It’s the journey that matters the most

It’s the journey that matters the most


April 24, 2014


From the desk of Dr. Voorheis


When I first started to write this blog I said that some weeks would be about veterinary medicine and some weeks would be more personal. So far, I have given you one personal introduction and the rest have been about medicine. The medical topics are vast, so much so that I could pick a new topic every week for years and never run out of topics. But this week I’ve decided to switch it up a bit and talk about something near and dear to me. Not that veterinary medicine isn’t near and dear to me mind you, but it’s time for something more personal. So I’m going to share with you one of my greatest journeys in life….hiking.

 I have been hiking and backpacking periodically most of my life. I say periodically because I don’t do it every day or every week. As I started to write this, I thought I better give some credit to where credit is due, to my parents. Some of my earliest childhood memories were spending summers and weekends in Big Bear Lake, Ca. My parents initially took us to an old vacation lodge where they rented a small cabin. We used it as a “base camp” for all kinds of mountain adventures like fishing, hiking and miniature golf. Lots of childhood memories that I still carry with me today. I was not privy to their grand plans at that time as I was only about 6 years old. In the summer of 1961 or 1962 (foggy memory), my parents purchased a lot in the Moonridge area of Big Bear. Shortly after that, my Dad started construction on his project. He built a vacation home for us (mostly all by himself) working weekends and spending all his free time there. All the Voorheis kids had jobs to do associated with the cabin. Mine was picking up nails I think. I’m sure my older brothers had other jobs that were more important. It was there I developed a love for the mountains that has never ended. My mom used to “make us” go for a walk with her every night. At that age, maybe 6 or 7, the main features of those walks were chasing and trying to catch lizards.  It was also at that age that I took one of my first long hikes. Without telling my parents where I was going, I walked to the gas station to buy a soda. That station was on the main street that travels around Big Bear Lake. The house in Moonridge was probably about 2 miles from that location one way. I was walking back home savoring my orange soda when the family station wagon screeched to a halt in front of me. Seems my parents were quite concerned about my whereabouts. I got my hide tanned for that one. Later adventures included me climbing to the top of a fire lookout station located on the mountains surrounding the Moonridge area. That lookout station is/was  in or near the Bear Mountain Ski Resort area, although it wasn’t there then.

 When I started to write this particular blog I looked for a quote by someone who could sum up my love of hiking and the mountains better than I could. After a long search, I found it. “There is no exercise so beneficial, physically, mentally, or morally, nothing which gives so much of living for so little cost, as hiking our mountain and hill trails and sleeping under the stars”. – Will Thrall (explorer, historian, and author)

 I started hiking and backpacking in earnest in the early to mid 1970’s. My oldest brother Jeff was also into hiking and backpacking and many of my hikes were done with him. It enabled brothers to forge a bond that is still strong today. As an avid reader (some things don’t change) I stumbled across two books that influenced my enthusiasm for hiking tremendously. Written by the same author, John W. Robinson, these two guidebooks, “Trails of the Angeles” and “San Bernardino Mountain Trails” were guidebooks for hiking our local mountains. These books were and still are far more than instructions for where to find the trailhead and which direction to turn at the fork in the trail a mile from the start. Mr. Robinson often gives a brief history of the area you are hiking in and then proceeds to describe the trails in ways that make you want to experience it. These discussions of the history, the flora (plant life) and fauna (animals) hooked you into wanting to walk it. I got hooked and if John Robinson thought a place was worth visiting, I tried to walk it. Most of my early hikes and frankly most of my hikes today are still in the same places. I have visited or walked most of the eastern range of the San Gabriel mountains. Most of my early hikes were spent trying to hike to the top of one of the local mountains. I have hiked almost all of them from Cucamonga Peak at the easternmost part of the range located in the Cucamonga Wilderness to Iron Mountain rising almost straight up from the eastern fork of the San Gabriel River. I’ve hiked Mt Baldy many times in all seasons and even once at midnight where we timed the hike so that we would arrive at Mt Baldy to see the sunrise from the top. I’m not recommending a midnight hike up to the top of Mt. Baldy by any means as there are too many chances for a mis-step or getting off trail. But my brother and I did it back in the days when we were younger and more foolish. Our local mountains hold a treasure of plant and animal life that we just don’t expect or are unaware of,  living safely in our suburban homes. The Cucamonga Wilderness is home to a herd of Nelson Bighorn Sheep. If you’re lucky, when you hike that part of the range you will see one or two, scampering away from you because they saw you long before you saw them.

 … In 1877, naturalist John Muir sampled our local San Gabriel mountains and described the range as “more rigidly inaccessible… than any other I ever attempted to penetrate”

 Fortunately, today we have good trails to hike into our local mountains, but they can be rather tough work at times. I still like to walk to the top of a hill or a mountain, but I don’t have to do that to enjoy the mountains. In fact, the most pleasant hike I take on a regular basis is the walk up IceHouse Canyon. The trailhead is literally 20 minutes from my house and within a few minutes I can be walking up a canyon I have walked dozens of times. The hike “ends” at the top of a saddle (amazingly called Icehouse Saddle), where you can sit and have a sandwich, or continue along one of 4 different trails to 4 different mountain peaks or canyons. I think the thing I like about this hike is that it feels so comfortable and it is so close. Yet very quickly, you forget about cell phones and all other trappings of civilization.  The first half of the hike is under the cover of alders and pines with a creek making noise on the right almost the entire first half of the hike. Then you enter the Cucamonga Wilderness where a permit is required and you hike up a south facing slope to the saddle. This hike is 7 miles round trip.

 I was in college for most of the 70’s and a portion of the early 80’s as well. As an undergraduate, studying like crazy to try to get the grades to become a veterinarian, my breaks from studying were often hiking with my brother. I should also mention the third member of our group, our friend Howard Boyd. Howard, a quiet man and dear friend of my older brother would hike everywhere with us. He too, never lost his love for the mountains. He passed away a couple of years ago, and I don’t venture into the San Gabriels without thinking of him.    


 Gradually, I began to accumulate some hiking gear, a day pack, a backpack and a good sleeping bag. This was the time of external frame backpacks, and I bought a JanSport external frame backpack which I used until about 5 years ago. I also met like minded friends in college who also hiked. It was with these friends that I was first introduced to hiking in the Sierras. We would take some weekend trips or spring break trips and go hiking into the Sierras. My brother and I would also begin to make the much longer drive into the southern end of the Sierra’s to hike and backpack. At one point, we hiked to the top of Mt Whitney. My biggest memory of that hike? I was cold, didn’t have proper gear, and wore socks on my hands for warmth. I look back on that now and see some poor choices.

 I completed undergraduate work in 1977 and had applied and been rejected from veterinary school. In those days California students had only one school in the country they could apply to at that time. It was UC Davis or nothing. I began work on an MS in Radiation Biology in 1977. I also reapplied to UC Davis for the fall of 1978. I made a deal with a dear friend. If we made it into veterinary school we would take the time and hike the John Muir Trail (JMT). Dr. Phil Solter and Dr. Dennis Voorheis received their acceptance letters into UC Davis in early May of 1978. The plans for hiking the JMT went into effect immediately.

 Some of you may not know just what the John Muir Trail is and since the rest of this blog is devoted to it, a brief description is in order. The JMT runs 212 miles from the top of Mt. Whitney to the floor of Yosemite Valley. The trail passes through some of the most dramatic scenery in the country starting at the highest point in the continental United States and traveling up and down mountain pass after mountain pass, through meadows, past pristine alpine lakes while walking at dizzying elevations. Since one cannot just start at the top of Mt. Whitney, we can add the 10.3 hike from Whitney Portal to the top of Mt Whitney, making the total distance of the JMT hike 222 miles.

 There were four of us that undertook that hike in late July and August of 1978. Phil, his wife Leellen, her cousin (whose name escapes me at the moment), and myself all started the journey together. We carried heavy packs and gear. All of the food for a 22 day hike. It was meticulously planned.  We started in great spirits as all hikes of this magnitude do. We made great time, and the early hike was marked by two significant events. The the first was about 40 miles into the trip with a night spent at Rae Lakes. Phil and I had caught our limit of trout that night. We cooked it and I will say to this day that it was the best fish I have ever eaten. It was that meal that brought unwelcome visitors to our campsite that night. We were relatively experienced backpackers so the meal was cooked about 50 to 100 yards from our campsite. In the days before bear canisters, we hung our food in between trees. Nonetheless, the odor of that fish drew the attention of a bear and he visited us that night. There is nothing like the feeling of a bear outside your tent at 2:00 am. Lots of yelling and screaming and noise drove our friend off with no damage to any of us other than elevated heart rates. The second event came about another 40 miles into the hike. So now we are considering ourselves pretty experienced long distance trekkers. This event was planned. My brother and I had calculated where we would be on that particular day. He hiked up one of the lateral trails and met us to spend a night or a weekend with us. My apologies as my  memory is kind of vague on this one. I think he even hauled up a steak or two amongst other refreshments. We did manage to cook this without a visit from a bear. We parted after the allotted time for the visit and our next plan was for him to meet me at Happy Isles at the floor of the Yosemite Valley.

 So what happened next? What happened ended up being an influence on me for much of my life. I got homesick. Two or three days after he left, after hiking 123 miles, I was so homesick I decided to walk out of the trail and go home. I left and I did not finish the trail. My other 3 friends finished the entire trail. I had to walk another 10 miles on a lateral trail to reach any kind of settlement and then hitchhiked my way to Fresno and hopped a bus home to Southern California. My brother was surprised, and I think a little disappointed, when I showed up at his door. For a while (months, years?) I continued to justify my leaving the trail and then I began to realize that sometimes a few more hours or days of perseverance changes a perspective. A changed perspective will sometimes allow me to complete a task that I otherwise wouldn’t complete. Had I known that or been willing to stick to it, who knows what a few more hours would have done and I would perhaps have had a changed perspective. Nowadays a changed perspective will sometimes allow me to look at a case a little differently. That different look allows me to solve problems that  maybe I wouldn’t solve otherwise. Walking off the JMT changed my life. Changed how I view challenges.    After the JMT, I was presented with a whole series of life challenges. Veterinary medical school, marriage, employment and partnership, kids, divorce…. life happens. I continued to hike but often thought my long distance hiking was done; I had no time to take a couple of weeks off and finish the trail.

 Yet, the JMT continued to loom in the back of my mind. I had not finished it. A few years ago I was sharing this with my wife Suzy and my daughter Grace. Both encouraged me to try to finish the hike I began so long ago. I had some 100 plus miles to complete.

My daughter Grace and her boyfriend Mike accompanied me on the hike to restart the JMT. I had tried to get myself ready for a long hike but hiking long distance in your mid 50’s is a little different that hiking long distance in your twenties. We decided to hike the exact trail I had walked out on, 30 some years earlier. A rather ambitious game plan was curtailed almost immediately as on the second day of the hike I fell and injured my hip. We still hiked but made less time than we would have otherwise. We hiked out of the JMT at Reds Meadow, which as it turns out, was an ideal place to leave the JMT as it allowed for easy re-entry the next time.                                                                      


Last summer my daughter and I, plus a new hiking partner, veterinarian Dr. Bob Dufort, from Idexx laboratories, re-entered the trail at Reds Meadow in Mammoth and hiked to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. This was last September during the big fire; we were unable to hike into the valley, because roads into the valley were closed.

 So as of this posting, I have a mere 22 miles left to complete a journey that started in 1978. This summer I will take a long weekend and complete the hike. I think I have learned a little bit along the way. Perhaps it really is the journey that matters the most.

Until next week………………….


Dr. Voorheis


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