Obsidian-black clouds pushed their way up the western escarpment of the Sierra Nevada and a freakish summer storm threatened to wreak havoc on what should have been a heavenly day of wheeling. Drag crew would be my long-time 'wheeling buddy Rich Currie and myself. Our job, as it has been for the past dozen years, is to make sure our paid participants made it to camp for dinner, or at least made it to camp. This was the 43rd Annual Sierra Trek, and our 25th year on the trail together. But as for getting everyone to camp...this day might be the exception.
Back in 1984, I was one of those new punk kids in a rice-burner Toyota 4x4 pickup. Rich and I had joined the Sierra Treasure Hunters 4WD Club (STH) and we were on our first Sierra Trek. How exciting it was. We didn't know dink about 'wheeling (though we thought we knew everything), but we were here on the Fordyce Trail, one of the most demanding trails in California. Navigating our way through a narrow crevasse called Winch Hill No.3, which is barely wide enough for your fenders to squeeze through. Our showroom-clean paint jobs were a hare's hair from the panel-bending granite. I didn't know about Rich, but my clutch foot was shaking like a Nepalanese prayer flag at the Everest Base Camp. I never would have dreamed that 25 years later we'd be the so-called tribal elders on the trail, and responsible for each year's batch of shaky-footed newbies.
"Signal Peak, Uncle Willie calling, over."
"Go ahead, over"
"Be advised the Trail Leader has cleared Winch Hill No.5, our drag crew is at the base of No.2, but they have a problem TJ, they're slow, but still moving, over."
Uncle Willie, that's Jim Harris. He runs point on the Thursday run and was one of the old guys when I was a newbie. The guy up in the clouds on Signal Peak is John Vinal. He's in charge of communications and has been around as long as I can remember. Like the Weatherman at the Baja 1000, John keeps track of everyone on the trail, radios out for parts when needed, and generally oversees things. With hundreds of rigs running the trail over three days, it's probably like herding cats. Andrea Harris is Uncle Willie's daughter and a second generation "Trekkie." She (along with hubby Doug) drives her own CJ-7 and is the only female on the trail crew. The rest of our crew consists of guys we can count on in a pinch. Good with a wrench or winch line, and cool when things go sideways.
The morning had been clear, with only a few pillow-soft cumulus clouds drifting by. Most of our crew, as well as our guests, had open-top rigs and were geared for a typical sunny Sierra summer day. As Signal Peak called in the first weather report, we looked back down the canyon. Old Man Mountain, a major landmark on the trail, was completely obscured by whiteout conditions, and it was coming our way. The tarps came out when the hail began blowing horizontally through the cab. In most years, my duties as drag crew include late nights on the trail with a broken rig in tow, usually the result of an adrenaline-induced right foot. As conditions deteriorated, the mud-covered granite had us slipping and sliding off every rock on the trail. While progress was slow, the lack of the usual tire-to-granite-traction that pretzels steering components, grenades differentials and snaps axles, kept mechanical carnage to a minimum. It was near dark when we got the last participant up Winch Hill No.5, only the second time I've made it to camp before the stars. Up at Meadow Lake, STH members Rick and Shannon Kerley had an old-style BBQ in the works.
That first Sierra Trek in 1966 was a simple affair of two days, 50-or-so Jeeps and a small BBQ on Saturday night. During the past four decades, the Sierra Trek has become one of the West's premier family ‘wheeling events. It is now a four-day affair with gourmet meals, a full bar, hot showers, kids and adult games, live music, and a rockn' bonfire party. For those who want a mellow day on the trail, there are also SUV runs and a narrated historical tour of the Gold Country.
As we circled around the BBQ at Meadow Lake, cheeseburgers and dogs in hand, the rain subsided, tall conifers rustled in a light breeze, and patches of blue appeared above. Reflecting back, I couldn't help but think of that first Sierra Trek – a handful of hungry four-wheelers sharing a burger and beer at the end of the day, and swapping war stories of the trail.
Three years ago, Trek was cancelled due to catastrophic wildfires in the Sierra. The next year, main camp was moved from its historic open-camping home at Meadow Lake to a conventional campground near Cisco Grove. We still run the Fordyce Trail, which has undoubtedly become one of the toughest trails in Northern California, and the new format allows participants to run half the trail one day, the other half the next. Another unique thing about Trek, which crosses Fordyce Creek, is that PG&E turns down the water to passable levels (I pre-ran the trail a few weeks prior and the water was over the headlights, yikes). In some years, the Trek is the only opportunity to run the trail.
This year also marked a milestone in Sierra Trek history. Each year, BFGoodrich selects four or five trails for its Outstanding Trails Program. Fordyce Creek made the list this year, and, BFGoodrich's Gary Enterline was on hand to dedicate the trail and hand over a $4,000 check to the Friends of Fordyce (www.fordycetrail.org). To date, BFG has dedicated 17 trails and donated over $70,000 to the associated clubs for trail maintenance, repairs, and improvements. BFG also donated a set of tires (your choice) to Friends of Fordyce (FOF), which was raffled off on Saturday night and generated additional funds for the FOF coffers. BFGoodrich has really stepped up with the Outstanding Trails Program, and their dedication and financial support (and their tires) are greatly appreciated.
I didn't know it back in 1984, but my club, STH, was one of the three clubs to host the inaugural Sierra Trek in 1966 – a fact that I can't help but to be proud of. After 25 years on the trail, I've been promoted to the position of trail coordinator (at least, they said it was a promotion?) and I'm starting to feel like one of those old-timers from Jeepers Jamboree. I ran the Jamboree two weeks earlier, and as my silver anniversary passes, the parallels between these events are remarkable: great trails, dedicated volunteers, excellent food, and a serious party at the end of the day.
As Trek creeps up on its 45th year, rumor has it that we may be returning home to Meadow Lake. I'd like that. I'm guessing Rich and I will be there either way, maybe with a few more gray hairs, but still driving our rice-burner Toys. We hope to see you there.