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.

Aug 24, 2013

The prevailing wind

Lambert Dome
I might get up early, but we never get an early start. Not with Lilalee. I don't mind. It's vacation. I've got Lambert Dome on the brain. Besides, the wind has shifted. The fire has reversed. The route is clear. We have all day to drive 4 leisurely hours.

We piddle around in Oakhurst for a couple of hours. We get gas. We get a sack lunch. We stop at an art gallery where she buys some lovely gimchee to show all our friends.

When we reach the Park's south entry, there's a 10-minute line of cars. We're getting off easy for Yosemite at the end of summer. Must be the fire.

I flash my Senior Pass. A young woman with a big smile, broad rimmed hat and a brass badge hands us a copy of the "Daily Yosemite," with its up-to-date listing of campfire talks. She warns us that 120 west of Crane Flat is closed and waves us on. She seemed a happy sort. I'm sorta happy myself. It's Yosemite.

Tunnel View
The road winds north along a west facing ridge above and parallel to the south fork of the South Merced. When the River bends west, the road continues north through a series of hairpin turns, past the cut-off to Badger Pass and down the tunnel to the valley floor, but not before opening up that holy-shit view of Yosemite that no camera can capture. From there we weave through the erratic valley traffic and follow the loop around to The Big Oak Cut-off and then up to Crane Flat.

For the first time, we smell the fire. It smells like the Station Fire which rampaged through the mountains above our house. The smell is misleading. At first it seems reassuring like a crackling fire on a winter's night. The true evil is abstract at a distance. Then it approaches. Choking murk pervades the air. Ash rain blankets everything in an acrid grey. The night sky pulses with the lurid oranges and whites that radiate from the smoke as it climbs into the dark. It was transfixing spectacle that we prayed would stay away.

We pass few cars as we climb into the high country. Then, about a mile from the White-Wolfe Cutoff, we see a fire truck and a dozen cars pulled to the shoulder. A crowd has gathered; some are pointing off to the north. We pull over.

In direction of Hetch-Hetchy, may be four miles distant, we see flames licking over a ridge. The smoke churns away to the northeast. A SuperScooper approaches from the west, briefly swoops below the ridge and reappears in a roaring climb. A white steam emerges. A chopper races over our heads. A minute later it drops red fire retardant on the active flame. Those gutsy hotshots must be out there, somewhere, saving buildings but losing forest. As we leave, I mull over the mismatch. We influence, but we can't control.

We decide to drive to the Yosemite Creek Campground for lunch. The route takes us over the old road, The Great Tioga Wagon Road. We bounce hard along the deep ruts. Our heads bobble and insides slosh. Any evidence of humanity or road maintenance seems lost to history. The forest is ancient, dense and directionless. We creep over a narrow section along a steep drop and Lilalee suggests we've gone far enough. We grab our sack lunches and perch side-by-side on a nearby log.

"This is lovely," she says. "Easy too."

"Hmmm." I say, but really thinking the sandwich is quite tasty. I want to make out the lay of the land despite the trees. I figure the Campground must have been just ahead. Five minutes at most.

"Can it get nicer than this?" she says. "We didn't even have to march off into the wilderness."

A little alarm connected to my 6th-Lilalee sense goes off. Reflexively I begin to collect scattered thoughts. "It's different. It's a whole experience."

"You mean a challenge?"

"I guess. Sure it's a challenge."

"Then you're trying to proving something?"

"I don't think so."

"Can't you have a challenge without marching off into the wilderness by yourself? Isn't that a bit risky?"

"It's not really that risky. Is there a point?"

Lilalee put down her sandwich, slides off the log and stands before me with crossed arms. "Are you in some kind of existential crisis? Tell me the truth."

"Come on. A lot of people want to do this. They just want to experience life. Is there something wrong with that?"

"I'm not talking about a lot of people."

I'm gripped by this little knot of defiance. I just want to eat my sandwich and listen to the trees. Of course, my little mood resistance is utterly transparent to Lilalee.

"Please, put your sandwich down. This will just take a minute," she says. "You're no kid. You had a good career. Is this how you want to spend your days? Hiking to prove yourself?

"It's not like that. It's just you out there in the mountains. It's raw. You have to confront things."

"Like what?"

"The elements. Fears. Mental toughness. We'll need for plenty of that won't we?"

"Don't be morbid," she says knowing she will not get satisfaction. At least not today. "I only wanted to say you don't have to be Shackleton."

Out of nowhere there's an urgent honking. A light-green pickup with flashing yellow lights comes down the slope. An armed park ranger hops from the cab. He is all business. "You folks must leave. We're evacuating the area. Are you camped?"

"Just having lunch." I could have added, 'A tense one.'

"Good. Please leave as soon as you finish." With that he climbs back in the cab and drives off in the direction of the campground.

"Then I guess we should eat up." says Lilalee with a mock seriousness in order to cheer things up—which I appreciate.

We finish our sandwiches. Our little tiff weighs on me; there's some truth. I know what she's really thinking. This thru-hiking thing is self-involved. It's been gnawing at me like that silly, reckless, profound thru-hiker's creed, "Death to all fear mongers." It's a license for Willfulness granted by the authority of Defiance. Thing is; I seem to have obtained one. That was fine once. Time counts more now. Does an adventure or experience really matter more than a gnat's ass? Maybe.

We are soon back on the highway. The panoramas of Yosemite Granite unfolds. We pass Olmstead point. Our spirits lift. We spot the trail heads we once hiked. "Look. Porcupine Creek. Remember the hail?" We skirt Poly Dome and The Meadows opens up. Lambert Dome, loyal as ever, stands off to the east. We turn at the Wilderness Center and park in the Lodge lot. At the desk we learn that Ann has arranged a two-bed tentcabin for us. Luxury! We can snore without restraint. Ann is a saint.

We haul our gear, enough for a world tour, to our tent, and go looking for Ann and her friends. They've left a note for us. They are hiking Gaylor Lake and want to meet us for dinner.

I have time to leg it over to Dog Lake. Just the thing to get out the kinks. Lilalee stays behind with her poetry.

Dog Lake
The afternoon is fading. The woods behind Lambert Dome are open. It's a small climb over a well-trod trail. There are no other hikers today. I top the last rise. The lake is rippled by a slight breeze and is as blue as the sky. Mt. Conness and Ragged Peak stand in the distance. I find a grassy spot in dappled shade. A doe nibbles a spice bush not 20 feet away. I remember the Picky Bar in my pocket and chew slowly as the shadows spread across the water. There's no explaining this.

I return from the lake on the west fork which skirts the meadow and under Lambert Dome. A free climber is spidering up the Dome's north wall under his partner's watchful eye. The climber points northwest. The fire has intensified. The smoke is climbing and drifting far to the north. It must be terrifying if you're a hotshot. I dally a bit more to watch the climber. He is moves with the grace of a dancer. He is fearless.

I hear Ann and her friends. We're to eat at the Mobile Station. Good by me. Tomorrow we hike Lyell Canyon. After lunch, I'll hope to shoot for Ireland Lake. It all depends on the prevailing wind.

Aug 23, 2013

Smoke on the horizon

Max seems to know his fate
As I turn the lock, Max stares back with vexed despair. Is it an awful premonition? Does he know that he destined for an unhappy week of abject solitude in a dark, empty house? I worry for his well being. I worry about the raft of possible calamities as our house shrinks in the rear view like an abandoned past.

Soon we are on The 210 heading west. The day will be hot, the air is clear, the sky bright. The slopes of the San Gabriels stand out crisp and inviting. We veer north up The 5 under the soaring ramps of The 14 and past the twisting space grids of Magic Mountain. But it's only as we climb the eastern pass over the San Emigdios, that I feel the first hint of freedom. We are going to Yosemite.

Our plan is acclimate a day in Oakhurst and then drive up, across the Valley, to Tuolumne Lodge. We often stop in Oakhurst for gas, groceries and our last reasonably-priced meal. It's a ritual of sorts. Tonight we have reservations at the Hounds Tooth Inn. It's Lilalee's go to place in Oakhurst. It's a bit too floral for my taste, but it makes her happy. I just hope we got one of the affordable rooms.

The drive up the 99 is a dull, hot slog. The road attended by the blackened skeletons of once-lush oleanders, victims of the glassy-winged sharpshooter. The traffic is quarrelsome, the land monotonous. The mountains are out there somewhere in the haze.

We stop in Bakersfield for a buffet at Hodel's. That's what we did on vacations with the Swonks. The kids loved the steamers loaded with mac-and-cheese, mashed potatoes and fried chicken. Best of all was the soft-ice cream machine. Without the kids, the place is bland, institutional and depressing like a feeding trough for the old or unfit. We leave resolving for the umpteenth time never to go again.

The stretch to the Yosemite cutoff is a time warp. The Botts dots mark the seconds, but without any particular memory. Finally we make the Fresno by-pass and steal glances of the unlikely cityscape. Then the high bridge over the dusty bed of the once grand San Joaquin River. My thoughts wander over the foreboding changes of a 50-year-drought until Lilalee points out the Steel Saguaro that marks the end of the valley tedium. The mountains are not yet visible, but the rolling terrain and basalt outcrops presage the heights ahead.

The Steel Saguaro
It's late afternoon when we top the last ridge above Oakhurst. A large, orange-white cloud looms to the north in an otherwise cloudless sky. It's the Rim Fire. According to the news, it is traveling east towards the Park.

We step out into the gravel lot at the Hounds Tooth. It's hot and breezy. Fire weather. We stretch our backs and crunch across to the office. The owner, a silver-haired man with tan arms and stained hands, greets us. "Good trip?"

"Not bad. We saw the plume."

"Crews have been driving past all day. They say 120 is closed west of Crane Flat." He hands me the key. "They say it might get in the park this time. You're upstairs to the right."

As we ascend the stairs, Lilalee whispers, "Don't say a word. I don't want to hear it. We're going to have a great time." But, I know tomorrow we need to drive through Crane Flat.

The room is cool and cozy. Shadows play on the lace curtains. Lilalee settles on the bed with her favorite poetess du jour. A Polish Lady with a unpronounceable name. I slump in a Queen Anne's chair with a history of the British Navy. It's rich with anecdotes about shameful arrogance. It will be good source matter for the still-nameless Key to all Mythologies.

"Can I read this to you?" say Lilalee.

I will never again say say "no" to that question. The poem is a lovely apology for being human.

"I just love her. Should I read another?"

I can't quite concentrate on this one. I'm feeling cooped up. I excuse myself and head down with my book to the shaded terrace decked out white adirondack chairs arranged around a couple of wobbly tables. This is my favorite thing about the Houndstooth. I put my feet up and close my eyes. I listen to the oaks rattle in the breeze. The savory smell reminds me of summers past.

The reverie is interrupted by the scrape of chairs at the next table. It's a young couple, handsome, dark-haired, barely 30. We exchange respectful nods. They open their books. She says something to him in French.

I return to my book, but before I've managed half-a-page, another, older, couple walks up. Not so fit. A decade my junior. Their clothes smell of dry cleaning. He carries a ice bucket with two wine bottles poking above the gunwale. She holds a stack of crystal plastic drink cups. "Mind if we join you."

"Of course." said the lovely French woman.

I decline. I'm not always unsociable, but I wish they were gone. I'm certain these people will be a bore. They'll talk about their travels, and the amazing accomplishments of their kids. Then they will regale us with things we must do. They will blot out the sound of the breeze in the trees.

He puts the bucket on their table and they make themselves comfortable. "Would you care for some Chardonnay?" asks the woman.

"How nice. This is trail magic" says the Frenchman with a very thick accent.

A hiker? I am turned to my book, but all ears.

"Trail magic?" says the older woman.

"Yes," he says. "It is when good things happen to you."

The older man pours out a four glasses. He raises a toast. "Here's to good things!"

French couple chimes in. "tchin-tchin"

"tchin-tchin," repeat the older couple. The woman asks, "Are you headed to Yosemite?"

"Yes." says the French woman. "We going to hike the John Muir Trail."

"What is that?" says the man.

As the Frenchman explains the basics, I am unable to follow a single word in my history. I'm tuned in for the details of their hike: their base weight, miles per day, starting trailhead. But, the older couple isn't really interested and the topic is short lived. Another round is poured and then the older couple enthusiastically battles out the details of their recent chateau a tour up the Loire as proof of their love of France and the French. I would swear by their silence that the French couple was bored.

In short order, I extend my well wishes and excuse myself. Upstairs Lilalee is freshening up. "There a couple downstair hiking the JMT."

"Not surprising," she says. "Yosemite is just up the road. I'm getting hungry."

We drive back towards town and our favorite Oakhurst restaurant, El Cid. We always eat there. Big helpings, great salsa, cold beer, non-tourist prices. I like it. And, not just because it's cheap.

They seat us on the patio near a Nyjer Seed feeder. We are entertained by a dozen flittering Lesser Gold Finches. At the next table are four unshaved, tanned, scruffy and freshly showered college-aged men. Lilalee taunts me with a silent wolf whistle. We both listen as we examine our menus.

"I was talking to one of the Seniors," says one. "They are recalling all the teams west of White Wolf."

"This gonna get ugly," says another.

"They'll probably lay us off early," says a third.

"Once the smoke gets into the park, that's OK with me." says the fourth.

"Bull," says the third. "You just miss your girl friend."

Lilalee is staring at me. She knows what I'm thinking. "Don't worry about it," she whispers. "Tomorrow we'll be at Tuolumne."

She's right of course. I can't decide where I want to hike first.

Aug 18, 2013

They don't have trail names

I think of myself as a quiet and retiring person. My friends would probably guffaw at that, but at last night's dinner I was quiet as a Trappist.

The Swonks invited us to dinner. We've had many meals together. Peter and I go way back. We once shared a dorm room. Since then, our paths have been parallel. He came to LA for Med School. I came to seek my fortune and get as much distance as possible from loony relatives and high-school snubs.

I used to watch the Sunday games with Swonk. At least till he met Siobhan. That lucky dog. She is quite the catch: pretty and rich with a blue-ribbon education, the blessing of common sense and a tender heart. They had a big wedding back in New Haven at the Charter Oak Country Club. Three months later they bought a house. A year after that, they had their first. Another two, their second. Funny how family changes a man. Or maybe it is the brahmin ties or perhaps the accumulated effect of the physician's mantle. Whatever, it was Siobhan, not Swonk, who kept me in their social circle.

Then I met Lilalee. We all became best of friends. Lilalee loves their kids. Even though they now live on their own, they still call us "auntie" and "uncle." We used take vacations together. Sierra campouts. Stays at the Redwood Cabins. Hikes in the Giant Forest. We invented vacation names and sang camp songs. They say we are family. That's how it is if you come to LA. It's part of the reinvention. Of course we're not really family; those ties are forged in blood and property. Unlike the fragile ties of memories, those can't be broken.

The discussion began innocently enough. I was finishing a second helping of Siobhan's fabulous meat pie, and Lilalee and Siobhan had emptied the last of the Beaujolais into their glasses when Swonk asks, "How's the still-nameless Key to all Mythologies coming along?" Of course Swonk knows that I've made no progress. He just loves giving a good-natured dig; especially one that earns him an elbow from Siobhan.

"About done," I retort with mock bravado.

But Lilalee steps on the joke. "Oh, he's been totally obsessed with that darn hike."

Siobhan interjects, "I think it's cool." And then she says, "I just read Wild. Wasn't it great?"

"I found it boring and silly." replies Lilalee with finality. At that moment, for the first time, I realize that Lilalee may not quite be the champion of my hike that I'd thought.

Siobhan sits up and asks, "For heaven sakes why?"

"She's an addict who makes a lot of dumb decisions."

"Isn't that a bit harsh? She was pulling her life back together."

"Well maybe, but I can't think of a better way to screw up than to shoot heroine and fuck everything in sight."

If you happen to be from that very select group of blog readers with an interest in hiking who didn't real Wild because you have spent the last 18 months in isolation training for the next Mars Mission, then I should explain. Wild is a best selling memoir of a young woman, Cheryl Strayed, who hikes the PCT. She is on the ropes. Her mom has died of cancer. She succumbs to a self-destructive despair and becomes an adulteress and drug addict. Just at the point-of-no-return, she embarks on her hike where she finds forgiveness and redemption.

"Trust me," continues Lilalee, "I didn't grown up eating Pate gras. I see that shit for what it is. No walk in the mountains fixes that."

"That's Pate Foie gras, corrects Swonk. "It's not just fat,"


By this point Lilalee's temper is really up—snarky class references do it every time. Unlike Swonk or Siobhan or me, Lilalee made it pretty much on her own gumption. She is an only child. When she was 7, her parents lost the land her family had homesteaded four generations before. They moved to a 1-room duplex in Omaha across the street from a potato chip factory. It was a hardscrabble existence. Both her parents worked. She had a latch-key, cleaned the house, cooked her own TV dinners and refereed vicious family fights. When we first met, Lilalee told me how determined she had been to be middle class. She had fought her way out of a bad marriage and worked two jobs to get a Masters in Social Work. All that happened before we met. Over the years, we've managed to cobble together a bourgeois lifestyle. But even still, matters of class still light her fuse.

"Really Lilalee? How can you be so heartless?" Siobhan says. She genuinely wants to know. "She was a single woman out there alone. And she stuck with it till the end."

"And, she was damn lucky she didn't die. Even luckier that she didn't end up as an addict after the book." This point she settles with a defiant glare.

Despite all her virtues, Siobhan is tone deaf to their class difference and doesn't understand Lilalee's pique. It's taken me two decades, but I see it now, Lilalee could never afford to be weak. She sees it as a sin.

But Siobhan persists, "She got better. Right?! She has a family now. And she's such a good writer. I was so touched by her honesty and humanity."

"Wish I was." replys Lilalee. "But if you like to read good writing about troubled souls try a Hardy novel. At least their lives have gone to shit because they have tried to do the right thing."

On that point we all gave pause. It is just long enough for Swonk to break the spell with an offer of coconut sorbet and Port.

As we drive home we say little. It's a long drive. As we're making the transition from The 10, Lilalee asks if she had been too harsh.

"I got a bit wound up."

"I think you made a good case," I am reassuring.


"Definitely." But it was a sympathy for her past that was on my mind. I know there are things she has never told me and things I am glad to never really know.

What I didn't say is that the discussion has me re-thinking the hike. You only get so much time, it does not earn interest, you have to spend the principle. So why strap on a backpack and traipse off for a month or more into the elements where there's loneliness and fear?

Strayed went on impulse, desperate for change. Others go to prove themselves by pushing the limits and facing their fears. And, some go for the experience of a lifetime. But I know that implusiveness seldom changes things for the better. And, I've learned that for every limit and fear there's another limit and fear and there will be no proof at the end. What's more, I know that experience is what you make of it and to think otherwise is to be trapped in a never satisfying quest for the next experience. Doesn't that just leave you where you started?

Before last night, I didn't question. It seemed enough to know that the long walk and the air in the temple of the high valleys and mountains is transcendant. Now I wonder. Is there more to it? Something more substantial? Or is this just a foolish quest of an old fuddy-duddy unable to accept his age? And what about Lilalee? Yes, what about LilaLee?

That was what I might have said at dinner, but I had no idea how to say it. And while these are the very people who are my closest links to humanity, I doubt they would have had a genuine understanding of what troubles me. It not their fault. Maybe it would be different if they were hikers. They aren't.

I do know this: if you walk long enough and you make it to the end, it is good.

Aug 15, 2013

Fate takes a good turn

Good things do happen.

This afternoon, we got a call from Ann T.—ex-colleague, buddy and one of the best managers ever to ride the elevators at Solar System Labs. As fate would have it, we retired on the very same day!

Ann organizes an annual, all-ladies trek to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. One of her group had a to bail at the 11th hour. There's now an extra cabin. Ann wanted to know if we wanted to use that reservation.

My wife and I consulted carefully for about 30 milliseconds and grabbed the chance. As she put it, "I wouldn't want you to lose a chance to wear your new coat."

We're going back to Yosemite this year. I can't believe it.

Aug 13, 2013

The land of eco-materialism

Lago Desierto 182
Not this Patagonia
Fortune strikes. It's sale day at Patagonia. 50% off on select items—while supplies last. According to the reviews, the Patagonia garb is only slightly inferior to world peace. And, if the advertised specs are honest, the weights are good. Down coat: 12.4 ounces. Windshell: 12.1 ounces. Wool upper: 6.2 ounces. That should get Duane's nod. With luck I can tick warm clothes off the list.

I'll be glad when this is done. I dread shopping for clothes. I'd sooner buy a gold-plated hose bib than a new shirt. It goes back to those annual back-to-school shopping ordeals. They didn't merely signal the end of summer; they were how I was prepared for life. On shopping day I was marched into a boy's department to find five days of academic attire worthy of my meticulously-dressed father. It was there I learned the fickle nature of authority. This has served me well at Space System Labs.

But with age comes wisdom. In time we learn that neurosis does not always provide the best counsel. Cheap is better and warm tops hypothermia. So trepidation be damned.

I arrive at Pasadena Patagonia mulling the vagaries of free will. The shop has just opened. I cross the threshold into a world of eco-materialism. It smells like sandalwood and sounds like a didgeridoo. The store is a paragon for social order. Neat racks of well-space garments surround the permitter. Display tables bearing stacks of folded shirts and sweaters are arranged like remote atolls angled for proper Feng shui. Above it all are mural-size posters of happy trekkers conquering the Patagonian steppes and surfers contemplating big sets at Pipeline. There's a low murmur from a dozen other early birds competing for bargains. The words, "while supplies last," scroll across consciousness.

I wend my way to a rack of down coats. They are arranged by color. There are four to chose from: Caltrans orange, antifreeze green, mouthwash blue and black. I've never been inclined to purchase clothes that I wouldn't want to wear on Halloween. I stick with black. I take down a "L."

As I am about put an arm in the sleeve, a pert woman, half my age, comes along to sift through orange and green. She wears a ponytail, too much eye make-up, flip-flops and jeans with a lot of unnecessary stitching. I nod, careful not to seem a silly old flirt. When I was her age, I shopped at army surplus.

She gives me a suspiciously merry smile and says, "Are you shopping for your girl friend?"

"Not really."

"I was just wondering because that's a women's coat." She points to the racks on the next wall. "There's the mens."

I fumble the coat getting it back on the hanger, but finish with a face-saving flourish.

"Very cute." she says.

Don't remember exactly when I started getting these lame consolations. You reach a certain age when people her age expect people my age to be daft. So what if you forget your fly. So what if you walk into the wrong restroom. It doesn't matter quite as much. Greater indignities lie ahead. If you ask me it's cold comfort.

I head over toward the men's coats. I see an immediate problem. There is only one color: the cough-syrup blue. This is not working out as planned. There's a creeping feeling of defeat. I must have help.

Inferno Canto 7 lines 65-67 Greedy and Indulgent.jpg
Archaic punishment for avarice
The only Patagonian around appears to be behind the register. I queue up third in line. She rings up a black down coat for customer one. Customer two steps up to the register with an arm full of returns. The cashier lays each item out on the counter and says, "I'll just need to find the original sale price." My heart sinks. The seconds tick away to the throb of the didgeridoo. If Dante lived today, the avaricious would be condemned to stand behind a customer with countless returns. I grow restive. The Patagonian takes note.

"Some one will be with you in a minute."

Ever notice that it is NEVER a minute. It's just another one of those little indignities that blight modern life. Like the servers who says, "are you still working on that?" or the big box clerk who asks, "Do you have our discount card" or the cable provider's customer-service rep who finishes every unsatisfying call with "Is there anything else I can do for you today?" which I know is a typo because the "for" must really be "to." Why not just tell me to hold my horses?

Just at the point of bolting on the principle that the price of freedom is never too high, help arrives. This Patagonian is a good 6 inches taller than me. He sports a perfectly trimmed 3 day growth and a cue ball haircut — in his case, by choice.

"I'm looking for a down coat, windshell and upper base layer. On sale."

"No worries," he says without the slightest hint he has just contributed to the fall of western civilization. I follow him to the mono colored men's rank. He hands me a mouthwash-blue and says, "That's a large, right?"

"Got any black?"

"Not on sale."

I try the coat. It hangs down to my groin. The sleeves could accommodate another set of hands. "Fine," I say. "What about a windshell?"

I follow him to another. He hands me a mouthwash-blue windshell.

"Got any black?"

"Not on sale. Let's get your upper. It's black," he says.

On the bright side, I get a good price for all these gems. For less that the cost of a down coat, I've prepared for the cold and damp.

He rings me up and stuffs my garb into a recyclable bag. "Great prices. Got a big trip planned?"

"I going to hike the John Muir Trail."

"Wow, that's cool. My girl friend did that last year."

"Really? You didn't go?"

"Next time. I was training for the Angeles Crest 100-mile run. You should try it."

The Crest run is not really for humans. It's not just a 100 mile run, it's over 48,000 ft of elevation change. No exaggeration. Perhaps something happens to you if you spend too much time around sandalwood.

Soon as I get home, I break out the scale. The coat, windshell and upper base layer all weigh in as advertised. My wife walks in on the process. "Let me see what you got?"

I hold up my new coat. "It's really light."

"Cheerleader blue," she says. "I think I'm going to enjoy seeing you wear that.

Aug 10, 2013

Damaged goods

Trail Report:
Aug 9, '13
Islip Saddle
Islip Saddle to Islip Peak
(elevation  ± 1,500 ft)
Today’s miles:
7 miles
Total Trip:
7 miles

Good sign: no other cars in the Islip Saddle parking lot. We'll have the trail to ourselves.

It may be August, but there's a chill. We're at 6,700 feet and it's gusty. I'm jittery with anticipation. I rush through Angel's stretches. Duane checks the map. I'm feeling like the 'old me' before L3/4 gave me the slip. We'll see if I can keep pace with Duane. He's just returned from a blue ribbon feat of leading a patrol of Boy Scouts on a 4-day trek over new Army Pass.

We cross the highway for the PCT marker at the trailhead. The PCT Herd passes here every May. By this point they may have been on the trail for 30 days and almost 400 miles. Most will zoom through this section enroute to Hiker Heaven, 60, poodle-dog-bush-infested, waterless miles to the northwest. Hiker Heaven is not quite celestial. It's a 2-acre backyard a mile off the trail in sun-baked Agua Dulce. The allure is strong. Thru-hikers are treated to a shower, laundry and a shady campsite. Hiker Heaven is one of PCT's 5-star resupply stops.

We're not likely to see any PCTers today. Not unless it's one of the rare and intrepid SoBos who take on spring snows in the north and fall draught in the south. Too bad. Seeing a SoBo PCTer on the trail is like seeing a star, in all their glory, on a red carpet. If we do see one, I would understand if they were too hurried, worried or preoccupied to chat. They can ill afford to fritter away the day with a common day-hiker. If they don't cover their mileage, they may run out of food, get caught in an early snow or be left behind by their fold of friends.

Looking south from Windy Gap
Duane sets a brisk pace up the first switchbacks. I'm not used to the thinner air. I'm breathing hard. Within minutes we are taking in a view of the expanse. To the west, Mt. Williamson. To the north, Big Rock creek canyon plummets down to the Mojave. Sharing the view is a nice change from all the solos. When Duane had suggested we find a hike in the San Gabriels, I immediately thought of the Islip Saddle trailhead. I've been wanting to hike here since this odd encounter at Newcomb's ranch when I heard the story of Charity.

"Ever hear the story of Charity? The one from Newcomb's Ranch?"

"Not really."

I'm pretty sure he's preoccupied and not too interested. It's been rough days back at Solar System Labs. We had talked it to death on the drive up. Like many of us, he bought into the NASA space myth. Poor bastard is cursed with a futile sense of mission. The mediocricrats are in charge. Who have thought that Colonel Cathcart and not Captain Picard runs the show?

The trail takes a gentle grade as it climbs above Big Rock Creek on the north slope of Mount Islip. It's a long, lethal slide to the bottom. I fight off an "I slip" thought worm and concentrate on a quiet broken only by the rattle of the Jeffery pine, our steady tread and the clack of our sticks on diorite.

We cover the 2 miles to Jimmy Camp keeping to our own thoughts except for the profanities of wonder as each new awesome vista comes into view. We grab a table. It takes me about a minute to feast on the smoked-chicken sandwich I made from left-overs. I wander around the camp trying to imagine what it must have been like when Indians traded here and Newcomb built his cabin.

We don't dally long. Duane is eager to go. We stop at Little Jimmy Spring. A steady little stream pours from a pipe into a half-barrel. It's said to be the most reliable water between Jackson Flat and Little Rock Creek. If Little Jimmy is dry, a PCTer has a 20-mile slog with only the water on her back. On a hot day that could be a very heavy 5-liters. We admire this little treasure without taking a sip since a good-size Rattler eyes us from the rock right above the pipe.

We follow the trail up across an old burn area to Wind Gap. True to form, a wind kicks up. I cinch down my hat and lean into the press of air. At the saddle we are treated to a dazzling southern view over Crystal Lake and descending hilltops into the basin haze. The wind swells to fortissimo, then pianissimo, then solemn silence. My eyes to water from wind and life's losses.

Lookout's Cabin, Mt. Islip
The final stretch to Islip Peak is the steepest. We walk just just below the ridge line. First the north side, then the south. The route is lined with gnarled limber pines, their branches flailing in the gusts. At the summit we are greeted to a 360 degree view. I stand on the old watch tower foundations and pick out the massifs. Baldy in the distance to the east. Hawkins across the way. Throop and Baden Powell just beyond. I wander over to inspect the century old ruins of the lookout's cabin.

Duane sits on a foundation and contemplates the horizons while pensively nibbling trail mix. After a bit I join him. He offers me some. "So what's this about Charity?"

I grab a handful. "It's probably apocryphal."

"Go on."

It was an off day a couple of years back. Before the injury. I had driven up The 2 to Vincent Gap and walked a couple miles east on the PCT. It was one of those days where you could see the snow on peaks above Lone Pine.

Anyway, on the way back, I stopped at Newcomb's for a burger. There were only few motors parked in front, and a few bikers were at a porch table with a bunch of dead Stellas. But that was it. Inside, it was quiet as a church. I grabbed a stool at the bar. The waitress was on the cordless ordering supplies. She was nice-but-tough looking like you'd expect from someone who gets a lot of unwanted attention. I didn't want to seem pushy or creepy, so I was looking around the walls at the beer signs and old license plates. That's when I noticed this old, sepia photograph off by itself at the end of the bar.

After she took my order, I went over to get a look. It was a photo of a young woman. Dressed to the nines. She held a fur in one hand and a dog in the other. Whoever it was had lived a life with privileges I would never enjoy.

I was taking this snapshot of the sepia just as the waitress brought over my soda. She said she wanted to show me something. Then she came over and took the photo off the wall. "This will knock your socks off," she tells me and lays the frame face down on a dish towel. She turned back the frame stays and removed the back cover. There were a two pieces of paper behind the photo. She unfolded them carefully. The paper was really brittle.

They were letters. The writing on one was rounded and feminine. It was a dated "1895" and addressed "Dear Mr C." This could have been a celebrity of sort. The letter mentioned an article where "Mr. C." was described as "the toast of London." The other was a scrap with a barely legible scrawl. It described Marti Gras and was written in this bogus french like "Marti Gras is tres grande," and "the boarding house est le terrible."

That's not all. The waitress tilted up the sepia photo. There was inscription on the back. "For my now famous friend, Nellie C."

According to the waitress, who heard it from the manager, who heard it from the previous manager, the sepia belonged to old-man Newcomb. It hung in the lodge for a hundred years. Here's where it gets interesting. This is the story, more or less, as waitress told it.

Newcomb was an odd kind of recluse. He lived alone in the middle of nowhere, but liked visitors. On occasion he'd travel down to LA for supplies and to hangout in the bars and bordellos near Olivera street. It was in one of the bordellos that he took pity on a prostitute. Later he would explain that he had hired her, but when they got to their room on the second floor she broke into this pathetic sobbing. After some comforting encouragement, she told him she had fallen in love with a man who had promised to take her away and she was now pregnant with his baby. She felt her life was over.

Newcomb was a something of a soft heart and offered to take care of her up in his cabin near Chilao Flats. It took some convincing, but she agreed to go. She packed her valise and left the bordello that day.

Her name was Charity Blake. No one knows if that was her real name. She was very pretty and probably not much older than 18. Charity wasn't just an ignorant farm girl. Some thought she was from a wealthy Philadelphia family and educated in private schools. There may have been a bad situation. She ran away with a man seeking adventure in California. She found it. He was prospecting in the Panamint Mountains and he left her at Harrisburg camp. That's when she made her way down to LA. Prostitution was a matter of survival.

They camped at Chavez Ravine a couple days while Newcomb outfitted his pack horses. The ride up to Chilao took nearly three days. When they arrived at the cabin, he hung a couple of blankets for her privacy. Later he split some logs and built her a partition.

He did his best to lift her spirits. He cooked their meals and kept a warming fire. He wasn't much of a reader, but did his best to read her the Bible. That ended when she interrupted him by reciting the very passage he was reading. She told him she rather not hear the Bible and that she no longer believed. One time, he found her reading a poetry book. She must have packed it in her valise. He arranged to get her more poetry. Years later, Newcomb would say she was appreciative but always distant and lost in her own thoughts.

The one thing that brought the life out in her was when he took her on hunting trips. She would help him spot game and gather acorns or mountain berries. She loved the mountains. She said they "redeemed" her. Once she became familiar with the area she began taking hikes on her own.

Newcomb was a well-known host to the herders and hunters who worked the mountains. He kept a sign above his door "Meals at all hours." As Charity became more settled, she helped out with the domestic and hospitality duties. She was always courteous and attentive to the visitors, but she stayed aloof. There were few ladies in the mountains and none with fine manners and sharp intelligence. She became the source of much speculation and talk. Word spread. It wasn't long before someone recognized her from Olivera street. The men started calling her "Newcomb's damaged goods," but never in earshot of Newcomb.

As the months passed and the baby grew, Newcomb became deeply attached to Charity. Some say he fell in love with her, but he was a painfully shy man unable make advances. It was just was well. He had no hope of Charity. She was trapped in her miseries.

On days when there were no visitors, she would leave before dawn and return after dusk. Newcomb was unhappy about her days alone. The San Gabriels were still dangerous; bandits and grizzlies still roamed the mountains. And, he worried about the baby. He warned her of the perils, but she was indifferent. She said the mountains gave her a sense of place and she needed her walks. Despite his insistence, she refused to carry a weapon.

When it was time for the birth, Newcomb wanted to take her to see a doctor in LA. She would have no part of it. She would have her baby in the cabin. And she did. It was stillborn. That was a crushing blow to them both. It's said the baby is buried behind the old cabin site.

At first, Charity lay in bed saying little, eating less. Newcomb did his best to bring her out of her depression. It was of no avail. Then, about two weeks after the birth, she left early on one of her hikes. At first Newcomb thought it was a turn for the better. But when she didn't return that evening, he began to worry. By the following afternoon he had suspected the worse. When he noticed, her old valise was missing, he immediately struck out after her. He found her trail and followed it east along a route similar to the current PCT. By the following morning he made it to the flats where Little Jimmy is today. It was there he found her valise. The contents had been scattered about including the sepia photo and the two letters. According to Newcomb, he found horse tracks that led off to the east. He gathered her possessions in the valise and went back to the cabin.

The next day he packed up supplies and set off to follow the tracks from Little Jimmy. He traced them down to the Mojave River, but was forced to give up the hunt when a monsoon blew through and washed the desert clean.

In the months and years that followed, Newcomb continued his search. He hired a bounty hunter who found a prostitute in Sacramento named Charity. Newcomb traveled there, but it was the wrong woman. No other leads ever turned up. A year later, he tried to identify the woman in the sepia photo; perhaps she had some information. He periodically ran missing-person ads in the San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia papers. After about a year, he received a letter from a fellow in New York who said the woman wasn't missing at all; she was Mrs. Nellie Lundgren from Dayton, Ohio. Newcomb wrote Mrs. Lundgren, but she never replied. After that he gave up his search, but he always believed Charity was still alive.

A decade later, Newcomb would build a small lodge for his guests and called it Newcomb's Ranch. He had the sepia photo framed and hung it in lodge. In the late 30s, the current structure was built and sepia photo was moved to its current spot and has hung there ever since. It's kind of a tradition, but few people notice which is why the waitress told me the story.

Taking in the view atop Mt. Islip
"Incidentally, Newcomb remained a bachelor for 20 years. When he did marry, it was to a woman named Grace. Got to like a guy who loved charity and grace."

Duane gives me a look of mock disgust. "I saw that coming. So what was Charity doing with the sepia photo and the letters?"

"No one knows for sure." But, I have my own theory. They were left and became tokens of a lost affection. Precious reminders of what once was, like amulets for sweet regret. I have a few of those myself. Little do-dads and photos that trigger 40-year old longings. It's unclear why I hang on to these sentiments, but I do.

"So who was the famous guy?"

I shrug. "No clue."

Duane pulls on his pack. "Too bad it didn't have a happy ending."

I think so too. Aren't we all a bit damaged? With time, hope restores most of us. Perhaps that's just sentimental, but I want to believe that Charity wasn't beyond hope.

We head back down through Little Jimmy Camp to the PCT. At Little Jimmy we pause for some knowing looks. There's now a hallowed feeling under the rustle of the tall pines. Time expands for a parade of lost adolescent longings, lost parents, lost places, lost times. These regrets are soothed by the indifference of the mountains and the next things that await down the trail.

We see no one else for remainder of our descent. A glorious day except for the last half-mile when my left leg starts to act twiggy. It's sort of worrying. I must work harder to get things right. Can't have that sort of thing happen on a thru hike.

Aug 7, 2013

The green-vest people

Can coincidence alone account for providence? Surely there must be an organizing force like beauty or irony. How else could math accurately predict the behaviors of physical things or harmonies emerge from the proportions of 2-to-1 or 3-to-2? How it is that any color can be made by adding to or subtracting from just three primaries? Why is three funny? Why is it impossible to know if there is really a many or just a one? More importantly, why should life's great shaping events seem to come along like plot twists in a contrived novel?

For example, the time TWA gave me a first-class seat because the flight was overbooked and sat me next to an old hippie with bad teeth and a thinning red afro. At the time I was reading Storm of Steel. He sees the book and ask why that book. So I tell him about about my still-nameless Key to all Mythologies. "Grand idea!" he says. I tell him I have writer's block and want to quit. He says, "Death to quitters. listen up," and begins making suggestions that I can barely follow. Have I considered the heinous plight of the Hereros. What about King Leopold and the Congolese carnage? What about the insidious Nazi ties and their need for rare earths to build the V-2s at Peenemunde for Von Braun. Neodymium, dysprosium, terbium, yttrium and europium. Am I familiar with the chemistry of Nazi rocket fuels? Do I know about Von Braun? Did I know he now runs a summer camp for NASA? Have I examined the math for V-2 gimbal control? All the while he scribbles formulas on our drink napkins and sketches trajectories in the air.

All I know is that trying to follow him makes my head hurt. Just as we are landing I ask what he does.

"I hunt alligators in the sewers." As we exit he leaves me with this: "Stick with it Ace or your life will be a piece of shit."

So I did. And that set me on the path. I needed to be able to organize my research so I learned to code. That meant I finally had a skill and could earn a living. That's when the Piltdown Virtual Reality Company offered me a job and I moved to Beaverton just three months before the company went belly-up. And then, just as I was to move back to LA, I go to a Sunday BBQ where I meet this girl who let me move in for the next 30 years. Try to explain that with mere coincidence.

So, when I discovered that today was the REI 25% sale, it seemed like providence.

Route from I-15 to Eaton Canyon
REI is in Arcadia, east on the 210. The air is clear . The San Gabriels loom to the north. The back-range peaks poke above the parched folds of the front range which stretches like a curtain to the eastern horizon. I pick out Mt. Islip, Mt Throop, Mt. Baden Powell, Mt. Baldy. Nearly a thousand square miles up there. The PCT crosses up there. I could start at the I-15 and walk to Eaton Canyon. 80 miles? Four nights, five days? If I can make that, I can surely hike the JMT. The trail is calling.

The REI parking lot is crowded. I step past the detectors into a clamour. The aisles are mobbed. Bargains everywhere. Looks like the place is being looted. Some shelves have already been picked clean. The checkout line snakes past the backpacks. The queue is orderly, upright and lean. I stand taller.

Fly Creeks, Slaters, Copper Spurs and Scouts
I squeeze past the gathering fondling the headlamps and hydration bladders to get to the tent bins. There's a hundred tents all mixed together. I search through the Slaters, Copper Spurs and Scouts for a Fly Creek UL-1. As I test the heft of the Slater, I lose my resolve. Do I really want to spent the nights in a space the size of an MRI tube? What's an additional four ounces?

A green-vested REI sales specialists comes over and asks if he can help. He is tall, tan, collegiate. No doubt he has a degree from an exclusive university. His parents investment isn't wasted; this is no mere sales clerk; he's a specialist. Everyone at REI is a specialist. There are Stocking Specialists and Presentation Specialists and Tech Specialists 1 & 2. It's a very specialized place with it own symbology. Take the vests for example. The new hire vests are forest green because the Chinese dyes have not yet washed away. Lifer vests are faded and show a personal touch. The Sports-Wear Lady sports National Park and Cho Ku Rei buttons above her vest pocket. The Boot Guy has a feather dangling from his locker loop. The Backpack Guy's vest is frayed and no longer reaches around his belly.

I put the Slater back. "I am looking for a Fly Creek UL-1."

"Great Tent," says the green vest with a very approving smile. "It's very popular."

I've never trusted salesmen. Probably because our Grumpy was great shoe salesman. He knew his business; he knew people; he was always top salesman. He had a dozen Golden Shoehorns trophies on the bookcase to prove it. He won fishing trips in the Gulf and a color TV.

When we played gin, he would coach me on sales. "Number one, number two and number three... give the customer what he wants. I don't mean the shoe. I mean make them think they're Einstein. Never, let them feel like they were dumb with their money."

"How grumps?"

"Easy. Just show them something else they won't want and sell them what they wanted in the first place. Works like a champ. And when they do decide, compliment their great taste. Don't worry if it doesn't fit. Just be sure to squeeze the toe and be reassuring."

"Is that honest?"

"Trust your grumpy. If some schnook really wants a shoe, give him the shoe. Someone's getting a commission. Might as well be you." Then he would point to his temple. "Use that little noggin. God put it there for a reason."

I know now that granddad had lost his faith in humanity. He lived through harsh times. Not like these green-vested specialists. They serve a purpose higher than a commission. They are going to save the planet, rid the world of Non-GMO snacks, and live by the creed 'confront your fears.' Grumpy would not understand them. I'm not sure I do. However, if I was sure they wouldn't plant a PLC in my brain, I might want to join.

Mt. Lyell from approach to Donahue Pass
Photo by Duane Bindschadler
The green-vest pulls a UL-1 from the bin. "Where are you planning to hike?"

I just say, "I'm planning multi-day trips in the Sierras."

"Cool. I just got back from doing the Rae Lakes Loop. Want to see a great photo of Fin Dome?" He hands me the UL-1 and starts scrolling thru his iphone. "You'll love this tent. But have looked at the REI Quarter Dome? Great headroom. Fantastic side entry. Saves a hundred bucks. Only a couple more ounces."

"Yea. Looked at that."

The photo of Fin Dome is amazing. I thanked him for his help and headed over sleeping bags.

I walk the rack twice looking for a Sub-Kilo +20. It's hopeless. I hate looking for things. I hate golf.

I see a green-vested lifer with frizzy-grey hair over by the sleeping pads. He is attending to a well-groomed middle-aged fellow with piercing eyes and pushed back sunglasses. So is a sunburned millennial couple. His head is shaved; his beard is long. Her hair is braided down the back. She has elaborate tattoos, guy wire arms and holds a new ice axe. He shoulders a sleek looking Mammut climber. I join the circle with the hope of getting help from the green vest. Sun glasses gives a nod but continues the tale."

"Just like that, it was a total frickin' whiteout. There wasn't anyway we could make it back over the Col. We were going to spend the night in Owen's Chute. We set the tent on some icy ground and crawled in our bags. Then the wind came up. It was unbelievably 'frickin' cold. I've never been so cold. That frickin' 800-fill bag and Xtherm save my butt. It was a total blast. Anyway, I'd go for the Rs, all the Rs you can buy."

The millennials exchange nods. The green vest turns to me and says, "Rs are for insulation."

"I know. Can you help me find a sub-Kilo +20?"

Miss Tattoo asks Mr. Sunglasses. "What about ice axes?"

"I'll be back." says the green vest. I follow him. Mr. Sun Glasses gives me the creeps. A minute later, I have my sub-Kilo. "What kind of pad would you recommend?"

"How much do you want to spend?

"A hundred bucks."

He hands me a Therm-a-rest ProLite. "This is our best seller. Very comfortable. Self-inflating."

"That's what I considering. Great! Thanks!" I head to the end of the checkout queue.

At the register the attractive checkout specialist in a green vest asks, "Got a big trip planned?"

"The Sierras." I say.

"How exciting!"

Color coordinated sleeping arrangement  
             Big Agnes Fly Creek UL-1
     35 oz
REI Sub Kilo + 20
    30 oz
Thermarest Prolite sleeping pad
     16 oz.

When I get home, I set up the UL-1 in the back yard. I inflate the Prolite and spread the SubKilo. I crawl in and lay on top of the down bag.  Not bad.  I imagine the adventures I will have here.  But first, there's still a lot to buy:  stove, base layers, down coat, windbreaker, water filter and no telling what else. This is feeling expensive.

My wife comes out of the house for a look.  "It's color coordinated," she says.

I suppose it is.