I Become a Better Citizen: Several Days in Yosemite’s Backcountry, Part III — Half-Bold, Half-Bananas

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The third in Charles Hodgkins “I Become a Better Citizen” series. Late this past summer, Charles spent the better part of a week hiking through particularly remote areas of Yosemite National Park’s wilderness. He thought he’d be a pioneer by leaving his car at home and riding transit between San Francisco and Yosemite, but no, it turned out he wasn’t much of a pioneer in that way at all. Part III chronicles his climb over rocky Red Peak Pass and into the Upper Merced River Canyon. Click here to go back to part I.

Saturday

Yesterday I was the mayor of Rancho Relaxo; this morning I am a pack mule in the shadow of Red Peak Pass. I have an 11,000-foot saddle to clamor over with a big pack on my back, and even though these are the traditionally mild-weather Sierras, my goal is to make that happen before any random storms blow in. Highly unlikely, but still. I have a thing about avoiding lightning strikes and wet socks at pretty much all costs.

The trail leading up and away from Lower Ottoway Lake does not pussyfoot around. It’s supposed to be about three trail miles up to Red Peak Pass; it turns out to be more like two. That’s 700 feet of climbing per mile. That’s all business.

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I knock out the Red Peak Pass slog in a couple hours, under azure blue skies. The closest storms brewing appear to be somewhere out near Idaho. The coast is clear and so are the mountains. Good, good, very good.

Standing up at the pass, gnawing on a mighty tasty PB&J sandwich I made only four days earlier, I see another man steadily trucking up the unforgiving switchbacks. When he hits the pass some minutes later, his wide smile prompts me to react similarly. Funny how relentless exertion in thin air can produce such joy.

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As with everyone else I’ve met since getting a couple miles away from Glacier Point two days earlier, Matteo is out here following roughly the same loop route as me. (A few hikers I meet along the way are doing it in the opposite direction.) I like Matteo right off the bat, and although I find that my remote surroundings the last few days haven’t necessitated much conversation — other than with myself, which is one of my strong suits — we fall into an easy rapport instantly, discussing the sublime scenery up here, the even more sublime scenery expected ahead along the upper Merced River, and our rough itineraries. Bonhomie between hikers comes easily when you’re out in the roughs.

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Matteo grew up hiking the Italian Alps, so he heads up to Red Peak, 600 feet above the pass. I grew up trespassing on private land parcels in the less storied Mayacamas hills on the edge of Napa, so I stumble down the ridiculously steep and rocky path, thanking Leki the Great Patron Saint of Czech Trekking Poles every irregular step of the way. A seemingly surly man heading my direction jets by me a mile or two past the pass, where I’m pulled over taking in the grand view to the needle-pointed Minarets, south of Yosemite in Ansel Adams Wilderness. Or maybe he’s just really focused? So much for bonhomie.

In due time, I make a full stop at an unnamed lake for a brisk swim, fresh water, and snacks. I eventually continue down the trail toward the Merced River, along the way tolerating a 15-minute climb cruelly inserted amid the 2,100-foot drop from Red Peak Pass. I eventually meet up with Matteo near the trail junction where I reckon I’ll find a place to camp for the evening. Our plans converge, so we follow each other off-trail toward the river. We traverse over some rock outcroppings, and within a few minutes find an ideal spot. He camps on the west side of the nascent Merced; I set up shop on the east bank. A flurry of exposed stones makes for a convenient bridge across. Home for the evening, alright.

Matteo comes over to my side for dinner, and we later reconvene at his site, which includes a ring of stones for a campfire. We compare notes about how certain friends think we’re half-bold and half-bananas for doing backcountry trips like this on our own.

“Really? You’re going out there all alone?!”

Yes. Yes, I am.

“Doesn’t that creep you out?”

It’s probably safer here than where you live.

“What about, you know, going to the bathroom?”

Oh, that’s the best part.

Matteo suggests that backcountry travel makes you a better citizen; he doesn’t elaborate, but I get his drift. We also agree that life in the backcountry is a great equalizer, that it doesn’t much matter out here what you do for a living, or what your college GPA was, or if you live in the right neighborhood, or anything else generally attached to the broad definition of success. What mainly matters is that you can look after yourself in the wild and hopefully have fun doing it.

When you’re in the midst of hiking in the backcountry, it’s pretty much your whole existence. You get up, you boil some water, you maybe have some oatmeal, you pack up your gear, you walk awhile and hopefully see some pretty scenery and perhaps some wildlife, you take breaks throughout the day and dip your feet in cool water and eat salty and/or sweet snacks, you walk awhile and look around some more, you find a nice place near water to throw down your stuff for the evening, you boil some water again and drink some tea and eat some jambalaya, maybe you build a fire and chew the fat with a new friend you met on the trail, you brush your teeth, you get in your tent, and you hopefully sleep the sleep of a thousand children.

Lather, rinse, repeat, and before you know it, you’ve had your happiest week of the year and you’ve gone places you can’t get near in a car.

Come back Monday for part IV, chronicling Charles’ journey through the Upper Merced River Canyon via Washburn and Merced Lakes.

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