We took a long-belated October trip to Sand Flat in the Sierras’ El Dorado National Forest. Camped on the the banks of the South Fork of the American River, all day and into the night we heard water roaring and burbling down to its eventual destination via the Sacramento River into San Francisco Bay and eventually the Pacific Ocean, as it has for centuries. When we arrived and picked out our site, B. and I took beers down to sit on big granite boulders, where we dunked our feet and heads into the water until they hurt from the cold and went numb. Something about traveling 2-3 hours from home, into nature…how peaceful, how quiet!
The morning sun peeked over the hill across the river, glowing through maples and oaks in lovely fall color. Everywhere we saw gold, orange, or blazes of red amongst yet-unchanged brethren. Shorter daylight hours flip the trees’ “switch” to stop producing chlorophyll for the winter. Some change earlier than others due to genetic differences and mutation. Slight breezes drifted the divine fragrance of the incense cedar, its moss-covered, thick, grooved trunk keeping company with neighbors of gracefully twisted bark.
That day we took a wonderful hike to Twin Lakes, near Wrights Lake in the Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. Almost nobody else was there, in a setting abundant with red bushes and ground cover, yellow trees blasted into gold by the slanting sun, surrounded by firs, and lodgepole, Jeffrey, and gray pines. The trail crosses a curved bridge over bog and meadow filled with grasses all shades of rust and orange, then ascends huge granite boulders splayed out like giant pans. Here, we touched and walked upon the Sierra Nevada Batholith – the backbone of the Sierra described by geology buff and master essayist John McPhee, in Assembling California and Annals of the Former World – the exposed core of Mother Earth herself! The daunting elevation (6-7,000 feet) winded me, my legs hurting and losing strength, even though technically the climb wasn’t hard or steep, the hike only about 6 miles. After several magnificent vistas of the Crystal Basin – for miles down glaciated valleys into the western distance – we finally came upon the lakes, tarns in the middle of forbidding, grey, still snow-capped peaks. Such a sight with our picnic! Sadly we wouldn’t be swimming that day, even though we’d brought our bathing suits. The wind was cold – and I felt winter coming in it.
Later, after dinner cooked over a roaring campfire, above us the night sky was visible through a ring of conifers. It was near freezing overnight. I was glad B. and I brought down sleeping bag, and bundled up in warm down and fleece layers. Up rose the Great Square of Pegasus, adjacent to the Andromeda Galaxy – with which our Earth is set on a collision course in about 4.5 billion years. The late, reclusive astronomer Robert Burnham, Jr. wrote, “Come with me now, pilgrim of the stars, for our time is upon us and our eyes shall see the far country and the shining cities of infinity.” How appropriate to share this sight with B., and how strangely comforting, that these skies will still dazzle, long after the moment he and I will have become starlight.