Baking Powder Biscuits
I remember in the late fifty’s, about nineteen-fifty seven, coming down from the old Skyline Trail that runs along the backbone of the Sierras into an abandoned CCC camp, the cabin, half rock walls, half-timber, steep pitched slate roof and sleeping in the open. That night I got the soft rocks. Waiting for our supply truck that came the next morning loaded with our small boxes of meager mid-trek re-supplies, mail, cans of hash and Spam, dried apples, rice, hard cheese and fresh socks to replace the ones with holes, clean underwear, soap. The cabin was on the west side of Lake Tahoe up in a box canyon locked tight for the winter, even though it was spring, almost summer, the winters Sierra snow was mostly gone, wildflowers just blooming.
I was a fledgling Air Force Survival Instructor learning my craft. Trekking down the ridge crest of the Sierras, Richardson lake down to Echo Lake a two month walk, learning to eat the flora and fauna, critters. Wild onion, watercress, camas roots, rose hips, porcupine, bat, mule deer, squirrels and badgers, bugs and worms, skunk cabbage, manzanita tea. We were opening up the old trails, building bridges, cutting storm-downed trees, snags and re-building old walls, shoring up the trail following old blaze marks on the trees. A small part of our civic duty along with learning our survival lessons.
We washed and shaved in the icy creek and slept there another night, rising before the dawn. Breakfasting on fresh eggs, my venison salami and three-day old baking powder biscuits, then started the vertical climb back up to the crest. The trail was cut from the living rock, just enough room for a man with a loaded pack to stand upright, slightly hunched over, one foot almost in the air, able to look straight down to the waiting jumbled talus. Just about three and a half miles up to gain about a mile of altitude, a bold sign at the trail head proclaimed “Caution! Impassable for horses and mules!”. Not us Sherpa’s loaded with axes and saws, white gas for our stoves and cans of our food, friends food, their feet too blistered to come down. All this was before freeze-dried stroganoff and instant water, carbon fiber back packs, micro- fibers, packaged tours and guides, global positioning satellites. All we had was worn and cast-off Army surplus World War II 10th mountain equipment, wool and down and old Forest Service fire fighting stuff and twenty-five year old hand drawn CCC maps.
It was close to noon when we crested the ridge, hearts pounding, sweat pouring, panting, legs and knees trembling and stopped to eat, there on the millennial crest, among the fossils of trilobites, the old Paleozoic sea-shore. Some of my home-made venison jerky and a wonderful can of ice-cold peaches, a biscuit, a handful of walnuts and raisins and deep gulps from the cold snow-fed stream. Resting and looking back down at Independence Lake and across Lake Tahoe to Mount Rose, the eastern edge of California.
That day in the Sierra the morning fog was just lifting, burning off in spots, we could almost see across the rocky lake that filled the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area, as we set off towards the other side, traveling cairn to cairn among the stunted pines of the alpine heights and scarlet snow flowers, dandelions. Where it took us days to get there, it now takes only hours. The area now a vast highway of off-road vehicles, pick-up campers and hordes of day hikers, high impact sportsmen and their litter. No longer pristine, just trampled and abused fragile alpine meadows. I suppose we are partly responsible, clearing trails and all.
The next morning, after I put my tiny tea-pot on the fire to bubble, I cast a line from my sleeping bag into the river. The fly didn’t even hit the water, a three-pound rainbow gobbled it as I jumped up with a whoop in my altogether to land it standing crotch deep in the icy stream, my scrotum sucked up into my belly, shivering and back into the sleeping bag, to gut and rolled in my last egg and some cornmeal, dropped sizzling in my tin frying pan, eating with rare pleasure, a mug of my tea and biscuits again. A feeling of great joy and that all was right, one with the earth.