4 min read


Shadow Lake in the morning, shortly before the photographer fell in. 


The thing about hiking Mt. Whitney in July is that, generally speaking, there isn't a lot of snow. But the thing about speaking generally is that you might forget about crampons and ice axes until the night before you are supposed to leave for your trip when you suddenly remember something about specific record-breaking snowfalls and wonder how you didn't get around to reading any trail reports the week or even the day before (and when you do, oops, "like an ice chute" something something "be prepared to glissade" something something), but don't worry, you do generally keep abreast of mountain-related deaths by season so why not go to Lassen National Park instead, where, wouldn't you know it, there was snow. To be fair, only really once we were above 7,000 feet.

There has been a theme this summer about moving so slowly you might as well not be moving. Finding your way across the land when it is beneath five or six feet of snow is certainly a way to move slowly, perhaps so slowly as to take an hour to travel maybe half a mile. It also contains the pleasure of way-finding by map and landmark only to merge paths with deer prints, which is the surest way to know you truly are, by intuition or skill or animal brain or whatever, almost certainly taking the path of least resistance up or down the slope. Moving at the slow pace of accurate feedback—trudge a few yards, check the mountain, check the lake, scan for blazes on the trees—is a calming way to move. Encountering deer tracks, unlike spotting the trail—a track, a path, a human sign, so flat and broad and unlike other shapes in nature—offers a gentle surge of comfort and reassurance. It allows for (demands) attention paid to many things other than the path you are trying to follow, and does not necessarily offer certainty in return. You are probably going the right way! You are likely not lost! The signs as you read them may be true! Continue onwards, in other words. But continue slowly, continue asking, continue checking. (Another natural phenomenon that offers near-immediate feedback: if the ice-shelf you are squatting on suddenly collapses, tipping you, feet and butt, into the frigid lake, it was not strong enough to hold your weight. Data point taken!)

There is only one book, and I'm getting to it. I read Ross Gay's second collection of essays, Inciting Joy, very slowly over the course of the month. I enjoyed it immensely, as much as (or possibly more than), though differently from his first collection, The Book of Delights. Generally speaking, I read books quickly. There are so many books to read! There are so few hours! I could die at any time, on any mountain, in any season (snow on Mt. Whitney in July)! I often have the mental tendency to read, carried forward by smooth momentum, until, oops, six hours later, my head aches, my body is stiff, the book is done. I have not had the mental energy, attention, or focus to read quickly and consistently this summer. And so, meandering I have been! Dipping in and out. Taking small chunks.

Which has reminded me, and which the book also reminded me, of my tendencies to rush, to be in a hurry to get things going, to get things done (which habit I actively tried to work against on this backpacking trip; why rush? To get where? When? And again, why?).

I'm flipping through my favorite essay in the collection, the looooong and sidewinding "Grief Suite (Falling Apart: The Thirteenth Incitement)", trying to find a short passage to include, and the sensation I am having, with each flip of the page, my eyes landing on a line or handful of lines that I recognize, is so similar to that feeling, sliding atop a slushy scrim of snow, checking the lake, checking the mountain, looking down at the black squiggle of trail on the map, seeing more blank snow, and then, just a few dozen yards ahead, a sunny spot between trees, where the snow bulk has slowly dwindled, and there's a muddy swath of earth, and, it seems like a miracle of timing for the snow to have melted just exactly where the trail is bending out from the trees for just one moment, just enough to give us a glimpse of that flat, human-shaped path, and let us know, once again, we are not heading further out, alone and unguided, into the (small) wilderness.

But on re-flipping, I think that essay deserves to be read in its entirely, so instead I'll leave this quote, from the final essay, "Oh, My Heart (Gratitude: The Fourteenth Incitement)", which is a response, kind of, to a kind of response to Ross Gay's work, "How can a Black man write about flowers at a time like this?":

To which, I know, I should just wave my hand in front of my face like there's a gnat buzzing around, or pretend the gnat isn't there, but my first response is actually something along the lines of "You need to grow up if you think it's not always a time like this. And you need to shut up if you think you know what this Black man, or anyone, ought to be writing about right now. Grow up and shut up." But I try to know better than to spend time on that question, which is no question at all. It's a shackle. It's a cell.

There shouldn't be snow on Mt. Whitney at a time like this. But, I suppose, we all need to grow up if we think it's not always a time like this. As in, a time that is giving us signs of change, of distress, of collapse, of wonder. Signs that say, whether we heed them or not, we cannot bear your weight. Slow down, back off.

Once we were done with the snow way-finding (and the charred-earth way-finding; the 2021 Dixie Fire burned almost 60,000 acres of the 106,000 acre park), and were on the trail again, the feeling of hiking became differently satisfying—fast, efficient, easy! Nice! Like a highway! Yet, I think we missed the feeling of immersion that slowness, that lacking a clear and consistent path forward both required and allowed. But we were pulled and pulled. We stopped slowing! Stopped asking. Mostly stopped checking. A well-trodden path, its smooth momentum, the easy trap of it (its own type of shackle, its own shape of cell).

Snow in summer! A reminder. Why rush? To get where? When? And again, why?

Until next time,