In the summer of 1995 my father died after suffering with Parkinson’s disease for a number of years. I was not saddened by his death nor did I grieve deeply; not because I did not care, rather because I knew he was out there, somewhere, unknown and uncharted.
So I decided along with LaRena, my wife, to gather together our two little ones, then eight and six years old, and explore the unknown and uncharted along the John Muir Trail from Red’s Meadow to Gladys Lake. It was a heavy snow year and Red’s Meadow did not open until August 1 that year, just a week after the death of my father.
We arrived a few days ahead of our scheduled departure for the high country to get acclimated to the elevation. We took the opportunity to do some mini day-hikes to Devil’s Postpile National Monument and to Rainbow Falls. The thing about hiking is that without realizing it, you are enveloped in a bubble of wonderment. It’s just you and the world as it was intended to be: raw, wild, full of intoxicating smells and if you are not careful, dangers that could cripple you or end your life.
But we never thought about the danger as we stood spellbound in front of the Devil’s Postpile. After spending years interpreting such sites as a Ranger, I didn’t want to know any of the details of how the formation came to be. I wasn’t interested in the geology and made no attempt to explain to my children the forces of nature that formed such a wonder. No, it was enough to stand and be inspired, to imagine, to be filled with a sense of awe.
Wildflowers were bursting out all over as if eager to get in a few licks of beauty after the domination by snow for so many months. The trail to Rainbow Falls was lined with the flowers, a path of royal color fit for a royal family’s entry into a city of beauty. In the early afternoon the light was not quite right for seeing a rainbow, but Rainbow Falls was no less spectacular than its larger cousins in Yosemite many miles to the north. Little kids have a quiet, agitated excitement when they become overwhelmed by something as mighty as a waterfall. Its a kind of fear, wonderment, and disbelief all wrapped up into a package they often carry with them for many years, like cosmic baggage. So the little ones stood silent, sending a message to their father that fills me with longing to this day.
The sense of longing reminded me of nearly forty years past, when my family migrated from Louisiana to California. I was only four years old and have no exact memory of the trip, rather vague impressions. One of which was standing weak-kneed on the rim of the Grand Canyon. It was a side trip my mother had planned and memorialized in photographs with her boxy Kodak Brownie. The camera chronicled the Murphy family’s many trips to National Parks. It also served as a capsule of my mother’s restless life that ended far too soon. To this day I am not certain if she was faithfully filling Rudyard Kipling’s unforgiving minute with sixty-seconds worth of distance run, or like Edna St. Vincent Milay, burning the candle at both ends. Which ever it may have been, the natural beauty that she saw around her led her to wander wherever the spirit led her.
So it was that early the next morning after our day hike to Rainbow Falls we started north on the John Muir Trail for our camp at Gladys Lake. We hiked a few hours ahead of our wrangler who packed our gear to the lake and set up camp for us. We forded streams swollen with water from newly melted snow; our children straddling logs to cross the streams. We trod through snow fields and over low passes, getting lost only once as I was busy reading a map instead of paying attention to the trail markers that designated an important turn of the trail up a series of switchbacks. But we only lost an hour or two and on the positive side our wrangler had the camp all set up by the time we finally arrived.
The highlight of this hike was fishing and my youngest son catching his first fish; and the only fish we caught on the entire trip. An old chief ranger had taught me how to catch fish in high Sierra lakes. So I took my son’s small spinning rod and tied a bobber at the end of the fishing line. From the bobber I strung 18 inches of leader and at the end tied on a small black mosquito fly.
It was mid morning and we were fishing Rosalee Lake, which was just over a small rock outcropping just north of Gladys Lake. My son made his first cast and as he was slowly reeling in a trout rose and took the fly. Unusually calm my son reeled in the fish and the joy and smiles never left his face for the rest of our stay at Gladys Lake.
We stayed at Gladys Lake for a week and went on many day hikes. I am not a good enough writer to relate the power and magnificence of being in the heart of wildness. What we experienced is, I suppose, embedded in the very fiber of our beings; in the change of the structure of the neurons and millions of synaptic connections in the brain. And the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, I suppose we are very different people for that experience.
Days later we wandered back down the trail meeting fellow travelers along the way. Most were on horseback, a few walked. We didn’t see any other children on the hike, which I thought was too bad. But then, I suppose most parents wouldn’t take an eight and six year old on a backcountry hike. But, we are different in that respect because we value the earth the way it is and have a joy in sharing it with our children as my mother shared with hers.
A few days later we attended my father’s funeral in Los Angeles. My father, a Baptist minister, had a traditional Baptist funeral and the preacher who eulogized Dad preached about grace. He felt my father exhibited all of the qualities inherent in a person of grace. Grace, often defined as unmerited favor from God, is what I find all around us in the natural world.
High in the Sierra, sitting besides Gladys Lake with my family batting mosquitoes and warmed by a dancing fire, we could feel the unmerited and unconditional favor from a world with wonders too deep and too mysterious to ever fully comprehend: a world that is eternal and speaks of a kind of immortality that when one attempts to hold on to it, seems to fade away only to return in unexpected moments of silence and darkness creating a feeling of homesickness for a land that is out there, somewhere; unknown and uncharted.
Categories: God and the Universe