No man ever followed his genius ’till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no-one can say the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality … The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden




At a fantastic place in downtown Los Angeles called The Last Bookstore, amongst some lively blocks of Mexican cafeterias, little shops piled with electronics and Latinos shouting to buy gold, I recently came across  a copy of Jon Krauker’s Into the Wild. Chances are you’ve heard of Sean Penn’s  movie of the same name. As the author describes the young Chris McCandless’ adventuring and pursuit of a deliberate, true existence away from the distractions of modern society the question seems to be – mad idealist or mystic? The motivations behind McCandless’ disappearance and his adopted lifestyle are pursued with a lot more depth than in the movie, and the whole thing is full of some really inspiring quotes and ideas. Heartily recommended for anyone of a wandering disposition.

I was on the look out for the book as it had just been recommended to me by my travelling buddy of 10 days, Peter McClean. We’d just finished our own, albeit miniature escape from society into the  Sierra Nevada and the Owens Valley, California. With the help of a rental car we named Victoria I was finally able to make it out and see something of that fabled wilderness which had so far been a little out of reach on this American tramp. I’m sorry to say that where Chris McCandless’ took a mere 10 pounds of rice into the Alaskan backcountry for his long exile, Peter and I were a little more indulgent. We crammed our standard-issue bear canisters with all the good stuff: garlic, bottle of olive oil, honey, peanut butter, a selection of veg including bean sprouts, oats, ramen noodles, tomato paste, chilis, cinammon … the list goes on. Not the kit-list of renunciates, but we managed to cook some very tasty meals up there on the hills.

After securing some wilderness passes in Yosemite Village, we embarked on a four-day hike from Wawona, in the south-west part of Yosemite National Park. Our trail took us up a steep gorge to the Chilanaula falls, from where we crested ridges to set up camp at Crescent Lake, as a base to explore the area, and push on with only day packs to the higher Royal Arch and Buena Vista lakes. After encountering a few hikers descending from the falls on the first day, we didn’t see another person for the next three. Whilst I was definitely glad to have a companion up there in those deep and endless pine groves, the eerie stillness of hidden mountain lions and black bears, that absence of more humanity was lovely. As we climbed steadily the landscape was full of surprises; one moment we strode through wet evergreen woods marked with the wreckage of recent snow-fall, the next the hard crust of that snow as it lingered around icy streams. Imposing, ancient granite walls became visible through the trees, and then we were upon their smooth humpbacks  as squirrels chattered and fled. The higher lakes were majestic in their own, very different ways: Royal Arch with it’s seclusion, tucked underneath the immense specter of a curving granite hill, impossibly slashed with erosion and wedges of blackened rock. Buena Vista with it’s majestic cliffs, covered in snow and riven with small caves, while the idyllic pine-fringes below stood in colourful groves beside the crystal of the water. As Peter said, plugging one of our frequent dumstruck moments: “it’s like one of those deodorant ads”.

After that first adventure, there were more to come. More flirtations with the great freedom of the American expanses, and more lessons in the peculiar geography of this part of world. We drove west and out of the park through the Tioga pass, where the mountains are craggier and higher, and an old mining road cuts precariously down one side of a gorge whose volcanic grey is dotted with pines, yellow aspens and golden-coloured thickets of grass. Even here, the change from the alpine depths of Yosemite is marked, but a mere 12 miles further on the sierra suddenly gives way to the desert. At the little motel strip of Lee Vining, I found myself looking back east over a waning salt lake and a dry expanse of scrub. That night, we camped on a little ridge of sagebrush on the edge of a huge shining flat, where coyotes wailed as we slept. This tract of land outside of the ski town of Mammoth Lakes belongs to the Bureau for Land Management, in effect meaning that people are free to come and camp there for up to 28 days. We spotted a few little shelters on the plains, and met some of our neighbours when we went for a night-time soak in the nearby hot springs. There was a regular BLM dweller rolling joints, throwing out a lethargic commentary of the economic crisis. There was an Irish born San Fransiscan with memories of the Summer of Love and his two nephews (some mechanics from, of all places, Guildford). There was a diehard ‘spring chaser from San Diego, trailing round after different hot pools in her little Mini. How strange, I thought, these midnight encounters of disembodied voices over the steam, party-goers sipping Buds, everybody naked, looking up at the huge needle-pricked sky and the fuzz of the Milky Way rolling over itself.

Our journey went on to Bishop and Lone Pine, the White and Inyo mountains to the East squeezing the valley into a narrow band. The Sierra Nevada was getting higher, inaccesable with it’s snow-covered ribbon of spikes. Down in the arid bottom, along a dirt track we saw a number of rocky bluffs with petroglyphs: strange motifs and pattern carved into the rock. Venturing into that other, eastern range we could look down on the edge of the Great Basin, and see those bare, soot-like ribs of land stretching almost all the way to Death Valley. Another kind of desert. The mountains themselves had a completely different character from the ones we had just left: lonelier, tougher even though not as high. As the Sierra Nevada takes the majority of the rainfall from Pacific storms, this is a pretty dry place. Up there, wedged in the dolomite are the stiff coils and bony fingers of Bristelcone Pine trees. With an estimated age of between 4000 and 5000 years old, they’re the oldest trees in the world. Perseverance embodied, with their incredible contortions and layering of dead and growing sections.