Emigrant Wilderness

My first trip to Emigrant was about a year ago. It was a good time (and a great timelapse, thanks to our certified National Geographic photographer), but as a large group heavy on amorous nascent couples we … did not exactly cover much ground.

This time we got about 12 miles before stopping at a farcically idyllic camp spot on the slabs above Upper Relief Valley. There was daylight enough to continue, but with the alternative being to, you know, frolic about in crystalline mountain springs cascading down sun-warmed rock—seriously, Babylon-on-Sierra— the climb seemed better left until morning. I went to sleep with the beginnings of a cold but still full of the usual goat-like glee at prospect of a high place, specifically:

Want!

I woke up groggy and thinking I was somehow back in Africa. Unfortunately this was because the morning smelled of woodsmoke and looked like this:

Smoke, not sunrise. Even when camping I do not care to bestir myself that early.

In all likelihood (and of course this turned out to be true) the fire was a hundred miles away. But with a long drive home, work on Monday, and no information on conditions beyond “it wasn’t like this yesterday”—plus my delicate-snowflake asthma on top of, by this point, some serious snot—to proceed seemed unwise. So back we went. Now I’m in bed, nursing yet another sinus infection along with my low-grade (really, Class 3) summit fever. Harrumph. 

So that this post isn’t exclusively weekend-warrior whine, here’s a picture of a fire engine getting towed from the ranger station:

Rescuing rescuers?

This was fascinating, first for the pneumatics and second for novelty of observing wildland firefighters (and I do love observing wildland firefighters) forced to stand around watching someone else operate machinery. And the tow drivers were, I swear, one man with the most robust, cotton-white walrus mustache the world has ever seen, and another in a t-shirt declaring, “When Nature Calls, Shoot It.” Amazing.

Bozeman

It’s dark and late and we’re somewhere over Idaho. I’m guzzling tepid coffee and taking notes from Esquire, the “How to Be a Man” issue. I mean, that’s literally what I’m doing; don’t read into it—I just want to keep trivia and the sentences I like. The last few pages are short fiction. Watch how you make a girl love you, writes Marlon James. Call her ugly but say it sweet like brandy coat you tongue.

My seatmate is a bare-faced, softball-build blonde in plaid and pigtails. The steward asks her what she’d like to drink; she jams her thumb into a battered copy of Lonesome Dove and looks up. “Beer,” she says flatly. She could huck a hay bale, for sure. The little plane is shuddering in its descent, yes, but the sensation in my bones is one of trespass.

These are Ted Turner’s bison.

Having said that, downtown Bozeman has its own co-op grocery, two bookstores, and a Tibetan gift shop. While browsing a sale rack at Cactus Records I’m offered cocaine—I think—and later, on the sidewalk, a bumper sticker that reads “Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.” A perhaps overly Critical Mass of six young gutter rats on fixies hoists a cardboard sign urging me to “reclaim the streets,” though it’s really not clear, from the sedate procession of pickups down Main Street, from whom or what.

Indian paintbrush and lupine. Right?

So in the end what’s most foreign is also familiar: water. Lush landscapes are always a marvel to me, but I’d never realized how thoroughly the Golden State has sucked the moisture from my understanding of the backcountry. Even in earshot of streams chattering over rock, I fret and whine over the topo map. “There’ll be water there, right? We can get water there, right? That creek’s still running, right?” As I begin to accept this new world—that summer here is snowmelt, not scorched earth—its possibilities expand far beyond the trailhead. We could go anywhere.

But I’ve got work on Monday, of course, plus the mountains giveth and taketh away. Giveth water, in this case, taketh, I swear, pints on pints of blood via the most tenacious, ubiquitous, malicious mosquitoes I’ve ever fled.

The most reliable metric for happiness may be the shadows of clouds.

In the last mile, we yield the trail to an older man who surveys us from atop a glassy-eyed sorrel.

“See anybody?” he asks.

“Nope.”

“Good for you!”

Ventana Wilderness

Oh, California, honestly.
Not even kidding.

“Can you eat this?” asks the Montanan, handing me a packet of freeze-dried beef and broccoli. I read the ingredient list, which is a safe bet, and then the calorie count, which is not. “Don’t worry,” he says, correctly interpreting my pained silence, “I bought two.”

Other numbers: 26 miles, 8,000 feet (!) of climbing. Cone Peak was about 5,000 feet of that; the rest was mostly the Stone Ridge Trail, a succession of progressively more maddening excursions in and out of ravines mitigated by ludicrous portraits of oaks against ocean, lupines on limestone. We shared our spot at Goat Camp with two friendly Cal Poly triathletes triathlon people, identified as such first by their bubbliness and then by their hoodies. I was probably asleep by 8 p.m. on Saturday night. Backpacking is hard, even here where the air is thick. I am not a load-bearing machine.

The next day, weaving past the loamy craters and exposed roots of upturned pines, I held the holy grail of all California partisans: snow—not much, but nonetheless—and ocean in the same view. The Montanan somewhere ahead and out of earshot I got geeky and wheezed to myself,

For there isn’t a thing
In that secondhand kingdom of Arcady
That compares with the sun or the sea
Of that gold-spangled coast
Pardon us if we boast
When we toast
Californ-i-ay!

Last note (har har) for any Googlers: the trail work here is phenomenal, even where the signage is not. So thanks, Ventana Wilderness Alliance, for allowing this delicate urban flower the coveted chance to fill a lovingly stickered Nalgene from a motherfucking waterfall, to repeatedly mistake the whuffling of wary ground-birds for angry bears—all in time for work on Monday morning. In all secular seriousness, you are doing God’s work in God’s country; God bless.