Nov 19, 2013

The big stick

It's the middle of the night. Wind buffets my tent. Rain pelts the fly. I zip back the flaps to look out. The moon is peeking through my neighbor's twisting palms. A gust blasts in a spray of rain. I scootch back into my bag. It is dry and warm, but my thoughts are howling like the wind.

I don't know what was I expecting from Dr. Wei-Chi. If you go to a barber, you expect a haircut. If you go to masseuse, you expect a message. So what would you expect if you go to a surgeon?

Dr Wei-Chi is a very cordial and tidy woman with beautiful transparent skin, shiny grey-streaked hair and clinical dark eyes. She taps with self-evident finality on on the display. "This picture shows a stenosis. A root of the sciatic nerve is getting pinched and inflamed."

I stare at the image. I have no idea what's she's seeing. I nod because I now realize that from this point on my fate will be steered by the judgement of this woman who I do not really trust. Maybe it's because she exudes a physician's infallibility. Maybe it's because she is so polite. Maybe it's because I'm older than she is. Back when I had infallible parents, I wasn't so suspicious. I was full of trust and willing surrender. I was theirs to poke, puncture and slice. Being brave meant submitting without complaint or least sign of fear. But now, it's a quandry. I've come to seek her advice. I'm here to fix my leg. I feel the stirrings of anxiety.

"What's that mean?" I ask.

"First, we'll shoot a bit of cortisone right there," she says squinting down the length of her pen which is placed precisely in an undifferentiated grey smear in the center of the image. "If that doesn't work, we get a bit more aggressive and scrape out some bone."

"In my spine?"

"Yes. But we don't want to rush into that. Do we?" she says with a chuckle. "Let's start with the epidural."

I see that she has very white, very straight teeth and crinkles about the eyes. I think about her day and how, every day before work, she must fuss in the mirror with eyes and hair and that she will probably stop at the grocery on the way home and endure her teenagers complaints about her sauteed chicken.

"Do you do that here?"

"No," she says. "This is an outpatient surgery. We use a Fluoroscope to place the needle. We don't want to miss." She stands. "The nurse will help you schedule the procedure."

Lilalee is delighted. "At last you'll be hiking again. Aren't you relieved?"

"Yes," I say. "I am very excited. I can't wait." This is pure fabrication. I have been online and know that Dr. Wei-Chi plans to stick a 4-inch needle through my spinal column. I am extremely uneasy at the prospect. The very thought cause my heart to pound unevenly. There is no point is upsetting Lilalee. "It's very routine. She says I'll be hiking in 6 weeks after the procedure."

Later that afternoon,I begin to think about all the money I spent on camping gear that I may never use. I get this wild hair. "I'm gonna camp in the back yard tonight. Do you mind?"

"Really?" says Lilalee. "They say we're gonna have a storm."

"It's cool. It'll be fun."

Now I'm lying here amongst all this tumult while Lilalee is sound asleep with Max curled up on a corner of the bed. I could just go inside and slide under the covers next to them. Just then a cold gust blows under the fly through the rear netting. A branch of the neighbor's tree crashes a few feet way. Probably the Jacaranda. I pull up my bag around my chin and stare into the darkness of my small shelter. Eventually this storm will blow out, but how much damage will it do? Time will tell.

Nov 11, 2013

Along for the ride

It's the first cold wave of the season. The streets are quiet and slick with drizzle. Most are in their beds, their faces illuminated by TV. The rest are huddled where it is dry.

If this were a normal day, I would be home too. This is the time of night when I sleep best, before the interminable wee hours. But tonight is not a normal. I am descending in a rumbling elevator to the basement for my 11:30 MRI. It seemed odd. Who'd have thought that the MRI schedule ran till midnight? Given the choice of waiting till next year, I signed on. So here I am.

I've read about MRIs on the web. I've heard stories from ex-work buddies. Everyone seems to have a tale. But, this is my first. I am secretly apprehensive. I am secretly claustrophobic.

I am 10 minutes early. The waiting room is bright and deserted. No one is at reception. I poke my head over the counter. No one insight. I thump my coat pocket for my copy of Wenk's John Muir Trail. I'm good. I'm prepared.

I take one of the less-than-cheery orange chairs that line the walls. Across the room, a pretty actress, who is displaying a generous cleavage, weeps as a bare-chested actor exits, stage right, off the flat panel. I am annoyed and weary. Why must TV be everywhere hammering at our senses seducing us away from our own thoughts.

I grab Wenk and crack the book where I left off. Oh yes. We are skirting a large meadow of Kelley's lilies, sneezeweed and swamp onion. Pink flowered shrubs decorate the slope on our right. Just ahead is the 14,000 foot granite wall of the Palisades. The pinnacles are reflected in the cerulean blue water of Lower Palisades Lake. My thoughts drift from the page. I imagine the crisp air and clouds racing above. My pace is good. I am now strong and my pack is now an organic part of me. Up head, there are trail friends. We will camp together and laugh at our hiking adventures as we relish our freezer-bag dinners. Then the temperature drops and we crawl into our warm sleeping bags, tired and happy as we stare out at the transparent night sky.

Just then, the receptionist bursts through the door. She is a large, square-figured woman. She wears a low-cut red cocktail dress, necklace and dangly earrings. I am astonished, but given the late hour and the absence of any other living soul, her get-up is explainable. She takes her seat at the terminal and types aggressively.

She looks in my direction "Mr. Meyer?" I nod. "I can check you in now."

I walk over and hand her my med card. She continues to type. "Am I under dressed?" I ask.

She shoots me a quick disapproving glance and says, "Your co-pay is $15. How will you pay?" I hand over my Visa. She hands me a receipt. "Follow me," she says.

She punches in the door code and we pass into a white-tiled, curving corridor. We follow it for several minutes. We pass a few intersecting corridors before turning into another white-tiled corridor. Then another. And another. At last she walks up to a windowless door that bears a plaque that says "preparation room."

"Here we are," she says as she opens the door with a key that hangs from a wrist band. I follow her in. She opens a cabinet and hands me a snow-flake smock. "Put this on. You can keep your socks." Then she hands me a plastic bag. "Put your clothes and valuables in the bag. Don't leave them. We are not liable for theft. The technician will be here shortly." With that she leaves.

I change into my all-time favorite garment: the open-back exam gown. I keep my socks. I stuff my clothes, my wallet and my watch into the plastic bag and take a seat on the bench to wait. I notice a second, coded door and full-size illustrations of both male and female skeletons. Each illustration has a frontal and side views. I study the differences. The minutes seem to stretch out. I walk around and try the cabinets. They are all locked. I open the chrome lids on the glass jars of tongue depressors and cotton balls. Then I notice an exit diagram is screwed to the door. I study it. I seems to have no relation to the corridors I just walked. "Not surprising," I think and sit down to wait some more.

More time passes. I begin to think that something is wrong. Could they have forgotten me? I pace a bit thinking I should get dressed and look for help. I decide I'm being impatient and dig Wenk out of my plastic bag. But I cannot concentrate so I stuff the book back in the bag. I decide to have a look out into the corridor. I try the door. It is locked.

Just at that moment there's a knock on the 2nd door. A small bearded man enters. He wears an open, light-blue lab coat with a badge that sports his beardless image. "Hello," he says. "My name is Serge, I will be your radiographer today. Sorry for the delay. Please take your things and follow me."

He holds the door for me. I grab my plastic bag and I pin my exam gown tight to my side. He leads me into a brightly lit passage that slopes down. It is more like a tunnel than a corridor. The shiny white walls appear to be hewn from bedrock. The air is odorless.

"This is a strange place." I say

"I know," says Serge. "They are very concerned about shielding the instruments."

"From what?"

"Frankly sir, I don't know. I'm just a technician."

I begin to feel very troubled. Something seems too wierd. I start to feel anxious.

He leads me through an antechamber with X-Rays on the wall into a high-ceilinged, circular room with the MRI imager situated in the middle. He asks me to lie down on a pad that rests on sled-like mechanism that will carry me into the cylindrical chamber that sits inside a torrus.

"Just relax," he says as he reassuringly tucks the sheets around me. "The process takes about 30 minutes. It's important that you do not move or we will have to start over." He hands me ear plugs. "It will be loud. You will feel vibration and you may feel some heat inside. It is not dangerous." Then he places a grip with a button in my hand. "Take this. If you feel you must come out, just press the button. OK? Ready?"

Actually, I am not ready. This is not at all what I expect. It's as if I entered some other reality, a perverse destiny that began when that appointment nurse signed me up. It feels very weird, irrational, wrong. But I know that destiny is neither perverse or irrational. It just is. "Ready," I say.

Serge takes his seat at the controls. He activates the sled. I slide into the chamber. My nose is not even an inch from the cylinder wall. My breath bounces back in my face. There is no room to turn my hands never mind wiggle. I force myself to stay calm. I try to visualize the reflection of the stars in Lower Palisades Lake. I cannot concentrate. I am trapped. If there was a failure, I would not be able to get out on my own. Then the machine starts to vibrate. It is loud. Deafening. The earplugs do not help. I try to imagine the Palisades Peaks. I cannot think. My insides begin to heat up. They get hotter. They begin to burn. I panic. I press the button, but nothing happens. I press again and again. The machine is just getting louder. I am cooking from the inside. I start to shout.

And then I feel a shake and hear...
Sir? Sir? Sir?

Nov 6, 2013

Unbearable tightness of being

They say that Hope is happiness—

... Alas! it is delusion all—

The future cheats us from afar,  Byron, 1816
The words started early in the day. Now I am up on a chair staring into the brittle pages of a dusty book pulled from the back row of a high shelf. I don't hear Lilalee get home or even come into the house.

Well?!" she says in a rising tone of demand as she walks past to the bedroom to ditch her work clothes. From there she shouts, "What did they say?"

But I'm not really listening. This old verse verse has been chasing around in my head: "They say that hope is happiness..." It springs to mind every so often like a persistent hiccup and then dominates thought like a sore point in an old argument. I turn it over and over again never sure if it's bitter or sweet until the next line of confirmed melancholy pops into consciousness. "But genuine love must prize the past."

It's been that way ever ever since a girl I did not appreciate wrote them out for me as we sat on a bench high above Lake Austin at a long forgotten pot party. It's baffling. What is it about these unwelcome lines? And what about the present? Is it just lost between future and past. And then just at the point I think I am free, I half-remember the last line, "Alas it is delusion all," which I know is wrong and is the reason I'm standing on the chair.

"What did they say?!" she shouts. We often shout between rooms. I usually act as if I didn't hear because we are a house divided by rooms and spousal politics. One one side of the divide you become a subject of whim; on the other a domineering cad. It's hard to imagine any time or any place short of tyranny where a man was king of his house which is probably why household tyranny is commonplace elsewhere. But now, with the whole verse before me, the words have knotted me up. Present. Past. Hope. Happiness. Surely this delusion is folderol. Then it starts again: "They say that hope is happiness..."

She appears in the door. "What are you reading?"

"An old poem."

She crosses her arms. "The preqs of the retired. Are going to keep me in suspense?"

I put the book back behind the front books and climb down. "Sorry. I am preoccupied," which is an excuse that's long since lost its currency with Lilalee who just levels a steady, silent, disconcerting glare. I want to ask her to try to boil a cup of water with that glare, but think better of it.

"They've scheduled an MRI."

"About goddam time," she proclaims. Her impatience is understandable. I've been dragging my feet, but I don't much like it. I don't really want to talk about it. "Anything else?" she asks.

"Nothing much. The Doc just said she thinks something is pushing on the sciatic nerve. Depending on what they see, she'll figure out what comes next."


"Physical therapy, or a cortisone shot in my spine, or surgery."

"Back surgery? Isn't that a big deal."

"She did say that surgery was a last resort."

"Would you do that?"

"Maybe. Don't know."

"Maybe you should find a new passion," she says. "Something that won't make your leg go numb. Like dinner. Let's go get some pizza."

And just then I realize I am really starved and the words are no longer in my head.

Oct 29, 2013

Someone else's cornucopia

I am staring at the mountains. The leg is still wonky. I have followed Angel's orders to a T. Slides and glides, bends, planks and stretches. Twice a day. Sometimes more.

Couple nights ago a met an old fellow out for his evening constitution. "How old are you?" he says, "I'm 81." I told him he looked very fit. "Gotta keep moving," he says. "Don't stop."

Last weekend we met friends in Ojai for a country fair. I'm not bananas about county fairs. Lilalee loves them. She is sure to return with some new, prized dust collector. It will displace another half-box of hoarded books—books that once held the promised remedy for some failing. So long as I don't have to watch the Vietnam Vets carry away this bit of my past, it is just as well. We have too much of everything.

Our drive down the Santa Clara River Valley over Sulphur Mountain to Ojai was glorious. We headed directly to the town square where we met our friends for giant pancakes at Bonnie Lu's. As we ate, I kept glancing up at the tawny foothills of Nordhoff Ridge. Lilalee told them I was distracted because my leg was acting up. Everyone was understanding.

In short order we were in a sated, sugar-fat quasi-comma and headed over to the fair. The air was pungent with jasmine. We pass a skinny young fellow with a stringy beard and sitar busking before an empty bowl and then a booth of golden oil and honey bottles that glistened spiritually under the sparkles of healing crystals. The aisles were clotted with clumps of well-heeled tourists and tie-dyed locals who buffeted shoppers as they pressed impatiently for attention against tables overflowing with vividly colored produce while children scampered underfoot. It's a mystery to me why glazed pots, turquoise jewelry, garage sale boutiques, scented candles, aromatics, fungus drinks, eggplant-enough-to-fill-a-Great-Lake and other stuff that panders to our longing natures should inspire a festive mood, but Lilalee and our friends where brimming with pleasure.

We barely turned the first aisle before that wobbly noodle of a leg sent this sky rocket up my spine. Damn disc. After a round of perfunctory concern, I excused myself to a quiet bench in the shade for a session of despair and I resolved to book another session with Angel. Was I ever going to get better?

Yesterday, I was reading hiking blogs. It's a newly acquired distraction; an escape from anxiety- induced neglect of my still-nameless Key to all Mythologies which I sometimes wish I could pack up like a half-box of hoarded books. I no longer read these blogs for advice on blisters, rain pants or what to do if caught on a mountain pass in a lighting storm. And, I am weary of the sordid glories of hypothermia, diarrhea and how they make up the "adventure of a lifetime." I'm searching for bloggers with a literary spark that brings the trail to life. I know a few, but the shameful search for vicarious living is embarrassing.

That's when the phone rang. A voice from the past: my old-old colleague buddy, Milo, who reappears periodically after extended absences, like a cicada. He was in town and wanted to meet for dinner.

We were buddies in school. I felt improved by our friendship, if that's what it was. He had good grades, a fast car, cute girl friends, and sexual exploits. It is only in retrospect that I understood he had the charm and will to grab what he wanted which I now know to be a perfect recipe for material success and an impairment to wisdom. On the bright side I doubt that, despite three marriages and three divorces, Milo ever longed for wisdom or suspected he might be wanting in that way. It was his gift.

I agreed to meet him at the Life Cafe in Pasadena. The Life caters to the fine dining millennial foodie with half-a-zillion dollars of debt from college loans and a hankering for novelty. It's place to spend freely without guilt. Suffice to say I am not a foodie. I am not a millennial. And, I do not have debt—for a reason. But the Life is Milo's kinda place. He believes that fraternizing with a younger set keeps him young.

Don't get me wrong. Milo is clever. He's got style. He reads. He's now rich. He follows politics and has opinions which may be gospel in Texas but make you a pariah on the West Side. It's part of his one-man crusade. I love that about him.

Milo is at the restaurant when I arrive. He waves me over, past a waiting-list line to a primo corner table with a view of the street. He greets me with big, warm, Texas bear hug.

"Hey dude. Whatdy'a think of this table. Crippy, eh? A 50 works just as well here as in Austin. Great to see ya. Have a seat."

"You haven't aged a bit Milo."

"That's my plan. There's only one life, eh?" He waves over the server. "This joint is supposed to have fancy beer and spicy noodles. Let's get some."

I order a chicken creation and lager. He orders a fish and ale.

Without any prompting from me, he begins to talk about himself. "I am doing great. Business has never been this good. I'm rolling in the moolah." At length he explains that his construction company has started manufacturing temporary housing for the oil boom up in Edmonton and North Dakota. "Don't believe what you hear about those North Dakota winters. It's no good for us thin-blooded Texans."

"Ever see your daughter?" I ask. I knew his daughter when she was little. We blew soap suds and played hide-and-seek. I never saw her after the divorce. "How's she doing?"

"Oh you know... the Ex poisoned her against me. It's cool," he says, "she sends me a holiday card. Maybe that's because I send her a fat check. Hah!" It's a laugh tinged with irony. "She's a beauty though. Got her law degree and a rich Dad. I can't wait to meet the dude that catches her."

The whole while we talk, Milo's got his eyes on the passing foot traffic. "Man there's a lot of distractions in Pasadena."

Our meal comes. My portion is small, wrapped in what appears to be detritus from our hopeless lawn, and circled with a deeply saturated purple goop smeared in curlicues around the plate. I eat quickly. He finishes before me.

"So what's with you these days?" he asks. "Still married to what's her nose?"

"Yea, we've settled here. I live just up the by the mountains."

"Mighty pretty," he says, but may not mean the mountains.

"And I've retired."

"No shit Houston. You? What the hell do you do with yourself aside from jerking off?"

"Not much. Read. Write. I've been hiking."

"You? Hiking? You used to trip on your shoe laces." He laughs. "So what sort of hiking? Anything like that girl they made the movie about?"

"You mean Wild?"

"Yea her."

"Well sorta."

"That's insane dude. You shitting me?"

"It's not a sure thing. I've got this weak leg now and some sort of disc problem."

"Well don't you sound like some stupid shit. You gonna hike into the middle of bumfucknowhere with a bum leg? That's the absolutely stupidest thing I've ever heard out of your mouth and I've known you to say some pretty stupid stuff."

"I'm hoping it's gonna heal," I say. And then I tell him about the mountains and the granite, the high lakes and fathomless blue of the sky. I tell him about walking and seeing to the next ridge. I tell him about the night sky and a warm bag on a cold night. But he just stares at me with skeptical impatience.

"Aren't you a bit past the 'experience of a lifetime' phase. And you're gonna do this with a spine injury?!"

"They say I'm going to be OK."

"I'm sure all your inclusive, tree-hugging California buddies think this is a swell idea. Take it from an old friend who knows you only too well: it's not. Grow up dude. Use that silly brain of yours. Do something good for somebody. Enjoy life! But then you never had a gift for that, did you?"

He gives me a big smile, swats me on the shoulder like it's all for fun and then launches into a well-rehearsed screed about how the Democrats have ruined the country and set it on a path to violence and squalor. "Time to switch sides," he says and picks up the tab with an infectious grin. That's how things usually went when Milo blew through town.

As I drive home and reflect on our dinner, I know Milo is a self-absorbed jerk, but we have history. He's foolish but no fool. He was never kind, but he was always a realist. Perhaps it is my failing, but I always take him seriously.

As I drive home I can make out lights of Mount Wilson on the ridge line. It's a clear night, the sky is steady, the earth rotates under the celestial sphere unchanged since the first fire was lit.

Sep 18, 2013

From Idlehour to idle month and maybe more

It seems normal as it happens. The bored receptionist. The mass produced wall hangings. The window that looks out onto the terrarium. The banal, mid-morning news show with captions. The brightly colored chairs with the imprint of a thousand butts. The whispered conversations. The general calm as the others are called, one-by-one, to the inner sanctum. Why worry? It's all routine.

Your name is called. You follow a highly-trained person of non-european lineage in a flowered smock to a bright, little room with clean sheets. You are handed a snow-patterned exam gown and instructed to leave on your underwear. She closes the door and you are alone with your thoughts. The moment of truth is now a few ticks away. You are on automatic. You undress. You slip it on like a straight jacket. Ordinarily, you would never wear a snowflake pattern or any outfit without a backside. That would not be normal here. Hope depends on doing as you are told. The coins are about to be thrown again, but you are perfectly prepared to calmly accept whatever comes next. It is only later, back in the normal-normal, when their meaning can be understood.

"Sit here," says Angel pointing to the exam table with one hand in her lab coat. She's younger, taller and sterner than I recall.

I sit with a futile attempt at modestly and grip the table. I am very conscious of the ridiculous snowflakes and exposed rear. If I was my normal self, I'd try a redemptive wise crack. But my leg is weak, numb and tingly. I am broken again—afraid this time nothing can be done.

She whacks me on the left patellar reflex with a rubber tomahawk. Nothing happens. She whacks again. "mmmm..." she says. She whacks the right patellar reflex and my foot shoots up in an arc. "mmm-hah."

"Not good?" I ask?

"Lie down on your stomach," she says.

I lie down. She presses hard on the piriformis. I flinch. Needles shoot down my leg. "Tender huh? What about this?" she jabs the plantar nerves.

"Pretty numb."

"And this?" prodding along the medial hamstring.


She goes to the her computer and starts typing. She types for several minutes. Her foot taps when she gathers her thoughts. I notice her athletic femininity, pretty black hair and the knot of concentration on her forehead.

"You can sit up now," she says as she continues to type. What is she thinking? Just another old guy wanting a miracle? How many will she see like me today? A dozen a day on average then home to the kids, husband, homework, and TV in bed?

She swivels my way and straightens her lab coat. "Tell me again. How did this happened?"

I have relived this progression dozens times. "I was carrying 24 pounds on a training hike up to the Idlehour campground. It's above Eaton Canyon. You know it?"

"Go on."

"It's about 6 miles each way. It's twenty-four hundred foot up and a thousand-foot down. I got there fine. I was going to rest but the flies were eating me up, so I turned right around climbed out."


"I was tired and my foot started to feel numb. By the time I started the down slope it got floppy. Then the whole leg got tingly. For the last couple miles, I couldn't really put weight on it. I was leaning really hard on my sticks."

"And now?"

"If I stand for too long, it starts all over."

She types another paragraph or two. Then she slaps her thighs and says, "Here's the deal. It's all that pounding on the downhill. Your lats are giving out and something is pushing on the sciatica. Probably some sort of stenosis. We are going to strengthen your core. Ever hear of the plank?"

"You mean like Captain Hook?" She chuckled, but I didn't really mean to be funny.

"Get dressed. We're going to the gym. I'll show you."

In the gym, she hands me a diagram of a male figure propped up on an elbow. "Let's see you do it." I prop up on my elbows. She pushes my butt down and my stomach up. "Think straight as a board." After 10 seconds, I shake with fatigue. "Good. Just like that." She writes instructions and rips the sheet from her institutional pad. "Here. Three planks on the left. Three planks on the right. Three planks of your stomach. Hold each one for a minute. Twice a day."

"And, if that doesn't work?"

"It gets more complicated: MRI, epidural, possible surgery. Don't worry. We'll get that leg fixed." Then she slaps her knee again signalling my time is up. "See you in six weeks." As an after thought she adds, "And no hiking. Stay off your feet. You need time to heal."

"No hiking?" The words made no sense.

"Don't worry," she says reassuringly. "It might take a year, but we'll get you back on the trail. Besides, you're going to be buff."

I pull the door closed with a thud and stare out the windshield. There is complete silence. No hiking. I start driving. I don't call home, I just drive.

As I gain elevation, grains of doubt crystalize into frustrations. Is this how the body is going to dismantle, one cursed part at a time? Is fate that perverse? Those words: 'don't worry.' They seem mendacious and hollow. But, 'no hiking;' that is real enough. No trip across the San Gabriels. No hiking the John Muir Trail. That's easy to believe. I can get all the proof I need by just walking a block or two.

My frustration rises. I start to attack the curves and tail slower traffic like a complete shithead. What have I been thinking? Did I imagine I was going to join some merry band of true-thrus with trail names and a flock of friends? What a dreamy adolescent indulgence! The very thought makes me wince. Then there's the hubris of adventure braggarts and the arrogant materialism of the gear know-it-alls. And that's not to mention the insufferable self-righteousness piety of those who dismiss Strayed because she only hiked a thousand miles. Let them feel the force of a twangy leg and see how grand it all seems.

I turn off on the Observatory road. The road narrows. The curves are tight. I slow up. My thoughts turn to people with truely comprised bodies. I recall that story of the double-amputee vet who climbed El Capitan. Who am I to bitch? Is this how it's going to be? Am I to be defeated so easily? Perhaps this twist of fate is actually a calling. Maybe it's not a setback, maybe it's a mission.

I pull off and park at Eaton Saddle. I hobble a few hundred feet down the fire road. To the left: Mt. Markham and Mt. Lowe. To the right: the massive diorite wall if San Gabriel Peak. The view is transfixing. The air is calming.

Then again, may it's a sign. Perhaps it's time for a whole new plan. Stop behaving like an old fool. Perhaps I should get serious about my still-nameless Key to all Mythologies. But, maybe I should drop that too? Perhaps I should do something for the common good.  Or perhaps I should just head off to someplace with a turquoise sea? Or maybe I'll just go home and start on Angel's new regime. Or maybe I won't.

Sep 12, 2013


The training is paying off. The pack is getting lighter. I say bah-humbug to Ecdelus and his Law of Infirmity. In a mere week of focused effort, I'm beginning to feel a bit like my old self. My old, whole-disc self. I would never admit it to anyone, but Angel's Sadistic Physical Therapy regimen has probably made the difference.

It's been hot. I've been heading out at night. Altadena goes to bed after 9, but I have plenty of company as I clomp along with my backpack on the dark streets.

Drawing by Alicia Papanek
Monday and Wednesday are coyote night. They scamper merrily through the streets in gregarious groups sniffing for a tasty house pet. They couldn't be bothered with me. On Saturday and Sunday, the Raccoons skulk in and out of the hedges looking for a prize-winning yards to dismantle or maybe nice new turf to roll up. But don't dally to take in the action. Raccoons are very private and will hiss at you mean as rattlesnakes. Not so with the bobcats who are on parade every Tuesday. They are sleek and narcissistic and loved to be watched. Then, of course, those libertines, the skunks and opossums are out nearly every night looking for a good time. The opossums prefer recreational stimulants and tend toward paranoia. The skunks go for the laid back ingestibles. They are as unhurried as vacationers on balmy tropical beach. Now Thursday is special. It's the bears night out. Who can blame them. Friday is trash day and the pickings are the finest. Why just an hour ago I saw a mama and her cubs enjoying a sit-down at a 96-gallon trash container over on Pine Crest, and just around the corner on Mendocino, a big 400 pounder was licking a forepaw after an especially rancid repast. It's all very friendly. Share and share alike I say.

Tomorrow's forecast is cloudy. A good day to put more elevation in program. Humping 24-four pounds up to Idlehour Campground seems reasonable. If something gets funny, I can always moderate. I have air in my legs.

Sep 2, 2013

The equipment list

I've pulled my gear together.  No point in wasting more time. Training starts tomorrow.

After several minutes of careful planning, I've assembled the following equipment for my training hikes:

Weight (oz)
10-lb Cat litter bag wrapped in Gorilla tape
Terry towel wrap for Cat litter
Ripstop cord
2 liter Platypus
Terry cloth bath rug #1
2 1-pound ankle weight
2 2.5-pound ankle weight
Terry cloth bath rug #2
Bearvault 450
Osprey Aether (not pictured)
1.5 liter water (not pictured)
Driver’s license

Packing instructions:
The terry-cloth towel (2) is tied around around the Jonny Cat litter bag (1) with the ripstop cord (3) to provide added volume and shock absorption.  The terry-cloth bath rug #1 (5) is rolled up and stuffed firmly into the Aether 70's sleeping bag compartment.  This provides lift for the overall load.  Terry-cloth bath rug #2 (8) is folded in a square pattern and placed at the bottom of the pack's main compartment.  This will elevate the wrapped litter bag and place the weight in a more comfortable carrying position.  The Bearvault (9) is then placed on top of the cat litter.  This is roughly the position the cannister it would have on an actual hike.  The ankle weights (5 & 6) can added to Bearvault to simulate a  food load or to simply increase the overall pack weight and general discomfort. Lastly the Platypus bladder (4) is be filled with water (11) and placed in the Aether 70's bladder sleeve. This provides a waterbed like cushion so that the hard shell of the Bearvault does not dislocate any of the discs that cushion the thoracic vertebra. Lastly, a few essentials like a first aid kit or lunch can be added for survival or simply extra weight.

Starting tomorrow I'll begin stomping around the neighborhood raising suspicion among the neighbors. Nothing says burglar like a old, bald-headed, white guy carrying an oversize pack with cat litter. It is only prudent to plan on a visit from a squad car, which is why the Driver's license (12) is essential.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be marching a 27-pound pack up to Idlehour camp by then end of September and a 34-pound pack up to the Mount Wilson pavilion by mid October. Then it's off to my trip across the San Gabriels.

Aug 28, 2013

The sleep of the inessential

It's 3am. It smells like soot. I crawl out of bed. The tent cabin is cold. I pull on some clothes. That sorry specimen of a screen door squeaks as I go outside to have a look. The air is heavy, acrid, oppressive. Smoke flows through the circle of orange light that illuminates the bathrooms. It's the fire. The wind has shifted.

No one else is awake. I am not really. I wander the paths in the semi-light and then head back to bed. I pull the sheet over head to filter the air. It is dank from our bodies. I can't sleep. It's going to get much worse before it gets better.

The 120 is closing
I must have drifted off into a dreamless state. It's still dark, but I can hear the go-getter coffee crowd. I dress quietly and poke my head out. The smoke has lifted, the brightening sky is clear. There's a note on our tent cabin door. The fire has worsened. They are closing The 120 at noon.

It's all the talk of the two dozen who mill impatiently outside the dining hall. There's a palpable excitement. One man is telling a crowd that the park's resources are no match for this fire. If the winds change again, everything around us will be reduced to ash. A fellow on my left chimes in that we are "loving this place to death" and that we should give it back to the grizzlies and the wolves. A lady on my left whispers, "nut case." In another circle, a fellow is decrying the worrywarts who would bolt at the sight of their own shadow. He plans to stick around and hike to Cathedral Lake this very afternoon. By my informal poll, the consensus is mass exodus.

"I guess we should leave too," says Lilalee. "What's Ann doing?"

We knock on Ann's cabin. They are packing, but everyone is merry. You'd think they were starting a vacation, not ending one. Ann is heading home, but her friends have hatched plan B. A trip to Healdsburg for winery cheer and fine dining. We exchange sincere hugs and go our separate ways.

We turn towards Tioga Pass to take leave of the park. In the rear view, the debris cloud climbs high into a sierra-blue sky. A brown streak tears from its top and spreads to the northeast. Thankfully we are heading south towards good air.

We descend from the high country. The road down is blessed with the red and grey rock on the talus slopes of Mount Dana. I dare only an odd glance because in the smallest increment of a perception we could be over the edge. Meanwhile, the high country quickly slips away. In few odd minutes, we are back on earth breathing the hot, thick air from the valley.

"I have an idea," says Lilalee. "Why don't we go see the Bristlecones?"

It's a great idea. Suddenly, we are back on a trail of adventure. Great ideas have the power to transform.

We turn south on The 395. The Sierra escarpment sweeps into view. It's ramparts guard the heights from here to the horizon. Soon, the Minarets are soaring above Mammoth. Then the pinnacles of the Muir Wilderness. The hikers I saw yesterday are up there now. If I were at the treeline, I'd have that acute consciousness that comes from being among things on a different timescale: in harmony with plutons and moraines, where daily worry matters little.

We book a room in Bishop at at the Vagabond Inn. The office is sterile. The air is stale with air freshener. The room expensive. We head over to Schatz's Bakery for a to-go lunch. Schat's is famous with the RV-bermuda-shorts crowd. They are drawn like zombies to a TV series. It is the most unpleasant parcel of earth for 300 miles. Lilalee stays in the car. Inside is a crush of humanity. I am pressed into the soft flesh of the seemingly nice lady in front of me. Under any normal circumstances she would never let me feel her body heat or smell her shampoo or the dry cleaning residue in her dress. We exchange uncomfortable looks but say nothing. I feel relieved I showered after yesterday's hike.

Sandwiches in hand, we make for Big Pine and turn left at the 168. The narrow road penetrates a surreal canyon whose double-cut walls are decorated with anticlines and discontinuities. We turn onto White Mountain road and begin the long climb. The air grows chill. A thunderstorm gathers. A wind kicks up. The rain comes down in a blinding torrent. Hail clatters off the roof. We pull off the road eat our sandwiches.

Suddenly as it starts, the rain stops. The sky brightens. The sun bounces a blinding glare off the asphalt. We creep along the last 5 miles of winding, shoulderless road trying not to peer down.

It's mid afternoon before we make the Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center. The parking lot is empty and dotted with hail. We climb out of the car. The air is thin and crisp with ozone. Our breath is steamy. The visitor center is closed. The chem-toilettes are locked. The place is ours.

Bristlecone Pine
We fill our bottles and start up the Discovery loop. We are unaccustomed to the altitude. The short climb leaves us panting.

We are surrounded by Bristlecones and huge blocks of granite in a shadeless forest. The slope across the way is also covered with these trees. They are all craggy and wizened. We wind our way to the top. Out to the west, across the Owens Valley, there's an unobstructed view of the dusky-blue Sierras.

A cloud blocks the sun. Lilalee feels cold and walks ahead to the car. I climb on a boulder and try to absorb this place. That adolescent Bristlecone was here when Plato was writing the Republic. The Sierra batholith was once buried, and the rivers flowed east. Then, 5 million years ago, the crust stretched, the valley has dropped and pushed up the Sierran peaks like the Evolution group over yonder which has become swathed in a dark cloud. I imagine some hikers at Darwin Lake. They would be draped in their bags and huddled in their tents. I sense connections, but they are out of reach.

We arrive back in Bishop just as twilight sets in. We unload the car. Lilalee settles into bed with a book. I am still hungry and restless. I nag her to go eat. She sends me on my way.

I decide to eat at Raymond's Deli. It's about a mile south down Main. Bishop is hopping. It's Labor Day. Traffic is loud with RVs and big rigs. Clots of tourists are hovering on the sidewalk waiting for a table. Gatherings of hikers or homeless sit in the grass at City Park. People mill between adjacent smoky bars and a cover band plays Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I am waiting at a light when this freshly showered fellow with a backpack steps next to me. The pack is medium sized; I'd guess 35 pounds. Could be a PCTer who hitched up from Lone Pine. JMTers don't usually show up in Bishop.

"Know a good place to eat?" he asks.

"I'm headed to Raymond's. Want to come along?"

"I'm starved," he says. I just got off the John Muir Trail."

"Really?" I'm interested, but puzzled. Bishop is not your JMT typical stop. "Getting resupplied?"

"Nah." he said. "I've had it. The walk around Edison Lake just about killed me. My knee is shot."

His name is Tim. As we walk to Raymond's he tells me he's from Oregon. He works at the paper mill in Halsey. Weird, but I once applied for a job there. I lacked the right connections. How different things might have been.

We queue up to place our order. The crowd is young, fit and sunburned. We order sandwiches with a very tattooed young woman with a half shaved head. She is extremely efficient. She gives us a number and we take the last table.

"What was it like?"

"I don't know," he says. "Disappointing I guess."

"Really?! Did you hit any rough weather?"

"I did get drenched. Wasn't too bad."

"Wasn't the scenery amazing?"

"Yea. Yea. It was really beautiful." Then Tim clamps his jaw real hard so he doesn't lose it. After a couple of moments, calm returns, but his checks have flushed. "I guess it was was just pretty lonely up there. I thought you met people and made friends. No one was really friendly. It's beautiful though."

What can be said that's not utterly stupid? "It's gonna be OK?" Well it probably won't. At least not for a while. I'm sympathetic. This guy has just busted out of his experience of a lifetime. It's no picnic living with the shame. I just don't want to be part of his tragedy. I suspect he doesn't want me too either. I say nothing.

"Yea, he says with an ironic smile. "It's a bummer."

We sit quietly for a bit longer. Then with renewed spirit he quips, "I won't want to miss this chance for some toilet magic. I'll be back."

Three loud guys in the booth across the aisle catch my ear. They wear baseball hats and plaid shirts. One guys has set up their empties like a ten-pin. "If you ask me," he says, "there are just way too many people out on these trails. Most of them don't have a clue."

"Somebody else was coptered-out just yesterday." says the second guy.

"Second time this week," adds the first.

"Well if weren't for these newbies,' says the third, "we'd be eating out of dumpsters."

"Got that right," chimes in number one.

Number three continues, "What gets me is the big hurry. These dudes are into speed records."

"And gear," says number two. "The other day I heard two guys getting into it about rain pants. You'd think they were talking about Obamacare."

After a lapse number one adds, "Did I tell you this customer wants us to carry a three day supply up to Charlotte Lake? That's a lot of dough for what? 4 pounds?"

"I guess it's their right." says number three on a wistful note.

Number two points a rejoining finger at his friends and proclaims, "What I know is that with all those people up there, you can't hardly get away any more."

"I know," says number one. "One of these days the park service has to do something."

"Yea, but they won't," says number three.

Tim returns just as our number is called. The sandwiches are huge and delicious. I eat every morsel. So does Tim.

We head back up Main Street. Tim is stealth camping at Walton Park. We part ways at Line Street. He asks for my email, I'd rather not but I didn't have the heart to say no.

I return on the back streets to the Vagabond. The stars are close; the moon won't rise for five hours. The houses are modest and built close on small lots as if to huddle together against the elements. Dogs bark at me from inside the houses. A balmy breeze sweeps in from Long Valley. The trees stir. I know now it is time to get off the sidelines. Time for that shake out hike across the San Gabriels. The end of October should be enough time.

"How was dinner?" asks Lilalee

"Good. I met another JMT hiker."

"I guess you'll be one of them before too long."

"I guess." I say, but I'm only partly there. I'm already thinking about what I am going to carry.

Aug 26, 2013

Last leg

Trail Report:
Aug 26, '13
Yosemite NP
Ireland Lake
(elevation  ± 4,000 ft)
Today’s miles:
Planned Trip:

We are waiting for breakfast. On my right is a widow from Virginia. Her deceased husband designed the machine that cranks out a million Lipton Tea Bags a day. Something I'd never know except I had too much coffee and ordered tea. She has papery skin, bony hands and silver hair. Her sister sits next to her. The sister is robust, square shouldered, and ruddy complected. She introduces herself with a velvety southern drawl.

On my left is an intense 13-year-old who is infatuated with the Mars Rovers. He has just learned I worked at Solar System Labs.

"So how big is it?" he wants to know.

I hold my hand as high as the seats of our chairs. "The wheels are that big." I raise my hand a foot over the table, "The body is that high," I stretch out my arms, "and as long as our table."

"Cool!" says the boy.

His mom listening in. She looks at me and nods expectantly. His dad and sister are engrossed in their camera as they relive yesterday's hike. Lilalee sits across the table with Ann and the rest of our group. They are in a lively exchange about some tidbit of English history related to Dowton Abbey. I'm not usually a big fan of Dowton Abbey, but right now it's sounding mighty interesting.

That's how it is at Tuolumne. Family dinning. If you want breakfast (or dinner for that matter) here's how it works: First you sign in with a very business-like hostess who, despite her youth, has mastered the craft of deflecting demands from even the most insistent Lodge guest. While you wait, you mill about a crowded lobby, smiling agreeably. The time passes slowly in polite talk which mostly concerns the weather and hiking the same dozen nearby hikes. Eventually your party is called and you are escorted to your table. There you will find the other guests that fate has chosen to fill out your table's quota. It's a contrived-but-cordial arrangement since you will probably never lay eyes on these people again. Maybe they should call it eat-with-a-stranger dining.

In the past we have met some interesting people. Not this morning.

Our friend Ann catches a snippet of my exchange with the boy. Somehow she retains an honest enthusiasm for the work that NASA does and loves inspiring kids. I fail on both counts. She holds up a penny and says, "There's a rare penny on the Rover. They use it to set up the cameras."

"Why?" asks the boy.

"Because that's what geologists do." She should know. She worked with the scientists during her stint at Space Systems. I was a mere software manager.

"Why?" asks the boy.

I experience an intense desire to be sitting at another table.

"Because," answers Ann, "that way they can tell how big the rocks are." She says this as if she has just let him in on one of the universe's great mysteries.

That gets him thinking. At least I think he's thinking; he's quiet.

"Don't chew your nails," reprimands his mom pulling his hand away from his mouth. "He wants to be an astronaut," she explains. "He's good in math."

Calling them nails is kind. They hardly qualify as quicks. His fingers look like something that needs a prosthetic. This kid wouldn't have a fig of a chance of getting past the shrinks. I was going to recommend they feed him a strict regimen of valium to improve his chances, but figured they get the wrong impression.

The food arrives. We dish out eggs, bacon and potatoes. I am chewing my first morsel of bacon when the boy's family starts reciting grace. As if it was prearranged, everyone else puts down their utensils and looks down in reverence. I resent the imposition, but try to chew my bacon quietly to avoid any appearance of disrespect.

"We always came every year." interjects the widow after the prayer. It is as if we had been in the middle a conversation. "It was our tradition. Now it's just me and Nell," she says referring to her sister. "The kids are grown."

"What do they do?"

While the widow is drones on about her kids in the lovely lilt of the old Dominion, it dawns on me that Yosemite is one of the most traditional places on earth. People come here year after year. They do the same things year after year. The eat the same food year after year. They wear the same thing year after year. Where else is the Montana-peaked campaign hat still the very height of fashion? It's like the effort to preserve the wilderness has migrated to the human culture that inhabits it.

After breakfast, we make lunches with the groceries we picked up in Oakhurst. Ann and and her friends decide to hike down the Tuolumne on the fisherman's trail. We're headed for Lyell Canyon. Lilalee will hike part of the way, then I'll head out for Ireland Lake.

It's mid morning before we get out. The first leg is wide, dusty and busy. We pass a slow-moving, middle-aged laboring under big packs. They are headed up Rafferty Creek to Voglesang. I give the a 50-50 chance of succeeding. We are passed by a fast moving solo female with a pink daypack. We pass a mom shepherding two kids who are draped in big towels and kicking up dust with flip flops.

We cross the bridges at the Dana Fork. Three sets of parents sun on the rocks while the kids splash in the cold water. A group of backpackers are gathered nearby. They have just finished the High Sierra Camp Loop and are waiting for the rest of their party. They are smelly, tired and laughing.

We merge onto the JMT proper and a couple of vigorous millennials blast past us at a rate that could get them to Thousand Island Lake before dark. No long after, we stand aside for a Vogelsang-bound pack train which stirs up a generous portion of Yosemite trail dust. Then we fall in step with two muscular guys, seemingly father and son, with big-'ol, external-frame packs and fishing gear.

"We're ya'll heading?" asks the older guy.

"Just up Lyell Fork for lunch," I say.

"You?" asks Lilalee.

"On up to MacClure Lake. Hope to catch and eat some Brook Trout."

"And we're gonna grab Mount Maclure. He just don't know it yet." adds the younger man with an earnest nod.

"It may not look like it, but I'm a lot heavier than that pack," warns the older man. "I'm gonna be a lot for you to carry." With that, the older man gives the younger man a jolly bump and scampers up the trail. The younger man chases ahead bidding his ados.

"Looks like their gonna enjoy themselves," she says.

Not long after the Rafferty Creek Junction, Lilalee stops to re-tie her shoe. "So is this the trail you would hike?"

"Yea. But for a long way."

She takes my hand and gives me a close examining look. "I think I'm starting to understand."

The next stretch of the trail undulates through open forest and small, sun-lit meadows. We stop to watch a group of Bushtits flitter through the buckeyes. The trail splits into several deeply-rutted, sandy tracks as it bends south where the canyon opens up. The Lyell Fork comes into view weaving gracefully down the canyon through limpid ponds and across broad outcrops of the granite pluton.

Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River
We're feeling hungry. Must be the elevation. We find a scenic, shady spot against a large boulder with a view of large pool across the canyon from Mammoth Peak. I layout a ground sheet. Lilalee breaks out the lunches. I eat quickly and lay back to watch the sky. Lilalee pulls out her pad and starts sketching. "It so pretty," she says. "Why don't you take some pictures?"

I head over to the river and walk upstream about 50 yards. A couple of backpackers are filtering water into their hydration bladders. They look like people with jobs. He's a bit paunchy and bald. She's long-legged, muscular and wears her black hair in a neat ponytail. They have the latest light-weight gear: ULA packs. Cork-handled sticks. Oakley sunglasses. He returns my wave with warm smile.

"Where ya'll headed?"

"Mount Whitney," he says.

"The JMT?"

"It's our second time," she says. "It's amazing."

"Great gear. How much you're carrying?"

"Base weight of about 18. Could be lighter."

"She's the real thru-hiker," he says. "Leaves me in the dust."

"Speaking of which," she says pulling on her pack. "We want to make Lyell Forks."

I hardly know these people, but I can't help but wish they'd been at breakfast. "By the way, do you have trail names?"

"She's Ms Peabody; I'm Sherman. That what I get for marrying a scientist."

"You guys keep a blog?"

"Nah." She says. "Not this time. I did when I hiked the PCT."

A 'true-thru' I think. We say farewells and they traipse back to the trail resume their march south. I imagine I might soon be down the same track. I resolve to try to find her blog.

Lilalee's sketch of the Lyell Fork
I head back to Lilalee. She's busy with her sketch.

"Just met a couple of JMTers."

"Really? she says staying focused on the drawing. "You missed 3 groups of backpackers. There's a lot of people on the trail."

"I'm gonna head on up to Ireland Lake. You'll be OK?"

"Don't worry. Have fun." She says and looks up with a squint. "Be safe and give me a kiss."

I promise I'd be back for dinner, hoist my day pack and start down the tail.

The day was getting along. I have a round trip of 15 miles and a couple thousand feet to cover. Dusk is in 6 hours, but the 9-mile return is downhill and flat. Doable if I keep a good pace.

For the first time all day, I have the trail to myself. The day is warm. There's a gentle breeze off the River. The view up toward Donahue pass pulls me along. I salute two groups of backpackers taking a breather at the Ireland Lake Junction/JMT junction and start up hill. It's an easy ascent. The trail switchbacks up a comfortable grade through open forests. I pass a meadow. A pair ruminating white tail deer watch me pass with hardly a care.

It takes longer than I expected to make the 5 miles to the Vogelsang Pass Junction. The lake is still a mile and I'm only 15 minutes from my turnaround time. I hump it about half-way down the Ireland Lake cut-off and my conscious gets the better of me. I promised to get back for dinner. If I'm too late, they'll worry.

Donahue Pass in the distance
Reluctantly, I head back. The trail feels steeper on the way down. I make good time, but I'm tiring. All those months off the trail is taking its toll.

I take a 5 minutes pause to gobble down a Hammer Bar. A friendly father-daughter pair pass. They are doing the JMT for the second time. I watch them head off for points south. I head north. One day I'll be hiking in that direction.

About 4 miles out, I become fatigued. For the first time in weeks, I my left foot feels wonky. No time to dally. I lean harder on my sticks to keep pace. I can stand anything for 4 miles. They could be waiting around ready to eat worrying about me. I'm pretty sure I can make it just before dark.

The last stretch from the Rafferty Creek Junction is a slog. The light is fading quickly. The mountain air is quickly cooling. I press on.

I pull up to the tent cabin just as dusk fades. To my relief, I hear laughter. It's a merry scene inside. The wine uncorked, snacks spread, candles lit.

"We were starting to worry," says Ann cheerily.

"Worried that we would get hungry." adds Lilalee to everyone's delight.

They sent me off to get cleaned up. The great thing about the Lodge is the shower. It's cramped. It's communal. It's rife with disease. But it's HOT! Nothing like it. When I'm done, we all pile into my car and drive to Tioga Lodge. The food is delicious! Nothing like the Tuolumne Lodge jailhouse faire.

On the way back to the Lodge Lilalee leans over and says, "I see what you mean about the hike. I don't know what I was worried about. I'm completely behind your decision."

"Want to go?"

"Me? Hell no. You know better. My pack carrying days are over. I'm no mule."

The coast is clear. Nothing holds me back but my own misgivings. Pride alone will take care of that. There's a lot to do. And, I need to get more strength in my left leg.

Aug 25, 2013

A morning coffee

Too much coincidence ruins a story. If only the writer would have had a better imagination or at least a deeper understanding of the human character. On the other hand, coincidence in life is a source of amazement. A sign from above. A signal that something mundane has significance.

I just had this brief encounter. It's got me thinking.

I usually get up too early. This morning I woke especially early. It was a crummy sleep; I couldn't really catch my breath. I figured I get up and move around. I grabbed my gloves and the new cheerleader-blue coat. It debuted at dinner last night. Lilalee lead a heavy razzing to the delight of Ann and her most interesting friends. It was all in the spirit of fun, but I probably had the least fun. I'll say this: it's warm.

I tried to slip out the tent cabin quietly, but that cursed squeaking screen door probably woke everyone this side of Tioga Pass. No one else was about. The sky above was still bright; bright all the way down to the 4th magnitude. You could make out Andromeda; even with my bad eyes. It was cold. I was steaming breath, tearing up, dripping snot. I needed to move around. I pounded my hands to generate some heat. I needed coffee.

The lodge doesn't put out their coffee till 6. Slackers! The nearest Denny's is 100 miles away in Bishop. The wilderness! I had well over an hour to kill. I decided to walk over to the Tuolumne Meadows Store in the vain hope they were open.

I took the back route via the bridge that crosses the Dana Fork. I paused to gaze on the reflected stars that coursed down the creek with the current. I turned west on the JMT and slogged towards the store. The trail here is wide, worn and sandy. Sandy as a beach. Soon I passed out of the trees and the full dome of the sky was above: Gem-like Pleiades, tawny Saturn, red-beaming Betelgeuse. This is how I imagined it would be on the heights south of Donahue Pass.

The walk was warming, but the store was closed. Doesn't open till 8. Sunrise was still an hour away; coffee 45 minutes. I decided to detour through the Tuolumne Campground. I passed gigantic RVs and 8-sleeper trailers the size of rocket boosters. These people may be campers, but they never really need to go outside. I crossed the amphitheater and circled the perimeter of the backpacker's camp. There was some activity there. No doubt there was coffee all around me, but it might as well have been on Mars.

Time to head back. I'd had enough of marching in the sand. I walked The 120 shoulder over the River toward the Wilderness Center. Aside from a few speeding delivery trucks, there was no traffic. A lone insomniac duck was quacking somewhere out of sight. A buck in the meadow watched me at a distance.

When I arrived at the dining hall, there was still 10 minutes till coffee. Other guests, almost all men, are huddled expectantly by the door. A guy wearing pretty much the same clothes I am wearing catches my eye. He's got the pants with the zip off legs, the wool cap, the cross-training jersey and the down coat. We're all hikers here.

"Member of the earlier risers club?" he says.

"Card carrying. Came with my AARP membership." I say.

"Along with the right-of-passage?" he says.

Proctology jokes are standard fare among guys who are old enough to have grown kids. In no time we'd rehearsed the 'where you froms' and 'what you dos' which nicely killed the minutes left till the dining room was opened. He was from Napa-someplace. He sells doors and windows. Doesn't plan to retire. Ever! He knows his wines and his coffees. He thinks this coffee is shit. He says it used to be better. This is his third visit.

Then the doors open. Two dozen of us file in as orderly as you please. Coffee at last. I queue up behind the guy.

"Have you been to Glen Aulin?" he says. "You must see the Falls. Have you been to Elizabeth Lake. You must see Elizabeth Lake. What about Glacier Lake and Gaylor Peak. That you must see." All the while I'm thinking he's more interested in sharing his expertise with the other guys in line who are also dressed like me.

We get our coffees and he suggests I join him at one of the tables with checkered table clothes.

"How long are you here?" he asks.

"Just 3 nights."

"Too bad. Great crowd here."

"Interesting people," I say.

"Well not everyone."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"Just yesterday," he says, "I was talking to this younger guy. Probably in his 40s. He tells me he's hiking this John Muir thing. You know what that is?"


"Well, it's 500 miles or something. He's says he's going to hike that in a week."

"Pretty amazing," I say. No point in messing with the facts.

"Well I don't get it," he says. "I would never, ever, in a million years want to do that. Who would? It's insane. What's this guy think he's gonna prove to himself?"

There it was again, out of the blue, like a punch in 6th Chakra.

We talked a bit more, but I recall none of it. Then the sky started to brighten, and I came back to jot these notes.

Lilalee will be up soon. I don't think I'm going to bring it up.