Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet (4421 meters) the highest point in the contiguous United States.
My father’s work brought my family to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in the summer of 1960, and we were to remain there in Tulare County for twelve years. Even in those more peaceful and far less populated days, the fogs and smogs that get trapped in the great Central Valley occasionally obscured our view of the mountain peaks themselves, but on crystal clear mornings they were like Switzerland: sparkling white in golden sunlight against a backdrop of purest deep blue sky. Though my parents were great for camping expeditions even into the higher elevations below the tree line, where we would spend weekends or a week at a time among the lodgepole pines and giant sequoias, we were not mountaineers, and I would often gaze up from the valley floor and wonder what was happening up there on Mt. Whitney and its sister and brother summits, what plants grew, what birds soared, what animals called it home. I was interested in the lower slopes and foothills too, and though the treacherous mountain switchback roads often made me ill, I always came away from the heights alternately enchanted and pleasurably mystified by the lofty realms among which we had so recently sojourned. I wanted to know more.
I have since come across writers who have satisfied my curiosity somewhat, though they have in various ways also enticed it still more. The great Scottish-born American naturalist John Muir (1838-1914) composed very finely written essays on the Sierra Nevada mountains which rise so abruptly above where we lived. I think especially of the eighteen essays, published between 1875 and 1882 in various magazines, which appeared collected in book form in 1894 as ‘The Mountains of California’. They cover a wide range of topics: ‘A Near View of the High Sierra’, ‘The Glacier Lakes’, ‘The Glacier Meadows’, ‘The Douglas Squirrel’, ‘A Wind-Storm in the Forests’, ‘Sierra Thunder-Storms’, are among the chapter titles. By far the best, however, and it is really quite an astonishing piece of writing, is ‘The Water-Ouzel’, about a small bird which delights to frolic among the spraying waters and burbling courses and pools of mountain streams and springs. It was another writer’s most enthusiastic reference to this particular essay, in fact, which led me to ‘The Mountains of California’ in the first place. ‘The Water-Ouzel’ is really where anyone should start when beginning to explore the mountains of California. The little bird, and the vivid details of his habitat which Muir describes, are portrayed with such sympathy and charm that, once read, the essay may well stay with you forever. It’s a piece of writing which deserves to be far better known.
Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) wrote neither about the highest mountain peaks nor about the western slopes of the Sierras, but about the lower eastern slopes and the broad arid expanse which stretches from the Sierra foothills near her home in Independence, California to the Mojave Desert to the south. ‘The Land of Little Rain’, first published in 1903, describes the Owens Valley where she lived, along with the adjacent small valleys and lower desert slopes. The book takes its title from the fact that the area east of the Sierra Nevada gets only small amounts of precipitation, the clouds being habitually stopped by the mountains in their easterly course as they are carried by the prevailing winds from the sea. Like Muir, Austin has entrancing chapter titles: ‘Water Trails of the Ceriso’, ‘The Mesa Trail’, ‘Nurslings of the Sky’, ‘The Little Town of the Grape Vines’. I’ve always felt that the first lines of books can tell you a lot about the quality of the writing to follow, and Mary Austin begins this book in a grand style which captures you from the beginning: ‘East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders. Ute, Paiute, Mojave and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go.’ Last time I read this book I underlined (digitally, on Kindle) each passage I loved. Followed sequentially, they seem to me like so many lines of finest poetry.
If you look up toward Mt. Whitney from Independence and Lone Pine, near where Mary Austin lived, you will also see the Alabama Hills, named during the American Civil War by miners in the area who were sympathetic to the Confederate cause and who named many of their mining claims after the Confederate ship CSS Alabama, later sunk by the North off the coast of Normandy. If this area looks familiar to you, there’s probably a good reason for that: the Alabama Hills have been used as a backdrop during the filming of dozens of western films for many decades. Just look for any film starring Randolph Scott: you are almost sure to see the Alabama Hills and snow-covered Mt. Whitney rising up from behind him as he so confidently and smilingly rides his horse. You’ll want to go there at once.
When I view these films, so many of them made during my childhood, I wonder what exactly I was doing on the other side of the mountains even as the cameras ran. Because it was precisely during those years that I gazed up at Mt. Whitney from the west and wondered what lived there, and what lay beyond. And it was then that I camped up and down the Sierras, among the lakes and forests, the giant sequoias and wildflower-bedecked alpine meadows, with my siblings and enthusiastic young parents. I was charmed then, but am far more so today. Time to go back to John Muir and Mary Austin, I think. Just as quickly as I can. They’re not bad traveling companions at all.