After being asleep for over a decade, I unexpectedly woke up in the mountains yesterday. It was like a sudden and unlooked for encounter with an estranged friend or like going for a familiar walk only to have the ground give way. Standing at the stone railing of Yosemite Valley’s photogenic vista-point, memories and emotions spooled as I my eyes reacquainted themselves with a place I had not seen in years but which I had once known and hiked often. I slowly become aware of myself, the dull throbbing in my knee, the effort to draw a satisfying breath, the leaden heaviness of my limbs, the telling gray of my beard, and the wide yawning void between then and now. Surrounded by youthful energy and exuberance, I was brought up short by just how far this [old] “…hawk…” was “…from the moon.” And I realized, I wasn’t simply looking at the Valley. I was gazing into a mirror and the estranged friend I found there was not someone else; it was me.
20 years ago, I fell in love with a remarkable woman. Up to that point in my life, I had never felt so deeply. I did everything I then could to insure that the relationship might last. Alas, despite mutual best efforts, the romance ended after nearly three years. Two decades later, I understand it was necessary, but at the time, it was very hard and I foolishly wanted to know why the relationship had ended. I was too naive to understand that asking such questions—questions which have no answers or wherein even the truth is unsatisfactory—is narcissistic, indulgent, and ultimately self-destructive. Such quests are not really about looking for truth so much as they are about looking for an answer that will satisfy an unreasonable belief that it exists, a belief that could that answer be found everything would somehow make sense and the unlivable made livable.
Of course I found nothing. The human creature, however, is amazing particularly in its ability to adapt and, if unable to adapt, to create unique coping mechanisms. Unable to find satisfactory answers, I went about subconsciously creating a self whom I could understand someone wanting to leave. Unaware I gradually ceased to pursue many mutually beloved interests because associated memories were too painful. Subsequent relationships suffered and failed unknowingly haunted by those memories. Many longterm projects and cherished ambitions were unconsciously abandoned.
I’m happy to say that over time I healed, became aware of and recovered from my coma-like foolishness, and while I still remember that long ago relationship and the woman I loved, I do so now with mature fondness. It’s no longer the unseen and internal ulcer I aggravated into being. This does not mean there aren’t scars or that all the damage I did to myself simply vanished. On the contrary, consequence-driven conditions still exist and here at the vista-point over looking Yosemite Valley, I was suddenly face-to-face with one.
“We” had been avid backpackers and hikers. Sometimes by ourselves. Sometimes with a group of likeminded people or my brothers and daughters. We’d been to locations in the Carson Iceberg and Immigrant Wildernesses, Big Sur, and areas in Arizona. It was, in her words, “…our thing…”. Between our adventures, I went out alone or with my brother braving longer treks. I counted a summer as good if I spent more time in a sleeping bag that in a bed. Each summer I went for one or two weeklong solo trips leaving a brother or my mother an envelope addressed with a date and a stern admonition not to open it unless I’d not returned by the date and time indicated. “Shining times” my brothers and I called them imagining ourselves spiritual successors to Fredrick Manfred’s Hugh Glass of Lord Grizzly or Vardis Fisher’s Jeremiah Johnson of Mountain Man or any other dozen over used and romanticized wilderness icons from Daniel Boone to Grizzly Adams.
After the breakup, however, slowly, gradually, and almost without notice, I became “too busy” to hike on weekends as other responsibilities called…or were created. Backpacking would have to wait, I reasoned, until vacation or better weather, so I stored my wilderness gear promising I’d return to it sometime next weekend, next month, next season, next year. Though I did rally once, bought a new mountain-bike and rode the hills in Calaveras and Santa Cruz, that too found its way into storage. Then time sort of stretched, warped and twisted and the “next” thing I knew, I was 100 lbs heavier, years older, and staring at myself from Yosemite’s vista-point.
As the fresh mountain air filled my laboring lungs and the revelation played it self out, my eyes blurred and welled. No threat to family or life, no financial hardship, no unfeeling or over-demanding employer, and ultimately no ill-fated relationship had separated me from this—I had done it. I had made the choice, and had it not been for coming to grips with this earlier, albeit in other areas, I think this blow might have been the worst due to its unanticipated nature. As it was, however, I was able to smile ruefully to myself, albeit sadly, stoically adding the responsibility to that which already existed in my heart, and rubbing more of the sleep from my eyes.
The vista point was becoming crowded. I knew the Valley would be much, much worse. It was already bad 20 years earlier; I could only imagine it now. Our trail-master wandered over and observed how once upon a time the Valley had been filled with fire-cleared meadows and older trees when its ecosystem was less impacted.
“No people on earth love their nature more—so much so that we love it to death,” I observed and wondered to myself if we were doing more harm and than good by adding our visit’s pressure to the Valley’s overburdened and now nearly artificial and mutated ecosystem. I was struck by the thought that few of these visitors would or could understand such a perspective. I’m sure they saw their visit as a natural expression of curiosity and admiration and if confronted by the negative nature of their innocuous visit would become indignant or ignore it all together.
Ignore it—like I had ignored the abuses I’d subjected to my own personal landscape? Awareness, I thought wryly, as I re-boarded the bus that would take us into the Valley, is the first step toward change. Well, now I knew; now I was awake, and here we were about to attempt to open the eyes of a whole bus-load of teenagers who had never seen the Valley’s wonders before. Maybe too, I could finish clearing the eyes of one particular old man as well.