First, a word on Fresno and the Central Valley:
The Central Valley of California is a combination of a genetically-modified breadbasket (engineered farmland crops subsisting against most natural odds on a diet of herbicides and insecticides in an arid rain shadow) and a suburban twilight zone (towns which resemble nuclear bomb test site towns, complete with jejune buildings and eerie inhabitants as motionless as broken mannequins). One such suburban area is Fresno – a sprawling concrete monstrosity visible from space in the form of a human skull and comprised of metastasizing strip malls, elliptical highways, and tract housing developments where half a million people reside in a slow death. Their official town motto is: “Fresno, where dreams come to die.” Their unofficial motto is: “Fresno: good people, even better meth.” After casting multiple insults toward this town and its inhabitants, my car broke down on the way out. I spent three days in Fresno and can attest that almost everyone I came across there was a kinder person than I. Thanks for your help, guys, as well as all the meth.
The Rae Lakes Loop and Kings Canyon National Park
Welcome to the planet Earth – a place of blue nitrogen skies, oceans of liquid water, cool forests and soft meadows, a world positively rippling with life. In the cosmic perspective it is, as I have said, poignantly beautiful and rare. But it is also, for the moment, unique. In all our journeying through space and time, it is, so far, the only world on which we know with certainty that the matter of the cosmos has become alive and aware.
-Carl Sagan, Cosmos
You, by being this organism, call into being this whole universe of light and color and hardness and heaviness and everything, you see? But in the mythology that we’ve sold ourselves on during the end of the nineteenth century, when people discovered how big the universe was, and that we live on a little planet in a solar system on the edge of a galaxy, which is a minor galaxy, everybody thought, “Aaaauhhhhh, we’re really unimportant after all. God isn’t there, doesn’t love us. Nature doesn’t give a damn.” And we put ourselves down, you see? But actually, it’s this little funny microbe, tiny thing, crawling on this little planet that’s way out somewhere, who has the ingenuity, by nature of this magnificent organic structure, to evoke the whole universe out of what would otherwise be mere quanta. There’s jazz going on. But you see, this little ingenious organism is not merely some stranger in this. This little organism on this little planet is what the whole show is growing there, and so realizing its own presence.
-Alan Watts, What it is to See, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series.
The spider was a symbol of man in miniature. The wheel of the web brought the analogy home clearly. Man, too, lies at the heart of a web, a web extending through the starry reaches of sidereal space, as well as backward into the dark realm of prehistory. His great eye upon Mount Palomar looks into a distance of millions of light-years, his radio ear hears the whisper of even more remote galaxies, he peers through the electron microscope upon the minute particles of his own being. It is a web no creature of earth has ever spun before. Like the orb spider, man lies at the heart of it, listening. Knowledge has given him the memory of earth’s history beyond the time of his emergence. Like the spider’s claw, a part of him touches a world he will never enter in the flesh. Even now, one can see him reaching forward into time with new machines, computing, analyzing, until elements of the shadowy future will also compose part of the invisible web he fingers…What is it we are part of that we do not see, as the spider was not gifted to discern my face, or my little probe into her world?
-Loren Eiseley, The Hidden Teacher
Humanity as a whole cannot risk slipping into a mind-numbing lethargy, like dim-witted monkeys on a space cruise, fondling each other’s dingalings and playing patty cake while this star-crossed planet crashes and burns.
-Aaron Dames, The Rae Lakes Loop and Kings Canyon National Park
Heading east from Fresno, the distant Sierra Nevada mountain range rises up from the haze and bleak farmland of the Central Valley like a mirage spread across the horizon. Route 180 siphons into Kings Canyon in a gradual incline, climbing 6,000 feet through the hills and mountains and away from civilization. Left behind are the scorched bottomlands which recede under a blanket of dust, and the world ahead brims with life. Evergreen forests flourish upon the mountain slopes, home to giant sequoia groves which harbor some of the largest living organisms on Earth. Giant sequoias trees are as massive as 27-story buildings and can live upwards of 3,000 years; their bark is impervious to termite infestations and can withstand extreme centigrades of fire. (In 1943, the German army invading California attempted to destroy a giant sequoia by firing an explosive shell from a Panzer tank at it, but the American tree merely shook and then dropped a massive branch which landed on and destroyed the Nazi tank.) From the panoramic peaks on the western edge of the Sierras, the Kings Canyon scenic byway transcends chaparral summits and then plunges beneath yucca-strewn cliffs to run beside the Kings River at the base of the canyon before arriving at Road’s End, a starting point for the Rae Lakes Loop hike.
The Rae Lakes Loop is a forty-six mile hike through a breathtaking (due to the high altitude and difficultly level) section of the lower Sierras. From the bottom of the canyon, the trail cuts switchbacks up pine forests in a steep ascent along roaring creeks and waterfalls. Even after a year of scare rain the mountain rivers rush at incredible speeds and volumes, rapidly pumping through cavernous chutes, churning in emerald pools, and pouring off cliffs in a seemingly endless torrent. (One wonders how severe of a drought would be have to take place before the major creeks and rivers of the Sierra Nevada mountain range were to run dry.) The trail runs along the vertex of the canyon as the walls of the towering escarpment curve and spread apart like silver wings forming the crests of a vast and shimmering glacial valley. The valley is home to mountain lions, elk, and wolverines, none of which I saw, and it is here that self-professed log cabin republican and closet pyromaniac, Smokey the Bear, was caught by federal authorities to be growing pot and cooking meth with Scruff McGruff, the former crime dog turned drug addict. Prevailing above the autumnal meadows are granite domes and stone citadels which cast great shadows across the valley as though it were a massive sun dial. As darkness falls, the satellites traversing the night can been seen soaring 200 miles overhead, and the space beyond is littered with a multitude of stars, many comprising the nebulous band of the Milky Way, our home galaxy which contains upwards of 500 billion stars and from which an estimated 500 billion other galaxies are visible.
The trail from Paradise Valley to Rae Lakes transitions from fertile forests to an elevated plane of exposed subalpine woodland where weathered foxtail pine stand bare and disparate upon the shale slopes like skeletal dinosaurs, stoic and petrified, their gigantic fallen branches lying electrocuted and baked upon the rocks like prehistoric reptile tails. Jagged peaks and leaning spires grace the pale crowns of the overhead mountains, the result of a hundred million years of geologic evolution and eons of cosmic forces having pulled together infinite minerals and particles once dispersed throughout God-knows where in the galaxy. In Earth the universe has created a living machine with a reactor core as hot as the sun, and upon the magneto heart surging magma turns planetary gears of metal which grind and scrape against the crust above, thus splitting the continents and shaping the mountains in absolute tectonic perfection. These forces of inner-Earth are natural and theoretically calculable; their clockwork operations are indifferent to, yet in all likelihood dependent on, the beautiful array of life flourishing upon the surface of the planet, above the raging crucible that lies within.
The Rae Lakes are accessible only by foot or pack animal (I did pass a hiker wearing a bulky multi-cam helmet, collecting image data for Google Trails), and that is the way it should be. It is conceivable that things could have turned out differently. That the logging which started in the late 1800s might have persisted without resistance from men like John Muir, and that instead of hiking to Rae Lakes to sleep beneath the stars, hoards of people would be driving to Kings Canyon casinos and ski resorts, drinking bottled water from a nearby Nestlé bottling plant, and watching the World Series on a jumbotron installed on the face of a cliff. The forests of Kings Canyon could have easily followed in the footsteps of the original old-growth coast redwoods, ninety-six percent of which have been logged. Although the Sierras are now largely protected, the American citizenry must remain vigilant and wary of those profit-driven and insane entities that would see the natural world be deforested, mined, and sucked dry of its resources. Humanity as a whole cannot risk slipping into a mind-numbing lethargy, like dim-witted monkeys on a space cruise, fondling each other’s dingalings and playing patty cake while this star-crossed planet crashes and burns. It is our responsibility to work together in order to protect and defend this world, for it has given us so much, and if it dies, we will have nowhere else to go.