Tag Archives: wallace stegner

Paradise Lost

16 Jul

This post is the first in a series of two on my recent trip to California.

As far as hiking trails go, the Lost Coast Trail doesn’t appear overly challenging. Totaling just 24.5 miles over four days, this is a placid pace by my standards, and there’s little in the way of elevation to contend with. It’s a hike along a beach wedged between the Pacific and the King Range in Humboldt County, the longest undeveloped stretch of Pacific coastline in the lower 48. Its greatest challenges are three zones totaling just over eight miles in length that are impassable at high tide, so hikers must bring tide tables and pick and choose their start and stop times. Informal campsites sit at the mouths of creeks that feed into the ocean at regular intervals along the trail. The Lost Coast isn’t totally lost, as my party encounters plenty of fellow trekkers, but all but a handful follow favorable breezes from north to south, and long stretches are just my five companions and I working our way through the fog on a narrow band of land separating jagged peaks and unfathomable depths.

Hiking the Lost Coast is unlike a jaunt on a more traditional trail. One can’t just stare at one’s feet, or gaze off at the mountains or the sea for too long. Lost Coast hikers have to pick their lines, much like Alpine skiers, finding the best route over this avenue of choppy rocks and boulders and sand and incoming waves. Back sides of ridges, when wide enough, tend to be most stable, as do depressions behind them where the sand stays wet and thus more firm. Without obstacles, wet sand close to the surf is the best highway forward, though it bears the not insignificant risk of wet feet or frantic rushes inward at every rogue wave. Rarely is it a technically demanding trail, but it is often a slog over terrain that shifts beneath every footstep.

For this trip, I’m a new addition to a group that has, plus or minus a couple of members, taken a backpacking trip once a year for the past decade. The organizer is my uncle Bob, and our number includes my cousin Rob, Bob’s sister Betsy, her friend Amy, and family friend Ed, a divergent group of personalities with homes ranging from Louisville to San Francisco, united by a fondness for meandering down paths in the wilderness. Uncle Bob promises me an adventure, and after an hour of wrangling over food choices at a San Francisco, their two additional stops within twenty miles of a lunch stop in Santa Rosa, and a laborious gear distribution affair at a hotel in Garberville the night before our hike, I’m starting to doubt my wisdom in joining this trip. But they are entertaining company, and by the time we hit the trail, I’m reassured that I’m in the company of five committed adventurers.

We leave our cars at the south end and pick up a shuttle in Shelter Cove, a resort town that offers a fascinating mash-up of sprawling vacation homes and rural California country folk, a people forgotten in most conceptions of the state who wouldn’t be too far out of place in the rural Midwest. (Our shuttle driver, a Humboldt County lifer about my age named Connor, laments the annual Fourth of July homemade firework displays as “Armageddon” and a miserable undertaking for himself and his fellow members of the volunteer fire brigade.) After a two-hour drive through the mountains to take us 25 miles as the cormorant flies to the trailhead, we’re ready to set out.

At first, the beach hiking is novel, and we make good time. A couple miles in we round Punta Gorda, one of the westernmost points in the continental United States, and come to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse, a lonely outpost here along the coast that lit the way for lost fishing boats for a few decades. The structure is open, and a climb up a rusting spiral staircase takes one to a deck with excellent views and even stronger winds. Down below, a gaggle of sea lions flops about in the sand and in the tidal shallows, singing with characteristic inelegance. At Sea Lion Gulch the trail meanders inward before it slips down to the creek, where we cross it tice in quick succession, little hops along rocks to find a passable course past this gouge in the coastline, the sea lion grunts echoing in the background. These turns inward to solid ground are blessed relief, though I don’t like them to last for too long: we are here for the beach hike, after all.

Our first camp comes at Cooskie Creek, a 6.5-mile excursion from the starting point at the mouth of the Mattole River and midway through a four-mile stretch of trail impassable at high tide. We are all sunburned, the cool, perfect walking temperatures and early morning fog lulling us into a false sense of safety, but otherwise no worse for the wear. We take a site on the south bank of the creek, while a large party occupies the opposite bank. They are quiet and we rarely interact, though we do marvel at their ingenious game of bocce using rocks on the beach. The wind barrels in from the ocean, and tent setup requires up to four people and a lot of rocks just to keep things upright. At sundown, we climb a small promontory and gaze out on the Pacific, west to Japan and south to Antarctica, with no bodies of land in between. The sun doesn’t set cleanly but instead fades away into the marine layer out over the ocean, lost in the eternal fog.

The wind dies in the night. No wind, no sun, West Coast resident Rob tells us, and sure enough, we are ensconced in clouds and fog as we head out. A dead seal on the beach attracts a crowd of birds, and Amy compares the beachscape to the final scene from Planet of the Apes. The waves rise as we go, and a crossing at Randall Creek requires an ambitious leap. Past the creek I pick out a trail up on to a flat, and now we’re rewarded with an easy stroll along a ridge, past a stream crossing with an unexpected bamboo grove and another where the discovery of a snake in the trail holds up the party for a spell. The crossing at Oat Creek features a stable log amid a small grove of trees, and a group of younger women has stopped here for lunch.

We cross Kinsey Creek and a rock field to the mouth of Big Creek, which we cross on a log. Rob and I like the look of the site, an open stretch aside a large wash where other campers have set up driftwood lean-tos and tables, but the rest of the party is ready to push on another two miles to Big Flat Creek. These two miles are among the most tiring slogs of the rip, endless rock fields that turn ankles and require constant leaps, but in time I veer off and pick a way up a sandy slope to a much smoother trail atop Big Flat. The rest of the party joins me, and before long it’s as if we’ve left the ocean behind and are strolling through a large meadow. A number of private landowning holdouts dot the entire trail, most no more than a windblown wooden shack, but the one on Big Flat is flat-out surreal, a retreat of sorts that hosts a large group doing tai chi down by the beach. This part of the Lost Coast feels far too found.

Just past the retreat center is Big Flat Creek, our destination for the night, but it proves the most complicated stream crossing of the trip. The creek is wide and rushing, and Ed and I venture upstream with no luck in search of an easy ford. Most of the party settles for a shaky-looking log crossing, while Amy and I jump it at the mouth, where these streams are usually at their narrowest. The campsite, situated beneath a grove of low trees, already has a crowd, but there are enough sandy tent pads for us to carve out our own space. Night comes quickly on this day, with little time to linger on the beach, though we do admire the deer in the clearing next to us, and after dark a number of bats flit overhead. In the night, a chorus of coyotes wakes us all, the pack leaders howling away while the yips of their smaller brethren surround them.

I don’t sleep particularly well on Big Flat, but our long hike yesterday cues us up for a tame day of just 3.3 miles to our next site on Buck Creek. I sip some tea over breakfast and take a dump in a sandy hole in the ground, and we join a large procession of hikers out from Big Flat and down the coast. The fog is thickest on this morning, and it cakes the beach and leaves what we can see of the fire-scarred hills above us looming. After a placid stroll along the flat, it narrows down to nothing, and a rock slide diverts us down a jagged slope to a narrow beach. Each step brings new conditions, most dramatically at the bottom of a large landslide, where giant trees come to rest on the beach. The crossing at Shipman Creek offers a nice running start for the long jump across, and we press on and pass a few of the groups we’ve been leapfrogging with over the course of the day.

Buck Creek comes as a surprise, and we quickly decide the campsite, which perches on a bank with direct views of both the sea and the cascading creek, will more than do. The fog lifts with surprising speed as we set up our tents, and we then discover the site’s great drawback: a healthy crop of poison oak on all sides that leaves Amy and Betsy frantically detoxing after they tossed some gear and staked out a line for their tent in the shrubbery. Lunch follows the cleansing session on rocks along the creek, though my phone’s camera renders me an uninspired photographer for the rest of the trip after it falls out of my pocket and its lens cracks on a rock. The shots feature some fascinating new filters, if nothing else.

With some gas left in the tank, Bob, Rob, and I set out to climb the Buck Creek Trail, which rises from the camps and heads straight up into the hills. Straight up is no exaggeration: there is no such thing as a flat or downward step for a mile-and-a-half long, 2,000-foot climb. Thankfully, the sun gives way to pine forest just above the site, and while we’re still stepping gingerly around the poison oak, we can drag upward at a manageable pace. Finally, near the top, we come to a couple of clean vistas down the coast toward our parked cars at Shelter Cove five and a half miles away, and after a relatively flat half-mile past a junction with a little-used ridgetop trail in the King Range backcountry, we turn around and abuse our joints for a few miles back down. We burst back out of the forest and have a clean view of the rushing creek, the sun-splashed waves on the ocean; Amy and Ed are down on the beach watching the tide come in, while Betsy naps on her air mattress in the open atop the highest-lofted tent pad, the tents collecting heat for the night in the sun below. It’s a paradisal scene, one that fully loses me in this wilderness and makes me wish we could set up camp here for a week.

Our legs burning from the hike, Rob and I watch the tide roll in, larger and larger waves slowly creeping over the rock pile that cuts off Buck Creek from the ocean at low tide. Soon there will be no way in or out of this site along the coast trail, and we’ll have our site to ourselves tonight. After some poison oak preventative cleansing in the creek, I settle into the hammock along its banks to catch up on notes and zone out in bliss. I’m rousted for happy hour by an offer of Ed’s tequila, and as we sit along a log on the beach and gaze out at the sparkling waves, my mind goes back to an out-of-body sensation I had in a hammock in Puerto Escondido nine years ago, a simultaneous blend of exhaustion and tequila and revelation at the beauty around me. I idly wrote a story of two lovers at the end of an affair, at once alive to the possibility of utopia and aware it can never last.

We break out of our trance to eat before we lose all daylight. Our dinners, always collections of freeze-dried packets we pass around, is best on this night, and we polish off the bourbon and turn our attention toward the darkening sea. Three boats dot the horizon, one of which suddenly seems to be flickering, as if alight; we later learn that it’s likely a fishing boat looking to lure in its prey. The half-moon lights up night well enough to cast shadows, and the marine layer stays just low enough to allow for superb star-watching. First Jupiter and the dippers, then Scorpius and Cygnus and Hercules, and Saturn for a hot second before the fog consumes it. I’m reluctant to turn in, yet I enjoy my best ever night of sleep in a tent.

The morning is wet, the marine layer dousing my tent fly, but the sun comes out quickly and keeps up warm for the last 5.5 miles up the beach. The choppy rocks continue for the first half of the hike, but after that it settles into a plodding but predictable march up the aptly named Black Sands Beach. I set my course along the shoreline, running in when the higher waves come and making sure to drink in the slopes to my left and the endless crashing waves to my right. The steepest climb on the hike comes up a road to the parking lot, where we collect ourselves ahead of food truck burritos and a beer at a Shelter Cove bar populated by grizzled local women. We are found again, headed back for a stop in wine country and the glitz of San Francisco to round out our adventures.

The trail has a particular allure for someone drawn to the notion of isolated inspiration, the egotist who never needed anyone to tell him that he could do great things if he put his mind to it. Thankfully, wilderness also has a habit of humbling these chasers as well. A year after an epic but largely solitary trek across this state, the jumble of people in this one enlivened it. It provided new short story inspiration, and a meander through a book on Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, two very different champions of the West who, unlike some of the San Francisco cosmopolitans I brush up against upon my return to the city, understood a sense of place. “I may not know who I am but I know where I am from,” wrote Stegner, words that forever reassure a wanderer in search of grounding. On the Lost Coast Trail, I’ve found it yet again.

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The Powell Mindset

2 Dec

My latest reading adventure down a rabbit hole (a slot canyon?) took me to southern Utah. A recent New Yorker article on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a re-read of my account to my trip to Zion this past spring led me to a blogger’s tale of a hike on the Hayduke Trail, a little-known hiking route named for an Edward Abbey character. The Hayduke is less a trail than a string of paths and backcountry suggestions brought together into a guidebook. It is a brutal 800-mile path that connects six national parks, one national monument, and a bevy of other designated public lands across southern Utah and northern Arizona, from Canyonlands to Bryce to the Grand Canyon to Zion. After 65 days on trails and rafts, this traveling party found the jaunt up to Angel’s Landing in Zion a lazy jog up an overcrowded molehill. I am in no way ready to go on a hike like this, but it’s fun to dream.

This southern Utah kick led me to pick up a book I’ve long wanted to read from an author who has been on my mind often this year: Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, a biography of John Wesley Powell. Powell is best known as the one-armed Civil War veteran who was the first man to sail down the Colorado River. His journey began at Green River in modern-day Wyoming and made its way down through countless canyons before going through the Grand, every day an adventure down rapids in uncharted territory. If Powell’s story ended there, he would be an explorer second only to Lewis and Clark in his importance to the story of the American West.

Powell, however, was much more than that, and over half of Stegner’s account is devoted to his life on dry land. He brought a nineteenth century encyclopedist’s  enthusiasm to his pursuits, with a fervent belief that he could collect enough information to build a better understanding of his world and thereby guide it toward a more sane society. His first ventures west were eclectic expeditions of family and students that just collected every specimen he could manage. He was the godfather of the U.S.Geological Survey, that meticulous attempt to understand the land and it bounties, and his efforts laid the foundation for the Bureau of Reclamation, which devoted itself to making much of the West as inhabitable as possible while preserving the rest. Powell’s pet interest in ethnography—the recording of details of the indigenous peoples of the West—was a staple later in his career, even when political winds in the west blew against him. His resistance to a notion that the West could be settled seamlessly made him his share of enemies.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian sets out to puncture the mythology of the American West. Over half of those supposedly hardy pioneers failed and moved back east or faced worse fates. And that was in the more fertile Midwest, before white settlement reached the 100 degree longitude line beyond which rainfall became far rarer. “[T]he romanticizing of the West…led to acute political and economic and agricultural blunders, to the sour failure of projects and lives, to the vast and avoidable waste of some resources and the monopolization of others,” Stegner writes. “There was too little factual corrective, too little allowance for swiftly changing times, and trouble ensued when people ignorant of the West and needing to know a lot about it mistook imagination for observation and art for life.”

In spite of his recognition of nature’s limits, Powell was no Malthusian convinced that humans were doomed in the face of nature. On the contrary, he was at his core a believer in science and progress: “The revelation of science is this: Every generation in life is a step in progress to a higher and fuller life; science has discovered hope,” Stegner quotes from an 1882 lecture by Powell on Darwin. Blind optimism on this order suffered significant setbacks beginning with the First World War, but both Powell and his twentieth-century interlocutor seem aware that political roadblocks and the vagaries of human nature do not undermine the logic behind the path toward understanding and better politics.

There is a middle ground between naïve hope in human progress and resignation to human limits. It recognizes that humans can adapt and even tame nature, but never in full. It sees in humans a capacity for works of both incredible construction and incredible destruction, of genius and idiocy. It seeks complete understanding, even when it recognizes the impossibility of achieving it. This is the Powell mindset, the Stegner mindset, and a mindset that is not hard to inhabit at the tail end of an arduous hike through canyon country, a simultaneous sense of awe at the nature that surrounds the hiker and a sense of conquest upon summiting peaks. (John Muir: “Double happy, however,is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach.”) Yes, it is somewhere in this realm that happiness lies.

Crossing to Safety

3 Jun

One year after a return trip to Georgetown for a reunion, a couple of excerpts from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety:

Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn’t expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else—a pathway to the stars, maybe.

*   *   *

Once, at a Cambridge dinner party, I had an imaginary debate with the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who was holding forth on upward mobility. He called it “vertical peristalsis in society.” Obviously he liked the phrase; he thought he had invented something pretty good.

Since he had been born nameless in a nameless Russian village and had risen to become a member of the Council of the Russian Republic and secretary to Prime Minister Kerensky, I granted that he knew more about upward mobility than I did. I had only my own limited experience to generalize from, and three martinis to make me skeptical of other evidence. But I didn’t like his metaphor, and muttered to the lady on my left that social scientists should stick to semantically aseptic language, and leave metaphor to people who understood it.

Peristalsis, I informed this lady or someone else, consists of rhythmic contractions in a tube, such as the gut, that force matter in the tube to move along. In Sorokin’s trope, society was the tube and the individual the matter to be moved, and the tube did the work of moving him. I thought the individual had something to do with moving himself, not necessarily rhythmically.

And why that word “vertical”? Man being an upright animal, at least in his posture, any peristalsis he had going was bound to be vertical, unless we conceived him to be lying down, which there was no reason to do.

Finally, I had the impression that normal peristalsis worked downward, not upward. Upward peristalsis was reverse peristalsis, whose name was emesis. Did Professor Sorokin mean to suggest that he had been vomited up into revolutionary prominence, and later into an international reputation and a distinguished position on the Harvard faculty? Probably he didn’t. But there was no way out of his metaphorical difficulty. He couldn’t extricate himself by reversing directions and accepting the normal alimentary flow, for that not only ruined his upward metaphor but left him looking even worse than if he had been vomited up.

Professor Sorokin never figured in my life. I had never seen him before that night and I never saw him afterward; and our argument never took place except in my head and out of the corner of my mouth. But we had just returned from a Guggenheim in Italy, and in Italy I had discovered, rather to my surprise, that I had myself been ferociously upward-mobile since my first day in school. In reducing my strenuous life to a social inevitability, and giving it that taint of routine communal digestion, Sorokin had insulted me where I lived.

Until Italy, I had been too busy to notice what I was. I was learning, and interested in the learning. Or I was diving into a hole and pulling the hole in after me. Or I was simply trying to survive. But even in our most oppressed times, I was a cork held under, and my impulse was always up.

According to Aunt Emily’s theories, I should probably have been led to walk in my father’s footsteps. I loved him, we got along, I worked off and on in the shop. There was no reason why I should not succeed him as proprietor and make a life out of transmissions, brake bands, ring jobs, lube jobs, yard chores, neighborhood barbecues, baseball, and beer. But I had no intention, ever, of doing that. It wasn’t snobbishness. I was never ashamed of him. Nothing in dusty Albuquerque led me to envious comparisons. I just expected more than Albuquerque offered. I took it for granted. And everybody important to me—my parents, my teachers, my professors in college, Sally when we met in Berkeley, and for that matter the Langs when we met in Madison—made the same assumption. I was headed somewhere.

Without knowing what I was after, I pursued it with the blind singlemindedness of a sperm hunting its target egg—now there is a metaphor I will accept. For a long time it was dark, and all I could do was swim for my life. Union and consummation finally took place in the fourth-floor front room of the Pensione Vespucci, an old palazzo on the Lugarno a little below the American consulate in Florence. There, one September morning, it hit me that things were altogether other than what they had been for a long time. Wherever it was that we were going, we had arrived, or at least come into the clear road.

*   *   *

Time to find the clear road.