Just an old story, posted here previously, from 2007 -
Two Days of Food Remaining 3/27/2007
Pardon my long-winded ways, but this rambling story has too long occupied the back burner… for months now…bits and pieces refusing to come together…now finally, somewhat coherent. So, for your winter enjoyment, I offer up a convoluted summer Sierra tale relating one of my first solo adventures…a catharsis of thinking…a trip that completely altered my basic backcountry philosophy.
Way back when, long before afflicted by the solo hiking bug, I was one of those who always pre-planned intended Sierra trips to the extreme - probably pre-influenced by the “tried and true” ways of my first backpacking guru. Continuing to carry out his persnickety rituals, whatever…those first-taught habits stuck. When venturing into places unknown: the beginnings of any new quest to seek out foreign Sierra treasures. I always copiously researched and dissected to the minutia – maps scrutinized, food rationed, campsites pre-determined, miles per day analyzed; he taught me fastidiously to plan it all out, to envision all contingencies, and to organize meticulously all beforehand. For him, and for the majority, (mostly those uncomfortable in their own mountain abilities), this strategy certainly has merit – it does work, and it is certainly the safer route.
However, much later in my wilderness career, only after all too many aborted trips… countless times having well-intended partners bale out at the last minute… (at the time, seemingly having rational excuses). ”Sorry, I have to wash my hamster, my girlfriend thinks she is pregnant, something to do with work …bla, bla, bla”… invariably these unexpected voids, the end result always leaving me in somewhat of a frustrated lurch. It was just such a time, a long-planned trip to the general Ritter / Banner area, two college friends who swore that they wanted to try a week-long backpacking trip…if only I selected the food, lent them the gear, did all the planning, and totally orchestrated the adventure. They would gladly split the costs later… (You know how this ends, right?)…”Oops, sorry, something came up”, and…”we just cannot make it…another time…maybe later on”… (Sound vaguely familiar to anyone?).
So there I was - mid-summer in the sweltering San Fernando Valley; backpack at the ready, car gassed, time taken off work, maps bought, and food for three carefully pre-packaged. This time, instead of just abandoning the dream, opted simply to jump in the car, make the familiar drive…do this particular extended trip alone. Having already done a few shorter solo treks previously, the thought of another unaccompanied adventure, although this time longer… much longer, neither frightened nor intimidated; to be truthful, as I readily prefer my own company to that of most others anyway. Screw them, I could do this.
The initial part of the trip, starting out from Mammoth, went just as pre-planned…no major problems to speak of…good fishing, plenty of trail company here and there…all great times. A week later, coming off Donahue Pass, now pushing it a bit through the talus switchbacks, my boots made quick work of making my way downwards following the headwaters of the Lyell. Early afternoon... was a bit rushed, getting late, and the plan was to make camp soon, wanting to fish that final night along the river… near the fork in the trail that cuts off to Ireland, and that is where this story begins.
Reaching my evening’s destination, there was already one solo party camped at the split…a ratty old canvas tent erected – perched under a sprawling Cedar, (many of you probably know the spot).
Whenever arriving at such an intended but occupied campsite area, where someone has already taken root (happily ensconced), best to take a moment and converse a spell, ascertain whether they welcome having company, (and check if I really want to stay there), or whether to move on a ways. Well, this person in front of me was a real Richard, if you catch my drift. While he gruffly mentioned not really minding the company… he did exude a certain belligerent tendency… seems he had to have all things his own particular way, and to make matters dismal, it appeared that he was totally clueless.
His camp, set only feet from the river…there was a question as what he would do if a perchance a Ranger showed up - the permit restrictions… he barked back, “What #%&#!* permit…” (Translation – he was saying that he did not believe in permits). His Wal-Mart green backpack (holding whatever unseen provisions), now easily reachable barely six feet off the ground and tied non-securely against the tree. He had a monster fire ready to go…probably 6 feet across…no fire ring… filled with giant blackened logs,10-feet long, sticking out of both ends of the pit…and he had, to top it all off, a cast iron pot from which to cook. When I merely queried him about his possibly breaking a few finicky regulations… incongruities, he said that this was his way… the way it was supposed to be….”Like it or leave”. Hoisting up my backpack, ready to move on down the trail, just then another hiker, Dan, joined our party from the trail above, and that is where this story truly unfolds.
Dan was a longhair, blonde-haired, a big strapping (maybe a bit imposing) lad possessing ancient, but well-packed gear that looked technically exceptional …you could tell from the outset that his backpack had seen many a trail mile. Just from his gate, you realized he obviously knew what he was doing, (quite the contrast to the inept buffoon sitting right in front of us)…we hit it off immediately. (There is that unspoken mountain dogma...the instant recognition of proficiency among peers)….plus, as an added bonus, he had what appeared to be a fishing tube strapped to the outside of his ancient brown Gregory. With only a quick smile in my general direction, he immediately started in on the damn fool. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” he inquired…”Are you a complete idiot…Is that a fricking bear buffet...think that fire is big enough…couldn’t you find a heavier pot…camped a little close to the river…are you for real or what? I can still hear the loud swearing reverberating off the walls, as together we both meandered down the trail, searching for another convenient site a bit farther downstream… ah, the Lyell.
“Been following you for the better part of the last 4 miles, ever since the pass…you set a good pace…see you carry an old Gregory too…good choice…where you headed?” Soon, finding a sweet home for the evening, (far enough away), we set up camp together, talking now as if we were long-lost friends reunited. “How much food you have left?” he asked… "no matter, got some myself…up for some serious stream fishing before dinner, should be good here…want to get high?” Smiling back, my reply, “Maybe have enough food for a few days, three if I stretch it - lots of pasta and rice, getting low on the drink situation though… yes on the fishing, why do you think I carry this damn thing too…of course on the latter.” (Some things never change.)
Over a sumptuous trout dinner, it became obvious there was much to learn from this solo hiker’s mannerisms – his outlook on life; he possessed a certain novel and invigorating attitude about backpacking the Sierra. Spontaneous but no-nonsense…a mystique that was somewhat foreign to me…intriguing…a bit of a free spirit… possibly someone to emulate. “Where you headed next…Tuolumne?"
"Got a few extra days to kill…Let’s do Ireland, maybe Townsley?” With that sentence, in an instant, my plans went out the window; now instead of TM, my route was going up again, (and I had to admit, was okay with the decision.) FYI, around dusk, we both got a tremendous laugh out of an all too familiar ruckus emanating from up the trail…the sound of cast iron banging…then the discharge of a firearm…moments later a large cinnamon bear scampering through our camp holding the shredded remains of that before-seen green backpack…the fool’s.
Over the course of the next few hours at campfire, Dan related his basic dissertation, a take on trail manners…specifically regarding his particular position on bartering in the backcountry. “To start with, attitude and timing is everything…first a warm smile…always show respect for the other party, but know that the majority of our fellow campers would gladly share anything under the right circumstances, or if the price were right. The first thing to appreciate is that money per se in the high country is useless…there is nothing to buy, no place to spend it anyway…all of us are self-contained. Realizing that fact, he then listed a few of his basic postulates…not in any order of importance.
Toilet paper, mountain money, is a necessity…but few will part with any of theirs…but a spare roll can sweeten any deal.” Dan went on, stressing using this wise trading strategy only as a last resort in any bargaining negotiation. “Cigarettes, a pack of Marlboros, can be gladly worth a day’s supply to the right party. It weighs next to nothing…lasts forever” and, and even though he confessed that he did not actually smoke, he always carried a few packs for those times where trails beckoned and food was scarce, especially camping the last days among the heavily traveled, popular campsites. “Everybody is trying to quit…most campers do not bring enough butts along, and at the right times they are worth their weight in gold. Just a mention of a cigarette at a friendly campfire, especially at those sites only a day’s hike in…invariably someone will pick up the hint…ka-ching.”
Marijuana, he considered pot and its “application”, much akin to a sacred High Sierra sacrament …holy, something spiritual, only shared never traded. He went on lovingly about never angering the mountain gods…never including the weed as a bargaining chip…its only use, (besides the obvious) was to ingratiate and honor the mountain.Thinking back, he may have a valid point here. Much the same with alcohol…single malted scotch to be specific - always allocated warmly between friends…a sign of mutual respect … never something that one foolishly trades away.
White gas deserved a mention here too…”people spill, accidents happen.” Dan told me that it was never considered bad manners to pop into any group, under the guise of needing a little gas…people always seem to understand the klutz factor. Not surprisingly, he found most, if not all, who carry white gas stoves will gladly part with a few ounces…anywhere, and this ploy served as a great way to break the ice. A smile first, then stating a tacit problem – soon you will be sitting next to any campfire – warmly accepted, hopefully with gas.
This leaves the only renewable backcountry Sierra resource as trout – Bows Brooks and Browns…and that is the crux of today’s tale. “Everybody fantasizes about sitting down to a trout dinner in the mountains…few are able to provide; here there is great opportunity.” He continue, "I always make a point of taking the circuitous route, stopping by a neighbor’s campground, rod in hand, before heading out to fish. Hi neighbor, what’s for dinner…how about a trout feast among friends? If I’ll provide the trout…even cook it up, will you provide the rest of the fixings?” He told me to watch and see…the next day, after Ireland, we traversed across to Upper Townsley Lake…and indeed, that night his plan worked…well.
“Where to now?” he offered, stretching out in the morning sun…”Still got a few days’s food left…How about south instead…the Valley?” Since my best-laid plans were already out the window, the fishing good, and the company enjoyable, we turned our backpacks southward…in the general direction of Merced Lake, a good steady 7-hour march away. At the Ranger station above Merced, we made a left turn…”Washburn Lake is a much better place.” I knew Washburn well and the fishing there (for you HST readers…let us keep this destination a secret, huh?) is quite superb.
Having already gone into great lengths on the attributes of Washburn in previous tales, this time will spare you any of the physical descriptions. However, on this trip, three isolated vignettes deserve attention…as they directly pertain to this particular trip.
First, there once was (long gone now) perhaps the greatest of all outhouses, conveniently situated steps from the outlet. With the door open…facing north…any morning rituals took on mythical status. Sitting on that throne, door swung open…(cleaner than reasonably expected!)…this experience was something to look forward to…comfort with a grand view… even from miles away, as lovingly anticipated as the burgers at the Portal…its passing deserves documentation.
Secondly, even though our food supply was barely adequate at best, the fishing good, and our reefer supply better, we had run out of rolling papers. Now, for you pot smokers out there, (probably must be one or two.) having a good bud stash, but with no physical way to consume it…we had to find some remedy fast. Many make it a point always to carry a paperback novel on all trips, this time a Western …Slocum’s Revenge…cheesy. (For any of you hikers out there, in most of the High Sierra Camps… Vogelsang…also at Merced…the park service offers a small trade-in library service…open to all comers. You bring in any book, and they allow you to trade it in on whatever is available. This one was picked up from Vogelsang two days earlier.) Our solution was to take a page from Slocum’s…carefully hand rubbing it for a good half hour into a ball…removing the starch…and rolling away. Hence forth on this trip, any extra-curricular activity of that nature at Washburn went under the sobriquet of “Smoking Slocum’s.” (I guess you had to be there.) If you happen to see this book at the Merced HSC, (was traded back in), missing the first chapter.
Lastly, at the far end of Washburn, back among the weeds and Alders, a basic family unit of four took up a two-week residence, their version of a vacation package…paying a stock packer a veritable fortune to bring in a more-than-adequate supply of fresh food. Unfortunately for them, fortunately for us, they forgot to bring any fishing gear along, and the wife loved trout. Bartering Dan was once again in his element.
One fish for a Wyler’s lemonade, two for a couple packages of hot chocolates, a string for mashed potatoes and salad…this went on for days. They supplied the sides; we provided the fish and the firewood. I do not think we ever took down our own food…they had more than ample…we ate many a trout and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. The youngest son we temporarily adopted …teaching him how to fish daily…(after the first day, could not get rid of the kid), but even that in itself was a treat…17 miles in.
Three wonderful fishing days and one easy 14-mile hike later, we soaked our trail weary feet in the Merced at LYV – (sorry to all those downstream) – in the middle of the old riverside campground in the midst of what seemed like hundreds of one-day-in backpackers. The best part of LYV is that it provides a well-earned buffer zone between the Valley floor zoo and all those past backcountry moments of isolated solitude. Arriving late, too late to fish, Dan resigned himself to actually cooking up one of our few remaining, bottom-of-the-stuffsack dinner entrees. He figured it was either that or starve - (already traded the Marlboros.) Dropping my Chili-Red Gregory…thud…there were a few guitar players strumming along…not bad pickers… across the busy playground. From deep inside my Gregory’s bowels, pulled out my trusty silver Gemeinhardt flute, immediately launching into some bluesy rendition of whatever it was that came out.
Much to Dan’s surprise…not to me, though…crowds started milling, extra food offered…alcohol…the typical gambit…grateful bounty from overstocked but well-meaning hangers on. Music was one extra bargaining chip that Dan did not have in his scavenging quiver, but after a week’s adventure with him, nothing ever again food-wise will seem far-fetched or impossible. That last trail night, we once again ate and drank well…typical, all provided for by the generosity of others…unexpected, yes, but hardly unforeseen after all we had encountered …all starting with a smile.
Happy Isles came soon enough, followed by a pitcher of Margaritas and Curry pizza; money was useful again. Somewhere in that last conversation, before boarding the Yarts bus back to Mammoth, Dan turned to me and asked, “How much food did you actually have left, after all our week-long, extemporaneous, fishing adventures?” I just smiled back answering, amazed by my final answer… I still had two days of food remaining.
Another solo backpacking adventure…by markskor
Mountainman who swims with trout