The Last Weekend

The season was ending. One more weekend, then crushing rock on The Mound one last time on Monday, and then hiking out for the last time on Tuesday. The entire crew…the nine of us remaining, anyway…stayed around camp that weekend. On Saturday night, we all sat around the campfire and talked about what we were going to do once we got back to civilization. A lot of choices involved food. There would be a lot of catching up with friends and family. I wondered how my Mom was doing. I would be finding out soon enough.

At the same time, an important time of our lives was ending. A real shower was going to feel great, but these were the last sunsets we would see against Choo Choo Ridge. We had only two more Vogelsang campfires left. We had all worked so hard to get here. We had made the cut and only five months ago had assembled at Delta Center in Stockton to begin transforming from fifteen separate parts into a crew. In our first crew meeting in the quad at Delta, Moose had held out the stack of our Backcountry applications and said “This is gonna be such a great season! Backcountry corpsmembers are all great people…but everybody here was hand-picked for this specific technically challenging project in Yosemite. This is gonna be great!” The season had started off so bright and optimistic.

Then we started losing crewmembers. Five quit before we left the frontcountry. Then we were sent on the fires. The fires seemed so long ago. We had still been camped at Wawona. Wawona seemed like an entirely different world. Our camp at Comfort House now seemed to have been clean and tidy and civilized. We were Backcountry newbies in Wawona. When we thought about it, we were now no longer the same people we had been when we were still in Wawona.

The moment we had all been working for, the moment that changed everything, the Backcountry, came around the 4th of July. Everything we had been working for over the last year had come true on that July 4th weekend. The High Country. Lotsa granite slick rock. Stunted lodgepole forests. High Country star shows. Glaciers. Heaven.

And three months later it was ending. One more day on the mound, one more Vogelsang campfire, and our unforgettable summer would be over.

Ahhh…but this wild and unpredictable season still had a couple of surprises in store for us.

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Moose’s Solo

The season was ending. One more weekend, crushing rock on The Mound one last time on Monday, and then hiking out for the last time on Tuesday. It was a bittersweet weekend. A real shower was going to feel great, but these were the last sunsets we would see against Choo Choo Ridge.

Moose had had an especially tough season as a C1. If you factor in all four alternates who were no longer with us, we had lost over half of the crew. We had been redirected from our regular work projects several times to go fight fires or search for lost people. She’d had to deal with injuries requiring air evac and had spent more time at the Yosemite Valley medical clinic than anybody would want to. Instead of relaxing and heading up a mountain somewhere on the weekends, she had usually had to spend weekends hiking out to deal with injuries or administrative snake nests. Moose needed to blow off a little steam. She hiked out on Friday afternoon – on a personal mission for a change! – and drove down to Kings Canyon National Park for the annual Trails End Party.

Trails End was a long time tradition of the Kings Canyon trail crews. It was held every year in Cedar Grove at the trail crew bunkhouse known as ‘Hole in the Wall’. It involved a pig roasted underground and assorted fixings, a cleared out barn with a live band and plenty of dancing room, and an open invitation to any NPS employees wanting to celebrate the end of another great season. Moose had run a CCC crew in Kings Canyon a couple of years before and knew a lot of people who would be there.

She said she had a great time!

(I believe her!)

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I’m Back

Yeah…it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. I had some personal issues come up that interfered with writing. Once those cleared up, I had a hard time sitting myself down to write. I finally figured out why. We are at the end of the season! All I have left to cover in the chronology here is the last weekend. I hated to see the season come to an end…and I’m not comfortable now about writing about the end of that marvelous summer.

Then I realized…it’s not quite the end. After I write about this last weekend, I have to go back and catch up on that time in April at the beginning of the season that I had missed when I started this project. And then…I have to go back and flesh all of this out into a book.

The work is not even nearly done!

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September 19, 1987: The End

Here it is. The last weekend in the Backcountry. I’ve really got mixed emotions about it. The past month or so I’ve really been looking forward to getting back to ‘civilization’. But now that the end is here, I’m not sure if I’m tired of all the negative attitudes around here. I’ve really let all the bitching get to me, and that’s really the reason I’m glad to be getting out of here. I read On the Loose last night and it made me think about what I have back here, not just in Yosemite, but in the wild everywhere.

We leave: part of ourselves.
We take: sand in our cuffs, rocks, shells, moss, acorns,
driftwood, cones, pebbles, flowers.
Photographs.
But is the picture a tenth of the thing?
A hundredth?
Is it anything without the smell and salt breeze and the yellow
warmth when the fog lifts?
Oh! But I got all that, too.
It is exposed forever on the sensitive emulsion sheet
Of my mind.
It’s a shame that a race so broadly conceived should end with most lives so narrowly confined.
Why should we waste
Childhood on the children,
Poverty on the poor,
Antiquity on the antiquarians,
Or woods on the woodsmen?
So why do we do it?
What good is it?
Does it teach you anything?
Like determination? invention?
Improvisation?
Foresight? Hindsight?
Love?
Art? Music? Religion?
Strength or patience or accuracy or quickness or tolerance or
Which wood will burn and how long is a day and how far is a mile
And how delicious is water and smoky green pea soup?
And how to rely
On your
Self?
How far is a mile?
Well, you learn that right off.
It’s peculiarly different from ten tenths on the odometer.
It’s one thousand seven hundred and sixty steps on the dead level and if you don’t have anything better to do you can count them.
“One and a half? You’re crazy, we’ve been walking for hours!”
It’s at least ten and maybe a million times that on the hills
And no river bed ever does run straight.
“What’s this, Frog Creek?
Is that all the further we are?
Look, tomorrow we gotta start earlier.”
Red exhaustion rips at your throat
And salt sweat spills off your forehead and mats your eyelids and brows
And drips on the burning ground
And your legs start to turn to rubber and collapse like a balloon.
“Pretty soon I’ve got to rest.
How much farther? What’s the use of this God damn work anyway?”
The long distance runner is paid by the snap of a white thread across his chest.
You are paid by the picture at your feet.
You can feel the muscle knots tightening in your legs
And now and then you reach down to test the hard lumpiness.
The passes get easier and finally you’re just laughing over them.
Every step and every strain and hard breath and heart pump is an investment in tomorrow morning’s strength.
You’re watching the change with your own eyes and feeling it under your skin and through your own veins.
Fibers multiply and valves enlarge and walls thicken.
A miracle.
At least if the species has lost its animal strength
Its individual members can have the fun of finding it again.

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Two More Down

After the Last Big Blast on Friday, Jose, Rollie, and Corey decided to hike down the canyon to Yosemite Valley for a taste of civilization.

On Saturday, only Corey came back.

I think it’s best to relate the story the way we heard it from Corey on Saturday night.

The three of them were headed out of camp in good spirits. The end of the season was only a couple of weeks away…so close, we could all taste it. Rollie was really excited. He kept saying “We made it! We made it!”

However, this was Jose’s second season on a Backcountry crew. He was a veteran and knew that a lot could happen in the last few weeks of a season. He cautioned Rollie by saying “It ain’t over til the fat lady sings.”

They found a place to camp and got cleaned up for a night out on the town. Yosemite Valley does have some establishments catering to the night life crowd. Corey said the evening had been progressing nicely over beer and hanging out with the beautiful people in Yosemite Valley. Considering they had no place to go in the morning, Jose and Rollie were knocking back the beer.

Everything was going fine until Rollie took a long, long look at Jose, reared up, and hit Jose in the face.

At this point, we broke into Corey’s story. “Were they arguing?”

“No.”

“Oh, come on. There must have been something said or done that got out of hand.”

Nothing. Corey insisted that nothing had happened. One minute they were buddies, the next minute Rollie was knocking Jose out of his chair. It even took Jose a few moments to realize what was going on. Rollie had knocked Jose out of his chair and was on top of him before Jose started defending himself.

Corey, not being a fighter, and also being a lot smaller than either Jose or Rollie, hollered at them to stop a few times, but there was no way he was going to jump in to try to break them up. Before long, NPS Rangers, the cops of Yosemite, were running into the place. Corey backed away and made himself as inconspicuous as possible as the rangers broke up the fight, threw handcuffs on Rollie and Jose, and hustled them out.

“I have to get Moose!”

Moose got another hike down to Yosemite Valley. She was not happy.

Moose came back to camp with Jose. Rollie had already been fired and given a one way bus ticket out of Yosemite Valley, the price of which would be deducted from his final paycheck. Jose was being fired, too. Remember the Big Five rules that would get a Corpie automatically fired? The one about “No fighting”? There was no other choice. Jose got a chance to gather his gear up from camp, though. When he got into camp, he pulled up a folding camp chair by the fire and sat down to rest for a minute. He was quiet and still looked dazed from the fight. One eye was swollen almost completely shut. His face had cuts and scratches. His lips were swollen and cracked.

The only question we had was, “Why?”

The only answer he had was, “I still don’t know.”

As I walked away with Wayne, I could only think that I had been scheduled to fight Rollie in a couple of weeks if we hadn’t cleared up our issues earlier in Cheryl’s group discussion. Jose was bigger and a much more capable fighter that I could ever be. If Rollie had done that to Jose…

I said to Wayne, “Man, I’m glad we called off Mather.”

Wayne chuckled and said, “I bet you are!”

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The Last Blast

The end of the season was rapidly approaching after Labor Day. Only two weekends remained before the end of the season. We still had a long way to go on The Mound and the leach field, but we started to tie up the loose ends of other aspects of the project.

Snyder was through blasting, but he still had a good amount of explosives left in his Vogelsang shot locker. They didn’t like to pack explosives out of the Backcountry. Movement of explosives was just too great a hazard. Every time it had to be taken out of the shot locker, loaded onto a mule, transported, unloaded off the mule, and stored somewhere else there was always a risk of an accident. It was better for everybody if we could just find a way to use it at Vogelsang.

Snyder and Marty decided to get a whole lot of fill added to The Mound at one time. The draft horse, Tony, was still around with the stone boat. We helped load huge rocks onto to the stone boat to be dumped onto The Mound. When we had The Mound loaded with huge rocks, Snyder and his crew set to work placing the three hundred pounds of remaining ANFO all over the rocks. ANFO is a fairly common high explosive made up of Ammonium Nitrate (fertilizer) and Fuel Oil…hence, ANFO. ANFO was discovered accidentally after World War Two when a freighter loaded with fertilizer blew up at a dock in Texas City, Texas and destroyed most of the harbor facilities around the city. Somehow the fertilizer accidentally got mixed with some fuel oil and ignited.

When the charges were placed, the det cord was laid out. The rocks looked pretty freaky with plastic bags full of ANFO stuck on them all over the place and held in place with mud, and chained together with lime green det cord. The final connections were not made until everybody was out of the danger zone. We all remembered the road worker who had been killed on a blast earlier that summer. He was outside the danger perimeter for the size blast the road crew was doing. He was where he was supposed to have been. However, a freak piece of fly rock had still hit him in the head just below the rim of his hard hat and killed him instantly.

Snyder wanted to play it safe and posted us as trail guards a half a mile away, well beyond the recommended safety radius. And that wasn’t all. He wanted everybody to be behind hard cover. I guarded the trail down to Merced Lake with Glen. We found a big rock bench to hunker down behind. All of the trail guards radioed “Ready!” when each team got in place. When all of the teams had checked in and Snyder replied “Copy ready,” we all switched our radios off. We did not want a stray radio signal to detonate the explosives prematurely. Snyder and his crew hooked up the det cord to the plunger and backed up to their safe spot, which was a lot closer than we were.

Glen and I knew all of this was happening, but with our comm off, we had no idea when the blast was actually going to go off. It seemed to take forever. Then we felt a jolt through the ground, and a few seconds later heard a huge BOOM.

Glen said,”Wow. And that was a half mile away.”

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Sleeping Bags

Your sleeping bag is a very important piece of equipment on a trail crew. It can mean the difference between a good night’s sleep, and adding to the exhaustion that you are already going to experience working harder than you ever have before. It might even mean the difference between frostbite or not.

I had a North Face Bigfoot. When I was buying gear for my summer in Yosemite, the Bigfoot was all the rage. Not everybody had one, but it seemed like everybody raved over how awesome they were. I bought mine at The North Face Outlet in Berkeley. It was a ‘second’, which meant that it had some sort of cosmetic factory defect that prevented North Face from selling it at full value. I received a good discount on the price, and it was a fully functional bag. It was rated to -5°F, which meant that it was ‘guaranteed’ to preserve your body heat at temperatures down to five degrees below zero Fahrenheit. This was a limited ‘guarantee’ (in quotes) because everybody sleeps differently. What might keep one person warm at zero degrees might not keep a ‘cold sleeper’ warm at thirty degrees.

My bag was also a ‘long’. It was designed longer for tall people. I’m not tall, so according to conventional sleeping bag wisdom, the extra length would be extra space for my body heat to keep warm and therefore not very efficient. I figured the extra foot space would be helpful for stuffing clothes down into to keep them warm for the next day. It worked. I really loved my sleeping bag.

My Bigfoot’s design limits were not tested in Yosemite. Apart from that one Arctic front that came through at the end of July, we had pretty mild weather all summer in Yosemite. My bag got tested the next year, 1988, on a regular CCC trails spike on Orleans Mountain in the Klamath Mountains. Our spike was the first week of June, and one morning we woke to find ourselves buried under about eighteen inches of snow. We were snowed in for four days before the four wheel drive vehicles could get in to bring us out. I stayed snug in my two-person backpacking tent and my Bigfoot. It worked like a champ.

My bag’s biggest test came the next year, 1989, in Kings Canyon National Park. We had a spike camp on Glenn Pass late in September. Now that was cold. We didn’t have a thermometer, so I have no idea how cold it actually got. I do know that water was frozen solid every morning. I also know that my trusty, dependable -5° bag did not keep me warm. In fairness to the Bigfoot, it was two years old and likely had lost some loft…the ‘fluffiness’ of the insulation that helps retain heat…but I have never been so cold as on those nights at Glenn Pass sleeping in the cook tent, trying to pile boxes and produce around my bag to improve the insulation.

These lessons learned handed down to another generation of trail workers. When I was a C-1 at Delta Center in Stockton, I took the Corpsmembers who had been selected for the Backcountry program on a supply buying trip to Berkeley. The salespeople kept trying to push ‘summer’ bags on the Corpies. Summer bags are only rated to about 40°. They are not even close to being adequate for serious trail crew equipment. A couple of the Corpsmembers seemed on the verge of the summer bags because of cost and weight. I asked them, “Do you know where you’re going to be in September?”

Their only possible reply was, “No.”

“It gets pretty cold at ten thousand feet in September. If you buy the summer bag, you are gambling on where you are going to be when it turns cold.”

They all bought the better bags. After the season, I heard back from some of them “Thank you for pushing the better bag!”

I still have my Bigfoot, twenty-seven years later. It doesn’t go on the trail anymore. The zipper blew out about ten years ago. The outer shell is torn in a couple of places. It mainly gets rolled out when the kids have friends sleeping over, or if I am going somewhere overnight and I’m not sure of the lodging accommodations. One thing is for sure…it’s not being tossed out into the trash.

Trail dust is thicker than blood.

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Mountain Rush

One day after dinner, I wanted to see what radio stations I could find with my Walkman. I walked up the lower slopes of Vogelsang Peak until I was clear of the trees. I sat down on a rock and began searching the airwaves.

Before long, I tuned into some cool synthesizer and drum riff. I stopped there figuring I had found a rock station. After the drums, the bass kicked in. Very nice bass line! Melodic. It reminded of something Rush might do, but I did not recognize the song. The more I listened to the bass, the more I thought “This sure sounds like Rush.”

Then the vocal started. Definitely Geddy Lee! Unmistakable! Still, this was a Rush song I had never heard, and I thought I had heard everything by them. I just kicked back and enjoyed the ride. I applauded when the song finished. The DJ said it was a single called ‘Force 10’ from their just released album Hold Your Fire.

Well, here was one cool thing to look forward to after the season!

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Hiking On the Clock

The NPS requires its trail crew members to hike a minimum speed of three miles an hour. Once you get in shape and acclimated to the altitude, three miles an hour is pretty easy to do. Five miles an hour is common with trail workers on the top of their game.

At the end of one day on the trail through Rafferty Meadows, Mark, Chris, Glen, Wayne, and I were clustered together hiking back to camp. We played different music trivia games on this hike. First we played The Alphabet Game with band names. The first person might say “Aerosmith”. The next person would say “Aerosmith, Beatles.” The next person would have to say all of the names already given, plus add one for the next letter in the alphabet.

When that game ran its course, we began a discussion of the state of contemporary music. The question under discussion was “Name a good band who had put out their first album since 1980.” The discussion was vigorously progressing when Moose caught up to us from behind.

Moose said, “Hey! Come on! You could hike faster than this!”

“Well, yeah, we could, but it’s the end of the day and we’re on our way home.” I’m not sure who actually said this. The cheekiness indicates that it was most likely either Mark or myself.

“Doesn’t matter. You’re on the clock. Let’s go! It doesn’t look good for all you young guys to be outhiked by a thirty year old woman with bad knees!”

We kicked it into gear and picked up the pace with Moose right behind us. We were hard-headed youth, though, and so as soon as our watches hit 4:00…quitting time…we dropped our pace back to a speed that would let us continue our discussion.

Moose almost crashed into us from behind. “Hey! Let’s go! Three miles an hour.”

“Well…it’s after four o’clock now and I’m hiking on my time. I don’t think we’re obligated to hike three miles an hour on our own time.”

“Aw, come on! You’re going to let a thirty year old woman with bad knees beat you back to camp?!”

“Yup. Today we are, anyway.”

“I don’t have anything to prove.”

“I’m secure in my masculinity.”

Moose spit on the ground as she passed us.

We never did come up with one good band active in 1987 who had released their first album since 1980.

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Stable Boy

Of course the packers said they could use a hand cleaning the stables. Moose headed back up the trail. I got to have dinner with the NPS trail workers at the trail crew housing. It was a fun time. They asked how my eye injury happened. I told them the corneas had gotten scratched by dust from a passing mule string. Brian said, “Huh. Must’ve been a Curry Company string. NPS mules don’t raise no dust!”

I got to spend the night in the stable’s loft. There was a bunk up there and a light. I had a paperback I’d picked up in Yosemite Valley called Wild Blue, a novel about the World War Two-through-post-Vietnam career of an Air Force fighter pilot.

The next day was the first time since Tuesday I had awaken without my eyes being crusted shut. It was also one of the most laid back work days I was to ever have in Yosemite. The packers showed me what they expected done during the day, and then they left me on my own for the day. There are two modes of working for the State. We usually operated in assholes-and-elbows mode. Rarely on a trail crew, though, did we get to use the ‘this-is-the-only-thing-that-needs-to-be-done-today-so-make-it-last-all-day’ mode. Today was one of those days. The stables were clean and ready for the mules to come in at the end of the day. And I made progress on Wild Blue!

After another dinner with the NPS crew and another night in the loft, I headed back down to Yosemite Valley on Saturday morning. I hadn’t owned a car since I had left Illinois just over a year prior. I hadn’t driven at all in that year. It was nice to be behind the wheel again. I hadn’t driven many places as beautiful as the Tioga Road through Yosemite National Park. Nothing in my life had prepared me for sights like the massive granite domes rising up from the far shore of Tenaya Lake.

As I drove along the shore of Tenaya Lake, I remembered that it was Labor Day weekend, the second and final three-day weekend in the Backcountry. I had missed a three day weekend hike on the first one because of KP. Right now several Yo2 crewmembers were setting out on a three day journey to Mt. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite. I was going to miss this one, too. Oh, well. Getting mad hadn’t accomplished anything the last time. It wouldn’t do any good to get mad now. This was due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. I simply had to learn how to deal with life unfolding in ways other than what I had planned.

The doctors decided that my eyes were fine and gave me a release. Let’s see, now…Saturday in Yosemite Valley, with ‘my own’ wheels and no particular time table. What to do?

It was a good thing I was not a drinker, or I could have gotten myself into real trouble. As it was, I hung out at the Ansel Adams Gallery for a while, had lunch, and by then had had my fill of Yosemite Valley’s crowds.

I was back at Vogelsang in time for dinner.

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