If you doubt mountains walking, you do not know your own walking.
~ Eihei Dogen
The rain started almost immediately upon arriving at the trailhead. Gentle and soft, not sudden and violent like a thunderstorm. John and I had driven the three hours mostly along the swollen Trinity River listening to a history of the Grateful Dead playlist that he had created. We were now ready for the quiet and calm of the mountains. As we put on our shoes and raingear we noticed a group of ten backpackers ready to hit the trail. John engaged them with the niceties of trail etiquette: where are you from and (most importantly) where are you camping tonight? We briefly entertained the thought of heading up to the same lake where they were going, which we knew is a very popular destination due to its beauty and relatively close proximity to this trailhead. They warmly invited us to join them and joked that if we had alcohol to share we would be very welcome indeed. We laughed, let them go their way and we went ours; to a different and quieter sort of place.
Clouds dominated the sky and danced in and among the tree tops, while showers came and went with seeming regularity, keeping the entire world wet and glistening. We trudged onward, talking occasionally, but mostly remaining quiet as the soundtrack of the drive gave way to the symphony of the mountains. The gentle sounds of rain and wind blowing through conifer needles; the swoosh of Gore-Tex against Gore-Tex and the squishy-squashy of footfalls on a muddy, wet trail. We continued on our path up Swift Creek, eventually veering southwards up a sub-basin.
Sydney Musai Walter in his new book “Off the Path: The Zen of Mountains and Deserts” wrote:
“Trails go to places and through places. To become intimate with a place, I must go off the trail. Off trail I discover the qualities, textures and challenges of the place. I enter the place and the place enters me.”
The trail we were on was going to take us through, or more correctly past, the place where we wanted to be, so we had to leave it behind and travel our own path. From high atop the ridge the year before, we peered down and saw meadow and pond and deer. For the past year we have thought about this place, which we now hoped to know more intimately.
As we neared a creek we discussed the right time to leave the trail behind and head upslope. The creek was swollen with the recent rains and rapidly melting mountain snow, making the option to cross it not exactly easy. The idea of taking off sopping wet shoes and socks and then having to put them back on wasn’t exactly inviting. We quickly searched upstream for an obvious crossing, failed to find one, and took it as a sign from the universe to head upslope. Traversing diagonally, we contoured up in an attempt to ensure as gentle a climb as possible in these rugged mountains. Avoiding the steepest slopes, we tried to stay in the trees in order to keep out of the brush, which would tear at our raingear and soak out feet. It was a futile attempt and true bush whacking quickly ensued. In no time shoes and socks were soaked freeing oneself from the worry of getting wet. Trudging onward and upward, following bear and deer path, we neared the flat bench upon which rested our destination.
An open and airy world greeted us and the clouds parted for a moment, revealing the always blue sky that resides above the clouds of our life. As suddenly as the clouds had parted, they closed in again and showers returned. Despite being wet, cold and tired, we took our time exploring this new world, not knowing exactly what we were looking for. We knew we would know it when we found it. Unspoken understandings are the sign posts of a close friendship. We considered a couple of different places for a level campsite but neither was what we were looking for. They were completely exposed and not exactly flat and then we both looked northwards. Not giving voice to our thoughts, we both knew that we had found the right spot and starting walking towards a small tertiary clearing. Our intuitions were confirmed when we got there as the small clearing was separate from the main meadow, perfectly flat and just open enough to provide views of snow-covered peaks. Being small in area and ringed by trees, it was not so open as to overwhelm the senses with too much space. This was the place for us; it was intimate and we knew it instantly.
The showers continued through dinner and then quietly retreated to the corners of the universe where clouds go. As a crescent moon set over the ridge and the first of the stars appeared in the sky high above our heads, we remained, silent and serene, in this little corner of the world. Alone but not lonely; apart but not separate; distant but not disconnected, I soaked in the immensity of the universe and savored the intimacy of this small corner of it. Drunken with delight and exhausted from our hike, I quickly slipped off into a deep sleep, cloaked in darkness and wrapped in a blanket of stars.
The girls riding in style – delivering eggs to the farm to be sold.
In the early morning light, I open the back gate and close it gently. The soft clink-sound of metal on metal tells me, wordlessly, that it closed behind me. I walk, quickly yet unhurried, through the orchard, passed fruit trees, some leafed out and others just now blooming, to the edge of the electric fence. The thud of my rubber heals on hard earth reverberate through my body, beginning at the heal and traveling upward in a communication intimately known to cells and felt by body. This upward transfer of energy tells me something important about this place. It’s hard and dry; damn hard, like concrete, like a sidewalk. And I notice that it is cracked too, around the fruit trees and other places where the chickens have scratched the earth bare. The earth is July-hard, August-dry and its only the beginning of May.
California, including the wettest part of the state where we live, is in its fourth consecutive year of drought. This past winter is the driest on written record for California; with very little snowpack in the Sierra Nevada (5% or less than normal). And it’s not only dry but it is also hot. Not only did the years 2012-2014 set records for the driest three-year period of statewide precipitation on record, it also set records for the highest statewide average in temperature in 2014. And the news is perhaps even more startling. Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and University of Minnesota measured tree rings in nearly 300 blue oaks in central and southern California and found a shocking result. The 2012-2014 drought is the driest dating back to the year A.D. 800, meaning that it’s the driest going back 1,200 years; a staggering context in which to live, breath and drink.
I walk the hard ground the chickens have been on with vegetation in various states of growth and regrowth. I can see the most recent chicken paddock, consumed and scratched to nearly bare earth; and the paddock where they were the month before, regrowing quickly in the spring light and warmth. I reach the area into which we just moved the chickens and quickly navigate the electric fence. I hear them clucking in an increasing crescendo as I near their mobile coop. They know I am there and they want out. Out in the fresh air and into the new grass with its virtual cafeteria of insects and seeds. I open the door and they immediately leap and fly out in seeming jubilation. I say, “good morning” and then quickly turn for home. I wind my way through the trees – apple, pear and plum – reenter our yard with a chinck of the gate, and into the embrace of a hot cup of coffee. Sipping the bitter brew, I stare out into our backyard where the blueberries are ripening, the garlic is senescing and kale, carrots and other vegetables are growing and I wonder just how dry and hard it’s going to get before we see the blessed return of rain in the fall.