Making a Difference in the Sierra Nevada (July 1968)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” ~ Dickens

Do these oft-quoted lines apply to 2018?  Probably. But they most certainly apply to 1968 – one of the most tumultuous single years in history, marked by events, both amazing and awful, that were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. These events played out on TV screens across the country (and the world), making them immediate and visible in a way they had never been before.

The Vietnam War dominated the news (and not fake news, it was all too real). In January, the Tet offensive started (It failed but marked a turning-point in the war. Not that we knew it at the time – we’d have to wait for the Pentagon Papers for that). In February, the village of Ben Tre was burned: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” In March, My Lai.  By May, the pathetic chicken hawks in Washington DC had lost interest (at least for a while) in sending other people’s kids out to be killed or maimed in a war we weren’t going to “win” and peace talks started. They would drag on for six more years.

In April, Martin was assassinated and, in June, Bobby. If they’d lived perhaps they could have helped ease or resolve some of the racial and social tensions still plaguing our country. Perhaps not. But they (and we) were denied the chance to find out.

In June, the Six-Day War broke out. In August, the Soviet Union crushed Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by demagoguery and police violence. In October, hundreds of protestors were killed and injured in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square. Also in October, 32 African nations boycotted the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City to protest South Africa’s participation. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, U.S. athletes and medalists, protested at the games with black power salutes. In November, Richard Nixon was elected president.

On the up side, Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker, which illuminated backpacking for the wider culture, was published and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced (released in 1967) helped launch the Summer of Love. The Civil Rights Act was signed in April and the U.S./Soviet Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in July. In October, the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails were both designated as National Scenic Trails, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed, and Redwood National Park was created by Congress. December saw the launch of Apollo 8, the first U.S. mission to orbit the Moon.

While all this was going on, my dad had been dead from cancer for 4 years, mom was pressing forward as a single mom running her own business, and my days in high school were a less cheerful version of the Lord of the Flies. I was about to auger in. As a last resort, mom reached out to the Big Brothers organization and, after a couple of false starts, I got matched-up with Jerry: a scientist (geology), backpacker, hiker, desert rockhound; a wonderful person with a great sense of humor and the patience of a saint. Doing outdoor stuff was second nature to him and I was welcome to come along. So, regardless of whatever else was going on in 1968, I will always cherish it as my year of outdoor firsts – first dayhike, first backpack (Marie Louise Lakes in the Sierra Nevada), first fish, first night sleeping out, first time at altitude, and (to be honest) first time really cold and miserable and bug-bitten – all things I’d spend the next 50 years doing as often and as much as possible. Jerry and I were only together for about three years before I went off to university and he took a job in another city, got married, and started his own family. But he – and the outdoors – were there when I needed them the most. Since then, going outside has been the gift that’s been both an inspiration and a refuge. So, looking back across these 50 years, it’s obvious that one good person, stepping-up in the right place and at the right time, can make a difference.

Marie Louise Lakes John Muir Wilderness
Jerry, Marie Louise Lakes, John Muir Wilderness, July 1968