the woods are lovely
dark and deep
but i have promises to keep
and miles to go before i sleep
It is comprised of many moments of pain, border line torture at times, which inspires a flurry of grotesque internal monologues…yet we return to it annually: backpacking. The high sierras call our name yearly, and a group of friends and I have become determined [or perhaps I’m just blindly driven] to make this a tradition amongst our group. No matter where life takes us, once a year we reconvene in the backcountry.
This year’s trip was intended to eventually land us in Black Cap Basin…however, the mosquitoes had a little [or rather a lot] to say about that. I have read of plagues in the Bible, and this was the closest personal relateable experience I ever care to have. Since the sierras were so wet this year, which also created swamp-like conditions with muddy trails and stagnant water collections on part of our route, the mosquitoes reaped all the benefits at our expense.
After day 1, deprived of being able to rest for more than a few moments on the trail without being swarmed upon, we were exhausted and feeling mentally defeated when it came time to set up camp that evening. We almost decided to turn around then and there, but some warm food, a small camp fire, and a night of sleep in mosquito-proof tents provided us with new perspective and the formation of a compromise: we would cut the trip in half.
So our 7-day “Black Cap Basin Blitz” become a 4-day “Crown Lake Crusade.”
And to be honest, it was not just the mosquitoes that caused this decision. The route from Rancheria Trailhead to Black Cap Basin is not an overly popular route to peruse, so it has not been as well maintained as other areas of the Sierras like Evolution Valley and the Rae Lakes region, for examples. There were fallen trees and brush that covered many sections of the trail, which caused us to venture into cross country endeavors in the hopes of recovering the covered trail. This appeals to the wanderer in me, but does not bode well for trying to keep a group of 11 trekkers together over a week of hiking.
Despite the quitting of our original plan, the 4 day venture was a blessing, and a great time spent in fellowship with one another. We went from Rancheria Trail head to Lacey Camp on Day 1. Then Lacey Camp to Crown Lake on Day 2. Crown Lake to Lacey Camp area [found a random flat area to camp when we discovered we had over shot Indian Springs] on Day 3. And then hiked out the next morning back to Rancheria Trailhead where our cars [and a dip in the Wishon Reservoir] awaited us. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 miles when it was all said and done, 5-8 miles per day. Although we only got to 10,400 in elevation, we were still blessed with fantastic sights and that sound of silence that is particular to alpine heights.
There were three experiences in particular that characterized this year’s saunter.
First, was meeting cowboys at Crown Lake. After not seeing any other humans for the past 48 hours, stumbling across a crew of 10+ cowboys in the middle of the woods was a surprise to say the least. They had come out on horses, so they had the full spread of camping supplies: chairs, large tents, a music player, beers and hard alcohol. The contrast between their supplies and what we brought with us on our backs was quite a contrast. I was immediately humbled by their hospitality and kindness. They offered us fish they had caught, brought over steaks, diet coke, and French bread for our dinner saying they had “too much” of all these things…and after freeze dried dinners and trail mix, these items were most welcome to us. Later that night we joined them at their camp fire [actually prohibited in that region of the Sierras…but they’re cowboys, so since when do they follow such regulations?]. They passed beers around, played country music, and asked to pose with the 3 of the girls [one of the other girls was occupied by getting dance lessons from the lone cowgirl in the group and two of the remaining were shielded by their husbands] amongst our group [enforced that they wear cowboy hats in the shots]. As we quit their area to get ready to hit the sack [sleeping bag that is] I was struck by how there is an unspoken camaraderie of any and all who venture into the backcountry. There is something in all of us that enjoy roughing it out away from civilization that breeds for instant friendship, as if we come from common stock of some sort.
The second defining experience was found at Chuck Pass. This was the single area we found along the route that was relatively mosquito free. It was about 2 miles out from camp on Day 3. And we luxuriated in the small space of land which was free from the fearful chorus of buzzing. We stopped mid-hike for a lunch break there and stayed for a few hours sleeping in the sunshine, reading & drawing [for the more artistically inclined among us]. Towards the end of our rest we had a devotional time, led by one of our fellow hikers. It was a treasure to me, to us all, to be able to commune with the Creator in His creation. To see the symbolic connection of things we faced in the backcountry with things we face in life.
The third memorable occasion was at our spontaneously found camp site near Lacey Camp area on Day 3. We found a high, dry, and flat area and set up our camp for the night. As dusk drew on, a golden light dance amongst the trees in the forest to the left of our nomadic sleeping area. Like sailors hearing the sirens song, we were drawn irresistibly to venture through the trees to find the source of that light. It brought us to a cliff edge that gave a panoramic, sweeping view of a valley below. It was just such a peaceful moment, crunching off trail through trees, chasing that amber light. It was intoxicating. Like we could not drink in the sight enough. There was just something about that moment, with our limbs fatigued from miles of hiking, staring at such beauty that can only be fully appreciated by enduring uncountable steps with a pack on your back, that in beyond words, but a treasure I shall always keep.
One thing that struck me as we hiked was the symbolic lesson I have learned from switchbacks. Switchbacks are common place when backpacking in the sierras. The most irritating thing about them, is that you almost always can see the end point you want to read long before the switchbacks end. Like a moth to a flame, you long to just take the straight route to that horizon point rather than take the winding, longer, switchback route to get there. So often in life we have goals that we long to achieve, a prize that we “know” will give us instantaneous happiness….and we want it NOW. But, just as climbing straight up a hill rather than taking the switchbacks will often lead to injury or just a more exhausting route, so to does going after things with OUR timing and with OUR plans usually yield less joy than waiting for God’s timing and God’s plan to be fulfilled. The switchbacks in life are placed there for our own good and for the greater glory of God. That devotional time was impactful for us all, and allowed us to each share a bit of our soul with one another.
Over the course of those four days, we all mused about why exactly we do this ever year. As I said before, there are many parts of backpacking that are unpleasant, painful, and sometimes even torturous. Yet, even as we complain internally or externally, there is pat of us that is already planning the next jaunt.
We return each year for a few reasons. First it is for the challenge, the twisted sort of exhilaration that comes from pushing oneself beyond what you thought you could endure. Of being out of breath, sweaty, and dirty. Of exerting yourself and becoming fatigued by fresh air and sunshine such that you fall into the normal sleep-wake cycle of darkness = sleep and sunshine= rise. Second is for the escape from our routine, technology driven lives. When you experience the sound of silence, and there is a sound to it, you realize just how much life in Western societies is brim-full of sounds and stimuli. You forget the beauty of silence and simplicity. When you are out in the backcountry, carrying as few things as possible because every additional item means additional weight on your back, you realize how little you truly need to feel joy. We return every year for the opportunity to strip down our lifestyles, realign our perspectives, and realize the blessings of simplicity. Finally, this has become an annual tradition for us for the chance to have fellowship with one another and fellowship with the Creator. There are few better ways to truly know a person or grow closer to them then to see share in an experience that makes one dirty, tired, hungry, and mosquito-bitten. The shared bond of suffering breeds deeper ties than few other things can. I would not trade such moments for the world, for once experienced together, it is something you will always fall back on, creating friendships that last a life time no matter where life takes you next. “We’ll always have the Sierras….”[ok...not quite the Humphrey Bogart affect...but you get the idea] And being in nature 24/7 allows you to understand and see God in new ways, there are reminders of Him everywhere such that you begin to realize how little you think of Him at home when He truly is everywhere at all times. The backcountry reminds of this, it is refreshing, rejuvenating, and when we return to our routine, our laptops, televisions, desks, and cell phones we can lean upon that memory of the bombardment of His presence in His creation and realign our thoughts to a mindset of unceasing prayer…for we can commune with Him everywhere.
Despite the change in course, the mosquito bites, blisters, and dirt that stubbornly refuses to come off after multiple showers, I praise God for the blessing it was to have 4 days in the back country with friends I love dearly and for the opportunity to re-learn the beauty of simplicity and God’s omnipresence. Can’t wait for next year.