Chastened by the aftermath of our Mother’s Day hike, I took my Tom Harrison maps and my copy of Elizabeth Wenk’s John Muir Trail to the Huntington Library (where I am a Reader), and there amongst the impeccably-dressed Anglophiles sifting through sheets of notes and adjusting their stylish spectacles, I spread out my maps in a grubby sprawl.
After some thought, I had decided to give up on Whitney this year and reconceive the hike as a two-year endeavor: our experience this summer with our first extended back country trip and many high passes will prepare us to take on Whitney in the context of an extended trip next summer – we can start at Onion and go to Kennedy Meadows with a side trip up Whitney. The descent on the eastern slope is supposed to be brutal (11 miles and 6,000 ft elevation loss!!!), and my new plan will also allow us to summit Whitney without ever encountering the eastern slope. Also, by exiting at Onion Valley this year, we will obviate the need for the third and most logistically-challenging resupply: since there is no resort or backcountry outfit between Muir Trail Ranch and some point south of Whitney, many people mail buckets to Independence, leave the JMT, cross Kearsarge Pass, and hike or hitch the 13 miles into town to pick up their cache. We’d had generous offers from more than one backcountry pal (shout out to my Sasquatch Friends!) to mule the bucket in for us, but that was a pretty big ask, and the logistics of it made my head hurt.
With the new endpoint in mind, I was ready to calculate our new daily mileage as well as elevation loss and gain in order to compose a hike that would not have me half-unconscious from pain most of the day. With the goal of shortening the first three days and then maintaining a ten miles-per-day pace, each with no more than 2000 ft. of elevation gain and 2000 ft. of elevation loss (as a rule of thumb), I wrote a 15-day itinerary that had us exiting at Onion Valley.
By the end of June, I got The Husband to sit down with me and look at the maps and elevation charts so that I could talk through the thorniest bits. We tweaked the beginning so we’d have an easier climb on our first day in the Sierra, and then we added miles towards the end to make our last food pickup a little lighter. Here’s the final draft:
Day 1: Silver Lake to Waugh Lake outlet: 9 miles, +2300 ft
Day 2: Waugh Lake outlet to Rosalie Lake: 10 miles, -1000 ft, +700 ft
Day 3: Rosalie Lake to Red’s Meadow (first resupply point): 8.5 miles, -1670. +300
Day 4: Red’s to Duck Lake Junction: 11.2 miles, +1600
Day 5: Duck to Squaw Lake: 9.5 mi, -300, +400, -1200, +1200
Day 6: Squaw Lake to Quail Meadows; cross Silver Pass: 8 mi, +500, -1280
Day 7: Quail to Rose Lake Jct.: 11.3 mi, +2000, -1000, +1100
Day 8: Rose to Paiute Cr. Jct.; cross Selden Pass: 12.2 mi, +900, -3000 (oh my)
Day 9: Paiute to Ev. Lake: 13 mi, +2800
Day 10: Ev. Lake to Big Pete Meadow; cross Muir Pass: 10. 6 mi, +1100, -2700
Day 11: Big Pete Meadow to Palisade Lakes midpoint: 13 mi., +1400
Day 12: Palisade to Lake Marjorie; cross Mather Pass: 12.5 mi, +1500, -2060, +1000
Day 13: Lake Marjorie to Dollar Lake; cross Pinchot Pass: 13.6 mi, +1080, -3620 (come here Jesus), +1700
Day 14: Dollar to Kearsarge; cross Glen Pass: 9.8 mi, +1750, -1200
Day 15: Kearsarge to Onion Valley; cross Kearsarge Pass: 6 mi, +1075, -2660, and OUT!!!
The next night, we sat on a granite spit jutting into the central and largest of the Kearsarge Lakes watching the sun disappear over the horizon’s watery ledge. As the day cooled, the golden trout began to jump, making a plipping sound each time one broke the surface in a lunge for a gnat or mosquito. They were medium-sized fish, six inches long, with yellow bellies, green coppery backs, and a red stripe bisecting their dorsal and ventral sides. We watched them twinkle all around us, their sides flashing in the low sun. Where shadows interrupted the sun’s quicksilvering, we watched their forms glide into the deep. They were all around us and almost constant: piscine fireworks, and as fun to watch.
To the south, huge rock faces of the Kearsarge Pinnacles loomed, and we passed time trying to describe faces or other formations in the towering piles and sheer walls. The kids had wanted to follow the trail around to the south side of the lake earlier that day, but the vast sweeps of gravel laced with snow and sharp scree spilling directly into the lake looked like a great way to slide into a hypothermic drowning incident. I suspected Mary Austin was describing exactly this cliff face when she wrote, “I remember one night of thunderous rain made unendurably mournful by the houseless cry of a cougar whose lair, and perhaps his family, had been buried under a slide of broken boulders on the slope of Kearsarge. We had heard the heavy detonation of the slide about the hour of the alpenglow, a pale rosy interval in a darkling air, and judged he must have come from hunting to the ruined cliff and paced the night out before it, crying a very human woe.”
We were more likely to lose a child due to overconfidence on unsteady ground than to an epochal shearing of rock from the cliffs high above us, so The Husband and I nixed their plan, encouraging them instead to join us as we swam in a sheltered cove near our site, one with a shallow bottom and flowering banks. We kicked up mud and slow streamers of algae as we plunged ourselves into the icy water, rinsing off the day’s sweat and dirt.
We had made it! Only one more pass to cross over before we could return to the greasemobile, have a diner lunch, and voyage through the furnace air of the Owens Valley to our home in the foothills of the San Gabriels. Our sons were giddy. Son the Younger especially enjoyed my ventriloquization of an ant heroically trying to carry a grain of rice we’d dropped on the rock at supper and hoping not to have to share it with his archrival, Fred the ant. He made me promise to write down the whole story in the trip log. He kept watch over the sky, reporting as its tones changed from the bright copper to tangerine. We watched the lake surface and sky subside into a holy blue. Previous nights, tired and vexed by insects, we’d gone to bed well before dark, but tonight we didn’t care. We watched campers across the lake plunge into the lake from a boulder, sending a clamor across the entire basin. As we were finally getting ready to zip ourselves into our bags, we watched their flashlight bobble on the promontory where they were camped.
This was a far cry from the fret in which we’d woken and begun the day, with Son the Younger harping on crossing both passes before noon and bursting into tears when his altitude- and exercise-swollen feet wouldn’t slide into his damp tennis shoes. His exhaustion and anxiety expressed themselves as free-floating anger which he took out indirectly on us – the tormentors who’d planned this whole affair – in bursts of stridency (not tantrums: he kept walking, just ranted his anxiety). I worked with him on his breathing, instructing him to inhale to the count of four, hold it for as long, and exhale slowly. I tried it myself and found that it actually helped. It’s harder to be worked up when your body’s breathing is slow and regular. The harder part is actually letting go of the strange pleasures of being worked up.
Except for his anxiety, the beginning of the hike went well. We were steeled and our loins girded, since this time we knew in considerable detail what we were up against, having hiked down it less than 24 hours earlier. We ascended from the lake through the alpine meadows with alacrity; even the first snow chute turned out to be a quick, aerobic ascent. It wasn’t till we reached the first major obstacle – the long snow slide – that we had any real problems.
We decided to pick our way up the partial trail to the side rather than trekking alongside the chute through the snow. We were hoping to avoid a breakdown on the potentially hypothermia-inducing snowsheet, but instead, we got our breakdown on the rocky face of the mountain’s first serious foothill, when Son the Younger hit his shin. He’d been hiking hard and fast, with an angry edge, and when he stumbled, his intensity boiled over.
I sat with him, coaching him on his breathing. Observing Son the Younger over the years has provided me with a unique kind of therapy: he’s inherited a lot of my personality, complicated aspects of it I don’t think he’s been able to observe directly, or at least not consciously, in his first eight years. Things that have to do with my attitude towards work, time, and self-worth. Seeing him, for example, develop an arcane system whereby he reads fifteen or twenty books at a time has helped me to find a certain amount of compassion for myself; I’d always thought my mild OCD and perfectionism were character failings and somehow my fault. When I saw Son the Younger trying to control the world around him with his methodicity, or fight back tears at the slightest, most offhand expression of disapproval from an authority figure, I could see that he couldn’t help acting this way. In him, I could also see in a way I couldn’t see in myself that these behaviors were the results of certain strengths he had: self-discipline, emotional perspicacity, a drive and ability to do things well.
I’d been encouraging him on this hike to take care of himself, to realize that he wasn’t performing for anyone and that he needed to hike at a pace that would let him keep hiking for several days. I was trying to practice this mentality myself, having realized within the last few years that at some level I was always trying to hike fast and hard to fit in with that erstwhile band of Lost Boys with whom The Husband had once hiked. So as we sat, I tried to help Son the Younger take care of himself: to breathe, to let go of the unreasonable expectation that we’d be able to hike out before dark, to try to appreciate how special it was that we got to be in this place: as many hikers had pointed out, not many eight-year-olds get their asses over Glen Pass.
I understood the power of his unreasonable expectation: it was an aggressive goal, one whereby he could communicate not only his frustration with us for pushing him on this long hike, but his undeniable and ruthless competence, or his will to develop this competence. Son the Younger plays soccer and when a game is not going his way he tends to flop. I get this; he’s a talented player and there’s nothing more frustrating to a talented person than having the expression of that talent get tangled up and thwarted. During games, I often encourage him to tap into a kind of ruthless mastery, to show the other team what he thinks of their rough play by nailing goal after goal, which sometimes he can pull off. On the side of the mountain, though, I saw freshly that the vicious exercise of ruthless competence is a tool that must be used carefully, as it redounds upon one in exhausting, disheartening, and ultimately disorienting ways – disorienting because my addiction to mastery makes it hard to follow paths on which I think I might fail or otherwise fuck up, even if those are the paths that I really want to follow. You have to be able to turn on will-to-power when you need it and not let it take over.
I talked to him about his desire to hike out, his litany of panic about not getting over Glen, not getting over Kearsarge, not getting to Golden Donut, the carrot he’d hung for himself across those passes. I call that kind of piling-on of worry catastrophizing, and it’s another bad habit I’m surprised to see emerge fully formed in him, like a handwringing Athena from Zeus’s clammy brow. When I feel the sensation of worry, I told him, sometimes I search around in my consciousness for what might be producing it, and I can usually drum up a pretty good list. Then I let them all bounce around in the echo chamber. I think I feel like I need to justify the intensity of the physical sensation of worry. Maybe I like worry, maybe I’m a little addicted to the helplessness it authorizes. Like the ruthless competence thing, it gives me ways to stay off the high rocky paths, the ones that might involve failing at exactly the things I care about the most. When I do that, I sometimes try to look at the worry realistically, I told him. See if it’s actually likely to happen. Think about what might happen if it does come to pass and whether or not that’s actually bad. What happens if we don’t get over Kearsarge today? It means we’ll have to cross it tomorrow. We’ll have to get donuts tomorrow instead of today. Is that really that bad? What happens if we take an extra day in the backcountry? You’ll miss a day of camp. Is that worth panicking over?
Even better, I went on, try to observe the feeling of worry instead of the worry itself. Notice that it doesn’t last forever, sometimes because it just stops, and sometimes because events eliminate the uncertainty you were worrying over in the first place. The feeling passes. Focus on the feeling, where the worry makes your body feel something. See how long it lasts.
After some of this talk, Son the Younger decided hiking was better than listening to his mom. The rest of the climb turned out to be easier than the descent, especially the dread traverse, which we crossed without incident. We handed out Jolly Ranchers at the top, exchanging stories with two women from Ventura County and a through-hiker who’d made incredible time by not taking any zeros. We rested there at the top of the world, feeling the tired solidarity of our bones with the boulders.
The final obstacle was a steep downward scramble past three snow-over switchbacks. I had a moment of panic, feeling my (unlatched) pack sway out from the mountainside as I backed down, but The Husband spotted me, and before I knew it, the three of them had hiked out of sight. I walked slowly, breathing, enjoying the sepulchral lakes and the wildflowers bursting from the rocks.
I caught up with the boys at the biggest lake, its waters sealed in by a sheet of ice already grown gappier than it had been the day before. The boys threw rocks onto it, some of which slid and others of which splashed into the cloudy turquoise. We descended terrace by terrace, snaking our way between pools still gathering volume from the patches of snow basking on the surrounding boulder fields, a season-long osmotic filtration. Eventually the broad curve of Charlotte Lake came into view, and we descended out of the heights onto the broad plateau that sloped down to Vidette Meadows. We lunched at a trail crossing, toasting tortillas and cheese on the Whisperlite.
From there it was a steady and uneventful hike down another set of switchbacks through the piñon and juniper to Bubbs Creek, which we followed back past Bullfrog Lake, enjoying the tall purple wild onion blossoms, and through the rocky waste at the foot of the Kearsarge Pinnacles back to the Kearsarge Lakes.
We trekked along the shore, crossing barefoot through a neck of water that connected two of them. There we found the perfect spot – promontory, boulder spit, swimming cove, fast-moving stream. And we had the whole evening to enjoy it.
We waited till the sky was dark before retiring to our tent. Anxiety dreams woke me halfway through the night. I climbed out of the tent in the middle of the night. Moonlight was pouring into the basin through the notch between University Peak and Kearsarge Pass, throwing the cliff faces into new patterns of relief and floodlighting the terrain we had just watched recede into darkness. I looked up to the stars in the light-washed sky. The fish had gone to sleep or turned to submarine matters. Before long, a mosquito joined me. I thought better of staying out in the strange enchanted basin and so unzipped the tent and climbed into its familiar warmth.
Climbing into the San Gabriels on a Saturday in May 2016, we drove into clouds. From the outside, it seemed like the transition from sky to cloud would be crisp, but it turned out to be an ambiguous passage. Spray appeared on the windshield. Light fog gathered. What seemed opaque from the outside was in fact filmy.
In The Marvelous Clouds (2015), John Durham Peters makes a case for taking nonhuman matter as an object of media studies, a field that considers how modes of communication inflect and embody meaning. In arguing that entities like fire, water, stars, and clouds bear critical attention, Peters defines media broadly as “ensembles of natural element and human craft” (3). His ideas push against a line of reasoning articulated by Walter Benn Michaels and David Knapp in their 1982 essay “Against Theory,” in which the two men insist that in order for meaning to exist, a conscious entity must intend communication. Peters, alongside many New Materialist thinkers, wants to broaden the relay points of intention so that more loosely and widely inscribed constellations of intentionality can register as such. As to the meaning of meaning, he reasons, “If we mean mental content intentionally designed to say something to someone, then of course clouds and fire don’t communicate. But if we mean repositories of readable data and processes that sustain and enable existence, then of course clouds and fire have meaning” (4). Atmospheric scientists are interested in reading clouds vis a vis climate change, specifically in trying to predict how the shifts in global temperature regimes will interact with cloud formation and vice versa. There is an extensive and rigorous science of clouds (including a bad-ass specialization called cloud microphysics, which reads clouds at the droplet level).
Low clouds near the surface of the earth have close to the same temperature as the earth’s surface, particularly at their bottoms. These clouds reflect radiative (solar) heat back into space, much like polar ice (aka the albedo effect). As a bonus, they emit the infrared they absorb from the earth’s surface from their tops at nearly the same rate an uncovered patch of earth would, since they’re close to the same temperature. More low clouds mean less warming. High clouds, by contrast, are cold and tend to be wispy, so they don’t have much albedo. They absorb upwelling infrared, but their coldness means that they don’t emit much from their tops. More high clouds mean more warming.
Changes in the global temperature regime will certainly have an effect on clouds, but this effect is devilishly difficult to predict or quantify. While the albedo effect of ice (which is solid, massive, and fairly stable) is relatively easy to predict, the size and transience of clouds make them a vexing unknown. There are thirty or so predominant climate models trying to predict the effect of rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere on the “global energy budget,” or how much energy exits the earth’s atmosphere versus how much enters it. The grids of these models are something like fifty kilometers on a side, but the dimensions of cumulus clouds are fractions of a kilometer. Shrinking the models’ grids by half (twenty-five kilometers to a side) would take ten times the computational time, and even such an increase in the resolution of the model would not be small enough to account for clouds. To shrink the model down to cloud-sized grids would mean that the computations could not run much faster than real time; in other words, to get results on how cloud patterns will have changed by 2030 might take decades to complete. The computational time would make it useless for extended climate prediction.
If the models are messy, so are the technics of reading. One tool is satellites, which can measure cloud surface area, temperatures, water, optical thickness, and aerosols. But in a way these aren’t really measurements. The satellites records the patterns of photon from the earth’s surface; in order to make that pattern mean something, scientists have to use mathematical models to elicit (or “retrieve”) data such as temperature readings. What the satellite does is somewhere between measurement and model. It’s reading in the humanistic sense of the word: using established and learned interpretive parameters to translate signals into meaning. Reading clouds – reading anything – is a complicated, subjective process heavily informed by an array of usually invisible strategies and assumptions.
When we arrived at Bandido, the clouds had receded. We didn’t notice them again until sunset, when light slanted between cloud strata, turning the clusters around the lower peaks carnival pink. Later that night while we were sitting around the campfire, I looked up to see thin silver clouds passing over the night sky. Instead of clouds, now the clear night was sheltering us and pressing us together around the fire. While Son the Elder led off round after round of ghost stories, Son the Younger yearned for sleep. Eventually we withdrew to the clearing where we’d set up camp. We could hear faint laughter and guitar music and see flaring campfires ranged around us like near stars.
When we woke in the morning, the clouds had settled in Bandido’s wide basin. They were thick but bright with diffused light. While the previous night the entire campground had seemed so near, girdled around us protectively like the ecliptic, now even our own group’s firepit lay out of sight, shrouded in skymatter, visible weather, aerosol water droplets made heavy by the night’s chill. We lay in our tents, enjoying the feeling of our backs on the earth while heaven kissed our faces.
By the time we got coffee going on the Coleman stove, the sun was slanting into the site, sending birds into a clamor and inspiring the dogs – Felix and Porkchop – to roll and tussle in Bandido’s gullies. We didn’t think about clouds again until we were driving home, descending from the cloud zone. Son the Younger, watching the wisps and plumes skate by us, wondered if you could measure how fast they moved.
Knowing definite things about clouds is pretty hard but continuing to think about them seems important to our ecological moment of danger. They remind us of how little we actually know, how the vast array of our technological apparatuses can proliferate uncertainties or can prompt us to think that we know what we don’t actually know. Scientific and humanistic inquiry try to increase the resolution with which we can see the lines between what we know and what we don’t know. They act as mechanisms to link our power to our abjectness, to all that limits that power. Thoreau writes of our ultimate vulnerability as embodied beings when he pictures a no-nonsense businessman reluctantly “committing himself to uncertainties” every night. This man is led by the trivial powers he exerts over people and daytime happenings to forget the power death always holds over him: “[The laboring man] has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance – which his growth requires – who has so often to use his knowledge?” (3). This is Thoreau’s reading of our lives under the regime of capitalistic consumption, the getting and spending that Wordsworth also bemoaned. Growth (and not in the economic sense) requires that we remember well our ignorance and the uncertainty to which we are always subject.
As I wrote this, I kept looking for ways that clouds tied into the narrative of my family’s weekend, ways they helped to mediate aspects of our human relatedness, but, true to form, they remained more or less in the background, “just” weather, slightly more noticeable because we were physically closer to it than usual. Clouds are like climate change: difficult to notice (though getting easier all the time) unless you look in particular ways, tricky to measure, certainly linked to human actions but nearly impossible to control. Clouds and climate remind us of the limitations on human will and knowledge and the ambiguity of boundaries that divide us from what appear to be outside us.