Jul 23, 2014

Change of Plans

I dump the contents of my bear canister on the picnic table: 1 ersatz spaghetti dinner, 1 beef-onion-couscous concoction, 3 oatmeal-raisin bags, 5 Picky Bars, 3 Pro Bars, 1 Kind Bar, 1 Justin Almond Maple, 2 Justin Almond Chocolate, 4 tortillas, 1 half bag of Beef Jerky, 1 half bag of Trail Mix, and just 2 instant Folgers. That's it. The math is clear. Unless I hump 16 miles tomorrow, I'd be eating air before I could get back from any hike to Matterhorn Canyon.

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?"

"Many times."

"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.

Return Creek

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..."

"Drink this."

"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.

Bob points up the ridge to the west and mutters, "Smoke." I check. Sure enough, there's a fire on the mountain. The good news: his brain seem connected to reality. Ten tons lift from my shoulders. So long as we don't get caught in a massive wildfire, the worst is over.

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.

As we approach the southern perimeter of the long meadow, a fire crew breaks through the brush. They make a fine sight crossing the meadow in a high-stepping single file. It's as if they are whistling in unison. We rendezvous. They are head for Tuolumne tonight. Hot food and hot showers. There's no holding them back. They depart with cheery salutations and are gone from view in 10 minutes.

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.

Jul 22, 2014

Walking away from it all

I awake to hushed voices, ripping zippers and the hiss of nylon being stuffed and folded. The sky has brightened out. The woods are echoing with clucks of chipmunks and calls from Stellar Jays. It's trail day.

I pull on some clothes and head down to splash some water on my face. Doug and Nancy are still in their tents, but much of the camp has stirred to life. A woman passes me struggling under the weight of two water carriers. A mom dishes porridge into the bowls five yawning children. A solo with earbuds flashes me the peace sign. A scowling park employee in rubber boots motors past in a utility cart loaded down with buckets and mops. There's a job I do not want.

The toilette is dark but for a faint glow. I barely pick out shapes. Two men are deliberating between stalls. "You gotta take the Lewis Creek trail," says one. "Amazing views."

"Done it. Twice." responds another. "Ever do Red Peak from Washburn Lake?"

"Not yet."

"Dude! Gotta do."

Back in camp, waiting for my oatmeal to hydrate, I have a front-row view of the morning exodus. It's like watching a dance from the sidelines. Three determined twenty-something guys race past with clacking sticks. Two older guys with fishing rods protruding like antennas from their packs give a sharp salute. A couple of gesticulating young women in trail runners and matching gaiters stride off while sharing an energy bar. A group of gabbling families amble past with impatient teenagers in the lead.

The sight of all those happy pairings stirs an old and fickle yearning. At one moment it says, "you are left out." The next it clamors to bolt the idiocy of group think. It wants what it cannot have and has what it does not want. I decide to break camp. I will not make myself crazy. Never mind about Doug or Nancy. Time to go. I'm not here for social obligations. I'm here for the solace of the Sierras.

My route follows the PCT north from Tuolumne Meadows through Glen Aulin to Matterhorn Canyon. The trail start about a half-mile north of the campground down a gravel road, across a busy highway and past Lambert Dome.

The first stretch is a dusty service road. It's a busy morning. A troop of scouts is up ahead is kicking up a ton of dust. A young couple passes. They carry lightweight packs and appear to be on a long walk. I remember them from last night's campfire. Then three shirtless studs with sunburned shoulders blow by like I'm standing still. You just expect this walking the PCT in Yosemite. I'm not concerned. The traffic should subside after Glen Aulin. It's out of range for day hikers and the PCT herd is long gone.

I catch up to the scouts at the junction to Young Lakes. They are all seated and munching matching oatmeal bars. The scout master is providing instruction. "A thousand years ago, Roman legions marched 30 miles per day. They could do this because they rested for 10 minutes every hour. You can too." I know this is incorrect, but no one seems to be listening, so I nod and walk on. The scout master gives me two thumbs up. I give him one.

Cathedral and Unicorn peaks off to the south
The Tuolumne River converges with the trail at the northwest corner of the big meadow. I stop for a parting view of Cathedral Peak. Wisps clouds streak past overhead. I would welcome some overcast. It's humid and I'm already sweating. It's been four days. I'm grungy.

The trail undulates through Jeffrey pines along side the River. A flock of Bushtits follow along like they are curious about some strange creature. The woods open onto a sequence of granodiorite slabs. Each slab is the size of a neighborhood. I follow the cairns across.

I remember this place. I was here 30 years ago with the Swonks. That was before I met Lilalee. We went down a granite slab to the River and walked a ways down stream where we found a cove with a granite beach and a pool with a sandy bottom. I seemed like paradise.

I decide to look. I follow the slab down and search downstream. I find it. It is a lovely as I remember. I dump my pack on a boulder and walk down to the water. It is cold, but the rock is warm and spot sunny. I look around. This place is secluded. Why not take a dip?

I dig out my camp towel and undress. I place my glasses carefully on the boulder and walk in slowly, which is painful and pointless. I plunge. The cold knocks the breath out of me. It is much too cold for swimming or splashing about. I dunk a few times to rub off the grime before I reach my shivering limit and walk out onto the rock into the gloriously warm sun.

There's a horse whistle. "Whooo-hoo! Whooo-hoo!"

Three women are standing on an outcrop across the river. They are waving big and friendly. "Whooo-hoo! Whooo-hoo!"

My limbic doppelganger dumps a double dose of adrenaline. I am mortified. I grab my towel and dash for the trees. The show is over; they leave. I grab my clothes. I nearly pitch over in a haste to be decent and then scurry away as if escaping the scene of a crime. My thoughts are a jumble of shame and exasperation. It's not like I'm 20. The sight of me is more likely to scare than thrill. Forty years ago I would have waved back with the towel. And now...? I never meant to be proper. Like pretty much everything else, it's not what I intended.

No sooner do I rejoin the trail than I encounter a female forest park ranger with a shiny badge and a side arm. She sizes me up as if she can tell I've done something wrong.

"Good morning sir," she says in that officially polite way that demands cooperation despite being six inches shorter and about as old as our god daughter. "May I see your permit?"

I drop my pack and fish the permit from the upper pocket. Something about the gun makes her seem vulnerable, more so that the dozens of solo women I've seen on the trail. Without thinking, I stupidly blurt out, "Are you out here by yourself?"

"Yes, sir," she says. "I'm a commissioned law officer."

"That was a stupid. I apologize."

"No apology needed." She hands back the permit. "Please keep this with you at all times." With a reprimanding look she adds, "It's a $200 fine to hike without a permit." She waits to see if I understand and then, with mock gravity, she continues, "But then you already have a permit don't you?" She breaks out a big toothy grin and she departs. Her stride is quick and graceful. Her pack is big and heavy. She carries it as if it was was filled with feathers. Just our of earshot, I hear her say, "Have a good hike."

As I head on toward Glen Aulin it's with some regret that I didn't learn more about her so I think up a story as a way of becoming acquainted.

View from the bridge at the top of Tuolumne Falls 

The trail climbs up and above the river before crossing a bridge at the top of the Tuolumne Falls. From the bridge, there's a long view to the west down Tuolumne canyon. The trail then climbs up and around gaining artistic perspectives of the water roaring down the granite.

I come across a dozen teen-age girls and moms having lunch on an mist-swept outcrop. Their packs are neatly piled together. The girls are laughing, screeching and taking pictures. Their joy is infectious. I stop to watch the glinting water, the girls and the rising mist. I kick something. There's a horseshoe in the dirt at my feet.

I pick it up. One of the moms approaches with a smile. "Whatcha got there?"

"Luck, I hope."

"Gonna keep it?" she asks. I offer it to her. "No, but thanks," she says, "I don't think you can keep luck."

She explains they are a church group from San Bernardino on a 3-day trip down Tuolumne Canyon. "Are you hiking alone?" she asks. "Would you like to join us for lunch? We have plenty." I decline. She insists on taking my picture. As much as I would like, I can't quibble when people are this kind.

I carry the horseshoe down to the Glen Aulin camp office. I figure the wranglers who run the pack trains might need it. I knock on the screen door.

"We're closed," calls a voice from somewhere inside.

I call back, "I found this horse shoe and I just want to drop it off."

"Wait a minute."

A tall, thin fellow in an apron with a queue down well down his back and two ear piercings steps out. I hand him the horseshoe. He turns it over and feels it's heft. "Cool man. We need these to play horse shoes. This is a good one. If you stick around we can play a game."

"Love to but..."

"I know," he says. "Everyone is going somewhere." As an after thought he adds, "Want an apple? We have an extra."

I take the apple, grab a bench seat by the fire ring, and meditate on the roar of the Tuolumne River as it crashes down the White Cascade. I break out my usual lunch of a Justin's Almond butter tortilla, beef jerky, trail mix, and water. An older fellow, well into his 70's takes an adjoining bench and opens a book. We trade nods. "What are you reading?" I ask.

"A spy novel," he answers. "I don't read serious books any more. Too depressing. Where you headed?"

"McCabe Lake or maybe just Return Creek."

"Been there often," he says. "I've hiked all over these mountains. Do it while you can."

"I'm trying."

"You can't count on things," he adds oblivous or indifferent to my answer. He points to a beetle crawling in the dust near our feet. "See that beetle? His fate rests entirely in our hands. One minute he exists, boom, the next he's just molecules. The way I see it, we're just beetles waiting on the irrational judgement of some higher order. That's why I read spy novels." He cracks a big and clearly ironic smile. "What do you read?"

A lady about my age with pink streaks in her hair steps out of a tent cabins and takes a bench across from us. The older fellow leans over and, in sotto voice, says, "I think she's kinda cute, but somebody ought to tell her she's not 20 anymore. That pink makes her look desperate. Good talking to you son."

He walks over and takes a seat by the lady. I cannot hear what they say, but I can see she is laughing.

The trail climbs out of Glen Aulin through a mile of forest. Almost no one is on the trail. A mom and her adult daughter pass me on their way to Sonora Pass. They are celebrating her 50th birthday.

The forest opens onto an enormous meadow. There are views of Mount Conness and Sheeps Peak to the east. This is a long, waterless, uphill stretch with a gentle grade. A half-dozen deer graze at the far end of meadow. They scatter. A southbound couple comes into view. They must have spooked the deer.

Cold Canyon
We stop to chat. They a very attractive pair in their forties with ULA packs, Leki poles and natty safari shirts. He is tall, tan and muscular and hikes hatless showing off perfectly-groomed hair. She has bright blue eyes, long black hair, and presents a distractingly impressive display of cleavage. Something about them seems gaudy.

"How far to Glen Aulin?" he asks.

"Couple hours." My answer is terse. I personally avoid the question. Seems to me you either know the way or will find out on my own.

"We are section hiking the PCT," he says. "We've just come from Twin Lakes."

"We done all of Southern California," she says.

"Cool," I respond with trumped up enthusiasm.

She squints at me. "You look familiar." she says with a squint. I have no clue about this woman except that her breasts are making it hard to concentrate. "Do you write a blog? Backpack something?"

The words are like a slap in face. "You read it?"

"Sometimes," she says. "I don't like it all that much. It's not my thing, I like the ones like Wild about hiking. Isn't it something though?"

"Quite a coincidence," I say. I don't say that every other person she passes on the trail is probably also writing a blog.

"Maybe you'll mention us."


We part with handshake. They were giving me a headache.

It is well into the afternoon when I reach the far end of the meadow. My my legs are tired. My feet ache. My thoughts drift in and out of the unknown, except for moments of clarity about my feet. I want to press on the McCabe Lake junction before stopping. It's just 400 feet up.

By the time I get there it feels like 4,000. I drop my pack. I grab a Picky Bar from a side pocket, stretch out on a log and stare up at clouds as they scoot past the trees in a blue sky. I want to hike up to McCabe Lake, but that is another 2 miles and another 800 feet up. I'm tempted to just hike down to Return Creek. It put me closer to Mattherhorn. I won't have that kind of option on the JMT.

As luck would have it, a couple comes scuffling down the trail from McCabe Lake. We introduce ourselves. They use trail names. He is Greensleeves and she is Bellbottoms. Greensleeves tells me they are celebrating their tenth anniversary by repeating their honeymoon trip.

"We drank champagne again at Roosevelt Lake," he says.

"That's not all we did again," whispers Bellbottoms squeezing against him.

After they squeeze a bit more he asks, "Where you headed?"

"I'm debating about Lower McCabe Lake."

"Hope you don't mind skeeters," warns Bellbottoms. "I don't, but some people do."

"So true honey," he says to her and adds, "There's enough bugs up there to suck an elephant dry. Now you could go over the col. Hardly any bugs at Roosevelt."

This make the calculation simple. Unless I'm escaping a war zone, I'm not going over any col alone for the first time without a map or reading about the route. I thank them profusely and make my get away to Return Creek. A little of the love bird business goes a long way.

The trail crosses McCabe Creek just a few hundred yards before Return Creek. The McCabe crossing is muddy affair but a trail crew is camped there. Two guys and a woman are bathing just above the trail. A couple of men are poking sticks in a small fire. One fellow is leaning on a rock toking a joint. He waves. I feel like an intruder and walk on.

Return Creek
Minutes later I drop my pack by Return Creek. By chance I have stumbled upon a very tempting campsite. It is about 20 feet to close to the creek, but it's well established. There's a fire ring, sitting log and cozy patch of pine needles between two trees.

I see that another backpacker has already set up about about 100 feet away. I walk over and introduce myself. "Mind if set up over there?"

"Help yourself," he says. "I'm Bob."

I make camp and then head over to the creek to clean up and filter water for dinner, breakfast and tomorrow's hike. The afternoon fades quickly and I add layers as the temperature drops. I boil some water and hydrate tonight's special: red bean chili with rice. While the beans soak it is a good chance for some neighborly chit chat with Bob.

Bob is cowboy camping. He is laying on his side and sits up as I approach.

"Don't mean to intrude."

"I was just resting for a minute. Got a headache."

He doesn't look well. "If you want to chat later, come on over. I'm just going to go eat."

He nods. "I'm not hungry." He gets on his feet slowly. He is unsteady. To my surprise, he follows me back.

Some people are slow to start talking. Not Bob. "I came over from Virginia Lakes," he says. "I'm on a 10-day trip. I just had this knee replaced. It's a bit swollen but fine. I'm just getting back into it. I'm from Sonoma. What about you?"


"I used to live in LA when I got out of the service. Then I got work in Kings Canyon. Stayed 5 years. Did a lot of cooking. I've hiked all over the Sierras. Used to be good friends with Ranger John up in Vidette Meadow. Ever been there? Beautiful. So pretty. But I had to quit the Park after the helicopter rescue. Now I live in Sonoma. What do you do?"

"I'm retired," I say with the dawing realization that something's isn't right with Bob.

"I'll retire some day. Now I'm a librarian. Elementary school. Jerry Garcia's grand daughter went there. He came by once and played The Little White Duck. You know... "there's a little white duck sitting in the water, a little white duck doing what he oughter..."

"You were rescued?"

"That was a long time ago. 25 years. I had brain swelling. They were mean in the helicopter. Every one was shouting. It wasn't my fault. Somebody called them. That's how I met Becky. My wife. She's a nurse. I don't make much money. She's good to me, but I have to make my own gear. I made this down down poncho. Made my sleeping bag too. I learned to sew in the service. It's easy. You should try."

I'm worried. We are only at 8,400 feet but Bob isn't right.

"You should eat something. Can I make you some tea?"

"No thanks. I'm just tired," he says. "I was planning to go to Miller Lake tomorrow, but I think I'll just stay here for a while. I've done a lot of hiking. I've hiked all over the Sierras."

"Do you think you have altitude sickness?"

"I don't think so. I haven't had it in a long time. 10 years."

"You mean the helicopter rescue?"

"No, that was the first time." He presses his forehead with his hand. "I don't feel great. Do you think I might have altitude sickness?"

"Wait here," I say and head from my tent to get some Diamox. I think better of it. He might be allergic. I get some ibuprofen instead.

When I return he has gone. I walk over to his cowboy camp. He's lying on his bivvy."Take this," I say. "It'll help."

He nods and swallows the pills.

"Let's talk in the morning. OK?"

I walk a little ways from camp and lie down on a rock with a clear view of the sky. It's not quite dark, but Vega, Deneb and Altair are steady and bright like old friends. I lie there thinking until the milky way is visible. This wasn't the day I expected. But then I don't know what I expected, except it wasn't this. One things certain; you just don't leave someone in the mountains.

Jul 21, 2014

Denizens of the Wilderness

It is the middle of the night. I startle from a deep sleep. Someone is shining a light on me in my tent. I fumble for my glasses and stare out. There are three headlamps. Three shadowy figures. I shield my eyes.

The figures say:

"This is our site."

"The motherfucker."

"Let's make him move."

My adrenaline is pumping. My thoughts clear. "Go away. I'm trying to sleep."

They reply:

"We were here first."

"Told you this would happen."


Someone from across the way yells, "Quiet."

They tone it down:

"Let's split before a ranger comes."

"What about our stuff?"

"Fuck him. Fuck the ranger."

They head over to the bear locker. It opens with a screech and a clank. They bang around in there. I holler, "Don't touch that canister!"

One shouts back,"Fuck you."

I grab my pants and thrash about trying to get my feet through. A leg gets caught on a something. I can't find my light. Thwarted, frustrated; I stop struggling. What would I to do anyway? Three of them. Me?

I hear their gathered voices across the way. The locker clanks shut and they crunch off in the darkness. It is still again. The frogs and crickets resume their chant. I slip on my camp shoes and climb out to check. The canister is untouched. I undress and lie sleepless forever, listening for any cracking sound in the trees.

By the time I awake, the sun is already flickering through the trees. My thoughts are as clear as mud; my legs are lead. The coffee and freeze-bag oatmeal help, but I'm all jitters. My motivation is gone; I want to quit; go home; shower and lay on the couch.

Then something automatic kicks in. I force myself to break camp. I shoulder the pack and begin walking in the direction of Harden Lake. It's one foot in front of the other until I lose time and find my pace. Then the trail beckons and I'm striding along with that feeling of independence that comes from being one with a pack on your back.

The route to Harden Lake follows the old Tioga Road above the middle fork of the Tuolumne. A blackish trickle meanders in the wash below. I try to image the wagons that drove through here hauling supplies up to and silver down from Tioga Pass.

After a mile, the trail veers onto a single track and descends through a burn zone. The Rim fire burned through here a year ago, but the air is acrid as a whiff of last night's campfire. There are few signs of rebirth, but the desolation is menacing and primal.

Past the burn zone, the woods thicken and fingers of a bracing and chilly fog seep into the woods. The cool air feels good. I breathe deeply and realize: despite all the tumult, my breathing was good all night. No panting. No altitude illness! Maybe I have beat the demon.

At first sight, Harden lake is a shriveled disappointment of the place we picnicked a decade ago. The shore has retreated; grasses are are brittle and brown. I find the very boulder where Lilalee sunned and read a passage from a European poetess I'd never hear of and don't remember. It's lapping of the shore I remember.

No reason to stop. I turn east. The descent and the desire to see carry me along. I cross a steamy meadow in the last blush of its spring bloom, a slippery seep swarming with mosquitoes, and an open airy woods. A breeze kicks up. Big, bright, battleship clouds steam across the sky. I come to a outcrop with a grand view across Tuolumne Canyon. I drop my pack, grab a Picky Bar and get comfortable. Matterhorn canyon is out there. I'll be there in a couple of days.

View across Tuolumne Canyon.

Tuolumne is a bustle. Cars, tour buses and RVs stream past. Clots of tourists kick up dust clouds as they cross the meadow to Parson's Lodge. Brightly-colored climbers dangle from Lambert Dome. Backpackers by the hundreds shuffle along in every direction. Everywhere you look, people are busy being on vacation.

I pull into the Tuolumne Market to use the pay phone. I promised to let Lilalee know everything is fine. I pass a group of gritty hikers laying about the shaded picnic tables by the phones. A deeply-tanned young woman with hair tied up in a bandanna and wearing a stained, yellow crew-neck has attracted a circle of trim young men. They wear REI approved sunglasses, have flat stomachs, tan legs and long hair. She sips a beer while one offers advice for shooing off a bear.

I leave Lilalee a message and go inside to renew my supply of energy bars. While on line to pay, I overhear a woman in a spotless pair of hiking pants, new boots and gold earrings complain about the wait to enter the park. "It's just awful." The man next in line agrees with a pitying nod, but he may just be trying to avoid a conversation.

I leave the market and start driving around for a place to park for four days. I get lucky. I find a spot north of Lambert Dome across from the best bear lockers in Tuolumne. I've tried them all: the Wilderness Center, Lambert Dome, Tuolumne Lodge, the Cathedral Lakes, or Elizabeth Lake. There's no better bear boxes this side of Murphy Creek. There's no trash. A human can open the doors. There's so much available space here you could have an entire locker to yourself for days.  Don't tell anyone.

I close up the car, heft my pack and cross the highway to the Wilderness Center. There must be a fifty backpackers prepping for the trail: changing clothes, stuffing gear, and sorting through resupply boxes. Some are sleeping on the hoods on their cars; others gathered in lunch pow-wows.

I queue for my permit. I'm tenth in line behind a couple. When we exchange pleasantries. He is a half-head taller than me, athletic, pre-maturely grey hair, boyish face, shinning teeth and strong chin. She is long necked with clear skin, long dark hair, attentive deep-blue eyes, and an alluring figure. Men and women are stealing glances at her. She is not quite young enough to be his daughter.

"Looks like we've got a wait." I say in a cheery attempt not to sound like some funny-looking bald guy.

"Goes fast," he says.

The line advances and we shuffle our packs forward.

"Where you headed?" I ask.

"We're doing the JMT... if we get a permit."

"We will get a permit," she asserts. "Quit fretting." She gives him a mock scowl and then pulls three Hacky Sacks from her pack and starts to juggle.

"You?" he asks taking no notice of the juggling.

"Matterhorn Canyon," I answer staring at her. "She's juggling," I add as if it wasn't perfectly obvious.

"She does that," he says.

She lets the sacks fall into her hand and and holds them out to me. "Want to try?"

"No. No," I say in an effort to be clever. "I know my limits. No point advertising them. Hah! Hah!"

She shrugs. A paralyzing wave of neurotic doubt passes through me.

She resumes juggling, performs a few fancy stunts and stuffs the sacks back in her pack. She turns to him and says, "Shouldn't you call before we leave?"

"Good idea," he says and takes out his cell.

"I don't think that works here," I say helpfully. "There's a pay phone at the store."

"Ah! I have a signal," he says and wanders off a bit. I hear him say, "Hi honey."

She gives me a defiant look as if to dare me to form a conclusion.

The line advances.

"I hear we could get some weather tomorrow," I say.

"Weather happens," she says.

We wait in an uncomfortable silence until he rejoins. We exchange a few more pleasantries, but it's clear they have no interest. Twenty minutes later, they exit the Wilderness Office flashing their JMT permit.

The late afternoon walk from the Wilderness center to the Backpackers Camp is a hot slog through slippery sand and gravel. I prowl the length of the camp hoping for a quiet site away from the RVs. It's like walking through a exhibition of outdoor gear: all the latest in inner and outerwear drying on tree limbs, artistic displays of the latest titanium cooksets and a full spectrum of shelters including tunnel tents, tarp tents and free standers. Tarp tents are most common. A couple demonstrates the struggles of hanging a tent hammock. A red-headed fellow with a corona of beard and hair secures his bivvy to a picnic table with a bear canister. Further down, an older guy luxuriates in an airy Zpacks Duplex tent while from reading from a smart phone. I stop to admire. His tent is twice the volume and half the weight of my UL-1. The guy looks up and I give a double thumbs up.

I do not see another solo.

Tuolumne Meadows Backpacker Camp

The only unoccupied site is by the camp entrance. I plop my pack on the table, and stake my claim with the five-dollar deposit. There will be no doubt about this campsite.

I find a cozy pile of pine needles and then erect the UL-1, inflate the Neoair mattress and Exped pillow, spread out the SubZero +20 and dive in for a nap. It feels great. I'm in heaven. But the sun is blasting the tent and, in 15 minutes, I am in a dripping sweat. I slither out, snatch the pillow and stretch out on the picnic table in the dappled shade of a Jeffrey pine.

I wake fuzzy headed and thirsty. I need a bathroom. I need water for cooking. I collect my toothbrush and two-litter bottle. On the way to the bathroom, the guy in the next site quips, "Saw some good logs?"

The bathroom is down by the RVs and truck campers. The floor is wet; the room gloomy. A father is looking after two little boys. The oldest is maybe eight; the youngest maybe four. Dad shepherds the younger boy into a stall and patiently provides detailed instructions.

The older boy waits impatiently by the sink. He looks up at me and explains, "He's too little to know how."

"It's ok," I say. "One day you boys will be big."

"I'm already big," replies the boy.

I circle the building to fill my 2-liter bottle. The sign over the basin reads, "Do Not Wash Clothes." A tweener girl is there. She stands away basin with her arms wrapped around a jug. Her face is creased. She is concerned. I walk over an look in. There's a bloated, dead squirrel. It has started to smell.

"Is it safe?" she asks.

"What do you say we fill up at the next one?"

"I know where it is," she says.

I follow.

The afternoon is fading. I'm waiting for my fideo, powdered-tomato-paste, mushroom and sausage-bit spaghetti dinner to hydrate. It does not look appetizing.

A guy about my age walks up. "OK to share your campsite? I'm Doug."

"No problem Doug. Make yourself comfortable."

I am happy to share. Relieved actually. A solo with a whole campsite seems greedy. Doug wanders off to set up his gear. I figure he'll do his thing; I'll do mine.

I finish dinner. There is still light. I grab my book. He returns to the table with his cook set and package of Mountain House Mac and Cheese. "Want some?" he asks.

I decline, but with a sense of regret. His food looks a lot better than mine. Cheese is but one more item on the growing list that the aging process has taken. I pick up my book and read to take my mind off the macaroni.

"What are you reading."

"This? A novel."

"Mind if I look?"

I hand it across the table. He turns it over, reads the cover and hands it back. "I don't know this one."

"Light reading on the trail. 3.5 ounces. 4 is my limit."

"Oh... you're a lightweight then?" he says sarcastically.

"I watch every ounce. My wife says I'm compulsive."

"No doubt. I never disagree with a someone's spouse."

I put the book down. This fellow has my interest.

"Where are you hiking?" I ask.

"Up Cathedral Pass to Clouds Rest. I've been kicking around Yosemite Creek and Ten Lakes. I'm between gigs. Is there a better way to fill a day?"

We begin discussing our hiking and personal histories. "I've had a checkered career," he says. He was a ski bum, wilderness guide, journalist, and now a mediation instructor who tours the world ministering to acolytes.

"I'm no meditator," I say.

"I wasn't either," he replies. "It found me. Then I went to Nepal and became a Buddhist. Ever try?"

"I'm not religious."

"That's very Buddhist," he says with a smile that's a bit too earnest for my taste. I tell him that I have nothing against any religion or belief system. "I don't know if it is the self-righteousness or underlying authoritarian tone, but I could never believe in one. I'm happy to do without."

He nods knowingly as if we are of a single mind and I have just restated his very own thoughts on religion. "Would you be interested in reading a book?" he says. "My book actually. I wrote a biography of the first American yogi. You sound like him."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding." he responds.

"Am I about to be converted?"

"No, but I bet we would have an interesting discussion."

I am writing down the name of the book when a big-boned, thick-limbed woman with an animated, cheery demeanor approaches. She must be pushing six feet and be on the declining side of 50. She has coarse-blond hair which she ruffles apologetically.

"Hi. I'm Nancy. Mind if I pitch my tent over here?" She points to an exposed, gravely spot. "My tent doesn't take much space."

She doesn't need our consent, but of course we agree.

"Thanks," she says apologetically. "I go pitch my tent if that's OK."

We trade shrugs and pass the next hour in a lively, deeply-profound, utterly-useless conversation about personal and worldly woes. Our perspectives are so fundamentally different that each topic concludes at an agreeable impasse. Since solving the world's problems exhausts me. I suggest that we head over to hear nightly campfire talk. Doug agrees.

Just before we leave our female companion returns. She sets a sack lunch on the table. "My I join? Don't mean to intrude." She takes a seat and pulls out a tasty looking mega burrito. It looks delicious. "Been thinking about this all afternoon," she says and takes a substantial bite. "Mmmm. Want some?"

We both decline. My stomach growls audibly.

"Where are you from? I'm from Orange County. I love it here. We use to come with the kids until the divorce. They're married now. Now I come by myself. Hah!"

She takes another bite. She seems like a happy person. I'm skeptical. "Mmmm. Damn. This is delicious. Sure you don't want some? What do you do? I'm a teacher." She examines each of us in turn waiting for an answer.

"I'm retired," I say.

"I'm a teacher," says Doug. "A meditation teacher."

"How cool! I've always wanted to try meditation. I do some yoga. I hope I'm not bothering."

"No bother," I say. "But were just going to the ranger talk."

She apolgizes profusely. Doug an I excuse ourselves.

"What a kind person," he says with the sincerest appreciation.

"I know," I say. "One week that and I would jump off a bridge."

He gives me a reassuring pat on the shoulder, "You definitely need meditation."


It's just another summer night and another Tuolumne Meadows Campfire. Many of the seats are occupied — mostly by moms, dads and fidgety kids from the RVs and van campers. They are a minority. The rest are back at the campsites watching satellite TV.

We find seats a few rows back and watch the ranger light the campfire. She is a slender woman in her early 30s. I doubt she is shoulder high in lug boots. Her double pocketed shirt is sharply pressed. Her badge is shiny. A ponytail swings from her campaign hat. A sun-bleached accomplice arranges demonstration gear on the front bench. She about the same age and has the build of a gymnast. Both women are robustly healthy and attractive. There's a affectionate camaraderie.

"Good evening everyone. I'm Ranger Jeanne," she says stoking the fire. "Tonight's talk is about big wall climbing. Who here has done some rock climbing?"

A few hands shoot up.

"Good! I hope the rest of you will find this interesting and maybe some of you will be inspired."

There's a skeptical titter from the crowd.

"Did you know that many of the important innovations in mountain climbing were developed right here in Yosemite by locals?" She tells us about the climbers going back to the days of John Muir. She recites their names and innovations with reverence. Hardin, Robbins, Pratt, Hechtel, Johnson, Skinner and Pianna. The names mean nothing to me. She tells of the competitive drive, spirit of adventure, and fun-loving disregard of caution that made them great.

She asks a woman in the front row to help demonstrate the use of ropes, harness, cams and pulley. "We have to haul all our gear and all our food and all our water up the wall. The first climb up El Cap took 11 days. I've done it in 5 days. I had to sleep in a hammock secured to the rock. No rolling over. And we cooked on a ledge not much wider than those bench seats. One time I was 2,000 feet up and the wind blew an onion skin from my hand. It floated, right in front of us, up and down, back and forth, like an angel for a full hour before the wind took it.

"Probably the scariest thing is the 'pendulum." She starts running back and forth in front of the campfire. "You have to run like this on a ledge to get enough momentum. Then you swing like Tarzan to get across to the next ledge. You have to do it just right."

A "wow" rises from the crowd.

"But that is not the most dangerous thing. You could get caught in a storm. You can slip and your fingers can get stiff. The big worry is falling ice. A falling icicle can be lethal. Anything falling is dangerous. You can never drop anything. But if you do, you don't need it."

After a few question from the audience like "how do you pee" and "how long are the ropes," the talk concludes.

It leaves me feeling weary, depressed, hopelessly inadequate and very concerned for Ranger Jeanne. I cannot fathom it. It seems crazy. Why would this amazing young woman assume these risks? What must her parent think? What must anyone who cares for her think?

The sun-bleached accomplice and three men gather around Ranger Jeanne in a circle of support. High fives all around. "Let's join them," says Doug. "I used to climb."

"No surprise," I mutter but he doesn't hear.

I follow him down and find a spot a behind Doug. In short order, he captures the attention of the sun-bleached accomplice. He tells of his time climbing in the Himalayas, and his experiences in a Tibetan Monastery. He promises to teach a meditation class.

I decide to return to camp and step inconspicuously away from the group. For same reason, Ranger Jeanne turns to me and asks, "Did you like the talk? Was it interesting?"

I am blunt. "It made me uncomfortable."

She is taken back, but no put off. "Really? Why do you say that?"

"Because it seems so reckless. Because I could never to do that. Because you might die. Because I imagine someone I love doing it."

"I think about that stuff all the time," she says.

"Aren't you afraid?"

"Of course I'm afraid. That why I do it."

"But why?"

"Because I'm more afraid not to." Then she thanks me and rejoins her friends.

I start back to camp. It's very dark. I take a wrong turn, and end up on the wrong side of camp. The whole time I can stop thinking "what kind of person is like that and why am I here?"

Jul 20, 2014

Along the way to White Wolf

I'm nibbling oatmeal and raisins out of zip lock bag when a pickup comes banging up Taboose Creek Road. I watch its headlights bob for a good 10 minutes before deciding I would probably get stuck driving up to the trail head. I could walk, but it's a 4-mile dusty slog. It's too early to head out for White Wolf. I need to kill some time. I pack up and head north with no more of a plan than grabbing a sandwich at Schat's Bakkery in Bishop.

I queue up behind a woman wearing an expensive-looking flowery blouse and heavy gold necklace. Her purplish hair is pulled taught over a high forehead. Her is face stretched, powdered, rouged and immobile as if something human had been resected. I think she's older than me, but I can't be sure. She looks me over with expressionless, clear-blue eyes. I smile and say, "Good morning." She grunts an acknowledgement and with two disapproving sniffs steps a half-a-step back. I wonder what she'd think five days from now when I'm ripe from the trip up Matterhorn Canyon.

I leave town with the windows down. Everyone is passing as I rubber neck at the Bishop Tuff and the rock along Sherwin Summit. Not far past Tom's place, I slow to watch a sedge of cranes circle over Crowley Lake. The air chills on the climb out of Long Valley. There's a crisp scent of Jaffery Pine. I feel the altitude: light headed and queasy. As I descend Deadman's Summit, past the June Lake Loop cutoff, Mount Lewis, Mount Gibbs and Mount Dana come into view. Tioga Pass is just ahead. It's too soon. I keep driving, past Lee Vining, over Conway Summit and through Bridgeport. The lush ranch lands north of town run serenely west towards the shadowy Sierra. Sonora pass is up there. The PCT runs through there. I decide to drive up.

Just north of Bridgeport

I turn off on 108. The road runs through the Little Walker Caldera and then climbs 3,000 feet to the pass. I pull into the Sonora Pass picnic area and park in a rock lined space. I feel the altitude again. I figure some exercise will help me feel better. I stuff a water bottle in my back pocket, the sandwich in a cargo pocket, grab my sticks and head south down the PCT.

The trail winds on a graceful grade around the slopes. The terrain open and arid. Despite the elevation I'm not breathing hard. I walk about a mile across the parched bed of Sardine Creek and then up to a ridge with a grand 270 degree view. I plop on a flat rock and try to imagine this land before it was pushed up, when the rivers flowed across here to the west. The impermanence of the land is a comfort; I feel kinship — part of a greater whole. The thought makes me hungry. I unwrap the sandwich and breathe in the fresh bread, ripe tomato and savory ham. It will be the best food I will have for days. I have that rare sense of well being. Life is good.

Three hikers round the bend on the trail to the southwest of me. They are a fast paced group. One woman and two men. I can hear their voices, but cannot tell what they are saying. They cover the ridge in minutes and pass, heads down, sticks clacking, a few strides apart, not 50 feet below me. After they cross the creek bed, I stand and I dust off. Time to move on. I stroll back to the car resolving to return here.

As I pull out of the picnic area, I see the three hikers seated in the shade of a fir tree. Their packs are piled neatly against the trunk. A fellow with a long red ponytail and wizard beard sees me and sticks his thumb out. I pull over. They all spring up. I roll down the window.

"Where you going?"

"Bridgeport," says the fellow with the wizard beard.

"That's where I'm headed."

"Cool," he says with enthusiastically.

I hop out and open the hatch. They all wear baseball hats, sunglasses and sport tattoos. Their limbs and faces are deeply sunburned, their clothes are filthy and they smell like yesterday's campfire. The wizard beard and the woman appear to be in their late twenties. His features are prematurely weathered. She is tall and has curly bleached hair. The other fellow is younger, sting-bean skinny with blush cheeks and a peach-fuzz beard. The stow their packs and climb in. Wizard beard takes the front seat. The tall woman and the young fellow pile in back.

"Thanks man," says the wizard beard with a voice pitched higher than expected. " We really appreciate it."

"Yea, thanks," the others chime in unison.

I don't doubt they are appreciative, but I can tell that this thanks is well practised — my ride will be just another in a long line of trail-magic perks. In 45 minutes, we'll be headed our separate ways. Nonetheless, I'm glad for the company and interested in their stories.

"I'm Light Ray, that's Comet and that's Soapy." he adds pointing to the woman and the younger fellow in turn.

I look at them in the mirror. Comet breaks out a smile and gives Soapy a friendly push. I dismiss the thought that she seems familiar.

"I haven't accepted that name," retorts Soapy.

Comet explains, "He's Soapy because he washes dishes for Degnan's in Yosemite Village."

I nod. I've eaten a dozen burgers at Degnan's.

"He got it from some dirt bags in climber camp," says Light Ray. "That's where we all met."

"So you are all climbers?" I ask.

"He's the climber," says Soapy pointing at Light Ray.

"We're just hikers," adds Comet.

"So you're coming from Yosemite Valley?"

"Yup," replies Light Ray. "Headed for Tahoe. What about you?"

I tell them I have a permit to hike from Tuolumne to Matterhorn Canyon. "It's a shake out hike. For the JMT," I say and, in the hope of turning the subject to something more interesting, add, "Where are you from?"

Suddenly Comet interjects, "Do I know you?"

"Seems unlikely."

I look in the mirror again. She does look familiar.

"Imagine! Getting a hitch with someone you know! Is that trippy or what?" declares Soapy.

"Very punny," says Light Ray knowing full well that Soapy hadn't yet realized there was one.

"Are you the friend of Julie Swonk's family?" asks Comet.

I look again. This time I'm sure. We've met. I can't think where. "Julie is my god daughter," I answer cautiously.

"Holy fuck," she says. "I was at your New Year's eve Party. Don't you remember?"

I look back. She has taken off her sunglasses. I am horrified. It's Julie's friend. Julie's mother Siobahn had invited her to our New Year's party. I lost my cool. I insulted her. She left angry. With good reason. My behavior was shameful. I'm 35 years her senior.  All the embarrassment of that moment floods back.

She sees the recognition in my face. "Yep. That's me," she says stating the obvious.

"The writer?"

"The writer. Small world don't you think?" she says with a hint of condescension.

I have it coming. I try to think of something affable. Maybe open the door for an apology. Then I remember. "Aren't you hiking the PCT?"

"Glad you asked. I was. Till my Father died," she says matter-of-factly.

"Shit," says Light Ray turning to her. "I'm sorry man. I didn't know."

"It's cool," she says implying the topic was closed.

Light Ray, failing to get the hint, reaches over and places his hand reassuringly on her leg. It is a familiar touch. She doesn't object, but she squeezes his hand and returns it to him.

"Fuck man. I'm so sorry. I can't even imagine my Dad dying," says Soapy pensively.

I have nothing to say and too much to say. I glance in the mirror again. She is staring out at the slopes as they pass. She's young to lose a parent. I wonder, were they close? Some people come unglued. Is she coping? I think of old acquaintances that couldn't. All their promise was consumed in desperation and tragedy. I know now that not everyone makes it. I would like to say something supportive, helpful and forgiving but she is beyond my reach and if that is her path, I cannot help.

"I read you blog." I say. "You have a gift."

"Thanks for reading," she says indifferently.

"You have a blog?" asks Soapy.


Soapy persists, "Will I be in it?"

"You will all be in it," she says. "Don't worry."

Mono County Court house, Bridgeport 
The remainder of the ride passes in a subdued silence. They ask to be let off at the Courthouse. I pull up and we all climb out. They shoulder their packs and shake my hand in thanks. The ride turned out different than we all expected.

I would have liked to talk more. Ask about their personal histories, hear their aspirations, find out where they grew up, get a sense of what makes them laugh. Sadly, more opportunities get lost than found. So it is this time.

Light Ray and Soapy head north for the Redwood Motel. There is a large plastic cast of bucking bronco mounted on a pole and the pool. The place looks inviting. Comet heads south toward the general store. I want to call after her, but don't. I drive past on the way south. In the rear view mirror, she signals with a little wave. I am grateful. It is unlikely we should meet again. Sometimes you must leave a thing behind and just live with a little more regret.

I show the ranger at the park entry my senior card. He's seems like just a kid. He waves me through for free. Age has a few perks. After all these years, Yosemite feels like a comfort zone. The land and the mountains are familiar. I've hiked many of the trails.

It is slow going out of Tuolumne. I'm stuck behind a RV that's too big for the road. I don't mind. I hang back and take in the views. By the time I arrive at White Wolf, it is well into the afternoon.
I park across the road from the White Wolf Lodge. We've stayed in those cabins. They are more decrepit than rustic, but LilaLee loves this place. I wish she was here.

I shoulder my pack, stuff $5 in a pay envelope and and head over to back packer's area via the back route. My campsite karma is good. Site 42, in far north corner of the backpacker's camp, is open. I should have my wilderness permit, but they never check here. I'll get it tomorrow. Curiously there are 3 bottles of Johnny Reb, one bottle of Smirnoff and assorted snacks in the bearbox. I'm pretty sure this is not allowed, but it's not my problem. I'm just glad to have a quiet spot.

The afternoon fades. I feel restless, but it is too late for a stroll to Harden's Lake. I decide to walk the campground loop before diner. To my astonishment, there is an empty bear trap just outside the backpacker's area. It is impressive, crude and big as my car. Four kids are climbing on it, oblivious to it's purpose or why it might be here now or the 'danger' signs prominently posted both sides of the trap. It strikes me as curious. Why would a bear climb into that thing. Why wouldn't it know better? But then again, aren't we all prone to walk into traps even when we know better?

Jul 19, 2014

Taboose Creek Campground

It will be dusk soon.

I drive off the pavement towards the escarpment. I want to camp near the creek about a half-mile up. The roadbed is soft and rutted. Much worse than I remember. I speed up; if I slow, I'll get stuck. I steer like a mad to stay out of the brush. My dust wake drifts towards the row truck campers that line the creek. If the windows were down, I would surely hear the cursing.

I had nothing but grief getting out of town. First there was network trouble. The router got smoked. I just couldn't leave Lilalee without a network for a week. I have nothing but animus for computer problems. It took about 5 dozen 'fucks' to get the new router working. And, then I noticed the tortillas for the trip had turned a deathly blue-green. So there was a bonus trip to the market.

I left in a fugue. It doesn't take a genius to know when you are being thwarted by fate; it's knowing why that takes genius. I couldn't blame Lilalee for keeping a distance. She did send me off with a kiss but tasted more of sympathy than tenderness.

No doubt I have over reacted. I'm feeling the pressure. Thursday, I had dinner with Duane. He asked if I would like a hiking partner on the JMT. I was thrilled at the prospect and agreed on the spot. Yesterday, I applied to Yosemite to add Duane to the permit. I had the approval before lunch. We're set. On September 4th we will step off the trail head at Mono Meadow. Now I must lick the altitude problem. This time I must get it right.

I have a good plan to acclimatize. Tonight I'm at 4,000 feet. Tomorrow I camp at White Wolf; the night after at Tuolumne's Backpackers Camp. That's an average ascent rate of 2,000 feet over 3 days. If that doesn't do it, I don't know what will.

The road curves over to the creek. I'm in luck. No one is camped up this far. I find a cozy spot in a copse of cottonwoods. The creeks spills gently past in glistening pools just a few yards away. There's still a bit of pink in the sky and cool air is coming down the canyons. I decide to cowboy camp. I throw out a tarp, my pad and sleeping bag. Before settling in, I filter some water from the creek into my new Platy Bottle to hydrate my Minute-Rice, Harmony-House-red-bean and chili-powder concoction. While the beans soak, I lean back and listen to the creek and the flutter of the cottonwoods. Then I remember there is a $10 camping fee. I should go back and pony up, but don't feel like it. Better to stay here and watch Vega, Deneb and Altair emerge from the Sierra sky.

Jul 15, 2014

The smell of the mountains in the morning

We are sitting in one the deflated booths by the window. Swonk stares out at the heat and traffic. His mind is elsewhere. I draw a ketchup spiral with a last soggy fry. We've been coming to the Astro since back when we drank coffee past midnight and were animated by each other's ideas.

I called Swonk because I've been glum since East Lake. Lilalee had suggested it. I've been telling him about that awful night. I'm about to tell him how worried I was about getting caught in lightening up on Glenn Pass and about the mosquito cloud up in Vidette Meadow.

"Hold it." he says in a tone usually reserved for patients. "You woke up and couldn't catch a breath?"

"Yea. Sorta..."

"And you were at niney-six hundred?"

"Yea, but I was acclimated."

He leans in. Very insistent. "Bullshit."

"I took Diamox."

"You're a bone head." He starts emphasizing each syllable with jab at the table. "You weren't acclimated. You had some bad altitude shit. You could die."

"Come on. It wasn't that bad."

"You're being a stubborn ass," he says.

"This is pissing me off."

He smirks. "Go ahead. Fill your lungs with plasma, see if anyone gives a shit," He picks up the tab and hands it to me. "I know it's my turn, but why don't you get this. That way, if you don't survive, we'll be even."

It's hot. It's smoggy. The traffic is at a standstill. I am too agitated to listen to the radio or head home. Things are coming apart. It's not just Swonk. It's all of us. The bonds that held us together are dissolving. Distance, grand kids, divorce, indulgence, compulsion, unchecked self-righteousness, over-powering grief, illness and infirmity. We don't need AARP and the Neptune Society to remind us that the store of opportunity has a limited stock. Who asked them to send their monthly reminders? Or bucket lists. Why are people so eager to blithely recite something so morbid? Can't they just get on with it? Must we hear about their selfish desires and selfless charities? Where's the perspective? Are we so important? If you ask me they could all use a trip to the Sierras. I could use one.

I decide to head over to REI. I could get that EXPED air pillow. Only 1.5 ounces. They might have one in stock. The very thought is cheering.

It's mid summer hiking season. The lot is full; the check-out line wraps around past the back packs; there's a palpable stir of excitement. It's contagious. My legs feel strong.

I head over to the gadget aisles and slide around a dad and two adolescent sons who are studying the Mountain House dinners.

"I want Shepard Pie," says one of the boys.

"I'd stick with the Alfredo," warns the dad.

"It makes me puke," says the other boy.

I turn up the next aisle. The titanium pots catch my eye. I try not to crowd two college-age girls who are intently studying a GSI Halulite cookset.

"It's expensive," says one.

"But we'll share," says the other.

"I hope you won't mind me interrupting," I say, "but the plastic on that fold-up handle will melt."

The girls trade looks. "Thank you," says the other, making it clear I should go away.

I decide to move along to the hydration kits. A very handsome millennial couple and green-vest REI associate are huddled around a smart phone at the end of the aisle. He is long-haired and bearded. Her limbs are tattooed and unshaven. They are tanned, muscular, self-assured and could be mistaken for cultists. I stop in hearing distance and pretend to examine a 2-liter Platy bottle.

"This is a view of Matterhorn Canyon from Horse Creek Pass." she says. "Here's where we camped at Miller Lake."

"Wow. Never been there," says the associate.

"It's amazing. Here's a view down from the switchbacks going up Baxter Pass.," she adds.

They stare silently in the phone. I try to steal a look without seeming to intrude. They don't notice.

"Next week we're going to section from Sonora to Tahoe," he says.

"I love that part of the PCT. Really..." she insists, "you've got to see it."

1 1/4 ounces of inspiration  
I take the twelve-dollar Platy bottle with a flash of bourgeois guilt: a self-respecting thru-hiker would just buy $2 a bottle of Smart Water and reuse it till it cracked. But the Platy bottle folds. It fits the side pocket of my Mariposa; it's light; it fills me joy.

I stand in line behind a grizzled bald guy about my age; a humbling reminder of my own appearance. We nod. He has a couple dozen Cliff bars in his basket.

"Got a trip planned?" I ask.

"Yea," he says. "My wife and I are starting the JMT next week."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding."

"Happy Isles?"

"Yea. It's our third time. We love it," he says.

The line advances.

"What about you?" he asks.

"Matterhorn Canyon," I reply.

"I've heard it's amazing," he says.

I am making a stew for dinner. Lilalee loves my stew. The secret is the carrots. But I'll never tell.

"Hello," she says wearily as she enters the front door. She drops her bag on the table. "I smell dinner. Thank god. I'm starving"

"Tough day?"

"The usual crap, meetings, meeting, meetings," she says. "How's Swonk?"

"Same ol', same ol'. He's good. Siobahn's good. Everyone's good."

"What did you guys talk about?"

"The usual. Not much."

"We should all get together." She says and grabs the spoon to sample the pot. "Mmmm. Delicious. Nice to see you in a good mood."

"I got the permit for my next hike."

The creases around her eyes deepen. "Where you going? "

"A place called Matterhorn Creek. Just north of Yosemite. I'm leaving Saturday. That OK?"

"Doesn't really matter what I say, does it?"

"Of course it does."

But we both know it doesn't which puts a damper on dinner. But I don't mind, I can almost smell the mountains.

Plan for the Matterhorn Creek hike

Jul 9, 2014

ORT #2, Day 3 -- Life on the Bubbs Creek Trail

It wasn't a dream. My face and neck are wet. I fumble for my headlamp. The mesh is shiny with dripping rivulets. It must have rained. No getting back to sleep; no point setting the fly. I need coffee.

I push my stuff into the dry part of the tent, pull on my clammy clothes and climb out. The night is chilled and foggy. My light reflects thick puffs of breath and penetrates maybe 10 feet into the surrounding fog. Out in the gloom the forest is alive with drips plinging into umpteen puddles otherwise there is nothing but me and my clouds of breath.

I settle onto the wet bench and fire up the Jetboil. My fingers numb, I tear open the coffee packet with my teeth. I manage. The coffee is hot and profoundly delicious, better than I ever imagined — no coffee ever tasted better, like some pernicious proof that suffering makes life fuller. I sip slowly. The sky blues, the fog lifts, the sun paints the peaks pink. It's shaping up to be a fine day. Time to get rolling.

I break camp and repack. As I push all my stuff into the Mariposa, I get agitated; There is a ton of crap here! Nearly 200 separate items of it. Two pounds of tent. Two ounces of air pillow. A six-ounces of satellite communicator. One-third-ounces of titanium spork. Ten and a half-grams of divided Diamox tablets. Seven grams of waxed dental floss. Three-quarter ounces of Bic lighter. Two-and-a-quarter ounces of clean underwear. Twenty-four ounces of Picky Bars. The list goes on and on.

Back home nothing seemed superfluous; every item was scrutinized under a bright light with a proper dose of fret. Now it just seems like a bloat as does all the mountains of stuff that fills our closets and will one day be spread out on a lawn to be picked over by bargain hunters. John Muir hiked the Sierras in a sweater with a loaf of bread. If we met, I would surely seem preposterous. I guess that's who I am so let's get on with it.

The Zumwalt Meadow trail cuts worn, wide and mostly level path through the woods. The forest is shady and brown. Birds flit in the dappled light and shifting shadows that create the impression of movement. The air is acrid with dust, pine and fir. No rain fell here last night. The tread is powdery dry from overuse and drought. The rhythmic crunch of my boots, the rattle of the JetBoil deep in my pack and whoosh of breath are the only sounds. There are no other hikers on the trail today.

I cross the long metal trestle that spans the Kings River. The green torrent sweeps below crossing up the signals to my brain making me dizzy. I go with it. I'm flying on a trestle powered by the roar of water on rock into the river spray going nowhere.

The bridge lands on a marshy, wooded peninsula that divides the Kings River from Bubbs Creek. A ravaging horde of mosquitoes awaits me. I'm suddenly in a swarm. I swing and swat again and again. I smush 5 into black smudges on my cheek. They are on my hands. I'm breathing mosquitos. They taste bitter. It's futile. I dash ahead thinking a mosquito can travel but a mere mile and a half an hour, but the forest is full of them. I must have DEET.

I head for a log, drop my pack and grab the spray. (Note to self: stash DEET in the hip-belt pocket.) I spray everywhere. For good measure, I spray the air twice. My skin sizzles with chemicals, but the horde retreats just out of reach, hovering up and down and back and forth, like the Empire hatching an attack. I breathe easy and look around. I'm in a cozy clearing with a tidy black pond fed by a moss-coated seep, surrounded by ferns and carpeted with a foot-deep carpet of detritus. A hobbit would be cozy here.

The Sphinx and Avalanche Peak. Cross Mountain in the distance
The trail climbs quickly up a thousand rocky feet over beautifully engineered switchbacks. A grand view of Kings Canyon opens to the west. The peaks above Avalanche Pass tower in the south. Bubbs Creek cascades below. This is why I want to be here.

The trail levels off to an easy grade. I pass a doe and a fawn who keep an indifferent eye on me as they ruminate. Suddenly I'm hungry. I decide to grab a snack up ahead at the Avalanche Creek junction.

A Dad in his 40's and his son have camped at the junction. Dad wears a heavy, disco-era plaid shirt, wool cap and camo pants. He is cinching their tent to the bottom bar of his external-frame Jansport like the one I carried for years. The kid is probably twelve. He also wears camo pants. A Chullo cap with strings is pulled down past his shoulders and, despite the chill, he just wears a sooty T-shirt. He is whittling at a green stick the size of his forearm with a knife that could field dress an elk. A fire smolders in a camp ring.

I drop my pack and take a seat on a well-worn log. "Mind of I join?"

"It's a free country," says the man. "We're just heading out."

I point at the Jansport. "I loved that pack."

"I wouldn't give mine up," he says and points at my Mariposa. "Those internal frames are crap. They don't transfer the weight right. Wouldn't take if you gave it to me."

I take no special offense. I figure no harm is meant. I grew up with people like this fellow. He's not intending to be rude. Some people just need constant reassurance which they get by reminding others of their mistakes. I don't envy his kid.

"Where ya'll off to?"

"Up to Sphinx Lake," he says.

The kid chimes in,"We're fishing for golden trout." And, just in case I missed it, he asserts his point with a nod of authority. He then peels a perfect curl from the stick.

"That's some knife," I say.

"It's my Pop's, I'm just using it. I'm making an light sword." Without breaking his concentration on his stick and the knife he says, "I bet you don't know how to whittle. You always push away, until you know what you're doing. Right Pop?" He pushes one curl off the end and starts another. "Ever gotten the same dollar mister?"

"What do you mean?"

"You know, you pay at a store and then the dollar goes to China and you get it back later."

"No. why?"

"My friend Davey does it. He keeps all the numbers. I'm gonna do it too."

"Isn't that a lot of numbers to write down?"

"Not if you use a cell phone," he says implying that use of a cell phone should be obvious any idiot .

"Good point," I say. This kid's brain works a lot faster than mine; I've been condescending and outsmarted. No pride in that, but I remind myself that, being retired, I no longer need to keep up with twelve-year olds.

Then the kid asks, "How come you're hiking by yourself?"

Dad interjects, "Leave the man alone."

"It's OK," I say because, as a matter of pride, I would like a chance at redemption and besides this kid is asking something that interests me. "My friends ask that."

"What do you tell them?"

Now I have a chance to say something important. Something that will stick. Something this kid might remember. I could say I no longer have friends who hike. I could say that I've got a screw loose. I could say that the mountains are a church. I could say that getting older is a lonely business, so you might as well get used to being alone. But instead, I affect a mock-serious frown, like some daft uncle, and say, "I tell them I want to."

"Really?!" he replies and adds emphatically, "I don't ever want to. I like hiking with my Dad."

Before I can remind him that his Dad isn't always going to be around and before he can spit out another question, his father sends him off to the creek to fetch water for the fire.

"Sorry," says the Dad with a shrug. "That boy has a lot of questions."

"No problem," I say, but I'm was sorry he sent the boy away. I felt there was more to say.

Bubbs Trail

The trail heads steadily up following the folds of the mountain. Now and again it approaches the creek near a pretty fall with a pool or a rapid. RV-sized boulders line the way. The peaks grow nearer. I enter a meadow. The tread is a sticky mud. The path is hidden in overgrowth of corn flower, mule ear, lupine and blue bells. Across the way I see a Ranger. He wear a fishing cap, a day pack and a gun on his hip. He's must about my age, slightly paunchy, tanned with a neatly-trimmed grey beard. We meet in the meadow. He is cordial but terse. "Got a permit?" he asks.

I unbuckle my hip belt. "Never mind," he says. "Where you going?"

"East Lake."

"Be careful crossing the creek," he says. "It's pretty high. If it rains, I'd be real damn careful." Have a good one," he adds with a touch to the brim of his hat and heads off the way I came.

The trail continues up; so does the temperature. Cumulus clouds are sailing in from the east. It's hot and humid. I strip down to my shorts and continue the climb.

The trail comes up to an established camp by the creek near a lazy pond filled by a cascade that arches over a ten-foot embankment. A pair of very dirty hikers are resting there: a grey-headed, very tan woman my age and a very tall athletic man who is surely on the low side of thirty. They both have ULA Catalyst packs — thru hikers.

"I'm Silvy. This is QuickStep," says the woman.

"Where you headed?"

"We're headed out," she says. "We just SoBo'ed the JMT. The monsoons blew us out. The trail was buried in snow. We couldn't get across Trail Crossing. There wasn't any way we could get down to Whitney Portal."

"Turned it around a Guitar lake," adds Quickstep. "We just did that mother-fucking Forrester twice. Twice! And I'm motherfucking hungry."

"We ran out of food this morning," explains Sylvie.

I drop my pack and offer some trail mix. After a few perfunctory refusals, I shake about three ounces into their titanium cook pot. We chat a bit and I decide to get moving on in case the weather changes.

"Thanks man," says Quick Step. "I'm gonna write you up in my blog."

The trail continues up. I pass 8,000 ft. It's now well into the afternoon. I'm feeling the pack and the altitude. There's still another 1,500 feet ahead. I shouldn't be tired. I probably needed more sleep.

I take a break in an shady creekside campsite for a lunch of Justin Almond Butter on tortilla, and a handful of jerky. I listen to Bushtits jostling in a nearby bush and keep an eye on the swift moving puffy clouds and a grey cloud bank gathering in the east. I know I should pick up my pace, but they say it doesn't usually rain at night in the Sierras. I decide to lounge around for the better part of an hour. When I shoulder my pack, it feels really heavy and my legs feel like lead. After a while it feels good to be moving again. I still have plenty of reserve.

I cross another beautiful and muggy meadow and there it is, the cut off to East Lake junction. Easy to miss. In a few minutes, I'm at the creek. It's rolling and high, above the knees, but not terrible. I drop my pack and feel the water. Numbing. I've fallen in more than once. I decide to take a breather and get focused with a Picky Bar.

Three hikers appear on the opposite bank. Two women and a man. They remove their boots and roll up their pants. A woman wearing her hair in a red buff is the first to step in. She crosses without acrobatics. Once on the bank I give her a thumbs up. She smiles back. "Not too bad," she yells back to her partners. A woman in a duck-billed cap is next. She struggles a bit in the current. Finally the guy strides in and crosses quickly. About two-thirds of the way he slips, but bounces up immediately with a hearty "Whooo!" His clothes are soaked, but he's fine. They laugh.

 Bubbs Creek crossing
They drop their packs by a sitting log across the tread. "I'm Ghost," says the woman in the red buff. "This is Peachy," she adds with a gesture to the woman in the duck-billed hat and that is Samwise."

"I don't think 'Samwise' is gonna stick," says Samwise affecting a quarrel. "They think I hike like a hobbit." In truth he is a slender myopic sort not the least bit hobbit-like.

"It could be worse," I say. "you could be Dunkin".

"I like it," proclaims Ghost.

"I like it," seconds Peachy.

"Got a trail name?" asks Ghost

I shrug.

Peachy wraps arm around Ghost for my benefit and says, "She got 'Ghost' on the PCT."

"I don't think mine's is going to stick," Samwise reminds us and lays down on the log. "How much further?"

"No far. There's nice little campsite just down the trail," says Ghost.

"Where have you guys been?" I ask.

"We looped over Colby Pass," she answers. "Then took the High Sierra Trail over the Divide to South American Lake and crossed over Milly's Pass to Lake Reflection."

I nod ambiguously. I don't know their route, but I'm not letting on. I'd like to think I could keep up, and despite knowing better, I act as if I could. It would be so easy to forget myself, and lapse into behaving like I'm still their age and even become part of their trail fellowship. I sigh with the secure knowledge that our thoughts are private and our dignity safe.

Ghost comes across the path and sits on an adjacent rock a few feet away. She is dark-eyed, fair-complected and a fit. Her hair is dirty. Her clothes stained by sweat. She conveys a very appealing, easy kindness which makes me inexplicably nervous. "May I ask a favor?" I know I will consent before I even hear the request. "Our water filter is clogged. Could we..."

Without a moment's hesitation, I hand over my Sawyer filter and squeeze bag. "I've heard of these," she says and takes the filter to the creek where she squats next to Peachy.

"It's been an amazing hike," says Samwise. He's been paying only half attention. His arm is draped over his eyes. "I was scared shitless crossing Mount Erickson. Ghost is fucking fearless."

I see the two women aren't having much luck with the filter. I join them at the creek and filter a pint as an example. Peachy instantly masters the process. There's a distant rumble over the Divide. We all look up. A few gray-bottomed, puffy clouds are sailing by. I go back to my stuff and remove my boots for the crossing. Ghost follows.

"Going to up East Lake?" she asks.

I tell her my plan. "If the weather holds." And then I add, "Congrats on the PCT. That's something."

"It just determination," she says. "I'm sure you could do it."

It's something I want this seemingly nice woman to believe. Worse, it's something I want to believe, but then I'd like to believe I could learn Bach Toccatas or master the Feynman Lectures or become a perfect husband. These well-meaning encouragements simply temp desires that end in romanticized longing or, worse, regret. But I can see she means only to be sweet and supportive in accordance with the way of the trail, so despite everything I know I say, "I'm thinking about it."

She reaches for my forearm and says, "Well then the PCT is a must!"

Funny thing is, for that moment, I believe it.

East Creek crossing
They watch me cross Bubbs Creek without incident. I wave back as I hike up into a stand of Jaffrey Pine. The trail is nicely graded and climbs around to a route above East Creek. Mt. Bago towers over my shoulder. About half-way up to the lake, at about 9,000 feet, a bridge crosses the creek. I catch my breath. The view is grand, but for the first time I feel isolated. How nice it would be to have a bit of the cheering comradery; to share the view. I continue on. The further I climb, the faster my strength ebbs. I look up slope to gauge the crest. I spot a stand of trees as my goal. I reach the stand. There's another ridge ahead, and just as far.I lean on my sticks panting hard for several minutes before pushing on. It must be the altitude.

East Lake
At last I make the last rise. East Lake is sparkling blue and surround by peaks. I walk to the shore. I pass two young men who are fishing. One holds up a string with three golden trout. They want to talk, but I am in no shape for chit chat. I find a flat spot and lie down.

I must have dozed off. They day has slipped away, the mosquitos are starting to swarm and a bank of clouds is closing in from the east and I don't yet have a camp. I filter three liters and climb back up the trail to find a campsite away from the bugs. I settle on well-used spot beside a boulder about the size of our garage. The bugs are getting worse, the light is fading, the temperature is dropping, the clouds are moving in. It feels like rain. I need to eat. In my rush to set up camp I have trouble getting the tent right.

I hear voices, or I think I do. Maybe it's a pika. I circle around the perimeter to be sure. Behind the boulder, not 50 feet away, I discover 4 men and 2 women sitting around a fire sipping wine from goblets. They are speaking French, but stop when they see me. I say hello.

"Hello." says one of the men.

"I didn't mean to startle," I say.

There's an exchange in French. I don't understand. They are all bundled in big puffy coats, thick scarves and clean wool caps. They are four of Z-packs' Hexamid tents in the adjacent clearing.

"Nice tents," I say. I point to my camp. "I camped just over there and didn't want to surprise you."

"Thank you," says one of the other men. The rest start blankly at the fire.

After an awkward silence, I say my goodnights and I return to my camp feeling perfectly unwelcome. I heat some water to hydrate my chicken noodle dinner. I stare into the jetboil flame thinking over the day, but the bugs are getting bad and I cannot concentrate. I take my dinner into my tent to hydrate. As I eat, it starts to drizzle. The temperature is dropping. It'll be an early night. I can just hear laughing from my neighbors.

I wake at eleven. I was having a nightmare. Lilalee was in an accident and I wasn't there. I doze. I dream I'm hiking in a desert looking for a PCT trail marker. I awake to find I am breathing hard and can't catch a good breath. I doze. I come home to find the house was vandalized and Lilalee has left. Everything is lost. I awake panting. I sit up. It is pitch black. I look out. It is sleeting. My mind is running from one bleak thought to another. It will be a long night.