The Mammoth Backpacking Trip
** This is a journal from June 2020 that I cleaned up recently while going through the cupboards. Per usual, some names and details have been altered in the interest of national security. **
And in that moment – in those moments, really – we saw a man reduced to his most primal instincts. There were no sensible thoughts patterns, less decisions, just raw sensory data being converted into irreversible acts. A few polite, self-deprecating jokes fell flat as last ditch attempts to relieve the pressure, but those futile measures were just that. We already knew the severity of the situation. A chain reaction had begun long ago, and no mortal flesh could contain those thermodynamics. It was going to come out.
I went backpacking for the first time a few days ago. It’s what I’ve been training for all this time. The hours and days of tying the knots and studying the clouds – all that downloaded to the synapses so that I could abandon the western pleasures of plumbing for 48 hours. On a mountain.
Berto and Ian planned this trip a few weeks ago, a modest 4 mile hike up to a lake near Bishop. Lower Horton Lake. Upper was out of the question and it didn’t take that decision well, tormenting us all weekend.
The weekend was supposed to start at 6am. For Berto and I, it did.
I woke up at 5am, racing the sunrise to the office. I beat her to the shower, but she was quickest out the door, gently illuminating the twilight over the hill as I wound around and up to Berto’s house. His silhouette snuck up on my rear view mirror… backpack in one hand, trail boots in the other – a model of space-time efficiency.
And then we were off to grab Ian, who had been running his own solar race – and he was squarely in second place. When we pulled to his driveway, he motioned for us to drive up it, a necessary accommodation to ease the loading of his six bags. Now that I think about it, it was actually five bags and a tackle box.
“What the hell is this Ian?”
“…I still feel like I’m forgetting something…I just don’t know what.”
As he slowly began lifting bag after bag into the truck bed, he remarked that he had been up all night and then all morning trying to push out a strategic dump. Now you understand where that opening anecdote is heading.
“Oh no…” Berto remarked, dejectedly but still with half of a laugh. We all knew what was ahead of us.
Ian, I love the guy, one of my best friends for life, but he has a certain talent for mining all available worst case scenarios and bringing to fruition those which would be most inconvenient.
After half an hour of idling in his driveway, he was finally all packed and as ready to go as he would ever be – the sun now unmistakably climbing the sky.
We then drove to Mark’s house to begin the Mark timer. You have to be outside of Mark’s house for 15 minutes before you can see the guy. It would be frustrating if it weren’t so universal and precise. On the dot, every time.
And then we embarked on our quest. Our plan was to stay the first night in Mammoth after we met up with another group of guys, then circle back down to Bishop early in the morning to stamp the trailhead with our boots.
Through the Harbor Freeway we were making great time, when Ian’s stomach betrayed a few minor grumbles. The first sign of the imminent catastrophe.
Miles clicked off as we traversed the 405. We crawled past the Getty, a nice little warm up for the truck’s engine down here where it could still chow down on plentiful O2. It’s not long after that Ian’s grumbles turned to eruptions.
“I think we’re gonna have to stop somewhere guys.”
Now this wasn’t a shock to any of us. He set this in motion an hour ago at his house with that Shakespearean spell he put upon his bowels. I urged him to find a bathroom on GPS while we were still on the freeway. He agreed, but it was too late. He had already fallen into animalism. He pulled out his phone for 2 seconds, felt another digestive tremor, and put that puppy back in his pocket.
“Just take the next exit. We’ll just find the closest place.” He could barely get out the final few words, as his entire bodily attention had to be redirected to keeping his gastric explosions internal.
We’ve all been there, trying strange positions in the seat, holding our breath, taking deep ones, praying to all the eastern gods that we forgot about. Anything.
So I got off on the next exit, directly in Van Nuys. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Van Nuys had their own plans for these Ian types, those who outsource their bathroom malplannings onto convenient roadside joints. Immediately off the freeway, and after a swift U-Turn, we see a Taco Bell, and while Ian senses salvation, the drive-thru only badges were clear to see from the front seats. Not a problem, there were plenty of signs of splattered and mistreated toilet seats up ahead. We pulled into Diesel $3.29, although Standard $3.17 across the street seemed just as appropriate of a choice.
After a quick spelunk inside searching for any cyphers of porcelain, Ian returned frustrated and sparse.
“Diesel $3.29 was the wrong call! No toilets!”
He ran across the street, albeit after waiting patiently for the crossing sign. He wouldn’t show as much consideration a few moments later when he came running back across the street, still carrying his full intestinal load.
After McDonalds and Starbucks both came up empty, Ian found out that Van Nuys didn’t have a very open bathroom policy and that he was running out of options.
We got back on the freeway hoping to leave this toilet-desert, confident that the next city along the freeway would be more accommodating. Ian actually checked the GPS this time, but that Starbucks also turned out to be a flushing mirage. No john in the whole joint, good sir!
“I’m gonna have to go in this back alley, someone try to find my wip- OH GOD LOOK at those guys! That’s a crack deal! That’s a crack deal if I’ve ever seen one!”
And it was indeed, as two semi naked guys who combined for half a set of teeth messily exchanged some goods, holding their pants up with one hand, making the trade with the other, and smoking a cigarette with their third.
The shock relieved Ian’s bowels for a moment, and in that cathartic reprieve I spotted a Vons just across the street. We jetted over there and Ian waddled in, adapting the crooked gait of those crackheads out of biological necessity. After being gone for ten minutes, we figured that this must have been the one. Imagine how holy it felt.
The rest of the drive was less noteworthy, and we arrived in Mammoth around noon time. First stop was a back woods gun range, where Ian could pop off some lead that was burning a hole in his gun bag. I guess one of them was a gun bag. But why bring a gun?
“Well what if we see a bear!?!”
Berto made all the correct fork guesses as my tires collected their first round of dust and we arrived at the gun range with no company besides rainbow explosions of shotgun casings on the ground, like we pulled up on the aftermath of an NRA piñata party.
We hopped out of the car and all began looking for the creek. The sound of rushing water was so intense that I was sure we were about to be captured in a biblical flood up here 8,000 feet above the sea. The forest of swaying pines must have absorbed all the water, taken to copying its sound. That’s the thing about wind. You can’t ever really see it but trees do love talking about it.
As the boys set off gunpowder in the sort-of vicinity of some sponged propane canisters, I retired to spectatorship. The ants up there in the mountains are the real deal, about three times the size of the little beach guys, and they were giving a poor caterpillar a mighty good swirly. As much as he tried to turn over he couldn’t shake them – destined for a metamorphosis, just not the one he had been waiting for.
With the chamber emptied and the gun holstered, we drove to another Vons. Ian claimed that he now owed the corporation his life. And it was in this Vons market that we found Him. Not Ian, but rather a deity, placed before us out of divine intervention. Perched powerfully up in the rafters he watched us, considered us. He was pleased to see us choose the chicken tenders over the Hawaiian rolls. He may have even felt a glimmer of pride in his human progeny as we each collected some Sapporo. We recognized and praised his holiness while we checked out.
Our God: Durlister.
We arrived at Kelley’s house in Mammoth a bit after noon. Twenty-foot high ceilings greet you past the front door. Towering windows give way to the mountains outside, protecting us from that primal deathland while still letting us watch it at our leisure.
I read a quote once that described that exact tempered-glass phenomena much more eloquently, but I can’t remember where that was. And that’s extremely upsetting to me right now.
[Editor’s note 1.5 years later: After a lengthy investigation, I’m pleased to inform you that the original quote has been rediscovered. I was pretty close to be honest, if a bit verbose.]
"With windows that protect me from the world but still let me watch it." - Maeve fooking Wiley
The vaulted ceilings are crosshatched with three foot thick beams in some sections, and Ian and I got into a fervent discussion about what was inside them. I was insistent that they were hollow. Ian wouldn’t believe it, holding onto this whim of organic architecture. He was broken when he finally knocked on them.
He got me back at our next fervent discussion about how the barnwood was attached to the walls near the dart board. I must admit that it was indeed nailed.
We ordered a pizza and it still seemed a little frozen by the time we ate it, but it was warm enough and tasted like Sapporo. Calories for the climb ahead.
As night fell, Ian and I went on a little wild goose chase looking for any signs of a dumpster to chuck some trash, or the other group of guys, or both. We found some solid signs of trash disposal sites, and a torrential downpour of hail, but no signs of human life. We could only assume the worst in weather like this. An unsheltered and unclothed man wouldn’t survive the hour, and we didn’t expect our other friends to be much more prepared than that.
We returned to those shielding ceilings and hoped that the odds would be ever in their favor. Up in the bunk bed lofts near those faux beams, the window programming switched from the prickling hail to its more powerful cousin, as intermittent electric shocks illuminated the night sky. We wondered if Upper Horton Lake had sent this thunderstorm, the first hallway in its house of horrors.
Yet that storm petered out, as storms tend to, leaving the windows to broadcast the evening’s black night, supported by a twinkle or two. Inside, we discussed the strange, immature philosophies that always materialize during sleepovers until the gentle hand of bedtime wafted over the room. Powerful wind gusts rode the roof shingles all night and put us in a half-sleeping limbo until the darkness couldn’t hold back the sun any longer.
This day we did get up at 5am, all of us, to start the trek out. Despite their perpetual unpreparedness, the other guys did indeed survive the storm, amongst other drama. Eventually, the road near Bishop turned dirt, my truck now warming to the softer surface, a comfort buoying its starved intake.
That softer surface eventually eroded to stubborn rocks sticking out in the most inconvenient places. The next hallway.
All the while we were fighting uphill, now a couple thousand feet above Bishop’s elevation on a gentle but unrelenting slope. In the worst part of the rocks, some by standing bushes clawed my car up real good. The passengers cringed at the sounds and marks of the mountain’s most innocent security guards. I was happy to worry about the scratches once we had successfully made it to the trail.
And we did make it to the trail. And I did see the aftermath.
“They’ll buff out.”
I continued to lightly worry about whether they would actually buff out for the first mile or so of the trail, until I truly stopped caring.
Hiking a trail that you have never been on, especially up in the thin air, is a mental exercise. You don’t know where your salvation will come, and that is all that your feeble mind wants to know. GPS step counters gave us a rough impression of our progress, but I tried to discount each of those figures by a factor of two for my own sanity’s sake. Nearing the halfway mark, we honed in on a mid-level tree line flanking a waterfall that we appraised to be the gateway to our campsite. I actually believed in this one. It would have been a sick trick by Upper Horton if no water lay beyond those leaves.
My legs never gave up, but the hike was everything that I had. Going up from 8,000 feet to 10,000, the oxygen loss seems exponential. You can’t even really recognize that you are tired, you just are. Mark brought some canned O2 that he most definitely didn’t need. The guy set the absolute pace the entire hike, didn’t even seem winded. Extremely impressive.
And Ian, the poor guy. He paid for his over packing the entire trail. His pack had to have been 50 pounds, He had a backpack strapped to the outside of his backpack. I think my pack was barely 30 pounds and Ian weighs 20 pounds less than I do. But Ian made pace just as well. He was squarely ahead of me the entire hike. Berto and I hung around at a mid-pace, making frequent, short stops at the highest elevations, but still making decent time. The mountain spared us any delusions, as Lower Horton Lake appeared right past that waterfall, much to our relief.
We made camp at the first flat spot that we found after panting on the ground for twenty minutes. Maybe that was just me. I can usually put up my tent in about half the time as anyone else can, but only because I practice it frequently. Mainly in the living room.
I didn’t really look around much until we set up camp. The hike was just exhausting and steep enough that I looked directly at the ground down in front of my feet the entire time. Probably a shame.
There were notable sights along the trail that I can now recollect. It began with a mildly steep switchback section that we flew up, probably because we had been somewhat conditioned to the 8,000ft air from the night before. We finished the first quarter of the entire trail in twenty minutes.
On top of the switchbacks, the terrain leveled into a grassy grove with a shallow stream – with fish in it! – a welcome omen to the fishermen in the group. Just a few fields past the stream there were a couple cabins containing the derelicts of an old mining operation. Really now they mainly contained trash, but at one point they must have had mining artifacts.
Past the cabins the trail skirted a hillside in straight tracks for some time, the terrain vacillating between sand and loose rocks, with each vying for the title of most irritating. In the sand, each stride yields only half of a stride – the friction tax – and in the rocks, any stride can roll an ankle. At some point on this section there were some quick switch backs, one where the trail grew wet and muddy, this time without any fish. Right past this section the trail circles the one hillside far enough to where we can finally see that green tree line to the east that we begin to call salvation.
Then another flat grove on the downhill side of this trail, rolling green grass that seems like it’s been manicured within the week.
“Pretty good helicopter site right there.”
“Why didn’t we think of that?”
The mountains are hard to describe. When you get close to them, they still don’t really look close, not notably closer than they do from the freeway. But then, all of a sudden you are in them. There’s a point where you’re no longer looking towards them, but rather at them in all directions. And that transition just kind of happens without warning.
At our campsite 13,000 footers enclosed us in a 270 degree pan, leaving a window for us to look at metropolitan Bishop down below, a gift to the ego. One night by the campfire, after spending however many hours in this thin layer of the true depth of the Sierra Nevadas, I looked east and remarked to the group:
“And it’s just mountains that entire direction. For 50 miles.”
Ego was knocked down a few points after that.
But back to setting up camp, it’s about one in the afternoon at this point, clouds rolling in and out. We study their vertical development, analyze their color.
“Those are lookin’ a little nimbus-y.”
So it was windy as Berto and I set up our hammocks and we both hoped that the gusts would make the weather blow over. They did.
We tossed the rest of our Sapporos into the narrow neck of a stream, locked in by some rocks. Nature’s mini-fridge – an old Alaskan bush trick Ian learned when he was building igloos up there after high school.
The fishermen took their stations by the lakeside as Berto, Mark, and I watched, judged. They seemed to be pretty good, made it look easy. I took to fashioning a fishing rod out of a branch, as I brought some line and a hook for the occasion. It ended up as a decent design, and I was keen to test it the next day.
We cooked dinner over the stove tops, and I think I probably won that meal. Some pasta with bacon bits, olive oil and garlic salt. I over salted it, but no one knew.
We had a lot of wood chopped and a nice fire pit going. I brought some fatwood shavings to make the tinder process a breeze. When a pine tree dies and the xylem motor runs out of gas, gravity prevails and all the fluids drain to the trunk, soaking the wood in a resin. It burns. A lot. That’s fatwood.
Looking up through the lid of our mountain fish bowl, the night sky was inviting to drunken fireside conversation – high school stories and shooting stars. We all slept exactly as poorly as we expected. I think I need a better sleeping pad.
Here I got out of the tent at 7am, probably a full two hours after my tent saw first light. This would begin one of the longest days ever. It felt more like a week.
I tried to fish with my hobo reel and it almost worked. Within ten minutes I had a little guy right in front of my feet, nibbling on the line. I got too excited.
“Act like you’ve been there before!”
I didn’t. Blew it. Thirty minutes later and halfway around the lake from where I began, I lost interest in my inability. The branch rod casted decently well honestly. I left it perched against a tree, my gift to the multiverse.
An old lady and her dog, who were camping by our mini fridge, made the trek to Upper Horton that morning. She reported back that it had been talking smack about us the whole time. Said we would never amount to anything in these mountains. Imagine what it said about Berto and I when we couldn’t open her dog food tin.
The others – others – fished all day. I mean All. Day. Long. They caught and cooked some of their supply for lunch. It didn’t look half bad.
Meanwhile, Berto, Mark and I made a hammock ménage à trois after searching for the perfect three trees for some time. And those perfect trees appeared in what we gathered to be the perfect campsite, as we deliberated for 15 minutes on how to convince the others to move camp down here for the final night. It did have a really sweet campfire set up. They were less than enthused at our half-baked idea and the work that it would command. Plus, they weren’t gonna stop fishing.
Then, it happened. We ate some botanicals. Now I had never done anything like this before. I’m not really good at smoking weed, I don’t think I have the proper technique. I have taken edibles a couple times and gone to the moon in a mostly unpleasant way. My friends had hallucinated while we were in Amsterdam last summer and had glowing reviews about the experience. I don’t regret not doing it then, but I was ready to try it now. So I did. We were supplied with evenly distributed bags that apparently each contained 2 grams, whatever that means. I took half my bag, just to dip my toes in. Right after we committed, Mark gave me the prudent advice that only a man so experienced in this sector could supply.
“Craig, when dealing with psychedelics, the number one rule is to just let it flow.”
And flow it did.
We tripped balls dude. My god.
It started out just feeling a little bit loosey-goosey. Limbs kind of flailing a little bit. We sat down on a rock and I got this intense wave of fatigue, like I couldn’t get up from the rock, but when I tried to, I could. Walking around felt like Apollo 11, heels climbing high, body floaty.
I retired to my hammock, now set back up near camp, for when the high really hit. It really didn’t feel too different from those unpleasant times I had on the edibles, I was just in a much better frame of mind right now. I couldn’t see anything strange with my eyes open. I just saw a normal tree with a polite mountain next to it, painted in a good mood. But when I closed my eyes – lava lamp.
For a while there I had no music or anything, just alone with my thoughts, swaying in the hammock. I thought back on so many remembered feelings from when I was a child. I vividly relived some trail motorcycle ride I went on with my dad when I must have been seven years old on a TTR90. On this trail ride, we stopped on the side of a little hill and contemplated the idea of the number octillion, billion to the third power. I was staring at a couple small twigs on the side of the trail, maybe a cactus. Twenty seven zeros. Of course, to my small brain back then I probably visualized it as 8 billion or something, which was still enough to send my synapses a 404 error. Visualizing that number in terms of Earth years, I felt so tiny.
I used to be scared of the stars, reconciling how small they made me feel with the youthful idea that I was the whole world – that the whole world was me.
On this occasion, swaying in my hammock, I felt an unexplainable peace. Then I went and put on some Led Zeppelin and watched the notes to Over The Hills And Far Away play in color behind my eyelids.
Eventually we all came down, just well after we all thought that we were coming down. It took about five hours. The end of the trip made me feel as though it would never actually end, that these small, slightly out of line sensations would continue on to infinity. But I just trusted that they would end I guess, and even if they didn’t – well maybe that’d be okay too.
Now clearheaded, Berto looked up in the sky and saw a big plane with some contrails, asked me what type of plane it was.
“It’s a big plane, an airlines plane.”
One of the other guys – probably mishearing me somewhat – in an impressed tone asked if I could actually tell which airline it belonged to from here.
“I can tell exactly what you can tell,” I had to regrettably relay to him.
I built a fire with the sun just barely hiding behind the tallest peaks to the west, and it soon became apparent that it would never get dark on this endless day. Around the fire we contemplated the orange that would never be peeled, a call back to a complex philosophical issue during lava lamp times. And then all of a sudden it was peeled. And doled out. I almost couldn’t eat my slice for fear of the desecration. Then I ate it. And then it turned into a huge loaf of sourdough.
It was over that fire that we informed the others of our religious experience back at Vons. Durlister. They now have known Him, too.
And then, seemingly hours later, in a toss of nighttime’s cape, it got dark! And that was that.
We packed up as quickly as possible, took a group picture for back home, and hightailed it out of there.
Looking at those unyielding peaks for the final time that weekend, the mountains stared back and asked me if I was waiting for something that wasn’t waiting for me.
The gravity assist and lightened packs accompanying us on the way down were only topped by the Taco Bell accompanying us at the bottom of the hill, which was only topped by the shower (oh the plumbing!) accompanying us back in LA.
– and they did buff out.