The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I left my campsite with a burst of energy that carried me through forest, across meadows, over ridges and down, down, down, towards Reds Meadows and its civilized comforts. I missed the log crossing above Minaret Falls and started walking on the wrong side of the river, but two fishermen I met assured me the little trail I was on would get me down just as easily. Rather than retrace my steps, I followed their advice.
The trail split repeatedly, and gradually deteriorated into little more than a deer path through increasingly dense brush. I crossed the river at a likely place, then discovered I was on an island in the middle, with the worst of the rapids ahead. I retraced my steps and continued descending.
The hill became steeper and at one point I scrambled down a nearly vertical 15-foot wall. I realized this was silly and potentially dangerous, but I figured where the fishermen could get up, I could get down, even with a pack.
Eventually I reached the bottom where I confronted a boggy meadow. Slogging across, I came to a river, the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin. It rushed by swiftly over smooth, rounded cobbles. There were fishermen in the river wearing chest high waders and more fishermen on the far bank. Behind them were RV’s and trailers set up under the trees, each with a picnic table, barbecue, lanterns, ice chests, all the trappings of late-20th century American camping.
I sat down on the bank, took off my boots, hung them around my neck, and waded in. About the time I reached the middle, with my feet hurting from the rocks, the water up to my knees, I remembered the cameras. They nestled by my ribs, in the pockets of my vest. My Aqua Socks, bought for times like this, were still in my pack along with the big plastic bag I brought to protect the cameras.
Just before the far bank the current strengthened, curling up to my thighs. Twice I tottered as surges of water nearly lifted me off my feet. My predicament was obvious to the fishermen. When I finally reached the bank, I saw three of them converging on me, ready to rescue this silly hiker. I smiled ruefully as I took off my pack and caught my breath. They went back to their vain pursuit of trout.
Half an hour later I was sitting down to lunch at a picnic table in the Reds Meadows Campground, a mile from the site of my near-swim. Signs here and at the nearby Devil’s Postpile National Monument Campground reprised all the warnings from Yosemite and added a few more.
- Bear Country
- Put It Out, Every Spark, Dead Out
- No Fireworks
- No Bicycles Cross Country Or On Trails
- Plague Warning
- Reminder – There are hazards in the mountains that usually do not exist in the city.
There’s a natural hot spring at Reds Meadows. Somebody donated money and built little bath houses below the hot spring, specifically for hikers. I had the unimagined luxury of a hot bath. The water temperature was perfect, though the tub was stained from minerals in the hot spring and I came out with a slightly medicinal odor. It was a change from sweat, anyway.
The store wasn’t much of a store, but they had everything I needed at the moment. I bought two beers, some chips, a chocolate bar, and a grossly overpriced apple, then sat down outside with this manna from heaven. While I ate and drank myself into a thoroughly mellow state, I listened to a middle aged man in tan hiking shorts and a tee shirt telling two young girls that he was doing the whole John Muir Trail, as he did every year. He called it his “Annual Physical.”
Soon Sean appeared, a beer in either hand. He planned on dinner at the modest cafe across from the store. I decided to buy a can of corned beef to supplement my beef curry rice rather than buy a whole dinner and thus carry too much food to my rendezvous with my wife, just three days away. Sean agreed to share my campsite.
Back at the tent, I tried to catch up on my diary, but loud rock music blared from a black pick-up truck at another campsite. Between the beer and the noise I found it very hard to concentrate. I went over and asked my neighbors to turn down their stereo. They rushed to turn it down, apologizing profusely.
Still, I couldn’t concentrate. The campground was profoundly distracting, with begging chipmunks, gleaming cars, children playing in the dirt with bright plastic dinosaurs and a hundred other reminders of the un-natural world of home. And again I was feeling lonely and depressed. I wondered if I should leave the second half of the trip for next year, starting out a bit stronger and with a companion.
Then two companions arrived, John and Matt, uncle and nephew. Sean had sent them over, knowing I’d welcome the company. They were also doing the JMT. A half hour’s conversation brought out the fact that they had met and talked with my wife as she was hiking down from Potter Point, heading for home with Hot Tub on her mind. They had been a couple hours behind me all the way.
Matt was very self-assured, young, blond and sunburned. I thought he was 17 until John mentioned his true age–just 14. He read a fantasy novel while John and I talked. John had done the whole trail three times already, and parts of it twice that often. I asked why he did the same trail repeatedly.
“It’s strange, I know, but I’ve been backpacking for 30 years now, and there’s a certain pleasure in going over the same trail, again and again. Each time, it feels more like a part of me. I know where the great views are, I know where the steep slopes are, and when it’s there, just as I remember, it somehow becomes my personal property.”
“Have you seen a lot of changes, over the years? Is it very different from trip to trip?”
“Oh, God yes! But it’s funny. I started backpacking in the fifties, when I was about Matt’s age. In those days it was all this big macho thing, all the guys out to carry a big pack and rack up the miles. Then, in the sixties, it got to be the whole back-to-nature trip, passing joints around the campfire and crowds getting bigger the further you went up in the mountains. I guess lots of kids were going for enlightenment, though they mostly got sunburned.
“But now it’s getting back more like it was. The crowds disappeared when they started the permits, the pollution isn’t so bad, and you mostly see people like you and me and Matt here, just out to enjoy themselves and get away from the horrors of the city.”
“I don’t have city horrors. I live in Santa Cruz. What are you fleeing? What do you do, anyway, John?”
“Consulting. I advise law enforcement agencies on juvenile rights. I work a lot with cops who work with LA gangs.”
“As we would have said in the Sixties, Heavy, Man.”
“You better believe it. That’s why its so great being out on the trail, just me and Matt and the bears. No radio, no TV, the only things we have to contend with are natural, storms, blisters, bears…”
I asked the obvious question, “Had any bear problems this trip?”
Matt laughed, but kept his nose in his novel.
“Not yet, but I could tell you some stories…”
Somehow he didn’t, not just then. We got off onto other topics. Then we had dinner while a doe tiptoed delicately, nervously across the meadow 30 yards from us. Above our heads, a pair of mountain chickadees were bringing dinner to their chicks. The little ones peeped wildly every time one of the adults appeared at the nest with another installment of dinner.
After eating, we hung our food while the car campers stared, obviously puzzled at what we were doing. I used the standard counter-balance technique.
How To Hang Your Food
- Tie a rock on the end of your bear rope (generally a thin cord).
- Throw the rock up over a branch about 15 to 18 feet off the ground. Ideally, the rope should cross the branch at least six feet from the trunk of the tree. Choose a branch angled down, and too thin to support a bear cub but too strong to be easily broken by an adult bear.
- Somehow induce the rock to pull down its end of the rope without pulling the other end out of reach.
- Replace the rock with a food bag (tightly closed against Stellar Jays) and pull it up to the level of the branch.
- Reaching up as high as you can, tie on your other food bag and curl the excess rope up out of the way.
- Take your walking stick or a handy branch and push up the second food bag until the two bags are evenly balanced. They should now both be out of reach of any bear either on the ground or in the tree.
John and Matt used a variation on an older technique. They hoisted their food up between two trees separated by 50 feet of open ground. The rope at either end was wrapped around the tree trunks in a downwards spiral. John assured me he had never lost food to a bear, though he had lost a lot of sleep.
“You know how bears forage, right? They come along the trails on a regular round, always after dark, usually between midnight and 4 AM. They’ll look up against the sky, especially in regularly used campsites. If they see a foodbag, they’ll climb the nearest tree to get it. Hanging the food this way, there’s just no tree nearby, so they can’t figure out how to get the food.
“Of course, it helps that we don’t allow food anywhere near our tent. We never eat anything in the tent. Also, we’re super-careful not to spill anything, especially anything that would smell really good to a bear. If you spill hot chocolate or bacon grease around your campsite, you may as well not go to bed, because a bear is sure to find it. Bears can smell better than dogs, and they can see and hear pretty well too.”
A new voice said, “That’s because they are dogs, just big, black, fat mountain dogs.”
I turned and saw Sean, but it wasn’t his voice. He’d brought yet another JMT hiker, the one I had heard telling the young girls that this was his annual physical. His name was also John. There were now five of us, John 1 (the consultant), John 2 (Annual Physical John, John Sanroma), Sean, Don and Matt. Matt wore a Mexican straw hat, so we dubbed him Juan, for euphony.
“So how do you keep these dogs from getting at your food? Growl at them?” I asked.
“Exactly! I keep my food with me, I mostly camp above tree line, where there isn’t much natural bear food, so they don’t go there much, and I growl. When I see a bear approaching, I growl, gruffly and loudly, ‘Get outta here…’ And they do,” he ended sweetly.
John 1 chuckled. “I guess I’ll have to take your word for it. I’ve spent so many nights chasing off bears, I’d rather hang my food. At least that way I can move around more after making camp.”
“Have you ever had you food taken by a bear?” I asked John 2.
“Never. Not in 13 years of doing the John Muir Trail.”
“You?” I asked John 1.
“Just once. It was up near Bishop Trail. I had left my food cache with the ranger. She had it in her cabin and a bear got in and ate it. Then she came in and accidentally cornered the bear and it got scared and she shot it. She hauled the body outside, waiting for help to bury it. When I got there, of course, I was about out of food. But talk about luck, there was another hiker there, a man I didn’t know from Adam, and he handed me his car keys and said, ‘My car’s at Bishop Trailhead. You better go down and get yourself some food.’ And I did, from the Safeway in Bishop.”
“And tell them what happened when you got back on the trail, Uncle John.”
“Well,” he said, pausing dramatically, “I was hiking with three friends, and they knew that when I got back to the trail I’d be all hot to push on and make up for lost time. There was a full moon, and they figured I’d go on by moonlight. So they took the bear’s body and set it up on a log by the trail, fixed so it looked natural.
“When we started out the next night, I led the way. Up ahead, I could see this hulk by the trail, and I figured it looked like a bear, but no way. I just knew it had to be a rock or a log or a bush. So I didn’t say anything, I didn’t want to feel like a fool. But as I got closer and closer it started looking more and more like a bear. Finally, when I was about ten feet away, I couldn’t take it any more. I shouted, ‘Look out! Get off the trail! There’s a bear coming!'” We all broke up laughing.
The Bear By The Trail story prompted a discussion of how to discourage bears. Aside from hanging food or using the bear poles or the metal food storage lockers provided at a few places, we discussed a wide assortment of strategies, some more practical than others.
Don, John, Sean, John and Juan’s Rules For Bear Avoidance
- Don’t cook bacon or trout.
- Don’t camp in a popular campsite, where somebodyelse has cooked bacon or trout (other other good-smelling foods).
- Don’t hang your food right over your tent (a bear may think you would make a good step ladder).
- Don’t spill anything.
- Cache your food on a rock ledge.
- Attach packets of skunk juice or ammonia to the outside of your food bags.
- Attach a solar battery charger to the top of your pack during the day. Then, at night, wrap some metal foil around your food bags and hook it up to the battery.
- Put out some bacon laced with something that will make a bear sick to his stomach very quickly.
- Set up an inflatable grizzly bear looming over yourfood, with a tape recorder making appropriate growling sounds.
- Instead of an inflatable grizzly, bring along an inflatable black bear of the appropriate sex, properly scented, on the theory that backcountry bears, like solo backpackers, have unsatisfied needs other than food. Bears, also, do not live by bread alone.
I learned later that all of the more serious techniques of discouraging bears have been tried, but with only limited success. You can educate an individual bear with electro- shock or ammonia or something to make him sick. But it only works for a particular bear in a particular place, and often only for a particular object.
After we ran the bear ideas into the ground, we got onto the subject of other hikers, particularly dumb ones.
“It’s amazing,” someone said, “how many people who come to the mountains just haven’t a clue how dangerous it can be.”
We all nodded sagely. John 2 said, “And it’s all dangers they bring on themselves. Like the people who try to do Whitney as a day hike from Whitney Portal. It’s 22 miles round trip, six thousand feet up, then six thousand feet down. One year, I had just finished the trail and was heading down to Trail Camp, it was about 3 PM, I met a woman in a mini-skirt. It was a black, leather mini-skirt, I remember. She was sitting on a rock, puffing on a cigarette in a long, black cigarette holder, and she asked me in this dramatic, sultry voice, ‘How far, to the top?’ Of course, I had to tell her that she’d better turn around right then unless she intended to spend the night in the summit hut without any food (which she didn’t have) or extra clothing or sleeping bag (ditto).”
“Yes John,” John 1 said, in a mock-patronizing tone. “And how many weeks did you say you had been on the trail when you started hallucinating about this uniformed Girl Scout?”
“Don’t worry, John,” I said, “I believe you. I think I met her earlier today. She was going for a hike in white Levi’s and a yellow silk blouse.”
“Must be a skier out of season,” Sean suggested. “They think the most important thing about skiing is wearing all those fancy clothes. I sometimes think the only thing that has saved cross country skiing as a sport is that the clothing manufacturers realized they could sell special clothes for it.”
“Not to me, they don’t. I still wear the Navy bell bottoms I bought when I started skiing.”
“But I’m sure you’re right,” I continued. “Clothes are a big deal for any sport. Downhill ski clothes must say something about how skiers view themselves; bright colors, high tech boots, all those pockets at funny angles like fighter pilots. No, like astronauts! Yuppie astronauts!”
“I wonder what skiers wear when they go hiking?” Sean asked.
“Leather mini skirts?” Matt suggested. “Or white Levi’s?”
I thought about the black Stetsons on the horse packing dudes. Role playing. Game playing. It’s a different game, one that’s very easy for backpackers to mock. I guess skiers could mock backpackers too. Loggers sometimes refer to environmentalists as “granola eaters.” Maybe skiers call backpackers “woolie shirties.”
“I just like to be practical,” Annual Physical John said. “I wear shorts because they’re comfortable. I don’t carry anything I don’t need. I don’t even carry a camera anymore, I already have pictures of the whole trail. I’d rather look at the scene than see it through a view finder. The only reason I carry a stove is that I like to sleep above timberline, up in Muir Dens, circles of Whitebark Pine or rocks warmed by the sun. You know, Muir used to travel with just a sack of bread and tea and oatmeal. That’s pretty much how I go. I have my grains and my yeast drink and my sesame oil. I don’t eat much. I fast lots of days. It gives me more energy, not forcing my body to digest all that food. It’s just so much more pleasant, not being burdened by more than I can comfortably carry.”
“Do you carry a tent?” I asked.
“No tent, just a tarp. Of course, one year I had to give up on doing the trail, the weather was so bad.”
“Four years ago?” John 1 asked. The other John nodded. “That was really awful. It rained solidly for three days, with hail on the passes. I heard several people got killed by lightning that year.”
“I got hit by lightning, but not that year,” John 2 said. “It was in the summit hut on Whitney. I always spend my last night there, whatever the weather. One year there was a really terrible storm. It was when I was still doing the trail with other people. Unfortunately, one of my group was an alcoholic. When the thunder started getting really loud he pulled out a flask he had hidden from us the whole trip. I told him in no uncertain terms he wasn’t going to get drunk now and he was damned well going to share his liquor with us.
“While we were passing around the flask, I suddenly found myself in the next room. Lightning had struck the hut and knocked me through the door, luckily it was open. Let me tell you, it was quite a shock, no pun intended.”
“But you still go to the hut?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s the end of the trip. The only way to end it. If I go then, I go well. What better way?”
The talk went on for hours in a similar vein. If I hadn’t been worried before about bears, storms, earthquakes rolling rocks down onto the trail and all the other potential problems, I would have been by the time I went to bed. I crawled into my tent thinking, “Lightning and earthquakes and bears!” Oh my!