A love letter to the mountains


PImagine a human alone walking across the rocky expanse of a planet, talking to himself as he moves forward – a lone human alert to signs that it is a planetary surface, at “the speed”, as he puts it, “of the planet rolling under your feet”. It’s been science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson somewhere high in the southern Sierra Nevadas – “the heart of the range” – at almost any time in the last 49 years. He could be a sunwalker from his novel 2312but the planet is Earth, not Mercury, and the California sun will not incinerate it.

Robinson hikes off-trail and, as he writes in his new book, The High Sierra: A Love Story—his easy gait is a mode of being: “pedestrian and prosy”. He may be paying close attention to anything or nothing: his plantar fasciitis, a scattering of obsidian shavings at a Native American hewn site, the way the mountains “seem to glow from within, pulsate from within, “an internal light, under a sky as dark and solid as enamel. Or perhaps he consoles himself “with my usual sci-fi exercise”, imagining a scene elsewhere in time, reworking it in its mind until he could say, yes, “it had been like that”.

If you’re familiar with Robinson’s much-loved novels—The ministry of the future or the March trilogy, for example, you know the sound of his crisp, impersonal omniscience. But in The High Sierrait’s as if a carbon fiber panel in the wall of one of his novels opened up and took a step the best fabbro himself, a fit 70-year-old man from Davis, California, with a pair of walking sticks and a light backpack, eagerly waiting for the sunset for a little scotch, chilled, if possible, by a vestigial glacier splinter in a world he didn’t have to invent. The Robinson fluidity is there: the compact and mobile sentences; narrative ease; the technical detail. Prosy perhaps – he speaks to you directly – but literally a pedestrian.

His subject in The High Sierra is the landscape of “the best mountain range on Earth” and its effect on the human spirit. Psychogeology is Robinson’s term for it: the sensations and perceptions caused by exposed rock, light, thinner air at altitude – “hippie poet” stuff, in other words. John Muir, he writes, was one of the first “psychogeologists”. So it is with Robinson’s friend, Gary Snyder, and, of an earlier generation, the San Francisco poet, Kenneth Rexroth, who, like Robinson, “took a youthful journey into the High Sierra and fell in love with the place, and for the rest of his life went back as often as he could. But being a psychogeologist – even a hippie poet – necessitates, in Robinson’s mind, a way to stay real with the mountains, to find perceptual precision in the Sierra rather than getting lost in the easy whims of so much nature writing.

Jhe High Sierra is exoteric—attentive to the general reader, informative, open-minded. But it’s also very esoteric, best read with constant reference to a good set of topographic maps (or an app like CalTopo). Unless you know the Sierra as well as Robinson does – and few people do – you will find yourself geographically lost. (I don’t know how many Sierra place names there are above 10,000 feet between Hetch Hetchy in the north and Mount Whitney in the south, but I’m pretty sure Robinson uses them all.) somehow, being lost doesn’t matter. Will be The High Sierra mean more to readers who have seen Tehipite’s dome from below or who have camped on “the peninsula of crab claws that sinks into Cirque Lake”? Of course, it will also mean more to those who have read Emerson and Thoreau than to those who have not.

As a mountain walker, Robinson is what he is because that’s what the Sierras let him be. The range is atypical. It is a west-dipping batholith 450 miles long, 60 miles wide, and defined by distinctive basins, “the empty rock containers from the upper ends of glaciers that have now disappeared.” Basin floors are generally bare rock – “friendly” granite – good for walking, good for ponds and lakes, and running water.

The basins of the Sierra Nevada are its crucial aspect, its particularity. It’s about moving from geology to psychogeology, because what I mean here is that the basins are where you want to be as a walker and camper. They are the golden zone.

The basins are also the reason you can hike across country in the Sierra, unlike other mountain ranges, “where going off the beaten path is often a recipe for disaster.” Robinson’s advice? “Don’t go where the ice cream hasn’t gone!” Up there where the ice once went is where things get psychogeological, where time opens up and you realize “the rocks will be there for millions of years”, but the moment you live will not.

Exactly what kind of book is The High Sierra? I would call it fractally encyclopedic, borrowing from an expression – “thinking fractally” – that Robinson uses to describe the work of John Muir in his articles and books such as My first summer in the Sierra (1911) and The Yosemite (1912). What Robinson means is that Muir was always changing scale – comparing large to small, using Yosemitefor example, to signify both massive landform and intimate landform, even calling California’s Central Valley “a double yosemite”.

In The High Sierra, Robinson is constantly changing scales too – changing scale, subject, angle of attention, even genre. For a moment the book is memory. The next is the trail guide. Then there is the bibliography, the history, the ecological meditation and a discourse on the renaming of peaks and passes that have culturally unacceptable names. Robinson lets his thoughts scatter, then tracks them down wherever they have settled, much like a Sierra shepherd and his flock in the late 19th century. The High Sierra can be subtitled: A Miscellaneous— even though it’s a word we don’t use much anymore. Robinson records that the human mind is diverse and invites us to accept this fact.

Aliterary mong robinson background for The High Sierra is an unpublished manual that Kenneth Rexroth wrote for the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, circa 1939, called Camping in the Western Mountains. As The High Sierra, Camping in the western mountains is a special book. In a section titled “The Trail”, Rexroth lists “the three best camping and woodworking manuals that will ever be written”: Izaak Walton’s The complete fisherman (1653), Gilbert White The natural history of Selborne (1789) and John Bunyan The pilgrim’s journey (1678). Walton, Rexroth writes, is “full of misinformation about fish”, White is “primitive by modern standards”, and Bunyan “has only traveled into his own soul”. That is to say, these aren’t even remote camping and carpentry manuals. And yet there they are, three ancient Englishmen inches from that clear phrase: “Never wear anything on your belt but a cup, or anything slung around one shoulder.” Like Robinson, Rexroth has a cowardly spirit.

This quality of free members is what makes The High Sierra so attractive. But it is also something more. Robinson clearly accepts the limits of what nature’s writing can do, at least in his hands. After a great solo hike, he tries to describe it to a friend. But he discovers that “a day like this cannot be shared; that should not be their raison d’etre. For him, it’s a puzzle because he believes that “all human experience should be readable” – the premise of a novelist through and through and a guiding principle in The High Sierra.

Robinson is no stranger to epiphany; many of his early outings in the Sierra included an acid trip along the way. But he never tries to lead us into the experience of epiphany, however it manifests. He is mindful of his own emotions but willing to stand a little outside of them, not to diminish them but to understand how they complement his modest, all-pervading rationality. “When I’m in the Sierra,” writes Robinson, “I feel different and good. It is physical and spiritual. This feeling of elevation, of being uplifted…gives me an underlying calm, humming like a continuo beneath my thoughts. Point of The High Sierra is not to show us the author’s moments of transcendence. It’s to remind us that we can find our own transcendence just as Robinson did – “by following sandy paths winding through pine needles and broken stones, higher and higher, between tall trees at the rough bark that got smaller and more scattered until we were in a huge open space unlike anything in my life below.

Rationality is a word with a dry and ascetic feel. Maybe reasonableness comes a little closer to the spirit that animates The High Sierra. Sounds strange, I know, for a book whose purpose is to analyze Robinson’s “mad love” for the mountains. But it’s a way to capture the whole of his complex approach to the natural world: curious and emotional, thoughtful and immediate, long-term and short-term, appealing to all the variables of the human mind.

There is no Sinai in The High Sierra and no mountain from which a sermon is preached. There is only reflection and common sense, an openness to the experience of others and “the usual science fiction movement of looking at our time as future generations will see us”. The animals Muir called “our horizontal brothers and sisters” have lived in the Sierra for thousands of years, as have humans – a few, and mostly in the summer. Its landscape is now well known, its main trails crowded with hikers, and if anything, writes Robinson, “the range is a little too well described.” Of course, here I contribute to this process. But what Robinson also brings is a spirit of engagement with the natural world that is generous and liberating. “If it’s new to you, then you find out.”

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