Thinking of a Place
I have known the heart of the sun,- / In the dark and light of a dry place, / In a flicker of fire brisked by a dusty wind. / I have heard, in a drip of leaves, / A slight song, / After the midnight cries.
— from “Journey to the Interior,” by Theodore Roethke
Warmer temperatures are here and it’s a pleasure to once again spend time outside amidst a newly reborn landscape. With most of my friends and family on the road to be being fully vaccinated, it’s hard not to feel a bit optimistic about the present. Things seem to be getting better in many ways, though I suspect there is much about life that will never return to normal after the last year, for better or worse.
While the pandemic has caused many people to rethink air travel and vacationing, I have been staying close to home since 2014, the year that Tasha and I moved onto our farmstead. Circumstance has kept us from travelling far in the years since we began farming-we have animals here who require care throughout the day, and this keeps us mostly at home. That said, our attitudes towards air travel and its contribution to climate breakdown have also evolved over the years.
As the world tentatively opens up again, I’ve found myself reminiscing over some of my past adventures. Rock climbing was frequently the motivation and objective for these travels, but just as often the beautiful, intense and surreal experiences that I remember most vividly have taken place off the rock.
Sometimes it’s the vagaries of the journey — the strange spark of a random encounter, a shining and unbidden moment of epiphany — that prove more evocative in their remembering than the destination itself.
In April of 2004 I visited Joshua Tree National Park to climb there for close to a week. A few hours by car from Los Angeles and San Diego, the park isn’t really that remote. But to someone who’d never spent much time in the desert before, I was enchanted by its extremes and their contrasts-of warmth and cold, aridity and vitality, landscape and open sky, light and darkness.
I had travelled there with two others, Fred and Jeff, and we were joined by Kim a day or so later, camping and climbing as a group. We were part of a larger group organized by friends who had planned the trip and put me in touch with these three, who I’d barely known beforehand. Over the course of days, we came to know each other better, pairing off and roping up to climb sweeping hand cracks, knobby faces, sparsely featured friction slabs.
We arrived at the Hidden Valley campground late in the day. After a twilight that seemed to last forever, night fell and the air became chilly, then cold. Exhausted from a day of travel, we retired to our tents. As the human noise of the campsite faded, the more exotic sounds of the desert filled the night-the yipping of coyotes, the hooting of owls. In the cold, dry air they seemed to travel across a great distance, these sounds that carried with them a story of their own journeys.
I awakened around dawn the next morning as cool, blue light drifted into my tent. As time passed and daylight strengthened, the experience reminded me of rising from the depths of a swimming pool into the strong light at the water’s surface. Though we would experience wind storms that would blow our ropes sideways and send low, dirty clouds scudding across the sky, the infinite gradations of sunlight falling through clear, dry air, day after day, is the rhythm that rules my memory of that trip.
Throughout the week, we made forays away from camp to climb, sometimes walking, sometimes driving through an otherworldly landscape of bizarre rock forms, flowering cacti and yucca, and the eponymous joshua trees. The rock, a coarse, igneous, granitic variety called monzonite, rose above the landscape in the strangest formations. Everything from human-scale boulders to towering domes and looming, gnarled faces stretched across the high desert in random jumbles of form, shape and texture.
I felt the bare and simple experience of eating, climbing, sleeping and moving through the landscape repeated daily wash over my consciousness like waves. Between the tidal pulse of day and night, the life of the desert seeped into my my veins and psyche, smoothing over rough edges, calming my senses. There is a magnificent and mysterious transformative power to some places and even a few days spent there can change a person. For me, Joshua Tree is such a place.
On our final night in camp, we sat at a picnic table passing around a bottle of zinfandel, quietly basking in the starlight. Toward the end of this closing rite, a car arrived at the neighboring campsite, and two climbers emerged and set up camp. Before turning in they stopped over to visit, asking us about our experiences. One had come all the way from Sweden to visit this place. Their arrival and our imminent departure seemed like a changing of the guard, a completion of some cycle.
As we packed up and hit the road for San Diego the next morning, I felt a twinge of regret at the prospect of returning to the wider world. Tuning in to NPR on the ride back, our first news since the start of the trip, we were shocked and horrified to hear about the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib. The spell of peace and calm that this desert had worked on me was shattered by this disturbing news coming from another desert half a world away.
Over the years, I traveled to Joshua Tree again several times, and though I had many memorable experiences and some good days climbing, nothing matched the novelty and intensity of that initial experience. There is truth to Heraclitus’s claim that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” As a setting becomes familiar, it affects our memories of it less. Novel events, seasons and experiences predominate, built on top of place. Place is the foundation of memory.
Returning the next year, a few weeks earlier in the season this time, the event I remember most is my tent being blown apart by winds in the night and searching frantically for hours for the keys to our car in a swirling, stinging storm of sand and darkness. As I later found, they had been in my backpack the whole time.
In 2007, I returned once more at the end of September with a friend who had been injured in a climbing accident the previous year. The result of a near-fatal fall, fragments of bone lodged in the sheath of his craniofacial nerve, leaving half of his face partially paralyzed. As part of his rehabilitation routine, he would hold a makeup mirror to his face and work the muscles through various sequences of expression-smiling, frowning, pursing, wincing-repeated throughout the day. Strong desert sunlight glinted off the mirror as his face moved, as though he was enacting some surreal and inscrutable attempt at semaphore. This routine, repeated many times over the course of our stay, stands out in memory from that trip.
On a later visit, another sequence of images lingers. My partner for that trip and I went for a drive one afternoon, crossing out of the Mojave Desert into the Colorado Desert, part of the larger Sonoran Desert to the south. The magnificent rockscapes of Joshua Tree disappeared and low brown hills took their place in an even more austere landscape. Racing along an empty highway, my friend would spontaneously and maniacally hammer out bursts on the car’s horn. “This is what the cabbies do in China,” he explained. But we were driving to the Salton Sea, an enormous inland lake, saline and poisoned by runoff from the nearby Imperial agricultural region.
Arriving at dusk, we followed roads around the shoreline until we came to a public beach. I got out of the car there hoping to capture the dustiness and gloom of the fading light with my camera. Bereft of people and movement, a small, decrepit marina looked out on the lake. It was surrounded by a tableau of ramshackle dereliction and poverty. Falling-down structures and junked cars littered the landscape. This was a dying place, shedding up its soul amidst the failing light and the still waters of the Salton Sea, fading into the darkness.
Deserts in other places have captivated me too. Red Rocks Canyon, a ‘wilderness’ area on the edge of Las Vegas is one of them. I have traveled there on several occasions to climb the soaring sandstone towers that rise up out of the desert, fearing for its soul as the Vegas suburbs creep ever closer. I’ve sat at dawn outside the park gates there, taking position among a crowd of other cars, only to disperse into a braided maze of desert washes, to be absorbed into the grandeur and scale of the landscape. You can climb for hours there in solitude, topping out at dusk only to be met with the garishness and gaudiness of the city skyline.
Once I stayed for a few days with a climber friend who lives in the Vegas suburbs. On a day when he couldn’t climb with me, I decided to run from his house to the gates of the park, an 18-mile round trip. I wanted to register the vestiges of desert in between, to survey the shrinking buffer between the spreading infection of suburban placelessness and the doorstep of a wild place. Moving through subdivisions and shopping centers on my way, I felt like John Cheever’s swimmer, a doomed eccentric on a quixotic mission. But I wanted to feel this landscape in my body too, to absorb it with my feet and legs as well as my eyes before it vanished.
On the way to another desert to climb-City of Rocks, in Idaho-Tasha and I stood spellbound in the middle of a highway, in the middle of nowhere. She’d stopped the car late at night so I could drive the rest of the way. When we both got out and looked up at the sky we were dumbstruck, transfixed by the immanence of the cosmos in this otherwise lightless landscape. Constellations were beside the point and stars far too numerous to contemplate counting. The swirling, unfolding body of the Milky Way was clearly visible among faint gas clouds of purple and pink. I’ve written about this moment elsewhere too, but words still seem to come up short; they can only trace around the edges of the actual experience.
In the mid-2000s, I worked for a medical communications company. The job required me to travel on occasion to live events-educational symposia put on by doctors for other doctors, mostly. My role was to review the technical content with the presenters beforehand and make sure everything went off as planned. It was an easy day of work with all-expenses-paid travel and lodging.
On these trips, I would volunteer for events on the West Coast, relatively close to national parks or other climbing destinations. My employers didn’t mind if I also took a few days of vacation time to meet up with a partner and get some climbing in before I flew back to the office. I did this for several years, going to events in Sacramento, the Bay area and elsewhere so I could then climb in Yosemite or the Sierras.
One such trip, my second time in Tuolumne Meadows and the Yosemite Valley, stands out in memory. I met up with my friend Rick in San Jose in late May of 2007 and we drove to Yosemite National Park to climb first in Tuolumne Meadows and then in the Valley itself. It was early in the season in Tuolumne Meadows so we opted to stay at the only campground open at that point. There were few other campers there.
We enjoyed good weather for the first couple of days, first climbing the Regular Route on Fairview Dome, a 12-pitch classic that follows a crack system to the top of an enormous granite dome in the high country of the Sierras. It was a fantastic experience, made all the more adventurous by the loss of our topo map midway through. Happily, the upper pitches were easy.
The next day we did shorter routes near Tenaya Lake, climbing in the sun and enjoying the peace of the early season. The landscape was a study in strong contrasts-the pale gray of granite domes set against a deep blue sky, ringed by dark green pines and reflected on the shimmering surface of the lake. At 10,000 feet, the air was pure and clear. Tenaya Peak was still capped in snow, feeding the deliriously cold waters of Tenaya Lake, where we cooled down after climbing, if only for a moment.
The following day, a storm moved in and temperatures dropped, so we returned to our campsite. The few campers at other sites had left and as night fell, it began to snow. Not ready to sleep yet, but too cold to do anything else, we built a fire with whatever we could scrounge up. We weren’t sure what to do if the snowfall stranded us at camp, so we decided to wait and watch.
As the snow fell harder and started to cover the ground, I pulled several fat binders full of slide printouts from the trunk of the car. I had brought them with me to the symposium at the start of the trip. No longer needed, I fed sheafs of paper into the fire. Page after page of slides with clinical trial outcomes, patient case studies and medication data went up in smoke, yielding a little heat and a vague satisfaction. Survival curves expired as motes of ash rising into the night sky, passing fat flakes of falling snow. Eventually the snow stopped and we went to sleep in our tents, but the absurdity of the experience-like using a cup to bail out a leaky boat-sticks with me.
When we awoke the next day, we found our surroundings covered in several inches snow, but the roads were still passable. The approaches to many climbs would now be dangerous and the routes themselves too wet and cold to climb. We opted to head elsewhere, dropping down onto the east side of the Sierras and driving south into the arid and dusty Owens River Valley. Here it was almost too hot to climb, so we headed to Yosemite to climb there. We arrived at night, and by some stroke of luck, were able to get a campsite at Camp Four, the notoriously crowded climber’s campground in Yosemite.
The next morning we awoke to brilliantly blue skies and temperatures in the 50s, a consequence of the Pacific system that had brought us snow at the higher elevations. We decided to climb a line called Super Slide near the Ahwahnee, a posh hotel situated in the cool forest of the valley floor. Rick and I swapped leads, gaining elevation as the climbing became progressively more difficult and interesting. Sometime around mid-morning, the air warmed but the sky remained a brilliant, almost cobalt blue. As the granite walls steepened I began to hear sounds floating up from the valley floor.
At first, I thought I was imagining things. There was no one else close by and we were hundreds of feet up at this point. But I heard it again a few minutes later, stronger this time. It was a series of notes, played haltingly, tentatively on a violin, and then repeated, like birdsong. As we moved into the final pitches and the wall became more vertical, the music seemed to clarify itself, rising up to meet us like a bird riding a thermal into the sky. There was something strangely beautiful and yet ironic about the moment: Fleeing the siren song of civilization, I was amazed to find it pursuing me.
Five years later, I went to the High Sierras again, this time with Tasha. In August 2012, we flew into Reno, a dry and dusty place, from which we ascended into the forested mountains around Lake Tahoe to climb first at a place called Lover’s Leap and then at Tuolumne Meadows. Though the climbing was good amidst the always-breathtaking grandeur of the Sierras, one aspect in particular stands out in memory: Rattlesnakes, that seemed to follow us throughout the trip.
Our first warning came at the general store across the street from the campground at Lover’s Leap. Next to a chainsaw-carved statue of a rearing bear, a hand lettered sign cautioned visitors to be careful where they stepped, owing to a preponderance of rattlesnake sightings that summer. This was at the start of California’s long drought, and perhaps the dry conditions had something to do with it.
The next day, we walked through low forest toward open scrub land to access the cliffs of the main climbing area. Walking along one of a series of cross-braided trails threading their way through the sand and low brush, we heard a strange sound-a sort of whirring hum, like a siren starting up. As it turns out, agitated rattlesnakes don’t sound like shaken maracas or baby rattles, but more like cicadas or buzzing insects. As we drew closer to the cliffs and passed other climbers, some with dogs, we heard the sounds again and again, often before we saw a snake, and sometimes alarmingly close to us.
After a few days at Lover’s Leap, we travelled through the Sierras to Tuolumne Meadows. Unlike the relative peace and solitude of the other visit several years before, we arrived at the height of the season to full campgrounds and crowds seemingly everywhere. After we finally found accommodations we spent several days climbing. One day we opted to climb the Southeast Buttress on Cathedral Peak, a classic alpine-style climb we’d done during the previous trip. This time, I was looking forward to leading all the pitches myself.
Tasha and I set out on the longish approach hike in the morning and were a little surprised to encounter no other hikers or climbers along the way. We did however hear the now-familiar warning buzz of rattlesnakes on more than one occasion. I almost never saw them until after I’d heard them. It was a spooky sensation.
When we finally arrived at the base of the towering granite peak, we heard the sound again, so several times we moved our packs and rope to stay clear of the unseen rattlesnakes. I began leading up the first pitch, recognizing the terrain from my first time on the route. About half a rope length up the pitch, Tasha began shouting at me to build an anchor quickly. I was close to a ledge, so I climbed up and hurriedly threw in some gear and set up a belay. But she had already started climbing.
When she reached the ledge, she told me that the she’d heard the buzzing sounds again, this time closer. It was safer climbing unbelayed, it seemed, to get some distance from the brush and piles of rocky talus at the base of the route, potentially harboring rattlesnakes. Compared with this encounter, the rest of the day was uneventful.
When we topped out at the summit, we both relaxed for a few minutes, taking in the sweeping vistas of gray granite, blue skies, and bluer lakes, stretching away as far as the eye could see. After negotiating the tricky descent, we reached our packs and began the long hike out without further incident.
Up until a few years ago, the ability to travel by air virtually anywhere was something I took for granted. But realizing just how damaging air travel in particular is to our battered planet has given me pause. To travel to a place using fossil fuels is to become an active participant in the destruction of that place, however slightly. In a sense, it’s akin to the conundrum of modern physics in which the act of observing a thing changes that thing.
But wild places and the experiences and adventures we have in them change us too, in ways that imbue our lives with meaning and purpose. Years later in the remembering of these adventures, looking back across the distance of time, we begin to understand ourselves through them. To know and love wild places is to care for their future and the future of a planet that is rapidly losing its wildness and wild beings.
In ecology, there is something called ‘shifting baseline syndrome.’ It refers to
“a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition.” People living today perhaps take for granted that the natural world has always been the way they first experienced it, whereas past generations would recognize the decline and degradation that have occurred over longer time frames. This is one of humanity’s blind spots when it comes to understanding our relationship with the natural world.
But anthropogenic changes are now happening so fast that destruction and loss are perceptible and apparent year-on-year. Tasha and I were saddened in returning to Yosemite, both having been there years previously, to find much of the landscape charred by fire and dessicated by drought. The loss was palpable even amidst the remaining beauty.
The majority of humanity now lives in or around cities and suburbs and perhaps considers their everyday living conditions and experience of the natural world to be ‘normal.’ But it is paradoxically by traveling away from such places to what remains of the natural world that those living in these urban, human-centric places-overdeveloped and increasingly bereft of nature-can fully realize what has been lost to them and what they might in some measure hope to salvage.
Thus the conundrum remains: Does the transformative power of our experiences in the natural world outweigh the damage we do in our everyday lives and particularly in visiting these places? I don’t know the answer to this question, but it is one well worth considering.
Originally published at https://thegyre.substack.com.