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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sad Tale… The Sierra Trek

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

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

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

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

My world stopped. My heart broke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Posts:

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

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

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.

NEXT POSTS:

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.)

NEXT POSTS

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.

It Takes a Worried Man… The First Sierra Trek: Part 3

Water became a major problem on our first two days of the Sierra Trek. It was one of the reasons I decided to hike down the Sierras instead of across them on all future treks. Today I am featuring waterfalls.

Water became a major problem on our first two days of the Sierra Trek. It was one of the reasons I decided to hike down the Sierras instead of across them on all future treks. Today I am featuring a few waterfalls you find along the range. All of these are along the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

When I last wrote about the first Sierra Trek, the morning of the event had arrived. I was a worried man. I found myself singing Woodie Guthrie’s fateful words as I drove up into the mountains:

“It takes a worried man to sing a worried song/I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long/I went across the river and I laid down to sleep/When I woke up, I had shackles on my feet.”

Note: As I’ve mentioned before, the photos in this blog are from other Treks. I didn’t carry a camera on the first year. 

 

I met my support crew at a small restaurant just outside of Squaw Valley at 7:00 AM. Steve had recruited two friends to help out. One was Steve Locke, whose family owned large sections of Delta farm land and had a town named after them. The other was Bob with no last name, strong quiet Bob who was an excellent man to have along in an emergency, who loaned us valuable equipment such as walkie-talkies and a jeep, and who, I learned years later when he was in prison, made his living flying pot out of South America. Steve Crowle was to be my assistant leader, Steve Locke was going to drive a back-up jeep, and Bob was to be there just in case— in case of what I wasn’t sure.

We drove the last three miles into Squaw Valley to meet our fate. The Trekkers were arriving in droves and milling around like lost sheep. There was fat Charlie, skinny Orvis, beautiful Lisa, and 57 other people ready to follow us across the mountains. I felt a little like Moses must have felt in leading folks off into the wilderness, except I didn’t have his guidance system. I also wondered how Moses might have fared feeding the Israelites Ham Cheddarton instead of manna. We might have a different religion today.

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

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

All too soon we were on our way, crammed like so many cattle onto the Squaw Valley trams dangling high above the ground as we bounced our way to the top. One of our Trekkers with a fear of heights had wanted to walk. She hid herself in the crowd and refused to look out, frightened that we were going to go careening down the cliffs. Her instincts were good. A few years later, the world watched as a rescue operation pulled people off of one of the very same trams as it dangled 100 feet off of the ground. We made it without any problems.

They started when we got off of the tram.

Steve’s job for the first three days was leading since we were going over the route he 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 that they let someone know if they had to leave the trail to ‘serve nature,’ as my students in Africa had 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 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 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, cheerfully took care of the problem. I loaned her some sun tan lotion and insisted 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 at 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 10 minutes and 200 yards, were taking their first 20-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 and hiked another, we only had four 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 ridge trail crossed a small, glacier-caused hanging valley perched several hundred feet above the now creek size American River. A spring was running into the valley with ‘ample’ water for our Trekkers.

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.”

Ah that I would have come across a small stream. Even this would have provided enough water for our Trekkers.

Ah that I would have come across a small stream. Even this would have easily provided enough water for our Trekkers.

I am not sure this would have worked but many times I've made do with less when hiking alone.

I am not sure this would have worked but many times I’ve made do with less when hiking alone.

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.

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. Tune in next Wednesday when I am accused of running a pot smoking orgy in the mountains— not true.

Here are a few more tantalizing waterfalls. BTW, I took most of these when I did a 360 mile backpack trip down the Sierras to celebrate my 60th birthday.

Tuolumne River Falls in Yosemite just outside of Tuolumne Meadows.

Tuolumne River Falls in Yosemite just outside of Tuolumne Meadows.

I enjoyed this cascading falls...

I enjoyed this cascading falls…

This split falls...

This split falls…

This narrow falls...

This narrow falls…

And this humdinger filled with snow melt.

And this humdinger filled with snow melt.

Friday and Saturday’s posts: I am excited. I have my ticket to Burning Man! So I spent my past week using an old, limping laptop to peruse my thousands of photos I have taken at the event since 2004, eliminate a bunch, and divide the rest up into categories. I actually got my number of pictures down to around 4,000. (grin) Don’t worry, I am not going to throw them all at you. But I will share select photos. On Friday and Saturday I will kick off my Burning Man posts with some of the wonderful— and weirdly wonderful, mutant vehicles that prowl the Playa and Black Rock City. I’ll move on from there to other categories such as sculpture, tribes, temples, the Man, etc.. This is a series you won’t want to miss!