trail of tradition


A film photographer's journey along the tahoe rim trail

Words & Photos by Casey Minter

I haphazardly slap a mosquito perched on my dirty arm. The stings have become less of a nuisance and more of a constant reality. Its crushed body mixes with my ruby red blood, adding to the layer of grime that has collected on my skin after only three days away from a shower. Dirty is the first word that comes to my mind when describing backpacking.

The weight of a 70-liter, grey Osprey backpack pulls me backward, its burden in dissonance with an unidirectional desire to get to another point on a point-filled map. My sore shoulders shudder as I pull that map from a pocket in my pack and survey the miles we’ve covered.

The four of us departed from Reno, Nevada early in the morning of our first day to begin at the northernmost entry point on the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile loop around Lake Tahoe. The trail weaves through a sprawling wilderness area on the border of California and Nevada and extends between two towering mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada and the Carson Range.

Numbers and colors on a map do little justice to the view from our vantage point on Barker Pass: Tahoe glistening like a lapis jewel through the tree-lined mountaintops. An imaginary line, conceived by humans yet ignored by nature, separated the two states, the Desolation Wilderness beckoned ahead of us.

Our initial plan was to hike the western half of the trail, pulling out at Echo Lake after about 90 miles. We gave ourselves five days for this, which meant we’d only have to hike about 18 miles a day. Compared to our previous hikes, that wasn’t bad. Or at least I thought. You see, in the end, this isn’t simply a story about a summer backpacking trip. It’s a story of tradition.

James Church, the son of two ranchers and a good friend of mine since before I have memory, had been with me on hikes like this every summer for the past six years. He stood by me now, and I knew he’d be standing with me on a new trail with a new group the following summer and beyond. We had hiked over 25 miles a day in higher elevations with more ascents and descents than this trail had, and we’d done it in harsher weather with even less preparation. To me, 18 miles a day seemed like a moderate pace.

Our tradition maintained a necessary caveat: we would welcome anyone to join our expeditions. The two tepid tag-alongs this year were good friends of ours as well, but perhaps a little less hardened to the trail. After our third day, as we reached Barker Pass at a grueling pace, their wills were faltering and their bodies were broken. The first day out, one had bled through his two t-shirts, his hips were chafed deeply and we were running low on the gauze I foolishly didn’t think we’d need. He is a stoic man, quiet and witty. I had never seen him complain before this hike, in three years of living with him. He took the pain in silence but I could feel every wince as the weight on his back bounced, rubbing his bloody skin raw. There was little we could do except keep moving forward.

A rest would help, and Barker Pass offered us this respite. The droning bugs, stragglers from the swarm, elicit a random swat from each of us every few seconds. The only sounds piercing our solace are buzzes, slaps and an occasional grumbled, “Shit!” A cool, gusting wind tugs at the map in my hands. The wind and the high altitude keep the bugs from continuing their feast. After our last few miles, it’s all we can ask for.

We had sprinted through the last stretch of trail. The low-lying lakes were infested with enough mosquitoes to bring down a horse, and they had appreciated four hot-and-ready meals walking through their territory. The bugs would not abate, and they surrounded us like a river flows around a stubborn rock.

Unlike that flowing river, their combined caresses were neither cold nor calming; the bites were annoying and, en masse, enraging. We were forced to stop once during our sprint; running low on water, we needed to filter and fill our Nalgenes. My friend’s face was covered within seconds of leaning down to the mountain stream to pump. From forehead to chin, every exposed inch was caked in biting bugs, a writhing mass of beating wings and thirsty proboscises.

Sitting in the wind on top of Barker Pass, he picks a few of their desiccated carcasses out of his unkempt beard, flicking them off the cliff face in an act of futile defiance.  Hiking, and backpacking specifically, is a spectrum sport. It has high and lows, dismal valleys and glorious peaks. A successful trip, by definition, has to have both moments of hardship and moments of sublimity. That’s why I travel hundreds of miles away from civilization, away from computers, online shopping and easy living. It’s a liberating way to rediscover how to live without that technological crutch.

I refused to bring along my DSLR camera for this same reason. Usually my constant companion on any outing into the natural world, the fledgling photographer in me was not about to spend a week in the wild without documentation. Resting at my hip was a Canon AE-1 Program SLR camera with a 28mm f/2.8 lens and 32 empty frames on a black and white roll of film. Built in 1981, it was the most complex piece of technology we packed.

I contemplated my surroundings, wondering if the scene was worth exposing and immortalizing. The infested swamp that flanked our current lookout had been a dismal low along that spectrum, but that moment resting at Barker Pass, with a hellacious struggle still fatiguing our bodies and minds, was a high well worth the fight. I pulled the camera’s eyepiece up to my dusty face and went through a well-practiced routine. Focus, compose, meter, inhale and click. The shutter opened and closed with a delightfully mechanical sound, freezing the scene in front of me: A solitary figure looking out across a rolling sea of mountains and trees, his wide brim cowboy hat peeking around the frame of his now monochrome backpack.

From a digital photographer’s perspective, film can be daunting. When I first began making images in 2011, film photography had been effectively dead for years. By the time I picked up my first DSLR, film was an antiquity reserved for hipsters and outlier artists.

But there are hidden benefits of using this seemingly anachronistic technology that were starkly apparent while backpacking. Film cameras don’t require charged batteries, more effectively resist the elements and can pack easily without fear of damaging sensitive electronics. They are mechanical in nature, and less demanding than their electronic successors.

The constraints of film photography allow only finite opportunities. It forces me to adopt an attention to detail that isn’t as present when I use digital. A photographer should always be paying attention to the contents of his or her frame, but with digital it is easy to get carried away. You can blast off 500 shots over the course of an hour and not have to worry much about composing each one. With film, I check, double-check and triple-check every aspect of the image I am about to make.

Transitioning from digital to film—instead of the other way around—has improved my photography. My options are not endless, as with digital; I only have 32 unexposed frames of film, all of which have the potential to become a compelling image or just another picture lost among the modern wave of Snaps, hashtags and selfies. This restraint allows me to truly appreciate when a scene calls for capture, like the panorama that greeted us upon our ascent to Barker Pass.

Stretched out in front of us is the Desolation Wilderness, an oddly foreboding name for such a beautiful place. A sea of sugar pines with scatterings of gnarled pinions high on mountains frosted with stalwart summer snow. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, this area is a well-preserved hiker’s paradise because the water is plentiful and the views are magnificent. Lakes dot the landscape, their round, pale blue heads shimmering in the sunlight from behind the trees’ green screen.  

This is where we had been hiking to and, even from a distance, we could tell the bugs, blisters and bandages were all worthwhile. A thin trail extends beyond our tired feet, zigzagging out of sight and reappearing as it rises along a hazy hillside in the distance. It’s the only visible implication that human beings visited this wilderness before us. We passed a few hikers on the way to the Desolation, but spending the night required a permit, an expense many backpackers try to avoid.

Of course, the four of us hadn’t known we needed the permit until the night before we left Reno. A morning full of frantic phone calls and quick credit card transactions left us with the appropriate papers and a stark reminder of how, despite the tradition we had begun six years ago, we were still terrible at remembering all the details. Tradition had started this trip, and the people resting next to me defined that word well.

James and I began our tradition along the Ruby Crest Trail, a 45-mile hike spanning the length of the Ruby Mountains in northeastern Nevada. Despite our utter lack of knowledge and preparation, it was a stunning trip. I vividly remember a moment where, as I sat on a peak recuperating and looking out across my home state, I knew that this was not a singular experience. It was something I wanted to continue enjoying until my body could no longer keep up with my spirit. That first trip was the beginning of our tradition.

Every year since then it’s changed—different people and different places—but the idea remains the same. We haven’t learned all that much as the recurring lack of preparation on this sixth trip illustrates. Our bodies keep getting slower and fatter, and our dreams more wild yet further away, but as long as we spend some time outside and get the chance to sleep under the stars, we are happy. Despite the distance between James and I, and the time between our meetings, this yearly outing keeps us close.

That is the power of tradition. Despite what many of us believe, our best friends—those people you simply can’t function without—will drift away from us over time. This isn’t pessimism, just a reality. Along come careers, families, children, old age and decrepit memories, and those cherished relationships change. Maintaining traditions may not prevent that inevitable transformation, but I can hope it will make these relationships change in a positive way. Having that single week every summer gives me a happy certainty to look forward to. It’s a mutual contract written to combat the abrading march of time.

As important as this tradition has become in keeping memories alive, I went with the idea of a more tangible takeaway from this summer’s trip along the Tahoe Rim Trail. This is why a camera full of film can mean so much, and although our trip went off course a bit—the winged-devils, mosquitos, forced us to pull out a day early—the images I have will always remind me of the necessity of tradition, which marries dirt, pain, exertion and solitude with love, laughter, catharsis and lifelong friendship.

With our minds in different places—past adventures, present pains, future endeavors—the four of us simultaneously rise and put our packs on, wincing as the familiar weight settles on our varied aches. I sip from my Camelbak, wetting my dry tongue and spitting on a bloodstain and a bug. Tan skin revealed underneath the layer of grime reminds me of the many hours I’ve spent under the sun. The map folds itself with the help of the wind and my tired, calloused hands and I place it back in the safety of my pack. Six more miles and plenty of sunlight.

Funny stories and whistled tunes quickly break the silence of respite as we get back into the simple rhythm of one foot in front of the other. Steadfast and smiling, we continue down the trail.