Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Of Time and the River

I recently returned from a weekend of backpacking in Yosemite, with three true icons of my masculine consciousness - Forrest Melton, John West, and Richard "Chard" Lake. Being around large rocks and humming rivers generally causes me to reflect a little on the passage of time. As cliche as that sounds, it's worth considering every now and then. Part of it is about constancy. This is why I love rocks - the music I listened to when I was thirteen now seems nihilistic and juvenile, the girls at whose feet I worshipped when I was seventeen turned out to be kind of mean, and the Beat Generation no longer moves me in quite the same way. But El Capitan, Half Dome, and Glacier Point are still as majestic now as then. I've been coming to Yosemite for twenty years - long enough, perhaps, to put the "semite" back in Yosemite. It doesn't get any less special. As Johnny Cash once put it in "Hit The Road And Go", a song extolling travel as a panacea for heartbreak, "There's magic in the mountains/And music in the valleys down below..."

The other part, of course, is change. As I was leaving Glacier Point, one camera-pointing tourist said to her husband, "We should take a picture of you with Half Dome in the background every year, and see if you can notice any changes." At the time, I didn't think much of it. They had the look of Yosemite Valley dilettantes - the type who probably didn't venture off the paths with iron handrails. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized there was something to her idea. We measure ourselves against seemingly constant things. Of course, Half Dome and El Capitan are themselves temporary. What isn't? That is not something I will attempt to answer here. We have the rest of our lives to strive for that, whatever form we imagine it to take. Spirituality teaches us to love the eternal, the infinite, the intangible, and this is extraordinarily difficult. So we love the tiny, the vulnerable, and the temporary, and we take comfort, some of us, in the idea that something greater than ourselves shares our love. That is compassion. Courage, on the other hand, we satisfy by loving the great and terrible - mountains, oceans, deserts, things that might not be infinite, but might as well be as far as us mere mortal schleps are concerned.

William Wordsworth was probably correct when he made that crack about how the world is too much with us. I think, however, that you have to get wrapped up in the world to a certain extent. This is why I am Jewish. We might have a heaven. Details are pretty sketchy on that subject. In the meantime, we set a lot of store in government, agriculture, temple blueprints, food, and lovemaking. As for alternative views, I think of my crazy religious aunt, who dismisses most people's passions and amusements as "worldly". Sometimes, I wonder if she really tastes what she eats. If so, does she want to? Some of you would agree that a lot of us could use more spirituality and less materialism in our lives. I certainly could. I think, however, that in the complete absence of the material, the spiritual becomes meaningless. For this reason, I think that people who worship the sun, moon, and stars are closer to monotheistic piety than they are typically given credit for. They are worshipping, after all, the highest powers they know. If their God is not my own, their prayers certainly are.

Of course Yosemite is worldly, and as such temporary. The same is true of people. But without Yosemite and all its sensual glories, God has a little bit less of a resume. And without people, for all their obtuseness, God probably has a somewhat more limited audience.

* * * * * * * * *

Now that the deep thoughts are out of the way, some highlights. Although the trip featured the esprit de corps and meaningful conversations I've come to expect from such inestimable travelmates, what set this one apart was the incredible wildlife we saw in just one day on the Panorama Trail. First, a large, mature grouse strutted fearlessly over to where we had stopped by the river below Illilouette Falls, prompting Chard to ask if anyone felt like chicken for dinner. A mile later, a red-tailed hawk circled overhead, looking very much like Robinson Jeffers described him. A few hundred yards from Nevada Falls, a bobcat paused right off the trail, and the crowd of onlookers it amassed hardly seemed to make much difference. A few minutes later, a rattlesnake brooded on the steep bank above the path. In the late afternoon, whispers of a mama bear and two cubs circulated down the well-traveled route up to Half Dome, and sure enough, there they were. Finally, as the four of us came down the mountain in hastening darkness, another bear, only a silhouette, could be seen moving between the trees. Whose woods these are I think I know.

The wildlife, however, is only part of the story, notable for its richness. The people are another part, and I would be remiss if I did not pay them some tribute as well.

Mark Twain once remarked that "We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that the savage has, because we know how it is made." Forrest, with his graduate degree in earth systems, offers a moving counterpoint to Twain, who was rarely less than 100% correct. To watch Forrest on the trail is to watch reverence in action, tempered with both boyishness and age-old wisdom that belie his thirty-one years.

John, in voice and action, is the picture of steadiness. It is hard to think of John without thinking of the cable car he built to bring people and supplies across the Merced River to his cabin after floods destroyed the old bridge. Swiftly and surely, John sees it through, a modern-day Western pioneer pulling his way across the great divide, one armfull of rope at a time.

As for Chard, he is every one of the ancients rolled into one. He is a warrior, if his shoulders are any indication. He is a sage, judging by the coat of silver on his chest. He intones with the gravitas of a great tribal chief one moment, and plays on his recorder like the subtlest of tricksters the next. Here, there is no contradiction - only human wholeness.

And then there is me, your humble narrator. But I don't really have much to say on that subject. Ask one of the other guys.


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