Taking Time to Be Small
I grew up backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains which run roughly 400 miles along California's spine. Whereas, it rises more gently from the Central Valley on the west, it is perhaps most defined by its sheer rock faces that rise precipitously from the Mojave Desert floor on the east. The Sierra Nevada is where beloved early preservationist John Muir spent much of his life and considered it home and Ansel Adam's black and white images famously captured how light reflected off of their sheer rugged faces.
I remember so many summers driving up the iconic Interstate 395 in my parents' orange VW Van, with louvered non air conditioned windows, passing through towns that seem fixed in time; Olancha, Lone Pine with its unobstructed view of Mt Whitney, which at 14,505 feet claims the title for highest mountain in the continental United States. Then there is Independence whose claim to fame is its courthouse that served as the place where the infamous Charles Manson was tried and on to Big Pine, and Bishop. Further north lies Mammoth with its world class skiing and Lee Vining, the gateway to Yosemite and Tioga Pass. Continue driving north and you will pass Mono Lake the stopping ground for vast amounts of migrating birds, up to Bridgeport and eventually Lake Tahoe.
The first day hiking was always the hardest. My father never chose the easiest route. He loved a physical challenge despite the fact that he suffered horribly from headaches and cramps as his body struggled to adapt to the high altitude. He rarely took into consideration that those who were entrusted to his charge may not have been equally enthusiastic about testing the limits of their strength. We carried everything , food, water, shelter, bedding and clothing, Most of the trails started at relatively low elevation and rapidly climbed through endless switchbacks up to high elevation passes with names like Piute, Italy, Bishop and Kearsage. We slogged on like marching ants, tiny against the massive boulder strewn fields. I would count steps in my head, short little goals that eventually got me to the top. And the top; how do you describe the view? Layers and layers of jagged peaks, rocky precipices and valleys and shadow and light, indescribable grandeur. The struggle was replaced by awe and a deep satisfaction; we were among the few who stood in this place. The climb was quickly forgotten as we descended into the alpine valleys that lay beyond, dotted with wildflower laced streams and meadows, filled with glacier formed lakes, too many to name.
These were my summers growing up throughout my teenage years. Fortunately I married a man who too loved wild outdoor spaces. He came to it not through family, but through a strong sense of independence and love for beauty. Our dating years were filled with backpacking adventures. One I particularly remember was driving through what seemed to be an endless dirt road to get to a trail head. This was in my Beloved’s 1962 Dodge Lancer. As we were driving along this absolutely forsaken road, the most sketchy looking man with a gun slung around his hip appeared out of nowhere. Of course he hailed us and asked us for a ride and fortunately, we were able to honestly say…we had to room. Or there was the time up on Kearsage Pass, which is the outlet of Kings Canyon, a known bear highway. This was prior to the now mandated bear canisters, back in the day when you hung up your food even though the trees at that elevation are so small they really don’t provide an obstacle for any half witted bear. And low and behold, a clever one came. Fortunately, on this particular trip our friend John came along. He was a stout muscular young man, as tall as he was wide. With one swat from the bear's front paw, our food flew out of the tree. Fortunately, John sprung out of the tent with a roar, knife in hand. We bravely banged pots and pans IN our tent and cheered John on. Not sure if the bear was impressed, but he did leave.
As our family grew, we continued to incorporate backpacking into our family traditions. Early on we would hire pack trains as our supplies exceeded the carrying capacity of our young sons. I remember when Peter was 4 he carried a small school sized pack filled with his clothes and cheerfully marched on, motivated by candy and distracted as we taught him how to count by fives and twos. Those were wonderful early trips, but as our family grew to three small children we opted for camping and then renting places and doing day adventures from there. I have to say, comfort and convenience is very nice, especially when you are a young mom in desperate need of some rest yourself.
Over the years, I have been delighted that our sons, now grown, have planned and ventured into the Sierras on their own; as brothers, with friends, and most recently our newly married eldest with his bride. It has been years since I have gone backpacking even though the longing has never quite left me.
The opportunity presented itself when we were invited to join a friend for a long weekend up the in the Southern Sierra. This new season we find ourselves in allows for tremendous freedom. There are few constraints, our children are grown, our jobs are fairly flexible, we can close up our small home and venture out. It is easy to go, but in many ways it is even easier not to go. It is so easy to give in to, it’s too much effort, it’s too cold, too complicated, too much equipment, just too hard. But I recognize a fear that often drives my actions. Not that fear is a good strategy but for me fear of forever losing what I once had motivates me to tolerate a lot of potential discomfort and inconvenience.that I may experience. We visit REI ; so many new gadgets to discover. We resist overspending and focus on the basics. I invest in a few warm layering pieces as cold is one of my biggest concerns and borrow backpacks and sleeping bags. Fortunately, I have a well worn in pair of hiking boots.
The Cottonwood trail head is over 10,000 ft elevation which makes it a relatively easy hike; about 1000 feet of climbing over five miles. The weather is brisk but the sun is shining. My pack is comfortable and I relish being here. I have grown older and there have been many changes but coming to this place feels like home., The mountains have stayed constant in their beauty, their strength, their steadfastness, their ability to make you feel small in the best possible way.
I stand small and listen to the quiet here where cell phones and internet have no voice. And I hear a whisper that in this moment I am enough. I don't have to be the best, the biggest, my opinions don't have to matter all that much and speaking less is good. That despite my best plans and layering strategies, I will be forced to go to bed at 8 because it is so cold. I lie sleepless,rolling and rolling, tangled in my down sleeping bag with liner and makeshift pillow and my earlier bliss fades. . Middle of the night sleeplessness turns the best intentions into grumblings . After a few hours of this, I, of course have to pee. I toss another hour trying to convince myself that I really don't and then work myself up to the inevitable climb out into the cold dark night. I find a place to squat and then stand up and look up. My breath catches. The stars are stretched out in the heavens like a tent curtain and I pause, and I quietly bow.