Up High in the South Sierra, 2: Along the Kern River

Aug. 14, 2019: Tyndall Plateau to the Kern Headwaters

1.

The day fades in, melting the thin layer of frost that’s settled on our tent, and easing on the tiny trickling streams that spring from sand or rocks on the small hill above us.

We pack up and follow the streams down to where hundreds of them meet—from our hill, and the hill across the way—to form Tyndall Creek, here just a tiny thing, stopped cold by the occasional grass berm or fallen boulder.

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We cross several fragile forks, some cautiously flowing, others pooled in sandy hollows surrounded by flowers. Then to a string of unnamed lakes—lakes left a long time ago by retreating glaciers, now eroding into a single slow river.

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2.

I think of Muir’s “Yosemite Glaciers,” the first thing he ever published. It’s in part just a description of the valley’s rock and ice—now far more rock than ice—but it’s also a history of that rock and ice: how the glaciers came and went, leaving waterfalls and rivers and lakes; how the lakes over time pushed water through their banks and so became rivers; and how the old lakebeds, now meadows watered by fast-flowing streams, became gardens and forests.

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Muir has had the bad luck of being loved broadly, but with little depth. They sell t-shirts with his face and apocryphal quotes at the tourist shops along 395; JMTers buy bumper stickers about the mountains calling. But none of that gets at his genius. It makes him into a cartoon, a source of exuberant, empty exaltations.

Muir’s genius was that he could see a scene—a grand meadowed valley, surrounded by icy rock walls—and find in it an entire world, a whole history and future, integrated and overlapping in a single frame. His genius was that the world he saw, and the world he loved, was always-already that world, the one of motion and change beyond the breadth of a single human life—indeed, beyond the whole of human civilization.

3.

Muir was, of course, deeply religious. He grew up in an unsettled Wisconsin, hand-cutting forest into farm and in the evening reciting Bible passages by candlelight for his coarse, sometimes-violent father. His father believed that when God gave humans dominion over the earth in Genesis, it was with the understanding that we would—that we should—work to transform it. He gave us the world so that we might remake it in our own image—cut its forests into farms, drain the wilderness of its wild—in the same way that God made us in his.

If that God was ever alive for Muir, he had long passed by the time Muir left the Wisconsin his father had helped domesticate for the still-wild west. The dominion Muir came to embrace was not about transformation. It was about recognizing in the untouched earth’s majesty a glimpse of God’s grace; about seeing in the echoing streams and silent forest and sunbaked glacial granite a reflection of the face of God. And it was about protecting that reflection, about guarding it against the “Satanic dark mills” he had already witnessed grinding creation into dust.

And, crucially, he understood the work of knowing that reflection, of knowing the landscape—seeing its seasons, feeling its early frost and summer heat, grasping by careful study its vast past and future—as a part of the dominion with which we’d been entrusted, and apiece with the holy work of knowing God.

4.

More orthodox Christians had pursued the perspective of divine eternity, and in so doing minimized the final significance of human time: Augustine lamented the present’s passing quality as punishment for original sin, and Anselm argued that to be in time is to be imperfect—“distended” or “cut” into pieces—and thus that perfection must be still and timeless.

Muir’s dedication to understanding the world on its own terms—his pursuit of a geological time beyond human experience—does something similar. But, in place of divine eternity, he offers the world’s endurance. While Augustine and Anselm argued that knowing God required giving up on time altogether, Muir suggests that correctly comprehending the majesty of the image God projected onto the world requires giving in to time’s immensity, dissolving ourselves in a vast expanse where a single human life can only be an infinitesimal prick.

In contrast with earlier notions of a fixed, divine eternity, Muir’s invocation of the world’s endurance dictates an embrace of change—an embrace of a change so radical that it will always be beyond our lived experience.

5.

There’s something difficult about that. We intuitively understand the notion of “now,” and eternity is classically understood as nothing more than a “still” or “standing” now. But endurance in geological time is less familiar. We’ve seen rivers and lakes, glaciers if we’re lucky. But no one has ever seen in a single scene a glacier melt into a lake, or a lake erode into a river. Muir’s genius was that he could.

6.

From the lakes, we follow a steep valley south past the Diamond Mesa and down to a swamp, from which springs another fork of Tyndall Creek.

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Then across the JMT. We see the trains of people before we see the trail, and only actually see the trail for a moment—underneath our feet, as we pass perpendicular.

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There are more lakes above the trail, but they’re bigger now—acres of gently waving blue, shallowly set into swaying fields of long, deep green grass. We watch an elk nip at the bright red blooms that line the marshy shore of the biggest one, then run fast from a swarm of mosquitos the size of an ocean.

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7.

We find an early camp on Mt. Torchbearer’s dry southern shoulder—just a rocky, vaguely flat thing, but with views from Mt. Whitney to The Great Western Divide. As soon as the tent’s up, Krista falls immediately to sleep, and I set out on a long, rambling dayhike up toward the Divide—up Mt. Senior, down a series of plateaus to Lake South America, then back, contouring a thousand feet above where the Kern takes its first unsteady steps toward being a river.

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The Kern’s steep canyon stretches as far south as I can see, and further—down 150 miles to the sunbaked fields of Bakersfield, and I follow it until the light starts to fade and I’m forced to futz my way back to the tent.

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August 15, 2019: Kern Headwaters to Wallace Creek

8.

Early morning we tumble down the faded trail to Tyndall Creek, where we meet the JMT and a dozen weighed-down hikers, all making a meal of the easy crossing.

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Krista’s first, and she doesn’t even pause—just walks straight through the shallow rapids. There are more hikers on the other side, and they clap and cheer as we pass, as though we’ve just done this incredible thing.

Out of earshot, Krista smiles. “Remember when we were them?” I think for a second of four years ago, freaking out about the thin creek, and searching for ten minutes to find a “safe” way across. “I’ll always remember when we were them.”

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9.

We spend the afternoon climbing to the Bighorn Plateau, then further, through half a dozen lakes at the headwaters or Wright Creek, then down to an enormous old camp where Wallace Creek starts its drop to the Kern.

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The evening’s easy and old-fashioned—deer and dinner and water that tastes like rocks smell when it rains.

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August 16, 2019: Wallace Creek to Guyot Pass

10.

We wake and walk through frosty granite fields as the sun rises on the Kaweah Peaks. Still-blooming flowers stretch from our trail into the sun, and morning deer nip at the grasses in morning mist.

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“Do you remember…” Krista doesn’t even need to finish the sentence. “Of course I do.” I think of the JMT, and the smoke, and the world—this world—we found there. She smiles. “We were already so tired.”

11.

We leave the JMT at Crabtree Meadows, then climb to Guyot Pass, where we stop for a long lunch.

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A couple maybe twenty years older than us limp up from the other side. Things have been hard: they’ve both had altitude sickness, the miles have come slower than they hoped. They started at Horseshoe Meadows a few days ago, and are thinking of leaving, even though they’d planned to walk all the way to Yosemite.

“We…” Krista’s clearly choosing here word carefully. “We did the trail years ago. The first days are the hardest.” I am, as ever, less measured. “Dude I thought I was going to die where I was where you are!” Krista laughs. “His altitude sickness was so bad he legit thought there was a bear in the tent.” Our new friends laugh too. I tell them that if I finished, anyone can.

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12.

From the pass, we drop a few hundred feet, then find a ridiculously early camp in the sun-dappled shade on the far side of Tyndall Creek.

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The rest of the day’s a mix of long lovely hours in the tent and brief moments of blind panic running through clouds of mosquitoes to the creek for water.

The sun sets for hours. “Do you…” Krista cuts in after a long silence. “Do you want to listen to some Huey Lewis.” Fuck yea I do.

13.

So we listen to Huey Lewis’ greatest hits. All 22 songs. Twice.

“Hey sweetheart?” Krista deadpans. “We’ve had some fun. You know? We’ve had our ups and downs.” A very, very long pause. “But…” legit ten minutes. “But I’m happy to be stuck with you.”

14.

We drift to sleep as the dappled light drops into darkness, and I dream about the history of our river—the lakes we were before, the dams that broke and freed our water to flow. And I dream about the flowers and forests that grew on the meadows and moraines where the water was. The fires that singed the forests, and the new trees that grew in their place.

“Hey sweets,” Krista half-opens an eye. “I’m happy to be stuck with you too.”

She shuts her eye, then laughs a little.

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