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Liu: The Sierra Trek

We marched like solid men in the frontiers. We were boy scouts on a mission to blaze through the backpacking trails of the Sierra Nevadas, explore the lush wildlife, and spend time away from the bustling city streets, computers, and polluted air.

Benjamin Liu, seventh grader at Dana Middle School, CEO of uScribe

Benjamin Liu, seventh grader at Dana Middle School, CEO of uScribe

From the adventurous troop 174, the 30 of us (primarily composed of scouts led by Scout Master Mr. Kerry Fortner) tackled a nine-day journey into widespread 75 miles of backpacker’s heaven.

The bright armies of sun exasperated my morale and put obstacles in my hiking. My thoughts primarily focused on setting each gaunt leg in front of the other. Sweat was streaming from my blackened, sunbaked skin and with each of huff and puff, my spirits were gradually dwindling. My stomach roared loud, deflated as if a needle had stabbed the heart of a soufflé from the two days devoid of food. The starry nights illuminated with billions of stars, planets, and galaxies refueled my burned out mentality. Our bodies were trapped in another world in which our thoughts were concentrated on backpacking. When each day abruptly concluded, we would gaze at the wispy clouds thinking, “This is the Sierra Nevadas. We’ve learned so much yet all we long for is something to fill our stomachs. My appreciations of superfluous everyday qualities of life, enhanced physicality, and undaunting mentality that surfaced in dealing with unexpected challenges were the result of our backpacking journey.”

I was engulfed by the everglade colored meadows of the Sierra Nevadas and learned how difficult it is to live life with only the primary necessities. Words can’t express how much a better person I’ve become through 75 miles of challenges in surviving in the wilderness for 9 days. While gazing for hours at the luminous Milky Way Galaxy, I chose not to envision the eyes of teenagers glued behind keyboards and screens of death.

Day 1: They say the first day is always the most difficult. My pack was 37 pounds, my bones sore, but my morale stronger than Hercules. I set out along with 40 other ambitious backpackers from my troop. We headed off with a strong “Tally-ho!” from our trail master. I was serenaded by cries of deer in the distance, beautiful tunes of the blue jays, and melodies of the quiet, early autumn wind that settled across the vastness of the valley. My muscles and strength slowly diminished with each step I took; the sunlight blackened my skin, and my mentality quickly adapted determination and effort required to face each challenge as if I was breaking through mountains. The sharpness of my breathing quickened as thick dust made its way into my eyes. I could hear the dry, wilted evergreen leaves crunching under my hiking boots. My senses picked up the slightest details of movements in the forests, even the clouds soaring along like sailboats in a peaceful ocean of the sky. After hours of backpacking, the pain in my legs dulled. I became part of the family of nature around me. That afternoon, I dove into the chilled, clear lake. The sun shone a smile as I raced with the deer and rabbits playfully. My mentality had been entirely transformed from the world of technology, school, and extra-curricular activities, to the world of nature. I never realized until now that these two ways of life could coexist.

Day 2: They say the second day is always the most challenging, yet it wasn’t. I recognize the relationships and bonding I’m building in the tight fellowships I have created with other fellow scouts, along with my older brother Vick Liu (who was also on the trip with me). The freezing mornings were greeted by my delightful friend, the sun, who acted as a guardian to me throughout the trek. We cooked a freeze dried breakfast of a few spoonful of oatmeal and apple sauce, which somewhat silenced the constant growls of my stomach. My legs were refreshed and the feeling of rushing winds had lifted up my thoughts. The light green hills perched majestically and tall next to the sparkling, pristine lakes. We moved swiftly so as not to disturb the complete silence of the natural community, animals sleep with the winds blowing chimes like lullabies. A flock of blue jays flew onto the pine tree branches above me and sounded an alarm; the whole forest awoke and the sun miraculously rose moments later. We played games along the way and admired the delicate blades of grass that swayed left to right around us. We took quick breaks and replenished ourselves with honey-roasted nuts (add salty or type to give more sensory connection), fruity granola bars (add flavor), and water. Each day was beautiful with the the sun smiling, the animals running around cheerfully, and the trees emitting their pleasant fragrance. We stopped at our next campsite, burned out, yet on a natural high of backpacking. We indulged ourselves in gazing onto a peaceful sky amass of clouds, dealing multiple card games, and diving our heads into the chilling rivers.

Day 3 and 4: The day’s hiking was fascinating and one of the most challenging of this trip. I wake up before sunset to a cold sweat. The moon was bright like an elegant ship sailing through a peaceful sea of clouds. I contemplated about life, my church, my experiences in the BSA, and how this experience had greatly impacted my life. In a couple of minutes, my head was buried in my sleeping bag. The night’s peace was not disturbed by a single howl or cry of agony. The animals slept sound and protected. We were able to watch out for each other. It was amazing. There, in front of your eyes was a glorious land of wilderness, something priceless in the urban areas of Los Angeles, and after trekking miles and miles, the patches of green foliage and smokeless skies stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. As backpackers, we were unified as a team, scouts of diverse backgrounds, although we cared for each other, encouraged each other and took the hits together. After emerging through the steep pass we felt as if we had accomplished a legendary feat. Suddenly, sparkling, Crystal Lake was in our eyes. It would be what we called in tradition “Layover Day” the next day (we would be able to replenish ourselves and sleep through the chilly, pitch-black nights). For the rest of the day, we fished, admired the majestic mountain peaks, and froze ourselves in the clear, brisk lakes. I caught my first 4 trout that day! In our troop we had a tradition of eating the fish raw. Without regret, I abruptly sunk my teeth into the oily meat and raw, powerful flavors immediately hit my senses. “This was survival,” I thought. On the fourth day, the packer with a fresh 4 day supply of food was supposed to replenish our load. He never came that night and our worries skyrocketed. My brother was starving, and I could hear his stomach growling. I knew that he loved me enough he would take a bullet for me and if we ever did find food that he would make sure that I could have some before he would ever take a bite. After I felt like I had sufficiently proven to my fellow scouts that I could fish successfully, I decided to help others do the same. Being younger, I was served first and received a larger portion of trout than my brother. As I knew he would do the same for me, I scraped some of my fried, delectable fish out of my metal bowl into my brother’s bowl. He didn’t need to worry; I would take care of him as much as he would for me.

Day 5: Who would think that our supposedly most relaxing day became a day of torture and waiting? Our breakfast was delayed because of the packer’s dilemma (his horse refused to cross the river). I stared at a big crawling over a bush of honeysuckle and noticed a bitter taste in my mouth. I took a petal from the honeysuckle and squeezed a drop onto my tongue. A sweet sensation suddenly emerged and reminded me of home. Home, the place I had almost let go of and forgotten. The beautiful fall colors and quiet autumn winds that whistled its way through the towering palm trees. The day crept by quickly. My face had reached a new level of sun-tan after bathing in the sunlight for hours while napping for most of the afternoon. Everyone in the troop was too tired and hungry to indulge in the crazy activities we would’ve been doing such as swimming, card tournaments, and peak hiking. The sun had set, and not a horse had been in sight. We gave up our hopes on the packer and planned a course of action. This was a real survival situation; our lives were on the line, what kind of world was I in? We divided up our trail food and decided to ration the little granola bars we had left and proposed a plan to rescue the food 20 miles back from the ranger station and finish the trip strong. Five elite hikers volunteered to complete the feat. I was a little bit shaken and thought it was a nightmare, but it was the real deal and I wasn’t going to give up survival and having the best experience of my life.

Day 6: Unlike the daily routine of waking up ahead of the sun, we slept in like little pigs scrunched up in warm hay beads. This was due to the fact that we had to delay our hiking for the five hikers who had been sent out towards the ranger’s station in search of our missing food. We yearned to go swimming in the clear streams, but our bodies told us otherwise. We eventually started hiking and remained silent throughout, because of our disappointment towards the packer who’d failed to complete his job. We stared at the rocky terrain, spotting golden, chubby marmots along the way. We climbed Muir pass without difficulty and camped a few miles ahead. We just lied on the soft dirt bed, huddled for warmth and stared into the clouds. Every now and then, a soft moan and complaint about hunger would sound, but it wouldn’t to be satisfied. We spotted small beds of snow close to our camp and prepared for a cold night. As the day grew darker, we boiled a steamy pot of water, threw in a bucket of spices, cut up pieces of slim Jim from our rations, and drank the greasy, flavorful concoction. I didn’t care about the clumps of Indian spices in the water nor the greasy, oily thin covering on the top of the pot from the Slim Jims. I just forced it down my throat. We went to bed early that evening, heads buried in our sleeping bags to protect ourselves from the chilly night. When we woke, our beanies, packs, and sleeping bags were coated with ice and small icicles dangled from the rocks. I just lay there, as the sun slowly thawed my frozen body and sluggish mental state.

Day 7: It was 11 AM when we finally saw the outline of our fellow packers who had gone back to ranger’s station to retrieve the remaining food and catch up with the group. This extra distance was a stunning 18 miles. We quickly rejoiced and celebrated by cutting loaves of bread into neat chunks and stuffing ourselves. What could’ve been a light snack back home was an enormous meal in the Sierras after days of starvation. Our stomachs had shrunk enough so that a few spoonfuls of oatmeal and 2 slices of bread made us feel full. Revitalized, we hiked onward. After hiking about half a mile, we were finally able to find vegetation and animals again. The strong scent of pine needles and persimmons hit me as we trekked back into the forest. It was downhill, and we were careful not to slip on the sharp rocks. Once we arrived at the ranger’s station we regrouped. Tension started to build as the adults argued with each other about continuing or stopping here. Barriers divided the adults. Despite their difficulties to comprehend with each other, we decided to enjoy the beautiful sight of the river trickling and weaving through the rocks and soft beds of pine needles. That night, we had our first dinner in two days, stale bread with onion soup and freeze dried beef stroganoff. In our eyes it was a feast, in another’s probably undesirable leftovers that would be thrown away. Everybody worried about the next day. It consisted of 3 steep passes and 12 miles of exhausting challenges. However, I felt invigorated, replenished with food and ready to take on the demands of the next day.

Day 8: We got up eagerly just before sunrise, ate our breakfasts, packed, and readied ourselves for the hiking ahead. We started promptly at 7 and marched through the trails like soldiers from the Revolutionary War. We’d crossed three passes by the time we finally arrived at Bishop Pass, the highest elevation in the area, 11,980 feet. On our way down the trail, we were able to spot civilization, mostly gardeners, tending to lemon, persimmon, and other fruit trees. We stopped just a mile short of the trailhead and the end of the trek. My head ached and I missed the wildlife from the other days of the trip. The sight of tents, civilization, and other people jolted me. I wasn’t ready to return yet to the world I had left 8 days ago. I would have to get used to living in man-made society again with its fabricated environment full of noisy imbalance and conflict.

Day 9: We packed our gear and heard our last “Tally-ho!” from our trail master. We were in anguish having to leave, yet joyful to return to our families. I tied my laces and headed toward the trailhead along with the troop, this time, as one group. I finally met up with my parents. They told me what a man I had become and I hugged them to death. My smile was as white as snow the whole day. I couldn’t help but fall asleep the whole 6-hour drive home. My dad must have carried me to my bed because suddenly, I awoke found myself lying on my cozy, soft bed. I felt as if it was all a dream, but I knew it wasn’t because when I took a shower, the water that entered the drain was black with dirt and scum from the 9 day trek.

I was overwhelmed by the amazing bonding I had developed with my scout brotherhood and family. This relationship was made up of barriers and mountains that Leonidas and his courageous army of 300 could not succumb to challenging. We watched the stars together, ate and gagged freeze-dried food together, and pushed each other through the 75 miles and 9 days as brothers and a family. I stared at the hollow black sky scattered with billions of stars, an outline of the Milky Way, and hundreds of constellations and planets. I was able to catch at least 30 shooting stars and thought to God, and myself about the nature of the world, humans, and aspects of everyday life, a priceless opportunity only granted to me in that position. The challenges and difficulties experienced on this journey now govern the way I treat others, deal with situations, and use everyday actions to benefit the community. I now direct my appreciation towards roles that hold the base and foundation of our society such as armed forces and teachers. I want to promote my learning experiences as a new way of life involving the coexistence of nature and man. That feeling when I had finished hiking the complete Sierra Nevadas was incomparable to anything I had ever experienced. The Sierra Nevadas had become another home to me. In my parents’ eyes as well as my own I had become a man. More importantly, before being engulfed in my backpacking trip, I had so many questions and problems concerning my life, religion, and family. I discovered my own answers during the trek, answers that I think I’ll keep for the rest of my life.

— By Benjamin Liu

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