There and back again
In early September, I left on a 165-mile hike around Lake Tahoe. I returned to a changed world.
Sept 8, 4 a.m. The alarm clock tolls. It tolls for me.
Just exactly what I’m doing getting up at this hour, I don’t know. I do know I have to be at Northstar-at-Tahoe to leave on a 164.6-mile backpacking trip in two hours. Somehow, I allowed myself to be roped into the first official group to hike the entire Tahoe Rim Trail.
The trail itself was an ambitious effort that required more than 10,000 volunteers and 200,000 hours of work. The trail’s elevation ranges from 6,300 to 10,300 feet, with more than 32,000 feet in elevation gain and loss. It was a pretty big job, with a total cost of $5 million.
Our group is set to arrive, post-hike, at the Grand Opening Celebration on Sept. 22. That’s how I got involved: The Tahoe Rim Trail Association needed some media whores to get the word out. Most of the hikers paid a cool thousand to be on the list.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been getting outfitted. I haven’t backpacked since I was a Boy Scout, so I need everything. This gear is expensive: backpack, $249; boots, $179; trekking poles, $79—$1,300 before I’m through spending. Each day’s lunch rations are measured out, 20 ounces of food: two PowerBars, a handful of trail mix, dried fruit, four ounces of salami per day.
I’m packed, re-packed and nervous. This’ll be my last hot shower for 15 days. Since I only have one T-shirt and one long-sleeved shirt, I’m going to smell like death. This could be one of the oddest things I’ve ever done.
Sept. 8, 6 a.m.
Our group gathers at Northstar. Steve Andersen and Art Presser are our guides. Introductions are passed around. There are eight women and 11 men in our group. We eye each other suspiciously, wondering who won’t have the stuff to hike 165 miles over peaks and down valleys. Our oldest member, Dan, is 69. Our youngest is Lara, 24. At 39, I’m in the middle. I’m terrified I’ll be one of those found wanting. We are divided into four-person food groups. Kathleen, my partner and my ride, leaves. There’s not much to say. We have never been apart for two weeks.
The group’s goal today is to hike from Martis Peak to the Tahoe Meadows. It’s 15 miles to our camp spot. We carry only a daypack with three liters of water and lunch. We will reach our high-elevation point, 10,338 feet, for the entire trip today at Relay Peak. Our monster packs will be delivered to us at the Tahoe Meadows on the Mount Rose Highway.
A short ride to the trailhead, and we’re off.
Sept. 8, evening
After 14 miles, my shoulders scream. Still, the trek up is well rewarded by the view from Relay Peak. Lake Tahoe, a periodic partner in this trip, is beautiful and changes in color and aspect every time we see it. The smoke from a backfire to the Star Fire blossoms in the sky as we ascend the mountain. The smoke rises like a mushroom cloud, and some of us speculate about what would happen if there were a nuclear blast or some disaster while we’re in the wilderness. The fire, though too far away to cause any danger to us, fills the sky with haze. It feels vaguely portentous.
While the climb gets my muscles quivering, it’s the long drop down to the Meadows that sets my feet on fire. On the way down, I discover the natural joy of crapping in the woods. The technique is to dig a small hole, squat over and poop in it, deposit paper and Nice N’ Cleans and refill the holes. It’s easier said than done, and I discover it’s better to look uphill while I squat—some unexpected things tend to roll downhill.
When we arrive at the Meadows, I peel my inner sock off a blister the size of a quarter. When I put my boots back on, I rip the skin off the blister, exposing angry red meat. We assemble to our food groups and cook our first meal, a dehydrated repast with the lofty name Wild Thyme Turkey that tastes like baby powder. While the service sucks, the atmosphere can’t be beat, so the first meal gets a three-star rating.
It’s time to decide tent partners, and I pal up with Dan and Jack for a spacious but heavy four-man tent. One more mile, and we pitch camp a bit off the highway and fall asleep.
Lugging a 40-pound backpack ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. I get behind Patty, 47. Patty’s son was killed in an avalanche last year, and she’s dedicated this hike to him. She’s a trail runner and former body builder, about five-feet nothing, and her legs mesmerize me. The muscles leap beneath her skin like pit bulls in a bag. She’s one of the people in the group whose commitment to the outdoors is more important than what happens on city streets.
The trail’s scenery is astonishing, views of Lake Tahoe that are usually only enjoyed by the sweeping crows. We cross savannas and walk through forest glades that, like fugues, become familiar through repetition. At times along the ridges, you can see Tahoe on one side, Washoe Lake on the other.
The crew is strung out in bunches. The trained and athletic march at Steve’s back like soldiers in single-file formation. Art, in the back, leads the slower hikers, a mile behind the front-runners. I start with the thoroughbreds but end with the mules. Art teaches us a mountain climbers’ technique for walking up mountains—basically the knee on the down-slope is locked before the next, flat-footed step is taken. My feet are like burning batons, and the middle three toes on each foot are numb.
At dinner, I have a delightful repast of dehydrated beef Stroganoff that tastes like forest duff, and I am told that AIDS is a disease that could have been prevented by lifestyle changes. Moments later, I’m told a morality tale about a young man who, while jogging home from church, contracted AIDS by being raped by a black man. And did you know that 37 percent of Africans have AIDS? It seems ignorance and intolerance survive in the wilderness. Jack tells stories about big-game hunting, and I dream of a killing. I am the prey.
Less than an hour out of camp, we are called to a halt. One of our members, Bob, has suffered an injury that requires professional medical attention. A half-hour later, the group moves on. I spend most of the day hiking solo, joined periodically by Ro. She’s on this hike to commemorate her 50th birthday, but her looks belie her years. She’s a river rat and spends much of her recreational time rafting the rivers of the West. As we tromp through the sun-dappled woods, a gray cloud looms on the horizon.
When we arrive at Spooner Summit, Patty’s husband, Geoff, has brought us turkey sandwiches and beer. Food becomes an instant fixation on the trail. If it is too heavy or impractical to carry, we desire it, but I don’t think we’ll see any sushi for a while. Bob, who is wearing a brace to protect his torn calf muscle, rejoins us, but we lose Jack, who has injured his Achilles tendon. I can’t decide if Bob is heroic or crazy to risk further damage to his leg. This trail will be here for a long time.
It’s funny: The events that are important here—a sandwich, a phone call, a beer—are meaningless out in the world. The panoramas and natural beauty, so rare back in the city, are somewhat taken for granted out here. The Tahoe Rim Trail is so stunning it leaves the part of us that appreciates it stunned.
We are nearing the highway, wearing rain gear, when two hikers tell us the news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I run to the highway, where members of our support team stand senseless near our restock van.
Tears are streaming down Patty’s face. “I’m not crying for the people,” she says. “I’m crying for humanity.” Lara’s dad works in a building near the towers. For one tottery second, it seems the hike might collapse. I call Kathleen and have her e-mail one of my bosses to say that I’m available if needed. I feel impotent—my responsibility is to continue the hike, but every nerve in my body tells me I should leave to be near my family and the news.
The walk near Kingsbury Grade on paved city streets is heinous. When we reach the store, I watch the footage of the buildings falling in upon themselves. After a short break, we hike up concrete streets to the trail, which passes under Heavenly Ski Resort’s lifts. For dinner, we have dehydrated shrimp Newburg. It tastes like crow. Art, who acts as the team medic, dresses the blisters on my feet. Some members of the team look like their feet were caught in meat grinders.
It’s a short hike to our layover spot at Star Lake. The eight miles are hard, and we hike upward, across exposed mountain faces with suicide views. The lake is an alpine beauty, nestled at the feet of Freel Peak. I’m in about the middle of the group, so when I arrive I lie down to take a nap while I wait for Dan, who has our tent poles. Dan seems to believe this trip is some sort of cap to his 52-year backpacking career, but the guy is relentless. He will never stop.
People rinse laundry in the lake. After the rest of the crew arrives, we dine on dehydrated sweet and sour pork, which tastes like shoe leather. Dan and I talk long into the deepening evening before sleeping. I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around this terrorist attack. I only pray that it wasn’t a domestic terrorist, like Timothy McVeigh. Sounds like an Osama bin Laden operation to most of us.
I think it would be easier to think about what happened if there were a word in the English language for it, one word that says “hijacked a plane and ran it into a building to attain terrorist goals.” This hike resonates in my mind as a symbol of the attack. Just as I don’t know what tomorrow will bring on the trail, I don’t know what this attack will bring down the road.
I arise around 7:45 a.m. and go down to the lake. The sun is hot, reflecting off the water like beams from a mirrored disco ball. After coffee, four or five of us head down for a dip. The water is probably only 50 degrees, but after the initial shock, I don’t mind staying in. Some of the women also jump in. One is topless, which isn’t much of a wonder at Burning Man, but it has one shore-stuck woman concerned there may be men nearby.
A few days ago, this same woman attempted to divide up the forest for bathroom functions: Women go on this side, men on that. Personalities have begun to grate.
Although some people have gone up to climb Freel Peak, my feet need rest, and I spend the day eating, rehydrating, napping and chatting. No news on the attack, but there are military aircraft in the sky. Steve and I have a long conversation about how this through-hike came to be.
In part, it was envisioned to help Art get over the chemotherapy treatments he received to fight cancer—in short, to give him something to live for. After treatment, Art has tested clean for cancer, but will return for chemo treatment two days after we get off the trail. Art celebrates his birthday here at Star Lake. We sing “Happy Birthday” and pass around animal crackers. We have dehydrated chicken primavera for dinner. It tastes like they included the wrong part of the chicken.
We head straight up and away from Star Lake. We are supposed to hike 12.5 miles. There are two rises, then a long drop into camp at Highway 89, across from Big Meadow trailhead. I spend the first part of the day with the marathoners. It’s weird. Yes, everybody has different reasons for being here, but somehow, I never expected it to be a race. It is to some. The problem with this pacing, literally 18 inches behind the leader, is that a person can’t see any of the trail’s natural beauty. You have to watch every move of the person in front of you, because if he or she stumbles, the whole group could fall like dominos. Eventually, I drop back to hike solo.
It’s easy to imagine this is some forest primeval, and I wait for Bilbo or Gandalf to appear. With the Jeffrey pines, twisted pinions and all manner of mule ear and manzanita, I’m transported to the day before John C. Fremont arrived here in 1844. But is this real? Are the events back east any more real? Which is the construct—the buildings of NYC or the artifice of this trail, the very structure of the woods created by man’s clear-cutting the mountains a century and a half ago?
Thelma’s husband, Fred, brought ice cream sandwiches and fudgesicles to meet us at the highway, where we are met by our restockers, Ellen and Bob Driscoll of Reno. Ellen and Bob go way beyond the call of duty, bringing buckets for washing our stinky bodies. I hate to blow any illusions, but John Muir, the patron saint of Sierra backpackers, would probably snort with disdain upon our illusory experience. Most of our water filters are beginning to fail. While the water appears pristine, things aren’t always what they appear.
Easy day. I try to hike in the middle of the pack, conversing from time to time with people like Ellen and Brian, who are two old hands at this backpacking stuff. We pass Round Lake and Meiss Meadows and camp at Showers Lake. Two of Ro’s friends, Tom and Jeanne, join us there. They bring little news about the attack. Every day, we get snippets of reports from one of our number, Rob, who has a radio. This is too real for the dreamlike feeling it evokes. We can’t help but be deeply affected by what happened. Lara’s dad is OK, although he witnessed the devastation. Tim is concerned about the financial health of the country. Nothing here is material compared to the pain that flows across the country like seismic waves.
Kathleen and Hunter, my 4-year-old son, meet us at the parking lot where we will be bunking for the night. As a special treat for everyone, the three of us drive to South Lake Tahoe to buy our hearts’ desire: McDonald’s, pizza, oranges, cheese, booze. Art and Steve warn the group about the hike into Desolation Wilderness and the impacts of rich food on the stomach, but the orgy of Big Macs, French fries, Round Table pizza and Chivas Regal is too much to refuse. We eat, drink and get merry until well after dark.
Seeing Hunter and Kathleen is bittersweet—six more days. Hunter is mad at me for leaving him. He’s been walking around the house wearing a backpack. He told Kathleen, “I’m going packpacking, and I’m not going to take somebody.” Kathleen won’t turn on the news when Hunter is around, so she has little new information about the attack.
Steve wasn’t exaggerating. The hike into Desolation past Echo Lake is intense. The Pacific Crest Trail is often rocky and loose. The group is strung out pretty well, and I take a wrong turn, continuing up the ridge. When I get to the top, I realize there’s nobody in front of me or behind me. That’s when the cussing begins. I turn around and beat feet. When I reach the place where I went wrong, I’m told, “They have a search party looking for you.” They must have been looking where the light was good, because there was nobody looking where I lost the trail.
A couple miles later, we camp at Aloha Lake. It’s surreal, almost post-apocalyptic with its dead tree stumps rising from the water. I finally get a turn reading Dan’s special issues of People and Time magazines. Details about the bombing don’t set my mind at ease. Kamikaze chipmunks invade my food. I begin to sharpen my trekking pole for some Chipmunk Kabob, but members of my party suggest that would be rude. Would’ve beaten the pasta Roma I had instead.
Brutal day. My feet are pretty much hardened to the trail, although my toes are still numb, but the rise over Dick’s Pass kicks my ass. I won’t miss the Desolation Wilderness, even though it’s some of the most beautiful landscape we’ve covered. This hiking on granite is hard on the feet and the soul.
At the top, we run into some guys who’ve been on our path since Echo Lake. One wears a Fitzgerald’s Casino ball cap and tells me he wants to hike out by “JarbRidge,” because we are at war. “I don’t know if there’s been any shooting yet, but we’re at war.” I think he’s talking about the Black Tuesday attack. Turns out he’s talking about reopening the Forest Service road. He then tells me it’s more important than the stuff in NYC. I guess when you travel in the forest you’re going to find nuts.
At one point on the trail, we pass a boy sitting on a rock with two backpacks. He looked pretty miserable. We also pass a guy in full camouflage military gear, a survivalist type. We pass several lakes and camp at Middle Velma Lake.
Easy day. We have 14 miles of hiking with few exposed moments and a lot of shade. I didn’t realize we have so many ferns growing around the lake. We begin to see commercial flights in the skies, but the occasional fighter makes us wonder about the state of the world. We camp at Barker Pass. A screech owl keeps many of us awake for much of the night. My nose is sunburned, and it feels like it’s swollen twice its usual size. It’s been a long time since I saw my face. Just to mix things up, we have dehydrated food for dinner. Tastes like packing peanuts.
Rough day. We have 15 long miles before we drop into Tahoe City. The last couple of miles are like torture, with a dusty, overused trail. The dust rises, invading our mouths, nostrils and sinuses. We have to camp in a cesspool of broken glass and chunks of asphalt called 64 Acres.
Despite threats of a brutal climb tomorrow, several of us escape into town to Albertson’s. The lights and colors in the store are disorienting. I feel almost high. The lavishness of a simple supermarket is emblematic. Is all this excess what bin Laden hates about us? The magazines and tabloids show images of the terrorist attack, but I’m comforted by one that has a picture of Hillary Clinton and headlines about her divorce from Bill. Whatever happened to Chandra Levy?
We eat in a nearby park. A homeless man is trying to start a fire in a grill near us, and he says, “You’re not those guys hiking around Tahoe, are you?” Ro shares half her sandwich with him. As bad as we look and smell, he looks like he’s been hoeing a harder row.
Last night. Dan and I pitch our tent right on the shore of Watson Lake. I don’t know how to feel about all this. I’m afraid I’m going to miss these people. I’ve developed a great respect for Dorie, whose snail’s pace drove many of us to distraction early in the hike. She, like Dan, will make it over any obstacle. I’ve even forgiven the people who didn’t carry team water, or who managed to carry only the lightest increment of the team gear.
Out here on the perimeter there are many stars. Rob, who shaved nearly every day to give lie to the need to look scruffy on the trail, cracks me up with his aphorisms ("Ranger Rick says, ‘A neat appearance makes happy campers.'") Some people overcame serious adversity to get this far, everything from blisters to bladder infections to intestinal distress.
That doesn’t even take into account our leader, Art, who has been patching stinky feet for two weeks now. Steve, point man for the group, never once took a wrong turn or lost his cool. We’ve all taken a journey that’s as spiritual as it is physical. Many of us, including me, have lost weight. I’ve lost at least 10 pounds, but I’ve grown in different ways. In short, none of these people irritate me half as much as the average highway driver down there in the world.
Tim bought a special treat for our group’s food last night, Lloyd’s Barbeque Chicken, for a trail version of sloppy joes. Tastes like ambrosia. Later, we sit around the Love Shack, Steve and Art’s tent (don’t ask), telling jokes and wondering what the world will be like when we get home. After two weeks of walking, our defenses have come undone, and we end up singing TV show theme songs. Those of us who were afraid we couldn’t make it no longer have doubts.
We’re slated for 10 miles before we land at the grand opening celebration. We’ve lightened our backpacks considerably, as some of our people are quite literally on their last legs. Steve and Art keep us all together somehow. It’s a tribute to their skills and professionalism that they’ve gotten us this far.
Steve is a little irritated with the lack of planning for our part in the celebration. The idea is that we’ll arrive at a dramatic point in the fete, and all the Grand Poobahs will look in wonder at our thinner and hairier but stronger and smellier selves. Some of our members have donned American flags. As we rise to the place where the celebration will be, we see Tahoe again. An American eagle, our first of the trip, flies above us. Ro points out the peaks around the lake that we’ve gotten to know so intimately during the last two weeks.
We arrive precisely on time, but the party is late. Although there are people surrounding the speakers’ lectern, our arrival is somewhat anti-climatic, and organizers move us back down the trail, so we can appear to arrive at a more photogenic moment. Bob, our most-injured comrade, has had about enough, and he continues on, desperate for anything besides water to drink.
As we sit around grousing about the wait, we get a lot of mileage out of the fact that they call it the “150-Mile Celebration,” but it’s really 165 miles. We figure they didn’t want to pay to change the literature and T-shirts.
Our loved ones begin to arrive, chatting with us on rocks just down the trail from the burgeoning celebration. When our cue comes, we shuffle up the last few feet of trail, and Art and Steve give emotional speeches. Our big moment soon ends, and we head toward the buses to take us back to Northstar.
We may have come full circle, but with terrorism unleashed on our shores, we’ve come home to a different world than the one we left.