It was my great idea to begin with. I had tired of hearing the wonderfully miserable, but good time everyone had on the last backpacking trip while I was still in the Army. That was several years ago, and back when neither my wife, nor her sister, was pregnant.
We were all sitting around for the after-dinner chat—pick a Sunday—it comes up often enough, when I suggested the guys do our own trip before the pregnant women’s give birth, who, ironically, are due the same day. Steve took to the idea immediately—there were some areas of the Sierra’s he’d been meaning to explore. Kevin was a little more hesitant. He liked the idea, but between his farm in the middle of Orange freaking County, and worrying about the coming baby, it would be a last minute decision for him.
After a few weeks, Steve narrowed the locations down to two places. Since neither of us had done anything active in the last year, we didn’t want to climb 2000 feet in the space of three miles. We kept coming back to the idea of Bishop Pass, just outside Bishop, and south of Mammoth. By map, and terrain, it seemed like a nice loop that passed through a half dozen lakes, and only ascended about 1000 feet the whole loop.
Both of the women’s are due August 2. Steve and I planned to go right after Independence Day, the earliest his work schedule would allow him some time off before getting too close to delivery time. Kevin literally decided the night before.
The drive was smooth, and quick. I read a magazine in the passenger seat, perfecting the right-arm sunburn, while Steve and his dog Sierra splayed across the cramped backseat. Kevin drove, occasionally smirking and commenting on the ridiculous.
We had lunch in Lone Pine, stopping at some Ma and Pa Café joint on the 395 run by a few women who knew the names of the locals that probably had reserved seats. Looking around, it seemed the place was trying not hard enough to be antiquish. There were old signs on the walls, as well as a telephone with a dial and a mounted speakerphone. The previous area code, no doubt where the phone was last purchased from, was an OC’ish 714. The restroom was scribbled with links to infowars.com, and then with irate commentators on the ridiculosity of those advocating the war on your mind. The “freedom fries” were freshly skinned potatoes, and that’s about all you need to know.
It was ninety-six degrees in Bishop. Before leaving, I scoured the web for some information on Bishop Pass, and had found some hiking chat website that was very recent. So recent, in fact, that the poster had just passed through the pass only two weeks prior. His photos didn’t look so good—snow on the ground, dark skies, scary words. That wasn’t the easy-going backpacking trip I had imagined, but nonetheless, could make for some dramatic photo opportunities…
We drove to around ten-thousand feet, and parked just above the wooden dam at South Lake. The lake was deep and blue the way children color water with Crayola. The glaciers were set deep into the shadowy crevices of the towering, angular, behemoth peaks of the Bishop Pass. They were small, but numerous, and as white as the dress your de-flowered sister wanted for her wedding in the family church. Yeah, there was something beautiful about them at the surface from a distance, but also a forewarning about the mysterious and awesome power that could potentially be unleashed, even in the middle of the summer.
In the parking lot, we popped the tailgate, pulled out our bags, and began the reshuffle. This joker slipped off his flip-flops and busted out the ol’ tan Altama’s with matching green socks. Okay, I confess: while Steve and Kevin had all the nice gear, I wore my old DCU top—it’s light, breathes well in heat, unlike your mom, and it has a screaming chicken combat patch and Air Assault badge. That counts for something, right?
Couple months ago, I bought a new REI Mars 85 backpack. As a forced-ruck fan of the old ALICE pack (fuck the MOLLE), this thing felt like the difference between the backseat of the Camaro you lost your virginity in, and a new Maserati Quattroporte Sport you’d happily get busted by an undercover cop for buying a BJ in. I had my three liters of water tucked neatly inside, some extra DCU pants (I did have some nice REI hiking pants that I wore), a tent, a sleeping bag, mattress pad, long underwear, an extra pair of green socks (as a Californian, it is required to swear off socks for 3/4ths of the year, thus, why Army green socks are what fill my drawer), a bear canister filled with CLIF bars, six ounces of rum in a stainless steel flask, my Bronica and Holga film cameras, tripod, and nine rolls of film. If it were the Army, I’d have thrown in an extra fifteen pounds of worthless shit like an E-Tool, two miles of 550 Cord, and your Squad Leaders porn stash he didn’t have room for in his own ruck.
We set off knowing we wouldn’t get far before the sun would hide behind the mountainous peaks in front of us. The lake was shimmering in the sun. I stared at it, imagining it as a B/W photograph—how the shimmers would like formless and white, set against the sea of near black. Lighting was not yet great—I had to be patient, and wait for the moment when light was best.
The trail was easily marked, and as worn as your favorite sneakers, or ex-girlfriend. The forest rose above the trail with trees scattered as if tossed like seed from a sack. The leaves were green, the water was blue, and the sky was cloudless and pure, itself sparkling above the jagged points of each peak in the distance.
It was roughly a mile before we decided it was best to settle down for the night. Steve and Kevin needed to pump water, and I recounted that the difference between an Infantryman and a Fister is that the grunt will come back to camp in the wee hours of the morning, exhausted, rained on and soaked to prepare his sleep space, while the Fister, at the very first instant, before playing bang-bang in the forest, will set up his hooch and ruck before it gets dark, stupid.
In my bustling spurt of energy, I ran off the trail, and found a nice flat spot that had apparently been camped on many previous times. Tents were set, water was boiled, and freeze-dried Teriyaki Chicken and Rice was devoured.
The mosquitoes were unbearable. It was still warm, and to flee them, I retired to the tent, the only place they weren’t, for the remainder of the night. My eyes were burning, and I was exhausted, but awake. At home, I’d simply have a glass of wine or a few ounces of rum to mellow into sleep. I decided not to open the flask, and instead tossed and turned for five hours, before sleeping the next five only intermittently.
When I realized I could no longer sleep, and it was light out, I sat up and pondered what a shitty night it had been, and how no hangover was ever as bad as I had felt then. My eyes still burned, and watered. My sinuses were clogged, and my nose plugged with black. I drank some water, drained my nose, and booted up. Outside the tent, the mosquitoes had gone all 1987’d Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez on my ass. With my net on, I stepped out and boiled some water, French-pressed my freshly ground (the morning before), organic, fair trade coffee, and everything began to settle back down. I was in God’s backyard, or mine, whatever the difference. It was fucking gorgeous out there, and my Iraqi-stained boots were going to trample it all!
If there’s anything worse than Another Stakeout, and Rosie O’Donnell, it’s Mosquitoes. They were everywhere, glued to us like stink on shit, hot on Bar Rafaeli, and idiocy to the current and recent Republican party. I just wanted to say to them, “I’m not your food!” And I wanted them to say to me, in a perfectly gentlemanly English accent, “Sorry chap, we mistook you for a bloody bear or merry marmot. Our bad. Cherrio!” And that would be that.
The hike was incredible. There were several times when I stopped at a specific place, set up the tripod, made an incident light reading, and composed for photo. Usually, Steve and Kevin kept walking, leaving me to easily catch back up to them, which was never a problem. Up and down we trudged, over rocks and sticks and horseshit. Hills we climbed, meadows we traversed, creeks we crossed, and memories we made. It was good times for all, except that our five-day plan was finished by suppertime Tuesday. D’oh!
Too worn out to hike a different route, and too tempted to go down the hill and call the pregnant women’s, we decided to leave, and camp for the night in a simple campground with services, and leisurely leave in the morning. My feelings weren’t hurt that we did what we aspired and finished early, only that I had another seven rolls of unexposed film.
I didn’t sleep well the second night either, and the Beef Stew I had been eagerly anticipating was utter crap. The mosquitoes didn’t seem to follow us down the hill; we set up camp, and went to bed. This time, with a few sips of Mount Gay’s finest, and an extra pillow left in the truck. Didn’t much help, but at least I was more comfortable than the night before.
Wednesday morning, I woke up much the way I had Tuesday. I felt like shit, and my body was screaming for caffeine. Breakfast was a fudge brownie CLIF bar before packing up, and driving away.
On the way down, we visited Manzanar, one of the original Japanese Relocation Centers during World War II. I took many photos, saw the gardens, monuments, and a video; I left thinking that our government has come dangerously close to repeating the same constitution-shoving-aside mistakes it made then.
The drive home was quiet and sunny. I read some more; my right-arm sunburn sunburned some more. The perfectly blue and cloudless sky of the two previous days had now turned into an early morning pattern of perfectly placed parallel and perpendicular lines criss-crossing the expansive checkerboard sky. The con-trails of jets flying overhead didn’t evaporate—instead, they expanded into a muddy blanket of synthetic cloud cover from Lone Pine to Orange County.
At home, all was well. I showered, checked my email, noticed the Angels lost, and lost Vlad and Torii, then ran off to the photo store to pick up some more developer. Late last night, I developed two rolls to devastating effect—both were severely A) underexposed, or B) under-developed. Two rolls ruined, one not yet developed, one still in the Holga, and one color roll still in the Bronica. The light meter is spot on, so it must be under-developed. Of the two rolls, not a single frame is unharmed. Of the two rolls, only a few photos are almost viewable... development issues abound.
Maybe next time we'll plan for more than four miles. Maybe next time I can avoid LOSING seven (7) pounds in two (2) days. Maybe next time I'll have this Red #25 figured out. Maybe I'll also even have a bathroom that locks so unsuspecting three-year olds don't walk in needing to pee really badly while I'm loading film and yelling for the door to stay closed over the crying of said three-year old's needing to pee really badly.
As soon as I got home, I took a shower, and ran to the photo store to buy more B/W photo developer. Two hours had passed before I was able to mix my solutions, and I had done so over a glass of wine, while being interrupted for conversation. I am now 100% certain that my dilutions were not diluted enough--the first development error I have ever made--on the four rolls I travelled the furthest to take. So, everything ended up being waaay overdeveloped. Good news is that the color rolls, developed by my photo store, turned out beautifully.