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”.

Tarantula Run

I really hate spiders.  Or I guess it would be more correct to say that I fear spiders.  Either way, there is no way in the world that I want to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary in the company of spiders, and that amount of time could be calculated in nanoseconds.  Some people have great fear of snakes, others heights, and others a variety of creatures or experiences too multitudinous to relate.  For me it’s spiders.

I have a theory concerning the origin of spiders.  In the beginning God created just about all of the stuff that we know about and it was good.  We know that because He told us that.  One of the guys He made was named Lucifer and Lucifer was on of God’s favorite creations, and when Lucifer came to God and said “Please, please, can’t I create something?  Pretty please, pretty please, huh?  huh?” well, God just couldn’t help but say “OK”, but with grave misgivings.  So old Lucifer began snapping his fingers and Bam! There were ticks:  Bam! There were mosquitos:  Bam!  There were spiders.  God looked on in horror and the rest is chronicled in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.

This perfectly rational lack of enthusiasm for sharing space with spiders has nevertheless not prevented me from finding myself in many acutely uncomfortable situations.  In one case my father, who was a very good household craftsman, decided to re-plumb our house in San Diego in order to add a shower to our bathroom.  This project inevitably required that he gain access to the existing plumbing which was very old when we moved in and was in much need of being replaced.  As long as we were modifying the plumbing to accommodate the new shower Dad decided to make a complete job of it.  Access to the area where Dad would have to work was gained by crawling on one’s back through a tiny screened slot at ground level in the side of our house and wriggle on our backs for what seemed like a hundred miles, but which in fact was only eight feet or so, under the house.

Just in the way of background, San Diego is located in the arid Southwest which is the habitat of a body of unsavory critters, the least savory of which is the black widow spider.  Black widows are blind, I am told, and reclusive.  That is why I almost never ran into them.  But then I almost never went under the house, which is exactly where I WOULD go if I was a blind and reclusive poisonous spider.  I had no doubt that a legion of black widow spiders with fear-seeking direction finders waited there with no other purpose in mind than to put an end to my short and unhappy life.

” I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that I thought could hurt you” said my father who was trying to reassure me.  The attempt fell far short of it’s mark.  It sounded a lot like a nurse coming at me with a three foot long syringe with a javelin for a point saying “this might pinch a little”, or Dad telling me “this hurts me more than it hurts you”.  I quickly called “B.S.” on the latter flaming lies and did so on this new lie as well.

I don’t remember how long the project took, but the hours I spent with my nose inches from the two-by-twelve floor cross members and whatever scrabbling horrors that lurked within their recesses seemed like an eternity.  I assume that my father was greatly annoyed by my fear and utter willingness to express it; in his generation letting on that you were afraid was definitely not cool, so I suspect that he dragged the project out for longer than was needed.  At any rate, the project finally came to an end and I escaped with no bites that I knew of, which probably means no bites at all.

Years later I was in Viet Nam and on one particularly well moonlit night I was looking for a place to get out of sight.  It would sound a lot more impressive if I said that I was a forward observer that night or on guard duty, or under attack and hiding to avoid sniper fire or shrapnel from mortars and rockets, but the sad truth was that I was lighting up a joint and trying to keep a low profile to avoid the attention of superiors whom I later discovered didn’t really care one whit what I did with my spare time.  I was next to an old sandbag bunker that was not in use which was located across a dirt road from my company area and slipped back into the alcove which housed the entrance into that bunker.  Lighting up I puffed contentedly for a while until I felt something crawling on my neck.  My senses were pretty well numbed by that joint, which was the point of smoking the stuff over there.  I was well enough anesthetized against the idea of being a sitting duck in that arcade that the import of something crawling on me in the dark night in Viet Nam didn’t immediately strike me as noteworthy or worrisome.  The persistent sensation of creepy-crawly slowly worked it’s way through my numbed perception however and impelled me at last to step out into the relatively bright moonlight.  It was in that moonlight that I could see the gray bodies of the quarter-sized spiders that were crawling all over me.

I exploded out of that bunker and did a dance that probably looked a great deal like a cross between James Brown and Joe Cocker on meth.  I hollered and slapped at my head and body with my cap and ran gyrating and gesticulating across our company area until I came to a lighted area where I could look for spiders wherever they might be.  I took off my shirt and pants right then and there, one can do that in an all male environment, and shook everything out.  All of my multipedal fellow travelers were gone by then but my high was thoroughly shattered as well, and so I showered and went to bed, but felt things crawling on me all of the rest of the night.

When I got home from Viet Nam I found myself subject to nightmares the same as so many other soldiers did.  My nightmares were never about bullets and bombs however.  On one occasion I dreamed that the devil was right behind me, chasing me down a street near where I lived at the time.  No doubt he knew how effective his little eight legged creations were at freaking me out and had come to rub it in a little.  Later nightmares contained the usual fare that was normal for a connoisseur of “B” horror films of the 1950’s and early 60’s.  Werewolves and vampires teamed up to generate more than a few restless nights which might be interrupted by a sympathetic brother who would tell me later that “it just looked like you needed waking up.”

By far the worst however concerned an unfinished house on a hilltop in a forest somewhere.  For whatever reason I had to get from one side of this unfinished, open-walled house to the other, and as I began to traverse the bare wooden floor I became aware of spiders dangling from single strands of web, swinging like malevolent pendulums, growing thicker as I made my way across that floor.  All of a sudden I found myself running through the hellish house of horror holding a huge, thick wooden door and using it as a shield.  Any door of it’s size in real life would almost certainly weigh twice what I do and I couldn’t possibly even move it much less pick it up.  In my dream I was aware of its weight but the fact that I was carrying it made no impression.  In any case, at a moment when the terror caused me to lose my grip on any rational thought I threw my oaken shield through the path I wanted to go.  The spiders were so numerous by this time and the webs so thick that the massive door was suspended in the sticky matrix well off of the ground.  It was at that moment that a huge, hairy spider the size of my hand with the fingers extended landed on the side of my neck.

It was the left side.  I woke up with sweat pouring off of me and I am certain that I was uttering the strangled, muffled sounds that are the screams of one trying to escape their nightmare.  On this night my brother was not there to rescue me from my terrors and I lay there in my bed still as a statue, with part of me almost crying with relief that I was awake and part of me still feeling the hairy embrace of that fiendish spider.  The feeling subsided slowly but I slept no more that night, and forty four years later I can still feel echos of that visitation from the ninth circle of hell.

But all of that only brings me to the main point of my story, and that is the tale of my night hike over Tarantula Run.  This tale begins, as many of mine do, at the campground of Green Valley Falls in the mountains east of San Diego.  My father was very good about taking our family camping when I was young, and my friends and I camping when I was a little older.  On this particular trip my father took me and my best friend Mike for a couple of days and nights.  We did the usual things; fished in the Sweetwater River, went to the rangers’ nature talks at a big campfire in the evening, tried ineffectively to attract the attention of young female campers and so on.  One evening however Dad offered something new.  “Want to go on a night hike” he asked us?  “Sure” was our enthusiastic reply.  We were always up for a new adventure.

Now you must understand that since we were kids growing up in San Diego we ceased to wear shoes altogether from the moment that school was out in June until we returned to school in September.  Shoe wearing was engaged in a spotty manner all of the rest of the year.  Our feet, as a consequence of this, were tough and calloused.  Only a very strong splinter or a piece of glass could puncture or cut our feet, and the heat of an asphalt street in the midday sun was no great discomfort to us as the summer wore on.  It was with these bare but leathery feet that we began our hike as the sun started to sink towards the horizon to the west.

We saw our first tarantula only a few yards up Monument Trail, a three or four foot wide dirt track which led generally uphill towards the top of Monument Peak.  At the top of that peak is a lookout post for those who watch for forest fires and a monument to the fire fighters who fought a monster blaze in those hills in the early 1950’s.  Mike and I marveled at this creature which was far enough away that it inspired more curiosity than dread.  After a few moments of registering the spider’s presence and novelty we walked on.  We had never seen one of these things here before, and it was worth a look

Maybe a third of a mile up the path we saw the second spider.  Mike and I were quite taken with the coincidence of seeing two of these things when we had previously been unaware that any lived here.  We did not see any need for concern however until we had walked a couple hundred yards up the trail and saw two more, with one of them being right in the middle of the trail.  Mike and I were carrying our long snake sticks, or “snake sniks” as we called them, which we used as walking sticks and to rattle brush in order to alert rattlers to our presence so that they could alert us to theirs.  Mike poked at the obstructionist arachnid with his stick to speed it out of our way.  Speed was exactly we we got; the thing jumped about two feet to a spot just off the trail and glowered at us with its several dozen eyes.  Mike and I looked at each other first in amazement which was slowly but certainly replaced with fear.  The damned things jump.

It was at this time deepening into dusk and we were well along a trail which we now knew was lousy with tarantulas behind us.  My dad, who was well shod and not overly afraid of spiders anyway, reasoned that the only option was to go forward and perhaps find less crawly terrain ahead.  It seemed like our best choice so on we went, but the carpet of tarantulas which covered the area only thickened.

By the time we were a couple of miles up the trail it had become completely dark but for the light of a full moon, and Dad led the way as Mike and I followed, trying to place our feet exactly in the print of the person who was walking in front of us.  The bright moonlight made it easy to discern the path as it wound it’s way through the waist high chaparral on either side of us, but it was too dim to illuminate the spiders which we knew were crawling on our path and everywhere to either side of it.  I was expecting at any moment to put my bare foot down on a furry, wriggling, biting horror and I know that Mike expected the same.  We walked on untouched however, hoping that we could finish the rest of this five mile trek unscathed.

We at last reached the end of the hiking trail halfway up the mountain where it joined the Forest Service road that led up to the peak.  That made the road easier to see but our low-crawling friends were not visible in the gloom that cast shadows across the irregular road surface, shadows which I was certain provided cover for a hoard of hairy denizens that were biding their time before they jumped and began to feast on my legs and feet.

A few hundred yards down the road from the junction with the trail was the beginning of a path which zig zagged down the side of the hill to join the road below, cutting off a good two miles of this walk.  The path was little more than a game trail however and it would be hard to see in the dark.  More to the point, the path crossed several times a small rill of water which began at a spring on the side of the mountain and trickled down the hillside for a short distance before it was reabsorbed into the dry, thirsty earth of that arid corner of the country.  Dad knew that the creatures of that area came to drink at that tiny waterway or nibble at the vegetation.  Other creatures came to nibble on them, including rattlesnakes which were more than happy to partake in that moveable feast.  Dad knew that our fears of those tarantulas were pretty nearly groundless, but his fear of snakes was very well founded indeed.  Mike and I begged to descend on the shorter route snakes or no snakes, but Dad held firm.  So on down the mountain we continued to hike.

By the time we descended off of the mountain and began to walk the last level mile and a half of the road we began to relax just a little.  We had not stepped on any tarantulas yet and we were starting to like our odds that we would not do so at any time in the near future.  We turned out to be prophets, as we finally entered a grove of oak and pine which signified that we were at the picnic space and only a few yards from entering the overnight camping space of the campground.  The lights from the Coleman lanterns and the activity of families returning from the nature talk and climbing into tents or onto cots outside allowed us to breathe easily for the first time in the past couple of hours.

We soon were getting ready to wrap up in our blankets to get some well-earned sleep after a day of joyful fishing and climbing and poking around the rocks and slides of the falls at the south end of the campground, and a night of fearful pressure and tension as we walked barefoot through hell.  Dad assured us that tarantulas were shy and avoided areas which humans occupied.  I was not at all certain that the tarantulas had read the same books as my father however, so I dragged the thin cotton mattress off of my cot and slept on it inside of Dad’s big canvas umbrella tent, with Mike sleeping on his mattress right next to me.