Readers Cast


Bill Hillman - January 10, 2011

There is nothing better than a wilderness backpack trip for testing one’s mettle. Mind you, we never actually planned our camping adventures around mettle testing, focusing instead more on the fun aspect of the endeavor. Mettle testing occurred only accidentally, if sometimes rigorously so, but on one Labor Day weekend excursion long ago it inevitably consumed nearly the entire experience. The expedition is now historically noteworthy only among the participants, but relating its high points might be instructive, if not entertaining.

Three of us, I and my friends Denny and Dave, took advantage of the 3 day weekend to get in a little communing with nature. Mr. L, Denny’s dad, drove us up that Saturday morning before dawn and deposited us at trail’s head in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains just as morning light was giving life to the forest.

The trail was well marked, and on the map it stood out like a country road. Mr. L took some notes as to our planned route and our roughly gauged arrival time at trail’s end. He then watched with a nervous smile, betraying some trepidation, as we strode confidently off into a head-on collision with Murphy and some of his laws.

We figured we'd be at our destination in about eight hours. Our chosen first night's camping place was a nice meadow with a little stream running through it that was sure to be full of trout. I could tell just by looking at the map. There'd be trout for breakfast in the pine scented air and filtered sunlight of a stream side forest glen. We'd be there by mid to late afternoon with plenty of time left over for fishing.

The thought of it was intoxicating, but things went awry almost immediately. Somehow, we diverted accidentally onto a very well-worn game trail which then grew progressively worse and offered innumerable options as it diminished. Unknowingly, we plodded on faithfully for a while, expecting a trail sign just around every next bend, but inevitably we became lost. An early brunch found us sitting on a rock munching trail mix and scratching our heads as to what to do next. We had no desire to backtrack and, at any rate, we couldn't recall any particular point at which the trail went from obvious to obscure. So we spread our topographical map upon a big granite boulder, got out the compass and plotted a course as the crow flew from our suspected position to our intended destination.

In a way, this wasn’t so bad. We were now free from the tether of an established trail, and we had confidence in our ability to dead reckon with the map, visible landmarks and our compass. We chose a game trail that looked to be headed in the right direction and off we went.

We soon discovered that gravity increases in proportion with adversity and, as the trail worsens, all items on one’s back gain weight. Soon screaming muscles began to dominate the experience. Exacerbating the situation were patches of Manzanita and other scrub brush that snagged our gear and carved pentagons on exposed skin.

We were young men in fairly good shape, but we were not each other’s equals, and as the day dragged on each of us fell into his own pace. Gradually we lost sight of one another, but we had the good sense to wait at places where the obvious path might diverge until the slow guys caught up (and we took turns being the slow guy). Then off we'd go again, eventually completely without any trail at all.

Firmly believing that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, we climbed one ridge after the other, going steeply up, then down through forest, thickets of Manzanita and granite boulder fields until the soles of my new hiking boots were worn smooth, as if they'd been professionally sanded. And we became exhausted.

Just as the sun was nearing the western horizon we got to the top of the last ridge and ran smack dab into our trail. There it was, as obvious and well-marked as it could be, and God only knew where it came from.

We crossed over the top of the ridge and there, far below, was our splendid little meadow. The line that demarked sunlight from shadow was creeping toward the top of the far slope but we could see the stream below, winding in and out of the darkening forest, beckoning. Spirits lifting a little, we quickened our tired pace and made our way down to the bottom.

When the trail leveled out on the valley floor the final light of dusk was gone. We had to set up our camp in darkness, which wasn't so bad because our camp consisted mainly of unrolled sleeping bags and a fire. The stream gave us much needed water, the crackling fire boiled it and we had a meal of dehydrated something-or-other and hit the sleeping bags with a vengeance. We were so tired from the day's hike that even the single call of a cat, we imagined it was a really big one, only disturbed us for an hour or two at about 3:00 a.m.

Interestingly, I discovered that my decision to save weight by leaving the air mattress behind was gravely misguided, a mistake I’ve never purposely repeated. Inevitably, though, exhaustion trumped the discomfort.

In the morning I stayed in my sleeping bag, zipped up to my nose, feigning little purring sleeping noises and hoping that either Dave or Denny would get up and start the fire. There was a decided chill that late summer morning. But in the end the call of nature forced me out of bed. Of course, that turned out to be a blessing. While I was up, curiosity got the better of me and a quick look around told me that the little stream was loaded with trout. Sunlight was climbing back down the slopes, and soon it would sparkle on the water and awaken the meadow bugs. I rushed to set up my little five-piece fly rod and get to the business of catching breakfast.

As I was rigging the others began to stir and I wandered off in the direction of the nearest pools and riffles to the sound of sticks breaking and a hatchet chopping. It wasn't long before the smell of smoke drifted by, accompanied by the sound of hot sap popping in the wood. I was in heaven. There were lots of small trout, 7" to 8" mostly, and I got enough for us to have a nice breakfast. By the time I got back there was hot, instant coffee to drink and the frying pan was ready. We quickly cooked and devoured the trout, wonderful in their crispy freshness, and by then the morning was beginning to warm up. It promised to be a beautiful day.

We stayed in that little meadow most of the morning, even attempting a swim at one point. We stripped down and ran enthusiastically to a waist-deep pool near camp, leaping in with abandon. Of course, we exited the water with far greater enthusiasm. The melted snow that flowed down this stream bed shattered our fragile nervous systems, generated uncontrolled gasping and thrashing spiced with passionate declarations that might have upset our mothers. But thus invigorated, we packed up and made ready for the second leg of our journey.

Inevitably, the previous day's hike had left us in a terrible state. Our bodies quickly took stock of the bandaged blisters, cuts, scratches, bruises, scrapes and overtaxed muscles we had achieved and immediately held us accountable. Lifting the packs made our backs scream, and we dearly wanted to stay here another day. The problem was that Mr. L was going to be at the trail's end Monday afternoon waiting for us and if we didn't show up there'd be a whole world out looking for us.

Groaning, we moved off and immediately the trail began a punishing ascent. We fell back into our own little worlds and gradually lost sight of one another again as we had the day before.

By late afternoon we were still on the trail. Our progress had been slow, with many breaks, and we were still too far from our intended destination when dusk found us at the edge of an alpine marsh. There, mosquitoes enveloped us like mist and the water was stagnant. No fish. But we couldn't go on in the darkness and this was the only water around, so we spent the night on a great outcropping of granite that elevated us mostly above the bugs yet otherwise offered little comfort. We became gloriously miserable, and maybe just a little bit punchy.When water was needed we descended the granite's steep slope, into the mosquito mist, to the edge of the swamp, collected some of its stained water in a collapsible bucket and then ran back up to the top of the rock. We spilled half of the water in our haste to escape those hungry mosquitos that seemed to have an unseen line beyond which they would not cross.

We got a fire going in a crack in the stone and boiled the water furiously. We had brought a package of Jiffy Pop pop corn, intending to use it on the final day, but we popped it over the fire and ate it and some dehydrated soup for dinner.

Dave got very sick. A fever racked him until he passed out shivering and sweating in his down sleeping bag. Our medicine cabinet had only a few aspirin and, in the vernacular of the day, this was turning out to be rather a bummer of a trip.

That night we laid our tired and broken bodies on solid granite and fell quickly asleep while the heavens sparkled a symphony above us.

In the morning we looked apprehensively after Dave, who seemed better but for a bout of the "revenge". That over, he looked well enough to continue. We made oatmeal over the fire, ate some more of our dwindling trail mix, shouldered our tonnage and set off down that never-ending trail.

It was Monday.
We were supposed to be at a Boy Scout camp by midafternoon and it was still too many trail miles away. By now our paces no longer separated. We were all three at rock bottom on the energy scale and we plodded along automatically, this time staying together. 

The trail was dry. We found only one trickle of a stream along the way so we had to ration the water in our canteens, the constant awareness of which made us thirstier than ever! The thick, powdery dust that puffed up around our ankles and lower calves with each step didn't help much, either.

The sun was setting when we finally dropped down into the canyon at Camp Wolfborrough. Mr. L. was there with a ranger, biting his nails. We approached like zombies, the walking dead, but once the fear of our demise passed Mr. L got that characteristic twinkle back in his eyes, for he was generally a jolly fellow. As a W.W.II Marine and veteran of the war in the Pacific, Mr. L didn’t seem to appreciate our tales of misery and woe in an empathetic way. He seemed to find them kind of amusing, judging from his nearly continuous chuckling.

But we recovered. And as time softened the impact of our mistakes and amplified the memory of that wonderful little valley with its trout filled stream and pleasant, aromatic meadow the trip lost its taint and we reveled in relating our great frontiersman skills to anyone who would listen, few though they were. And I can tell you now, almost forty years later, it was a great trip.

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