I was trudging — not hiking — across a healthy mid-July snowpack on the way to Steelhead Lake at 10,270 feet on Tuesday just outside the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park below the imposing Tioga Crest.
It was one of six hikes that were part of what has become an annual summer pilgrimage to the eastern Sierra. They are a series of day hikes covering between 8 and 15 miles often with elevation gains of between 2,000 to 3,000 plus feet that more often than not takes me to places where I end up standing on solid ground 10,000 plus feet above sea level.
Why I do it is more about understanding myself as well as the forces of nature that shape our world than it is about “playing” although I’ll be the first to admit hiking the Sierra by myself is my idea of fun.
Just 13 miles to the north of Manteca at the University of Pacific is a treasure trove of arguably the greatest writings and scientific observations ever complied of the Sierra. Back 140 or so years ago while most of the Golden State was pursuing what has become known as the “California Dream” by harnessing and re-engineering some of the youngest and most varied geography on the planet, John Muir was wandering the Sierra without benefit of modern trails, gear or even a map. He was hungry to understand the vastness of the Range of Light on multiple levels to share and protect the mighty Sierra. While his contemporaries in August of 1871 were still staking mining claims searching for gold and other precious metals from the snow-capped Sierra at places like Mono Pass and Lundy Canyon to the seemingly desolate Panamint Range guarding the western flank of Death Valley, Muir was driving stakes into a mass of what looked like snow and ice from the distance on the flank of what is known today as Mt. Merced in the Yosemite high country. He checked the five stakes he pounded 46 days later and recorded that they had moved as much as 47 inches verifying true glacial movement to discover the first glacier in the Sierra. Today no one agrees on how many glaciers and glacierets there are in California but Bill Guyton in writing his book “Glaciers of California” delves into the various research and determined a fair and objective count puts the number of glaciers at 108 and glacierets at 401 with all but 12 in the Sierra.
Why glaciers and things such as tree rings matter goes to the heart of the climate change debate. Not understanding them in the manner of how nature works as opposed to man’s modern transgressions means we will pursue courses of action that are akin to whistling in the wind. Man may indeed move the dial somewhat but the remedies that are suggested because of the folly that man is somehow in the driver’s seat are akin to treating Scarlet fever with cough syrup.
Getting the same perspective on our lives by understanding what forces are beyond our control and how we can forge fears and identify prejudices that blind us is key not as much as to getting a firm grip on where we fit into the scheme of things as it is to better understanding ourselves.
Jeff Liotard of downtown Manteca Santa Claus and Mt. Mike’s Pizza fame thinks I’m a bit out of control on my hikes. I challenge myself but in the words of a scriptwriter who gave Clint Eastwood’s character Dirty Harry a touch of being a modern day streetwise sage, “a man’s just gotta to know his limits.”
My feet — featuring bunions, hammertoes and heel spurs that just looking at them can make a grown man cry — at first pain would lead me to believe I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But by the sixth day when I gained more than 2,000 feet in a 10-mile hike exposed most of the way by a relentless sun I was feeling little pain while the euphoria was off the chart.
I’m not the first up a mountain nor am I the last. There are people a third of my age that pass me up as well as those I pass up. That said there are those old enough to be my father or mother — and I’m 63 -—who make me look like a wimp.
Just like Muir’s never ending quest to learn more about the Sierra, we need to do the same exploring who we are whether it is physical or mentally.
My cousin Larry Wyatt who passed away earlier this year felt that going into the great cathedral nature created that we call the Sierra was akin to going to church. This is from a man whose idea of “fun” was running 100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn in 27 hours or so as part of the Western States 100 Endurance Run with feet that were almost as bad as mine. There’s pain but you find out a lot about yourself as well as the power of nature by pushing yourself.
For me the biggest reward is what I get from a 15-minute or so pause at my turnaround point whether it is a mountain peak, a high Sierra pass, an impassable dry fall in a desert canyon or simply some point such as a lake. It is most effective on solo hikes where I will just soak in what is around me and get lost in my thoughts or ponder the millions of years of ice, water, rocks, and fire of the volcanic kind that shaped what is before me.
Yes, it is meditation but with a significant twist. You are either atop a soaring peak such as Mt. Dana at 13,061 feet on Yosemite’s eastern boundary gazing at the remnant of an ancient lake (Mono Lake) while looking across the massive Long Valley Caldera — California’s largest active volcano — and onto the vast Great Basin beyond or looking up as I did at 10,270 feet Tuesday at snow-covered peaks soaring more than 1,000 feet above me.
There are clearly forces in the world greater than you. But at the same time you can see how a drop of water combined with countless other drops of water through the ten thousands of centuries as running water has worn down rock or as part of a glacier has carved out grand works of art from granite such as Yosemite Valley that people travel from the four corners of the world travel to see. In the grand scheme of things working with others you can ultimately shape the world in a manner that is far beyond what you can envision as the ages unfold.
A famous Muir sentence that he penned to his sister has been a bit misconstrued and appropriated by the Town of Mammoth to mean that the Sierra is simply a place of play.
It’s a nifty chamber of commerce pitch but Muir referenced something bigger than play with the words “The mountains are calling and I must go . . .”