Fifty Peaks

by Dinesh Desai

On a Sunday in June, we drove to Mill Valley to climb Mt. Tamalpais. I was aware that parking could be a bit difficult on weekends, but I knew of several different parking areas. What I didn't know was that the Mountain Theater was having a play that day. There were cars everywhere looking for parking spots. Eventually, we found a roadside spot. We had no idea which direction to proceed to reach the summit. We scampered up a steep hillside and found a trail that led us to the top, but it dropped us into a deep valley first. On our return, we took Rock Springs Trail that would take us directly towards our car. It seemed to be a popular trail. There were quite a few people going the other way. Then, it almost became a mob. The play was over and the theater crowd was spilling out in all directions. We were salmon trying to swim upstream. Next time, I will be sure to check the Mountain Theater schedule.

Chalk Mountain, in Big Basin State Park, was our destination a few weeks later. We elected to hike it from Waddell Beach, north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1. It would be a much shorter drive for our friends, Nicole and Joe, who live in Santa Cruz, and Joy and I would get to hike a route that we hadn't hiked before. Unlike most park maps, Big Basin's does not show trail mileages. I had guesstimated the round trip at fifteen miles. We started hiking about 10:30 am and in another hour, came to a major junction. I rubbed my eyes and stared at the trail sign, "Chalk Mountain: 9.0 miles". With our late start, our mental state and insufficient water supply, this was a real blow. I have hiked upwards of twenty miles many a time, but each time I had prepared myself mentally. If I was planning to hike twelve miles, and half way thru I am asked to extend it another twelve miles, I probably couldn't do it. The outcome of many physical challenges depends mostly on one's mental state.

Scott Jurek is America's, if not the world's, number one ultra runner. His mental toughness is legendary. In 2005, only two weeks after clinching his seventh straight victory in the Western States 100-mile race, he ran the 135-mile Badwater race. Unlike most ultra races, the Badwater race requires running on pavement in Death Valley's extreme summer heat. Scott lives in Seattle, where the sun makes only fleeting appearances, and he almost never runs on pavement, but he was determined to put another feather in his cap. He arrived in Death Valley a week early to acclimatize. Still, on the race day, by mile fifty-five, he was done in by the heat and collapsed in a heap and vomited. He lay there as his wife and a friend in his support car looked on. Neither one of them left the vehicle to assist Scott. His wife later said that she had no doubt that the best course of action for them was to let him decide for himself. Scott told himself that he just had to run the remaining eighty miles as a new race, a race much shorter than the 100-milers he was used to running. He was forty minutes behind the front runner at the time, but Scott was unfazed. He not only caught up, he finished first. He set a course record, 24 hours 36 minutes, and beat the second place finisher by an astounding two hours. An unrelated but interesting fact is that Scott is a strict Vegan.

Back on the Chalk Mtn. Trail, we debated turning around. But I had seen wrong signage in the past in many parks and I doubted that my estimate could be so far off. I suggested a 2:30 PM turn around time and we pushed on. Lo and behold, we summitted at 2:35 pm! Our pace going uphill was about two miles per hour and we had stopped for lunch en route. The sign was off by a factor of almost two.

Sign showing 9.0 miles to Chalk Mountain

Maybe they are trying to discourage people from going to Chalk Mtn.

Hikers on the summit

Are we really on Chalk Mtn.?

In 1991, I had some sizeable losses. Of course, it wasn't the first time. In 1979, I almost went out of business. 80 to 90% of traders lose money every year. No wonder that the saying goes "a speculator who dies rich dies before his time". I recovered in the next couple of years, but the thrill of trading was wearing off, and trading is a lonely, stressful business. I had proved that I could trade the markets successfully. Joy and I wanted to do some long treks too. Even though I was able to take off time as I pleased, it wasn't easy to take off several weeks at a time. I had a desire to taste life in places other than the Bay Area. I had lived in Hawaii for six months in 1969 on a job assignment, but that was the extent of my living away from the Bay Area. I retired on my fifty-fifth birthday.

Sign at car wash reads 'Please Drive Around Car Using Vacuum to Wash'

Look at the sign. Are you scratching your head? Well, it is Pidgin or Hawaiian English. Here is the translation: To go to the wash area, drive around the car that may be using the vacuum.

Soon after I retired, we went on a three-week mountain climbing trip spanning six states. Later in the fall, we took up residence in the Palm Springs area. We spent five months there the first year and three the second year. We spent almost two months in Maui, too. We enjoyed the change and had many new experiences. Still, it turned out not to be our cup of tea. It was hard to make new friends and we felt like tourists, not connected to the community. But my retirement did help me undertake some long walks worry-free. A friend of mine and I walked 450 miles of California coast from the Oregon border to San Francisco. Of course, we couldn't have done it without the vital vehicle support provided by our wives. A year later, Joy and I and a few members of the organization "Coastwalk" walked the 700-plus miles from San Francisco to the Mexico border. In fact, almost every year since my retirement, Joy and I have undertaken some kind of an outdoor adventure. Joy did not participate in a few of the adventures for various reasons, but never because of her level of physical fitness. In fact, unlike me, she has a great deal of athletic ability. Joy's all time favorite was our 450-mile hiking and backpacking trip in Henry Coe State Park. (My web site has details of most of these adventures.)

When I was a student at Stanford, I used to participate in Friday night folk dancing. It was free and it was on the campus. I knew nothing about such dancing, but to my surprise I was able to learn the various routines quickly. Later, I became a regular at one or the other folk dance clubs. And that's where I met Joy. Interestingly, folk dancing did not become our common hobby, as Joy didn't appear to have the aptitude for it. But she could sing. Between the two of us, we could always do a song and dance routine! I did not folk dance much after our marriage, as family responsibilities took precedence. In the late eighties, when I looked for a folk dance venue, I found none. Most clubs had folded due to lack of interest. But all was not lost. After auditions, I was accepted by Westwind, a San Francisco-based high-level folk dance group. I wasn't of the same caliber as the other dancers, but they needed men. I worked hard, but the long drives and the rigors of hours of practice were too much for me. Even after six months, the director didn't think I was ready for a performance. I had bitten off more than I could chew. It was time to accept the reality. A year later, I joined Dunai, a group of Stanford students. I was twice as old as the rest of the members, but again, they needed men. The group's emphasis was on performing often. The director wasn't too demanding. I was able to perform several times in a two-year period and enjoyed the experience.

Dinesh in his folk dance group.

It is easy to figure out who does not belong.

In the late nineties, I learned about a local square dancing club. Since then, I have been a regular square dancer.

In 1998, Eric, our younger son, married his girl friend of many years. Sadly, they divorced a few years later. He met his present wife a few years later and they settled in San Jose. But grandchildren don't seem to be in our future. Our older son, Edwin, worked in the computer industry. He was burned out and joined the army in 2002. He served in Korea and then in Iraq. Joy and I will never forget the day in December 2004 when two army personnel knocked on our door to tell us that Edwin had been killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb. He was 36.

Chalk Mountain was our forty-fourth peak. We were within striking distance of our goal. We planned to invite friends to hike with us on our last peak climb. Nearby Black Mountain was ideal for the purpose. Its parking area could accommodate almost fifty cars. The hike was only five miles round trip with moderate elevation gain, and the flat summit had room for lots of people. On a beautiful Sunday morning in August, almost forty of us gathered at the parking area. But one of the forty was destined not to hike, and it was Joy. A spider had bitten her on the leg a few days earlier, and it was extremely painful for her to walk. She drove back home while the rest of us hiked to the summit and celebrated. It felt good to have so many friends join us.

Large group atop Black Mountain

Our quest ended on a happy note. Sunday was the beginning of the week and Joy still had six days to make the trek to the Black Mountain summit. She felt better by Wednesday and we climbed the mountain on Thursday.

Dinesh Desai
October 2011