Sunday, August 1, 2010
Down River—Lyell Fork Canyon
On this third morning, I awake inside a tiny tent, unzip it and taste the air. My thermometer says thirty degrees; the air sharp. Last evening’s mosquito army is gone. I fetch the bear canister from where I placed it last night away from my camp. You can see it as the black container, opened now, and my food spread about for morning eating and for packing away. Again, I retrieve it from exactly where I had placed it the night before. No bear has been here, no tracks.
I begin the day six miles behind, downhill miles, easy miles along Lyell Fork River. I feel recovered from yesterday’s ordeal and will finish them by mid-morning. I have good physical strength and endurance and plenty of experience using them, I tell myself in the early day. I fear only that it leaves me oddly innocent and vulnerable, a bit of a stranger in civilized company. Here in the wild I can recuperate quickly and be on my way.
A steady downhill walk, each step like a morning lived in habit, the paces of them uniform, like seconds on a clock. Occasionally, a pace falls decorated with interest—a flower blooms low along the trail; a doe with two fawns, one a wanderer, the other a stay-at-home; she walks away as one tries to nurse and looks pensively for the one like me. The wanderer investigates a pond out of mother’s sight, then as fear wins over curiosity, runs clumsily home to mother deer.
Moments of decoration relieve the tick-tock, left-right, a pace that feels good in the early hour and tries to make up for yesterday’s lost miles. The times it takes to landmarks on this catch-up day fall into plan from calculations of the past—three miles per hour on a city sidewalk, two on a rocky level trail, one when going uphill at ten thousand feet. On these certitudes, my life is known, its future like its past, and all is well. But as I watch the landmarks pass, and read the times like years, I find my space-time fabric stretching. Some gravity-heavy object lengthens time between the marks. Relativity rises, where at first it sneaked unnoticed, until a slower walking pace strikes me firmly in the face. Pulled closer, like a wandering rock from empty space, the great mass draws. Can a postulate so contrary to common sense be actually true? A simple trail is changing what I know about time and space.
The pain of yesterday’s blisters and the bump on a heel from some mis-landed step, I learn as I walk the morning trail, not to mind—like Lawrence of Arabia, at least in the version with Peter O’Toole. My hurtings call to question whether I can think out my life, or just tag along. Yet, it isn’t thinking that I do so much here in the wilderness, but feeling, experiencing and remembering.
I feel happy that no telephone or internet allows communication about yesterday. I can avoid exciting the nerves of my friends back in the city. They will hear it all from lips that are safely home.
I am not doing well as the day opens toward noon, resting often, back hurting, legs soar, a blister on each foot. By mid-morning, when I had expected to have made up the six lost miles, I am only three miles along. I sit on a rock, like yesterday, and lean on another, considering a change of plan. Delusions of the early morning are being challenged. My intended route would turn southerly along Lewis Creek and Tripple Peak Fork, cross Red Peak Pass and descend into Yosemite Valley along that little-used trail where a fire burned several years ago and where I expected to see nobody for three days. But always I knew the shorter way, the twenty-seven mile way to the Valley from the fork at Ireland Creek.
I was leaning against a rock, calmly surveying the crags above me. Clouds hung about and fraternized with the mountains. I looked at a gloomy walls that rose a thousand feet shear above the pines circling around me, ominously clouded, and tried to decide what to do. It was not a hard decision, just a painful one, a choice of safety over adventure, with realization that I am not as fit as I thought. It brought to question how many more decisions of this kind await as life lengthens.
At noon, I come to the fork where a turn to the left would take me to Yosemite Valley, twenty-seven miles, and continuing down Lyell Fork would take me to Tuolumne Meadows and civilization in eight miles. I have enough food for three days, and the average of nine miles per day seems easy enough. I could camp here and hike tomorrow into the high country at Evelyn Lake and Vogelsang pass, carrying only a light pack and return here for a second night. That would make the timing right for ending in Yosemite Valley as scheduled for my ride. I would, by that scenario, arrive in the Valley by bus and not on foot.
I had to decide. The factors weighed heavy—all the preparation for this hike—three days at June Lake acclimating to the elevation, a day hike from there to prepare, scheduling the time, the hope for accomplishment of a feat in crossing the Sierras alone and unassisted—all lost it seemed if I did not hike to Yosemite Valley. I had pronounced to the world that I would do it.
But I feel weak with pains. Is safety, and the likelihood of some breakdown more to be considered? And there is the fear of failure, that somewhere on the way to the Valley I might not be able to continue, would admit that I am finally old and be carried out on a mule. Much sadness fills me in this decision, I consider it all afternoon, knowing that each hour waiting makes it less likely that I could reach the Valley.
Finally, I take off my boots, a ceremony of change, where with slippers on, the course is set. At least there are only a few mosquitoes here. Big black ants, but no mosquitoes. It was when one of those ants got into my slipper and bit me on the toe, when the toe swelled and the nail turned black that I knew Tuolumne Meadows would be my destination. A carpenter ant sealed an already made decision as if to say, “This small pain I give you to prevent greater pain.”
The campfire throbbed before me as if it were made of music, sad good music. When my eyes become dull as embers smoldering among the ashes, I would remember this fire and this place. Then I fitted myself into the cocoon of my tent.