In the late Spring/Early Summer of 1990, a Boy Scout Troop went on a backpacking trip. By Saturday evening, they discovered that one boy in the Troop was missing.
The Troop was my own, and the missing boy was me. When I reflect on the 35 years I spent in the Scouting program, particularly in light of the abuse lawsuits and bankruptcy, I come back to this moment time and again. What is coming out in the Courts are issues of abuse, and thankfully I was not a victim. But it does strike me as irrefutable that Scouting itself was often a dangerous program.
The aim of this weekend backpacking trip was to earn the San Jacinto Peak patch by summiting via the Devils Slide Trail, which begins in Idyllwild’s Humber Park. From there, we had the opportunity to ride down the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for free1. The itinerary was simple enough. We were given photocopied maps of the area (more on this later) that showed where we were going and camping.
The original plan, somewhat unbeknownst to us, was to backpack to Wellman Divide, drop our packs, hike to the summit, then head down to camp.
The plan did not make it to my map. I still have it stored somewhere in boxes, but my map was marked with Little Round Valley, not Round Valley. This careless oversight had a big impact on my later decision-making.
The backpacking did not begin well. The Devils Slide Trail was more strenuous than we thought. We figured it would take a couple hours to hike the 5.5 miles from Humber Park to Wellman Divide, but our pace was at least double that time.
The Troop also broke one of the biggest rules in hiking – dividing into two groups. This is where I should mention a couple adults who figure greatly into this story. Both are still around, and I debated the merit of calling them out by name. Still, I decided to give them some cover, so I introduce you to Adult 1 and Adult 2.
The two hiking groups, of course, were separated by stamina. The first group began to separate. They did this thing that is always annoying where they get far enough ahead, then they stop to rest when the slower group approaches. Then when the slower group gets there, obviously tired, the faster group begins to go again.
I was in the slower group for the most part. I grew up with somewhat severe asthma from a combination of second-hand smoke and the awful air quality of the San Bernardino Valley in the 1980s. My parents had quit smoking though, and the asthma attacks had stopped, but I was clearly still rebuilding my lung capacity. My Stepdad, who had quit, was doing much the same. Some of the others in the group were out of shape or had not built up their hiking legs to make this trek.
I was a determined kid though. I took it personally that I was in the slower group. That wasn’t okay with me. In addition, my “hiking buddy” was Adult 1, so I also felt I needed to keep up with him. At this point, the faster group decided they had lost their patience, and hiked on without any regard for the slower group.
For a while, I kept up. Within an hour though, I was struggling. I had a unique situation where I was caught between groups – too slow for one and too quick for the other. At a couple of turns, I did tell Adult 2 that I was cramping up. I assume I didn’t have enough fluids in my system. I was probably 10 feet from the group, then 20, then I could just see them above. Adult 2 asked if I was there, but his concern wasn’t that great – he trekked along as I needed a break.
At this point, the fast group was out of sight and the slow group had to have been somewhere behind me. I was hiking alone. This didn’t worry me, in the sense that I was an introvert and a loner. I wasn’t scared. And I had a really good idea where I was.
The point where I became missing happened at Wellman Divide.
I clearly remember sitting on a resting rock to catch my breath at the junction. I knew one way led to the Summit and another way lead to the tram. Group 1 decided in isolation to not summit the peak and head to camp at Round Valley. This was not information I had. I knew we were to climb San Jacinto Peak and then camp.
So, in a fateful moment, I headed towards the peak. I didn’t feel alarmed by this, despite it being afternoon. I knew where I was, and where I was heading. I was between Groups 1 and 2, or so I thought.
Still, as I headed up the last stretch to the peak and great increasingly tired as the light was growing dim, I knew something wasn’t lining up. As the light was getting low, I asked one small group if they had seen Scouts backpacking. They had not. For reasons I don’t understand, that group was content to let me continue on. They were undoubtedly heading back through Round Valley and would have walked right past my Troop camped out.
At the same time, Group 2 pulled into Round Valley and found the group site. I believe it was my Stepdad who was first to say, “Where’s Tracy?” Group 1 indicated that he had fallen behind, but it was quickly noted that I wasn’t anywhere to be found.
By the time dusk had arrived, I knew I was going to have to do something. The peak, which was extremely close, was not a destination for the night. There was no chance to reach Little Round Valley. I was in the transition zone between pine forest and the tree-line. So I decided to stop right there for the night, putting a ground pad and sleeping bag right on the trail.
While I did wonder where Group 1 and Group 2 were for the night, and why I was still separated from them, I wasn’t scared. I knew where I was. I had numerous landmarks located on my map.
I was particularly taken my maps as a kid and studied them. So my treat for the night was an incredible view of the Coachella Valley. I could trace major highways like Interstate 10 and Highway 111, from the City of Palm Springs all the way to the Salton Sea. They were miles and miles away, but they were immediately recognizable, and that brought me joy and comfort.
When I left for Philmont in late July, 1990, Adult 2 had much to say about me and backpacking. He noted that I wasn’t much of a hiker and that I would likely come back vowing to not do any hiking ever again.
It should be noted that Adult 2 had never been to Philmont himself. He was also talking about a 12 year old who had been in the Troop for 11 months. To cast judgment on a person who would become a teenager on the trip was shameful.
He always had that smug attitude about him, and I do feel that much of his condescension towards me had more to do with the fact that he saw me as a threat to the preeminence of one of his sons, who I might add, I beat later that year for Senior Patrol Leader and finished my Eagle Scout before him, despite joining a year later.
But that adult had me all figured out, so he thought. What he doesn’t know is that it wasn’t my last trip to Philmont, and by 1997 I was hiking a trek nearly twice the trail length in only 7 days. Or that over the years, I have put in tens of thousands of miles of feet on trail. In fact, I bet there are many single years that I hiked more than he has in the last 3 decades combined.
And I should point out, he was a clueless hiker himself. Adult 1 and Adult 2 thought it was a great idea to hike the Vivian Creek Trail on June 28, 1992, just hours after the Landers earthquake, which was one of the stronger quakes in Southern California history. Oblivious to the fact that aftershocks exist, including strong ones, they were on the steepest part of the trail when the Big Bear quake hit, and nearly got themselves killed for their troubles.
Adult 2 moved away soon after, and I have never seen or heard from him since. I still remember that smug look on his face talking down to me, and if I ever spoke to him again, I would have to give him a very un-Scout-like statement of: “Go Fuck Yourself.”
Adult 1 is still around
One year later, on July 19, 1991, another Scout Troop went on a backpacking trip they weren’t prepared for. 12 year old Jared Negrete got separated from the group, in another instance of a slow hiker being left behind. Jared was lost and has never been found. That could have been me.