw my backpack in the back of my Datsun truck, picked up Steve, and drove to Squaw Valley. We made a brief stop in Auburn to recruit my father-in-law’s Springer Spaniel, Sparky. I felt the trip might be a little rough on my basset hound, Socrates, but wanted some doggy companionship. I left Steve weaseling a free ride up the Squaw Valley tram and headed for Robinson Flat, a camping area on the western side of the Sierras. I left the pickup there for him.

Some experiences burn themselves into your soul. This was one. The beauty and the variety of the wilderness captured me. I was starting at around 7000 feet in the heart of red fir and Jeffrey pine country and dropping 6000 feet into the Sierra Foothills where incense cedars, ponderosa pines and white oaks provided shade.

Red fir trees grow on the upper slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains beneath the alpine zone.

Along the way I would descend into river canyons filled with inviting pools and scramble out to follow hot, dry ridges. Besides Sparky, a coyote, two skunks, several deer, a porcupine, and numerous birds provided entertainment. I also met my first ever bear, a big brown fellow that came ambling out of the brush and increased my heart rate twofold. Even the ever-curious Sparky took one sniff and made a quick retreat behind me, looked out from between my legs, and started barking. Great. The bear growled his displeasure and ambled back into the brush. Slowly.

Being alone enhanced and intensified the experience. The days were exciting but the nights bordered on scary. After the bear, I imagined all types of creatures sneaking up on us as we slept. Sparky was even more nervous. I loaned her my new Pendleton shirt to sleep on. She had chewed it to rags when I woke up in the morning. I didn’t have the heart to scold her. Had I known what she was up to, I might have joined her.

It was the physical challenge that made the deepest impression. I was strong but out of shape. Even had I been better prepared, I wasn’t psychologically ready for the experience of hiking 10-15 mile days with a 55-pound pack on my back. Nor was the territory gentle. I was hiking in and out of 1000 foot plus deep canyons following steep, winding trails that had challenged the 49ers in their endless search for gold. Once I found myself lost on a brush choked mountain and had to fight my way free.

As I approached Forest Hill, temperatures climbed to a scorching 105 degrees. To top it off, I was breaking in a new pair of German-made Lowa boots. All of the backpacking literature of the day emphasized sturdy foot-ware and it didn’t get much sturdier than Lowas. Given that my feet blister at the mere sight of a boot, they were not happy campers. By the third day I had blisters on top of blisters and my feet resembled a hyperactive moleskin factory.

But I made it. I proved to myself I could do it and that the Trek was possible. With the proof came an incredible high. I hiked into Forest Hill singing.

Steve showed up about an hour later in the Datsun. He was beaming and grabbed me in a breath-robbing bear hug while Sparky did much wagging of tail. The three of us did a little dance and Steve and I both tried to talk at once as we told our stories. Steve had seen ‘migrating’ rattlesnakes and lots of bear scat. He peed around his camping area to mark his territory and warn the bears to stay out. They did. The second day a hawk had ‘chased’ him down the trail for miles. I wondered what Steve he been smoking. But now, Steve was on the same natural high I was. We were ready to Trek.

In hiking a hundred miles, we quickly discovered that the trails have a way of going on and on— as this one does across a field of mule ear flowers.


I’ll be featuring photos from our various adventures this year between now and the New Year on my Travel Blog but I will keep Tuesdays for blogging my book. Next Tuesday we discover that Lipton has only sent us Ham Cheddarton, Jo Ann takes a detour to LA, and I take a detour to Canada. All in the week before the Trek.

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.

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.

All’s Well that Ends (grin)… The Sierra Trek Series

Treks have always been about adventure. In addition to the physical and mental challenge, there is a more important element of experiencing nature on a very personal level, both the beauty and the wonder. Imagine, for example, coming on this Aspen that bears have climbed and used as a marking tree to establish their territory.

This is my last post on the first Sierra Trek series. Last week left us in the American River Canyon, waiting while the US Bureau of Reclamation blasted rocks off the hill sides in preparation for building the Auburn Dam. (The discovery of an earthquake fault zone under the dam would lead to its not being built.) Today I will take us on into Auburn, California where the 100 mile backpack trip ended.

As in the previous posts, I have selected photos from other Treks since I don’t have any from the first. There are several other areas in California I would lead Treks besides the Sierras. These photos are from the Trinity Alps. 

Another photo of a bear tree in the Trinity Alps of California. And yes, those are claw marks.

Early the next morning we 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 and along the steep canyon following alternative trails. I let the Trekkers vote and they voted to cross the river. One woman was deathly afraid, however, and broke down in hysterics. She was the same person who had, at first, refused to ride the Squaw Valley tram. We offered to carry all of her gear and even 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.)

This shot of the Trinity Alps provides a great perspective on why the mountain range was given its name. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A view from farther away. These are rugged mountains that provide challenging, beautiful backpacking opportunities.

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, physically or mentally.

The Trinity Alps includes a number of impressive waterfalls.


And another.

Sunday, we hiked into Auburn Fairgrounds as a group with the Trekkers in high spirits, singing the Ham Cheddarton song. 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 and several Board members 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 was the response 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.

One final amusing note: that night as I took my first shower in nine days, I reached around behind me to wash my fanny and it wasn’t there. It had disappeared. Between the trail review work, my trauma with Jo, and the Trek, I had lost 20 pounds in two weeks.

This is Sapphire Lake, one of a series of high alpine lakes in the Trinity Alps.

A reflection shot along a trail climbing up into the mountains.

Peggy caught this luscious scene along a small creek where we refilled our water bottles. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

While this rock caught my attention.

I am the fan of the small as well as the large when out in the woods. This is a shelf fungus.

A dandelion. Have you ever picked one of these and blew on it to watch the seeds go flying off?

And a butterfly on a Leopard Lillie.


The Sierra Trek turned out to be a success. We hadn’t raised a lot of money on our adventure, but special events rarely do the first time. What we had raised in abundance were new volunteers, the life blood of volunteer organizations. These were people who, because of their Trek experience, would develop a deep commitment to our organization.

I had several ideas on how to increase our returns and reduce our risks. In the future, we would set a pledge minimum and charge a registration fee. I would also set an age limit of 18 unless the minor was accompanied by a responsible adult. There would be no more 11-year-olds wandering in the woods by themselves. This wasn’t a negative comment on the Mouseketeers, they had been great, but the nature of the Trek made it much more of an adult kind of event. I would also limit group size to 20, and eventually 15, making the event much more manageable and reducing its environmental impact. And finally, our veterans would become the backbone of the program, providing advice and help in planning, organizing, and leading Treks.

From a personal perspective, my “far-out excuse for escaping to the woods” succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I happily spent the next 25 years of my life leading wilderness adventures. When I worked it right, I could spend most of my summers out in the woods, especially when I supplemented official Lung events with personal outings. Treks also became an important annual event for many of the participants. Eighteen years after I had told Orvis he might be too old to Trek, he was still backpacking. He did his last trip with us when he was 88 years old. Altogether, he had raised the organization well over $100,000. That Trek also happened to be Peggy’s first long distance backpack experience. “How can I complain with Orvis out here?” she had told me with a grin, and hiked up another mountain.

I went on to create bike treks, winter treks, and canoe treks. I also pushed the Trek Program nationwide with the American Lung Association, persuading the organization that the events were valid fundraisers, and becoming the national consultant on Treks. For a while, Treks became one of the top special events for ALA. Charlie had been right that night we had laid our sleeping bags out under the stars at our Last Chance campground and he had declared: “What an experience. I can’t believe I am out here. Someday, people will be doing these Treks all over the nation!”

Having created the Sierra Trek in 1974, I had turned trekking into a national fund-raising  event for the American Lung Association by 1981. This is a photo of me on the cover of the American Lung Association’s national magazine.