A fellow decked out in camo pants and a 'god-bless-america' hat wanders over with a steaming cup. I recognize him. He was standing by this lopsided MSR tube tent and saluted us when we stumbled into camp. With a cheery smile he says, "You've got quite a spread there."
"Hope you don't mind if I'm not sharing."
"Nah," he says. "Just felt like being neighborly. I'm the fellow with the lopsided tent. Feel like some company? I'm tired of talking to myself."
I gesture at the bench across the table. "Talk away," I probably sound surly, but don't mean to be.
He takes no notice. "Some place, this Yosemite. Every been here before?"
"My first. I stayed at May Lake last night. Snow Creek before that."
"Where you headed?" I ask.
"Twin Lakes. Maybe." He takes a sip. "No place I have to be."
"That good or bad?"
"I don't know. Both, I guess." He makes a grand gesture. "I'm here. That's good. Other than that, I got laid off, which is cool because the contractor was an idiot and we were working in this shit hole called Naco while my kids are in Tucson. Then I met this cute girl who told me she was going to Yosemite and wanted to hike to Canada. She said lot of girls do it. Then I get an email from a service buddy who says come to Twin Lakes and go fishing. So since my kids are with the Ex for the summer, I figure why not? Here I am."
"Why not?" I reply. I can't resist people who seem to be a magnet for calamity. I wouldn't ask the guy to move in, but I feel for him and want to know more. I want to hear about his kids, how he met his wife, what he did in the service, where he grew up... It takes my mind of my pathetic little problems.
"What's with your hiking partner?" he asks. "The guy looked wounded."
"He's fine. Actually, he's not my partner. We just met on the trail." I leave it at that. I'm not up for the whole episode. Frankly, I'd rather forget.
I wake up and Bob is the first thing on my mind. I figure I'll just make sure he's OK before heading out. You can't just walk away when you're in the middle of nowhere and someone's in trouble.
I nose over to get a view of his campsite. He's sacked out in his bivvy. I decide to have my coffee and oatmeal then try again. I bang around to signal the start of the day. The sunlight peaks over the ridge that runs up to Shepherd Crest and through the trees. It's warms enough to stash the coat and gloves. I take another peak at Bob. Nada.
I strike camp. While I'm forcing my NeoAir into its compression sack, three families with kids swarm down the trail from McCabe junction. They line up at the edge of Return Creek and cross with a lot of commotion. It sounds like a birthday party.
That settles it. Bob's getting up or I'm leaving. I find him stretched out flat on his back. Only his nose pokes out of the bivvy. I repeat his name to wake him.
He looks up. "I couldn't sleep. I just want to stay here for now."
"Is that a good idea?"
He sits up and lays down and covers his eyes. "I don't feel right."
"How about some coffee?"
"I don't think so," he whispers.
I break cook set out of my pack and boil up some water. I don't know if it's a good idea, but I throw two packets of Folgers in the cup.
He takes a few sips, then a few more sips and says, "I think this helps. I'm gonna pee." He climbs out of the bag, promptly loses his balance, straightens up and staggers off into the trees. "Not good," I think.
When he returns he sits on the log and cradles his head. I ask how he's feeling.
"I might have some altitude sickness," he replies.
He finishes the coffee. I size up the situation. We're only at 8.5K, but he has a history. I can't say for sure, but Bob may be in trouble.
"Are you a Trekkie?" asks Bob. "Remember the Rigelian fever episode where Kirk and McCoy beamed down to get ryetalyn? Some people say it was just a pun, but I think it really refers to Rubinite which can only be obtained from meteorites."
"I think you need to hike down."
He stares at me. Tears come into his eyes. "Do you think so?"
"I do," I say. "I'll walk with you." He starts to weep. "Go on," I say. "Get packed."
He stands, wipes his face and thanks me. Then thanks me again. Once I see he's started to strike his gear, I go back and grab a couple of Picky Bars. We've got a 500-foot climb and 8 miles to Glen Aulin. He'll need to eat something. I return with the Bars to find him sitting on a rock.
"I used to live in LA," he says. "I was testing circuit boards. That's what I did in the service. Then I just left. I wanted to live in the mountains."
"Eat these. You'll need some food for the hike."
"Not bad," he says. "I have to get some. What are they?"
It takes the better part of an hour before we hike out. We start up the slope. He is slow; less than a mile-an-hour slow. He stops every hundred yards or so. "Keep going. Keep going. Go Slow." I say. "Go slow." Half-way up the ridge to McCabe junction he has to sit down.
"I can't go on," he says.
"Yes you can," I say. "I'll get you another Picky Bar." This time I hand him a Smooth Caffeinator. And then I grab two more packets of Folgers. I stir the packets in cold water until they dissolve.
"Did I tell you that Jerry Garcia's grandchildren went to my school? Jerry came and played for the kids. Do you know the Little White Duck?" He sings it. "There's a little white duck sitting in the water, a little white duck doing what he oughter..."
"What is it?"
"Espresso. You'll feel like new."
It takes us ninety minutes to traverse the saddle. One mile down; seven to go. As we loose elevation, Bob needs fewer breaks, but every 5 minutes he'll stop so I must still must remind him "Keep going. Keep going. Go slow."
Half way across the long meadow, we stop under a tree for lunch. I make us some tortilla and Justin Almond Butter wraps. We much on trail mix and jerky.
The remainder of the hike is a long, slow, monotonous trudge at an erratic pace. Two strides. Stop. Three strides. Stop. Two strides stop. Hikus interruptus. And my voice becomes hoarse from repeating, "keep going, keep going, go slow." I grow weary and oblivious to the surroundings. I am focused on the dirt strip and hang on to one idea. This day will eventually be over.
By the time we plod into Glen Aulin, there's a chill in the air — it's taken nearly 10 hours to hike 8 miles. The atmosphere here is festive. A fire is smoking in the fire pit. Guests are drinking from long stemmed glasses. A fellow with a Santa Claus beard is picking out a Cole Porter tune on a banjo. A woman 30 years his junior is singing with conviction from a lyric sheet.
We pass through through main camp to the backpackers camp like a pair of fugitives. I find a spot for Bob. Who should be in the next campsite, but my old buddy Nancy — from two days ago at the Tuolumne Meadows backpackers camp. She greets me if I just returned from a long absence. "How wonderful! Great to see you. I thought you were going to Swiss Lake."
"Matterhorn Canyon," I correct wearily. "I was just helping Bob here."
"Oh my!" says Nancy. "Can I help?"
Without the bother of any introductions, Nancy assumes full responsibility for Bob's fate. She helps him pick a spot for his bivvy, secures a hot meal for him in the Camp office, and arranges a pony ride back to Tuolumne tomorrow on the afternoon pack train. I make no objection. Would you if someone offered to carry your 80-pound pack?
"So tell me," I ask the fellow in the "God Bless America" cap, "What's with your tent. Never seen one quite like that before."
"I imagine you hadn't," he says and rubs his cup between his palms as if to warm it up. "It wasn't always like that." He takes off his cap and swipes at a full head of hair. "Here's the deal. I was getting my Wilderness permit down in Yosemite Village. The Ranger says, 'There's a smart bear up there at Snow Creek. He's been rolling the canisters into the creek and pushing them down stream until they fall off the edge and bust open down on the rocks. He's been eating good.'"
"So I figure I'm not losing my food to some dumb bear. When I set up camp at Snow Creek, I put my canister as far from the creek as possible. And just to be sure, I pile my cook gear on top of the canister. That way, if the bear fiddles with the canister, there will be a crash so I'll wake up and chase the sucker off. I went to sleep feeling pretty good about myself."
"Now, it's the middle of the night. I'm sound asleep. There's a big crash. I sit up wide awake. Next thing I know, my tent punches down right where my head was. All that clatter had scared the bear OK, but he ran off right over my tent. See I didn't think that there was only one escape route. That son-of-bastard would have flattened my head. As it is, I now have a tent with a big dent."
"Better than a head with a big dent."
"You can say that again," he says. "I can see the headlines back home. Bear flattens local man's head," "But he didn't; did he? Shit. I think I'm going to like it out here in the wilderness. Maybe I'll even meet some girls."
I'm happy for Mr. God-Bless. As for me, it's time to head home and start preparing for the real hike.