Feeling Awe in the Desolation Wilderness
By Julia Jenne
I’ve always been drawn towards the West. I gravitate towards the mountains, oceans, landscapes that harbor endless possibilities – and last summer I found the nerve to follow its pull when I set out on my first backpacking trip ever: a month-long journey from inland Northern California up the coast to British Columbia.
Adventure, in my mind, had always been a sought-after but exclusive thing. It belonged to beatniks and writers, wandering college grads and Instagram bloggers with their own hashtags, but not to me. I was a bookish nineteen-year-old student from suburban Montreal, whose life on the road was confined to my daily hour-long commutes to school in the city. I had never been on a proper camping trip. I didn’t even own a car. I was alone and small, and adventure was a big, beautiful, faraway thing, to read about in books, to watch and envy from a safe distance. Then all at once, it was right there in front of me.
Adventure, in my mind, had always been a sought-after but exclusive thing. It belonged to beatniks and writers, wandering college grads and Instagram bloggers with their own hashtags, but not to me.
I’d first brought up the idea of a west coast backpacking trip in offhanded conversation with two girls I work with, and some short weeks later we were compiling our differences and planning vigorously, brainstorming where we’d go and how we’d tell our manager that the three of us would be leaving for a month, together (spoiler alert: we were all fired). We reserved post-work hours for trip-planning sessions and each assumed our respective positions: Ariele our backcountry connoisseur, Viv our comic relief. It was made quickly apparent that I had the strongest organizational skills and thus I was designated the planner. I embraced this role, planning thoroughly and relentlessly.
We flew from Montreal to Reno, Nevada — about an hour northeast of the Lake Tahoe – and stayed in town just long enough to get a decent night’s sleep. In the morning we made a quick stop at Walmart then boarded a bus to South Lake Tahoe, where we’d begin a four-day hike through the Desolation Wilderness, a small portion of the High Sierra that towers up from the western shore of Lake Tahoe. Its name can be attributed to the harsh, largely exposed granite rock that make up its mountains, though ultimately, I learned, “desolate” is not the most fitting adjective to describe it.
“Those are some fresh boots you’ve got there,” he said at one point, gesturing to my feet, clad in the beloved red-laced Danner hikers I’d bought specifically for the trip. “Better hope you’ve broken those in, or you’re gonna have a miserable time on Dick’s Pass.” I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by that, but I shyly assured him I’d taken the necessary precautions, with copious amounts of moleskin on my Achilles’ tendons and pinky toes. I felt my cheeks flush red, embarrassed that he’d called attention to my inexperience. The boots, much as I adored them, were about as broken-in as I was.
We camped that night at Lake Aloha, a beautiful shallow pool over a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. When we arrived at the site, we came upon a familiar face: a female solo thru-hiker who’d passed us on the trail hours before. We learned she had been dubbed “Unbreakable” by her fellow hikers, for both her relentlessness and her uncanny resemblance to the title character of the TV show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She invited us to set up camp beside her and, without a hint of hiker’s snobbishness, told us all about her time on the trail: her hiking attire (a dress and no underwear), her diet (chocolate icing and beef jerky), and her decision to push forward as solo hiker after she and her boyfriend broke up a month into their trek. I was intrigued and inspired by her stories but spent much of the evening curled up in the tent alone, plagued by terrible stomach cramps. When I awoke the next morning after a bad night’s sleep — incidentally, my only one the whole month long — I crawled out of the tent to find, sitting daintily atop my pack, a little bouquet of colorful wildflowers tied up with grass. My stomach pains were gone, and so was Unbreakable, probably miles ahead of us already. I pulled out my journal and pressed the flowers between its pages.
(Editor’s note: We love the sentiment of this story though we also think it’s a teaching moment: one should practice Leave No Trace principles when they’re out in wild places. Learn more here ->)
We ate breakfast and packed our gear, snapped a few pictures of the sun rising over Lake Aloha, and then we were off. Day two promised another long walk. Our planned route would lead us to our first and only mountain traverse on the hike — my first ever — where an innumerable series of switchbacks would bring us up to narrow trail carved flat out of the mountainside. It was called Dick’s Pass, and it was 9,300 feet above sea level.
Mid-day we stopped for lunch and a skinny dip in the ice cold water of one of Desolation’s many glacier-fed lakes, the perfect refuge from the mountains’ sweltering dry heat and from the deer flies’ incessant circling. The rest of the day’s walk was a slow and steady climb through many miles of winding, forest-enclosed trail, with little to see besides the trees around us and rocks beneath our feet.
We walked through the woods for hours, wide spaces between each of us, little conversation to be had. I was in an almost meditative state, pulled back to reality only when a smelly thru-hiker, usually a heavily bearded young man, would come tearing by at a pace that seemed unfathomable to me, with my huffing and puffing, my back and legs aching under the weight of a backpack that seemed ridiculously large compared to his. I’d admire the swift movement of his tanned, muscular calves as he walked by, disappearing around a corner, and wonder to myself, might I ever be in his place one day?
When the trail finally emerged from the forest and cleared on the mountainside, it did so abruptly, stopping us in our tracks. I was jerked from my sleepy walking trance, yet again, but with sudden finality this time. I realized Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack was playing quietly on the portable speaker that clung to the outside of Ariele’s backpack amongst many carabiners. Owning me like gravity are places that pull, he sang. Gravity. The word carries a lot of weight, doesn’t it?
I was utterly grounded.
We had reached the start of Dick’s Pass. We were still a mile or more away from our highest lookout point, but gravity — a feeling of complete and utter earthliness — is what overcame me then, without any warning. The Sierra Nevada, in a small taste of her immense glory, had begun to unfold in valleys and peaks that stretched on for miles before us. I could see bits of the lakes where we’d swam nude earlier in the day, where we’d camped the night before, and I knew that further on in a valley hidden from view, Echo Lake, our starting point, shimmered blue-green under the cloudless California sky. I stood before it all, awestruck. I thought about the “mountains” I’d climbed before, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, in the American Northeast: all 3000 feet or less. They didn’t even compare.
I am here, right now, I mused internally, trying to convince myself of it, of everything it entailed.
I felt it all at once, so overwhelming and heavy, I wasn’t sure how to carry it.
The boundless beauty of the Desolation Wilderness and the world — its vastness, its silence — fell square on me like a weight from the heavens. I was utterly grounded. I felt the pull in my back, my tight throat, my bruised toenails and blistered feet that somehow didn’t hurt all that much anymore. I felt it all at once, so overwhelming and heavy, I wasn’t sure how to carry it. I unclipped my backpack and let all of its forty or so pounds fall to the ground, kicking up dust as it landed. The weight remained. With weak knees I sat down on the trailside and cried. I sobbed. Overwhelmed by the view and by my own perplexing reaction to it, I gazed over the mountains and sobbed out the weight of everything that had led up to this moment — the planning and the fantasizing and the leaving home for a month — relishing the feeling of release that ensued. My friends awwed and snickered and took a picture of me attempting to smile through the tears that flooded my cheeks. They asked me gently, what are you crying for?
“Just the beauty,” I managed, “And just… everyone I love. Everyone I love who will never stand where I am right now, and see what I’m seeing.” I shed tears for the beauty, for the love I felt, and for one other feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on in the moment but have felt absolutely certain of ever since: the sudden realization that nature would heal me.
I took a long swig out of my Nalgene bottle and clipped it back onto my pack beside me. I wiped my wet cheeks, streaking them with dirt from my filthy hands. My Vibram treads were stamped into the dust that surrounded me. I looked down at my feet, at the boots that were just beginning to be broken in. By the end of that hike, they would be scuffed and scratched and permanently dusty, nearly unrecognizable. By the end of the summer, after wearing them for thirty straight days and 800 miles of travel by foot and by vehicle, they’d have become almost an extension of my body. In Victoria, British Columbia, I’d stare into a tattoo shop window and consider getting their tread inked to my wrist. I’d look down at my feet, and at the stark tan line the boots had left behind above my ankles, and decide that that was enough.
With sweat beading on my forehead I gazed up at the trail that stretched on before us, switching back and forth up the mountainside indefinitely. Our highest elevation point lingered in the miles ahead, promising an even more spectacular view. I pushed myself to my feet and swung that giant goddamn burden of pack back onto my back, grunting and wincing as I did so. The raw spots on my sides and collarbone burned as I snapped my hip and sternum straps shut. I felt at once crippled and empowered by the pack’s tremendous weight, and by the weight of my own body pressing through my boots onto the Earth. My friends stood ahead of me, waiting expectantly. I looked at them and smiled.
“Let’s keep going,” I said, as if there was anything else to do.
Julia Jenne is an undergraduate creative writing student, vintage shop owner and adventure enthusiast. She thrives most while on the move, always in the direction of simplicity, self-discovery and stories worth sharing. See more from Julia on Instagram.