"Really Grandpa? I can come?"

"Yes, but you need to follow the rules."  He put his hand up and started counting on his fingers. He raised one finger. "We leave the campsites cleaner than we find them. Sometimes you need to clean up other people's messes."

He raised a second finger. "Every time you need to do your business, you need to dig a deep hole. When done, you need to pack it with dirt. Finally, you need to cover up the area so it looks undisturbed. The last thing I want to see is a Charmin forest" 

He held a third finger up. "You carry everything you need for a week. No one else will be able to do this. This is a lot of work. Do you still want to come>?"

I said, "Yes! Yes! I'll follow the rules. I promise!", while crossing my heart with both hands.

I was six. My twin cousins, Sherry and Kerry, were 7. Cousins Julie was 11 and Ricky was 13. My grandparents were in their sixties and they decided to take the lot of us backpacking. They wanted us to experience nature, and they knew their daughters (our mothers) would not facilitate this. They wanted us to learn to do without, overcome hardships, and learn to catch, clean, and cook our own food. They decided to take us to the Tyees for a week.

Before the trip, Grandma previewed our backpacks. "Everything you bring should have multiple uses." She held up a pair of my pants. "What are your multiple uses?"

I replied, "They'll keep me warm. They'll keep the bugs off of my legs. In a really bad situation they could be used to start a fire." I guessed at the fire one. I had a thought and added another reason, "and I can dry my hands on them!" I was particularly proud of that last one.

Before the trip, my dad gave me my first pocket knife. It was little and my name was engraved on it. I loved it.

On the car ride to the trail start, we listened to our grandparent's lecture.

The Tyees are a series of six lakes along the John Muir trail in California. The John Muir trail extends 2650 miles, from Mexico to Canada, through the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It's lowest point is 4050 feet, which is about a 1000 feet higher than the valley you live in. Mt. Whitney, at 14500 feet, is the highest point on the trail and the highest point in the contiguous United States."

"What's contiguous?" I asked.

"In this case, it means that all the states that are touching each other. What states does it not include?"

I thought about that for a while and responded with "Hawaii because it's an island. Alaska?" I asked. I was only six.

"Yes, Alaska."  Grandpa continued the lecture. 

We will hike to the first lake on the first day. Then we'll stay camped for at least a day. The altitude is a lot higher than any of you are used to. After a day or two, we'll decide whether or not to go higher.

We made it to the parking lot at the start of the trail. I was super excited. With twelve pounds on my back, I prepared to start the hike. Grandpa paused us.  "Okay, there are more rules."

"The trail is steep and it might be hard to climb. Stay on the trail. Never take shortcuts. Taking shortcuts ruins the trail and you're more likely to find a snake."

I shivered at the thought of snakes. Grandpa continued, "Don't get too far ahead of the group." He paused again and then said, "If you refrain from talking loudly, you might see some cool animals. There are plenty of raccoons, deer, lizards, snakes, squirrels, and birds in these mountains." He paused again and said with more gravitas, "And whatever you do, Beware of the Vicious Ajar."

Kerry asked, "How do we know where the trail is?"

I asked, "What's a vicious ajar?"

"We'll teach you how to recognize the trail. And I'll show you a vicious ajar when I see one."

Grandpa sure did know how to retain the attention of grammar school kids. We kept pointing things out and asking if it was a vicious ajar. 

Kerry found a bush that abutted the trail. There was a snake inside it. "Surely that is a vicious ajar," I thought." 

"Grandpa, Grandpa, look! Is that a vicious ajar?"

"No. No, that's a snake." He stared at us and I got the impression he thought we were dunces.

After a while Grandpa bounded up the hill to start setting up camp. That's what he said. I think he wanted to go fishing and get away from all the questions.

We didn't find a vicious ajar that day. 

We spent the second day at the first lake and the camp. 

I learned how to catch, clean, and cook fish, but I never managed to learn to eat fish. I learned how to start and put out fires.  I learned how to bury my business and how to set up a tent. I learned how to do laundry at a campsite. I didn't learn what a vicious ajar was. 


Over the course of the week we found lizards, salamanders, raccoons, foxes, skunks, and falcons. Each time we'd ask, "Is that a vicious ajar?"

"No. I'll show you one when I see one. I thought for sure we'd have seen one by now."

We didn't see a vicious ajar on the trip. 

When we walked into the parking lot my grandfather called us over and pointed. I looked around, but all I saw were blue shards of broken glass shimmering in the sunlight.

Grandpa pointed. "That's a vicious ajar."

"Oh. Grandpa." I rolled my eyes. "I thought it was going to be an animal, not a broken jar."

"Remember what I said about leaving the wilderness cleaner than when you found it? And that sometimes we need to clean up other people's messes?"

"Yes," we quietly answered.

"Good. Carefully start picking up the shards and putting them in this bag."