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Surviving the Sierras

Dragged Backpacking with Outdoorsy Old Men

Photo: CourtesyStone Roshell

The trees disappear above 11,000 feet. The bugs stop buzzing, birds stop chirping, and the day hikers — those normal folks out for a nice stroll, jean-clad and accompanied by a toddler or dog — vanish. All I hear is the wind blowing, stirring the rough gravel that replaces dirt at that elevation. That, and the deafening sound of the voice in my head: Why, Stone? Just … why?

This was my experience backpacking through the Sierras with my relentlessly outdoorsy grandpa, my dad, and their friends. They’ve been backpacking annually for four decades, but this was my first time venturing into the wilderness with only my sleeping bag, tent, and however much trail mix I could stuff in my pockets.

This backpacking brigade certainly had a few characters. First: my grandpa. A stark traditionalist and the second coming of John Muir, he loves the outdoors almost as much as he loves eating wheat bran for breakfast and talking stocks. Next: my father. He had just dyed his hair purple for one of his band’s rock shows and looked like he was climbing up the mountain to sell someone crack. Then there was Bill. A 75-year-old backpacking cyborg, Bill would only stop to eat a cashew or two before returning to his blistering pace.

Now, I’m an active person. I coach group classes at Innate Fitness and spend hours weekly at the gym lifting weights and challenging myself. But as I quickly learned, bench pressing and squatting does just about jack all to prepare for a six-hour trek up a mountain at 12,000 ft. These old dudes were right on my tail the whole way. My heart rate spiking, my breath panting, I would look back, expecting to see them either dead or way behind. Instead, Iron Man Bill would race past me.

One day we went fishing, which was a nice change of pace. Fishing itself is great: the excitement of feeling the bite and reeling it in. What people skip over when they gush about fishing, though, is sticking pliers down the poor trout’s throat and ripping the hook out before it suffocates. Once, we took too long, and after we threw the thing back, it lay there in the water on its side, thinking about if it really wanted to continue being a fish. As I scratched the dozens of mosquito bites covering every inch of my exposed skin, I related to that little guy.

Wrapped up in my enjoyment of catching the little swimmers, I forgot about cleaning them. I saw a side of my grandpa I didn’t know existed: the bloodthirsty, savage side. He calmly demonstrated sawing off the head, ripping out the innards, and scraping out the poop tract — blood and excrement coating his hands — before offering me the next trout and his dull pocketknife. I barely managed to do one before he agreed to handle the gut-cleaning if I did all the poop-scraping. You know it’s bad when poop-scraping sounds like the better job.

On the hike out, I was a man with a purpose. Every step was one foot closer to a shower and a bed twice as big as the tent my dad and I had shared. When I finally made it back to the comfort of civilization, I knew for sure: Backpacking isn’t for me.

But a few days later, to my surprise, I began to remember some parts of the trip fondly: the vastness of the starry sky at night, the satisfaction of carrying everything I truly needed on my back and drinking out of clear snowmelt streams. Even though backpacking will never be my go-to activity, I think I finally get it. After the initial relief of hitting the down pillow of my clean queen bed, I couldn’t deny that I was different than before I went: more adventuring grandpa, and less floundering fish.


Stone Roshell is Starshine’s son.

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