John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses, June 2022

June 25, 2022

The first peal of thunder could have been mistaken for the approach of an overenthusiastic driver destined to spend less than three minutes at the vista point, the engine of their gas-guzzling mega pickup still running. The second, unmistakably loud, confirmed that the forecasts were correct and I was heading into a thunderstorm. For the second time in as many months, I was headed to Treasure Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness, undaunted by my previous less than glorious attempt that was thwarted by knee deep springtime snow and a trail that wasn’t.

For the first thirty minutes, the trail was familiar… the path had been obvious through the patchy snow in April. But then, as I approached a wooden bridge and the first real stream crossing, I realized just how different the snowbound landscape had been previously. With the weight of the snow lifted from their limbs, the manzanillas had sprouted skyward, often obscuring the stream that meandered by the trail till the last moment. Wildflowers had begun to bloom near creeks and brooks, but it was still too early, and often the only hint of an imminent bloom was the still-folded stalk of a cornflower pushing skyward through the moist soil. I looked, unsuccessfully, for the snowmelt-fed cascades that accompanied the trail, only to find their long-dry remnants. Then, the landscape changed again, and the only point of reference was the upward trudge. I had been in better shape last time, and the gastronomic exclamation point two weeks in Paris had provided was unmistakable.

I had been warned that the trail was “buggy,” a euphemism for the springtime spawning of mosquitoes near every rivulet, stream, and pond, making every stop to admire a cascade, or the reed-lined shore of a vernal pond a challenge. The brief flash of lightning started, as it always does, the count of one one-thousand, two one-thousand… At ten one-, the thunder came rolling in… That had been less than two miles away… As If keeping beat with the thunder, now rolling in every three to five minutes, the density of mosquitoes grew and grew, and I began to look skyward, hoping for the promised rain, if only as a respite from the swarm of bugs for which I was the epicenter.

And the rain came, but teasingly, as drops lazily fell from the overcast sky with no hurry whatsoever. Whether each drop smote a mosquito, or whether the bugs were too smart and went into hiding at the first sign of rain is a mystery, but the last half mile of the trail was thankfully clear of this one distraction. I was able to enjoy the three serene ponds the trail crossed, their calm surface pockmarked stochastically by raindrops, and stopped to take in the view downvalley, toward South Lake and its half-filled majesty, before powering on to my destination.

The thunder was more distant now, and blue breaks appeared in the armor of the overcast sky, though at first these were covered almost instantly. I’d dropped my pack in a copse by the first and larger of the Treasure lakes, to shield myself and my pack from the rain. It was never a downpour, and with lightning only a distant threat, I began to explore the lake shore. The larger of the lakes was by far the more picturesque, with a number of islands each adorned with a stunted pine or other hardy tree. The shoreline was lush grass dotted with wildflowers, and a gurgling stream emptied the smaller lake into the larger, their waters both destined for South Lake below. My eventual campsite, far enough from the lake to avoid at least some of the mosquito swarm that returned as soon as the wind died down, was bathed in the sound of rushing water from this and other cascades farther upslope from the lake. The soundscape of the lake, now waking up from its brief storm-enforced hibernation, reminded me of the night my friend George and I spent camped next to the magnificent cascade at Ediza Lake. He would have loved it here, sans mosquitoes. By the time the last rays of the Sun fell on the Sierra, the thunderstorm was a distant memory, and not even the renewed onslaught of mosquitoes could dampen the gratitude I felt for being one of a handful of witnesses to the spectacle before me. As it fell toward the western horizon, the Sun graced the peaks rising above the lakes with one last splash of light, one orange brushstroke that was slowly erased by the gray brush of dusk till the last glimmer on the highest peak had escaped to space, vowing a morning return.

Long before even the blues faded from the landscape, I was in my tent, having chosen to take a “nap” so that I could wake up refreshed at midnight, to once again see the Milky Way with my own eyes. Olbers’ paradox argues that if the Universe was infinitely old, then the night sky would be as bright as day, as our eyes would intersect a star or an entire galaxy in every direction we looked. The Universe is less than 14 billion years old, and while that may seem like an eternity, it is far short of infinity and so we have dark skies at night… Imagine then, the pleasure of being so far from city lights that not a hint of the otherwise ubiquitous mercury and sodium glare is visible anywhere, and at an altitude where a full one third of Earth’s atmosphere is beneath you, and what is above was washed clean by an early summer thunderstorm… Imagine a night sky so full of stars that you can see the landscape around you not just in shapes and shadows, but patterns and textures, and if you wait long enough for your eyes to adapt, perhaps even colors.

So there I was, having dreamt of this location, of this moonless night, but awestruck nevertheless at the patterns emerging before my eyes as they slowly adapted to the starlit darkness. I wondered, eyes never leaving the perfection of the heavens, if the details I resolved in the Milky Way were really as vivid as they seemed, or were they the result of studying our home galaxy to a greater detail than was ever possible without a telescope or a camera? Did my ancestors, following the trail of the straw thief Vahagn across the sky, resolve the Great Rift into imaginary shapes as did the Inca? What stories did they weave into the dark bands of interstellar gas and dust?

For more than ninety minutes, I stargazed and photographed, unwilling to peel my eyes from the expanse of stars above me. My students are taught that the Summer Triangle is the most prominent asterism visible in summertime skies, its three bright stars easily found directly overhead. This may be true in a typical suburban location where only a smattering of stars is visible, but here, the Triangle all but disappeared into a Milky Way that stretched across the sky in an arc that I could follow from horizon to horizon. Finally, I walked back to my tent as Scorpius swung its tail toward the Rift and Antares slowly disappeared behind the nearest peaks… Sunrise was less than four hours away, and like an insatiable madman who cannot tear his gaze from his object of adoration, I had resolved to greet the dawn as I always do when backpacking in the Eastern Sierra…

June 26, 2022

It is solitude unrivaled on this planet... the first light of dawn unhurriedly descending from peak to lake, to find but one observer, one supplicant to the temple of the Sun, one awestruck human who will never tire of the view. It was a simple sunrise, the Sierran peaks unadorned by clouds, the lakeshore barely awake. Perhaps it was asking too much to concentrate on photography at that instant, with little sleep, with the physics chip in my brain clearly offiline… The price I paid was retrieving my sodden camera and lens from the lake as a gentle plop alerted me to the swan dive they gracefully took, tipping over my lightweight tripod just as I was thinking about weighing it down. The lens barely escaped being dashed on a rock, and for that I was thankful, though all I could hope for was that the damage to my gear wasn’t too extensive. Powerless to do anything but wipe the water off, I continued to ruefully watch the progression of sunlight on the slope before me, using my iPhone as a less than adequate substitute for the gear I’d just drowned.

Breakfast was a hurried affair of granola and coffee, the former for a bit of energy for the fast pace I was about to set, and the latter to keep me awake as I did so… My destination this morning, after reaching my car at the trailhead, was the Vons in Bishop, to purchase basmati rice and ziplocs for packing my camera and lens. I hoped, in vain, that the rice would absorb the moisture permeating my gear and would save my camera and lens from needing extensive repairs. For the record, the rice, which I’d already dismissed as being only good for this purpose (as an Armenian growing up in Iran, you wouldn’t serve this rice to your enemy), wasn’t even up to this task. I’ll be several hundred dollars lighter when I pick up my camera and lens from Harry’s able hands later this week. Perhaps it would hurt less if he didn’t come out and say it… The rice did jack shit, Vahé…

During breakfast, an adequate smoked salmon bagel sandwich, washed down by a large cup of dark roast coffee, I thought ahead… I’d be spending one more night in the backcountry, on the shore of Parker Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and so I berated myself for not packing my older camera body in my camera bag… All was not lost, though. Beginning in 2008 and continuing for more than half a decade, I had a sordid love affair with black and white infrared photography, to the point that an infrared camera was the only one I carried. Now, years later, the camera was still in my bag, oft neglected but not forgotten.

Driving to Mammoth Lakes from Bishop, one passes some of the most picturesque portions of the Eastern Sierra… First comes the dominant pyramid that is Mt. Tom, and as one climbs away from Owens Valley, canyon after canyon of wonders on one side, and Crowley Lake on the other. I cannot recall a time when I’ve driven through here and not stopped at least once. This time, what drew me was the dance of clouds with McGee Mountain, rising above the cleft through which its namesake creek runs. I’d been contemplating the infrared camera amid flashbacks of the moment of loss, the moment of retrieving my camera from the lake… Would I, should I so quickly reach for a replacement? Was a rebound relationship really the right thing to do, so soon? As if in answer, color evaporated from my mind and I once again began to see the landscape in shades of gray as I had long ago. I saw perfection in the dark spaces between cloud and peak, rejoiced at the movement of shadows along the mountain’s long skirts, and found myself driving up McGee Creek Road craving more. Yes, I would miss my color camera, but perhaps not as much as I thought…

After spending time in Mammoth Lakes and visiting the Mono Arts Council gallery where one of my photographs had been displayed for several months, I drove out to the June Lake Loop and the Parker Lake trailhead, glad that I wasn’t subjecting my Camaro to the unmaintained road that only gets worse each year.

The trail to Parker Lake is an easy 1.8 miles, with a first ¾ mile segment that includes all of the elevation gain in the full glare of the Sun. My pack was lighter today, and I was soon entering the forest that would carry me to the lake shore. As expected for a Sunday afternoon, the trail was busy, but I’d started late enough that most of the foot traffic was in the opposite direction. By the time I reached the lake and entered Parker Creek barefoot near my chosen campsite, only a handful of artists remained. One by one, they followed the fleeing light downvalley, and soon I found myself the lone overnight guest of the lake. Sunset at Parker Lake begins with the descent of the Sun behind Parker, Koip, and other peaks to the southwest, and, for a while, slivers of sunlight find a way onto the distant shore of the lake. Then, light fades altogether, and night gently falls.

Though less remote than last night’s campsite, the solitude this evening was far more complete… No other tents, no other human sounds, just myself and the wilderness preparing for the nocturne. I’d had a substantial lunch in Mammoth, so it was no surprise that the second-choice spicy pasta Bolognese never hit the spot, and was soon abandoned in favor of the fine Zin I’d brought along. I’d once made a mistake of backpacking without wine. Once. Though I looked forward to another starry night, I knew that the hectic pace of the last two days would catch up to me, and with night photography out of the question, I took one last fill of the blanket of stars above before retreating into my tent for much-needed sleep.

June 27, 2022

As if compelled by the power of the onrushing dawn, I did not need an alarm to wake this morning. As soon as the coffee was ready, I found myself by the lakeshore as color slowly returned to the landscape. It was a calm morning, the lake’s surface unruffled by wind, the cattails near the shore marching proudly toward the depths. I had stood here before, at sundown on a hot summer day, at dusk in October when the aspen grove on the opposite shore wore a mantle of yellows and oranges, and each time the light had been magical and different. Now, with the Sun rising behind me, the hills wore a different vestment, their orange glow a perfect counterpoint to the pine forest ringing the shoreline. It was as if playful fingers were blocking the sunlight as streaks of green and gray shot through the hillside. In the distance, the bleached trunk of a long-dead tree standing taller than the verdant forest caught fire while pines with roots within the lake’s waters enjoyed the coolness of morning shade.

The waters beneath my feet were a kaleidoscope of reflected light, a palette in every shade of green, yellow, and orange, with the blues hiding in shadows that were about to be dispelled. More and more light filled the lake basin, oranges giving way to golden yellows and too soon to the harsh white of direct sunlight, my cue to break camp.

Mesmerized by the colors of sunrise, it took a while for my eyes to switch back to infrared, for the greens of the pine forest and the whites and greens of aspen groves not yet illuminated by direct sunlight to translate themselves to bright white and every shade of gray. My eyes sought the texture of aspen bark, pockmarked by the ages, the pure white of pine needles, pine trees standing tall while the playful aspen swayed in the morning breeze… My footsteps slowed. Leaving the forest would be leaving my adventure behind and confronting the ennui of driving home… I paused again at the very edge of the forest, where the morning Sun had formed a pattern of shadows and textures. It would be just moments before the lighting changed, but these precious moments I spent entranced and immobile, unwilling to burst into the sunlight and stamp an end to my adventure.

As I often do, I projected ahead to the day’s meals, deciding without hesitation that I would break my fast at Whoa Nellie’s deli, even if it was slightly out of the way. Their smoked salmon bagels are excellent, though, like the Old New York deli in Mammoth, they don’t have the lemon wedges that are part of my smoked salmon routine. This time, I hadn’t had the foresight to bring lemons for this very purpose.

The drive home is always an anticlimax, especially south of Lone Pine, and so I prepared myself by slowing my approach to the nadir of the Eastern Sierra and my adventure as much as possible. I took my time over breakfast, losing count of the coffee refills… I stopped at Spellbinder Books in Bishop to see my book, Ode to the Eastern Sierra, prominently displayed… I lingered long enough in Bishop for lunch at Holy Smoke Barbecue, got one for the road from Looney Bean Coffee, and, unable to delay longer, took the road home.

Having revived the tradition of backpacking in the Sierra less than a decade ago, I look forward to my adventures with friends and with my son Tadeh who has often accompanied me. In the last several years, though, I’ve also grown fond of the time I spend alone in the wilderness, watching sunrises and sunsets in solitude, reading a book as light slowly fades, breathing in the sounds of the forest as it wakes and as it falls asleep. I look forward to returning to the Sierra this summer with friends, but the adventures of the last three days will be mine alone to cherish.

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