Head for the Hills, Quietly

The Sierras

Great things are done when men and mountains meet:

This is not done by jostling in the street. --Blake

Interstate 5, south of Modesto, is one of the most desolate and dreary stretches of road in the world. Skirting Bakersfield. Fresno, Chico, and Merced, it slices north through the unending flatland of California's Great Central Valley. It is a road of dust and heat and pale skies and dull landscapes and garish billboards peeling under the baking sun. Most of the year it is empty.

But in mid-July, when the dust is worst and even the parched grapevines have withered and died, there are traffic jams on 1-5. The highway is a main route to the Sierras.

They come in campers and station wagons, sports cars and sedans, creeping across the valley behind the slowest trailer. They forsake the beaches of Malibu and Carmel, the glamor of San Francisco and Bel Air. They leave behind the concession stands, theaters, and baseball diamonds and head for the mountains. They seek Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon--for the unmatched, glacier-carved grandeur of John Muir's "Range of Light."


Most stop in the low camps, squeezing their "family-size" tents into the crowded confines of the valley. Some--braver souls who don't mind a half-mile hike or an occasional bear-venture to higher regions, spending the week at Tenaya, or Tioga, or Tuolomne. And then there are those who are not content near even the last vestiges of civilization. They are the back-packers--and they roam the High Sierra.

The Sierra Nevada is the nation's largest and most majestic mountain range. Towering above the Smokies and the Adirondacks, higher than the Rockies, nearly as long as the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps combined, the Sierras form a land of light. Snow-splashed peaks of shining white granite rise jaggedly above the desert to the east. To the west, forests of pine and redwoods and roll to meet the San Joaquin.

To the backpacker, the High Sierra is a state of mind. Cleanswept, devoid of trees, the region contains the range's highest peaks. It would almost seem barren were it not for the glacier basins with their high tundra meadows, tiny wildflowers, deep blue lakes, and foaming cascades.

It is a region of silence and solitude. Cars may roar to Mammoth or the hot springs, less than ten miles away over the Tioga or Paiute passes. Toward the valley, pack trains and jeeps carry food and linen to the "High Sierra Camps" operated by the Yosemite Valley concessioniers. To the east, boyscouts and campfire girls pound dusty, mile-wide paths to the toilet-equipped camps beneath Mt. Whitney. But in the interior, the quiet is enveloping. A hiker of the trail may see no one for days, and those who visit the glacier lakes speak in whispers.

There is no rule for describing those who frequent the High Sierra. They are college students from Santa Cruz or New York or Texas. They are doctors, Christian Scientists, and health food freaks. They are engineers turned backpackers and backpackers turned engineers. They are poets who write limericks and bums who cannot read.

But whether they are in for a weekend or a fortnight or a month, whether they have years of experience or no experience at all, whether they are political rivals in the outer world or are best friends, in the backcountry they are pals. They hike together, share directions, and tell stories at the same campfire. The trail unites all who follow it.

What inspires these people to take to the wilderness? Why do they lug 50-lb. Packs over mile after blistery mile, mosquito-bitten, sweaty, dizzy from the heat or the altitude? Why do they suffer bitter nights on rocky ledges under freezing drizzles?

Some go for the companionship of the trail--the shared water bottles, the rising and falling of feet in tandem, the magic of a solitary campfire on a dark and starry night. Some go for the splendor of the territory--the congregation of peaks in robes of snow and light, the intense blue sky and deep blue lakes, the high-piled clouds trailing their shadows across the mountains. Still others go for the adventure--the challenge of the unknown, the icy slopes, the dangerous climbs.

And then there are those who go for the desolation--the freedom and the silence. They go to purge their souls, to rid themselves of the claustrophobic din of city life, to think, to be alone with God . . . or man.

Whatever their reasons for going, they usually emerge victorious. A few--too daring or less fortunate--are lost forever in the backcountry, trapped by avalanches, caught in unexpected blizzards, killed in crashes of tiny planes. But they are the very few.

Most emerge when their food runs out to retrieve their cars at the trailhead and drive back past the populous "High Camps," through the crowded valley to the plains below. They leave behind the mountains and return once more to the noisy cities, the crowded discos, the McDonalds. The ragged peaks stand as silent sentinels to their passage