Fifty at Ten Thousand Feet

March 1st, 2016 by EJB

I wrote this some years ago – I’m well past 50 now, miracle of miracles – but it’s always been well received by others who approach that ominous year. I’ve decided to put it on Medium (link forthcoming) so I’m updating it here first.

The view from Mono Pass exhilarates but I’m on deadline. The map says four more miles to Walker Lake, cobalt blue and three thousand feet below me, but the trail looks longer. Much longer. Nearly two in the afternoon now, at four my friend Jeff and his car will be waiting for me near the locked gate beyond Walker’s eastern end. Jeff being Jeff, he will be worrying by 4:30.

Meeting my ride is not my only deadline on this day in California’s Sierra Nevada. This is the last hike I will take before I turn 50. An odd tension comes with this milestone, one I am having a hard time defining.

The trail to Mono Pass begins at Yosemite’s Tioga Road, a mile inside the park’s east entrance. This is the high country. The trail head is near 9500 feet, circles Mount Gibbs, a shale-heap of a peak at 12,775 feet, then tracks the edge of an enchanted meadow between Gibbs and Mount Lewis, a solid granite summit on the passes’ south side just a few feet lower than Gibbs. A four mile walk brought me to the 10,604 foot pass itself. The trail is an easy one if you discount the altitude.

I’ve been here before. I have watched deer feed on the meadow’s rich summer grass, waded the streams of the Tuolomne’s headwaters and scooped the dry high-altitude snow defying the strong summer sun. I know the awe of being alone in this magical place. After those hikes, I returned to my car, parked by the bear-proof containers on Tioga Road. Today, thanks to Jeff’s offer of a ride and that sense of pressure, I will continue on, climbing down Bloody Canyon into the honed desert shadows of the Sierra’s eastern slopes.

My stride is different today: aware, with less bounce than usual. The heady euphoria I feel in these mountains is now toned by a sense of caution, an urge to proceed precisely and avoid mistakes. I feel like I have something to prove, though there is not a soul around to prove it to. Does fifty bring this caution, I wonder? Or is it just the unfamiliar descent ahead?

The meadow between the peaks is painted in alpine pastels, the snow gone except in the shadows of Lewis’s north face. The dry ground makes walking easier but I worry: it is too early for it to be so parched on this day before Summer Solstice. Already the snow-fed ponds are shrunk to mud by the sun. In days, these pinks and purples and yellows and whites will be a uniform burnt brown.

If I hadn’t climbed part way up Mount Gibbs I wouldn’t be running late. Why did I do that? I had no hope of reaching the top. The shale deposited by some epochal glacier makes a groomed trail up Gibbs impossible. Those who make its summit do so one rock at a time, not a type of hiking I enjoy. Was it that odd number, 50, that drove me the extra 800 feet above the pass? No other explanation presents itself. I should have reached the pass’s ridgeline by noon. Instead it was after one when I sat down, here on the Sierra’s divide, to eat my sandwich facing the Great Basin’s desert.

The reward for reaching Mono Pass is a view of lakes stepping down into infinity, each larger than the last. Upper Sardine Lake, the first, just a few dozen feet below me, is followed by its near twin, Lower Sardine: two alpine ponds terraced and landscaped like expensive pools. Walker Lake, larger and partly man-made, is a half-mile below. Miles to the east is the salty inland sea, huge and sacred, known as Mono Lake. From Mono Pass the beauty of the world can be seen.

What changes will 50 bring to these adventures of mine? Like so many of my generation, I manage to carry on the activities of youth well past the age my parents turned old. What ahead of me will feel different from this moment? Something will, this I know. But when? And will I again find myself surprised by shifting importances? The wilder intoxications of youth have lost their charm over the years; in their place are subtleties I struggle to grasp.

An impulse to leave the trail leads to a difficult descent from Upper to Lower Sardine Lakes and the loss of another forty-five minutes. I chose the shortcut because I must walk the perfect green crescent of Lower Sardine’s shore. To get there I must climb down more rocks. The trail I ignore takes a gentler route, bypassing most of the lake. I can’t get lost, I tell myself. I can see the path and everywhere I need to go. But I don’t count on the steepness of the ridge and the inexhaustible supply of chipped rock. The shortcut is a mistake but I am half way down and it is no use turning back. Not getting lost is not the same as knowing how you will arrive.

The only person I see all day I passed two hours ago and he turned his back to me. As I pick my way down the rocks I think of the consequences of something so minor as a sprained ankle. So I slip of course at the very bottom, bounding off the rocks onto the narrow green shore. A small cut, a bruise, nothing serious. Looking around me I find a patch of dream-red columbine with throats a perfect pale yellow next to a small waterfall. I sit among the flowers for long minutes and marvel, near tears. I would have missed this columbine had I stayed with the path.

Milestones like decades and millenniums mean nothing, of course. Not really. Mere human convention: arbitrary marks on an arbitrary calendar. And yet those marks mean everything to us. Assaulted by memory, we are compelled to remember what has gone and wonder at what lays before. We cannot help ourselves. We invent time then imprison ourselves inside it.

Ascent requires lung power and thighs. Descent is all about knees and ankles and balance. Descending 2500 feet in two miles, my knees ache and my ankles wobble. The trail from Lower Sardine to Walker is an endless snake of tiny, rock strewn switchbacks. Forget about balance: I can’t get up a stride. John Muir, who spent a lifetime in these mountains, described Bloody Canyon as one of the Sierra’s more difficult descents. It wearied him more than once, but I won’t learn this bit of history until later. Do 30 year old knees rebel at such punishment? I can’t remember. I didn’t hike much at 30. It didn’t seem important.

Walker Creek plummets down the canyon with me. I am surrounded by waterfalls flowing in impossible ways, one even flowing sideways where a huge lump of granite interferes with the water’s natural course.

Deadlines, deadlines: I hurry more and enjoy the wonder around me less. Like life, I guess. Walker and Mono Lakes appear and disappear as I round the switchbacks. I will be late. The only thing troubling me more than worrying Jeff is him leaving for help before I get there. Highway 395 and any hope of another ride is miles beyond our rendezvous point and there is no other traffic. My two liters of water is running out.

Turn twenty and all before you is freedom and the glorious – so we pretend to remember it, though it does not seem so at the time. Thirty is the first shock. Youth’s mirror shatters at 30 and nothing restores the illusion. Still, denial makes our thirties possible, wonderful even. “I may not be young anymore,” we tell ourselves, “But I am definitely not old.” At 40, the denial wears thin, but curiously, the decade of the 40s are OK for most of us. ‘Better’ still comes with ‘older’ at 40. And then I understand what it is about 50.

The last 500 feet down to Walker are a gym’s treadmill. I walk and walk yet the lake comes no nearer. Finally, exhausted, sore, thirsty, I make the shore. It is after 4, Jeff is waiting. Walker Lake is a mile long and the road to the gate an unknown distance beyond. Still, I allow myself five minutes’ rest on the lake shore, picking a view looking back at Bloody Canyon’s wall and Mono Pass. Mosquitoes change my plans however and I am on my feet again after little more than a minute.

Walker Lake is private. There are no facilities, only a wide assortment of “no trespassing” signs. I lose the trail in the woods and am forced back to the water’s edge to find the road I know starts at the lake’s east shore. I pass an area littered – literally – with beat-up trailers and electric cables crisscrossing the forest floor. It looks like a site for clandestine government experiments. I make the road at 4:30.

At fifty you know one thing unmistakably: there is an end to this.

Fifty doesn’t mean the end of hikes. It’s not the end of the excitement brought on by a new project or a new love or a vista overlooking the perfect edge of the world. It doesn’t mean an end to joy or sorrow or beauty or ugliness or delight or determination. Physically, 50 feels like 49 or 45 or even 39 if you are lucky. Fifty tells you, merely and profoundly, just this: life, hikes, breathing, sore knees, indecision, losing the trail and finding columbine, all this will for you one day end. You understand this viscerally at 50. You understand you never before believed it. Before, endings happened to others, not to you. At 50, you know no exceptions are given.

The graded road to the gate is harder than I expect and I am weary. I have only a few swallows of water left. If Jeff is not waiting I will have to drink from Walker Creek, now following the road on its way to Mono Lake. I don’t look forward to a bout of parasitic giardia, or worse, its awful cure.

Every few minutes I check my watch. 5 o’clock is close. At each bend in the road I promise myself the gate will appear. Each bend disappoints. The sun is hotter than it has been all day. I am below 8,000 feet and in the desert now.

A few minutes after the hour I see the gate. A car is stopped by it – it is not Jeff’s – and a man is removing the lock. As I pass by, he and a woman in the car say hello. They are the first people I have seen since the solitary camper at the top of the pass. I nod, too thirsty to speak. A few hundred feet further, at the shady spot between the creek and the road, I see Jeff’s white Honda and sigh in relief.

Strangely – maybe not so, I think – most of the people past 50 I ask, the thinking ones, anyway, say they would turn down a drink from the fountain of youth if with it came the forgetting of the lessons hard learned over decades of life lived. I think I will feel the same.

“Push endings off all you can!” An article of faith for my generation. “Exhilarate in this moment! Then this one and then the next and the one after! We have more possibility than any others in human history – never let it go!” At 50, you know the possibilities will end. But not yet, I think. With luck, not yet. Not yet.

Jeff is much relieved to see me. “Another fifteen minutes, and I was going for help,” he says. There’s an extra bottle of water in the back seat. I drain it. Jeff offers me a cookie, and we drive off for June Lake, a shower and a meal.

Fifty at Ten Thousand Feet
is published with a Creative Commons license. You can print the essay but you can’t rewrite it and  you can’t publish it without contacting me.

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