“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
Those words, uttered by John Muir over a century ago, are perhaps the most overused and commercialized when referring to any outdoor adventure in the #neverstopexploring age — but damn, are they accurate.
Once one experiences a warm afternoon under the pine trees that line one of the many wild rivers rushing through the Sierra, it is impossible to not feel an insatiable urge to return. With air so fresh you can almost taste it and a silence that finds a way to drown out even the most pessimistic thoughts, it is no wonder why millions take refuge in the shadow of these monoliths every year.
Earlier this month, I set out to hike with my family near the southern part of what is known as Desolation Wilderness: a 64,000-acre plot of federally preserved land, located just about two hours from California’s Central Valley, that is known (and loved) for its arid climate and lack of any evidence of civilization. This particular area perfectly showcases one of the many unique, vibrant biomes that exist in the seemingly endless Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Our hike began at one end of the 2-mile long Lower Echo Lake and finished at the far end of Upper Echo Lake — both bodies of water connected by a small channel on the western side. We traversed along a narrow trail on the east side of the lake which began with an immediate incline in elevation. The path then evened out and we were flanked by large manzanita brush and wicked, spiraling Juniper trees — many of which looked older than time itself.
As the path widened a bit, we found ourselves scaling the sheer granite face of the mountain beside us. When you’re down on your hands and knees in the dirt, you begin to realize how vast your surroundings are — and more importantly, how small you are. That’s always been an integral part of my fascination with the outdoors. It is perspective shifting. Humbling. This is especially true when you’re under the hot sun on a dusty trail with no cell service. The mountain doesn’t care if you have to work tomorrow. It doesn’t care about your problems or your worries. And while you’re on it, you don’t care either. You are only focused on your next step, your next breath.
As my younger sister put it, “I like hiking. There’s just nothing to it, you don’t have to think. You just find a trail and walk. You just walk.”
In this way, it is almost a form of meditation. An escape from the constant planning and thinking and overthinking. You just…do. Which makes the moment when you turn around and realize how far you’ve gone just that much sweeter. It is a tangible example of what we can accomplish when we put our minds to something and actually carry it out. Step by step.
By the time we made it to the end of the Lower lake, we were pretty beaten down by the afternoon sun. It’s a different kind of heat at 7,500 ft — dryer, more hard-hitting. It feels like the sun is just beyond what you can grasp. Thankfully, then, the trail descended into a miniature valley that could give Yosemite a run for it’s money — complete with meadows on each side about a foot deep in wildflowers. Shaded by various forms of pine, the chilled breeze from the Upper lake hit us about half way down and for a second it felt like the gods themselves blew down from the heavens just for us (don’t act like I’m being dramatic, you know the feeling).
The trail from here carried on into Desolation — it being part of the much (much) larger Pacific Crest Trail that extends from the CA-MX border to British Columbia — while we took a sharp left to where a convenient ferry docks to pick up hikers and escort them back to the beginning of the trail. Although this service seemed like somewhat of a copout, it was hard to refuse the chance to see the surrounding crests from the middle of the lakes. And I’m glad we didn’t: there’s hardly anything more calming then watching the waves break on the side of a boat as you cruise past ancient stone that was carved by glaciers — a feat not many places can boast.
Returning sun kissed and wind-burnt, I couldn’t help but feel grateful to live near such awe-inspiring places. Places that many people, such as Muir, fought to protect. When wandering these wild lands, you get the sense that you’re in the presence of something hallowed — something once known, but now forgotten. And maybe that is the “call” that must be answered: an innate desire to connect to what was.