My four-week southwestern pilgrimage is drawing to a close, and what stands between my current location in Mammoth Lakes and the San Francisco airport is. . . . Yosemite National Park, John Muir’s temple of the wilderness, in which “every rock seems to glow with life.”
This is sacred ground, with 4.3 million visitors last year. This year, having just reopened after a month’s closure due to forest fires, no doubt the park will be thronged. What’s needed is a thoughtful plan: an infiltration route from a remote trailhead to a suitable vantage point overlooking the valley, sparing me the crowds below. A chance encounter with a friendly trail volunteer supplies me with exactly this: a 16-mile route from Porcupine Creek Trailhead to North Dome and the top of Yosemite Falls.
Working on the route from Zion to Grand Canyon, a little dot pops up on the map: Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Who doesn’t like scrambling around in sand? How could you not want to check out dunes with such a distinctive color?
After three days in Lone Pine, California, the grand tour of Owens Valley continues, and now it’s time for Bishop. First stop: the public land visitor’s center, where I enter the lottery for an overnight permit for the Bishop Pass trail. It’s a popular trail, but there’s not much competition mid-week, and a little later that morning, after a series of instructions from the Rangers (where to park, where to camp, how to dispose of waste, how to keep bears from eating your food, and not to mention watch out for dead deer on the pass and the thunderstorm forecast for tomorrow afternoon) — I stroll out with permit, map, and rented bear canister in hand. Now it’s time to prepare for the mission: map the drive to the trailhead, study the route, buy food, pack my pack, and rig up a carrying strap for the bear canister so I can sling it over a shoulder, it being far too large to fit in my 20-liter day pack.
The next morning I’m up at 3:00 AM, determined to steal a march on the weather and secure a parking spot before the crowds….
My objectives: explore the desert, get acclimated to the heat, build back some running stamina without aggravating injuries, continue to condition the feet. The goal isn’t to overdo things, but still to do a lot, and this requires an aggressive tempo of operations: breakfast, run or hike, dinner, plan the next day’s activities, bed — repeat. The planning is time-consuming: there’s an overwhelming volume of information on the internet, and not all of equal quality. My best source turns out to be the motel clerk who’s been exploring this area with his wife for the last ten years.
A week or so ago, our friends Ann and Jules invited me and my wife over to dinner, and after an excellent meal, Ann played a recording for us. It was the poet Robert Frost, reading his poem, “birches“:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.
Having just returned from a hike in the Catskills, I had to interject here and point out that in the mountains of southern New York, it’s not the birches that are bent over after winter storms, but rather the fir and spruce saplings, which are often crushed to the ground under heavy loads of snow. Robert Frost lived in New Hampshire, I explained, and no doubt conditions up there are different.
Needless to say, on the very next hike in the Catskills, I was overwhelmed by bent-over birches….
InWhitman: A Study, east coast naturalist John Burroughs presented his friend Walt Whitman as the poet of democracy, primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, prophet. The famous literary critic Harold Bloom goes even further, placing Whitman on par with Shakespeare and describing him as “the greatest artist his nation has brought forth” and “as close to an authentic American saint as we will ever know.” I was thus very excited recently to come across Whitman’s memoir, Speciman Days, which would give me a chance to better understand the poet’s vision.
Speciman Days is not a conventional life story but rather a series of vignettes. What I loved the most was how Whitman described the simple experience of being outdoors, which was for him a source of health, joy, and even ecstasy, and also the standard of beauty against which he judged art and literature. In fact, the outdoors life was in his view critical for “the whole politics, sanity, religion, and art of the New World.” Without a direct connection to nature, he warned, American democracy would “dwindle and pale.”
Readers of this blog won’t be surprised that I sympathize with this view. But in modern America, the outdoors life is for the most part a thing of the past: according to recent data, the average American today spends only 7% of their time outdoors.
The original Blade Runner movie made a deep impression on me when it was released in 1982, especially the last few seconds, when the protagonists escape from the dark, rainy, urban disaster zone of future Los Angeles into sunlit forests and mountains — the only glimpse of nature in the 1-hour 57-minute film. Thus I was very curious when Blade Runner 2049 showed up in theaters a few weeks ago.
The timing was fortuitous, because I’d recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the 1974 classic by Robert Pirsig, which opens with a motorcycle trip into the fresh air and sunshine of the countryside, an attempt to escape a lifestyle increasingly shaped and dominated by technology. Or perhaps, as the novel’s protagonist muses, it’s not technology itself but some kind of force that gives rises to technology: “something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force.”
Dread of technology is not recent. A copy of Walden tucked away in the protagonist’s motorcycle saddle-bag calls to mind Henry David Thoreau’s warning that “men have become the tool of their tools.” For Thoreau, dependence on technology was a form of enslavement, and his famous observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” seems to be the implicit premise in both Pirsig’s novel and the tech noir genre to which the Blade Runner films belong.
Of course, we need technology to survive. Pirsig adds that without it, “there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts,” as the words “technology” and “art” both refer to the process of making things…. But the fear remains: that technology has taken on a life of its own, that it is reordering human existence according to mechanical rules, that the end result for us will not be the light and beauty of nature, but rather despair and the grim urban decay through which the blade runner stalks his prey.