The ‘New’ Sierra Hiker
Hiker never had a chance, never heard the rattler hissing over his music. Snake warned, had time to wind up and strike!
I met him, the fated Hiker, on my last day of camping at Upper Sage Flats. I had just started out on the North Fork of Pine Creek Trail. The morning was glorious, with a sky so deep it pulsed purple. I was twenty minutes out from the trailhead, having passed the powerful rushing falls at the first bridge. Now I was standing on a slope in sun at 9,000 feet, taking in the glacial-carved granite that rose in freeze-thawed chunks and blocks across the canyon. I saw a bowl holding glistening remnants of snow and the Ice Age: the Palisade Glacier. Here at the intersection for the over-loved lakes and Baker Creek, Hiker would force me to make a U-turn.
Like lemmings, he and his peers (they travel in packs, pandemic be damned) were following the trail to the mundanely named Second Lake where Temple Crag rises majestic and seismically tortured over emerald waters. The lake might be a primitive basin for rebirth. I had been on this trail enough to know that Hiker and company were spurred on by an Instagram photo a few years back (a bane and blessing say some, I say former) of Second Lake. There is a remarkable sameness to these hikers. The women wear workout tights or yoga pants, not the practical multi-pocketed cargo pants experienced hikers have worn for years. They wear strong perfume, a scent to draw bears. They text on the trail (no idea how they get service).
Throughout the week I had encountered to my astonishment these specimans as well as men carrying speakers booming and thumping rock music for the edification (sarcasm) of all within thirty to forty feet. This Hiker was no different. Finally I had to ask, “How can you enjoy the silence of the wilderness with the music drowning it out?”
His answer came swiftly with unchecked bravado, “Motivation.” Then over his shoulder he threw a dig, “Some people like silence, some like music. To each his own.” I might have suggested he be considerate and wear earphones. Or pointed out that going to a social gathering and pleading for silence was as inappropriate as his blasting music in what is for most hikers a wild cathedral.
The day before, I had encountered the above rattle snake as I rounded a bend in the chaparral. Fortunately, ears always poised, I heard his rattle, inches from my calf, in time to back off. I hesitated some ten feet away taking photos as he continued to hiss and rattle, thrusting his bifurcated tongue wildly. We both stood our ground.
So it happens, that I have imagined the above scenario with Hapless Hiker unable to hear the warning rattle with his speaker blaring techno noise. You might call it the worst case scenario. I wouldn’t be there to know if it had occurred. Disgusted with the critical mass of his ilk—it was the weekend and they were pouring onto the mountain with mini boom boxes, gear, children, and dogs—I turned up slope on a trail that not one other human was taking. It led to Baker Creek, which has not been Instagrammed, thank the gods.
I joyfully climbed the sandy path through fragrant sage and manzanita. I reached a quiet forest of Jeffrey pines with their vanilla-scented bark and communed with one. I did not begrudge the altered route. On the contrary, I was glad to find a broad swath of mountain to have to myself. Not that I mind sharing the Sierra with respectful hikers.
The whole idea bewilders—leaving civilization where we’ve become inured to the sounds of electronics, internal combustions, and commuter noise only to bring something to mask, not just the primal silence, but also the voices, songs, and whispers that emerge from the wild. When one listens.
I’ve been hiking or backpacking in the Sierra for nearly thirty years and have wished I’d discovered it sooner. The mountains are rugged and can be merciless if we don’t understand their conditions. They have swallowed or “disappeared” hikers. Their geology is a peerless gaze into time before time, a geology that hangs out like an unruly teen. It is never static and it speaks in its various tongues, through the micro- or macro-aggression of plate tectonics. Above treeline, the wind may provide musical accompaniment, whistling across chutes of scree and talus.
The Sierra is a lively symphony orchestrated according to season. In spring and summer when most humans visit, you hear, not just the birdsong of Clark’s nutcrackers and chickadees, but the roar and cries of a mountain coming undone as the crust of winter loosens its grip: the mellifluous pattern of water seeking its level, as unleashed snowmelt, rushing creeks, as tumbling froth syncopating high and low notes, an improvised call and response over rocks and boulders.
And always there are sudden moments, soundless and still, when out of the primeval forest, if one is attuned, comes the whisper of wisdom beyond wisdom. Stone and wood crackling code reaches the ear drum, so stunning and revealing, even the geckoes stop dead in their tracks. One has to have been nurtured pre-Google, pre-Facebook, pre-Instagram.
I imagine there is a sort of perfection to human consciousness before it was limited and shackled out of its pristine, infinite cosmos. With no grid or familiar geometry, the random and chaotic layout of wilderness offers an opportunity to tune in to that original perfection. In that state, even the rocks, even the wind sing. The insects pipe a recognizable ditty and a melody flows from a bloom of cobalt delphiniums. I’ve heard it all.
Smart-ass Hiker must unlearn that which are constraints. His boom box may be “motivation” elsewhere but it is a public nuisance and limitation in the mountains. It betrays his fear of being alone with himself, afraid of what that may reveal — a lack of self-motivation?
In his signature essay, “Good, Wild, and Sacred,” Pulitzer-winning poet Gary Snyder writes:
“One must learn to listen. Then the voices can be heard. The nature spirits are never dead, they are alive under our feet, over our heads, all around us, ready to speak when we are silent and centered . . . What is this voice? Just the cry of a flicker, or coyote, or jay, or wind in a tree, or acorn whack . . . nothing mysterious, but now you’re home.”