How do we end up where we are, who we are?
Harry James read to us occasionally, even though the youngest Trailfinders were probably 11 and the oldest 14 and 15. Once in the shade of a yellow pine (I know it was a yellow pine because he had us put our noses to the vanilla-scented bark) he read us Chapter 10 of John Muir’s The Mountains of California: “A Wind-storm in the forests.” The archaic language of 1874 only added to the drama:
“Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.”
Muir, of course, did more than climb trees in windstorms. He founded the Sierra Club and helped create Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. He’s the one who said: “Climb mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”
We climbed mountains, and trees, that summer in Yosemite’s high country. We took over the group camping area in Tuolumne Meadows. Harry set up his kitchen. We all picked our sleeping spots on the pine-needled forest floor.
We were close by the Tuolumne River, which flowed around granite boulders between meadow-grass banks. The water was astonishingly cold. We were not far from its headwaters in the Lyell Glacier. But because we were boys, and because we hiked many miles most days and didn’t have the pond on Indian Creek to rinse off in, we edged out into the current and took the plunge.
I decided for some reason to see how far downstream I could swim underwater. The sunlight beaming into that golden world drew me on. There on my right was a rainbow trout holding in the lee of boulder. Another one on the left, in the dappled shade, gills waving. Breast-stroking with my belly inches from the golden sand, I kept going, riding the invisible current.
When finally I popped up I had the biggest ice-cream headache of all time. It alarmed me. I thought my brain might freeze, or explode. But I worked my way back up the bank to do it again.
We did riskier things than that. Near the end of the fortnight, when we had become trail-hardened and nearly immune to thirst – sucking on a pebble was a suggested sublimation – we hiked in to Cathedral Peak and climbed its dragon-back ridge. We carried no ropes. This was not Outward Bound. Harry was not a technical climber. It is remarkable to me in retrospect that he let us do what we did. The climbing was not especially difficult, no more than a class 4 on the Yosemite scale, but the exposure was horrendous. Slip off and it would have been certain death. Harry just assumed that none of his 40 boys would be so foolish as to slip. It was part of his discipline, his insistence – we might call it naiveté in today’s litigious world – that the correct path, the only conceivable path to success, be cleaved to.
Because Harry didn’t worry, or show it, I didn’t worry either. All I felt on that knife-edge was the elation of movement through space, pure movement through rarefied air, focused, consequential movement.
On one of our nights in Tuolumne, I woke to a sound I couldn’t figure out – wet and scratchy, nearby. When my eyes adjusted at last to the darkness, I saw, not 15 feet away, a full-sized black bear sitting up with his legs outstretched holding a tin can between his paws slowly licking the flavor from its inside.
I tried to think through a logical best strategy. It wouldn’t do, surely, to bolt up out of my bag, or even to try to slither out and steal away. So, I decided to lie as still as I could, keep my breathing slow and calm. It worked like a charm. I fell back to sleep and didn’t stir until the sun was on me.
At the end of his wind-storm essay, John Muir wrote: “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings – many of them not so much.”
Why do our journeys take us where they do? Some stay close to home. I grew up at the beach, a bustling place of cars and surfboards and the sounds of volleyballs smacking the sand. I could have stayed. Or come back. Much of my family stayed on the California coast.
On that Trailfinders trip to Tuolumne I took dozens of snapshots with my Brownie box camera. I didn’t have an eye. They all came out looking the same: dull, black-and-white landscapes of trees and rock and sky. But I loved what I was looking at through the viewfinder. I was pretty sure I wanted my “tree-wavings” to happen in the mountains, with all that the mountains could offer up.
To be continued . . .