At the Post Office

It’s getting to the point where I’ve lived in this place, Wallowa County, long enough that maybe I’ve learned a few things about how to act and where to watch out for black ice and how to split a few cords of wood without taking off any of my toes, like one fellow did, only that was with a lawnmower, not a splitting maul or chainsaw, and he was wearing flip-flops, so what do you expect? And he grew up here, so I guess that just goes to show there’s no guarantee that, even if you’ve lived in a place for thirty years or more, you’re not going to go and do something stupid.

Which I have done my share of, but one thing I have learned over the years is that in a small community, you just don’t know who is related to who, or who was married to who, or who had a kid with who. So you’d best think twice before you say what you really think about so-and-so, although sometimes not saying it actually gives you a chance to have second thoughts and maybe even change your mind, so I suppose there’s some virtue to be gained from having to watch your tongue on account of not knowing for sure who’s related to who.

Along those same lines, I’ve learned, more or less, to look around and see who’s in earshot or eyeshot before I go blabbing about this or that. That’s why, when I ran into an old acquaintance, Gerald, while standing in line at the post office, which as a place to see and be seen is right up there with the hairdressers, I just sort of talked in generalities, because I knew that, in addition to all the people in line, the lady behind the counter was listening to every word, just like she listens to every word of every other conversation that takes place while people are waiting in line with their package to send, or with their little yellow card saying they’ve got a package too big for their box, and there was a lot of that going on because it was just before Christmas that I ran into Gerald.

I asked Gerald if he was keeping busy, and he said he was, still driving bus every once in a while. He looked pretty good, even at 75 or however old he was. He was one of those spare, small men who probably had next to no bad habits, and even though at his age he had to have a few aches and pains, there he was just smiling for no particular reason other than he happened to be one of those guys who couldn’t help but be pretty positive and optimistic all the time. What I didn’t say to Gerald was, “How’s Sally?” because, truth be told, I couldn’t even remember if Sally was still alive.

It had been years since I’d seen either one of them. She’d been a computer customer of mine, back when you looked at green letters on a small screen and printed your stuff out on a daisywheel printer if you wanted it to look good, as if it came off an IBM Selectric. She used it for word processing because she was a writer, but I never did read her stuff, I just sold her a computer and helped her with her problems when she had them. But it had been years since I’d seen her, and of course, since she had been my main connection to that family, not Gerald, it would have been kind of odd for me not to ask after Sally, but I didn’t, not there in front of everybody at the counter, because some little voice inside told me I might be sticking my foot in my mouth and it could be embarrassing for Gerald and for me.

But once we’d both finished our business at the counter and I was getting my mail out of my box, because sometimes if it looks like it’s busy or going to get busy, and you have business at the counter, you want to go to the counter first and get the mail out of your box second, because otherwise, while you’re standing there fumbling with your key, or with the combination, if you have one of those kind, two or three or maybe four people are going to walk through that door and walk past all the boxes and go stand in line, each one of them making the little bell ring as they pass under the invisible motion detector. And if it’s Christmas time, the traffic can be kind of heavy, so that’s why I was getting my mail out of my box after having chatted briefly with Gerald at the counter, and why, as he was about to walk out of the post office, I was able to catch him a second time and ask, more or less privately, how his wife was.

Gerald flashed me the subtlest kind of look that said, “Thanks for asking. It would have been a little odd if you hadn’t,” but maybe I was just imagining that. He told me that she’d been suffering with a long illness for years, and could hardly get around, and it was up to him to make all the meals, besides driving the bus and chopping the wood and cleaning the house, which last three are all things he didn’t mention but I’m sure he was doing them, without complaining and with that good-natured attitude of his, just taking the dish he’d been served and eating it without complaint. And when Gerald and I shook hands and I told him to give my greetings to Sally and he walked out of the post office, I knew I was watching a better man than me head home, because I do complain.

Which reminds me that some of my friends, who, having only lived here for maybe ten years or so, haven’t quite figured out this business of picking your time and place to say just exactly what you think of someone or something. Because it was in that same post office a day or two later, standing at that same counter in front of that same postmistress, that I ran into one such friend. I was in the process of dropping about sixty bucks to mail a few books to some friends in Scotland despite the fact that the postmistress told me that if I could get the package to under four pounds, instead of the four point six pounds it currently weighed, the price would drop dramatically, only I wasn’t about to take the package apart and decide which book or books to pull, and then have to ask to borrow tape to put it all back together again, only to find out that I’d only gotten it down to four point one pounds.

So I just stood there and took the announcement of the cost like a shot to the gut, and then my friend, who had arrived in the midst of this revelation, asked what I was sending off, and I named some of the books, including Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, only I said “Louie” not “Lewis” and my friend, who is smarter than I am by a long shot, gave me a black eye on top of that gut shot, laughing loud and long in front of everyone there, “It’s Lewis, not Louie! Robert Lewis Stevenson!” He didn’t have to say, “You idiot!” because everyone there knew that was just naturally understood, even though my friend meant no harm, he just thought it was funny that I had mispronounced Robert Louis Stevenson’s name. I think Gerald, if it had been him in my place, would have just smiled and thanked my friend for the correction, and gee you learn something new everyday and have a nice Christmas. But I, who used to work for a literary non-profit, just stood there with a red face and swiped my credit card so the post office could get their sixty bucks to send Treasure Island and Huck Finn and some other books off to my friends in Scotland, and then I walked home.


I first met Richard “Amtrak” Alexander somewhere in Vermont, I think, at one of those three-sided shelters that those of us hiking from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail thought of as home – for one night, anyway. Then it was on, ever northward. He wore then, as always while I knew him, a slight and impish grin as he prepared to deliver his next wickedly funny and devastatingly accurate critique of life’s absurdities. He had no lack of material.

In the easy-come, easy-go way of thru-hikers, Amtrak (along with his sidekick, Hayden, a duck tolling retriever) and I crossed paths casually a few times through Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, until we found ourselves finishing the trail together after what some called the worst early-season Maine snowstorm in 60 years.

I consider myself fortunate that our friendship continued after the Appalachian Trail. Amtrak came to visit me in eastern Oregon, where we went backpacking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. And I visited him in Boise, where he lived for a time.

Then there was the time he and Dave and I drove up to the Enchantments in Washington, and were stopped by two young and over-zealous policemen on the outskirts of Ellensburg. Eleven at night, a VW bus, three scruffy looking men … what could be surer cause to issue a citation? But, partly because of Richard’s typical coolness under fire and disarming-but-somehow-sneakily-insubordinate charm, the two coppers soon almost bowed to us as they waved us on our way to what was to be a fine autumn hike through alpine granite and golden Western larches.

His keenness of observation and appreciation for irony always delighted me. I am sorry to see him go. Here’s to Amtrak, long-distance hiker and fine friend.

Richard "Amtrak" Alexander (and his dog Hayden), finishing the Appalachian Trail, October 13, 2000

Richard “Amtrak” Alexander (and his dog Hayden), on Katahdin in Maine, after walking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia, a distance of 2167 miles.  October 13, 2000. Amtrak is at the far left in the back row.

(Below are excerpts from my journal account of the last few days of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2000, including a few snippets of moments shared with Amtrak, and evidence that he deserved his trail name.)

October 9:  28 degrees. We stop for lunch at White House Landing. The proprietor says, “I hope you have a good campfire tonight, because you’re going to need it, heh heh.”

October 10:  Wadleigh Stream leanto. It’s cold. It’s wet. Snug in my bag, very glad I wore earplugs last night, as the din of rain on the metal roof of the shelter is very loud. Not yet dawn, but light enough that I can see some snow on the ground. White stuff, the start of winter, death by hypothermia.

As we climb Nesuntabunt Mountain, the snow gets deeper. At the summit, I catch Gilligan and Flipper, who have lost the trail. The woods are lovely, with golden leaves and pine needles falling on top of the snow. We hear and see trees falling or shedding limbs under the weight of the snow. It’s ironic that the leaves, which bring such beauty to the autumn woods, also spell doom for some trees by catching the heavy snow.

I end up somewhat dehydrated, for water to drink is somewhat scarce. My feet, however, are soaked. At 3:30 I arrive at the shelter, which is full. There’s a Welshman, two days into the woods, with a broken leg. He tried crossing the stream on a pair of skinny, ice-covered logs and fell into the stream. Amtrak and Walkabout have already got him stabilized. The Welshman’s buddy has walked out for help.

A discussion starts about “stop or go”–I choose to stop and waste no time about it, for my body is cooling off. I go up the hill and kick the wet, heavy snow aside, down to hemlock needles. In these dark woods, I’m getting cold very fast. As I pitch my tent, I keep the fly draped loosely over it so that the big drops of rain and snow dropping off the trees don’t soak the tent before I even get it up. I immediately get into my bag.

I hear chainsaws or snowmobiles, or both. I venture out, although this requires putting the wet socks back on. Yech. I go down to the shelter, which is all a-bustle with a dozen search and rescue men getting ready to carry the Welshman out on a board. Yoda and Amtrak have splinted the man’s leg so well with pieces of Z-Rest that the doctor leaves it be. The moon shines briefly through the dripping hemlocks.

October 11:  It requires an act of will to get started in the morning, but I’m up against it. I don’t have the food to hang out; the season has gone too far. I’ll be walking in snow and slush and mud all day.

I feel concentrated, serious. I’m tossing about in my mind what it will be like to go up Katahdin, if at all. If the weather doesn’t improve, it won’t happen. I will not go up in whiteout, cold conditions. If the weather clears, it might still be impossible. Two dayhikers tell us the mountain is “closed for the season.” Or I could keep going, up the mountain, park rangers be damned, one step at a time until I can’t go anymore, until I must stop.

At Hurd Brook leanto. Gilligan and Yak start a fire, and we all hang wet stuff out to dry. We’re going to stay in the leanto tonight. It’s dark, and we’re packed in – Gilligan, Sideways, Yak, Yetti, Flipper, Godfather, Snowblazer, me, Hayden, and Amtrak.

Before we go to sleep, Flipper sings a Dylan song, and Godfather regales us with story after story, putting us in stitches. Gradually, conversation drops off. Hayden does the push-against-you thing to me most of the night. Amtrak snores.

During the night I feel bent and squeezed. I sleepily kick Hayden at one point; later, he’s gone. He’s down on the ground and I feel guilty. Amtrak and I urge him back up.

October 12:  I set out before anyone else and walk through the still cool woods, though it is sure to be a fine day–the sky is blue. I walk fast and purposefully–I don’t know if I’m excited to get to the end of the trail, anxious to find out exactly what the story is at Baxter State Park, or running away from an emotion I cannot name.

At Abol Bridge, my last maildrop, friends have sent me wine, cheese, sausage, crackers, chocolate, and, by special request, six little bottles of rum. Hikers gather and talk, talk, talk about whether the mountain is “open.” Finally, we get out onto the trail at noon – Yak, Yetti, Gilligan, Amtrak, Hayden, and me. The day is warm, the aspen are naked, I walk without a shirt for a long while beside the Penobscot River shining in the sun. We see beaver dams and fresh-chewed white birch.

Then we turn up the cascading Nesowadnehunk, with polished humps of rounded granite, winding through the forest, rising toward the mountain. I am quiet, focused, gathering my energy. We meet Soul Man, walking south, but I’m not interested in talking to him–I’m almost in a trance, I don’t want to hear any more stories or cautions. I just want to get to Katahdin.

Briefly separated from the others, Amtrak, Flipper and I walk the trail toward Katahdin Stream. A park ranger in a truck stops and questions Amtrak about Hayden. He doesn’t tell her that Hayden has walked the entire way from Georgia.

At the campground, I burn my last dinner. In the early evening I walk out into the clearing to regard Katahdin’s moonlit snow-shining slopes and the moon itself, a sliver shy of full, a sliver shy of seven full moons from the trip’s beginning.

October 13:  Up at the usual 5 or 6. The Aussies with their day packs bid us adieu. Riddler and Amtrak leave next, while I eat split pea soup for breakfast. The ladies are last up; we finally get our unnecessaries stashed just as we see a figure approaching wearing a hunter safety orange vest. We race up the trail into the woods. I don’t know who or what we saw, but we don’t want to stick around for a confrontation.

Heading for the summit of Katahdin, we are:  the Aussies, Riddler, Yak and Yetti, Gilligan, Peanut Butter, Flipper, Datto, Bear, Frogger, Ziggy, Dog (who isn’t a dog), Mossy Old Troll, Amtrak, and – everybody’s favorite – Hayden, who is a dog.

At treeline, we all put on wind gear and begin the bouldering phase of the climb. There are massive stones, some with ironwork of ingenious design embedded in them. There’s a brisk wind, and chilly, to justify our clothing. A lenticular cap can be seen over the highest part of the mountain, and there’s a band of cloud to the southwest that makes me feel like we are none too soon in climbing the mountain. The clambering is slow but enjoyable, with only occasional pockets of snow. The rock itself is almost entirely dry. It’s a delightful walk up to and along the ridge proper which leads us to the edge of “the Tableland.”

We walk along the flat ground, drifts of snow littering the landscape, making our way with little conversation, each mostly alone with our thoughts, towards the tiny figures already at the final summit just above us.

At the top, every single person hugs every other. It’s a joyful and prolonged process. Yak and Yetti cry into each others’ arms. Using the tiny bottles I picked up at Abol Bridge, we do a little rum ceremony honoring Pamola. There’s a brief round of Angeline the Baker, then we share crackers and cheese and sausage and champagne and chocolate all around.

We give the celebration full measure–but finally it is time to descend. I lag behind, sauntering in the afternoon sun, letting the “doing of the thing” sink in. It is enormous and puny all at the same time. I take a final gaze at the colored hillsides in light and shadow as the cumulus get pushed across the sky. I fill up on Katahdin Stream water, call out toward the dark hills to the west, and finally, “it is done.”  I am ready to rejoin the other world.

VW Prison

Someone, I’m sure, has written about how difficult it is for addicts to kick their habits unless they stop frequenting the same places and keeping the same company with whom they developed the habits in the first place. I think that someone is right, which is why I’m going to have to write off the handful of college “friends” who are still dogging my tracks, keeping me in VW Prison.

The primary culprit, a man I’ll just call CW, got me started down this path back in 1974 or so, inviting me to learn how to drive a manual transmission by taking over the controls of his 1968 baby-poop-yellow VW bus while a group of us were driving back home from a winter jaunt up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As I recall, that particular bus broke down at 3 o’clock in the morning just a few miles north of our dorm at the University of Connecticut. You’d think I’d have the sense to take that as a warning, but the VW loosey-goosey toy stick shift feeling has stuck to my hand ever since.

That was the same trip, I think, during which I slept across the front seats, feet propped up on the steering wheel, wrapped in an interesting variation on the concept of “sleeping bag” – a one-inch thick piece of foam, which supposedly increased in thickness as you cinched it tight. Nice idea. Too bad I didn’t have the sense to test it before spending a night in it at 16 degrees below zero. And that was the trip that … no, that story will have to wait for the category Winter Camping Disasters.

Not having learned my lesson about VWs, I was foolish enough to join CW, a couple of his Pennsylvania buddies, and a Former College Roommate on a cross-country trip to the Canadian Rockies. Besides changing my life 33 years later, that trip lured me into the clutches of VW-mania for what has become a very long time. I especially liked the way the vehicle seemed to miraculously right itself after being driven off the road by a driver who was trying to steer while simultaneously cleaning the windshield by reaching out the side window with a camping pot full of water.

It turns out that if he had simply pressurized the fluid reservoir, the built-in windshield washer would have worked. I know this for a fact, because when I bought that very same bus from CW, its engine in pieces in several cardboard boxes, for $400 cash (another warning that I ignored), I performed that routine bit of maintenance, and voilà!

And I liked the smell of hot oil on baking asphalt, as the rest of us waited while CW hitched into the next Wyoming town, only 50 miles away, to pick up some more motor oil. Seems he decided that the oil in the crankcase was dirty. He had one extra quart of oil, so he parked us by the side of the lonesome highway in searing summer heat, then unscrewed the drain bolt, thinking to let about a quart out, pop the bolt back in, and add the spare quart. When the draining oil, a few hundred degrees hot, hit his hand, he dropped the bolt, and 2.5 quarts of good Quaker State motor oil – the total capacity of a 1600cc VW engine – spilled on the pavement in an ugly black pool. So off CW went for more oil. I remember how, while waiting, I dug up a spindly little Wyoming pine seedling, put it in an empty tennis ball container, and presented it to my mother upon returning home to Connecticut. She planted it, and the damned thing survived.

There are other VW stories, of course. Anyone who’s owned one for any length of time has them. And I’ve owned one or two, pretty much continuously, since that day in 1977 when I towed that baby-poop-yellow VW bus home, where I would learn all about internal combustion engines with the help of a mechanic’s book called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot (for Sedan, Ghia & Transporter) by John Muir. The other John Muir. And illustrated by one Juniperus Scopulorum (the scientific name for Rocky Mountain juniper), who, based on the drawing style, just might be Robert Crumb.

6832--1024xSo, now and here, in January 2013, what shows up at my front door, personally delivered by CW’s local accomplice KGB, but a large gift-wrapped box? And what do I find inside that box but a VW bus? And, like the very first VW I owned, it came in pieces, 1,332 of them. That’s probably about as many pieces as I put together in the cool shade of the shed behind my uncle’s house back in 1977, when I experienced, for the first time, the magical feeling of turning a key and hearing an engine I built start up. And run well enough to bring me here to Oregon.

Still, a cell is a cell no matter how nicely equipped, and I fear, by accepting this gift and assembling its 1,332 pieces, I will never be allowed out of VW Prison. “Verboten!” Oh well. Keep On Truckin’.

Pinball Wizard, Cribbage Wizard

Pinball Wizard, Cribbage Wizard

“He ain’t got no distractions
Can’t hear those buzzers and bells,
Don’t see lights a flashin’
Plays by sense of smell.
Always has a replay,
And never tilts at all…”

Pinball Wizard, The Who

It’s quite possible that my dad has never heard of or listened to The Who, nor ever played pinball. Why should he need to, when he can play cribbage to the same devastating effect?

Now 86, mostly deaf, blind in one eye, and suffering significantly from dementia, he can no longer really keep track of the game. He’ll count his hand, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. (If he goes on automatic, he can count it, but if he stops to take a second look and think about it, all is lost.)

Having counted his hand, he looks at the board and almost always asks, “Which color am I?” By the time he’s figured out which pegs are his, and which direction we’re going, he’s forgotten how many points he had, so he’ll look back at the cards and count his hand again. Then he’ll look at the board and ask, “Which color am I?” I’ve been tempted to see how many times he can do this, but I inevitably break into his infinite loop with a bit of advice.

Doesn’t sound like a wizard, does he? But the old goat draws to inside straights more than the Laws of Nature dictate. And consider this, which has happened many times:

It’s my lead. No cards have been played yet, so he has no idea what I’ve got in my hand. Before I have a chance to play my leading card, he’ll pull a card from his hand and hold it out, face down, ready to play.

Now I am no spring chicken when it comes to cribbage. I’m not at all disturbed by this move on his part, and I don’t really think he’s even trying to psych me out anyway. I make my decision, lay down my leading card, and he flips his card. Sure enough, he makes a 15, or pairs me.

Ain’t got no distractions, plays by sense of smell. Here’s to you, Dad.

Yearend letter 2011-2012

2011-2012:  Nothing Happened
(Download as PDF:  EOY letter 2012)

Nothing much has happened in the two years since I last wrote, other than poisoning myself, in the mountains, in the winter, in the dark. It was an accident, or maybe not.

I’d gone camping in January 2012 (I know, madness to begin with) along with a pair of Supposed Friends, snowshoeing into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Cocooned in my tent, I used my tiny stove, which burns denatured alcohol, to cook split pea soup and hot cocoa. Green gruel, then brown gruel with flecks of green gruel in it. Mmm. By 7 pm, with nothing decent on TV, I was asleep.

1202--1024xAnd dreamt I was wandering in a clean and sunny cityscape, open and bright, deserted but for a group of people loitering in a plaza 50 yards away. Then, from a puff of smoke, like a 19th century charlatan, there materialized a redheaded man in a dark suit – clean shaven, trim, athletic – looking straight at me. I knew him, knew he must not see me, knew he had seen me. I ran, but in no time was caught. He plunged a syringe into the back of my right hand. Feeling an electric painful poison invading my body, I awoke with a scream.

Winter. Cold. Dark. Mouth parched. Need a drink. I reach for the water bottle and take a swig. And proceed to make a series of “animal noises” (my companions would later say). In my groggy terror, I’ve mistakenly grabbed my bottle of stove fuel – grain alcohol that has been intentionally poisoned in order to discourage hobos, vagrants, bums, and backpackers from drinking it.

I don’t know how much a lethal dose is, but I do know I’ll never snowshoe out of the mountains before the poison does it work. In nothing but my long underwear, I bolt out of the tent, spread my feet, bend over, and repeatedly stick my finger down my throat, retching green and brown gruel into the snow. Sometimes I can taste the denatured alcohol coming up.

A song comes into my head , one we used to sing in the old days, when I was young and new to Wallowa County. We would gather in someone’s cheap but drafty rental farmhouse with an ugly, cavernous Blaze King wood stove roaring, to drink beer, play music, and sing songs late into the night, while small, dirty children ran amok, eventually to crash on piles of coats in the corner.

The red-headed stranger from Blue Rock, Montana, Rode into town one day.
And under his knees was a ragin’ black stallion, And walkin’ behind was a bay.
The red-headed stranger had eyes like the thunder, And his lips, they were sad and tight.
His little lost love lay asleep on the hillside, And his heart was heavy as night.
Don’t cross him, don’t boss him, He’s wild in his sorrow, He’s ridin’ an’ hidin his pain.
Don’t fight him, don’t spite him, Just wait till tomorrow, Maybe he’ll ride on again.

But my redheaded stranger had not ridden on. No, he’d reached into this world and steered my hand to the wrong bottle, the bastard. How had I crossed him? Why did he want to kill me?

After twenty minutes, I am chilled and, I hope, emptied. No sound comes from my Supposed Friends in their tent. I imagine them on their backs in their sleeping bags, eyes staring into the dark, waiting to hear the muffled thump of my body hitting the snow. Thanks a lot, guys.

Back to bed I go. There’s nothing left to do but go to sleep and see if I wake up. In the morning, one eye is completely red. I’ve burst a blood vessel from the sustained effort of forced gagging. Either that, or the poison is doing its work. After a breakfast of thin oatmeal – tan gruel – we snowshoe up to Horseshoe Lake, walk across the frozen mile-long surface, staring at gray peaks creased with snow, and, a day later, return to town. I make a phone call. 1-800-222-1222. The guy at the Poison Control Center tells me a toxic dose of denatured alcohol is two ounces.

Dreams. In May of 2011, having re-upped with the Forest Service, I’m back in Hells Canyon. In my little yellow standard-issue Rite-in-the-Rain journal, I rite, “6 am. Been lying awake in the tent since 5. Dreamt of horses streaming through the woods, chased by distraught owners.”

August 2011, now up in the high country. Horse packing into the Eagle Cap to clean up some nasty camps, Boss puts me on Duster, a one-eyed roan. I’m not sure what this indicates about my standing. At times we lead the pack string off-trail, through steep-sloped timber and hanging meadows, to avoid deadfall. Duster stumbles on a sloping rock and falls to his front knees, pitching me onto his neck. I hang on. He plunges into a hole hidden by grass. I hang on. He’s constantly veering toward his good side. I’m enjoying the hell out of myself.

P1020466--1024xWe camp in a meadow at the mouth of Trail Creek, putting up a lightweight electric fence. “The problem with these things,” Boss says, “is that the elk walk through them, and then there’s nothing to keep the stock in.” In the morning, the fence is down, and the horses and mules are gone. We start the search. I head for the thick timber on the far side of the meadow. And see our horses, streaming through the woods, coming back home. I have been here before.

Nothing at all happened between the end of field season in the fall of 2011, and the redheaded man’s attack in January 2012. No, I take it back. My housemate and I threw a Halloween Party, attended by the Devil With The Blue Dress On. Some people thought it was creepy, although I can’t imagine why.


And I finished the freakin’ sweat lodge, Gilligan.

1881--1024xBy April 2012, I was back in the field, working alone in Hells Canyon until the rest of the crew came on in June. Close to finishing an inventory of all the “trails” on the Oregon side of the canyon, we make a final push. Of course, I volunteer to do the last low-elevation piece, even though it is now July. It’s a hot, brambly, snaky hell down there, and we have only three days to do a four-day job. (“Crucify me! Crucify me!”) As we bushwhack through five acres of poison ivy, teasel, and poison hemlock, my companion, a young woman on her first trip into Hells Canyon, declares, “Let’s get the hell out of this fucking shithole.”

5907--1024xSo I did, taking a hiatus from rangering to go on a busman’s holiday: hiking the length of the Sierra Nevada range in California with my brother, Tork. We were joined for the first week by one “Kramer,” who lived up to his nickname, and for another week by my daughter, her friend, and Ashi the Stylin’ Pooch.

Along the way, Tork and I take a spontaneous side trip to Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Our choices are to climb 2000′ up the sheer north face (I don’t think so), or to go up the “tourist” route on the back side. Even that is steep. So steep that, years ago, the Sierra Club installed steel posts with 3/4″ steel cable handrails. So what if some of the steel posts have popped out of their holes? That was in 1919, and you can’t expect anything to last forever.

On the cables, there’s a regular traffic jam. It reminds me of that other tourist route – the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. “Get the Italian team out of the way!” I shout. Tork and I are fit, used to exposure, and acclimated – Half Dome, at 8800 feet, is 2000 feet lower than the route we’ve been hiking. But many of our fellow tourists are exhausted and scared shitless. The aisle between the cables is not quite wide enough for two people, so Uppers and Downers are constantly squeezing by each other. Some people are frozen to the cables, blocking the way of others.

6697--1024xSomething goes clattering down the nearly vertical granite, disappearing against the background of dark treetops 1000 feet below us. A sheath knife. A moment later, another object, bright and metallic, clatters down and disappears into a shallow crack right at my feet. A voice up above calls, “Don’t worry about it! It’s not important!” But it’s just right there, and I’m not going anywhere at the moment, just staring at the unlovely ass of the person in front of me, so I fish it out. It’s a police badge. No toy this, it’s well made of heavy gauge metal. I try to pass it up the line, but the person I hand it to says, “No thanks, we’re headed down.” So I pocket the badge, and figure I’ll find the owner when we top out.

Half an hour later, we’re there. The summit of Half Dome is like a big convex plateau, big enough to play a soccer game or two. A cluster of about 30 people are gathered near the highest point, doing dumb, illegal things like feeding the marmots and throwing objects off the face – the same face a pair of climbers are about to top out on. I walk toward the group, looking for the owner of the badge, holding it up and hailing them. “Special police?!” I holler. Thirty people freeze, turn as one, and practically reach for the sky.

Five weeks after starting, not having taken a shower once (although I did skinny dip in at least a dozen stunning alpine lakes), we arrive at the end of our journey at Twin Lakes Resort. Lost in a maze of beachcombers’ trails, we cannot find a bridge across our last creek. We’ve hiked and scrambled and climbed 300 miles through the rugged High Sierra, mostly off-trail, and we can’t find our way through a bunch of paths made by kids with plastic pails. The hell with it. We walk across the knee-deep estuary in socks and boots, find my truck in the parking lot, and prepare to leave. When I turn the key in the ignition, nothing happens.