I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.
-Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.
-Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Sometime last week, I glanced at the calendar and realized it was mid-July. Of course, I knew what date it was in a cognitive awareness sort of way, but it hadn't actually dawned on me that we were half-way through the summer already. Anxiousness washed over me with the subtlety of a flash flood. Summer, the season of the Sierra, was slowly receding from me. The promise of warm days and cool, starry nights at altitude was slipping away.
Mildly panicked, I resolved then and there that a trip to Lone Pine was in order. Not on some future date after meticulous organization, relentless planning, and exhaustive consultation. What I had in mind was something immediate. An impulsive, chaotic, and messy affair that I'd make up as I went along. When I mentioned my idea to my skeptical better half, I was told I was forcing the issue. And of course I was. That's the only way these things ever seem to happen.
So two days later, there I was headed north by myself, crossing the upper Mojave as the devilishly hot desert air came blasting through my open car windows. Those windows weren't open by choice, but rather by necessity as the air conditioner in my car had recently quit me. In some respects, that's understandable I suppose given the fact that I drive a 2009 Honda Civil Si with 187,000 miles and a flaking paint job. But still, the inability to conjure artificially cool air on demand made the journey an exceedingly hot and uncomfortably noisy affair. Through the haze of time, this will be the stuff of warm memories and embellished bar-stool reminiscences.
Three hours in I made a hard left and tacked west up narrow and winding Lubken Canyon Road. Here, the landscape immediately and dramatically changes from burnt desertscape to a velvety, green paradise that is watered by gurgly Lubken Creek. But Eden is a very small and private place that is not shared freely by its chosen inhabitants, so I soldiered on into the parched and sun-baked promised land that is the Alabama Hills. Finding a suitable place to call home for the evening, I set up camp, built a fire, and then settled in as the sun mercifully slid behind the mountains and darkness crept over the fantastic and grotesque rock formations for which these hills are justly famous.
It would not be odd in the least to wonder about how the name "Alabama" became appended to these eastern California hills. I have thought about that myself. Apparently, the area was named by local prospectors in honor of the CSS Alabama, a legendary Confederate battleship that was successful in raiding Union merchant and naval ships during the Civil War. The CSS Alabama was ultimately sunk in June of 1864 by the USS Kearsarge for which the Kearsarge Pass, Lakes, and Pinnacles are named. But fret not. The CSS Alabama may be gone, but it is not entirely forgotten in these parts. 150+ years and counting after the end of bloody hostilities between the north and south, a bit of the Confederacy spirit can still be found in Lone Pine where the "Stars and Bars" is proudly displayed over certain bars and hung from scattered homes.
Around 5:30 a.m the next day, the sun reappeared over the Inyo Mountains and bathed the Sierra in warm amber. This is a spectacular phenomenon I never tire of, although I wonder if the local even see it anymore because it is so commonplace. Foregoing coffee and the urge to linger, I broke camp and immediately drove to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead at 10,000 feet where my thermometer told me the outside temperature was cool and comfortable 51 degrees. As I pulled in, I congratulated myself on the early arrival, smug in the belief that it would secure me a convenient place to park and ample space for my smellables in the bear box. Much to my dismay, however, the parking lot was completely full, forcing me to the sad overflow area near the equestrian camp, the hiker's equivalent of the kids' table.
Although the parking lot was full, the trail was empty as I silently made my way through the forest noisily gasping for air. Being a lowlander all these years has rendered me altitudinally challenged. But the weather was so perfect, the creeks so full, and the scenery so fine it was easy to ignore my tortoise's pace and the fact that my legs felt like lead.
Five miles or so in, the trail crests a low rise and suddenly I was in an enchanted, high-altitude basin hemmed by blazing white granite and splattered with sapphire lakes. Mt. Langley towered 14,026' to my right. Cirque Peak pierced the flawless sky to my left. Before me sat a surprisingly verdant bowl studded with boulders and bisected by flowing water. Ah yes, this was the wonderland I had journeyed all this way to bathe in.
There are many foot-paths that cut through this justly popular basin. I opted to follow the one that passes between Lake No. 3 and the unnamed "pond" to the northeast. Water from snow-melt roared into Lake No. 3 at its inlet on the northwest end. As I neared Lake Nos. 4 and 5 nestled beneath Army Point Pass, clouds of marauding mosquitoes swarmed. It's been a record water-year in the Sierra and the mosquitoes are taking maximum and frenzied advantage of the situation. The only way I could escape the blood-thirsty little creatures was to stay on the rocks and away from any vegetation. I now know what it must feel like to be a Caribou on the Arctic Plain in the spring time.
But biting midge-like flies are a small price of admission, so I offered up some of my bodily fluids and luxuriated in the resounding silence of my personal nirvana. Afterwords, I back-tracked through the basin, veering south for a quick visit to the appropriately named South Fork Lakes, before reluctantly making my way back to the trailhead and what passes for reality.
Back at my campsite in the Alabama Hills, the late-afternoon heat was unrelenting. As a diversion, I tried to read, hoping for relief as the scorching sun crept west across the sky. But I despise the heat and soon grew impatient with how slowly sunset was approaching. So I loaded up my gear and started back for home.
The air conditioner in my car wasn't working any better on the way back than it was on the way up. So of course I had all the windows wide open once again. Somewhere along that tedious and lonely stretch between Olancha and Mojave ferocious cross-winds began to buffet the car. Then, a couple of closed-cell foam pads in the back seat that I keep in a plastic garbage bag began to levitate. I sensed impending calamity and began bringing up the windows in earnest, but the foam pads took flight. They momentarily got stuck as the passenger side window pinched around them, but then they were gone. Out the window to join the other sad detritus along the highway median. Stunned, I slowed some to quickly considered my options as other cars passed me on the right, their occupants staring at me quizzically. A quarter-mile or so later, I brought the car to a stop after I had processed the curiosity of what had just happened. Then I walked in shame and embarrassment up the freeway in the 103 degree heat to retrieve my garbage-bag belongings. Ah yes, another life episode to ultimately be remembered more fondly than deserved through the prism of hindsight and the bottom of a beer stein.
When I finally arrived home in the fading light a few hours later, I felt like Ray Smith from Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums. I didn't feel like doing much of anything but lying down and remembering it all. The woods do that to you.