Monday, August 29, 2005

The Sierra Nevada

I've spent some pretty large portions of my life hiking around the mountains and deserts of California. Having lived in Yosemite for a year I spent so much time on my personal growth that I've basically ended up penniless in my mid-thirties with a rich inner life and not a pot to piss in.

The Sierra Nevada is a block of Granite about four hundred miles long and about a hundred miles wide, one of the largest unbroken mountain ranges in the world. It is tilted toward the west coast so that it rises rather gently from the floor of the San Joaqin valley, California's midwest breadbasket, and steeply from the floor of the desert on the eastern side of the Sierra. Vast forests still exist on the western slopes, mostly in preserves, though increasingly the Sierra is becoming deforested and destroyed by populations moving into her. The Eastern Sierra is bleak desert, hot as hell in the summer and cold as hell in the winter; it is also in my opinion the most spectacular and beautiful place I have ever been.

Yosemite is considered the crown Jewel of America's park system, and visitors for the most part arrive in throngs to be brutalized by the terrain or coddled in their RV's. The more daring of them venture into the high country to be burned, stung, and bitten, then left exhausted. Every year a certain number are swept over the waterfalls in the valley and no amount of warning or signage can prevent this; they are to accustomed to a world with handrails and signs. You can't sue god, so the deaths continue.

The high country, along the Tioga road is the true wilderness of Yosemite, and Tolumne Meadows is the point of origin for much of the really good wandering.

My favorite place is the Owens Valley; a barren desert surrounded by the desert range and led by the White Mountain, one of California's "fourteeners" and the eastern Sierra, probably the most spectacular mountains in America for their sheer rise from the valley floor of thousands of feet. The unmatched King of the Sierra, Mount Whitney near Lone Pine, is more than a little imposing and the highest mountain in the lower fourty-eight.

The volcanic activity in the Owens Valley and the Mammoth area make for interesting terrain as well as some natural hot springs one can find in guide books or by accident when traveling around there. Wonderful to soak in after your unseasoned muscles have been abused, it's worth the search.

Rock climbers come from quite far to climb in the Owens River Gorge, a mostly empty river gorge drained by LA's considerable thirst and shipped by pipe to their swimming pools. Yet another reason to hate LA. The story behind it all is an interesting one and I recommend Mark Reisner's "Cadillac Desert", a tour de force for the environmental movement and a primer on western water politics.

This of course connects with Mono Lake, a salt-water lake with bizarre "tufa towers" rising from her waters as a result of LA's drainage and now the focus of efforts to preserve it for the sake of the birds who use it to feed on their way south. It is the first thing one sees when leaving Lee Vining Canyon east of the Yosemite Park entrance and like most of what I describe here, probably worth at least five days for the visitor who demands a deeper experience.

I recommend reading "A Natural History of the Sierra Nevada" during such a visit.


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