7/27 – The Mammoth Journals

As the calendar rolled over into July, Strawberry Canyon Track Club headed for the mountains with 17 Berries in tow for the first of its two annual summer team camping trips. Will Edwards, a guest member from Pennsylvania living in Berkeley for the summer, documents the trip to the Eastern Sierras.

The Mammoth Journals: Volume 1

Mammoth Bound

Friday, June 29th, 5:02 p.m – Berkeley, CA

Friday. Finally. I’d survived a particularly draining week of work — the stock exchange hours dictated from back east had done their number on me yet again — but I’d escaped their grip in time to sneak in a 15-minute campus loop before I made my way to Kim’s place on Haste to head out for the weekend.

At long last, the trip to Mammoth was here. I’d been looking forward to it since Carl had mentioned it to me two weeks before — it’d be my chance to get to see the High Sierras, the ones I’d read about in books like Wild and seen in those John Wayne-type movies I used to watch with my dad. For an East Coaster it’d be a treat.

In the High Sierras

We have mountains, but not mountains. Not ones with peaks that shoot up into the sky well over 10,000 feet above sea-level, snowcapped in the dead of summer. Not ones with imposing granite faces credibly rivaling the French Alps. And yet that afternoon I couldn’t care less about the trip. John Wayne’s High Sierras be damned. There was the fatigue from the week, yes, but moreover was the presence of a growing disenchantment with travel in general. Yeah, the trip was for only going to be for a weekend, but it was going to be yet another episode of hanging out with people I’d hardly known, if at all, just as I’d done again and again and again over the last couple of rootless years. But I allowed the logical decision making process to overrule the day’s emotions, and hell no I wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to go to Mammoth.

I threw some clothes in my suitcase and some food in my backpack along with the copy of John Grisham’s “The Firm” my mom had given me before I went out west, and began to make my way down Milvia to meet Kim, who I’d just met at Monday’s workout.

“There you are,” she said, half-relieved, having just sent me five texts in the last 10 minutes trying to confirm my whereabouts, texts which I’d be ignorant of until we’d return. I’d figured the trip south was a good opportunity to shake my raging device addiction and decided to ditch the phone for the weekend. “Throw your beers in the cooler,” she said, packing up the trunk of her Civic. “It’d be nice to at least have a six pack cold when we get there.”

Indeed.

Joseph rounded the corner a few minutes later, and we set off to pick up Jackie as the Irish students getting their Friday night underway next door — both halfway into their case of Bud Light and halfway naked — bid us farewell. Good luck for the trip, right? Something like that.

First Encounters

Friday, June 29th, 11:35 p.m. – Tuff Campground, Mammoth Lakes, CA

We pulled into the campsite and were greeted by silhouettes of thin bodies hiding behind the glow of headlamps. “Welcome, welcome. Glad you guys made it,” an indistinguishable silhouette called out. “Regina and Silvio should be here soon, too.”

It was way past my usual east coast hours bedtime of 9:30. I still needed a proper Friday beer, though, and so I found my way to the cooler and cracked open one of the cheap lagers I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s before the trip. Beer, the smells of campfire and pine trees, the bite of the cold desert night air getting harsher by the minute — the weekend was off to a good start, and I was already glad I’d decided to come along.

“Hello, I’m Justin,” one of the approaching silhouettes said sort of goofily, his black-framed glasses and broad white smile coming more into view as he and his headlamp came closer. “I’m a bureaucrat.”

Ah, this is Justin, I thought. The guy who I was assured would be the resident goon of the trip. The guy who they based an awkward question game on because of his reputation for grilling people with a diverse bouquet no-out-of-bounds of questions. The guy who kept the group laughing. Justin, the bureaucrat. I liked him.

It would be Justin, Joseph, and I in a tent, and the 12 others sporadically placed through the small nylon village that had already been put up before our car arrived. A few of the others had come up on Wednesday and the rest at some point on Friday afternoon. It was an eclectic, and as Carl has put it, “highly intellectual,” group. From across disciplines including accounting, neuro-biology, computer science, climate science, economics, journalism, anthropology, chemistry, and more, there were postdocs, PhD students, master’s-equipped professionals, master’s students, and aspiring med students. Some were at Berkeley, some were transplants from around the country — the world, even. The debates would be deep, wide-ranging, and weird enough for a camping trip in the desert, that was for sure.

I polished off the Trader Joe’s lager and threw on pants and a sweatshirt, bracing for the temperature’s inevitable descent. I tucked into my sleeping bag, took a deep breath of the crisp air I’d remembered from times camping with my family as a kid, and gave in to the long week now behind me.

Nature

Saturday, June 30th, 4:13 a.m. –  Tuff Campground, Mammoth Lakes, CA

Where is this door zipper? Damn it’s cold. Why did I drink so many of those seltzers on the way down here?

Altitude

Saturday, June 30th, 10:05 a.m. –  Horseshoe Lake, Mammoth Lakes, CA

Kim pulled into a spot next to the others in the caravan of Strawberry Canyon cars. One-by-one we slowly got out of our seats, stretched our legs, and squinted up at the massive mountains beyond the lake, white snow spots decorating their grey, serious dispositions.

Berries ready to run

This was going to be a long one. Fourteen miles by way of an out-and-back, at least according to the murmurs going through the group. Duck Pass, somewhere up there in the distant mountains, would be the turnaround point. Lollygagging to put off the pain that was bound to come was rife through the group, but eventually we sunblocked up, took our last sips of water, posed for a group photo before we all became too incapacitated from the run to do so afterward, and then headed off down a bike path that led to the trailhead.

Ryan was only going a few miles and had driven off to meet us at the trailhead about three-and-a-half miles down so he wouldn’t waste any of his run on a bike path when there were beautiful trails we’d all traveled six hours to run on. Ryan was the de facto leader of the trip, a long-time Strawberry and the organizer tasked with things like securing a campsite and poring over Google maps to find the best places to hit on our runs. He was going short because he was still recovering from a lab accident during his chem research in which liquid nitrogen leaked from a hose he was holding and dripped into his gloves, giving him frostbite on both hands (the most cross country injury ever), the left worse than the right. Because of this, he had to take off for a few weeks and was still getting back into it for the fall season. He wore a constant mixture of pre-wrap and gauze on his right hand, until eventually he’d graduated to a glove. The Michael Jackson of running chemists, you might say.

The trailhead came into view and we saw Ryan waiting for us. We stopped for a few moments to collect the group before heading up the mountainside.

Fuck, I thought to myself, huffing and puffing and clutching my knees. Am I this out of shape? We haven’t even started climbing yet.

I’d forgotten about the altitude. We’d driven from Berkeley, basically at sea level, up to the campsite at 7,000 feet, and we were set to peak for the day at Duck Pass, 10,700 feet. It was my first time running above anything over 2,000 feet, and it was going to be an interesting couple of hours.

Will powers up the trails to Duck Pass

We started the ascent, navigating the trail’s technicality: rocks, steps, and roots abounded. Colin, the 2:41 first-time marathoner, and Sid, the dude who’d drilled us on our 13 miler at Point Reyes a few weeks earlier and then added on four more to hit 17 for the day for good measure, started to separate from the pack as we got higher and higher. Matt Weber–the computer science PhD student who’d encouraged me to come on the trip — and I tried our best to follow. A couple miles up the four of us took a breather and collected ourselves at Skelton Lake.

By now we could see a few of the rock peaks from up close, as well as the snow on them. We knew we were getting toward the Pass. The trail turned from dirt to gravel and then to jagged rocks quickly. We strided carefully up switchbacks, trying to ignore the light-headedness from the altitude starting to kick in. We were up over 10,000 now. I stared at Sid’s New Balances ahead of me, trying to hang on as we ran toward the heavens. Then he and Colin stopped.

Switchbacks near Duck Pass

“Snow,” Colin said, looking at the trail in front of us frozen in. We looked around for another route and worked our way carefully into the brush, down the mountain and around the blocked part of the trail. I grabbed a handful of it and shoved it in my mouth, 20% to get more water in my system, 80% for the novelty of eating snow in freaking June. We eventually made our way back on, and stopped shortly thereafter at a rock lookout over the valley behind us. It was perhaps the most beautiful view I’d ever seen.

“It looks like the label of a water bottle,” Sid said incredulously. He was right. I mean, wasn’t it common knowledge that scenes on water bottles were painted renditions of a mythical utopia that could have never possibly existed in our universe? Well, here it was, the basis of water bottle labels the world over, incarnate.

Duck Lake

Eventually we took off again, beginning to long for relief for our legs that waited at the top. Within minutes we’d reached Duck Pass, looking over the adjacent Duck Lake and its crystal clear, green-blue hue, tucked away among some of the tallest peaks in the California. We sat on rocks above the lake, taking in the views that were the reward for our labor, all of us being greedy with any oxygen we could manage to suck in. My watch read 1:08:14. It was maybe the slowest seven miles I’d ever done, and yet the hardest at the same time.

There was an extreme sense of sereneness over the lake. This was what exploration of nature was about: nothing else seemed to matter, and the rest of the world could have halted for all we knew. It was just us, our feelings of both appreciation, awe, and a sense of intangible correctness, and the top of a mountain range crafted by the hands of God Himself.

But we knew we still had half the job to do yet. We relaxed for a few more moments, caught our breath, and traversed Duck Pass once more to begin our descent. Though it was all downhill, the descent was no easier than the climb. The altitude had begun to get to me by this point, and I’d started to become more involuntarily careless and inattentive by the minute.

 “Good job guys, don’t skin your knees though,” a middle-aged hiker on his way up the mountain said to us as we passed. We were lucky none of us did. We’d made it back to the trailhead in one piece, coming across several more hikers and dogs along the way.

The Horseshoe Lake bike path

There were still three and a half miles to go, though, and Sid, Matt, and Colin were feeling good enough to pick up the pace. I tried to hang for a minute and slowly began to realize that this run was going to end poorly. Three miles from Horseshoe Lake I watched them drift away like a low tide retreating back into the sea. I tried to let the light-headedness pass, but to no avail. My stomach was starting to feel empty, having burned through the bagel I’d eaten that morning. The skin around my armpits had begun to become raw and stung with each stride as sweat ran over the brush burns. I stopped. I bent over and tried to admire Lake Mary just off the side of the road, a last ditch attempt at trying to forget the pain. I pushed on. I stopped. I thought getting into an ice-cold Horseshoe Lake. I pushed on.

Alas. The suffering was over, and I’d made it back to the lake over two hours after we’d started in the same parking lot that morning. I guzzled a water I’d had in my backpack, took off my shoes, and made my way into the freezing lake. I looked up at the snowy peaks we’d just run up to, still in awe of the beauty of the High Sierras, and happy to back down to 7,000 feet, the air thick and bountiful.

Fontana Speedway

Saturday, June 30th, 3:27 p.m. – Tuff Campground, Mammoth Lakes, CA

Silvio and Regina, the postdoc supercouple from Argentina, were driving us back to campsite from the run, with a stop at Von’s, the local grocery store, for lunch. We devoured cold cut sandwiches and Colin a donut and sat in the warm car on the way back, tired and full, until Silvio made the left hand turn into the campsite off of 395.

As we took to the gravel driveway, we heard a shout and saw frantic motion from the right side of the car.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” the old camp manager with blonde hair and gold-framed sunglasses screamed, running out of her camper towards us, waving her arms. Silvio put on the brakes and rolled down the windows.

“It’s 10 miles per hour,” she scolded into the passenger-side window, apparently perceiving Silvio’s 13mph as 43.

“Ah, okay, sorry, sorry,” Silvio said apologetically.

“You’re dusting everyone out!” she insisted in her southern-like yet implacable accent.

“Okay, sorry, got it,” Silvio cooperated, giving a thumbs up.

“It’s not NASCAR,” she continued.

“Okay,” Silvio said smiling, all of us fake-laughing.

“And tell your friends!” she said.

“Okay, we will,” we said collectively as she began to retreat toward the camper.

Silvio rolled up the windows and lightly pressed down on the gas pedal.

“Keep it under 10, Silvio!” Regina said from the passenger seat, trying to keep her laughter under wraps.

“Yeah, you agree with her I see,” Silvio played along, his eyes raised and lips pressed together.

“Yeah because you are dusting everyone out!”

Bureaucracy

Saturday, June 30th, 4:33 p.m. – Convict Lake, Mammoth Lakes, CA

“I feel like people only have kids so that they have someone to take care of them when they get old,” Justin continued as him, Matt Perez, Joseph, and I neared the end of our short hike around Convict Lake, named for the escaped fugitives who made it here all the way from Carson City, Nevada, in 1871.

“Alright, Justin,” we said laughing, both immensely amused by and concerned about the barrage of hot takes we’d just heard over the last hour.

Hot Springs

Saturday, June 30th, 7:30 p.m. – Tuff Campground, Mammoth Lakes, CA

I opened another lager and sipped it while patiently waiting for the instant mac and cheese to finish boiling.

 “Want a whiskey?” Colin asked, handing me a bottle of Jamo.

“Uhm, yeah,” I replied, making up my mind as he held his arm out.

Colin was a fellow east coaster and had moved here five years before for a job after finishing grad school at Columbia. We’d both known some of the same runners we’d competed against in college or ran with at one point or another, and along with Ryan, he helped to administer club functions. We sipped whiskeys from flimsy paper cups and bullshitted about life back east and job plans.

“Mac and cheese!” called Megan, another de facto trip leader and easily the most positive, upbeat and optimistic one on the team — and our resident gourmet chef for the weekend.

One bowl. So good. Two bowls. Three bowls. Four.

Once we’d devoured the Kraft like you’d think a bunch of runners after a 14 miler would, it was s’mores time. Matt Weber got a fire going and Julia, an Anthropology PhD student and desert expert, gathered some sticks for marshmallow roasting. Weber picked one up and started to roast a mallow. I concocted a s’more and sat back down with Colin and Weber and drank another whiskey. It was hot springs night, after all, and what’s better than a desert hot spring with a little whiskey in your system?

A few people had mentioned the hot springs as a possible activity for the night, and now it was officially on the agenda. We’d waited until it was sufficiently dark, piled into a few cars, and headed northbound on 395.

No one had remembered exactly how to get there. There was the road by the church, but after that it was anyone’s guess. I rode in Kim’s car, and she took the lead, having what the others decided was a superior recollection of location. We had to go through a cattle gate, she said, but there were a few. We tried the first. No go. We tried the second. Bingo.

I followed the others into the pitch dark abyss and found my feet on top of a boardwalk, the apparent route to this mystical desert beach we were bound for. I’d already been uncertain of what to expect (again, east coast), and the darkness wasn’t helping. How big were these springs going to be? Are they actually that hot? How are they even hot in the first place?! (“Earth magic,” Weber explained.)

Eventually, we heard a couple of voices to the left of the boardwalk and shined a light and their direction. Voila, there it was. We hopped off the boards and approached the spring, finding a couple whose romantic night we’d certainly just ruined. One by one we plopped into the hot tub-temperature water, dropping shoulders-deep under the surface, relief from the desert air that had already begun its nightly chill.

We joked and relaxed and welcomed the increased blood flow to our sore muscles, all of us boiling like the mac and cheese we ate that night. We gradually took notice of the unknown naked man that had at some point emerged from the abyss and joined us, and gradually accepted that a desert hot spring of all spots was probably no place for societal norms to begin with. And we looked up and marveled at the Milky Way and the constellations and tried hard to think of a better way to end a day as the moon rose over the hill in the distance.

Algernon

Sunday, July 1st, 8:46 a.m. – Mosquito Flats Trailhead, Mammoth Lakes, CA

“What’s the route today?” I asked Ryan, driving with his gauze-free hand.

“We’re starting at Mosquito Flats, and it lives up to its name, so we’ll try to be brief there,” he replied. “Then the trail goes all the way up to Morgan Pass. It’s a little higher than yesterday, about 11,000 feet.”

Oh great, I gulped. We’d be starting at 10,000 feet, though, only netting 1,000 feet of climbing. And I’d felt surprisingly great considering the 14 miler was less than 24 hours before. Thank you, hot springs. Maybe the run wouldn’t be so tough.

We again went through all of our pre-run rituals and set off up the trail. It was again Sid, Colin, Weber, and me, along with Joseph this time. The trail very quickly showed it would not be a hostile one, and meandered mostly flat and occasionally upward along green meadows and pristinely clear lakes and over gushing creeks. I could feel my chest starting to tighten again, my heart working overtime to get the sparse amounts of oxygen through my arteries faster. But there was no denying the altitude symptoms I’d experienced the day before were nowhere near as severe.

Then came the serious elevation gain. We’d just come to a wide creek and stopped.

“Where is the trail?” one of us asked.

Quick stream crossing on the trail to Morgan Pass

Our eyes scanned in circles looking for a way out of the dead end. The creek had seemed too wide for it to be on the other side, we thought, but eventually we came to the realization that we’d have some water to cross. Just behind the creek sat an array of more imposing, gigantic peaks. It was going to be a tough last half mile to Morgan Pass. We slowly made our way across the creek, carefully hopping from skinny rock to skinny rock, escaping with dry shoes on the other side. Then we hit the switchbacks hard. Our turnaround destination was in sight, 11,000 feet. The light-headedness had begun to come back hard and fast. The trail’s benignity had quickly turned vicious. I stared at Sid’s New Balances again and tuned the rest of the world out. Right, left. In, out. Eyes peeled. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Three and half miles into our run, we had made it to the pass. We stopped and took in the views of the lush pastures below snow-capped mountains, and I laughed to myself again at such an inconceivable juxtaposition.

Julia crests Morgan Pass

“Wanna keep going for a mile and half and make it 10 for the day?” Colin asked.

I knew Sid had planned on 10, but Colin had told me on the way up we was going seven, and was going to be my excuse to bail if I was feeling the altitude again.

“Damnit. Fine,” I laughed in reply.

The five of us surged down the other side of the pass, through the bright flowered-fields. I’d felt like Heidi frolicking in the Swiss Alps, minus the goats. At mile five I stopped and picked a few of the yellow ones, smelling their cologne-like pollen. Sid picked some, too.

“I’m bringing these for Algernon,” he said, referencing Daniel Keyes’s short story, Flowers for Algernon, in which a mentally disabled man, Charlie, rids his disability after he undergoes a procedure that had been tested successfully on a mouse, Algernon. Algernon’s condition later begins to deteriorate to the point of death, however, and Charlie is left grappling with his imminent fate. His final request is for someone to place flowers at the mouse’s grave, a symbol of thanks to Algernon for allowing him to experience a new outlook on life, if only for a short time.

As we ran back toward the trailhead, I thought more about Algernon and Charlie and realized that, in a lot of ways, the entirety of the trip had been my Algernon. I’d seen sights that, at far as mountains go at least, very well may be the most breathtaking I’ll ever see. I’d eaten snow in June and sat in a hot spring in the middle of the desert, the cosmos aglow above. I’d felt a renewed appreciation for the value found in travel. And most importantly, I’d met wonderful people who I’d maybe never see again after a few weeks. But I’d experienced these things nevertheless, regardless of their yet-unknown degree of finality, and, as we pushed on together through the meadows, I considered myself fortunate to have done so.

Will, Sid, Joseph, and Colin near Morgan Pass

This post was written by Will Edwards.