I learned how to backpack from my father in the 1950s, and in the 1960s I was fortunate to go backpacking with some of the people who had the first recorded ascents of many of the peaks of the Sierras.
There was no giardia in the waters of the Sierras in those days, so there was no need to filter or boil water from the lakes and streams. One of my great pleasures was lying on my belly and drinking directly from a flowing stream. I remember the first time we had to filter Sierra water. I was in my twenties. I was so sad about the loss of purity in those splendid mountains, I cried every time I had to filter our water.
This was also before the advent of lightweight packs and lightweight tents and lightweight sleeping bags, before armies of backpackers swarmed the wilderness. My pack for a week in the Sierras weighed upwards of sixty pounds, and we so rarely met other backpackers, every meeting was memorable.
We were ever on the lookout for edible food that needed only water added to make a viable meal. Forget tasty. Edible. I was a fly fisherman, and in those days so few people visited the places we went, the fishing was always good and we had trout for breakfast and supper.
One day a backpacking friend touted me on a rice dish available in a cardboard box, the ingredients needing only water to turn into some sort of pilaf. I got some, cooked it at home, found it edible, barely, and got two more boxes to take on a backpacking trip.
Our first day we hiked for seven hours carrying our hella heavy packs over two high passes, and we didn’t reach our destination until darkness was falling. Exhausted and having no time to fish, we made our cooking fire and boiled a pan of water to cook the rice pilaf.
Yes. A cooking fire. This was when so few people ventured into the Sierras there was always plenty of dead wood to be gathered for fires, no permits were required, and there was no need to carry a little propane stove. When the water came to a boil, we poured in the desiccated rice grains, stirred occasionally, and twenty minutes later scooped the gruel into our Sierra Club cups.
Oh my God. The pilaf tasted like a three-star Michelin entrée, our mighty exertions and our extreme hunger making the crummy food gourmet.
When I was in my twenties I was a vagabond for a few years. I hitchhiked all over America and Canada, carrying all my possessions in a big backpack weighing fifty to seventy pounds depending on how much food and how many books I was carrying. I also toted a cheap guitar in a flimsy case and played for hours while waiting for rides. I was essentially a highway backpacker.
During the summer of 1971 I found myself in Stowe, Vermont with a few dollars in my wallet and needing work. Stowe is now a swank resort town, but in 1971 it was a small country town. I inquired in the hardware store if they knew of anyone needing a laborer. The friendly fellow working there said he’d make a few calls and to come back in a half hour. To pass the time, I went to the bakery to get a loaf of bread.
The gal in the bakery sold me a big day-old loaf for twenty-five cents. When I inquired about places to camp, she said I could pitch my tube tent in her backyard. I asked if she knew of anyone needing a laborer, and she said there was a guy tending a warming hut on the nearby Long Trail, which is part of the Appalachian Trail, who wanted somebody to cut and chop wood for the hut. She said he came into the bakery every few days to buy cookies and bread, and to complain about the absence of bagels.
The guy at the hardware store didn’t come up with any work for me, so after spending the night in the bakery gal’s backyard, I hiked two miles up a trail that connected with the Long Trail, hiked another mile or so north along the Long Trail, and introduced myself to the fellow tending the warming hut there.
I don’t know how things are run on those trails nowadays, but in 1971 hikers did not camp wherever they wanted along the way and had to stay in these warming huts, which were one-room cabins with a hearth, a woodstove, and wooden platforms for sleeping bags. There was no electricity and the outhouse was unpleasant.
The fee to stay overnight was fifty cents. The keeper of the hut collected the fees, made sure there was plenty of firewood, swept out the hut, cleaned the outhouse, kept the water barrel in the hut full, and had a walkie-talkie in case of emergencies.
The fellow tending the hut was named Bernard. He lived in Brooklyn where he was born thirty-five years before I met him. He spoke with a thick Brooklyn Jewish accent and was a chess master with a high ranking. Tall and bearded, Bernard was volubly unhappy about spending his summer in the mountains. He was there at the suggestion of his psychiatrist who felt a break from city life would help lessen his anxiety and depression and anger.
Within thirty seconds of my arrival, Bernard asked me, “Do you play chess?”
“Not well,” I replied.
“Let’s play,” he said grimly.
A moment later we were sitting on the deck of the hut with a chessboard between us. I asked him to remind me how the horse moved and he gave me a look of dismay. “Please tell me you’re kidding. You must know that piece is called a knight.”
“Now I do,” I said, laughing.
Not amused, Bernard checkmated me with ease three or four times, and said, “You’ll get better.”
He then explained his job included foraging in the surrounding woods for well-aged fallen trees and branches, sawing them up, and splitting them into firewood for the hut. Never having wielded a saw or an axe, this labor was torture for him. He would pay me five dollars a day and cover my food if I would work for him.
I stayed a week, which was all I could take of Bernard. He was desperately lonely and talked endlessly about his mother and father, chess tournaments, his most challenging rivals in the chess world, and his difficulties with women. Fortunately he did not accompany me on my wood gathering expeditions, so I had daily respites from his laments.
Hikers would start arriving in the afternoon. Bernard would collect the fees and inquire of each hiker, “Do you play chess?” Occasionally a good chess player would come along and Bernard would delight in games he always won. He and I played many times and I got a little better, but not so it made a difference to Bernard.
In the mornings, hikers would cook their oatmeal and move on. I would sweep out the hut, pump water from the spring to refill the warming hut barrel, clean the outhouse, and then go forth with saw and axe to gather wood from the surrounding forest. In my absence, Bernard would read, write letters and postcards, and because I was in the vicinity, he walked into town every other day to mail his letters, get his mail, make phone calls, and buy food.
We got to be friends, though Bernard never asked me anything about my life. What he learned about me came from overhearing conversations I had with hikers who were more inquisitive than he. By contrast, I knew so much about Bernard I could have written a long depressing novel based on his anguished life. Working title: Such A Headache I’ve Got.
At the end of a week, with thirty-five dollars in my pocket (a fortune to me in those days) I bid Bernard adieu and left the mountains for another stint on the road.