is brightness. It is the brightness
gathered up of all that went before. It lasts.
And when it does end
there is nothing, nothing
Climbing up the slope of Pilot Peak ridge into the park, the trees grew denser, diameters thicker, topography grander, history more pronounced in glacial U’s and successional ecosystems, fire scars and granite. And finally, for the first time the entire trip, I came to a road I had walked before – the 1 mile stretch of trail from the Merced Grove to Hwy 120 in Yosemite National Park.
From here to the end, I followed the directions of Peter and Donna Thomas, as far as I know the only other people to have completed the walk in any official sense since Muir in 1868. The manuscript of their guidebook, soon to be published, was essential to finding my way to the Old Big Oak Flat Road that once carried stage coach passengers into the valley. Thanks to Peter and Donna Thomas, and be sure to look at their website: http://www.johnmuir.org/walk/
The Thomas’s directions led uphill through Ponderosa and Sugar Pines, through the first snow crossing of the trip, and deep into the fiery late afternoon light so unique to California. The whole world was silhouetted in “hammered gold and gold enamelling,” making the difficult uphill climb seem almost out of a dream. At the top stood the Crane Flat Fire Lookout, around 6600 feet above sea level. Across the helipad to the East, the frosty Sierra crests, like waves frozen before breaking, stood lively against the sky. To the West, the verdant foothills rolled into the central valley, and beyond them in the hazy distance, the coast ranges.
“My God!” I thought. “I’ve come all that way?” The thought was no less perplexing than when several months ago I looked east from the summit of Mt. Diablo near Oakland, and saw the white caps of the Sierra barely discernable in the distance, and thought, “My God, I’m going all that way?”
I stood for a while at the lookout, taking in the state of California. For a moment, it all made sense. No wonder Muir stayed here. No wonder he came up with a powerful and personal philosophy about conservation. He walked the state. More than once. He knew the details, from rock to plant to person and up to mountain top. He attached a significance to the story of the land itself that few others could. He inserted himself into that story bodily, intellectually, and spiritually, beginning in his second day in the state. Then the flash was gone. “Do what is right,” I thought. Then I began to descend. One day left. 16 miles. Then the valley. The jewel. The end and the last. All the work, the ideas, the love of the entire trip gathered into one place for one moment. Lastness is brightness.
The next morning I departed early, knowing a long day was in store. Early in the day, I climbed up further, above 7000 feet, as ponderosas grew taller and thicker, dwarfing me and seeming to put the “old” in old growth. This first uphill stint, with the air thinner at altitude, left me with doubts about whether I’d finish or not. It was May 9, I was a day or two ahead of schedule, but the gravity of the park ensured I would not rest that night until I reached the valley floor, even though it meant a blazing pace over difficult terrain and no stops for food (a lot of trail mix).
Near Tamarack Flat campground, my doubts grew as long stretches of the trail were covered in snow. The map showed major stream crossings ahead – Tamarack Creek, Cascade Creek, Fireplace Creek, Ribbon Creek. None of these would have bridges or easy crossings, and finding a way across the freezing, sometimes waist deep water required a slow and careful advance.
Finally I arrived at a junction with Old Big Oak Flat Road, used as a stage coach road in the latter half of the 1800’s, and no longer maintained by the park service. It quickly became apparent that trail maintenance might indeed have a profound ecological impact – this unmaintained trail was often close to impassable – downed trees, washouts, overgrowth of thick chaparral. Again, would I make it? And if not, where would I sleep? No time for that now. Keep walking. In clearings I was moving quickly, but all the obstacles dropped my pace to under 2 mph, very slow.
Had the old road not been so difficult, it would have been something akin to the last stage of the tour de france, where the cyclists ride with champagne glasses, knowing the outcome of the race, and with the scenery of Paris playing center stage. I reached the old road’s “O my! Point,” the first view of Bridalveil falls, unexpectedly around a corner. Those Victorians must have had a different sensibility than my own – I think my exact words were “Ooo s**t!” I could see now why spring was the high season for the valley, why for the next week every campground in the park would be full every night. I had only been to the park in winter or summer, and the waterfalls never pumped like this. Though I did not share Muir’s misinterpretation of the scale of the falls, I was entirely unprepared for the grandeur of the waterworks. Never before have I seen water move with such declarative, willful force, uncompromising and exuberant at the same moment. A turkey vulture swooped close overhead, accenting the grand precipice below me and the unapproachable cliffs opposite. After a long pause to try to get some reckoning of the falls, I gave up and move on.
Soon afterward, a massive rockslide covered much of the trail, making for very slow going and difficult route finding. Again, if not for the difficulty this would have been a luxurious treat. Every time I emerged from tree cover a new monument was visible: first bridalveil, then the top of El Capitan, then the entire rock face, then Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest, Ribbon Creek falls, and finally Sentinel Dome (which I’d climb later in the week) and a grand view through the gates of the valley. If not for the boulders I think I might have started running.
This entire time I couldn’t help marveling at the daring and splendor of this old road. At an age when man was constantly measuring himself mechanically against the forces of nature, this road would have certainly been impressive. To many, it might have been a hopeful symbol of progress, though to others, perhaps to Muir, a fearful portent of things to come.
What things? I had not seen anyone on the trail in several days. Arriving in the valley, at the base of El Capitan, I was greeted by speeding cars, swarming crowds, picnics, photographs, rock climbers, view seekers. The valley was packed, overrun even, on the second Saturday in May. While the big trees in the mountains above spoke to resource protection, the crowds certainly identified the public enjoyment stipulation of the national park system. On the one hand, I was glad to see so many enjoying the park, thinking in particular of those select few who might be inspired to work for its preservation. On the other hand, I was struck by the “Disneyland” aspect of it all – one representative sample, perhaps now a memorial, of what nature might once have been like. The grandeur of the valley walls providing enough exaggeration of the myth to demand respect. Again, I can see the underpinning for choosing “circus” landscapes, as they tell a more compelling story about the power of nature and the consequent importance of its preservation. Again it seemed clear that in spite of all the good parks do, there is a need to stretch conservation beyond park borders, and to reintegrate not just “green” products, but nature and landscapes back into the human dominated world.
Through the crowds parked on El Capitan Bridge, I saw a familiar face, and couldn’t hide a smile. There was my dad, who had flown to California to meet me for the end of the trip. After calls to my mom and sister, the journey was complete. We found a likable spot in El Capitan meadow and ate bagels, cheddar, nutella, and peanut butter. San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. April 6 – May 9, 2009.
The lines quoted at the top are from the final poem of Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares. In many ways, “Lastness” is a poem about death. It describes the persistence of life beyond death through connections with the surrounding world. For Kinnell, many of these connections come from the natural world. Life exists outside the borders of the skin, just as nature exists outside the borders of a park. At times new perspective requires the grandeur or terror of big places and big ideas. Journeys then do not provide an end, but instead a beginning, just as in the poem, death is not an end, rather a brightness that lasts. Indeed, what ended with Muir’s walk continues now through conservation efforts worldwide, and the occasional walker. For me, the end of the walk is as much a beginning as an end. The world of the walk may be at an end, and in a way that is disappointing – in Muir’s words, the days of the walk were some of the “largest days of my life.” But so many ideas and questions were generated, so much new perspective acquired – the brightness of the trip, from beginning to end, will last. I hope that I can generate the same kind of lastness through my own efforts, though I don’t expect the same amount of acclaim or success that Muir acheived. But using experience, narrative, and perspective to fuel and to color the work and thinking I hope to do in conservation will require that kind of lastness that Muir found, the collection of experience, thought, and ambition he put into his work. And so from the end, I look back at a collection of my own time, step by step, from weary lows to triumphant highs and all the important space between. I look back at life lived differently for a while, a hearkening back to history and forward to new visions of a landscape. I look back without looking back at all, for all that took place is with me still.