The story of a 30-day winter exploration through California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range in January 2021

Day 1: Auburn — Elevation 1234

benje williams
My First Winter in the Sierra
6 min readDec 1, 2022


The Sierra Nevada: the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.

I think about John Muir’s 150-year-old words, from his book My First Summer in the Sierra, as I come towards the end of a 4,000 mile journey across America, in search of the divine. In search of, in WS Merwin’s words, a bit of the earth’s surface, maybe as small as three acres, to love and protect.

Ten days after leaving New York, I am in Carson City, Nevada, approaching the state line of California, towards my humble hometown of Auburn, which lies less than a hundred miles ahead, at the feet of the Sierra Nevada.

We are in the mountains, and they are in us, Muir wrote. But I’ve spent half a lifetime in these California mountains, this Range of Light, the very best God created, without noticing. Auburn, Elev. 1,234, the green sign would reflect in the morning headlights of our school bus. “The foothills of the Sierra Nevada,” I would hear a parent say before a soccer game. “The alps of America,” the snowboarding coach announced before race day. But Auburn was just Auburn. A small town without any black people, without any shopping malls, without anything to do on a Friday night. It would never be more than that. It would never be more than a town to run away from.

It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realize what’s changed is you. These words, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, were reimagined into a movie I used to watch every year on my birthday. The sentiment moves around the backyard of my mind as the white caps of the Sierra Nevada appear in the front, rising from the horizon, haloed by the setting sun. Emotions I can’t name start climbing up my chest as I ascend the summit. And as I descend towards the lake, tears start falling down my cheek. The last time I was on this road was cycling 70 miles around Lake Tahoe with my dad on my 36th birthday. Tears were in our eyes then, too. But they weren’t from emotion, exactly, but from the sharpness of the cold morning wind as we descended down the summit, so fast that cars were left behind us.

Why should I love this place so much more than any other? Wendell Berry wrote. What could be the meaning or use of such love? What does it mean that this place is more beautiful than any other? That these pine and cedar are more magnificent? This setting sun more divine?

I don’t know how to respond to these questions. I don’t know if they are questions. And I have no idea where to look for answers. Other than the land itself. Start close in, David Whyte wrote. See what you find. See if you can discover the Sierra you’ve never known. Or that, perhaps, you’ve always known.

I spend two weeks searching, hiking over 100 miles up and down the Auburn hills, often with my dad by my side. Hidden Falls Access Trail, Foresthill Divide Loop Trail, American Canyon to Maine Bar Trail, Confluence and Clementine Trail, Olmstead Rim Trail, River Otter Trail, Poppy Trail, Robie Point Trail, Euchre Bar Trail, Steven’s Trail. We see nearly 200-year-old mining artifacts from the 19th century Gold Rush era. Fairy rings of young redwood sprouts growing in a circle around a great giant redwood that was logged in the early 20th century. Empty barrels of oil suspended above the forest floor by a thick metal chord that stretches along the river bank, apparently to prevent felled trees from washing into the man-made Auburn Coffer dam. Two black bear cubs scale up the dry bark of a ponderosa pine, as their mother looks on from the hillside behind. The bay laurel leaves send out their sharp chemical signature, a spicy eucalyptus and lavender fragrance, as my dad crunches them in between his fingers. The palm-sized California buckeye seed rests on the forest floor, investing all its energy and hope into a soft white root shooting out from its side, stretching for the soil and for its one chance of creating a life on this abundant Auburn hill.

We go on hikes my dad’s never been on, even though he’s lived here for almost 30 years. Hikes that I never knew existed, though I’ve lived here more than I’ve lived anywhere else. I go on hikes alone that he’s been on dozens, maybe hundreds of times. I listen to Steinbeck’s stories of the land: Clumps of California live oaks standing like perpetual senates ruling over the Salinas Valley. Mountains so full of loveliness that you want to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. Lennie and George, in Of Mice and Men, who were both born in the foothills of Auburn.

I read Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, The Mountains of California, Our National Parks, and his biography, A Passion for Nature. I highlight pages in my Forests of California field atlas, which is over 600 pages thick. I listen to dinner stories about my parents’ honeymoon hiking adventures across the Pacific West, the time my grandpa third-wheeled their camping trip in the Rockies and his solo fishing expeditions to Alaska, the reason they first decided to move to Auburn and what they discovered when they arrived here.

But at the end of the two weeks, I still don’t have answers. Or I don’t have the answer.

Here’s one thing I have learned, from my parents, from the highlighted pages, and maybe from the land itself: that although we may begin to understand a thing — a place, a person, ourselves — it is when we explore the history around that thing, all that has come before and all that still surrounds it, that our understanding grows into knowing.

Which is what I need to do, I realize, sitting at my morning table outside, with the sun warming my back and the birds singing in the black oak above. I need to understand the Sierra Nevada that surrounds Auburn. That surrounds our family. That surrounds me.

One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem as I start packing. As I hug my dad tight. Kiss my mom and little sister on the cheek. Pack my car with my sleeping bag and my parents’ tent. Place Muir and Steinbeck, WS Merwin and Wendell Berry carefully in my backpack. And drive away from our home in Auburn. Elevation 1234. To explore the history that lies ahead and behind. The forests that stand above and below. The mountains that tower above and maybe grow within. The range of light that shines across the great Sierra Nevada and all that that light might reveal.



benje williams
My First Winter in the Sierra

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || nature novel in progress || recent writing at