Going to the Mountains

[Brooke Pudar lives in an old house, where she alternately tends and neglects her garden.]

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”  –John Muir

A few years ago I planned a short trip to Yosemite National Park. It was a few days in the middle of a longer trip that started with the First Communion of a niece in Sacramento and ended with a drive up Highway 1 from Cambria to Monterrey.

My husband, John, and I had little hiking experience. I’d spent a week hiking and camping in Arches National Park during a spring break trip in college. While the trip had a big impact on me and I—despite my fantastically poor memory (I can reread the same book within the span of a year as though it were brand new material)—can still recall many specific details as though they were yesterday, my pursuit of all things outdoors slowed for a time after I married. In those cozy and insular first years of marriage, it didn’t matter to me that my husband had no experience or interest in hiking. He was a man who, by nature and by nurture, wasn’t terribly interested in what he hadn’t by happenstance experienced. This sounds harsh, but it’s by his own admittance, and I consider myself a lucky woman that he will do just about anything I ask because he loves me, and in return I do not abuse it.

And that is why, in the first year of our marriage, with fond memories of my college trip, we made a small attempt to introduce some nature into our marriage with a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. The trip was split between Denver and the park—a sightseeing/nature balance to appeal to both our interests. We were unprepared to hike. I learned nothing of the trails beforehand because, for one thing, I didn’t know how to do that kind of research, and for another thing, I knew John didn’t really want to hike. There would be time for hiking, I figured; it didn’t have to be now. So we admired the amazing mountain views from the car window on Trail Ridge Road. A fine trip, but certainly no re-creation of my intimate Arches experience. It left my itch unscratched. And little did I know that this itch was going to turn full-fury into a serious case of mountainitis.

In 2010, I stumbled upon a tiny low-budget TV show on an offshoot of a major network, in which two brothers headed out to national parks with handheld HD video cameras to show viewers some of the best hikes in each park. I sat glued to the TV as the hosts hiked along the south rim of Yosemite National Park, peering into the famous valley below. My eyes were agog. My mouth gaped. It was love at first sight.

I planned a trip to Yosemite immediately. We were going to Sacramento anyway, so a few days in the park followed by a scenic drive up the Pacific coast would work out nicely and maintain that balance between nature and sightseeing. But John knew without me having to say it that that this time we would be getting out of the car.

And we did. Still unprepared, in jeans and cotton t-shirts and carrying one bottle of Aquafina between us, we had rolled into the park in late afternoon and were both instantly slayed by the incomparable beauty of Yosemite Valley. Our excitement uncontainable, we briefly consulted a ranger and headed straight for the Upper Yosemite Falls trailhead. We made it halfway up the darn thing before we ran out of water and daylight. But it was enough. Enough for John to “get it.” Because when you hike to Upper Yosemite Falls there’s this moment on the trail when you suddenly hear it. One moment it’s silent except for the crunch of your boots on the trail as you slog up switchbacks with anticipation. And then, just like that, the dull roar suddenly appears. It grows louder with each step. Soon it’s so loud but you still can see nothing and then you round a bend and there it is. You stop dead in your tracks and then fight the urge to sprint forward because you need to get closer, to be next to it, to be a part of this amazing scene.

From that first view of Yosemite Falls from the Columbia Rock Overlook, John and I both felt together what I felt when I came upon Delicate Arch years before in Utah—the adrenaline that rushes through you at the sight of a true natural phenomenon. That the physical effort to reach this point was worth every grunt, that each step represented a piece of the worry and stress of daily life, and that upon reaching your destination, you have shed it all behind you on the trail and find that suddenly you are completely without burden. The enormous beauty that exists and cares nothing about your existence and makes you feel rightfully small and insignificant, but that somehow gives meaning to your life at the same time. The feeling that you are suddenly privy to something big, something important, a secret that the civilized world can’t begin to know.

In the quote from John Muir at the beginning of this piece, he calls wilderness a necessity. That may not hold for all people, but for me, it is truer than true. It’s pure, care-killing joy. Since that trip, John and I have gained a bit of experience and enjoyed many incredible days on the trail. My dream is that when we’re old, we’ll take on that weathered look of mountain folks that spent more time outside than in. The mountains really are like going home. They’re always there, waiting for you to come back.


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