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 in the Tahoe National Forest and pushed off in our raft, we paddled across and around the small body of water. But after a while we tucked away the paddles and drifted. Lake of the Woods is the 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. Above us eagles soared. One folded its wings and dove for a duckling but a Wood Duck with a plucky red crown beat the eagle with its wings until the bird-of-prey retreated into a 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 suggested to my husband that we should see at least one new landmark during our stay in the Tahoe National Forest. I recommended the Sierra Buttes for its elevation and proximity to the Lake. I thought we might make the trip on his birthday. We kept the option open when we drove into Truckee Monday to purchase supplies and enjoy a celebratory lunch of Ahi burgers from Burger Me.
It was too hot to drive to the shadeless Buttes so instead we ferried dust clouds along the unpopulated miles from 450 to 650, past Bear Valley Campground toward Sierraville. We decided to explore Dark Canyon because it sounded shady but the slanting sun scorched rotund hills, crisping golden grasses. Boulders erupted through an inclined road, slowing us to a crawl, depriving of us even the artificial breeze we had gained from our earlier speed. Irritated by the heat, we stopped to pull a couple of waters from the refrigerator, just as two juvenile coyotes reticently strode from the shade of a solitary tree. When they loped toward the sun, I felt guilty for disturbing them. We were headed away from base camp so we reversed and caught 540 outside Sierraville, then caught 15 for the bumpy ride to 12 and back to the Lake.
The next morning, I suggested that we start making our way to the Sierra Buttes. In truth, I felt there was no alternative to the plan. A gentle urging like a tide seemed to buoy me toward the Buttes. We packed everything we would need for an overnight in case the Land Rover broke down. Later Jeff would tell me that he considered off-loading the final 5-gallon water jug to lighten our load but decided against it.
The cloud cover mitigated the heat that had dominated the last few days days but temperatures rose as we rumbled toward Yuba Pass. Here and there we caught a distant glimpse of the Buttes through a forest brightened by yellow lichen. Near the junction of 12 and 49, we pulled over to chat with a ranger wearing a red visor. She gave clear 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 tiny motel with a single gas pump, store and café. I was hungry and Jeff wanted to share lunch so I climbed the stairs to the restaurant, swung open the screen door and stepped inside Bassett’s where I eyed the possibilities of ham and cheese, a burger with fries. The counter was immaculate and the pine booths held a polished shine. I struggled to focus on the menu. I felt myself drifting and heard a voice saying, we didn’t have time for lunch. Confused, I looked around. There was no one ahead of me whose order might delay ours. It was 2:20. We still had plenty of daylight. We weren’t that far from the Buttes.
I turned and walked out. I climbed into the Land Rover.
“You didn’t buy lunch?”
“We don’t have time.”
“Oh.” 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 we found a visible hiking trail but Jeff wanted to wheel so we continued on to a trail marked OHV only. After we skidded backwards down a portion of the hill, Jeff released air from the tires to gain traction. He continued to air down and gear down as the trail progressed. Our main obstacles were two miles of steep grade with alternating boulders and deep ruts that, when the wheels hit them, spewed silt. Again and again the engine whined. The wheels spun and clutched. Dust enveloped the Land Rover. Then Jeff guided the Land Rover over a final boulder and abruptly we arrived. No one else appeared to have chosen this route today. We prepared to enjoy a hike up to the Buttes overlook.
Then 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. 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 circle back again. Maybe he was gearing up for the final push? Maybe he was lonely?
Then he alluded to group of hikers with him–he said they didn’t have enough water.
“Do you need water? We have water.” My husband pulled sleeping bags, a compressor, a camp stove and a backpack off the refrigerator. 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. Also on that trail was a man from Israel who carried three gallons of water. The Israeli was strong enough to hike much faster than us but when he realized my friends and I had run out of water, he slowed and rested often, waiting for us to catch up so he could offer us a drink.
The hiker thanked my husband and me and hurried off.
He returned a few minutes later and told us 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 contact 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.”
The hiker disappeared and reemerged from the nearby bushes with a woman and four girls. We 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 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.
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.
They asked, “What about your day? What about your visit to the Buttes?”
“We are blessed.”
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.