The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
From Crabtree Meadows the trail ran almost due east to Whitney. The sun was shining from behind the peak and adjacent summit ridge, creating shafts of clear brilliance. Innumerable insects drifted up, above the trees, looking like sparks in the columns of light. I stopped to photograph the placid surface of Timberline Lake reflecting rocks, trees, and sky. It was one of those mornings when you only nod to people you meet–the slightest human sound would break the spell.
Just above the lake, the trail climbed a glacial step. The trees ended and the sun finally appeared, turning the whole sky as bright as the columns of light, which now vanished. It was warm enough that I stopped to take off my heavy shirt. As I did, a fortysomething man and his teenage daughter caught up to me and did the same. He was carrying a tiny daypack, and had to tie his jacket on the outside. She took off a sweater and sweatpants, reducing her wardrobe to shorts and a tank top. She also had a small daypack. They were on a week-long trip. They were camped at Crabtree, taking a layover day to climb Whitney. The rest of the family was taking a less-strenuous day hike. They started off before me, but I soon passed them-the man was moving pretty slowly, though the grade was gradual.
Guitar Lake sits in the middle of a smooth, rocky basin. Six or eight tents were scattered around, blue or red domes. A few people were having breakfast or packing.
Off to the side of the trail, I noticed three big boulders leaning together, making a little nest. There was a battered old Trailwise frame pack leaning against one of the boulders. The pack looked so much like John Sanroma’s that I went over to investigate. Maybe he wasn’t so far ahead of me after all.
I climbed up on a rock a few yards away and peered in. It was John, still serenely asleep in his rock-bound Muir Den. I got out a camera, focused and called out briskly, “Good morning John.” His eyes opened wide, staring up. I snapped a picture. Then he sat up and looked at me, his head sitting on the top of the tube of his sleeping bag. “Don! Well, isn’t this wonderful!”
It took him awhile to pack up and join me, I had thrown his routine completely off, but soon we were walking together up the trail, back and forth on the switchbacks. We climbed swiftly higher, and I discovered how Guitar Lake got its name. From above, it looks remarkably like its namesake. Simple.
We talked mostly about music and photography. But periodically the conversation would come around to the trail and the people we had met and walked with. He had hiked for about a week with Sean, who was now probably a day behind. They had wandered around the Rae Lakes Basin looking for a bear box because Sean had been filled with so many warnings about aggressive bears. The day before that, during the big storm, they had sheltered with the trail crew at Woods Creek, along with Sweetpea, who was now walking with Sean.
When we reached Trail Crest, we stopped and sat while I sipped some lemonade. John had dipped his Sierra Club cup in a rivulet above Guitar Lake and would now wait to drink again from the tiny, melting patches of snow on the summit. He was also skipping breakfast and lunch today.
Trail Crest was our first exposure to the Whitney crowds. Every five minutes, somebody came by, coming up from Trail Camp to plant their feet, however briefly, on the highest bit of land in the Lower 48 States. Most had day packs but perhaps a quarter had only fanny packs and a some just carried a water bottle, with a windbreaker for their only extra clothes. A few clouds were gathering already. It was about 11 AM.
We continued on up and I immediately saw why John had discouraged me from spending the night on Mt. Muir, my earlier plan. It’s a pyramid of shattered granite boulders, all loose rock, protrubances and edges. It might be spectacular, but comfortable it was not.
The last two miles of trail we were constantly around other people, coming and going or resting. Mostly resting. Not many people can drive from sea level to 8000 feet at Whitney Portal and then hike up to 14,494 at Whitney summit in a day or two and not feel the altitude. The ones heading down kept assuring us that we’d feel better on the way down. We just smiled and said, “Thanks.” We felt fine.
The summit plateau was a rock garden of less than Zen refinement. It was like the ridge of Ktaadn that Thoreau reached on his one attempted climb of that mountain that drew him north from his hermitage at Walden Pond: “The mountain seemed a vast aggregation of loose rocks, as if some time it had rained rocks, and they lay as they fell on the mountain sides, nowhere fairly at rest, but leaning on each other, rocking stones, with cavities between, but scarcely any soil or smoother shelf. They were the raw materials of a planet dropped from an unseen quarry, which the vast chemistry of nature would anon work up, or work down, into the smiling and verdant plains and valleys of earth.”
As I crossed this rock garden and neared the summit hut, I was aware that this was the technical end of my trip, but I felt no sense of completion. I felt like I was still on the trail, and would continue on the trail, until the occurrence of some “consummation devoutly to be wished.”
John and I separated for the last hundred yards. Somehow I felt, and he knew, that I needed to walk this last bit on my own, as I had walked almost all of the 211 miles of John Muir Trail that lay behind me, stretching north over the passes, through the valleys, across the streams, under the trees, over or around the meadows, all the way back to Happy Isles, at the head of Yosemite Valley. I had suffered some, a bit physically, more mentally. I had rejoiced a lot. I had learned about Wilderness managers, horsepackers, backpackers, and most of all myself. And I had come to accept the mountains and the world as a seamless whole, intrinsically divided by neither time nor space but only by perception. But I was not quite done.
There are about 25 surveyor’s benchmarks on the summit rocks. They have been placed there by the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, the California Department of Roads, and a dozen other governmental agencies. Many more have obviously been pried out of the rocks as souvenirs, jagged cavities marking their vanished assurance that this spot is precisely 14,493.9822 feet (or whatever) above mean sea level, wherever and however surveyors determine the reference point of the ever-changing surface of the world-ocean.
We were most emphatically not alone on the highest point above the ocean for nearly two thousand miles. There were at least 50 other people there when we arrived, with some arriving and others leaving all the time. In the past, Labor Day Weekend would occasionally see a thousand or more people on the summit, but the backcountry permit system, with limits enforced for the Whitney Portal Trailhead, have spread out visitation, greatly diminishing holiday crowds.
The hikers there, many arrayed, as Muir said, “more gorgeously than scarlet tanagers” weren’t scaring the local animals, they were attracting them. There are no plants or animals native to the summit of Whitney except a few species of lichen, but two bird species and one mammal have migrated up in search of trail mix and granola bars.
The Gray-crowned Rosy Finches are active little robbers. They fluttered within inches of my bag of trail mix, and one repeatedly hopped onto my leg as I sat and ate. Despite the name, they are not particularly colorful, though the males have a pink tinge to their shoulders and under their tails. Normally they might come up here to glean some windborne insects or seeds. A few might possibly live here year-round, since they are known to live and nest on some other, lower, Sierra peaks. But this large a flock must have been drawn by the people.
Clark’s Nutcrackers also grazed on human lunches on the summit. They would land on a rock in front of somebody eating a granola bar and wait, staring intently like a dog watching his master eat a steak, knowing that sooner or later a hunk would come his way.
The comedians of the resident animal tribe, however, were the Big Fat Hairy Marmots. We had seen two at Trail Crest, pulling the cover off of a pack that somebody had cached there while climbing Whitney. Here on the summit they simply waddled up to a likely-looking hiker and looked insufferably cute until fed some trail mix. They were so far from any natural food I thought they must have migrated up here, following the scraps along the trail. Possibly they hibernate under the shattered boulders. Or perhaps, the day after Labor Day, they would waddle down the trail, covered by rolls of fat laid down through a summer of begging and stealing from hikers, distracted from the view from the top of California. Muir said of the view:
“From the summit of Mount Whitney only granite is seen. Innumerable peaks and spires but little lower than its own storm-beaten crags rise in groups like forest-trees, in full view, segregated by canons of tremendous depth and ruggedness.”
Over this landscape of granite, with canyons carved by vanished glaciers and moraines now thickly forested, storm- clouds were building. They seemed to come from the south and east, then coalesce around Mt. Langley.
From Langley, the clouds, now towering dark and threatening, swept north, passing to the west of Whitney, and sailed off to take their places over the peaks and valleys of the southern Sierra. I thought briefly of heading down to Trail Camp, but from the way the clouds were moving, it seemed the summit would miss the heart of the action, but be close enough to feel the power of the storm. I decided to stay.
The day hikers, seeing the storm, grabbed their gear and left, all except three. As the first shower of hail began, they retreated to the summit hut, where John and I were making ourselves comfortable.
Anthony, from Pittsburgh, was a husky young guy of about 25, clearly ill at ease but putting on a brave show for his companions. They were two women, Sandy and Joy, who lived in Ojai, in Southern California. They were associated with the Ojai Institute, where Buddhism and Shamanism were taught in their relation to Spiritualism and New Age topics.
Sandy felt terrible. She was young, perhaps 20, and had a fierce headache which, combined with the cold air and her inadequate clothing made her as miserable as a cruise-ship vacationer with wracking sea sickness. Anthony comforted her and John and I plied her with tea, a down jacket and a hat.
Joy, on the other hand, was near ecstasy. We had to convince her that she should stay in the hut–she wanted to run out into the storm and feel the wind and the hail and the electricity that filled the air. Yet, unlike Sandy and Anthony, she was prepared for the day with extra clothes, food and water. She talked about her love of storms, and how they reminded her that we are all part of the echoes of the original Big Bang, and that space and time and separateness are illusory. She sounded like a commercial for a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
We kept the door ajar so we could all watch the storm from our relatively safe hut. I say relatively safe, but John told us about his experience with lightning in this hut, at the end of the JMT, in a storm. I had heard it before, but it held more meaning now, in the hut, in a storm.
“There were seven of us. We were in the room at the other end of the hut, one of the ones they have blocked off now. I was just standing up to say something when WHOOM! Suddenly I was in the next room. Lightning had hit and it’s a good thing I was standing in front of the doorway. If I’d been standing in front of a wall I might have gone through the wall instead of through the doorway.” Sandy, who had started to recover, looked green again. John tried to reassure her.
“But you have to come up here, storm or no storm. Human beings have always gone to the tops of mountains to gain insight, enlightenment.
“On year I was up here at night and there was an astronomy tour. The group was all pooped out, but the professor was up and so was I and I had my binoculars. He took me on a tour of the universe, starting with the Earth, then going to the moon, Jupiter, the nearby stars, and finally Andromeda, and all the concepts of Time and Space that go with that. It was that night I started understanding and believing in the Gaia hypothesis. The theory that the earth is alive, a living, thinking organism, different from us as an amoeba, but still alive.”
It was a perfect sort of revelation for such a place and time. Sandy was now warm and happy, Anthony was calm, and Joy was still ecstatic. I was simply watching it all, John, the day hikers, the storm, and myself. My normal self-consciousness was evaporating in the rain that had replaced the first burst of hail. The clouds continued mostly to miss us, starting at Langley and curving around to the west, heading north. We heard lots of distant thunder but no lightning struck the summit, though the metal stove-pipe hummed with static electricity, making me refrain from picking up my camera to photograph the height of the storm. The clouds held above us but cascaded down into the surrounding valleys like storm-waves flowing over a rocky, broken sea-shore. It was a scene completely wild–rocky summit, clouded views, leaden sky. Thoreau saw just such a scene from the slopes of Ktaadn. The view, he said:
“was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits. … And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and drear and inhuman. … Nature here was something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was the earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth.” –Henry Thoreau The Maine Woods
It was the perfect “significant image” to give what Joseph Campbell called, “a sense of existence, not an assurance of meaning.” It was the voice of the God of the Eskimo shaman Igjugaijik, who spoke to him in a language of storms, what Muir called, “magnificent capitals,” too large for most people to read. Those who could read these words and catch the “sense of existence” they conveyed had to have been transformed already, like Thoreau, Muir, the shaman, or the Puritan Jonathan Edwards, who said that, after his conversion:
My sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, and trees; in the water and all nature; which used to greatly fix my mind. And scarce anything, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoices me.
From a mountain-top in Maine, Thoreau wrote:
If I wished to see a mountain or other scenery under the most favorable auspices, I would go to it in foul weather, so as to be there when it cleared up; we are then in the most suitable mood, and nature is most fresh and inspiring.”
The storm began to break up about five, and as soon as it was clear that the clouds would not immediately return, Sandy, Joy and Anthony headed down to their camp, leaving us a package of freeze-dried Mandarin Orange Chicken to enliven our dinner. I felt surprisingly hungry, and we each ate enough food to have provisioned a small expedition. Then we sat on the front step of the hut and watched the storm fade into nothingness.
There was a blanket of hail on the summit rocks, and we could see a similar coating on a broad plateau a few miles to the southwest. The clouds cleared first from the south and east, the direction they had started from, and we could soon see down 10,000 feet to Lone Pine and the mountains beyond, off in southern Nevada.
To the south and southwest, the Kaweah Range next appeared out of the clouds, their cliffs dark in the shadow of clouds still lingering to the west. The northern view extended to a far distant peak, perhaps Mt. Ritter, across three intervening ranges of lightening shades of blue. Muir, looking south from Ritter in 1872, saw: “a sublime wilderness of mountains, their snowy summits towering together in crowded abundance, peak beyond peak, swelling higher, higher as they swept on southward, until the culminating point of the range is reached on Mount Whitney…”
It was to the northwest that the grandest part of the scene unfolded itself. The clouds hovered over the Bighorn Plateau, the notch in the Kings-Kern Divide that marks Forester Pass, and the table-land of Diamond Mesa. As the sun sank to the west-northwest, the clouds settled into these valleys. I thought of my evening shower at Vidette Meadows, after the storm had started to clear. It was happening again, before my eyes, but below me.
Above, the sun sank in time with the cloud-tops. It shined through a filter of high-altitude ice crystals, sending out beams of translucent brilliance, orange, then pink, then red. My day began and ended with pointers of light. I was now at the end of the John Muir Trail, and my journey was complete.