Talking the Walk

It began, as most backpacking trips do, in a ranger station. The ranger was explaining to Ed and me that we would need a bear bag. This is a special food bag that you hang over the end of a tree branch so the bears don’t come into your tent and don’t get into your food. Bears are too heavy, the ranger said, “to go out on a limb.”

“Lot of bears up there this time of year?” asked Ed.

Hiking


His tone was calm, conversational even, but I, unlike the bears, will go out on a limb and say that Ed was uncomfortable with the bear concept. As was I.

“No bears.” The ranger narrowed his gaze. “Marmots.”

It was as close as a park ranger gets to cursing. The marmot, according to one of the handouts he gave us, “will eat virtually anything” and will “chew through your pack to get food.”

I can never get a good fix on the forest ranger personality: calm and carefree—or quietly desperate? Most likely it’s something of a mix. In exchange for being able to live in places where the rest of us go for vacation, they are forced to wear bulky uniforms and have tedious conversations about permit fees and wilderness etiquette.

Ed stood at the rack of free informational handouts, carefully taking one of each. One had a crude trail map of this particular patch of the Sierras, leading him to believe we could make do without a real map. It was the sort of decision that causes friends and neighbors to shake their heads sadly: To think they lost their lives for six dollars.

Consulting our crude map, we chose a trail that appeared to be a reasonable day’s hike for middle-aged people bearing 25-pound packs. That is to say, a short one. In the end, the trail turned out to be five miles long with a 2,000-foot elevation gain.

At a waterfall we believed to be the halfway point, we stopped for lunch. It was well before noon, but when Ed is hungry, it is best to address the matter. He will chew through your pack to get food. Besides, we were beat. The rushing water was barely audible over the sound of our panting.

“Beautiful spot,” I wheezed.

“Yup,” said Ed, massaging his knee. “We should come here when we’re ten years younger.”

Because we had only cheese and crackers and peanut butter for lunch, it was over dismayingly soon. Backpacking is an excellent dieting activity, as the normal desire to overeat is outweighed by the desire to keep one’s pack light.

Back on the trail, we passed an old stone cabin. A plaque informed us that it had belonged to the actor Lon Chaney. Ed wondered aloud how Chaney had managed to haul the stones all this way into the woods.

“Maybe that’s how he became a hunchback,” I offered.

Ed ignored me. He took out the map. “If the cabin is here,” he said, “then we’re barely a third of the way.”

We were silent for a moment, contemplating the distance ahead. A man on a horse passed us. Behind him were two more horses, carrying the backpacks of a group of hikers who had sped past us some time ago. “Remind me,” I said. “Why is it that we didn’t do that?”

A few hours later, we rounded a bend, and there below us was the answer to my question: a glacial lake, aqua-hued and sprinkled with shimmering spots of sun. No one else was around. We set up the tent and played Scrabble. As the sky turned pink, Ed cooked up some dehydrated beans and instant rice, which we ate with cilantro and hot sauce from a teeny plastic bottle that would later leak all over the camp towel.

It’s possible the food would have tasted just as good if horses had carried our packs—but I doubt it.

***


This will be my last column. I’m off to work on my fourth book. Thank you all for reading me these past six years. It was an honor and a delight to write for you. I miss you already.