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

Day 22: Isabella — The anchor of the Sierra

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

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We shall not cease exploring. And the end of all our exploration will be to arrive at the place where we started and know the place for the for first time.

The poet’s words flow through my left headphone as I drive along the right lane. 42 miles per hour, the speedometer reads. Total trip: 5,200 miles. Total time: 140 hours. Distance to Lake Isabella: 42 miles.

Growing up, Lake Isabella was our escape from the Auburn mundane. It was the place where we first felt the air rush through our hair in the back of the boat, where the dark water went from morning glass to afternoon rapids, where the jack rabbits were sometimes as plentiful as the mobile homes, where we would shoot BBs into sand-filled Coke cans and trip over crab apple trees that were protecting the capture-the-flag base, where we would eat burritos on the wooden patio carpeted in hard astroturf and sleep inside the parked boat underneath a galaxy of stars. Sacred, fleeting, individual moments of undefiled summer happiness. Isolated. Never a part of a bigger whole. Never, in our mind, a part of the Sierra Nevada. Or the national forest. Or the Kern River Watershed. Or, really, anything else. It was just Lake Isabella.

Now, nearly two decades have passed. And the brown USFS sign says I’ve just entered Sequoia National Forest. And Lake Isabella is only 33 miles away. And the Forest Service website says the lake is the southernmost part of their proclamation boundary. And the map on my phone shows it at the very end of the mountain range. The anchor of the Sierra. Or the starting block.

I pull off the side of the road. I’m as high up on the pass as I can go. The snow is powdered across the pine and fir branches stretching above me. The sun is dripping through the canopy, spotlighting a breeze of wind that’s twirling the snow back to life. Back up to the heavens. The morning curtain is now fully lifted from the horizon, revealing a blue background beaming its daily delights. Underneath the sky, and between the trees, I can see a corner of the lake, miles in the distance, reflecting in the noon sun, surrounded by generations of white capped peaks.

Was it always national forest? I text my parents, shaking my head in disbelief. They don’t know. And they’ll text Uncle Mitch, but he might take a while to respond. And the Kern Valley Forest Service office is closed. And the phone goes to answering machine. And the Shell gas station attendee can’t remember. And the two guys buying tobacco in the market aren’t sure. And the neighbor fixing his fence has lived there for 15 years and never noticed. And even the internet, of all the places, can’t seem to find the answer.

Finally someone picks up the phone. “1990,” the woman on the other end says, without offering any more details. As if the question is ancient history. Or as if she somehow knows I need time to process this small piece of enormous information.

In 1990 I was six. Which means that the Isabella I’ve always known has always been a part of the National Forest. “The dam and reservoir were made in the 50s, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” she continues. The Isabella I’ve known, she’s saying, has always been a part of the Kern Watershed. It has always been part of the Sierra Nevada.

Still in disbelief, I hang up the phone and drive toward the lakeshore, to get a closer look. I’m not using GPS, but instinctively move toward the piece of the lake that was ours. “Ours” not because we owned it, or because we were the only people who ever used it, although many days we were. But ours because we loved it. And because it seemed to love us. Sand castle competitions and skipping stone contests, PBJ lunches and red vine desserts, sea-doo excursions and wakeboarding wipeouts.

But as I pull into the turnoff, I slowly realize what I’ve been subconsciously expecting all along: our piece of the lake is gone. There is only sandstone. A boat launch with weeds poking through the cement cracks. Tire tracks stretched across an alien brown basin.

Finally, I see the reflection of the dark water, around the corner and hundreds of feet below where it used to be. A shadow of its former self. Punctured by dead trees, themselves remnants of the forest that existed 80 years ago, now breaking their way through the lake’s solemn surface.

“Drought has been really bad,” the woman on the phone had said, when I mentioned that the water seemed low, even looking at it from the road. And each year, growing up, our tent seemed to move lightly down the beach; we would have to reverse the truck a little further to unhitch the boat; my uncles would say that the water seemed a little lower. But it was never like this.

“And the summer algae,” I had started to ask the ranger, but then lost heart half way. Maybe I already knew the answer. It had just started showing up back then, 20 years ago. A patch here. A section there. But I never imagined what it would become, what it would grow in to. And I never imagined it had anything to do with the rising temperatures. The lowering water levels. The disappearing habitat. Just like I had never realized the lake was apart of the National Forest, the Sierra Nevada, the Kern River watershed.

How come mom and dad never told us? I want to text my sister. About Isabella. About the National Forest. About the Sierra Nevada. About what was happening to it all. But I know what she’ll say. What would you have done if they had? There were plenty of things they told us a whole lot about — chores and homework and Bible study and cursing and curfews and speeding and dating — and we all know how that turned out. How that always turns out. Maybe they did the very best they could. Maybe planting someone in a place is the best you can do. Maybe connecting the pieces is work we can only do ourselves. Maybe it’s only when we’re alone can we discover how we belong to the whole. Maybe it’s only when we’re alone can we discover how everything belongs to everything. How all of nature is connected to all of nature.

I make a late brunch in the back of my car, on the Goodwill-bound stove from my parents: black coffee, instant oatmeal and toast with over easy eggs, which are easier to clean. The afternoon wind begins to whisper against the stove’s flame. A family of birds are singing in the forest relics above the water. The sun is reflecting off the snow in the mountains huddled around us.

From here, I’m meant to drive east, to the national forests in Arizona and ultimately back to my New York apartment. But I can’t leave the Sierra Nevada. Not now, when I’m just getting to know it. There is still too much to see. Too much that remains unexplored. Too many questions that I need to ask. Of the Forest Service. Of the Understory. Of the mountains. Or Muir and Merwin. And mostly, of myself.

395 South: Las Vegas, the sign on the right says. I’m at the very end of the mountains. Past the lake. With desert in front, dotted by Joshua trees, and the mountains behind me. But I can’t turn right. 395 North: Bishop the sign on the left says, with the Range of Light glowing behind it. And of course I follow it. Impulsively. But also knowing I was never not going to follow it.

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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 benjewilliams.org