My very first foray into the Yosemite backcountry occurred in The Year of Our Backpacking Naiveté, 2010. My friend Rebecca and I were avid day hikers at the time, but distinctly lacking in overnight experience, so we enlisted her college pal Laura, then a ranger at the park, to act as trail companion and erstwhile guide. Rebecca informed me that she often played dual roles: “Good Ranger Laura” was a mentor who offered helpful advice, and “Bad Ranger Laura” instead shared the sort of stories you should not share with two city girls overloaded with gear and underprepared for the wild. I hoped we’d encounter the former.
The three of us convened at Laura’s small cabin and the Good Ranger set about surveying the contents of our overstuffed packs, gradually wheedling us down to the bare necessities, plus an additional five to ten pounds of useless junk we each insisted on hauling for our one-night affair. Satisfied with our ridiculous loads, we turned to the topic of food and Rebecca dangled aloft a one-pound bag of cinnamon gummy bears she bought at a gas station, then proclaimed: “I have these.” To that bounty, we added a selection of fresh fruit, oatmeal, nuts, drink powders, candy, pudding mix, sandwiches, vegetables, rice noodles, and peanut butter, paying more attention to our imagined cravings than to anything verging on reality.
Since we were trekking in what I like to call “bearritory,” we needed a way to protect our food from hungry ursine wanderers. We opted to bring a single, small bear canister along for the ride. Despite the fact that only a small percentage of our edible hoard would fit inside, we figured that we’d plow through most of it before nightfall, and that we could stuff everything else in without issue. Full of the kind of innocent optimism that some might suggest was actually ignorance, and flush with the imagined fear of starvation, Rebecca and I added a few items to our cache. We may or may not have notified the Good Ranger when we did so.
Once we began hiking, the day was as perfect as any – full of waterfalls, lush forests, blue skies, and a nearly empty trail. We eventually set up camp on a granite bluff overlooking a deep valley. The Good Ranger began preparing dinner – an Indonesian noodle dish – as Rebecca and I snacked in the fading sunlight, marveling at our good fortune to land right there, right then. A day as perfect as any.
The lovefest continued when we dug into heaping portions of peanut buttery noodles, studded with chunks of carrot, potato, and onion. Small, happy sighs left our lips from time to time until we were silent with contentment, watching the last of the golden light slip behind some distant peaks. Then, the calm was broken:
“Um, there’s a lot more food left.”
This was Laura, pointing at a pot bulging with what looked to be dinner for twelve. As it turns out, she had used the entire bag of rice noodles in the dish and they were now growing out of control like some carb-laden Medusa. There was work to be done. Not only wanting to do my part, but also excited to take a ride back down tasty lane, I somewhat over-enthusiastically filled my bowl once more. It was delicious…until it wasn’t. I did my best to choke down the rest of my second helping and asked Laura if the remainder would fit in the bear canister.
No. No, it would not.
Rebecca begrudgingly took a second portion and spent an extraordinarily long time chewing through it, at one point mumbling something about how she’d rather be eating cinnamon bears. I’m fairly sure I shot her a dirty look. We searched for neighboring campers to pawn the leftovers onto. We considered digging a very large cathole, and offering them to Mother Earth. We thought about burning them in effigy. Spirits began to dwindle. Laura assessed the situation in more depth and realized that not only would the leftovers not fit into the bear canister, but also that we still had most of the food we set out with that morning. I halfheartedly worked my way around a plum, Rebecca tore into her gummies, and Laura continued our ongoing assault on the noodles.
Twenty minutes later, and things were looking grim. Somebody that certainly wasn’t me came up with what they felt was a brilliant plan: we would make the chocolate pudding mix and let it serve as a vessel for gummy bears, nuts, pretzels, and other items, and then we would kill two birds with one heavy, heavy stone. I shivered with fear.
Bad Ranger Laura took over the pudding proceedings with a sort of evil glint in her eye. She had crossed over to the dark side, and delighted in presenting us with the dessert sludge, these terrifying words echoing against the granite:
“You guys brought all of this food, and now you need to eat it.”
I felt queasy, and struck out into the woods to dig a hole in an attempt to lighten my load. Unsuccessful, I returned to a full pot of disaster pudding. Rebecca and I solemnly lowered our spoons and ate in painful silence, slowly picking at the mess for at least an hour, maybe more. The Bad Ranger watched in disgust, then eventually took pity upon our weary digestive systems and joined the gastronomic punishment.
We eventually ate enough that we were able to fit everything into the bear canister. Emotionally spent and digestively distraught, we called it a night. Hunks of almond and gelatinous bears occupied my nightmares throughout the evening; peanut butter haunted my burps the next day. Many years removed, we’re now able to joke about The Incident at Chilnualna Falls, but with a heavy heart, I must announce that there was one tragic, permanent outcome: I have not been able to smell, touch, or eat chocolate pudding since June 2010.