Off The Trail - Shifting Ground

The mountains are down on the ground, washed from their customary serene height by a rampaging enemy, water.

Fifteen feet above the rutted road, mud as thick as a two-story building looms above the big red truck, dwarfing it.

Embedded in the thick, grey mud, whole trees, big trees-—junipers and Jeffrey and white pine and pinyon—tangle and twist in their death throes; Pompeii in the Sierra.

The sun beats down on the ground, blasting the flash-flood ravaged creek bed with heat. It’s the last week of May and it’s 93 degrees at this 7,000-feet elevation creek crossing.

Across the road, a thick clump of magenta-crimson penstemons swing and sway in the hot breeze.

I’ve never seen them before in the Eastern Sierra and neither has my sister, who is with me today. With 44 combined years of living here—much of it spent tramping these hills and meadows and mountains—that’s saying something.

The whole spring has been like this in fact; an endless litany of “firsts”; first 500-year flash flood like this one on Bair’s Creek below us, the first tangerine-gold of a desert mariposa lily scattered like tongues of fire on top of a pass where it should be too cold to survive, the first 93-degree day in the last week of May, the first alien cheat grass carpeting the mountain slopes, (carrying wildfire in a way never seen in the Sierra before), the first sight of the Southern Sierra yesterday from Sherman Peak; as dry and grey and dead as late August.

There is simply no snow up there, none. It’s impossible to imagine what will happen this summer when the lakes, starved from a complete lack of snow, simply drop below their outlets and the creeks and the fish and willows and birds depending on the creeks dry up.

If it doesn’t rain, though, imaginable or not, that’s what will follow the driest and hottest year on record, which in turn was preceded by two more hot drought years.

We tumble back into the truck and turn on the air conditioner and grind our way out of the gouged-out creek bed, headed for higher and cooler air.

When we top out at the parking lot for the Kearsarge Pass trail at 9,000-feet elevation, though, it’s not much relief. The flowers and grasses on the ground say it’s August, although the sky says May.

I wish I believed it was just an epic drought and an unusually hot day, something that happens in this state and this world occasionally, something that comes and goes, but eventually—always—goes.

But the ground is shifting beneath me and most of what I used to rely on—the flowers and birds and clouds and light in its proper and balanced place—is no longer a given.

 It’s been like that at every road and trail and meadow and mountain summit now for the past seven or eight years and in my bones I am beginning to know this is just the beginning.