Eight hours earlier I had slipped out of Manteca before the sun’s first light silhouetted almond orchards against the distant Sierra.
I was standing looking down on creation. Mono Lake was formed 760,000 years ago although some geologists believe it is the last remnants of a prehistoric lake that once covered much of Nevada and Utah on the eastern horizon. To the west was the glacier-carved Yosemite high country. To the north and south was an endless wave of mountain peaks bobbing like white caps in the vastness of John Muir’s beloved Range of Light along with the vastness of the Great Basin.
I was atop Mt. Dana, a creation of reddish metamorphic rock created by the metavolcanics of surfacing magma during the Mesozoic Era some 66 million to 252 million years ago.
Clouds raced over the summit that soars 13,061 feet skyward.
It was a three-hour trek from the Tioga Pass entrance on East Highway 120 to cover the 2.9 miles and net gain of 3,108 feet to the second-highest point in Yosemite. It is surpassed only by the 13,114-foot Mt. Lyell to the south.
Given the 98 degrees that Manteca was basking under some 100 miles to the west, the inch or so of ice that covered much of the 20 percent grade trail leading to the top just a ways past the timberline was a bit of a surprise. It was the remains of a violent hail and thunder storm that pummeled the high country the day prior.
As I soaked it all in, along with the relentless sun, I felt much younger than my 58 years.
It was easy to understand why. The vastness you can survey in a 360-degree panorama from the summit took millions of years to create. In the scheme of things, from a time perspective and otherwise, we’re just a mere pebble compared to the 13,061-foot perch beneath me that nature’s crock pot of geological and volcanic forces have molded.
I had to smile.
I had earlier questioned my sanity rising before 3:30 a.m., fidgeting while driving for three hours and then cursing what seemed like an endless uphill hike that was made a tad challenging by ice that made footing a bit precarious.
All of that for what would end up being 30 minutes on the summit.
Had I lingered longer I ran the risk of drawing the wrath of Mother Nature in the form of lightning strikes that were expected to start stinging the barren peaks by mid-afternoon.
My smile, though, was as much about the calm in my soul from taking in what was before me as it was about remembering an encounter three years earlier trekking up the lower 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak some 200 miles southeast of Mt. Dana in Death Valley’s Panamint Range.
It was there that an elderly stranger uttered three words that literally changed my perspective on life.
I was on my way down and had just a minute or so earlier passed a woman in her 30s going toward the summit when I encountered an elderly gentleman on a sharp switchback. The man, who I found out later was 76, appeared to be struggling slightly as he used his trekking poles to help him up the steep incline.
“It’s worth it,” I said referencing the views from the summit.
“It already is,” he replied as a smile broke out on his weathered face.
We chatted for a few minutes. The woman ahead of him was his daughter. He had retired as an electric engineer at 65 and was overweight, out-of-shape. He had hugged his comfort zone, had what he called a “narrow perspective” and focused on his life winding down. Then a friend got him to go hiking. Eleven years later he was well on his way to crossing off every peak in California that was 7,000 feet or higher that he could hike without needing mountaineering skills.
He was definitely in better shape but more important for him was that his spirit had been renewed. He was challenging himself to reach new summits figuratively and literally and he saw life as something worth living to the fullest possible even as time took its toll.
That brief conversation high above Death Valley helped motivate me even more.
As I rested atop Mt. Dana Sunday I recalled the gentleman’s words and wondered if he was hiking up a mountain at that very moment.
I thought about the trip up to the summit that day, from the driving to the tiring hike. I also thought about the return hike down a fairly steep path covered in slippery ice. Then I gazed out over Mono Lake, the prettiest sight I’d ever seen from a mountain top.
It was worth it.
I enjoyed 30 minutes of incredible bliss looking at what nature had created. The journey there was fun in a bizarre way that perhaps only a hiker can explain.
I also knew that I’d be going back to those 30 minutes in my mind for years reminding myself that there are rewards for hard work, plodding through to objectives, and simply not being afraid to try new things.
Without a doubt the best advice you can give someone for their physical and emotional well-being comes down to four words – go take a hike.
It can change your life.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.