Jun 30, 2014

ORT #2: The plan

There are those that chose to walk solo and those who have no choice. I prefer walking solo. You have your thoughts and all that sky and air and rock. Nothing wrong with solo: unless it gets in the way. I'm not letting that happen.

I get out the maps. I need to acclimatize. That means an ascent from the West. The east slope is too steep. One day you're at 4k, the next at ninety-five hundred. A couple days should do. My old friend Ann from Space System labs said she would let me crash at her place in Bear Valley Springs. That's about 4K. If camped at Kings Canyon that would put me at fifty-five. That should do it. From Kings Canyon, I could hike up Paradise Valley to the JMT and do the Rae Lakes loop. My heart quickens. I've dreamed of that hike.

I check the Sequoia National Park website for available permits. No cigar. The Paradise Valley hike is booked till Christmas. However, the reverse route up Bubbs Creek is happening — openings out the wazoo.

Back to the maps. The trail parallels Bubbs Creek up to Vidette Meadow. It' a big climb out of the Kennedy Meadow, then a long gradual uphill. I could camp at Junction Meadow. Better yet, I could spend the first night up at East Lake. From there I could hop on the JMT, cross Glenn Pass to the Rae Lakes and crash at Arrowhead Lake. Next night at Woods Creek. 4 glorious days 3 nights. That'll mean fifteen-mile days. Strenuous, but I can manage it. I could even do an extra night if needed.

I made spaghetti and salad for dinner. Lilalee loves my spaghetti. I put on some baroque tunes and pour wine for dinner. I can't bring myself to light any candles.

"I've got the plan for my next hike."

Lilalee's fork traces an arc back down to the plate. "When?"

"Couple weeks. Summer's getting away. I've got to be ready for the JMT in less than 10 weeks."

"I see," she says. "Who are you going with?"

"I'm gonna solo."

She sits up and crosses her arms. "Are you sure that's a good idea? I mean it was a good thing you were with Duane last time. What about Duane?"

"What about him?"

"Can he go? Did you ask him?"

The first thing that comes to mind is that I would never ask. I can't bear to think of putting him through that again. Of course that explanation would only start an argument. Instead, I take the path of least resistance. "Look, he's got a job. He's got a family. There's no need to worry. There's lots of people up there."

"But you'll be camping alone?"


"And if something happens?"

Without thinking I answer, "I can get one of those SOS satellite trackers. If something happens, I can just push a button. Everything will be fine."

In the sternest possible tones she says, "You wouldn't shit me about this because if you're shitting me I will kill you."

"If I didn't have one, you might not have to."

The rest of dinner is pretty quiet. But I just keep thinking that I've just promised to plunk down a lot of money for something I don't really need. Things like that take away my appetite.

* ORT is the acronym for Operational Readiness Test. A term I've opted from my old colleagues at Space Systems Lab to describe the final days of testing prior to launch.

Jun 26, 2014

Magic in a bottle

Ms. Rodriguez, LVN, scrapes and bangs her mouse determined to get the cursor in next field of my medical record. "On a scale of one-to-ten, what's your pain level?"

A libidinal feeling of contempt wells up. I have no pain. I don't want to be here. I have nothing personal against against Ms Rodriguez. I'm sure she's a perfectly decent,normal person who, like the rest of us, will ignore her doctor's advice to eat tasteless food in small quantities. And, she's likely a good mom — her two kids are propped up on either side of her monitor like a couple pagan gods. But, I do find her extra-long pink fingernails offensive; not because I don't like glitter, but because she types about a word an hour and she's making me answer irrelevant questions because everyone has to.

"What about zero? I ask. "You know that zero came into common use about a thousand years. Can I say zero?"

Without taking her eyes off the monitor she says, "I'll just put in 1."

I wouldn't be here at all except that, against my fervent advice, Lilalee invited Bob, Pattie and the Swonks over for Sunday burgers. Way back, when we all were just starting out, we lived on the same block. Swonk was in med school, Siobahn free-lanced for LA Weekly and the Berkeley Barb, Bob worked on sit-coms and Pattie was just finishing her practicum. We were close back then. We were a proud and modestly ambitious group brought together by fate. We had grand plans, bright ideas and talked of important things. But now, whenever we get together, Swonk and Pattie talk shop and the conversation dwells on ailment and disease.

"Remember Mary Ellen," says Pattie who is prone to speak in imperatives. Mary Ellen also lived on our block, but she married rich and moved away. "Her husband had a TIA. Partial paralysis and loss of speech. Remember his name?"

"Henry." say Siobahn with a sympathetic tisk. Siobahn never forgets. "Poor Mary Ellen."

"Clopidogrel?" asks Swonk.

"Didn't ask." answers Pattie.

Lilalee interrupts. "What do you guys know about altitude sickness?"

Suddenly, I'm the center of attention. They all know why she asks. No doubt she been talking to Siobahn.

"What happened?" asks Swonk.

I shrug. "I had one bad night."

Lilalee chimes in, "He won't go see the doctor."

I'd just rather forget the following interrogative and subsequent lavish and irritating concern for my well being. Why must everyone be worried? It's not like I've never been to 11,000 feet. One time I have a problem. What's the big deal? I tried to explain it was probably just something I ate. I succeed only in persuading them all that I am a pig-headed idiot. So rather than suffer their ridicule, I agree to get my lungs checked.

I've been sitting in the examine room for nearly-an-hour. Between bouts of imagined mistreatment, I study the lackluster genitalia on the glossy anatomical charts, flex the plastic spine model and estimate the number of cotton balls and tongue depressors in each jar. I am just about dump the cotton balls to confirm my estimate when there's a knock.

The man who enters has to duck and turn to get through the door. He must be seven foot and a burly three-hundred pounds. His lab coat is 3-sizes too small. He could pick me up with one hand. He has a swarthy, pitted complexion, a full-head of glossy hair and the radiant smile of someone who is used to having people completely in their power. "I'm Dr. Soso. I'll be your doctor today. Sorry for the wait. There was a little mix up."

Ms. Rodrigues flashes to mind. My opinion of her changes dramatically. I am gratified that my mistrust of some people is confirmed.

"What can I do for you today?"

"I think I need to get my lungs checked. I might have had altitude illness."

"Take off your shirt," he says. "Tell me more."

I tell him more. He listens to my chest. Then he walks over to the examine-room computer and starts typing. "Your lungs are fine," he says. "I'm going to give you Diamox. One pill; twice a day. Start dosing two days before hiking." As I dress he tells me try it at home first to test for side effects.

"That's it?"

"That's it. You're in good shape for someone your age." He reaches for the door. "And by the way, I recommend spending a night at elevation before hiking."

"Thanks," I say without adding, 'for stating the obvious' because, thanks to Ms. Rodriguez, I now know that people around here just don't seem to have a sense of humor.

When Lilalee gets home, my maps are spread out on the kitchen table. I greet her a big hug and an affectionate kiss.

"Aren't we in a fine mood," she says rubbing against me. "Let's make this a habit." Then she sees the maps. "What did the doctor say?

"I got a clean bill of health."

"Are you sure?" she asks with practised doubt.

"Yea. He gave me pills." I hand them to her.

She examines them closely and hands them back. "And you just have to take a pill?"

I shrug. "It's magic."

She sighs wistfully, "Too bad there's not a pill for everything."

Jun 20, 2014

ORT#1: Dawn, Day 2 -- Desolation Lake

A gust rattles the tent. I must have dozed off. The light is breaking. The night is finally over. I have been here forever. I am exhausted. I'm not panting. I am overwhelmed by the thought of the crossing the col.

There's a lull. I can hear Duane stir in his bivvy. He'll be up soon. What will I tell him?

I slide out of the bag and quickly pull on all my layers. I pull on my boots, but don't lace up. I'm too wobbly; my hands are numb. Coffee should help. I set up the stove against the kitchen slab, out of the wind.

Now the hard part: opening a BV450 bear cannister on a cold morning with numb fingers. You must depress two inflexible release tabs and turn the lid. A skill that requires coordination and strength which both happen to be at a low ebb.

I grip the cannister tight between my thighs, push the tabs with all my might and turn. No luck. My nylon pants are as slippery as a bearing race and the cannister just slides round. In short order I'm exhausted and sucking wind.

Thanks to the many hours I spent surfing the net, I'm prepared. If you slide a credit card between the stop tab and the release tab, the lid will come free by merely applying every last ounce of strength into this simple three-point maneuver: with the badge in inserted against the tabs, press the canister into the ground, squeeze it between your knees and turn the lid. I carry an old security badge for just this occasion. (I should have returned it to Space System Labs, but that's another story.) After many experiments with different alternatives, I have long since settled on the security badge which has just the right combination of durability and flexibility.

I kneel over the canister, place the badge against the tabs and push and turn for all I'm worth. The lid comes free, but the badge flies in the air and is carried away by a sudden gust. I hurry after it only to watch it disappear down a 1,000 year old fissure in the kitchen slab.

I am seized by a panic. I press my cheek against the icy slab and jam hand as far as it will go down the crack. I just touch the badge only to see it slip in deeper. I try to force my hand farther; just to the point of nearly getting stuck. The realization is horrifying. I am overcome by indecision. What to do? I can't leave it here. What about leave-no-trace? What if some of those badge numbers show up on the internet? It's as if all the forces of nature have arrayed against me for merely wanting coffee.

Duane comes up behind. "So, what's up?"

I pull my hand from the fissure. "I'm making coffee."

"I can see that," he says. "How do you feel?"

I sit up and take a few unsatisfying breaths. Off to the west Pilot Knob is just visible in the grey light. Our route lies across the lake outlet just over a rise that is white with ice. I slide off the slab and take a few unsteady steps. I imagine crossing the col, but in my present state I couldn't even make it to the outlet. I shrug.

Duane says nothing.

Sunrise over Mount Humphries
Photo by Duane Bindschadler
I pace a bit hoping to find my legs. The high rim of Mount Humphrey glows with the day's first rays. "Maybe coffee will help."

"OK," he says reassuringly. "Let's eat. We'll talk later."

I can't quite get organized. I fumble making breakfast. Nothing seems easy. By the time I choked down my oatmeal, Duane has packed most of his gear. He starts deflating his Neoair and I sit on nearby rock.


"I have to go down."

"I know," he says.

"I'm sorry."

"Not as sorry as you would be," he replies.

"It's probably the altitude," I explain.

"Probably," he says with that touch of irony which removes any doubt.

"But, I've been here before," I object. "I shouldn't be sick."

He shrugs. "So it goes." He slips the Neoair the compression bag. "Let's get going. I'm worried about getting you over the pass."

I pack up, wondering if I've been reading the wrong book — next time leave Vonnegut at home.
Meanwhile, Duane attaches a piece of duct tape to his long handled spoon and fishes out my security badge.

Photo by Duane Bindschadler

From that moment, things look up. The sun is warming. The sky a cloudless blue. The air cleansing. I feel better with every step down. At Summit Lake, I am completely right and ascend the pass without a the slightest symptom. By the time we pass Loch Leven, I feel like we shouldn't be leaving; I gave up too quickly. I am seriously tempted to suggest that we turn back and try again.

Just then I see a small, solitary lenticular cloud hovering just over the peak of Blanco Mountain 40 miles to the east. It's oval, yellow-gray with a rose-colored limb. It seems odd and out of place. I stop to study it.

"You okay?" asks Duane with a now-tired note of concern.

I point my stick to Blanco Mountain. Duane turns to look. But, in that moment the cloud has gone. Just like that. Just like it was nothing. Or was it? "Yea. Fine. Forget it." But I'm not sure.

Duane jabs his stick emphatically and heads off at quicker pace. "I'll feel better when we have you in Bishop."

We don't get a cell signal until we're back in town. I am preparing to call Lilalee to let her know I'll be home tonight. I'm not sure what to say to keep her from worrying. One thing's for sure, I doubt Duane will want me as a hiking partner. Who could blame him?

ORT#1: Earliest hours, Day 2 -- Desolation Lake

3:00 am
Been awake since 1:00. I dreamt that my code has destroyed a spacecraft and that investigative team is getting close. I dreamt that I chase a mangy coyote that has our cat. I dreamt we are escaping from an earthquake and that Lilalee is lost. I stay awake so as not to dream.

Awake I pant like I've just run the 440 for the first time since I was 18. My heart pounds hard and erratic. I shiver and sweat by turns. No position is comfortable. I shift on the pad. It is narrow and the ground is ice-cold to the touch. I've taken 400 milligrams of Motrin and drank nearly a liter of water.

I decide to go outside and pee. The wind has slackened. The waning gibbous moon sets in the west. All around the mountains are illuminated and colorless. The lake is black and despairing. I stumble and land hard on my arm. There will be a knotty bruise. I dust off. Something is wrong. It can't be the altitude. There's been no headache. No nausea. Maybe it's a flu or maybe my heart. I've got to get some rest or I won't be able to hike tomorrow. I've got to get some sleep.

Jun 19, 2014

ORT#1: Afternoon, Day 1 -- Desolation Lake

5:00 in the afternoon
I bolt from a deep sleep. There was a terrifying dream. My shirt and neck are drenched. The tent is hot. My heart is pounding out a rhythm like Dance of the Youth and Maidens. My breath is short. I need air.

I crawl out. The sky is tinted indigo. The air cool. I fumble lacing on my boots. I can't quite catch my balance.

Duane is lounging against the SUV-sized boulder we designated as the "kitchen." He reads from a thick volume (it must weigh a pound) and munches a snack from his open cannister. "Nice nap?"

"Too soon to tell."

He gives me a puzzled look.

I take a stick, strain up slope behind camp and four-leg-it onto a high granite slab. Off to the south, the snow fields on Evolution Range glow orange in the late afternoon sun. The wind is now steady with whooshing gusts. The chill is setting in. I feel unsteady and hyperventilate to set things right. Back to my east, the brown slopes of Mount Humphreys tower above the lake. I follow the high ridge west to Pilot Knob. I imagine going over the col and know that I could not do it in my present state.

Route to the col.  Pilot Knob in the distance
Photo by Duane Bindschadler
I walk gingerly back to camp and take a seat next to Duane on the kitchen slab. It doesn't feel right. I immediately get up and pace.

"You OK?" asks Duane.

"I'm not sure. I need a walk."

"Hold on. I'll go with you."

We head east along the lake shore. The sun dips behind the divide to the west. The wind picks up a notch sending gray wavelets and fragments of surface ice against the shore. We don't say much; our words are just blown away. After a half-mile we come to the Forsaken Lake outlet. Just ahead the mountain plunges right into the lake.

"Better?" shouts Duane.

"Yea." Walking has helped some. "Time for dinner?" I yell hoping I'll be hungry.

"You bet," replies Duane. "Gotta try my spicy peanut sauce. It's killer."

Back at camp I pull on my base layer, shell and fleece hat. We huddle out of the wind behind the kitchen to set up our stoves and boil water. I splurge on fuel for a cup of tea to sip while my ham-bits and peas hydrate.

Duane unfolds his map. I hold it down. He traces a route around Mesa Lake and stabs a spot above Knob Lake. "If you're up to it, I think we should try the col about here."

"I'll be fine in the morning."

The peas and potatoes don't hydrate. They are crunchy and raw; the ham-bits are tasteless. At least I'm getting my calories. I'll need them tomorrow. I try a fork of Duane's peanut sauce. "Fantastic," I say with a bit too much enthusiasm—probably because I can't taste it.

"I should have made is spicer," he replies defensively.

The dusk has gathers around us quickly. The wind gets cold. I clean up dinner, stash the fragrant items in the cannister. It's not quite dark, but I crawl into the tent. The fly snaps in the wind; the tent floor is cold. I leave on my down and hat and zip up in the bag. I try to read a bit more Vonnegut, but I can't concentrate. I turn off my headlamp. It'll be better in the morning.

ORT#1: Day 1 -- Piute Pass

Damn! There won't be light for another hour, but the tent is bright with moonlight. I can hear Duane's peaceful snore. I have to pee. There is no option.

I twist up and zip out of the bag with a noisy commotion. The tent is cold; the walls are slimy with condensation. Tomorrow I should leave a bigger gap in the fly. I crawl onto frosty ground. The night still. The moon is two extended-hand-widths past the smear of the Milky Way. No need for the flashlight.

I wander into the trees to do my business. There's something crunching along out there. A deer? Yes, must be a deer. A deep chill sinks in. I hurry back in the tent and dive as deep as I can into my bag. It's warm and reassuring, but there's no getting back to sleep. First day jitters. Might as well get dressed and move around.

My shirt and socks are damp. I pull on all my layers mindful of those Minnesota toughs would call this beach weather. Not me. My bones would probably shake right out of my skin. I crawl back out in the night, no one stirs. I could make coffee, but the noise would wake someone. I decide to warm up with a walk to North Lake.

The road cuts a silvery tunnel through the shadows. Each step creates a little light show with a moon-lit puff of dust. A few yards off, the creek roars along without rest. I fall into a rhythm paced by the seesaw of the crickets and frogs. At the lake, I scramble up a rock, pick out the constellations and wait for the reflection of the first glimmers in the east. A Phoebe starts to peep. An owl flaps low overhead. The rim of sky starts to glow. Time to backtrack to camp. It will be a grand day.

Duane sips his hot chocolate. He's alert and in good spirits. I'm hungry. I fill my pot with 2 cups: one for oatmeal, one for coffee. I boil only what I need. Fuel is heavy. Conservation important. I only have a half-pound of alcohol — enough to boil sixteen cups. But my hand shakes and I send a cup's worth of alcohol into the dirt. The ignition singes the hair off my hands. Duane says nothing about my little inferno. He doesn't need to. Reminder: bad things happen quickly.

The day warms quickly. We break camp, fill our water containers and shoulder our packs. Duane takes the lead. Our first ascent passes thru the woods above North Fork Creek. The path is knotted with roots and muddy patches. We cross the creek twice on log bridges. I'm plenty glad we don't have to wade; the stream is over-the-knee and icy cold. No doubt a Minnesotan would find it refreshing.

Photo by Duane Bindschadler
Soon, we are out of the woods and above the tree line. The view opens to the high ridges up ahead. After a few modest switchbacks, the trail strikes a level grade under the steep talus slopes below Mount Emerson. The next stretch runs up a steep set of switchbacks along a roaring cascade below Loch Leven. Each breath is full of mist and mountain air.

We reach the top of the cascade. A woman stands above us on a rock against the sky. She is sunburned; her legs are muscular; her ponytail is pulled back through her baseball cap; her clothes are clean. She stares out to the east. A cell phone is squashed to her ear. She is making arrangements of some sort. We pass by without acknowledgement.

We climb another long switch back. A middle-aged guy comes careening down. He has a blank, disoriented look. He doesn't look up. He forces us off the trail without so much as a howdy-do. Duane swears after him, but I say nothing. He looked strange, like he'd seen a ghost.

We pass along the north shore of Loch Leven. A cluster of scouts are camped across the way. A few are fishing. One is splashing about in the cold water.

The trail turns up again and stays high. The canyon narrows. We pass several small lakes before coming to the edge of Piute Lake. A massive granite wall towers a thousand feet straight up from the water. The gibbous moon is balanced just above the pinnacle. A cold breeze ripples the surface. There's a clatter of sticks behind us. The woman on the cell phone zooms along without apparent effort and offers a cheery thanks as she blows past never to be seen again. Duane points to a rock up ahead. "Lets stop there and get a snack."

Puite lake
Photo by Duane Bindschadler
We are perched on a rock 10 feet above the trail like a couple gargoyles. Unless you look up from your boots, you won't see us. I nibble on two Picky Bars and some trail mix.

"Nice view," says Duane.

As I chew, memories pop in my head: People from the lost past. My early days with Lilalee. All that might have been or wasn't done. The recurring question, "what matters anyway?" and the indifferent or detached melancholy that follows. It's the time scale of this place: 80-million-year-old rock made 10's of miles beneath the surface, then pushed up to this place a mere 10 million years ago and destined to be reduced to sand in just a 100-million more. It reassures somehow. Ageing is not so lonely up here. A warm gust lifts me back to the moment and its sweet joy. This place is a glory. A temple on a spinning planet. Here we are in a silent comradeship chewing trail mix.

A solo hiker spots us on our rock. "Hey! Nice packs." He's forty-something; very sunburned; wearing cutoffs, a now-sleeveless Stanford T shirt that reveals an elaborate tattoo on each bicep and a beanie with strings down the earflaps over a full head of tousled hair that's more grey than blond. "Where you going?" he asks. His smile shows plenty of teeth and deep creases around his eyes.

"Upper Desolation Lake," says Duane.

"Beautiful" he says.

He drops his pack next to ours and grabs a place on our rock. "Whew! Don't mind do you? Just walked up from the junction. Had to stealth camp at the creek. Fucking Rangers. You know how it is. Any hoot, I was hoping to hitch, but had to leg it up the road. Bummer."

I don't know much, but I know that's probably an extra 1,200 feet up and his pack looks heavy.

"What about you guys?"

"We stayed at the campground." I say.

"I love that campground. People will usually just let you crash in their site. Where you from?"

"Los Angeles," we say.

"I live in Mammoth. Rode my bike down. I ride everywhere. Summer winter. Don't matter. This nice couple gave me a ride up from Bishop." He pats his pack. "Nothing like a backpack; even a surly dude like me can get a hitch." He digs into a side pocket and takes out a Cliff Bar. "Want one?"

"You rode from Bishop?" I ask trying to conceal any amazement.

"Yea. Do it all the time." He finishes his Cliff Bar in four bites and sucks his fingers. "Love these things."

"Hike here often?" asks Duane.

"Me? Yea. I've hiked all the passes. Nothing like my friend, Tal, though. He lent me this pack. Now Tal's the hiker."

"How so?"

"That dude can walk over Bishop Pass, come around to Darwin Bench, climb over Lamarack Col and meet friends for dinner at Upper Lamarack Lake in the same day."

"That's quite a hike," says Duane.

"No shit Sherlock!" He dusts his hands on his cutoffs and slings on his pack. "God, I love this pack. I think he should give it to me. Ha!" He grabs his sticks. "Time to fly men, I'm meeting a friend at MTR for dinner." He raises his eyebrows twice to signal his meaning. We shake hands and he heads up toward the pass.

"I guess we should also get going," says Duane.

"Do you believe all that?" I ask.

"Heck if I know," he replies.

Photo by Duane Bindschadler

We near the summit. We step over a well-furrowed snow field and reach the crest. It's windy. There are top-of-the-earth views to the east and west. I am feeling good. My pack feels like part of me. My legs are strong. I notice with smug satisfaction that Duane was sucking wind on the last switchback. All that conditioning misery is paying off. All those months of being thwarted by a wonky leg. It's all behind me now.

We descend rock-hewn, stair-stepped switchbacks towards Summit Lake. The lake is surrounded by a large green meadow. There are three young guys running like crazy across the meadow in our direction. They are cursing and waving their arms wildly in the air. We hurry in their direction.

Duane calls out, "You guys OK?"

The first guy yells back, "Mosquitos! Fucking mosquitos!" We meet on the trail. They bend over panting. Then we are all in a swarm of mosquitos. A thousand mosquitos. We all start waving our arms and dodging about.

"It's bad down there," says the second guy.

"Where you going?" asks the first guy?

"Desolation Lake," I say.

"Do us a favor? We are supposed to wait for our friend at Summit Lake. We're not sticking around. Will you tell him we split?"

I assume the worst. "Something wrong?"

"No, nothing's wrong," rebuts the third guy with a dismaying swing at 50 mosquitos. "He's just fishing."

The first guys continues, "He shouldn't be too far behind. Will you tell him to meet us at the campground?"

"We'll tell him," says Duane.

"Let's get out of here," urges the second guy and he starts up the trail.

Duane yells after him. "How will we know him?"

The first guy yells back. "He has a fishing pole."

Duane and I trade looks. "That helps," I say.

We walk briskly downslope leading a herd of mosquitos. I am bothered. "That's screwed up. Hiking partners should stick together. It's not safe."

"Maybe," answers Duane. "Depends."

"What if something happens?" I reply.

"Things do," he says with a swat at his neck. "But it's the mountains. Up here you make our own decisions."

Lower Desolation Lake. Evolution Group in the background
Photo by Duane Bindschadler
We boulder hop across the Humphrey Lake outlet which has flooded the trail. This is the point where we have to find the Desolation social trail. The junction is not marked. Luckily we find it easily and start our last 800 foot climb of the day.

The track is sketchy in places. We make a few wrong turns, but soon we are looking down on Lower Desolation Lake. If I ever wondered why I want to hike in the Sierras this view of the Evolution Range erases any doubt.

The afternoon wind picks up as we climb the 300 foot to the last ridge. Upper Desolation Lake spreads out below us: a big gouge left by a glacier, beneath snow-patched, treeless slopes, filled with transparent icy water. Tonight's destination. We hike to the west end of the lake and find a sheltered spot. It's not large — just enough room for our two tents—but mostly out of the wind. We set up camp.

Duane decides to take a nap in the shade of his tarp. I decide to head over to a sunny rock with a copy of "Slaughterhouse 5" which I pulled off my bookshelf at the last minute because it weighed less than 4 ounces. But I can't concentrate. Perhaps it's the theme that seems so out of place. Perhaps I'm sleepy from the altitude and lack of sleep. The wind picks up. The blue afternoon shadows consume my sunny spot and the temperature starts to drop. I decide that Duane has the right idea and climb into my tent and stretch out on my down bag and sleeping pad. It's very cozy up here.

Looking south from our camp at Upper Desolation Lake
Photo by Duane Bindschadler

ORT is the acronym for Operational Readiness Test. A term I've opted from my old colleagues at Space Systems Lab to describe the final days of testing prior to launch.

Jun 18, 2014

ORT#1: Day 0 -- The Drive

Today is the day. Duane arrives spot-on-the-dot. We toss our packs and bear canisters in the back. Lilalee gives me an extra nice hug. She waves lovingly in the rear view as we drive away.

I don't bother to say anything, but I'm not completely right. I need sleep. My mind is mud. It was a rough night. A case of pre-hike jitters plus an escalating quarrel with Lilalee which began because I didn't replenish the tomato paste. My life must have unraveled a dozen times before I dozed off. I don't know what it means. All's fine now, but I'm still numb in places.

I avoid the interstate and take the Crest Highway across the San Gabriels. Soon we at 4,000 feet among the peaks. I ritually pick out each: Strawberry Peak, Mt. Disappointment,San Gabriel Peak. It's reassuring. We roll down the windows. The air rushes in. The sky is deep blue. My head clears. My spirits lift.

We swoop through the curves past miles of blackened trees and slopes covered in Poodle-Dog Bush — the noxious harvest of the draught and the Station Fire. They say 5 million trees will be planted here. Might as well drain the ocean with an eye dropper. These once-shady slopes will never be the same.

At the Mill Creek Divide we encounter a traffic stop. Edison is stringing a new high-voltage line to the city from the desert. We pass twenty speechless minutes watching choppers ferry daredevil linemen on swaying winch lines between high-tension towers. What must these men talk about at dinner? "Nearly got wrapped around a seven-sixty-KV line today. How was your day? Would you pass the ketchup?" Those people leave me feeling limited and grateful. I was once at least fearless enough to horrify my parents. No longer. However, I can still dismay my friends.

We descend towards Palmdale. A view of Mojave opens up. We chat at things in the male way — no messy emotions. He tells me about the dysfunction back at Space System Labs: the real is still surreal; the busted still perfect; the incompetent still lionized. I now know this is normal. Hope is salve for disappointment. I sympathize and counsel that the NASA gods are cruel and indifferent. He resists because he is cursed with an optimistic nature and holds firm to the myth of the meritocracy. He cannot be won over by cynicism. He is marvel of fortitude.

We pass Lancaster, Rosamond and the big-jet boneyard at the Mojave airport. We marvel at the tilted rock in Red Rock Canyon. We pass the time exchanging episodes of old hikes. I have heard them before. Then the southern reaches of the Sierras climb up in the west and the basaltic escarpment on the far bank of the old Owen River Bed angles in from the east. That river once flowed to Death Valley where it soaked into the desert. There is something tragic about a great river that never makes it to the sea. Further north, we pass cinder cones and lava outcrops. The Sierra escarpment creeps closer to the road. There is snow on the high peaks.

We arrive in Lone Pine ahead of schedule. First stop: pick up our wilderness permits.

There's a line in the Visitors Center. Four guys in plaid shirts talk about how much beer to carry to Blue Lake. A scout master admonishes 6 teenage boys to stay near. A young couple in new hiking clothes stand quietly holding hands.

The ranger waves us over. He looks to be about my age. He has a spidery nose, ruddy cheeks and a belly that keeps him a half-foot away off the counter. I guess he spends more time in meetings than the mountains.

"What can I do to you gentleman today?" His tone is as weary as his sense of humor.

"We're headed up Piute Pass." Duane slides our confirmation email across the counter.

"I see," says the ranger. He marks two tallies on a sheet clamped to a clipboard then, with a groan, takes a permit from a counter drawer. "Gonna be like rush hour up there today. Ten dollars, please."

I hand him the money. He hands Duane the permit to fill out. "Any snow reports?" I ask.

"Not much snow. Lots of water. Hope you don't mind wet socks and a few skeeters." He shoves the money into the drawer. "You rookies know the rules? Don't shit or piss within a hundred feet of water. Don't camp within hundred feet of water. Don't bury your toilet paper, carry it out. etc. etc. etc."

We nod.

"Good." He whacks the permit with his stamp, initials it and sends us on our way.

"No snow. That's good." I say.

"Draught year" answers Duane.

It's too early to eat. We decide to drive on and have lunch in Bishop. I still want to take a picture of the Alabama Hills, so we take a short detour a few minutes up Portal Road. It's a no-photo op. The battery in my camera is dead as a doornail. I don't have a spare. "It's no big thing," I think. "I'll buy another in Bishop." But it doesn't feel that way. What else can go wrong?

We drive back to the 395. Just outside of Independence we pass two female hikers with their thumbs out.

"PCTers," says Duane.

I pull over. They jog up to the car with their backpacks bounding on their backs.

"We're going to Bishop?" shouts one.

"Hop in."

They are in their mid-twenties. Deeply tanned, very fit, and filthy. One wears pigtails that poke out from a baseball cap. The other wears a head scarf and carries a light-weight umbrella. I open the hatch and load up their gear. Pigtails carries maybe than 12 pounds. Umbrella, maybe 16.

They climb in the back and routinely buckle up like we're returning from soccer practise. Neither show the slightest concerned for getting in a car with two strange men.

"Sorry if we stink," says Pigtails. "I'm Dust Bunny. This is Pathfinder."

We introduce ourselves, but we don't have trail names. "We're head up to hike Piute Pass," says Duane. "He's training for the JMT."

"We see a lot of JMTers," says Dust Bunny.

Pathfinder chimes in. "How about that JMT dude who gave us the dried banana chips and Clif Bars. Wasn't that cool?"

"Yea. We ran out of food," explains Dust Bunny. "We're going to Bishop to resupply and meet our friends."

Damn. What could be more routine than running out of food? Why worry right? Some one will give you some food. Then you just hike out 10 miles and hitchhike another 60 — with a stranger from a society that harbors creepy predators. What could go wrong aside from everything? But that's OK. It's part of the adventure and thru-hiking is about overcoming your fears. It's like there's a thru-hiker magic guarantee against harm so long as you're on the trail. And damn. It's contagious. I feel it in these old bones. There's something about these two. Here, I'm just driving down the 395, and I feel like we've become part of their adventure.

"How long have you been hiking together?" asks Duane.

Dust Bunny folds her arms on the back of Duane's seat. "We met at Crabtree meadow."

"She a lot faster hiker than me," explains Pathfinder. I found out she also hiked the AT. At different times, but we both hiked it. It was amazing."

"Which do you like better?"

"AT!" exclaims Pathfinder. "It's so-o-o green. And no-o-o desert."

"I like the desert!" asserts Dust Bunny. "Night hiking. The stars. It is so cool"

"OK," says Pathfinder defensively. "But the water gets so heavy."

I bet. In some places it's 20 miles between water sources. The water isn't reliable. That means carrying 5 liters; an extra ten or twelve pounds in the sweltering heat on a shadeless trail where your sweat dries to a chafing grit. And, if you dry camp, there's no soaking your feet or splashing your face before crawling into your bag.

I glance in the rear view at at these two young women. They have endured all that. They are healthy, happy and meeting friends. It's like they are on 2-foot-wide, 2,000-mile-long amusement ride. Trail magic will provide. There's none of life's competitive pressures unless you count miles per day. The 64-year-old in me wonders if thru hiking is merely an escape or really living. The 25-year-old inside thinks, "If you can do the JMT, then maybe..."

During the 40 minute ride, we ply them with questions. Where are you from? (Portland/Cleveland) What did you do? (Restaurant/Substitute teach) Do you write a blog. (yes,yes) What do you do next?

"I don't know," says Dust Bonnie distinctly irritated. "Your questions are freaking me out."

"There's always another hike," says Pathfinder reassuringly.

"What about you. What do you guys do?" says Dust Bunny bluntly changing the topic.

Duane tells them about Space System Labs. "You know. We put the rovers on Mars?" He tells them about the cool things he does in operations. I tell them I'm retired.

"My grandfather is retired," says Pathfinder.

We let the PCTers out a block from the Bishop Hostel. Dust Bunny sees two scruffy guys and calls to them. She quickly thanks us and dashes away. Pathfinder grabs her pack hurries to catch up. After a few steps she turns back to say, "Thank you. Thank you. It's people like you who make it all worthwhile."

"I'm sorry to see them go."

"Me too," says Duane. "I'm hungry. And let's get that camera a battery."

Raymond's Deli is a noisy and crowded. Thru hikers everywhere. Most are millennials with a desert sunburn, scruffed up legs and filthy clothes. "Looks like we came to the right place," says Duane.

We get in line. The young woman behind at the register is goth. Her arms and neck are covered with tattoos. Her lips and nose are pierced. Her hair close cropped on one side and lime green on the other. I ask for a BLT.

"Is this your first time here?" she asks.


"The BLT is awesome, but you should try the Sub. They smoke the hams here."

"Is that all they smoke?"

"Very cute," she says. "Pick your drinks and sandwiches up over there."

The sandwiches are huge and delicious. We eat quickly. Neither of us can finish. Duane waits outside while I use the restroom. On the way out I see a freshly-showered, hiker look both ways and then stuff our half-finished remains in his pocket. He strokes his beard with self-satisfaction. It seems normal. It is the logic of the thru-hiker.

Our last stop in town is the camera store two doors down from Raymonds. "Good news. Bad news," says the clerk. They have the battery for my camera. It costs $60 and takes a day to charge.

"No problem," says Duane. "You can use my camera. Take as many pictures as you want."

One the way back to the car, I see Dust Bunny, Pathfinder and two guys enter Raymonds. I wave, but they don't notice.

Lower Lamarck Lake
Photo by Duane Bindschadler
The 20-mile road up to North lake is a steady 5-thousand foot climb. The views of the White Mountains are spectacular. The hairpin turns threatening. We find a wonderful campsite near North Fork Creek with convenient access to the camp pump and pit toilets. We'll be sleeping at 9,350 feet. Duane unloads our gear and I drive the car to the overnight parking area in a marshy area by the Lake. I am greeted by a thousand mosquitos. I am soon out of range. The sun is bright. The air clean and thin. My adventure is beginning. I am shaking with energy.

We are set up our tents and layout our bags. There's still plenty of daylight. We fill water bottles and set out for Lower Lamarack Lake. It's couple miles and a thousand feet up. Just the thing to shake out the stiffness after a long drive. The lake is tranquil. Duane suns on a rock. I stare into the rippling reflections of the surrounding mountains and reflect on the long road it took to get here.

We get back to camp in late afternoon. Duane brought the makings of chili burgers and chips. He makes a fire as the afternoon gives way to the evening chill. It will be cold tonight, but we're going to eat good. Tomorrow we hike.

Preparing for the rigors ahead

Jun 12, 2014

ORT #1: The plan

I feel strong. I can knock off the morning training hike without needing a transfusion: 30 pounds, 800 up, 800 down, 700 up, 700 down, 800 up and 800 down. My feet and hands are now calloused in the right places. I'm ready. Not JMT ready, but ready.

Don't get me wrong. These morning hikes are despicable. But to my astonishment, there's been a few unexpected pleasures.

For example, I don't grunt when I get off the sofa. I've been sleeping through the night for the first time since I can remember. And, while I've been eating like a glutton, friends are asking if I've lost weight. It's been such a joy saying, "I don't know," when I know perfectly well. But, best of all is this new respect at REI. I noticed it when I went to renew my stash of Picky Bars. Even that snarky bastard in the backpack section deigned to chit-chat. Believe me, I was standing tall in the checkout line.

Duane and I have been talking all week. Our plan has gelled. Come this time next Wednesday, we'll be hiking up Piute Pass on my first JMT ORT*. I can barely contain myself.

We'll meet at our place. I'll drive up. We'll stop in Lone Pine for lunch at the Alabama Hills Cafe for one of the best burgers on the planet. After lunch we drive up to Bishop to pick up our permits. Then we'll head into the Sierras for North Lake where we'll camp at 9,350. We should arrive at North Lake early enough for a day hike up to Lower Lamarack Lake. Hike high, sleep low they say, but neither of us is prone to altitude sickenss. That night Duane has promised to cook a fancy dinner. He's hinted at canned chili. We'll climb Piute Pass the next morning.

Our first day is a modest 8-miler up to Desolation Lake. The next day we'll climb over the col near Pilot's Knob and find a camp site near Elba Lake. That'll also be a short day. I'll probably take a day hike over to Steelhead Lake. On day three we hike down to French Canyon and camp near the North Lake trail junction. On day four we have a 10-miler out.

I'm sure to forget something, which is fine, so long as I don't forget to have fun.

* ORT is the acronym for Operational Readiness Test. A term I've opted from my old colleagues at Space Systems Lab to describe the final days of testing prior to launch.

Jun 6, 2014

No cheese please. No pescado either.

I'm standing in front of 40 bags of freeze dried food. Instead of concentrating on measures of couscous and dried peas, I'm making a mental list of all the things I might have inherited.

There's my Mom's good looks and good grades. There's my Dad's wit and grace on the dancefloor. There's grandma's dear and winning sweetness and my grandfather's bedrock principles and persuasive skills. All of which raises the question: of all things, why was it their digestion I inherited?

Scientific visualization of my diet
Regrettably, my food processing unit has more in common with biodiesel processor than I would care to describe. I have to be very picky about the fuel I carry on my hikes. No Cliff Bars. No Tuna or Turkey-a-la-king. No Shepherd's Potato Stew. Yet more proof that life is monstrously unfair.

My quest for the 2,500-calorie-a-day menu began a couple weeks ago. My first objective: the search for a perfect 200-calorie energy bar. I'll need an energy bar for breakfast, two for the morning snack and two for the afternoon snack. That's 5 per day or about a 20,000 energy-bar calories for a 20-day hike.

My mission took me took me to the Arcadia REI. I examined the ingredients of every energy bar on the shelf. (If you haven't tried this and you happen to rely on progressive lenses, don't forget your lab book, magnifying glass and campstool.) After surviving hours of wary looks from the Green-vest People, I left with a sack full of non-dairy candidates from Hammer, Kind Plus, Nature Valley, Picky, Pro Bar, Chia (not the plant), Pure Quaker, Rise and Two Moms.

It took a week of training hikes and blog lurking to chew through the lot. The result: I've ordered $120 worth of Picky Bars, $60 of Hammer Bars, $40 of Kind Plus Bars. I also rediscovered "The Comet Trail;" the blog written by our goddaughter's friend. She has portrayed a marvelous mountain world like a never-never land, apart for us, occupied by lost souls bound by the common causes of recklessness, discomfort and endurance. Her blog is resentfully addictive, absorbing, repelling and beautifully written. Despite the obvious foolishness, I seem to be drifting to this place where I will never belong. It was for another time in life.

I collect my thoughts and return to the task of assembling my food day. Breakfast is easy: 400 calories of oatmeal and raisins with a dash of the pink stuff. I wanted to include a milk substitute. My first experiment was with "Better-than-milk Vegan Soy." (A suggestion taken from Cheryl Strayed mostly because of the ludicrous name.) One sip was of this vile brew was enough; I'd rather have a glass of the cocktail prescribed for celebrating Colonoscopy Eve. (A holiday typically reserved for the plus 50 crowd.) I then tried powdered coconut and rice milks. Not for me. I searched the web for powdered almond milk. The closest supplier was in New Zealand. There will be no milk substitute on the trail.

Lunches were likewise a shoe in: trail mix, beef jerky and an almond-butter tortilla sandwich. That adds up to another 600 calories.

Adding up breakfast, lunch and snacks, I have now mustered 2,000 monotonous calories for my 2,500 calorie food day. Here comes the hard part: fashioning 500-to-600 calorie, dehydrated dinners that provide a scintilla of variety.

I needed ingredients, so I went to the blogs. Enter the miracles of Harmony House and Pack-IT Gourmet. With less culinary skill than it takes to boil water, I was able to obtain a wide pallette. Beefish bits (not beef or fish), black beans, broccoli, burger warp, cabbage, carrots, celery, chickenish bits (not chicken), corn, freeze dried chicken, freeze dried ground beef, freeze dried sausage, garbanzo beans, green beans, hamish bits (even suitable for a hasidic), jalapeno dices, kidney beans, leek flakes, lentils, navy beans, northern beans, onions, peas, peppers, pinto beans, potato, red beans, roast beef warp (2 serving/pack), spinach flakes, split peas, taco bits, tomato, tomato powder, tortilla soup, and vegetable soup mix. To round out the selection I stopped off at the grocery for bags of fideos, couscous, minute rice, oatmeal, raisins and beef jerky.

So here, I stand, completely buffaloed, unable to to decipher which combination of these dehydrates will amount to something edible.

Suddenly an old metaphor pops up from limbic memory: "...as moonlight unto sunlight is that desert sage to other greens..."1

Yes! Finally an inspiration. Maybe not for an appetite or a recipe, but for the chance at a recursive pun. How about: "As moonlight unto sunlight so is dehydrated food to real food." That proves it. My literary talent is at parity with my culinary talent.

If I ever do complete a menu, I will post it at this link. Bon appetite!

1. From one of a Susan Ward's beautiful letters to August Hudson.

Jun 2, 2014

Ties that bind

Bingo! Yosemite confirms! I now have a reservation for a solo hike of the John Muir Trail on September 4. Three days after this coming Labor Day, I'll be stepping off the Glacier Point Road at the Mono Meadow trailhead headed south for Whitney.

Someone probably needs to pull me off the ceiling. I feel like running up to Mt. Wilson with a 30-pound pack just to work off a little energy. But I'll have to cool my heels. We're going over to the Swonks' place tonight. Siobahn called. They just purchased some new art and Siobahn can't wait to show Lilalee. No doubt that smug bastard Swonk is probably enjoying the creature comforts having a happy spouse.

Art is subjective. Far be it from me to put a damper on all the cooing over a plain brown flower pot. But even Swonk is swaying back-and-forth, wrists planted on his hips, clearly self-satisfied with what he sees. I doubt Van Gogh got this much adulation.

"We found it in this hole-in-the-wall gallery on La Cienega." says Swonk. "A dump, run by this odd little fellow with a Russian accent."

"He's Czech dear." corrects Siohban. "You can't believe what's in there."

"Good prices," adds Swonk.

Lilalee shoots me a sideline glance. "We're going."

"There goes the camping budget," smirks Swonk and takes a pull on his Modelo. "But, You'll thank me later."

Siobahn gives Swonk a very stern look for his leering smile and takes Lilalee by the arm. "Come look at the print."

I pass before Swonk on the way down the hall. "Speaking of hiking..." he says with mocking jabs of the Modelo, "once again, you've been a bad influence on your goddaughter."

"Won't be the first time," adds Lilalee.

"Don't tell me. She's growing pot in the bath tub."

"Worse," says Swonk. "She's given notice at her job and gonna hike the damn Pacific Crest Trail."

"Honey," corrects Siobahn, "she's just going to do a section. It's only for a month." For Lilalee's benefit she adds, "Julie's going to join her friend Jennifer in Lone Pine. You remember Jennifer?"

"Of course," says Lilalee. She was that clever girl that came to our New Year's Party." What she doesn't say is that Jennifer is the young woman who stormed out of our party because I insulted her. Not my most shining moment.

We gather around the print. We study in silence. It's a surreal ink and watercolor of a young woman singing: could be karaoke, could be a leader of a future matriarchy. A bit on the racy side. Full whimsy and vitality. Completely out of step with the rest of Swonk's art. No cheery flowers or bicycles or fruit baskets. No settled beauty.

"What do you think?" asks Siobahn.

"I love it!" declares Lilalee.

I nod approvingly.

"Don't you I think she looks a bit like Julie?" asks Siobahn.

"Right," mumbles Swonk. "And I look like Scarlett Johansson."

If you ask me, she looks a lot like Julie's friend Jennifer. But no one is asking

The girls are drinking tea. Swonk and I split a Modelo. We nibble at pretzels and cookies. As usual, the conversation drifts to our greatest shared interest, their daughter Julie — especially when there's a crisis at hand.

"I figure she's now had her fling with the East Coast," says Swonk. He sighs. "I was hoping she was ready to get serious."

"Where's she gonna stay?" asks Lilalee

Siobahn scowls at Swonk and declares for his personal benefit, "She's gonna stay here as long as she wants." She defies any contraction with a challenging smile that suspends the topic. "Well, enough on that. Nothing's more boring than the All Swonk Network. What's new with you? How goes the hiking?"

For no reason other than to move past this awkward moment, I raise my Modelo and proclaim, "Got my JMT permit today. I'm leaving on September 4th."

Lilalee releases her cup with a clatter. "That's nice to know."

That singular edge in her voice leaves no doubt. I have stepped over some tipping point which is prelude to our worst fights. After these years of living together, I should know that when it comes to me, she better know first. Knowing what others don't is a sign above all others of our mutual trust. She is to be my exception. I am to be hers. Aside from the matter of fidelity, this precious sharing is to be ours alone. And while I understand the concept, I've never held it dear and resent what amounts to an accusation of betrayal when none has occurred. A stubborn, silent resistance wells up.

Siobahn sees immediately that the evening is over. Swonk, interested only in the facts asks, "Who are you going with?"

Lila injects with my answer. "He's going with Duane. A friend from work."

I issue a correction in a tone of infallibility I perfected as a manager of recalcitrant programmers. "Actually, that's just for this shakeout hike. I'm hiking alone. The permit is solo."

Lilalee is now visibly cross. "Why can't Duane go?"

"How should I know? I didn't ask. He's got a job and a family." In that moment I am reminded that I have more binds with these three people than anyone on earth. If anyone was to attend my funeral, it would be these people. And yet not one of them shares my exuberance, my exhilaration, for my date at the Mono Meadows trailhead. You would think I was trying to outdo Shackelton or Scott. They are a bunch worryworts.

"Besides," I add dismissively, "thousands of people do it all the time. And, my leg is fine...more or less."

Swonk, as usual, gets right to the point. "Don't forget to leave instructions for your ashes."

We drive home with the radio. She says nothing. We are at loggerheads. She goes to bed early, but not before insisting that I find a hiking partner.

Is this the real meaning of 'human ties?' To hold you back? It shouldn't be this way. I deserve their support. If not, so be it. Nothing like a contrarian idea to lend a coherent focus to the job at hand. I can use the motivation. I've got a schedule to meet. I've got to nail down the menus. My first hike is only 17 days away.