Back in January, just after the first good snow fall, my friend Scott Matthews asked me to help him be a “camp counselor” for a weekend. He was hosting the annual ski trip for twenty-seven Habitat for Humanity employees and Americorps volunteers at his home in the Northstar Resort near Tahoe. That was too good to refuse, especially since I had done it with him last year, and was about to leave for El Salvador to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build myself with a number of them. I’ll be on that build when this story runs. I may come home with a tale of a hike in the rainforest or simply one about an organization that puts Americans in a very positive light in the Third World.
The weekend of R&R was ostensibly a ski trip and team building time for Habitat. As not everyone skis, however, I took the opportunity to lead a hike of course. So while I’m away building homes for some very poor families in Central America this week, I thought I’d profile the Tompkins Memorial Trail, a snowy circuit around the Martis Valley, and through the frosted forests of the Northstar Resort. It’s a hike I’d recommend for anyone wanting to do a mostly level six miles on cross country skis or snowshoes, or as we did simply in boots and tennis shoes, if the snow isn’t deep.
It was gorgeous. The meadow looked as if someone had gone nuts with a can of whipped cream. Ice was on the creeks and the forest was magical, frozen sparkles in the powder wherever the sun pierced the shadows. But best of all for me was spending time with some of the most wonderful young people I’ve met since the Americorps trail crew I hosted this past summer in Martinez.
Americorps is an organization that seems to attract great, motivated, fascinating people. Those I met over the summer spent nine months maintaining the trails I love in the Sierra and southern deserts. The volunteers on our snowy hike were working with Habitat for Humanity to house people in our local communities, making home owners out of folks who never thought that possible, such a painful subject in this economy.
Habitat for Humanity was begun in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller who based the idea on Koinonia, an interracial Christian community outside Americus Georgia dating from the 1940s. The organization is centered on the idea of “partnership housing” the concept that those in need work side by side with volunteers to build simple, decent homes. Their most celebrated member is former President Jimmy Carter, who went on his first Habitat build in 1984. The number of homes built now tops half a million and they are responsible for putting a roof over the heads of more than two million people. That’s a lot of volunteer hours.
The altruism embodied in the organization itself has become a magnet for motivated people both young and old who want to give back. They’re folks who value making a difference in another human being’s life. Some are retired like Scott and me, others are in mid-career or fresh out of college, who, rather than simply being out of work in a bad economy, choose to be active and use their time and skills to help others. One couple with us were architects who were out of work as no one has been building much for the past few years. With their free time they joined Americorps and are helping people here in America where Habitat for Humanity is in the business of buying up distressed properties, renovating them with the help and finances of the prospective new owners and turning homelessness into homeownership. What a concept!
But the weekend at Northstar was all about fun and some rest for these hard working volunteers. It was about snow boarding and skiing, board games and beer, long evenings by the fire and lots of music, courtesy of Emily and her guitar and ukelele and five or six of us who just couldn’t stop crooning. Oh, the harmonies, three and four part at times. Where did they all learn to sing? And the accents! New York, New England, Midwestern and several gorgeous Southern Drawls, just tugged at my heart strings. The wonder of our diversity never ceases to amaze me. It reminded me of my time in the Army where a middle class kid from California got to live with and love the diversity of our nation.
We began our hike by simply dropping down the mountain from Scott’s house until we hit the Tompkins Memorial Trail. We went left in the forest following signs through a maze of little trails, until we came out into the large meadow that is the center of the Martis Valley. Martis Creek was flowing under a weight of snow on its banks. Sections were frozen over in fantastic, fractured ice structures that hung, frozen like bridges, across the stream which had receded below them.
We circled clockwise around the meadow but eventually the exploring spirit got the better of my hikers and we charged across the snow, straight for Martis Creek and Northstar on the far side. In the spring this would not be a good thing to do, but given the snow, our feet stayed above the fragile meadow soil and grasses.
We all lined up at Martis Creek for the big jump. It meant a clean leap from bank to bank or we walked home through the snow in wet feet. Sizing up the distance we tossed our packs and cameras across, stood on the bank long enough to muster up some courage and one after another, leapt with all our might. Those who had jumped before made a great human catchers mitt so that no one fell backwards on landing. That’s the kind of team activity we mastered in five weeks over snow the year I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail where we formed human chains to help each other across dangerous river crossings. This wasn’t dangerous, but it was wet, and there were several miles of snow before we’d be back in front of a warm hearth. The level of trust and team confidence grows with every experience of pushing the envelope together.
The trail led us back up through the icy forests, skirting the homes of Northstar, back into the wonderful chaos of twenty-seven people bound and determined to enjoy every well earned moment of time off in a toasty house in the snow.
You can find the Tompkins Memorial trail by turning south on Highway 267 from Interstate 80, just past the downtown Truckee exit. A mile or two from town as you are driving across Martis Meadow, look for a turn out and parking lot on the right. Park and take a look at the posted map and have a wonderful hike in the snow. The trail is well signed and easy to follow and a complete circuit is about six miles.
The sense of mission, the impeccable ethics, the level of care shown for one another, and the warmth of camaraderie at being a part in the purpose of helping other human beings, all becomes palpable whenever I’m around these folks. Both Habitat for Humanity and Americorps are worth your time and money. If you’re interested in volunteering, just give either organization a call. They have builds all over the Bay Area, as near as Bay Point. Helping others is often the best way to feed your own heart.
“We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.” June 9, 1872 letter to Miss Catharine Merrill, from New Sentinel Hotel, Yosemite Valley, in Badè's Life and Letters of John Muir.