Backpacking in the Sierra
September 11, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
After our Land Use Planning class in Spring Quarter of 1966, our department head, Professor Stollman handed me a letter from Don Dennison. The letterhead said Merritt College in Oakland, California.
“Don is an alumnus, and he writes that there’s a summer intern position available at the City of Berkeley. If you’re interested, I’ll write a letter of recommendation to Jim Barnes, the Director of Planning there. We were in graduate school together at MIT,” said Professor Stollman with a fixed smile that signaled the meeting was over.
A summer in California! Palm trees, sunsets over the Pacific, Beach Boys’ surfer music, fast convertibles, movie stars. Berkeley meant People’s Park and the Free Speech Movement. Everything new and exciting in America!
Yes, yes, and yes! I didn’t need to think about it. I was ready to go to the west coast. I found myself humming California Dreamin’ — that spring’s hit song — and floating to my apartment. I put the record on and cranked up the volume.
The next morning I assured Professor Stollman that I would apply for the internship. He suggested I send Don a note thanking him because he worked in Berkeley for several years and he could put a good word in for me. I drafted a brief, businesslike letter expressing my keen interest to Mr. Barnes. I took my classmate Alex aside and told him all about it. He was from the Bay Area and had worked on the planning staff at Walnut Creek. He was also four years older — 25.
“Congratulations, man! You’ve got this wired. Berkeley’s one of the top planning agencies in the Bay Area. You’ll love Berkeley,” said Alex and added with a wink, “Lots of coeds, too.” Then I asked him to look at the letter. He suggested a paragraph about my work experience at Mid-Ohio and told me to gush about my commitment to the city planning profession.
Ten days later, Professor Stollman’s secretary said John Grey of the Berkeley Planning Department had left a message for me. She graciously placed the return call, gave me a reassuring smile, and backed out of the room closing the door behind her.
Mr. Grey offered me the internship based on Professor Stollman’s strong recommendation. He added that Don Dennison was an OSU product, and he respected him. He summarized the salary, limited benefits, and a starting on June 4th. I accepted immediately.
* * * * *
Late in the morning of June 4th, I heard the phone on my desk in the back of the Berkeley City Planning Office for the first time. I was reading through the Berkeley Master Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and other documents left for me by Mr. Grey. Who could be calling me? I wondered.
“Welcome to California! This is Don — Don Dennison. Unless you have plans for lunch, I’d like to take you to Bernard’s by the Sea,” rumbled the voice on the phone. After I stammered my acceptance, he said he’d pick me up in front of City Hall at a quarter of twelve. Look for a black Willys Jeep.
The jeep careened around the corner and came to an abrupt stop next to me. The door swung open, and I climbed in. Don thrust forth his hand and pumped mine. “Glad to have another Buckeye in Berkeley.” A full beard, lively brown eyes, and a friendly mobile face greeted me.
He asked about Stollman and faculty members at OSU, and whether the heating system at Brown Hall worked any better than when he was there in the early sixties.
At the restaurant, Don led me to a table on the deck with a view of San Francisco Bay. “There it is, Bagdad by the Bay, pointing to the mostly white, low-rise buildings on the hills of San Francisco. I’m sure you recognize the Golden Gate Bridge, but did you notice its color? Red! The Golden Gate is the brown hills beside the strait, named long before the bridge was built.”
After I admitted that I never knew that, he went on to point out Alcatraz, the famous prison soon to be a tourist attraction. the heights of Sausalito, and Mount Tamalpais where Duke Ellington and Jim Morrison performed in an amphitheater overlooking the bay. “I’ve been there when the Sierra was visible. By the way, the Sierra is a single range of mountains. Please, never say Sierras,” he said with a smile. (See note at the end.)
He convinced me to order sautéed amberjack and assured me it came from the previous night’s catch. I’d never heard of it, but the buttered whitefish was delicious. Don gave me a rundown on my co-workers in the planning office. As Deputy Director, he hired several of them. “Some are a little quirky,” he said, “but all good folk.”
Don became animated describing his two-year program for planning technicians he started at Merritt College in downtown Oakland. Tough kids from the Oakland Flats earned certificates and were working in planning offices around the Bay Area.
He checked his enthusiasm for the program, then asked “Have you done any backpacking?”
“Some car camping in Yellowstone, Tetons, and roadside campgrounds, but no backpacking.”
“I’m planning a weekend trip to Yosemite with some buddies—not to the valley where the damn tourists are everywhere taking snapshots of Half Dome and El Capitan, but I want to hike a trail above Tuolumne Meadow. Would you like to backpack in the high Sierra? ” he said.
“I’d love it!”
“Great. I’ve got an extra frame and pack. How about hiking shoes?”
“Got a pair. What about a bed roll, food,…” I asked.
“Why don’t you come to my house on Wednesday after work. Charlie, Howard, and I are going to plan the trail route. We’ll fit your pack and figure out what else you need.”
* * * * *
After I rang the doorbell, Don bellowed, “Come on in, Michael.” He introduced his wife and three children and led me to the basement. Two middle-aged men were leaning over a round table conversing intensely. “These guys always argue about the best trail,” Don explained.
When we got closer, I saw a USGS topographical map with swirling lines showing elevations, blue lines and blobs for streams and lakes, and green for forests, and other colors representing geological formations. Don interrupted to introduce me. Charlie nodded his greeting and immediately called upon me to endorse his route around a steep slope he called “a damned cliff” to the Upper Tuolumne Valley. Don called a truce and asked them to tell me about our camp location.
“A great site at 8,800 feet in a grove of Ponderosa Pine, deep carpet of needles, next to Little Bear Lake,” said Howard.
“The best part is the vista. The Tuolumne Meadow will be just below us and Cathedral Peak looms above the meadow. If it’s clear, we’ll be able to see Mt. Lyell. This camp’s one of the most gorgeous places on my entire trail,” added Charlie.
“Charlie’s blazing a new trail along the spine of the Sierra. He’s out for four weeks every summer, carrying everything he needs on his back. A real mountain man,” said Don.
“Would a real mountain man spend three days at Hot Springs Spa with his wife in the middle of a hike?” asked Howard.
Charlie shrugged, handed me several pocket-sized booklets, and told me, “I run a small publishing house, and I’m gathering information for these trail guides with tips about water, campsites, and vital information for long-distance hikers.
Don handed me an aluminum pack frame with woven straps, and said, “Put this on and we’ll adjust it to fit. We won’t be carrying much for our weekend trip. Charlie’s pack is much heavier.”
“No heavier than it absolutely has to be,” Charlie asserted.
“He’s a damn fanatic about weight, Michael,” said Don. “Charlie can tell you how much every item in his pack weighs to the ounce. He vacuums his pack between trips to eliminate dirt. Lightens his load, he says.”
After the pack frame was adjusted to put most of the weight on my hips instead of my shoulders, Don gave me the pack and a list of items I should buy at Sierra Outfitters on Telegraph Avenue. “We’ll leave at 3 o’clock from here. Tell John Grey I said this trip is part of your internship, and he’ll let you off early.”
* * * * *
At 3 o’clock, Don’s Jeep pulled away with our packs stuffed behind our seats. Charlie’s printing press had broken down, so he was spending the weekend replacing a drive pulley, and Howard’s wife was sick. Don and I drove south along the bay to Hayward then eastward toward Manteca, and Sonora. He asked questions about OSU’s City Planning Department, and I inquired about his program at Merritt College for planning technicians.
“The planning profession needs more Black professionals. Are there any at Ohio State?” He glanced over and I shook my head. “Not surprising. Young people growing up in the Oakland Flats and other inner city neighborhoods have a tough time with college, let alone grad school. I was one of a few whites at Morgan State, a Black school in Maryland, and I saw a lot of inner city guys drop out. It was a revolving door.”
“So you hope to get them started in planning with a two-year certificate?”
“Right! At least they can work in a planning office. Maybe some will get a degree and move up. We’ve graduated two classes, and most are doing well.”
As we ascended in to the foothills, Don asked if I knew about John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. “Take only pictures. Leave only footprints. Kill only time. Right?” I responded.
“Right on, brother! Muir was quite a guy. Talked Teddy Roosevelt into creating Yosemite National Park,’ he said with a raised fist. “He and Teddy, the President of the United States, camped alone for two days in Yosemite. That did it.”
Don’s enthusiasm carried him into Muir’s life story and many accomplishments as a geologist, botanist, and publicist for the importance of wilderness in the grand scheme of things.
After parking at the trailhead, we shouldered our packs and followed the trail marked on our USGS map. I savored the cool, clean air redolent with the scent of pine, as we ascended.
We were startled by a commotion above us. A large bird flapped noisily away. Don confirmed that it was a bald eagle. My first sighting of our national bird, then threatened with extinction because of DDT. I wondered if it would be the only one I’d ever see. Since then, I’ve seen eagles all over the country.
Light on the trail faded as sunlight slanted through the trees. Don stopped frequently to frown at the map. Finally we came to the edge of the pine forest near a small lake, and Don said, “Eureka! Here’s our campsite. We dropped our packs and walked down to the lake. Rounded rocks like large speckled eggs lay on the bottom.
I scraped away pine needles and made a small fire while Don uncased his fishing rod and promised to deliver supper from the lake. I was hungry and skeptical. Our freeze-dried packets would have been fine with me, but Don soon returned with three small trout and filets browned on a grate over the fire. Kaiser rolls and plums from our packs supplemented the trout as the sun set — first on our campsite and then the rosy peaks in the distance that faded to gray.
Don asked me to fetch some water from the lake. In the twilight, I stepped down to a rocky ledge and was surprised to find my foot in the clear, cold water up to my knee. I quickly withdrew my wet shoe, filled the pail, and hoped the shoe would dry overnight.
As we slept under the stars. Don identified several constellations, but I could only discern the North Star and the Big Dipper. Soon we bid each other good night and slept soundly until the sun was above the mountains.
Don caught more trout for breakfast while I heated water for instant coffee. I was surprised to learn all coffee tastes good on a crisp morning. The contour lines on our map revealed we were at 8,800 feet above sea level. Don wanted to hike up above the tree line.
“The air gets thin. You’re not a smoker or former smoker?” he asked.
“Nope. Always hoped to be an athlete, but I was told the only kind of athlete smokers can be are jockeys,” I replied. No laugh, but a snort and a smile from Don.
Don shouldered a rucksack with a thermos of lake water, apples, and jerky. We struggled up a steep trail. The pine trees grew smaller. I sweltered as we climbed the rocky trail in the warming sun. We took breaks when the occasional trees along the trail offered shade.
When the sun was overhead, Don spotted a large outcropping, and said we’d have lunch and rest. Only then did I notice that his face was bathed in perspiration, and he was breathing heavily. We collapsed beneath the ledge for a while passing the thermos back and forth. After catching our breath, we marveled at the ring of mountains on the horizon. Several had streaks of snow on the northern slopes. Finally we broke out our lunch and slowly chewed the jerky and slowly ate the apples to the core.
Don announced that our elevation was just over 10,000 feet and reminded me that we began our trip at sea level the day before. I rose, pulled my Instamatic from my pocket and said I wanted a photo from a nearby ledge just a little higher. My legs strained with every step of the short walk as if I had ten pound weights on each foot. My breath quickened. I could not take another step, and stopped, bent over and panted. I glanced up to see Don laughing. In a couple of minutes, I set out again, confident that I could walk the short distance up to the ledge, but had to stop again. I snapped the picture from where I was and slowly returned slowly to rest with Don.
We retreated to our campsite, napped on our bedrolls in the shade of the tall Ponderosa pines, had dinner, and quietly watched sunlight climb to the distant peaks, briefly lighting them with a golden glow before the blue sky darkened to become the starry night and enthralled us once again.
A shooting star crossed the sky. I vowed to return to the Sierra. I had already decided to work in the Bay Area after I finished graduate school. Instead my path diverged to Baltimore, and I kept San Francisco for another day. But city led to city, Baltimore to Birmingham, and I never hiked the Sierra again.
Footnote: The literal translation is “snowy mountains,” from sierra “a range of hills,” 1610s, from Spanish sierra “jagged mountain range,” lit. “saw,” from Latin serra “a saw”; and from fem. of Spanish nevado “snowy.