The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I awoke to low clouds and a gentle but cool breeze. Not what I’d expected. It looked like a foggy summer morning at home by the Pacific. I had a hot breakfast of oatmeal and tea, packed, and left at 6:40. In the meadow, three horses and a mule were grazing, just beyond the sign that said to stay out of the meadow while the vegetation recovered.
Right from the start, for the first time in several days, I felt rested and strong. I walked quickly up the trail, legs swinging rhythmically, singing my way up the valley. In a quarter mile I passed the big pack group camped around another bear box. Everybody was gathered around a blazing fire, drinking coffee, warming up for their day’s hike–after the horses were retrieved.
I felt comfortable in the cool air, walking quickly up the gradually inclined path. I sang my way through Show Boat and H.M.S. Pinafore, with an occasional chorus of Blue Skies thrown in for insurance. The clouds were dark about the peaks, though blue sky hovered over the pass like a promise.
At the Center Basin Trail junction I saw three young guys breaking camp. One was among the dirtiest people I’ve ever seen outside the Third World. His long blond hair hung in matted ringlets. He wore only a pair of badly torn cutoff Levi’s, and his face, arms, torso and legs were all smeared with dirt and dusted with soot. He looked like a semi-grown- up edition of the Peanuts character Pig Pen.
In another mile or so I came upon a series of exquisite Muir Dens like the one I had camped in below Mather Pass. Like that one, they were circles of Whitebark Pines up at the limit of the forest. Above them the valley opened out into a broad moorland. Marmots watched me from their rocky lookout posts, whistling as I passed. I could see the patch of blue sky still hovering over the pass, but the clouds to the north, east and west were getting thicker and the wind was picking up. I stopped briefly for some Gatorade and trail mix, then put on my wool shirt. Soon I added my polypropylene top and wool watch cap, by far the most clothes I had walked in the whole way. I started singing Blue Skies and little else, but my step was still strong and rhythmic, and I was carried higher by the meter of the music.
I passed two pairs of hikers going up, then stopped briefly to talk with a young German coming down. He was trying to do the whole trail in 15 days without re-supplying. He had started with 12 kilos of food, all freeze dried, and hoped to get through without stopping. He was trying to make up the 4 hours he had lost the day before, stopped by the storm, as well as the six hours he had lost to altitude sickness climbing Whitney. He quickly started off again, moving rapidly downhill.
I reached the pass at 10:40, just four hours for seven miles uphill from 9,600 feet to 13,200 feet. Good, steady, strong walking. As Muir said:
“To the timid traveler, fresh from the sedimentary levels of the lowlands, these [passes], however picturesque and grand, seem terribly forbidding–cold, dead, gloomy gashes in the bones of the mountains… Yet they are full of the finest and most telling examples of Nature’s love… Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.”
I took a few pictures of myself, standing or sitting by the scratched metal sign saying “Forester Pass, Elevation 13,200.” The pass was on a narrow notch in a precipitous ridge. The clouds now covered the sky in a thin, dark layer. Traces of blue outlined the edges of individual clouds, showing that the next storm, if it was coming, was developing slowly. I settled back, leaning on my pack, to watch the people come and go, beneath a sky that might have been painted by Michelangelo.
Pig Pen and his friends showed up a few minutes later. I talked with one of them. They had started out from Tuolumne Meadows in snow flurries two days before I left The Valley. When they re-supplied two days before this, they were told to expect “unsettled weather” for the next five days.
While we talked, Pig Pen flung down his pack, pulled off his shirt in one fluid gesture, and stood on a rock, outlined against the sky, arms outspread. I thought for a moment he was in the grip of a drug or mountain-induced hallucination, and almost expected him to soar aloft or crash, flat on his face on the rocks at my feet. In an old myth he might have turned to stone and been a marker for future generations or become a twisted tree where ravens would perch. But he was just airing his body, feeling the breeze, and he soon jumped down and put his shirt back on.
The view to the south and southwest took in the Great Western Divide and the Kaweah Range. For the first time on this trip, I was looking at mountains beyond the end of my route. It woke in me thoughts of the end of my trip as I followed the trail down the scree and out onto notches blasted out of the face of the cliff–the headwall on the south side of the pass where once the upper face of a glacier ground down the granite into boulders, rocks, sand and silt for transportation downstream, to the valleys below, and ultimately to the ocean, the Pacific, whose foggy summer mornings were much like this morning had been.
I paused to talk with another small scout group, four boys and three adults, two men, one woman. They were heading for Whitney. One scout carried a metal pack-frame with a day pack and miscellaneous gear strapped on. His pack-bag had been ripped apart by a bear the first night of their trip. Last year, this same group had attempted Whitney from Whitney Portal but turned back because most of them got altitude sickness. They expected to meet the father of the boy with the torn pack at Trail Crest, on the way up Whitney. He was coming in from the east to walk with them the last two miles to the summit. He didn’t know what had happened to his pack.
The trail descended gradually across a plateau of rocks and flowers, with occasional marmots. They were the biggest marmots I had ever seen. They were the same species as all the ones I had seen along the JMT but I dubbed them a new sub-species–Big Fat Hairy Marmots.
Soon I started passing groves of Mountain Hemlocks with only a few Lodgepole Pines mixed in. The Mountain Hemlock grows straight and vigorous even in the most exposed high mountain valleys with the poorest soil, where the winds of January must spray them with streams of ice crystals that would abrade away a more delicate growth. There is nothing remarkable about the trees except where they are found, for they show no sign of the struggles they must endure to survive.
I camped at 2 P.M. by an unnamed tarn below Tawny Point. The weather looked like it was finally making up its mind to rain, and beyond this spot I would be on the broad, unsheltered expanse of Big Horn Plateau, too exposed to enjoy another storm. I set up my tent, gathered some less-than- sopping wood, and went through my routine of tea, body-washing, lemonade, clothes-washing. Each time I went down to the shores of the tarn to get more water I scared a dozen or more frogs. They jumped into the water and swam down to rest on the mud at the bottom. It was a shallow little lake, with no fish visible. Probably it froze solid in the depths of a cold winter.
After a light, five-minute sprinkle, the clouds cleared off from above me so I was able to sit out on a comfortable log and watch the storm-clouds build to the north, perhaps up by Rae Lakes Basin. The log I was on included part of a thick root, and I found I was able to lean back in sybaritic comfort against this smooth, upcurving support. I thought I should write in my journal my thoughts approaching the end, but I found myself occupied more in random thought than analytical speculation. Muir wrote in his journal in January 1872, “I would rather stand in what all the world would call an idle manner, literally gaping with all the mouths of soul and body, demanding nothing, fearing nothing, but hoping and enjoying enormously. So-called sentimental, transcendental dreaming seems the only sensible and substantial business that one can engage in.” Sometime later he wrote in a notebook, “Every sense is satisfied. For us there is no past, no future–we live only in the present and are full. No room for hungry hopes–none for regrets–none for exaltation–none for fears.” A good pronouncement for a mountain yogi, one who can accept this world of illusion as nirvana, seen from another perspective. I had dinner, watched the sun set, then went to bed.