“Junior twisted his ankle back a ways and we decided to hike out early,” he reported from under his beanie cap while standing tall in his striped cotton pajama-like hiking pants.
He was tall, dark, and we all thought looked like Daniel Day Lewis. We had just passed his downward bound son on our ascent of the pass, there above Leavitt Lake, in the National Forest north of Yosemite. Gauged ears, loose boots, and slight gimp we had thought he was an escaped hoods-in-the-woods kid hiking out for more drugs.
“Where you folks headin?” adjusting his beanie cap on his dark head of hair.
“Tilden Lake, in the park,” Steve in his usual stance.
“Tilden! That is a sacred place man. Mary Lake is a really good zone too. If you’re over that way.”
“Yeah, hopefully it’ll be a nice hike and good weather,” Steve seemed ready to move on.
“We were going toward Emigrant lakes area, but my kid bummed his ankle so we hiked out early. Hey, you all like beer?”
Now, we both thought that was a funny question, of course we loved beer and up here in the mountains, we figured everyone was ready to get home to a cold one. Though, being the first day out, and only an hour into the hike, we hadn’t started to miss it too much yet.
“Yeah, sure we drink beer.”
“Down the other side of the pass, around the bend, are 90 beers sitting in the snow,” he proclaimed.
“Huh?” We now thought our Daniel Day Lewis lookalike may have smoked a little of junior’s stash.
“Oh, for sure. It’s the first weekend of the deer hunt see, and some hunter’s mule slipped on ice and broke its pannier strap. Couldn’t strap them back to the mule, so they left em in the snow,” this guy had our attention now.
“Sweet, we should get movin. Well, have a good hike down and good evening.”
Now on top of the first of several passes, we had a 4 mile descent across steep talus and patches of crusty ice. Getting to the trail head had proved an adventure in itself and although we’d only hiked a couple miles now, it was already dusk. The oncoming wind and cold on the south side of the pass chased us to an early camp that night, sheltered just below a saddle and nestled quietly in a forest of Lodgepole Pine.
The beers, if there were any, would have to wait for our discovery.
We kicked around for flat spots to lay down our mats, and scraped out a fire pit. Voices could be heard, blown in on the wind. Hunters and explorers alike made that saddle home for the night. Faint glow from fire, like bubbles, radiated into darkness and eventually became night.
The next morning was early and we made quick breakfast and coffee. Many miles to hike and it was the last trip for us that season in Yosemite. Bittersweet anxiety moved the remaining four of us forward that autumn day. Our group sundered by school, new jobs, vacations. Now Sunny, Mary, Steve and I ate burritos and talked about plans for the next year.
An old road grade trail was the primary route atop the next pass; it was mostly taken by the hunters for their animals, but a long-cut if you were on foot. Below our camp we found a small single track through the talus that allowed us to reconnect to the road grade closer to the top.
Steve was ahead and just gaining the road grade when he suddenly looked back at me with a shit eating grin.
“Ninety banquet beers, buddy.”
“No way, really?” we had all concluded by now the beer story to be nothing more than a fantasy dreamed up in drug induced delirium by a burned out hippie suffering through a weekend with his estranged son. Alas, as I approached Steve, they appeared, laying against the snow bank adjoining the trail. Three cases of Coors Banquet beer and even a case of Pepsi too.
“So, these beers have been here for at least 12 hours, if not longer. Why have they not been opened in to? What’s the deal here? What is the right thing for us to do?” Steve and I were dissecting the finer points of orphaned back country beer ethics when Mary, next to gain the road grade trail, popped up.
“Oh my God! They exist,” She was elated.
“Yeah, do we open em? None of it has been opened yet,” Steve and I glanced at each other, befuddled.
Now Sunny gained the trail too. All of us, there like kids in an unsupervised candy store, not knowing where the cameras were or if there were cameras.
“Stop being pansies, guys,” Mary unilaterally decided that this many beers left unattended and in this state in the wilderness constituted litter. Therefore, any ethical concerns of beer ownership need not apply.
She quickly relieved several beers from their containment.
“Now, these beers, having been left here situated in such a say as they are, must be answered for. Right? I mean, some hunter, out there with guns and shit, is probably hitching up some other horse to come get these. Right? Suppose, they are on the way right now. Is this really good Karma. Beer Karma is some of the best, and worst Karma, especially in wilderness settings where beer’s weight to volume ratio makes it uncommon, at best.” I was still grappling with the conventions of such a situation; surely any precedent, if there was any, could maybe shed light.
“Oh hell,” the tshh from Mary’s creamy yellow can shut me up.
We all drank of banquet beer goodness, there surrounded by talus and blank mountain tops rising above our lonesome band. And as we finished we grabbed on more each, to enjoy atop the next pass. We felt alright, knowing that ninety beers was a lot and whomever they belonged to would surely do the same.
After many agonizingly long switchbacks, we refreshed our palate with the last of the clandestine beers as we looked out over the Emigrant Wilderness and beyond toward the wilds of Yosemite.
We hiked in earnest in the morning sun through alpine tundra, sub-alpine meadow, and up and down mountain passes. Finally, at the crest of Bond Pass we passed the sign notifying us we were in Yosemite. Leaving the hunters and their guns behind, we descended into Yosemite wilderness. We made lunch beside a small brook near the bottom and took a nap in the shade and after we continued our long hike.
Through what seemed like a never ending meadow of sorts, we hiked several more miles. And as we neared the final pass that would deposit us at Tilden Lake, Steve called it for the day. He had to hike out the next morning for a final exam and his final act as crew leader for the summer was to make us vegan curry.
He began pulling fresh veggies and cans of coconut milk, spices, and other ingredients out of his pack. Hiking miles with lots of fresh food had become standard fare for us. We adopted the mantra that if we are going to be out for a whole week, we may as well eat some damn good food.
We woke the next morning and each of us rolled our sleeping bags and mats back into our packs. We each helped stoke the coals on the moribund fire to heat water for coffee. With dirty hands and feet, we made oatmeal and shared the meal around the four of us. Then, simply, Steve hiked back out as the three of us clambered up one more pass.
Now just Mary, Sunny and I, we worked through the next three days surveying a group of meadows around the perimeter of Tilden Lake. Each morning the sun peaked over the east side of the valley and gently thawed the meadow, hastening us to work as we finished our coffee. And we toiled over those last meadows.
We were the last remaining of our ragtag crew, now feeling fragmented in the mountains we had all called home that summer. Little bits of us were left with the others and they carried those pieces now into new places. Now we bade farewell to those last meadows. We cherished our return journey, knowing it would be our last hike-out together.
Remembering the beers, like a memory from another lifetime, we suddenly began devising to hike all the way out in a day, increasing the probability of the beers still existing in the snow. We had no way of knowing if they were still there, but knew that with each hour the probability decreased. With light packs and hungry stomachs, we gallantly attempted the feat. But as we neared the final pass that separated us from the beer, thunderclouds began building, promising electricity and heavy rain.
Reluctantly, we found a group of boulders surrounding a lone pine tree, there in the valley below, and made camp. We shared the last of the dehydrated soup between the three of us and made the last of the chamomile tea I had. We drifted to sleep, hungry and exhausted, dreaming of beer in the snow.
If nothing else, it gave us incentive to hike long and hard that day. And as we hiked, each step taking us closer to the end, we left more pieces of ourselves behind to exist there in the wilderness; a fair trade for the memories we had made that summer.