Thursday, April 23, 2020—In the Eastern High Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the dry air smells of pine sap and granite dust. Hiking up the mountainside, at 9,000 feet altitude and higher, I round a bend, unexpectedly to come upon a waterfall. I stand in awe, mesmerized, watching it shift and lift and change, sonorous, a white lacey veil played by the fingers of the wind. I move on, tripping the light fantastic along the banks of a glacier lake, taking care not to stumble over the plumbing, the pipes running from that lake down to the next and the next, ultimately to supply water for the town of Mammoth Lakes and other California places. The long arm of mankind reaches into the backcountry.
Even so, the place is alive with nature mankind has not touched, yet. It is real, not virtual. All one has to do is be there, be among it. Glaciers, like the one that carved Yosemite Valley where the incense cedars grow along the green Merced, recede, recede. They feed the water that cascades with grace over the sheer cliff face. The ground beneath my feet shifts and even the formidable granite mountain walls grow with every earthquake, and there are many, mostly small, imperceptible tremors.
Unless you’re in a dark closet, be aware of your surroundings. Is your neighbor really cooking dog or does it just smell like that? I don’t know what they were cooking in that California apartment below me, but I didn’t want to eat it. Here, outside my window the vermillion dogwood leaves burnished by golden October sun, against a slate-gray wind cloud backdrop, quiver in the breeze surfeiting a corner of my mind with abundant beauty as I type this, filling the white page with black words in Times typeface.
In the High Sierra, sometimes I hiked with companions; sometimes I hiked alone. Always I listened, felt, watched, sensed, sniffed the air. The pine sap I touched made my fingers swell a little. High above, the sun glinted off an airplane, a silver sliver aloft in the blue, the singular sound of its jet engines in the high dry atmosphere, a sound that carries me back to the Sierra on the rare occasions the humidity is low here on the East Coast and I hear that sound again. Hiking in the Sierra, I didn’t take a cell phone, though always a camera, a bottle of water and a snack. The wildlife was different there from at home in Southern California; there were blue stellar jays, marmots and mule deer. The marmots resemble miniature bears, really miniature; I steered clear of real bears, which at close encounter appear way bigger than portrayed in photographs
Now, here, in middle Delaware, I take a walk on an autumn afternoon. I leave my cell phone home. With my face aglow in the light of the smart phone I’ve buried my nose in, I’d miss my natural surroundings—the golds and reds and browns of the fallen maple leaves and the dry, smoky aroma rising from them as I shuffle through them; the venerable bald cypress incensing my hair and ears and shoulders with exotic fragrance as I walk in the cathedral of its graceful arms and hear the chittering and chirping of the many, busy little lives sheltered deep within.
As I walk, I walk through the gateway joining earth and heaven. As I recall these times, I walk there still.
–Excerpted and developed from CXIV: “A Treat for the Senses,” October 24, 2013