In 1975 the National Geographic Society published a comprehensive 196-page book on the nascent Pacific Crest Trail. The book chronicled the thru-hike of author Will Gray and photographer Sam Abell. This was well before trail names, trail angels, and even completion of the trail. A friend of mine recently gave me a copy he had purchased at a library sale. It truly captures the era when external frame Kelty packs, wool, and heavy leather boots reigned supreme. It is well worth a read.
This short excerpt begins at Sierra Buttes, just north of Sierra City. The lookout Will Gray refers to is no longer active but still serves as a worthy detour from the PCT. I have included a few photos of the lookout from my walk through the area:
"Lightning makes an incredible whipping and crackling sound just before it hits. Then there’s a loud buzzing like radio static as the thunderclap shakes the whole building. Sometimes there’s a blue glow around the roof overhang, and I’ve even seen electricity arc back and forth between the beams. The first time I saw that, man, I was scared!"
Bill Thomason sat with his feet on a desk inside the fire lookout station that perches — at 8,587 feet — atop the highest of the Sierra Buttes. The thumb-like spires of volcanic rock provide a vantage high above the rolling ridges of the northern Sierra, and I could trace, far below, the Pacific Crest Trail near Sardine Lakes. A side trail ended at the base of the 178 metal steps that climbed the rocks to our steel-and-glass cage.
Bill, a college student who works summers as a fire guard for the U.S. Forest Service, continued to describe the awesome display of a thunderstorm and I was glad that the sky was bright blue and cloudless. “One of the first things I learned,” Bill said, “was not to touch metal during electrical storms. But I’ve gotten so used to them now that I can usually sleep right through.”
What were his duties? “Basically, I just look for smoke, I take a compass reading and check my card file to see if it’s coming from a sawmill, say, or a campground. If not, I radio headquarters to have it checked out. Fortunately, this area’s not too vulnerable; there are relatively few fires each year.”
I asked Bill whether the isolation of sitting alone high on a remote mountain ever bothered him. “Usually it’s not all that lonely,” he answered. “Besides the hiking path, there’s a jeep trail, so I get a few visitors almost every day. Sometimes more than a few — over the Fourth of July weekend, at least 150 people trooped through. And there’s always communication through the radio. But I have gone as long as four days without seeing anyone. I guess I’ve learned to appreciate both company and loneliness. The time of day I most like to be alone is at sunset. It’s so peaceful up here then.”
A dozen miles north of Sierra Buttes, the trail skirts placid Gold Lake, named in acknowledgment of one of the biggest hoaxes of the gold rush days. In 1849 vague rumors of a lake with banks strewn with gold spread through the mining camps. In the early summer of 1850, an English miner named J.R. Stoddard appeared in Nevada City with a poke of nuggets and a dramatic tale. While on a hunting trip, he said, he had stumbled on the fabled lake of gold, and was astounded by its abundance of riches. As he scooped up handfuls of nuggets, he was suddenly attacked by Indians, and was wounded in the leg by an arrow while escaping.
He offered — for a price — to lead an expedition back to the lake; dozens of gold-hungry prospectors responded and paid the fee. When the party left Nevada City, a throng of perhaps a thousand other men followed along.
For days the horde vainly tramped the mountains. Stoddard became increasingly vague about his bearings, until at last the miners rebelled and gave him an ultimatum: He had 24 hours to find the lake or he would be strung from the nearest tree.
That night the wily Stoddard stole out of camp and disappeared. In the morning the miners, thoroughly chagrined, headed back to their old claims or sought new ones in the Gold Lake country.
Sam rejoined me on the trail north of Gold Lake and together we walked the dry, hot ridges of the northern Sierra. Late one afternoon, as we followed a dusty road toward a bluff overlooking the North Fork of the Feather River, the aroma of cooking drew us toward a small prefabricated house alive with young men.
It was a crew of the California Ecology Corps, sponsored by the California Division of Forestry. Under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, the men were building a six-mile section of Pacific Crest Trail from the ridgetop down into the Feather River Canyon near the town of Belden. After we had demolished a supper of roast beef and corn on the cob, I sat sipping coffee and talking to Dick Hansen, project foreman and a 20-year veteran of the Division of Forestry, and Rick Lawrence, the 22-year-old crew leader.
"We’ve been up here for just under three weeks, and we’ve already got more than half a mile of trail built," Dick said with pride. "The whole project should take no more than four or five months, we hope."
"We’re averaging about 250 feet of finished trail per day," Rick added, "and that’s through manzanita, which is hard to dig out. We have to follow strict specifications of trail width and drainage, of course, and we’re anxious to do a good job; we’re hoping that this one will lead to more contracts."
In the late mountain twilight the corpsmen returned from swimming, fishing, or rock climbing and crawled into the sleeping bags scattered around the prefab building. A few minutes after five o’clock the next morning I was served a tasty cheese and mushroom omelet by camp cook Jim Atha. Breakfast over, we crowded into a truck and bumped along the dirt road leading to the new trail site.
Following the newly constructed section, I rounded a well-engineered switchback and faced a tangle of brush. Ahead of me a proficient team of two strong corpsmen worked with lopping shears to cut out the tough branches and trunks and form a rough corridor. A couple of dozen yards behind them, another team wielding picks and shovels grubbed out rocks and roots and widened the initial path. Other teams graded, cleared, and trimmed, until finally a permanent section of Pacific Crest Trail had been completed.
"We rotate the men every day so they don’t get burned out on any one job," Rick told me. "As we work, we’re careful to preserve the natural lay of the land as much as possible. We only take out boulders or trees where they would be a serious hindrance to hikers."
From the top of the canyon wall, Rick looked down at his crew and said, “This is the kind of work you can appreciate doing. You feel like you’re leaving your mark, that you can come back in 20 years and be proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
Bob Birkby wrote a wonderful piece that is included in the Oregon/Washington volume of The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, “The Art of the Trail: An Aesthetic Appreciation of What’s Underfoot”. It captures the work of art that results from good trail building … and reminds us not to take for granted the work of Dick Hansen, Rick Lawrence, and their team and countless similar teams that built the PCT.