Owens Valley Part 3: Kings Canyon National Park
Updated: Aug 9, 2018
This leg of the journey was added relatively last minute. I knew there were some wildfires brewing at various points in the Sierras so I came up with a few contingency plans, and while researching that I noticed something on the map that I hadn’t before: a trail from the Onion Valley going through the Kearsarge Pass, and into Kings Canyon National Park from the east. It hadn't occurred to me that King's Canyon was accessible from the east, the official entrance being from the west. Furthermore this trailhead, more than any other, was actually closer to the East Vidette, a beautiful mountain reminiscent of the Paramount Pictures logo and at the very top of my Kings Canyon to-do list. Thus it was added rather hastily into the itinerary without quite as much research as would have been prudent, an omen for the mistakes to come.
After descending from my viewing ridge in the Union Wash area of the Inyo Mountains, I proceed to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to get my permit and rent a bear canister. In the facility resides an enormous, gorgeous 3-D topographical model of the entire Sierras and beyond, from LA to Vegas to Sacramento. The brilliantly blue Lake Tahoe is perched in the northern mountains, a deep scar in the earth at Death Valley, and the mighty wall that is the Sierras on their eastern flank. I look for a rift infiltrating this mountainous barricade (i.e. the Kearsarge Pass), though nothing really sticks out to me as being a passable entry into the mountains [*FORESHADOWING*]. Hmmmm…I’m in a bit of hurry to get a move on my day so don’t think much of it. I’m sure if I studied it a bit more it would be obvious.
I also look up the origin of the name “Kearsarge,” which strikes me as being somehow 'not from around here.' Apparently, the nearby Alabama Hills were named by Confederate sympathizers after the CSS Alabama, a warship in the Confederate Navy. In response, Unionists named the Kearsarge Pass, Kearsarge Pinnacles, Kearsarge Peak, Kearsarge Lakes, and Kearsarge mine after the USS Kearsarge, the Union warship that sank the CSS Alabama. Touché.
Thankful that I’m driving on a road with real pavement, I make my way into the Onion Valley to the Kearsarge Pass trailhead. This is my first legit backpacking adventure! The past two days in Death Valley and the Inyo mountains were just a quick couple hours hike up, sleep, couple hours hike down, a warmup really. This time I'll be carrying my meals, cooking, filtering water from streams, the whole nine yards! After going through my packing list about seven hundred times, turning back twice to grab before I even make it out of the parking lot, I’m on my way. The goal is to climb the pass and reach Charlotte Lake by the first day, then on the second do a quick hike up Mt. Bago and return to the car.
I start hiking at about 11:00 am and it quickly becomes not easy. I have to take breaks often and it occurs to me that I have no idea what elevation I’m at. I check my map…10,000 feet!? That’s 1,000 ft higher than where I had to turn around on Telescope! And I’m not even that far into the trail – what about the pass??? 11,670 feet?! Aw Jesus, gross. That’s not what I was expecting when hearing the word “pass.” No wonder I couldn’t find the damn thing on the topographic model! I’m way up there, and the going is slow, but I’m not feeling lightheaded or weak just yet, so I keep going.
The people I meet are noticeably different. Many of them are on a resupplying run while on the John Muir Trail, a 211-mile hike from Yosemite to Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park. About an equal number of them are on the Pacific Crest Trail, a monumental, 2,659 mile odyssey-of-a-lifetime from the US-Mexico border to the US-Canada border, through the Sierras and Cascades. These trails don’t have tourists so much as outdoorsmen/women. When I tell them it’s my first time, some coo with encouragement as if I’m a toddler wobbling through my first steps (an admittedly apt metaphor). Others give me a “oh…”, as if they were expecting, based on how tired I looked, that I was on my fifth circumference around the globe.
A few miles into the trail, the switchbacks begin and it’s quite steep. I can definitely feel the extra pounds of the meals, canister, and stove. My pace slows down to that of a local glacier as the air gets thinner and thinner. To many of the hikers I must have been a peculiar sight: the pinwheel sticking out of my pack is a-spinning, and I’m sporting a bright pink bandana with a pink camo military-style cap. My interactions with other hikers become more brief. They inevitably ask me some variation of “how’s it going?” to which I inevitably reply with some variation of “well, this bitch ain’t dead yet, so onward ever upward I go!” Reactions ranged from a hearty chortle from the hot Latino guys with the sleeve tattoos to looks of judgmental bewilderment from grandma, who at 70 years old, is speeding past me, brandishing her trekking poles with the strength and grace of a kung fu master. One such woman had the audacity where my poles were, to which I replied that I had a lovely walking stick a few days ago, but it broke [true], and I was considering getting poles, but you just can’t ward off a Balrog with trekking poles [also true]. More bewilderment.
The further up I go, the more I notice how rugged the terrain is; much moreso than anything I’ve seen in Yosemite. If Yosemite were a 23-year-old Italian underwear model with perfect hair, flawless skin, lean muscles as if sculpted by Michaelangelo, and eyes that tempt with the folly of youth; Kings Canyon would be his older brother, 36, a little scruffier, a little thicker, a little taller, with muscles sculpted by manual labor and cerulean-blue eyes that pierce into the depths of your soul [if the latter describes you, DM me plz - thx]. The rugged terrain aside even, Kings Canyon has just one, relatively short, dead-end road in the entire park. You won’t find any hotels or Starbucks or amenities upon amenities like in Yosemite. All but a tiny percentage of the park is untamed wilderness, virtually the same as it has been for centuries. The reason King's Canyon isn't as well known as Yosemite isn't because it's less beautiful, it's because it takes work.
My mind preoccupied with my own misery, I’m totally unprepared for the view at the top of the pass when I finally get there. An enormous valley, with the Kearsarge Pinnacles like daggers ripping into the sky, and purple mountain majesties higher yet in the distance. A string of velvet blue lakes occupy the bottom of the basin, which extends into the horizon. I’m totally, absolutely dumbfounded.
After taking it all in for a bit, I put on the last movement of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis (click to listen) as a reward. The movement is a march, but Hindemith is no John Phillip Sousa. It’s a march with a more modern feel to it, albeit Hindemith at his most palatable. No sooner does the music begin that I’m back on my feet, marching exultantly down the mountain as if I were just injected with a shot of adrenaline to each buttcheek – look at me go! The piece alternates between a strange ominousness in the woodwinds and victorious triumph in the brass. Toward the end of the piece is a moment where the French horns have an upward chromatic scale that make you feel like you’re being goosed, in a way that’s exhilarating, even if a bit alarming.
By the end of the piece I now have the energy of that 10-year-old kid who sprinted past me a few miles back (his miserable-looking sister trailing behind, and bringing up the rear was poor ol’ dad, carrying supplies for three). Of course, the fact that it’s downhill certainly doesn’t hurt either. Luckily however, the trail isn’t so downhill that it takes me into the forest with obscured views. The trail instead becomes a ledge on the side of the mountain, and opposite the valley is an opening in the ridge where it finally comes into view, the prize of my journey: the magnificent East Vidette.
With Bullfrog Lake directly below me and the Vidette on the other side of the next valley over, I take a picture in the style of The Wanderer, a famous oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich from 1818 that is considered one of the masterpieces of Romanticism in art. In it the wanderer stands upon a rocky outcropping, looking out onto a vast foggy landscape. His stance on the rock implies dominance over his terrain, yet he is simultaneously dwarfed by his surroundings. So too am I proud of my accomplishment, yet an insignificant speck in comparison the resplendent mountains. By not having done much research, my expectations of this park were somewhat nonexistent. Not that I had low expectations, I just hadn’t really had time to formulate any. This is all way more stunning than I had ever imagined.
The trail eventually sinks into the valley and I finally arrive at Charlotte Lake. It’s a beautiful lake, with tomorrow’s goal, Mt. Bago, on the opposite side. I take a quick dip, my first bath of any kind in four days, and prepare my first freeze-dried meal. Having lived in Cincinnati for 5 years, I just had to try the Cincinnati-style chili, which seems like a rather niche meal for a backpacking food company. It’s not bad, not great, as I figured all freeze-dried food would be (it's still better than Goldstar, somehow!). I finish the meal, take my bear canister a short distance away, and head to the tent. I am comforted by the fact that if any bear were to come near my tent, it would be struck like a lightning bolt with the rancid terror that are my farts. I fall asleep wondering if that’s an intended feature of the chili.
I get up at 5:00 and start preparing for my trek up Mt. Bago. This was under the recommendation of a friend who claimed an ‘encyclopedic knowledge of Sequoia and Kings Canyon.’ He assured me that Mt. Bago is really just a walk up to the top. “After you cross the stream, if you look carefully there’s a way that really only requires walking. A mile as the crow flies, a mile and a half as the Marko hikes!” he told me. Considering I’m still a beginner, it sounds like my kind of mountain! Based on that description I pack rather light as to not be weighed down: water, a granola bar, first aid kit, that’s about it. I go to the western edge of the lake and easily cross the stream: so far so good. I don’t see a walking path per se, but it doesn’t start out to hard, something between a walk and an easy scramble. So I keep going. It soon however becomes very steep, and at a certain point it becomes a class III scramble. As much as I love a good scramble, these eggs are no good. I have enough upper body strength and coordination to be a decent climber, but I can’t say I have any real rock climbing experience on actual rocks. Not like this. In hindsight it probably wasn't so bad, but the fact that I wasn't expecting it was really throwing me off. I also forget that some things are much easier to climb up than down and I’ve gone beyond that point by now. My best bet is to keep going up, and hopefully from the top this “walking route” will be obvious. Plus I do want to get to the top of course - it doesn't seem too far at this point [WRONG]. Higher and higher I go, and I realize that I don’t have my satellite phone with me. I was expecting a walk, and it didn’t even occur to me to bring it. If I get stuck here, I’m fucked. Fuckity, fuck, fuck, FUCK am I an idiot! The sun is getting stronger (no sunscreen), the wind is picking up, the elevation has exceeded 11,000 feet, the mosquitoes are out, and lingering farts from last night’s chili are becoming less and less trustworthy; but I power on. What choice do I have?
I laboriously bumble my way up to the peak, whew. But what’s this? There’s another peak right next to me, a burnt reddish-orange color, that’s a good bit taller. Behind that is yet another peak that’s even taller than that! And I don’t see any walking route back down. Luckily my map of the area is still in my pocket from yesterday. After a long hard look, it dawns on me why I don’t see a walking path…WRONG FUCKING MOUNTAIN. Or at least, wrong peak. The actual peak is the one that’s behind the red peak. To get to the that, I have to get around the red peak. The right side of Red Peak is a rocky vertical face…that’s not happening. To the left is mostly dirt and small pebbles, with few larger rocks for stability. I decide to take this route, despite the risk of rolling down the hillside. Once I get to the other side of the red peak, it’s a relatively pleasant walk to the top of that, as well as a not-so-bad scramble to the top of Mt. Bago. Victory! At 11,870 feet, this is the highest elevation I’ve ever been in my life!
The view from the top of Bago is sensational! At this point I’m looking across the actual Kings Canyon of Kings Canyon National Park toward both the East and West Videttes as well as numerous other mountains, valleys, rock domes, lakes, rivers, forests, etc. Inspired by San Francisco Opera’s recent production of The Ring of the Niebelung, I have a special piece just for the occasion: “The Ride of the Valkyries,” by Richard Wagner! It’s a piece that the average Joe is familiar with thanks to its wide use in films and old cartoons, but listening to it at the summit of a ~12,000 foot mountain, surrounded by the some of the world’s most stunning scenery, is a completely different experience. The string trills and rips in the woodwinds are like the wind whipping across the mountaintop, in preparation for the mighty brass, playing a melody I heard just about every day during music school in Cincinnati as it echoed through the courtyard. I felt as if at any moment, Brünhilde would descend from the clouds on her winged steed and we’d ride off the save the world from the greed of power-hungry men (or at least sing about it)! A greater thrill in my life I have ne’er experienced than listening to that piece on that mountain. I find a small metal canister with a little notebook in a plastic bag, the register. It dates back to the 2012 and has notes and signatures from previous mountaineers. The most recent entry, from about a week prior, reads, “YAAAS KWEEN!” Apparently I’m still in San Francisco. For my own part, I write, so that all who climb Mt. Bago know, “Nina Bonina should have been Blac Chyna [In season 9, episode 5, of RuPaul’s Drag Race]. xoxo, Marko”.
Now for the way back down. Little did I know how quickly my triumph would turn to terror.
By this time, I’m exceedingly hungry. A packet of oatmeal and a granola bar are enough for a morning in the office, but definitely not for climbing a mountain (#newbiemistakes). I don’t exactly have the time and energy to lead a surveying expedition of the entire mountain to find a way down, so I do the best I can with the views I have plus my map. I study the map carefully, on which Mt. Bago is barely at all (example of aforementioned lack of preparation). The walking path is presumably the least steep side of the mountain, which is down the back…that would mean going around the entire ridge however, which is definitely not the 1.5 that he mentioned. Furthermore that would take me off my map, which is risky. Another side of the mountain is a rocky cliff, not gonna happen. Another side is that way up to the red peak, mostly dirt and small pebbles… I clearly picture myself tumbling down like an errant snowman abdomen, gaining speed for 1,500 feet before colliding with whatever is at the bottom. Both of these last two routes are also kind of down the back, necessitating a circuitous route back to the lake. The only cold, hard fact I had about this elusive “walking route” was that I had to cross the stream to get there from the bottom, meaning it’s somewhere on the face of the mountain. I definitely can’t get down the same way I came up, but maybe it’s somewhere around there? I do a compromise between climbing down the face and the least steep side down the back: walking kind of gradually down the mountain, but not far from the top of the ridge. Anxiety is rapidly creeping in as thunderclouds rumble in the distance. I go over to the ridge to check it out, and it’s much worse than I expected, it’s a fucking cliff. No way am I going down that! At that elevation and starving, I’m robbed of my sense, and my inner saboteur is quick to take the reigns. Here I am on the top of this god-forsaken mountain, miles from anyone, no satellite phone, no food, limited water, no sunscreen. I could die here and no one would even know for days! It’s a feeling that rips into the core of your spirit and is one that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, being confronted with your own mortality. I’m only 29 years old, I’m not fucking ready to die! In hindsight, I know that everything would turn out fine and that I would make it down ok. In hindsight, there was nothing beyond my physical capabilities, and I probably wasn’t in mortal danger. In hindsight, it was all more of a mental battle with myself than a with the mountain. At the time though, that doesn't matter. At the time, I DON’T know that everything will turn out fine. I DON’T know that I won’t perish on this mountain, starving and alone. I yell for help. Nothing. Again. Nothing. A third time. Nothing.
At this point I’m basically having a panic attack and am just going, don’t care where, don’t care how, I just go. This side of the mountain has gnarled trees bursting forth from the rock, so progress is slow and aimless despite my hurry. The thunderstorms draw ever nearer. I can’t keep going this way anymore, toward the thunderclouds and around the ridge; I’ll get caught in the storm long before I make any significant progress down and the last thing I need is to be climbing down slippery rocks. Plus I just don’t have the energy to go that many miles around. I go back to the ridge to check out the other side again. I have to go down the face, there are no other options. I check my phone to see if the emergency calling function works without reception. Nope. I remember that I have my first aid kit, and I check to see if it has anything of use. A whistle and a compass. I’m not lost per se, so the compass isn’t especially helpful, but a whistle could be useful. I whistle three times indicating a distress call, as per the directions. Nothing.
I start my descent down the mountain, shaking from hunger. Not having sufficiently locked my phone, my pockets buttonmash until it starts playing Edvard Grieg’s The Death of Ase, probably the most morbid, funereal dirge ever written. NOT THE TIME, PHONE, JESUS! The climb down… isn’t as bad as it could be, all things considered; better than if I had gone down the way I came up. In other circumstances, this might even be fun, but in the present it was far from it. It’s late enough in morning now that the sun is on full blast, and I can feel my skin burn. Nevertheless, down I go, one step at a time, rock by rock, tree by tree. A few scrapes here, a few scratches there, but it’s going. “You’re doing great, Marko,” I tell myself weakly, rallying as much self-confidence as I can muster. After almost an hour of this, I’m finally at about the bottom. Thank. Fucking. God.
However, I’m not out of the woods just yet. In fact, I’m now in the woods, still a couple miles from camp. The bottom of the valley is a thick forest with a stream down the middle. I run out of water as I approach the stream. I don’t have any filtration system with me, but I hardly care at this point. If that means getting giardia a week before Dore, so be it. I’m still starving, and progress is slow. Somewhere around here is a trail, but I can't find it for the life of me. I figure that the stream is taking the path of least resistance down this valley, so if I go along the stream, I would be taking the path of least resistance up to the lake with regard to elevation. Naturally, before long, I slip on a wet rock. In order to prevent myself from falling into the stream, I grab on to a nearby branch which swings me around, necessitating I grab another branch which gives me a few nice, long scratches down my wrist. The sudden expenditure of energy required to do all of this and hoist myself back to terra firma is too much. I collapse onto a nearby boulder in exhaustion. “What the HELL am I doing here in the middle of the goddamn forest on this goddman mountain by goddman myself without my goddman sat phone?” I wallowed, utterly weak and out of breath.
I then have a totally random memory from when I was in the Blue Lake International Youth Symphony, several years ago. “THIS SYMPHONY IS ABOUT THE UNCONQUERABLE PERSEVERENCE OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT!” declared the conductor, Fritz Stansell, in reference to Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. The unconquerable perseverance of the human spirit. I didn’t listen to Shostakovich’s 5th symphony at that moment, because the first 45 minutes of the work is the world shitting on Shostakovich with all its might, while not until the last 5 minutes does it get to the unconquerable perseverance part. I probably would’ve died of despair by the third movement had I listened to it there and then. It does give me an idea, however. A tool yet unutilized - a nuclear option, if you will.
I get out my phone and put together a playlist of the following: “Survivor” with Beyoncé, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, “Fighter” by Christina, and “Stronger” by Britney, on repeat. By the time it gets to the chorus of Survivor I’m back on my feet again, staggering desperately through the forest. Trip on a rock? ‘I’m a survivor.’ Scraped by a branch? ‘I’m not gon’ give up.’ Step into a marsh? ‘I will survive.’ Trample the daisies? ‘Keep on survivin.’ With the combined power of this quartet of fabulous divas, I stumble my way back to camp, bruised, battered, bleeding, sunburnt, starving, and exhausted.
My first priority is food. After devouring the rest of my dried mango, and really pretty much all of the snacks I have, I start making another freeze-dried meal. As I’m digging into my beef stroganoff (also a source of substantial flatulence the rest of the day, for those keeping track), an old fisherman approaches me, striking up a conversation. I tell him my tales of woe, and he says this, “Look at that mountain. Look at what you’ve accomplished. The things you’ve done and seen today, most people in the world will never even come close to doing. Think about that instead.”
I move my tent to the shelter of a nearby tree in preparation for the oncoming thunderstorms. The thunder, echoing off the mountain faces throughout the entire valley, is louder than I’d ever heard. Brünhilde causing trouble in Valhalla again, surely. Werk! After a few hours of relaxing and processing everything that happened, I emerge from my tent. A double rainbow.
No, wait! Upon closer inspection, the bottom rainbow is actually, not one, not two, but three rainbows on top of each other (there’s a gay threesome joke somewhere in there). Wow! Four rainbows, in one view! It’s then that I know that everything is going to be ok (…and that Nina Bonina indeed should have been Blac Chyna).
Having had time settle down from the day’s excitement, I feel much better, if still shaken, and am thankful that I’m alive and all in one piece. After all, for a brief shining moment, I even forgot how much I hate dating in San Francisco, which was one of the primary goals of the trip. There’s no way I could get back to the car today though. Luckily I packed extra meals, contact lenses, and socks in case something like this would happen (I do have intermittent strokes of prudence after all, if few and far between). I decide that I have the wherewithal to go at least some of the way back though – maybe I could watch the sun set and rise onto the East Vidette. I pack up and go about a mile or so to exactly such a spot: off the trail a little way and at a cliff with an overlook onto the mountain that’s figuratively to die for.
I put on an oldie but a goodie, the second movement of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, nicknamed “From the New World.” The famous Czech composer was tapped to lead the National Conservatory of Music in New York City in 1892, as there were apparently no qualified American candidates (American classical music was still in its infancy at the time). In his three years there he was especially taken with African American spirituals and Native American culture. When he was commissioned to write a symphony to help forge a sense of American musical identity, high society of 1890s New York probably wasn’t expecting inspiration to be drawn from ‘Negroes and Indians,’ as they were referred to at the time. Dvořák wrote:
“I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”
Whodda thunk that a fuddy-duddy, old, Czech composer like Dvořák would predict jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and the numerous other musical contributions of black America in the 20thcentury? The sentiment is especially pertinent this year, Kendrick Lamar having won the Pulitzer Prize in Music, a prize never been given to a hip-hop artist before (and even then only having been given to a non-classical musician once, in 1997 to Winton Marsalis). Probably about time, if you ask me.
Dvořák’s 9thsymphony is his best-known work, a record of it having been on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The second movement in particular is iconic and undoubtedly the most widely recognizable thing he ever wrote. While it doesn’t borrow from African American spirituals directly, it similarly uses a pentatonic scale and has a sincere, down-to-earth tune, reminiscent of songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The piece opens with a series of soft, slow chords in the brass, cathedral-like in their subdued grandeur. They give way to a melody by the English horn, the most famous solo ever written for the instrument, that has an aching nostalgia to it, brimming with emotions that are simultaneously simple yet complex. As the English horn sings on, the mountains take on a soft amber glow, which slowly disappears as the setting sun bids farewell to the sapphire sky.
If there are lessons to be learned from today, they are the following:
1. Due your due diligence with regard to research
2. Especially when taking hiking suggestions from randos on Grindr
3. No matter how nice their pecs are
4. Always bring your satellite phone/gps beacon, food, sunscreen, water, filter; wherever you go
The next morning, whilst preparing my pumpkin spice oatmeal like the basic bitch I am, I suddenly hear a low buzzing from an insect that sounds even bigger than the tarantula-eating wasp from Wildrose Peak two days ago (Read Part 1). An ambush! My heart nearly leaps out of my chest as my body jolts into preparation for the oncoming battle. Before long, coming into view is…a friendly hummingbird. Whew! False alarm.
This morning’s concert features a new addition to my list of sunrise pieces, Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. The piece tracks a day through the Alps, starting with the sunrise, and ending with twilight. It begins with an inscrutable cluster chord in the strings that acts as a canvas for the low brasses and bassoons, which have various musical gestures, many of which are too low and murky to fully comprehend. This figuration slowly rises in pitch and soon we hear a series of horn calls, reminiscent of a hunting party. Just as the sun peeks out from behind the distant Kearsarge Pass, lighting up the East Vidette, so do these horn calls coalesce into a glorious A major chord that washes over me and envelopes me as does the radiance of the rising sun. From this chord come soaring melodies in the trumpets and violins, with all of the lavish richness of sound that Strauss is most known for. Multiple times throughout this hour-long symphony I experience this type of paralyzing euphoria. This is why I travel alone. This is the reason I wake up at 5 am every morning. This is why I’m on this trip. To feel something other than pain (it had been a rough couple months, personally). I wished more than anything to have had a giant speaker to blast this music throughout the entire canyon, so that all could be brought to tears by the magnificence of Strauss’s music.
After the symphony I go down to the creek to fill up my water, and after ascending the steep trail back to my tent, I’m already hungry again…great. While I do have enough meals for an extra half-day, I don’t have enough snacks per se. Anyone who has gone backpacking knows that snacking is essential. At this point I have one meal and one cliff bar left. Well…there goes the cliff bar. Between there and Kearsarge Pass, there’s only one place to refill water, a small stream currently occupied by a boy scout troop of about 15 or so middle school-aged boys. All they fucking talk about is the copious amounts of pizza they’re going to eat at Pizza Factory later that day. If I wasn’t hungry before, I sure as hell am now. Damn boy scouts and their pizza.
After a short while on the trail I run into a middle-aged man who engages in small talk like most people. He then asks me, somewhat out of the blue, “Can I have your spoon?” “What?” I ask, caught off guard by his request. “I lost my spoon earlier today and I still have several days ahead of me. If you’re on your way out, I’d really appreciate if I could have your spoon.” I think of the iguana librarian of Death Valley (read Part 1), the fisherman sage from Charlotte Lake, and everyone else who’s offered bits of wisdom and words of encouragement. “Sure, it sounds like you need it more than I do,” I say, as I dig my pack for it.
A few minutes later it occurs to me that the only food I have left is my one meal, which I’m now basically unable to eat, because I don’t have a goddamn spoon. Just swell.
The part of the trail that I was exuberantly marching down two days ago to the tune of Symphonic Metamorphosis I’m now going back up, and it’s H.A.R.D. Even though I’ve done something equally strenuous the past two days, I’m hungry, haven’t slept particularly well any of the past five nights, and my muscles are just plain-old exhausted (sending emails day in and day out isn’t exactly the best conditioning for this type of thing)
“The unconquerable perseverance of the human spirit.”
My mortality no longer under perceived threat, I decide to finally put on Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Shostakovich was a one of many tortured souls in the history of classical music, a 20th century Russian composer who had a fraught relationship with Stalin and the regime, oscillating between pawn and pariah, always fearing for his life. The first movement starts with an oppressive melody in the low strings that’s mimicked by the high strings. The entire movement has a kind of strenuous angst to it like only an obsessively depressed musician from Soviet Russia can deliver. The second movement is a more upbeat scherzo that walks the line between the whimsical and deranged, at times sounding like some kind of possessed music box in a strange dream. The third movement, the slow movement, is my favorite. It speaks of a loneliness and forlornness that I am all too familiar with, growing up gay in the non-urban Midwest to a traditional immigrant family from Eastern Europe. Totally devoid of brass, it features heartrending solos in the flute, clarinet, and oboe, and builds up to an absolutely gut-wrenching climax driven wholly by the strings. Shostakovich must have read Rimsky-Korsakov’s book (read Part 2). Hearing Shostakovich pour out the struggle of his soul as I pant my way up the switchbacks is enormously cathartic. The fourth movement comes seemingly out of nowhere and starts as a terrifying death march from the brass, tumultuous and careening out of control. A slightly more subdued middle section gives way to the final buildup of this monumental symphony. After 45 minutes of turbulence, misery, isolation, torment and turmoil, we finally get to the unconquerable perseverance: a grueling yet heroic ending not of a brave adventurer slaying a dragon in a far off land, but the heroism of a simple man overcoming the internal anguish of his inner demons. I reach this climax just as I approach the top of the pass, with the brilliant valley before me and a light sprinkle cleansing my face. It must have been some combination of the views, the music, and just everything that has happened in the last three days; this moment was in many ways the emotional apex of the trip. There I am at the pass, overwhelmed, watery-eyed, bent over, dry-heaving and convulsing. It’s Friday now, and there are about 15 other hikers/backpackers at the pass, probably wondering what’s wrong with the guy in the pink camo hat. Whatever, I’m having my moment.
It’s amazing how much less taxing hiking is when you have gravity on your side. The light rain persists, and my left knee is rebelling from overuse as I proceed down the mountain. Doesn’t matter though, it’s all downhill from here, as they say. I pass quite a few hikers who were in my shoes two days ago, trudging up the trail, and I give them the words of encouragement that I too received on my way up; including one Italian couple for whom I do my best with Italian musical terms. “Difficile ma staccato. Adagio, adagio.” I tell them, hoping that, that makes any sense whatsoever. Probably not. One older gentlemen is going up to resupply his son and his buddies on the John Muir trail, lugging a six pack of beer up the mountain. “A six pack of beer?! Ohhhhh bitch, he better be glad that you’re his dad and not me,” I tell him. “I’d have shot that idea down faster than John Wayne after a line of coke. Essentials only, assholes!” He laughed and continued his trek. Poor ol’ dad, what a champ.
I finally, finally, finally get back to the car and like a Republican congressman in an out-of-state bathhouse I inhale a sausage that’s probably on its last legs of palatability after sitting in a cooler in a metal bear box for three days in the sun. It is done. I am safe. I made it. My journey into Kings Canyon National Park is one that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I think about how much the music I’ve listened to has been an integral part of my trip, and how it will ever be associated with trials and tribulations of this adventure. Any politician or administrator who has cut music programs in this country has clearly never been stranded on top of a mountain with little else but a few playlists.
I drive down the road back into the Owens Valley and let my family know that I am in fact, still alive. They ask how things are going, and I don’t know how to even begin to address that question. I send a few pictures, to which they respond, “That is incredible, so glad to see you having a great time!” A great time, ha! That’s certainly one way to put it! I was having the time of life, some which I hope is never, ever repeated, but the time of my life it was.
I get back down to the town of Bishop, California, roiling in the summer heat, where I purchase a spoon, take a shower, do laundry, and just relax and recuperate for an evening. The next day, the plan is to hike White Mountain, the third tallest mountain in California at 14,252 feet, and the site of 5,000 year old trees, the oldest on Earth. I’m reassured by the fact that it is supposedly one of the least difficult 14ers (mountains over 14k feet), however nevertheless it would be in many ways more physically strenuous than anything I had done in King’s Canyon. It’s the final boss of my trip.
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