The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
While I had been talking with Blair and Todd, a few miles away a Boy Scout was getting thoroughly lost. But I didn’t learn about it until I reached Rosemarie Meadow at about eight the next morning.
As I was crouched down over my tripod, taking a picture of a fine spray of shooting stars (flowers, not meteors), a horseman came up to me from a group of four dome tents and eight or nine horses camped at the edge of the meadow.
“Morning.” he said, his accent as Cowboy-ish as his Levi’s, red checked shirt and black Stetson. “Have you seen a boy wandering around lost? Eighteen, black pants, name of James?”
“Nope.” I slipped easily into the accent and the slang. “When did you lose him?”
“Not us. Scout group. Camped a ways uptrail. Went missing yesterday. Still gone.”
“Well,” I suggested, “best bet’s if you head downtrail two miles. There were three rangers camped there last night. They can get a search and rescue organized.” The horseman tipped his hat like Jimmy Stewart, wheeled his horse around and cantered down the trail. I finished taking my pictures and headed “uptrail” –thinking I would spend the rest of the day looking for James.
A mile up the trail I found the scout group’s camp–six dome tents set at the edge of a dry meadow just where the Lodgepole Pine forest was giving way to scattered Whitebark Pine, a spectacular spot with superb views, smooth, level ground, and a clear stream running out of Marie Lake, just above.
There were two people in camp, a red-headed boy of 16, as thin as a deflated balloon and just as disjointed, and a fortysomething man with short hair and strangely clean clothes. The boy hung back, while the man came up to me.
“Hello! Have you seen a young boy named James? He’s lost.”
“No, sorry. A horseman below told me. I sent him down to where some rangers were camped. I expect they’ll be along in an hour or two. What happened?”
“They went off on a day hike, cross country, over in that direction,” he pointed east. The trail ran north-south. “And then he just wasn’t there, isn’t that right, Sean?” He turned to the red headed kid who had hung back, sort of watching me like I was a strange apparition rather than just another grubby-looking backpacker.
“Yeah. We were heading cross country towards the next lake over and suddenly he was just gone. We shouted and looked all around, but he was just gone.”
I wondered how prepared he was to spend a night out alone, away from camp. “Did he have his “ten essentials?”
The boy looked blank. The man asked, “His what?”
“Did he have extra clothes, food, map, compass, matches, and so on?”
The man shook his head. “No, it was just a day hike, the group leader had everything. I think he had a cotton jacket. Isn’t that right Sean?” The boy nodded and came up to me, his face a blank, but his voice tightly emotional.
“He’ll be okay. James is a real together dude. He’s eighteen, oldest in the group. He does karate. He’d be an Eagle Scout by now but he didn’t finish his project.”
I was resting on a rock, sipping from my waterbottle and wondering what I should do. An athletic, level-headed eighteen year old can’t get very lost in open country, in good weather, when he’s only a couple of miles east of a major north-south trail.
“Were there any tricky stream crossings on your hike?”
“Nothing really bad,” Sean answered. A couple places we had to jump and the water was fast, but no place scary. And James could jump better than anyone.”
I resigned myself to a day or more of searching, expecting we would find him, if at all, injured or worse by a stream crossing. At least, I thought, the night had been fairly warm.
“Well, I expect the rangers will be here soon to organize a proper search. I’ll wait till they show up and help. Meanwhile, maybe you should try to build up your fire and make it smoke. He may be a bit disoriented, not sure which way is camp.”
I went and re-filled my water bottle at the creek on the other side of the meadow. Just after I poured in a little iodine, I noticed a tiny fresh water shrimp struggling in the water. It died within seconds. I wondered if it was the species the California Department of Fish and Game had introduced.
While the man was building up the fire, we were joined by another hiker, a Japanese man I had seen camped near me when I started out that morning. When I explained the situation, he agreed to stop, wait, and help. Aki was a programmer living in L.A. He planned to do the JMT in 14 days of 14 miles each. He had started at Tuolumne Meadows to avoid the steep climb out of Yosemite Valley. We talked about the trail and about hiking in Japan versus hiking in California. Meanwhile, we watched a marmot across the meadow. He crept by darts and dashes ever closer to the last tent in line. Sean and the chaperone followed our gaze. The man asked me, “Say, what are those animals anyway?”
“Marmots. And they like to rip open tents.” He went and scared it away. Ten minutes later I saw it again, this time sitting on a lookout rock at the far edge of the meadow. The local marmot colony was obviously quite used to trespassers on their home range. They probably got occasional treats of trail mix, instant oatmeal, and whatever got thrown out after dinner.
A shout interrupted us. Coming up the trail were two figures, a man with a big frame pack and a huge walking stick and a slender boy in black pants and a thin cotton jacket. Sean shouted out, “James!” and dashed over, all smiles at last. The backpacker came and stood by the rock where Aki and I sat. Aki shouldered his pack and left. The man smiled, watching the reunion, then started walking slowly after Aki, up the trail. Soon I followed them.
I caught up with James’ savior and we walked together past island-dotted Marie Lake. I asked how he had found James.
“I didn’t. He found me. I was up in Seven Gables Basin. It’s about five miles east northeast of here. I always like to stay off the main trails like the Muir, too many people, especially too many Boy Scouts burning up thousand-year-old Whitebark Pines for campfires. I head off every year for a couple of weeks, sometimes alone, sometimes with my girlfriend. Anyway, I’m just getting over a cold, so when the kid got up into the basin he heard me coughing. He couldn’t find me at night and I guess he was too embarrassed to shout, but he found me okay this morning. Boy was he lucky!”
“Lucky?” I asked. “For getting lost so near his camp and heading further away from camp? Lucky for wandering off from his group? For having nothing with him but the clothes on his back? Lucky for doing absolutely everything wrong?”
The backpacker nodded. “Exactly. Lucky, because the night was warm. Lucky, because I was the only person in the basin, and if he’d kept going east he would have crossed the crest and died somewhere between here and Bishop. Lucky because he’ll never forget all the mistakes he made cause all the way from Seven Gables to here I gave him an earfull of all the stupid things he did without dying for it. Boy Scouts, my ass!”
James at 18 had acted precisely like Davy Crockett says he did at 19, while he was out alone hunting wolves:
“While I was out it clouded up, and I began to get scared; and in a little while I was so much so, that I didn’t know which way home was, or anything about it. I set out the way I thought it was, but it turned out with me, as it always does with a lost man, I was wrong and took exactly the contrary direction from the right one. And for the information of young hunters, I will just say, in this place, that whenever fellow gets bad lost, the way home is just the way he doesn’t think it is. This rule will hit nine times out of ten.”
The backpacker headed off-trail at Marie Lake and I sat on a rock, thinking about how easily the Scout group’s trip could have turned tragic. How thin the line is between a fun adventure and death-by-stupidity.
Everyone knows the story of gallant Lord Baden-Powell. How he defended Mafeking from the Afrikaner hordes partly with the help of young boys who scouted out the enemy through the tracking skills he taught them. How he then founded the Boy Scouts to perpetuate these skills and the many virtues they fostered. It’s almost pure myth, though like all myths, it’s built around a kernel of truth.
There were boys who did scouting at Mafeking, but it was one of Baden-Powell’s subordinates who got the idea, talked his reluctant commander into it, and trained the boys, as much to keep them out of trouble as to help the troops. And the first Scout-like organizations were founded, not by Baden Powell, in England, in 1908, but by the Americans Ernest Thompson Seton and Daniel Beard at the turn of the century. Seton’s Woodcraft Indians and Beard’s Sons of Daniel Boone organized city boys into troops and patrols, teaching them tracking, camping, canoeing and other “woodcraft” skills. It was intended as a school of manhood, on the theory that contact with and mastery of Wild Nature brought maturity in a way impossible to achieve in cities.
When the Boy Scouts took over this movement, starting in the U.S. in 1910, they had the backing of such men as Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who served on the National Council. Soon there were Scout troops in virtually every city and town. Initially, most were supported by churches, but gradually the movement became somewhat more secular.
One theme that has persisted in the Scouting movement has been the idea of the virtues of camping. Sleeping out in the woods, telling ghost tales around a campfire, hiking with your patrol (generally called Wolf or Bear or some other meat eating animal)–all this was supposed to build character, make a boy into a man.
Girl Scouts, a movement founded in 1912 in imitation of the Boy Scouts, was never quite as much into “woodcraft” and “roughing it” as the Boy Scouts, but it shared most of the same activities to some extent. It always varied, from troop to troop, from patrol to patrol, just how much time, if any, a Boy or Girl Scout spent trying to mature in the Wilderness.
I was never really a Boy Scout, though I was in the preparatory group, the Cub Scouts. My most vivid memory of a Scout troop was one I met in Mount Madonna County Park, Santa Cruz County California, in 1970. The two leaders each carried a burlap sack and each boy had a forked stick. They’d spent the day catching rattlesnakes.
I was surprised to find, when I later looked at the statistics, that Scout groups were never more than 5 or 10% of JMT users. They seem so prominent. Joan Benner, High Sierra Area Manager for the Forest Service and Ranger Todd’s supervisor, when I met her after my trip at a Wilderness Conference, suggested Scouts seem so numerous because they generally use the major trails, they appear in large, compact groups, and they make more noise than average. I think another reason may be that a lot of the frequent users of the backcountry are ex-scouts, people who were introduced to the mountains on “50-miler’s” and similar outings. They talk about backpacking as something they learned in Scouting, like many of my friends from college, who were part of the ’60’s and ’70’s rush to the mountains. They set the pattern, established the image of backpacking as “back to nature, seriously,” an image it retains.
The role-playing aspect of Scouting is obvious. But what I find so interesting is the almost universal acceptance of the idea that this particular kind of role playing really is conducive to maturation. It’s exactly the same kind of thing Teddy Roosevelt talked about in connection with hunting, how big game hunting makes a boy a man by pitting him against a dangerous animal (though the animal never carries the gun) and, in the process, forcing the boy to be sensitive to Nature. Aldo Leopold, one of the great 20th century gurus of the ecology movement, said much the same thing in A Sand County Almanac. And it’s really not so different from what Muir said, repeatedly, in some of his best-known writings:
“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”
“We were new creatures, born again; and truly not until this time were we fairly concious that we were born at all.”
“The life of the mountaineer seems to be particularly favorable to the development of soul-life.”
It’s the almost-universal theme, one of the great leitmotifs of going to the Wilderness, the transformation of the individual through contact with Nature. It’s part of Zen Buddhism, American and Asian shamanism, Taoism, Scouting, Turner’s Frontier Thesis, and the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and Muir.
I sat on Selden Pass, thinking about James and Scouting and Muir and my trip. A pair of mountain chickadees fluttered past every few minutes, waiting for me to leave so they could resume eating the insects that flocked to the flowers that grew energetically from every crack in the granite. Or maybe they just wanted my crumbs.
I was 103.5 miles from Happy Isles and 106.3 miles from Whitney Summit. Halfway, by any other name. I could sense the changes I had undergone, though much had happened I could not yet verbalize. I was, at least, more at ease with myself and with the mountains, certainly with being alone in the mountains. But with no crises past or in the offing, I had no way to tell if the trip was being a saunter, a test, or a transforming, enlightening experience. My testing, had I known it, was already past, in my acceptance of a felt, non- intellectualized Nature. Later, when I stalked a bear at Woods Creek and calmly enjoyed the eye of a storm on the summit of Whitney, my peace of mind would be the fruit of my trip.
Below the pass, at Sally Keyes Lakes, I met the horse group I had seen that morning, whose wrangler had first alerted me to James’ plight. They were returning to Diamond D Ranch (aka Muir Trail Ranch). Seeing my snack of trail mix, one woman gave me two grapefruit-sized Granny Smith Apples, tart, crisp, and impossibly flavorful. It definitely made me think better of all horsepackers!
A bit later I again ran into Aki and we decided to hike together down to Blaney Meadows Hot Springs. We found the spur trail leading off the Muir Trail was in ruinous condition. It was much too steep, muddy and washed out. By the time we reached the bottom my thighs were quivering with the strain.
There we were confronted with the San Joaquin River– forty yards wide, three feet deep, rushing madly over a bed of shifting, rounded cobbles. A frayed nylon rope was stretched across the torrent, roughly over a shallow place meant as a ford. I eyed the crossing suspiciously. Aki hung his boots around his neck and waded in. He made it halfway before he lost his balance and slipped in to his hips, but he recovered quickly and made it the rest of the way in safety. Learning from his mistakes, I put on my Aquasocks and crossed on the downstream side of the rope, stretching it tightly. My pack was heavy, with my boots and plastic bagged camera gear on top, but I crossed safely.
Blaney Meadows Hot Springs is an almost mandatory stop for John Muir Trail and PCT hikers. Only half a mile off the trail, it’s the only hot bath we get aside from Reds Meadows. Moreover, this is a hot bath in a green meadow, with a view, and the unique feeling you get only from nude bathing in the wild. Bertha Clark Pope wrote an account of the 1925 Sierra Club High Trip for the Sierra Club Bulletin. She enthused that, “the rapture of mere solo bathing in soft, cold mountain water has never been sufficiently sung,” then told of a boy she had known who wrote a poem about why he was glad he wasn’t a girl,
“They cannot climb up trees for fruit,
Nor Bathe without a bathing suit.”
She concluded her paean to the joys of Sierra baths, “Across the years we salute you, Bill, and tell you times have changed.” Unfortunately, Aki and I were the only ones at the hot springs that day at sunset.
We recrossed the river, both making it safely this time, and camped in a nearby area that was flattened from generations of tents. As I set up my Flashlight Tent and boiled tea on my Whisperlite stove, he set up an identical tent and fired up an identical stove. But, in true Japanese fashion, he put on a pair of white cotton gloves to keep his hands clean during these camp chores. A mountain guide in the Himalaya once told me of a Japanese trekking group that had brought enough white cotton gloves so each person could have a clean pair every day.
Aki wasn’t so fastidious. His gloves were a week past being white, but they made me notice my hands. They were caked with dirt, despite the hot bath I had just taken. Where my little fingers bent, the skin was cracked to the quick, and the cracks were filled with dirt.
Aki cooked his dinner quickly, it consisted of traditional Japanese dried foods–two kinds of seaweed, tiny dry fish, miso powder, and rice. Our equipment was almost the same, but our commissaries were totally different. I expressed my surprise that a Japanese man could cook.
“I lived eight years in Toronto, Canada. Few Japanese live there, few Japanese tourists go there, so there are few Japanese restaurants and they are expensive. I am not married, so I had to learn how to cook.”
The forest by the San Joaquin was wet with mist from the river, but no mosquitoes crowded around. The night before, near Bear Creek, I had endured clouds of mozzies in the mosquito headnet my wife had brought me. Now I had no need of it, though the area seemed ripe for them. Perhaps it was the slight sulphur odor that enveloped us after our soak in the hot spring. The local Indians had used the spring. When I was in it I could feel old timbers at the bottom, timbers slick with the rubbing of feet of generations of tired hikers and horsemen. Maybe they had discovered that the water not only gave solace when you were in, but that it also protected you from one of the biggest hassles of the Sierra, the voracious mosquitoes.
We had no view from our campsite among the trees, something I regretted when I saw the sky turn a vivid pink in the sunset glow. The river sang, muted by the trees, and Aki and I sat silently as our campsite grew dark. When I took off my pants to turn in, the zipper broke. I hoped it wasn’t an omen.