THE FOUR J’s
It was not our first experience with burros, but it turned out to be the most memorable.
We had planned a two-week pack trip, starting from the Pine Creek Station on the east side of the Sierra, eventually climbing up over the Lake Italy backpack route to complete a circle back to the pack station with our children. Eric (thirteen), Roger (nine), and Anne (five). The three burros we reserved were waiting for us, with a fourth unexpectedly added. Jenny had a little burrito, still nursing, who would accompany us. We called him Junior. John and Jerry made up the rest of the animal party.
We had a day filled with cool air, warm sunshine, an incredibly blue sky, and the familiar stable smells and flies. Finally the pack boxes were properly loaded, and we started off on a soft trail through thick forest. Everything went well until our first stream. Jenny absolutely refused to cross. Were we glad that Junior was along! He was just small enough that my husband, Nelson, and Eric could drag him across the stream; then Jenny followed. This became a familiar technique whenever we came to a place Jenny wasn’t interested in going.
John was a large burro with a calm disposition, and for most of the journey he was a willing tower of strength. When Anne decided she was tired of walking, she rode atop his pack boxes. It didn’t take long for us to learn that Jerry was skittish—indeed by the end of the trip we felt he could be called insane. And of course, Jenny was just plain stubborn.
The early part of the trail had been nearly level and shaded. As we began to climb, Jerry resisted. We never knew what caused him to jolt. Sometimes Nelson could hold him, but often he pulled loose and raced off. Nelson would follow and sometimes find him resting far ahead on the trail. Sometimes he was nowhere. Once he ran right down the steep slope beside the trail and became so entangled in brush that it took hours to extricate him. This was difficult because he had hurt
himself in his struggle with the brush, which didn’t improve his attitude. We had to treat the injuries for the rest of the trip, making sure that the pack boxes did not rest directly on them. Often he just disappeared, sometimes returning after a long search, sometimes slipping into line behind John or Junior. We couldn’t count on him. It was always a puzzle as to what his boxes should hold. Certainly not the matches. Food? We had just enough to last. Sleeping bags? Flashlights? Tent?
Even John caused one crisis. Anne was riding peaceably on his pack boxes as usual. We had reached a level area, somewhat grassy, with trees in the distance. Suddenly John took off, galloping toward the trees. I was terrified that the low branches would knock Anne off. For some reason he returned to normal and came walking back with Anne still aboard. She was safe, but wailed, “I lost my potty.” We had brought it so she wouldn’t need to leave the tent in the middle of the night. She adapted.
These adventures added spice as we made our way up and down and up again, always gaining altitude. We passed through meadows with wondrous wild flowers. The color scheme that season was red, blue, and yellow, growing among the richest green grasses. The trail often followed high mountain streams close by, and spectacular distant views. As we climbed well above the tree line, we began to see hosts of shooting stars growing along the small stream. We finally reached the saddle from which we could look down into the Lake Italy bowl. It was a moment we had awaited with some anxiety. Could we get past the snow at the edge of the lake? If we could reach the north end there was a trail there that would lead us over the pass. The snow pack had been heavy that year, and even though it was now late July, the snow bordering the lake was still deep.
We were now supposedly two days from the end of our trip. Returning the way we came wasn’t a choice because we didn’t have enough food. Jerry had run far off the trail into snow on one of the lower passes, so we weren’t keen on trying to get the burros through any snow. We decided to camp for the night and consider the options.
The night was cold, and morning brought clouds. Would it snow? Nelson decided we should take off our boots, lead the burros through
the rocky but shallow edge of the lake until we could reach the trail on other side of the lake. That would lead us over the 13,001-foot Lake Italy pass. With an early start, we would wade through the lake and climb over the pass to the pack station by nightfall, or so we thought.
Miraculously the burros liked walking through the lake! It was only when we began the ascent that we found them uncooperative. Starting at maybe 11,000 feet, John behaved beautifully and seemed to enjoy the hike. Jenny would climb only if Eric and Nelson pulled Junior ahead of her. But Jerry just sprawled with outspread legs in the middle of the trail. We had to leave without him. Eric and Nelson pulled Junior. Jenny followed. Anne and Roger and I walked, leading John to the top of the pass. We sat down to wait while Eric and Nelson went back after Jerry. It was windy and we all were freezing. We could see clouds beginning to form. Roger was petting Junior, and as a final insult, Jenny reached down and bit him just above the knee. Eventually along came Nelson and Eric, with Jerry still stubbornly resisting. The sun was nearly setting.
Fortunately all of us were interested in continuing down. We moved along fast as long as it was light, but finally had to stop on the steep (about 45 degree) bare mountainside. Cold from the inside out, we set up the tent to get out of the wind, picketed the burros, and crawled into sleeping bags. Our stiff fingers could hardly zip them closed. The only food left was a can of tuna and a chocolate bar. Nelson opened the can and doled out the food which tasted wonderful.
Still freezing cold, we doubled up the mummy bags to share the extra warmth; it made up for the uncomfortably tight squeeze. There was only one bag for Eric, but he was young and tough and warm-blooded. No one had any trouble sleeping. We were wakened the next morning as Nelson stepped out of the tent, saying a loud and cheerful, “Gadzooks, it’s refreshing!”
The temperature couldn’t have been much above zero. The new day was golden with the rising sun, pink from the feldspar in the rocky side of the mountain, with the sky a clear and brilliant blue. The burros were still there, and seemed to sense that we were nearing home. There
had been no grass for them, so we gave them some of the remaining oats.
With no food left, we hardly needed Jerry, but Nelson loaded his pack boxes with rocks partly to discourage a too-easy departure and partly in revenge for the trouble he had caused. Guess who caused our final problem? As we reached the willow trees at the edge of the tree line, Jerry ran off and totally disappeared. We decided to let him find his own way home. He appeared suddenly, walking along peacefully after Junior just as we approached the pack station.
When we reported our troubles, they said, “It’s no surprise to us. Jerry and Jenny are desert burros and have never been in mountains. John is an old fellow who knows both. They’ll do better next trip.”
How do I remember this trip? The coolness of the air. The warmth of the sun. The intensity of the color green. The taste and sounds of the water. The assurance of used muscles. The sharing of the adventure with Nelson and the kids. The brilliance of the sky. The wildflowers. The expanses of rock and sky. The confidence that I can walk from here all the way to there, with or without burros.
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