January 1, 2011

The First 43 Miles are the Hardest

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 9:34 am

What happens when a sheltered, middle-class, mildly neurotic 33-year-old embarks on her first backpacking trip?

When my friend Stuart invited me to go on a seven-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada, my first instinct was to politely decline. I am, after all, what could be called a Protestant Princess. I used to require a nap after a trip to the grocery store. I once made my father drive six miles to flush a terminally ill goldfish because I couldn’t bear to touch it…even with a net. “Adventure” to me meant trying to make it to work and back on less than a quarter tank of gas. So, even though I knew better, I agreed to accompany Stuart and his friend Richard, and before I knew it I found myself shopping in stores with tents pitched in the middle of them, patronized by people who could distinguish Gortex from polypro.

First of all, let me tell you that it costs more to go on a one-week backpacking trip than it does to spend a week on the French Riviera. I spent more on my hiking boots than I did on my wedding dress. Then I proceeded to lay out another hundred dollars or so on woolen socks, long underwear, and alpine sunglasses and a safari hat which, when worn together, made me look like Teddy Roosevelt.

I had consented to go on the trip on one condition: that there be no bears. Stuart had assured me it would be too cold or too damp or too late in the season for bears and I, like an imbecile, believed him. When we arrived at Kings Canyon National Park wherein lurked the 43-mile Rae Lakes Loop, our destination, I noticed that the garbage cans looked like they were built to contain radioactive waste materials. They were fortresses of lead and steel bolted solidly to concrete platforms. That was my first inkling that I had bitten off more than I could chew, and I fervently hoped the bears weren’t intent on doing the same.

Our first morning on the trail started without a hitch. We were a party of three — Stuart, a self-proclaimed Renaissance man, Richard, a botanist who wore tie-dyed t-shirts and said “yahoo” a lot, and me. I had practiced hiking carrying heavy books, and when we got to the trailhead I was relieved to hoist my pack and discover that it weighed right about 32 pounds, my practice load. Then we stopped to fill our water containers. Do you know how much water weighs? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course, but I’ve discovered that people who backpack regularly can accurately answer questions like that, and other questions no one really wants the answers to.) All I know is that my filled water bottle felt like a car radiator was strapped to my hip, and I began the hike with an uneven gait reminiscent of Dennis Weaver’s “Chester” on “Gunsmoke.”

The first part of the trail wound with deceptive ease through lush green meadows past the sparkling Kings River. As I walked, I was lulled into a false sense of capability, and I was just beginning to plan my Everest trip when suddenly a boy of about 11 came pounding down the trail, panting and pointing behind him, yelling, “There’s a bear on the trail about a half mile up!” as he passed us hell bent for election. Underestimating the determination of two nature-lovers who had planned this trip for six months, I assumed we would immediately turn around, get in the car, and drive back to the safety of a city full of muggers. It wasn’t to be. Stuart seemed unperturbed.

“Okay,” he whispered, “get your Sierra Club cups and spoons and, if we see him, we’ll bang our cups and scare him away.”

Now I was no expert, but it seemed to me that the sight of three suburbanites playing percussion on tin cups in the face of a 500-pound bear would hardly “scare” him. Nevertheless, I clutched my place-setting and marched onward and upward toward the jaws of death. In my mind’s eye I could see headlines like, “Woman Tries to Fight Off Killer Bear With Spoon; Remains Found in Three Counties.”

Suddenly Stuart shouted, “There he is!” and we were all banging our cups and whooping and hollering and, unbelievably, I watched as the bear turned and ran away from us. A bear ran away from me ! Well, I thought, that’s one less thing to be afraid of: apparently, Sierra Nevada bears are wimps.

About the fourth day on the trail I was getting pretty cocky. I had terrorized a bear, eaten food cooked in a coffee can, and had shared my morning bath with a water snake, and I was beginning to think the Donner Party women had been a bunch of crybabies. That’s when we started gaining elevation, and it got cold. Bitterly cold. The verdant meadows gave way to a bleak landscape of granite and dead trees, the harshness relieved now and then by a tuft of grass and a patch of half-frozen wildflowers which backpackers have imagination enough to call “alpine meadows.”

We were hiking that afternoon when suddenly the wind kicked up and dark clouds started forming. Stuart and Richard began considering campsites for the night and finally settled on a smooth granite mesa. Surveying our surroundings, I realized that every single tree on the ledge had been struck by lightning in its lifetime, so that we were in a kind of forest of four-foot high blackened stumps. As the sky grew darker, I found myself slouching around the camp casting furtive glances at the thunderheads, trying not to be the highest object on the mountain. I longed for a campfire for warmth and cheer, but we were above 10,000 feet now, where backpackers are no longer allowed to make fires. (That’s a Forest Service rule. They tell you it’s because of the scarcity of timber but they don’t tell you it’s because the lightning fires have burned up whatever the merciless cold will allow to grow.) Stuart and Richard, in the meantime, strolled about appreciating nature, extolling the beauty of this incredible fern and that exquisite pine cone. The trip was a little more than half over, and if I heard one more exclamation of the miracle of nature’s handiwork, I was going to be sick — even at the risk of losing my Freeze Dried Mushroom and Rice Pilaf Instant Dinner (High Carbohydrate).

By lunchtime Tuesday, we were heading down the mountain and decided to stop at Bullfrog Lake to eat the remaining peanut butter and broken crackers. (I noticed that whoever named the natural wonders of the Sierra Nevada chose innocent-sounding names like Bullfrog Lake and Glen Pass. They couldn’t have called a spade a spade, or those places would have names like “Giardia Lake” and “Shin Splint Pass.”) I was just thinking how much I’d endured when we smelled smoke. Forest fire smoke. At first I couldn’t believe it. I had survived so much and now I was going to die like a character in Bambi?!

“Do you think it might just be someone’s campfire?” I asked hopefully, as great clouds of smoke rose from the canyon floor, threatening to obscure Stuart and Richard from my vision. As the smoke grew thicker, even my brave friends, seasoned backpackers who were accustomed to facing death hourly, allowed as how we should pack up and mosey down the mountain. While they painstakingly rewrapped the food (as if we would live to eat another meal!), I flung my gear into my pack like Prissy leaving Atlanta.

To this day, I don’t know what the last ten miles of the Rae Lakes Loop looks like. I saw it, but at breakneck speed through peripheral vision. Despite the choking smoke and the fact that we did not know where the fire was, Stuart and Richard continued as they had begun, stopping to “ooh” and “ahh” over rocks and berries and mistletoe, while I danced on one foot and then the other.

Well, despite their lollygagging, we did manage to make it down the mountain in record time. I think I startled a couple of rangers back at the trailhead who had apparently never before seen anyone on hands and knees kissing an asphalt parking lot. I’m still making monthly payments to the doctor who treated both my knees for patellar tendonitis. (He said going down a mountain ten miles and 2,000 feet in one day wasn’t a real smart thing to do.) The sunburn finally healed. (I didn’t use sunscreen that last day — who would have thought that ultraviolet rays could penetrate all that smoke?) I took three showers upon arriving home and haven’t touched peanut butter since last September. I still have the urge to run when I smell woodsmoke, but my therapist says I’m making progress. In fact, now that I think about it, it wasn’t so bad…maybe next summer…after all, I do have those fancy Italian hiking boots and I have to get my money’s worth, don’t I? Besides, there’s a ten-mile stretch of the Rae Lakes Loop I’ve yet to see, and I’ll bet it’s beautiful.

Originally published in the May/June 1987 issue of Sierra Life magazine under my former married name Patricia Patterson.


  1. For those who read yesterday’s blog, here is the original event, which took place in September 1986. My telling of it was published in 1987.

    Comment by Patricia Ann Clark — January 1, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  2. I was going to ask you to post this but you beat me to it. I’m glad you did. Thanks.

    Comment by Larry Clark — January 1, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  3. Since it was published before magazines could have online versions of themselves, I ended up having to retype the entire thing. Only about 1,500 words but still…. Thanks for appreciating it! [hug]

    Comment by Patricia Ann Clark — January 1, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  4. You are a great writer..I so enjoy your blogs!

    Comment by Julianne Major — January 1, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

  5. Thank you so much!

    Comment by Patricia Ann Clark — January 2, 2011 @ 9:06 am

  6. :-D

    !Hilarious! This makes me never want to go on a hike ever again. Let’s not do it together sometime.

    Comment by Alana — September 8, 2016 @ 10:07 pm

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