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”.

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