Monthly Archives: July 2014

Building a Better Mousetrap

Mice were always a problem in the cook tent. They were a bigger nuisance than bears. Bears are big and loud, and they scare away easily. Mice were worse. They came in undetected in the middle of the night and ate their way into the food supply. Supplies like bread were kept inside a cage build specifically for protection, but mice always seemed to find their way in. They always came in too quietly for the KP sleeping in the tent on bear watch to hear.

One day Jose and Glen decided they were going to do something about it.

They took and empty one-gallon Blazo can and cut the top out. This gave them a can with a rectangular opening on top. Then they took a round tuna can and opened it just enough to empty the tuna. Then they punched holes in the top and bottom of the tuna can, and in the sides of the Blazo can just below the top edge. Next they doubled up some twine, passed it through one of the holes in the Blazo can, through the top and bottom of the tuna can, and then through the hole in the other side of the Blazo can. They secured the tuna can in the mouth of the Blazo can and made sure that it would spin freely. They filled the Blazo can about a third of the way with water, and then spread peanut butter on the tuna can. They put this contraption in the cook tent near the bread box, and built a ramp up to the edge.

The idea was that a mouse would climb up the ramp for the peanut butter. The mouse would have to lean out on the wheel to get the peanut butter. The wheel would spin on the twine through its axis, dumping the mouse into the water in the bottom of the can. The water in the can was deep enough so that a mouse couldn’t touch the bottom of the can, but not deep enough so the mouse could swim to the edge of the Blazo can and swim out.

Jose and Glen named their contraption The Wheel of Fortune.

It caught eighteen mice the first night we used it! They never caught as many again, and the mouse problem became much more tolerable.

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I am not usually susceptible to homesickness, but it hit me hard at one point in Yosemite.

I’ve always been a wanderer at heart. While I was in high school, my family first thought about moving from Illinois to California. I was excited about the adventure. Some of my friends couldn’t understand why I seemed to be so happy about leaving them. They didn’t understand that I what I was thinking of was not what I was leaving behind, but that the adventure that I had ahead of me.

I had lived almost my entire life in the same house—1014 Oakwood Drive, Round Lake Beach, Illinois. We had moved into that house when I was four years old. My sister had just been born. I have vague memories of the house we lived in before then, but as far as I was concerned, 1014 Oakwood Drive had always been my home. We had always had the same neighbors, the Nicolines. Lyle and Mitchell were the neighbor friends I grew up with. It felt comfortable and safe, just like home is supposed to feel. However, I knew there was a great big world out there to explore. I had been reading about it for as long as I could read and I was eager to see some of it for myself.

My parents eventually did sell the house and move to California…three years after I graduated high school! I stayed in Illinois when they left. I had a decent job in a machine shop by then. I stayed for about a year after my parents and sister left. Then I realized that I needed to get out and start seeing that world for myself. In the summer of 1986 I followed my family to California. Outside of my family, including the aunt and uncle who had always lived in California, I did not know anybody. I did not know where I was going. I just knew that California had mountains and forests that I wanted to see, and my family would provide temporary lodging until I found my way.

It was only a few weeks before I found myself in the California Conservation Corps, living in the redwood forests of coastal northern California. I was too busy to think of home very much. I was surrounded by new people from all sorts of backgrounds, from inner city LA gangs to suburban mall rats. Several people on my crew had just finished a Backcountry trails season. Getting on a Backcountry crew had been my primary goal ever since I had heard about the program at the Academy. I wanted to learn as much as possible from these Backcountry veterans. Every one of them was a good person, with good attitudes and interesting Backgrounds.

There was a lot to learn about the job, too. We had to find our way around the program and learn how to get the most out of it for the year we had signed up for. We had so much to learn about hand tools and their maintenance, like how to put a good edge on a McLeod or how to rehandle a Pulaski. We had to learn how to field strip a chain saw, clean it, put it back together, and sharpen the chain with a hand file. We did a lot of work in salmon habitat restoration, which meant spending all day in a creek wearing waders and learning how to move heavy things like logs and rocks with a block and tackle. We had to learn about stream ecology to understand what we were doing in the streams.

Homesick?! There was no time to be homesick! There was too much going on!

Even over the four day Thanksgiving holiday weekend I wanted to stay at Del Norte. They wouldn’t let me stay. They only kept a skeleton crew around over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. They wanted to give as many staff as possible the holiday off, too, so the Corpsmember population had to be minimal over the holidays. We had to apply to stay on the center over those holidays, and the only people allowed to stay were people who honestly did not have anywhere else to stay. These people would have been on the street if they had been forced to leave the center. So I got to go home for several weeks in November and December.

When I came back in January, my focus on getting onto a Backcountry trail crew intensified. There was the application process and the interview. Once I got picked, the focus became getting into shape to handle the physical challenge ahead. I lost track of the number of times I hiked up and down Requa Hill. I also made several trips up the coastal trail to Wilson Beach with a pack.

There were always new places to go, too. Between August and December ’86, I spent time in San Andreas/Fricot City, Klamath, a spike to Willow Creek, and two bus trips back and forth between Klamath and San Francisco. In off duty hours, there was so much new country to discover between Del Norte and Humboldt Counties alone there was no time to be homesick.

And then I headed to Yosemite! New places. New people. New jobs to learn. All of my focus was forward, on where I was going, not where I had been.

The pace changed a little bit when we hit The Mound.

We would go to work and swing a double jack all day. We would be too exhausted in the evenings to do much of anything other than eat dinner and wash the dishes. After the Amelia Earhart Peak weekend, I had no energy for anything for the next two weekends. After a couple of weeks of this, the Arctic Front hit. The wind that brought the cold only lasted one night, but the cold hung on for the rest of the month. There was no place to escape the cold. We couldn’t sit next to the fire all of the time. You could only put on so many layers of thermal clothes. I spent more off-duty time than usual sitting on my cot in the tent, blowing on my hands to warm them while staring at the tent walls. I remember writing my ‘Homesick’ journal entry sitting on that cot.

All of a sudden, all I could think of was Illinois. About all of the green trees that filled Round Lake. About hanging out with my friends and playing baseball in the sand lot. About Independence Day fireworks shows down by the lake. About sweating over a turret lathe in the machine shop. I got to thinking about Illinois so much that I drew a map of it in my journal.

I wasn’t ever tempted to quit the Backcountry, but I had reached the unimaginable point of looking forward to the end.

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July 28, 1987: Homesick

This project is really getting frustrating. It seems like nobody knows what’s going on, and every time we think we’ve got it, someone changes their mind. This has got to be the most poorly planned/organized project I’ve worked on in the Corps.

Enough negative feldergarb. The Arctic front finally left last week. Now we’ve resumed normal temperatures. Actually, I kinda liked the cold weather. It reminded me of home, and I didn’t see a single mosquito for a week and a half.

I’ve been thinking of Illinois quite a bit lately. Homesick, I guess. As much as I’m enjoying myself here, I can’t help but think that I’m on a big adventure and that eventually I’ll return to Illinois. It’s been my home for as long as I can remember, and I don’t really have a peace inside about settling down permanently anywhere else.

(Hand drawn map.)

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Around the Fire

Camp life on a trail crew is centered around the camp fire. The camp fire becomes sort of like the crew’s living room/dining room combo. Meals are eaten around the fire. The seating arrangements are varied. Some people use folding camp chairs. There are always some log rounds scattered around from trees that had been cut for firewood. Yo2 was lucky in that we had several slickrock slabs sticking up out of the ground that were the perfect height for seats. My favorite meal-time rock faced both the fire and Vogelsang Peak. I spent a lot of hours that summer gazing up at that beautiful mountain during meals. One nice thing about granite is that it heats up in the sun during the day. The heated seat was nice.

After dinner, the camp fire was the place to be. Walkmen, or personal listening devices with headphones, were not allowed in community areas like the campfire. The idea was to get people to socialize with each other, not withdraw into themselves. Erin had a guitar he would bring out. Sometimes he would play songs and sing, but I remember him mostly softly strumming during conversations.

The camp fire was were old time trail crew stories and traditions were passed down to our generation. We got to hear about projects that our NPS sponsors had worked on in the past. We got to hear about old trail workers they had learned the craft from. We heard about the first time Tim Ludington had come into a trail crew camp. He saw the hot water in the jungle can and thought it would be a good place to ring out his sweaty bandana. His trail boss let him know quickly that the cans held drinking water. We heard about Erin’s experiences with Yosemite’s Backcountry Nordic Ski Patrol. The prior winter, Erin had been able to spend eighty days skiing. When Peter Lewis was in camp, we heard a story about the real ironman old timers. Peter had been cutting wood. The axe slipped and gave him a serious cut on his forearm. Peter said, “I’m talking arterial bleeding here!” The boss looked at the cut, said “I thought I taught you how to use an axe better than that,” and walked away. Peter and another crew member were left to deal with the cut by themselves.

We commonly had visitors in camp. Backcountry rangers would stop by on their patrols and spend an evening by the fire. Rangers were especially welcome because they would bring us goodies like fresh newspapers and M&Ms! The packers would spend the night once a week when they brought in our supplies. VIPs would stop by to see what a Backcountry camp was like. Martha D., the director of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, stopped by with some other LACC staff to visit Vic. He had been in the CCC a few years before, but came to Yosemite from the LACC. Some Corpsmembers from the Inyo crew who had been at Placer with Wayne spent a weekend to hike over and visit him. We were only seven miles in from a road, so we were the most easily accessible Backcountry crew for people who weren’t used to hiking much or didn’t have enough time to get to a more remote crew. Our camp fire was always open for guests.

One form of Backcountry entertainment was particular to the camp fire. Cooking grease was saved in a metal coffee can. (Since most coffee cans are plastic now, I thought this was important point out that it was metal!) When the can got full, it was time for the show. Showtime had to be after sundown. You’ll see why.

After the sky was dark, the grease-filled coffee can was set on the ground by the fire and pushed real close…not close enough to catch on fire, but close enough to bring the grease to a boil. While the grease was heating, a second coffee can was being fitted into the end of a rake. It was critical that this can be fixed securely to the rake. When the grease was sufficiently bubbling, the person in charge of this particular entertainment would fill the coffee can in the rake with cold water. Next came the tricky part.

Standing as far from the fire as possible while still being able to reach the grease can with the rake, the stuntman held the cold water over the grease can, and then quickly dumped the water into the grease can.

The fireball could be ten or fifteen feet high!

And that, boys and girls, is why we never throw water on a grease fire in the kitchen!

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The Dish Pit

A central point of social life on Yo2 was the dish pit.

I suppose it was technically the dish line, but the pit itself seemed to be the focus of attention. I got to dig the dish pit when we set up camp. It was about two feet deep, three feet wide, and six feet long. It felt like I was digging a grave until I got down to slick rock.

When the pit was finished, we set up the dish line. This was a waist high table that went the length of the pit. There was a specific protocol for washing dishes. Three big metal tubs lined the left side of the table. The first tub was for hot soapy water. The second was for a hot bleach water rinse. The third was for a cold water rinse. To the right of the tubs was plenty of flat drain board space.

Hot water for washing the dishes came from the two thirty gallon metal cans we kept on a grate over the campfire. These were called ‘jungle cans’. Water had to be hand pumped from the line running down into camp from Vogelsang Creek into buckets. The buckets were hauled over to the jungle cans and dumped in until the cans were full. A fire was kept burning under the jungle cans all day. Right around meal times, the fire would be stoked to boil the water in the cans. After a meal, water would be ladled out of the jungle cans into buckets and hauled over to the dish line. Hauling water back and forth between the pump, the jungle cans, and the dish line was only one of the KP’s daily jobs. A little soap was put in the first tub. A capful of bleach was put into the second tub. Then hot water was poured into those two tubs, and cold water into the third.

When the dish water was ready, the KP would holler “DISHES!!” That was our cue to assemble on the dish line. There needed to be at least four or five people on the line for the dish line to work—one at each of the tubs, one person drying, and one person running the dried dishes to the cook tent to be put away. The more people who showed up at the dish line, the faster the process went.

After the dishes were all washed, the tubs would be tipped up and dumped into the dish pit on the other side of the dish line. The pit filled up with water surprisingly fast. With the slick rock on the bottom, there was no place for the water to drain. The dish pit quickly became a nasty, greasy, spaghetti-sauce-red cesspool. The pit itself became a place to stay away from.

Every once in a while a dish would slip out of someone’s hands and fall into the dish pit. The person who had dropped it would become the next contestant on our Backcountry game show, Rake the Dish Pit. Mark Guthrie was our best announcer for this show.

“Ohhh, it looks like Matt is our next contestant on…Rake…the…Dish Pit!”

Matt grabbed the rake kept near the dish pit for this purpose. Mark kept calling the play-by-play as we continued washing.

“OK, Matt has the rake and makes his approach. He saw where it entered the water. Did it sink straight down, or did it spin away? Matt carefully chooses his footing. Not too close, Matt! We wouldn’t want any accidents here on…Rake…the…Dish Pit!”

The audience (us dishwashers) hollered, “Yes, we do!” “Fall in, Matt!!” “You can do it!”

“And Matt’s rake enters the water. Can he reach the bottom from there? Looks like Matt’s rake has touched the bottom, but not quite far enough. Gonna have to get a little closer to the edge there, Matt. Be careful! And here he goes, fishing around. And he’s stirring…stirring…and it looks like Matt has made contact! He’s dredging…pulling…can he get it out folks?”

“Fall in!” “Somebody push him!”

“He appears to have hooked something. And here it comes…he’s got it…and…it’s…it’s a coffee mug! Well, that’s not what Matt dropped in there! Where did that come from?! It looks like Matt is our bonus prize winner on…Rake…the…Dish Pit! Stay tuned as Matt comes back for his bonus round.”

Quality control was always important when washing dishes. Each person in the line was the QC inspector for everybody in the line ahead of him/her. If a dish came through with a little bit of food still stuck to it (which we learned from Moose is called ‘spooge’), whoever caught it would call “Quality control!” and toss it back into the first tub. If a dish got to the draining board with any soapy water still on it (soap residue on dishes could cause the runs): “Quality control!” and the dish would be tossed back into the rinse water. If there was still water on the dishes to be put away: “Quality control!” and the dish would be tossed back onto the drain board.

Dishes were washed by the crew twice a day, seven days a week, all season long. We saw a lot of each other in the dish line. Hikes were planned in the dish line. Current issues and abstract philosophies were discussed in the dish line. Tall tales were told in the dish line. Lives were changed in the dish line.

And life was good.

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The Mound

The Mound became our nemesis during our stay at Vogelsang.

The Mound needed to be one hundred feet long by one hundred feet wide. It was constructed of crushed granite. The granite pieces could not be too small, of the effluent would not perc right through the rock. The ideal size for each piece of rock in the mound was 2”x2”x6”. (I will never be able to get the phrase “twobytwobysix” out of my head!)

First, big granite blocks needed to be moved to the site. We rolled them there. We rolled every piece of loose granite in the area to The Mound site. Trail workers call this ‘piss-anting’. Granite weighs 150 pounds per cubic foot. A rock only two feet high, by two feet wide, by three feet long…not a big rock at all up there…weighed 1800 pounds. We piss-anted a lot of rock to the mound site. After a few weeks we had exhausted the supply of readily available rock. NPS then brought in a draft horse to haul rock for us.

Once we had a decent assortment of rocks at The Mound site, we began turning the big rocks into little rocks with sledge hammers, or double jacks, as trail crews call them. We became experts on the fracturing properties of rock, especially granite. We could look at a rock and be able to tell exactly where we needed to hit it, and how hard we needed to hit it, to break it into pieces.

The ten thousand square feet of surface area needed to be covered with crushed rock to a minimum depth of eighteen inches. In order to make the top of The Mound level, some spots were going to be much deeper than that.

At first the entire crew…all that were left of us…were crushing fill on The Mound. At first people were just stoked to be here and wailed away at the granite willy nilly. It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off. We had to learn how to pace ourselves to keep swinging that hammer all day, every day. You start finding different ways to keep your mind occupied. You actually do study the fracturing properties of granite. You listen to the rhythm of hammers banging on rock all around. You don’t talk much. Talking breaks your rhythm and slows you down. You notice little details, like the way steel hammers can actually make sparks off the granite, and that sparks have a gunpowder-like aroma.

Sure enough, we hit upon a few Corpsmember tricks to sneak an extra break in here or there. My favorite was to ask Joe a geology question. Joe was an NPS worker who joined us at Vogelsang for the septic project. He had recently taken up geology as a hobby. If we saw an unusual looking rock, all we had to do was ask “Hey, Joe. What kind of rock is this?”

“Well, I’m not a professional geologist who’s been studying this for years and years, but the red in this rock, of course, indicates the presence of iron…” and away we would go for five minutes or so. The best part of these types of breaks was that we actually learned something at the same time.

After a week or ten days of concentration on The Mound, Erin and Moose started rotating a few people at a time off The Mound to go out and work on the trail. Those were precious days, indeed.

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Project Problems

Marty Acree was our foreman on the septic project. He had worked on a similar project at the Merced Lake High Sierra Camp. He was an experienced guy. He explained to us how the system was supposed to work.

The problem with building a conventional septic system at 10,000 feet lies in the shallow soil. For a leach field to work, effluent coming down from the vault needs to drip out of the pipes and percolate down through soil or small rocks for purification. This is why before any septic system is approved by local building agencies the owner needs to have a ‘perc’ test performed. This measures the draining ability of the soils. Soils that don’t drain well are not approved for septic systems. There is no site in the world at 10,000 feet that could pass a perc test. There just is not enough soil laying on top of the bedrock up that high.

The engineers who designed the high-country septic system hit upon a creative idea for solving the perc problem. If the effluent will not perc down, why not get it to perc up? The plan was to crush rock for the leach field, push the pipes in through the fill, cover the fill with red lava rock, pile native dirt over the mound, and then plant native flora on top of the dirt. The plants would draw the effluent water up through the roots for nutrients, effectively making it perc ‘up’. Then the water would pass up and out of the plants via evapotranspiration. They crunched the numbers to figure out how much effluent they could expect, and then they calculated how much flora they would need to remove that amount of effluent. They had it all figured out.

Except for one little detail.

Most of the native soil up that high isn’t really soil at all, but decomposing granite, or DG. There aren’t enough nutrients in it to support much life. The engineers were pretty optimistic regarding the amount of flora that could be coaxed into growing on the mound. Decomposing granite isn’t very good at wicking moisture up, either. Water can drain down through it very well, which is why it was great for using on causeway, but water doesn’t want to travel up through it.

The engineers kept telling us “Don’t worry. It will work!”

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Vogelsang Work

The first part of the Vogelsang septic project was easy. After Snyder’s crew blasted in the pit the first week we were there, we helped lift the rubble from the pit. Then some of us dug the trench from the pit to the leach field site, while others helped lay cinder blocks for the vault.

The trench was an easy task. We ran a string line along the route. Then we just had to dig the trench parallel to the string to keep it straight. This job was all about what we called ‘assholes and elbows’. The term is crude but descriptive. When you are digging—I mean really digging—you need to have your head down, your knees bent, and be leaned over at the waist. Your only body parts that should be up are your elbows as they work the tool and your rear end, since you are leaned forward digging down into the dirt. Hence, ‘assholes and elbows’.

The way to trench quickly is for the first person to break up the ground with a mattock or the grubbing edge of a Pulaski. And remember—assholes and elbows! The dirt should be flying as he/she follows the string line and breaks up the hard pan dirt. Oh, yeah…and don’t even think of cutting the string as you go!

The first grubbing tool is followed by the first shovel, clearing the chunks of broken up dirt out of the trench. There isn’t much thought required here. No finesse. Keep that shovel moving in a steady rhythm: scoop, fling, down…scoop, fling, down. It looks like the job is broken down into three parts here, but it really isn’t. Scoop and fling are in the same motion, so it’s basically up and down, up and down. Assholes and elbows applies here, too.

Another grubbing tool comes through next making the trench deeper and wider followed by another shovel. If necessary, a third grubbing tool and shovel team can follow to get the trench to the right depth and shape for the job.

The trench on this job was several hundred feet long. It only took us a few hours to finish.

The cinder block masonry was a different type of job for most of us. We were already familiar with the concepts of rockwork from the trail work we had already been doing all season. We knew about the importance of laying a good foundation. We knew about breaking the joints with each tier of wall. The new part was working with mortar, which is the difference between standard masonry and the dry masonry we had used for trails. Several people had been assigned to this crew because they already possessed masonry skills. They had either been a crewleader of a construction crew or been masonry specialists. This was the project on which they were going to shine. However, Wayne was the only one left by this time. Well…. Wayne was the only one left when we started in Vogelsang. After only two weeks up here, he rode out on a horse with a stress fracture in his foot.

How do you mix mortar in the Backcountry? Why, by hand, of course! You need a big sheet of Visqueen plastic and two people. Throw some mortar mix on the Visqueen with some aggregate. Splash some water on top from a bucket…which has been hauled up from the creek. Then each person grabs two corners of the Visqueen. One person lifts his/her corners as the other drops his/hers low without letting go. Then the high side goes down and the low side goes up. The mortar mix tumbles on the Visqueen. This goes back and forth, up and down, until the mortar is thoroughly mixed. Good teams of mortar mixers develop a rhythm, and the job can actually be fun! Then the team lifts the Visqueen high, a third person brings a wheelbarrow in, and the mixed mortar is poured into the wheelbarrow to be delivered wherever it is needed.

Since most of our skilled workers were gone, the vault was primarily a job for Snyder’s crew. Since the trench was done in no time, Erin made sure that we started getting some trail work time under our belts. He had us hiking back down over the Rafferty Meadows trail for maintenance.

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The Arctic Front

The slap woke me out of a sound slumber.

Another slap smacked the outside of the sleeping bag. I stirred and opened the top of the sleeping bag just enough to see the edge of my cot in the dark. A blast of icy wind jetted through the hole as another slap blasted the sleeping bag. This time I heard the pop and smack that went with the slap. Was that a tarp?

I burst out of the top of the bag, sitting up on the cot, and sure enough a tarp slapped me in the face! It knocked me back down onto the cot, and then I heard the wind howling up the canyon and through our camp. The walls of the canvas wall tent I was sleeping behind popped in and out. The tarp that went over the top of the wall tent had slid down the back of the tent and several of the ropes had come loose. The tarp took another shot at me, but this time I grabbed it and held on. What was with this wind?! The wind filled the tarp and pulled, almost yanking me right off the cot. I managed to get the air spilled out of the parachute-like tarp and rolled over on top of it. The high end of the tarp still attached to the tent bucked and pulled, but it stayed under control. I pulled more of the loose tarp down and stuffed it under my sleeping bag.

I had never heard such a wind as the one roaring up the canyon that night. I heard tarps blowing all over camp. This was crazy! It was too dark to see much of anything. I didn’t hear anybody else up. I started to get up, but the tarp I was on top of started to slip loose…and it was cold out there in the wind! I didn’t think there was much I was going to be able to do about it by myself tonight. I made sure the tarp was bunched under my sleeping bag and under control, and then retreated back down into the dark blue nylon cocoon. It was going to be a long night. I listened to the wind howling up the canyon and shivered until my body heat warmed the air in the bag again.

Sunrise couldn’t come early enough. I must have drifted back to sleep at some point. When I opened my eyes, I could tell it was light outside. I peaked outside of my sleeping bag. It looked to be a little before six. I could hear the KP or the cook working inside the cook tent I was sleeping behind. I’d had marmot watch and was on the cot behind the cook tent. All was still. The wind had gone.

I sat up and looked around. The sky was cloudless and bright, even though the sun had not yet cleared Fletcher Peak. Camp looked different. The maintenance area rain fly was gone. The canvas wall tents were sagging, but it looked like they were all standing. Well, time to get up.

I reached down into the bottom of the bag for my brown CCC work pants. This was one of the tricks I had learned so far this summer. If you put the clothes you were going to be wearing the next day at the bottom of your sleeping bag, they would be nice and toasty warm in the morning. I got fully dressed before I got out of the sleeping bag. I swung my feet over the side of the cot and reached for my scuffed up, hard leather boots. I hadn’t been oiling them enough. Maybe this weekend…

I turned my boots upside down and shook them out. Then I reached inside them one at a time, inspecting for critters that might have crawled in overnight. They were clear, and I put them on. Then I just sat on the edge of the cot, gazing generally in the direction of Choo-Choo Ridge. I was tired. I didn’t want to move, but I eventually did. There really were no options…other than quitting. Even quitting would involve getting up and hiking out.

I walked around to the front of the cook tent. Our cook area had been destroyed by the wind. The rain fly that extended out from the tent like a porch awning was gone. The pot rack stood empty, the pots scattered all around camp. Kitchen equipment that was normally neatly arranged on shelves had been thrown back up onto the shelves in piles. Patti, the cook, stood over the propane stove bundled from head to toe. She had wrapped a scarf around her face and had big thick mittens on her hands. She stirred the eggs and looked up to see me coming around the tent.

“Good morning!” I think she said through the scarf. Her words were kinda muffled.

“Good morning!” I replied.

The coffee mugs had been blown off the rack, as well. I picked one up from the ground and checked it for critters. It was clean, so I headed for the coffee pot at the camp fire. Several crewmembers already stood huddled around the fire, shivering and holding their hands out to the warmth. I elbowed my way through the crowd to the coffee pot and poured myself a cup of the hot, thick cowboy coffee. I stood and joined the huddled circle.

Nobody spoke. Some people cupped hot mugs of coffee in their hands. Others held their hands out to the fire. Winter clothing was the norm today, even though there was no snow to be seen. I looked across the fire at Chris. He was from Maine. I was from northern Illinois, outside of Chicago. We had both laughed at weather the other Corpies thought was cold earlier in the season. His red rimmed eyes looked haggard this morning. A cigarette dangled from his lips, and the smoke wreathed up around his face and away.

“Hey, Chris,” I said. He just raised his eyes to me and squinted at me through the cigarette smoke. “Are you cold?”

Chris snorted and said “Yeah! I’m cold!”

I reached out with my foot and tapped my toe against the metal jungle can. “Excuse me. Excuse me!”

Everybody looked up at me.

“The boys from back East have determined that it is now officially cold. You may begin shivering.”

The groans and boos made me chuckle.

About then Patti called out “BREA-A-A-AKFA-A-A-A-AST!”

Ahhh! Hot food! We lined up and served ourselves. I grabbed one bowl and one spoon. I ladled some oatmeal and scrambled eggs into my bowl, laid a couple of bacon strips across the top, and then a cinnamon roll, and retreated to my favorite breakfast rock. It was a huge granite boulder sticking up out of the ground. It was just flat enough on top to make a comfortable seat. When the sun came up, solar heating would make the rock quite comfortable. It was a little early for a warm seat right now, though, but it was still my favorite spot. I laid my roll on the rock next to me and crumbled the bacon into the bowl, then stirred the oatmeal, eggs, and bacon all together. Delicious! And the best part…I would only have one bowl and one spoon to wash later! I had given up using a separate bowl and spoon for my oatmeal, and plate and fork for my eggs and bacon weeks ago. The fewer utensils to wash, the better.

Everyone was almost done eating when I saw Tammi drawing hot water from the jungle cans for dishes. Almost the entire crew headed over to the dish line this morning without being told to. Unusual! Then I saw the steam rising from the first dish pan. That explained it. The hot water in the dish line was the warmest place in camp right now. I joined them.

When the dishes were all washed and put away, the crew gathered our hard hats and daypacks and assembled for the days’ work assignments. We figured that some of us would be repairing camp, but that some of us would be going out on the trail. But Erin had a little surprise for us.

“The first priority for today is…to rebuild camp! The kitchen area needs to be rebuilt. The tents need to be straightened out. The maintenance area needs to be sorted out, and we need to find the fly and get it back up. So…let’s go to work!”

Nobody was going out on the trail yet! Well…okay!

We made short work out of repairing camp. By mid-morning, we were all assembled and ready to hit the trail.

Erin told us, ”Camp looks pretty good. Good job! But…it’s still pretty Arctic out there. Cold fingers and rockwork don’t mix. Cold fingers lead to smashed fingers. So…let’s take the rest of today off!”

We couldn’t believe our ears! We had never even heard of this before! Moose brought us back down to Earth a little bit, though.

“I haven’t collected your journals in a while. Write in those and turn them in. This would also be a good time to work on a crew newsletter. Let’s go!”

I went back to the canvas wall tent that I shared with Glenn and Mark. Well…when I wasn’t sleeping out in my ‘cave’ anyway! Chris and Dewey joined us, and we did our favorite Backcountry activity for a couple of hours…shooting the breeze! Moose came by at one point and stuck her head in our tent. We all picked up our journals and pretended to be writing in them. She looked at the mess…scattered dirty uniforms, books, camping gear…and chuckled. She said, “I always just need to peek in here when I need a good laugh!” She walked away chuckling.

The other guys decided to go work on newsletter article by the cook tent. I stayed in the tent. When they were gone, I laid back in my cot and stared up at the ceiling. At orientation, Peter Lewis had talked about hitting a ‘wall’ at some point in the season. ‘The wall’ is the point at which you would do almost anything to walk out of camp and go back down to civilization. He said we would be tired beyond belief, dirty, cold. We would question in our minds whether continuing was worth it or not.

“I think I’ve hit my wall,” I said to the empty tent.

Categories: Backcountry, Camping, CCC, Vogelsang, Yosemite | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

July 17, 1987: The Wall

It’s been an interesting week. Peter talked about hitting ‘a wall’ sometime during the season during his orientation talk. I’m not sure, but I think I’m there. All week long I’ve been tired for no real reason and just looking forward to a white collar job when I get outta here. (I shudder that I’m even capable of the thought.)

When I worked in the machine shop, they always pushed for improved rates – almost being inhuman about it. That was frequently a grueling job, especially when I got on the turret lathe. Constant motion – turning wheels, pushing levers, working each individual piece of a 500-part order to within .010-inch of specification, covered with warm lubricant spraying off the pieces mixing with your sweat on an August afternoon.

When I got out here, the work ethic stayed with me, ingrained from parents and the shop. And now I’m just feeling tired. I almost feel like a traitor taking the easy way out to even think about taking a cushy job.

Well, enough of that. The wind has been blowing hard for 24 hours now. Last night it was pretty fierce and we spent the morning repairing flies and tents. Then we got the day off. Kinda. We have to finally get something together for a crew newsletter. I can’t wait to see what we come up with.

Categories: Backcountry, CCC, Vogelsang, Yosemite | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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