"A blank spot on the map is an invitation to encounter the natural world, where one's character will be shaped by the landscape. To enter wilderness is to court risk, and risk favors the senses, enabling one to live well.

...The time had come to protest with the heart, that to deny one's genealogy with the earth was to commit treason against one's soul."

-Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Taking it Slow: The Zigzag Mountain Trail and Paradise Park

I raced the Mt. Hood 50 on Saturday July 28th and then did the Rim to Rim Against Nestle protest run in the Gorge on the Wednesday after that.  The tough, epic 50 mile course of the Nestle run (of my creation!) felt like a 100 miler due to my fatigue but was good training for my last two ultras of the year, the Waldo 100k on Aug. 18 and The Bear 100 on Sept. 28-29.

I needed to rest my body and give it time to recover; with Waldo only 2 weeks away I wanted to make sure I was good and ready.  I got restless though with a rare free weekend and the perfect Oregon summer weather and had to take advantage and get into the mountains.

I decided to go hiking and spend a night alone out in the woods somewhere.  Being in the mountains in any way--hiking, running, climbing, strolling, observing, sleeping out--increases one's fluency with them.  Mountain travel is a true art and familiarizing with all its facets and getting to know the land and the movements intimately is essential.  I vowed to just take it nice and easy, go old school, take lots of pictures, have no real agenda, play it by ear, sleep wherever.

My Monday was free until the afternoon so I chilled Saturday and left Sunday morning and drove east toward Mt. Hood.  I'd gone back and forth literally dozens of times about where to go and what to do.  It was ridiculous.  First the 3 Sisters area, then Olympic National Park, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the Mt. St. Helen's area, and on and on.  My going solo definitely played a part in my decision making and I always considered driving times.  With so much so close, it's hard to justify driving three or four hours when you could drive one.  I ended up staying close and was, yet again, blown away beyond comprehension.

I parked at the Zigzag Mountain Trailhead just off the East Lolo Pass Rd. off Highway 26, 45 miles from Portland.  I packed up and set off climbing out of the bottom of the valley; a nice early start at just after 10 am.  My small pack weighed maybe 25 lbs. at most with one long sleeve shirt, a ~2 lb. 32 deg. sleeping bag, a headlamp, hat, map, cell phone, ID, cash, and food and water.  For the food I had some gels and the like but also real stuff: a couple prepackaged burritos, a Dave's Sin Dawg, and a stick of Olympic Provisions Salami (OMG! This stuff is SO next level.)  It was nice to feel still relatively light but have plenty to spend the night out comfortably.

The trail followed mellow switchbacks for three thousand feet, ascending onto the massive ridge system that runs all the way into Mt. Hood itself.  I'd eagerly scoped the feature on maps and was thrilled to be finally exploring the area.  Once up the main climb the trail is surprisingly moderate, rolling along the ridge line, in and out of the trees.  When it did pop out of the trees the views were incredible, initially to the south with Mt. Jefferson and Devil's Peak and the countless others in between and all around, and then in every direction, to Helens, Rainier and Adams to the north.  Wildflowers abounded.  No clouds, hot, 90 degrees, but perfect.  Mt. Hood looked really far away.  I had some epic schemes flitting through my head and visions of grandeur about going all night and doing a 60 mile loop around the whole mountain but those quickly dissolved as I was stopping constantly and taking my time to look at things and take pictures.  And I was hiking.  Things go much slower when you're not running.  I decided to follow the Zigzag trail all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail/Timberline Trail and then see what I felt like doing.  I already had an inkling that I might be tempted to head to Timberline Lodge for beers (and because I love that place, such a work of art.)

I was constantly blown away by the Zigzag Mountain Trail and the area right there to the west of Mt. Hood, with Cast and Burnt Lakes and the exposed, wildflower strewn high points and outcrops all along the ridge.   I finally saw a few people near the Burnt Lake trail junction (where they took a picture of me) but before that I had been completely alone, fighting through the spiderwebs across the trail all on my lonesome.  For real though it was crazy, spider webs and the occasionally quite large spiders residing on them were the theme of the trip.  I was seriously very thankful to have my trekking poles with me if only for the sole purpose of clearing my way on the trail.

After reaching the PCT/Timberline Trail I was, as suspected, hankering for a beer and not looking for the epic miles I'd briefly pondered.  After all I was supposed to be resting.  I would go to Timberline Lodge I decided, enjoy a beverage, some company, maybe catch some coverage of the Olympics, and then sleep somewhere around there.  In the morning I'd cut down the mountain on a shorter route to Highway 26 then hitchhike the short distance to the town of Zigzag and my car nearby.  That was the plan.

...And I did exactly that.  The last three miles of my day, on the PCT/Timberline Trail from the Zigzag Mountain Trail to the Lodge, were dramatic and beautiful, contouring in and out and the great and massive drainage below Mississippi Head and the headwaters of the Zigzag River.  I was buzzing off the brilliant sights and perfect early evening temperatures.  Blissful.

At the Ramshead Bar I drank two IPAs, ate a bread bowl of clam chowder, talked to some PCT through-hikers, watched Olympic beach volleyball and gymnastics, then headed back out of doors again, into the lovely night.  The talkative older character of an employee said there was a lightning show going on out to the south east and so I went to watch it.  I hiked up the rocky, scree slopes above the lodge and found a little perch near some trees, technically right on the ski slope, but out of sight of any of the lights of the lodge.  I pulled out my sleeping bag and crawled in and watched the storm flashing out there in the cool night.  I awoke to rain, as the storm apparently had moved north a bit, and had to move under the shelter of the tree in the middle of the night.  Pleasurable temps though.

I awoke to the ski lifts running nearby, taking folks up the mountain to carve up the snow parks and few runs.  There was a surprising number of people headed up at 7 in the morning, all dressed like it was winter.  I just sat and enjoyed the view, looking south at Mt. Jefferson in the early light.  I backtracked to the lodge to have some coffee and look at my map in the great room and decide which route to take down.  I walked in the back door and the coffee was all laid out right there on a huge table in front of the window with big white porcelain mugs lined up invitingly, ready to go.  What more could I ask for?  Well, there was no food prepared for me but I didn't even think the coffee would be free so I was already pleasantly surprised.  I sat and consulted the map and decided to retrace my steps on the PCT/Timberline Trail through some of the most dramatic parts of the day before, then take the Paradise Park Trail down the mountain.

It was a stunning morning.  Couldn't have been more agreeable to the senses.  When I reached my cut off to start descending I couldn't help myself and chose to add on the Paradise Park Loop (an additional 4 miles) before heading for home.  I had enough time and I was already up there and I'd never been on the loop before.  I mean what if I died the next day?  I had to take advantage while I had the chance...

I actually thought I had died and gone to my alpine mountain heaven...I can't say much more than that.  It is hard for me to comprehend that the trailhead to this literal paradise is less than 1 hour from Portland.  That fact makes me catch my breath.  The privilege of having that access is immeasurable.

I did the loop then headed down, running a little here and there, but still battling spiders and webs.  I finally saw hikers coming up and was thankful that they had just cleared my way, as I had theirs.  I reached the road and walked the pavement of Rd. 2639 for a mile or so to the busy Highway 26.  Thumb out, hot in the full sun at 12:30 on the side of the road.  Some cars passed and I started to have the normal doubts, what if I never get back?  But 2 minutes later a guy stopped and I hopped in.  Edwardo--super cool dude, soccer coach from Portland, been to the summit of Hood--told me about his weekend in Bend and we chatted and in no time he dropped me at the Lolo Pass Road and we said goodbye.  I walked the last mile to my car and then I was back, thankful for no broken windows.  I switched into flip flops, started driving and an hour later I was home, ready for work in the afternoon.

Another good adventure, dirt bag style.

Enjoy the pictures (there's lots...)

Thanks for reading and looking! Here's a wonderful video and song for your viewing and listening pleasure...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Flashbacks #2- Another Trip Home (Yosemite '10)

I've worked on this piece for awhile now, tinkering and reworking, and am excited to finally share it.  When the story was nearly completed I came across a video someone had posted entitled "Yosemite HD."  It's a spectacular collection of images from the great national park and the time lapse techniques and new age technology make it truly stunning and unique to watch.  I realized then that it was a perfect compliment to my story (or vice versa) about a solo adventure right through the heart of that land.  Hopefully the combination of words and images will provide a stimulating multi-media experience of the great Range of Light and accurately portray the wonder, excitement and amazement I've felt when visiting.  Enjoy!

Another Trip Home
A Solo, Trans-Sierra Journey

I felt bad for lying to my boss.  The coming weekend was prime time for a mission though: my girlfriend was away and the weather was perfect.  All I needed was another excuse.

I liked being a carpenter for many reasons; a major one was that it was a profession more accommodating of a vagabond's schedule than most.  On many occasions I had taken off on short notice, heading to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada mountains for another adventure.  Even with all my boss' forgiveness and understanding I sometimes felt guilty enough to lie.  

"I have a doctors appointment at 1 back in the east bay, so I was hoping to leave at lunchtime," I explained to him.

The plan was to leave work promptly at noon and drive to Yosemite Valley to catch the YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transit System) bus at 5:15 pm, headed for the town of Mammoth Lakes on the east side of the Sierras.  Then, over the next two days, I would run and hike the 70 miles back to my car and drive straightaway back to Berkeley on Sunday night for work the next morning.

I had chosen my route with great excitement.  Sitting on the couch on the summer evenings after work, with door open and Berkeley Hills beyond, I scoured the maps laid out before me, memorizing the features and trails.  I wanted to cross the Sierra Nevada range from east to west by a grand and aesthetic route.  I craved a real challenge, a true journey; over passes, around peaks, into deep valleys and out again.

I am always thrilled to see new sights and visit new landscapes but I relish the trips back to the same places, each time forging a more intimate connection.  I have spent a lot of time in Yosemite over the years, increasingly exploring the magical spaces in between and just beyond the more popular destinations; climbing walls and mountains, hiking on and off trails, attempting to complete the web.

I had the route planned and couldn't stop thinking about it.  I would begin at Agnew Meadows and follow the Mammoth Trail over the low pass just south of the Minarets and the Ritter Range, then descend into the valley of the North Fork of the San Joaquin River deep in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  I would cross the North Fork at Hemlock Crossing and zigzag northwest to Isberg Pass, a remote southwesterly entrance to Yosemite National Park.  From Isberg Pass I would go down and up again to Red Peak Pass, then begin the final descent, past the Ottoway Lakes to Illilouette Creek and down to Yosemite Valley.  On the last miles I'd hit the crowds by Nevada and Vernal Falls and on the Mist Trail, and soon arrive at Happy Isles and civilization.  I figured (and hoped) it would take two days: begin Friday night/Saturday morning and finish Sunday, in time for the 5:15 pm bus back to my car.

  I arrived in Presidio Heights, one of San Francisco's wealthiest neighborhoods, on Friday morning and got to work.  I was perched high off the side of the fourth story on a tiny platform I'd constructed, blasting away with the nail gun for four hours, reframing and attaching plywood as the base layer for new siding.  The cold summer sea fog rolled past and through the breaks in it I could see the colorful houses of Presidio Heights, Laurel Heights and the inner Richmond.  I could see the UCSF campus by the gigantic mushroom cloud of a Eucalyptus grove and the Twin Peaks above it.  There were the massive bulbous canopies of Buena Vista and Golden Gate Park and the de Young Museum amidst the tree tops and clouds like a Mayan temple from outer space.  A wonderful city, but nevertheless I checked the time incessantly, waiting for my escape from it.  Finally the moment arrived and I began frantically putting my tools away.

I skipped my ritual pre-adventure In & Out burger feast in Manteca, but only because I didn't have time to stop.  There was traffic in the city and on 580 getting out of the Bay and I was behind schedule already and realized my plan needed amending.  It was too much of a gamble to try for the 5:15 bus from the Valley, there was only one eastbound bus a day so if I missed it my plan would be foiled.

The bus was scheduled to be at Tuolumne Meadows at 6:50, in the Yosemite high country on highway 120.  Catching it there seemed to be my only choice so I rerouted to Tuolumne, parked, grabbed my pack and walked to the bus stop.  There was only one down side: I had wanted to park in the Valley so I would be finishing at my car and my things, ready to start the drive home.  Unfortunately with the change of plans, I would need to take the bus to get to my car, which meant making it back in time to catch it.  I would deal with that later, the important thing was that I was on my way to Mammoth Lakes.

The sun set and the purples, pinks and blues aged into richer tones over the peak tops.  The bus descended the serpentine road thousands of feet from Tioga Pass to Lee Vining, down the immense valley that dwarfs vehicles like ants.  We reached June Lake as it grew fully dark and shortly after entered Mammoth Lakes and drove through the town to the final stop by the ski resort.   I stepped off into the cold night air of a town at elevation.

I had only my small day pack.  I wanted to move fast so I'd tried to be as light as possible, although I've suffered a great deal in the outdoors so I've become a little more realistic about what I bring along.  I had a few layers, a rain jacket, a 32 degree ~1.5 lb sleeping bag, a headlamp, hat, and heaviest of all, my food.

I'd gotten tired of eating bars and gels all the time and wanted more real food on my adventures.  I'd started making homemade energy wraps that my friend and I jokingly referred to as "love logs."  They began with a whole wheat tortilla and a smear of peanut butter, almond butter, and/or any other nut butters available.  I then added an array of ingredients: hemp, sesame, flax, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, dates, cranberries, raisins, bananas, banana chips, agave syrup, coconut butter, chocolate chips, olive oil and sea salt.  I would wrap it up burrito style, pack it tight in a plastic bag to help form it up, and that was it.  The results were great.

I had 5 of those wraps and 5 other savory wraps with turkey, cheese, onions, tomatoes, spinach, mayo, and Sri Racha.  Each wrap weighted probably a pound so the food bag was ridiculously heavy.  I could have fed a small child for a month.  Before I even started on the trail I forced myself to eat one of each variety to cut down on weight.

It was about nine when we arrived in Mammoth Lakes.  I could see the outline of the mountains looming in the night sky and I was intimidated to start and hungry as always.  The bus stop was across from a Swiss mountain-lodge style restaurant, so of course I went in.  I ate a burger at the bar and people watched and idled for awhile, enjoying the warmth and light and human contact before setting off into the dark.

I walked outside and called a cab, which was part of the plan.  The cab came and we drove west away from the lights of town and into the forest toward Agnew Meadows.  The driver eyed my small pack skeptically when I explained I was going to cross the Sierras over to Yosemite Valley.  He just smiled and wished me luck and dropped me at the pullout with a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail.  I paid him and said goodbye.  He was off and I was alone in the mountains.

I promptly called my girlfriend.  She was with her family visiting her sister in New York City.  I was amused at the situation: it was 10:30 on a Friday night and I was in the wilderness with not another human soul around for miles while she was on the other side of the country seeing thousands of people passing before her eyes every second in one of the biggest, most vibrant cities on earth.  It was just me and the darkness, the animals, the mountains.  I told her I loved her and that I'd call her as soon as I could, then said goodnight and turned off my phone.  The little screen faded to black and I was cut-off.  At last.

I put my pack on and started running south on the Pacific Crest Trail toward Red's Meadow.  I was tired so I knew I didn't want to go for long that night.  I often imagine myself going non-stop on a minimum of rest but after getting up at six, working a half day of construction, driving for five hours and busing for two, I was ready for sleep.  The land was gentle aways before the trail began to switchback and descend into a canyon.  I couldn't see much except what my headlamp illuminated, but I felt the wind blowing down the canyon from the north and saw the trees and grasses waving and could hear the sounds.  After a few miles the trail leveled out and I was in the canyon proper with the river close by.  Sleep was calling me so I stopped and walked over to a suitable plot beside a large downed tree, just fifty feet off the path but out of its view.  No sleeping pad or tent or bivouac sack necessary; the ground was soft under clear skies and it wasn't too cold for the elevation was low.  I chose my spot so I had an open view of the bottomless black above, littered with points of light that shone long ago, the whole sky a Milky Way.  

I awoke around 7 and packed my things, happy no animals had helped themselves to my food that I'd half-heartedly hung on a tree limb nearby.  I began running through the chilly forest, waking up to my surroundings and warming up to the morning workout.  The path crossed the river back and forth a few times on foot bridges and I saw people fishing, setting off on hikes, enjoying the crisp air.  The Pacific Crest Trail crossed the Muir Trail just west of the busy hiker hub at Red's Meadow and there I left them both and took the trail straight west.  I started hiking as the angle increased, pushed on by the views of the valley of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River to the south.  The ski mountain at Mammoth Lakes rose high in the brilliant blue sky behind me as I sweated onward, taking my time but mindful to keep a decent pace.  

I'm often (re)surprised at the ruggedness of mountain trails, gladly taken aback at the narrow, rocky, ankle-break footing, and the overgrown, hard to follow paths.  I always day-dream of running non-stop through the high peaks like an animal without fatigue, without thought, unified with everything around me, deriving unending energy from Nature like a plant absorbing the sun.  Then I arrive from sea level, tired and work weary, and try to run with a pack at elevation on the grinding ascents and treacherous descents and I quickly realize that I'm not as unstoppable as I'd wished.

I ate brunch at the first pass, atop a boulder amidst the thinning trees, looking west into the most remote of the Ansel Adams Wilderness where I was headed.  The ridge line to the north from the pass became increasingly jagged and foreboding with each peak.  When it finally reached the Minarets and Mt Banner and Ritter, the spiny ridge was so sharp and fierce in its topography that it evoked great kingdoms where unfathomable forces reigned.  Over the next thirteen miles I would be heading north along the North Fork of the San Joaquin, edging around the base of that dark kingdom.

My plastic bag of savory wraps was a nightmare.  Apparently due to the juice of the tomatoes I had used, combined with mayonnaise and Sri Racha and some condensation, the bag had literally become soup.  Miraculously though, the tortillas were remaining intact.  Reaching into that bag of sodden food was no pleasant task, but I had no choice.  I ate that dripping tortilla wrap and, by the end, all the others too.

Over the next ten miles the Ansel Adams Wilderness presented me with the most stunning wildflower display I've ever seen.  The Cascade and Olympic Mountains in Washington, the Wahsatch in Utah, the Rockies in Colorado, and the Coast Ranges in northern California and Oregon had all blown me away before with their dazzling arrays but this was the grandest of all.  The series of meadows--Summit, Stairway, Cargyle, Corral, Headquarters, Earthquake, and Naked Lady (my favorite)--came one after another, a chain of sublime spaces, of color and light and open air.   I'd see them from a distance, the marvelous colors slowly emerging out of the glowing bright between the trees.  Through the shadowed forest I would move until at last the sun would illuminate the air and ignite the world around me, the yellows, purples, oranges, and reds of the wildflowers and the pulsing blue of the sky overhead.  I couldn't help but stop and stare, hypnotized by the beauty.

I looked over to my left into the staggering perfection of Cargyle Meadow and froze suddenly.  What the...A sheep!?!?  The nearly white hair tricked my brain for an instant.  I was actually looking at a blonde black bear.  It meandered through the meadow not thirty feet away and made no signs of noticing me.  It was beautiful, young and small(ish) and as unified with its surroundings and present in the moment as I wish I could be.  Seeing an animal in the wild is an instant resetting of my mind.  It's an immediate tabula rasa, a stark and certain wake up call like cold water to the face.  It is witnessing for a moment the pulsing essence of Nature, catching a bittersweet glimpse of a world we've turned our backs to.  It is the ecstatic sensation of experiencing the impossible, like walking a bridge we burned long ago.

I moved slowly back up the trail paralleling the graceful beast, transfixed by it as I sensed my footing, careful for noise.  For a few minutes I observed as it nosed along, entranced by its instinctual movement.  Eventually my tracking skills failed me and I kicked a rock and the bear moved away to the far end of the meadow and disappeared into the forest beyond, just like that.  I stared after it, not wanting to accept that it was gone.  I continued on finally, clinging to the scene and its image in my mind like when you wake up from a good dream and want to go back to sleep.  Once you've had experiences with animals in the wild you can close your eyes and remember the moment and feel a deep comfort from it.

As much as I relish time alone in the mountains I would never claim not to get nervous, self-doubting or even down right scared at times.  I can see or hear strange things, imagine figures in the woods, make up creepy scenarios and get scared of the dark.  I worry about wrong turns, fear being lost, injured, battered by storm, dashed upon rocks, drowned in the rivers, stranded by broken ankle, starved to death.  These fears demand my attention and awareness, necessitate my focus on the task and my presence in the moment and so they are good.

My solitude was further pronounced the more remote my position grew, the less and less trodden the trails.  I never considered the option of turning back though, it wasn't in the plans.  I would have face any fears, doubts, or challenges that arose.  My commitment was complete.

The meadows ceased and the trail descended rocky and narrow until it reached the banks of the North Fork of the San Joaquin.  There it was paradise of waterfalls and pools, lush and luxurious, with the sharp spires of the Minarets overhead.  The trail crossed Dike Creek where it flows out of a dramatic, sheer-walled chute of rock and plunges into a perfect swimming hole beside the path.  I impulsively stripped naked at the sight of it but lingered too long in the shallows and wimped out.   The pain in my feet was unbearable and an ice cream headache all-consumed me, so I swallowed my pride and put my clothes back on.  It was warm and sunny but just not hot enough.  

At Hemlock Crossing there was a stout and tank-like metal bridge over the North Fork.  Under the bridge the water flowed through a beautiful passage carved in white granite to another waterfall over sculpted rock, giving me good reason to relax again beside the river and enjoy the sound.

I hiked up below Sadler Peak, climbing out of the valley of the North Fork to the southwest on the Stevenson Trail.  I enjoyed the endless views of the whole valley; the headwaters to the north and the confluence with the larger Middle Fork to the south, the dark kingdom across and the meadow lands below that I'd traversed earlier that day.  The Minarets, Mt Banner, Mt Ritter, and Mt Davis showed endless opportunities standing tall and enticing in the early afternoon sun.  It was a staggering spectacle, the kind that makes you feel small, humble, and happy.

I crossed Chetwood Creek and entered an area of lakes and meadows between white granite temples rising from the trees.  Those meadows had good names too: Bugg, Detachment, Knoblock.  I looked upon the escarpment of Timber Knob to the west as the sky grew dense with dark clouds.  The day was fading and I started feeling the usual anxieties: ornery animal friends, injury, loneliness, the unknown.  Then, as if on cue, the sky broke over me and thunder cracked and lightning flashed for a splitting instant.  The clouds opened and cold rain poured down as I stood shin deep in the middle of a flooded meadow.  There was nothing to do but laugh and shake my head and grin at my vulnerability.  I walked on, dripping wet and still eager like a dog.

I passed the decaying Chetwood Cabin and began the climb to Isberg Pass, following the East Fork of Granite Creek in the thickening twilight.  The rain stopped and the clouds broke a little and the sunset shone purple on the white granite peaks.  Thoughts of sleep drifted into my mind like nighttime fog as I reached Sadler Lake.  I considered stopping but wanted to get as far as possible that day so I continued.  I could hear people in the night and see the lights of tents on the west side of Sadler.  I could see lights and hear more people too once I got up to Lower Isberg Lake but it wasn't bothersome to the peacefulness of the night.  It was actually a nice reminder of humans experiencing the pleasures of wilderness.  My breath showed strong in the illuminated air before me and I began to feel that familiar loneliness.  Oh, how nice it would be at one of those camps!  Warm food, companionship, stories, laughter, maybe some whiskey.  No, that would have to wait for another trip.  I didn't have my sweet girlfriend to snuggle with, had no stove, no warm and comforting food, no tent, no sleeping pad, few clothes.  I relish being alone in the wilderness but I must admit that the distant presence of others was comforting that night.

I reached Lower Isberg Lake and stepped off the trail to look for a good place to sleep.  I was careful to pick a durable spot to minimize my impact and soon found an appropriate depression in the tundra near the lake.  I felt fortunate to be perched atop an elegant valley and surrounded by a regal ridge of scoured granite made by Post Peak, Isberg Peak, Sadler Peak and Long Mountian.  The sky was lighter in the west through the notch of the pass and made stark the ridge line as stars emerged upon the inky canvas, pinpricks poking through from the other side.

I put on all my layers and crawled into my sleeping bag that was quickly feeling inadequate at 10,000 ft.  I queasily ate a wet savory wrap that somehow hadn't fallen apart yet, drank some water, and laid my head on a pillow of shoes and pack.  It was 10:30 pm and I'd gone roughly 35 miles, about halfway.  Over the 15 hour day of sun and blue sky and afternoon thunderstorm, I'd taken plenty of time to stop and marvel at the sights.  My mind had drifted with the wind over the far peaks and blew with the clouds around their summits.  My imagination had flowed around the rocks in crystalline waters, buzzed among the flowers in the meadows and followed with the blonde bear away into the forest.  It was a fine day.

I was up at 6, happy to get moving and warm my cold body.  The rising sun lit the high country above the trees while the valleys slumbered on in lingering night.  Packing is fast when you have little and in a moment I was heading to the pass.  I went by a few tents with inhabitants still fast asleep, ensconced in a wonderful warmth I hadn't had.  The sun soon hit directly though and the chill left me as I moved over the rocks, giddy with the scenery.  There's truly nothing like being above treeline.  The land glowed with the orange of the earliest sun and as I stopped and soaked in the warmth a chorus of coyotes began their morning song.  Their jabber echoed off the peaks and vibrated in the light, lilting, playful and erratic.  The wild language perked my ears and sent a shiver down my body, my attention demanded in the moment by their primal exaltations.  I gazed out toward the noise trying to spot them on the rocky slopes but I couldn't pick out their graceful forms.

The trail ascended steeply below Sadler Peak but soon leveled out and traversed to the pass.  There stood the metal National Park Service sign, welcoming me to Yosemite.  I enjoyed the vantage point, looking south from where I'd come and north and east and west into Yosemite at mountain after mountain unrelenting to the horizon.  Simply thrilling; the no-bullshit world right in your face.  If you go you will feel it too.

The valley of the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced lay below me to the northwest, carved generously into the Yosemite back country.  My route went down into the valley but up once more over the Clark Range via the final pass of my route at Red Peak.  The Clark Range is a perfect mountain chain, finely sculpted and colored with a rich palate.  I'd been up Mt. Clark twice and had wanted to reach Red Peak Pass for years as I became increasingly enthralled with the relatively untraveled and overlooked area of the national park.

The path was steep and rocky descending from Isberg Pass but soon enough grew gentle and rolled on to the intersection down in the valley where the Red Peak Pass trail diverged.  The section over the Clark Range was 12 miles long, the final unknown stretch to familiar terrain.   I forged on excitedly, ascending the grey and brown and red rock, over cobbled faces marbled with infinite other heavenly tones.  It was a fairly gradual climb with short steep sections between lake basins; Red Devil Lake, Edna Lake, and countless others scattered like precious stones over the landscape, reflecting in day and night.

I was only slightly concerned about time although I knew my slow pace wasn't boding well for catching the one and only bus to get back to my car that evening.  I was having too much fun though to be preoccupied with that "minor" detail, besides if I was going to miss the bus, I was going to miss the bus; worrying wasn't going to change that.

I hiked steadily until there was no more path upwards and I found myself in the sharp groove of Red Peak Pass itself, between toothy daggers of rock that spiked into the blue above.  The view west spilled out before me, a whole other world just a moment before hidden from my eyes; Merced Peak and Upper and Lower Ottoway Lakes, Merced Pass and the Buena Vista Crest, the lesser-traveled back country of southwest Yosemite.  The central valley was way out there and my house in Berkeley beyond it and the Pacific Ocean beyond everything, not that I could see all that.  I sat and enjoyed the gun sight perch, with the cloudless sky making strong contrast against the mountains.  I felt so lucky to see those ethereal lands and to experience that sort of freedom.

I had to keep moving, urged by the necessity of at least trying to get home for work the next day.  I felt annoyed by my materialism, by our material culture, by society and our self-perpetuating routine of endless work to afford possessions we think we can't live without.  I fully embrace and relish some of the comforts and conveniences of our modernity no doubt, but I try to keep perspective on their true worth and where they fall in the grand scheme.

I was surprised at how precipitous the trail was leaving the pass.  Basketball sized boulders atop loose sand and gravel made the footing unsure and reiterated that the trip was by no means a run.  I'd already accepted that though.  I made it down the steeps and descended past the shining lakes of Upper and Lower Ottoway to the intersection with the trail along Illilouette Creek.  I'd traveled the last long downhill section from there many times so I could really put on cruise control to the end.

My imminent tardiness was slow to sink in to my uncaring brain that was still lost in and buzzing off the freedom of the wilderness.  It was a perfect grade along Illilouette creek and my eyes and legs and mind settled into the endless motion.  I measured my progress against landmarks from past trips: certain pools or drops in the river, bends in the trail, or features of the massive granite cliffs above.  The dome summit of Mt. Starr King and the other towering pieces of polished stone guided me like beacons, all distinct like classic art.  The familiar jigsaw shapes of the Clark Range, Gray Peak, Mt. Clark, and Quartzite Peak, accompanied me on my right as I went.  I looked upon their craggy features and remembered thrilling adventures with good friends.  I recalled storms, driving snow and blistering sun, sleep deprivation, heat exhaustion, fatigue, building shelters out of downed limbs, climbing perfect rock with vast air beneath, feeling the textures, relishing the dizzying positions.  I remembered grinning and laughing, balancing on spiny ridge tops, taking pictures on the summits of a timeless playground.

I hit the final little uphill near Panorama Point, across from Illilouette Ridge and Glacier Point, before the steep descent to Happy Isles.  When I reached the John Muir Trail near Nevada Falls I struck up a conversation with a guy from Montana.  He told me about his day running and hiking, away from his wife and daughter who were off on a hike of their own, so I told him about my past two days.  He was thrilled for me and excited to hear about my journey.  I finally felt like running (it's easier to pass all the crowds that way anyhow) and the Montanan was game so we started down the last ~3-4 miles together, gradually increasing the pace until we were nearly sprinting, flying by countless others the entire way.  I never expected to reach the end at such a clip.  It felt great to finish with a strong heart-pumping effort, breathing hard until the final steps.  The human interaction and connection was a nice too after two full days of almost complete solitude.  His wife and daughter were waiting by the bus and he was happy to tell them of my hike and our run down together.  They were sweet and congratulatory and we chatted on the free shuttle as we rode into the summer evening.  Even with the speedy finish I was too late for the bus, so I had some figuring to do.

The foremost task on the agenda though was to stop at the convenient store by the Yosemite Lodge for ice cream and beer, "It's-Its" and IPAs to be exact.  I sat on a bench outside the Mountain Room Bar and gleefully indulged and began thinking about what to do.  I was down in the Yosemite Valley, my car was up in Tuolumne Meadows and there were no more buses going there that night.  The first one the next morning wasn't until 8 or 9.  Unless I could manage to hitchhike to Tuolumne to get my car and drive back to the Bay, I simply couldn't make it to work the next morning.  Shit, yet another missed day at the job...sorry!  My phone was dead but somehow had just enough juice to turn on and for me to type and send the simplest, shortest text message to my boss before shutting off again (something like: STUCK IN YOSEMITE, CANT MAKE IT TOMORROW, BACK TUES.)  I was able to talk to my girlfriend and family on the pay phone because I knew their numbers by heart.

I sat and people watched and drank beer and ate ice cream and microwave burritos.  People passed through the central space to or from hotel rooms or restaurants and all the while gigantic cliffs stood above the commotion like temples, vibrant and ever-looming.  Countless adventures that had formed me had transpired between and upon those towering rocks and so many unique and influential characters had colored those experiences too.  The memories drifted through my head like slow moving mist in the early mornings while a Ranger gave a talk to a small audience nearby. I thought of jumping off stone bridges into frigid water, swimming in the Merced River in the woozy heat, rappelling down thousand foot faces, climbing the boulders, lounging around campfires and cookstoves in Camp 4, drinking water, coffee, whiskey and beer, making food, plans, and music.  I thought of nights spent on the sides of the big cliffs, some planned, some not.  I recalled spending 3 days on Half Dome at age 16 and the horror of seeing the sheath of the rope cut as my partner swung across the rock face below our anchor, 2,000 ft. off the ground.  I remembered my 21st birthday, sitting on the tailgate of a friend's pickup sipping scotch while a large bear walked silently before us, just feet away in the ghostly glow of the full moon.

My post-hike beer craving had sent me 6 deep and I was ready for bed.  I stumbled over to Camp 4 and spread my sleeping bag out in the dirt.  My set up was minimal and I knew to be up early to avoid issues with park rangers unapproving of my guerilla style.  I gazed up at the sky and let my eyes scan the heavens and my body and worn legs relax into the warmth of the bag.  I smiled in the darkness, thankful for one more night under the stars, pleased with my route over the Sierras.

On the bus ride to Tuolumne Meadows the next morning I looked out at shimmering Tenaya Lake and the graceful sweep of Tenaya Peak and at the fractured and polished rocks and emerald forest.  I tried to soak up all I could of the glow of the high country and tried to store up some of the peaceful feeling to bring back to the city.  The bus neared my stop and I felt the familiar disappointment of an adventure coming to a close.  I shut my eyes and pictured the scenes I'd witnessed, trying to prolong it.  I thought of the blonde black bear ambling through the meadow and the coyotes bantering at sunrise and wished to remain among them, a part of the cycle too.  But as I got in my car I knew it wasn't possible, I had responsibilities and obligations in another world.  I consoled myself as I drove though, knowing I'd be back again soon, making another trip home.

Thanks for reading!

...and another music video for your enjoyment!