Reflections upon a Sierra Reunion
If you’re expecting a “trail report,” this won’t be one! Since I went on this hike largely alone, it became one of observation, a reflection upon the nature of the visitors I saw and talked to along the trail and of the backcountry industry, in general, after being gone for five years, and one of reunion, as this setting is where my heart and passion has long thrived!
Ever since I got this crazy sense of purpose, while on my PCT thru-hike in 1974, to teach people how to have good, clean, and safe fun while backpacking or snow-camping, I’ve been utilizing this easy to get to alpine setting to do it. Echo Lake and Desolation Wilderness are accessed by a major, paved mountain highway, has ample summertime parking and a wintertime CA SNO-Park trailhead lot, the Pacific Crest Trail goes right through it, most of the area is protected by a USFS wilderness designation, the trails are well-maintained, the scenery is classic Sierra alpine granite, pines, and lakes, and there is good “Grub & Grog” nearby in South Lake Tahoe for after-hike story-telling.
The last time I was physically able to run classes in the backcountry was during the winter/spring of 2018; after that, I took a job with FEMA and became committed to helping the nation recover from disasters, like hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, flooding, and, now, “the great snow-megeddon of ’22-’23!” That meant that I had to put aside my life-force and passion, come indoors, and become a desk-jockey for five years while travelling the country on deployments. Nevertheless, I tried to maintain my wilderness safety teachings via live Zoom or Google Meet presentations, written material, and FaceBook posts and many of you have been faithful followers along the way.
With this new deployment to my home state and being stationed within striking distance of Tahoe, I suddenly felt the call, no, a tangible “tractor-beam,” pulling me back into the Sierra – and I had to go!
This little day hike, the first of the “Ned Walks,” was a real coming-home for me and much needed, as you might imagine! I felt a bit like the Prodigal Son returning home while surveying his Father’s fields for changes in their industry and probable reception. I began taking in impressions from a visit to REI, beforehand, brief conversations with passing day-hikers along the trail, and from the many wilderness voices that spoke to me as I went.
• The public’s interest in “getting out” has soared after COVID, but their wilderness awareness hasn’t.
• My family of wilderness friends were happy to see that I’d returned.
REI was busy and so was the trailhead parking lot! The trailhead, itself, was crowded and so was the trail. There were people of all ages and nationalities, babies in carriers, and dogs in tow. The youth were on the move while parents, club leaders, grandparents, and local residents were either struggling to keep up, cursing about something, in awe of their surroundings, or just trying to stay out of the way. People were in motor boats flying up the lakes, in canoes silently exploring the shorelines, sailing out of rope swings to splash in the lake, and climbing about on the bouldered mountain sides, all while talking, laughing, and having the greatest of times! It was obvious that the post-COVID public was enjoying being out and free, but they were just talking to known friends.
What troubled me most, along the 4.5-mile trail up to and back from Tamarack lake, was that most people on it were not talking to each other. As a former Wilderness Ranger (interpretive, not law enforcement), I simply love to share my love for the wilderness setting with everyone, teach them about it, and show them how to safely enjoy it. I can’t pass by anyone without greeting them heartily, asking them how they’re doing, where they’re coming from, and sharing some kind of helpful advice to make their journey easier. If I were to have chosen to be quiet in passing, no one would have said anything, like two cars on the road, isolated from each other by steel and glass, or the bus-bound tourist who passes people on the street and can’t talk to them – or the COVID-confined, stuck behind a keyboard, who has forgotten how to converse with flesh and blood.
Typically, people were out in pairs as couples, the guy in the lead with his wife or girlfriend feeling forgotten in back and struggling to keep up. I would see them coming and stand off to the side of the trail to let them pass unhindered. Usually, after my cheerful greeting, the guy would barely look up, then breeze right on by me, but the girl would look up, make eye contact, smile, and answer, as if she finally, for the first time on her hike, had an opportunity to talk to someone about her experience along the trail!
These types of trailside interactions were not typical in the past, but, sadly, classic of this trip.
Now, on the opposite end of the relationship spectrum, the natural setting, with all of its inhabitants in the woods, talus fields, and lake surrounds, was absolutely alive with welcoming voices – and they all had the same thing to say,
• “Hi, Ned!” came from a robin, who first spotted me from the edge of the parking lot,
• “Wow, you’re back!” sputtered from a Mountain Chickadee flitting about in Aspen branches, nearby,
• “Where you been, brother?” squeaked a trio of golden-mantled ground squirrels popping up from behind some boulders to the side of the trail,
• “Why have you been gone so long?” echoed the mountain peaks, and
• “Man, we need your help, here, because your people are nuts!” repeated the Lodgepoles, Jeffries, and Cedars lining the trail.
As I sat with my feet in the cool waters of Tamarack Lake and listened with my ears and heart, I knew that this Prodigal was loved and received with open arms. As I rested beneath Old Man Lodgepole, not far away, who has lived forever with his roots embedded in the massive, granite terminal moraine of the lake and has spent his lifetime overlooking the entire expanse of Echo Lake’s alure, below, he embraced me with his deeply reflective words, “Welcome back, son! We need you to teach your people that all we can do is love. Speak for us, once, again.”
I limped back to my car while fighting off a barrage of cramping muscles that would have, otherwise, made any hike miserable, but I knew with a bursting heart that this little hike held the promise of a new beginning of wilderness education for me and it was just the beginning of more “Ned Walks” to come!
[Ned Walk-2 will be another exploration into the Echo Lakes drainage beginning at 0900 on Saturday, July 29th, in the upper Echo Chalet parking lot. Come one, come all, and saunter with me – it’s more fun when we can talk and share!]