Less As More
CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY 203 officially ends at Minaret Summit on the Sierra Crest, but the pavement continues, descending 1,600 feet into the headwaters of the San Joaquin River and ending at a junction with the John Muir Trail. There, in a canyon reminiscent of Yosemite Valley, is Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station. For years, between mid-October and early June when the road is closed, Dave Huebner was the winter caretaker at Red’s Meadow, ascending to the village of Mammoth Lakes only when necessary—on skis spanned with climbing skins—and threading through trees at dizzying, euphoric speeds on the return. The caretaker’s cabin is primitive, with a wood stove for heating and cooking. Electric power is unreliable where lines leap from tree to tree through miles of wilderness, so perishable provisions are kept in an old-fashioned cool box: a screened, bear-proof box cantilevered on the outside of the cabin, accessible from the inside by a glass door on the kitchen wall. In winter at Red’s Meadow, Mother Nature provides both fuel and refrigeration. And she often provides entertainment, as well as lessons on life itself.
Despite his isolation, Dave occasionally had visitors. One year it was a big butterball of a bear, a persistent forced-entry specialist. At other times it was my friends Todd and Nate, backcountry skiers who love remote solitude as much as Dave enjoyed their company.
One night a few years ago the three were startled from their sleep by the din of frantic, spine-chilling, wild animal grunts and shrieks coming from somewhere inside the cabin. Prudence suggested it might be time to shed the mummy bags and get up. The cacophony rose to hysterical levels, and the huddled three silently inched their way in darkness toward the kitchen, where the noise seemed to be loudest. But the kitchen light was in the center of the room’s ceiling, with a long, dangling, pull chain switch, invisible in the blackness. Someone took a deep breath and gathered the courage to lunge into the room, grope for the chain and pull. Half-blinded by the sudden brightness, three pairs of darting eyes frantically sought the source of the pandemonium. It was a pine marten, a cousin to weasels and badgers, bouncing wild-eyed off the inside walls of the cool box. The little critter had weaseled its way into the box and happily gorged itself on the food there. But now, even with a badger’s ferocity, it was too stuffed to get back out. It had been trapped by its own gluttony.
When Todd related this adventure to me a few evenings ago, I couldn’t help linking the pine marten’s dilemma to the lives of some humans. Certainly, in these topsyturvy times, many of us have been tempted into reckless pursuit of excess. Bungalow people, with their appreciation of a simpler, more resourceful life, are more likely to
enjoy freedom. The pudgy little pine marten was mercifully released. Even without rescue, within its cell there was plenty of food and drink for it to survive — but only if it was able to resist the allure of overindulgence.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
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