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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs

Two Boot Summer

Two pair is a small price for a summer flush.

The Pacific Crest Trail, stretching from Mexico to Canada, is an old acquaintance unvisited for years. In July ’02, I put in at Donner Pass and hump 150 mi. north along the high Sierras. How high? I totter from altitude sickness at 7-9000’ all 10 days, then acclimate. On the ninth night, I shake off the cold with a 280 lb. llama named Orion on a moonlit peak, entertaining options.

The reason I leave the trail is also the honor of hiking center to the surviving contingent of ‘thru hikers’ who began the PCT 2.5 months ago at the Mexican border. They’re mostly 20-30, non-athletic prior to this long-distance trek, fit as Olympic athletes, and gregarious. 40 of the original 200 remain near where I inserted at Donner, and look to their packs for how they pull through. These are ‘ultra-lights’ that resemble day packs and carry a base of 15 lb., sliding to 30 lb. with a week’s food supply. (It’s usually unnecessary to carry water in the high sierras except in the odd instance of being lost on a peak with a pack llama that gets first water.) The ultra-light philosophy is to connect water & food sources by speed rather than by carrying supplies; so these thru-hikers hoof 25-30 miles-a-day instead of the traditional 12-15 in the mountains.

The tenth day, after my mean daily pace of 22 miles, the llama, owner and I descend to a railroad track that I recognize as the Feather River Canyon route. I used to hobo it from the Pacific Ocean to Brit, Iowa for the national hobo convention. Striking, where nature challenges rail, I now leave the trail to jump a sided freight train, and am whisked from the Sierras down into the Great Basin desert, up over the Rockies and down to Denver.

Secreted in a nook of a ‘trailing unit’ (unmanned engine), there’s an insistent knock on the wall. “I know you’re in there, buddy.” I believe it’s crew to ‘ditch’ me, and lay still. “I’m a tramp like you, so come out,” and I meet Ironheel. Strapping and a sandwich short of a picnic, he’s a ‘streamline bo’ who totes just a small-day pack and slides cross-country in engines instead of bucking boxcars. The technique allows disguise as a crew/yard worker, hence lets one walk about yards and towns without stares. We disembark in Salt Lake City where it’s Mormon milk-and- honey run at the Sally (Salvation Army) for free meals and Goody (Goodwill Industries) for clothes vouchers.

Ironheel asserts that hobo numbers have dwindled since the 80’s when I rode summers and one winter taught a college hobo sociology class. The reason is that thousands of ‘circle tramps’ who once freighted city-to-city collecting duplicate food stamps have been exempted. “Nah, man,” Ironheel informs, “All that’s changed with the new ‘stamp card’.” The card is electronically debited at grocery stores and no one knows the remaining (if any) value, so nobody buys them. The hobo population has decreased 75%, but I predict will comeback when a hobo-computer nurd busts the electronic barrier. Hobo history may swing, and you’ll again count the waves from passing boxcars.

In Colorado, I visit acquaintances including Mark Mahoney, and Lotus, a college roommate who runs a small solar business. I spend a week on the phone generating new leads from old for Lotus, then cross my fingers, and travel to Aspen for Eris. Eris, the mythological goddess of discord whose golden apple inscribed ‘to the fairest’ caused jealousy that precipitated the Trojan War, has a modern slant at the August annual gathering of 100 blue-jeaned individualists who rattle conventions.

I meet a mountain girl who trades paperback books for sex, and for two weeks give my best selections, then offer to make a bookcase. She’s offended and sends me packing. I hobnob with a former Benedictine monk who took the cloth some years ago after standing above Devil’s Slide on the Pacific Crest Trail contemplating suicide, but was rescued by his personal version of deliverance. “In a flash, above the slide, I saw the rest of my life before me and the vehicle for it that was God’s love. I took it instead of the slide.” He later left the monk’s hood and became a doctor of psychology. I won’t soon forget his white smile, lake eyes and shock of red hair.

I return to southern Ca. on Amtrak’s cushions and again hit the Pacific Crest Trail. The starting point this time is the Mexican border, and I walk 200 miles north to San Bernardino. It’s ten September heat-blasted days of healthy, sweaty exercise in connecting water holes with daily 30-mile marches. I wash the mouth with urine to keep a swollen tongue from blocking the airway. Then, it’s surprising what a spring the size of a pencil trickle (with a dead bird) and a filter and patience can do for thirst. It’s been a long, hot summer and the nature I love has suffered. I walk a black land for two straight days unable to sit or sleep without getting sooty from a summer fire north of Mt. Laguna.

At one point, I spot a dark, thin swirl that rises from a hill cleft a half-mile off and dances up 200’ against the blue sky, but is tethered to the cleft. It’s a month-old ‘hot-spot’ of ground embers fed by a wind in my face; I instinctively search for escape, but immediately laugh for the logic riddle I tell others:
You’re alone on a mile-long island with precipitous sides having only camp gear on your back.
A fire starts at one end and is wind-fanned your direction to cause a hasty retreat to the other island
end. Soon there’s just a hundred yards of land left, so in seconds you’ll be a crispy critter…unless
you arrive at a solution.
I can pull a match from my pack and light a ‘back-fire’ that burns the ground ahead of me (stopping the approaching main fire), but now realize that the back fire was made a month ago and I’m safe. A day later, finally, I step into green nature, and plant next to something I should have anticipated at the fringe - a little rattlesnake. He’s as startled by a towering biped as I at he. Later still, I pass the Devil’s Slide with hardly a glance.

One night while hiking in the cool, suddenly and skyward, a mile-wide bright light angles from the west faster than a jet. It shines like a comet but is a hundred times larger on a beeline over me. Overhead, it explodes and the sky lights like day for seconds, then darkens over where I crouch. It must be a missile shot from Vandenburg Air Force base northwest of Los Angeles that was aborted by remote control, by chance, above.

Recall at the onset of this two-boot summer that I quit the trail because other hikers made animal observation and solitude unlikely. But, here in the south, I meet no one for ten days with one exception. On the second day from the border, I round a mountain bend and nearly collide with ‘la migra’, a uniformed immigration officer. He grins, “I was expecting an illegal alien since nobody else’s out in the heat. You tripped a buried sensor an hour ago, we were dispatched, and my partner’s been following your sign for miles.” He points behind me at a man with binoculars on a cliff and laughs, for on this hot day I’m bare-assed in the sun.

The boots, like the earlier pair, no longer leave a signature for the tread is gone. It’s time to make tracks home.


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