Copyright © 2010 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Taylor and Paynes Lakes Backpack
Russian Wilderness
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 of immortality.

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 (see Shih 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.

Paynes 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 replumbed heart.

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 groaned.

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 places 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.

We 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 van.

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.

Near 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.

"What's 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.

I 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.

Exhilarated, 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 announced simply.

"Me neither."

"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.

The 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 bowl.

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.

We 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.

I 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.

As 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 tumble.

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?"

"‘At's right."

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 the ridge."

We 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 gently remove
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.

We 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.

Beyond 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--
all nonsense."

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