Monday, July 27, 2009

Taking the High Road - From Tuolumne Meadows
to Tioga Pass to Mobile Gas and Back

What is the point of living? Why are we here, on this Earth? Do we have a purpose? Does it matter? Do you care?

For me, anticipating the coming unknowns - the blips, large and small, in an otherwise foreseeable future of death and taxes - offers up enough of a reason - for now - to continue living.

Case in point: my recent time in Yosemite National Park. I spent most of those days in Tuolumne Meadows, which sits surrounded by a stupefying collection Yosemite's jagged granite peaks and glacially-polished domes, part of a landscape created in a leisurely enough fashion over the past ten million years.

The general outlines for my own relatively few days in Yosemite was set well in advance. Along with my friends Irene Shibata, Eric Stokell, Hal Grant, and Jean Ray, I would conduct a couple of family camping trips for the Yosemite Association. We would lead hikes, prepare the meals, start campfires, and maybe talk about the meaning of life (after the kids went to bed).

Cycling was not the primary purpose of my trip. However, my road bike made the trip with me, and I rode during my free time five times for about 90 miles, with 7,000 feet of climbing in the rarefied atmosphere of the High Sierra.

The camping trips were pure enjoyment. There were the comfortably repetitive tasks, from waking early to make coffee, to hauling trash to the bear-proof trash can at the end of the day. And there were unexpected pleasures, the ones that make life worth living, discovered when we led a few hikes to new locations. We spotted a variety of wildlife, but sadly, no bears, even though one wandered through our campsite at least twice while we were out and about.

That I would wander out into Tuolumne Meadows at sunset and view lovely Lembert Dome was a given. I didn't expect to see it under such extraordinary light, the face of the dome lit by the last rays of the dying sun, with the background sky as black as an undertaker's suit.

Nor did I expect, a little later, the pyrotechnics in the eastern heavens, the clouds on fire, sending down a column of colors over the red slopes of distant Mount Dana. Along with Irene, we stood mostly alone as we watched the display above us. Then a woman moved out of the trees from the campground behind us. As she tearfully observed what I was photographing, and she called out, "Look at this! Could anyone doubt there is a God?"

Her sentiment was understandable. Because I, too, respected the magic of the moment, I refrained from suggesting she follow me back to Los Angeles, where I would take her to explore the depths of Skid Row. Perhaps there she would conclude no god, certainly not a loving one, is possible. Or perhaps she would merely choose to believe that places like Skid Row, and worse, are proof of the existence of a devil.

For me, the appearance of the bright rainbow and the beautiful clouds was more than enough to sustain me, and I needed - nor do I need - any supernatural explanations for their existence, weather or not such explanations may or may not be true.

By and large, though, what happened on the camping trip was predictable. The outcome of my bike rides was not always so predictable, which was by choice. My bike rides were undertaken precisely because they provided a crucible that would test me against not only the mountains, but myself - test my resolve to achieve, test my ability to suffer, test my ability to create and experience the intensity of the moment. The outcome of those tests was at least a little unknown. And I'll reveal the results a little later.

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