Tuesday, July 22, 2014

An Innocent At Home

In recent years, I’ve spent my summers abroad in the archives.  While it’s mostly steady work over dusty pages, there is always some excitement of being in a different place, and the occasional expedition beyond the urban-based archive.

This summer I’m at home in California, but I’ve managed a couple of trips to some of the remarkable destinations that abound in the Golden State. 
Point Reyes and Lassen Park are two old favourites of mine.  I was in Lassen with a group of friends and we were lucky to be able to make the short but exhilarating hike to the peak itself on one of the few days of the year that it’s open.  In late-May the trail was still mostly snow-covered, and the views of small tarns—their striking blue all the more impressive when they nestled amidst white snow banks—and the neighbouring mountains, to say nothing of the vast stretches of forest, were remarkable.
The trip actually began as a comedy of errors, and what was supposed to be a backpacking trip became a more leisurely camping trip at Manzanita Lake.  That we made it to Lassen at all after a ill-timed car break-down was a testament to the skills of an auto repair shop in Red Bluff, run by rabid State of Jefferson secessionists, flags and all, whose mechanical skills were far superior to their politics.
For my next trip, to Point Reyes with a friend who had never been camping before, we opted for public transit, something not possible in Northern California.  I’d taken many a day trip to this beautiful stretch of the California coast (protected as a National Seashore), but I’d never been camping, and we had a wonderful time.  The walk to Wildcat Camp was around eight miles, first through a lovely, shady forest, and then cliff-top along the coast, winding up and up and up before making a sudden drop to the campsite overlooking a wonderful beach.
During the day, the wide-open, treeless nature of the campground rendered it vulnerable to the sun, but in the evening it was wonderful for sunsets.  And in the early mornings, it made for some interesting wildlife viewing as we watched ospreys soar along the coast.  The campsite was populated by gophers, and in the soft light of dawn, a coyote came along and tried to hunt them, sneaking through the grass and then leaping up in an effort to catch the rodents outside of their holes.  But this didn’t go over well with the deer that also inhabited the outskirts of the campground, and she proceeded to chase the coyote away.
Seals cruising by the beaches, countless cormorants perched on rocks out at sea, and stately pelicans drifting over the waves alongside the cliffs added to the majesty of the coastal park.  I can only hope that the magnificent surroundings conspired to create a camping convert of my companion!
Most recently, I struck out for Mt Whitney, to the south, with a group of friends I’ve hiked with on many occasions over the last five years.  We set off for the trailhead from Lone Pine, where it was around 100 degrees out.  Although it remained warm in the sun-exposed upper slopes of the mountain, it was considerably less so, and was mitigated by trees, the shadows thrown by massive slabs of rock and the peaks themselves, and the innumerable crystal clear springs that wound their way down toward the Owens Valley below.
We arrived in camp after the first day of walking footsore, a couple of our party the worse the wear for the high altitude, and our campsite hemmed in by herds of rabid-looking marmots.  But we awoke rejuvenated the following morning and made our way successfully to the summit, via spectacular views across the Sierras, and countless valleys and lakes.  More patriotic souls than our group were waving and posing with flags to celebrate the Fourth of July.  After lunch on the summit, we began the long but scenic way down.  Our way down, as up, was made much easier thanks to the switcbacks that form the trail.

It is hard to fathom the work that went into cutting those trails and maintaining them, but their existence did not only make possible an enjoyable expedition with a group of old friends: it is also a testament to the public spirit that once informed some of our country’s endeavours, including our engagement as a people with the natural world. 

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