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The Trail Taken

By Jerry Bowen
Los Angeles, CA, USA

Jerry Bowen

Each August, near the first of the month, I make my escape knowing roughly where I am going but not how the journey will end. 

I escape Los Angeles. The barking neighborhood dogs. The traffic going slowly nowhere. The over-flight of the LAPD helicopters signaling something very bad has happened to some poor soul in the vast City of Angels.

My escape is aided and abetted by my 39-year-old son Nate and his rotating crew of likely suspects. His college housemate Rob now an emergency room physician in Eugene, Oregon, and Kim, a 65-year-old artist who fashions jewelry from precious metals. (He can be with us only two days as a concession to his wife since he is off this Fall for a solo hike across the Alps.) At 68, I round out the crew. Retired and looking for my annual affirmation that I am still vital. 

We are off again to the Eastern Sierra and remote sun-baked Lone Pine some four hours north of Los Angeles. It is the gateway to Mt. Whitney, highest mountain in the lower 48. Millions of moviegoers also know it for the edge of town where countless Westerns were made by Hollywood over the decades on location in the rugged Alabama Hills.

Our destination is far above the town. Horseshoe Meadows at an elevation of nine thousand feet. From there we will make 13 miles our first day. Up the steep switchbacks over 11,200-foot Cottonwood Pass. Followed by a long, brutal day of up and down trekking to reach our campsite at Rock Creek. A gurgling stream on the trail to our goal of the Crabtree Lakes.  

The Crabtree Lakes, especially Middle Crab, are desirable for their trout and relative isolation. The lakes are a challenge to reach and so few people try. This will be our third visit.

Backpacking is as simple as it is demanding. You carry everything you need to survive. And you try to reduce all this stuff to the lowest possible weight to jam into your pack. Food, clothes, camp stoves, tents, sleeping bags and more.

Each year I fail miserably. I have labored under 50 pounds in the past, swearing that next year I will get it down to 35. Never happens. This year was 50 pounds again. We have excuses. There is the wine, beer and whiskey, which is brought along for medicinal purposes.

Cottonwood Pass (elevation 11,200 feet)
to Horseshoe Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness (August 2015)
(credit: Nate Bowen)

The first day out there is also the extra weight of the steaks. A backpacking tradition. The filet mignon is hard frozen a week ahead of time. By the end of the first day those jewels are thawed out and ready for the frying pan. They go down well with a red wine. Better than the alternative. Freeze-dried Mac and Cheese. Freeze-dried anything.

The first night out is a chance to moan over sore legs and developing blisters and the so-called civilized world we have just left behind.

Question: Who around this campsite would allow the infamous Minnesota dentist, Cecil the Lion's killer, to put his hands in your mouth to fill a cavity? Who in this age spends $50,000 to bag a radio-collared lion, lured from the safety of a Zimbabwe reserve by a jeep dragging hyena guts, wounds the poor animal and takes another 40 hours to find and finally kill it and then claims he thought it was a legal hunt?

Idea: Better going forward that the Minnesota dentist wears a radio collar so we can keep track of where he is and warn the wildlife. Just a thought.

Kim pipes up that friends of friends of his have just returned from climbing Machu Picchu in Peru and said it was the most disgusting experience of their lives. Travelers to this World Heritage Site answer nature's call right along side the road. 

The subject comes up because we're finding the same thing along the Sierra trails where we never did before. Even right in campsites. Toilet paper and waste that is supposed to be far away and buried.

The trails from coast to coast are not what they used to be. They are far busier. Backpacking is up 40% over the past decade according to the outdoor magazine High Country News.

Extreme backpacking trips of 500 miles or more along the demanding Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico to Canada are up too. Permits for the PCT jumped from 1,900 to nearly 2,700 in a year.

It is called the "Cheryl Strayed Effect" by some. She wrote a compelling memoir (later to become a movie) titled Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail about her journey on a large part of the trail. She was mourning the death of her mother and trying come to grips with other speed bumps in her life. She was searching. Her story inspired others to search too.

The East Coast cousin of the PCT is the 2,200 mile-Appalachian Trail and it is suffering from popularity too. There are reports of drunken hikers partying along the more accessible routes. Small towns that are gateways to the solitude of the trail are feeling less hospitable.

We encountered newcomers on our second day out. It was a seven mile slog from Rock Creek up to Crabtree Meadows...doorstep to the lakes. Deer were munching the grass and fury marmots were waiting for a chance to search our packs for crumbs.

Two women across the stream from our campsite were setting up their tents for the night. They chose to bed down next to the community bear box. The "box" is a large rectangular metal container where all campers can safely store anything bears might want. Food to toothpaste.

Mt. Newcomb above Middle Crabtree Lake, Sequoia N.P. (August 2015)
(credit: Nate Bowen)

They were offended when we brought out bags to store. 

"You're not putting that here, are you?" 

"Yup. That's the idea." 

Next morning as we retrieved our bags the response was just as frosty. The bear box had become their cooking platform. And they were not in a welcoming mood.

Didn't matter. The trail that morning led three of us up to the lakes and Kim on the 20 miles back to Horseshoe Meadows and on the road to home.

The lakes, especially Middle Crab, remind of us our place in nature. As in really, really small compared to the greater scheme of things.

On two sides, cathedral-like rock faces rise a thousand feet above the water's surface. At the very top formations jut out in rugged outlines of old Crusader castles from the Middle East. On a lower wall a small glacier hugs the granite. It used to be so much larger.

At dusk the magic of the Alpen glow visits. The rims of the surrounding mountains to be bathed in golden light. Not long after the nightly show of sparkling diamonds in the sky will ease in.

Hours after that, sometime after midnight, the rocky valleys below will echo with the loudest, damnedest chorus of coyotes. I mean loud! And growing. Were they chasing some poor deer? Or just sounding off to the full moon. It seemed they would overrun our camp. Devouring each of us in our tents one by one to make us another legendary story of the Sierra. "All that remained of the three veteran backpackers were their sturdy hiking boots."

Coyotes have better tastes than that, however. Their yips and barks and howls were a feast of sound and nothing more. Something to nod off to.

Our time in the mountains passed, as always, too quickly. The trout gods were good to us. Several meals of Golden trout filed our fry pan. We were rested after three days at our lakeside hideaway having seen just six other people the entire time. And they were passing through.

It took us two days to get back to the trailhead. The first day was 18 miles with a nighttime crossing of the 12,000-foot-plus New Army Pass in the dark. Think of traversing a narrow ledge on tired legs with a headlamp view 30 feet ahead and a thousand foot drop off on the edge. The alternative was a crowded campground and the promise of only four hours sleep.  

Day two was easier. Seven miles out to where we started. Exhausted but feeling renewed. Exhausted but very much alive again.

Off the mountain down in Lone Pine in our motel for the night we learned the Minnesota dentist was in hiding. Donald Trump had won the first Republican Presidential debate. 

And I learned I can still do this. It just hurts more.

Next year I'll have a lighter pack. I hope.


Jerry Bowen is a veteran news correspondent now in retirement after 33 years with CBS Network News. He lives in Los Angeles, but escapes regularly to commune with the coyotes and cougars on his family farm in southwest Iowa.

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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