The mountains are calling and I must go.
– John Muir
There is something about the high country that calls to me, pulling me from the road or the city or the coast, and into the jagged peaks and brooding valleys of the Rockies, the Sangre de Cristos, the Sierras or the Cascades. This time it was the Trinity Alps Wilderness in northern California calling to me.
One of the magazines I contribute to was in need of some photos from this area, which provided a convenient excuse for a hike. After several days spent socializing in San Francisco and Chico, I was well ready to escape to the woods with my dog. Although I am exceptionally extroverted, I also require a good amount of alone time to maintain my equanimity. I need solitude to escape the distractions of our modern lives, to quiet my mind and remember those things that are really important. Despite an unwavering attachment to certain people and my deep, meaningful and fulfilling connections to those I love, my own company is that which I thrive most on. Reconciling these two opposing forces is a continual balancing act. Hence, the solo road trips and the solitary walks in the woods.
I hit the popular Canyon Creek Trail at about 2pm on Thursday, hoping to make the 8-mile hike in to Canyon Creek Lake that afternoon. The beginning of any hike is usually chaotic for me, rushed and frantic as the pace of city life collides with that of backcountry life. I hurriedly pack my gear, double-check the essentials, and inevitably realize I forgot to buy batteries, soap, face wipes or some other insignificant item. I saddle up the dog with his much maligned doggy backpack and strap my own heavy pack onto my body. Backpacking solo necessitates a very heavy pack, especially for work; there is nobody with whom to share the load, and on top of my camping gear I have 10-15 pounds of camera equipment. Ugh. But I console myself with the knowledge that the extra weight means extra workout.
Once I leave the parking lot, I am committed. I abhor unnecessary backtracking, even if I forgot something minor in the car. I stoically tromp up the trail, waiting for my monkey mind to settle. The simplicity of hiking forces a sort of meditative focus. One foot in front of the other. There is no speeding up to be done; there is no hurry here. The wild places keep their own time.
After a couple miles my mind quiets and my body resigns itself to continued exertion. Canyon Creek Trail, despite its name, is fairly dry for the first 4 miles. It was hot (easily 90 degrees), and the sun bore down on us through the stunted alpine trees. Assuming there would be a creek, I had not packed much water from the trailhead, and Bridger and I were both panting by the time we found a spring.
We passed the first waterfall when the trail finally joined the creek – a roaring cascade down 30 feet of rocky ledges into a turquoise pool. Sun filtered in through the foliage, casting a late afternoon glow on the scene. Sadly, this tranquil spot was tainted by several half-naked dudes reclining on boulders and smoking cigarettes. Really? Cigarettes in the backcountry? Humans find a way to ruin everything. Needless to say, we kept walking and found another smaller waterfall upstream to take a break, go for a swim, and refill our water.
The trail got much steeper, but we trudged onward through the heat. We arrived at the lake in the early evening, sweaty and tired but satisfied. Wishing for some white noise to lull me to sleep, I hiked back about a mile to a spot I had spied on the way up: a perfect camp spot under a copse of pine trees, just a stone’s throw from another cascading waterfall. Amazingly, we had the place entirely to ourselves. I pitched the tent, washed my sweaty clothes in the creek, fed the dog, and cooked up some chickpea curry for myself. After hoisting my food stash in a nearby tree, I crawled into the tent with my tired dog and drifted off into a deep and restful sleep, serenaded with the sound of running water and watched over by a startlingly starry sky.
The next day was all about work. I rose at dawn, made some coffee, packed up my work gear and hit the trail before even eating breakfast. Good light is important for this type of work, and the harsh contrast of midday comes all too soon. Bridger and I scurried up to the lakes again, and worked for a good two hours to get the shots I wanted. There was some minor scrambling involved, and I had to push my camera and my dog up ahead of me as I climbed.
Once the sun came all the way up over the ridge, the temperature began to rise and the soft morning light gave way to deep shadows and glaringly white granite. We descended back to base camp for breakfast, changed clothes, dropped off my gear and hiked back up to the lake for a swim in the sunshine. The lake was cold and clear and glassy calm. The initial shock of icy water on my skin knocked the breath from my body as I dove in off a rock. I swam out a good twenty yards, Bridger paddling alongside me. I dried off in the sun for an hour or so, throwing a tennis ball into the lake for the dog. He needs a little joy in his life when he works all day carrying his dog pack.
Afternoon brought siesta time at camp while my dog kept watch (what a good dog). There are few things in this world as relaxing as an afternoon nap in the woods. My dreams were peaceful and lucid, and I wandered through the deep woods of my mind while my body was swaddled in dappled sunlight and the sweet scent of pine needles.
After my siesta, it was time for work again. To catch the evening light, I decided to hike up to Boulder Creek Lake, 3 miles from camp up a very steep switchback trail. The lake is nestled in a hanging valley, hemmed in by a granite swell that reveals a stunning view of the Canyon Creek valley and the peaks beyond it. Boulder Creek Lake is surrounded by dramatic granite talus slopes topped with craggy spires. There were only a couple other people here, and I was glad we had made the slog.
Another two hours of work, another swim in the lake, and we then made the descent back to camp in time to make use of the lingering twilight to cook, eat, and wash sweaty clothes again. Into the tent before it was even fully dark outside, and another restful night of sleep before the impending exit hike.
We rose again at dawn. Today there would be no work, however, and my pace was more relaxed. Coffee, oatmeal, water filtering and packing consumed a good hour and a half. I reveled in the morning stillness, watching rotund songbirds bob up and down in the creek, ruffling their feathers and chirping to one another. I watched the sun creep slowly across the mountainside to the west, illuminating each tree and stone individually as the day gradually imposed itself on the sleeping valley. The air was cool, crisp, and sweet in my lungs.
We hiked out before the day grew hot. We passed the hasty camps of people who had hiked in the night before, a Friday night that would lead to a busy weekend in the backcountry. Most were still sleeping, but some had risen and were preparing for the day. Several asked about my hike, where I had gone and what I would recommend. We passed more people hiking in from the trailhead for an overnight weekend trip. I was glad we were leaving before the crowds ascended into the quiet places.
Emerging from wilderness is always a bit of a shock, even after a short trip like this one (I only did about 25 miles in 45 hours). Machines seem loud, unnatural and obtrusive. Driving seems too fast, like cheating, like the world rushing by in a blinding blur. Cities seem foreign, square and so very loud. Even the Humboldt Coast, with its omnipresent fog and subdued atmosphere, seemed bustling and busy and cacophonous. One must seek out quietude in the human environment – it does not present itself willingly.
And so I maintain the balance of my inner landscape with my exterior surrounds – the ebb and flow of socialization and solitude, the yin and yang of urban landscapes and wild places. My heart of hearts lies in the latter, I think: in solitude and in the wild places of this earth.
Give me a narrow trail through a field of lupines, or a bubbling spring to drink from. Give me a wide vista over backcountry peaks, their toothy spires gnawing at an endless blue sky. Give me a cold swim in an alpine lake, late season snow sliding into the shallows. Give me a quiet night and a bright moon, a light breeze through the fir boughs above my tent. Give me steep wild places, and I am content.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.