"Lure of Sierra, wild and free,
Jewels deep set in shining skies,
Defiant mountains beckon me
To glory and dream in their paradise."
- Walter A. Starr, Jr. (1933)Along the 557-mile corridor of asphalt stretching from southern California to the Oregon border, the scenic portion of Highway 395 paralleling the Eastern Sierra cordillera is about as close as you can get (within a six hour drive) to Heaven’s Back Forty. This is a m agical and primordial land of infinite geographical variation and dynamic geological features -- basin and plain, high desert plateau, plush valleys, inspiring mountain vistas.
The adventure junkie / t hrill seeker will discover a plethora of hiking and backpacking destinations and nature loving aesthetes will encounter one picture perfect postcard panorama view after another. In the Eastern Sierra Nevada, you can scale Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 ft. ranking as the highest peak in the continental US. (Not far away is the lowest point, Badwater, in Death Valley, at -282 ft.) You can hike endless miles on the John Muir or Pacific Crest trail systems - or thousands of spurs - to encounter solitude amidst towering, majestic snow-capped peaks and soaring cliffs. Thousands of sparkling lakes, the vast majority of which you
’ll never explore, dot the high basin country, along with sprawling flower garden meadows, most of which you'll only be able to appreciate in coffeetable books or wall calendars. Gorgeous streams brim with trout; hot springs abound; ancient groves of bristlecone pine await exploration; historic attractions beckon; and breathtaking scenery surrounds every which way you turn. Bishop, the largest city at just under 4,000 residents, ranks right up there with Aspen, Santa Fe, or Boulder as a top-flight place to live (West of the Rockies) for its gateway access to incredible outdoor advent ure and recreation, including rock climbing, hang gliding, hiking, horse packing, canoeing and kayaking, trout fishing, you name it, not to mention the gentler outdoor arts such as nature photography, en plein air painting, and bird watching. Some might find serenity and contentment just sitting on a boulder doing nothing but gazing out at a sunrise or sunset.
Unlike the approach heading east from the Bay Area, where the agriculturally stinky San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys gradually give rise to undulating Gold Rush foothill country, and eventually to the mou ntains of the Western Sierra, the massive escarpment on the eastern side abruptly rises out of the plateau to create a mountainous spine like a gargantuan Stegosaurus on the horizon, an in-your-face presence of God's handiwork overwhelming the senses and dwarfing perceptions. These jagged peaks and scaly ridges and sawtoothed aretes constantly change their mien, appearing at times slate grey, stark and brooding, while other times magically reflective in famous alpenglow hues, and in early mornings, they are especially aglow with pallid golden sunlight, whilst later in the day, cobalt blue skies contrast with th e white tipped crests of the Range of Light. Hidden away in the deepest recesses and nooks and crannies are wilderness paradises of untouched lakes, pristine streams, thundering waterfalls, flowery meadows, wastelands of rock and stone - a world unto its own, where humans do not and cannot dwell, but nonetheless come in droves, and like “hooved locusts” we upset delicate natural balances and impact sensitive ecologies. Quota restrictions are necessary in the most traveled areas; adhering to wilderness etiquette is de rigueur; and careful preparation and caution is an absolute must, because the mountains do not care if you live or die.
On a recent five-night, four-day trip, we have to pick and choose. I tell the boys early on, we can’t see and do it all. There will be no visit to the Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, where Methuselah and other ancient trees sprouted before the Pyramid of Cheops was built. The Alabama Hills and a taste of the trail up to the summit of Mt. Whitney will have to wait, as will the nearby WW II era Japanese internment camp of Manzanar, now a National Historic Site. Mammoth Lakes area and Devil's Postpile National Monument, so near, are not on the agenda, alas. And the intriguing ghost town of Bodie might never be seen, for the former rough and tumble outlaw mining town is on the chopping block of the state's parks slated to be shut down.
Despite missing these iconic destinations, including the high desert towns of Lone Pine, Big Pine, Bishop, and Independence, we still manage to pack in a lot of gamboling fun during our short visit in the Bridgeport area. We end up staging daily forays out of an impromptu bivouac along the East Walker River, always beginning and ending the long days with healing soaks in the hot mineral springs of Travertine. We spend some time at ever-fascinating Mono Lake, and take thrashing hikes into the back country of Little Lakes Valley in the John Muir Wilderness, and Green and Tamarack Lakes in the Hoover Wilderness, each hike more difficult than the next until we rack up about 25 miles and over 11,000 ft. of elevation gain and loss. Not bad for three hobbled over-the-hill weekend warriors!
Who, you might be wondering by now, is this collective WE? And what is it with these boys' trips you’ve been reading about? Is this some kind of men’s therapy group (can’t imagine!), a bonding thing (maybe!), or just three good ol’ boys escaping the daily pressures of our professional and familial lives (now you’re talkin’!), seeking unfettered respite from all earthly cares, concerns and worries (hell yeah!), a chance to retreat to beautiful nature for a few days away from the wimmin-folk and kids (of course!) in order to seek out frivolous experiences, hedonistic escapades, and quasi-adventurous exploits (what else!)? No doubt about it, we three are the Walter Mittys of extreme outdoor action - truly adept at pursing the mild-mannered but “once more with feeling, boys” outdoor adventure. This trip to the Eastern Sierra happens to celebrate the occasion of our fifth get-togeth er over about as many years – past bonding / therapy outings (wait a sec!) include a drenched weekend at Goldmyer Hot Springs outside Seattle in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River in the Cascade foothills; a rambunctious canoe campout on the Colorado River below Hoover Dam; redrock Southwest ramblings in and around Moab, Utah; and, last year, more painted desert immersion in Zion, Pariah, and Nevada. (Read all about it!) And now, here we are, in the big Range of Light, experiencing another memorable time together, seeking spiritual communion with - as Robinson Jeffers put it - “the astonishing beauty of things—earth, stone and water, beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars.”
And now (drum roll!) introducing the dramatis personae of the boys' trips: there's me, your guide and avatar, Tom "Gambolin' Man" McGuire, about whom you know as much as you can glean from 55 prior trip reports and whatever other Googled dirt you can dig up; along with the inimitable duo of Mike "Brock Stoker" Elsbury and Mark "the Perfesser" Bix, both heretofore unacknowledged by name. Since our trips have passed into the realm of legendary / historic, it‘s high time to shed light on these shadowy protagonistas.
Mike is an old compadre and fellow Hoosier / I.U. grad, but oddly we didn’t know each other in Bloomington. We go back 27 years, though, to when we first moved to the Bay Area and roomed together on Emerald Street in Oakland in a collective pad with some beautiful amigas. (Aaah, now dem were da daze!) Mike drove a broken down VW Rabbit (hey, it got us to Big Sur more than once!) and worked as a menial grunt at the SF stock exchange. He quickly paid his dues and learned the ropes well enough to become a respected and competent trader. Today, he spends his days in the virtual pit transacting, turning tricks, and trying to earn an honest buck in the arcane world of options and black swans, so he can call it quits like many of his less risk averse and luckier brethren who hit it big and retired to a life of luxury. For now, though, he's a wily survivor, a lone wolf, and has managed, by dint of hard work, superior wit and equanimity under fire, to hang on in an old school way (Mike’s about as old school as you can get in many ways). Captain of his own destiny, master of his fate, he is his own man and not punchin' an yone's time clock but his own. Mike's a smart, generous and devoted friend, a monster cyclist, bon vivant, lover of the outdoors, connoisseur of wine and mulberry family products, and just an all-around fine friend and person with a youthful attitude who loves life and delights in conjuring up all manner of impossible agendas and wet dream itineraries to titillate the imagination and rouse the leaden soul into action - dreaming about doing something grandiose as much as actually living it. . ..and, whaddaya know, some of it actually comes to fruition, like our boys' trips. In other words, Brock Stoker is on the trail of - yep, you guessed it! -- the quest for sybaritic retirement, the key to a life of easy livin' and permanent leisure! Or, barring that, in his own words, "a happy, healthy, successful financial lif e of prudent decision-making allowing for decadence on a judicious basis."
Now, Brock Stoker is a hard act to follow, and the Perfesser is not one to steal anyone's thunder, but….Mark and I became friends about five years ago through Mike. What can I say about the Perfesser? Mucho. He's an instantly likeable person, a spry, energetic fellow of half Japanese and half Jewish heritage (I call him JJ!) - someone whom I suspect was intertwined with me karmically in a past life, based on the fact that he puts up with - actually enjoys and gets a kick out of! - all my conspiratorial nonsense, New Agey leanings and Aquarian anglings, and over-the-top philosoph ical crap. Gotta love him for that! And, well, things are just so easy around him, in that casual way a good friendship should be....but when he wants to delve deeply into the pit of your sorrowful soul and peel back the layers of your troubled psyche, he will do so mercilessly and mercifully at once, stripping you bare of pretension and leaving you exposed in the psychological detritus of your shambling humility. Gotta thank him for that! The son of a Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian, Mark is no slouch himself when it comes to credentialed academic success - he's a world-class research scientist with a PhD from MIT – but who would know unless you know? At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Perfesser hea ds up a lab in immunological studies focusing on abstruse topics generally beyond the ken of a normal person’s understanding -- even though he claims anyone can grok what he studies! – sure thing, Perfesser! Take a look at the casual information on his website: “Research in the Bix lab is focused on the developmental regulation of cytokine gene expression within T cells, with a particular focus on the TH2 locus encoding interleukins 4, 13 and 5 — key orchestrators of the immune response. The lab has undertaken the molecular genetic dissection of regulatory elements at the TH2 locus to understand how distinct gene transcriptional states of silence and permissiveness are targeted, established and maintained during effector T cell development. The lab is also applying a combination of classical genetic and genomic approaches to identify novel immune response genes, including those acting in vitro to modify effector T cell differentiation as well as in in vivo mouse models, to modify the responses to infectious agents (bacteria, fungi and worms) and inducers of autoimmune disease (systemic lupus erythematosus).” In other words, the Perfesser, is on the trail of - yep, you guessed it! - the cure for cancer, allergic reactions and the secret of imm ortality itself! (Debt of karmic gratitude owed to the many mice sacrificing their lives in this endeavor.) This is heavy, heavy stuff, and Mark could easily be saddled with a super-size me ego, but he’s such a low-key, modest, down-to-earth person you’d never know his pedigree is right up there with the highest, top-tier scientists in the world. He’s got an outrageous sense of levity, a wry, cynical and always humorous take on things, that keeps us all laughing our heads off, and always has a wise man (and sometimes wise guy) way of reminding us to stop taking ourselves too seriously, to live without fear, and to always hold onto
our childlike curiosity and passion for learning and discovering new things.
With introductions out of the way, on with the show! Our get-away is planned for Labor Day weekend. I try to tell the boys it's horrible timing - the crowds are going to be out in full force - the mom 'n pops lugging their oversized RVs, the hordes of weekender amateurish campers, road trippers, fishermen, families out sightseeing, teenagers partying, tourists one and all, a massive convergence of the hoi polloi on every camp site, every hot spring, every trail, every lake and stream, for one last-gasp catharsis of the season. Puh-leeeze. . .but it's a done deal. One minute, I’m at th
e SFairport picking up Mark from his Memphis flight, and the next we're at bustling 3rd and Mission, watching the amusing procession of people parading up and down the streets, trying to locate Mike, who's detoured from the designated pick-me-up spot for no good reason other than miscommunication with the Perfesser. I do my level-best to remain calm at the bungled antics. Soon, coordinating coordinates by cell phone, we spot Mike flagging us down and before you know it, with Gambolin' Man at the helm, Mike strapped in the back seat, and Mark riding shotgun, we're cruisin' across the Bay Bridge, zippin' down Interstate 580, and leaving the syphilized world behind. By mid-afternoon, we’re toolin’ along Highway 120 and then barreling up Highway 108
to Sonora and beyond, with the tunes blaring, suds flowing (none for the designated driver), and the conversation pinballing all over the place. As is customary when we’re together and haven’t seen one another for some time, we’re all clamoring to get our point across, squeeze our words in edgewise, have our story told and narrative heard, so there are excitable interruptions, scratch-yer-head non-sequiturs and many “would you please shut up for one minute so I can explain myself” moments. (Mark video tapes some of these conversations, and playing them back has us in stitches - you couldn't have scripted funnier lines or more absurd dialogue!)
We're giddy and amped up with excitement to be on the road, and so drive straight through, practically, with only one stop at a lookout point just below the Sonora Pass. We’re up in the stratosphere at 9,624 ft. – California’s second highest pass after Yosemite's Tioga Pass - having earned a short break after a grueling switchback climb on the narrow road skirting sheer drop-offs into abysses that – were this Bolivia and the famous death road – would be littered with the carcasses of many an errant bus. Fortunately, I’m sober-minded and driving with uber-competency, despite Mike’s admonitions to do this or that with a bit more finesse - and he's right, I can be somewhat of a "man-handler" behind the wheel. Also, it turns out traffic isn't too bad, either, nor the crowds, after all! I'm driving calmly, never tail-gating, not once passing anyone. (The b oys are pleasantly surprised, and compliment me.) At the pass, we spend a few minutes snapping photos and taking in sweeping views of the dramatic ridges and peaks of the Sierra looking out into the Carson Iceberg Wilderness and beyond, wishing we could just disappear right now on the Pacific Crest Trail. We’re definitely eager to get out of the car for good and get some mountain legs under us. A cyclist rides by, amazing us by how nonchalantly he's pedaling up this big-time grade. We would love to be in his company!
The descent on Highway 108 toward Bridgeport is more nerve-wracking than the climb up, but it goes smoothly. No one gets motion sickness. Finally, down on the flats, where the West Walker River slices and dices a sinuous course through Pickle Meadow, we pass by the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, in the Toiyabe National Forest (oh, my old man - tough Marine that he was - would he ever be proud of this bastion of patriotic defense!). Normally, during training episodes, 1200 personnel are on board, but today the remote and isolated outpost – whose raison d'etre is “to test cold weather clothing, equipment, human performance, rough terrain vehicles, and develop doctrine and concepts to enhance the Corps' ability to fight and win in mountain and cold weather environments” - seems bereft of any activity whatsoever. We stop, look, take a few photos, make a few derogatory political comments – no slurs against the troops, mind you! - and move on, anxious to get to Bridgeport, 21 miles down the road.
We pull into the sleepy little tourist mecca, where German, French and Aussie are commonly heard, around dusk after nearly six hours of grinding asphalt, a bit road weary and stiff, so I suggest an wind-down soak at Travertine Hot Springs, on the outskirts of town off Jack Sawyer Road. No arguments from the boys. In fact, there are never any arguments from the boys. All my suggestions are met with unequivocal hands-up-and-at-'em, irrepressible enthusiasm - for, ultimately, you can't go wrong in the Eastern Sierra Nevada when it comes to picking out the day's adventures and debacles.
Not having been there for several years, I'm expecting the worst at Traver tine. . .and it being Labor Day weekend, I'm bracing myself for a big party scene. But amazingly, no one is there on this Thursday evening - we have the place to ourselves! I tell the boys they’d better enjoy it while it lasts, because. . .people will be coming in droves in the next days. Of course, people do come later in the evening, and thankfully, they are respectful types, but still, the general pattern at these very beautiful, public and not very remote hot springs is a lot of chattering and yammering. Seriously, why can't people just shut the eff up? Would they carry on and bluster so nonsensically in church or some reverential setting (like this ain't!)? Luckily, we find an isolated pool below the main tubs, and enjoy an irenic moment as t he full moon rises over a back ridge to illuminate the surroundings in alabaster gloam, casting spooky shadows and lending an aura of – religious solemnity - make that spiritual sublimity - over the rocky, scrubby, sagebrushy landscape. Aaaah, what could be better than soaking in a hot tub on a full moon night? Content as can be, we are the rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub, knaves all three. . .
More and more people have congregated at the main soaking tubs – one guy, an aging dude who claims he’s been coming here for thirty years, has set up a folding chair in one of the tubs, and keeps popping cans of beer and getting drunker and drunker; it's surprising he just doesn’t pass out. It does appear he's transmogrifying into some sort of bloated amphibious creature. And the ta lking never lets up. It's hard to have a sacred experience of silent appreciation or just a serene moment to yourself, when everyone's running off at the mouth about this and that - politics, their big hike, conspiracy theories, etc. (Yeah, the boys are just as guilty as the next party, I suppose, but it's contagious - you meet people, the scene becomes affable and sociable, and before you know it, a party's in the making.) The worst behavior occurs one night when a group of low-brow skanky teen girls start getting it on with some yahoo twenty-something dudes, drinking whisky and smoking weed and dirty talkin' about "doing it" right in the tubs. We'd been soaking pleasantly for half an hour, so our time was up and we leave just as the raunchy "festivities" are getting underway. The next morning we hear from someone that it had degenerate
d into a drunken orgiastic free-for-all. (Hmmm, on second thought, maybe we missed out on some fun!)
Travertine Hot Springs - when you have it to yourselves or with just a couple of others - is a remarkable place, a healing site of gathering thermal waters emanating from a gigantic humpback of a mineral rock formation channeling steaming water into four built up bathing pools. The terrain is otherworldly, lonesome high desert where ravens gather in gnarled trees and oversized jackrabbits scamper for cover in brittlebrush. The whitish ground is covered like a light snow from saline residue, and dotted with pinkish brown mud pits, fun to squish around in. In the distance, the Sierra crest looms, snow-capped in Springtime, but now stark and black, an impressive spectacle to behold as you're relaxing in the tubs. We relish coming to the springs each morning, and ending each day's long, exhausting hikes soaking our bodies in the alchemic waters, rejuvenating tired, aching muscles, and giving us courage and fortitude to hit the trails again.
We’re tired and hungry, and it’s late; we’ve had a long day. I suggest to the boys - in pure jest - that we get a hotel room with cable TV, which garners a chuckle or two. But since camping is forbidden on the BLM Travertine land, and the US Forest Service campgrounds are anathema to o
ur anti-people sensibilities, I remember a sweet little pull-off fifteen minutes outside of town along the East Walker River, in the Toiyabe National Forest. It turns out to be a pitiful little patch of earth - one of those places off the road with a fire ring and trashy evidence of human presence - but all in all, private, our very own, and a hundred percent preferred over a crowded and noisy and smoky National Forest campground. . .a pretty decent place to throw down a tarp and crash for the night next to the fast rushing willow and alder lined river amid the big desert ridges and hills surrounding and hemming us in on all sides.
By now, the blaring moon is high in the sky, obliterating most of the stars - except for the bright presence of Jupiter and Venus - or is it Mars and Uranus? - and its striking presence should be a cause for staying up and basking in the eerie glow, but we’re too tired to acknowledge it and just cover up our eyes with pull-down wool caps, snug in our warm bags, and it’s lights out, so to speak, until dawn, when we awaken to pinkish cirrus clouds hovering over us with the distant ridge tops tinged in that early-morning golden glow of sunlight so beautiful and precious it makes you want to - cry and sigh. Why?
Back at Travertine,we luxuriously soak and have the premises mostly to ourselves all morning. Afterwards, we cook up a delicious breakfast, and just barely get the stoves and gas canisters put away – turns out they’re illegal – when a truck pulls up and out climbs this b-b-b-b-bad-ass looking 65-year old dude (we later find out his name is Kenny) who puffs out his chest, draws up his stern, wrinkled and overly tanned Marine drill sergeant face and, barely deigning to acknowledge us, the first words out of his mouth are: “It’s illegal to camp here.” Uh, excuse us, Kenny? We’re not camping, although from the looks of things, with our gear, cooler and bags of food strewn haphazardly about, you can see how Kenny, in his narrative-spinning wisdom, might think we are. Mike explains we’re just “staging” and reorganizing. Well, Kenny is one gruff son of a bitch who claims to be in the employ of the BLM, but when I ask him for his ID, he ignores me and continues his business of inspecting the vehicle and writing down the license plate number, while grabbing an unopened canister, announcing, “I’m confiscating this.” Uh, excuse us, Kenny – but that's called stealing! Isn’t it illegal only if it’s open and being used? Kenny ignores us and continues with his intimidation tactics. What a prick. I try small talking him a bit, while Mark challenges him (unwisely), but neither approach wins him over. Gruffly, he tells us, “You’ll be talking to the sheriff about this.” He holds up the gas canister and waves it when he says THIS. Which leaves us scratching our heads and wanting to get the heck out of Dodge. Apparently, over the years, people have been
ignoring the “No Camping” signs posted, and Kenny's the crack-down man, but it seems, at best, sporadically enforced. One night we see this guy just plopping down like nobody’s business right in the main parking area, obviously unbeknownst to Kenny, who must not have been making his rounds that night or morning, I guess. We just happen to catch him on a bad day, I suppose. Even the US Forest Service Ranger – who knows him and tells us his name – is shocked when we tell him how Kenny treated us like vermin and criminals. “Kenny did that?” the Ranger asks incredulously. “You’re kidding me! Why, that’s not right!”
Well, lots of things aren’t right, including spending too much time pissing the day away, when there’s big hiking and exploring to be done! All right, boys, I tell ‘em, I may be behind the steering wheel, but I ain't drivin' this train. I ain't dictatin', I ain't pushin' no agendas, and contrary to popular belief (I'm a Leo, after all), I ain't micromanagin’ this trip. I will throw things out there for you to chew on and mull over, and then YOU tell ME what you want to do. I will defer on all counts to how you want the day to unfold, of where the wheels will take us. You wanna sit around for two hours making elaborate breakfasts before breaking camp, fine with me, I'll just grab my binoculars and head down to the pretty river and do a little bird watchin' or break out my crossword puzzle and do a little word botchin'. You wan t to discuss some philosophical or personal issue to the nth degree while the hours dwindle in a parking lot, no problem, You’ll find me (stewing!) just down the trail, under the shade of a big old tree, counting to ten, humming a tune, admiring the river. Boys, you want to head north when we should go south, detour east when it's all about going west - be my guest. I'm here as your friend and chauffeur, and we'll all have a great time driving each other nuts, but get there we will, there’s no doubt about that, even though at times we will seem stymied and thwarted, for as the old proverb goes, “tie two birds (make that three) together, even though they now have four wings (make that six) they cannot fly.”
Our first destination - and where we plan to spend bulk of our four days - is Tom's Place, or to be more precise, Mosquito Flat Trailhead leading into Little Lakes Valley, one of California's highest trailheads at 10,300 ft. above sea level, and one of the most sublime and austere alpine wildernesses in the Sierra Nevada. Because of the beauty and ease of accessibility, this spectacular hike attracts many people seeking supreme solitude amid rugged wonderland beauty offering up a string of five crystalline lakes with - as my memories of years ago surface - surreal shimmering images of upside down 13,000 ft. alabaster peaks reflecting in cobalt blue waters.
Our intention is to backpack in four miles to remote Gem Lake situated at nearly 11,000 ft. at the base of a cirque of glaciated mountains rising to over 13,700 ft. This is big country, and quite popular, since there's only about 700 ft. or so of total climbing, and the views just keep getting better and better. The day is looking inclement, however, but that doesn't stop us. We load up our packs and prepare to set off on a three nighter into the great wilderness. We take about fifty steps on the trail, then stop in our tracks. The packs seem terribly heavy and overloaded. We have no bear canisters or ropes to hang our food. We feel raindrops and look up at a purplish sky tenebrous with rolling clouds and peals of thunder booming in the distance. No one has packed a tent. Most egregious of all, we completely have overlooked getting the requisite wilderness permit for an overnight trip. How dumb! What were we (not) thinking!? Moreover, though, we rationalize our ill-preparedness by (a) Mark's sore back which he had thrown out a couple of days ago playing squash; (b) my bum ankle which is basically hobbling me from doing my billy-goat thing; and (c) Mike's inflamed pelvis from a break due to a bike accident six months ago. Clearly, it's a message from the Universe that the forces of nature are working against us, telling us to "pack it in" as in don't pack it in, and instead just be content doing a day hike...which is exactly what we do, and it turns out to be the perfect and wise thing to do. . .mostly because we just can’t get enough of those hot springs!
We climb steeply out of the Mono Basin along beautiful Rock Creek - there couldn't be a more picturesque scene on earth. Light on our feet now, and equally light in spirit, we're nearly jaunting our way past the pearly string of pristine lakes - Marsh, Heart, Box, Long Chickenfoot, Gem - truly California's version of the Swiss Alps! Unfortunately, though, photographic conditions are not ideal and those sought-after prized reflections in the lake of snow-capped peaks and pinnacled spires are, alas, not to be had today. Still, we're in our own private Shangri-La, barely passing or seeing any other people - even though the parking lot is completely packed! (Many are fly fishermen ensconced along Rock Creek doing their rhythmic casting thing hoping to snag a few trout for their pleasure – not the trout’s! – or dinner, if big enough.
The entire hike in, I’m limping severely. My one good foot is even hurting. No matter, this scenery is well worth the price of some temporary pain. The dizzying vista of the ring of neck-wrenchingly high peaks in this part of the Range of Light form the last of the "13-ers" - Mt. Morgan, Mt. Mills, Mt. Abbot, Mt. Dade, and the impressive Bear Creek Spire – indeed, they are lofty and heaven-reaching, off-limits to mere mortals, impressing us as though transported to some fairytale sky kingdom. What can I write about them? Krishnamurti cautioned that "The description is not the described; I can describe the mountain, but the description is not the mountain, and if you are caught up in the description, as most people are, then you will never see the mountain." Nonetheless, legendary mountaineer Norman Clyde found himself atop this granitic altar and gives a birds eye view account of a description of a landscape we can only imagine: "To the northwest of Mt. Tom, across a profound gorge looms a sharp, pyramidal mountain, 13,708 feet in elevation. This is Bear Creek Spire, perhaps the finest of a number of peaks that encircle a treeless, granite basin . . . It is an unusually impressive mountain of the Matterhorn type. On all sides, except the west, it drops away in almost vertical walls hundreds of feet in height. The summit itself is a single monolith only a few feet in diameter from which these jagged aretes radiate in true Matterhorn fashion. The view obtained from this circumscribed perch is superb. To the east, across deep gorges, is Mt. Tom; to the south, beyond others, is the lofty and comman ding form of Mt. Humphreys; to the south, Seven Gables, Mt. Hilgard and other rugged peaks; to the west, across Lake Italy Basin, Mt. Gabb; to the northwest, the group containing Mts. Dade, Abbot and Mills. Another handsome mountain as one looks up the Rock Creek Basin is Mt. Dade. To the north it breaks away in sheer cliffs at whose base lies a small glacier. It has been ascended only a few times, although the view from its summit is a very good one." From our puny vantage point, down on the "flats" at 11,000 ft., our perspective is narrow, limited, and
I'm exhausted, and my feet are aching, so I limp over to the ice-cold lake and soak them until they're numb, while the Perfesser decides to climb up to Morgan Pass a nd see what he can see at 11,155 ft. Mike and I opt to hang back, take it easy, and be content to take in the views. At one point, we hear a minor rumble - not distant thunder, but more like a class II avalanche on one of the mountain’s scree slopes. It lasts for several seconds, followed by another fall of rock debris a few minutes later. We are all alone in this forbidding, seeming inhospitable world. If anything should happen - a kidney stone, a severe sprain, god forbid, a heart attack! - what would we do? An hour later, Mark joins us and we’re ready to head the four miles back. I struggle, lagging behind. But the boys wait for me near Long Lake, captivated by the impressionistic palette of clearing sky and the sun's attempt to peak out from behind gigantic cumulus clouds, making for ever more drama on this lost horizon of forest, lake and mountain.
Well, now what? I suggest to the boys that we drive back to Travertine (an hour and a half away) and soak in the hot springs. Amen! Hear! Hear! No arguments there! At this point none of us can even fathom spending a chilling night at high altitude. It truly makes all the difference in the world to soak our tired, aching bones. And after another magical full moon reverie at the springs, we head back to our camping spot next to the Little Walker River, like going home to a familiar place you can call your own. Not a soul in sight, it’s a beautiful evening, just a few mosquitoes, nothing to complain about, blessings for a wonderful meal, and soon we're down for the count fading out with the chirping crickets and coyotes howling at the surreal moon.
Next morning (after the perquisite soak) we're off and running to Mono Lake, about thirty minutes down the road near Lee Vining. We gas up – a $65 bill! (Phew! – but what do you expect, Indiana prices up here?) I can’t wait to explore Mono Lake on this beautiful sun-struck cerulean day, with its alabaster tufa towers scattered about the lake’s edge like odd misplaced stalagmites. This brief stop over can't really be considered an adventure work-out; it’s more like visiting an outdoor mu seum, a chance to wander around taking in the austere, immense beauty of the big desert landscape in bloom with pretty yellow rabbit brush. We wander lazily around on a easy loop trail, bird watching, lake gazing, lost in our own individual worlds of meditative thoughts and silent reverie.
The linchpins in the ecological cycle are the brine shrimp, algae, and alkali flies who gather and swarm by the millions along the shoreline, and provide thousands of birds with sustenance to convert into energy for breeding and long flights. Without these tiny but innumerable creatures existing in lowly contempt at the bottom of the food chain, the entire ecology would collapse in short order . .and yet their numbers support over 80 species of wa ter birds, including 85% of California’s breeding gulls, rare Snowy Plovers, and several types of Grebes and Phalaropes. The latter – Wilson’s Phalaropes – are fist-sized little guys who fly non-stop for 3000 miles – do I need to repeat that?!? - to their South American breeding grounds at Mar Chiquita in Argentina in – get this! – three days! NON-STOP for 3000 MILES in 3 DAYS! In fact, so great is this avian congregation, that Mono Lake, with Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and Mar Chiquita, is designated as a cornerstone of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, a flyway connecting these great stopovers of one earth’s most amazing migratory spectacles.
Everyone by now knows the story of how one of the oldest lakes in North America nearly died, and then was brought back from the brink of wasteland extinction to its present and improving state. Beginning in 1941, when deals were cut to siphon off water from several tributary streams to feed the insatiable thirst and recreation demands of a burgeoning populace in LA, up to 1962, in just 25 years the lake level had dropped 25 ft. and doubled in salinity. . . and by 1995 water levels had dropped over 40 ft., threatening to turn the vast bird resort into a Armageddon chemical sump. In 1978, eco-prophet David Gaines founded the organization, The Mono Lake Committee, which rapidly grew in legions and soon had enough political clout and grassroots support to effectuate the halting of the senseless diversions and reverse the continuing destruction of this national – indeed, world – treasure. Tragically, Gaines died in a winter automobile accident near Lee Vining in 1988, and, according to famed birde r Don Roberson, he was “the most important environmentalist to come from the ranks of the hardcore California birders. Although it is probably too simplistic to say that David Gaines saved Mono Lake, it is close enough to the truth to warrant consideration.” Thanks to David Gaines and his many supporters - Long live Mono Lake! Long live the alkali flies, the brine shrimp and the algae! May the birds forever fly far and free!
Next up on the itinerary of hedonistic pursuits: the Hoover Wilderness. We drive ten miles up the winding, dusty, bumpy Green Creek Road to the trailhead for a six-mile out and back hike to Green Lake – a typical (viz., extremely beautiful!) Sierra alpine lake situated in a thickly forested granite basin. The road steadily climbs to overlook the Bridgeport valle y, then levels off in a big meadow bursting with reddish tinged grasses, mule ears, varieties of sage brush. Here, the creek slows down and becomes a lazy, broad channel, reminiscent of Hat Creek in the Cascades up near Shasta – and, how charming! There’s a well constructed beaver dam that draws our attention. We get out of the car and go to explore, but no beavers. Enticed by the warm sunshine, we strip naked and plunge in the cold water for a refreshing dip. The Perfesser goes first, unhesitatingly diving in to great fanfare. Lots of hooting and whooping and shaking and shivering like excited dogs. We could linger here all day, but time's a-wasting! - there’s bigger and better things awaiting us in the high, back country of this splendid, isolated wilderness.
At the trail head at Green Creek Campground (8,000 ft.), we assess things and decide to hike three miles (one-way) to Green Lake and see what we can see. The boys show their non-conformity and contempt for convention by going light – the Perfesser, bless his soles, wants to truly be in touch with the earth, so he opts to hike barefoot most of the way, while Mike braves the well-graded trail in a pair of flip-flops! Me – I need my big clunky boots for ankle support, regardless of their insistence that “studies have shown” that shoe support is over-rated….that may well be, but I’m very content to have my leather and rubber clodhoppers laced up and strapped to my sensitive feet, giving me a sense of
It’s a superb and relatively easy hike, to about 9,000 ft., encompassing nonstop breathtaking mountain scenery in a classic upper montane forest setting of wildflower strewn meadows, steep scree slopes, monumental ridges, and out-of-sight peaks. The now-gushing Green Creek sharply careens down from on high, a crashing symphony of watery music in its boulder-choked journey to the beaver dam. For the most part, the trail climbs through sheltered forests of Lodgepole pine, Jeffrey Pine, Red Fir, Mountain Hemlock, aspen and Juniper. We come across one tree that must be 1200 years old, we guess. At a stately stand of pines, I stick my nose in the furrowed bark and breathe in the sweet body odor - and describe to the boys the olfactory sensations of vanilla, carmel, pineapple, or butterscotchy scents as though critiquing a fine bouquet of wine. Among the animals who call this place home, the Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel and a few deer are spotted, but wildlife sightings in general are scarce; we’re hoping to catch a glimpse of a fat marmot, maybe a marten; we do see quail and grouse, but no owl or hint of mountain lion or bear. After a final creek fording across a dam of piled up logs, Green Lake comes into view - a bejeweled body of shimmering water set in a basin surrounded by a ring of 12,000 ft. peaks, one with a snaky 500 ft. cascade plunging down its cliff face. Here, we throw off packs, wander around, explore, and breathe in the deep mountain air, pungent with the scen t of sage, pine and juniper.
Today’s our last day in the Eastern Sierra. We pay homage by amping things up a notch. Tamarack Lake is our goal – not an overly-popular destination, owing to its brutal exposure and tough, relentless climb beginning at Twins Lake (7100 ft.), all the way up to near subalpine realms at 9700 ft. It’s a bone-crushing ascent into rarefied air of, oh, a mere 2600 ft. and four miles - and it definitely tests our mettle from the get-go. The climb initially tackles a gigantic moraine where the sandy trail switchbacks a half dozen times before reaching a crest about 200 ft. up. Great views of Twin Lakes and the Sawtooth Ridge dominate. We see a buck and family of deer foraging halfway up. A few grouse are flushed out. A hawk circles overhead. We walk along the top of the moraine, with Summers Meadows to our left, and gain more elevation, and soon take a little side spu r to a babbling brook, arm's length-wide, where we stop and plop down on the grass for a few minutes of idyll-whiling, unaware of the grunt ascent of 2000 more feet of elevation gain awaiting us. We set off and begin the climb, up, up, up, through summery groves of aspens, pines and juniper, with sagebrush and bitterbrush scattered about boulder gardens, until, soon, we’re in a high, exposed environment with far-flung views in all directions. After a couple of false summit crests – pure let downs! - we attain perch on level ground and are amazed to encounter a large pond, a mirage of aqueous blue beauty where I know I’m done for. It’s a perfect kick back venue, to eat lunch, watch red-backed flickers loop in and out of dead tree snags lining the north shore, and soak my feet in the water. Mark still has energy so he bids us adieu beside a gurgling stream in sun-dappled forest, and heads on up to Tamarack Lake by himself. A couple of hours later, he returns, effusively reporting on the amazing sights of the foreboding and inhuman scene he witnessed in the furthest, nearly inaccessible recesses of this high upper basin tarn, reached only after boulder hopping a vast volcanic scree field beneath Olympian sized Monument Ridge and Crater Crest. The Perfesser's description of the mountain leaves us feeling as though we missed something pretty special, and, being overly caught up in his description, we will, of course, never see the mountain.
We tarry leisurely, basking in warm sun by pond's reedy edge, transfixed by the mirror-smooth surface reflecting dead trees, and end up getting into another of what invariably turns out to be an insanely loopy discussion - this one, of all things, about “Nash equilibrium” as applied to game theory and options trading that continues – for the boys – nearly the entire 2600 ft / four miles back down to the car! Tiring of the circuitous discussion, where explanations and exegeses are offered up in detailed nuance, I'd lag behind and then catch up, only to hear the boys repeating the exact same thing nearly word for word! Fer cryin' out loud, boys!
By now, we realize the afternoon has gotten the better part of us, and we’d best be making our way back down, down, down, without further delay, where the going is always more difficult and tedious. On the approach to the moraine, we somehow completely bypass where the final switchback tops out, and we end up hiking a good ways past it atop the moraine, baffled by unfamiliar surroundings, and getting all turned around and frustrated. It's getting late and we’re bumbling about in the dusk wondering where the trail is – or, more to the point – how could we have missed it?. . .embarrassingly so, after I had mentioned to the boys the importance of always securing one’s bearings. As the last vestiges of daylight melt away into a pretty – but largely unnoticed -- sunset, I panic and tell the boys the only way out of this is to bushwhack straight down the moraine, where we can see the road and campground far below. Following the “leader”, the boys take off after me in awkward leaps and bounds until – lucky for us – we hit the trail only about 15 ft. down. The Perfesser follows it back up a ways to the moraine crest, just so we would know, and realizes it switchbacks so sharply there that we didn’t notice a log demarcating it. Had we just stayed on top and continued back tracking, we would have found it. Lesson learned – always take proper bearings, never panic. Back at the car, we’re tired and broken and beaten by this 5200 ft. / eight miler – the Perfesser did even more than that – and we couldn’t be more grateful to have made it to the car before darkness, in one piece, and looking extremely haggard but anticipating a good soaking at Travertine - along with a hot meal - more than anything in the world.
Time to say goodbye to the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Time to head back home after a few too-short days of adventure and camaraderie. But let's not rush things! It ain't over til it's over! We still have a full day, with no particular timetable for our Bay Area return later that night, so we retrace our route back up to the Sonora Pass, and then down, with plans to put in a few more miles along the Stanislaus River in the Emigrant Wilderness. It's been years since I set foot in the Emigrant, mostly because of the narrative in my mind that it's an overcrowded paradise for large backpacking groups and horsepacking outfitters doing the four or five night Emigrant Loop trip. All true, mind you, as we discover, but no matter - it's an amazingly scenic place, so close to the resort area, but within a quarter mile, you're in wilderness, in big splendid back country. We spend a few hours hiking along the rocky trail, littered with the dropping of many horses, along with blood stains, I am sad to note (injured horses) - is it a pack train or a track pain, I ask the boys? We don't do too much, other than stop for a bite to eat at an overlook facing a massive defile in the granite wall carved out by Kennedy Creek thundering down to meet the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River in a major c
onfluence of two granite mountain ravines. The Perfesser and I leave a sore pelvised Brock to make his ginger way back while we continue climbing up another series of switchbacks to get to Relief Reservoir, constructed by PG&E, but we don't make it. Instead, we return to marvel at the scenery, humbled and diminutive in the presence of these large granite mountains. Nothing need be said, as Ansel Adams intuited, “No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied - it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.”