Down, further down, and Out from Island Lake Basin


As I learned after my big, seven month trip from San Francisco to the Far West and beyond, transitions can be tricky.  All the rich experiences, encounters with physical challenges or heart-skipping beauty, can seem distant and yet present when channeling (what seems like) perpetual motion into the front seat of a car, then moving that car down a highway to an urban destination.  

I woke up early and had a good 45 minutes without the sun’s intensity.  My final session of zazen beside the lake was neither dramatic nor mundane: the phenomenal world subsided into the rhythms of steady breathing, and then it was just me and the moment, then the next one, and the one after that.  Nothing new, of course, since this teaching goes back over 2500 years. And yet to discover and experience it so many times in the course of a lifetime is humbling indeed.  

An hour to take down tent and get everything into my pack, moving it as tree shadows shrink and the sun rises higher.  Finally I’m ready to take a parting photo, heart in my throat due to the poignancy of the moment, and hit the trail.


I encounter people on the trail some 30 minutes later, three women with faces beet red, who appreciate my suggestion they follow the stone cairns that mark the trail rather than the stream trickling down granite.  A bit later, I am asked for directions by a thirty-six couple that seems exasperated.  They don’t have hats, sunglasses, or what appears to be adequate water…and the day is warming up.  They’re still a good hour from Island Lake, their stated destination.  “We got turned around by going too high on the granite, and wasted a lot of time.”  I can imagine their struggles, arguments, frustrations, and then relief at finding the main trail again.  So it goes.  


Shortly after this portrait at the boundary of the wilderness area, I head off trail to the sound of flowing water.  A stream flows over exposed granite, making a pleasant rest and lunch area that is not only scenic but melodic as well.  I relish dropping the pack and wading in the icy water.  It’s probably too late in the narrative to introduce a term that describes water reflections on nearby rocks, tree leaves, or the appropriately positioned human body.  I learned it years ago from my pal Fred Goss, while surveying a stream that ran through his rental property near Lawrence Kansas.  “Ahbazoobahs” seems more descriptive than “reflection” and so there you have it.



From this little oasis back to the car, the trail skirts the eastern rim of Wright’s Lake, an old resort cabin settlement that goes back to the 1930s.  Nothing is overstated or trampled down, and I’m happy to reach the end of carrying a pack that is wearing on my knees and shoulders.  The last bridge helps symbolise for me the transition that lies ahead: backroad to highway, highway to freeway, freeway to city and fog by the San Francisco bay.  


En route, the Friday afternoon commuters heading out of Sacramento and Vacaville astonish me with their numbers.  Going the opposite direction, no obstructions get in the way and I’m home by 5:30 p.m., after only about 2.5 hours on the road.  

Gratitude abounds.

The following image is also part of this most memorable trip, although it is the part that I will quite happily forget.



Island Lake, Last Evening Finale

In a span of about 3 hours, I am treated once again to an atmospheric range of moisture in the air: fog, mist, rain, hail, but no snow.  When I descended Mount Righteous, I stopped for a nap underneath a friendly deodar.  Clouds were moving fast but the sky was blue.  

30 minutes later, I woke to the sound of thunder and high-tailed it back to camp.  The first drops started falling as I kicked off my boots and slipped under the protective fly.  It was short-lived but intense, leaving in its wake a washed and sparkling Island Lake at twilight.  When the wind subsided, there was an exquisite hush on the surface of Island Lake, allowing landscapes and rockfalls and pine trees and stratus clouds to come into focus.  I thought of the reflections as a portal into another dimension, and thought it both worthy and worthwhile to document their transience.  




Sometimes I’d wait five minutes or more for the right moment of clarity, which would pass in a few seconds as another breeze stirred the surface.



So then it was dinner, a quick and quiet affair of rehydrated lasagna that just didn’t taste right.  I paused mid-way through to snap the moon coming over the Chrystal Mountain ridge.


If this was a video, I’d start with the moon and then zoom out to show the scene in full…with the moon just out of the picture to the extreme right (a shiny white glow in the sky).




An hour later, this amazingly gorgeous day ended beside a fire, dry wood a challenge to find but how fine to have the warmth and light.  The last drink of whisky, final mesquite almonds, the Big Dipper hanging vertically with a slight shift of my eyes.


And as if that wasn’t enough, a single shooting comet streaked across the eastern horizon.  I’d gotten up to relieve myself in the bushes by the lake, and had a fine view of the whole sky.  The moon was bright of course, but the comet insisted on calling attention to itself.  

Island Lake, Desolation Wilderness, August 2014

Ok, so it’s been awhile since posting on Far West Passage.  But a trip after a Trip matters, and I want to share some images more than anything else.  It’s not that these are great photos but they do document a rather unique moment in the high Sierra when tropical moisture found its way to the north state at an unusual time.  I can only think of one other trip–to Dinkey Lakes in 2007–when it rained even a little bit. But this time, wow!


The usual backpacking scenario is to drive to the mountains in the mid-afternoon, skirting through Sacramento before rush-hour and then getting on the trail for an hour or so in order to acclimate at a higher elevation.  Rain started outside of Pollock Pines and increased to a downpour by the time I reached the trailhead near Wright’s Lake.  My pack was ready to shoulder and hit the trail, and I suppose I could have done it had I been equipped for heavy rain.

Instead, I waited 45 minutes in the car, then returned to Hwy 50 and found a room at Strawberry Flats Inn.  A great decision, I must say.  I could sleep listening to the sound a stream behind the inn, enjoy a sandwich from Albany, and generally relax, hoping that the morning would let me hike in.


It did, but there were no mountains to admire.  Only a thick layer of clouds like a gauzy blanket draped upon the spectacular scenery.  No matter.  I had every confidence that, in a day or so, those clouds would lift and the grand show would begin.  My main concern was getting to Island Lake and setting up camp before it started raining again.  Fortunately, that’s exactly what I was able to do, with tent and supplies all secure by 1 p.m.  when the mist turned to little drops.  I was inside my cozy little tent, warm under a down sleeping bag, as it hailed, poured, thundered and flashed lightning.  Wonderfully dramatic!

My entertainment during this afternoon of rain and storm was Barry Lopez’ “Desert Notes” about a very different landscape, yet one still demanding attention, a suspension of personality, and great patience to perceive properly.  Any landscape has these prerequisites, even the high Sierra where beauty is abundantly visual and topographical, so much so that any sop can access moments of awe and delight.


The rain stopped around 4:30, allowing a quick reconoiter of the immediate vicinity, restaking the tent for the next battering, and preparing an early dinner.  By 8:00 heavy wet clouds descended, with light rain starting that lasted on and off all night.  Around 2 a.m., another downpour, but I was in dreamland and hardly noticed.


One of the themes of this trip was to disrupt “normal” (that is to say, predictable) time patterns that shape my life and experience.  Mainly, to slow down and appreciate the wonder of the moment in such a dramatic location was a noble and accessible goal.  To that end, I decided to write verse instead of a narrative, letting the lines, punctuation, and images take up as much time as a reader would allow.  There are clunkers and lumps of coal, but there are also a few that ring true and clear after several readings.


And then it was morning.  

On my first attempt at zazen,

sun crested the high eastern ridge

& was radiantly glorious

after last night’s storm,

leaving, in its wake,

flowing wisps of cloud.

Indeterminate, vapour really,  

sun warm on my cheeks

as breath slows down mind,

suddenly barking bursts forth

from very near camp.

Two coyotes with much to say

on opposite sides of Island Lake,

            the howls, yipping, barks and squeals

            went on for an hour

celebrating the fine morning

or a tasty chipmunk

to break the fast.




After 2 hours on the high shining granite

(just below the pass seen above)

I finally appreciate the hugely diverse ridges,

valley lakes, streams rushing musically

though they cry “drought” in the lowlands;

it’s time to leave rock and attend water,

survey wet worlds at 8500 ft.

and see what flows within.




Rivulet from high springs,

            underground snowmelt,

hosts lichen

colored charcoal

firmly rooted to the granite flume,

iridescent moss,

truly perfect,

            precisely alive.



Seated in zazen,

feet dangling in clear mountain lake,

a breeze flutters the surface.

Without leaving the premises

I try to breathe it in.


Eyes open, associations clear,

breath steady:

            the reflected cedars

            oscillate in harmony

with the sound-waves of the stream.


Not sure if I can say it

more simply than that

except to add

this all dazzles

on the mirror of the lake.


I make it back to camp around 2:30, clouds gathering and thunder distant.  My little tent provided all the shelter I need and I am safe and content as yet another storm rolls over the ridges and into the enormous bowl of Island Lake.  Bottom centre is my tent and campsite, not to be confused with boulders nearby.



On Wednesday, August 7th, I decide to make a run for the picturesque mountain to the north of Island Lake.  Its pyramid shape is dramatic and distinct, and on the previous day’s hike I surveyed just how I might reach the top.  The best route leads up the slope directly from my campsite.  With daypack, lunch, ample water, umbrella and poncho, I’m ready to start the ascent…which goes much faster than anticipated.  In 20 minutes, I’m on the ridge.  In 35, I’ve scrambled over huge boulders and now face the mountain’s steep upward slope.  In another 20, I’m scrambling out of scrub pine tree groves and stepping onto the lichen rocks that comprise the summit.  In all directions, the clouds are distant and the views sublime.



Like most mountains in California and elsewhere, a summit log book is protected within a metal box once used to hold bullets.  This particular log book is unique and entertaining, started by a person skilled in graphic arts and ready to show them off.  There are sketches of mountains, roads in valleys, a truck filled with gear, then a page that christens the mountain with the name of “Righteous Mountain.”  I like it because it shows creativity and resolve, unlike many of the boring names that ancient surveyors imposed.  


But another party wants to claim the mountain for a dearly departed friend, naming it Mt. Ryan and announcing that, “call it what you will, the official name of this mountain is…”  

Shortly after that, I read another entry that skewers both names: “I hearby dub this mountain Mt. Hard Boiled Egg in honor of the one I ate just now.”

And furthermore,

One boy aged 12 writes a whole story on two pages, “the dragon slayer,” with accompanying illustrations of a canyon, vines, a flying wormish-looking beast. Meticulous printing in red ink.


“Lord, set this mountain apart for your glory. Come and meet the wandering hiker & set revival fire in our hearts.”


“Every summit is a good summit.”


“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”   Frank Zappa


Multi-pitched chorus of sturdy flies

zipping and darting among summit rocks

            such speed! what vibrato!

A tiger-wing butterfly floats through the scene,

just behind it, a little white one

flapping into being

the vast spaces of the summit

which do not crush or obscure

this delicate spirit

at play.


Lunch is smoked trout atop white goat-gouda cheese on a stale bagel, with trail mix and water.  No complaints!


Timed departure from the summit:

            A dance with big cumulus shade

            washing over a million rocks




 More to come on the next page.