Beep! Beep! Sheep in a jeep on a hill that’s steep.
~ Nancy E. Shaw
You may already know this. This may be common sense. Perhaps I am just dense or have not been paying attention. Here it comes: Jeep trails were meant for jeeps. They were designed for jeeps and when they are labeled “steep jeep trail”, one ought to pay attention. One’s ears ought to prick up. They were not designed for bipedal simians with stuff-carrying sacks on their backs (A.K.A. backpackers). The Green Mountain trail in the western Trinity Alps Wilderness is one such old jeep trail. Even though built for motorized vehicles, the terrain along this trail is so precipitous in places that one thinks of the ending of the classic literature “Sheep in a Jeep” where the vehicle ends up in a heap with a sign that reads “Jeep For Sale, Cheap.” This is the kind of country where I backpacked this past weekend and this is the type of trail that I hiked. Averaging 16% grade and going down nearly as much as it went up with nary a switch-back in sight. Rugged. Beautiful. Quiet.
View of Thurston Peak North (in the center) and Thurston Peak South (distant peak to the right after the saddle), the high points of Limestone Ridge, Trinity Alps Wilderness.
The unmapped and unnamed lake that was our destination lay a mere seven and a half miles away and only 1,200 feet above our trailhead. Piece of cake we thought, especially with our relatively light packs. Six and a half hours later, however, and after climbing 3,389 feet and dropping 2,159 feet we arrived exhausted and sweaty at our destination. Perched high in a cirque on the flanks of Limestone Ridge, this un-named lake rests in a precarious and stony world dotted with occasional conifers: mountain hemlock, Shasta red fir, and western white pine. The glacial carving of these mountains, which often results in high alpine lakes at the heads of drainages, left behind few cirque lakes along Limestone Ridge. Instead most of the drainages (going into the North Fork Trinity River on the East side and Big French Creek on the West side, from our location), were steep and deep and delineated by long fins of remnant rock. Most contained small creeks, few contained ponds and small lakes, and fewer yet contained meadows.
The un-named and un-mapped lake at approximately 6,200 feet. The shoreline was dotted with mountain hemlock, Shasta red fir and western white pine, and lined with mountain heather. At a size of approximately 120 feet long and 35 feet wide, it was just deep enough for us to cool our weary bodies in its water. It was surprisingly cold for such a shallow lake at the end of summer. Refreshing indeed!
Limestone Ridge is a bit of a misnomer because it contains no limestone although it does contain minerals that are often found with limestone. Rather it consists of massive metabasalts intruded by gabbro and serpentinite (see http://blog.conifercountry.com/2014/07/limestone-ridge-trinity-alps-wilderness/). Translating that geo-ese goes something like: molten or melted rock that cooled quickly was transformed and then rudely invaded (aren’t all invasions rudely done?) by two kinds of rock; (1) other molten rock that cooled slowly under the earth’s surface (gabbro) and (2) by altered rock that comes from the earth’s mantle and is often high in heavy metals (serpentinite). What does all that mean? To translate one more time: it would be like taking the Rolling Stones and replacing Mick Jagger with Robert Plant and Keith Richards with Ozzy Osborne (from the Black Sabbath era). Think of that strange amalgamation of sound and you are beginning to understand the strangeness of standing on all this volcanic and metavolcanic rock on a ridge named Limestone. It was confusing and dissonant in a beautiful sort of way.
Get it now? Yeah, me neither. Where words fail me, I will rely on photographs to illuminate.
Mountain hemlocks stand in the middle ground on metabasalts with Cabin Peak to the north and the Salmon Mountains in the far distance.
View from Limestone Ridge looking east to the high Trinity Alps above Canyon Creek, Papoose Lake, and Grizzly Lake. The North Fork Trinity River is deep, down below flowing to the South.
My friend John, who was my backpacking partner, asked me what we should name the lake. I hesitated to answer not because I had not thought about. I had been thinking about it on and off for most of the grueling walk in. My hesitation came rather, from a desire to not name it, to not name everything. Looking at our maps of the area I noticed that every last drainage was named from full blown creeks down to trickling gulches. I wondered where the compulsion to map and name the world came from. Does it give us power over the place, over the planet? Certainly. Does it help us make sense of our world? Yes indeed.
One of the powers of naming is to invoke the past. But who’s past? In this area, the names are those of White settlers, not the native peoples who have lived here since time immemorial. Names like Thurston Peak, Pony Camp, and Jim Jam Ridge. And here John and I were contemplating doing the same thing. Why? Did we want to invoke the past or to usurp Native American rights to this place? I certainly hope not. We had a more pragmatic aim. Throughout our weekend, I found that John and I often stumbled over talking about the lake and we usually simply referred to it as the lake. At times we called it “the un-named lake below Thurston Peak”, fumbling over its awkwardness; whereas if we had just named the damn thing “Thurston Lake”, we would have communicated directly and clearly. In the end that may be the best reason (at least the most pragmatic) to name places and features; so that we can communicate clearly and unambiguously about the landscapes we travel upon. The compulsion to name may be ancient, however the choice of what to name is contemporary and carries with it power to change the place and the people. There is much to think about with the naming of places. Too many questions to answer tonight. With the inky night sky descending and shooting stars zipping across Milky Way, we laid back to stare up at the billions of stars above and to simply enjoy the quietude of this tiny corner of our small planet in this vast and infinite world. Both named and nameless.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
The air seemed thick with water as we slipped Ruby (our red canoe) into the lagoon’s still waters. The separation between water and sky was so subtle that it was hard to discern where the brackish water stopped and the salty air began. Not separate and also not one. The occasional gull or cormorant flying by and the sound of the nearby waves crashing against the sandy spit was all that broke the stillness of this gray place. Gliding along, the sound of our paddles breaking the water’s surface joined with the rhythmic waves crashing to the shore to set a hypnotic tone to our paddle. Our meditation was suddenly broken as a head appeared above the water’s surface, looking at us. And then another, followed by the curved backs of others barely breaking the surface tension of the water before disappearing back into the watery world. As we paddled closer, we counted a family of four river otters using the lagoon for more than recreation, for sustenance. In many ways we were doing the same; being sustained in body, mind and spirit by this wild and wonderful place.
Back at our campsite, we had returned to a different world; one of trees and people. Nearly surrounded by other campers, I was quickly annoyed by my fellow human beings, which is usually the sign of an incoming lesson in life. Sitting by our campfire, I wondered at sanity of our neighbors. Why are they just sitting in their RV I wondered and why in god’s name do they have to run their generator? They are probably just sitting in their watching tv, so why did they come “camping” anyway? And why are the neighbors in the van running their car – just so they can smell the delicious exhaust fumes? What is wrong with people? And our other neighbors who have the obnoxiously bright lantern – do they really think that they can illuminate a campfire any better than it does by itself? Don’t they know there are a billion stars up above that they could be looking at (and I could be too) if it wasn’t for their insensitive light pollution?
And then it comes, the lesson. The generator quiets down, the van gets turned off, the lantern dims, and our baby starts to cry. She doesn’t cry for long but her cry is certainly heard by all of our “annoying” neighbors. And now we are the annoying neighbors. This is when I realize that we are non-separate I am from everyone else, and indeed everything else. We too are just like everyone else in that we do something (bring our damn kids camping who make a ton of noise) that can be perceived as annoying to others. It is all too easy to let our perceptions turn into something more. In this case, the observation that their generator is running combines with not understanding why someone would be running a generator and becomes annoyance, something I created in my own mind. Realizing my non-separateness the annoyance dissipates and I am immediately at ease.
Lesson number two comes the next morning. Still feeling the ease of the night before, I start talking with the lantern neighbors (which I may not have done if I had harbored any resentment towards them) and as I engage with them in everyday conversation, my annoyance with them goes completely away. It no longer exists as it did not have any real existence anyway. It was a fabrication of my mind. What was real was that they had their lantern on. What wasn’t real was the annoyance I felt. The simple act of engaging with our neighbors made it impossible to harbor any ill will toward them. When we realize non-separateness, any ill will aimed to another is ill will aimed at ourselves. This is the importance of cultivating understanding and loving-kindness, of ourselves and others.
Sliding gently back into the lagoon for a final paddle before breaking camp and heading home, the sun comes roaring out as geese fly overhead and an osprey searches for its next meal. For a moment, the fog of delusion has lifted and I move easily and effortlessly through the wind rippled water.