Vogelsang

Down in the Valley Again

Since it was only the two of us, we left the crew van in Tuolumne and drove Moose’s personal truck down to Yosemite Valley. I didn’t have to wait very long to get into an exam room.

The doc, a younger guy, put some drops in my eyes to dilate the pupils. We had to wait a few minutes for them to dilate. I was wearing my dirty old trail clothes in their nice clean exam chair. My hair was long enough by now that I kept it out of my face with a bandana tied around my head. Yes, I was self-conscious in such a clean place!

The doc finally pulled a chair up close and looked at my eyes through a magnifier with an attached UV light. The drops had also added some luminescence to any irregularities in my eyes. After a while, he said, “Wel-l-l-l, I don’t think it is conjunctivitis. I see a tiny little scratch on one cornea that is infected, but I don’t see anything on the other eye that should be causing problems. Let me get the other doctor to give it a look.”

An older doctor came in and spent a few minutes looking. “Oh-h-h-h, yes-s-s. Ver-r-r-ry hard to see. Take a look at this,” he said as he stepped aside for the younger doctor. The younger doctor looked through the magnifier as the older doctor said, “Take a look at the superior edge of the iris. It almost matches the curve of the iris, so it is camouflaged in there.”

The younger doctor now saw it, too. Both corneas had infected scratches.

“Had you been hit in the eyes by anything in the couple of days before your eyes got weepy enough to crust over?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t remember anything like that.”

“Any unusual irritation to your eyes?”

I thought back. The only thing close to that as far as I could remember was getting a face full of dust from a passing mule string the previous Friday. I remembered rubbing my eyes harder than usual.

“That could well have been it. Well, we’ll get you some antibiotic drops for the infection. Apply them four times a day. We would like to see you back for a follow-up in a couple of days.”

“The clinic is open on Saturday?”

“Oh, yes. Just come back in so we can be sure we’ve solved the problem.”

Come back Saturday. Did that mean that Moose and I were going to have to hike back up to Vogelsang today, only to hike back down and do it all again on Saturday?

Moose, as always, had a plan. As we drove back to Tuolumne in the MOOSEX4, she asked me, “Can you drive a stick?”

“Sure. My first car was a VW Beetle.”

“OK, here’s the plan. We’ll see if the packers can use you to work around the stable tomorrow, and then you can drive my truck down to the Clinic on Saturday. Come back up to Vogelsang when you’re done.”

I was honored that Moose would trust me to drive her truck.

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And the Eyes Have It!

On Tuesday morning, my eyes wouldn’t open when I woke up. My eyelashes were crusted over and stuck together. The last time this had happened to me, I was seven and I had panicked. I didn’t panic this time, but simply groaned, “Aw-w-w-w, shit.” I hoped I did not have now what I’d had when I was seven.

Pink eye.

I got my eyes open after some careful rubbing and working the crust out. I went straight to Moose. Before I had even said anything, Moose saw my eyes and said, “Uh, oh.” She was thinking pink eye, too. Moose referred to the nearest medical opinion…Anne! Anne was a certified EMT. She thought it was pink eye, too.

This wasn’t looking good. Three out of three people with educated opinions thought it was pink eye. Moose remembered that the Sierra Club group still camped up at the High Sierra Camp had a doctor.

“Let’s go see if he takes drop-ins! Oh…and stay away from the dish line this morning.” One thing we knew for certain about pink eye is that it is highly contagious. Nobody even wanted to sit near me that morning.

Sure enough, the good Sierra Club doctor was happy to examine me. He only had rudimentary instruments, though. He could not make a certain diagnosis, and he thought it was likely to be pink eye, but he said it could also be a less contagious simple infection.

“I’d see if it clears up on its own. If it hasn’t cleared up by Thursday, you should go down to the clinic and have it checked.”

Thursday. I was doomed. Moose had hiked out several times already to deal with various issues. She had always had to hike out on a Thursday. We both knew this wasn’t going to be cleared up by Thursday, and Moose was going to have to hike out again.

The one good thing about my eye problem…with the specter of pink eye over me, nobody wanted me anywhere near the dish line! I had a legitimate three-day pass from washing dishes.

On Wednesday morning, I woke up with my eyes crusted shut. I think I worked The Mound that day. You don’t need to see very well to crush rock.

On Thursday morning, I woke up with my eyes crusted shut. Moose and I gathered our stuff for our hike down to Tuolumne. We hiked up past the High Sierra Camp and took the familiar left turn down the Rafferty Trail. We hadn’t gone far when we heard stock approaching from behind. Horses and mules spook easily, so protocol for hikers encountering them on the trail is to stand still on the uphill side of the trail and quietly let them go by. Moose and I moved off the trail to the uphill side and turned to watch the mules pass by.

It was a string of Curry Company mules. Curry was the concession that ran all of the ‘touristy’ stuff in Yosemite. This was a mule string running the High Sierra Camp loop. They were taking paying guests from Vogelsang to Tuolumne Meadows, and then to continue on tomorrow to the Glen Aulyn High Sierra camp.

I noticed that Moose had stuck out her thumb like a hitchhiker. I laughed and thought that was a great joke, so I stuck my thumb out, too.

The packer actually brought the mule string to a halt. Most of the mules had riders. A few of them had tarpped loads with all of their gear.

“Need a lift?” asked the packer, a young Hispanic lady as she pushed her Stetson up off her forehead.

“Got any extra saddles to Tuolumne?” Moose asked.

“It just so happens that a few people decided to hike down to Tuolumne today instead of ride, so I do. Back there.” The packer motioned back to the string.

I could not believe that I was actually hitchhiking a ride out of the Backcountry.

As we walked to our mules, Moose said, “This packer is a former Corpsmember that I know. I knew that if she had extra saddles, she’d let us ride.”

Seven miles is still the longest I’ve ever ridden in a saddle in one day.

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Sierra Clubbers

One thing was for sure about Yo2—we never got into any ruts with only one particular type of work. Except for maybe The Mound, of course!
At the end of August, a ranger-led group of Sierra Clubbers set up camp right by the High Sierra Camp. These were motivated outdoors lovers who had signed up and paid a lot of money to go camping and do some trail work. How many times during the summer had each one of us said “I can’t believe someone is paying me to be here and do this”? Now here were people who had paid top dollar to do exactly what we were being paid to do.

Well…not quite.

Russ Tenaka was the Backcountry ranger in charge of this Sierra Club group. Russ had been around our camp a lot on his patrols. Everybody liked him. He was a high school science teacher in the off-season. He had a great sense of humor and a lot of Backcountry experience. He knew Peter Lewis from way back. After he had gotten the Sierra Clubbers set up in their camp, he came down to our camp to talk to Erin and Moose. He wanted to borrow one Corpie a day for a few days to help him supervise the Sierra Clubbers. Erin and Moose thought it was a great idea. I got to be the first one to go.

The next morning I met the Sierra Club group behind the High Sierra Camp at the top of the trail heading east between Fletcher and Vogelsang peaks. Before we started work, Russ took me off to the side for instructions.

“OK, George, I know this is going to go against the grain of everything you’ve been trained to do, but I want you to do as little actual work as possible.”

I laughed. Russ laughed.

“Seriously,” he continued. “These folks have paid a lot of money to be here and work. I want to make sure they get their money’s worth. Your main job is to make sure nobody tries anything too heavy and gets hurt. We are just going to be doing light maintenance…rocking the trail and cleaning out water bars. I’ll be in front. You bring up the rear. Just keep an eye on people and make sure they don’t get hurt, and maybe do some final touch up as we go down the trail. Can you do that?”

“You bet! Do as little actual work as possible. I can do that!”

Russ laughed. I laughed.

It turned out that doing as little as possible was harder than it looked. I spent time showing people the best way to dig out drains with their shovels, or helping older folks wrestle big rocks out of the trail. I kept wanting to jump into ‘assholes-and-elbows’ mode and make it five miles down the trail. I had to patiently watch and wait and small talk with some genuinely good people.

It was an awesome day to be in the mountains!

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Blow Up

There is an odd ritual concerning loose uniform patches that led to losing one more member of Yo2.

OK…I get it that Corpsmembers are supposed to look professional at all times. When were we were issued our khaki shirts and given our CCC patches, those patches needed to be securely on your shirt when you reported to work the next morning. The left sleeve got the universal round CCC patch with your center’s name on a rocker across the top. Your right sleeve got your center’s logo patch. The patches needed to look professional. The nature of our work was pretty hard on uniforms, so it didn’t take long for the thread to start wearing thin and patches to start coming off. You were supposed to take care of things like that right away and report to work the next morning with your patches squared away. Some CCC centers, and some CCC crews, enforced this policy more diligently than others.

In the alleged spirit of enforcing this rule, sometimes a loose patch, or even a loose pocket, would be snatched by another Corpsmember and ripped completely off. The person who had ripped the patch off would say something like, “Oh, here. You need to fix this,” as he handed the patch back. (I think I can safely say he, not he/she. I think this type of behavior was mostly a guy thing. I don’t remember ever seeing a female do it.) Now the patch was in such bad shape that it couldn’t be ignored. The patch had to be back on the uniform the next morning.

I never did like this concept. As far as I was concerned, there was no legitimate reason to lay hands on another person like that. It was a totally chicken-shit, aggressive, and childish concern over spit-and-polish nonsense, and the point never really was to enforce the rule. The point was to humiliate the other Corpsmember and to show them up.

Well, on this one day at Vogelsang…

I’d had KP that day. It was another turkey day, the second time I’d had to cook one. The first time, I’d been sick as a dog and Vic had bailed me out. I was healthy this time, but I didn’t remember much from the last turkey I’d cooked. Vic bailed me out again, but this time he just talked me through. I did all of the work myself.

During the post-dinner wind-down and relaxation time around the camp fire, Vic spotted Glens hip pocket hanging half-way off. Glen was talking to Mark and Wayne with his back to the fire. Vic crept up behind Glen, snatched at the loose pocket, and yanked.

The pocket didn’t come off. It still held tight at the reinforced seam at the top. Vic had just pulled Glen backwards.

Several things happened simultaneously. Wayne, Mark, and I started to get up, saying, “Hey!” “Knock it off!” “Stop!”

Glen tried to turn to face Vic, but Vic held on to the pocket. With a wild gleam in his eye and a huge grin, Vic yanked at the pocket again. The pocket still didn’t come off, but Vic had pulled them closer to the camp fire and the two jungle cans full of hot water. Vic seemed oblivious to the fire behind them and readied to yank a third time.

Glen did see the fire. He kicked out with one foot and managed to knock Vic off of himself. Vic stumbled back but stayed on his feet. Fortunately, he had missed the fire and the boiling water. Vic was still unaware of the danger that he had put them both in. All he knew was that Glen had just showed him up and had made him look silly.

Glen turned to face Vic and stood with his arms wide open. Glen looked shocked and surprised and kept repeating, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

Vic rushed at Glen and smacked him with a right jab to the jaw. Glen made no move to defend himself. He took the punch, head rolling to one side with the blow, and then looked back at Vic with his arms still open wide and saying, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

Suddenly the lights seemed to come on for Vic. The CCC has Five Basic Rules. Violation of any one of them is cause for immediate termination. One of the Five Basic Rules is “No fighting.” Vic had just instigated this incident and thrown a punch. Vic stormed away from the camp fire. Glen kept repeating, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

We Corpsmembers around the fire looked around at each other with “What the hell just happened?!” looks. I went to find Vic.

He was easy to find. He was in his tent packing his gear.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m leaving.”

“Oh, come on, Vic.”

“I just have to get out of here.”

“Let’s go for a walk and calm down.”

“No. I have to go. I’m going to get fired, anyway.”

“You don’t know that yet. Let’s calm down and talk it over with Moose.”

“There’s no point. I couldn’t stay, anyway. I’ve been humiliated.”

I could not believe I was in this position of talking someone out of quitting…again! Vic and I did not see eye to eye on everything, and we had certainly had our differences, but he was Yo2, and I did not want to lose another crewmate.

Vic had finished packing and was closing his backpack.

“Vic, I have one good reason for you to stay.”

He threw his pack over his shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“Who is going to help me cook the turkey next time?”

Vic wasn’t expecting that. He grinned and punched my shoulder and said, “You’ve got it down now. You don’t need me anymore.”

Vic walked out of the tent and never came back.
I went back to the camp fore and sat down on a round.

“Did you find him?”

“Yeah. He just left.”

Glen was still coming out of the shock. “I didn’t mean to do anything to him. He was dragging us to the fire. I didn’t have any choice.”
We all agreed with Glen. Glen had done nothing wrong. Vic had put him in a position in which he really had no choice. That didn’t make it suck any less that Yo2 had lost yet another member.

And he wouldn’t be the last.

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Return of a Native

This was a great day for Yo2. After losing so many people throughout the season, we finally got one back! We saw few things that year that were as emotionally charged as seeing Wayne hike back into camp.

After seeing the doctor for his foot injury, he followed the doctor’s orders exactly. He stayed off the foot for two weeks, and then gradually increased his range of activities on it. Wayne had managed to heal enough in the most optimistic amount of time that he was able to join us for the season’s last six weeks at Vogelsang.

And he left his logger heel boots at home!

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An Antioch Interlude

The lady across the ticket counter wanted $215 before she would let me on the plane due to leave in an hour. I had $205 in my pocket.

This should not be happening.

I had already paid for a ticket. The airline had not said they were mailing it to me. When I had come to California one year before, I had bought my ticket over the phone and I picked it up when I got to the airport for my flight. The airline had changed their policy in the past year. Nobody had told me.

When I got to the airport in Fresno an hour before my flight, the agent asked for my ticket. When I told her I had bought the ticket over the phone and thought I was picking it up here, then she told me about the policy change.

As I had been hiking out of the Yosemite backcountry I had passed a mule train on its way up to our camp for our weekly resupply. The mail was on the mules. My ticket was probably in the mail pouch as I hiked down the trial in the opposite direction.

I explained to the agent that I was on my way to be the best man at my best friend Doug’s wedding in Wisconsin. What could I do to get on that plane?

She said the only thing she could do was to give me a new ticket for the same price I had paid for the first one. After I got back, I could return the first ticket for a refund.

The ticket price was $215. I counted all of the money I had, including the change in my pockets. $205.
I tried to argue with the agent.

“Look, your computer shows that you sold a ticket for this flight to George Parker. I’ve got ID that proves I’m George Parker. Isn’t that good enough?”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“If you think I’m lying, I’ll even board the plane last, just in case another George Parker shows up with a ticket for this seat.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

It never occurred to me to ask other people in line for ten bucks. I bet I could have gotten it. “Only ten dollars to get this line moving again? Deal!”

I hauled my 6400 cubic inch backpack off to the side to figure out what to do next. I wasn’t getting to the wedding, that was for sure. I only had one contact phone number for Doug, his apartment in Minneapolis. (Remember, these were the days before cell phones!) I’d tried calling it the night before from my motel room in Fresno, but he had already left for the wedding in Wisconsin. His roommate had no idea how to get a hold of him. The only other contact numbers I had were for Doug’s family in Illinois, but by now they had already left for Wisconsin, too.

So…there I was, in the Fresno airport with a week off from my trail crew. What to do?

I could go back up to Yosemite and rejoin the crew. Or…

I had seen a Greyhound bus station on the way into the airport. I wondered what a round trip ticket to the Bay Area would cost? I could go to my parent’s house for a few days. That would actually be a nice surprise for them. The next day, August 13, was my Dad’s birthday, and two days after that was my parent’s anniversary. Yep! Definitely worth a trip to their house!

It was just a short hike to the bus station, and a round trip ticket from Fresno to San Francisco was well within my budget. A few minutes examining the bus schedules told me that I had plenty of time to get home for a few days and be back to make it into camp before the following Monday.

The better part of the day saw me waiting in the Fresno Greyhound station and then on a bus headed north up the Central Valley to San Francisco. Plenty of time to read. Plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to play “What If…?”

Ten dollars had stood between me and getting on that plane. If I hadn’t bought those books when I got into Fresno the night before…I would have been on that plane. If I had asked Randy and his wife to drop me off at a motel close to the airport instead of whatever one they usually used, I wouldn’t have needed to take a cab all the way across Fresno to the airport…and I would have been on that plane. If I had bought my tickets before the season started…I would have been on that plane.

California’s Great Central Valley was filled for me that day with self-recrimination and self-loathing. Because of my lack of planning, Doug was going to be wasting a trip to the airport. He was going to have to scrounge up a new best man at the last minute, too. All my fault.

As I got closer to San Francisco, I started to think about how to get from the city out to Antioch. I knew that if I called, my Mom or Dad would come and get me. Thinking about the ‘surprise’ motif, though, led me to choose another great adventure–figuring out the mighty Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system–and just showing up on my family’s doorstep.

Deposited in downtown San Francisco, I found my way to the nearest underground BART station. I knew that the train line ended at Concord, and that I would have to take a BART bus out to Antioch.

What I had not realized was that the bus route winds its way back…and forth…and all…around…Bay Point and Pittsburg before getting to Antioch. And since I hadn’t spent much time at my parent’s new house before joining the CCC and leaving, I didn’t know what stop I needed to get off at in Antioch, so I stayed on the bus all the way to the end of the line at Hillcrest. I found out when I got off the bus that I had overshot my target by about 5 miles. Oh, well. After spending a couple of months at 10,000 feet in the mountainous High Country of Yosemite and hiking to work every day with my tools over my shoulder, five miles at sea level on flat ground and pavement was not going to be a problem.

I stopped for a burger en route, and by the time I got to my parent’s house it was about 10:30 at night. All the lights were off in the house.

This was gonna be a problem.

Making it home by curfew had been a big point of contention between my Mom and I once I was old enough to drive. If I wasn’t in before curfew, the doors were locked and I was on my own until morning. This wouldn’t have been too bad by itself, but there was always hell to pay the morning after those nights. As bad as that was, though, it still was not bad enough to totally discourage me from breaking curfew. I had spent more than one night curled up under a tree in the woods down the street from our home.

When I got to their house at 10:30 and saw the lights off, there was no way I was gonna risk Mom’s wrath. I had a sleeping bag. I was set. I went around the side of the house and rolled out my sleeping bag off the sidewalk near the garbage cans.

The next morning I woke up a little after sunrise. I was looking up at the lightening sky when I heard the front door around the corner open and somebody come outside. I remembered that it was August 13, Dad’s birthday, just as Dad came around the corner with a bag of trash.

“Happy Birthday, Dad!”

I have only seen a few people actually do a double take in real life. This was one of those times.

“What are you doing here?!”

“I had a week off, so I thought I’d come up and see you guys. Happy Birthday!” I thought the short version of my story would do for now. I could fill them in on the rest later.

“Well, thank you! Come on in!”

As I gathered up my gear, Dad said “Your Mom’s had some health stuff going on that you should probably know about.”

The last time I had called home had been when were going on the fires back in May. I hadn’t called when we finished on the fires. I hadn’t even called when we left the Front Country just before the 4th of July and left phones behind. The last time I had talked to them Mom had an odd swelling on the side of her face that she was going to get checked out by a doctor. It turned out that the swelling was caused by a tumor that was growing in a sinus.

“So she’s going to look a little startling,” Dad said as we went inside.

Mom was sitting on the couch in her robe. She slowly moved her head and looked up when I came in. It looked like there was a huge compress or other dressing on the right side of her face with some thick black lines inked across it.

Dad said “Look what the cat dragged in!”

My younger sister, Patricia was there, too. She looked exhausted.

Mom was undergoing radiation for the tumor. As we talked and Dad caught me up on where they were in the treatments, I realized I had been wrong about the dressing on Mom’s face. It wasn’t a bandage. Her cheek below her eye was bruised and swollen to the size of a softball. In fact, the swelling had pushed her eye way up into the top of its socket. Mom always had beautiful baby blue eyes, vibrant and full of life. Her right eye wasn’t that way anymore. It was stuck, pointed up toward the ceiling. The iris was dull blue. It looked dead. The lines on her cheek were marker lines drawn for aiming guidelines for the radiation treatments.

When the doctors had decided the swelling on her face was a tumor in a sinus, they were going to operate and remove it. In the process of closer examination, however, they had discovered a second tumor in a lung. A second tumor closed the door for surgical options. They decided to treat the sinus tumor with radiation.

When I was all brought up to date, we all tried to carry on the rest of the day and evening as though life were normal. It was surreal.

I spent time telling the family all of my wilderness trail stories. Dad asked a lot of questions, but I spoke mainly to Mom. She had been my encouragement to do something like the CCC and Backcountry trail crews. I told her all about the mountains, the trees, the trails, the bears, the rivers, the camps, the wildfires we had fought and the helicopter rides we had taken to get there. I told her about what it was like to sit near the lone Jeffrey pine on Sentinel Dome and watch the full moon rise over Half Dome. Mom mostly just sat and listened. Talking seemed to be painful for her. Dad said it was an effect of the radiation treatments. When she did talk and I caught a glimpse into her mouth, it looked like her teeth and gums were turning black.

The one story that I held back was the full story of how I came to be at their house on my Dad’s birthday. I didn’t see any need to tell them that they had been Plan B. And a last minute Plan B, at that. It was looking to me like God had used all of those bad decisions on my part to get me where I really needed to be. My Plan B had been His only Plan all along.

Mom had a radiation treatment the next day and I went with them. As we got out of the car, I gave Mom my arm and walked her slowly from the drop off point to the medical building.

Mom had always taken pride in her ability to roughhouse with me and my friends. She was only 5’2″, but she was a spitfire. She let us all know that she was definitely in charge. She knew pressure points and nerve centers, and if she could get a grip on a forearm, shoulder, or thigh she could drop the biggest guy in his tracks. But she was a lot of fun, too. She played volleyball and kickball with us in the yard. She was a tickle-master and the house would be filled with shrieks and laughter of kids having a great time being chased around by the tickle-monster. When I was about 9 or 10, she was chasing my friend Mitchell and I though the house as the tickle-monster. Mitch and I ducked into my bedroom and the two of us held the door closed as long as we could, and when she finally burst the door open against us we flew back from the door and scrambled under the bed. Mom reached under the bed for us and we backed up against the wall, just out of her reach. Her arm withdrew and we breathed a sigh of relief. Until the mattress flew off the bed. Then we screamed like little girls when she threw the box springs aside, too. She had us!

But today she had none of that energy. I helped her shuffle across the parking lot. I made sure she had a good grip on my arm as we stepped up onto the sidewalk. Then her fingers dug into my forearm and I found myself heading for the ground on my knees. She let up on her grip before I went all the way down. For the first time since I’d been there, I saw a twinkle in her eye and a grin turning up the corners of her mouth.

“I can still take you down.”

“Yes, you can, Mom.” She had certainly let me know that she was still The Boss! And that she was still fighting.

The last day I was home, I asked the question that had been hanging over my head since I’d found out how bad Mom’s condition was. “Do you want me to stay home and help?”

Mom’s good eye glared at me. “You started. You damn well finish.”

Dad said “There’s nothing you can do here other than wait. Go back and finish. We’ll contact you if we need to.”

Dad dropped me off at the Concord BART station and slipped me a few bucks. A BART train and a Greyhound bus and I was on my way back to Yosemite. I managed a cab ride from Fresno to Yosemite Valley from a cabbie who just really wanted to get out of the city for the day, so he only charged me the same price the bus ticket would have been. I had lunch in Yosemite Village, then started hiking through Happy Isles and up the trail along the Merced River and behind Half Dome that would take me back to our camp at Vogelsang. I got as far as Merced Lake before the sun went down and I had to stop for the night. My first night back under the stars was just like coming home.

The next day I made it into camp right before dinner at 4:00. One of the first people I saw when I came into camp was my boss, Diane.

“So…how was your week?”

I explained the airline snafu.

“I figured something like that had happened. The day you left an envelope came for you from the airline. So…what did you do for a week?”

It had never occurred to me before that moment that since I had not been where I was supposed to have been, doing what I was supposed to have been doing, that I could get into serious trouble. Diane had given me permission to go to Wisconsin for a wedding, not go home for a few days to Antioch. I could be fired right now.

“I went to my parent’s house in Antioch. Do you remember back on the fires when I found out my Mom was going to the doctor to get something checked out?

“Yes.”

“Turned out to be cancer. She’s got two tumors. One in a sinus. One in a lung. It’s not good.”

“Do they need you at home?”

“No. Mom told me to come back and finish what I’d started.”

On our last day in the Backcountry in late September, we hiked out one last time, loaded up in the van and the pick-up, and made the drive from Tuolumne Meadows to Camp Mather for debriefing. We pulled in some time after sundown. Peter Lewis, the Backcountry program director, was there to meet us. He stuck his head in the van door before anyone could even get out and said “George Parker? You need to call your Dad right away. Sounds like something serious.”

—————————————————-

“The radiation didn’t work. She’s not going to last long.”
“How long do they think?”
“Could be two days. Could be two hours.”
“I’m sure I can get to Stockton tonight if I need to.”
“What do you have left to do?”
“Debriefing tomorrow. Leaving the next morning. Be in Stockton by mid-morning, maybe.”
“Well, why don’t you just finish it up to the end. I’ll pick you up in Stockton the day after tomorrow.”

—————————————————-

The CCC van convoy pulled into the Stockton Greyhound station. Corpsmembers disembarked, ready to be scattered back all around the state. I found the payphones along the back wall of the station. Roxanne, the Yosemite I C-1, was on the phone to my left. I called home and Patricia answered the phone.

Mom had died just a little bit earlier that morning.

Dad was at the hospital. Patricia would let him know that I’d called and he would come and get me.

I hung up the phone and just stood there for a few moments. I noticed the line behind me of other Corpsmembers waiting to use the phone, so I stepped aside. Roxanne was off the phone and laughing with another Corpsmember. I don’t know what I looked like, but when she saw me her smile dropped and she came over to me.

“Are you okay?”

I said nothing for several moments, and then choked out “My Mom just died.”

Roxanne folded me into one of the most necessary hugs I’ve ever had.

We talked for a while. About Mom. About her illness. About good times and good memories. Roxanne made sure I wasn’t alone and that I had transportation arranged. Chris from my crew was there and said he’d stay with me until Dad got there.

Louis L’Amour once wrote that trail dust is thicker than blood. Moments like these are what make that true.

Mom’s funeral was a few days later. Then I got back on another Greyhound bus and headed back up to Del Norte for my second year with the C’s. I didn’t take any time off. I told my bosses “Why would I take time off? So I can sit around and mope?”

I was wrong.

It’s not ‘moping’. It’s called ‘grieving’, and you can go through it now or you can go through it later…but go through it you will. I just delayed the inevitable for four or five years.

When I took time to consider it years later, there were two positives to consider. First, because of the airline foul up I got to see Mom alive one last time before she died. And second, she died knowing that I made the effort to come and see her. I think this was a big deal for her, and it was why she was so insistent that I go back and finish my job.

You see, when her mother was in a hospital dying of cancer around 1972, Mom took Patricia and I from Chicago to Oakland to be with her. My Aunt Kathy was an Army nurse at the time, and she was actually traveling through San Francisco while we were there…but Kathy never did come by to see their Mom. My mom never forgave Kathy of that for the rest of her life. Now, I don’t know all the details. I don’t know what kind of a schedule Kathy was on that might of kept her from getting to the hospital across the Bay. But as far as Mom was concerned, right or wrong, Kathy was so full of herself that she could not be bothered to cross the Bay to see her dying mother.

So I can only imagine what went through Mom’s mind when she saw me come through the door. I wasn’t due back until October. But I made the effort to travel two hundred miles by foot, bus, and train to see her in the middle of August, in the middle of her radiation treatments. I think that told her everything she needed to know about her and me.

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Powdered Doughnuts

One question that I get asked by people about Backcountry trail crews is “Where do you go to the bathroom?”

Well, when we’re on the trail, we hike off the trail and find a private tree. And then the follow up question comes: “What about…well…number two?”

O.K., here’s the secret. We really do have a bathroom in camp. No, it’s not one of the one-person Blue Rooms you see at construction sites or outdoors events around the country. It’s a big pit dug into the ground that in polite company is called a ‘latrine’, but trail crews call ‘the shitter’. (I don’t think trail crews have ever been accused of being ‘polite company’!)

The latrine is located far enough outside of camp that I thought they would invoke the ‘two person minimum’ rule for hiking out to it. It is a deep but narrow pit dug into the ground. The length depends upon available room. When the pit is finished, a log round is placed flat side down on each end, then two sturdy branches are laid across the pit and are secured to the rounds. Finally, for added comfort, at least two toilet seats are laid across the sturdy branches and secured. Viola! You have a latrine! (Don’t worry. At the end of the season, as part of breaking camp down, the latrine will be covered over by all of the dirt that was removed.)

The latrine rules are pretty simple. Some sort of ‘occupied’ signal is worked out. Toilet paper is kept on a round in easy reach of each seat. The rolls are kept under metal coffee cans to protect the paper from the elements.

O.K., I can hear the groans out there now about the very thought of all that…waste…dropping into and accumulating in an open air hole in the ground. What about odor? What about flies? Oh…the hygiene nightmare, right?

Give us some credit. We had a solution for all of that…odor, flies, and hygiene. It came in the form of a white powder called ‘slaked lime’, or calcium hydroxide. The lime looked like talcum powder, and it came in the same type of plastic shaker can you would recognize from your regular household baby powder. Application was simple. After you finished with your ‘business’, you took the lime and sprinkled it into the pit to cover the new material. You wanted enough to cover the odor, but you didn’t want to use too much. You did not want to run out of lime! How much was enough? You sprinkled until it looked like the same amount of coverage you would see on a powdered doughnut.

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Buying Tickets

Before the season started, I had been invited to be the best man at my friend Doug’s wedding in August back in Wisconsin. I got early permission from Moose to take a week off and go. I had my permission weeks before the season started. The best move would have been to buy my airline tickets before the season started. However, I still needed to buy my Backcountry gear, too. A sleeping bag and backpack alone were going to cost me a few hundred dollars. Remember, this was in 1987. We worked for the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour.

Besides, I figured that I had plenty of time to buy the tickets. When I had come to California the previous August, I had purchased my tickets over the phone only one week before I wanted to fly. I still had plenty of time.

The first six weeks of the season were so busy that while I was vaguely aware of a wedding I need to be at, actually getting around to buying the tickets totally slipped my mind. I finally made the call from Tuolumne at the end of June. The airline policies had changed in the past year, however. The last time I had bought tickets, I reserved them over the phone and paid for them when I arrived at the airport for my flight. Now they told me that I needed a credit card. I had never even had a credit card. This was not good.

I tried to brainstorm a way to get the tickets. About ten days before I needed to leave, I mentioned my problem around the camp fire one night.

Marty asked, “Do you have the money for the tickets right now?”

“Yes.”

“You can use my credit card. Just give me the cash.”

“Wow! Thanks, Marty!”

Time was really getting down to the wire. I needed to get down to a phone at Tuolumne Meadows that weekend or I could forget buying tickets in advance. I needed one person to go with me, considering the minimum of two people needed with any group leaving camp on a trail. Most everybody already had plans, but there was one person I could count on to be available. I convinced Derek it would be good for him to get out of camp one more time and hike with me down to Tuolumne.

We left camp well before brunch. We planned on hanging out down in Tuolumne Meadows for a few hours before heading back to camp for dinner. The Rafferty Trail was becoming as familiar to us as our hometown neighborhoods had been.

About three miles down the trail, who should we run into but Rollie…running back up the trail! We all stopped long enough to exchange greetings. It turned out that Rollie had been getting up early every Saturday to run the seven miles down to Tuolumne Meadows for a few beers, and then run back up to camp in time for brunch at 10:00! Wow!

Derek and I took our ‘lazy man’ time to finish hiking down to Tuolumne. I made the airline reservations for the next week, paid for with a credit card. I was happy. Life was good!

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Dish Line Follies

Since we spent time every day washing dishes, it became natural for the dish line to become an entertainment center. In addition to ‘Rake the Dish Pit’, it became a running joke that somebody was going to get tossed into the pit. One time, Dewey did accidentally fall into it. He was like a cat falling into a bathtub. As soon as he hit the water, he was scrambling to get out. He looked…and smelled…a mess for having only been in the waste water for an instant. Spaghetti-red grease clung to his clothes. It took him a long time to clean up after that one.

Glen kept claiming that he would voluntarily jump into the dish pit…if somebody paid him enough. The offer was tempting. His description of himself at orientation was “I am an asshole.” He was true to his word throughout the season. Okay…he was usually an ‘asshole’ in the lovable, endearing sense, but it could grate on your nerves once in a while. He said “Every one of you guys would love to see me in the dish pit and you know it!” At first he said he would jump into the dish pit for two hundred dollars. There were no takers. His price kept dropping every week or two, twenty bucks at a time, but he still couldn’t find any takers.

The dish line was a popular place for trivia games. Music trivia was the most popular, as were astronomy and the natural sciences. Oddly enough, we didn’t have too many sports nuts on this crew, so sports were not a big topic.

We had our share of horseplay in the dish line, too. The most irritating thing for me was splashing each other with dish water. This was usually done under the pretense of being an ‘accident’. One day Vic was using tongs to move dishes from the hot water rinse to the cold water rinse. I was on Vic’s right, moving the dishes from the cold water rinse to the drain board. Dishes started ‘slipping’ out of Vic’s tongs into the cold water rinse, splashing water on me and the drain board. After the fourth or fifth time, I said, “Hey, c’mon, Vic. It was funny the first three times. You can knock it off now.”

Vic looked me square in the eye, grinning, and dropped the next cup into the rinse water. I said nothing.
Vic added a little velocity to the next cup, throwing it into the rinse water and splashing two of us. I calmly said, “Vic…yer bein’ a dick.”

Judging from all of the “oooh”’s I heard, I think it was the first time most of the crew had heard me cuss.

But Vic stopped.

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Putting It to Bed

Marty, normally the septic project foreman, had an interesting trail project for us that lasted about a week. There was an old discontinued trail that needed to be put to bed, or returned back to its natural state. Old trails could not simply be abandoned and forgotten because as long as the old trail broke the contour, it disrupted the natural drainage down the hillside. Erosion problems would be amplified as long as the old trail remained.

We hiked up past the High Sierra Camp, turned left, and started down the ol’ Rafferty Trail. Right before we got down to the meadow, Marty took us off trail for a few yards to a very faint, largely overgrown trail. This old trail looked familiar to me. I turned around and looked back toward the Rafferty Trail. I knew what this was! This was that old trail I had found coming back down from Rafferty Peak! I had thought it was an old cavalry trail, but it wasn’t nearly that old. It was the reroute attempt around Rafferty Meadow to solve the rutting problem.

Trail dismantling was pretty easy, but requires close attention to detail. When a trail is built, a flat walking surface is dug out of the hillside. When a trail in dismantled, the hillside’s contour is simply restored. The uphill and downhill edges of the trail are broken down and smoothed back into the hillside. Any rockwork such as water bars are torn out and the rocks randomly scattered.

If the dismantling stopped right there, the trail right of way can still be noticed if you are looking hard enough. The right of way still needed to be replanted with native flora. We would go at least ten or fifteen yards off the right of way to find a healthy plant and dig it up, making sure we kept the root system as intact as possible. Then we replanted it in the old trail right of way. This took a careful eye, too. You couldn’t just plop plants in the ground right down the old right of way. The man-made straight line of the trail had to be broken up and camouflaged. That meant the plants had to be scattered enough across the right of way that it would be impossible to see the faintest outline of the old trail. All that time I spent in high school studying camouflage finally paid off!

When we finished, it was impossible to tell where the old trail had gone. I might have been the last hiker ever to have used that old reroute—my claim to fame!

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