The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
The mules, tethered next to the creek 40 yards from me, kept me awake much of the night. Their unearthly vocalizations carried over the gurgling of the water. Each time they groaned or brayed I thought a bear was coming for my food.
I got up so early I could hardly see to get down my food bags. I had to cut one of the loops off my food rope when I couldn’t see to untie the knot. By 6:15 I was on the trail, determined to make it over Silver Pass, eleven miles away.
The morning was still and warm. After fifteen minutes I was sweating. The trail descended to Purple Lake at 9,900 feet, a dark blue gem hedged round with thickly wooded shores where I would have camped with John and Matt if they had shown up. I wondered if they had quit because of Matt’s blisters.
After Purple Lake the trail climbed again and traversed around to Virginia Lake. Nearby, I saw a group of five men in their thirties and forties. They all looked big and husky and hearty. I wasn’t surprised when they shouldered huge packs and strode off quickly past me.
Virginia Lake is planted in a broad basin at the edge of a granite slope leading down towards Cascade Valley. The trail crossed a series of little ponds filled with water as clear as the air. The lake reflected the sky like a perfect mirror. No islands dotted the surface as reminders that it lay on the earth. In the still of morning, it belonged to the sky. It was the sky.
A low saddle led over a slight divide. From the top I could see the scarred hillside where a series of long switchbacks had been hacked out, leading down to the intensely green meadow of Tully Hole. The five guys who had just passed me were stacked one above the other, each on a different switchback but spread out along a half mile of trail. Everywhere the basin was green and wild, the meadow below, the trees above, with the granite peaks enclosing the scene like a silver frame on a huge, Keith landscape. The scar of the switchbacks cut through this wild scene, a geometric human imposition.
The Wilderness Act, of course, defines a Wilderness as an area with “the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” The trail maintenance manual for Sequoia/Kings Canyon Parks tells trailworkers, “Develop an eye for the aesthetics of backcountry trailwork. Finished trailwork must be pleasing to the eye and above all unobtrusive to the natural setting.” This trail seemed grossly overbuilt, especially since I had seen only this one group of five men in three hours of walking.
The locally operative John Muir Wilderness Plan defends the construction of all trails to a standard that will tolerate horse traffic.
“The standard of trails is generally dictated by use levels. Most trails are constructed for both stock and hikers. A question has been posed as to whether the 4-6% pack stock use (representing about 50,000 visitor days) justifies the higher construction costs of all-purpose trails. The initial cost of such a trail is definitely higher, but maintenance problems and resource damage is low compared to that of a lower standard trail. Minimum type trails often result in severe erosion damage.” [U. S. Forest Service]
Of course, this ignores the question of whether some trails could or should be constructed just for hikers and then restricted to hikers. Maybe the greater damage from lower-standard trails is the result of occasional stock use– those 5% of users who are mounted on a half-ton of horse walking on four thin metal shoes. The plan is silent on this question, perhaps because whoever wrote it rides the trail.
I stopped for lunch just after the bridge but the mozzies attacked in force and I quickly packed up and went on another mile. I found a shaded rock open to a little breeze and tried to enjoy my food.
It had taken me five hours of steady walking to cover eight miles. My left knee was hurting again, probably from going too fast down the switchbacks. The previous night, my left achilles tendon had been sore. This morning at a rest stop I discovered a huge blister freshly grown on my left heel. The whole left side of my body was breaking down. As I ate, I wrote in my diary:
“Not enough breaks, too much work, too many pains, too many mozzies, too many miles to go. … Whitney is looking further away all the time.”
I thought about just going to Lake Edison (12 miles ahead) and then heading home for the year. It would be less than half the trail, but close enough that I could say, to myself and others, that I had done the first half and would come back next year for the rest.
The truth was that I had started on this trip rather casually. I’d trekked longer, higher and harder, in Asia and Africa. But then I had always had companionship, porters or pack animals, and a guide. They kept me on the trail, cheered me up, warned me of dangers. Now I wasn’t going fast enough, I was tired most of the day, I had a bewildering assortment of pains, why continue?
I went on. Despite the pains. Despite my tiredness. Despite the clouds that once again built up around the peaks. I felt like I had thirteen years earlier, hiking alone up the Yosemite Falls Trail. The higher I went, the better I felt. Gradually I felt stronger and stronger, and found myself going faster, stopping less often. And as I got higher up and the clouds built up, it got cooler. The lower temperature helped.
But most of my strength was self-generated. Much of it, I realized, was spurred on by a feeling of macho pride and determination. I was strong. I couldclimb this trail. I would. “I think I can, I think I can.”
From my lunch stop to Silver Pass was 3 1/2 miles, a climb of almost 2,000 feet. I went straight up, just pausing twice for drinks and two or three times for photos of the exuberant flowers that lit up the meadows and fringed the shattered boulders. I went on inexorably. At Squaw Lake I passed the five men from the morning, industriously filtering water from the clear creek which flowed out of the lake. I nodded and went on.
At the turnoff to the Lake of the Lone Indian I thought of John 2, Annual Physical John. He had suggested I camp in a circle of Whitebark Pines by this tarn, one of his favorite campsites on the JMT. He stayed there most years, loving its solitary splendor. But the clouds were building up and the lake was above timberline, where lightning strikes now threatened. Besides, strong and macho, I would cross the pass and continue. “I think I can, I think I can.”
But my macho mood didn’t keep me from singing my own mantra, “Blue Skies.” I sang and sang it, silently, softly or aloud, by turns, depending on how bad the clouds looked. They looked especially bad behind me, the tops billowing ever higher, promising rain and thunder. But ahead of me the sky was still clear. I sang “Blue Skies” and marched on.
Silver Pass, 10,900 feet, was my highest point since Donohue Pass. When I got there, I could see the clouds from behind building up on either side of me. My blue skies were restricted to a narrow patch ahead, over the pass. I shouted out, “Thank you, Mr. Berlin,” and plunged down the other side.
Most of the passes along the John Muir trail are steeper on the south side than on the north. Silver Pass is a glaring exception. Below a short headwall I saw a long, straight valley cradling an oval lake, Silver Pass Lake. As I neared the lake, the trail became extremely rough, with melon sized rocks spaced every two yards. After a quarter mile I finally realized the trail had been re-routed, I was on the old trail, which was supposed to return to a natural state in a few decades; if people left it alone. The rocks were there to keep hikers and horses away. Mesmerized by the rhythm of hiking, I hadn’t noticed the cut-off.
After the lake I found the new trail. The sky was overcast now, and I could hear an occasional rumble of distant thunder. I met two groups of backpackers heading up, ten people total, each carrying a fishing rod. The lake must have had a great reputation. Probably that reputation was partly responsible for the erosion that had forced the relocation of the trail.
Once I reached tree-line I could have camped anyplace but I kept going. All my tiredness was gone. I felt like I could walk forever, and I almost did. The trail followed Silver Pass Creek, skirting a long, thin meadow of aching beauty, met Mono Creek at overgrown Pocket Meadow, and continued on down. And down. And down.
Mono Creek doesn’t flow so much as it falls. It tumbles down a series of cascades and flows over smooth pavements of granite through one of the thickest and most varied forests in the whole Sierra. One of the reasons I pushed on was to cross two fords that my guidebook warned could be deep, fast and dangerous in early season. If the storm broke above me, the creek could double in volume in minutes. As it turned out, the fords were shallow and easy, thanks to my mantra and Mr. Berlin.
Near the Mono Pass Trail, after I had descended 2,600 feet, two sharp whistles stopped me in my tracks. I looked around. Fifty feet away, two marmots crouched on a car-sized boulder near the trail. I smiled and took a deep breath, the tension evaporating. I hadn’t even realized I was tense. I called out, “Hello,” and walked slowly by. The larger marmot scampered down off his perch but the other, a juvenile with a sloppy, bedraggled look, stood his ground. He whistled again as I got closer and only dove for cover when I was within 20 feet. Then, when I was a few yards past his rock, I heard him whistle again, as if saying, “And stay away!”
Finally I camped. I had come 16 miles, half of that since my lunch stop, where I thought I was too tired and in too much pain to go on. I had walked longer than I ever had before with a full pack. I had only walked farther five or six times in my life, even with just a day pack. I felt flushed with macho pride.
Some people go to the mountains to conquer them, especially men. The rhetoric of mountaineering is full of military metaphors, like Clarence King, Muir’s contemporary.
“We who remained in camp spent the day in overhauling campaign materiale and preparing for a grand assault on the summits.”
Muir belittled such rhetoric. Though he occasionally described dangers and difficulties faced in the mountains, he emphasized that man does not conquer the mountain. Remember his note on the cableway up Half Dome: “Blue jays and Clark crows have trodden the Dome for many a day, and so have beetles and chipmunks, and Tissiack would hardly be more ‘conquered’ or spoiled should man be added to her list of visitors.” He never left his name on a summit. He never even attempted precise identification of the many peaks he climbed. He is credited with several first ascents. He probably made dozens, unrecorded.
But most of us are more egotistical than Muir. We feel we are conquering the mountain, the trail, the pass. It’s yet another level of game-playing, where a walk (a “saunter” for Muir) becomes a contest, Man against Nature, or against himself.
For me, this day had been a struggle against myself, against my own perceived limits. Like the Angry Young Woman Sean and I had met near Island Pass, I spent much of the day creating my own difficulties, erecting tests for the hero to overcome, and prove his worth. My pains were, after all, minor. It never rained, though the threat was there. And even if it had, I was in less danger on the trail than riding my bike on the busy, perennially potholed streets of Santa Cruz.
Muir often commented on just how safe the mountains really were. “Such a faithless fuss made about taking a walk in the safest and pleasantest of all places, a wilderness.” … “Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness.” Mountain passes, “will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.”
Maybe that’s exactly what had happened. In the morning, and especially when I had stopped for lunch, I had been lost in my own fears and uncertainties. But when I started up towards the pass, nearly all that vanished except for the one realistic worry that I might get caught in a storm. And even that possibility provoked more excitement than worry. My boyhood summers in the Maine woods were punctuated by rousing thunderstorms that were almost as much fun as fishing on the lakes or running in the woods. Maybe, after all, this trip would put me back in touch with my youthful feelings of adventure in nature. Perhaps that’s what I was really doing here. I was beginning to understand what Milton meant:
“The mind is its own place and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
— John Milton Paradise Lost
After dinner, I hung up my food. I did a good job of hanging it. It was easy, with so little left. As the tiredness from the day settled about my body and I crawled into my sleeping bag, I remember thinking, “I hope, if a bear gets my food, that he doesn’t wake me up.”