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Mike Sweeney
08/07/2014 12:47 PM
Eighty-year-old avid hiker Martha King was a major trail angel for Outdoor Amador writer Sweeney. Photo courtesy of Mike Sweeney

The Tahoe Rim Trail forms a 165-mile loop around Lake Tahoe. It goes through the Carson Mountain Range, in Nevada, and the Sierra Nevada Range, in California. Trail maps told me I could connect the dots from previous hikes to reduce the mileage I needed to circumnavigate the lake to 75 miles or so. What the maps didn’t tell me was that their blue lines no longer indicated a creek or river this summer. There is very little water in the High Country away from alpine lakes. This became an inconvenient truth my second day on the trail.

On the Rim Trail, it’s not like being low on water in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. Strenuous exercise in high temperatures has killed more than one Pacific Crest Trail hiker down south. (In April, 19-year-old Timothy Nodal died from heat exhaustion on the trail near Lake Morena.) Temperatures are lower on the TRT, and there are lots of people around, so the situation is not dire. You cross roads that you could hitchhike out on. You meet church groups with 20 hikers who have ample water for their one-mile trek. Scores of day-hikers and mountain bikers pass you by sucking on their Camel-Back hydration systems. Eventually, you realize that your willingness to beg for water is directly related to how much water is in your bottles. On the morning of my second day, I was the veteran backpacker who would figure things out on his own. By mid-afternoon, I was the desperate doofus asking total strangers if they might spare a little water.

I got some water from a mountain biker and one of the kids in the church group. (I watched 17 kids walk by before I got the courage to ask one of the stragglers if he had any extra water). When I arrived at bone-dry Burke Creek, I’d walked about 14 miles and had half a liter of water left. I knew I could go another mile to Kingsbury Grade and hitch out, but that was not an attractive option. (On the other hand, no coffee in the morning was not an attractive option either).

And then, as I hiked south, a quick solution materialized in the form of five summer cabins just a hundred yards west of the trail. I heard the sounds of a Giants’ game coming from the first cabin I approached, but when I knocked, no answer. I struck it rich at cabin number two, where a smiling trail angel filled my bottles from her garden hose. One of the things I love about backpacking is it makes you realize what you really need. It does wonders for your sense of priorities.

I camped just off the TRT in a little grove of quaking aspen a half-mile or so from Highway 207 and Kingsbury Grade. I had spent the day worrying about water, but by the time I put up my tent and cooked dinner, I was at peace in nature. A red-tailed hawk circled overhead as I ate, and aspen leaves fluttered hypnotically in the breeze flowing through the meadow. My cares melted away as the healing power of nature worked its magic.

Next morning, I decided to leave the Tahoe Rim Trail. I was tired of water issues and didn’t want to follow the waterless TRT away from Tahoe all the way to Showers Lake near Highway 88. I decided to drop down to South Lake Tahoe, where there would be an abundance of water, burgers and flat ground. I crossed Highway 207, and soon spied a grouse walking nervously up the trail in front of me. A hundred yards later, I stopped and watched a squirrel twirl a pine cone and eat its seeds like we might devour corn on the cob. Early in the morning, wildlife outnumbered people for a change. A mile beyond the highway, I found the Van Sickle Connector Trail and headed down the mountain. I was treated to views of the lake and Stateline casinos as the trail wound down, down, down. I came out of the woods below the Heavenly Valley gondolas, which were busy transporting hikers and bikers up the mountain.

I stopped at a Taqueria and ordered a Coke and tostada. I’m sure I looked pretty bad with dirt all over and a 20-year old backpack held together with duct tape, but in Tahoe, homeless people are everywhere, so I fit right in. As I ate, I looked out at a man pushing a shopping cart filled with bags and recyclables. I knew the only things separating me from his daily challenges were the credit cards in my pack, and the phone numbers in my cell phone. I made my way to a budget motel on the main drag and paid $49 for a room. After a shower, I headed out for a wonderfully flat seven-mile walk (sans backpack) to Camp Richardson on Tahoe’s southwest shore. This stroll had everything: views of the lake’s deep blue water; hundreds of food and lodging franchises; hectic traffic; serene walking paths; and thousands of people searching for their own special Tahoe memories.

At Camp Richardson, the line for ice cream was out the door, so I settled for a cold water from the general store. I got a ride back to the motel from a nice couple from Reno, and an early dinner and two newspapers put me to sleep by 9 p.m.

The next day, I rode a bus back to Camp Richardson, and hiked up tranquil Fallen Leaf Lake Road to Fallen Leaf Lodge and Marina. The spectacular view from the lodge showcased people swimming, waterskiing and fishing. The morning hike had been gently uphill, and I was feeling pretty smug about my decision to develop my own route around Tahoe. As usual, the smug feeling didn’t last.

I needed to find the trail that would take me 2,000 feet back up to the Pacific Crest Trail near Echo Lake. The map said the trail was “not maintained” and the guys at the fire station called it “hard to find” and a “billy goat trail” — so I was really starting to wonder what to do next. Fortunately, 81-year-old Martha King saw me looking around, put on her trail angel wings, and helped me find my way.

Martha has a cabin at nearby Lily Lake that has been in her family for more than 80 years. She first climbed nearby Cathedral Peak when she was five years old. She knows the area like the proverbial “back of her hand.” She warned me that the trail was hard to spot and then guided me to it. She lives in Florida most of the year, and said she was having a hard time adjusting to the altitude this season, but you never would have known this by the way she led me up the mountain. At the junction where Martha would leave the trail to head for her cabin, we stopped and talked for awhile. She has hiked all over the world, from Turkey to Patagonia, but her roots are deepest here in the Sierra.

As we talked, she pointed out the “Witch Tree,” which played an important role in her and her three sisters’ imagination growing up. She also told me about their “Circus Tree” and the tree where they staged a skit for the family every summer. She told me about climbing 10,778-ft. Mount Rose at age 19 with one of her sisters, and pointed out where a waterfall forms high up on Cathedral Peak during a hard rain.

I asked if her sisters still returned to the cabin and she grew quiet. Finally, she said her older sister has arthritis and a heart condition and can no longer handle the altitude. She waited a few more seconds, and then said that her two younger sisters had been killed in a car wreck in the rain near Yosemite when they were 16 and 21 years old. The 21-year-old had a job in Yosemite Valley, and they were heading there from the cabin when they skidded out of their lane on the wet road and hit a logging truck head-on. “That poor driver,” she said. “He did everything he could to get out of the way, but couldn’t. I’ve always felt bad for him.”

Martha warned me that the trail up the mountain was very steep and easy to lose track of. She was right. It was the most rugged trail I have ever climbed with a backpack on. It was crazy steep and nonexistent in places, but trail angels had put rock cairns along the route, which helped a great deal. As I climbed, I kept thinking about Martha’s family, and how life is not always fair. When that happens, I guess the lesson is to follow Martha’s example and keep on climbing.

I made it to Echo Lake Chalet late in the afternoon, only to find that they, too, were out of water. They were in the process of closing down their cabins due to the drought and may not reopen them this season. They did have some water for sale in their store, so I bought a couple of quarts, and made my phone calls home. Here’s hoping Martha’s waterfall on Cathedral Peak comes to life many times this winter.

The High Country needs it.

Copyright © 2014 Amador Ledger Dispatch
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