Before summer camp and Yosemite banned me, the Boy Scouts sent me packing.
Della had signed me up when I was two grades younger than the official minimum. The scoutmaster had been happy to oblige the pretty, buxom flirt who claimed to want the best for her stepson. I liked Mr. Wendt. He didn’t care if we wore uniforms or not. When we gathered with other troops for the annual Jamboree, he told us to have fun and not worry about winning. So we goofed around during the semaphore competition, sending nonsensical messages. In a contest about lashing poles together, we built a wobbly, purposeless sculpture while other troops built bridges and watchtowers.
Then a new Scoutmaster replaced Mr. Wendt. He started uniform inspections and taught us to march in formation. “Left. Right. Left.” I didn’t take any of that—or him—very seriously. Soon came the ultimatum: earn a Citizenship Merit Badge or be expelled.
By then I’d gotten what I needed from scouting. I’d gone on monthly outings with them for years, mostly to drive-in campgrounds, but sometimes backpacking. The troop would leave Saturday morning and reach a trailhead by noon. We’d hike four or five miles through one of the mountainous areas near LA, pitch camp, and spend the evening around a campfire. After cooking breakfast the next day and running around a bit, we’d pack up and head home. It was enough for me to live comfortably outdoors, if only for a weekend.
My dad cheered when I told off the new scoutmaster. But we both knew Della required breaks from my presence. That was fine with me; I wanted to get away as much as she wanted me gone. So Brad and I began planning trips together. At the outset, I was fourteen and couldn’t drive, but he was older and could borrow his mom’s Plymouth. Just like the Scouts, we went car camping and backpacking. Unlike them, we loaded up with pot, booze, quaaludes, mescaline, and LSD.
My first day on the JMT reminded me of a weekend trek with the Scouts or Brad. Sure, there were minor differences: my bear of a pack, the 3000’ climb, nearly dying. But it felt familiar to hike a few miles and sit around a campfire with boys.
That was last week. Since then, I’d been lugging my gear ten to fifteen miles per day. The blisters on my heels had broken into open sores. My toes were gouging into each other as they battled for territory in my too-small boots.
My backpack had triggered lumbar strain. An early version of an internal frame pack, it was ahead of its time. The store had displayed it under a glossy poster, too sleek and futuristic to resist. It was also too conspicuous to steal, so I paid for it. But now the thing sagged heavily off my back. It felt like an over-loaded duffel bag edged with aluminum bars, which is a fair description of its design. The hip belt lifted some of the mass off my shoulders, but it slipped and needed regular cinching.
There were better backpacks, but all camping gear was heavy in those days. Empty, JMT pack weighed at least six pounds. My sleeping bag weighed nearly the same, and the tent even more. Nowadays, I go out with a fully loaded pack barely heavier than just those items. But in 1975 I also carried a steel stove the size of a brick, an entire gallon of white gasoline (a quart would have sufficed), a 25’ of coil of thick rope I never used, a fishing pole, an 8” hunting knife, and a pile of other gear, much of it useless. The total came close sixty pounds. Food pushed it beyond that.
I even packed a bible. Della had enrolled me in Sunday school for years. The local church gave each of its charges a paperbound copy of the Old and New Testaments. Volunteer teachers guided us through scripture readings, hymns, and bible-themed craft projects. They even wrote scripts we used to act out gospel stories. (Hollywood was just 30 minutes away.) The teachers did their best to inspire me, but my father outgunned them with his atheism, Marxism, and sarcasm. Still, as I prepared to hike the JMT, I’d tucked that bible into my pack.
Now I was camped by a lake beyond imagination. From our site on a bluff above it, I gazed across azure water, its surface peppered by rocks as small as basketballs and as big as vans. Patchworks of verdant meadow and broad, silver stone encircled the shore. To my left I heard the rumble of a mountain creek, like so many I’d already crossed. Beyond the lake’s far bank, a peak like a dog’s incisor yawned toward a lightning blue sky. Cirrus cloud brushstrokes glowed above as the sun inched westward, its white glare heightened by the thin atmosphere.
My body fluttered with joy and wilted with exhaustion. My back ached and my feet felt wrecked. My thighs were growing muscle and my soul was gaining strength. Clouds of mosquitoes swarmed around us, but I didn’t care. They were as common as sunsets at summer camp, and I’d learned to ignore them. Rick wanted to pack up and get away. I needed to stop moving.
I stayed three days. Rick stuck with me, with a lot of grumbling.
The alpine lake, broad and reflective, awakened a wiser part of myself, a part that wasn’t proud of getting banned from summer camp and Yosemite. Even the Boy Scout rejection troubled it. Deep down, I’d enjoyed wearing a tidy uniform. I’d felt comforted stepping in unison with others. As the mountains melted into me, by turns soaring and fragile, they inspired me to expect more from life than a march toward ruin. I didn’t know it yet, but I was feeling weary of my baggage and disarray.
I’d been in whitewater since birth. I’d tumbled through a different school every year from kindergarten to fourth grade. When I was four, my parents’ marriage plunged over a cliff. Soon after the divorce, I contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized, submerged under an oxygen tent. At home, my mother struggled to keep her head above surges of grief. Too often, my boyish chaos seemed to push her further under. Stays with my grandparents grew commonplace as she sought harbor in psychiatric wards. She left and returned, left and returned, a little more lost each cycle, as if caught in a whirlpool. Within two weeks of her death, I was shunted to my dad and the woman he’d married after the divorce. Ever since, I’d been losing bits of myself to Della’s contempt, like the glacial erosion I saw all around me. Jan, my older sister, fared no better, and at age eleven I nursed her through the torrents of psychosis. Every summer since my mom died, I’d been flushed across the continent to live at camp and with relatives. This trip to the mountains was taking the place of my annual migration, and by year’s end I would flow away from Della’s house for good. Whitewater felt natural to me, yet something inside craved stillness.
Earlier in the day I’d stood on the narrow ledge of a trail blasted out of solid granite. Below me dropped a near-vertical slope that ended in a moraine. Burdened by ill-designed gear and bodily pains, I’d looked down and tried to trace the path ahead. After the first few switchbacks, it disappeared into a moonscape of gray rock. The way forward wasn’t obvious, but I knew it was there.