On the last day of August eight students and two instructors converged at the baggage claim area in the Reno-Tahoe airport.
We were about to begin the trip of a lifetime: eighty days exploring the mountain landscapes of California, studying natural history, philosophies of wildness and wilderness, and learning expedition skills for living and traveling in the backcountry. Our destination list read like an imaginary epic tour of parks and wilderness areas: Yosemite, the ancient bristlecones, Lost Coast, Joshua Tree, Death Valley. As we retrieved our bags from the carousels there were nervous smiles and genuine hugs amongst us. There were questions about backpacks and questions about shoes and food and tents, but mostly good travel stories from the flights in and anticipation about the days, weeks and months to come.
We drove south through darkness into eastern California and arrived our first night at Pop’s Place, an old cabin on the shores of Mono Lake, nestled against the east side of the Yosemite Sierra. This would be our basecamp for our first few days, and tents and a kitchen area were ready-made for students to move into. Shortly after our arrival everyone collapsed into the tents and slept off their jetlag.
We awoke to the stark, stunning, spacious skies of the basin set against the gray blue waters of the lake and the loom of the Sierra Nevada to the west. We could not ask for a better juxtaposition to lush, green, rolling Vermont. Here was a land of wiry sagebrush, obsidian domes, salt lakes and snowfields in September. Here was a land we could look across for fifty miles and see little sign of industrialized human beings.
For the next three days we concentrated on learning the basics to get us up into the mountains and into the backcountry. Class sessions on the geography of California gave us a sense of place of the broader region, then we zoomed in on the Sierra Nevada and the Yosemite region. We learned about nutrition and backcountry food and planned, purchased and packed our meals for a two week trip. We took down tents and set them up again, packed and fit our backpacks, learned to cook on tiny gas stoves, developed systems for loading and unloading van cargo, and began to learn to read the stars and planets of the night sky we would be sleeping under for the next three cycles of the moon. Then, finally, we drove up the big hill into Yosemite National Park and entered the backcountry.
Our first camp was at 9900′ along the shores of Young Lakes, a series of deep blue glacial lakes set into a vast swarm of granitic stone, all hewn by the immense mountain glaciers of the Pleistocene Ice Age. There is no small amount of drama in the High Sierra and there is no real way to ease into it. Over our three day basecamp we acclimatized to the subalpine air and adjusted to our new home in the mountains. We had class sessions on human perspectives on nature from the Paleolithic to the present. We learned the trees and shrubs of the upper montane forest. We studies topographic maps and learned to match them to the reality of the land. We swam and hiked and probably burnt some food as we learned how to live outside again.
On our fourth day in the backcountry we set out off trail in an ambitious attempt to traverse to remote Roosevelt Lake and continue up the high, windswept, snow covered McCabe Pass. With cool resolve and precise route finding we were successful. We topped the pass exhausted by the climb but invigorated by our newfound sense of accomplishment. On the north side was a vast snowfield that splayed downward hundreds of feet to the secret, icy shores of McCabe Lake. A good runout meant we got to glissade down the snow, an extraordinary introductory “butt slide” on a grandiose scale. From there we followed lake shores and navigated through conifer woods to our second home at Lower McCabe Lake, where we enjoyed a two day stay with a full quiet naturalist observation day miles from nowhere.
A few days of foot travel brought us back to the park road, where we picked up our second week’s rations and kept on going almost without stopping. We camped for two nights down in the forest and enjoyed evenings of songs and storytelling around the warm glow of a campfire. Then we went off trail again, up and out of the trees to the great sky parlor of the alpine zone.
Our basecamp at Ireland Lake was at 10,700. Storms ravaged the place: impossibly dark, roiling clouds, sinister lightning strikes, pounding thunder, pelting rain and groupel and hail. We set our tents amongst the last of the trees: stunted, gnarled whitebark pines growing out of cracks in the glacially smoothed granite. These trees are the ultimate shelter, themselves testimony to their own ability to withstand the awesome forces of weather at treeline. We hunkered in for three days. Each day dawned sunny and blue and grew stormy as the day passed. Each afternoon and evening brought thunder and rain and snow, followed by sunset clearing and cloud shows like nothing on earth. We studied the last of the season’s alpine wildflowers. We learned about the history of romanticism and transcendentalism. We learned (sometimes the hard way) where not to set up our tents, which direction the prevailing storm winds come in from, how to cook dinner for hungry people in a driving rain.
A final off trail travel day brought us into the most alpine and remote part of Yosemite: the northeast recesses of the Cathedral Range, culminating in the McClure and Lyell basins, both inhabited by small living glaciers. This route meant traversing at 11,500′ for a sustained distance, traveling over bedrock, talus and snow for much of the way. It was a new experience for everyone and a revelation in routefinding, the capabilities of our bodies and the resiliency of our spirits. It was a brief glimpse into the infinite possibilities of the high country of the mind.
In stark contrast to our traverse, our final basecamp was alongside the John Muir Trail, a footpath through the High Sierra named in honor of its most famous wilderness tramp and advocate for preservation. In recent years the foot traffic on the trail has ballooned as modern technology makes the trail increasingly accessible to all kinds of people. We observed dozens, scores, probably hundreds of pilgrims pass by our camp, all out on foot, all in search of a wilderness experience. Here we had sessions on Thoreau’s philosophy of wildness. Here we shared our own original essays aloud to one another, to the mountains, to the changing sky. Then, after thirteen days in the high country, we packed our bags the morning of September 15th, stepped out onto the John Muir Trail and walked out of the backcountry.
Time in wilderness pairs life down to the essentials and helps create the conditions for enhanced peace of mind and heightened mindfulness. With a common purpose and the simplicity that outdoor living requires, individuals and small groups of like-minded people are capable of amazing things that no one person would have thought themselves capable of. Many of the aspects of 21st century living distract us from such a sense of peacefulness and purpose. We find ourselves anxious and unfulfilled and wondering why. For hundreds of thousands of years humans and our ancestors lived a field camp lifestyle, outdoors, in small groups, traveling on foot under the wide sky. With this in mind our sense of peace and purpose comes simply through living the way we have always lived. It comes through the simple acts of being human. A field semester, then, becomes a retreat into simple living, a re-focusing on what matters most, a time to be what we have always been.