Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
? John Muir
Many of you have seen this quote by John Muir, but some of you may not have seen it in its entirety, which goes something like this: "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn."
That one is for KC, who asked me in the comments section of Monday's Blog to talk about my most magical day in the Eastern Sierra.
Today was a good day to ponder that. I was in traffic (it was raining, a rarity in San Diego County that turns drivers into paranoid, bumbling idiots spurred on by local media who treat every low pressure system like the Storm of the Century), and as brake lights flickered on and off in front of me, my mind wandered through the flipbook of my times spent in the Sierra. Here and there, I paused at certain choice campsites, in meadows filled with wildflowers, on mountain passes whose summits greeted me with blustery gusts of wind and the hard-earned views of the next valley. And I tried to grade the moments, while searching for a "favorite."
Now-retired ranger Alden Nash (Randy Morgenson's supervisor for years) acted as my guide over many trips to the Sierra as we retraced Morgenson's favored off-the-beaten-path routes, including the route that was presumably his last during the summer of 1996. Here's Alden at dawn on one of our research trips (I seriously cannot remember a time when I actually beat him up to boil the first water for coffee), watching the sunrise east of the Sierra Crest.
This photo I took of him represents one of the many times he said to me, "Burn this moment into your memory, and pull it out next time you're stuck in traffic back in 'the city.'"
Now, it's hours after that traffic jam and I still cannot make up my mind which is the "most" magical time I spent in the Sierra, but there was one moment when the Sierra got even deeper down into my soul. I remember it like it was yesterday ? the cold, the hunger, and a decision that I didn't have to make. It just happened...
I told this story to Thomas Curwen when I was working on the third and final edit of The Last Season. Tom was editor of the L. A. Times Outdoors Section, the type of editor who really makes a writer's story sing.
Here it is as it appeared in the Outdoors Section, ONE OF MY TOP TEN wildest, weirdest, most-thought-provoking beautiful memories I have in the Eastern Sierra. A thank you goes out, btw, to all the editors who worked so hard on the Outdoors Section before some bean counter decided to cut it from the paper.
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MY LIFE OUTDOORS
Hiker gets more than he bargained for in golden duel
By Eric Blehm, Special to The Times
COTTONWOOD PASS to Yosemite via the John Muir Trail: I'd allotted myself 18 days for the trip. Two friends had backed out, so I was alone.
My father, not entirely happy at the prospect of my going solo, trudged with me as far as the pass and then returned to his car a few miles below at the trailhead. So I continued on with 72 pounds on my back and a fly rod ? hoping for the kind of alchemy that can turn a six-piece fiberglass pole purchased at a swap meet into at least a few golden trout.
It was mid-July, and the John Muir Freeway wasn't as crowded as I thought it would be. Maybe it was the afternoon thunderstorms that had cleared the trail. Or maybe it was the magic the guy at the swap meet told me came with the rod "at no extra charge."
For the next week, I nightly stalked the frigid, glacial-fed headwaters of the Kern River, sometimes by headlamp, hoping to supplement my wholly inadequate backpacker's diet with palm-sized brook, rainbow and golden hybrids hiding in the turquoise-blue pools beneath waterfalls and glassy eddies fed by whitewater rapids.
On the ninth day, I was caught in an extended cloud burst. I hunkered down on the side of the trail, under a canopy of altitude-stunted lodge pole pines. My shelter faced west, where craggy, granite peaks faded in and out through a surreal mist. When the sun emerged, it brought a rainbow arching into the distance. Another good omen.
I resumed my hike and was at least 25 miles from the nearest road, above 10,000 feet, when I saw in the distance a subtle game trail that a park ranger had told me about.
It was barely a route, scratched cross-country over talus and granite slabs toward a cirque, where a series of shelves formed spillways among a string of lakes. The uppermost lake, snuggled against a granite wall, looked promising. I left the main trail, and two miles later was peering into the lake's clear depths. No signs of life. The opposite shore was still snowbound, and submerged icebergs were casting light blue streaks toward the deep, dark bottom.
My stomach grumbled.
One of my food bags had been marauded a few nights before by what I guessed was a marmot. I'd have to ration my meals for the remaining nine days. For breakfast I'd had one Jolly Rancher candy and a single packet of oatmeal. Lunch had been a quart of water. Dinner was pending.
I'd hiked 14 miles and was on autopilot, semi-staggering but determined. Making camp as the uppermost granite spires around me turned pink, I rigged my reel and went on the hunt. A ripple on the surface betrayed a slight breeze, so I chose the snowbound shore to capitalize on the wind at my back.
I'd brought along two tiny reels: a Ryobi for flies and a Shimano for spinners. The spinners were my bread and butter, but as I pulled their flashing blades through the water, there was no response. As the evening colors deepened with impending darkness, I bit off a swivel, discarded my spinners and desperately affixed my fly setup ? a last ditch effort. Mosquitoes, nymphs, tiny shrimp, nothing provoked a strike. Not even a boil.
Digging into my tiny assortment of flies, I tied an old, ugly gray moth that had collected dust in my tackle box for years. Zing, zang, splash. It landed beyond a granite shelf, in the zone. But who was I kidding? Forty-five minutes hadn't presented anything. No alchemy tonight.
Then, whap! Something, a fluke materialized, and I was on. For the first time this trip, my $12 pole creaked as it doubled over, and the reel sang until I controlled the line and introduced myself to the fish. The two of us argued for a bit, I being careful on the ice-covered shore as my quarry took me for a walk, following a determined path to freedom.
Thank God, was all I could think, something for the pot. It didn't take long to exhaust the fish. It was the golden of my life. Two and a half pounds, easy, with a big head and slim body common in these high-mountain lakes. Its sides were streaked with fiery reds, the telltale horizontal line intersected with golden orange circles above a crimson belly, shimmering in stark relief against the shadows that were darkening this lonely amphitheater of granite.
I was breathing hard from the fight. And there was dinner, lying on its side in the shallows, gripped in my hands. Gasping.
Then, as I stared at the golden, the predator in me vanished. Carefully, I cradled the fish in the frigid water, unhooked the fly from the corner of its mouth and watched its gills pulse and let it go. With a single flick of its tail, it was off like a torpedo.
My stomach growled as it slipped away, down, down and then slowly onto its side, soon drifting belly up, a shiny speck against the dark, granite bottom. And I was overcome by guilt.
I sat down, stripped off my clothes and dove. The cold was like a body punch. "What the hell am I doing?" Down I went, deeper and deeper, feeling the pressure in my ears, watching the blurry shape ahead.
To the surface I stroked, pushing the trout through the water along with me, battling my instincts to scramble onto dry ground. Five feet from shore, I sat on a slippery piece of submerged granite, in the water from the waist down.
I forgot the cold and pushed the trout through the water in an arc, back and forth, trying to revive it, wondering, if it dies, if I would eat it to honor its death.
Then in a giant swoosh, the fish came alive, kicking away with a powerful splash.
Shivering uncontrollably with no sun to warm my body, I pulled my clothes back on. Painful pins and needles in my feet and hands radiated through my uncoordinated body as I struggled back to camp. I crawled into my sleeping bag and struck my camp stove, boiling water to pour over a twice-used teabag.