The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I decided that since it was becoming increasingly hard to hike in the heat of the day, I would get up early. The alarm on my watch went off at five. I couldn’t see very well, but I managed to eat my granola and milk and drink some Tang, then packed and left. I was on the trail at 6:05.
Still, I felt heavy, by legs dragged, the straps of my pack dug furrows in my shoulders. Even this early, I hiked in just a thin shirt and felt warm, though when I stopped to rest the light morning breeze quickly chilled my sweaty body. Too many days on the trail, I thought, and too few views while hiking steeply uphill through scattered trees in a deep canyon. Where were the glorious views of the Rae Lakes?
A galloping sound interrupted my downcast musings. Coming down the trail I saw a young couple. They wore loose, baggy pants. Their shirt tails flapped in the breeze as they jogged down the trail, their bodies emaciated like macrobiotic devotees. They stopped when they reached me. The woman carried a halter in one hand. They reminded me vividly of a couple I had met in Delhi the first night I was there. That couple had been begging. The girl with the halter asked me, panting with her efforts, “Have you seen any horses? Or heard a bell?” I told her I thought I heard a bell, dimly, sometime during the night. She gasped out, “Thanks,” and they started off again. “Amateurs,” I thought, “Don’t know how to take care of their horse. Probably the first time they’ve ever been in the mountains with a pack animal and they didn’t know enough to keep their camp between the horse and his stable.”
A bit later, a little further along, the CCC crew passed me, jogging uphill, each carrying a shovel, pick or hoe plus a daypack and a hardhat. One guy’s hardhat was covered with some tie dye material, the rest were yellow and said “CCC.”
The trail reconstruction really was very impressive, and very dusty. They had obviously just finished putting down the top layer of soil. It was fine, powdery soil. Each step I took raised a little puff of dust which coated my boots and pants legs and, as I discovered later, also coated the skin on my legs to above my knees.
I caught up with the trail crew about 8:30 and watched for a few minutes as they levered boulders, dug out soil, and built water bars. It was all terribly energetic, and made me feel even more tired.
After three hours hiking, I finally spied Fin Dome through the trees and knew I was at last nearing the Rae Lakes Basin. The trail gradient slackened about this time, and my mood zoomed from down to up. This was why I had come!
Fin Dome is the exclamation point of the scene. It rises sheer from the floor of the basin, a 1400 foot granite pinnacle, smoothly rounded on top. It is at its best reflected in any of the basin’s many lakes. Then it looks precisely like the symbol of Shiva–the phallic lingam rising from the disk of the feminine yoni.
Just below Dollar Lake I spotted a pack group milling around a campsite down by the river, the South Fork of the Kings, as it flowed down the valley. Camping was prohibited at Dollar Lake itself because, as I learned from a sign by the trail, the park was trying to let the vegetation around the lake recover from 90 years of campers and their pack animals. I looked in the lake, an uninspiring little pond, and saw hundreds of 6-inch trout swimming back and forth. Fish always look so idle when seen from above in the daylight. They seem to have nothing whatever to do, and merely swim around waiting for a water-spider, beetle or minnow to appear, magically, and provide a snack. Or perhaps when I’m watching them, they’re watching me, cautiously on the lookout for a fishing rod and artificial fly or spinner.
I spend a lot of time watching animals, learning how they move so I can better photograph them. Some, like gorillas and chimps, are relatively easy to understand, their minds are so like our own. Others, chickens especially, I find too erratic to photograph–from a hundred chicken pictures taken in various places I have perhaps half a dozen worth showing. Fish, however, are totally beyond my ken. My only good fish pictures are of dead fish, in markets or on plates.
Beyond Dollar Lake, the valley opened out and the views spread themselves all around me. My tiredness vanished, though my pace remained slow. Now, however, it was slow because I kept stopping to take pictures of the flowers, the streams, the lakes, and my fellow hikers.
I hadn’t seen anybody on the trail except the trail crew and the couple chasing the horse, and then the horse-packing group in the camp, but now there were people coming and going like in Evolution Basin. The Rae Lakes Loop, starting and ending from Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon, is perhaps the ultimate Sierra loop trail. It starts from a popular spot, ascends gradually to one of the most beautiful lake basins in the mountains, crosses one high pass, and returns via a succession of lush meadows and a starkly beautiful valley. It has everything, including abundant animal life and crowds of hikers. It’s the only area of comparable size in the Sierra where all campsites are controlled–you are only allowed one night in any given site. There are also lots of warning signs which, as I had seen, were used to discourage people from using such popular areas.
Crowds were not at all visible while I had my lunch above the Middle Rae Lake, at what appeared to be a heavily-used camping area. Since two-night stays were forbidden, I had the campsite almost to myself–with the company of a chipmunk that kept scurrying up, thinking I would feed him some crackers or peanuts, either intentionally or by accident. Each time I looked at him he would stop suddenly in the dirt, raising a little puff of dust as he snapped his tail in the air to balance himself for a possible escape. He watched me closely, or at least he watched my lunch as I ate. “I don’t feed wild animals,” I told him. “Go find some seeds.”
“Been hiking alone so long you’re talking to the squirrels?” a voice said. I had company, a man of about thirty, husky, wearing sunglasses so dark they were nearly black. His name was Eric. He and his dad were hanging around camp, waiting for the mid-day heat to pass. Then they planned to climb partway up towards Glen Pass so they would have an easier time the next day.
“Besides,” he added, “We really need some rest after last night’s bear session.”
“Problem?” I asked.
“I think you could say we had a problem. I thought we’d done everything right, by the book. We put our food in the bear box and left our packs outside the tent with their flaps open. But we missed one packet of lemonade mix, it got left in the side pocket of my pack. Mister Bear came along about midnight, grabbed the pack in his teeth, and started heading for Glen Pass. We chased him and threw rocks sort of off to the side, we didn’t want to hit him, and he finally let go. I’ve got a nice set of tooth-marks in my pack now. And I saw him again this morning during breakfast and had to chase him off again. If you’re going to camp here, watch your stuff real close.”
I thought about my unsuccessful and slightly absurd bear hunt the day before. Maybe here I would get some bear pictures without even trying. Or, more likely, that bear wouldn’t be back here for several days, long after I was gone. Maybe the best way to keep bears away is to keep cameras handy.
“Well,” I said, “Other than wrestling a bear for possession of your pack last night, how has your trip gone?”
“Great, except my uncle bugged out the second day and my dad and I are carrying too much food.”
“Yeah. He’d never been backpacking before and when we got to the top of Kearsarge Pass he took one look at the way we were going, shook his head, and said, ‘This isn’t my idea of a good time.’ He went back down, but we didn’t give him his full one/third of the food.”
“Well, actually,” I said, “I’d be willing to take a few things off your hands. I figured my rations kinda close on this leg of the trip, and if I lose a day to the storm I think is coming, I might get hungry before the end.” He gave me some packet soups, crackers, granola bars, and a pound of the fanciest trail mix I’ve ever seen, with almonds and coconut flakes. Superb.
It was clouding up to the south, big puffy tops of thunderheads over and beyond Glen Pass. But it was only 2, and I hadn’t yet heard any thunder. The thunder I had heard previous days had always been between 4 and 5 PM. I sat on a rock and watched the weather develop, nibbling on the trail mix. A Clark’s Nutcracker watched me closely from a branch four feet over my head. Each time I looked directly at him, he would hop a bit further away, or at least hunker down as if about to spring into the air and fly away. Like the squirrel, he was obviously used to sharing hikers’ food, but also used to being chased away. The wind was blowing steadily now, making the Whitebark Pines toss about and sing in a muted fashion. Muir once claimed he could tell where he was in the forest belt by the sound of the wind in the trees. Probably he could. I merely listened and watched the weather. I also watched jets arching high over my head, leaving contrails to be blown apart by the upper level winds. Ansel Adams called them “snakes” –they spoiled his pictures, disturbing their natural innocence like the original snake in the garden, the low, earthly, phallic symbol intruding on divinely-appointed purity.
Between 3 and 5, about fifteen people arrived, all coming up the valley, heading towards Glen Pass. They included the pack group I had seen camped near Dollar Lake. To my surprise, the group was led by the young “couple” I had met looking for their horse that morning. They seemed pretty business-like now as they and another packer unloaded a few horses and half a dozen mules. Their group was walking, carrying daypacks, while they took care of the pack animals and nearly all the camp chores.
I talked a bit with a couple in their sixties. They were complaining about being delayed the last two mornings by runaway horses, and again during the day by a mule that had rolled over, damaging some of their gear and cutting itself badly enough that they had to stop to distribute its load among the other mules. I noticed that most of the group carried fishing rods.
“How’s the fishing?” I asked.
“Pretty good,” the man answered. “I’m not fishing much myself, just a bit mornings and evenings. Todd,” he looked around, apparently searching for Todd, “I guess he’s down by the lake already. He’s a real fanatic. He’s been keeping us in fish the whole week.”
“Keeping us in trouble, you mean,” his wife put in. “Both the last two nights he caught a mess of trout after dinner and then hung them from a tree overnight and both nights the mules woke us up. They made the most God-awful racket. Ginger said a bear was sniffing around, attracted by the trout. I would have enjoyed my trout breakfast more if I hadn’t been woken up at 2 AM because a bear thought they smelled better stinking and raw.”
As I watched, “Ginger” appeared in a bikini, it’s few square inches of red covering a total lack of curves. She walked down to the lake and swam smoothly across and back, about half a mile total. She got out, her lips blue. I said, “Hi!” as she walked by me, back towards her camp, but she couldn’t seem to frame a reply very well. That water must have been cold.
A Scout group was setting up camp close to the bear box. There were three men in their mid or late thirties and three boys about 14 or 15. They had a packer who rode a horse and led one heavily-laden mule. He unloaded the mule and went back down the trail–this part of the valley is closed to grazing. The big pack group was also unloading their mules and getting ready to take them to a legal grazing area.
The scout group seemed to me to typify the future of the JMT and backpacking as a whole. The Baby Boom generation was now, finally, starting to introduce their teens to the joys and challenges of backpacking. But, as Toby Horst had said, they were a little more into comfort and light packs than they had been at twenty. From the dufflebags unloaded off their mule, I saw them extract cans of corned beef. Over where the other group was camping, I saw Ginger putting together a stove, attaching it to a big propane cylinder, about two feet high and 14 inches in diameter. All in all, they made my camp outfit seem incredibly small and light, though it was heavy enough on my back.
Then I met Dwight. Most backpackers train by running or cycling. Dwight lifts weights at Gold’s Gym. He had done the JMT three times in the past but now he wanted to do what he called a “Pure Trip.” He was doing the whole trail, south to north, without resupplying. But he wasn’t carrying freeze dried meals and moving quickly. He was stopping for day climbs, and he carried cans of tuna and jars of spices. He cooked huge, complicated, one-pot meals in an ancient, blackened pot he had found ten years ago at Reds Meadows. After 54 miles on the trail from Whitney Portal, his pack was down to about 100 pounds.
Not surprisingly, one of his heroes was Norman Clyde, The Pack That Walked Like A Man. Clyde probably made more first ascents in the Sierra than any ten other climbers in history. He read Greek and Latin classics in Greek and Latin and carried a revolver in the mountains to scare away the bears. He led trips for the Sierra Club for years, until David Brower and Dick Leonard fired him for being too casual about injuries to members of his groups. He carried a big pack, loved giant campfires, and lived his last years alone in a cabin without electricity or indoor plumbing.
Dwight and I had our dinner sitting on the bear box, watching the clouds gather. At 6 PM, there were clouds covering about 75% of the sky, and the gusty wind seemed to herald rain, but by 7 it was almost clear and the mosquitoes, which had disappeared with the wind, came back to dine on us. Ginger came over, after her people finished their dinner, and gave us some left-over Salisbury Steak in mushroom gravy and then, even better, two big pieces of Apple Brown Betty. I didn’t realize how much I missed grease and sugar till I watched myself wolfing down the meat and desert after my own, seemingly-hearty dinner. My stomach felt thin and hard. I wondered how much weight I had lost.
We washed the pots she had brought the treats in and took them back. The two packers working with Ginger were talking about shooting coyotes and buzzards. One was saying, as I handed Ginger the pots, “God, I wish we had a gun along to blast the hell out of these bears. I just know they’ll be back again tonight. Shit, I wonder what would happen if you went up and split a bear’s head open with an ax. Could they fine you, or would it be okay because you’d just be protecting your property? Hell, if the bears got this bad at Lone Pine we’d just turn the dogs out on ’em, follow the barking and shoot ’em in a tree. You shoot vermin like coyotes and buzzards all the time. I say, if bears act like vermin, treat ’em that way. Plug ’em.”
Dwight and I sat up on a rock, where a breeze was blowing away the mosquitoes. I was tired, no doubt about it. But my tiredness no longer bothered me. Nor did the pain in my knee (now mostly gone) or my heel blister (bigger than ever but much less painful) or the slight, tingling numbness I was beginning to feel in the fingers of my left hand. No doubt part of my acceptance of these things was the knowledge that I was 38 miles from the top of Whitney. But it was also part of what I had felt while I watched the moon rise. The fading light of that day, and the glowing, pure moonlight of that night, had awakened in me an acceptance of the mountains and my place in them. I remembered Muir’s words, approaching the Sierra for the second time, this time as a shepherd. “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
We talked about books and Transcendentalism and watched the sky fade to a fiery red, off to the west, where the storm clouds had been. I thought of the old saw, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” It looked promising. Maybe today’s storm, which had missed us, had cleared the air. I just needed five more days to complete my trip, five days of clear weather. The red sky at night said fair weather was coming.