Cars

     Sociologists and historians have written at length about the impact that widespread access to automobiles has had on American society.  In the time of prosperity following World War II the access to automobiles now enjoyed by millions of average Americans changed completely the patterns of life of men and women in countless ways, too many to record here and it is not the purpose of this author to record them anyway.  I am writing not a history but a story and this story revolves around the influence that the automobile had on one group of American society and that group is teenage children, and within group one child in particular:  Me.

     It is not an overstatement to write that ownership of a car of one’s own was the holy grail of teenage boys in the 1950’s and first half of the 1960s.  Actual ownership of a car by a kid was still something of a novelty then, but the movies in the 50s and the music of the 60s set that ownership as the apex of desire for any American teen.  “Rebel Without A Cause” was a movie which was released in 1955, and James Dean driving a stolen 1949 Mercury towards a cliff in a game of ‘chicken’ made every kid who watched it long for a ride of his own to go with his leather jacket, his comb for that hair held perfectly in place by some brand of pomade, and Old Spice after shave that would make him irresistibly cool. 

     Brad, my brother, is four years older than me and was deeply influenced by “Rebel”.  The first car which Brad owned was a 49 Merc, the car that James Dean was driving in the movie.  Brad was somewhat boisterous in his youth and he and the car fit into the rebel picture very nicely.  Brad’s Merc was not nice and new and shiny like James Dean’s was however.  The car, which was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Taco Wagon’, had a lot of hard miles on it and needed a good deal of maintenance to keep it running.  Brad was up to the task.  I frequently found Brad in the old wooden garage behind our house with parts of that car spread out all over the concrete floor.  I was amazed then that Brad could keep track of all of those parts, knew how they worked and where they went, and could put them there.

     Not only could Brad manage that feat of auto mechanics magic but so could nearly all of Brad’s friends.  It was expected of a teenage boy that he should be able to maintain a car, even if he didn’t personally own one since many didn’t, and the road to any kind of status ran through a greasy pair of hands.  I was twelve years old the summer that Brad had that car, and technically was not yet a teen.  That was small comfort however since my friends Wes and Larry and Hank were my age and already doing tune-ups and oil changes and stuff like that for their brothers or fathers or other older kids in the neighborhood.  I had neither the ability to screw with cars nor interest in learning how to do so, but I could feel the pressure to conform even then.

     That pressure ratcheted up one day when Brad and four or five of his friends had the Taco Wagon torn apart and were planning to grill some hot dogs or something when they were finished.  The price for a dinner of whatever they were going to cook was a pair of greasy hands, and just grabbing ahold of a crankshaft or sticking one’s hands into the oil pan was not what the older guys had in mind.  I stood by the front fender and looked over it into the yawning cavity that was the engine compartment, then looked at the collection of metal parts and wires and hoses which littered the concrete floor, and knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do that would add in any way to the project at hand.  Brad was not all that keen on a little brother getting under foot anyway, so I made a lame excuse and then quit the building, trying not to hear the chuckles and snickers as I left, and climbed into the tall pine tree in our front yard.  That tree was a place where I hid from the unpleasantness of the world on many occasions in my young life, and it was to that refuge I fled on that day.

     A few years passed and the status of the car in teen life changed but became on weaker.  Music was now the medium by which youth culture expressed and defined itself and that culture was filled with cars.  “Little Deuce Coupe”, “I’ve got a thirty Ford wagon and they call it a woody—“,”She’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’till her daddy takes the T Bird away—“.  Even some little old lade from Pasadena had a muscle car of her own, but what could I do?  Not much.  I loved beach sound music but the Beach Boys sang of their car which had a flat head mill and was ported and relieved and stroked and bored and had a competition clutch with four on the floor and even had lake pipes.  Out of all that stuff I knew what ‘four on the floor’ meant, but to this day I don’t know what all of that other crap was.

     But most of the other guys did.  Peter had a Chevy Malibu with a lot of that high performance stuff.  Gabby had a 55 Chevy and Bruce, of all things, had a slightly beat up but still extremely impressive Corvette.  This gave Peter and Gabby a considerable leg up with the ladies at school and in our neighborhood, and also their closer friends who knew what all of those contraptions were and what they did.  Bruce was such a worm and a loser that he could have had a Ferrari and it would have done him no good.

     There was one thing in life that I could count on, and that was that I would never own a car as a teen.  My father would not let me work to earn the money for a car unless I received straight ‘A’s in the academic classes at my high school, and that was going to happen, like, never.  My consolation prize was that I had a fair amount of access to Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor.  That Meteor did not have a competition clutch or any of that other stuff but the little car with the little engine and the automatic transmission gave me mobility, and that was worth gold.  But status, real status, depended upon one’s ability to race, to burn rubber in all four gears, and all of that.  That was not going to happen in Dad’s Meteor.  I did get a microscopic amount of rubber one time however.  I put the shifter into neutral and revved up the engine, and then dropped the shifter into drive.  The little bit of sound which the tires made as they broke traction with the pavement was only slightly more audible than the sound of pain coming out of the transmission.  To this day I wonder why I didn’t leave a trail of broken tranny parts behind us as I rolled down the street, away from the scene of my dubious triumph.

     Many of my friends had no wheels at all, and when I could get the car keys they would all climb in, somewhere away from where Dad could see them, and we would act like we were as cool as the guys with hot cars.  One night we wanted to see a movie at a drive-in theater but most of the guys didn’t have the money to buy a ticket.  I finally arrived at a solution to the problem.  At that time guys with serious muscle cars had the front end lowered while gigantic engines which were stroked and bored and blah blah blah would hiss as they sucked in oxygen that would complete the combustion somewhere in its metal innards and make the car go like a bat out of hell.  I had three or four of the guys climb into the trunk of the car, which lowered the rear end instead of the front, and removed the air cleaner which made the car hiss like Gollum cursing hobbitses as he searched for his precious.  The guy at the ticket booth either didn’t notice or couldn’t believe the idiocy of this obvious bit of subterfuge, but we got into the movie and had a good laugh about the whole thing.

     The teenage love affair with cars had changed by the time I returned home from the Army.  The 60s were bleeding, literally, into the 70s and music was pretty much all about peace, love, revolution and getting high.  Cars were not even on the list of accessories needed to achieve coolness.  In fact, the older and more beat up your car, the more pizzaz it had with the trend-setting counter culture bunch that I identified with.  In those days I drove my old gray 1961 Dodge Lancer with the push button transmission and the evil hiss from a leaking hose somewhere under the hood and felt like I had finally, at long last, come into my own.

     

     

It’s Only Rock and Roll

     I love rock and roll, and while I understand that it is really only rock and roll, nevertheless I like it.  The truth is that I like most music and if possible never miss a chance to hear it live, or as close to live as I can get.  In my twenties, which occurred during the bulk of the seventies, I saw a great many concerts, most of which I remember.  Sort of.  Growing up in the fifties and sixties in San Diego however afforded me and other music lovers a lot fewer opportunities to hear live music but we did the best we could.  This is a tale of my love of music and pursuit of exposing myself to it as much as possible.

     In the 1950s I had two avenues for the above mentioned exposure to music; the AM radio and my father’s record collection.  Dad had big, thick 78s with a variety of classical pieces on them and 45s of mostly Country and Western, singles from movies, and big band stuff.  It’s all I knew then and I loved it.  I can still hear Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind”, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” and all of that Rachmaninoff stuff that came on the thick, black records that were kept in the heavy pressboard boxes.  I mostly listened to what Dad listened to until a guy named Buddy Holly came along.

     The second phase in my life of music appreciation arrived with Buddy and the big Bopper and Bill Haley, et. al., and lasted through the great rivalry between the West Coast Beach Sound and Motown.  Most of the white guys in my neighborhood were solid Beach Sound, but the Latinos and Filipinos and the few black guys preferred Motown.  I came down squarely in both camps.  I loved Smokey and David Ruffin and especially the Four Tops, but I loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and others just as much.  Every night when I wasn’t hanging out with friends at the local recreation center which we just called ‘The Park’ I would be home listening to KCBQ, hearing my favorite two and three minute songs being spun by the legendary disc jockey Happy Hare.

     Then one day I got to see Jan and Dean live.  Concerts were rare in those days, in San Diego at least, and when my friend Ellen Marie and I heard that there was going to be the filming of a television show which would be emceed by Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the TV show ‘Bewitched’, featuring the surf singing duo, and that they needed members for the audience, we signed up as quickly as we could.  Ellen was one of my best friends in the neighborhood and we could often be seen hanging out together.  We both had braces on our teeth and the other kids joked that if we should get together as a couple we would be the “clash of steel”.  We never did have that kind of relationship, but our friendship was more solid and of longer duration than most of the romantic liaisons in my life.

     On the big day Ellen and I walked up to University Avenue and boarded the Number Five bus that took us directly to downtown.  From the old Horton Plaza it was only a walk of a few blocks to the Spreckles Theater where the show would be filmed.  Ellen and I showed out tickets, bought some popcorn and candy for a buck or two, and found our seats in the auditorium.  We were not too far from the stage and could see everything very clearly.  Ellen and I yammered away with each other until Ms. Montgomery mounted the stage and gave us all instructions on when we were to cheer, when to clap, when to laugh, and so on.  Ellen and I sort of paid attention, but we were too excited about seeing Jan and Dean to care very much about the details.  Finally all of the instructions were delivered and the crew began to film.

     The whole thing seemed a little bit odd to us but we played ball as best we could, clapping and cheering and laughing on cue.  Of course, Ellen and I would frequently laugh at the wrong time because the whole thing seemed silly, and to a couple of kids in their mid teens it was truly silly indeed.  But at last we came to the payoff.  During a break for technical reasons Jan and Dean came out on the stage and the cheering then was genuine.  The stars of the show, as far as we were concerned anyway, waved to the crowd and said a few words to the people in the front row.  

    After a few minutes they disappeared again and it was back to business.  The crowd settled down, Ms. Montgomery began her introduction, and Jan and Dean reentered the stage as their cue was given.  The “cheer” sign went up, but we were already providing that prop, and this time in earnest.  Ms. Montgomery said a bunch of words that nobody paid attention to and then Jan and Dean stepped up to sing.  The “cheer” sign was not up, but as the duo broke into “Surf City” a few of the girls screamed and some of us began to sing along with them.  That was not in the script however and the “cut” sign was given.

     “Please don’t make any noise while the boys are singing” admonished Ms. Montgomery.  “The producers want to hear the singers, not the audience.

     We settled down again as best we could and the introduction was made again, complete with canned and less-than-spontaneous cheering this time.  Jan and Dean burst once more into “Surf City” and this time the audience maintained its cool until the end of the song, at which time we anticipated the “cheer” sign and burst into wild applause.  Jan and Dean’s time was precious, and so their closing act of “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” came right after that.  Same format, same admonition when our youthful enthusiasm got the best of us, and same sense of awe as the singers produced, right there in front of us, the songs that we heard at least twice per day on the radio.

     After a few more laughs, cheers, and rounds of applause, all delivered on cue, we were excused and filed out of the Spreckles and onto the sidewalk running along Broadway under the brilliant San Diego sun.  As we walked back to Horton Plaza where we would wait with the sailors, the derelicts sleeping on the grass, and the pigeons which flocked around the domed fountain which was a fixture in downtown San Diego as long as I lived there, Ellen and I dissected every word, every movement, and every glance that had undoubtedly been aimed directly at us.  The Number Five finally arrived and we climbed on board, thumbed our dimes into the box by the driver, and rode that bus back to East San Diego and to the park where we could brag about our adventure to all of our friends, who were jealous as could be but insisted that they really preferred James Brown anyway.  And indeed, some of them did.

     All of the Motown and Beach stuff came to a screeching halt in January of 1964 when the American release of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” exploded onto the charts and the English Invasion was under way.  My Navy father wouldn’t let me grow a “mop top” but a lot of my friends did, and we listened faithfully to the radio as sometimes two or three new groups with a totally new sound emerged each week to make a splash.  The Beatles were nearly everybody’s favorites at first, with the Rolling Stones a very close second.  My one and only girlfriend, Rhonda, was much taken with the Stones and I have to admit that I was more than a little jealous of that, so I had to claim some favorite other than them. I chose the Kinks, partly because I really liked their music and partly because they were even uglier than the stones, at least to judge by the bands’ pictures on their album covers.  I don’t know why that mattered, but it did.  

     My relationship with Rhonda ended amicably – no point in being a sore loser – and I was soon in the market for a new girl friend.  That mission was a lot like Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.  I was terribly shy and after my first relationship ended I couldn’t muster the courage to try again.  This was a pitiable condition because Teresa Beal, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood by my standards, was unattached.  I was on good terms with Teresa and I dropped more than subtle hints of my interest, but never received any indication of interest in return.  The thought of just coming out and expressing my interest made me nauseous, so I dithered and plotted how i would eventually make my move.

     My opportunity came in May of 1965 when it was announced that the Beatles would perform in Balboa Stadium.  The Beatles were an irresistible draw and I was certain that an invitation to go see them would be irrefutable proof of my ardent and undying love, and Teresa would fall into my arms like Snow White into Prince Charming’s, or something like that.  Tickets were $3.50, $4.50 and $5.50, and all I could afford were the $3.50 variety.  Two tickets added up to $7.00, and that was a lot of scratch for a sixteen year old kid living in East San Diego in 1965.  The tickets were procured and rested in my dresser drawer for days and weeks as I struggled to find the right time and right words to ask Teresa to go with me to see the Beatles.

     The upshot of this tale is that I didn’t have the cojones to pull the trigger.  Beatles or no Beatles, you don’t get a date unless you ask.  I tried as best I could but Teresa and I lived in the same neighborhood; if she turned me down I would be faced with that fact every time I saw here and everybody would know.  That wasn’t going to happen and so I asked my brother if he wanted to go instead, which he did.

     Brad is also an interesting musical tale.  My brother spent two years at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and had recently returned from the Army.  In Texas Brad learned to like old school Country and Western.  Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and Marty Robbins were his sort of acts.  A few weeks after returning home Brad walked into our bedroom while I was watching either Shindig or Hullabaloo, which were television shows that featured rock and roll acts playing their music.  It was sort of like early videos, only live.  Anyway, that night the Rolling Stones were singing “Satisfaction” when my brother walked into the room and my old fifteen inch black and white television screen was filled with Mick Jaggers’ lips, teeth and tongue.  “What in the hell is that?” asked Brad in stunned amazement.  “Give it a few months” I replied.  “You’ll be borrowing my records.”  And indeed he was, so when I mentioned the concert Brad leapt to the occasion.

     We found our seats and almost had to pay for oxygen, they were so high up.  I had never been to a real concert before and had no idea what to expect.  The opening acts were all pretty good; Cannibal and the Headhunters was my favorite of that bunch, but soon we got to the main event.  Out they came; four tiny figures on a stage down on the fifty yard line who wasted no time in starting the show.  The audience wasted no time either in breaking out in pandemonium.  Girls were screaming and kicking the sheet metal which surrounded the stadium lights.  Guys raced out onto the field only to be tackled by burly security men.  It turned out that Ronald Angulo, a kid from my neighborhood, was one of the first idiots to pull that stunt.  The Beatles sang twelve songs and that was it.  It actually seemed like less than that, but I am assured that we got twelve.  And then it was over and I went home again to crow at the park, although it was hollow because I had wanted to be there with Teresa.

     My love of music grew over the next decade as music became the medium by which  disillusioned youth expressed their feelings to one another and the world.  Music had become a complicated business and revolution filled the air along with the sounds of Hendrix, Cream, The Starship and a million others.  But I’ll never forget the simple love that I had for the music, just the music, of my youth.  No great causes or movements, no subliminal messages, just innocent music.  Yeah, it was only rock and roll, but I liked it then.  I still do.

 

Sand Trap

     1967 was a very good year for me.  I had a girlfriend in that year and this was not something which came along often in my young life.  In fact, this was the one and only girlfriend I had during the first twenty one years of my life.  Rhonda was the friend of one of my neighborhood pals and we used to all eat lunch together at school.  I was quite taken by the extraordinarily pretty Rhonda and hesitated for the longest time to ask her out on a date because of the curse of painful shyness which I endured in those years.  When I finally found the courage to ask Rhonda out she accepted, much to my surprise, and we began a relationship which lasted a short but very pleasant while.

     As I wrote earlier I was very shy, and the thought of trying to kiss a girl made my head spin; the prospect of rejection was almost too great to bear.  On the other hand I had an easy knack for talking with anyone, and with Rhonda it was even easier than with others.  We would talk about our likes and dislikes, plans and dreams, our lives before we met, music, in fact just about anything and everything.  I eventually worked up the nerve to try a kiss, which never led to more than a bit of innocent teenage necking.  Of course all of this very personal conversation and extracurricular activities required a quiet place of solitude, and that solitude was frequently found parked at the top of Del Cerro hill on what was then the edge of San Diego.  A street had been paved over the top of the hill in anticipation of houses that would be built later, but at the time the street is all that there was, and we spent a few evenings there talking about life and plans and sharing a kiss or two.

     I have always enjoyed variety however, and so one evening I decided to see if we could find a place to get away from the maddening crowd by going to the beach.  I selected Mission Beach to be our hideaway for that evening, which proves that logic was not yet my strong suit.  The beach, in a large beach city, is never a place to get away from people.  In this case however, those people would save my bacon later that evening.  We drove down Mission Blvd., past a closed and darkened Belmont Park amusement center.  It seemed like Belmont Park was always closed back then, or the wooden roller coaster out of commission by fire or things like that.  Anyway, it was dark that evening and as we drove south on Mission Blvd. it got even darker, but still there were people popping up on sidewalks or paths which led to and from the beach itself.  Eventually we came to a dead end at a jetty built out of large, jagged boulders.  A dirt road led to the left, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen in that direction, so I pulled in and drove a hundred yards or so down that road in search of the solitude which we desired.

     There was, however, no solitude to be found.  It wasn’t exactly a parade, but it was summer at the beach in San Diego and any solitude found there would be rare and of short duration.  I analyzed the  situation and decided that the heights of Del Cerro was going to have to do, and began to make what was called a ‘Y’ turn in the dirt road rather than return to Mission Blvd. in reverse.  That was where I made my big mistake.

     The road was narrow but I was sure that I had room to make the maneuver of inching forward and backward, slowly turning the car to the right and eventually making a 180 degree turn.  Perhaps I did have the room, but the night was dark, my mind was on other things, and my hand was completely out of aces.  At ninety degrees in the road I backed up a foot too far and settled gently into the soft sand of that dark bit of beachfront San Diego.  Thinking of myself as a resourceful male I got out of the car certain that I could make everything work out just fine.  I walked around to the back of the car and sure enough, the tire was buried in sand up to the hub.

     I reentered the car and assured Rhonda that I could get us out of this.  I began to try to rock the car gently by accelerating in drive and then backing off of the gas pedal, hoping that my parent’s Mercury would sort of walk its way out of the trap.  This plan was a complete bust; if anything at all the tire sat lower in the sand than before.  For the first time since I felt that depressing sink of the rear of the car I registered a twinge of fear.  The car was not going anywhere, and I had no idea how to change that fact.

     “How are we going to get out of here?” was Rhonda’s reasonable question.  I concealed my annoyance because I really liked Rhonda a lot.  Besides, I wasn’t annoyed by her question; I was annoyed because I didn’t have a good answer.

     “I don’t know.  I’m going to have to think about this”.

     We got out of the car and stood disconsolately next to the sunken tire.  I had never been in this position before, and had no interest in walking a great distance back to the lighted area where I could find a pay phone and call my father.  Dad went to bed early and would be unimpressed with his son stuck in the sand off of a dirt road in a darkened section of Mission Beach with his girlfriend.  The thought of explaining myself to Rhonda’s parents gave me little cause for cheer as well.

     “Do you need some help?”

     I was jolted out of my thoughts by an older guy, maybe in his twenties, and his lady friend, who had approached as I was lost in my reverie.  I explained the problem, which was pretty obvious to see, and he stood and thought a minute.

     “Let’s get the girls in the back seat and you drive while I push” was his suggestion, and it seemed a pretty good one to me.  The ladies piled in and I fired up the Merc once again while my new best friend pushed, but the result was the same.  Before we threw in the towel another couple arrived and soon I had two guys pushing while I drove, but still the Mercury squatted obstinately in the sand.  I exited the car and walked back to where my two new best friends stood discussing the problem.

     “How about if we jack the car up and then push it forward?” i proposed.  “We only need a foot or two to be on the solid part of the road.

     “You’d probably put that jack through your gas tank” came a voice from behind us.  The owner of that voice was a single guy of undetermined age who was carrying a paper bag.  ‘Let’s see what we’ve got here” he said.  Our new rescuer placed his bag on the sand and studied the problem for a minute, and then said “I think we can use that jack after all”

     I raised the trunk lid and extracted my bumper jack, which was the old kind of jack which stood vertically on a square metal plate and attached beneath the car’s bumper.  This newest member of my rescue party placed the jack under the bumper and began to lift the car up.  “Go and get some rocks to put under the tire he said, and we scattered to find stones of the right size, which was not as easy in the sandy area as I would have liked.  We all came back with what we had found and put them as close to underneath the tire as we could get them.  He lowered the jack and I tried once again to advance the car out of the sand.  The attempt failed and some of the rocks flew out from under the tire, but some of them stayed in place. 

     “Get more” said the new quarterback of this operation.  We scattered to comb the area for rocks, preferably flat ones of just the right size.  Several more people out enjoying the evening pitched into the effort and soon we had a nice pile of rocks under the drive tire and I was ready to try to move the car once again.

     “Wait a minute” came a voice from the crowd.  “Let’s get some people on the trunk.”  Guys lifted their ladies onto the truck while as many as would fit positioned themselves behind the car to push.  In a moment I shouted “Ready!” and the throng responded “Go!”  I did just that.  The tire bit into the rocks while the guys pushed, and with the agility of a deer the Mercury surged forward onto the solid dirt path.

     A cheer went up as I stopped the car, now safe and sound on solid ground.  People were talking and laughing; the men shaking hands.  This was 1967;  nobody hugged back in those days.  The quarterback with the paper bag retrieved his cargo and pulled a beer out of it and popped it open, toasting to the success of our operation.  I thanked everyone profusely and assisted my lady into the passenger seat.  With a last round of thanks I climbed into the driver’s seat, fired up the Merc, and rolled out accompanied by the waves and cheers of our rescuers.  You’d have thought that it was a wedding.

     Rhonda and I knew that little in the way of kisses would be enjoyed that night, but there was no shortage of things to talk about.  We drove directly to Oscar’s, a drive-in hamburger place on El Cajon Blvd., and soon the drama of the early part of the evening faded as we returned to our role of two teenagers infatuated with each other.  Rhonda got home on time, we shared a good night kiss on the front porch, and I got home just before my curfew.  The next morning I was up early vacuuming sand out of the inside of the car and checking it over for scratches or dents.  There was no physical evidence that anything untoward had happened with Dad’s car the night before and I chose not to share that tale with him.  In fact, Dad died almost forty years later without ever hearing that tale.  I hope that it’s possible he’s getting a chuckle out of it now.

    

Camping in Wonderland, Part IV

     There were many camping trips in which I engaged following my release from the Army.  I have already written of one of those trips; the trip to Minaret Lake with my oldest friend Wes.  That trip came early in my new civilian life and was among the best of my life.  One year later Wes and I decided to hike out of Yosemite, up the north wall of that amazing canyon and onto the more or less level high ground which our hiking guide book said that we would find up there.  We attacked the trail in mid-morning but by noon we seemed to be nowhere near reaching the top of that twisting, tortured, switch-backed trail.  Wes and I decided that life is too short to waste on such energetic endeavors, so we returned to the valley floor.  

     Resting in the shade by my car, Wes and I scanned the book in search of another place to camp.  We didn’t want to stay in the valley with the million-plus other tourists and vacationers, but we didn’t want to drive somewhere else either.  Wes noticed that there was a trail which extended up the east end of the canyon, beyond the general tourist area, where it began to climb up into the Sierra Nevada mountains.  That path followed the Merced River to the string of falls and small lakes that could be found up there.  That path appeared to be a road commonly taken and we were interested in a road less travelled.  Looking at our map we noticed that if we veered north from where the shuttle bus ended it’s route into the eastern end of the canyon, around the misnamed pond of Mirror Lake, there began a sort of path which followed a creek the name of which I forget which flowed out of a smaller canyon which climbed back up into the mountains too..

     This was no formal trail, but others had been this way and a sort of path could be seen among the rocks and trees which lined the creek.  I don’t know how long we walked; it didn’t seem like a very long time but these things become cloudy when a person is disconnected from their clock and enjoying nature.  It couldn’t have been more than an hour or two because we reached a good place to camp with a good deal of the day left before us.  Our camp was by a pool at the base of a ten or fifteen foot waterfall, beneath a tree which had dropped a thick bed of leaves over the years, which gave us a soft place to pitch our tents.

     This spot was enchanting.  The falls was beautiful and the valley secluded.  Few other hikers came by that day or the next.  Water birds called ‘dippers’, or ‘water ouzels’, would fly into the creek and walk along the bottom eating insect larvae, tadpoles or small fish if they could find them.  We marveled at those birds.  The only negatives to this campsite were the squirrels which quickly gnawed through Wes’ pack to get at the food items within before he could hang the pack by a rope from a tree limb, and the white noise from the waterfall.

     The white noise was an interesting phenomenon.  I paid little attention to it during the daytime but at night, after we had sipped a bit of our backpacking staple of cheap bourbon whiskey, and smoked a joint or two, the strangest sounds could be heard emanating from the noise made by the constant splash of water falling ten to fifteen feet into a pool.  As I lay in my tent I could hear everything from people talking to ten speed bicycles clicking to police sirens, and all of this several miles from any possible police sirens or ten speed bikes.Like everything else in life one gets used to it, but it did detract from a good night’s sleep.  Wes and I hung around that camp another day fishing (with better luck than we experienced at Minaret Lake), reading and relaxing, and then returned to my car and from there to San Diego.

     That was not my last foray into that part of Yosemite however.  One year later my best traveling partner, Joe Medina, and I were driving around Northern California visiting friends and camping out here and there and I mentioned the place where Wes and I had camped earlier.  That sounded good to Joe and so we pointed his Volkswagon bus towards Yosemite National Park.  We parked the bus near the visitor’s center and stocked up on food at the little store that is maintained there.  A short shuttle ride later we were standing in front of Mirror Lake and ready to walk eastward into the wild canyon at the rear of the park.

     The trail was a little busier than it had been when Wes and I had camped there the year before, but it was still very quiet  as we walked further from the tourist area.  We reached the waterfall where Wes and I had pitched our tents before but the day was still young, so we decided to push on.  Climbing the steep bank over which the creek was falling was not too difficult a project and upon reaching the small plateau which gradually narrowed and rose as one walked further east we recognized instantly a perfect campsite.  Two logs lay perfectly situated on the ground to provide seats in front of a fire.  We brought stones together to make a fire pit in front of those logs and pitched our tents on the soft soil nearby.  The bank over which the creek fell was just enough of a barrier to traffic that only a few hardy hikers passed by our camp, and they mostly just waved and walked on.

     Our area seemed to have hardly been camped in at all and so there was no shortage of dry firewood littering the floor of the forest.  We had small gas stoves to cook on, but a fire in the morning to brew coffee over and a fire at night before going to bed is something which makes a camp a camp.  We were as comfortable as could be, and even being twenty two year olds and restless as that breed tends to be, we were very content to explore around our camp a little but mostly sit on those logs and talk about things that I couldn’t possibly remember today and probably wouldn’t interest me now anyway.  They were interesting and speaking was effortless then however, and we spent the rest of that day and most of the next doing just that.

     There were however three occurrences which added a little spice to the trip.  Early the next morning I was forced out of my tent by the need to take care of some urgent business.  Even in such an idyllic setting of nature one still must answer when nature calls.  Taking the toilet paper and a collapsable shovel I looked around until I found a small log lying on the ground which looked as if it would serve for latrine duty.  I dropped my drawers and positioned myself comfortably on the log, and proceeded to add another log to the forest floor.  About midway through this process I heard a ‘snap’, and my attention went into high alert.

     My first thought was that Joe might be sneaking up on me with his camera.  We were young males and that kind of humor was (and remains) common to that set.  My second thought was a bit more dire.  Bears frequent the vicinity of Yosemite, usually on the valley floor where there are trash cans, picnic baskets and coolers to pillage in search of the crap that we humans usually like to eat.  But the bears have to come from somewhere, and eventually return there when the garbage is gone, so I wondered if I had chosen to take my ease on some sort of bear highway.

     That is a thought that will pinch things off in a hurry but I knew that it would be foolish to move an inch, so I just sat there bare to the world, waiting to see if a bear would come along to ruin my day.  In a minute or two I heard soft rustlings in the leafy carpet of the forest floor and a large brown shape loomed from behind a boulder.  “This is it”, I thought, “Smokey’s revenge”.  The shape did not have the rounded bulk of a bear however, and as my panicked vision cleared I could see that my visitor was a deer.  I don’t remember if there were antlers, so I couldn’t say if it was a buck or a doe.  All I cared about was the fact that it didn’t have claws and teeth and a very bad attitude.  The deer and I stood and sat motionless for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes at very close range.  Slowly the deer ambled off towards the remote east end of the canyon.  I quickly finished the business at hand and returned to the safety of our camp where Joe and his camera were still snuggled comfortably in his tent.

     Later that morning a couple of parties of hikers came past our camp.  The first was a middle aged man and woman who simply waved and walked on.  That is usually how I liked it when I camped in the wilderness; I didn’t go to the woods to hang out with people.  The second party was different though.  Two guys, roughly our age, with German flags sewn onto their backpacks.  This told us clearly that these were two guys who would bring interesting stories into our camp.

     Pius and Rene were indeed from Germany; from Munich, or “Muenchen” to be exact, and with the customary German fondness for precision they insisted on being exact.  We offered them coffee and rolled a couple of joints, and within an hour’s time we were fast friends.  Pius and Rene were students traveling abroad during the summer, and this was a time in America when more people would still hitchhike from coast to coast with little fear.  It was far from a perfect time, but two white guys with short hair and no beards had a good chance of traveling in America by the seat of their pants in relative safety.  We spent a couple of hours with our two new friends, learning about them and their home as they learned about us and ours.  The time came for Pius and Rene to move on, and we exchanged addresses.  Oddly enough we were visited by Pius and Rene later that month at the house I shared with three other friends.  I have not made it to Germany yet to repay that visit.

     My last outstanding remembrance of that camping trip came later in the afternoon.  It was a warm day but not uncomfortably so, and there was a nice breeze blowing which cooled things down to a very acceptable level.  I had a can of deviled ham and some crackers and prepared to enjoy them while sitting on the bank over which flowed the creek into the falls.  From that vantage point the view was stunning.  Not a single evidence of human activity could be seen from that spot, and the whole of the Yosemite Valley opened up before me.  The sheer walls of naked rock stood in their frozen permanence while the carpet of tree tops in the valley below swayed and rippled like tall grass in the wind. 

     Like every other stoned slacker of my age in those days I had read Carlos Castaneda’s books about a Yaqui sorcerer in Mexico with whom he allegedly spent time doing a research project.  The first of the books which emerged from this project was entitled “A Separate Reality”.  Many are doubtful of the academic seriousness of his books or even the existence of the focus of those books, Don Juan.  Nevertheless those books were read voraciously by those of us who were comfortable living in our own separate realities, and I sat there trying to see the entire valley as a living, breathing organism.  That effort failed miserably but the beauty of the simple, three dimensional here-and-now valley was deeply impressed into my memory.  I finally picked my stoned self up and retreated to our camp, where our campfire coffee and reconstituted freeze dried food and another snort or two of whiskey completed our evening.

     We broke camp the next morning and retraced our path to Mirror Lake in time to catch the shuttle to the visitor center and have a late breakfast there.  We left Yosemite to continue our rounds of visiting friends in the north and I have never returned to Yosemite since.  In a way I don’t have to.  The diving birds, the waterfall, the deer, the breathtaking views of the valley, Pius and Rene; all remain in my mind as if it was yesterday instead of forty years ago.  Part of the pleasure of retelling this story lies in the fact that I get to relive it  That is a blessing indeed. 

 

Camping in Wonderland, Part III

     Wes and I recovered quickly from our arduous climb to Minaret Lake, and after a short while of sitting under the lone tree that was close to our camp we decided to get busy.  We were both hungry so we lit a fire in the rock fire pit that we had built. The nearby stream seemed to contain clean snowmelt off of the white stuff which crowned the nearby peaks and so we scooped up a couple of pans full with which to cook up some of our freeze dried dinners.  It was probably beef stroganoff for me, and as I recall the finished product did roughly resemble beef stroganoff.  I certainly remember that it tasted wonderful, but then sitting in paradise at 9.800 feet eating food cooked over an open fire, I could have eaten the sole of one of my K-Mart boots and liked it just as much.

     Wes suggested that we explore the valley in which we were camped and so after cleaning up our mess we began to poke around the area.  One of the first things that we noticed was that even at 9.800 feet mosquitos lived near water.  And they were big suckers, too.  While not as numerous as I’ve seen elsewhere, these guys were on steroids.  As we walked along the lake shore the little vampires rose up and attacked like kamakazis.  They would bite anywhere, including through denim jeans. I had completely failed to take mosquitos into account and was therefore defenseless.  Wes had a small amount of a commercial insect repellant in his kit but it was nearly gone.  I could see that Wes’ repellant wouldn’t last long even if he was the only one using it, and it didn’t seem right that he should suffer more because I neglected a pretty basic tenet of camping.  I declined his offer to share and continued slapping at the little monsters, leaving bloody splotches on my arms, face, and jeans.  

     At one point we jumped over a small stream and mounted one of the rounded rocks near where the trail rose up out of the valley below.  Lying on the ground on the other side of the boulder was the remains of a camp which did not appear to be more than a week old.  We could see where the tent pegs had been driven into the ground, where the campfire had been, and where the garbage still was.  Up next to the rock were two large black plastic bags with all manner of cans and paper products and uneaten meals and, most amazing of all, empty bottles of one of the cheapest and nastiest pop wines on the market at that time.

     Wes and I stood there looking at the mess with disgust and astonishment, and did not hear the sound of the horse’s hooves until the beast hove into view over the same rise that we had surmounted earlier that day.  Seated atop that horse was a forest ranger who was making his rounds.  I believe that the ranger saw us before we saw him because he never once gave us the impression that he connected us with that pile of trash.  I’m certain that he could read the disgust on our faces as plain as day.  

     “Good afternoon boys.  How is your day going?” he asked.

     “We were doing fine until we saw this mess” was my reply.  “What I want to know, beyond why somebody would leave this crap in a place like this is how they got it here at all.”  When every box, can and bottle in that pile war full it would have amounted to a lot of weight.

     “They probably got it here the same way that I got here.  Usually a party of hikers will be met by someone with a pack horse who will bring their supplies in here.  It doesn’t happen a lot and usually they clean up after themselves, but this is not the first pile of shit that we’ve had to haul off of the mountain.  Someone will be back later to pack that stuff out of here.”   I couldn’t help but wonder how somebody with the resources to have access to a pack horse would stoop to drinking that increadibly nasty wine, but they were clearly bottom-feeders so I left it alone.

     “What kind of camp have you set up?” the ranger continued.  We showed him our camp in the distance and described our equipment and plan, which was limited to exploring, relaxing, fishing, and maybe a little reading.  Wes and I were both avid readers.  

     “The only thing bothering me is that I forgot mosquito repellant” I commented in an off-hand way.  The ranger scowled and said “They’ll eat you alive.”  He reached into his saddle pack and retrieved an olive drab can with a spray nozzle on the top.  “This will keep the little bastards off of you” he said as he tossed the can to me.  The can was classic government issue.  As I wrote earlier it was olive drab, with some code of letters and numbers denoting what item number it was in some catalogue somewhere, and written across the can was INSECT REPELLANT in black letters which blended into the deep green of the can.  I gladly accepted and sprayed myself down, and as I handed it back the ranger smiled and said “Keep it.  I’ve got plenty.”  I don’t know what was in that insect repellant but I am certain that it had a plutonium base.  The mosquitos never bothered me again on that trip.

     The ranger told us that someone would probably be back the next day to clean up the mess and waved goodbye.  We returned the wave and continued with our exploration of the valley, which was in fact more like a shelf.  We jumped over creeks, waded gingerly through marshy ground, and eventually came back to our camp.  The day was creeping into evening, and shadows from the cliff behind us began to advance across the valley floor.  Wes began to fiddle with his very light weight, collapsable fishing rod and other gear while I laid back against the tree with a book.  We could cook dinner in the shadows of evening but it would be hard to read or do much else, and that is pretty much how we spent the rest of that day.

     After cooking and cleaning up, night fell upon us like an onrushing train.  Wes and I pulled out our half-pints of cheap bourbon whiskey that we had brought and drank a swallow or two before turning in.  I shed my shirt and jeans and crawled into my mummy bag.  Even in mid summer the nights can be pretty cool at 9,800 feet, especially with a wind blowing off of the showpack even higher up.  I felt perfectly comfortable lying in my bag on a thin foam pad in my little tent.  The darkness was as nearly pitch black as it could be, especially as I was cut off from the starlight in my tent, and there were almost no sounds apart from the occasional rustling of the grasses by a light wind.  I lay there awake for a short while, alternately nervous in the unfamiliarity of near total dark and near total silence, and utterly relaxed in those same phenomena.  I was reflecting on that duality and the next thing of which I was aware was the light of a new day penetrating the nylon of my tent.

     After leaving my mummy bag and dressing quickly in the chill of the morning I emerged from my tent and immediately got a fire going.  I knew that Wes wouldn’t be far behind me and coffee would be needed on an emergency basis.  I took a nip of bourbon to get the blood moving and then went to get a couple of pans of water from the nearby creek.  By the time I returned Wes was sitting on a rock close to the fire pulling supplies out of the pack which we had hoisted into the tree the evening before.  In no time at all we had breakfast and coffee prepared and ate one of the finest meals ever cooked.

     After putting our camp in order we prepared for our first adventure of the day.  Behind us rose the 800 foot cliff which I previously described and at that height, nestled in a bowl created by the confluence of the cliff and the Minarets, lay Cecil Lake at 10,400 feet.  The book that we brought with us said that there was a steep trail which led over the top of the ridge and sure enough, we found that trail.  Steep, however, was an understatement.  The climb was as close to vertical as one could get without going hand-over-hand, and near the top that’s just what we did.

     The payoff, however, was worth every exertion.  Cecil Lake lay cradled in its stony crib with little more than rock, ice, snow, and water making up the scene.  The starkness of the environment had a severe beauty and Wes and I simply sat for a while admiring it.  Broken rock had tumbled down the steep sides of this natural bowl with little growth of any kind poking up from between the jagged stones.  The lake had a fifteen to twenty foot ring of ice extending from the shore towards the center of the lake, with the ice-free bulk of that center even more blue than Minaret Lake below.  The picture was stunningly beautiful.  Rising from our rocky perch we carefully crossed over to the other side of the bowl, disturbing marmots who somehow lived in that sterile-looking place.  Climbing the bank on the other side we gained the rim to look out over a vast scape of mountain peaks, most of them at a lower altitude than we were, which stretched west across the Sierras towards Yosemite and beyond that the great central valley of California.

     After taking in the view for a good long while we retraced our steps and returned to camp.  We had taken a couple of hours to climb the cliff and return and we wanted to try our luck with fishing in Minaret Lake.  Our gear was as simple as we could make it, but we had enough to try bait, lure, and fly.  Unfortunately, none of them seemed at all tempting to the fish.  We would switch baits, we would move to other spots, we pulled in our lines and then returned in the evening, and nothing worked.  I suppose it’s possible that there weren’t any fish in that lake at all.  I don’t see how they could have gotten there in the first place, but as I have heard elsewhere, “Life finds a way.”  We finally threw in the towel and broke down our rods and stashed our gear away.

     The trout dinner which we had expected had to be substituted with more of the freeze-dried food that we had packed in with us, and we were eating that at a faster rate than we expected.  The exertion of the climbs on both days, the general exhilaration of being so far into mostly unspoiled nature, and the fact that we were two twenty-one year old men with serious appetites, combined to make us literally chew our way through our supplies a lot more quickly than we had intended.  Taking stock, we saw that we had enough for one more day, but we would have nothing for breakfast the morning after that.  Our path back may have led downhill but it was still eight miles, and neither of us relished that long of a walk on an empty stomach.  In the end we decided that we would have a good breakfast the next morning and break camp.  I was beginning to fear that my mosquito repellant was running low anyway (it wasn’t really.  It lasted for two more camping trips).

     The next morning we made up the coffee and a larger than average breakfast, and lounged in our camp until the sun was well up.  Wes and I took our sweet time folding up our tents and rolling up our sleeping bags, and when we were packed and ready shouldered our packs and bid goodbye to Minaret Lake with as much melancholy as it was possible for two young men with their lives ahead of them to muster, and then we set out on the trail back to Devil’s Postpile.

     My car was untouched and waiting as we trudged into the parking lot.  Wes and I quickly stowed our packs in the trunk and fired that Mercury up.  In very little time we were on the road, and pulled into a restaurant in Bishop ready for a real meal.  I’m certain that we smelled like a garbage dump when we walked into that squat & gobble cafe but that didn’t bother us at all.  If it bothered anyone else they didn’t share their displeasure with us.  It was about two in the afternoon and since it was between lunch and dinner we decided to eat both.  I am sure that I put five pounds of food down the hatch and Wes might have eaten more.  All that remained was about nine or ten hours of driving and we would be home, clean and fed again and lying in our own comfortable beds in our own homes, with refrigerators full and the noise of the city around us, a million miles away it seemed from the pristine beauty of that jewel of the wilderness, Minaret Lake.

     

Camping in Wonderland, Part II

     My love of camping was born and nurtured within my family when I was a child.  Equipped with a mix of commercial, military surplus and homemade gear we would set up camp mostly at a public campground in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego.  We came to know every inch of that campground as if it was our own back yard, and even with that familiarity we still loved every hike, every dip in the river, every slide on the wet rocks by the falls, every day and every night that we spent there.

     When I graduated from high school in 1966 my President had plans concerning my immediate future, and within two months of my graduation I was a soldier in the U.S. Army and doing more camping out than I liked.  In California, in Texas, and in Vietnam I enjoyed multiple opportunities to live close to nature, all the while dreaming of getting back into nature without a drill instructor or a first sergeant yelling in my face or an enemy soldier shooting at me.  That opportunity arrived in late 1969 after I had finished my tour of duty and was discharged from the Army, a free man once again.

     Shortly after my return to San Diego my oldest friend, Wes, proposed that we backpack into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a place called Minaret Lake.  Wes showed me a book which contained many hikes in that area and they all were appealing.  The hike to Minaret Lake drew us to it mostly because the trailhead began at Devil’s Postpile, a busy area where it would probably be most safe to park a car for several days, and because the eight mile walk with a gain of over two thousand feet of elevation made us confident that we would encounter nobody who wasn’t out there for the same reason that we were.

     Preparations began for our trip, and for me they began at zero.  I had almost no backpacking gear and what little I did have was left over from a short and unsuccessful experience with the boy scouts.  We were all a bunch of misfits in my neighborhood and did not comport well with the boy scout mold at all.  With some of the money with which the Army sent me on my way I purchased a lightweight backpack, an Army surplus mummy bag for sleeping, a one man tent and other accoutrement.  We planned to spend five days at our camp, and so freeze dried and other dry and instant food products would also have to be carried in.  When we were ready my pack didn’t feel very much lighter than a full pack in the Army did.

     I arose early and drove to Wes’ house, where we added his gear to mine and began the day long drive to Devil’s Postpile.  Our route took us east of Los Angeles and out across the Mojave Desert.  I have always loved the desert and this was a very enjoyable part of the trip for me.  Speeding on northward we entered the Owens Valley, a dry valley now that most of its water has been siphoned off to supply that precious resource to Los Angeles and environs.  The locals are still quite irritated about that.  We drove through Lone Pine and Bishop, where we stopped to get a meal and a few other last-minute items, and then finished our drive in the parking lot at the Postpile.  We parked close to the ranger station, hoping for more security for my car.

     We slept in the car that evening; the big bench seats front and back that were common in cars of that vintage made pretty good beds, even for a couple of six-footers who had to fold themselves up a little in order to fit.  At first light the next morning we crawled off of our car seats, walked around a bit to work the kinks out of our cramped muscles, secured our packs onto our backs and set out on the trail which led to Minaret Lake.

     The trail was mostly broad and easy to follow, and Wes and I chatted as we walked along through the conifers.  It was easy to talk even though we started at about 7,500 feet above sea level, as we were young and in pretty good physical shape.  The gain in elevation for the whole trip was about 2,300 feet but the grade was easy at first.  Soon however we broke out of the thick conifer forest and began to pass through more sparse growth.  At one point, as we neared a broad valley where the creek which we were paralleling broadened out into a marshy area with no definite banks or borders, Wes and I somehow lost the trail and began following what looked like it might be a trail which led south of the valley and up a rocky and pine covered hillside.  After twenty or thirty minutes of struggling up that false track we realized that we were way off course and returned to the valley floor.  There we promptly regained our trail and continued across the cattail-covered valley to begin climbing again on the other side.

     By this time Wes and I had ceased to talk much.  The trail was beginning to climb more sharply now and although we were eating trail mix and hard candy our energy was being sapped by the grade and the altitude.  All along from the beginning of the hike I had enjoyed the view of the majestic mountains, with jagged splinters of rock which jutted a thousand feet into the sky after which Minaret Lake was named, and Minaret Creek which bubbled and splashed down the mountainside nearly always within our view.  As we began the final few miles towards our destination I began to focus more on simply getting up the next hill, breathing, and putting one foot in front of the other.

     At length we came to the last half-mile or so of our hike, which also happened to be the most steep.  We dug into that climb with determination in order to put this ordeal behind us.  I remember counting cadence in my mind as I walked; one-two-three-FOUR, one-two-three-FOUR.  My feet kept moving, rising and falling with my mental calling of the numbers.  The effect was hypnotic and soon my feet and the count were all that existed.  This went on for what seemed like an hour but in fact was much less than that, and soon the trail began to flatten out and I marched over the last rise to catch my first glimpse of the breathtaking jewel that is Minaret Lake.

     The lake lies in an upland valley at the base of a mountain range which includes several rocky spires which rise up sharply into the clear sky of the Sierras.  Somebody many years ago thought that they resembled the tall, thin buildings which tower over Muslim cities and towns from which mosque officials call the faithful to prayer.  I confess that I did not see that resemblance at all, but the other guy saw these mountains first so he got to name them.  The lake itself is the bluest blue imaginable, taking up much of it’s valley.  Grasses cover the dry portions of the valley with occasional evergreens stretching skyward, and softly rounded boulders seemed to have shouldered their way through the soil to show above ground a tiny glimpse of their true bulk, much like an iceberg shows itself in arctic waters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful place that I have ever seen.

     But that is not what I thought when I first saw it.  The exertion, the altitude, and perhaps a little dehydration combined to force me to sit down on the first rock I could find and try not to throw up.  Wes was similarly affected, but recovered a bit more quickly than me, so he shortly went off to scout for a good campsite while I continued to convalesce.  From my boulder I looked back at the terrain across which we had traversed on our assent to the lake.  I could clearly see the gain in elevation that we had recently made, which made me feel better about not feeling so good as I sat on my rock in the sun.  

     The ground sloped steadily to the east while mountains of bald, rounded rock rose up to the north and northeast.  It is said that those mountains were smoothed off by the action of glaciers during the last ice age.  I suppose that is true, but I don’t know; I wasn’t there then.  Regardless of how they were formed their massive solidity communicated strength and permanence, but their soft roundedness also suggested welcome, although I am certain that there was danger enough for the foolhardy in those peaks.  At least, that’s what it said to me.

     To the west rose up a cliff which was probably 800 feet high.  This rock feature traveled from southwest to northwest and provided a back wall for the valley of the lake.  the cliff was steep but not sheer, and Wes and I would soon be scaling it, but more on that later.  The southern boundary of our valley was the massive body of the Minarets, into which the previously mentioned cliffs merged.  The totality of this panoramic view was breathtaking and I could hardly believe that I was in this place, although the shakiness in my knees served to remind me that it was quite true.

     After catching my breath and regaining some strength I rose up from my rock and shouldered my pack.  I could see where Wes was pitching his tent and angled around a bay of the lake to gain that spot.  A good spot it was, between the lake and a stream flowing into it, on good dry ground and close to but not under a lone tree.  I pitched my tent beside Wes’ and we made a fire pit out of stones and a wire grate which we brought for that purpose.  Our food was placed in a bag which we hoisted into the tree.  I don’t know if bears hang out at 9,800 feet, but Wes and I had not interest in being surprised.

     With the hike over and camp made we sat with our backs against the tree.   Wes was facing the Minarets and I the rounded mountains to the north.  We didn’t speak much at first, as we were struck with the power and beauty of the place. I can remember reflecting on how only a couple of months before this moment I was squatting under a metal roof on the tarmac of Bien Hoa Air Force Base hoping to not catch a last minute bullet or rocket before flying home after two surreal years in Vietnam.  The regimented life of a soldier, the threat of death at any moment from a bullet going so fast that you don’t hear it, the alcohol and drugs that I used to self-medicate against the stress of Vietnam and the strangeness of returning home to a country which seemed to either scorn me or be embarrassed by me, and mostly preferred to pretend as if I wasn’t there at all.

     All of that baggage seemed to slough off of me as I sat in the tranquil cleanness of that vast mountain landscape.  The lake, the rocks, the streams, the mountains; none of them cared where I had been or what I had done.  They did not care that I was there, but neither did they reject me.  I was there as my own agent, as much a part of that scene as a fish in the lake or squirrel in the tree or marmot in the rocky cliff above us.  I was welcome to come and take my chances like every other living thing there, with the prize being a peace that I had not felt in years or perhaps at any time in my life.  I thought to myself “Not a bad way to start a trip”.

Camping in Wonderland, Part I

     Since the time when I was a young boy I have loved camping, and that is probably because my camping experience got off to a wonderful start.  Summer or winter my father would load up our family car and we would drive the forty six miles to the campground of Green Valley Falls in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, where he would pay for a space and park where our home would be for a day and a night, or perhaps several days and nights.  The road in those days was U.S. Highway 80, a winding two lane road which climbed into the Laguna Mountains and eventually wound and twisted down the east side of those mountains through canyons and around boulders the size of a house, down to the floor of the desert which stretched all the way to central Texas. 

     After forty miles or so California Route 79 branched off of the highway and led north towards the old mining town of Julian.  This road was more narrow and more serpentine even than was Highway 80, and I was almost certain to get carsick on this stretch of road if I hadn’t already.  We would pass by Descanso Junction, which was only a small country store, and shortly cross over the boundary of the State Park.  By the time we pulled into the parking space next to our camp site it felt like we had been driving for hours, and depending upon the traffic in which it was almost impossible to pass slower vehicles, we might have actually been driving for nearly two hours.

     Unloading the car and setting up the camp was an ordeal for two boys who wanted nothing more than to break away and go create our own fantasy world down by, and in the summer in the middle of, the Sweetwater River, which could hardly be called even a creek by a generous description.  Mom would begin stocking our canned and packaged food into a wooden pantry provided at every campsite.  Brad, my brother, would carry boxes of grocery items to Mom and she would arrange what was to be her kitchen.  Dad would haul out the big, heavy canvas umbrella tent that he ‘requisitioned’ from the Navy.  He and I would lay the tent out in a big square and fasten the corners to the ground with big, steel railroad spikes.  I have no idea where the spikes came from.  After securing the corners I would enter the tent and hold it up as high as I could while Dad brought in a two inch thick wooden pole which was the center support.  Four steel arms radiated from this pole and were slipped into metal-ringed eyelets in the four corners of the roof of the tent.  When fully extended theses arms held the corners taut while the six foot wooden pole held the center of the tent up.  Four more spikes, one in the middle of each side of the tent, were pounded into the ground and our home away from home was ready for occupation.

     The remaining details of setting up our camp were trifling and our father soon cut us boys loose to go play, accompanied by a menacing order to ‘Stay out of that river and don’t get wet.”  Of course he knew that we would make a beeline into that river so straight that it would astound even an ancient Greek geometrician.  We would play in that water and around the beaver dams and on the slippery rocks near the falls which tumbled down a dangerous height over smooth boulders under jagged rock promontories.  Mom was certain that we would get killed playing in that creek.  Dad probably thought that it was a possibility, but that the odds were low enough that the glory of the freedom we enjoyed outweighed the risk.

     Upon returning to our camp, usually after Dad came looking for us, we could smell the dinner which Mom was cooking on the stone camp stove which was part of the campsite, or on the Coleman stove which Dad had surprisingly bought legitimately at a store, or on the contraption which Dad had cobbled together out of bits of scrap metal which he called his ‘charcoal broiler’.  Dad was a welder in the Navy and came up with all manner of wondrous inventions which we used around the house.  Food always tastes better when it is cooked and eaten outside, and these meals were unforgettable.  After dinner we would clean up and frequently walk down to where a ring of logs were secured to the ground in a semicircle which was centered on a fire pit.  We would sit on those logs in the evening as it began to get dark and a ranger would light a large fire and give a nature talk that would address the fauna and flora and geology and history of the State Park.  Afterwards we returned to our campsite to bed down for the night; Mom and Dad in the big brown tent while Brad and I would curl up on wood and canvas cots, also courtesy of the U.S. Navy, and under thick olive drab Navy blankets.  Those were some of the finest nights’ sleep that I can remember.

     Whether we camped in summer or winter, the first hours of the day were my favorites.  I was a controlled pyromaniac as a child, never causing damage but always fascinated with being around fire.  Like a moth I was drawn to flames.  Every summer there would be fires in the brush choked canyons of San Diego and when one would be close to my house I would quickly mount my bicycle and follow the sound of the sirens until I reached the site of the blaze.  In later years I would even descend into the canyons to help drag the firemen’s hoses, but that is a different story.

     Dad recognized my enjoyment of a good blaze and harnessed it constructively.  I was put in charge of getting the fire started in the big stone and iron camp stove upon which Mom would cook most of our meals.  At night before we went to bed Dad would give me one match and tell me to use it wisely.  The next morning I would use that one match and have a good bed of coals over which Mom would cook; that is, if I used that match well as Dad advised.  It was a game between Dad and me but it was also a point of pride.

     Summer presented no obstacle to producing a good breakfast fire, but winter was another matter entirely.  If we cooked our first evening meal on the Coleman stove and/or the charcoal broiler there was a better than even chance that the camp stove was caked in snow and ice.  This would require that I use a hatchet to hack enough ice away from the ten inch square steel door which dropped open to expose the fire chamber of the stove.  After that I would remove as much ice as I could from the steel grate which was set in the stone above the fire chamber so that the melting ice would not extinguish my precious fire.  I could never get it all, but usually I scraped enough away to give my one match a fighting chance.

     Then came the all-important preparation of the fuel.  With increasingly freezing fingers I would use a large knife to shave slivers of wood from assorted sticks and other small bits of lumber which Dad brought to fuel our cooking fires.  First came the tiny slivers which would catch fire quickly and then even larger shavings until I could add small sticks and would then be on my way.  By the time I was ready to strike my one match my fingers would be numb and body shaking from the cold, and with the scratch of that one match across the abrasive surface of a match box or paper match book, depending upon which type of match Dad had given to me, the bright flare of the initial ignition followed by the small, pure flame of the burning match lit my hope for a continued status of master fire starter just as surely as it ignited the layered pile of kindling which I had so carefully arranged in the fire chamber.

     Nearly always the fire caught on quickly, beginning in the very fine shavings and then growing as larger splinters ignited.  I would keep my hands close to the fire, shifting my kindling and adding more and larger pieces while enjoying the warmth which my aching fingers craved.  As the fire grew to a point where the remaining ice on the grill overhead began to melt I would brush it over the side with hatchet and hands, which further froze my frigid digits, but with this last maneuver the fire was free to grow and pour warmth and cheer out of the stove and return my hands to a pain-free state in a very short time.

     All of this scraping and chopping and carrying on produced a good deal of noise and my parents, being light sleepers, would awaken in the tent and wait until the sounds died down, which indicated that I was sitting smugly in front of a roaring fire.  Mom would then arise and emerge from the tent to get the coffee started and begin breakfast.  Dad came out shortly after Mom, inspected the fire, and gave me a pat on the back and an ‘attaboy’.  That meant everything in the world to me.

     One thing which I took for granted in those times was the honesty of the other campers.  We would go on family hikes and leave our stove and icebox and sleeping gear and everything else right where they sat or lay and be gone for hours at a time.  Always, things were exactly where we had left them when we returned.  Brad and I would go straight to the icebox fter a long, hot hike and retrieve a twelve ounce glass bottle of Coca Cola.  The icebox was another metal contraption cobbled together by my father in the repair shop where he worked in the Navy, and we would fill it with ice and bacon and eggs and Cokes and everything else which we wanted to keep cold.  Brad and I got to drink two Cokes per day each and in the warm summertimes it was a treat indeed.  I cannot now imagine expecting such a level of trust in other campers in most public campgrounds.

     Finally the time would come to break camp and return to the city.  Dad would extract the wooden pole from the big tent and after loosening and withdrawing the steel spikes, we would fold up the tent and stuff it into the deep trunk of the car.  Icebox and Coleman stove and lantern and any remaining food and empty Coke bottles, which we could return for three cents each, filled out the trunk and the space between Brad and I in the back seat.  All of the trash went into cans chained to wood posts near the campsite and we left the space as clean as we found it, and sometimes cleaner.

     Many other features of my camping trips I have described elsewhere already; the hiking, the precautions against stumbling onto a rattlesnake, the climbing of trees and sliding on our fannies across wet, slippery rocks near the waterfall area.  When I was a little bit older I would fish for trout which were stocked in the tiny ‘river’ and on one trip met a couple of girls from the Los Angeles area with whom I connected and wrote letters to and visited for several years to come.  That campground will always be a magical place in my memories of childhood.  I don’t know if places as wonderful as that exist in our country anymore, and in truth I don’t really know if that place even then was as wonderful as it remains in my mind.  What I can confidently say is that Green Valley Falls campground in the 1950’s was as close to heaven on earth as this writer has experienced in six decades of life.