I spent the evening down on the valley floor by the Merced River and Tenaya Creek, past the lingering tourists snapping pictures in the last remaining hours of daylight.
I can’t say what I was looking for–maybe something extraordinary, since extraordinary was all that I had seen so far, and I had little indication that anything about that would change.
The sun faded from view, leaving the sky cast in a pink-purple glow.The air had cooled quickly, and I heard the sounds of the river somewhere through the trees.
I approached a small tunnel where footprints led through to the other end.It was actually more like a pile of rocks, and it formed what looked like a cave at first glance. Maybe it was my imagination running away with me, or some childlike adventurous impulse breaking free that I made no effort to resist.
I crawled through it like some lost boy in his bedroom fort, made from chairs and bedsheets. Only this was the genuine article, made from boulders and chunks of earth that had probably fallen many years ago.
I reached the other end and heard the sounds of the river growing louder. I could see it flowing in between the trees. I glanced up and noticed two birds flying playfully overhead. I followed them to the water, flowing gently northeast.I sat there on the bank, quietly upon the rocks and I listened.The ‘river’ was actually Tenaya Creek, which had broken off from the Merced River at Curry Village.
I sat there for a while and wrote about the creek whispering secrets, dispatches from the rest of the world with news on where we were all going from here. The river seemed to know it all.The river, swift and wise, the great shaper of mountainsides and treacherous canyons–shaping even the grandest and most mammoth caves in America.
The last rays of daylight had gone down as I left the valley and made my way out the west entrance of the park toward El Portal.I camped for the night at an RV park, perched on a cliff overlooking the Merced River.
This site was a cool alternative to camping in the park where campsites had been booked for months in advance. I slept in something that wasn’t quite a tent, but not quite a cabin either.It was a wide canvas tent the size of a small bedroom, equipped with a bed and nightstand and even a ceiling fan. I guess it could qualify as ‘glamping,’ though I hadn’t heard that word at the time. It didn’t have an AC or heating system, but I didn’t need one. In those first days of August, the air outside was perfect.
I enjoyed all the sounds of nature I would have enjoyed in a conventional tent, as well as most of the comforts of a cabin. And I fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing below and the many creatures of the night, unknown and unseen.
I stopped in one of the last towns to fill up on gas and get supplies–which consisted mainly of sandwich bread, two cans of tuna, some fruit and peanut butter–before starting into the mountains, into Sequoia National Park, where I’d sleep for two nights.
After getting to my campground and setting up my tent, I set out to see General Sherman, the largest tree in the world. I reached the trailhead and made my way into the grove, warm and stuffed with tourists wandering and laughing and taking pictures. I heard babies and toddlers crying and whining, and kids sprinting up and down the trail playing tag and accidentally photobombing the pictures of strangers. I continued and noticed the larger crowds gathering to snap a picture of something in the distance, still obstructed from my view, but something I knew could only be the General Sherman Tree.
It stood mightily at the center, surrounded by excited onlookers who looked like ants by comparison. It was crowded with admirers and yet it seemed strangely alone. A silent sage. A wise man who’d seen generations come and go, had witnessed all the great moments of human history from the very spot upon which it stood. I even pictured some legend of the silver screen, growing old though still appearing ageless, encountering a crowd of photographers or tourists taking their picture, but just taking it in stride like a professional. They’re no stranger to the attention, after all. They’ve seen it all before.
I understood and appreciated the truth that trees, like all other plants on earth, are living breathing organisms. And the more I looked at General Sherman, a tree more than 3,000 years old, the more I appreciated the relevance of these truths which concern all living things on the planet. The more I looked at it, the more I connected with it.
Still I felt like it was looking way past me, somewhere far beyond where I stood; and that despite its age and wisdom and experience far superior to my own, it too was still something of a lost soul searching and still unsatisfied with everything it had so far understood its purpose to be on this earth. It was the king of these mountains, but it was still subservient to a higher order it didn’t fully understand.
A soft rain fell, more like a mist than a rain. It probably only lasted a minute, but it seemed longer, as if the rain had slowed down time. In that moment the surrounding tourists vanished from sight and left the two of us alone, facing eachother.
The rays of the sun beamed in through the forest, shining down on us both, revealing the tree in all its eternal youth and ancient power, as the reclusive angel, having kept its vigil for centuries way up here in this shadowy grove, high up in the mountains.
We were pilgrims, old and young. Angel and man. Man and angel. Guardian angel, maybe. Brothers. In that moment, we were no longer separate from each other. We never had been. There I stood, once again remembering something I seemed to know long ago.
It was the first time in a long time that I’d felt this way about anything in nature. It wouldn’t be the last. Unbeknownst to me, an entire network existed, scattered far across the wilderness of America, and farther still, across the Atlantic Ocean and out to the far eastern reaches of Europe. It took the form of people I’d meet, and the many beautiful things I’d see along the way.
It was ocean and sky, woman and man, living and passed on. With them I felt connected in common cause: that each of us might reach the realization of love and respect for all living things. An understanding of our ongoing, unfailing connection to one another.
I remembered something from my early days in the church that made more sense to me now than it did before. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be. United in one breath, one beating heart.
The thought didn’t occur to me at the time, standing in the shadow of General Sherman and the mighty sequoia. It only does now, as I recall the story and wonder how it might sound to someone reading this. Truth be told, prior to this experience, I wasn’t much of an outdoors person. I liked to be outside as much as the next guy, but I’d never really camped before at all, and I’d never done much hiking beyond the typical neighborhood hikes in and around LA.
I’d never spent much time in the mountains, amongst the trees whispering at night. I’d never lay quiet, listening for melodies beside the creek in the early evening. I’d never breathed in the rush of the river beneath the new morning and the slow, rising sun.
I recently applied to a job that asked me to select the best pic of myself in the outdoors. It sounds like it could be an exciting one, a job where I’d be spending time in some of my favorite places, or one place depending on how you look at it. That is, the National Parks or in the broader sense, in nature.
To that point, I’ve come to see them less as individual places and it more as one larger whole. Our planet. I like that approach more.
It’s hard to say which picture could ever be the best, but this is the one I felt like posting–taken almost exactly four years ago.
Much has happened since then both in my life and throughout the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have gone on many adventures in the time in between. Hopefully I’m a strong sum of those experiences, as each was its own unique reminder of my connection to both land and people.
I’m not unique in that respect, since I know many who have turned to the outdoors and felt a similar way. Restored, replenished, readjusted to the point that their day-to-day ambitions either suddenly feel silly, or are just given renewed purpose in light of the bigger realization that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and their possessions.
While I can only hope it’s enough to help us recognize the importance of preserving these places—since all of us deserve to experience the land in equal measure—above all, I hope we each begin doing our part in preserving the integrity of our environment, for the health of our planet, our one true home, for our physical health, and ultimately for our sanity.
I look back on recent years and I think about people marching against gun violence, or against corporate greed on Wall Street. I think about people marching for Black lives and for our government’s full recognition of their humanity.
And I think about two weeks ago, when everyday I stepped out and saw a smoke-filled sky blotting out the sun due to devastating regional wildfires. In the back of my mind, the fire’s reach had far exceeded the limits of the west coast where I make my home. Indeed, the larger symbolism was hard to miss.
The issues of violence, racial justice, environmental justice and economic inequality are, I believe, inter-related. The dangers of climate change for example pose the most immediate threat to Black and Brown communities, a disproportionate number of which fall below the poverty line in the United States and throughout the world–a reality most clearly demonstrated in food and water shortages not just in third-world countries, but here at home.
Tackling the threat of climate change will not automatically close the gap on income inequality or accomplish comprehensive racial justice. Still you cannot adequately address problems in your house when your house is, quite literally, on fire; and truly, the fight for a healthy planet has the power to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together, likely more so than any movement we’ve ever witnessed. More to the point, it’s the understanding of our interconnectedness that will ultimately save us in virtually every domestic and global conflict we experience; and nowhere is that realization more critical than in the necessary global effort to mitigate climate change by cultivating a cleaner and more sustainable world for all people.
The act of getting outdoors, spending time in our public lands and in the broader wilderness of the world has the unique power to reinforce the fundamental reality of our interdependence and dependence on the land. It’s just one of many reasons why it’s so important they stay preserved and protected.
I often reflect on whether it will just be an ongoing battle for every generation between people committed to preserving our wilderness for the public benefit, and the people who seek to exploit the land for their own profit.
I hope that it won’t. Maybe the dual threats of climate change and a global pandemic will convince people of their stake in each other’s health and the health of our planet, and the influence will carry over through generations to come.
I only know that the need for such a realization has never been so urgent.
As for our wilderness, and it’s unmatched beauty and healing power, for now there’s little more I can say, other than to simply go, as soon as you can, and experience it for yourself.
Let’s please take care of our home. I am committed to doing my part and I hope you will join me. The Sierra Club is one of our nation’s most enduring and influential forces for environmental action and awareness. I’ve been a member for a couple years now and I urge you to consider joining and lending your support as well.
I left California a few days before the lockdown. I reached Joseph City, AZ by nightfall and parked at a Love’s Truck Station on I-40 where some industrial plant loomed about a half-mile up the road with it’s lights glowing and smoke rising high in the dark of night.
By this time, I was already considering how best to avoid getting sick, since I still had a long drive ahead of me from Arizona to Fort Lauderdale. I’d never been much of a germaphobe, but now here I was wondering how many people I’d have to dodge suddenly in a place that likely saw travelers and truck drivers come and go every day from all corners of the country.
I’d never paid much speculation to these things before, and now I felt a sting of disappointment at how much current circumstances required me having to think twice about every place I might stop, and how many people I might encounter along the way, and whether I should wash my hands again after briefly touching that door handle which might have been grabbed by who knows how many others.
Yea, it sucked.
In Los Angeles, the biggest talking point concerning the virus was the sudden disappearance of toilet paper in all the grocery stores around town. When I left, businesses still hadn’t shut down but the reality was beginning to sink in, at least for me. Maybe it had something to do with the police helicopter that had been flying over my neighborhood everyday for the past week.
Anyway, the next morning I grabbed coffee at the Love’s station. It was delicious. I liked it so much I even bought a souvenir thermos. Of all the truck stops across America, Love’s has come to be my favorite. Maybe it’s the name. Maybe it’s the logo. Or maybe I just bought the thermos as a way to settle down and lighten up.
Sure enough, during each of the four nights I was on the road, I’d stay at a Love’s Truck Station. It provided a reassuring familiarity I’d long come to appreciate over the years on the road; and now as things seemed to be getting more serious everywhere, I appreciated that familiarity even more in everything from the country music and tacky t-shirts to the coffee machines and souvenir shot glasses.
To my added satisfaction, as I set out that next morning I saw another familiar face, a National Park that I’d been meaning to visit for a few years now and that I’d bypassed every time I drove down I-40, because I hadn’t had the time or it was too late at night, or some reason or another. It was Petrified Forest National Park.
Now that it was early in the morning and I wasn’t in any particular rush to get anywhere, and probably because I needed the distraction, I decided that now was as a good a time as any to finally see what it was all about.
National Parks have always served as an escape for Americans looking to reset and decompress, an escape from the mundane, or from the stress and congestion of city life. Yet in the coming weeks, they’d receive a new influx of visitors looking to escape the coronavirus. So many, in fact, that the parks themselves would become congested.
As I read now of park officials at Grand Canyon currently submitting requests to close down as they field up to 600 visitors in a single day, visitors with whom they undoubtedly come into close contact, I think back to just two weeks ago when I arrived at Petrified Forest.
I support that request by the way, though I’ll admit, I’m happy I got to visit beforehand when everything seemed totally normal, to the point that you’d never know anything was going on in the rest of the world.
I parked at the visitor center and watched a quick film about the park and it’s indigenous history.It felt good to do something normal like that.To go in and simply look at souvenirs, or get my park stamps and grab a map like I’d typically do.The rangers were in good spirits and so were the visitors; though again, just like at the Love’s Station, I was suddenly aware of how close I stood next to everybody and felt the same sting of disappointment at the fact.
Then I left the station and set out on the road and into the park, driving alongside the cliffs overlooking the Painted Desert, an endless vista of pink and red rock leading out to the horizon.The weather was great. The sky was still a bit overcast, but the sunlight peeking through the clouds felt wonderful on my face. I could have easily stayed out there all day.
Along the way I stopped at the Painted Desert Inn and thought about all the people of decades past who’d stayed there and stood out on that same balcony to take in the view of the Arizona badlands.
The landscape did remind me of the more famous Dakota Badlands some 1,000 miles to the northeast, which I’d visited nearly two years before.Still while the shades of the green, grey and brown were the dominant colors of that region, here everything was red and pink, and so I might’ve been more inclined to think of Mars, some vast frozen tundra out in space, were it not for that glorious morning breeze and life-giving sunlight.
I closed my eyes like I’d done a million times over the last few years in places like Yellowstone and the Everglades, in New Mexico and the Swiss Alps, along the river Danube or the Mississippi, and on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.I closed my eyes and stood beneath the sun, allowing my mind to quiet with the surrounding landscape.
As difficult as things are getting lately, I’m grateful that I still have the ability to do this, where I can at least step outside my door and breathe in the air provided to us everyday.
With enough patience, I feel like I can get back to anyone of those places whenever I need.I thought a lot about this, that day at Petrified Forest, and considered the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to visit again for a while in the days and weeks to come.I opened my eyes and looked out over the Painted Desert.Indeed there was nothing petrified about it.It was in fact teeming with life.
I’d get back there soon.In the meantime, it would still be here.Living and breathing under the same sun, beneath the same stars and moon.And when I consider that, even today, it doesn’t feel too far at all. Just like every other place I know and love.