Copyright © 2010
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Taylor and Paynes Lakes Backpack
Klamath National Forest
June 22-25, 2009
Photos by the
Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted
"Across an incomprehensible divide."
Something out of the ordinary happened late November
last to make me wonder whether I would ever backpack again.
I underwent triple bypass open heart surgery. It came on abruptly,
with little warning, and stirred me from my cozy intimations
Dark and odious were the winter months of convalescence.
Death, no longer theoretical, befriended me, became as manifest
a companion as the intricately carved Victorian woodwork. It
kept me company in the dark while Barbara slept. Each morning
I awoke amazed to be alive. I recall it now as a lurid narcotic
dream. I had crossed a great divide into a watershed where streams
all drained away from me toward a distant unknown ocean. Death's
dark wings cast a chilling shadow across the land.
Barbara took six weeks off to tend my needs.
I gave my notice and retired.
At first I could not walk a block before my breath
betrayed me. But I persisted. Each morning I worked out, as
feeble as a kitten at first, but then with growing vigor. Our
walks gradually lengthened. By June the days were long again.
The world had turned.
We decided it might not be utter madness to give
backpacking a try, and settled on a modest plan. Our first night
would be a test run on the ground at Taylor Lake near Etna Summit
in the Russian Wilderness, a mere half-mile from where the van
would be parked. If things went well, we would attempt a climb
to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and press on to Paynes Lake
for two more nights. I felt equal to the challenge.
Never, under any circumstance, visit on a
weekend a lake so near the trailhead, lest ye be visited
by heinous spirits loud, unsavory, and rude. We had learned
this lesson at Tannen Lake in 2007 (see A
Lake Too Near). Instead we waited until Monday morning
to stuff our sleeping bags and pile our backpacks into the van.
We motored east to Weaverville, then north on Highway 3.
Etna, located in the Scott Valley, is an incorporated
city in Siskiyou County with a population of 781, an altitude
just below 3,000 feet, and a nineteenth century ambiance. It
is the hub of an agricultural community irrigated by the overdrawn
waters of the Scott River before it meanders north and west
to spill its agricultural wastes into the Klamath River near
the tiny community of Hamburg. On the outskirts of town State
Route 3 veers right, bound for Fort Jones and ultimately Yreka,
where it rejoins Interstate 5 and the twenty-first Century.
We turned left instead and passed through Etna's
nostalgically anachronistic downtown. After emerging from town,
the paved Sawyers Bar Road (1C01) wound westward up the northern
slopes of Etna Mountain toward an unseen gap in the otherwise
unbroken range that forms the stark western wall of the Scott
Valley. Behind us, we could see the alfalfa fields of the Scott
Valley and the gravelly channel of the Scott River.
At Etna Summit, we crossed into another watershed.
Before us, all waters flowed westward into the Salmon River,
which joins the mighty Klamath at Somes Bar. To the north and
west the arms of the Salmon, the Scott, and the Klamath Rivers
encircle the vast Marble Mountain Wilderness.
Our highway crossed the Pacific Crest Trail at
Etna Summit. To our right, the PCT continued north into the
Marbles, but we would not be going that way this trip. To our
left the PCT climbed south into the Russian Wilderness to slalom
through the granitic vertebrae of the mountain spine. In about
six miles the PCT would reach Paynes Lake, then continue on
past Duck and Eaton Lakes (see Garden
at the Top of the World), Bingham Lake, and Russian
Lake (see Thither
Lead Myriad Paths) before dipping to cross the Callahan-Cecilville
Road, and thence climb again to traverse west along the ridge
defining the northeast corner of the Trinity Alps Wilderness
Huang Ti and the Lost Dog).
Barbara and I paused to consider our options.
We had been to Paynes Lake once before, shortly after we met
twenty-three years earlier, on a backpack with Mr. Popper and
the Annual Spring Acid Backpack group, now defunct. We had hiked
easily into Taylor Lake, scrambled up to the PCT, and continued
south to Paynes Lake for two nights. Coming out, we had followed
the PCT all the way to Etna Summit, where a friend had courteously
relocated our van. It had been a spectacular hike out along
the crest, with the rugged granite of the Russian Peak batholith
giving way to the haunting red rocks of a peridotite ophiolite
near Etna Summit. To return that way was tempting.
But the game had changed. My surgery had shuffled
the deck. I wasn't sure how my heart would hold up to the stress
of a long, steep, strenuous trudge along the crest, far from
help, with a forty-five pound pack strapped to my back. In my
pocket I fingered the small bottle of nitroglycerine. I was
afraid. But by camping the first night at Taylor Lake, as planned,
we could test the waters and cut nearly four miles off the hike
to Paynes Lake.
Lake, however, lies east of the crest in the Scott River watershed.
Taylor Lake lies west in the Salmon River drainage. The trick
would be to carry our cumbersome backpacks off-trail up and
over the crest without exploding the sutured spaghetti of my
Beyond Etna Summit the Sawyers Bar Road began
its long, sinuous descent toward the Salmon River. We watched
for the turnoff to Taylor Lake on our left. In no more than
a half mile we encountered a narrow, single-lane gravel road
slashing steeply up the brushy mountainside. I slowed.
"That can't be it," Barbara
There was no other traffic, so I stopped in the
middle of the highway and unfolded the map. No signs had been
posted. Or, more likely, they had been torn down. The Scott
Valley mentality does not favor signs, preferring to keep local
"It's right where the road to Taylor Lake
ought to be," I said, holding out the map as proof.
"Do you see any other roads?"
"I don't want to go up there," Barbara
protested. "How would we turn around if we get stuck?"
"Let's just take a look," I said, easing
off the highway. "I'll take it slow."
"I don't like this."
Encroaching branches squealed against the van
until the forest opened. The path started steep and grew steeper.
After crawling thought the first few curves, the road improved,
with asphalt laid down in the steepest segments to prevent spinning
wheels and erosion. It was obviously a well-traveled route.
In two miles, at a steep hairpin turn, we arrived at the Taylor
Lake trailhead (N 41 22' 04.4", W 122 58' 29.0", 6444
feet). It sported new asphalt with freshly striped parking slots.
Bulldozed into the hillside were an information kiosk, a picnic
table, and a pit toilet, complete with a blue-lined handicapped
tow-away zone. Very modern.
We had been driving five hours, and it felt good
to dismount. We counted seven cars at the trailhead. As we read
the usual notices and bear warnings posted on the kiosk, a man
and woman with a dog came down the trail from the lake and informed
us that there was no one up there. Since we had stuffed our
backpacks at home, we were pretty much ready to go.
The half-mile trail into Taylor Lake was wide
and smooth enough for a wheelchair. It contoured through a fir
forest above Taylor Creek and gained only 150 feet. We weren't
even breathing hard when we arrived at the lake's brushy north
shore. I felt fine, like I could have kept going for miles.
The trail petered out at a rather shabby campsite behind a thick
screen of shoreline alders, willows, and azaleas. Pale poles
of standing deadwood poked into a thinning canopy, reminding
me of neglected grave markers. Fallen timber criss-crossed the
forest floor like jackstraws, making reconnaissance tricky.
dropped our packs and blundered around hypoglycemically in search
of a better campsite. The best one lay across a gauntlet of
fallen logs beside the outlet stream. It appeared to be a popular
spot. A large, pink, plastic donut box, balanced atop the fire
pit, testified to the impaired sensibilities of recent weekend
day-hikers. The campsite was breezy and damp, but in the tines
of late afternoon sun, it was not yet cold. We set up camp there
(N 41 21' 50.0", W 122 58' 14.2", 6601 feet), then
ate sandwiches for an early supper.
After dinner we dipped water from the outlet
stream and attempted to sterilize it with our newfangled UV-style
Steripen. It didn't work well. After a half-dozen attempts,
we managed to purify only a quart. This did not bode well for
a longer expedition into Paynes Lake, so we decided to hike
back to the van to get our conventional Katadyn water filter.
The pump filter might be heavier, squirt a bit, and leak at
the seams, but at least we could count on it.
With our tent, pads, sleeping bags, and cooking
gear already deployed in the woods, it seemed weird and disorienting
to return so easily to the van. Like crossing back and forth
between watersheds. Reality shifted from wilderness dirt camping
to the paved comfort of van camping, complete with a pit toilet,
picnic table, and queen-sized bed. We left the doughnut box
by the outhouse. Then we discovered another of civilization's
anguishes, a fresh dent in the rear door of our otherwise unmarked
It took only ten minutes to return to Taylor
Lake, where we found a strange, grizzled old geezer and his
dog in our campsite. Briefly we exchanged greetings before they
disappeared back down the trail. Nothing appeared to be missing.
the June solstice, evening stretches itself like a waking cat,
so we exploited the lingering sunlight to explore the lake's
east shore in search of a trail up to the PCT. As we emerged
from the brush, we finally got our first unobstructed view of
Taylor Lake. It was a lovely alpine lake, long and narrow, filling
a rough granite cirque. Manzanita grew on the upper slopes,
and pockets of tall timber tried to climb out of the basin.
It was a splendid destination, particularly in light of the
short hike in. No wonder the locals sought to keep it to themselves.
We followed a use trail around the long eastern
shore to a primitive campsite in a tall grove beside the water.
Above the campsite, we encountered several use trails meandering
up the ledges of bedrock and scree toward a prominent cleft
in the eastern wall. No single route seemed more heavily trodden
than the others. None was the route up to the ridge,
but since they all seemed to converge in the steep arroyo looming
above us, we could probably follow any one up.
that?" Barbara wanted to know when we returned to camp.
She pointed to an odd rock structure caught in the slanting
rays of yellowing sunlight, downstream beside the creekside
trail. It looked like a monument, or some sort of loading dock
hand-built from granite boulders. On closer investigation, we
saw that it was a wall, the eastern toe of a dam, catastrophically
breached by the stream, which now babbled obliviously through.
On the shallow swale of the valley floor the wall stood ten
feet high at the middle and stretched a hundred feet to the
western ridge. How could we have overlooked it earlier?
Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to raise
the lake, probably to impound water for hydraulic gold mining
at the Taylor Lake Mine downstream. But the water had washed
a big gap in the dam and won back its preferred level. Nature,
wielding the mallet of blind time, had prevailed against man's
narcissistic fabrication, as no doubt she ever will. I found
the thought comforting. We would encounter similar structures
at other lakes later in the summer.
followed a path down along the base of the dam, then continued
up a fisherman's trail to the western shore. The long view eastward
across the lake gave me a different perspective of the notch
on the opposite ridge that we would have to climb through the
following morning. But I still could not make out a trail.
All night long a wind blew, damp and chilly.
We had to close the tent fly flap as the temperature dropped
into the low 40s. When we arose on Tuesday morning, the wind
and chill pierced to our marrow. It took forever to bring our
water pot to a boil. With numb fingers we stripped down our
campsite and loaded our backpacks.
We began our hike out of Taylor Lake at ten in
the morning and soon found a use trail into the gully that looked
to be a reasonable route up to the ridge and the PCT. The scramble
up the canyon was steep and scary in places, but easier than
attempting to pierce the thick manzanita that bearded the sheer
cliff face. A
maze of tracks crossed and recrossed the loose rock and talus,
which seemed to be tumbling down in frozen motion. We became
a part of the geological process. One step forward, place weight
on the upper foot, then drag the talus and stone back down half
a step. Repeat. And repeat again. Slowly, carefully, so we would
not create an avalanche, nor stumble and pitch over backwards
down the rocky chute.
Obsessively I monitored my heart, climbing slowly,
trying always to stay within my breathing. Barbara labored steadfastly
beside me. We stopped often to catch our breath and watch Taylor
Lake recede into its glaciated bowl.
In a grove of gnarled mountain mahogany we finally
topped the ridge (see Opening Photo).
The Pacific Crest Trail lay out before us like a dusty doormat
straddling the divide (N 41 21' 50.2", W 122 57' 51.0",
7029 feet). On the horizon to the east, Mt. Shasta greeted us.
I gazed across the Scott Valley to Shasta's snowy pyramid, drawing
in the long, deep breaths of a healthy animal. My heart thumped
rapidly, but not abnormally. I had climbed an impossible slope
with a forty-five pound pack on my back without bursting a single
artery. I had crossed a divide back into a familiar world. My
vigor had not faltered. My stamina had not betrayed me. Robust!
Alive! At the top of the world, I was alive! I wanted
to beat my chest like King Kong.
Barbara, too, was exhilarated at having conquered
the ridge. The hardest part was now behind us. But once was
enough. "I don't want to go back down that way," she
"Can we find another way back to the van?"
"We'll take a look at the map when we get
to Paynes Lake," I promised.
Pacific Crest Trail had been blasted into the nearly vertical
east face of the Russian Peak Pluton. This was a landscape of
towering spires and varnished vertical cleavers, of jagged white
rock faces and deep alpine lakes, stretching from Bingham Lake
in the south all the way to Taylor Lake in the north. But for
the few trails gouged into the rock, this was a land utterly
inaccessible to the casual cross-country hiker. Impressive and
exposed, the PCT here had been chiseled across a rugged escarpment
of mesozoic granite.
We climbed the trail southward, still needing
to gain several hundred feet of altitude before we could drop
into the Paynes Lake drainage. In an alpine rock garden above
the trail Barbara was thrilled by the bright pink flowers of
Siskiyou Bitterroot (Lewisia cotyledon). What should
have been an easy trek stretched out endlessly under the blazing
sun, reflected doubly from the granite slickrock. In one place
we had to scramble around a mountain hemlock bent low over the
trail by winter snows. We ate lunch on the trail, and stopped
often. No trail signs guided us, except for a single ugly tin
marker on a steel fence post warning that the wilderness was
"closed to motor vehicles, motorized equipment, hang gliders,
and bicycles." But we already knew that.
At a stream crossing we stopped to refill our
water bottles. We set down our backpacks, but even free of their
weight, we both felt a bit wobbly. A wave of lightheadedness
washed over me, and I sat down. As Barbara carried a quart of
water back for purification, the toes of both her boots caught
in a rocky rise in the trail, and she pitched forward face-first
onto a slab of rock. Her right knee was bruised, but fortunately
nothing else was injured but her dignity. The fall shook us
both up, so we indulged in a long break and a granola bar.
As we neared the lake, an unmarked path forked
up the slope to our right, and we had to consult the GPS to
make sure that the left fork was the correct route. When we
descended around a shoulder of the mountain, we saw at last
in the distance a slash of green water sparkling in a forested
The PCT curved south to cross the outlet stream
beneath Paynes Lake as it began its cascade down into the Scott
Valley. But before the crossing we turned off on a spur trail
climbing to the northeast shore of the lake. We arrived around
two in the afternoon, unexpectedly spent. We dropped our backpacks
on the lightly forested slope and looked around. Here, near
the outlet, we had camped with our large group many years ago.
But the fire rings of the old campsites had been broken up and
permanently retired by the environmentally obsessive hand of
the little ranger. Times had changed.
South across the lake, patches of forest filled
the gullies. A few hardy renegade trees climbed the steep, white
slopes of the bare granite bowl. We would find no level campsites
there. The north shore sagged southward, and the lake arced
west around the forested bulge, which blocked our view of the
far end. Above it, in the distance, a white granite massif loomed,
peaked by a jagged spire.
saw and heard no one else.
Barbara rested while I climbed the hummock of
the north shore in search of a comfortable campsite. I encountered
a couple of exposed fire rings that had been cobbled together
on uneven ground, probably on a crowded weekend by latecomers
desperate to find a place to spread their sleeping bags. I hoped
for something a bit more alluring.
At a high point halfway across the bouldery peninsula,
I found four men puttering around a well-established campsite.
Three tents had been erected, and backpacks hung from the trunks
of stout trees. A clean-cut fellow was showing his teenaged
son something about rigging a fishing pole. Behind them two
elderly gentlemen puttered with tin dishes near the fire ring.
"Any other campsites further along this
way?" I called out to the father.
"There's another good one over that way,"
he pointed toward the west end of the lake. "Plenty of
rock furniture. We almost took that one." He seemed cordial.
The boy remained silent.
"You going to be here long?"
"We came in yesterday," he responded.
"I think we're gonna leave on Friday."
That meant they would outlast us, since we were
planning to hike out Thursday. Oh well. At least they looked
to be quiet company. "Thanks."
I found the campsite, and it was indeed a good one. Remote and
exclusive, it lay at the northwest corner of the lake beneath
the towering headwall. Flat
slabs of granite had been stacked together to form a workmanlike
table and chairs. The fire pit was big and clean, and a log
had been propped up as a bench for the evening singalong. Between
the lake and the headwall, past a narrow hedgerow of alders
and serviceberry, a broad swath of meadow rose and curved northwest
toward a steep canyon. A shallow creek trickled down the green
sward, probably from the Albert Lakes unseen in the rock above.
Further along, beneath the headwall and across the lake, sharp
blocks of granite appeared to offer no level accommodations.
The meadow would be perfect for birding in the morning. We were
lucky the four men had chosen the more fisherman-friendly spot.
hiked back to get Barbara, and we toted our backpacks to the
new campsite (N 41 20' 34.3", W 122 57' 45.5", 6526
feet). She was thrilled with it. We unloaded our packs, set
up the tent, and I strung our hammocks in trees beside the lake.
The healthy forest contained a diversity of trees:
incense cedar, red fir, white fir, white pine, lodgepole pine,
mountain hemlock, Brewer spruce, quaking aspen, alder, service
berry, manzanita, and flowering current. A few stood as ghostly
deadwood, and others had already fallen. Alder thickets lined
the lake shore and followed the creek as it ascended through
the lush, broad, grassy meadow.
That evening as we sat beside the lake, we watched
an osprey fishing, alas, without success. We wondered why so
many cars were parked at the trailhead. Except for the four
fishermen, who remained unseen and unheard as darkness fell,
there was no one else around.
Wednesday was a day to rest and recuperate. We
sat beside the lake for morning meditation and watched the osprey
finally catch a fat trout for breakfast. A scrim of yellow tree
pollen floated on the silver water like the film of delusion
we sought to pierce. I pondered the "inner fish" of
flashing thoughts that rose up endlessly to the rippling surface
of my mind. The osprey was like the self, perched above and
desperately seeking to snare those thought-fish.
We decided to stay near the lake and just enjoy
the day. The father and son from the fishermen's camp passed
through our camp carrying plastic bottles and a pump. They were
off to fetch water from the creek beneath the headwall, which
they claimed to be the best source of clean drinking water.
the day warmed we crossed the meadow to dip water from the stream,
then climbed the gentle slope into the upper meadow in search
of a trail up to Albert Lakes. We encountered corn lilies, larkspur,
phlox, Indian paintbrush, succulents with pink flowers, and
tiny blue and white pea-shaped flowers in the grass. All paths
dead-ended in the impenetrable alder thicket that choked the
valley floor. The trail to Albert Lakes probably began on the
rocky slope above our camp or at the base of the headwall. Not
that we intended to make the climb. I had been there on our
previous visit, when Mr. Popper led the group up to the lakes
and on to an overview of Big Blue Lake beyond. Barbara had chosen
instead to dayhike on the PCT by herself to Lipstick Lake further
south. But that was years ago, and all detail was lost in the
fog of time.
Back at camp, we examined the map for an alternative
route back to the van. The steep off-trail canyon dropping to
Taylor Lake would be even more dangerous scrambling down than
coming up. Going up, the loose scree and rock was right before
our hands, and a misstep might lead to a skinned knee. But going
down, we would have to stretch a toe far down the slope for
our next step, and a misstep might lead to a head-over-heels
The map showed the PCT continuing north beyond
the Taylor Lake cutoff. It wound around the north slope of a
7632-foot peak between Taylor and Smith Lakes, to intersect
in less than two miles the trail over the crest to the Ruffey
Lakes. That trail led downhill to the west about a mile to a
gate and a blacktop road, a half mile above where we had parked
the van. Although more than two miles longer, the route was
all on trails and looked far safer. We agreed to take it. Having
seen little snow, even on north-facing slopes, we ignored the
possibility that the route might be impassable.
That afternoon the two older gentlemen from the
fisherman's camp passed through our site on their way back from
the Albert Lakes. Both wore side-arms and carried daypacks and
walking sticks. One wore a Harley-Davidson motorcycle T-shirt,
and we never got his name. The other was named Lawrence. They
looked tired and explained they had gone the wrong way, too
high, and had to drop down through the brush to the lakes.
We welcomed them, and they sat down on boulders
to palaver for a while. They were from Fortuna and were camping
with Harley-T-shirt's son-in-law, Loren, and his son
from Redwood City. They all planned to hike out on Friday. We
talked of many things: backpacking, the route back, walking
for health, and the airplane that roared low overhead the previous
night. They were avid fishermen and had been backpacking together
for more years than either could remember. Last night they had
eaten rainbow trout.
I brought up the subject of open-heart surgery.
I couldn't help myself. They, however, had backpacked the previous
year with an acquaintance who had undergone a triple by-pass
a mere three months earlier. He had been a little slow,
and they had worried about him, but he had done just fine. My
own plight no longer seemed so interesting.
"How old are you fellows?" I asked.
"If you don't mind my asking,"
"I'm 69," said Harley. "And Lawrence
here is 79. Isn'at right, Lawrence?"
"At's right. 79."
"An' we' been to all the lakes in the Marbles,
and most of the lakes in the Russians. Right Lawrence?"
They moseyed on back to their camp, and we fetched
water. That afternoon two ladies and a dog arrived and set up
camp on the other side of the outlet stream at the eastern end
of the lake, too far away to impact us. That evening we celebrated
my birthday with almond cake and freeze-dried ice cream. Later
it grew windy, so we crawled into the tent around nine, sleepy,
but determined to get an early start for the trek out.
Thursday morning we were up by six, heating water
for our tea and mocha. The weather was fine. We took time to
enjoy the beauty of the lake before striking camp. Then we strapped
on our backpacks and left camp around ten, intending to follow
the PCT past the cutoff down to Taylor Lake and on to the Ruffey
Lake's trail, thence to our van via the old jeep road.
Lawrence and Loren were taking down their tents.
They had revised their own plans and were also preparing to
leave that morning, and, like us, take the Ruffey Lakes route
back, because the way down to Taylor Lake was so steep. Harley
was going to scramble down the Taylor Lake cutoff to the parking
lot by himself, get their truck, and drive it up the jeep road
to pick them up at the gate to the Ruffey Lakes trail.
"Have you ever gone that way before,"
I asked Lawrence.
"Oh sure. Lot's o' times. It's a good trail.
But be sure t'look for the turnoff just below the long switchback."
"Switchback? On the PCT?"
"Sure." He flapped his Forest Service
map, which was newer than mine. "Right as you come down
got on the trail ahead of them, climbed out of the Paynes Creek
canyon, and hiked north once again into the spectacular slickrock
granite of the east face, enjoying views of Mt. Shasta, Mt.
McLoughlin, and the Scott Valley. I felt as strong as ever.
The wilderness had rejuvenated me. Though I might indeed drop
dead on the trail (as might any of us), I would return from
the wilderness (if I returned at all) a stronger man. Again
and again, until it all ended.
I thought of Harley and Lawrence. Sixty-nine
and seventy-nine years old, and still backpacking merrily along.
I liked them and enjoyed their company, but I would get no sympathy
from them. Which raised the prickly question of why I might
be seeking sympathy? For my age? For my heart? For my
mortality? Which in turn brought to mind a passage from Rainer
Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies that has haunted and perplexed
me for half a century. Rilke was addressing those who died young
(jenen jungen Toten) when he wrote:
"What do they require of me? That I should
the appearance of suffered injustice, that hinders
a little, at times, their purely-proceeding spirits."
Perhaps I finally understood. I was going to
have to suck it up and stop my whining.
At the Taylor Lake cutoff we paused to rest,
take photos, and confirm our decision to go back on the Ruffey
Lakes trail. One look down the loose scree and rock and it was
a no-brainer. It was still a bit early for lunch, so we hoisted
our packs and continued north on the PCT.
climbed onto a vast cirque of granite slickrock into which the
trail had been blasted, and soon passed above Smith Lake, glimmering
turquoise in its stark white bowl far below. In the shade of
a lonesome mountain hemlock we found a relatively flat spot
with a long view out across the Scott Valley, and stopped for
lunch. We had climbed 600 feet out of Paynes Lake, dropped to
the Taylor Lake cutoff at 7029 feet, and now had climbed another
200 feet. We still needed to drop 800 feet to the trailhead.
Smith Lake the PCT continued to climb the stark east face until
it swung westward onto the forested north slope. There, in the
perennial north-facing shade, a series of steep snow banks blanketed
the trail, hugging the mountainside above a stark drop off.
We propped our packs in the middle of the trail, because there
was no other level ground to hold them.
We were sorely ill-prepared. No crampons. No
ropes. No ice axes to arrest an uncontrolled glissade down the
nearly vertical slope. After some discussion and disbelief,
I went ahead to scout. Gingerly I crossed the first couple of
avalanches by kicking toeholds into the tilted snow domes with
my boots. Even without a backpack, it made me uneasy. I hoped
the toeholds would not crumble and I would neither slip nor
lose my balance. I made it maybe a hundred feet, but the snow
ahead looked even worse.
I made my way back to Barbara. We could probably
make it, I told her, but the consequences of a slip could be
severe. Barbara judged the snowy route to be too dangerous.
The scramble down to Taylor Lake appeared to be the lesser of
evils. I concurred.
We backtracked to the cutoff down to Taylor Lake.
Since we had encountered none of our fishermen friends, we left
them a note under a rock at the PCT junction to warn about the
snow ahead. Then we plunged back down the gulch. The descent
over the loose rock and scree was slow and tested new muscles,
but we made it down without serious injury.
Our old campsite on Taylor Lake had been cleaned
up, by the ranger we presumed. Even the old cans had been removed
from the fire pit. At the trailhead we saw the ranger's truck,
but no ranger. As we rested and sorted and packed our gear,
two groups arrived to dayhike into Taylor Lake. Except for their
cars, the ranger's truck, and our van, there were no other vehicles.
What, we wondered, had happened to the four fishermen from Paynes
Lake? We will likely never know. We drove back to Etna, then
headed north to Yreka to find a motel and clean up.
We stopped at a supermarket in Yreka. There,
as I watched a rotund, unremarkable woman emerge from a canyon
of bright yellow, blue, and red packages and slowly push her
gleaming wire cart past the meat case, her head canted thoughtfully
as she examined the display of cellophane-wrapped slabs of dead
animal, I had a strange experience. It was an epiphany of sorts,
both unsettling and enlightening. The floor was smooth. Black-and-white
rectangles of linoleum tile shimmered beneath a grid of bright
fluorescent tubes that left no shadow. The air conditioning
whispered a long, dreamlike sigh. The store had no windows,
but if it had, they would have looked out upon the flat asphalt
parking lot with dazzling chromed automobiles mustered into
rectilinear white stripes. The woman moved comfortably through
the store's strange asepsis without awareness of its artificiality,
without grasping its remoteness from the natural world that
had given her birth.
I smiled. I choked back an urge to laugh out
loud. I was staring into yet another watershed. From where I
stood, memories of stark granite cliffs still reflected in the
calm waters of an alpine lake. The stone-strewn soil was still
dusty and irregular, challenging my steps. Above, the starkly-needled
branches of a red fir still vibrated against an achingly blue
sky, like a vision from a Henry Rousseau painting. The beeping
of a red-breasted nuthatch echoed in my ear. In my vivid remembrance,
I still lingered within the natural wilderness, gazing in amazement
across an incomprehensible divide into a sterile man-made world
where automatons weaved and bobbed like bright mechanical rabbits
in a shooting gallery.
We are always crossing from watershed to watershed.
Such, it seems, is our destiny. From the sterile green-toned
walls of the hospital recovery room to the driver's seat of
a three-ton camper van. From the perilous granite ledge above
a bowl of sparkling blue water to the air-conditioned sterility
of this supermarket aisle. I had come full circle.
Two centuries earlier a Zen monk named Kobayashi
Issa (1763-1828) summed it all up with the following haiku:
"From one bathtub
to another bathtub--
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