The True High Country

In the afternoon of the second day, the trail finally led us to Two Creeks Meadow. It was an oblong bowl where a pair of small canyons joined, and snowmelt dribbled out of each of them to meander through the lush grass. The grass was dotted with little flowers at this time of year. Gray rocky walls hemmed it in, but the sun was still high enough that it flooded the bowl and glittered on the mildly-moving water of the conjoined trickles. My buddy pointed at the rivulet, which you could cross with one step. “That becomes the stream we parked next to at the trailhead. We’ll be drinking that in town in about three weeks.”

Beyond the canyon walls rose high, bare slopes that faded into the sky even up here, where the air was impossibly clear. Because of how they rounded away from us, we couldn’t see the peaks. You could never see the peak of a mountain you were walking on anyway, at least not here in the Sierras. Once in a while, if you were patient, strong, and lucky, you would suddenly find yourself standing on a dusty level no bigger than a shed, with the whole jumbled world at your feet. At least on the easy peaks that you could reach by trail. I’d been on a couple before, looking down past jagged gray rock to the treeline far below, and well beyond that to the flat desert, with a road and a railroad track barely visible through the haze. Two Creeks Meadow was as far as we were going on this trip. Conquest wasn’t on the agenda.

We found a flat place that had already been trampled by earlier visitors and pitched our tents. The sun would sink behind one of the surrounding ridges soon, but for now everything was bright. There was even a pair of butterflies wobbling around each other over a mound of flowers by the creek. “You’re right,” I told my buddy. “It was worth two days of walking to get up here.”

He sighed wearily. “Yeah. It’s just too bad that’s everything good is so far off. In the old days, something like this would have been around the corner.”

“In the old days, we would have been walking behind some stinking mule, plowing up everything like this that we could find. If it were easy to find it would be gone already.”

He snorted heavily and scratched his beard. “Sad truth, that. Let’s eat.”

We started a fire and nestled the aluminum frying pan over it on some stones. We’d hauled along a can of Spaghetti-Os and a can of baked beans for a ceremonial dinner. Together we intoned the formula: “I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff if I’m willing to carry it.” We divided it into two plates and wolfed it down. A slug of whisky in tin shotglasses was our dessert. The shadow of the ridge crept over us while we ate and drank. The sky was still blue overhead, but the breeze had vanished, and it was actually a little warmer than when we had arrived. That wouldn’t last. Nights in the high country were cold in every season. You had to accept it.

As we slouched cross-legged on the ground after rinsing the pan and plates, the sound of the creek became louder. “Funny about that,” I said.

“We just weren’t listening before,” my buddy answered.

“That’s funny too. How you have to pay attention to paying attention.”

He snorted again. “Is that Buddhism talking, or just the booze?”

I was trying to think of a good answer when I noticed footsteps. A burly old man with a white beard tramped up the trail we had arrived on. The beard was trim and full, not a mountain-man beard. He was carrying an old pack though. The path through the meadow brought him right to us. “Afternoon,” he said. “Mind if I take a breather here?”

We nodded, and he let the pack slide to the ground and sat himself beside it.

I said, “You must have started right after we did. I’m surprised we didn’t see you at last night’s camp.”

The old man adjusted the brim of his battered felt hat. “Started this morning about four.”

“This morning?,” my buddy said. “That’s a hell of a hike. We took two days.”

“That’s the better way,” the old man said. “If you’ve got the time.”

“You must be beat.”

“Not too bad. I’ve done this a lot.”

“Well, you’re here. Welcome to Two Creeks!” My buddy lifted his own hat with a flourish.

“I’m here,” the old man said. “But I’m not there.”

“Not where?”

“Condor Flat.” He nodded, barely moving the hat brim. ‘That’s where I’m headed.”

Condor Flat was the last camping spot before the climber’s route to the peak. I’d heard of it but had never been there. Folks who had been there said it had nothing to recommend it but a dribble of icemelt you could drink. It was just rock. Nothing green there. Just rock and sky.

My buddy raised an eyebrow. “Pardon my saying so, but there’s no way you’ll get there before dark.”

“I know it,” the old man said. “I’ve found it enough times in the light that I can find it in the darkness. There’s a moon tonight anyways.”

“I wouldn’t do it,” my buddy said. “I hate setting up camp in the dark.”

“I don’t mind it anymore,” the old man said. His eyes looked past us from under the hat brim. “I don’t have much time. And I love the true high country. Up there where’s there’s nothing but you and the universe.”

“Stay with us tonight. You won’t have to fuss with a tent when you can’t see.”

“I don’t have a tent,” he said. He got up, touched his hat brim, and shouldered the pack again. He left us as the last sun vanished from the rocks.