Friday, March 15, 2013

Part 15 - Nine Days of Food

Every day I had to have a goal to shoot for; in fact, sometimes every hour I needed a goal.  It helped to sustain the momentum of the walk.  My goal for this day was the junction of the PCT with Highway 18 that lead down to Big Bear City – twenty-three miles distance.  Even with my happy-hour break at Aloha’s trail magic camp, and spending a few minutes observing the wild animals at Randy Miller’s place, I was still able to cover the miles to the road junction at Highway 18 by 8:00 p.m.  Not having a reservation for a motel in town, and town still being eight miles down the road, I camped for the night in the woods, next to several summer cabins.  

It seems as though I’ve spent my whole life sleeping in a sleeping bag, at least during the summer months.  In 1958, the Great Salt Lake Scout Council was offering to scout troops the opportunity to participate in a river trip down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon – now Lake Powell, for fifty dollars.  There were at least twenty scouts in my troop, but I was the only one that had any interest in pursuing the offer.  The trip included five days on the water, all transportation to and from the river, the boats, and all related river-running equipment. We just had to show up at the designated meeting place in Salt Lake City with a waterproof bag of clothes and a sleeping bag. 

At the time, I don’t think my parents could have afforded to pay the fifty dollars, and maybe that’s why some of the other scouts didn’t participate in the trip, but I had a paper route and was able to pay for the trip myself.  This one river trip on the Colorado River set the course for the rest of my life, as river running became my life’s profession.  From 1958 until the year 2000, when I sold the business, I spent the better part of each summer sleeping out under the stars and on the sandy beaches along the rivers.  

I don’t believe in coincidences, and looking back over my life, I have often felt that making that decision as a fourteen-year-old boy to participate in that Colorado River trip was divinely inspired.  During my college years, I had a chance to explore many different professions, i.e., law, physics, teaching, photography, archaeology, but nothing ever clicked for me.  It wasn’t until I had that aha moment in my fifth year of university studies, that I knew whitewater rafting was what I was best suited for. 

The following day, I hitched a ride into Big Bear City, took a room at the Motel 6, and then went to retrieve my resupply package from a youth hostel several miles down the road.  There were many hikers staying at the hostel, and I could have stayed there – it would have been cheaper, but ever since taking basic training at Fort Ord, California, and living in barracks with twenty other guys, I’ve never liked sharing a room with someone else.  

Motel 6 rooms are just your basic rental rooms, nothing fancy about them, and as Tom Bodett, the spokesperson for the motel chain says,

“When the lights go out, all the rooms look the same,” which is true.

I view a Motel 6 room as a step up from a youth hostel, and two steps up from sleeping in the woods.  All I really care about, when coming into town, is a place to shower and do laundry, and then to get out of town as cheaply as possible. 

There were two beds in my room and onto one I dumped the contents of my resupply box.  There was a letter from my dear wife, and a large envelope full of letters from my cub scouts.  At home, in my Mormon congregation, I work with the eight- to ten-year-old boys in the Cub Scout organization.  I thoroughly enjoy working with these little guys; they’re still teachable and they haven’t learned to say “No,” when asked to do something.  They’re so enthusiastic and so full of energy; they have a hard time sitting still. 

My wife made the den leaders aware of the hard time I was having at the beginning of the journey, so the den leaders had their boys write me letters of encouragement.  One drew a picture of a stick figure hiking up a mountain with a caption that read, “You can do it, Richard.”  The letters and handwriting are still in the mode of small children, and a few could only scribble, but it was touching to receive a note from each one.
My next resupply was in the small community Agua Dulce, 180 miles or nine days distance.  On the bed I sorted my food packets into nine piles to ensure that I had sufficient food for each day.  Prior to the beginning of the trip, I spent days and weeks preparing all of the food packets and sorting them into twenty-six resupply boxes. 

For each day, I prepared three meals and seven snacks, with the intention of being able to eat something every two hours.  I had several different breakfasts to choose from, most of which had oatmeal as the main ingredient; lunches were tortillas with peanut butter and grape jam or tortillas with a prepackaged tuna fish spread, while dinners were primarily Mountain House freeze-dried meals. 

Snacks included PowerBars, Clif Bars, PayDay candy bars, trail mix, dried fruit, small bags of chips, and a couple of concoctions I made up myself from recipes I found in books.  It was no wonder I lost forty pounds by the time the hike ended.  I liked what I had, I just didn’t have enough of it, and at times I would have to supplement prepackaged meals with additional food from stores along the trail.  But additional food also meant additional weight, and I was loath to carry more than was absolutely necessary. 

Many of my resupply boxes were eight to nine days apart, which meant starting each new section with an exceptionally heavy pack, and that didn’t even include water at 2.2 pounds per liter.  In retrospect, I should have limited my food supplies to no more than four days, which was possible. 

But in my initial planning for the hike, I was following the resupply schedule of a forty-year-old hiker who hiked in 2011 and averaged thirty miles a day.  I made the grievous mistake of thinking I was in his league, that I too could do at least twenty-five miles a day.  This belief, that I was still working with a middle-aged body caused me some serious problems in the planning and execution of my hiking plan.  Nevertheless, it was what it was and I left Big Bear City with a full pack weight of forty pounds plus and supplies for 180 miles of desert hiking. 

It was an early Sunday morning when I left Big Bear, which meant little to no traffic on the highways, and reduced chances of hitching a ride back to the PCT trailhead any time soon.  I persisted, and within the hour I had a ride back to the trailhead at Highway 18.

Hitchhiking along the PCT corridor is relatively easy.  Townspeople recognize the hikers with their packs and trekking poles and readily give assistance.  As a young man in my twenties and thirties, I used to hitchhike all the time, and in turn I would pick up hitchhikers, but somehow, over time, this has all changed.  The world has become a little less secure and a little scarier and picking up a hitchhiker doesn’t seem quite as innocent as in times past. 

While in my motel room, I thoroughly studied my maps to see what lay ahead for the next few hundred miles.  The biggest discovery I made was that the trail, starting at Highway 18, the highway that comes down to Big Bear City from the PCT, was going to make a sharp left-hand turn and travel in a westerly direction for the next 240 miles.  This meant that for the next two weeks, there would be no progress north towards Canada, only progress west towards the Pacific Ocean. 

But the reason for this monumental detour was obvious from looking at the maps; the trail builders needed to keep the trail on the ridges of the mountains to avoid having to cross the wide expanse of the Mojave Desert.  

My next discovery was that the trail was going to follow two major drainages – Holcomb Creek and Deep Creek before intersecting with the dry Mojave River, which meant ample opportunities to fill water bottles over the next several days. 

By the time I made camp for the evening along the pleasant waters of Holcomb Creek, I had made twenty miles for the day, which was exceptional for me.  Along the way, I walk around the lower reaches of two major mountains - Gold Mountain and Delmar Mountain, and passed the site of one of California’s most notorious gold mining camps
Gold was discovered in the hills above Big Bear Lake in an area called Caribou Creek during the late 1860s, and miners from both the northern and the southern states flocked to the area and eventually established a small gold mining community they named Belleville.  Many miners were veterans of the recently concluded Civil War; but just because the war had ended, didn’t mean political affiliations or loyalties or bad blood had been buried.  

The veteran miners who came to Belleville brought with them their deep-seated loyalties and animosities regarding the reasons they fought for either Grant or Lee, and sometimes these highly charged emotions erupted into gunfights.

 Historical records recount that over forty men died from hangings or gunfights during the short-lived life of Belleville.  (Belleville) Flakes of gold are what started it all; flakes that were discovered in a stream called Caribou Creek by William F. Holcomb.  But flakes always come from a larger source called the mother lode, and savvy miners were constantly looking for this treasure trove of wealth, which meant hard rock mining.  

As I started around the edge of Gold Mountain, high on the hills above me, I could see the remains of the Doble Mine, one of the numerous hard rock mines, with its shaft and tailing piles that dot the hills around Gold Mountain and Holcomb Valley.  Apparently, the mother lode was never discovered. 


  1. Hi Richard, if you didn't have a stove how did you eat the Mtn House freeze dried food?

    Thanks and thanks so much for this amazing and informative blog.

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  3. Ayden, I purchased Mt. House meals in number 10 cans, then redistributed the contents to smaller seal-a-meal bags. An hour or so before meal time, I would re-hydrate the contents by placing them in a water tight container such as an empty peanut butter jar and adding the appropriate amount of water. All my dehydrated meals were prepared this way. And yes, the meals were cold, but to me that didn't matter. I just finished the Appalachian Trail. On this journey, I carried my Jet Boil stove. Hot meals were nice, but not necessary. Hope this helps.