Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
- Community Blog
- Right Smack Dab in the Middle
People who leave San Diego to backpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains should know what could happen. At home the most dangerous thing we do is shave, or cross the street, or forget to pay a bill. But in the wilderness there is another set of rules for survival. Forget to pack the proper gear, or slip on a wet boulder, or maintain a careless attitude toward bears, and all the weights you’ve lifted, the movies you’ve seen, the digital gadgets you’ve acquired are nothing more than medals on a dead man.
My thirty-something son-in-law’s idea of backpacking is to pack all the gear he can carry, hike as fast as he can, and climb the highest peaks. He also has an annoying penchant for bathroom humor and references to movies. So I didn’t invite him to join Buck, Brewster and me last month on my birthday trek in the Sierras. Understandably, he was disappointed.
“Three’s the best number,” I explained. “Limits the impact on the environment. And if someone gets hurt, one stays with him while the other goes for help.”
“Yeah, but you might need me. It’s no country for old men.”
He was at my Mission Valley apartment watching me pack: sleeping bag, tent, dehydrated food, water filter, bear bags, fishing pole….
“What’s the pole for? You got enough food.”
“Just in case,” I answered.
“Just in case? Then don’t forget the baby wipes.”
I must have looked dumbfounded. So he offered this clarification: “At your age you can’t trust your farts.”
For my whole life I’d been farting without serious consequences. And I told him that.
“Yeah, but you’re almost 60. You might mess your pants.”
The thought of messing my pants horrified me. The stench was one thing, but what about the squish? How would I sit? Or walk? Or if the stuff slid down my pant leg and exited my cuff? It happens when you get old, you know. Suppose it happened to me in public? Or at a friend’s house? Or at work? Or, for that matter, in the Sierras?
Before my trip my twenty-something sons had me over to their North Park condo for a birthday barbecue. Their young girlfriends were there, too. “So, what will you be doing on your 60th, Mr. C.?” one asked.
“I’ll be hiking up Hell-For-Sure Pass,” I said. Her eyes widened, as if I’d told here I would be crossing the Pacific in a broken down sailboat. “Hell-For-Sure Pass? Isn’t that where Big Foot lives?” But I could see the real question in her eyes: “At your age?”
At my age the only thing broken down is inhibition. I don’t go out in the nude, or argue with cashiers about senior discounts. But I’m not reticent about my stupidest mistakes, my failures in marriage, or my bodily functions. I have an attitude that no longer includes embarrassment. A birthday card arrived from my sister that featured Alfred “What-Me-Worry” Newman with a dance partner in his arms. It was captioned “What if the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about?” Well, what if it is?
Buck, Brewster and I—high school buddies from the sixties—have been backpacking together for years. When we backpack we don’t test ourselves, or look for Big Foot, or worry about messing our pants. We backpack for the solitude and the drop-dead beauty of the scenery. At the end of the day we sip tea and listen to the wind in the pines, and in the morning we follow streams to waterfalls and lakes. The hours of hiking afford plenty of time to think. I always come out of the mountains with answers. For me backpacking is a makeover into a wiser, calmer person.
As luck would have it, Brewster had to cancel at the last minute, and I had no choice but to invite my son-in-law.
“Your son-in-law?” Buck said on the phone. “The kid? I think I’ll stay home.” Buck once lent my son-in-law a sleeping bag. Everybody knows that you can wash a sleeping bag in a washing machine if you dry it slowly in a large dryer. But what was returned to Buck resembled a bag of fish, and Buck had held a grudge ever since. In the end, however, Buck agreed that three is safer than two.
Buck threw his gear in the car and got in the back seat. “Hey, Buck,” my son-in-law asked over his shoulder. “Do you trust your farts?” Buck stared at him. “Oh, I get it. At my age the bowels go first, right? Very funny. At your age, Kid, have you stopped wetting the bed?”
After that, Buck ignored him, making phone calls as we drove towards the mountains east of Fresno. He was about to close some big deals, he explained while dialing. In Fresno he clamped his phone shut and announced he needed to pick up a couple things. Apparently, making deals hadn’t allowed time to get all his supplies. I pulled in between a grocery store and a gas station.
“Don’t forget the baby wipes,” my son-in-law reminded Buck.
I had to pee, and walked to the men’s room at the gas station. Every mirror tells me my youth is spent. Skin flakes like piecrust from my bald scalp. Wild hairs sprout from my nostrils like weeds out of a culvert. Brown splotches stain the backs of my hands, and my shoulders stoop as if something is pulling me down. “You do look like an old man, Mr. C.” I told the mirror.
When we reached the trailhead late that afternoon we began hiking, determined to reach a lake by sunset. “I’ll see you when you catch up,” my son-in-law said, and took off without waiting for us, his heavy pack no more than a shoebox strapped to his gym muscles, his iPod plugged into his ears. Backpacking wisdom dictates that you stop at trail junctions and wait for those behind you. But my son-in-law marched right past the turnoff to the lake. Forty minutes later he came back and found us waiting.
We camped near the lake and a meadow. According to my son-in-law’s GPS we were 10,253 feet above, and 405 miles from, Mission Valley. After dinner we sipped tea by the campfire. My son-in-law belched loudly. “Excuse me, excuse me, from the bottom of my heart. But if that had come out the other end it would have come out a fart.” He chuckled. “And I don't need no baby wipes, y’all.”
Before going to bed Buck and I gathered everything a bear might smell—food, chewing gum, even sunscreen and toothpaste—into our bear bags, which we hung over a high limb in a pine tree. It’s a chore, especially in the dark, but necessary if you want to protect your food. My son-in-law announced that all his food was in baggies and bears can’t smell through plastic, so he left his food in his pack, leaning on a tree.
Once in the Sierras it takes me a day or two to wake up to where I am, to shut off the computer in my head, to realize the background noise is a stream and not traffic on Interstate 8. Until then it’s like moving through a diorama: beautiful, but not real.
But just after daybreak three mule deer bounded across the meadow between the lake and our camp. I had awakened just moments before, and was staring absentmindedly into the mist when the beige images glided by like spirits. The diorama had come alive.
When I climbed out of my tent I saw another scene that proved we were now somewhere else. During the night, a bear had found my son-in-law’s backpack. Sharp claws had slit one side, and the ground was strewn with shredded baggies, torn clothes, a crumpled pot, a chewed water bottle. Fangs had bitten holes in his iPod.
When my son-in-law finally said something it was a whisper. “Guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
The bear bags in the tree were undisturbed, and Buck and I still had enough food for all three of us. So we decided to continue our trek. Besides, I had my fishing pole.
My son-in-law’s pack was now much lighter, but he stayed even with us, as if bears were stalking him. He seemed to realize the safety in threes, and how dependent we were on each other.
That evening we camped at a lake just below Hell-For-Sure Pass. I stood up to my knees in the cool water casting for trout. Buck and my son-in-law were back at camp working together on a cooking fire. The rice was ready by the time I returned with the fish, and the vegetables were steaming.
When dinner was over we sat close to the campfire, sipping tea, basking in contentment that only a day of physical exertion followed by a good meal can provide. We congratulated ourselves on finding this campsite. The fire was perfect. Animosity had dissipated into camaraderie.
Out of the blue Buck said: “You know, youth is highly overrated. First you got pimples and puberty and confusion. Then lousy marriages, debt, and more confusion. Finally, dead-end jobs, alimony, distant children and still more confusion.” Silence, just the stars overhead, an owl hooting. “If I were younger,” Buck continued, “I don't think I'd appreciate being up here as much.”
Someone farted. It was my son-in-law. There was brief silence, until Buck said: “Blazing Saddles. Right?”
There was no trail to Hell-For-Sure Pass. We followed a stream. Summer in the high Sierras was in its last days. Wildflowers were dropping blossoms. Alpine lakes were below their high-water marks. Mountain meadows were as arid as tundra. There was death, too. A trout trapped in a shallow pool. A marmot shredded by sharp talons. Deer tracks followed by bear tracks. A coyote crushed beneath a rock slide, its odor of decomposition filling the mountain air.
We stop frequently to sip water, catch our breaths, and see how high we’d climbed. My son-in-law trailed behind us, and when I looked back he was watching a hawk.
At one point the stream brought us face to face with a short waterfall, and there was no way around it. Buck was halfway up and I was right behind him. Suddenly he slipped, and lost his balance, and fell backward into my arms. I couldn’t hold the two of us, and we fell back together, arms flailing, feet shuffling to find a hold. I was going to land on my spine with Buck on top of me.
The strong hand in the middle of my back felt like a pillar. “I got you,” my son-in-law said, and we stopped falling. On level ground we leaned over, hands on knees, wheezing in the alpine air.
“You guys okay?” my son-in-law asked at last. To which Buck said: “You know, Kid, I’ve been thinking. If there was ever a time to mess my pants it was when I saw your backpack yesterday morning. And this, this is the second time.”
When we reached the top of Hell-For-Sure Pass, we stood there in the thin wind, looking out over the meadows and forests, the silver streams and glistening blue lakes. Even my son-in-law was impressed. “Damn!” he exclaimed. And then the obligatory movie reference: “Reminds me of the final scene in the Last of the Mohicans.”
After the solitude and scenery of the Sierras, the pure mountain air, the wind in the pines, I longed for a beer, a ballgame, The Beatles, a rib eye. We are modern men, and to desert civilization would only be counterproductive. I could never live on a diet of wildflowers and trout, stream water and alpine air. If that is heaven, heaven can wait.