Them Thar Hills!: The Perfect Watering Hole

This article first appeared on my webpage, A CURIOUS MAN:

Most of what occurred during our vacation in Lake Tahoe was chortle-provoking somehow or other: On the first night, for example, I sliced my fingers open on my razor and staggered about our super-luxurious lodgings, bleeding like Saw X before finding first-aid. For the rest of the night, I stared at the ceiling and wondered if would ever see Emeryville again.

The following incident is perhaps best illustrative of both the adventure I sought and the lesson that brought home that Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.”

On Wednesday afternoon, my brother-in-law Charles and I took a noonday hike from a trailhead south of Emerald Bay into the Desolation Wilderness. Our destination was Granite Lake, but cartographic confusion took us instead over rocky Cascade Falls Trail to its eponymous destination: a huge fall of granite that rises up from Cascade Lake, before sinking back down into a bowl of high mountains. Numerous streams carved narrow paths through this field, with little hint of the power they carry during spring runoff, but that was OK: We were after bigger game. We were determined to find the perfect swimming hole, even if it killed us. Which it almost did. Me, that is.

Not far from the end of the trail, up the gray slope, Charles heard the sweetest song in nature: the echo of fast running water plunging into a deep pool. The sound led us down into a ravine that was choked with hundreds of fallen conifers, white as bleached bone: It had seen neither fire nor axe in at least a generation. It was so choked with riparian vegetation we could barely find ground to stand on: It was like walking through a game of pick-up sticks played by titans. Charles, the taller of us, bushwhacked on ahead of me, high-stepping like Paul Bunyan through the trackless forest, while I cautiously waded behind like Woody Allen.

My caution failed me, anyway. Despite my careful steps, some support I expected to greet my foot turned out to be illusory. My left hand shot out to stop my fall. Sharp dry wood gouged into my flesh at the base of my thumb and the tip of my first finger. I saw that blood, first. Then I turned my hand over: Saw XI.

“Charles . . . .”

Musn’t panic. Musn’t seem unmanly. My tiny voice bravely squeaked above the woodland hush and the first chatter of birds waking from their afternoon siesta. Crawling one-handed over high horizontal trees, I cautiously followed the sound of falling water, grateful I hadn’t sprained an ankle, or worse.

“Charles.”

I imagined how Charles would react when he saw my blood-spattered form, gaunt and hideous in the green-shadowed woods. (“Oh my God! Tom! Quick! Lie down! No! Don’t move! Here’s all my water! I’ll get the Medivac and fly it in myself!”)

“Charles!”

Finally, the last of my blood gushing from my body, I crawled over one last fallen conifer. I imagined the heartfelt concern on Elizabeth’s face; the crowds gathering around Charles, congratulating him on his quick thinking and undaunted courage —

“CHAR-RELS!!!! — Oh. There you are.”

Charles stood ten feet away. I showed him my gashed, bloody hand, ready for him to spring into action.

“Eww wow, man.” Then his big blond face beamed as he pointed up ahead.

“I found it!” He wore his best proud happy kid’s face. “I found the perfect swimming hole!”

Charles had spoken Truth: It was the perfect swimming hole, a boy’s secret, fed by a still fast mountain stream. Before I knew it, cold mountain water had washed my nerves away, while washing the crud that my fall had embedded in my hand — -most of what was pulled up was only surface skin.

We weren’t alone. A family, ranging in age from five to fifty, joined us from further upstream. Unfortunately, they weren’t looking for a swim; they were a funeral party looking to return their patriarch’s ashes to nature.

We politely claimed first dibs, promised it would be a quick swim to which they kindly acceded: The first time Charles came up gasping and sputtering, he said: “Are you sure you want to leave your Dad’s ashes here? It’s darn awful cold.”

Afterward, I sat drying in the sun and patched up my wound with the first-aid kit I always carry with me. Actually, these wounds are so common they can be a badge of honor: especially when you’re prepared to deal with them. If this had happened in the city, I’d be whimpering in bed for days.

We joined the mourning party to find the way out. Here’s when that kind of worry reared its head: Instead of going back the way we came — which we couldn’t find anyway; we’re no Natty Bumpo’s here — we headed down creek, before cutting back toward the rock slope. Soon, the deadwood piled to heaven. We had to make like the Flying Wallendas, walking along the tops of fallen logs. One wrong step could have made me the star of Saw XII.

As you can tell, we all made it safely. Later on, over the best-tasting beer ever, Charles and I concocted a Tall Tale about how I received my wounds while rescuing Charles from a bear attack. For some strange reason, the only reactions we received were tiny headshakes and rolled eyes.

Everybody’s so goddamn serious these days. . . .

(Photo by Author; model, Elizabeth Burchfield)

The author of BUTCHERTOWN, a 1920s gangster thriller and DRAGON’S ARK, a contemporary Dracula tale, both published through Ambler House Publishing.