A visit to Mammoth Lakes and Ansel Adams Wilderness, under the spell of John Muir’s biocentric vision, following the endless Coyote into the sky on path of the Milky Way.
Escaping Toward the “Range of Light”
I made my exit north from the overheated megalopolis via the Owens Valley, spirit lifted by the desert’s ancient beauty, set deep below the heights of the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
On the seeming endless Highway 395, I pass ghost towns and desolate landscapes, once backdrops for B-movie Westerns, and I relate well with the silent anomie of dust-blown hills. I am on the trail of John Muir, intending to walk into the wild high country, his “range of light.” Inspired by the vision of Ansel Adams, the hyper-realistic documentarian of these peaks, who once said: “Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes and easy smile is your museum.” So forward I climbed on the highway, letting life happen.
After car-camping in the divine shadow of Red Slate Mountain, the breeze whispered a song that the Numa People heard before the gold rush, before the water rush that drained the Owens and threatened the Mono. John Muir’s “Biocentric” view made sense under the morning sun, humans and jackrabbits breathe the same air, hop the same dusty trails, share equal rights to life, liberty and happiness.
To be sure, the nearby Numic-speaking Mono and Timbisha Peoples (sometimes called Northern Paiute), once walked softly on the hills of the Sierra, unlike my European-descended brethren. Muir, though he had a massive blind-spot in understanding the role of the Native peoples in the land, himself condemned the Euro-mindset that “[blasted] roads in solid rock, wild streams dammed and tamed, and turned out of their channels…to work in the mines like slaves.” The redirected flow now sentenced as well to splashing in fountains and forced-greening the exotic oases of the southern suburbia. Climbing in my biodiesel wagon, my path was not nearly soft enough. Forward…
Tip-Toeing in Biocentric Fashion
Oh, I yearned for the John Muir Trail, how it tip-toes in biocentric fashion along the edges of alpine lakes, sharing black-bear-pawed meadows for 210 miles between the valley of Yosemite, through the Jeffery Pine and Mule deer wilderness of Kings Canyon, and scaling the rocky heights of Sequoia’s Mount Whitney.
Only my backpack and a fishing pole would provide me sustenance, a water filter to drink from the San Joaquin, with time to trade glances with the Dark-eyed Junco. I had heard the Mono story of how bad luck comes to the cutters of the massive sequoias and bristlecones, the revenge of the Great Gray Owl. I wanted to beg for forgiveness for my people and their way, while under the spell of an alpine lake.
My car climbed across the Long Valley Caldera, where Mammoth Lakes, clear and cool, perched on its edge. The 14,000-foot peaks were formed by a cataclysmic eruption 760,000 years ago, then more recent glacial flows. Today, earthquakes rumble and geothermal hot springs and fumaroles bubble from below, often used to heat ski lodges and the earthy bistros of Mammoth.
I saw myself as a sort of coyote, laughing over a taco and beer with an old reformed miner who claimed to having befriended the jolly Ansel Adams. Next thing I knew, I was boarding a helicopter to survey the Ansel Adams Wilderness of Minarets.
I tried to protest that the only way to truly see the peaks is to behold them after six hours of climbing with a pack strapped on the back. My friend laughed as we boarded and said, “Keep your eyes open.”
As afternoon waned, winds buffeting the helicopter, my friend said, “Follow the sun westward, toward Devil’s Postpile. Then keep climbing. The path will never end.” Then he quoted Adams: “I know of no painting, sculpture or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of granite cliff and dome, of patina of light on rock and forest.”
When I beheld the soaring granite peaks of the Minarets, I recalled the words of Muir: “The higher we go in the mountain, the milkier becomes the Milky Way.”
The Milky Way is the road, the way into the spirit world. So I resolved to clamor west, to follow the path, to see what I could find.
Trip with the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC), sponsored by Visit Mammoth.
Updated 9 May 2019
You did this in a helicopter? What’s wrong with foot travel?
Accepting a ride in the sky implies nothing against foot travel. Clearly, walking is the only way to experience the backcountry up close, yet the essay is meant as a commentary how sometimes our most idealistic notions have different outcomes when we walk (or fly) into the world.
Pingback: Yosemite: An Ecology Nourished By Wildfire | WilderUtopia.com
Pingback: Walking Water: Eastern Sierra Pilgrimage of Healing the Drought | WilderUtopia.com
Pingback: The Edge of Yosemite Comes Alive in Tuolumne County