I Go to the Mountains

September 10, 2020 Updated: September 10, 2020

At a time when there is nothing normal about “the new normal,” it seems more important than ever to connect with something that represents a physical-spiritual reality greater than ourselves. For me, that quest has always led to the towering granite crags, verdant meadows, and glistening lakes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

My first encounter with these mountains that so inspired John Muir came in 1957. I was 11 at the time and a member of a mountaineering, wilderness-oriented boys camp called the Trailfinders. Those days spent camping and hiking in the high country of Yosemite carved an indelible impression. I discovered the place where I felt whole and deeply connected to the grand pattern of life. I learned about the pleasure, sometimes the pain, but always the sense of accomplishment that comes from strapping on a pack and hitting the trail, often in the John Muir tradition of hiking alone.

Over the years, undertaking a strenuous hike in the Sierras became a birthday ritual—a sort of spiritual-physical gut check. So it was with that goal in mind on Aug. 26 that I struck out from Los Angeles and drove northeast to the town of Lone Pine in the Owens Valley on Highway 395.

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Lone Pine, Calif. (Michael Kaercher/Shutterstock)

You may not be familiar with Lone Pine, but you have seen the scenery that surrounds it in scores of movies and television shows. Cowboys, gladiators, and Bengal Lancers have all galloped through the rock-strewn landscape of the Alabama Hills with the eastern escarpment of Mount Whitney as a backdrop.

The condition I had not anticipated, however, was the smoke being produced by the multiple wildfires burning in Northern California. It hung over the Owens Valley like a brown haze so dense at sunset that you couldn’t see the mountains. Nevertheless, I was determined to fulfill my quest.

My plan was to start the challenging hike at around 10,000 feet and climb 11 miles to the Cottonwood Lakes at 11,200 feet elevation the day after my arrival. But first I wanted to visit the spot (off the Whitney Portal Trail) where we had buried my father’s ashes. I made the journey carrying a small stone and piece of wood (from my sister) along with a handful of wildflowers, the request of my father’s second wife and longtime backpacking companion, Beatrice. I also carried a flask of bourbon. With stone, wood, and wildflowers in place, I took in the remarkable view and then raised the flask. “Here’s to you, Dad.”

Miraculously, the next day dawned totally clear with the mountains set off against a cloudless blue sky. I drove the dizzying switchback road that climbs up and up and up to the New Army Pass-Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. Then, with my lunch stowed, backpack on, and trekking poles in hand, I headed out.

The pass trail is stunningly beautiful. For almost four miles it traverses through a valley lined with giant Ponderosa pines, many of which have been scarred by lightning. Swift-running creeks and meadows are dotted with wildflowers and clumps of big-leaf skunk cabbage.

Enchanted with the landscape, I had completely forgotten about the smoke until I ran into a pair of hearty female backpackers who were clearly in haste to get down the trail. They had planned, they said, to stay in the mountains camping for several days. But the smoke had gotten so thick they decided it was risking their health to stay. I wished them good luck and headed on.

There is no more egalitarian pastime than mountain hiking. Everyone is equal on the trail. So my solo reveries were interspersed with conversations about: “Where are you headed?” “How’s the fishing?” and “How bad is the smoke?”

I have to admit that for me, the last ascending mile of rocky switchbacks that finally culminate at the Cottonwood Lakes was difficult. I was huffing and puffing but determined not to give up, and it was unbelievably uplifting to crest the last stretch of trail and have the paradise I’d imagined spread out before me. The spot I found for lunch was truly paradisiacal—a picture-perfect creek, rocky boulders, and deep green grass with towering peaks in the distance.

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Cottonwood Lake Meadow provides the perfect site for a backpacker’s lunch in California’s Sierra Madre Mountains near Lone Pine. (Courtesy of Jim Farber)
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The author reaches his goal of climbing to Cottonwood Lake in California’s Sierra Madre Mountains near Lone Pine. (Courtesy of Jim Farber)
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Smoke from a California wildfire crawls menacingly across the Sierra Madre Mountains. (Courtesy of Jim Farber)

That’s when the smoke began to roll in in thick brown plumes. It was definitely time to leave. Mathematically, a trail is the same length going in as it is going back. But it sure doesn’t feel like it. To cheer myself along I started singing, everything from old camp songs to “A Hard Day’s Night.” And since it was my 74th birthday, I slightly amended the Beatles’ classic, singing, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 74?”

I was very happy when the trailhead parking lot finally emerged. And as I drove back down to Lone Pine, I could see the mountains I’d just left totally shrouded in thick smoke. I would feel the results of that polluted air for several days.

Was it worth it? It was. And during those last miles on the trail, tired as I was, I kept reminding myself to look around and take it all in. Life doesn’t get much better.

When You Go

For more information: fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recarea/?recid=20698

Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2020 Creators.com.