Tuesday, October 26, 2010

California streaming

I'm consistently amazed by the almost metaphysical transition of a mundane plane ride. There's something strangely enticing about entering a small metal cylinder that essentially serves as a sensory deprivation chamber, sipping a tiny cup of Diet Coke and reading a guilty pleasure magazine like Outside while the world disappears below me, and emerging hours later in another place entirely. Car and bicycle travel just doesn't have the same sudden impact. I find myself stepping out of the airport and grappling to take in the rush of new sensations — the warm moist air, the rich urban smells, the city lights stretching over the horizon. I'm in awe. How did I get here?

I flew out to California this weekend to visit Beat. I landed in San Jose, which is not really the kind of city I ever envisioned as a destination, but that's just part of the surprising way life works out sometimes. Beat took me to see his place of employment, which is the world headquarters of Google. I work at the world headquarters of Adventure Cycling — about two dozen employees housed in a former Christian Science church with historic bicycles mounted on the walls. Google is a jaw-dropping contrast to that — a vast manicured campus where many thousands of employees from all over the world zip around on tiny primary-color bicycles, eat frozen yogurt from on-site soft-serve machines and gather in sprawling cafeterias. The weather was California perfect when we visited. The lawns were too green to be real. There were outdoor tables made out of cruiser bikes and 12-foot-tall statues of donuts. I stumbled as I tried to take it all in. How did I get here?

Before all that, we traveled to Yosemite National Park. Our planned early start Saturday morning turned into a very late start, and it was well into Saturday afternoon by the time we wended through the Sierra foothills into the fog-shrouded Yosemite Valley. We didn't really have a plan for what we would do when we got there, but we did have a campsite reserved near the Yosemite Village. We followed a stream of cars into a parking lot and fought wandering crowds of people to find the visitor center. We looked at maps but didn't find any solid ideas. The weather was dreary. I found myself feeling more and more distressed. I was crammed into a crowded national park without a plan. How did I get here?

Beat sensed my distress and was also uncomfortable with the atmosphere of Yosemite — although necessary, national park infrastructure just feels so contrived. Gift stores amid towering cliffs are a part of my culture, and well ingrained in my childhood recollections — but that doesn't change the scar they seem to carve into places so beautiful they defy memory. We walked into the wilderness office and requested a backcountry permit. They made us pick a region so we arbitrarily pointed out the John Muir Trail on the map. We returned to the car and organized our gear. I stuffed the backpack that has long since become mainly airport luggage with everything I hoped would make us comfortable — my minus-40-degree sleeping bag, tent, pad, tons of warm and dry clothing, food, lights, water. Beat's pack had even more weight, with a bear-proof food canister and stove. We hoisted our packs and he immediately breathed out a few words of distress.

Try to convince an ultrarunner that backpacking is a good idea, when they know that they can just leave the crap at home, run all through the night and cover 10 times the distance as a waddling backpacker. It's not easy. "We're not going hiking, we're going camping," I reasoned as we passed the overstuffed campground where we had planned to spend the night. The rain started just as we began to make our way up the smooth paved trail. The weight of my pack pressed down like an oppressive hand. Hoards of people returning from their day hikes regarded us with a mixture of pity and derision. "Where are you guys going this late in the day?" "You do realize it's going to rain tonight." "What will you do about bears?" We were happy to see the pavement end.

We climbed into the fog and growing twilight. Darkness descended, and beams of light from our headlamps revealed the swirling mist and thick, chunky precipitation that fell somewhere between rain and snow. After about four hours, we had walked about 11 miles and climbed 4,200 feet. Beat found this to be a pitiably small distance, but we agreed that since the point of the excursion was camping, it was a good time to camp. I set up my tent and unrolled my Arctic bag next to his 40-degree ultralight bag (I referred to them as Mama Marmot and Mini Marmot.) We hoped the combination of the two would somehow carry us through the wet cold night. The rain fell harder. We wandered down canyon until we found water, then fired up the stove to add moisture to a couple packets of freeze-dried food. We found the expired meals were too bitter to choke down very easily, so for dinner we ate a mixture of energy bars and Haribo candies. We forgot to bring tea or instant coffee, so for a hot drink I melted a Snickers Bar in a cup of water. We sipped the sweet drink with its soft boiled peanuts, savoring it like it was the best cappuccino from the fanciest cafe in all of San Francisco. There's something to be said about the virtue of camping — it does make all the simple things matter.

It rained all through the night. Sometimes it rained very hard, and sometimes so softly it almost sounded like snow. The temperature was in the mid-30s at best, and we had a very difficult time motivating to hoist ourselves out of the Arctic gear and into the damp morning. Any inclinations we had to press deeper into the wilderness disintegrated with the passing hours. We finally rousted in the late morning to deal with damp everything — damp tent, damp shoes, damp (more like drenched) packs, damp energy bars for breakfast. I rung out my shirt before stuffing it in my pack rather than endure the pain of putting it on my body. "Sorry I forgot to warn you how much camping sucks," I apologized to Beat. "Next time, I promise, we can run all through the night." He just laughed.

We waddled a few miles down the trail to an intersection for a high point called Cloud's Rest. We dropped the packs and the oppressive hand finally released its grip. We comparatively flew up the trail through a chilling curtain of wind-driven rain. Sometimes, the swirling clouds would shift just enough to reveal our spectacular surroundings — sheer granite walls and the shrouded monolith of the Half Dome. I'd never been to Yosemite before, and the slivers of clarity were a startling reminder of the grandeur that existed just beyond my own ghostly world. How did I get here?

We rose into the clouds and climbed onto the appropriately named peak, elevation 9,930 feet — about 3,000 feet higher than the point where we dropped our packs. Wind blew the rain sideways and we were both drenched through and frozen, with nothing to see beyond the thick gray mass surrounding us. "This is all worth it because we have the entire place to ourselves," Beat said, and I grinned because I agreed. I appreciate spectacular scenery and the adventure of the outdoors and am glad that plenty of other people do, too. At the same time, the experiences I value even more are the ones that pull me just a little bit farther, closer to the edges of the unknown, closer to the margins of my own personal boundaries, closer to others who not only feel the same way I do, but imagine the same things as we gaze into the invisible distance.

On the way back, we saw a benign-looking sign pointing out the junction of the Mist Trail, which we took mainly because it was 1.5 miles shorter than the trail we were on. The trail tumbled down a rock fall alongside a spectacularly sheer waterfall, swollen and streaked with brown hues from the runoff. The veil of water seemed to engulf us fully, until even the rain was little more than a memory from above. We worked our way down Nevada Falls and stood on the edge of Vernal Falls — both places only a couple of miles from the main trailhead, probably visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year, but in the cold October rain we were nearly the only people on the Mist Trail, lost in the mystical beauty of a world so far from our own.

In a way, it really doesn't matter where your wilderness exists. What matters is where it takes you, to those quiet and contemplative places where the deep past and distant future collide, and where two people with remarkably different environments and backgrounds can find startling quantities of common ground. My trip to California was short but provided me with a lot of insight into myself and my own values, what matters, and what I have yet to discover. When I look back on a weekend that passed through my life like a streaming cloud, I can only smile and reflect. How did I get here?