There are many times when plans don't work out. I'd planned to hike
for four or five weeks in the central and southern Sierra this summer.
The April 1st snow water content averages were a bit below normal, which
presaged an early melt and mostly snowfree trail by the middle of June.
Hah! Wishful thinking it turns out. Over the course of April and May,
the snowpack actually increased in the Sierra. This is unusual, but not
unheard of. As my date to head west grew closer, I twitched all sorts
of scenarios, I drove to the Granite Creek Trailhead, about 6 miles
from the Granite Creek Campground, or tried to. The map said the dirt
road turned into a four wheel drive road a mile or so from the
trailhead. I would drive as far as I could and hike. About three miles
from the trailhead a three foot pine had fallen across the one lane
road. I could have driven round it, or attempted to, but that was more
jeep stuff than Solara stuff. I turned around, drove 100 yards back
down the dirt road and parked on a narrow flat spot. I put everything
in the trunk, installed the sunshields behind the windshield, locked the
car, and slid over the log.
The walk along the dirt road offered views of the granite benches and
domes at the upper reaches of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin's
canyon and high country to the east and south.
I followed the tracks of
a 4 wheel drive pickup that tore up the road and flora and fauna when he
had to drive around deadfall in the road. I tried not to get righteous
and irritated. I was on a hike, and would leave such desecration behind
I arrived at the trailhead and it was basically a sloping solid piece of
granite upon which cars could park. It was solid granite!!! No human
shaping - just some 300 pound granite boulders marking it's 10 or 12
spots. If you parked and forgot to put the car in park or the emergency
brake on, the car would have gained speed, and in two hundred yards,
bounced it's way down into the Granite Creek defile. Weird...
The trail took me across a substantial bridge and then down 2500' to the
San Joaquin River.
The map said that this was an unmaintained trail.
I've walked on "unmaintained trails" before. No biggy. That just means
there's brush overhanging the trail and rocks/boulders to walk around.
It's mostly a matter of not spraining an ankle. This "unmaintained
trail" was different. It hadn't seen the hands of man for at least a
decade, and probably longer. This segment of the trail was not
difficult to follow. It would disappear for 20' and appear, and then
disappear for 50' and appear, and so on.
I was used to switchbacked trails. This one had switchbacks, but they
were steep, more a miners trail than backpackers trail. Miners trails
tend to go straight up and down, with switchbacks when going from bench
to bench, or the terrain is too steep. I'd read in a book this was part
of the "California Horse and Riding Trail" or something like that. I
couldn't imagine a horse going down this with a rider on its back.
There were times where I maintained four point contact as I lowered
myself down a little cliff or vertical defile. I could see where horses
had gone down or up the trail, but not for years. Normally there's
evidence of hoofs striking granite - horseshoes chip granite. The chips
were not fresh - they were definitely weathered.
This wasn't a dangerous trail. For this I was grateful. But I was a
bit flustered as I got near the bottom and poison oak appeared, and the
trail would just disappear into it.
Steep trail along granite walls
with poison oak growing out of every little bit of dirt - not big, but
there. I'd been hiking for three hours and had dropped 2000'. I had
another 500' to go to get to the river. I wasn't anxious or scared or
even irritated. But I was conscious of every step, of where I put my
foot, and where my leg was, where my arms swung.
I had poison oak once so bad that I spent four days in my house naked,
drinking six quarts of malt liquor a day, smoking pot, and when my
roommates came home from work, I didn't care that I was naked and drunk
and high and obnoxious. I showed them how poison oak had invaded my
crotch and butt crack... I was so impacted by the poison oak nothing
else mattered. This is what I remembered... Consciousness - poison oak
is here. Don't touch it...
I made it down that last 500', mostly with no obvious trail through the
benches and granite walls. I'm glad that the trail was 20% there. The
next three days took what I learned and forced me to hone my trail
consciousness even more.
The trail, or where it had been, was invisible the last quarter mile. I
couldn't imagine being on the "California Horse and Riding Trail" and
crossing the bridge over the river and finding the trail. It was well
hidden by brush and narrow cracks in the granite and poison oak and
grass where there once was tread.
I got to the bridge, and looked around for a good place to camp. It was
obvious there was a huge meadow on the other side of the river - the
All those snowmelt creeks that were raging torrents flowed into the
middle fork. It was 100' across and 20' deep at the bridge, and just
flat out angry and NUTS!!!! There were boulders near the bridge that
were under water and created standing waves five feet tall with churning
holes behind them.
Downstream the river narrowed into a granite sided, vertical canyon.
The threaded currents were compressed into one flow that didn't seem to
make noise or have much surface action. But you could tell there was
incredible power there - there was a constant four foot bulge in the
north edge of the river where it flowed over an underwater obstruction.
When it hit the south wall as the gorge turned, it looked like it had a
six foot flow up the wall before sliding down to even out with the rest
of the river. The river at that point wasn't level. Very weird - I'd
never seen anything like it before.
When I got home I spent a couple hours checking out the middle fork of
the san joaquin, and apparently, it's one of the fringe kayak runs.
There are utube videos and blogs describing checking out the canyon and
running it. I was just captured by the constant roar of the water.
There was so much of it!!!
I crossed the bridge and entered the meadow. It was sand and pines and
warm and paradise. I found a spot behind some thick, tall pines that
would be in shade for the rest of the afternoon.
There is nothing like
setting up a tent under the erroneous assumption it will be in the shade
on a hot day, only to find it slowly being warmed to oven like
temperatures when the sun drops 15 degrees from vertical towards the
horizon. This isn't a problem when there are no mosquitoes. Just open
the tent up and let the wind flow!
This trip had a constant undercurrent of mosquitoes. They don't much
bother me in terms of being bit and itching. But they bother me when
there are 50 or 60 within three or four inches of my face - when I can
hear them and the buzzing gets, well, intolerable...!
After reading and napping and munching for hours, listening to the
river, drifting in and out and back and forth, I finally stripped down
and put on my sleeping clothes. The dusk lasted for a long, long time,
but I wasn't really aware of it. I was in a perfect space, spiritually,
emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally. I was in balance and
harmony. I'd been close the previous days, lying in the car, reading,
the breeze flowing through the car, lying in my tent next to Granite
Creek, spending a couple hours on the edge of the snow covered alpine
world with a view to the west and warmth. But this, and the night I
spent upstream 48 hours later, were two of the most perfect relaxing
afternoons and evenings I've ever spent.
The next morning I lay in my tent at first light. I was ready to go
back to sleep - I wasn't going far that day - but suddenly I felt the
"call of nature" in an urgent feeling I couldn't ignore. This happens
every time I go backpacking. After a couple days I am forced out of my
warm quilt/tent because I have to take a dump. I don't have a choice.
The urgency begins with me awakening to a sensitivity to being, to
"having" a "fullness."
I've awakened and in the last 20% of being asleep, desperately attempted
to relax and sink back into dormir. This has worked, but not often. I
can't fool my body. There is a point at which consciousness emerges to
include bodily functions and everything just revs up. After a week of
backpacking I try and remember to dig a cathole the night before so I
can crawl out of my warm bed, stumble to the hole, and do my business
without having to dig and feel my "fullness" move to a sphincter clench
that threatens to blatt its way into my long underwear. I've never shat
in my pants, but I've come close, little uncontrollable spasms of the
sphincter that have me forget digging a hole or being out of sight of my
hiking mates. Whew...
I ate muesli, packed up, and began to hike on the faint trail at the
edge of the forested meadow. I knew this day wasn't starting out well
when I got to the end of the meadow a quarter mile downstream and there
was no trail. There were lots of animal trails, and I think I followed
most of them over the next hour. Finally, I ended up at a place I'd
avoided that looked like the trail might have once gone through. But it
was a poison oak patch. It was overgrown with bushes and there was lots
of dead-fall to step over while avoiding the poison oak.
I passed this point five times before stopping and realizing that the
trail most likely headed where I didn't want to go. Once again I
"girded my loins" and headed into the poison oak. Luckily it lasted
only 20' or so, and on the other side of the brush that intermixed with
it, there was an obvious trail. It took a real act of will backed with
underlying despair to have me head through the poison oak.
Coming down the northiside 2500' canyon wall was an introduction to
"abandoned trails" Going up the southside on the California Riding and
Hiking Trail took me to the next level. The bridge was at 4800' and the
poison oak stopped at 5300'. The trail had no switchbacks. It wound
its way from bench to bench, sometimes flat for 100 yards, other times
straight up for 100', in a 100 yards. And there was no "trail" to speak
of. I not only had to watch my feet - every step was a potential ankle
twister - I had to stay 10' to 100' ahead of myself to look for the next
little bit of abandoned trail.
I got pretty good at anticipating where the trail "should" go, and
trusting my developing intuition that where I was walking would
eventually reveal itself to be THE TRAIL!!!!
I know I'm fixating on THE TRAIL or its lack. I can't emphasize enough
just how disconcerting it is to a backpacking guy used to following an
18" wide trail, step after step, head down, unthinking, just one step in
front of the other, working when it's up, letting loose and noticing
stuff when it's flat, and taking care when the trail heads down. A
trail is a given for 99% of us. We are camp centered, hiking from point
A to point B. The trail is a way to get from one point to another, the
vistas and creeks and vales and defiles and lichen all to be appreciated
and "grokked" but the overall point is to get where you're going.
I'm thinking there is a metaphor here. Most of us (I) are most
comfortable when the way is clear. When it becomes obsfuscated for any
reason, we feel anxiety and wonder and sometimes get neurotic and
sometimes within neuroses get weird... I found myself feeling despair
that I had to cast my gaze to find the trail bits as I walked. When I'd
find a bit after 100' of trusting my intuition where the trail "should"
go, I'd feel a rush, a high!
I wanted the comfort of a clear trail, but felt triumph when absence
gave over to presence.
I reached the top of the canyon. There hadn't been many views because
of the vegetation, and I only knew I'd reached the "top" when the way
flattened out in the forest. I came to a junction I'd anticipated since
beginning the day. I was headed south for the rest of the afternoon,
and then the next day was going to turn around and come back. Once I
got back to this junction I would head 3 miles down the other trail and
drop another mile and 2500' to the other crossing of the river, and a
different 2500' climb out back to the trailhead and three mile hike on
the 4 wheel dirt road to the car.
The sign at the junction was in three pieces on the ground.
no post. Forest service trail signs are wood with cuts making up
letters. The letters on this sign were almost unintelligible they were
so old. I realized in another dimension of understanding that I was
walking "abandoned trails." I doubted at this point that rangers
patrolled this area. I hadn't seen anyone in four days, seen any
footprints on this "trail" or spoken a word. I was out there in the
wilderness by myself and that was what was. The trail I would follow
tomorrow disappeared in 50' - in the grass of a small meadow before an
old growth stand of big pines I could see was populated by lots and lots
of dead trees piled one on another.
I must admit that I felt a bit "spooky" as I continued to follow the
abandoned trail south. I was getting better at just hiking, walking
where I would have put a trail, and for the most part, finding I'd made
the correct choice. I was actually making time, and averaging more than
a quarter mile an hour. I crossed a snow fed creek that wouldn't be
there in three weeks and ate lunch. I spent two hours on my butt pad,
book in hand, my face and legs and hands covered with DEET, trying to
relax and be in the moment.
The mosquitoes were voracious until I put on the DEET. After than they
didn't swarm and pretty much did what mosquitoes do where there is no
food around. But they were still there, and as I closed my eyes and
listened to the forest they were definitely a part of it.
I hiked for another couple hours and realized I wanted to stop. I
filled up my three quart gatorade bottles at a seasonal creek and found
a ridge top with some minor views. I walked a couple hundred yards up
from the trail and laid my tent out on a flat spot in that would be
shady for the afternoon/evening that was about six inches deep in forest
duff. I think that's the word - duff. Pine needles and sand and it's
like a tick mattress - very comfortable.
Again, I spent five hours of daylight hanging out, first against a tree,
and then in the tent when I got tired of the swarms. Dusk and dawn are
worst for mosquitos. But the late spring let them hang out in their
swarms during the day too. I realized that I was at the
halfway/turnaround point of the four day trip. I knew I could have
continued south for as many miles as I wanted, but to be honest, I just
didn't want too. I like hiking, and love being in the wilderness. But
I like rising to alpine worlds and they were closed to me - snow.
The next morning I leapt out of bed to the urgent drive to defecate -
earlier each day - today at 7AM. A part of me was watching - the
witness - and from the outside, I dumped, packed up, ate some breakfast,
did the final packing, and hit the trail, or its ephemeral
From the inside I was stridently in dialogue with
myself. I didn't have a quiet moment in the morning. All the routine
stuff had internal verbal markers guiding me. What seemed to be moving
from one task to the next on the outside, from the inside was a constant
blathering stream of talk that ranged from how to pick up a tent stake
and locate its bag, to a sense of universal connectedness that was a
smile as I moved through the moment in the packing.
I realized once again I was discovering a kind of balance between big
and small that was life's lesson revealing itself again. There is peace
in this realizing. What emotions exist between behaving and perceiving
were backgrounded in the exquisite performance of a daily act - getting
up, dumping, packing, eating, surveying camp to make sure all was as it
was before I intruded, then beginning the day's walk. I watched myself
do what I was doing and my perceiving was a ribbon wrapping the present,
a dance in the midst of energetic living, an opening to what the world
and universe were giving me there in the woods and wilderness...
The end of a day's hike has a spectrum of emotion. I'm tired and sore
and all the acts of setting up camp involve bending over and standing
up, bending over and standing up. in the morning I bend and raise, bend
and raise, but each day there is an increasing competence, an increasing
sense of rhythm and balance that I think comes form being in better
shape - physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
When the day is done I struggle from one task to the next. I'm tired
and sore and stiff and I hurt. In the morning I'm stiff, but not tired
- energized. My world is different. I anticipate the trail to come,
the climbs, the vistas, the surprises. At the end of the day I
appreciate the moment and that's about it. I have no future
orientation. Sometimes I'll figure out the next day by spending time
with the map. But most of the time I have a sense of what that'll
entail, and I don't need to leave the moment of being-tired and
satisfied and appreciative. I'm the frog with Peter Lorre eyes without
the baseball sized gonads...
I headed back down the trail I'd hiked the day before. I recognized
points at which I'd mentally marked when I was confused about where to
hike. I remembered a little vale with downed trees at either end I had
to climb over, that yesterday I'd almost hurt myself when I slipped and
bounced off a broken branch that was two inches from poking a hole in my
thigh. I remembered a little lake becoming a meadow that swarmed with
exponential numbers of mosquitos - I almost ran through that couple
hundred yards trying to fool them about my being there - it didn't work
and I just put up with the ebb and flow of the hoards finding and losing
And in a little over an hour I got to the junction with the degraded
sign and trail that disappeared into the big forest and unmitigated
fallen tree brothers and sisters.
I spent three hours hiking three miles. There was no trail. I made my
way along benches at the rim of the canyon of the middle fork of the San
Joaquin river. I shouldn't say there was "no" trail. Every once in a
while a bit of trail would appear, but after a while, it was hard to
tell what was abandoned trail and what was animal trail.
The first part of this part of the hike was through old growth forest.
That means no undergrowth and lots of deadfall. I crawled over lots of
trees and realized I would be better off if I worked my way to the
narrow meadow heading in the same direction I was. Crawling over dead
trees is the most dangerous thing I do hiking cross country. There is
so much room for slippage and so many little spikes and branches ready
to puncture big muscles. I was so careful...
I was in a different reality. No trail. Primeval forest. And lots,
and lots, and lots of bear poop. As I headed along the narrow meadow I
kept stepping over piles of bear poop. Most, if not all of it, was old,
most of it from last year. I poked every pile I ran across with my
hiking pole, and felt safe when it revealed itself to be dry.
Nonetheless, in the half mile I walked along and in the narrow meadow, I
came across at least 50 piles of bear poop. Each sighting raised my
adrenaline, and with each poking and discovery it was old, I faced my
fear and let a little bit of it go.
I did see a bear. It was grubbing a log - a cinnamon colored yearling.
I walked over a little hummock and there s/he was, nose in the ground.
As soon as I crested the bear leapt into the forest and within two
seconds was gone. A fleeting glimpse - that's it...
It's a gift to see a bear. They are hunted in most forests, and have a
primordial fear of humans as a result. We are so loud, and they are so
sensitive. I've seen bears before and most of them were feeding,
By the time I got to the end of the narrow meadow I knew I was on my own
- no trail at all. Not even vestiges of trail. The map had the dotted
line of unmaintained trail, but I'd finally reached the edge of
civilizations decline - the vestiges were overgrown and had sunk back
into a natural state. I was faced with a choice - turn back and hike
down the way I'd come, or continue forward, trusting my ability to read
a map and read the terrain in the map's perspective.
Honestly, I didn't know if I could read a map well enough to get to the
place where I could descend the canyon wall to river and its bridge. I
remember starting out on a 750 mile, 75 day trip with my fiancee who had
never backpacked before. I taught her everything I knew - we were a
team. What revealed itself early in the trip was that she read a topo
map far better than I did. I gladly gave up that responsibility and was
very patient when she got anxious about her choices. Invariably - that
means ALWAYS - her choices were right. She had me check her choices,
but even then, when I was 40, my eyesight was less than stellar and I
needed glasses to see fine detail - glasses I hadn't brought.
It was early in the day though, and I knew I could turn around at any
point and find the narrow meadow and the junction and the way back if I
needed too. Maybe this is what makes the choice to enter the unknown
palatable - the knowledge I can turn around and find the familiar.
Thinking about this as I walked, I realized this was an option not
available most of the time. I make a choice and there is no going
back. There is coping, backtracking, reveling and celebrating - but
seldom is there the ability to turn around and go back.
I made my way along the canyon wall. It was made up of benches and
manzanita and forested glens 100 yards long. There was no sense of an
"edge." I knew from the map I needed to drop 200' vertical feet in the
next mile and find a creek that led to a waterfall. I climbed up and
down on granite slopes to 20' wide benches of pines and manzanita that
petered out in cliffs that had me backtrack and climb up or down to get
to the next bench, and the defile with a creek and a waterfall at its
head. The total 200' drop ended up being much more than that - the ups
and downs and retreats probably tripled that elevation drop.
What bugs me now, as I put this narrative in web form is I didn't take any pictures from the sign at the trail junction to what eventually was that night's camp. I was way too into the moment to take pictures.
At one point I knew I had to drop down a granite face 40' or so. I
could see a creek at the bottom. I had to go back 100 yards to find a
safe way to wind down to the creek. I was hot and tired and thirsty..
There were last fall's leaves on rock, and I slipped when I didn't step
well. There were little pine trees and manzanita hanging over granite I
had to step over or walk around. Every movement on that backwalk and
descent to the creek was an effort that threatened to hurt me.
I could feel malevolence and it wasn't coming from the terrain. I'd
entered some sort of weird space that made everything in the environment
dangerous, a space/place where I could hurt myself. It wasn't the
"wilderness" that would hurt me. It was me - my perspective on behavior
as I put one foot in front of, or behind, the other. I had lost the
sense of being-part-of-the-environment. I was jerkily alive within my
almost uncoordinated efforts to make my way down the slope.
I hadn't felt this before on this hike. I'm familiar with this feeling,
but not in the all-pervasive way in which every step was threaded with
danger, with the imminent actuality I could hurt myself. A part of me
succumbed. I gave in to the malevolence. I was bereft, lost, my
presence nothing more than tactile edges maintaining contact with the
rock and dirt and trees and bushes. What larger perspective I'd had was
gone. The balance and harmony I'd felt was disintegrating into
fractured emotions taking me away from my ability to navigate my way
through the world.
I got to the creek. I'd slipped and fallen three times in the previous
100 yards. I'd wrenched my back catching myself in one of the falls. I
stopped and took a 15 minute break, downing two quarts of water. I was
breathing heavily, and it didn't abate. I felt panic - intense anxiety
- and it took most of that break to slow my breathing and stop my
intense sweating. I drank the two quarts and with each swallow, felt
the panic's edges settle down into deep breathing... I hadn't realized
just how intense the previous 10 minutes had been. When my larger
perspective re-emerged, I found myself revisiting the intensity within a
larger, cognitive context, and the fractured sense of being ruled by
malevolence that was another pair of eyes staring at me lessened.
This is all emotional. There was always a part of me that monitored my
loss of perspective and grasping for handholds and footholds on the edge
of the canyon. But it was thinner and shallower than was normal for
me. It was as if it was 1974 and Robert and I were eating LSD on Stony
Point Road outside of Cotati and finding the rock-bottom-base-line. I'd
forgotten the effort required to maintain when things get heavy, or
hard, or really, really threatening..
I sat next the creek and breathed heavily and drank water and slowly
centered. I knew things had turned when my breathing went from deep and
constant to me forgetting to breathe, and then, a big sigh/breath. The
damn forest was the same, and the creek was beautiful and burbling and I
was walking cross-country with no trail. Life is good!!!!!!!!
I finally put my pack back on and started up the creek. 100 yards from
my rest spot there was the waterfall. The waterfall was on the map. I
was only a couple hundred yards from where I thought I was!!!!
Now it was time to descend. I was feeling good - well hydrated, knowing
where I am, where the trail should go. Unfortunately, the trail down
the canyon wall to the river didn't begin with an open hand and
welcoming presence. There were a number of benches with manzanita and
pine trees, and one would fade into a ten foot drop and another bench,
and there was no place it seemed like a trail would go.
In a matter of 200' I would turn around and go back to the last vestige
of trail. I did this at least three times over a half hour. I would
take a couple steps and search intensely for a trail. Animal trails
were prevalent. There was no way to tell those from the unmaintained in
20 years people trail.
That half hour was couched in the larger perspective I'd gained sitting
for that 15 minutes at the creek. I knew I'd find the right way down
the canyon wall. And I did. There turned out to be a bunch of two and
three stone cairns marking the way down to the obvious trail. I'd been
too wrapped up in what was on the ground to see them or, I think I saw
them, but discounted them because they made no sense... The map says I
need to go north but what I see in front of me has me choose to go south...
This is where mistakes are made that cost lives. I could feel just how
important each decision I made was in terms of me continuing to live.
Sure, I could have gone all the way back to the junction I'd reached
four hours ago. But that wasn't a real option in those hours I spent at
the top of the canyon. I was going to get down to the bottom of the
canyon and make camp and read my airplane novel and revel in the warm
breezes and background sound of the river.
The trail was more obvious now, a miners trail through the manzanita,
granite, descents, pines, leaves, dirt and heat. It was straight down
after leaving the multi-benched rim. The cairns I'd found continued,
but they took me straight down the canyon wall. Every step was one that
teetered on the precipice of a twist or fall. The intensity of my focus
narrowed to the ground in front of me, no more than one or two steps
ahead. When the trail wasn't obvious I'd stop and breathe and extend my
focus to find a safe way through, no, down, the tree shaded cliff. When
I could, I placed my poles and cushioned the 18" steps that threatened
to blow out my knees. When I had to, I leaned back, and used my hands,
grabbing the rough granite for purchase, holding my weight as I lowered
myself down to the next little foot rest.
This was a 2000' drop. It wasn't a "cliff" like you think of Half
Dome. It was a canyon wall that had a 60 to 70 degree slant. 90
degrees is straight up and down. There were no places where I was
climbing down. It was all walking, mostly with poles, but so steep, it
wasn't hiking. I used bushes and trees and granite to slow my
descent. I stopped often to breathe, to reconnoiter, to wonder just
what the hell I was doing.
Yes, I did wonder, but for the most part I was in the moment, where I
needed to be to successfully complete the day's hike. I'd walked for
three miles cross-country with infinite bear poops. Now I was
descending a 2500' canyon wall. No biggie. LOL
I was open to the malevolence, but after finding the waterfall, then the
cairns leading down to the wall from the lip, it was absent. What was
present was a sense I needed to be present and paying attention to what
I was doing. What I was doing was dangerous, and to some, I could
easily imagine, foolhardy. If I slipped and fell and broke a leg, there
was no way anyone would find me. I was on an abandoned trail on the
wrong side of a river canyon. Every step included the possibility of
actually dying. Wow...
To be in this feeling, doing, not thinking. All the existential
philandering I've done over the years faded in the face of dying being
but a step away, step after step after step. Such an intense focus I
had to maintain. So intense - too intense...
About half way down the canyon wall I came to a drop that required me to
step from one granite slab down 24" to a granite boulder covered with
last fall's leaves. These were leaves that had fallen, been covered
with snow over the winter, and now, were flat and slick ready to
decompose into threads. From the boulder I would need to step another
24" down to a small flat spot of dirt. There was a small pine tree next
to the boulder. This was the 50th, 100th, 200th little maneuver I'd
made to make my way down to the river I could hear blasting along the
canyon's bottom, far below.
I put my right hand's pole on the leaf covered boulder and began to
lower myself. I put my right foot and weight on the boulder, but was
not "centered." My foot slipped off it and the next thing I knew I was
spinning out into space. It would have been a simple matter to lower my
left hand and catch myself on the granite slab, but when I reached down
to do so, my pole caught on the boulder below, and my hand scribed an
arc forward into space.
I found myself falling backwards, twisting around my left hand's pole.
I did my best to collapse rather than actually fall, figuring it would
be better to skid down the incline. However I'd gone to far and had to
actually pull my right hand around my head as I fell. I landed on my
pack and bounced off the boulder. I continued to twist my body through
the fall and ended up spreadeagled with four point contact over the
little dirt spot I'd meant to step on.
I'd managed to land on my back and then do an intentional 180 degree
flip/fall and land on feet and hands. My poles made my landing awkward,
but I didn't scrape my face or head or body. I landed in a spider
position and hung there for a moment before collapsing into the dirt and
rock of the forested canyon wall.
I let loose with a groan and little whimper. I felt like crying. I lay
there on my face for maybe 10 seconds, still in the midst of the fall,
reliving it, before I started taking stock of my physical well-being.
My hands were both scraped a bit. That was it. That was it.
The above picture doesn't do justice to what I experienced. It looks south from the north wall....800'
I gathered my sense of self and rolled into a sitting position. I
stared down the cruddy drop/trail, another 1000' of what was essentially
class 2 and 3 climbing, made more dangerous because it was DOWN, which
is always harder than up. Even with tender knees, give me up over
down~!!! I sat there for a couple minutes rocking and twisting my back,
freeing my hands from the poles straps.
Never again - never will I go down or up anything that is remotely iffy
with pole straps around my wrists. My worst nightmare - broken leg on
an abandoned trail, little water, no way to move - slowly dying... Just
take of the poles straps so I can let go of the poles to cope with
falling down canyon wall cliffs...
I slipped and lowered and traversed and marveled my way down the rest of
the trail - still straight down the little defile/valley that got larger
and larger as I got closer to the river. I didn't walk. I slithered
and slipped and stepped and reconnoitered and lowered myself. It felt
like hours, but the last 1000' really only took a half hour or so it was
When I got to the flat, forested, sandy, five acre glen that was the
descent's reward, I strode forth and reveled, so damn high and filled
with a sense of competence and, and luck??? I didn't think about the
descent at all. I just opened to the beauty of old growth pines, no
undergrowth, and the sound of a river raging.
I followed the intersection of the canyon wall and valley floor to the
left, thinking the bridge across the river would likely be in that
direction. I came across a horseman's camp, with trash and saw hewn
benches and tables and a pair of new new balance running shoes. Go
figure. Horse people's camp. No self-respecting hiker would leave this
kind of trash and desecration of the wilderness.
I took my time walking along the floor, just soaking in the warmth, the
breeze, the river's roar, the slanting sun - the perfection of
intersecting natural forces coursing through me, through my world...
I came upon a bunch of granite slabs, 20' high, one leading to the
next. I walked up them to a high point, and a couple hundred yards of
river became visible. It was 150' across, 20' deep, and moving at more
than 10 mph. The water was roiling - the power. It was just
It was hard not to be carried away by the threaded currents, formed by
rocks an boulders - massive boulders that created five foot holes behind
them, a kayakers nightmare. The sun, the breeze, the river, the canyon...
But no bridge. I walked out to the end of the granite slabs and saw a
bunch of one inch bolts embedded in the rock, twisted and rusted. It
was obvious there had been a bridge here at some point. It was also
obvious that a great flood had washed it away.
I'd started the hike guided by a book published in 1991 that talked
about the bridge at this point on the river. The map was ambiguous I
saw - later. I figured the bridge had washed away between 1991 and
2010. Here I was, stuck at the bottom of the middle fork of the San
Joaquin River, faced with the prospect of climbing back up the
harrowing, miserable, dangerous, steep and horrible trail to the rim,
back cross country to the junction, and back down the canyon wall to the
crossing over the bridge I'd walked two days before. Then I'd have to
hike back up the tenuous trail I'd started the trip on. That was two
extra days of hiking. That was an extra climb up and down - 2500' up
and 2500' down.
I can't begin to describe the feelings coursing through me as I stared
at the twisted bolts embedded in the flat granite slabs above the
roiling river. Well, yes I can..
The "biggest picture Jeff" opened to the challenge and reveled in the
thought of the hardships I'd encounter. The "moment-to-moment" Jeff
felt great dissipation and lassitude. All I could see was the pain of
climbing up, climbing down, and climbing up again. I stood there and
felt the whole of my summer. I had spent time with my Mom. I'd been
beaten down by snow. I was hiking in conditions that were ideal, warm,
relatively buggy but beautiful... I saw the next three days - one huge
slog after another, and for what, for what purpose???
This is the question that I'd faced over the last 16 years of long
distance hiking. I'd set off on a trip planned to last 30 or 50 or 75
days, and come up against the question, "Why am I doing this?" To this
day I've not come up with answer to this question. I can't tell you why
I want to hike for 75 days, or the whole 2650 mile Pacific Crest Trail
over 5 months. Not after having spent a number of months on five or six
different trips hiking for three weeks and longer. Or this trip, three
days long so far...
I begin these trips with exuberance. The planning is fun. The
purchasing of food and repacking is fun. Putting food into boxes my
folks or sister will mail is fun. Once out on the trail - not so fun.
I go to the pattern this expresses, and I see a frontier.
Planning is fun. Hiking alone is hard work. And here I was, two extra
days of really, really hard and dangerous hiking in front of me that I
hadn't planned for. I felt discombobulated. I see a frontier.
I know what the edge of my next evolutionary dimension is. My brother
is a Buddhist monk and he doesn't have to say anything to teach me. My
sister is grounded in a way that intrigues and puzzles me. My mother
inhabits a space I can only hope to inhabit when I'm her age. But my
next life's step involves this frontier of being-alone and finding the
center - Wo'Lakota- where all is in balance and harmony, moment to
moment, day after day... Day to day life in the world is filled with
distractions that use to deviate from this core life's presence - maybe
aim, maybe focus???
The fact there is no bridge upon which to cross the river is ultimately
heartening. But I don't know this yet. I'm not "conscious" of "the
biggest picture Jeff." I'm really bummed out. I really, really don't
want to have to backtrack.
I wandered back to the flatness of the forest floor and meandered east
upriver. I came upon another horseman's camp, with its trash and hewn
tables and benches and decades old firepit.
The two camps were only a
couple hundred yards apart, but separated visually by old growth pines.
The five foot thick trunks of fifty or sixty trees were enough to insure
After the second horse camp the forest floor developed some sandy rises
and brushy areas. I walked disconsolately, bereft of perspective or
hope. I figured I'd explore the whole of the valley before settling
down for the night, girding my proverbial loins to make the climb up the
canyon wall in the morning.
I knew I was coming to the east edge of the forested glade - the canyon
wall as getting closer. I felt its looming presence - the malevolence
was beginning to leak through again. I didn't care that I was
projecting my despair onto the canyon wall and making it into a
"presence." I was tired and discouraged and emotional and vulnerable.
I REALLY didn't want to hike back up the canyon wall. To be sure there
was a part of me, no matter very small, that reveled in anticipation of
the challenge to come, both the up and down and up again - despair
underlaid with a hint of macho... But mostly I was tired.
The river was massively flowing. I could see where it had been four
feet higher earlier - a week, two weeks? I couldn't tell. But the
brush and sand and trees had twigs and grass intertwined and wrapped
around everything up to the same elevation. The river was awesome right
then, probably five or six feet above normal reservoir outflow. The
white noise would have had someone with a quiet voice unheard.
I pushed through some brush and saw some angularity - straight lines
that weren't natural. There was a tripod about 20' high.
resolved heading from the tripod's apex back to the right to the
ground. On the other side of the tripod was a platform, and a little
car with two benches, hanging from the cable on two eight inch pulley
I stood there a bit dumbfounded. I pushed through the head
high brush and lo and behold, there before me in all its 19th century
glory, was a cable crossing the river and another tripod with platform
on the other side.
I walked up to the tripod and followed the descending cable to it's
anchors in solid granite.
I pulled on the giant, one inch bolts in the
granite and they didn't move. I started back to the platform. It was a
suspension bridge. It was obvious - you climbed up the tripod leg on
horizontal bars welded to the vertical 2" schedule 40 steel pipe, got
into the car, untied the rope holding the car to the tripod, and hand
over hand, pulled oneself across the river.
Oh happy day!!! OH HAPPY DAY!!! Yes, when jesus walked, when he
walked, he washed our sins away...
I had stupid stuff bouncing round inside me as threw my pack to the
ground and climbed up to the platform. Across the river was a little
log building with no windows - probably the hut the guys who took river
readings used during the winter when they came down here. A weird kind
I pulled on the cable and pushed the car. Finally, I sat in the car and
looked across the 150' river. My exuberance folded over into
nervousness. While rationally I knew that crossing the river was
probably 100% safe, I'd never done anything like this before.
I saw I'd have to cross the river with my pack. Then I'd have to let
the car go and get into the other car now docked on the north side of
the river. I'd have to pull myself across the river, pushing the first
car in front of me, and retie it to the south side tripod. I'd then
have to get back in the north side car and cross the river for the third
I have a kind of acrophobia. I've lost my inner ear on the shoulder of
Mt. Ritter and a peak in the Enchantments in Washington. It was all I
could do to cling to the rock as my world spun and my stomach lurched
and breathed trying not to vomit. The cable was probably 20' above the
river, but it was "above."
I climbed down from the platform and meandered back to a sandy glade 20'
from the river and its wonderfully soothing white noise. I set up camp,
crawled into the tent to put a barrier between me and the voracious
mosquitos, munched on goldfish, jerky and gorp while I read my airplane
novel. Every once in a while I'd stare off into space, into the next
morning, and feel my stomach clench. I was not looking forward to
crossing the river.
The despair I'd felt at the absence of a bridge was gone. Just wiped
I woke up the next morning, lay in the tent as the dawn turned into a
bright presence on the canyon wall across the river, into sun streaks
through the trees on the canyon floor. A gentle breeze moved the poplar
leaves and made the pine boughs almost sway. I lay there knowing I had
to get up, pack, cross the river, and hike up the north canyon wall. I
was willing to luxuriate in the 55 degree warmth for a long time but the
call of nature had me up within minutes, grabbing the toilet paper and
plastic shovel. No choice here. Two seconds of pooping, wipe, bury,
and that's it.
Back to tear down the tent and pack up, eat some more muesli, and then
over to the cable. I climbed up to the platform, took off my pack, and
placed it in the seat on the little car closest to the river. I tied it
down with my 50' of black quarter inch nylon rope so that if the car
fell into the river, the pack wouldn't float away. Don't ask me why
that mattered. If the car fell into the river, I'd be swimming for my
life to get to the other side before being swept into the class six
gorge a couple hundred yards downstream. I guess it made me feel more
secure. What's ironic, is that if the car had fallen into the river, I
could have used the pack to float/swim to the other side. Tied to the
car it would go to the bottom and stay there forever...
I stepped into the car, my feet on the platform under the seat just
ahead of the foot bar. I untied the rope holding the car to the tripod
and sat down. I grabbed hold of the inch thick cable and put my feet on
the foot bar. The car began to move. I'd decided without consciously
deciding, that I would move hand over hand across the river. The car
wanted to pick up speed. I stopped it and hand over hand, let it down
the cable toward the middle of the river.
The cable was almost at arms length so hand over hand involved a little
bracing of the feet on the foot bar, my back against the seat back, so
that I had a modicum of control. Hand over hand I braked my way down
the cable. There was a strip of steel that kept my hands from being
caught between the pulley and cable.
As I approached the middle of the river the car lost its urge to run and
I felt much more in control. I began to pull on the cable, pulling the
car on its two eight inch pulleys.
To this point I'd been looking at the cable and pulleys and across the
river along the pulley. I hadn't looked down into the river. Feeling
brave I looked down. I saw the water flowing at 15 mph and lost my
inner ear. I grabbed hold of the cable, closed my eyes and tried to
locate myself in space - in the space of being in the car, somewhere
solid. My stomach wanted to void itself of the morning's muesli and
water. It only took 10 seconds or so, but I managed to ignore all the
physiological sirens going off and start doing what I had been doing,
pulling myself across the river.
The pulling got harder the closer I got to the other side of the river.
I think the two platforms were probably pretty close to being at the
same elevation. That meant that the suspended cable dipped a couple
feet - maybe three or four - in the middle.
I got to the north side platform, pulled myself up against the other
car, put my feet on the platform underneath the foot bar, and grabbed
the railing surrounding the platform. I'd made it. I was shaky. I put
one foot at a time outside the car, holding onto the railing and the car
at the same time, until I felt myself on solid ground/platform. Whew...
I tied off the south side car to the north side car and then took my
pack off. I looked at how the north side car was tied to the tripod,
got in the car, untied the rope, and began to lower myself down the
cable again, hand over hand. Because of the extra 200 pounds or so of
the other car, I worked a lot harder crossing the river. I didn't look
I got to the other side, tied the south side car to the tripod, and got
in the north side car for my third trip across the river. This time I
just let go of the cable and let the car run. What could happen???
The car got up to about five miles per hour and it hummed, an increasing
pitch that slowed only when we started up the other side. I didn't have
enough momentum to take me all the way to the platform so I had to pull
myself across again. I was ecstatic. I could do this all day, and I
bet i could even look down and not throw up!!! But I didn't.
I put on my pack and climbed down the 12" long ladder rung pipes welded
to the 2" tripod leg. I had no interested in exploring the little
windowless log cabin. I didn't even go over and read the sign that
probably said what it was. I just wanted to get back to what I knew -
There was an obvious trail that disappeared into the brush leading to a
creek splashing its way down the treed canyon wall. Hoping against hope
it would continue I started following it. It disappeared after 50'. I
must admit I stopped, dropped my shoulders and head, and wilted as much
as you can standing up. I made it across the river even though there
was no bridge. I had only seven or so miles and 2900' vertical to hike
that day. On my seventh day of being alone, not talking out loud, I was
ruing what I was about to do. This would make four days of moment to
moment trail finding and steep, sometimes dangerous hiking. I was
tired, not physically, but emotionally. Being emotionally tired
manifested itself in images of me taking one step after another in
abject, defeated, hot misery.
I took a deep breath and looked ahead for vestiges of the trail. I
began walking, knowing I would eventually get to the car and the drive
back to Santa Rosa. The despair emerging at facing another unmaintained
trail was caught up in sitting in the drivers seat, turning the key, and
beginning to drive. That was the slacker call - sitting and driving...
So much for balance and harmony. Torn emotionally I put one foot in
front of the other and made my way to the creek burbling its way 100'
down to its convergence with the river. There was an obvious crossing -
stones 18" from each other, but under water. I strode through the brush
to a spot 100' upstream where i could step from boulder to boulder and
cross the 10' creek without getting wet.
The trail was pretty nonexistent, but the way was obvious to my now
sensitive eye. The despair I'd felt when the trail disappeared on the
shady, brushy flat had dissipated and I was full into one foot in front
of the other, monitoring my aerobic functioning and the ache in my leg
muscles. The "trail" wound its way up along and from bench to bench,
getting higher and higher above the creek, which after a while was only
a promise at the bottom of the canyon 600' below.
It was a miners trail again, no switchbacks to speak of. It was a south
facing slope, so there were relatively few pines and lots of deciduous
trees. And it was getting hotter and hotter. The previous days hikes
had temperature in the 70s. By 10Am, it was easily 80+ degrees. The
map showed the trail crossed three creeks on the ascent, so I wasn't
worried about getting dehydrated.
I stopped every 100' to 200' or so, for a couple seconds, for a minute
or two. I stopped once at a rock where I could keep my pack on and lean
back and be supported. There was a 30' tall tree with broad leaves in
front of me. Four hummingbirds, red and blue and green and yellow,
played/fought in front of me. I sat there for five minutes watching
them and marveling.
The despair and fractured emotionality had given over to acceptance of
the slog up the canyon wall. And in this break, there was a pristine
beauty in the bird's play that helped move me towards the balance of
larger healthy perspective and smaller moment to moment emotionality,
both fractured and holistic - the melding/wreathing/weaving of both that
makes up the act of living.
This was hard work. Every once in a while the trail appeared, and every
once in a while, the trail flattened out for 100 yards or so. These
little moments heartened me. I felt strong and looked at the views that
I didn't see when slogging, one foot in front of the other. My
exuberance was tempered when I came to the next steep slope and the need
to slow down, breathe more deeply, and put one foot in front of the
I'd started with three quarts of water and after two hours of hiking,
and getting maybe half way up the canyon wall, I wondered about the
"reality" of the streams on the map. When I got to the first one, and
it was flowing, and in the shade, I threw my pack down and filled my
gatorade bottles and drank and drank. The one constant of hiking is
drinking water. I've hiked sans parents for over 40 years now, and can
remember only a couple times where I've drank too much water.
Some people carry water bladders with tubes and sip as they walk. I
tried this, and gave it up as a bad deal. My way of drinking water is
to carry as little as possible, and when I get to a water source, drink
a quart or two. I can tip a gatorade bottle of cold snowmelt and drink
it down without pausing. This causes both consternation and amazement
when I'm hiking with others. I slam my body with water. If I haven't
peed in a couple hours, I make sure I down two quarts. If' I'm peeing,
and it's relatively clear, I'll down a quart at a stop as a preventative
measure, and hike on. A quart of water weighs two pounds. Why carry it
when the map says there is water in two miles/an hour???
The trail climbed to 7800' from 4800' at the river. The trailhead was
at 7200'. The extra 600' takes the hiker over the top of a ridge
offering stupendous views of the Sierra south of Mammoth.
became more obvious as the forest retreated from deciduous and pines and
undergrowth to pines with little undergrowth. Maybe because it was more
obvious, it became a bit mellower. As it approached the apex of the
ridge it was climbing, the views obviated the soreness of walking. This
is what I remember. This is what hiking in alpine environments does to
me - I get high.
What this means is that weariness and despair and slogging fade away.
The one foot in front of the other backgrounds as the foreground expands
to one vista after another. "I" gets diffused into the world and it's
majesty. "I" is no longer a kernel coping with pain in my foot, calf,
thigh, hip, waist, shoulder, or head. "I" am stretched to the horizon
of my vision, including all that is.
Perhaps my most vibrant experience of this expanded sense of "I" while
backpacking occurred when hiking south from the San Joaquin River to the
Muir Hut at the top of Muir Pass. There is a stretch of trail that
leaves the Evolution Basin, itself incredibly awe inspiring, that rises
to 11,400' or so. It's the head of the canyon's cirque and gives over
to a treeless lakes basin beneath Muir Pass two miles long. This 600'
climb switchbacks up and offers ever larger and larger views south over
Evolution Basin and the invisible Evolution Valley below the basin.
I'd spent the night at the San Joaquin River in the forest. It was 14
miles and 4000' to Muir Pass, my goal for the day. The day began with
an 1200' climb up the canyon wall along Evolution Creek to Evolution
VAlley. Then there was another 1000' climb to Evolution Basin. Then
the walk up the cirque wall between Evolution Basin and the basin below
Muir Pass, another 1000'. Finally 700' or so to the pass.
On my way up from Evolution Basin to Wanda Lake I met a fellow who'd
been smoking pot. He was almost incoherently nonverbal (make sense of
We spent a half hour talking. I turned down his offer of a joint
numerous times. When we finally split I found myself energized. I was
so high. My body was a finely tuned machine. I walked two miles an
hour and saw the world unfold before me. When I stopped and looked down
the basin I just got higher. My weariness was an edge to my holistic
connection with the rock and sky and snow and water.
As I got closer to the top, monitoring my progress on my wrist
altimeter, I felt this connectedness again - not as strongly, but
present nonetheless. All the emotional ups and downs concresced into an
ongoing moment of being-in-balance-and-harmony. All the pain was
there. All the joy at being at the top of the world was there. "I" was
hiking in the wilderness on a warm day under a sky with fluffy clouds
creating pockets of shadow on the landscape unfolding before me. Ahhh...
I reached the top of the ridge and trod across it - the nose or shoulder
actually - and began a switchbacking descent on a real trail. I was
still a mile or more from the bridge crossing Granite Creek I'd walked
three days before. I now felt my body hurting. Each step down was a
jarring reminder that I'd been stressing my body for a week now.
Everything hurt. Not all at once - more sequentially. I think
everything hurt at the same time, but I couldn't notice the "whole" of
hurting, just the parts. The soles of my feet hurt when I stepped. My
thighs hurt when I stopped myself from speeding up. My back hurt when a
step dropped me more than a couple inches. My butt hurt when I twisted
to catch myself stepping down. My neck hurt...
600' down. I hate hiking down...
I didn't see much on the descent. I entered the forest and knew the
junction with the trail dropping down the canyon wall I'd taken three
days earlier was only a couple hundred yards away. I passed the
junction and reached the bridge crossing Granite Creek.
I'd been hearing the irritating buzz of two stroke engines for a half
half hour and while the motorcycles were gone, they left their mark in
the torn up trail leading from the bridge to the trailhead parking
area. While much of the trail from bridge to trail head was on granite,
enough was on dirt, and they hit every patch. Grrrrrr...
I'd left a little pouch on the sign at the trail head. I'd gotten two
of them a month or so ago. One I put on a shoulder strap and it held my
camera. The other I put on my waist belt and it was to hold snacks.
After the first hour of hiking from car to trail head I knew that I
wouldn't use the waist belt pouch, and it would be more of a pain in the
butt than a help in making little things accessible. It was still there
and I stuffed it into a shirt pocket.
The two or three mile hike back to the car from the trailhead was mostly
gently uphill. I was sore and tired, but the overwhelming feeling that
let me put one foot in front of the other with resolve and joy was that
of accomplishment, and gladness to be nearly done. There were some big
views I appreciated. I even stopped a couple times and let the "big
picture" visual scope carry me away. But really, I just wanted to sit
in the drivers seat of my car and drive. I was done with hiking...
One of the background themes, minor for those of us who are relatively
healthy, major for those who are quirky/neurotic, is the wondering if
the car is ok. I wondered about this as I walked up the road, but
maintained a "let it go" frame as I realized that I could do nothing
about whether the car had been broken into or not.
My brother and I went backpacking into a very rough/wild part of the
Cascades for four days a couple weeks after he and his wife separated.
We got back to his 1972 Datsun station wagon the folks had given him,
and the rear window was blown out. Bad karma...
Nonetheless, the wondering added impetus to my walking, a strange
motivation anticipating a whole other set of challenges. There were two
big logs across the one lane dirt road. I crossed them both and knew
the car was around the corner of a treed bend. I walked round the bend
and there was the car - just as I'd left it.
I dropped the pack, fished out the beefy ziploc bag with my license,
credit cards and key, unlocked the Solara's trunk, and stripped. There
I was, sweaty, but cooling off. I gazed around me, wondering if I was
offending some morally upright or officious American. Suddenly, I
didn't care. Wearing only my shoes and socks, I raised my fist in
exultation. I leapt into the air, fist held high, and let out a whoop
that faded in a minor echo through the forest. I jumped up and down, up
and down, whooping joyfully, wrapped in a sense of well-being that had
me twirl a couple times before sinking into bodily soreness...
I slumped against the trunk and grabbed the clean shorts and shirt I'd
left there four days ago. I was done. I took off my shoes and socks
and grabbed my Tevas but didn't put them on. I threw the pack in the
trunk, got into the drivers seat and just relaxed - just sank into the
seat. My body was so sore, so ready to just sink into a five or six
hour drive... LOL...