My First Backpack Trip out of Mineral King
An excerpt from "Angels in the Wilderness" by Amy Racina
In 1972, I was an awkward 16 years of age. My Dad had organized this excursion with his customary enthusiasm. He and I, and my 13-year-old brother had driven 3,000 miles across the United States to be here. We had navigated 25 narrow miles of ancient mining road — 698 curves in all by one account— before arriving at our destination, a sub-alpine valley in Sequoia National Park. This singular valley was a family legend. We seemed worlds away from the Baltimore suburb where I was born and raised. I had grown up knowing about the beauty of this place, seeing the glint in my father’s eyes whenever he spoke of it, and longing to see it for myself.
Mineral King. Even today, a vision of the place in my mind’s eye is enough to send tremors of longing through my being. I can see it as if I am there, a magnificent glacial canyon carved from centuries of shifting and re-forming ice, a monument to the persistent powers of nature. I envision it green from springtime rains and snow melt, an abundance of wildflowers spilling over the trails in riotous glory. Up from the valley floor surge the looming peaks of the Great Western Divide, cradling the valley on three sides. Farewell Gap beckons from the south; Franklin Pass rises to the southeast. I can smell wild sage and granite dust; hear the merry gurgle of clear, snow-fed brooks. It was there, in Mineral King, that I came to know the mountains, to know myself, to appreciate the powers of my body, and to encounter within my own character the determination that would serve me in years to come. It was there that I fell in love with the Sierra.
That summer morning in 1972 was bright with sunshine. Standing with my family in the dirt parking lot near the trailhead, I did not welcome the clarity of the mountain light. I was worried. Unsure if I could face the rigors of the journey ahead, I dreaded the coming trip.
My father and brother and I had been planning this trip for months. My Dad had outfitted us carefully. We wore jeans and long sleeved plaid cotton shirts over T-shirts. Wide brimmed straw hats protected our faces from the sun. We had rugged leather boots laced onto our feet. All three of us carried army surplus rucksacks on our backs. We took sleeping bags and dried food for ten days. We didn’t pack much else. We had very little gear by 21st-century standards. My Dad had hiked these mountains for years with less than we now carried. We felt ourselves to be quite adequately equipped, and so we were.
Off we went, plodding up an unknown trail towards snow-touched peaks higher than I had ever seen in my life. I was a child of the suburbs, manicured green hills and neatly paved streets defining my previous existence. Now, engulfed in the wildness of the Sierra, I was terrified. The straps of my pack dug into my inexperienced shoulders. My body ached with the unexpected demands of rigorous mountain hiking. I was certain that I couldn’t make it. But in my family, giving up was not an option. And so I continued on, one foot in front of another, lungs gasping for air, muscles protesting with each step. Up over 11,680-foot Franklin Pass we trekked, and down into Upper Rattlesnake Canyon. We covered 11.5 miles that first punishing day, tackling a 3,850-foot climb. We hiked on through sequential days, past the Upper and Lower Rattlesnakes, and eventually down the Kern River Canyon. Days later, we returned over Coyote Pass and Farewell Gap, a 46 mile loop in all.
Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, I began to appreciate the life that consumed us. The cold hard ground felt welcome after a rough day’s hiking. Each ray of sunshine on a chilly morning was to be celebrated. I began to appreciate the panoramic landscapes, the statuesque groves of Sequoia and Pine, the clear sparkling air that coaxed blades of grass and wildflowers into a luminescence brighter than I had ever imagined. Best of all, I grew stronger by the day. I felt the blood coursing through my body. I enjoyed using the new muscles in my arms and legs.
And when, after ten magnificent days, we arrived triumphantly back at the trailhead, I could understand why my Dad loved this most special of places. The Sierra has spoken to my soul. This trip had been the most wonderful experience of my life.
Submitted by Amy Racina
An excerpt from "Angels in the Wilderness"
(Elite Books, October 2005)
Footnote: ANGELS IN THE WILDERNESS is Amy's story of a her near-fatal 60-foot fall in the Tehipite Valley in King's Canyon in 2003. It tells of her long days and nights alone in a ravine with both legs broken, her miraculous rescue, eventual recovery, and return to the mountains that she loves.
Amy is the third generation of her family who has hiked in Mineral King. Her grandmother and father managed Lewis Camp in the Kern for several years, starting around 1935.