I was fortunate to spend some days in Lake County's Snow Mountain Wilderness a couple of months ago with a group of backpacking buddies. It does a body and mind good to be in the wild, soaking in all that nature offers. And that's the key: though nature offers her gifts, it's up to us to receive them with gratitude and reverence. Amid all our guffaws, cut-ups, caterwauling, intemperate jocularity and addled conversation, invariably one of us would pause, look around and comment upon the salience of the surrounding mountains, the diversity of flora, the dance of a fence lizard or the trill of a darting Clark's nuthatch.
It's what I love most about this fine group of outdoorsmen. We can be off on an inviolate destination, as men are wont to have, but suddenly someone sees a delicate and lovely flower, and we're all down on our knees admiring and photographing it. In one moment, we're snorting over the ignominious release of intestinal flatulence, and in the next we're discussing the pleasures of Chopin and Bach.
We like our gin and Irish whiskey, our coffee and smoke, but also savor a good green tea and a heady, fair-trade dark chocolate, fresh blueberries and a plump English banger. One of our guys brought a kite, and was happy and carefree as a 12-year-old while flying it at 7,000 feet. He also argued the finer points of economic socialism around the fire, while the next day I and another of our blokes got into a heated debate over the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, verbally punching and counterpunching but ending with a good ol' bona fide California hug. If only the Jews and Arabs could do the same: agree to disagree, and then live and let live.
The area where we were is considered one of the best-preserved ecological spots in California, and that sightings of bear, wildcat and rattlesnakes are not uncommon. Two in our group did see, and almost stepped on, two rattlesnakes, but the rest of us were content, quite content, with wildflowers, birds and lizards, the names of which we are still searching for. I slept upon fir and pine boughs beneath my tent since I'd forgotten my sleeping pad in the car, the memory lapse possibly the result of a concussion after smacking my head on a tree branch a few weeks before while hiking in Berkeley. Bet you didn't know hiking is a contact sport.
We met a widely diverse bunch of people on and near the trail as well. The quality of a wilderness area depends ultimately on the people who visit and support it. People express themselves and their feelings about a place by where they spend their time and how they behave in those places. I did not see one piece of litter on any part of the wilderness we visited, and we went all the way to the top.
We met a 40-member Boy Scout troop from Pleasanton hiking in single file, as quiet as the mountain itself. We met a father and his four children taking a night hike, looking like a string of fireflies with their headlamps showing the way. We met a group of teens from the inner city, blacks and whites together, politely answering our greetings. We expected worse, and I'm sure it's there occasionally, but the people we came across were courteous, polite and friendly. That kind of consciousness protects not only the physical geography of a place, but its spiritual geography as well.
As California struggles with its economy, the governor line-item-vetoes possibly a hundred state parks into closure. A nickel rise in the gasoline tax, or a dime added to a pack of cigarettes would save them, indeed would save the soul of a state that considers closing these antidotes to modern life. But even without those mild measures, people care for and protect places like Snow Mountain. Let's give them further chances to shine, and find ways to keep the parks open.
Stephen Altschuler is a writer and hiker. He has written 'The Mindful Hiker,' 'Hidden Walks in the East Bay and Marin' and 'Sacred Paths and Muddy Places.' More of his work can be found at www.mindfulhiker.com.
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