At 8500 feet near the base of Pyramid Peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California, September days are beautiful and warm, filled with glorious sun and dazzling blue sky – wonderful backpacking weather. The nights are clear and cold. Jupiter leads the way across the heavens appearing just after sunset, followed by a symphony of twinkling stars.
I’m on a solo expedition with my dog, Max Detweiler. That first night we camp by a lake and wait for the moon to rise over the ridge to the east. A mountain moon has a unique way of announcing itself, first by a subtle light preceding its entrance, then the eerie moon glow reflecting high off the trees. The light glides slowly down the trees and moves towards us across the open ground. When it reaches my feet, I look up to see this brilliant satellite poke its rim above the ridge. It’s so bright I can see the outline of branches in the trees high on the crest as more and more of the moon shows itself. I’m in a trance watching the heavens reflected in the stillness of the mountain lake.
We stay for three days, and the only people we see are a group of four hikers who show up at our lake, stay for a short time, bid us well in our adventure, and head back to where they cam from. Once they’re gone, I don’t know where the next closest person is.
It wasn’t always like this. For years, I longed to hike in the wilderness, but walking any distance, even carrying no weight, created a knife-like pain beginning in my neck and shoulder that worked its miserable way down my back. Even walking only a mile or so, I risked harsh pain and stiffness that could last of weeks. Carrying a backpack was out of the question, so I limited myself to very short walks and not much exercise.
My worst experience happened 20 some years ago when I foolishly went on an overnight hike with a friend into the woods of western Maine. On the long ride form New York City, the pain and tension crept into my nick and shoulder, so by the time we got to the trailhead I was a wreck. I hiked some distance anyway, and as night fell we managed to set up a tent. The pain got worse and there was nothing I could do about it. No rubbing, no groaning, no walking around or lying down or hanging upside down from a tree gave me relief. I was awake the whole night, and in t he morning I half dragged myself and was half carried out of the woods. We found a miniature hospital in a tiny Maine town, a doctor injected cortisone into my nick, and all the stars I missed form the previous night showed up in that room. He gave me lots of Valium and a neck brace, told me not to drive, and sent me on my way. The Valium put me to sleep at the dinner table.
The woods and mountains not seemed completely out of reach, and I realized that the physical therapists and chiropractors I had been seeing weren’t going to hear my pain. It was getting worse, and I was so desperate that I gave up my resistance and tried the Alexander Technique.
It would be sweet to report that the cure was immediate and that my dream of sustaining my self in the wilderness was instantly realized. Of course, the study of the Technique is not a quick fix, but requires patience, dedication, and an acquired trust in F. M. Alexander’s principles. Within a few months, after about 20 lessons, I noticed my bouts of pain were becoming less severe and not lasting so long. I gradually began trying activities that had been out of reach. As my studies of the Technique continued, it seemed that I could participate in activities that were more physically demanding. I don’t recall taking lessons so that I could hike or swim, but reintegrating these activities seemed to come as a matter of course.
I had been studying the Alexander Technique for a few years when I left New York City and moved to Killington, Vermont. I was now surrounded by notional forest, so I walked tentatively into the woods near my home. My walks eventually got longer, and hiking form my house to an intersection with the Appalachian Trail (about six miles round trip) became routine. I tired a couple of overnights, but it wasn‘t until I moved to California to begin my Alexander teacher training that the backpacking craze took hold of me.
The Sierra is too good to miss – one of the world’s great mountain ranges is only a few hours from my door.
I discovered Desolation Wilderness about 10 years ago and Mokelumne Wilderness shortly after that. The two are fairly close together just west ofSouth Lake Tahoe, and you can see the high mountains in each wilderness for the other. There are no roads, so if you’re not willing to walk a bit you can’t see all the much. Even so, what you can see for Caples Lake on California Highway 88 or from the rim road in Blackwood Canyon south of Tahoe City is spectacular.
I often backpack with my friend, Craig Huntington, and our dogs. When we get to a trailhead, Craig usually offers to carry more stuff because he says I’m “old and can’t handle that much.” I’m happy to load him down with whatever he wants – hauling close to 40 pounds on my back and walking relentlessly up hill for five miles or so is likely to cause pain not matter how well I use myself. His jibes a re comfortable from our long and close friendship and the many packing and hiking adventures we’ve had together.
My emotions always run high as we hike past the sign designating the wilderness boundary. I know I’ve reached a place not many folks are willing to go, and I don’t know what I’ll meet on the other side. I will share this next period of time with only my companions, the creatures who permanently reside here, and few other travelers.
Recently, Craig and I and our dogs Bear, Rafferty, and Max hiked about four miles to the base of Round Top Mountain in Mokelumne Wilderness and established our camp site on a plateau near Round Top Lake at about 9200 feet. It was warm and beautiful during the day and cold at night. We slept beneath the stars to a brilliant quiet and woke to birds’ wings fluttering. I can’t describe all that happened during those couple of days, except for the sunsets.
Sunsets lasted about three hours. The first hint was a slight chill barely brushing us after the warmth of the day. The temperature dropped fast as the sun floated towards the ridge to the west. By the time it dipped below the horizon, we had gone from wearing shorts and T-shirts to long underwear, down jackets, hats, and gloves. The sky changed frombright blue and golden sun to shades of red, orange, and rust. As the deeper blue slowly turned to black, the brightest stars and planets winked on as if they had been hiding behind an azure curtain. Behind us, pastel clouds floated away riding a gentle breeze, and Round Top stretched its majestic head to its full 10,380 feet catching the last rays of the sun and enjoying a view we could only imaging. We moved to the most open area of our site, where we had an unobstructed view all around, and stood silently gazing as the earth and sky put on this memorable show.
Why do I go to the mountains? I go where my soul is soothed, and I feel the earth at peace. I go where life begins and ends, where tranquility turns to turbulence and back again in the blink of an eye. I go where love is unconditional, and the animals and I tread lightly through streams and lakes leaving no footprint. I put my fears and cares aside and let this world embrace me.