For the first few years of my continued reformation from couch potato, I went backpacking with no one but me. I had a lot to learn, and my best method of learning is having to do it myself. Humility is not a strong point (Did someone just yell, “Ya think?”), and being “taught” is often uncomfortable for me and my teacher.
Still, it had to happen. Eventually, I would have to go backpacking with someone else. This someone turned out to be my friend Jeff Pennick, a patient hiker, thank God, who was in much better shape than I was when we set out from Ross Creek Cedars in late September a couple of years after my solo trip into the East Fork Meadow.
I did fine until we hit the end of the Ross Creek “stroll,” five miles of four percent grade though a huge and beautiful grove of ancient cedars that ends abruptly when the middle fork of Ross Creek swings due south and begins climbing a very narrow canyon toward the divide with the East Fork of Blue Creek. Right there, the going gets . . . ummm . . . “tough,” a short, overused descriptor that’s also very accurate.
The “trail” beyond this point becomes “steeper that a cow’s face,” an idiom that my Italian friend Daniele Puccinelli (see his story of a bear encounter in the January/February issue of Peak Experience) delights in every time he hears it. It was so steep that Jeff and I began to theorize about the man who built it, finally naming him “Straight-Up Joe.” We conjectured he had 20-inch thighs, a 48-inch chest and a size 4 hat. As we clambered toward the basin on the west side of the creek, we — particularly me — thought of him in less and less complimentary terms, until he became “the b—–d that built this #@!!# trail.”
We had split a borrowed tent and cooking gear to even out our pack loads — I had not brought any cast iron or Spam — but Jeff had spent the summer working in the woods for the Forest Service and I had not, so he was hiking in slow motion while I was hiking about two levels over my head. Jeff was patient, though, and we finally made it over the break of the canyon wall and into a big tag alder patch that we wandered around in until finding a spot big enough for the tent, a luxurious four-season nylon hotel room big enough for Jeff and me and a couple of other guys who didn’t come along.
To say that we slept well that night is an understatement. I was in a coma.
Jeff was able to rouse me the next day, and we went on toward the notch between Sawtooth and Mike’s peak, a passage that has since become known as 24-Hour Pass. And between the campsite of the night before and that pass, I began the long, somewhat imperfect and continuing process of learning to think like an elk.
This is a handy skill — or whatever it might be classified as — in the Scotchmans, where Straight-Up Joe built most of the trails and ended a number of them in a tag alder patch, for the elk know how to negotiate tag alder as well as cliffs and mountain mahogany and vine maple. It was on this hike that I began to theorize that where elk can go, so can humans — not nearly so gracefully or effortlessly, understand; but still, if an elk can pull itself up through that crack in the rock with the vine maple growing at the top, so can a man or woman with a pack on their back. Perhaps even without losing their temper.
Ten years later, my education in elk-like thinking continues. I’m a lot better than I was on that scramble from Ross Creek into the East Fork of Blue Creek, but I sometimes think I’m still not very good at it — as do the folks who sometimes follow me around in the Scotchmans, I’m sure. But, it’s not like we have a choice. Thinking like an elk is often the only good method of getting from here in the tag alder patch to that summit we can glimpse from time to time through the jungle.
One thing about learning from wild places is that the places don’t particularly care if you learn gracefully or not, although I suspect wild places do want us to learn, for they are so anxious to teach us things. Maybe, I will even learn humility, if I keep trying to think like an elk.
— Sandy Compton