You Can’t Stay AnywherePosted: October 16, 2014
“The river delights to lift us free, if we only dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”
~ Richard Bach
Hiking up the canyon amidst long autumnal shadows, I could feel the excitement of the adventure that lay before us. We were going to backpack up eight or nine miles to a misshapen pair of subalpine lakes, circle around behind the upper lake and then head much, much farther up the canyon. From the upper lake on, we would be off the trail and the responsibility would be ours to find our path. As Gary Snyder put it we would be “off the trail, on the path.” Our first night was spent at the top of the upper falls, where we simply sprawled out upon the smooth, water-worn granite. The sound of the rushing water lulled us to sleep and off to dream-land we went until we were awoken by someone turning on a bright light. I opened my weary eyes and was instantly blinded by the now risen moon’s brightness. A few days past full and it still illuminated the entire world around us. The white granite walls of the canyon glowed as the once brilliant stars faded into unknown parts of the galaxy. Pulling my winter cap over my eyes allowed me to drift off to a fitful sleep.
A pool above the upper falls of Canyon Creek with Sawtooth Peak in the background.
The next day we continued up the canyon, meandering with the trail through towering conifer forests, past the reds of dogwoods and the yellows of maples, and towards more and more granite until we reached the upper lake. Following the lake shore we made our way around to its backside, where a large meadow delighted our eyes with the dying golds and browns of autumn. Here we left the trail behind and simply followed the creek higher and higher, past turquoise pools, cascades, waterfalls and weeping (Brewer’s) spruces. Somewhere nearby was John’s favorite spruce – a twisted and gnarled old man of a tree bending its way out of the granite and toward the sun. Continuing upward, we stopped for a lunch break in yet another meadow, relaxing upon a huge granite boulder that formed a sort of island in the middle of the meadow.
Delighted by the scenery and solitude, and refreshed by the food and the mountain air, we walked on. Higher and higher, farther and farther up the canyon. Our second camp was made on the top of the next granite step, a quarter of a mile away and a seventy-five foot scramble up from the meadow. We were greeted with a cold and steady wind coming down from the high peaks above us: Thompson (the tallest peak in the Trinity Alps at just over 9,000 ft), Wedding Cake (approximately 8,500 ft) and Caesar (8,920 ft). We were now in a world of rock and mountain peak and the wind reminded us of our place in the world here at 7,000 feet. We found a small grove of mountain hemlock and western white pine that were level enough for a campsite and kindly out of the wind. Looking up the canyon, a granite world awaited us. Looking down the canyon to what we had just traversed revealed a classic U-shaped glacial valley. The granite walls of the canyon dropped sharply to the valley floor where they met meadows, boulder fields and groves of trees. So stunning that it took our breath away (or was that the effect of the cold wind?) and I was reminded of Lama Anagarika Govinda’s words from his book “The Way of the White Clouds”:
A meadow in the upper canyon of Canyon Creek looking north to Thompson Peak.
The next morning we were greeted with alpen-glow on the peaks above us and the moon hanging just above Wedding Cake’s craggy peaks. After a breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee, we shouldered our packs and headed out to climb up the southeastern flanks of Wedding Cake which would get us quickly out of the canyon floor and up into the vast granite world of the high country. We soon learned that short cuts in the mountains are often long and always arduous. Climbing up through a steep crack, John and I had to take off our packs and hand them up to each other and then rock climb our way to safer ground. Once up on the extensive granite of this western side of the canyon, we were able to cruise our way on long smooth granite fields and through rocky boulder fields. Granite, golden grasses and bear poop. Delighted and exhausted, early afternoon came upon us, and we had made less progress than we had hoped. We decided to descend towards the canyon floor and a hidden meadow rather than continue on over unknown terrain.
Alpen-glow on Wedding Cake as the moon lingers above the ridge.
Dropping some two-thousand feet from 8,200 feet, we discovered a hidden amphitheater of rock where a glacial lake was nearly created and envisioned a glacier sitting there, melting ice and churning rock. Descending farther, we hastily dropped our packs and began to explore the meadow. A silence settled on us as we realized the immense and stunning beauty of this place. It was a perfect Japanese Zen garden: water so clear that you could not discern the surface from the substrate, mossy banks with overhanging ferns and heather, medium sized granite boulders in just the right proportion as to not overwhelm, and just the perfect splashes of yellows (willows), reds (huckleberries), and browns (ferns and grasses). John and I were stunned yet again into silence. We walked around slowly and gently because we did not want to defile this sacred place. Our presence was profane enough and we did not want to add footprints or loud voices. We felt free to talk at our campsite a short distance from the meadow but not at the meadow itself. No discussion of this point was needed; we both knew and fell silent. That evening and the following morning we were struck by a beauty so profound that I felt deep sadness. Where did this feeling come from? Was it the beauty itself or the understanding that nothing lasts? Or was it the knowledge that I had to leave this place and that I could not remain here forever? The melancholy reminded me of a discussion I recently had with a Zen Buddhist teacher about the ever-changing and ever-flowing nature of life. We attempt to operate under the delusion that there is permanence in this life and yet we all know deep down inside that this simply isn’t true. I was sad that I had to leave this place but even if I could have stayed it would change and so would I. “You simply cannot stay anywhere”, Hozan Alan Senauke said. The conditions of life, both inward and outward, are constantly changing and if we are willing to let go of our grip on permanence, life’s flow will lift us free. With a bow and deep gratitude for having visited this place, we turned in the direction of our car parked nine miles away at the trailhead. Looking back one last time, I knew that even if I returned next year something would be different, something would be changed. With this realization, a half-smile crept across my face as I looked forward to seeing this place again in a different season, in a different light and with different eyes. Despite tired muscles, my legs felt light and my spirit adventurous. It was almost as if I may be lifted free at any moment!