There’s something seductive and magical about being alone in a remote place, even though at times I‘ve found myself feeling vulnerable and anxious. And yet for me, that’s part of the appeal: being on my own in high country and having only what I’m carrying on my back and in my head, knowing I will make it all work, because I have to.
There’s little threat to humans from carnivores in the Sierras of California. About the only real danger on solo expeditions is the risk of breaking your leg, or even just twisting your ankle badly, a long way from anywhere. That, or stepping on a rattlesnake. So I have a little mantra, which I repeat to myself when hopping across a field of large broken boulders, or negotiating a steep slope of loose shale above a half-frozen lake: “Every step deliberate; every step with care.”
A few years back I was at a base camp up in the Emigrant Wilderness, having come in on horseback and been dropped by a pack service that would return to pick me up again eight days later. One of the day trips I had planned was a long loop that wandered through forested slopes, meadows and creeks up toward a wide granite basin of shallow lakes dotted with wooded islands. After threading my way through that basin I continued up a granite slope to a chain of three small crystal blue lakes just below the peak of a high ridge which was my objective for the day. From there I was rewarded with a spectacular view of a long narrow lake, far below, which I’d hiked past on another trip years before and ever since wanted to see from above.
I didn’t stay long, though. Big cumulus buildups were growing over all the higher terrain and I wanted to get down off the ridge before they let loose their deluge. Reaching a stand of trees out of the wind, a few hundred feet below, I put on my rain gear and set off at a steady pace down toward the creek that flows out of the lake I’d just viewed from the ridge top. My plan was to follow that creek back to the meadows west of my camp. There was no trail, but I had mapped out a likely looking route based on the general typography and steepness of slope. It turned out to be slow going though, with a lot of backtracking around and over steep areas of jumbled, jagged boulders now quite slick from the steadily falling rain and the mist from the cascading creek. I just couldn’t make the kind of time I’d intended to and a growing anxiety vied for the attention I needed to be focusing on each foot step.
As I reached more level, open terrain the torrential rain turned to armor-piercing hail. Soon my light rain gear was saturated and I began to feel icy fingers pinching my neck and shoulders. There was no place to stand or step that wasn’t streaming water and my boots were completely soaked. I had experienced first-stage hypothermia once years before and knew that muddled thinking and lack of concern about one’s situation could creep up quite unnoticed. I desperately wanted to stop and rest but felt that to sit down now would be unwise.
Marshalling my strength I climbed the shallow ridge bordering the meadows. Having been marching for what felt like forever, I welcomed the sight of the lake and my little camp a couple of miles ahead and below. Knowing there was adequate daylight left I kept putting one wet foot in front of the other at a pace I could maintain the rest of the way down the mountain. That whole day lives vividly in my memory, infused with a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence as well as a renewed respect for the awesome power of weather.
Hiking in the mountains, some of the most exquisite moments often come in the morning, when I’m ready to set out for the day. Upon finally having everything on my back to start the next leg of the journey I’ll “sweep”: walk around the campsite and environs to make sure I’ve not forgotten anything. After a quick look at the chart and the GPS, there’s something about those first few steps off into the woods or up the ridge or down the creek that are often steeped in a magical sense of enchantment.
One morning, shortly after setting out, I decided to shortcut a corner of my planned route and left the trail to explore a wide, rocky, sparsely wooded ridge. The map and the view both suggested I might be able to scramble down a granite slope a half a mile or so further along and rejoin the trail below, avoiding some of what I suspected would be a marshy bog along the creek.
Wandering along I thought, If I were a bear this is where I would hang my hat: The whole ridge had a commanding view in every direction, not too heavily wooded, with lots of overhanging rocks perfect for a den site or just sitting out a storm. Standing at the top of the granite slope I saw that my proposed shortcut was a wild goose chase. It was tempting to take off my pack, slide it down the slope, and then slide down on my butt after it. But a little voice in the back of my head said ‘Sure: go break your ankle. It’ll be fun!’ I concluded that the 45-minute detour plus the 45-minute backtrack were worth it to have seen, and to see again, that remote, lonely ridge, and drink in its stillness.
Halfway back to the trail I heard a loud crack and looking up was surprised to see a full-grown black bear halfway up an 80-foot snag, climbing slowly down backwards. I was sure he didn’t see me, and now I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take pictures and some footage. But I got spooked and moseyed away just as quickly and quietly as possible. It was several hours before I realized the obvious. There was no nest of baby squirrels, no hive full of honey and no sandwich shop up in that tree. My furry friend had heard me on my way through the first time and scampered up there to avoid making my acquaintance. Not expecting me to return, he was simply on his way down again. How I wish we could have paused just long enough to have exchanged a few glances.
The nighttime sky in the mountains carries its own natural majesty. I toyed at one time with stargazing; bought a book, did some study, went outside my house with the binoculars and looked around. But for all the thick forest around where I live, I just couldn’t find any place to see anything but a small patch of sky directly overhead. It’s much like looking up through the pointed end of a narrow paper cone, which is okay unless what you’re looking for is lower down toward the horizon, as it often is.
Still, when I wake in the middle of the night to step outside (a true wilderness explorer does not pee in the house) a sense of awe arises as I look straight up. I’ve become able to tell the time pretty accurately by the position of the stars. I remember ‘discovering’ “The Shopping Cart” as I called it. I don’t know why that particular constellation (technically, a ‘star cluster’) caught my attention, but I look at it regularly and can still find it even without binoculars. In a later epoch, it would be cataloged by Messier as M45 and come to be known informally as ‘The Sapphic Sirens’ or some such. Myths endure, even to our own generation, about subsequent civilizations naming cars after this formation. Oh yes, I remember now – it’s called ‘The Pleiades’ (‘Subaru’ in Japanese). So, I feel proud and fortunate to have been a part of the history of celestial study in that way, even if I’ll never be recognized as one of the great astronomers of my time.
Well, it’s getting late. I’d better get back to the future – or wherever it is I belong.
Photo: Courtesy of Author