Being the Random Yarns of Emily Cotton, Merry Scrivener of Fact & Fiction Historical, Animal, & Minimal to Amuse, Inform, & Enlighten.

Archive for January, 2018

Wilderness Tales: the Stone

Lundy Lake, on the eastern side of the Sierras near Mono Lake, is set in a long narrow cleft eponymously named Lundy Canyon. (‘Eponymous’ is so rarely used, I figured I’d better air it out before it becomes one of those words my aging brain forgets. An adjective meaning ‘of a thing named after a person or thing’. Word for the day.)

Lundy Lake

It was a short trip, by backpacking standards—only 3 miles in to the abandoned May Lundy Mine. Just right for a family with young kids. Except that the trailhead started at 7830 feet and ended at 9860 feet! That’s 2000 feet of elevation gain in thin high-altitude air, and our family came from L.A. just a few feet above sea level.  But the mountains were gorgeous, and we were primed for adventure. Gamely shouldering our old-fashioned packs, we trooped down the trail.

“Down the trail’ is a figure of speech. Up fit better, although the going was not too bad for the first half-mile. But then the trail angled upward. It got harder as it went until we were puffing and huffing.  Pop called for a rest stop at a lovely little waterfall surrounded by lush early-season Sierra flowers.

We sat down gratefully, while Mom handed out generous chunks of chocolate, which, for some reason, was the Alaskan ideal for wilderness energy food. And that is when I saw it.

The most remarkable rock. Or so it seemed to my juvenile eyes. It was basalt, about an inch and a half thick, three hand-spans wide and four long, with an irregular shape that bore a startling resemblance (or so I thought) to South America. It even had a ridge down the left-hand side where the Andes Mountains would have been, and a dip for the Amazon Basin.

It doesn’t take much to astonish a kid, and that rock purely amazed me. I showed it to the family. Everybody duly admired my find and nodded as I pointed out the salient features which made this chunk of basalt the most incredible discovery of my young life.

I intended to keep it, of course. I picked up the uneven 34-pound slab and clutched it to my chest, ready to resume the trek with my treasure.

Mom and Pop agreed that it was a most incredible find, and surely I must bring it home. But why carry it all the way up hill and back again? We would be returning this way day after tomorrow, and I could simply collect it then.

I knew perfectly well what my parents were thinking: that I, their notoriously absent-minded child, would forget entirely about it until we were back at the car. And even if I DID remember, it was just one rock among many flat slabs of basalt that littered the slope. I’d never locate the darn thing once I set it back among its less dramatically shaped fellows.

I stowed the rock carefully to one side. While the rest went ahead, I piled a heap of smaller, less-notable rocks across the trail so I wouldn’t forget. And then I caught up.

Because I didn’t forget. But more on that later.


Wilderness Tales–part the first

I was 12 years old when my Pop (he hated the term ‘Dad’, which in his day and place was a term of disrespect) took the family on our first backpacking trip. Now, taking 4 kids into the wilderness was a venture that needed much preparation. But my father was wilderness-bred, a native of Colorado, raised in Seward, Alaska, and he wanted to pass his legacy on to his multiple offspring.
First, he tackled the matter of packs. You didn’t buy those things in his childhood, you made them. Pop assembled oak frames in his shop, while Mom sewed canvas covers to wrap around the wood, hammering in rows of grommets along the folded edges with lots of space between so the laces could be tightened to take up slack as the fabric stretched through use. The solid side of the canvas would rest against our backs, while the vertical and horizontal bars of the frame stayed well to the sides, top, and bottom. Needless to say, each frame had to be specially-sized to the wearer.

But what about the bag? Where did you PUT stuff?
Back when my Pop was learning his skills, (for those who wonder, he was born in 1918) when you wanted to tote a load, you tossed your things onto a piece of canvas or oilcloth fabric called a tarp (or a ‘manty’ in horse-packer parlance). And you folded the thing into a bundle and using rope, attached it to the lash points (usually metal rings) on the frame, and ran the rope in a complicated pattern known as a ‘diamond hitch’ – so-called because the crisscrossing lines made the shape of a diamond on the outside of the load. Of course that was the way it was done—easy! (Well, it was once you’d done it a hundred times, which I haven’t. I graduated to pack-bags the following year.) And the rest of our equipment? The same stuff we camped with, of course! Cotton sleeping bags weighing 8 pounds each—twice today’s inexpensive backpacking bag. Sturdy Spaulding leather-soled shoes, my oldest sister with new ones, my brother’s, mine, and my 5-year-old sister wearing successively more well-worn hand-me-downs. (Don’t be shocked, this was normal in the 50’s and 60’s, most middle-class kids wore hand-me-downs, since a family of 5 was about average.) They made ‘em to LAST, back then. And there were cobbler shops to put little metal bits on to extend wear, and to re-sole them when even those wore through. A tent, you ask? Good grief, the only one we had was made of canvas and took both my parents to carry it! You didn’t take tents into the wilderness, didn’t we all have a piece of tarp on our packs? Anyway, the chosen destination, fully described to Pop by a co-worker and fellow wilderness enthusiast, had an abandoned mining camp with a couple old buildings we could use. So THAT was solved.
Food was no problem. It was the early 1960’s, so of course there were plenty of cheap army surplus rations available. Left over from WWII, packaged and preserved to last for ages, what more could any wilderness traveler need? A luxury, compared to what my Pop had in his youth.
Suitably equipped, the six of us (plus our dog) drove up to Lundy Lake.
To be continued.