My First Winter in the Sierra
Day 1: Auburn — Elevation 1234
The Sierra Nevada: the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.
I think about John Muir’s 150-year-old words, from his book My First Summer in the Sierra, as I come towards the end of a 4,000 mile journey across America, in search of the divinely beautiful. In search of, in WS Merwin’s words, a bit of the earth’s surface, maybe as small as three acres, to love and protect.
Finally, ten days after leaving New York, I am in Carson City, Nevada, approaching the state line of California, towards my humble home town of Auburn, which lies less than a hundred miles ahead, at the feet of the Sierra Nevada.
We are in the mountains, and they are in us, Muir wrote. But I have spent half a lifetime in these California mountains, this Range of Light, the very best God created, without even noticing. Auburn, Elev. 1,234, the green sign would reflect in the morning headlights of our school bus. “The foothills of the Sierra Nevada,” I would hear a parent say before a soccer game. “The alps of America,” the snowboarding coach would announce before a race practice. But Auburn was just Auburn. A small town without any black people, without any shopping malls, without anything to do on a Friday night. It would never be more than that. It would never be more than a town to run away from.
It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realize what’s changed is you, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, reimagined into a movie I used to watch every year on my birthday. The line moves around the backyard of my mind as the white caps of the Sierra Nevada appear slowly in the front, rising from the horizon, haloed by the setting sun. Emotions I can’t quite name start climbing up my chest as I ascend up the summit. And as I descend towards the lake, the tears start falling down my cheek. The last time I was on this road, I realize, was cycling 70 miles around Lake Tahoe with my dad on my 36th birthday. Tears were in our eyes then, too. But they weren’t from emotion, exactly, but from the sharpness of the cold morning wind as we descended down the summit, so fast that even the cars were left behind us.
Why should I love this place so much more than any other? Wendell Berry wrote. What could be the meaning or use of such love? What does it mean that this place is more beautiful than any other? That these pine and cedar are more magnificent? That this setting sun is more divine?
I don’t know how to respond to these questions. I don’t even know if they are questions. And I have no idea where to look for answers. Other than the land itself. Start close in, David Whyte wrote. See what you find. See if you can discover the Sierra you’ve never known. Or that, perhaps, you’ve always known.
I spend two weeks searching, hiking over 100 miles up and down the Auburn hills, often with my dad by my side. Hidden Falls Access Trail, Foresthill Divide Loop Trail, American Canyon to Maine Bar Trail, Confluence and Clementine Trail, Olmstead Rim Trail, River Otter Trail, Poppy Trail, Robie Point Trail, Euchre Bar Trail, Steven’s Trail. We see nearly-200-year-old mining artifacts from the 19th century Gold Rush era. Fairy rings of young redwood sprouts growing in a circle around a great giant redwood that was logged in the early 20th century. Empty barrels of oil suspended above the forest floor by a thick metal chord that stretches along the river bank, apparently to prevent felled trees from washing into the man-made Auburn Coffer dam. Two black bear cubs scale up the dry bark of a ponderosa pine, as their mother looks on from the hillside behind. The bay laurel leaves send out their sharp chemical signature, a spicy eucalyptus and lavender fragrance, as my dad crunches them in between his fingers. The palm-sized California buckeye seed rests on the forest floor, investing all its energy and hope into a soft white root shooting out from its side, stretching for the soil and for its one chance of creating a life on this abundant Auburn hill.
We go on hikes my dad’s never been on, even though he’s lived here for almost 30 years. Hikes that I never even knew existed, even though I’ve lived here more than I’ve lived anywhere else. I go on hikes alone that he’s been on dozens, maybe hundreds of times. I listen to Steinbeck’s stories of the land: Clumps of California live oaks standing like perpetual senates ruling over the Salinas Valley. Mountains so full of loveliness that you want to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. Lennie and George, in Of Mice and Men, who were both born in the foothills of Auburn.
I read Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, The Mountains of California, Our National Parks, and his biography, A Passion for Nature. I highlight pages in my Forests of California field atlas, which is over 600 pages thick. I listen to dinner stories about my parents’ honeymoon hiking adventures across the Pacific West, the time my grandpa third-wheeled their camping trip in the Rockies and his solo fishing expeditions to Alaska, the reason they first decided to move to Auburn and what they discovered when they arrived here.
But at the end of the two weeks, I still don’t really have answers. Or I don’t have the answer.
Here’s one thing I have learned, from my parents, from the highlighted pages, and maybe from the land itself: that although we may begin to understand a thing — a place, a person, or even ourselves — in small but important ways, it is only when we explore the history around that thing — all that has come before, all that still surrounds it — that we can begin to truly know that thing.
Which is what I need to do, I slowly realize, sitting at my morning table outside, with the sun warming my back and the birds singing in the black oak above me. I need to understand the Sierra Nevada that surrounds Auburn. That surrounds our family. That surrounds me.
One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem as I start packing. As I hug my dad tight. Kiss my mom and little sister on the cheek. Pack my car with my sleeping bag and my parents’ tent. Place Muir and Steinbeck, WS Merwin and Wendell Berry, carefully in my backpack. And drive away from our home in Auburn. Elevation 1234. To explore the history that lies ahead and behind. The forests that stand above and below. The mountains that tower above and maybe grow within. The range of light that shines across the great Sierra Nevada and all that that light might reveal.
Day 16: Yosemite — Nature’s most precious mountain mansion
At first, I think the eruption is a gunshot. An explosion. A semi-truck collision. But it’s the middle of the night? What could possibly be this loud? Then I recognize the unmistakable cry of the wind, like an unleashed floodgate, an invisible chariot of horses, galloping across the moonlit forest canopy. The ponderosa pine needles are quivering. The incense cedar branches are shuddering. The sugar pine cones are thumping to the soft ground. The cover on my tent is ripped into the air and thrown against my car.
Another explosion, this one louder, possibly closer. This too shall pass, I think. But it doesn’t. Instead, the wind slaps the side of my tent into suspended bewilderment every time I’m just about to fall back asleep. Retreat to the car or wake up 200 feet in the air? I retreat to the car. But not before tying the tent to the enormous picnic table, throwing as much extra weight into it as possible, and silently praying everything will still be there in the morning. Including my laptop and my passport — the thought comes to me slowly, and without the strength to get out of the car and rescue them.
Miraculously, it’s all there in the morning. Including the chariots of wind, which still haven’t retreated. And when I pull up to the Yosemite front gate, the electronic sign says PARK CLOSED FOR WIND.
“This park never closes, especially not for this shit. It’s barely even windy,” the guy in a red muscle tee says, standing in front of the closed visitor center. I nod my head, like I come here all the time and completely agree. He looks at me and I glance out at his car, which is from Maryland, parked next to mine, which is from New York.
“I mean, guys, I came all the way from Philly,” a dude smoking a cigarette with his brother says. “What do you want me to do, just drive home and come back tomorrow?” I’m laughing but only because I don’t know what else to say.
I ask him about the explosions but he doesn’t know either. It might be trees, he says, but I’ve heard trees falling before, I say, and they didn’t sound like that. Violent. Angry.
The brothers decide they’re going to kill some time and try the park again a little later. “It’s supposed to stop by 10,” red muscle tee says.
I drive around, trying a different entrance that sits on the side of the park, ultimately leading to Hetch Hetchy. But the gate is sealed and the black and white sign says ROAD CLOSED. I retreat to a hiking trail I saw just outside of the main Yosemite gate. It’s inside the Stanislaus National Forest, which is a 900,000 acre landscape that’s managed, like all of the 150-plus national forests, by the US Forest Service, and, therefore, not under the same weather restrictions as the National Park.
I’m walking up to the trailhead when I see the Philly bros coming down the path. “Looks like you found some adventure,” I say, happy and surprised to see them out here, in the wild.
“Yeah, a little too much,” the taller brother says. He’s wearing a thin beanie and sweatshirt, even though it’s below freezing out. And he’s still smoking a cigarette. “It’s a minefield out there, man. We heard at least a dozen explosions. Like dynamite during goldrush.”
“I guess the park actually is closed for a reason,” the shorter brother says, and then claims the explosions really are collapsing trees.
I’m still not sure I believe it, and they say they didn’t actually see any trees fall. “But we definitely heard them.”
I look at the shorter brother’s wife, who rolls her eyes. “They’re just afraid to go on,” she says.
I think about inviting her to join me, but sense the joke wouldn’t go over well and instead say that I totally get it. Even though it’s obvious I don’t, given I’m heading in the direction they’re running away from.
“Be safe out there,” the younger brother says. He’s standing in front of a massive charcoaled-black cedar log now, still holding his cigarette.
The fire starts around 11am.
I’m halfway into the hike — where the Tuolumne River is cascading over glaciated granite cliffs — and have no idea the forest is burning. Or where the explosions, which have mostly stopped, really came from.
I see the smoke back in the car. Black billows of ashes plumming above the ridge I had driven towards before the hike, at the gate of the Hetch Hetchy. How was that even possible, that everything was fine one hour and then fully ablaze the next?
The woman working at the campground market has some ideas: “Some tourist couldn’t get into the National Park, went wandering around the national forest, started a fire, and this is what happens. What do you expect? This is mother nature.”
Not helpful, borderline patronizing, cool cool cool — All the things I want to say back to her. But I kinda get it. And, to be honest, I’m not even thinking about the Philly bro and his cigarettes. And I still kinda get it. In 2013, the Rim Fire was one of the largest fires California had ever seen. It burned over 200,000 acres. Of this woman’s mountain. Of her forest. Of her birds and deer and bears. Of her home. I can literally see dead standing trees behind her cash register, outside the market window. People can’t just move on from that. Especially when it follows you. When every year, the fires around you get bigger and bigger. 229,000 acres in the Carr Fire. 379,000 in the Creek Fire. 1,032,000 in the Complex Fire.
“1 million acres, how do you even process that?” Marcus, the ranger back at my campsite says. “It’s like taking all the shit that happened here and multiplying it by five.” He says that during the Creek Fire, earlier this summer, down in the Sierra National Forest, the sky in Yosemite was red for days, maybe even weeks. “Ash buried people’s cars like it was fresh snow,” he says, showing me a picture he has saved on his phone.
I ask him about last night’s explosions and if he knows how the Hetch Hetchy fire started. He says that he hasn’t gotten the official word, but that he’s sure it has to do with last night’s wind. He was in his RV and couldn’t sleep either: “I got two baby daughters. I was scared shitless.” It must have been up to a hundred miles per hour, he says. “We haven’t had wind like that in probably 20 years.” He shakes his head and looks around the grounds. The campground host is ahead of us, driving around in a golf cart. A family is unloading groceries into their RV. A work truck loaded with timber is driving towards the adjacent campground, which is getting rebuilt after burning down in the 2013 Rim Fire.
Back in the car, I continue the search for answers. Several CAL FIRE trucks speed past. Two dudes in lowered Honda Civics. At least seven or eight white utility trucks with blue logos that I can’t make out.
I follow Cherry Lake road towards the smoke. It’s coming from the top of the ridge, and I’m slowly winding down the canyon, towards the Tuolumne River, just beyond the Hetch Hetchy Power station, where I park my car. There’s a path along the river, and with each step, I’m getting closer to the fire, and the fire is getting closer to me. From down here, it looks like a volcano is erupting above me, smoke exploding from the mountain’s edge, like clouds that have fallen from their heavenly grace, too dark and heavy for the perfection of paradise.
The threat of danger is constantly in my mind. But as I hike further along the river, the color begins to turn, into softer and lighter shades of hope — as if the fire itself is trying to surrender, to hold up the colors of its white flag. But even the white flag is heavy, and there are thousands of forest skeletons silhouetted against that shade of hope — A cemetery of dead standing trees lined along the ridge, like the wicks of melted candles, as a memorial of all that was lost in 2013’s Rim Fire.
Is it ever that easy? Are our doings ever so quickly undone? I’m not asking the questions, but the giant cedar corpses lying across my path seem to be answering them. The fresh black stumps of ancient white pines seem to be answering. The blood red sunset filtering through the floating ash of Douglas fir seem to be answering. And when I finally make it to the edge of the fire, back in my car, the fire chief seems to be answering. “It’s still not under control,” he says, “at least 200 acres so far.” It’s nearly dark now, and I can see the orange flames dotting the ridge behind him.
“The Rim Fire helped, in a way, because there’s just not much left to burn. But it’s still…” his voice fades out, like he doesn’t have the energy to say what he knows is unnecessary to say. He’s slumped in the driver’s seat of his Tahoe, as if he knows it’s going to be a long night. And possibly an even longer future. “We don’t even call it fire season anymore,” a forest ranger once told me, “we just call it a fire year.” And every year is a fire year.
I wish him luck and turn my car around. There are a dozen other questions I want to ask, but it’s not the time. There is one, though, I can’t not ask. “Any idea how it started?”
Without realizing it, I’m bracing myself for him to say some guy from Philly. But he doesn’t. “Power lines. Taken out by a tree.”
“PG&E?” I ask.
“Nope, not PG&E,” he says. A silence fills the space between our cars, and I don’t have the heart to ask him whose they were.
Back at the campsite, the electricity is completely out. I walk around and eventually find Marcus, who answers the question the police officer didn’t answer: the power lines and the electricity are from Hetch Hetchy Power.
Of course, Hetch Hetchy hasn’t always been a dam or a power plant, a cheap source of energy for the city of San Francisco. Before any of that happened, John Muir wrote about the unspeakable beauty that was found here. It is the most wonderful and most important feature of the great park… one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain mansions. And he pleaded with the public, as if on top of Sierra Nevada’s highest peak, to save the Tuolumne from being dammed, to save the valley and the canyon from being flooded. Dam Hetch-Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.
But we didn’t listen. And the temple was destroyed. The dam was built in 1923, to provide water and power to the people of San Francisco. And, apparently as a consolation, to the handful of people who would eventually live in and around Yosemite.
But the infrastructure is weak, Marcus says, over the distant roaring of a generator. “We lose power every time something happens.” Last time, during a snowstorm, it was for ten days. Who knows how long it’ll be this time.
As he’s talking, I realize that all the white trucks I saw with blue logos where Hetch Hetchy Power vehicles. Not the National Park Service or US Forest Service.
“Unbelievable.” I shake my head in disgust. Or in helpless anger. “But where the hell is the Forest Service,” I say, surprisingly. Why aren’t they removing the trees near the power line? The dead standing trees, just waiting to be pushed over. Why aren’t they doing more to manage this forest? I’ve been looking for them for two days now, to ask them questions about the national forest, the types of challenges and unrealized opportunities they’re facing, and the ways in which the nonprofit I’m setting up, the Understory, can help. But I haven’t seen a single trace of them. Not even at their office, which I’ve been to twice now.
Is it because the Forest Service is underfunded? Is it because the national forest has been deprioritized, behind the grandness of the national park. Or because so few people live here? Or because the people that do are not affluent? Influential? “Important?” The questions fall out in a fury and Marcus says maybe. “We’re just a bunch of white trash hillbillies no one gives a shit about.”
Even as my anger rises, I know it’s not fair to blame the Forest Service, for being understaffed. Or the administration, for continually decreasing the Forest Service’s funding. Or the National Park Service, for only focusing on Yosemite. Or Hetch Hetchy Power, for destroying nature’s perfection and then not even managing it. Or the guy from Philly, for smoking cigarettes inside a forest matchbox. But we always need someone to blame. Someone to point the finger at. Someone to direct our anger towards. Maybe so that we don’t have to point it at ourselves.
That night, the wind is quiet, as if mourning the devastation it had to create. Will you listen now? the silence seems to be asking. I’m sleeping back in my tent, but the air is cold, the night is long, and the morning comes slowly.
Back at Yosemite, the park is still closed, and I talk to the ranger in front of the gate, asking him the question I already know the answer to. About the explosions. “Oh yeah, it was trees alright.” Probably over a thousand, in the park alone. Some shattered from halfway up the trunk. Some from the very root. Some collapsed as other trees collapsed into them. Healthy trees, but also many unhealthy — weakened from drought, from wildfire, from bark beetle. During the drought of 2011 to 2016, bark beetle helped kill over 150 million trees, the largest mass die-off ever recorded. In Sierra National Forest, just below us, nearly 70% of all ponderosa pines have died.
It’s hard out there for the trees, the ranger is saying. And even though he confirms that the national parks have a lot more financial resources than the national forests, it’s still hard out there for the Park Service: the felled trees in Yosemite demolished several buildings, vehicles, bridges. They started another wildfire, inside the park. They barricaded nearly all the roads. “We’ll be closed for at least a week,” he says, shrugging his shoulders in resignation.
John Muir, who helped establish this very place as America’s second National Park, warned us about this. Over 150 years ago. The great wilds of our country once held to be boundless and inexhaustible are being rapidly invaded and overrun in every direction, and everything destructible in them is being destroyed. How far destruction may go is not easy to guess.
The earth is fighting back. We have poisoned it for too long, and in doing so, we have poisoned ourselves. For are we not the earth. And are we not, then, fighting ourselves. How long will the destruction continue? How much longer can we survive ourselves?
Day 19: Sequoia — Climbing towards the world’s largest tree
I follow the smoke across the mountain, towards the Great Central Valley, scaling down the side of the Sierra, along Highway 49, through Bullion Knob and Indian Mountain, Bear Valley and Ponderosa Basin. The sky is grey and the San Joaquin tributary river is flowing humbly between it all, its ancient horizontal marks layered up and down the mountain’s face like aquatic tree rings — a record of its former heights and glory, a witness of how far it has fallen.
The orange trees appear along the valley floor. Then the almonds. Then the walnuts. Eventually, I begin the climb towards Sequoia National Park, back in to the shadows of the Sierra, and the search for the Giant Sequoia begins.
At 800 feet, the golden eagle sits perched on top of the cottonwood branch, scouring for rainbow trout in the Kaweah River below. Her nest is pedestaled in the barren canopy behind her, and the chaparral barricade underneath her prevents me from getting any closer. Still she regards me. I regard her. We stand together in the cold air for a few magical minutes, until she leaps from the branch, spreading wings that are longer than my entire body, and soars over the Kaweah.
At 1,500 feet, the wild turkey family are picking at grains buried in the grass, as the morning sun breaks through the ridge and warms the hard ground. The windows in the blue guest house behind them are still, and there is no smoke rising out of the chimney. The breakfast is apparently too satisfying, or perhaps their hunger is too great, for the flock to notice me. Until the sound of my automatic engine unexpectedly rumbles, startling one of the birds, who looks like the leader, with a bright red head wrap and a long beard-like flap hanging from his chin. He billows out a sudden yell, and the entire flock responds together, like a Sunday morning choir or a late night cry of war. I can’t decide which one, but soon they are back to their breakfast and I’m back on the road.
At 1,700 feet, the National Park ranger tells me it hasn’t snowed in over three weeks, and it’s already the end of January. “Imagine the ecosystem impact,” she says, looking around at the green and brown colors surrounding us. “This should all be covered.” Her name is Miriam Lagunas. She studied archeology and environment science from the same school I went to, and worked for the National Forest before joining the National Park. I want to ask her about the lack of women in either agency, why she’s the first person of color I’ve met in months. But I don’t know how. Or maybe I already know the answer, and it’s not an easy one.
Instead, I ask her about funding. “I would say the park definitely has more resources. At the national forest, we sometimes didn’t even have funds to hire seasonals. Or contractuals. Which meant a lot of work simply wouldn’t get done.” She tells me about a multi-year settlement the Sierra National Forest gets from PG&E: a million dollars each year because of the fire their power lines started. But next year is the last year, and she’s not sure what they’ll do after that. How they’ll cover their costs. At the park, she says, they have SPC, the Sequoia Park Conservancy, which does a lot of fundraising for them. And also manages the gift centers, which is another revenue source. “We also have revenue from visitors like you,” she says, smiling: up to 1.5 million a year, each paying $35 per car.
She says that Kings Canyon National Park, which is just above us, actually shares some of their admission revenue with Sequoia National Forest, because part of the national forest land is within the national park. But it’s the only park she knows that’s like that.
Eventually I ask her how I should spend my time in the park. “You obviously have to see General Sherman,” she says, “the biggest tree in the world.” I nod my head and she shows me a long, 15 mile hike I can string together, if there’s enough daylight. I look at the map she hands me, with General Sherman circled towards the center. He’s just below 7,000 feet.
At 3,000 feet, the oak trees are still holding on to their finger-sized leaves, green feasts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. Rock formations bigger than Half Dome are jutting out of the mountain, on top of every ridge and around every bend — glacial monuments erected across the heart of the Sierra Nevada.
At 4,000 feet, cedar begins to emerge. Then ponderosa pine. The rock formations are now standing guard along the road, solemn and formidable. The oaks still cling stubbornly to their green leaf life. A John Muir enthusiasm is echoing in my voice as I dictate all that I’m seeing into my phone. The road switchbacks and zigzags through glacial sculptures, carved alongside walls of granite that cling on to history and the mountain and themselves.
At 5,000 feet, I turn the corner into a valley view so grand I feel vertigo. Elevation sickness. We are 5,000 feet above sea level. It’s not that it’s that high. But how easily I’ve reached it. How easily each thousand feet were gained. Distances that would have taken hours on foot. Millennium by ice. Achieved in mere minutes, through the power of human advancement. But at what cost? Still there is no snow. Still my windows are down, and the air is cold but not freezing. Still the oak is holding on to some of their leaves. I look around to confirm. Could these really be oaks, at this elevation?
But the question remains unanswered: instead of the humble oak, the queen of the Sierra begins to step on to the land. The Giant Sequoia. At first only briefly — young, shy, a family of six or seven siblings, quiet and timid without a mother standing as protection over them.
But then, around the corner, even the mother appears. Bright. Red. In a gown that only she is old enough to wear. Unintentionally diverting all the attention to her. Standing indifferent, willing to be seen and discussed. Too preoccupied with the heavenly clouds that surround her to say hello, or welcome, or I’m glad you came.
At 6,000 feet, the elevation continues to climb and so do the giants, as if they know that to stand out at such an elevation requires more. The pine and cedar, majestic royalty of the valleys and the foothills, look like humble garden ornaments underneath the sequoia. The oak have all but retreated, as if knowing they would become mere chaparral on the forest floor of the giant.
The sign says General Sherman 2 miles. The sequoia stand silently and still, as if preparing me for what’s to come. I want to look at the map, to try to make sense of it all. But who could take their eyes off of the grandness, even if only for a second? Instead, I pass the General Sherman turn off, perhaps subconsciously knowing that I’m not ready. Perhaps subconsciously knowing that I need to first sit and be still, underneath the miracle of it all.
At 7,000 feet, the temperature finally drops below freezing. The brown path is hard as I leave the car and walk up the trail. Sequoia cones are scattered across the sandstone path. Black fire scars girdle around the base of each massive trunk, like a story of all the trees have endured. The forest is quiet. I hear a robin or a warbler above me. A family chattering in Spanish behind me. The faint sound of the wind in the canopy above. The dirt of the path crunching underneath my boots. And, as I climb the final stairs, I hear snow softly landing on my hood, then falling into my open palms, then landing silently at the feet of General Sherman, standing quietly in front of me, the very grandest of the world’s trillions of trees.
Day 22: Isabella — The anchor of the Sierra
We shall not cease exploring. And the end of all our exploration will be to arrive at the place where we started and know the place for the for first time.
The poet’s words flow through my left headphone as I drive along the right lane. 42 miles per hour, the speedometer reads. Total trip: 5,200 miles. Total time: 140 hours. Distance to Lake Isabella: 42 miles.
Growing up, Lake Isabella was our escape from the Auburn mundane. It was the place where we first felt the air rush through our hair in the back of the boat, where the dark water went from morning glass to afternoon rapids, where the jack rabbits were sometimes as plentiful as the mobile homes, where we would shoot BBs into sand-filled Coke cans and trip over crab apple trees that were protecting the capture-the-flag base, where we would eat burritos on the wooden patio carpeted in hard astroturf and sleep inside the parked boat underneath a galaxy of stars. Sacred, fleeting, individual moments of undefiled summer happiness. Isolated. Never a part of a bigger whole. Never, in our mind, a part of the Sierra Nevada. Or the national forest. Or the Kern River Watershed. Or, really, anything else. It was just Lake Isabella.
Now, nearly two decades have passed. And the brown USFS sign says I’ve just entered Sequoia National Forest. And Lake Isabella is only 33 miles away. And the Forest Service website says the lake is the southernmost part of their proclamation boundary. And the map on my phone shows it at the very end of the mountain range. The anchor of the Sierra. Or the starting block.
I pull off the side of the road. I’m as high up on the pass as I can go. The snow is powdered across the pine and fir branches stretching above me. The sun is dripping through the canopy, spotlighting a breeze of wind that’s twirling the snow back to life. Back up to the heavens. The morning curtain is now fully lifted from the horizon, revealing a blue background beaming its daily delights. Underneath the sky, and between the trees, I can see a corner of the lake, miles in the distance, reflecting in the noon sun, surrounded by generations of white capped peaks.
Was it always national forest? I text my parents, shaking my head in disbelief. They don’t know. And they’ll text Uncle Mitch, but he might take a while to respond. And the Kern Valley Forest Service office is closed. And the phone goes to answering machine. And the Shell gas station attendee can’t remember. And the two guys buying tobacco in the market aren’t sure. And the neighbor fixing his fence has lived there for 15 years and never noticed. And even the internet, of all the places, can’t seem to find the answer.
Finally someone picks up the phone. “1990,” the woman on the other end says, without offering any more details. As if the question is ancient history. Or as if she somehow knows I need time to process this small piece of enormous information.
In 1990 I was six. Which means that the Isabella I’ve always known has always been a part of the National Forest. “The dam and reservoir were made in the 50s, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” she continues. The Isabella I’ve known, she’s saying, has always been a part of the Kern Watershed. It has always been part of the Sierra Nevada.
Still in disbelief, I hang up the phone and drive toward the lakeshore, to get a closer look. I’m not using GPS, but instinctively move toward the piece of the lake that was ours. “Ours” not because we owned it, or because we were the only people who ever used it, although many days we were. But ours because we loved it. And because it seemed to love us. Sand castle competitions and skipping stone contests, PBJ lunches and red vine desserts, sea-doo excursions and wakeboarding wipeouts.
But as I pull into the turnoff, I slowly realize what I’ve been subconsciously expecting all along: our piece of the lake is gone. There is only sandstone. A boat launch with weeds poking through the cement cracks. Tire tracks stretched across an alien brown basin.
Finally, I see the reflection of the dark water, around the corner and hundreds of feet below where it used to be. A shadow of its former self. Punctured by dead trees, themselves remnants of the forest that existed 80 years ago, now breaking their way through the lake’s solemn surface.
“Drought has been really bad,” the woman on the phone had said, when I mentioned that the water seemed low, even looking at it from the road. And each year, growing up, our tent seemed to move lightly down the beach; we would have to reverse the truck a little further to unhitch the boat; my uncles would say that the water seemed a little lower. But it was never like this.
“And the summer algae,” I had started to ask the ranger, but then lost heart half way. Maybe I already knew the answer. It had just started showing up back then, 20 years ago. A patch here. A section there. But I never imagined what it would become, what it would grow in to. And I never imagined it had anything to do with the rising temperatures. The lowering water levels. The disappearing habitat. Just like I had never realized the lake was apart of the National Forest, the Sierra Nevada, the Kern River watershed.
How come mom and dad never told us? I want to text my sister. About Isabella. About the National Forest. About the Sierra Nevada. About what was happening to it all. But I know what she’ll say. What would you have done if they had? There were plenty of things they told us a whole lot about — chores and homework and Bible study and cursing and curfews and speeding and dating — and we all know how that turned out. How that always turns out. Maybe they did the very best they could. Maybe planting someone in a place is the best you can do. Maybe connecting the pieces is work we can only do ourselves. Maybe it’s only when we’re alone can we discover how we belong to the whole. Maybe it’s only when we’re alone can we discover how everything belongs to everything. How all of nature is connected to all of nature.
I make a late brunch in the back of my car, on the Goodwill-bound stove from my parents: black coffee, instant oatmeal and toast with over easy eggs, which are easier to clean. The afternoon wind begins to whisper against the stove’s flame. A family of birds are singing in the forest relics above the water. The sun is reflecting off the snow in the mountains huddled around us.
From here, I’m meant to drive east, to the national forests in Arizona and ultimately back to my New York apartment. But I can’t leave the Sierra Nevada. Not now, when I’m just getting to know it. There is still too much to see. Too much that remains unexplored. Too many questions that I need to ask. Of the Forest Service. Of the Understory. Of the mountains. Or Muir and Merwin. And mostly, of myself.
395 South: Las Vegas, the sign on the right says. I’m at the very end of the mountains. Past the lake. With desert in front, dotted by Joshua trees, and the mountains behind me. But I can’t turn right. 395 North: Bishop the sign on the left says, with the Range of Light glowing behind it. And of course I follow it. Impulsively. But also knowing I was never not going to follow it.
Day 23: Bristlecone Pine — Stumbling towards the world’s oldest tree
I’m driving north on 395. Lake Isabella is behind me. Red structures of the volcanic Coso Ridge are to my right. And to my left, jutting out of the brown grass fields along Owen’s Valley, is the towering granite of the Sierra, climbing higher than any other mountain range in contiguous America, peaking somewhere near 14,494 feet into the cloudy heavens, stretching for over 400 miles up and down the state of California.
Perhaps one of the reasons why I never felt the mountains growing up is because I never saw them in the full glory that I’m seeing them now. From the west side of the Sierra, from Auburn and even beyond, the range is subtle, the elevation rises gradually, the peaks are in the distance and only seven or eight thousand feet tall. It is easy, in a way, to forget about the very mountains you stand on. But here, on the east side, they are omnipresent. In the rear view and in the side mirror. In the front window and in the sunroof.
I’ve always thought it was from the way the tectonic plates shifted, my dad says in a voice note, as I’m driving along the valley floor, still staring up. That the west plate was a gradual shift, creating the great San Joaquin Valley, the Sacramento River Valley. And the east was much more violent, sudden, erupting into vast peaks that climb vertically, almost immediately. He pauses, as if he’s looking out towards the same infamous 14,000+ foot peaks I am — Mt Whitney and Mt Williamson, Mt Russell and Mt Langley — and at the clouds forming like a cauldron above and really inside of them. It really is quite remarkable, his voice trails off.
Of course, it’s not only tectonic plates that have sculpted this natural masterpiece, John Muir reminds me, as I listen to his biography. It’s in these mountains, only a few miles from the dirt road turnoff I’m passing now, where Muir first discovered California’s living glaciers. For years, the scientists rejected and even mocked the discovery, the very idea of glaciers in California. Geologists like Josiah Whitney, whose name crowns the Sierra’s tallest peak. The range was formed abruptly and almost instantaneously, from a catastrophic earthquake, they said, accusing Muir of being “ignoramus,” unqualified to practice science, “a mere sheepherder.” But with his sheep, and ultimately without them, Muir climbed to corners and crevices in the Sierra that few scientists ever had or ever would, seeing things few others saw. The main cause that has prevented the earlier discovery of Sierra Nevada glaciers is simply the want of explorations in the regions where they occur, he wrote, ultimately documenting over 60 living glaciers.
The truly miraculous thing about the Sierra, the Range of Light more glorious than any other, is that despite spending the rest of his life there, there were still pieces of the mountain and its sister mountains that Muir never discovered or perhaps never even suspected. Fragments that remained unexplored mystery. Which is exactly where I’m heading now: the ancient bristlecone pine grove of the White Mountain Peak, California’s third tallest summit. The grove is in one of the most remote places still accessible by car, over 10,000 feet above sea level, but there’s a winter weather warning in my jeep GPS and there’s no way to tell if the road is even open.
The ranger in the visiting center doesn’t even know. “After last week’s storm, I’m honestly not sure,” she says. We’re at the beginning of the Inyo National Forest, about an hour south of the grove, and she says that the Forest Service usually closes the road in the winter, given the harsh conditions. She hands me a guide map and tells me I might need it: if I do manage to make it up there, there will be no cell service. And no one working at the grove’s visiting center. I thank her and ask about the snow warnings. “Looks fine now,” she says, glancing out the glass wall, “but things change real quick up here.” She’s wearing a mask and I can’t tell if she’s smiling or warning me. Or both.
I ask her about the health of the Inyo Forest and she leans forward on her desk. Her hair is long and dark and she has two feathers tattooed on the inside of her forearm. She says that Inyo is actually the largest national forest in California, besides Shasta Trinity. “People don’t realize that, because we’re so far out here, and there are so few people here.” Which, fortunately, means they’re able to do a lot more prescribed burning: “low intensity high frequency fires that prevent catastrophic wildfires.” A return to the knowledge of indigenous people. And of the land itself. When fires used to burn naturally every ten or twenty years here.
But funding is a major issue. We talk about the Western Divide ranger district, which was closed for several years because they ran out of funding. An entire district, responsible for nearly 300,000 acres of California forest. “Every year the budget drops another few points,” she says, shaking her head. I tell her about the work we’re doing at the Understory, about our pilot program in West Virginia, and that we’re trying to figure out how to help in California.
She nods her head, in encouragement. And as if she knows how hard it is, far more than I might ever know. I thank her for all she’s doing, and head towards my car.
Outside, two ravens are circling above the parking lot. A road runner is sprinting across the sidewalk and then leaps, like his legs are pogo sticks, over a six foot fence. An eruption of snow clouds is spilling out of the mountain range, warmed by the pink winter sun. Darkness is crawling across the land, possibly followed by a storm. Tonight is not the night, I think, looking back down at the bristlecone map. But at least I can get close enough to see if the gate is unlocked.
An hour later, I reach the turnoff and the gate is still open. But there’s no telling for how long — “things change real quick up here.”
I wake up before the sun and wind back through the valley, up the canyon, and pass the gate, which is miraculously still not closed. It’s not snowing, but there is snow on the ground that wasn’t there the night before.
At 7,000 feet, I reach the falling snow — large benevolent flakes floating into a thin decorative layer on top of the sage brush. At 8,000 feet, the sage brush begins to vanish, and the snow, which has almost fully erased the road, is no longer fully benevolent. I realize that my tire tracks in the rear view are the only sign of human life on the entire mountain. At 9,000 feet, I have to put the car in low 4 wheel drive. “Just keep moving, just keep moving,” I whisper, refusing to admit that the only reason this road is still open is because it’s still too early and the Ranger hasn’t had a chance to close it yet. Which, of course would also mean I will be locked, inside the mountain, once they show up.
I look at my phone: No service. The car’s thermometer has gone from 27 to 8, a temperature I can’t even convert into Celsius. My stomach is churning, like the walk to a first date, the climb up a first roller coaster, the ascent to the podium of a first speech.
Just before 10,000 feet, I reach a completely unexpected second gate, which is also unlocked, and halfway buried in snow. I can see an outline of the visitor center, where my guide map tells me the trail starts. The driveway and parking lot is buried underneath knee-high snow, and I park a ski-run length away from the center, on the only piece of the road that’s angled downhill. The only place I’ll have a chance of getting the car moving through all the snow that will fall during a three hour hike.
I sit in the car longer than I need to. It’s the point of no return. I should wait. I should leave and come back. But tomorrow would be worse, probably impossible. Almost certainly gated off. And last week, I arrived at Yosemite three minutes after the gate closed for the day, and now it’s been closed for over a week, because of all the trees that fell. I put on my face mask, stuff my gloves in my coat, take a final gulp of freezing cold water, and get out of the car.
At this elevation, I lose my breath within a few seconds. I lose feeling in my hands and feet by the first major turn. I lose the path completely after the first ascent. Everything is transformed by layers and layers of snow. And there is only a sprinkle of visible trail markers. The ground buried underneath the snow is slippery limestone rock. I stumble forward, then fall onto a boulder, then trip over a root, then nearly faceplant down the mountain face.
But after each fall, the bristlecone pine is there to pull me up. To give me the energy to get back on my feet. To carry me forward, towards the path. We’ve survived almost 5,000 years up here, their bare branches seem to say. Longer than any other living thing in this world, besides fungi. Methuselah is the oldest that’s been identified, only 80 years ago, 40 years after Muir passed away. The tree is 4,852 years old. His location is undisclosed, but it’s somewhere along the path I’ve just rediscovered. Although it’s mostly likely not along the path, I begin to think. It’s probably deeper within the forest, somewhere off the trail. And every time I find myself desperately lost, gasping for air and squinting for signs of the path, I find peace in the possibility that I might stumble on or past the world’s most ancient living thing. Not till we are lost do we begin to realize where we are, Thoreau wrote.
Is this him? Or this? The bark is cold, hard, smooth, bright brown and often black. The smaller the tree, the older it might be, my guide map says. Going slow is the key to going far. I find a tree that I’m sure is not Methuselah and climb up its trunk. Pain shoots across my frozen fingers as they pull along the tree’s limbs. Falling snow pelts my forehead, below my cap and just above my glasses. The mountain emerges below me, populated with bristlecone, surviving, possibly even thriving. It’s not despite the struggle but because of it, their barren limbs seem to suggest. The branches I’m stretching towards now, in the crown, were the first on this tree to grow, the first to perhaps realize, if that’s the word, that they were growing where little other arboreal life can. Where the conditions are too harsh, the air too cold, the soil too rocky, the elevation too high. The key to going long is to go where no one else wants to go.
Dr. Edmund Schulman, the dendrochronologist who discovered Methuselah, died in 1958, when he was only 49. Eight years ago, researchers allegedly discovered another bristlecone pine, in the same grove, that is over 5,000 years old, but the discovery hasn’t been confirmed. As far as we know, these trees only grow in one place: the subalpine regions of the Great Basin, which stretch from the eastern Sierra Nevada slopes to Utah’s Wasatch Range. But what about all we don’t know? In all the miraculous wonders Muir discovered, he never even imagined something like the bristlecone pine existed. But Dr. Schulman did. Maybe our discoveries are limited to the things we can imagine, his brief but wondrous life seems to suggest.
I press my face against the cold trunk. Nearly immortal. Life that arrived long before we did. And that will likely survive long after we’re gone. But towards the end of the trail, as I stumble around the side of the mountain, I see my first felled bristlecone. And then another. Historically, root erosion is the only thing that can lead to the tree’s death. But warming is also now a threat: as temperatures continue to rise, the competing juniper and pinyon pine will continue to migrate to higher elevations. And as conditions here, at 10,000 feet, become more favorable, as competition and insects and fire become more likely, the future of our most ancient tree becomes less known.
Back in my car, I wrap my bare feet in a towel and wait a bristlecone eternity for them to thaw. The snow is higher than before, although I can’t be sure by how much, and the anxiety of the closed gate comes flurrying back. I put the car in low 4WD and inch forward, wishing I had more time with the forest, with the bristlecone. And also fully aware of the hypothermia that that could entail.
After three long minutes, I reach the first gate. “Alhamdulillah, thank god,” I whisper. It’s still open. I won’t be stranded. At least not here, at 9,000 feet. But it’s the second gate, 2,000 feet below, that I’m really worried about. I descend further. Only slightly faster. The wind is still blowing snow against my car. Visibility is low. The bristlecone are already gone, replaced by the pinyon and the juniper. And then, standing like a tall shrub in the road, I see a man, walking towards me, then stopping.
“How’s it going?” I say, rolling my window down. He’s dressed in a grey down jacket and a black beanie. His car is parked a stone’s throw away. He’s not wearing a face covering and I can recognize the desperate excitement in his face.
With a large exhale, I tell him I’m happy to see him. That him being this far up means the second gate is still unlocked. He laughs nervously, saying he didn’t even see the gate, and asks me how much further till the pine grove. “Only about 10 minutes,” I say, trying to sound encouraging but also realistic.
“Do you think I should keep going?” he asks, pointing to his car. “I’ve made it this far…” his voice trails off. I ask if he has 4WD. If he’s seen bristlecone before. I almost ask him how badly he wants to see them, but I can see the look on his face.
Finally, I tell him the only honest thing I can think to say. “I’m not sure I can suggest that you keep going, but I also didn’t take my own advice.” Do as I say, not as I do. But in reverse. He looks up at me, smiles, laughs, then sprints to his car, waving at me as he turns the car back on and I slowly roll past.
Should I wait for him? Should I follow him up? Should I leave a note at the gate in case the ranger shows up? I don’t do any of this. Let the bristlecone take care of him, I think, as I drive past the second gate, and into the blue sky above the straight and flat road.
Day 25: Death Valley — From the mountain top to rock bottom
I’ve been to the mountain top, I text my parents, resting against the hotel headboard as I look over pics. Of the 10,000 feet bristlecone pine grove. But also of the last two weeks. The dark red sun setting over the endless forest of Kings Canyon’s bright orange sequoias. The yellow afternoon light streaking through an ocean of dark clouds above the Kaweah Valley. The same snowy clouds consuming Moro Rock and the Great Western Divide only seconds later. The full winter moon beaconing through the sugar pine canopy to illuminate the snow packed path of the night.
You’ve been to the mountain top, my mom texts back, hearting a few of the pictures. I smile, shake my head slightly, and feel something slide slowly down my chest, weighing me against the headboard. This is the terrible thing about the mountain top, my body is telling me: you eventually have to come down. You eventually have to leave. You eventually have to drive away.
“What a shame it is, that nothing lasts,” I said to my parents over a dinner, before leaving Auburn.
“Somethings last,” my mom responded, completing the movie quote.
Was this one of those things? I ask myself, scrolling back through the pictures. Was this WS Merwin’s three acres? A bit of the earth’s surface to belong to and to call my own.
Maybe, I think, knowing immediately that it’s this exact maybe that is pressing against my chest — not only because the answer is maybe, but because the answer is maybe but also not today.
To find a home, a place you can call your own, a place you perhaps have always called your own, without even realizing it. And then to talk away from it. To come down from it. Is almost as hard as not knowing the place even exists. As wandering aimlessly in search of it. To know there is a place where you belong, but to also know now is not the time you belong there, feels like knowing you’ve met the love of your life, but also knowing you’re either too early or too late.
The weight stays in my chest throughout the night, settling into a soft exposed place near my heart, tossing and turning me throughout the night. When I finally wake up, the heaviness is still there, but just enough sun is inching past the hotel’s double blinds to help me get up, pack my bag and load up the car.
I text my parents as I pass the sign pointing to Death Valley National Park: From the mountain top to the valley of death. You can’t make this stuff up. Sometimes life really is better than fiction. Better or bitterer.
A lone cactus appears in the dry brown landscape. The road continues straight as far as I can see. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky ahead. And behind me, shrinking slowly in the rear view, is the majestic Sierra Nevada. Diminishing by the second: a portrait of ice-capped granite royalty, then a small family of snowy hills, then a faint mumble of mounds, then a thin layer of white horizon, indistinguishable from the mourning grey clouds above them.
I am no longer in the mountains. And the mountains may no longer be in me. Which is what I fear the most. As if the mountains inside of me have slowly eroded away by the pressure in my chest, glaciating into a hollow canyon of granite and ice and darkness that now sits empty.
At the gate of Death Valley, I meet Wayne. He is standing above Rainbow Canyon, in front of his black Jeep Wrangler, with a green canteen of coffee, a grey walkie talkie, a red Budweiser jacket, and a camo Canon camera that’s longer than my forearm.
“You never know what you’ll see out here,” he says, pointing to his walkie talkie, “that’s why we keep this baby on.” He’s wearing khaki cargo shorts, even though it’s nearly 30 degrees. I ask him if he’s seen anything today, and he says no, not yet. He begins to tell me a story when, as if on divine cue, an excited inaudible voice comes through the radio, followed by a massive boom erupting from the sky, echoing across the canyon below. Wayne immediately goes silent, scouring the sky and then yanking his camera to his face. I hear his rapid fire shutter before I even see anything. Then an enormous grey military plane emerges from the range. It’s flying on its side, and I can see six or maybe even eight jet engines, streaming thin vapour trails across the blue sky, booming in a collective thunder that’s so loud I can barely still hear Wayne’s rapid fire shutter. The plane is heading straight towards us, then drops towards the canyon we’re standing on the edge of, then turns sharply to the right, and disappears into the valley.
“You just saw the treat of a lifetime, buddy,” Wayne finally says, lowering his camera in startled wonder. “A Boeing B-52 Bomber.”
I shake my head in disbelief. Amazed. But also still not fully there. I look at the canyon Wayne is pointing to, but then I fixate on the distant Sierra peaks that he says the plane probably originated from. “Before the accident, they used to fly inside this actual canyon,” he says, and tells me the story of Navy fighter pilot Charles Walker, who died only a year ago, in a training mission that the Navy is calling a suicide event. “But that’s not how people commit suicide,” he says quietly, as if we aren’t completely alone in the desert. He tells me how he was here the day before, in the exact same spot the plane exploded into thousands of pieces. “If my sister hadn’t called me for help, I would have been standing right there, and I wouldn’t be standing right here today.”
A BMW drives by. Another plane flies overhead, this one too high to be visible. A raven lands on the sidewalk, gargling his guttural opinions. The pilot’s story is remarkable. Almost fantastical. And yet, I can’t feel the wonder in it. As if I’ve betrayed or abandoned my sense of amazement. Left it stranded alone to freeze a slow death at the foot of the mountain top.
The feeling stays with me the entire day. Across the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, where friends and families and lovers take selfies and have picnics and tell each other stories. Across the deep Gower Gulch Trail which carves through golden canyons of badland. And finally, across the Bad Water Basin, which is literally the lowest point in the entire hemisphere — 282 feet below sea level. You can’t make this up either. From the snow laced immortality of the bristlecone mountain top, through the valley of death, to the salty rock bottom of the entire hemisphere.
“Isn’t it just unreal,” a tourist yells as he walks across the basin, waving to me as he rotates his mounted video camera stick. He’s tall and lean and bald and honestly looks like he could be my cousin or even my brother. “Yeah, it is,” I say, trying desperately to match his vibes. And knowing how far off the mark I am.
I continue walking down the basin, across interweaving patterns of salt crystals that the sign says are formed by rain falling on distant peaks, creating floods that rush lower and lower, collecting minerals along the way. Finally, the water comes to rest, forming temporary lakes that evaporate, leaving behind layers of minerals that concentrate into salt crystals. But I can’t taste the salt. And I can’t see the other minerals. I can only feel the water and the flood.
That night, I drive towards the desert solitude of the Mojave National Preserve, the last fragment of the earth before I leave my home state for good good. Even before setting off, I know what I’m getting in to. I know how terrible of an idea it is. But I can’t not go. The best I can do is maybe go at night, so the pain might be dulled by the soft light of the full moon.
1.3 million dead Joshua trees, more than we’ve ever lost before, I read just the month before. The fire could have been stopped at a few hundred or thousand acres, with aircrafts and retardant drops, but other fires were burning in more populated areas, and a desert wilderness fire was not given high priority for limited firefighting resources.
The article was so unreal, I couldn’t process it. How do you process 1.3 million dead trees? I have no idea. Which is how I know I cannot not go to the Mojave Preserve. I have to confront the devastation. To witness the destruction. To understand what is at stake. The erasure of human subspecies is largely painless — to us — if we know little enough about it, Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949. A dead Chinaman is of little import to us whose awareness of things Chinese is bounded by an occasional dish of chow mein. We only grieve what we know. The erasure of Joshua Trees from Mojave Desert is no cause for grief if we know it only as a name in a botany book or a picture in a newspaper article.
As I drive through the desert, towards the Cima Dome where the wildfire happened, I feel this grief taking over.
I am alone. There are no lights. The air is freezing and there is ice on the single lane road, breaking as I drive slowly through it. Hard snow covers the desert floor. Isolated bushes appear every few seconds. The distant hills outline the dark horizon. Then, finally, the Joshua tree appears. Silhouetted like a Dr Seuss Truffula tree against the full moon. This one has survived, I allow myself to think. And so has this one. And this one. But when I step out of my car, into the sharp wind and the mournful silence, I see what I have been trying to deny this whole time. The tree I am walking towards is lifeless. Without life. Its trunk is entirely black, charcoaling my frozen hand as I touch it. The tree is dead. Completely dead. A standing corpse. Its sharp cactus leaves are bleached blond, hanging from a branch that would simply snap off if I were to pull on it. But I don’t have the heart. Or the strength. I’m barely still standing.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. I’m sorry. I want to fall against the trunk. To lie in the snow and not get up. To pile the 1.3 million trees at the foot of the world so everyone else can see what we’ve done. What we’re doing.
I get back in the car. Maybe this is the why. The why not now. The reason I’m driving away from the Sierras. Because how can you be happy, how can you be comfortable, how can you build a home, when the whole world is on fire. When you know that that home will likely burn. When 1.3 million Joshua trees are standing dead at the feet of the world’s most divinely beautiful mountain range. When four million acres of California have burned this past year alone. When only two weeks ago I saw a wildfire erupting across the sacred Yosemite Valley.
This is the burden of the Understory. The work that lies in front of us. That surrounds us. But I still don’t know if it will make a difference here, in California, in the Sierra Nevada. If it will help or even move the needle, or if it will just crumble into ash, like everything else. The understory — the life beneath the forest canopy — is, after all, the first to burn.
I keep on driving. Beyond the reach of the Sierra Nevada. Across the California state line. Through the cloudless night. And with the darkness now 1.3 million times heavier in my chest.
Day 30: Eudora — The Sierra of the South
“Whether you think you can, or think you cannot, you are right.”
This was Grandma Ollie’s favorite saying, and one of the few stories my dad ever told about her when I was growing up. The rest of the story, of course, was how she went from being a cotton sharecropper in Arkansas to the first black woman vice president of the fifth largest bank in America. “I guess she was right,” my dad would say, with a smile. It was the same smile every time, of quiet amazement and pride. But there was always a sadness inside of it too. A sadness from a story that was too hard to tell. A story that was incomplete. A story without a happy ending.
Despite his mom’s life outlook and stubborn optimism, there were still some things, like breast cancer, that she eventually stopped thinking she could overcome. And she was right.
She passed away when I was only one. Although I don’t remember her, I felt like I was near her as I hiked through the Auburn foothills with my dad. As I drove underneath the California redwoods with my sister. As I watched my one year old niece learn how to walk. “Great job, Ollie,” my dad said, stretching his arms across generations as young Ollie fell into them.
But these days, I feel like I’m falling and there’s no one to catch me. I’ve left the solid ground of the Sierras, where my feet felt planted. Where I knew the way. Where I understood the pines, the fir, the cedar. Where my family walked by my side, through the foothills and along the American River Canyon. Now, 3,000 miles of unknown country lie ahead of me, like a book written in a language I don’t know if I can read. And that I fear will be punctuated at the end by a New York City I might no longer recognize.
But somewhere in between those 3,000 miles, perhaps a day or two off the path, is Eudora, Arkansas. “Whether you think you can, or think you cannot, you are right.” I’m somewhere in the middle. Of a lot of things, including whether I have the strength to deviate from my route. To finally seek out my Grandma Ollie and Grandpa Benjamin. The town that was their home. But also the town they ultimately left. What parts did they carry with them? What parts did they leave behind? Why did they never come back? Why has no one else in my family ever visited? And what might the pieces that remain teach me about them? Or about myself.
These questions aren’t swirling in my head, because I won’t allow them to. Instead, they are buried somewhere deep inside of me. Until they slowly start rising to the surface as I drive across Arizona and New Mexico, where I had last been with my maternal grandparents, nearly 30 years ago; Then as I drive into Texas, to visit my younger cousin Andrew, one of Grandma Ollie’s only other grandkids, outside of my siblings; And finally in the north west tip of Arkansas, where I thought I could sneak through, visiting two national forests and continuing on to an Understory project in Kentucky, without detouring to Grandma Ollie’s southeast corner of the state. But the Ouachita and Ozark forest are too shockingly beautiful. The golden eagle gliding in place against the high peak wind. The armadillo stuffing its long stout underneath the fallen oak leaves in search of an early lunch. The bald cypress roots buttressing out of the still swamp water. The orange sun spilling over the mineral-rich, aqua-green water floating down the Mulberry River.
“Arkansas is called the Natural State for a reason,” a forester named Seanna in Ouachita tells me. Usually there’s a high turnover in most Forest Service offices, she says. People know they have to move out in order to move up. “But not here, people here are here for the long haul. This is home.” She tells me that because of how fast trees grow in these conditions, they are able to harvest much more timber, mostly loblolly pine, than any other state, outside of probably Alabama and Mississippi. But the revenue still only covers less than 10% of their budget, and because of funding constraints, they’ve had to consolidate their four offices into two. “Not to mention all the projects we’ve had to sideline.” She says it matter-of-factly, like that’s just the way things are. I tell her about the Understory, and the work we’re trying to do. She says she’d love to do anything she can to help, and she gives me her contact details and the name of three teammates I should reach out to. I thank her and soon find myself telling her about my grandparents. That they were from Eudora. That I was thinking of going down there to visit them.
The words stumble out like a love confession. And more than the nodding smile across Seanna’s face, I’m shook by the warmth flowing through me. The feeling of pride and belonging. The feeling of a home. I know it’s not my feeling, but Grandma Ollie’s, calling me from across the state, from her corner of the land, from her Auburn, from her Sierra Nevada.
One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began.
The sun comes up quietly the next morning. Outside my hotel, there’s a lake I hadn’t even seen the night before. Above it, hundreds of geese are migrating south. Downstairs, the staff is entirely black. And at the gas station. And at the market. I haven’t seen this many black people since I left Harlem in 09. Maybe even since before.
“Well, Eudora is a few miles south of here, sweetheart,” the woman at the visitor center says, after a short two hour drive. Her name is Dorothy. Her brown hair is streaked in grey and her white glasses bespeckle her dark face. I’ve never heard my grandma’s voice, but I imagine it might have sounded like this. Soft, sweet, structured, unrushed.
To understand a place, you must try to understand where it belongs within the landscape that surrounds it. The geology and time that has made the place what or who it is today. This is the lesson of Auburn, of Sierra Nevada, of California. And now, perhaps, of Eudora.
“Well, sweetheart, Eudora is the south eastern-most part of the state. The end of the line. The state’s little toe,” we both chuckle and she says that Mississippi is only 5 miles east. Louisiana 10 miles south. We’re in the great Mississippi Delta, she says. The river itself used to flow through here, until the great flood of 1927. 300 people died, nearly overnight. Possibly some of my ancestors. After that, they built one of the world’s longest continuous levees, totaling more than 650 miles. “The levee cut off this part of the river here, which then became the largest natural made lake in Arkansas, and the largest oxbow shaped lake in North America.” She’s pointing to the water behind us, and then shows me on the map. The lake is C-shaped, like half of an open heart.
“We’re part of the Mississippi byway too,” she says, talking about the migrating Canadian geese I followed from my hotel up north. There were thousands of them, many stopping to eat breakfast in the rows of dormant crop. Mostly soybeans and rice, Dorothy says. “We’re the country’s largest producer of rice now.” But there’s also still cotton. Which I can see as I drive away from the visitor center, towards Eudora, past a green industrial shed branded in all capital letters: Cotton Picker Works Inc. I look down at the fields, possibly the same exact fields my grandparents picked, and see speckles of crop residue on top of the brown soil — Small white remnants of the past season’s harvest, enormous white mountains of the past seasons’ history.
I approach the town slowly, pulling off the road at the small rectangular welcome sign. A Corolla waves as I get out of my car. Eudora, 2,819, the sign says, colored in the same tent of green as the grass that’s surrounding it. The oak trees above it look barren, but are still holding on to some of their leaves. There is a cold breeze coming from Lake Village behind me. And just off the side of the road, there is an adult heron, with shiny grey feathers, scaly black feet, and yellow pupiled eyes, lying lifeless in the grass. Life and death. Beauty and pain. Beginnings and endings. Together, in Eudora.
I drive on. Past a bouquet of Mississippi Delta life. Eudora Grill and Chill, with dozens of lunch-time cars parked outside of it. John Deere Arkansas Ag Company, New Mt Zion Baptist Church, Eudora City Park, Body Kreations, Commerce Community Bank with a 24 Hour drive up ATM. Family Dollar, Dollar General, Mini Mart, Scott Gasoline, Carquest Auto Parts, Mini Storage, a closed down Exxon, Jay Ross Used Car Sales, Superior Group of Companies, with dozens or maybe hundreds of cars parked in front of it. Double Quick Gas with an attached Hot and Crispy Chicken. Lil Wil’s Food Truck, selling chili dogs, hot tamales, nachos.
I’m driving below the speed limit, but it only takes me three minutes to drive through the whole town, earmarked at the end with a sign for the next town: Tallahala, LA 52 miles. I turn around and return to the sign that caught me most by surprise: Business District. I follow the arrow, turning left off of Highway 65, and then left again on to Main Street. Jake Up Learning Center is open. So is Better Beginnings, where every child deserves our best. Eudora Drugstore has moved locations. Miles Beauty Supply and Variety Store is closed, so is Curious Center and Tommy Marshall’s. The Cultural Center is closed too, even though there’s a sign that says We’re Open and We’re Awesome underneath the door handle.
There’s hardly a car on the entire block, with the exception of a small congregation of two or three cars in front of the building at the very end. City Hall. I park in front of the sign, which is carved into faded wood and covered in a layer of peeling gold paint.
Inside, there are two glass doors on the right, and a staircase that leads to a door that is boarded shut. There’s a woman sitting behind the first glass door, which says Revenue. She’s on the phone, but eventually points me to the woman next door, which says Water. It is also, I soon find out, the office of the mayor. The woman who answers the door says her name is Beverly. She grew up in the backwoods and moved to Eudora a while back. “The town’s seen better days,” she says, looking up towards the room’s single window behind us. “We used to have two all-night diners, a hotel, cafés, a grocery store, a movie theater, and a high school.”
She’s talking about the time when my grandparents would have been here, which is hard for me to get my head around. That a place could have gotten worse over time. And also better. Things started booming in the early 1900’s, when the railroad came in to town, she says. Businesses started buying the property right here downtown, along the tracks. “But we black folks weren’t allowed on the other side. Had to get permission just to cross over the tracks after night.” The railroad became the town’s Mason Dixon line, the invisible wall that separated the blacks from the whites.
“One of the few things I know is that my parents both lived on the wrong side of the tracks,” my dad had said the night before. I replayed the voice note twice, but still hadn’t been sure if he meant the literal wrong side of the tracks.
Now the town is over 80% black and Beverly lives on the old white side. “But the roads everywhere are bad,” she says. And so is the water. And the economy. “There’s really only one main employer in town,” which is Superior Group of Companies, the corporate uniform manufacturer I had passed earlier. And there’s no high school, or grocery store. “But we’re trying to change all that,” Beverly says, and tells me about the newly elected mayor, who I later learn is the first black woman mayor of Eudora.
We talk about their strategic plans for a while and I eventually ask about the school she briefly mentioned. “We used to have a high school, but then it got boarded up.” Now kids have to get bussed to Lake Village, which can sometimes take hours. If a kid lives in the rural parts, they have to wake up at 5, walk to the bus stop, then spend an hour or so on the bus just to get to school by 7 something, she says.
I tell her more about my grandparents — that they picked cotton as sharecroppers and still managed to become valedictorian and salutatorian. That my grandpa was just about to retire from the Air Force, at age 40, but that he died in a mysterious snorkeling accident, in water that was only 5–10 feet deep, while he was on an unaccompanied tour in Okinawa. That my grandma climbed her way through the glass ceiling maze of corporate America and managed to become the first black female VP at the fifth largest bank in the country. That my dad said the name of their school was Eudora Colored High.
Beverly is smiling. She asks my grandparents’ names and then goes back to ask the mayor, who comes out from the back. “Ollie Williams, that name sounds familiar,” the mayor says, and gets on the phone to call someone. “Ma, what was the name of the school called, before G.C. Johns,” she says, looking up at me. “Eudora Colored High?” she smiles and hangs up. “You know the building’s still there. On Baker and… What’s that street called?”
“Swanigan,” Beverly says.
They tell me to check it out, give me their email address and phone number, and tell me to let them know the next time I’m coming to town. “There are only a few elders left, but with a day or two notice, we can call them up and you can sit down with them.”
Outside, I check the cultural center again, but it’s still closed. I see the water tower in the background: Eudora, Catfish Capital of Arkansas. Later, I look at online pictures of glasses and sinks and bathtubs that are filled with brown liquid, and read that this tower hasn’t been cleaned in years.
I drive past a caravan of cars and mechanics outside of Selman’s Auto Service, a hybrid Mexican restaurant and bait shop, and a vacant grocery store called Sunflower. Then I drive over the train tracks. There’s a pretty blue house with a massive oak tree, probably twice as old as my grandparents would be today. A plane roars overhead, only twenty or thirty feet above the ground, followed by a pesticide down pour over rows of brown soil. A yellow school bus pulls up behind me, then turns left.
I pass over the tracks again, and turn left, on to Baker. There’s an abandoned agriculture structure at the intersection, just beyond the tracks. The road gets bumpier as I drive down it. Another water tower rises in the horizon. And then, underneath it, a partially demolished wall emerges — exposed yellow bricks saturated in the warm sunlight. Brown strands of woody vines are climbing up the walls. Patches of green grass dot the crumbling bleached cement floor. G.C. Johns Lower Elementary School, the blue sign says, as I turn on to Swanigan.
This is it. This is where my dad and my Aunt Trina became possibilities. Where Grandma Ollie and Grandpa Benjamin first met. These are the stairs they walked up every day. The halls they ran down. The grass they jumped rope on top of. The oak trees they ate lunch underneath. Perhaps the room where they were first told “Whether you think you can or think you cannot, you are right.”
I walk around the buildings, my face warmed by the sun. A man drives by in a truck and waves. I look inside a classroom, which is dark and piled with wooden furniture. I put my hand along the vines that are climbing up the brick wall. They are tough and hard, and I can’t tell if they are breaking down or holding up the wall. Finally I look up at the field behind me, across the train tracks, and see a heron flying over it. Grey, silent, majestic. She’s flying over an empty field. Her extended wings spread over all that is. All that could be. Her head pointed north. Her feet pointed downward.
A week later, back in New York, I draft an email to Beverly, the mayor, and the Executive Director of the cultural center, who I finally met, just as I was leaving town. The woman who thought she could, I title the email, attaching a picture my dad sent me of Grandma Ollie, smiling next to him and his sister Trina and their dad, Grandpa Benjamin.
Beverly said she wanted to include Grandma Ollie’s story in the town’s history, and the Executive Director said she wants to include it in the cultural center, to remind kids in school that they are more than bumpy roads or bad water or boarded up buildings. They are the ancient oak rising from the dark soil into the blue sun-warmed sky. They are the young grey Heron soaring through the winter clouds into the nourishment of the recovering cotton fields. They are the invisible remains of the Mississippi River — dammed and levied, broken and divided — but not conquered. Amassing into an underground source of water that all of life depends on.
I type the words into the email as I look out my apartment window. The beech branches on my neighbor’s balcony are barren. Snow is covering the holly and juniper. A family of pigeons is flying through the canyon between buildings. My grandparents were not only a part of the land — their own Sierra Nevada — they were the land. The spring soil sinked into their fingers and their knees. The summer sun soaked into their necks and their backs. The fall humidity flowed through their hair and their chest. And then, after their final winter, they left. And never came back. Never returned to that part of the land. And possibly, never returned to that part of themselves. To all they had left behind when they walked away.
Perhaps that is the work of the understory and the Understory, General Sherman suggests. Perhaps that is the work of generations, Methuselah suggests. Perhaps you can learn to find beauty even at the very bottom, the Death Valley Basin suggests. Perhaps you can find life after life, the black trunk of the Joshua tree suggests. Perhaps you can find you’ve belonged here all along, the white-tipped peaks surrounding Lake Isabella suggest. Perhaps your work, even from afar, can help protect and restore this land, the orange soil along the Auburn path suggests. Perhaps your work, when the time is right, will ultimately bring you back to your three acres here, on a bit of the earth’s surface, in the Range of Light, in the Sierra Nevada.