“What do you call the desert out yonder?” McTeague’s eyes wandered over the illimitable stretch of alkali that stretched out forever and forever to the east, to the north, and to the south.
“That,” said Cribbens, “that’s Death Valley.”
Backpacking in Death Valley seems like an odd idea, but it’s not so bad, if you pick the right time of the year, and the right people. I did so with members of the California Hiking and Outdoor Society (CHAOS) in December 1993.
The daytime temperatures were quite pleasant, but at night they would drop below freezing. So we had to pack warm gear, and in addition 2 gallons of water each. So I was bit worried about the weight of my camera, but I decided to pack it and to leave the bottle of wine at home instead.
One of the new people was Tuan, who had brought his large format camera (in addition to an SLR with several lenses).
I asked him politely whether this wouldn’t be too much to carry, and he responded equally politely that this would not be a problem.
I learned later that Tuan had worked as a mountain tour guide in the Alps, was an experienced ice climber, had climbed Denali (and many other peaks), and was in the process of documenting all National Parks of the US in large format. Tuan also taught me to value the 24mm and 85mm focal lengths for landscape photography. One certainly met interesting people at CHAOS.
So in many ways this trip had been an eye opener for me, for landscape, for people, and for photography.
Honoré de Balzac’s short story Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu has as a theme the desperation of the artist Frenhofer over
his disability to complete his masterpiece.
It is an early paradigm for fragmental art where not the completed work is the objective but the fragment deliberately left incomplete.
Why do we give up and turn back? This can be because of lack of skills or imminent danger, and it is a sane thing to do.
But it can also be because we reach a point that we realize we should not touch, we reach a realm that is not ours.
This happened to me on a long weekend hike on McGee trail in the John Muir Wilderness in the eastern Sierras, in the early summer of 1994.
The trail leads at the beginning through lush meadows, but one quickly gains altitude, and the colored mountains like Mount Baldwin here become predominant. It is a magic landscape, both remote and imposing.
With McGee Lake, nestled below Mount Crocker and Red and White Mountain, we have reached our destination. The vegetation has receded, and being exposed like this makes us restless. After a short break and swim, we scramble on.
From Hopkins Pass, the view opens up into even more remote regions of the eastern Sierras. The message is clear and double edged: This is utterly beautiful, but we do not belong here. Humbled, we turn back.
When discussing the options for traveling with a three weeks old baby from California to Indiana, friend Bryce reminded me that while today we view traveling as the unavoidable side effect when to get from A to B, there used to be a more conscious form of travel that one can metaphorize as a journey. Thrilled, we decided to take this trip by train. The idea was to spend two nights in a sleeper car, and the days sightseeing.
The comfort is minimal, but so are the demands of a three week old.
California becomes Nevada. Notice the difference in architecture and functionality (railway station vs. correctional facility).
Nevada becomes Utah and Colorado.
Then, in Iowa, when we start feeling the heat and humidity of summer in the midwest, the power of all passenger cars fail. For hours, the Amtrak personal shuffles the cars in order to put the one with the faulty cable at the end. In vain.
When we arrive in Chicago 8 hours late in the third night, Amtrak pays for a hotel with view.
We have arrived! Moral: Each journey should result in a story.
In 1993, when it still rained in California, winter was a desperate time for weekend backpackers, because the Sierras were packed with snow.
On the other hand, if you dared, you could have places all for yourself that would be packed with humans in the summer. But don’t let this snow free picture of Yosemite Valley betray you.
A little further on, the vast granite plains were slush covered, and even further, we there was deep snow and no trace of the trails.
Higher altitude cleared things up a bit (assuming good weather).
The peace was treacherous. Picking this spot below as a camp site and ignoring the pretty clouds below was a dumb idea. The night became the second stormiest night of my life.
This continues the series of revisits of my year 1993/94 in California. Very rarely a landscape hits you with such a force that you are left with a lifelong desire to return.
The climb from Lake Tahoe to Mount Tamrac is through lush forests, and nothing but the weathered trees prepares you for the view from the top.
In the front is Gilmore lake where we had memorable swim, and further behind follow Susie Lake, and, already in the granite, almost invisibly, Lake Aloha.
The landscape gradually transitions from impossibly green vegetation to gray and white granite rocks. The latter
are, however, not steep and ragged but smooth and almost plane. No invitation to hell could be sweeter.
The heroes of this place are the trees. They struggle on without almost no soil, withstand harsh weather, and even when long dead, remain.
I had the opportunity and was in the physical condition to climb Mount Whitney in the Summer 1994 as a day hike, when no day use permit was required. So these are relatively ancient photos.
The hike from the parking lot at the Whitney Portal and back took 10 hours. The 2000 meters elevation gain put a lot of stress on the muscles (uphill) and even more stress on the bones (downhill).
At the same time I had become addicted to classical indian music, and Hariprasad Chaurasia’s rendering of the Raga Kaunsi Kanhra played back in my brain during the first hour of the hike.
We started at 6am in the morning before sunrise, and the first two hours were pleasant hiking through wooded areas. The first challenge were the infamous 100 switchbacks, which bring you fast to high elevation and to the Mt Whitney Trail Crest.
From then it is still a long way to reach the summit. In good weather, the hike does not pose any technical difficulties. But it is long, at high elevation, and in an alien landscape.