Late October, 1999

Thursday 28 October 1999 8:45 in the morning
Well, I guess I’m in Pioneer, California, sitting at Amador Station off of Highway 88. What a crazy day yesterday…

So began my journal entry from that day a little over seventeen years ago. I’ve spent the last hour reading through the earliest journal I’ve kept. I can remember it so clearly. It’s amazing how some memories are crystalline, pure as untrodden snow and others are as murky as a stormy shore. Twenty-one years old, the dirt and smell of a few days strenuously backpacking, and the fear of not knowing where I was going or how I was going to get there.

It was warm that day. I was sitting out on the porch of the convenience store, although store would be a misnomer. It was small; a way point for travelers from Stockton and San Francisco up to the ski resorts around Lake Tahoe. My backpack leaned against the railing and I pulled out my journal. I had gone in a few minutes previously, backpack precariously swaying on my back, and bought a small coffee with the last of my change. A buck-oh-five to have a cup of hot, strong, black coffee. I sipped it slowly.

The day before, on the 26th of October, I had been in South Lake Tahoe in a hotel room watching the local news. There was a snowstorm brewing for elevations above 6,000 feet. I was going to be hiking at around 8,500. Walking along US-50 from South Lake Tahoe to Meyers, a man named Jim—a backpacker himself—stopped to pick me up. He drove me to the Echo Lake trail head and implored me to make it to Schneider’s Camp before nightfall and, if I couldn’t do that, shelter at Showers Lake.

I had made it to Showers Lake around 5:30, just as the sun was setting. The wind whipped around me. The rain had already started and I was scared. There’s something primal about that kind of fear. I felt naked, exposed. I felt unprepared. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to make dinner or sleep comfortably, or at all, I decided to keep moving. Looking at the topo map I had with me, I couldn’t find Schneider’s Camp on the map, only the Schneider’s Cow Camp Road, which I hoped that where it dead-ended was where I would find the camp.

My feet moved. I almost sprinted for most of the hike over the ridge at and elevation of 9,200 feet. Three-quarters of the way up, the heavens exploded. Lightning and thunder and a barrage of rain-slash-sleet-slash-snow. I had already put my rain jacket on but hadn’t thought of putting on my rain pants. The mountain became a river, pushing me down as the fear and flight pushed me up. My left boot became untied and then stuck in the mud. I pulled my foot out, positioned myself to yank it out of the hold, and it went tumbling down a hundred feet or so. By the time I got to the top of the ridge, rain-slash-sleet-slash-snow surrounding me, I just wanted warmth and safety. I almost tumbled down the side, letting the momentum push me down. When the land leveled off. that’s when I saw the thin light coming from Billy and Bob’s RV sitting in front of the barn at the end of the road.

And that’s how I ended up dirty, smelling like the ass end of a dog, sipping coffee with a journal on my lap. A few hours later, a rancher named Alan would pick me up about five miles north of Stockton, California, where I would spend the next two months tending his cattle, discing his fields, and working to earn a ride across the country in time for Christmas with my family.