St. Pauli time

Mentioning the St. Pauli Inn in my last post tripped some pleasant memories of that small German eatery and a couple of adventures I had involving it. The inn sits right at the side of Highway 50 at about the 5,500-foot level in the Central Sierras. Originally called the Lucky Dime Saloon, it was built in 1910 for weary travelers on their way over Echo Summit. After a night of eating, drinking, brawling, and perhaps visiting one of the rumored ladies of ill-repute, tuckered travelers could get a few hours of sleep before tackling the final 2,000 feet or so to crest the spectacular summit and then put the brakes on the old Conastoga down into the Tahoe Basin.

The place has been the St. Pauli Inn since 1986, serving up some scrumptious German food along with your basic American dishes like hamburgers and French fries. Mainly a tourist stop, it’s a casual little restaurant and bar surrounded by tall red fir trees, with the American River boiling down the mountain right behind it. And it’s the only place I know of in this part of California where you can get authentic German cuisine.

About 12 years ago, Mr. Wren, me, and our two daughters (aged 38, 38, 13 and 12, respectively) went backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness, a magnificent, mostly pristine alpine wilderness area in the Eldorado National Forest not far from the St. Pauli Inn. We decided on four days – time to pack in, time to decide where to go and wander around once we were in, and time to pack out from wherever we ended up.

Mr. Wren loves hiking and fishing – he’s a true outdoorsman who should have been born 150 years ago so he could be Snowshoe Thompson. He’s hiked all over – Kilauea and Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Desolation many times, Mt. Rainier in Washington State, parts of the Bavarian Alps, countless unmarked areas around our home range, and south toward Yosemite and in the Coast Range of California. These days, because of an injury that disabled him, he can’t hike anymore, but he still spends most of his day outdoors, working in the garden. Gardening is a hobby he’s always loved, too – he’s a Master Gardener — but 12 years ago he was a hiking, fishing monster.

So off we went, the jubilant Mr. Wren and his three girls, headed up the mountain to the Twin Lakes trailhead near Wrights Lake. Us ladies shouldered packs of about 25 pounds each, including ultra-light fishing rods; Mr. Wren’s pack weighed closer to 60, and he had two rods with him, one for fly fishing, the other a casting rod. I was a bit overawed. He pooh-poohed me. “No problem,” he said.

We started right around noon, walking along a rather nice, wide dirt trail that wound through mountain meadows, under conifers and over great expanses of smooth granite, always meandering gently uphill. I’d done some hiking in the past – remind me to tell you about the time Mr. Wren talked me into climbing Pinnacles with him – but it had been many years since I’d done a long hike, and I’d never carried a full backpack before. My most recent hike, sans Mr. Wren, had been a 5-mile, fairly easy day hike with the local Sierra Club chapter to Lovers Leap (yeah, yeah, I went the back way to the top, not straight up the sheer rock face).

So this backpacking thing seemed pretty spiffy. I was striding along, warmed up, getting used to the feel of the pack on my back, enjoying the beautiful scenery, the bird-song and the fragrant, fresh air while I tried to ignore my swelling fingers. The girls were chatting and laughing as we followed Mr. Wren’s huge strides (he’s 6’2”) and trotted now and then to keep up.

Then the nice trail petered out. We were standing in the middle of a true wilderness, nothing but mountains in all directions, lodge pole pines and fir trees, swaths of the gray-white granite I would come to know intimately before it was all over, and the hot sun beating down on our heads from above. I was glad for that neat little ball cap I’d bought just before we left.

Mr. Wren called a break, and we all took our sweaty packs off and stretched a bit while he consulted his raggedy USGS survey map. The girls broke out the slabs of chocolate we’d brought along for energy emergencies.

“We’ll head for Grouse Lake,” he said after a few minutes. “Great fishing – rainbows, browns, maybe some goldens. It’s not too much further, but it’s a little climb. Not too bad.”

Note to self: When Mr. Wren says it’s a “little climb,” question him closely. Remember Pinnacles.

By this time, I was thinking how nice it would be to sit on a rock, fish and let my legs, which were beginning to yelp a bit and feel sort of rubbery, rest. The idea of fresh-caught trout for dinner sounded really good, though. Mr. Wren pounded off, pointing yonder at the mountain (I swear he yodeled), and the girls and I figured out how to buckle our packs back on by ourselves. This involved sitting down, skootching our butts up to the packs backside first, working our arms through the straps, standing up and then buckling everything. We did this for the practice. You know. Just in case we needed to know how or something. We took off after him.

Mr. Wren’s “little climb” was quite a dilly. There was a trail again, but now it was narrow, maybe 8 inches wide. It wound between massive boulders as it went steadily up and up. Just as dusk was falling, we’d reached a level, sort of wet meadow area but still had some way to go to make Grouse Lake. We stopped for a rest, discussing whether to keep on and if it was sensible to try to reach it in the dark. I was tipping my water bottle over my mouth – the girls had gone rather quiet – when I heard a low, building hum. A single mosquito whined past my ear.

“Time for the Skin So Soft,” said Mr. Wren cheerfully as the hum grew louder. I flapped my hand at another mosquito.

“Mom! They’re all over!” the 13-year-old squealed, and a moment later, we were all slapping madly at a huge swarm of mosquitoes and rubbing slick handfuls of Skin So Soft lotion all over every exposed surface of our bodies. Since we were wearing shorts and T-shirts, there was a lot of it to cover.

It was soon apparent that either these particular, very hungry, Desolation mosquitoes were immune to Skin So Soft – and in fact, were rather fond of the scent, which must have been the equivalent to hollandaise sauce to them – or the legendary Avon product’s mosquito-repelling power was nothing but a cruel urban myth. Either way, this was not a pleasant way to find out. And the sun was nearly gone. Rather than run, screeching up that treacherous goat trail in the dark, we whipped out the sleeping bags and ground pads, found a relatively dry spot to lay them out, I tossed everyone packets of cheese crackers and little tins of potted meat, and we all beat a hasty and cowardly retreat into our down mummy bags for the night.

We were up at dawn. There was some general grumpiness as the girls wanted to eat chocolate for breakfast rather than gorp and fruit leather. The 13-year-old grudgingly opened a tin of Vienna sausages, promptly decided she hated them and left me figuring out what to do with a full, opened tin. I ate them. We didn’t linger, in spite of everyone but Mr. Wren being rather stiff and sore. I wanted coffee desperately, but I sure didn’t want to hang around long enough for the mosquitoes to discover we were out of our protective cocoons. Soon, we were on the trail again, which started climbing even more steeply than before. I was glad we hadn’t attempted it in the dark.

About two hours later – well, an hour and half for Mr. Wren, who’d already shed his pack and was casting happily for trout – we reached Grouse Lake, which sits at 8,412 feet above sea level. It was a beautiful, secluded little lake, surrounded by forest with a shore of granite boulders and gravel. We decided to spend the day and the night there. We set up camp – basically laid the sleeping bags out and piled the packs in the little cleared campground – and I made coffee in a camp-pot over the single burner camp-stove and had my fix. Then I joined the others and wandered around the lake, attempting to catch trout on little silver Castmaster lures without luck and untangling the girls’ lines for them.

As the day progressed, more people arrived at the lake, but most were passing through on day-hikes – a feat that amazed me at the time. I was glad for the rest-day, personally. I felt good but I was tired, and I’d thought I was in fairly decent shape. But these people must have been taking that twisty little uphill trail at a trot to be able to get there and then all the way back down to their cars before nightfall. Uber-hikers.

We ended up with a trout-less dinner that night. Mr. Wren had caught scads of them, but they were all tiny things and he threw them back, laughing and telling them to be more careful next time. He loves fish as much for the fun of catching them, giving them a little talking to and throwing them back, as for eating them. We dined on Mrs. Grass’s Instant Vegetable Soup instead, with crackers, trail mix, granola bars, dried fruit and of course, hunks of chocolate. For energy.

After a blessedly mosquito-less night – I fell asleep trying to spot satellites among the (heheh) billions and billions of stars with Mr. Wren – we were up at dawn again and off to the next destination, Smith Lake.

There was more climbing. More twisty trail maneuvering. By this time, my muscles were in full-scream mode from the first day’s hike. For some reason, really sore muscles don’t hit me for about 36 hours after being insulted. But I walked through them, finding that I needed to pay more attention to where I was putting my feet so as not to go tumbling down a rocky decline than my grumpy body. We were truly moving into steep mountains. The climb was difficult. There were many fewer trees and a lot more granite.

When we reached Smith Lake, at 8,700 feet, we were ready for a decent rest. Out came the fishing rods again, but this time I turned my pack into a back-rest and stretched my legs out. Mr. Wren and the girls tried their best while I dozed, but decided that the sun was too high now and the fish – brook trout in this pretty, small lake – weren’t hungry. Must have dined well on the local mosquitos, I thought. We dined ourselves – the usual, plus chocolate (for energy) – and Mr. Wren got the map out again.

“I think Hemlock Lake is just a little way from here,” he said, studying the squiggly lines. I had no idea how he knew where anything was. Ever since we’d left that nice wide dirt trail two afternoons before, the trails were only marked by “ducks,” the little rock cairns that hikers make to tell other hikers they’re still on the “trail.” To me, the “ducks” looked like all the other piles of granite everywhere I looked. If not for Mr. Wren, I’m sure they would have had to send in a rescue party to find me.

“OK,” I said. “Hemlock Lake, here we come. Can we camp there?”

“Oh, sure,” he said. “Or we could go across the ridge to Twin Lakes.”

“Uh-huh.”

Off we went. The girls were enjoying themselves, but this backpacking expedition was no walk in the park anymore. There was some grumbling, which quickly stopped as we started climbing again. Eventually, we found ourselves in a wide clearing with a fast stream tumbling through the broken granite down the mountainside. Mr. Wren got the map out again. I wished mightily for a folding chair and caught my breath as he perused the map.

“Do you know where we are?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. We don’t have much further to go. Just a little climb.”

Remember note to self.

I looked around. We wouldn’t be going back the way we came, which was downhill. So was the direction the stream was clattering. On the other side of it looked to be nothing much but broken granite, some wildflowers and some gently rising ground.

On the last side, some distance away – facing west – there was a sheer, straight-up-looking mountain wall.

I laughed uneasily. “You don’t mean up there, do you?” I shaded my eyes and looked toward the summit. Nothing but high, blue sky beyond it. Cue the eagle scream, I thought.

“Yep, that’s the one! Oh, don’t worry, sweetie, it’s not as bad as it looks! There’s a trail all the way up.”

It is a testament to my love for Mr. Wren that I just swallowed and said, “OK.” I didn’t want to be a party poop and ruin his first Desolation adventure with the family along. But I have to say here that I’m afraid of heights. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been terrified of them. Put me on a kitchen stool and tell me to jump off, and I’ll wet my pants. The very thought of climbing that granite monstrosity – with a 25-pound pack on my back and nothing but my hands and booted feet — made my blood run cold.

But he was already striding off, yodeling for the girls, a big happy grin on his sweaty face.

Well, as you might have guessed, I climbed that sucker and lived to tell about it. I did about half of it all alone, as the girls and Mr. Wren left me in their dust. There was no trail, unless you can call the 3-inch ribbon of sandy soil between the dumpster sized boulders a trail. Each step, for my short legs, was like stepping up onto the back of a flatbed truck. Sometimes I went up backwards, boosting myself up on my butt, trying not to look down between my feet. Sometimes I heaved myself up with my arms, fingers clutching rock on both sides. I rested a lot. I cussed Mr. Wren and the day I’d married him, which he was fortunately too far ahead of me to hear. I reached a point where all I wanted to do was go back down – they could find me later, sitting by that stream, communing with black bears, my swollen, aching feet in the icy water. But I was even more afraid to go down, and besides, the top had to be close, right? I even dreaded reaching the top, because it meant tomorrow morning, I would have to climb down. Somehow.

Finally, I made it. I came up over the edge of the trail, dragging myself with my hands and scrabbling for toeholds, stood up, staggered a few feet, and stopped. Ahead was a tiny blue lake – more like a tarn – in a basin formed entirely of granite slabs the size of houses. The far lip of the tarn was even high than where I stood, and beyond it, featureless, clear blue sky. There were a few fir trees here and there – they were short but ages old, twisted by wind and snow, almost like Japanese bonsai trees. A pika chattered at me from some rocks nearby. There were no birds. There was no sound but the breeze in my ears and the sound of my own heart, pounding. My arms and legs were trembling. My whole body was trembling. Barely, I could hear Mr. Wren and the girls, out of sight, talking and laughing about the wonderful fish they were going to catch. If a gust of wind came, I was sure I’d fall right over. And I was deeply, coldly furious. I could have fallen, I thought with a wild surge of self-pity. They’d never have known! I could be halfway down the mountain, broken and bleeding to death! And they’re too busy fucking fishing to even wonder where I am!

I found a boulder far enough from the edge of the drop-off for comfort and low enough to clamber up on, shrugged myself out of my pack and got a cigarette out of it with shaking fingers. I sat down and stretched my beaten legs out. I lit up the smoke. Took a drag, forcing myself to calm down. After all, I’d done it, right? I’d climbed the highest thing I’d ever seen. I hadn’t fallen, hadn’t killed myself. Well, yet. There was nothing to worry about. And then I looked out, straight ahead.

My breath caught in my throat and tears sprang to my eyes all over again.

In the time it had taken me to climb my mountain, the sun had nearly dropped behind the mountains to the west, casting them in a shaded series of silhouettes, one beyond the next beyond the next until they stopped, unspeakably far away, with a gap and then a little ridge I knew must be the Coast Range on the far west side of the Sacramento Valley. Beyond them was the Pacific Ocean. I couldn’t see it, but way up on my mountain peak, looking at the blues and purples and golden-rimmed mountains falling down and down and down, I knew it was there.

It was the singular most incredibly beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life – and probably ever will.

I smoked my cigarette and wept at the beauty of the world spread out below me, watching the sun go orange and the sky go salmon and pink and purple, watching as the night drew down on that high glacial tarn with its dancing small trees. After a while, I got up and made my way unsteadily over to Mr. Wren and the girls, who were splashing in the frigid shallows and deciding there must not be a single fish in that water. I wondered how in the world a fish could get up there, but I didn’t say anything. I just got the little camp-stove going behind a boulder, out of the wind, and tore open a couple more packets of vegetable soup. No fish tonight, either, but really, who cared?

The next day we climbed back down. I don’t remember a very much of it – I’m pretty sure I did most of it cautiously slipping from boulder to boulder on my ass. And we went on, all the way down, working our way out steadily with very few stops to rest, one eye always on the sun.

When we finally reached the trailhead and the parking lot, my feet felt like they were going to explode. I was sweaty, mosquito-bitten, scratched, sunburned and filthy from four days without anything that could be even jokingly called a bath, exhausted and so hungry I was sure I could tuck into a whole roasted horse, if only someone would cook one. And I was deliriously happy, still high on that one, amazing view.

We heaved the packs into the back of the van. We all climbed in.

“How about we have some dinner at St. Pauli’s?” asked Mr. Wren, tired and smiling with the sheer joy of accomplishment.

“Oh, god. Go!” I said.

And so a half-hour later we dragged our exhausted butts into the St. Pauli Inn, asked to sit outside on the back deck for dinner if they didn’t mind, because we were sure we stank to high heaven, and tucked into the most delicious meal of my life.

And you know what? I don’t even remember what I ate.

*The photo is one I shot of Mr. Wren on an expedition two years later into Desolation to Lake of the Woods, done in early July. Yes, he talked me into it again. He’d been walking along in his hiking shorts and boots on top of the late June snowpack when he suddenly broke through at the base of a tree and ended up thigh-high in the snow. He laughed himself silly. I sat down and took a rest. It was chocolate, I believe. Energy.

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4 Responses to “St. Pauli time”

  1. Blowing Shit Up With Gas Says:

    Nice post, Wren. There’s nothing like an awesome meal after a huge trek like that.

    The mosquito part reminded me of an awful camping trip I took once to Assateague Island (close to Ocean City, Maryland).

  2. I would have divorced him immediately. But congrats on your survival so far.

  3. Dragon Laugh Says:

    Ah, the good ol’ days. I remember that trip, although my own memories are generally not so great- what sticks with me the most is those damn mosquitos. that was THE worst mosquito experience I’ve ever lived through, seriously. I think that first night I got about two hours of sleep. Maybe. Next time I go to that particular lake, I’ll remember to bring not only a tent, but a flamethrower as well…

    Ah well, I’m sure that while we weren’t being steady drained by the lil suckers (heh, I crack me up) I had a wonderful time.
    I’m hoping to do some backpacking in Desolation again this year – but not to THAT lake. You couldn;t get me to go to THAT lake again with a gun pointed at my head. Damn mosquitos…

    Beautiful blog, in any case. 🙂

  4. gardenin' guy Says:

    Oh, heavens! I had such a joyful memory burst when I saw lil ol’ me standin’ there. I could almost hear John and Carrie cackling with glee. Now that’s a trip you should write about some time. Going up in Freakin’ JULY and having snow packed six feet above the ground I usually camped on. Never before nor since have I seen Lake Of The Woods even half so full of ice and snow. Oh, and Dragon Giggle, uh, I mean Laugh, I seem to remember you and your sis spending most of your time engaged in sisterly banter such as, “I only brought it because you said YOU would carry it the second day!! I hate liars!” Ah, yes. Can you feel the love? Beautiful story, my little bird.

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