Sometimes a Great Notion...

…Isn’t, so much.

As hard as it is for me to believe, my daughter will be 30 years old next year. Apparently that particular age brings with it a desire to do something memorable and quite often, um, stupid. Withanee all of a sudden tells me she wants to climb California’s Mt. Whitney, at 14,497’ the highest point in the 48 contiguous states, and walk from there to Badwater in Death Valley, which at 282’ below sea level is the lowest point in the western hemisphere. After all, they’re only 86 miles apart.

But wait, I tell her, those are as-the-crow-flies air miles; on the ground there are two mountain ranges and three valleys in between, bringing a lot of up and down and back and forth through some of the roughest terrain in the Mojave Desert, after you’ve gone and worn yourself out hiking up and then back down the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

The dumbest crow in the world wouldn’t even consider taking that route, so why would my college-educated daughter?

“Because, Dad,” she explained, “that’s what you did when you were 30 years old.”

Well yes, there’s that. But I never went to college:

5:30 am, June 15, 1974, Whitney Portal Trailhead

The four of us posed for a blurry, off-center picture around the trailhead sign before starting up Mt. Whitney, our packs filled with more stuff than was necessary for an overnight trip. Still, one never knows what one might wish one had way up there, eh? Better safe than sorry, we reasoned, but you’d be surprised how many needless things you can cram into a standard Kelty backpack, and how horribly something as insignificant as a sewing kit can morph into a bowling ball as the trail steepens.

Well, I had actually been planning it for five years, but most of those were gone before I found people blessed with as little sense as I had. I almost gave up on it, as a matter of fact, after interviewing several outdoorsy hiking/camping types. The first time I offered someone an opportunity to walk from the highest to the lowest point it wasn’t met with much enthusiasm: “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” he said as he turned and walked away.

Alrighty then.

And that seemed to be the prevailing attitude until I told Glenn. Well, ‘told’ is probably too forceful a word, as by then I’d been reduced to a kind of apologetic mumbling whenever I brought the subject up, but Glenn jumped all over it like a goose on a June bug. The next day he introduced me to Gary, his hiking buddy who also wanted to go, and while we were discussing it during our lunch break Ken happened by, overheard us, and just like that we had our foursome. Amazing. We all worked at the Crown Zellerbach paper mill in Antioch, California, so maybe it was the paper fumes.

An old Chinese saying goes ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, and as we started up the trail that morning I had a dim inkling that although this wasn’t a thousand-mile journey, it had all the earmarks that it might perhaps feel like one before it was over. The first earmark had been right there on the sign we’d just left; “Mt. Whitney Trail”, it said, and below that was the elevation—8,367’. That is eight thousand, three hundred and sixty seven feet above sea level. If you think about it, which I was at that moment, we were already well over a mile above the altitude where we worked and lived and breathed, and we had well over another mile vertically to ascend before we’d actually begin our trip. Hmmm.

Although I’d known that for years, it wasn’t until that very moment that I understood it.

Momentarily sobered by that thought, I looked down at my expensive new hiking boots thumping through the dust and then over at Ken’s expensive new hiking boots thumping through the dust alongside mine, and surmised that in a few days they wouldn’t look either expensive or new. Ken, as if reading my mind, said;

“How’s your shoes doing?”

“Good,” I replied, “Shoes are doing good.”

No response, which was response enough for me. Against Glenn and Gary’s oft-repeated advice, neither Ken nor I had completely broken in our footwear, and truth to tell mine were beginning to feel a little boxy, a little unyielding. Never one to complain though, I joined in the light-hearted banter drifting back from Glenn and Gary. The high Sierra beauty truly was breathtaking, in more ways than one to us lowlanders, and we were genuinely enjoying it.

All in all a fine start, by any measure.

The trail, though well maintained and graded, gradually narrowed as we ascended. After an hour or so it was much easier to go single file, so I brought up the rear and was grateful for it; my expensive new hiking boots were getting boxier by the minute. After another hour we came to a halt, Glenn pointing out a sign that said Lone Pine Lake was off to the left of the main trail. I gave my fellow adventurers a nonchalant smile, walked on by and my feet turned left. If there was cold water nearby, that’s where they were headed.

“Andersen!” Glenn exclaimed as I glided unevenly past, “Are you limping???”

To be continued…

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