A sample chapter from Further Off The Map: Fifty-three Tales of Adventure Along the Rougher Edges of American Wilderness
DUST, SMOKE AND STEAM
With the coming of sunrise over Long Valley, one would expect to be greeted by fresh, crisp breezes and gentle birdsong, especially when waking in an isolated campsite one thousand feet above the valley floor. Instead, my morning was heralded by the arrival of sheep. Lots of them. I crawled out from my tent to investigate the disturbance and found five hundred sheep bleating out a wearied protest as they were herded through the forest below me.
These were not native bighorn sheep… they were the white and fluffy domesticated type, with an occasional black sheep thrown into the mix. I could see sheepdogs darting about, nosing their wool-clad charges along whenever the animals stopped to browse the sagebrush. From somewhere nearby, a herd of cows bellowed in sympathy.
The impact of two thousand hooves crushed pine needles into dust and kicked up the dry, powdery soil, transforming the air of the forest into the perfect setting for sunbeams. As I watched the creatures ripple across this landscape of sepia-toned shadows, I felt a sense of timelessness, as if the world’s clock had been set back one century and the days of the Western Frontier had returned once again to California.
Since my consciousness had been stirred up along with the dust, I decided to make an early start and drive towards the town of Mammoth Lakes, where my first foray into the Sierras this year would begin. My momentum seemed encouraging at first, but it stalled as soon as I re-encountered the woolly hordes of sheep, which were now backed up bumper-to-bumper for a quarter-mile along the road leading towards the highway. Attempts to roll my vehicle forward and part the sea of ruminants proved fruitless until a Basque shepherd finally showed some mercy. He used his team of sheepdogs to open a corridor, and I slipped free, escaping at last from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
The famous naturalist John Muir called the Sierras the “Range of Light”, although the wilderness through which I‘d chosen to hike this week contained none of the white granite cathedral spires typically featured on the cover of Ansel Adams calendars. Instead, the mountains south of Mammoth Lakes bore striped patterns in regal shades of red and gray. Ponds and pine forests filled the level spaces, and after two weeks in the desert, it felt revitalizing to have the color green restored to my visual palette.
Along the trail to Duck Pass, the sound of my footsteps would frequently trigger the persistent chipping of perturbed squirrels and the pity-inducing cry of the Clark’s nutcracker. The nutcracker, with its monochrome plumage, is a more purposeful relative of the crow that I witnessed tapping at the cones of the limber pine in order to open the scales and obtain the seeds within. These seeds are stored by the birds in as many as 2,500 different caches beneath the soil. Uneaten seeds from the caches germinate to become the next generation of limber pine trees, perpetuating the nutcracker’s own habitat.
My plan to shortcut the distance from Duck Pass to Deer Lakes via an unofficial trail proved mostly successful, apart from a disturbing descent down a hillside of sparkling green boulders. The rocks there were dreadfully unsettled and seemed to be waiting for the moment when my weight would tip them off-balance and trigger a bone-crushing landslide. Twice, I froze in place as I heard and felt the rocks shifting underneath the surface, moving like hidden tumblers in a combination lock and striving to align in an arrangement that would set everything loose. There was no solid ground to which I could jump for safety; I just had to hope that the booby trap would fail to go off. I hate being unable to control the odds, especially when my life is at stake.
After negotiating the treacherous slope, I took a moment to appreciate the scenery that had opened up to the west. The High Sierra peaks looked to have been scraped, gouged and chewed every which way, then smoothed over by a millennium of rainfall. Smoke from a small forest fire in the Cascade Valley played the part of the primordial mists, making a relatively young mountain range seem much more ancient.
To the east of Mammoth Lakes in the center of Long Valley lies a dense concentration of hot springs that frequent soakers refer to as the “Mother Lode of the Sierras”, and it was to this fabled country that I went to retire at the end of the day’s journey. My guidebook was vague, but I discovered one of the pools within a labyrinth of dirt roads just before dusk made the directions impossible to follow.
The warm water felt glorious and, like the other attractions of the day, it was free of charge. Snowmelt from the Sierras trickled down several miles beneath the earth, where hot rocks next to chambers of magma superheated the water and sent it rising through fractures to the surface. Treasures such as these are usually snatched up and commoditized, but the pools surrounding Hot Creek were available to anyone, if you knew where to find them.
Once night had fallen, the steam from the hot springs seemed to merge with the cosmic dust trails of the Milky Way, creating an unending arc of mist that spanned the void between earth and the heavens. The constellations of Scorpio and Aries seemed to rise straight out of the waters, and as the surface of the pool calmed and the ripples settled, the stars in the sky and those reflected in the pool seemed to be no different. Just shimmering points on the same celestial tapestry, uniting the world of earthbound sheep and men with the realms of winged travelers, and gently enfolding us within the mists of creation.