April 21, 1987: Orientation

Tomorrow we hit the trail. Finally. I’ve been looking forward to this day since I heard about the Backcountry at the Academy. I’ve come a long way since the Academy, and I’ve still got a long way to go.

Heck, I’ve come a long way in the last nine months. This time last year I was living on the Lindstaedt’s ranch in Illinois, working in the machine shop. I was still a talker and not much of a doer. The first big step I’ve ever really taken on my own was to head out to California, and it’s turning out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. I came out here with the vague idea of working in the wilderness. Less than a month after I got here I was in the Corps planning on Backcountry.

And if my mind wasn’t settled on it then, I got sent to Del Norte Center and put on the crew with more Backcountry vets than all the others combined. Kristen, Brian, Anne, Mira, Kathy Wood, Eric, and Bob Brandreth all added to my desire to come back here. Backcountry was a typical everyday topic of discussion. It’s no wonder that more people are here from Crew 3 than any other at Del Norte.

Being here at Delta has made me really appreciate being at Del Norte a whole lot more. It’s almost like being in the Army here—or a minimum security prison.

I’m really looking forward to spending the summer with this crew. It really looks good. I’ve really been blessed with good crews in the Corps—and good crewleaders and C-1s. One of my crewleaders here, Glen, resembles my set-up man from the machine shop. I wouldn’t have been surprised if his last name had been Valenziano. Bob was a really good guy, and it looks like Glen is, too.

Almost a third of my crew is from Del Norte, myself, Anne, Gary, Robert, and Diane. Anne was wondering if that would intimidate any of the other crewmembers, but it doesn’t seem to be.

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Arrival at Delta for Orientation

My parents drove me from Antioch to Delta Center in Stockton. Delta Center had been a state mental hospital. The California Conservation Corps had moved into a section of the grounds, including what had been the main admin building. As we entered the grounds on North American Street, the perfectly manicured grounds still looked like a state hospital facility. Not only were the lawns mowed, but all of the shrubbery was perfectly groomed as well. The grass along the sidewalks was perfectly edged. Beautiful. We pulled up in front of the main building and found a parking spot.

I was wearing my civilian clothes, but I did wear my Red Wing Irish Setter hiking boots…my badge of honor as a Backcountry corpsmember. All of my gear was either inside of or strapped to the outside of my huge blue backpack in the cargo space of my parents’ Chevy Blazer. I hauled my backpack out and slung it over my shoulders. Dad shook my hand. Mom hugged me and said, “Do good.” I strode up the sidewalk through the carefully manicured lawn and through the front doors of Delta Center.

I stopped at the receptionist’s window inside the front door. The receptionist looked up and I said, “Reporting for Backcountry.”

“Welcome to Delta! Go through these doors and go right. It’s not a straight shot, you’ll have a few turns, but just keep going back as far as you can and you’ll get to the dorm where the Backcountry crews are staying.”

“Thanks.”

After I went through the door and turned right, the corridors were rather maze-like as I found my way back to the dorm. The dorm was a long cot-lined bay, similar to the dorms at the old Fricot City Training Academy. A few Corpsmembers were already there. “Just grab a cot,” I was told, so I dumped my backpack on a cot and went off to fond other Backcountry corpies.

I didn’t get very far before I was stopped by a Delta staff member.

Where are you going in those boots?!”

I was confused. Why wouldn’t I be wearing my CCC-issued boots?

“Boots are not allowed to be worn inside the facility. It takes a lot of work to keep these floors polished. Now, who told you that you could wear boots in here?”

“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t wear CCC-issued boots. At Del Norte…”

“This is not Del Norte! This is Delta! Get those boots off!”

“Yes, sir. Should I remove then now and return to the dorm in my socks?”

“Don’t be a smart ass! Just go back and wear soft soled shoes on when you are in this facility.”

“Yes, sir.”

As I retreated back to the dorm, I heard the staff member bust another Backcountry corpie.

What are you doing in those boots?!”

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The Feral Animal

Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote an accurate description of what it is like for an author to get back to a writing that has been paused.

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild stage overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!

Annie Dillard
The Writing Life

Yeah! That’s exactly what it’s like!

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Permanent Camping Trip

Before the season actually gets started, I thought it might be helpful to throw some things out there in my life that led me to a Backcountry trail crew. What kind of person actually decides to go out and live in a tent for six months in the summer and perform such backbreaking work as rolling rocks…for minimum wage? I can’t speak for everybody in the program, but I can show you some things that went into this guys path that led to a trail crew.

One day after high school, my friend Mark ‘The Barbarian’ Rhodes and I were talking at my kitchen table. We were talking about the wilderness and camping, and how much fun it would be to take off to the woods and never come back. We called it a ‘permanent camping trip’.

My Mom was listening in to the conversation, and said that it sounded like a great idea. She told us that we had better do something like that pretty soon, though, because once we got settled in with careers and families we would never have the opportunity again.

Mom’s advice was definitely on my mind when I headed for California a few years later, and ultimately, the Backcountry.

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A New Season

Howdy!

The 2015 Backcountry Trails season is almost upon us! The crews have been selected, corpsmembers are assembling their gear, and orientation is in three weeks. Let’s go!

Hopefully, I will use this as proper motivation for finishing my own Backcountry story, from Yosemite 2, 1987. I’ll get back to telling the story of the beginning of our season.

Happy trails!

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New Backcountry Season

For people who followed this blog last summer and think they might be interested in giving a Backcountry Trails season a try, the CCC is now accepting applications for the 2015 season. The application deadline is February 9. You do not have to currently be in the California Conservation Corps to take part in this program. You do not even need to be a California resident. From the CCC Backcountry Trails Program page:

In order to be eligible to join the Backcountry Trails Program individuals must meet all the below requirements:
•Be a US Citizen, Permanent Resident, US National, or have a green card.
•Be between the ages of 18 and 26 by the start of the program.
•Not on probation or parole at the start of the program.
•Be able to pass a background and drug test before being enrolled into program.
•Pass a Pre-employment physical demonstrating you are physically able to perform the essential duties of the position.
•Must be able start and finish on the established program dates and have no reason to leave the program barring personal and family emergencies, personal resignation, or disciplinary termination.
•Must have a current, working e-mail address to be considered.

You do NOT need to be a California resident.

Here is a link to the CCC Backcountry trails Program page for more information, including how to apply…

http://www.ccc.ca.gov/work/programs/Backcountry/Pages/bc.aspx

Happy trails!

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The Last Hike

We all got up at the normal work day time the next day, but the work day for us was going to be all about packing up our personal gear, hiking out, and driving to Camp Mather.

I woke up hangover free!

Dewey woke up in a pile of beer cans. He rubbed his eyes, looked around, and asked “Did I drink all that?!”

Normally camp would have been broken down the day before and everything loaded on the mules today. Since NPS was staying to finish the project, the packers were only going to be taking out our backpacks loaded with our personal gear. The hike out was going to be a good one. Seven miles downhill, and we only had to carry our day packs.

We said goodbye to the NPS workers who had taught us so much over the summer—Erin, Marty, Patti, Matt, Joe, and Kim—and headed down the trail.

As we passed the High Sierra Camp, Glen hung back and said, “You guys go on ahead. I just want to sit and look around for a while. I want to be able to say I was the last one out.”

We left Glen behind. The crew got scattered all up and down the trail like we always did. We all dragged this hike out as long as we could. Nobody insisted that we hike NPS speed as we hiked for the last time past Choo Choo Ridge and down the Rafferty Causeway. We made the left turn when we got to the bottom of the switchbacks at the Lyell Canyon trail and headed for Tuolumne Meadows. The packers got down there before we did, and our backpacks were piled near the corral. We grabbed our packs as we showed up in ones and twos and headed for our van. Eventually Glen came in and said, “Okay. Let’s roll.”

“Wait a minute. Where’s Dewey?”

“He’s not here yet.”

“Did you pass him on the trail, Glen?”

“No. I never saw him.”

Great. Dewey got lost on the hike out on a pretty straightforward trail. We decided to give him another thirty minutes before we went back to look for him.

After about twenty minutes, Dewey came hiking up to the van.

“I got to the bottom of the switchbacks and turned right instead of left. I don’t know how far I went before I realized I was heading back up Lyell Canyon.” In fairness to Dewey, most of the rest of us had been back down to Tuolumne Meadows at least once and were already familiar with the trail.

“Hey, Glen! I guess you weren’t the last one out after all!”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Congratulations, Dewey! You were the last Yo2 Corpie out of the Backcountry!”

We all piled into the van and set off for Camp Mather and debriefing.

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

Farewell Party

We kept the party mellow. Nobody got crazy. I sipped a beer and thought that beer was just as gross as I remembered it. It was to be a few years before I realized that my problem was with Budweiser, and that there really are good tasting beers out there. I tried the orange wine cooler, and that tasted pretty good. Life was good.

People came and went from around the campfire back to their tents. After a couple of beers, Dewey couldn’t stop laughing and telling us all the latest stories about his Martian friend Moshkeloge. He eventually laid down in front of the cook tent and went to sleep.

After sundown, Moose took me off to the side. “Some of the crew have been in their tent for a long time. I’d like to just check on them and make sure they’re okay, but they might be doing things that if I saw, I’d just have to do something about. Could you go check on them? All I need to know is if they are okay.”

“Sure, Moose!” I stood up, and then realized that I had killed almost a whole two-liter bottle of orange wine cooler. And I never drank alcohol. It was a wobbly walk to the tent. I hollered, “Knock, knock!” before I opened the tent flap.

Everybody was okay. They were all just sitting around on cots talking about astronomy and music in a smoky tent. I joined in the conversation. Somebody eventually said, “You’ve had a few, huh, George?” and chuckled.

“Yeah. Almost a whole two-liter bottle.” And then it dawned on me. “Oh, no! The hangover!” I grabbed my head.

Mark said, “Hangovers happen because you get dehydrated. Drink all the water you can before you go to sleep.”

“I’m gonna do just that!” I said and left the tent. I scrounged around for my one quart water bottle and filled it at the filtered water pump. I found Moose and plopped down into a camp chair next to her.

“Everybody is fine.”

“Thanks, George.”

Throughout the rest of the evening I killed two water bottles (of water) while chatting with Moose, Tammi, the NPS workers, and the packers. Everybody started tossing their empty beer cans around the sleeping Dewey.

And so ended our last night in the Backcountry.

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Glen’s Dive

As we worked our last day on The Mound, the packers had brought in our weekly resupply. In a normal season, they wouldn’t have brought any supplies in on this trip. They would have come in empty to load all of our camp gear and packed us out. Since NPS was staying, they brought in a normal resupply. Well…they did have a few extra goodies on this trip.

When we got back to camp after work, Moose gathered us around for a little talk.

“This has been a summer totally unlike any other summer I’ve seen in the Backcountry. This has been unlike any summer I’ve ever heard of—fires, sewers, search and rescue. So many people quitting. People getting hurt. People doing really stupid things and getting fired. Wow. Just incredible.”

“But you guys are still here. You guys have made it. I’m proud of all you guys. You’ve done yourselves proud and you deserve something a little extra for that. I got to blow off a little steam at Trail’s End. Well, you guys can blow off a little extra steam tonight.”

“I had the packers bring in a couple of cases of beer, and some two-liter wine coolers. Enjoy. But stay safe, don’t get stupid, and don’t get hurt!”

Silence.

I looked at Glen. Glen looked at Mark. Mark looked at Anne. Nobody said a word. One of the constants in the world of the CCC was the “No drugs or alcohol” rule. That was one of the Big Five rules that could get you fired. We knew that people could work around that rule with a little simple discretion, but here we had a C1 telling us to go ahead.

Wayne asked, “Seriously?”

“This is a one time, never to be repeated, extenuating circumstances offer.”

Glen said, “Whoa!”

The alcohol sat untouched through dinner. We knew Moose wasn’t trying to set us up, but the “No drugs or alcohol” training had been pretty much set in concrete. Almost everybody had participated in either discrete drinking or toking during off hours and away from camp, but seeing the beer and wine coolers right there in camp was bizarre.

Our last night of washing Backcountry dishes was a fun time. Everybody was in the line and our spirits were high…so to speak.

Glen piped up with his usual, “Last chance right here! I’ll jump in the dish pit for a hundred dollars.”

Wayne said, “You aren’t ever going to jump into that pit, so just knock it off.”

“I will! One hundred dollars, payable when we get out to a town with a bank, and I will take a dive. I know you would all love to see me do it!”

I’d had enough. “I’ll pay you fifty dollars cash right now to jump into the dish pit.”

“You don’t have fifty dollars!” Glen shot back.

“I’ll be right back.” I went to our tent and dug out fifty dollars I still had left from my week in civilization. By the time I got back out, they were finished washing the dishes. I counted the bills out for Glen.

“Twenty. Forty. Fifty. Fifty dollars cash for you to take a dive right now.”

Glen said, “Whoa!”

Wayne’s hand shot in the air and he said, “I’ll do it!”

“Nope. The offer’s only open for Mister Big-mouth. Put up or shut up.”

Glen said, “Whoa!” and walked over to the campfire. He grabbed a beer and opened it.

“Getting some liquid courage there, huh, Glen?” said Mark.

I continued, “And I want to get my money’s worth. You have to go all the way in. I don’t want to see the top of your head or the soles of your boots.”

“Whoa!”

Boy, did that spark some excitement around the campfire! The look on Glen’s face was priceless as he tried to think of a face saving way out of this.

There wasn’t any.

After about ten minutes of excited, “C’mon, Glen! Do it!” from around the campfire, the excitement started to wane.

Moose said, “Come on, Glen. Either you do it, or you don’t.”

Glen grabbed another beer.

I thought it was time to up the ante a little.

“Every five minutes you wait, starting now, I’m gonna knock five dollars off your money.”

That got everybody fired up again! Glen downed his beer. He set his face and strode to the dish pit.

“He’s gonna do it! He’s gonna do it!”

Glen took a deep breath and then held his nose. He hopped down into the dish pit! The greasy water splashed around his knees. Waves shot out from him, hit the pit walls, and ran back towards him. He went down on his knees, and, still holding his nose, fell forward, all the way into the dish pit. I could not see the top of his head, or the soles of his feet. The crew cheered!

Glen came out of the water and climbed out of the dish pit. He shook the spaghetti-red, greasy water off as best he could and looked directly at me. I applauded and shot him a thumbs up. He threw his chest out and his shoulders back and roared, “OHH-RAH!” I handed him his fifty dollars and he went off to our tent to change his clothes.

All of the hesitation over the alcohol broke loose. The beer was handed out. The wine coolers were opened. And life was good.

I went to find Glen. He had washed up and changed his clothes. His hair was still kinda greasy from the bilge water. He grinned when he looked up and saw me. He said, “It sounds pretty loud out there.”

“Yeah. I think your dive was just what the doctor ordered to loosen everybody up and get the party started.”

“Then we did good!” Glen stuck his hand out. I grabbed it and pulled him into a bro-hug.

Categories: Backcountry, CCC, Vogelsang, Yosemite | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Moon Over the Mound

Our last day of work at Vogelsang was on The Mound. How appropriate. We all concentrated on breaking as much rock as we possibly could on the last day. We weren’t going to be finishing this project. Yo 2 was only about half the size it was supposed to have been. The NPS crew was going to stick around to finish the leach field. NPS was even going to bring in reinforcements—other trail crew workers who were finishing their projects elsewhere. We volunteered to stay until the project was finished, but our timetable had already been set. We had to be at debriefing with the other CCC crews. We already had the good fortune of being in the Backcountry longer than any other crew. They had already hiked out and had been working in the front country for a week. We had the advantage of only being seven miles in. We could hike out, hop in the van, and be to Camp Mather on the west side of Yosemite in less than a day.

At the end of our last work day, somebody suggested taking a crew picture on The Mound. An excellent idea! We lined up and had our picture snapped with the foreground filled with crushed rock. (This picture is the front page pic for this blog.)

The Mound was the one part of Vogelsang that we were not going to miss. Dewey did a little dance across the top of the crushed granite smiling widely. Somebody said, “This pile of rocks can kiss my ass.” Somebody else suggested, “Let’s moon it!”

“Moon The Mound?”

“Yeah! Let’s take a picture! That would be awesome!”

“Okay, but let’s make sure nobody is standing in the same spot so nobody will able to identify individuals in the picture.”

“That won’t help me,” laughed Corey, the only black person on the crew. “I think I’ll sit this one out.” Corey walked off to the side.

One other person did not feel comfortable being in a moon shot.

“That’s okay. With two less people, and moving around, that will make it even harder to identify individuals in the picture.”

So the crew—minus Corey and one other—lined up and turned around. Everybody opened their belts, and on the signal dropped their pants and bent over.

And that is how we got the Moon Over the Mound shot.

Categories: Backcountry, CCC, Vogelsang, Yosemite | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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