Tuesday, July 7, 2020

1984 - 26 Miles Across The Sea (The Myth of Kumbaya - Part 3)


Catalina Island Trail and backpacker
Catalina Island, California and backpacker on trail.


26 Miles Across The Sea

(40 Summers 40 Lessons Series)

As far back as 1971, I was camping with my family. We had been in the United States less than 3 years and our family friends Jerry and Suzanne Watts had invited our family to their annual summer vacation where they camped on the beach near Ensenada, Mexico.

I have spent all (and parts of) every summer since 1980 at camp (day and overnight). I have also had camp with leadership lessons throughout the year.

In 1984 was a long and wet winter where I recall Southern California had had a particularly low altitude snow. That means that we had those crisp nights and the grass was always dewy to the frost point.

I can recall running on many mornings where the snow on the San Gabriel Mountains seemed to be just above Altadena (maybe 1500 feet above sea level) and as you traveled east, Mount Baldy (4193’) had that great pure white snowy look with clouds in the fore ground.

My friend Chris and I decided that our schedule at Cal Poly Pomona could take on a one credit backpacking class that we had been talking about for the past two years.

“Coach,” as we called him met with the class for 8 weeks followed by a spring trip that was (scheduled for four days) out on Catalina Island. A long weekend where we had the opportunity to apply the cumulative lesson’s we had discussed and studied during the first 8 weeks of the class.

As each week wore on, we discussed the different styles of equipment and gear that where appropriate to backpacking. Coach and his wife, Mrs. Coach, would share stories about their family trips with their two sons and their Peace Corps experiences in China. Mrs. Coach always had some awkward story about life in China and was very old fashioned in her tales that often shifted to culturally inappropriate.

There were in fact two different classes that met on backpacking and the trip was a combined group at the end of the quarter (Cal Poly being a 10 week and finals quarter school).

We met in San Pedro one early Thursday morning to catch the ferry out to the island. As the song goes; 26 miles across the sea and the ferry took under two hours.

The group consisted of 17 students and the 2 coaches and of course, Mrs. Coach. We boarded the ferry and Mr. Coach and wife took off on their own boat to Two Harbors. I am not entirely sure, why we had not all stayed together and traveled on their boat.

It was early, it was crisp, and we headed to Catalina Island to backpack. Smiles and the scent of new back packing equipment emanated from our group. Chris and I had invested in a new two-man tent or as we called it “the condo with the Jacuzzi suite.” I, of course, was the pack mule for “the condo.”

The trip was uneventful in that we arrived, hiked out, and set up camp on a cove facing the mainland. Coach trudged along and applied the stories and lessons as the group moved up the coast. Mrs. Coach continued to over share some of her stories and was now on the third version of a woman who gave birth to her son while working in a rice patty.

It was not until Saturday evening that the campfire talk turned to Sunday mornings hike back to Two Harbors and the weather. As the other infamous island songs goes; the weather was due to begin “getting rough” the next day.

The El Nino pattern (that had begun to move northward that spring, had turned back south and we were due for another late spring event), would shower the southland and make sure that the snows were just above Altadena again.

The other coach and his son decided to hike back that evening to Two Harbors and bring Coach’s boat up to the cove where we were.

That morning, we woke and Evan (one of our classmates) had released the goat. Did I mention the goat? Early on the second day, we had climbed to the top of the peak at the northern end of the island and looked out on the Pacific Ocean; towards China. Mrs. Coach was not with us on that excursion however someone made mention that in the distance babies were being born on rice patty’s somewhere in the distance.

Did I mention the baby goat?

We began our trek down towards our cove and began a steady pace that picked up steam over the flat rocks and terrain. Evan, who was in the lead setting the pace started to dart towards a group of rocks and what appeared to be goats in the distance.  He leapt from flat to rounded rocks the size of a Volkswagen and I know I attempted to keep up.

As we approached the wild goatherd, he headed straight into the grouping, in a bounding motion, swept up a baby goat, and kept moving without slowing whatsoever.

It was a few minutes before we all caught up to him. We finally caught up where he stopped at the trail-head that took us back to our campsite cove. We were all impressed with Evan’s speed and agility and even more impressed with his goat scoping agility. He announced that he would keep the baby goat while its mother bawled in the distance calling for its release.

I can’t recall how long he kept the baby goat and for the sake of my story, some conflict emerged as we all encouraged him to return it to its mother. He held tight for a while. As we walked back into camp, Mrs. Coach caught wind of the baby goat and its noises. And again, a Peace Corps story. There seemed to be some unrest about the entire situation. Two of the other students confronted Evan about the goat; they mentioned issues on the hike in; they also brought up cooking duties and clean-up issues. It was general strife and conflict.

It was not until Mrs. Coach intervened that hands were shook, smiles emerged, and the baby goat returned to the hillside with mom. The baby goat kept turning back towards our camp and shrilled at Evan almost longingly.  The goats stayed around for most of the afternoon and into the evening only disappearing from sight as darkness settled on the cove.

My point in sharing this is that conflict happened on a short weekend school sanctioned backpacking trip and most of us would most likely never see each other again sometime after graduation. In addition, this conflict was just a small example of the eruptions that occurred throughout the course of the class and trip and often times in any camp setting.

The Sunday morning, we departed was amazingly clear towards the sunrise over the mainland. Looking towards the ocean side of the island that clued what the rest of the day would turn out to be.

We broke down the campsite and I returned the “condo with the Jacuzzi suite” back on to the frame of my secondhand Scout backpack that had I acquired from a neighbor. I had saved up for it and the entire trip from tips that I made having delivered flowers (in those days Flower Delivery could be profitable for college students) on the previous Valentine’s Day.

As we finished packing the boat was coming into the cove and anchored several hundred feet off the shore. We could see the other coach and his son hauling a dingy on deck and launching it into the water. We were all in our bathing suits shuttling items down near the surf, which at this point was gently lapping and surprisingly calmer than the night before.

We had planned how best to shuttle items out using the inflatable dingy and essentially having all the participants swim out in groups. Essentially, we planned an amphibious withdrawal from an island on what would be a tumultuously stormy afternoon and night.

The groups were assembled by 4 or 5 individuals and was predicated by the size of the dingy and how much weight as well as space for the equipment. We waded into the water with our packs above our heads just past the surf where the other coach’s son was holding the dingy in place. Shark jokes ensued until one of the other participants felt what we all believed to be a jellyfish and a panicked yell led to a collective seriousness.

As we neared the boat and the ground was no longer just below the surf, I felt the lapping begin to roll and I remember thinking to myself, I did not want to lose my pack that I had spent two days of flower delivery tips to purchase. That is when the rolling wave went over my head, I lunged towards the dingy, and the person next to me steadied my shoulder with their hand. I realized in that moment that Evan had a remarkably calming grip and perhaps that is why the baby goat had not strayed far.

By the time the last group made it onto the boat, I had already made my way into the pilot’s area to offer my assistance. I spent the bulk of the trip back at the helm and felt a sense of belonging to a group that just a few short weeks prior had no connection.

This is what happens in every group, team, or organization? 

A)    A previously unknown group with some semblance of topical knowledge brought together. (Forming)

B)        They strive towards a collective goal as knowledge gets passed back and forth. (Norming)

C)  Manufactured or arbitrary strife emerges within the team. (Storming)

D)     The team comes back together to overcome the difficult situation (re-forming to hold hands)

Moreover, the team (if healthy) moves on through the subsequent struggles or goals to perform and perhaps re-form. (Five of us did take another backpacking class the following year and conquered the Sierras where I took a cold dip into a stream during spring thaw and Evan used his calming grip and managed to catch a rabbit.)

As we stood on the cement pier in San Pedro not far from where we had started out a few days prior, no one seemed to want to leave. We had circled up and talked about the jelly, the goat, Mrs. Coach’s stories, and ultimately our successful amphibious withdrawal from an island, pride achieved with the unplanned storming (figuratively and literally).

I believe that we would have stood there for a bit longer to linger and have our moment to hold hands and sing Kumbaya had the actual storm finally turn from misty to pelting rain.

We all long to come together in our groups and tribes and achieve our collective goals. It seems an innate part of the human experience. I imagine our predecessors who roamed parts of the world and collectively survive. How those groups must have managed to camp each night, look up, hold hands, and give thanks for whatever protected them.

I thought to myself, “righteous treasure and knowledge that emerged from wise praise indeed.”


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