Return to Condor Flat

It was the first time we had been to Two Creeks Meadow since the old man had passed through on his way to die. Of course we hadn’t known he would die at the time. He was just a strong old man, white-bearded and burly, on a hike up into the high country. The true high country, beyond the treeline. Our goal that trip had been Two Creeks Meadow itself, where twin rivulets dribbled out of the rock canyons above us and joined in the grassy flat. There were still pine trees around it, though it’s pretty high up. It’s a place you go to when you need to learn to love life again. It had worked for us. The old man had been indifferent to it.

Chris and I didn’t know he had died till after we had come back down the mountain. He hadn’t been found till days later, and then it made the news. It wasn’t hard to figure out it was the old man we had seen who had died. There was only one Condor Flat in the southern Sierras that we knew of. It was “our” old man who had died there. Since we were the last people who had spoken with him, we felt possessive of him and of his death. We had waited two years to go back to the mountain. This time, Chris said, we would push on to Condor Flat. I agreed. We needed to know what he had been looking for up there. Besides dissolution. When we thought back on how he had spoken to us, we realized that he knew he was going to die.

I hadn’t cut my hair since it had happened. In the business I work in no one would notice anyway, so it wasn’t a grand gesture. It was a sort of mourning for the old man, whose name I couldn’t even remember without digging up the newspaper clipping. Chris, my hiking buddy, hadn’t changed his look. But he didn’t feel the same. You can’t feel the same after being part of something like that, even if only by circumstance. Chris would scratch his beard and say, “Why would you go up to a place like that to die? A place where you feel the most alive?”

“Maybe that’s why,” I said. But it was no real answer, and we both knew it. So we went up to Two Creeks Meadow, breathed in the sweet hard air, and slept deep that night. The old man had climbed from the trailhead to Condor Flat in one day, pushing hard. We were of a softer generation; we staged at Two Creeks Meadow, with a fancy tent. The old man had mentioned that he didn’t have a tent. Traveling light on his one-way trip. In the morning we fried corncakes over a miniature stove. There was butter in a tube, the kind that could stay fresh for a week. We had brought little versions of the city with us. I felt self-conscious about it though there was no one else there to see, and if there had been they wouldn’t have cared. The newspaper had said the old man had had almost nothing in his pack. Some trail mix, water jugs, blankets. He had been lying naked on top of the blankets when a trail crew found him. He hadn’t been dead too long. His face was quiet and his eyes were open. He had died of the cold. Even in the summer it’s cold at that altitude in the nighttime. Everyone who goes up there knows that. The old man had mentioned to us that he’d been there before, so he had to know.

We left the tent at Two Creeks Meadow, but we took our sleeping bags. We had no desire to follow the old man all the way. No one would bother the tent. The trail beyond Two Creeks Meadow was steep and sometimes hard to follow, but I remembered it from a solo hike long before. Back then Condor Flat had just been a place to sit for a moment and catch my breath. Beautiful, but everywhere up there is beautiful. We left late in the day, and arrived at Condor Flat just at dusk. It’s nothing but a wide spot on the trail, not much bigger than a garden shed. The sun had just fallen behind the lower mountains to the west, filling the gulf below with shadows under a clear red sky. A cold-handed breeze touched my face. The earth spun away from the sun; the darkness of the universe rushed in, made even darker by the useless glints of the stars. We ate a little, I don’t know what. When the night stretched from horizon to horizon and the Milky Way made a mocking twist of light across the black sky, we rolled out the sleeping bags and lay down. Aside from a low rise of stone behind us, and the mountain barely visible somewhere in the dark north, we had only the sky above us. The sky, so full of the fire of stars yet so dark, so deeply dark. I felt as if the ground were turning gently under me. The sky kept ratcheting around, till I would blink and bring it back. I couldn’t stop the illusion, and started to feel dizzy….

When I woke up, the sky was growing light and I was alone. There was a note under a rock nearby. Chris had written, “Sorry, I can’t stay here. The moon’s up, so I’m going back to the tent.”

I looked around. Light flooded into the canyons below Condor Flat as the sun rose behind me. They were empty, utterly and completely empty bare gray rock. Only stone, light, and air. I felt like I was flying though I was just sitting on the hard cold ground. I’d never seen anything finer in my life. What the old man knew was coming, and would never see.