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The Legend of the Sierra Club Bag Lady

By Bill Greer, Dallas Group Outings Chair

The story of the Sierra Club bag lady has been whispered around the Group for years. Now, at last, the true story can be told!

As those of you who have hiked with me know, my bus trip handouts usually take on the proportions of a short novel. A very complete checklist showing which items are required, which are recommended, and which are not recommended is always included. There is a detailed description of each hike.

Our story starts several days before the Memorial Day White Mountains Bus Trip of 1985. This was the first bus trip I lead. All 7 hikes on this trip were backpacks of various difficulty.

Since there are usually several beginners along on bus trips, I wasn't too surprised to get a call from "Phoebe" (not her real name) saying she was signed up for the White Mountains trip and had a few questions about what to take. I was a little stunned by the questions though. "Will I really need a backpack?" she asked. I very carefully explained that all of the trips were backpacking trips of at least 8 miles round trip, and that on even the easiest trip a good backpack with a sturdy, well padded hip belt was essential. I recommended she rent it a day early so she could pack it and be sure it fit. A poorly fitted pack, I explained, could make the trip miserable. Above all she should pack as light as possible. Beginners always bring too much "stuff." I felt like I had done a good job impressing on her that the trip would be a lot more fun if she was properly prepared, but there was a little unease left after she hung up.

The trip information pack had explained that while it would be hot when we got on the bus in Dallas, it could be near freezing when we arrived in the New Mexico mountains Saturday morning. Consequently, when we began loading the bus for departure most everyone was wearing sturdy hiking clothes. One individual stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, a tall woman wearing a mini dress with garish purple polka-dots. While I was a little surprised, I wasn't too concerned at this point. I was still wearing office clothes and I was planning to change into something suitable for hiking on the way out to New Mexico. Surely she was going to do the same. The info pack made it plain that lows in the twenties were possible. The woman in the mini, it developed, was Phoebe.

Back in 1985, we had not yet discovered the sleeper bus for our bus trips. As a result, while the trip out was uneventful it was lacking in such amenities as VCR movies and sleep. There were also no trips to the potty to change clothes.

On arrival at the trailhead Saturday morning it was near freezing as predicted. As backpacks began to be unloaded from the bus the purple polka-dot mini was really conspicuous. She didn't seem to mind the cold, but the worst was yet to come. She dragged out of the cargo bay of that bus:

1. An olive drab Army duffle bag with one shoulder strap
2. A large Neiman-Marcus shopping bag with rope handles.
3. A pillow the size of a Volkswagen.

As she walked away from the bus, a Samsonite makeup kit fell out of her shopping bag.

All of the trip leaders watched this with various mixtures of amazement and horror. You could just about read their minds: “Oh Lord, I hope she's not signed up for my trip.” “How,” I remember thinking, “Am I supposed to handle this? I don't think the Outings Leader's Handbook has anything to say about bag ladies.” It was too late for Chapter 5; “Screening Outing Applicants” and not quite time for Chapter 9; “Rescue Operations.” Not quite.

I talked it over with Phoebe first. She assured me she could make the 4 miles and 1000 feet climb with her bags. I couldn't prove it was impossible since to my knowledge no one had ever tried such a feat. She did seem fairly tough, I thought if anyone could do it she probably could. Maybe she was a former caddy. Paul Watson was the lucky leader who would inherit Phoebe after the bus left. He shrugged and said “Well, if she wants to try it I guess it's OK with me.”

There are two “bus stops” commonly used on the White Mountains trip, at Tanbark Canyon and at the South Fork Rio Bonito Campgrounds. The bus usually stops at Tanbark first. Phoebe's trip was supposed to start and end at Tanbark. My group would hike from the South Fork back across the mountains to Tanbark. As a result of all this the bus left with my group while the hikers starting at Tanbark were still trying to get going. You could still see the polka-dot mini a long way down the road.

My group had an enjoyable hike. We had nice weather, a varied and scenic route, and one of the most enjoyable groups I have ever hiked with. There were the usual memorable events and encounters, including an old man and a dog that will have to be another tale. There was considerable speculation about how Phoebe was doing. The way our hikes were organized we didn't see any other groups that had heard about her.

Back in the dark ages of bus trips we camped near the trailhead Sunday night to catch the bus early Monday morning for a late Monday night arrival in Dallas. Now our sleeper bus makes the return at night, giving us an extra day to hike. Since the trail was easily followed I left my group behind and hurried to the trailhead to find out what had happened to Phoebe.

The Tanbark Canyon trailhead is blighted by the presence of a rundown riding stable. To give you an idea of what this place is like, directly beside the road running through the stable is a tiny, beat up shack which may, at some time in the distant past, have had a coat of white paint. Crudely hand painted on one side of this ramshackle structure are the words “Lady shit house.” We're not talking about a high class joint here.

As I approached the stable, I met a young hiker from Dale Edelbaum's group. Phoebe, he informed me, was in the bunkhouse and did not want to go home with us. Visions of disaster danced in my head. The Dallas group had never lost a bus trip hiker before. Was she sick? Embarrassed? Angry? All three? I had to find out. If nothing else she could not be left behind on hearsay.

I entered the bunkhouse with some trepidation. The decor was about on the same level as the outhouse. Phoebe was not happy to see me. She was asleep in her sleeping bag on one of the bunks, still in the polka-dot mini. Her voice sounded like she was not completely awake. She said for us to go on, she wanted to stay. The owner of the stables would give her a ride to the airport. I reminded her the nearest airport was El Paso, about 4 hours away. She said that was OK, she was staying. She appeared capable of making her own decisions, so there didn't seem to be much I could do. I felt I was on safe legal and liability grounds, and in any case she couldn't be shanghaied. But this was weird!

I found out later what had happened. Phoebe had made it about 100 yards down the trail when she announced that she could go no further. Still in sight of the stable, she was told to go back there and get the bus driver to come back out and pick her up. She could ride back out on the bus Monday morning. We don't know exactly how it came about, but Phoebe had a better idea. She spent the weekend at the stables doing a little riding during the day and partying with the cowboys at night!

Dale Edelbaum's group had camped near the Tanbark Canyon trailhead Sunday night, and one member of his group had gone along with Phoebe on the Sunday night party in Carrizozo. By all reports, a high old time was had by all! This may be why she wasn't too happy to see me early Monday morning. I suspect that a hangover was involved.

No one knows how long Phoebe stayed at the stables, but she eventually made her way back to Dallas. The last I heard, the cowboys had offered to pay her way back out to Ruidoso for another visit. That is sure a better offer than I got.

So the legend has a happy ending, as all legends should. The White Mountains trip could easily have been a disaster for Phoebe and everyone on her trip. Instead a grand time was had by everyone, each in their own way.

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