Peter and I drove up to the mountains through Fresno, where the heat conditions were appalling: 113 degrees, I think the hottest temperature I've ever experienced. When I had to get out to fill up the car, I had the peculiar sensation that my eyeballs were being roasted, so I closed my eyes, which was probably for the best given the price that was racking up on the gasometer. But it cooled off as we drove up into the mountains, and at Grant Grove in King's Canyon Park we checked into the pleasant lodge and met Lindley, my friend from Kamloops, BC. We're online friends and have known each other for about a decade on the Piffle list (a chatty offshoot of the list devoted to the works of Dorothy L. Sayers, LordPeter@yahoogroups.com). We've met numerous times in person, have hiked in the Canadian Rockies together, plus she's come to most of my talks in Canada and has been down to Santa Monica several times, bringing the component parts for pumpkin maple pie for Thanksgiving. Lindley's nom on Piffle is "Mrs. Merdle" (named after Lord Peter's sixth Daimler of that name, because she loves to drive), while I'm "Miss Schuster-Slatt," after the Mrs. Elton-like figure in Gaudy Night.
After a pleasant evening together we all drove down to Cedar Grove Lodge, a simple, old place on the floor of King's Canyon that we've always loved. Elevation is only about 4,000 feet there, so it's warmer, but the canyon is spectacular, relatively unpeopled (unlike, say, Yosemite), and the stunning white King's River rushes right by the lodge. One of Peter's favorite things in the world to do is to sit on that porch by the river, read and ponder and watch the squawking flock of piercingly blue Stellar's Jays with jaunty crests on their heads, swooping aggressively in search of bits of leftover sandwiches (one ate most of a bag of nuts that he unwisely left attended). Since Peter isn't up to the 12-mile hike to Bearpaw, he stayed at Cedar Grove by himself while Lindley and I went off for three days. So on Monday morning, June 23, we met promptly at 7 AM, drove up the canyon, left my car at Grant Grove Lodge, and proceeded in Lindley's zippier Subaru (or maybe it's that she is much the zippier driver) to Giant Forest. There, we had to pick up a Wilderness Permit at the ranger station, a great nuisance, as we needed to be on the trail as early as possible, and it was already past 9. To my frustration, the woman ahead of us was a real piece of work who kept chit-chatting with the ranger. "Oh, you're from Mammoth? We have a house in Mammoth. Where did you go to school? Do you know so-and-so?" After a few minutes of this infuriating dilly-dallying, I got fairly rude and said, "Look, can you please give us our permit? We've got to get to Bearpaw today, and we're really late." The young lady ranger said reprovingly, "These people are going to Bearpaw too," and the woman, Mrs. Black we shall call her, waved her hands airily and said "You have all day to get there - it doesn't get dark until 10 PM." Actually it gets dark at 8:30, and dinner is at 5:30, but we did get our permit and drove to the trailhead at beautiful emerald-green Crescent Meadow. We sat at a picnic table to gobble delicious bacon-and-egg sandwiches we'd taken out from Grant Grove, and then we finally set off down the famous, venerable (built in 1927) High Sierra Trail at 10 AM. My latest start ever; usually we stay at the nearby Wuksachi Lodge, but coming from Cedar Grove, sixty miles away, this was the best we could do.
Lindley on the trail
The High Sierra Trail winds some seventy miles through Sequoia, winding up at Mt. Whitney, but our destination, Bearpaw, is a 12-mile hike. Ranked moderate, but that must be by somebody in their twenties: for tubby 60 year olds it might be ranked "Seriously Strenuously Challenging." The elevation averages around 7000 feet, gaining 1500 feet overall, but you keep gaining it and losing it...the trail continually alternates going down, which is hard on the knees, and then up, which is hard on your wind. Average hiking time is seven hours, but I haven't achieved that in years; the last time I was there, three years ago, before having arthroscopic knee surgery to fix a couple of small cartilage tears, it took me 8 hours, including a half-hour rest and lunch at the halfway point at Mehrton Creek.
Lindley on Bearpaw porch
Peter, Paul and I made our first trip to Bearpaw Wilderness Camp in 1985, when we practically ran up that trail. It was on that very first trip that we met our dear friends and avid hikers Mike and Eleanor (lawyer and child psychology professor from Palo Alto), with whom we have gone on hiking trips nearly every summer since; they've shown us the best trails in Jackson Hole, the Canadian Rockies, Glacier Park, Montana, Utah, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Mammoth. Other good friends from Santa Monica, Herbert and Cathy and their sons, have also made Bearpaw their most beloved hiking destination over the years. I estimate that this was about my twentieth visit there. I knew that Lindley, a good Canadian hiker who shares my love for wilderness and photography, and is also a keen birder, would be an ideal companion, though I did miss Peter and Paul. I know the trail like the proverbial back of my wrinkly hand, which helps in pacing the hike. Lindley, longer-legged and five years younger than I, politely stayed just behind me all the way. She could have gone faster, but it's good to stay together in bear country.
Cozy Bearpaw tent
One small complication was that I'd forgotten my high blood pressure pills! I've only ever done such a stupid thing once before, when I left them in a hotel in the Lake District and went without them for a week. English Piffle friend Bevis ("Vamping the Senior Common Room") kindly took me to a doctor's surgery in Oxford but they wouldn't see me that day, so I just did without the pills, and my ankles swelled alarmingly, though I had no other symptoms. However, it would certainly be worse to be without blood pressure pills on a strenuous high altitude hiking trip in the back country, as who knows what could happen. Peter gave me some of his Elavil, that he takes for facial neuralgia, as it has the side effect of lowering one's blood pressure, and I took one on our first night at Grant Grove. It made me sleep ten hours, which was good, but then I felt groggy with an almost unbearable compulsion to sleep all the next day until dinnertime, which is a horrid feeling. It's awful that Peter has to live that way. I couldn't be like that at Bearpaw, so I made the decision to do without the pills. Some of the medication remains in the system for a few days; I was feeling very well; and with Bearpaw costing $350 a night for a tent (with all meals included), not to mention not wanting to ruin the first ever Bearpaw Pifflefest, I went ahead.
Bearpaw, photo by Lindley
The trail is beautiful, though I huffed like a grampus the whole way up, alarming Lindley who must have thought I was exhibiting morbid symptoms already; but I assured her that's just what happens when I steam uphill. As with my ballet dancing, I also have the wrong physique for a hiker, with short legs and bony little feet (doesn't that sound attractive), but at least I'm blessed with disproportionately good stamina and will power. By mile ten, when we climbed down into the rocky, wild, stunning gorge at Buck Creek, we were pretty weary, but the way was brightened by wonderful wildflowers, primarily purple Chinese Houses
and shocks of Penstemon in pink, purple, and bright red, as well as delicate wild geraniums, golden wallflowers, red Indian paintbrush, lavender lupine, orange umbrella-like leopard lilies, crimson columbine with their little yellow faces, drooping purple Jeffrey's shooting stars, tiny baby blue lips, and white, purple-tipped fivespot. Swathes of tiny pink gilia were also prominent, turning hillsides pink. Later we heard a botanist had been at Bearpaw earlier in the week and had counted something like 130 separate flower species. So I named as many as I could to Lindley, and she named the birds to me, which made for a nice give-and-take.
Pink gilia. Photo by Lindley.
The last mile to Bearpaw, coming out of Buck Creek, is straight UP a 500-foot ridge, when you are already jolly tired, so I did my loudest grampus puffing, while Lindley developed a technique of bending over her hiking stick to stretch out her aching back. We made quite a sight, but at last we crested the ridge and strolled a little more through the woods until we saw the white tents of Bearpaw. I strode in exhilarated, calling out to wonderful Carolyn, who's managed Bearpaw for the past 15 years. We flopped down on the porch, with the incomparable Bearpaw view before us - the giant panorama of the Great Western Divide, which looks so close you could reach out to touch it.
Pink Penstemon and Purple Lupine
There were lemonade and brownies waiting to welcome us, as always, and we drained several glasses on the porch. Dinner was just over, but our plates were laid out and waiting for us on the table: tri-tip steak with portobello mushroom pasta and vegetables and salad, followed by luscious home-made lemon meringue pie. You think you're not hungry after that hike, but the food somehow disappears. They kept the fire that heats the showers going for us, so we had lovely hot showers. Bliss. The camp has six tent cabins, each with two super comfortable beds with linens and down comforters (everything has to be hauled in by mule train at the start of the season), but there were cancellations, so hardly anyone was there. A very nice young couple from St. Petersburg, and a lantern jawed school psychologist named Ed who seemed lonely and kind of moved in on me and Lindley wanting to talk, when we were really much too tired. There was no sign of the Blacks.
Lone Pine Trail
We slept like logs curled in our down comforters, and got up to scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes cooked in bearpaw shape, by Jeremy, one of the four Bearpaw hosts whom I'd met on my last visit (I later bought his country music CD). Lindley relaxed on the porch, but I went back to sleep for a couple more hours; I didn't recover as quickly from the hike as she did. But by lunchtime I was ready to amble to the stream on the Hamilton Lake trail, just a mile and a half downhill, and I enjoyed showing Lindley the spectacular views, the peaks of the Great Western Divide changing perspective. Flowers were just starting to come out. We had our lunch near the stream, tri-tip sandwiches with home made bread, and a brownie. Then we grampused back up to camp and showers. The dreaded Blacks were there - when we encountered them at the ranger station yesterday they were obtaining their wilderness permit for today, and they sailed in saying "What an easy hike it was." They were an older couple, looked about 70, though very fit, and we later learned they were 69 and 66. He was a Rand computer scientist who'd obviously made a fortune, and they were the most obsessive travelers I've ever met. Oddly, when one has been rude (as I really was when I pressed impatiently for the permit), one feels a bit remorseful later, but I was astonished to find that my negative impression of this woman in that brief encounter was extravagantly justified: she turned out to be the single Biggest Bragger I Have Ever Met. (And this is in a lifetime in the movie business, where bragging is not exactly unknown.) As we sat at dinner (the Blacks, the nice young couple, Ed, and ourselves), Bearpaw simply rang with her babble. "When we were in Fiji last week..." "Oh, yes, the large penguins in Antarctica are fun, aren't they." "We always go on safari in Kenya, and it's probably cleaner there than here." "They've really ruined the Galapagos, but we'll go back." "Our favorite place in the world is this island off the coast of Tasmania..." "You mean you haven't done the trails in New Zealand? You really must!" "Hiking around the ruins in Crete..." "Our bartender at the Scottish castle turned out to be Lord Granville..." Finland, China, the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, there wasn't a continent or a city they hadn't visited. But the funniest brag, I thought, was when she uttered the words: "When we were ballooning in Capadocia..." For some reason, that just struck me as hilarious. The one-upsmanship was accomplished. When I ventured that most of my traveling had consisted of my 25 trips to England, the comeback was a laughing, "Oh, well, that's nothing, I'm sure we've been to Paris more than 25 times, not to mention Italy. Have you been to the Dolomites? No?" The only place I'd been where they hadn't was the Scilly Isles, but those were clearly negligible. Lindley got on with them better than I did, because she really is a very varied traveler, and took an around-the-world adventure trip only a year ago, so she actually managed to steer the conversation into near normality with some talk about Australia.
Meanwhile the dinner was wonderful (spicy pork tenderloin, vegetables, and baked potatoes piled with sour cream and bacon, followed by blueberry cake); but after awhile my head was ringing from the bragging and I staggered outside, where the young couple and Ed had already fled. They were sitting around the campfire and we met each other's eyes, and the young Florida banker exploded, "I just had to vent in our tent for five minutes!" and we all laughed. Sitting on the massive rock, still warm from the sun, where marmots and lizards scurry, with red penstemon flags peeking between the stone, we enjoyed the transparent red blaze.
Another good night's rest and breakfast, and the young couple and Ed hiked out. The Blacks went down to Hamilton stream, while Lindley and I took the other major trail. It's called the Over-the-Hill Trail, because it starts by climbing an exhausting 500-foot ridge through the forest, but emerges on top to spectacular mountain views and goes down a stony bowl crossed by the most flower-fringed streams of the trip. It's 2.1 miles to Lone Pine Creek, which flows rapidly over broad white rocks.
Lone Pine Creek
We had a relaxed lunch there, before venturing a little way into the meadows below stunning Elizabeth Pass. The flowers were really out in force, mostly profuse flags of pink penstemon, interspersed with dark purple lupines; I was a happy camper. It's a rugged hike back up and down the ridge, but approximately 5 miles round trip is nothing compared to the hike into Bearpaw! After our hot showers, Carolyn delayed dinner till 6, waiting for a party who were late coming in, but strangely, they never showed - so Lindley and I were tete a tete with no one else in the camp but the Blacks! Over a delicious dinner (lasagne, salad, and butterflied charcoaled chicken breasts, followed by cream puffs because Carolyn remembered I love them), the bragging died down somewhat, or rather it changed, to the "I went to Stanford and Our Girls went to Marlborough school and we have Three Homes" variety, which is really considerably worse and even more boring than travel bragging. Odious woman, though Lindley patiently reminded me that most such people brag because they feel horribly inferior about something. I'm sure I hope so.
A lizard on hot-rocks doing quick-time — Its belly bluer than the sky; The naturalist stopped to explain:— But I would have it saurian bravado!
- Peter Birchall
Marmot Giganticus and Offspring
Marmot Giganticus, a beast Of vicious temper and sharp teeth Sat gibbering upon my breast,— Hot, heavy, wet — reeking of death; And as it gibbered, so it chewed A lizard of the high foothills: The chorea of living food; A music made of many shrills...
I wrenched myself awake, and found My doubting double firmly bound — Naked, alone, on Holy ground, Before the green-eyed God, who frowned, And tossed him on a charnel mound Of rotting flesh where antic devils clowned.
A sonnet in 8's with an over rhymed sestet which is closed by a pentameter to bring the frenetic piece to a close. This is in the guest book at the High Sierra Camp at Bearpaw, Sequoia National Park.
- Peter Birchall
With so few people in camp, we had no campfire, but we enjoyed photographing marmots, and watching deer. (Animal count of the trip: one bear, about fifteen deer, a family of marmots, dozens of blue-bellied lizards, chipmunks, rabbits, and Lindley's flock of birds.) Next morning we hiked out, and it was brutal - usually the hike out seems easier and takes a little less time than the hike in, but not so this time. I had to really push, and when we got to the lunch spot at Mehrton creek, I realized why: my knee (quad muscle) was very swollen. It's the knee that had the surgery, and although it is well and strong for hiking and ballet, Bearpaw proved to be a little more than it can handle. I took some ibuprofen, and had to force myself to keep moving the last six miles, but the ibuprofin actually did help. It took us 9 hours to get out, though. (Lindley had a strained hip, so no picnic for her either, but she was a trooper.) Then we had to drive the 60 miles to Cedar Grove to collect Peter, which Lindley heroically volunteered to do, since she is such a fast and accurate driver (much more than me in my lumbering SUV), and she knew how anxious I was. We'd been so remote and out of touch, there's no telling how Peter was faring at Cedar Grove; and he'd had to check out at 11 AM and bring ALL our bags downstairs (nine of them) and must sit on the porch all day, even though he'd probably need to be sleeping with all his medication. So I was worried.
We drove down the beautiful canyon in evanescent waning light, pulled up to the lodge about 7 PM, and I jumped out of the car and hobbled in as quickly as I could, bowlegged like a jockey, and saw - There was Peter pacifically and happily reading How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics, as mellowly as can be! He was all bright-eyed with color in his cheeks, and the nine bags were lined neatly up against the wall out of the way. He'd loved his stay at Cedar Grove and had taken some little walks by the river and made friends with the chef. :-) So we drove back up to Grant Grove, seeing the smouldering remains of a brilliant red sunset, and had a good steak dinner. We were reunited with the internet, and then we parted with Lindley, who was driving back up north early in the morning on her own travels. Peter and I slept in and had a leisurely drive home to Santa Monica, stopping to test out a Basque restaurant in Bakersfield - very strange place, with bordello overtones, and a brilliant Basque cook who'd been there 43 years; the restaurant is probably the single nicest thing in that miserably hot city (Bakersfield is a true rival to Fresno). Lamb shank in a spicy tomato sauce, delicious veal cutlets, Frenchy vinaigrette vine-ripened tomato salad, and an array of side dishes, many of which we brought home for Paul. And we arrived home to find Peter's poetry book, Nature, Nonsense, and Foreign Parts, had arrived from the printer, eleven boxes of them! A great moment.