Love Letter to the Sierra Nevada
a granite romance
You raid the storage unit, dust off the gear, and bum a metal spoon from your South Lake Tahoe friend. Filling up on donuts and gasoline and coffee, double-checking the packing list in a Burger King parking lot, you pass that fuel station, the one marking the beginning of so many adventures, as you pummel southward along 395, along California’s rocky spine, the Sierra Nevada mountains, the range that’s held you in its orbit for two granitic decades, for half of your earthbound life.
Perfect blue sky, no smoke. Construction traffic and CHP officers. Sending messages to family and friends and lovers, past-present-and-future. Thoughts of Europe and Argentina fade as the Sawtooth Range appears—that sharp, Mordor-esque edge of Yosemite—framed by the happiest cows in the world, Bridgeport cows in September, traveling in endless long lines, tails swishing, grass munching.
Fifteen bucks to park at Twin Lakes where "bear activity is very heavy," the white-haired booth attendant informs you. Another white-hair asks for help with his trailer in the parking lot. He spontaneously speaks a little German and is delighted that you can respond. (He was stationed in the army there, long ago.) With a crowbar you attach his hitch to its ball; he sends you off with a tschüss and danke.
Backpack loaded, poles in hand, sunscreen’d up, you enter fast-solo-hiking mode, the only mode you know. Horse Creek is pumping, and you stop to determine whether you’re listening to a cascade or a fighter jet. 7000 to 8000 to 9000 feet, desert sage and manzanita becomes indian paintbrush and mountain mint, and you feel that deep old gratitude for these perfect little trails cut across brushy hillsides by long-ago unknown conservation corps, asking yourself "What if I had to hike just 10 feet on either side of this?”
Now the dreaming begins, dreams that only arrive on long uphill trails in wide-open mountain landscapes: dreams of travels, of youth programs, of wild ways to upend your life, to throw it all away and win it all again. You dream until that first moment of niggling pain on the top of your right knee, that first anchor to reality, that undiagnosed byproduct of all your hiking and running and dancing. But you refuse to believe in decrepitude, or incapacity, or the heretical fact that, one day, you will no longer be capable of walking in these mountains. So you clench your glutes, metaphorically and otherwise, and continue rising, continue dreaming.
Horse Creek Trail becomes a less-official “use trail,” dots instead of dashes, and you start watching for signs of “use,” your favorite nature art. Your mind attunes to pressed grass, shifted stone, rearranged dirt. Where have others walked before? Which subtle path is the right way, which is a dead end? Where do I really want to go? When all signs evaporate, in those moments when you are truly off-trail, alone among the talus and scree and creekwater and struggling tussocky mountain grasses, you feel intoxicated, drunk with the same pleasure you tasted at 15 in Desolation Wilderness, your first heady days in the Sierra, when you first realized that here, everything is possible and nothing is forbidden as long as you have a map and compass and Nalgene and strong-enough legs and a bag full of Clif bars. Few other mountain ranges allow such freeform travel. Most are covered in brush, littered with deadfall. Not here, not in California, not in the Golden West where hope is manufactured. You adore off-trail travel in the High Sierra so much that you named a podcast after it, you mapped an entire educational philosophy onto it. Why suffer the over-crowded trail (school) and when you can tactfully navigate the wilderness (unschool) and drink the water of unspoilt meadows (self-directed learning)? These are the metaphors sloshing around your brain as you decide, very practically, whether to go above or around that boulder, which foot to place on that log, and which route to take to that particularly appealing ledge.
Doug, all smile and gray stubble, waves his hiking poles at you. Coming from the opposite direction, he warns of upcoming snow fields and confirms good camping and water just over the pass. He’s doing sections of the High Route; you tell him you’ve done some too. He’s not sure he’ll ever finish it, because he’s getting "long of tooth” and “everything hurts more now." You smile and respond, “looks like you’re doing quite well.” Before he continues down to his car, he snaps a photo of you.
You quietly thank yourself for spending time in these mountains in your twenties and thirties, before you, too, are long of tooth. Yes, prioritizing the Sierra (and travel, and writing, and dancing) has meant relinquishing the chance to be a young dad. Yes, it has limited you to careers in which taking two weeks off in August or September is non-negotiable. Yes, you have traded much to keep these plutons and pine forests in your life. But this is what love means. You love these mountains despite the fact that they cannot hug you, do not think of you, and will not comfort you in old age. You elevate them, irrationally. This is love.
Now, you near the pass. Now, the perfect alpine meadows begin, little Scandinavian snowglobes plopped into reality. You hear (but do not see) water trickling under talus as you perform your boulder ballet for the chipmunks and falcons. The sun dips behind the ridge and a cold wind rushes down the canyon. You make Horse Creek Pass just after sunset, 3,600 feet higher than your rental car. You fill your Nalgene in a creek below a snow field and fire up a pot of mac’n’cheese on your barely-functional alcohol stove, the one that singes your finger hairs when it flares. Layered to the max, every article donned, you stretch, floss, brush, and yell to the wind. Now, the last light departs. Now, you retreat into the goose down cocoon. It is 8pm.
Sleeping above 10,000 feet in September is always cold, and fancy inflatable mattresses only help so much. But where else do you sleep 9, 10, 11 hours straight? Where else are you greeted by an astronomical wonderland every time you turn? Where else is discomfort such a welcome friend? The wind rushes, the ground sheet flaps, and you are awakened many times. This is the price of sleeping next to your beloved. She snores.
When the sun reemerges, you coax the stove back to life, producing a single mug of coffee. You nibble oat bars and dried fruit, sketch Spiller Canyon, and poop under a rock. Then your gaze turns upward as you choose a line through the pebbly scree and hunched scrubby trees. You are climbing a mountain, the same one your literary heroes summited long ago. The wind nudges you forward, and you surprise a grouse with puffy white leg warmers, tail pulsating. Your legs feel strong, stretched by yesterday’s ascent. Your toes seek footholds on little pockets of grass and rocks that won't slide. This is how you've always wanted to see yourself, as a solo wanderer in the high mountains, like Billy Goat on the PCT. You could have tried harder to invite a friend, but you covet this alone time, this somewhat ridiculous individualist frontier vision that drives young men to death. You munch a snack by a 100 foot cliff, then you pack your poles away and scramble with hands and feet to the summit, putting your faith in the stickiness of granite. Again, you are 19, you are 26. You are young, you are invincible. To be up here, all alone, subject to these elements—madness! But to be down there, surrounded by crowds and concrete, subject to those elements—also madness! This is how you are mad.
All of a sudden, you're there. The peak! Sooner than expected. You sign the register, capture a photosphere, and take a beat with the flies that mysteriously inhabit every Sierra summit. Then you begin your descent through windy scree-choked gulleys, right knee complaining again, hugging a ridgeline to a lower pass. You slice cheese and salami onto whole-grain tortillas while reclining on a perfectly flat-backed granite slab, fingering a paperback you nabbed from your friend’s tiny library.
You close your eyes and the dreams return, but now they are memories, vivid recollections of past Sierra trysts. The first solo trip to Mineral King, age 19, powered by Corn Nuts and M&Ms. The skinny-dipping Desolation voyage with new college friends. The countless 3-day missions with 9- to 16-year-olds, courtesy of Deer Crossing Camp. The aborted Pacific Crest Trail bid and the John Muir Trail consolation prize. Hoover Wilderness hijinks with Cameron-Julie-David, hiding from a windstorm under a tarp with Vince, the all-day adventure runs with Hannah. And the grand off-trail forays into the Highest of the High Sierra, 2015-2019, with Fred-Julie-Matt-Morgan-David, friendships forged by sweat and frost and mosquito, each a Maslowian peak experience, each a small life lived, a prayer to beyond, a thank god I did this before I died.1
Now, you descend the rocky ridge. Now, you rejoin the trail system. Now, it’s time to walk out. This is a short trip, and that’s okay. Your peak experiences are increasingly found in the dance department, after all. Your Sierra co-conspirators are increasingly occupied with kids and jobs and partners, after all. You’ve enjoyed so much late-summer sunshiney Sierra Bliss, after all. When does love turn to obsession? When is enough, enough?
Once, you spent a month in a hamlet named Paradise, nestled under the shadow of Wheeler Crest, just to be closer to the Sierra’s pulsing magma heart.
Again and again, you made gaudy South Lake Tahoe your home, because it keeps you connected to this range, fulfilling your strange style of anxious attachment to place rather than person.
Yes, you’ve skirted the winters, never tasting that next level of mountain solitude. Yes, Kim Stanley Robinson captured all this love with more eloquence than you ever could. Yes, there are so many basins and lakes and cols yet unexplored. This is okay.
The Sierra is vast, and it is not exclusive to you. Your adoration has been shared by thousands, maybe millions of others: by John Muir, the nameless many preceding him, and all us bumbling urban transplants who followed. Despite being just a few hundred miles long, the Sierra holds more than you can ever hope to know in a lifetime. It can be neither possessed nor understood. It offers only transitory bliss, tantalizing mystery, and frequent frustration. This is love.
What can you do, but keep running these empty sandy trails on midweek mornings?What can you do, but keep plotting and scheming and mapping alongside friends? What can you do, but keep informing your human loves that they must share you with a half-billion-year-old mountain range, one you began courting at age 11, the ultimate middle-school romance?
What can you do when you’re in love? ■
[All photos taken here, September 7-9, 2023.]