Perhaps it was because we had been drifting that we were chosen for the mission on the Sierra Buttes. When we first arrived at Lake of the Woods and pushed off in our raft, we paddled across and around the small body of water. But after a while we tucked away our paddles, laid back on the bumpers and felt content to drift. Lake of the Woods in the Tahoe National Forest is a perfect place to believe that you don’t have a care in the world. Most of the time it is as slick as cobalt glass. We drifted and watched eagles circle overhead. One pulled its wings close and dove to snatch a duckling belonging to a Wood Duck. The duck struck at the eagle again and again with her wings. The eagle veered onto a nearby spruce where it waited and watched and later settled for the solemn capture of a small pink trout.
One day after we dove from the raft and swam and toweled off, I withdrew from my navigation bag, a map of the Tahoe National Forest.
“We should see at least one landmark we’ve never seen before,” I suggested to my husband and he agreed.
The Sierra Buttes caught my eye, first for their elevation—8587 feet–and second for their proximity to Lake of the Woods where we had set up our main camp and supply tent. A nearby gravel road, Route 12, appeared to provide direct access to the Buttes but the map was a bit vague so I couldn’t be certain. I hoped we would visit the Sierra Buttes on Monday, my husband’s birthday. It seemed a memorable way to celebrate—the Buttes appeared notable in a promotional photo set into in the TNF map’s margin. We kept the option open when we drove into Truckee Monday morning to purchase supplies at Safeway and eat a birthday lunch of Ahi burgers and a chocolate shake from Burger Me. In the Safeway parking lot, a chat with some locals produced a recommendation for a short trip to Prosser Dam. Along the way we passed the Truckee District Tahoe National Forest Ranger Station. I decided to get some help sorting out route information for the Buttes. The uniformed woman at the counter greeted me congenially.
“Sierra Buttes? They’re in the Packer Lake District. Let me call someone for you.”
She patched me through to the Ranger Station. The woman on the other end of the line gave me so many options for routes and trails that I forgot to ask her if Route 12 connected to 49.
When I rejoined Jeff in the Land Rover it was too hot to drive to the treeless Buttes. Instead we ferried dust clouds along unpopulated miles of 450 to 650 past Bear Valley Campground. On our way to Sierraville we turned off to explore Dark Canyon. Dark Canyon sounded like a cool detour but the name proved deceptive. The uphill grade burst with boulders that slowed us to a crawl. When we wearied of the glare and stopped to pull a couple of waters from the refrigerator, two juvenile coyotes reluctantly strode from the sparse shade of a lone nearby tree. We were headed away from base camp so we reversed and caught 540 outside Sierraville, then picked up 15 for the often bumpy ride over to 12. When we reached 12 we still had enough daylight left to follow it to Yuba Pass and confirm that it intersected with 49 and access to the Buttes.
The next morning, I suggested that we start making our way to the Sierra Buttes. I sounded casual and felt sort of drift-y but at the same time something inside compelled me to go. We packed up everything we would need for an overnight in case the Land Rover broke down.
Jeff would later tell me that he considered off-loading our final 5-gallon water jug to lighten our load, but decided against it.
The cloud cover that morning mitigated the heat which had dominated prior days but the temperature rose as we rumbled toward Yuba Pass. Occasionally we glimpsed the Buttes through the thickly treed forest brightened by a yellow moss.
Near the end of 12, we pulled over to chat with a ranger. She was tan with long brunette hair, a red visor, and five earrings. She turned out to be the sort of official one hopes to find in the Tahoe National Forest and amiably provided directions to the Buttes. “In that vehicle,” she affirmed, eyeing the Land Rover, “you’ll be able to drive to the highest tier of parking. From there it will be about a 20-minute hike to the overlook.”
We jogged over 49 to Sierra City where we discovered Bassett’s, a small motel with a single gas pump, store and café. I was hungry and Jeff agreed to share lunch with me. While he waited in the Land Rover, I eyed the possibilities of ham and cheese, chicken fried steak with gravy, a burger with fries. The counter was immaculate and pine booths held a polished shine. I was sure the food would be good. But I felt myself drifting and heard a voice telling me, we didn’t have time for lunch. I looked around. There was no else in the restaurant, no one ahead of me whose order might delay ours. It was 2:20. There was still plenty of daylight left. We weren’t that far from our destination. Nevertheless, I left the restaurant.
I climbed back into the Land Rover.
“You didn’t buy lunch?”
“We don’t have time.”
“Oh.” Jeff sounded as confused as I felt. It was unusual that I did not return with something.
We wound past signs for Packer Lake and up to the last passenger vehicle parking lot. There was a visible hiking trail head but Jeff wanted to wheel so we continued on to the trail marked OHV only. We were a highly modified and heavily laden Land Rover. After we skidded backwards down a portion of the hill, my husband released air from the tires to gain traction. As the trail progressed, Jeff continued to air down and gear down. Our primary opposition was two miles of steep grade populated with boulders and deep ruts that, when the wheels hit them, spewed silt. Again and again the engine whined as our wheels spun and clutched and dust enveloped the Land Rover. Then Jeff guided the Land Rover over a final boulder and abruptly we arrived in the parking lot. No one else appeared to have chosen this route today. We breathed deeply and prepared to enjoy an up-close view of the Buttes.
A hiker appeared from seemingly out of nowhere. He was tan and slim, wearing lose pants and a wide-brimmed hat. He passed us as if with purpose, as if destined for the peaks. Then he wandered back. He asked about the drive up, whether it was hard. We said it was. We thought he was just making conversation.
He seemed to set off, then circled back again. Maybe he was gearing up for the final push up to the peak. Maybe he craved conversation. Then he alluded to group of hikers with him. He said they didn’t have enough water.
I snapped to attention. “Do you need water? We have water. Honey, would you get him some water?” My husband pulled sleeping bags, a compressor, a camp stove and a backpack off the refrigerator and opened it. Relay-style, we conveyed four bottles of chilled water into the hands of the stranger as I related to him how, many decades ago, I found myself inadequately supplied with water for a Yosemite hike. I was with a friend and her young daughter and also on that trail was a man from Israel who carried three gallons of water. The Israeli was strong enough to hike without resting but when he realized my friends and I had run out of water, he rested often, waiting for us to catch up so he could offer us a drink.
The mysterious hiker thanked my husband and me and hurried off with bottles of water pressed to his chest. As he disappeared I called after him, “We have more water if you need it.”
When he returned, he told us that he was part of a church group and that the hikers with him were four young teenage girls and that one of them was struggling and had been since they set out. He held a short-wave radio in his hand and walked in circles as he attempted to connect with a member of his party who planned to drive up the hill to pick up the struggling girl. His manner was so unperturbed that I didn’t immediately grasp the urgency of the situation. But when he repeated that the girl was struggling, I asked, “Would you like us to drive her down the hill?”
The hiker did not seem surprised by my offer nor did he immediately accept. He said, “One of us, an adult counselor, would need to ride with her.”
“Of course,” my husband and I replied in unison.
The hiker disappeared and reemerged from the nearby bushes with a woman and four girls. We all made introductions. H., the girl who struggled, was able to form words but emitted them slowly, as if through oatmeal instead of air. The heat-bred brilliant scarlet of her cheeks and forehead bled onto her scalp beneath her fine blond hair.
“Do you need more water?” my husband asked the woman, Tanya. She showed us the tiny amount they had left in one camelback, which she planned to ration on their hike back down the trail. My husband pulled out our five-gallon jug and refilled all the camelbacks.
Nodding at us Tim and Tanya asked, “What about you? Will you have enough water for yourselves?”
“We’ll be fine,” my husband and I replied.
Then we all stood in a circle and held hands and Tim offered a prayer in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Afterward Tim and Tanya told us they had been praying for help when we appeared.
Then they asked us, “What about your day? What about your visit to the Buttes?”
“We are blessed,” we replied.
Tim and H. got into the back seat of the Land Rover. Tanya and I hugged before she set off with the remaining girls. To our amazement, the ride to the lower parking lot was as smooth as the lake.
It was almost as if we were drifting.