My First Work Week In the Sierra

I retired from my engineering job on Friday, July 13th and started my new job of having fun by going on a 5-day backpacking trip with my friend Chip Buckingham.  My new work week started on Monday the 15th by climbing out of a big hole in Sequoia National Park.  With 40+ pound packs, we climbed out of Mineral King valley at 7,840′ towards Franklin Pass at 11, 710′.  That’s a 3,880′ gain!

When I worked in Kings Canyon National Park in the summer of 1986, I worked at a similar trailhead where everyone started at the bottom of a canyon and had to climb out.  It’s steep terrain and there is no where to go but up.

I met Chip in Three Rivers at 10:30am after a 3 hour drive from Santa Monica where Amy lives.  This was the first time in years where I had to set this early of an alarm for anything other than a flight.   After dropping his truck off, we drove from 800′ to 7,800′ above sea level to the ranger station.  The road to Mineral King is super narrow and windy and takes about 2 hours to climb into the beautiful forests where giant sequoia thrive.

We picked up our permit from the ranger station and started hiking about 2:00 – the hottest part of the day – only about 70F.  The cool mountain air felt great and we started off at a good clip.  I knew I just had to stay a few steps in front of Chip.  Chip had been busy working and going on family vacations, so he hadn’t done high altitude training like I did in Colorado.  All I had to do was stay a little ahead of him.

The goal for the first day was to get to Franklin Lakes at 10,331′.  That’s 2,501′ of gain on the first day.  With many stops and a casual attitude, Chip and I caught up about what had happened since we last backpacked 25 years ago.  I played intramural ultimate with Chip at Cal Poly and a group of us hung out in college quite a bit.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 1993 – right before I graduated and started working – we hiked over the 22-mile Hurricane Deck in Los Padres National Forest.  We hiked under a full moon to avoid the heat of the day back then.  Chip is a remodeling contractor and has a wife and two kids.   He’s been a regular backpacker over the years and taught me a thing or two about modern backpacking since I have only done it irregularly over the last 30 years when I was a ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch.

The miles added up and we approached lower Franklin lake at about 5:30.  We looked down on the lake and golden trout were happily hopping out of the lake.  We camped on a bluff overlooking the lake and marmots were climbing all around the boulders in camp.  Usually marmots are afraid of humans and they won’t let me get within 50′ of them, but these would stop and stare at me from about 10′ away.  They’re pretty cute and didn’t eat stuff in our packs or anything.

That’s my tent near a bluff overlooking Franklin Lake.

We were beat from the first days hike and climbed into our tents after sunset in the alpine glow.  I got up in the middle of the night and about stumbled off the bluff in my sleepy walk to relieve myself.  I looked down at the lake and saw lights in the water.  I wondered who had put lights down there and realized that it was the stars reflecting in the water.  I looked up in amazement at the number of brilliant stars in the sky.  I looked at the milky way and saw a big question mark in the sky – the big dipper.

What was the question mark asking?

Where are you going?

What does retirement mean for me?

Why am I here?

I went back in my tent and rested peacefully for about 10 hours in total.

I got up around 7am and had some tea.  We knew we would be camping here in three nights on the way out, so we decided to leave a dinner and breakfast in the bear box.  I had also forgotten my iPhone cable, so my solar charger wasn’t going to be any good to me on the trail.  I left that heavy $100 device in the bear box too…

Chip and I hit the trail about 9 and climbed the next 1,400′ up to Franklin Pass.  The trail was superb to this point with a long gradual grade up the mountain.

The eastern side of Franklin Pass was much different.  The trail was barely switchbacked and we slid down the mountain on loose decomposed granite that was similar to very large 1/4″ grains of sand.  After the loose sand, we went down a series of steps that were over a foot tall.  It was hard going down them, but I knew it would be even harder going back up in two days.  Stepping down that far was hard on my legs, but there wasn’t any other option.

After a couple miles, the trail flattened out and we had a couple of ridges to climb before we reached our final destination – Little Claire Lake.  Chip is very particular about where he camps, so he looked around for the best spot while I stayed with the packs.  He came back and said the camp had views of the lake, Sawtooth Mountain and Mt. Whitney.  I thought he was joking, but when I got to camp, we had a panoramic views all the way to Mt. Whitney – the highest point in the contiguous US at 14, 495′.

We had a very relaxing time at Little Clair Lake and swam in her cool waters.  I marveled at the huge Foxtail Pines that were all around the camp and lake.  These trees can grow to be thousands of years old and then they die and stay standing for hundreds of years more.  Then the trees eventually get blown over and probably decompose over another thousand years.  These dead trees were probably living when Jesus was walking the Earth.  It was amazing walking through this living museum of trees.

The tree on the left is an ancient foxtail pin that has probably been dead for a hundred years.  I love how the branches reach up to the heavens.

On our third day, I was exhausted and just stayed in camp while Chip explored a nearby lake.  In the late afternoon, I caught some fish with some corn and cranberry bait.  The little golden trout weren’t much bigger than fingerlings, but I fried them up anyway.  I wouldn’t do it again unless I was really hungry or someone took my food.

On our fourth day, we had to hike over Franklin Pass again from the east side to get back to cached food and solar panel.  We got up early and the trail up the pass wore us down to a nub.  We got some good photos on top and ate lunch on a nearby peak.

We hiked back down the grade to Franklin Lake and we went straight to the bear box to retrieve our food and solar panels, but the box was empty.  We couldn’t believe that someone would take our food and gear.  Everyone I’ve met in the backcountry wouldn’t take someone else’s food!  It’s just not cool…  My solar panels were worth about $100 too.  I was pissed!

Luckily, a guy had given me an extra meal on the trail a couple days earlier and I ate that for dinner.  Chip had some extra food as well, so I didn’t have to go catch a bunch of fish to eat.  I made some popcorn and we went to sleep wondering what happened.

The next morning, I ate trail mix for breakfast instead of my rehydrated breakfast hash.  We hiked out about 9 again and it took up 3.5 hours to hike the 5.3 miles to the car.  We’d hiked 22 miles and gained and lost 6,480′.  We were beat and I had developed a couple of blisters on my little dogs.  Chip liked to say “My dogs are barking” when his feet hurt.

We headed to the ranger station to report our stolen goods.  When I mentioned where we left the food at Franklin Lake, the ranger said, “Oh no!  Wait a minute.”  She went into the back office and a young ranger appeared with my solar panel.  She reprimanded us for caching food in the backcountry and said they had distributed our food to hungry rangers!

I thought it was pretty weak to take and eat our food.  We should have left a note that we would come back and get the stuff, but we didn’t expect the rangers to take our stuff.

Overall, it was a spectacular trip.  I didn’t miss doing email and teleconferences.  Chip and I got along real well and we caught up on old times and new times.  We got to enjoy some of the most beautiful and pristine country I’ve ever seen.  I definitely want to go back and hike in similar areas.

Here I am studying a map at our Little Clair Lake campsite at over 10,000′.  It wasn’t cold, but I had my hood on to keep a few pesky mosquitos away.

Where Angels Land

On the second day of our 44-day road trip, Amy and I arrived in Zion National Park.  We had three nights and basically three days to see one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.  The towering sandstone cliffs are stained with iron to give the mountains an amazing red glow.  I describe it as a Yosemite in full color.  The canyon country around Zion has amazing red cliffs, but Zion has the most stunning cliffs of all and the trails to support it.

I’d heard about Angel’s Landing Trail being one of the best hikes in the world.  After doing it, I rank it right up there with half dome, Everest and the San Juan’s of Colorado.  Angel’s Landing is only about 5 miles round trip, but the last half mile up requires chains to keep you on the mountain.

The trail was too intimidating for Amy who has some vertigo, so she hiked another trail shown on the map above to Emerald Pools.

The Angel’s Landing hike had about a half mile of casual walking before it started ascending the 1,500′ cliffs.  The trail was wide and steep and lots of other people were coming down.  I started at 3pm to avoid the crowds and miss the hottest part of the early June day.

The series of switchbacks worked right up the mountain and I had to stop many times to catch my breath from the steep grade.  After about a mile, I entered a very steep and deep canyon called Refrigeration Canyon because the sun rarely reaches the canyon floor.  The slot canyon was cool and breezy and rather flat.  Angel’s Landing was on the right and a whole other mountain was on the left.

After a while, I hiked up Walter’s Wiggles – some tight switchbacks seen below.  The sun hit me as I climbed out of Refrigerator Canyon and I was sweating again and making good time.

Walter’s Wiggles

The trail was still wide and safe, so I was wondering what all the fear of the trail was about.  Then we reached a flat area known as Scout’s Lookout.  It’s a nice plateau with 1,500′ drops to the Virgin River canyon floor.    It’s Wile E. Coyote country for sure!

Scout’s Lookout is a nice flat area before Angel’s Landing.

After I made it across the high plateau, a small offshoot trail went to Angel’s Landing.  This is where the men separate from the boys – or something like that because a lot of beautiful women kept going.  I could see the chains and this sign.

Don’t fall off the cliff…

I looked up at people coming down a rock face holding on to a loose chain.  The chain was attached to metal posts pounded into the rock face.  I realized what all the fuss was about.  The chain is the only thing that keeps people from tumbling off the mountain to their death.

I started hiking up and some people were stuck in the trail.  I’d seen similar behavior on Half Dome where people would not let go of the chain.  They were paralyzed and not moving forward.  To keep going, I had to get close to them, reach around them and grab the chain on the other side of them.  Luckily there weren’t too many people doing this, so I made quick work of getting up the precarious ridges.

I saw many other people turning back with white knuckles and fear in their faces.  I’ve never been too afraid of heights and love looking down great distances, but even this hike was too much in places and my heart pounded at some of the gaps between the chains.

You need to hold on to that chain.

That’s a 1,000′ drop on the other side of the chain!  5 people have died on the trail with the last victim falling 1,000′ in 2009.  You don’t want to stumble up there.

I think I blocked out a lot of the hike until I made it to the relatively flat top.  Here’s a picture from there:

Quite a few people were up there and no rangers were there to enforce the rules of not feeding the animals.  This guy had this chipmunk crawl up him multiple times to get that perfect shot.  While I was watching, one of those little buggers jumped on my back and it made me jump.  my sudden movement scared all the other chipmunks and this guy was mad because I interrupted his cinematography.

This is my favorite shot from the top.  Right after I took it, I was uploading it to Facebook when some other people asked me to take their photo.  I said sure and set my phone in my lap.  They got into position and then I forgot about my phone.  When I got up, my phone fell onto the rocks and started skidding down the mountain!

People heard my phone skidding and bouncing and started yelling for help for my phone.  I’d seen a phone skid down half dome to it’s death, and people seem to relate to the fear of losing their phone.  The phone/camera/organizer/ bank teller/GPS/on and on is the most important thing people use all day long.  Losing my phone is a very painful experience and I prayed that I wouldn’t lose mine off the 1,500′ cliff!

Luckily, the person I was taking a picture of was in the skid path.  She stopped the phone with her foot as it was sliding to it’s death.  The slide scraped up the cover and the screen almost broke, but my screen protector worked and the protector chipped instead of the screen.

When I got back to the main trail a half an hour later, I decided to hike up the main trail a little farther.  When I got up there, I realized that I hadn’t used my tripod or selfie pole to take some pics.  I set it up and got some good shots and then saw the time elapse mode.  I knew I had to get a cool shot of the people coming down the chains while the clouds blew by.  Check this one out!

9D560C20-09DE-4651-B2F7-A9DE044A3C6B

I’m so impressed that I can take this HD time elapse video with my phone.  What a powerful tool.

The whole hike took about 4 hours.  I highly recommend it to lift your spirits and get to some life pondering moments.  I felt a good sense of accomplishment at the end of the day and my only loss was a scraped iPhone.

The Angel has Landed!

From LA to Vegas

Hello everyone!

Amy and I are on our 44-day road trip to kick off our year of travel.  We’re taking a break from the work we’ve been doing for 25-years and want to start new careers in travel.  We’re not sure where we’ll end up, but we have a long time to get there.

On May 27th, we left Santa Monica and the first stop was Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.  We took a beautiful hike on First Creek Trail through cactus and into the desert canyon.

Cholla cactus with mountains in the background.

This was our first day on the road and I trained for my July backpacking trip by packing many things into my backpack including chairs and a gallon of water.  the hike was pretty easy, but the 35 pound pack made it feel like I was hiking up a big mountain.

We hiked until the trail stopped in the canyon.  We sat and Amy wrote in her journal for 10+ minutes.  We are making the trip a spiritual and contemplative journey as well as an exciting vacation.

It was getting late, so we headed to Red Rock Casino and had a great meal while watching LeBron advance to the Championship for the 8th year in a row.  He’s amazing.

We stayed in an airbnb for $35/night and then cruised the strip.  We started in the county center and Artists District.

Keep Memory Alive Event Center
How can you pass up the Elvis Wedding Chapel?
I hear the Holiday Motel was beautiful 50 years ago.  That’s the Stratosphere behind it.
Doesn’t this pink Cadillac look good in Vegas?

Finding Meaning

I’ve been on the road for four weeks with Amy and things are going great!  We are at her mother Di’s house right now and I’m getting to know Di and the rest of Amy’s family.  They are very special people who have made me feel at home.  This will be home until we hit the road on Friday.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make this blog more than just my travel log.  I want to do more than just take a year long vacation.  I’m looking forward to rising above great day-to-day activities and find meaning in my life and help others find theirs.

This search for meaning has really hit me hard for a couple of reasons.  First off, it hit me because meaning can be an existential crisis according to this article in the New York Times.  The article discusses how suicide is up 25% since 1990 and how a lack in meaning in people’s lives might have been a reason for many of the suicides.  I’ve also heard of four suicides (only one unsuccessful) since I’ve been in KC, so the topic has come up quite a bit.

The second reason is that I’m retiring next month and I’ve heard that other people have gone into depression and lost meaning in their lives when they quit work.  I think that I haven’t attached too much meaning and self-identity to my job, so I’m not too concerned about retirement leading to depression for me, but I do have more time to dedicate to something with meaning.  I want to give back to the world.  I want to be constructive instead of destructive.

Meaning or purpose in life is so important and I can be impetuous in decisions that I make.  I am rather decisive and that can lead me to make decisions before I have all the facts and opinions.  I want to get this one right and have profound meaning and purpose in my life.

When I retire, I have the great opportunity to figure out what I want to do and then do it.  I’m taking a year to travel and figure out what I want to do.  I have a few ideas to start:

  1. Become a Travel Writer – This has been my main idea for a long time and I can do this while I do other thing too.  It mainly comes down to if I want to travel so much as I get older.
  2. Travel and Report on Spiritual Places –  I have some plans to go to some great spiritual places this year (mainly Esalen and Kyoto). Visiting these places could give me a good feel for if I want to spend more time in these special places.  In late July, I’ll be going to Esalen to reach my full potential on a 28-day retreat.
  3. Help gifted children – I have had this dream of helping intellectually gifted children who may have trouble relating to other kids and getting along in life.  My high school physics teacher K. Perry talked about helping gifted kids and it made sense to me.  If we can help some very gifted kids, then maybe they can do some amazing things.  Maybe I can inspire some kids by leading them on some international travel.
  4. Creating or Living in an Intentional Community – This could be an easy path to find people who want to live the good life with me.  I’m not a good salesman, so why not live with people who want to change and live with purpose?

That’s my thoughts on how to bring some meaning into my life.  Let me know if you have better ideas or what has brought meaning into yours!

Kind regards,

Scott