From Sci-Fi to Cli-Fi
One of the things writing has to grapple with in the twenty-first century is that certain constants about the natural world are going away. It can't be relegated to the background or setting for human comings and goings. Hence there is even a new genre, cli-fi, or climate fiction, to deal one pressing aspect. I'm With the Bears, edited by Mark Martin, is an anthology of cli-fi writing mostly from well-known authors.
Here I have chosen the story by Kim Staney Robinson as an example -- the story appears below in full. In Molecular Red I write about Robinson's most famous work, the science fiction Mars Trilogy, in which a quite plausbile revolution happens -- but not on Earth. Those books are climate fiction too in a way, and usefully defamiliarize the problem: a climate suitable for life has to be created rather than maintained.
Robinson's story in I'm With the Bears is from another of his trilogies, called Science in the Capital, which is about an imagined response here on Earth to climate change. In this stand-alone story, characters from the book take a trip into the Sierras and experience, among other things, a kind of mourning for a lost landscape -- a feeling more and more people are going to have to deal with. A condensed version of these three books will be published as Green Earth in November.
Kim Stanley Robinson
Every summer Charlie Quibler flew back to California to spend a week in the Sierra Nevada, backpacking with a group of old friends. Most of them knew each other from high school, and some of them had gone to UC San Diego together, many years before. That they and Charlie’s D.C. friend Frank Vanderwal had been undergraduates at UCSD at the same time had come up at dinner one night at the Quiblers’ the previous winter, causing a moment of surprise, then a shrug. Possibly they had been in classes together—they couldn’t remember. The subject had been dropped, as just one of those coincidences that often cropped up in the capital; so many people came from somewhere else that sometimes the elsewheres were the same.
This coincidence, however, was certainly a factor in Charlie inviting Frank to join the group for this summer’s trip. Perhaps it played a part in Frank’s acceptance as well; it was hard for Charlie to tell. Frank’s usual reticence had recently scaled new heights.
The invitation had been Anna’s idea. Frank was having an operation on an area behind his nose, which he described as “No big deal.” But Anna just shook her head at that; “It’s right next to his brain,” she told Charlie. Frank had recently changed jobs, and did not particularly like the move from the National Science Foundation to his advisory position at the White House, she felt, but he certainly worked very long hours there. She felt her former colleague led a lonely existence at a time when he needed support.
This was all news to Charlie, despite the kayaking expeditions the two men had been on together. Frank normally seemed unassailably independent, and it was always a shock to see a person one regarded as unemotional suddenly become distraught.
So, soon after Frank had the surgery they visited him in the hospital, and he said he was fine, that it had gone well, he had been told. And yes, he would like to join the backpacking trip, thanks. It would be good to get away. Would he be okay to go to high altitude? Charlie wondered. He said he would be.
After that everyone was busy, with summer daycamp and swim lessons for their eldest son, Nick, policy papers for Charlie, daycare for Joe, and NSF for Anna; and they did not see Frank again for a couple weeks, until suddenly the time for the Sierra trip was upon them.
Charlie’s California friends were fine with the idea of adding a member to the trip, which they had done from time to time before, and they were looking forward to meeting him.
“He’s kind of quiet,” Charlie warned them.
This annual trek had been problematized for Charlie on the home front ever since Nick’s birth, him being the stay-at-home parent; and Joe’s arrival had made things more than twice as bad. Two consecutive summers had passed without Charlie being able to make the trip. Anna had seen how despondent he had gotten on the days when his friends were hiking in the high Sierra without him, and she was the one who had suggested he just make whatever kid coverage arrangement it would take, and go. Gratefully Charlie had jumped up and kissed her, and between some logistical help on the Nick summer day camp front from an old Gymboree friend, and extended daycare for Joe, he found they had coverage for both boys for the same several hours a day, which meant Anna could continue to work almost full-time. This was crucial; the loss of even a couple of hours of work a day caused her brow to furrow vertically and her mouth to set in a this-is-not-good expression very particular to work delays.
Charlie knew the look well, but tried not to see it as the departure time approached.
“This will be good for Frank,” he would say. “That was a good idea you had.”
“It’ll be good for you too,” Anna would reply; or not reply at all and just give him a look.
Actually she would have been completely fine with him going, Charlie thought, if it were not that she still seemed to have some residual worries about Joe’s health. When Charlie realized this by hearing her make some non sequitur that skipped from the one subject to the other, he was surprised; he had thought he was the only one still worrying about Joe. He had assumed Anna would have had her mind put fully at ease by the disappearance of the fever. That had always been the focus of her concern, as opposed to the matters of mood and behavior which had been bothering Charlie.
Now, however, as the time for the mountain trip got closer and closer, he could see on Anna’s face all her expressions of worry, visible in quick flashes when they discussed things, or when she was tired. Charlie could read a great deal on Anna’s face; he didn’t know if this was just the ordinary result of long familiarity or if she were particularly expressive, but certainly her worried looks were very nuanced, and, he had to say, beautiful. Perhaps it was just because they were so legible to him. You could see that life meant something when she was worrying over it; her thoughts flickered over her face like flames over burning coals, as if one were watching some dreamily fine silent screen actress, able to express anything with looks alone. To read her was to love her. She might be, as Charlie thought she was, slightly crazy about work, but even that was part of what he loved, as just another manifestation of how much she cared about things. One could not care more and remain sane. Mostly sane.
But Anna had never admitted, or even apparently seen, the connections Charlie had spotted between external events and the various changes in Joe. To her there was no such thing as a metaphysical illness, because there was no such thing as metaphysics. And there was no such thing as psychosomatic illness in a two-year-old, because a toddler was not old enough to have problems, as another Gymboree friend had put it.
So it had to be a fever. Or so she must have been subconsciously reasoning. Charlie had to intuit or deduce most of this from the kinds of apprehension he saw in her. He wondered what would happen if Anna were the one on hand when Joe went into one of his little trances. He wondered if she knew Joe’s daytime behavior well enough to notice the myriad tiny shifts that had recently occurred in his daily moods.
Well, of course she did; but whether she would admit that some of these changes might indicate some special sensitivity in their son was another matter.
Maybe it was better that she couldn’t be convinced. Charlie himself did not want to think there was anything real to this line of thought. It was one of his own forms of worry, perhaps— trying to find some explanation other than undiagnosed disease or mental problem. Even if the alternative explanation might in some ways be worse. Because it disturbed him, even occasionally freaked him out. He could only think about it glancingly, in brief bursts, and then quickly jump to something else. It was too weird to be true.
But there were more things in heaven and earth, etc.; and without question there were very intelligent people in his life who believed in this stuff, and acted on those beliefs. That in itself made it real, or something with real effects.
In any case, the trouble would not come to a head while he was out in the Sierras. He would only be gone a week, and Joe had been much the same, week to week, all that winter and spring and through the summer so far.
So Charlie made his preparations for the trip without talking openly to Anna about Joe, and without meeting her eye when she was tired. She too avoided the topic.
It was harder with Joe: “When you going Dad?” he would shout on occasion. “How long? What you gonna do? Hiking? Can I go?” And then when Charlie explained that he couldn’t, he would shrug. “Oh well. See you when you get back Dad.”
It was heartbreaking.
On the morning of Charlie’s departure, Joe patted him on the arm. “Bye Da. Be careful,” saying it just like Charlie always said it, as a half-exasperated reminder, just as Charlie’s father had always said it to him, as if the default plan were to do something reckless, so that one had to be reminded.
Anna clutched him to her. “Be careful. Have fun.” “I will. I love you.” “I love you too. Be careful.”
Charlie and Frank flew from Dulles to Ontario together, making a plane change in Dallas.
Frank had had his operation eighteen days before, he said. “So what was it like?” Charlie asked him.
“Oh, you know. They put you out.” “For how long?” “A few hours I think.” “And after that?”
Although, Charlie saw, he seemed to have even less to say than before. So on the second leg of the trip, with Frank sitting beside him looking out the window of the plane, and every page of that day’s Post read, Charlie fell asleep.
It was too bad about the operation. Charlie was in an agony of apprehension about it, but as Joe lay there on the hospital bed he looked up at his father and tried to reassure him. “It be all right Da.” They had attached wires to his skull, connecting him to a bulky machine by the bed, but most of his hair was still unshaved, and under the mesh cap his expression was resolute. He squeezed Charlie’s hand, then let go and clenched his fists by his sides, preparing himself, mouth pursed. The doctor on the far side of the bed nodded; time for delivery of the treatment. Joe saw this, and to give himself courage began to sing one of his wordless marching tunes, “Da, da da da, da!” The doctor flicked a switch on the machine and instantaneously Joe sizzled to a small black crisp on the bed.
Charlie jerked upright with a gasp. “You okay?” Frank said. Charlie shuddered, fought to dispel the image. He was
clutching the seat arms hard. “Bad dream,” he got out. He hauled himself up in his seat
and took some deep breaths. “Just a little nightmare. I’m fine.” But the image stuck with him, like the taste of poison. Very obvious symbolism, of course, in the crass way dreams sometimes had—image of a fear he had in him, expressed visually, sure—but so brutal, so ugly! He felt betrayed by his own mind. He could hardly believe himself capable of imagining such a
thing. Where did such monsters come from?
He recalled a friend who had once mentioned he was taking St. John’s wort in order to combat nightmares. At the time Charlie had thought it a bit silly; the moment you woke up from dreams you knew they were not real, so how bad could a nightmare be?
Now he knew, and finally he felt for his old friend.
So when his old friends and roommates Dave and Vince picked them up at the Ontario airport and they drove north in Dave’s van, Charlie and Frank were both a bit subdued. They sat in the middle seats of the van and let Dave and Vince do most of the talking up front. These two were more than willing to fill the hours of the drive with tales of the previous year’s work in criminal defense and urology. Occasionally Vince would turn around in the passenger seat and demand some words from Charlie, and Charlie would reply, working to shake off the trauma of the dream and get into the good mood that he knew he should be experiencing. They were off to the mountains— the southern end of the Sierra Nevada was appearing ahead to their left already, the weird desert ranges above Death Valley were off to their right. They were entering Owens Valley, one of the greatest mountain valleys on the planet! It was typically one of the high points of their trips; but this time he wasn’t quite into it yet.
In Independence they met the van bringing down the two northern members of their group, Jeff and Troy, and they all wandered the little grocery store there, buying forgotten necessities or delicacies, happy at the sudden reunion of all these companions from their shared youth—a reunion with their own youthful selves, it seemed. Even Charlie felt that, and slowly managed to push the horrible dream away from his conscious awareness and his mood, to forget it. It was, in the end, only a dream.
Frank meanwhile was an easy presence, cruising the tight aisles of the rustic store peering at things, comfortable with all their talk of gear and food and trailhead firewood. Charlie was pleased to see that although he was still very quiet, a tiny little smile was creasing his features as he looked at displays of beef jerky and cigarette lighters and postcards. He looked relaxed. He knew this place.
Out in the parking lot the mountains to east and west hemmed in the evening sky, and told them they were already in the Sierras—or, to be more precise, in the space the Sierras defined, which very much included Owens Valley. To the east the dry White Mountains were dusty orange in the sunset; to the west, the huge escarpment of the Sierra loomed over them like a stupendous serrated wall. Together the two ranges created a sense of the valley as a great roofless room.
The room could have been an exhibit in a museum, illustrating what California had looked like a century before. Around then Los Angeles had stolen the valley’s water, as described in the movie Chinatown and elsewhere; ironically, this had done the place a tremendous favor, by forestalling subsequent development and making it a sort of time capsule.
They drove the two cars out to the trailhead. The great escarpment fell directly from the crest of the Sierra to the floor of Owens Valley, the whole plunge of ten thousand feet right there before them—one of the biggest escarpments on the face of the planet. It formed a very complex wall, with major undulations, twists and turns, peaks and dips, buttressing ridges, and gigantic outlier masses. Every low point in the crest made for a potential pass into the back country, and many not-so-low points had also been used as cross-country passes. One of the games that Charlie’s group of friends had fallen into over the years was that of trying to cross the crest in as many places as they could. This year they were going in over Taboose Pass, “before we get too old for it,” as they said to Frank. Taboose was one of what Terry had named the Four Bad Passes (Frank smiled to hear this). They were bad because their trailheads were all on the floor of Owens Valley, and thus about five thousand feet above sea level, while the passes on the crest, usually about ten miles away from the trailheads, were all well over eleven thousand feet high. Thus six thousand vertical feet, usually hiked on the first day, when their packs were heaviest. They had once ascended Baxter Pass, and once come down Shepherd’s Pass; only Sawmill and Taboose remained, and this year they were going to do Taboose, said to be the hardest of them all. 5,300 feet to 11,360, in seven miles.
They drove to a little car campground by Taboose Creek and found it empty, which increased their good cheer. The creek itself was almost completely dry, a bad sign, as it drained one of the larger east-side canyons. There was no snow at all to be seen up on the crest of the range, nor over on the White Mountains.
“They’ll have to rename them the Brown Mountains,” Troy said. He was full of news of the drought that had been afflicting most of the Sierra for the last few years, a drought that was worse the farther north one went. Troy went into the Sierras a lot, and had seen the damage himself. “You won’t believe it,” he told Charlie ominously.
They partied through the sunset around a picnic table crowded with gear and beer and munchies. One of the range’s characteristic lenticular clouds formed like a spaceship over the crest and turned pale orange and pink as the evening lengthened. Taboose Pass itself was visible above them, a huge U in the crest. Clearly the early native peoples would have had no problem identifying it as a pass over the range, and Troy told them of what he had read about the archeological finds in the area of the pass while Vince barbequed filet mignon and red bell peppers on a thick old iron grate.
Frank prodded the grate curiously. “I guess these things are the same everywhere,” he said.
They ate dinner, drank, caught up on the year, reminisced about previous trips. Charlie was pleased to see Vince ask Frank some questions about his work, which Frank answered briefly if politely. He did not want to talk about that, Charlie could see; but he seemed content. When they were done eating he walked up the creekside on his own, looking around as he went.
Charlie then relaxed in the presence of his old friends. Vince regaled them with ever-stranger tales of the L.A. legal system, and they laughed and threw a frisbee around, half-blind in the dusk. Frank came out of the darkness to join them for that. He turned out to be very accurate with a frisbee.
Then as it got late they slipped into their sleeping bags, promising they would make an early start, even, given the severity of the ascent facing them, an actual early start, with alarms set, as opposed to their more usual legendary early start, which did not depend on alarms and could take until eleven or noon.
So they woke, groaning, to alarms before dawn, and packed in a hurry while eating breakfast; then drove up the last gravel road to a tiny trailhead parking lot, hacked into the last possible spot before the escarpment made its abrupt jump off the valley floor. They were going to be hiking up the interior sides of a steep and deep granite ravine, but the trail began by running on top of a lateral moraine which had been left behind by the ravine’s Ice Age glacier. The ice had been gone for ten thousand years but the moraine was still perfect, as smooth-walled as if bulldozers had made it.
The trail led them onto the granite buttress flanking the ravine on its right, and they rose quickly, and could see better and better just how steep the escarpment was. Polished granite overhead marked how high the glacier had run in the ravine. The ice had carved a trough in hard orange granite.
After about an hour the trail contoured into the gorge and ran beside the dry creekbed. Now the stupendous orange battlements of the sidewalls of the ravine rose vertically to each side, constricting their view of anything except the sky above and a shrinking wedge of valley floor behind them and below. None of the escarpment canyons they had been in before matched this one for chiseled immensity and steepness.
Troy often talked as he hiked, muttering mostly to himself, so that Charlie behind him only heard every other phrase— something about the great U of Taboose Pass being an ice field rather than just a glacier. Not much of the crest had gotten iced over even at the height of the Ice Age, he said. A substantial ice cap had covered big parts of the range, but mostly to the west of the crest. To the east there had been only these ravine glaciers. The ice had covered what were now the best hiking and camping areas, where all the lakes and ponds had been scooped out of the tops of mostly bare granite plutons. It had been a lighter glaciation than in the Alps, so the tops of the plutons had been left intact for lakes to dot, not etched away by ice until there were only cirques and horns and deep forested valleys. The Alps’ heavier snowfall and higher latitude had meant all its high basins had in effect been ground away. Thus (Troy concluded triumphantly) one had the explanation for the infinite superiority of the Sierra Nevada for backpacking purposes.
And so on. Troy was their mountain man, the one whose life was focused on it most fully, and who therefore served as their navigator, gear innovator, historian, geologist, and all-around Sierra guru. He spent a lot of hiking time alone, and although happy to have his friends along, still had a tendency to hold long dialogues with himself, as he must have done when on his solo trips.
Troy’s overarching thesis was that if backpacking were your criterion of judgment, the Sierra Nevada of California was an unequaled paradise, and essentially heaven on Earth. All mountain ranges were beautiful, of course, but backpacking as an activity had been invented in the Sierra by John Muir and his friends, so it worked there better than anywhere else. Name any other range and Troy would snap out the reason it would not serve as well as the Sierra; this was a game he and Charlie played from time to time.
“Alps.” “Rain, too steep, no basins, dangerous. Too many people.” “But they’re beautiful right?” “Very beautiful.” “Colorado Rockies.” “Too big, no lakes, too dry, boring.” “Canadian Rockies.” “Grizzly bears, rain, forest, too big. Not enough granite.
Pretty though.” “Andes.”
“Tea hut system, need guides, no lakes. I’d like to do that though.”
“Himalayas.” “Too big, tea hut system. I’d like to go back though.” “Pamirs.” “Terrorists.” “Appalachians.” “Mosquitoes, people, forest, no lakes. Boring.” “Transantarctics.”
“Too cold, too expensive. I’d like to see them though.” “Carpathians?” “Too many vampires!” And so on. Only the Sierras had all the qualities Troy deemed
necessary for hiking, camping, scrambling, and contemplating mountain beauty.
No argument from Charlie. Although he noticed it looked about as dry as the desert ranges to the east. It seemed they were in the rain shadow of the range even here. The Nevada ranges must have been completely baked.
All day they hiked up the great gorge. It twisted and then broadened a little, but otherwise changed little as they rose. Orange rock leaped at the dark blue sky, and the battlements seemed to vibrate in place as Charlie paused to look at them—the effect of his heart pounding in his chest. Trudge trudge trudge. It was a strange feeling, Charlie thought, to know that for the next hour you were going to be doing nothing but walking—and after that hour, you would take a break and then walk some more. Hour following hour, all day long. It was so different from the days at home that it took some getting used to. It took shifting gears. It was in effect a different state of consciousness; only the experience of his previous backpacking trips allowed Charlie to slip back into it so readily. Mountain time; slow down. Pay attention to the rock. Look around. Slide back into the long ruminative rhythms of thought that plodded along at their own pedestrian pace, interrupted often by close examination of the granite, or the details of the trail as it crossed the meager stream which to everyone’s relief was making occasional excursions from deep beneath boulderfields; or a brief exchange with one of the other guys, as they came in and out of a switchback, and thus came close enough to each other to talk. In general they all hiked at their own paces, and as time passed, spread out up and down the trail.
A day was a long time. The sun beat down on them from high overhead. Charlie and some of the others, Vince especially, paced themselves by singing songs. Charlie hummed or chanted one of Beethoven’s many themes of resolute determination, looping them endlessly. He also found himself unusually susceptible to bad pop and TV songs from his youth; these arose spontaneously within him and then stuck like burrs, for an hour or more, no matter what he tried to replace them with—things like “Red Rubber Ball” (actually a great song) or “Meet the Flintstones”—tromping methodically uphill, muttering over and over “We’ll have a gay old—we’ll have a gay old—we’ll have a gay old time!”
“Charlie please shut up. Now you have me doing that.” “—a three hour tour! A three hour tour!” So the day passed. Sometimes it would seem to Charlie like
a good allegory for life itself. You just keep hiking uphill. Frank hiked sometimes ahead, sometimes behind. He seemed lost in his thoughts, or the view, and was never particularly aware of the others. Nor did he seem to notice the work of the hike. He drifted up, mouth hanging open as he looked at
the ravine’s great orange sidewalls. In the late afternoon they trudged up the final stony rubble
of the headwall, and into the pass—or onto it, as it was just as huge as the view from below had suggested: a deep broad U in the crest of the range, two thousand feet lower than the peaks marking each side of the U. These peaks were over a mile apart; and the depression of the pass was also nearly a mile from east to west, which was extremely unusual for a Sierra pass; most dropped away immediately on both sides, sometimes very steeply. Not so here, where a number of little blackrimmed ponds dotted an uneven granite flat.
“It’s so big!”
“It looks like the Himalayas,” Frank remarked as he walked by.
Troy had dropped his pack and wandered off to the south rise of the pass, checking out the little snow ponds tucked among the rocks. Now he whooped and called them all over to him. They stood up, groaning and complaining, and rubberlegged to him.
He pointed triumphantly at a low ring of stacked granite blocks, set on a flat tuck of decomposed granite next to one of the ponds. “Check it out guys. I ran into the national park archeologist last summer, and he told me about this. It’s the foundation of a Native American summer shelter. They built some kind of wicker house on this base. They’ve dated them as old as five thousand years up here, but the archeologist said he thought they might be twice as old as that.”
“How can you tell it’s not just some campers from last year?” Vince demanded in his courtroom voice. This was an old game, and Troy immediately snapped back, “Obsidian flakes in the Sierra all come from knapping arrowheads. Rates of hydration can be used to date when the flaking was done. Standard methodology, accepted by all! And—” He reached down and plucked something from the decomposed granite at Vince’s feet, held it aloft triumphantly: “Obsidian flake! Proof positive! Case closed!”
“Not until you get this dated,” Vince muttered, checking the ground out now like the rest of them. “There could have been an arrowhead-making class up here just last week.”
“Ha ha ha. That’s how you get criminals back on the streets of L.A., but it won’t work here. There’s obsidian everywhere you look.”
And in fact there was. They were all finding it; exclaiming, shouting, crawling on hands and knees, faces inches from the granite.
“Don’t take any of it!” Troy warned them, just as Jeff began to fill a baggie with them. “It screws up their counts. It doesn’t matter that there are thousands of pieces here. This is an archeological site on federal land. You are grotesquely breaking the law there, Jeffrey. Citizen’s arrest! Vincent, you’re a witness to this! What do you mean, you don’t see a thing.” Then he fell back into contemplating the stone ring.
“Awesome,” Charlie said.
“It really gives you a sense of them. The guy said they probably spent all summer up here. They did it for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. The people from the west brought up food and seashells, and the people from the east, salt and obsidian. It really helps you to see they were just like us.”
Frank was on his hands and knees to get his face down to the level of the low rock foundation, his nose inches from the lichen-covered granite, nodding as he listened to Troy. “It’s beautiful drywall,” he commented. “You can tell by the lichen that it’s been here a long time. It’s like a Goldsworthy. My Lord. This is a sacred place.”
Finally they went back to their packs, put them back on their backs, and staggered down into a high little basin to the west of the pass, where scoops of sand and dwarf trees appeared among some big erratic boulders. The day’s hump up the great wall had taken it out of them. When they found a flat area with enough sandy patches to serve as a camp, they sat next to their backpacks and pulled out their warm clothes and their food bags and the rest of their gear, and had just enough energy and daylight left to get water from the nearest pond, then cook and eat their meals. They groaned stiffly as they stood to make their final arrangements, and congratulated each other on the good climb. They were in their bags and on the way to sleep before the sky had gone fully dark.
Before exhaustion knocked him out, Charlie looked over and saw Frank sitting up in his sleeping bag, looking west at the electric blue band of sky over the black peaks to the west. He seemed untired by their ascent, or the sudden rise to altitude; absorbed by the immense spaces around them. Wrapped in thought. Charlie hoped his nose was doing all right. The stars were popping out overhead, swiftly surpassing in number and brilliance any starscapes they ever saw at home. The Milky Way was like a moraine of stars. Sound of distant water clucking through a patch of meadow, the wind in the pines; black spiky horizons all around, the smooth airy gap of the pass behind. It was a blessing to feel so tired in such a place. They had made the effort it took to regather, and here they were again, in a place so sublime no one could truly remember what it was like when they were away, so that every return had a sense of surprise, as if re-entering a miracle. Every time it felt this way: it was the California that could never be taken away.
Except it could. Charlie had, of course, read about the ongoing drought that
had afflicted the Sierra for the last few years, and he was also familiar with the climate models which suggested that the Sierra would be one of those places most affected by the global rise in temperature. California’s wet months had been November through April, with the rest of the year as dry as any desert. A classic Mediterranean climate. Even during the Hyperniño this pattern had tended to endure, although in El Niño conditions more rain fell in the southern half of the state and less in the northern half, with the Sierras therefore getting a bit of both. In the past, however, whatever the amount of precipitation, it had fallen on the Sierra in the form of snow; this had created a thick winter snowpack, which then took most of the summer to melt. That meant that the reservoirs in the foothills got fed a stream of melting snow at a rate that could then be dispersed out to the cities and farms. In effect the Sierra snowpack itself had been the ultimate reservoir, far bigger than what the artificial ones behind dams in the foothills could hold.
Now, however, with global temperatures higher, more of the winter precipitation came down as rain, and thus ran off immediately. The annual reservoir of snow was smaller, even in good years; and in droughts it hardly formed at all.
California was in an uproar about this. New dams were being built, including the Auburn dam, located right on an earthquake fault; and the movement to remove the Hetch Hetchy dam had been defeated, despite the fact that the next reservoir down the Tuolomne had the capacity to hold all Hetch Hetchy’s water. State officials were also begging Oregon and Washington to allow a pipeline to be built to convey water south from the Columbia River. The Columbia dumped a huge amount into the Pacific, one hundred times that of the maximum flow of the Colorado River, and all of it unused. It was immoral, some said. But naturally the citizens of Oregon and Washington had refused to agree to the pipeline, happy at a chance to stick it to California. Only the possibility that many Californians would then move north, bringing their obese equities with them, was causing any of them to reconsider their stance. But of course clear cost-benefit analysis was not the national strong suit in any case, so on the battle would go for the foreseeable future.
In any case, no matter what political and hydrological adjustments were made in the lowlands, the high Sierra meadows were dying.
This was a shock to witness. It had changed in the three years since Charlie had last been up. He hiked down the trail on their second morning with a sinking feeling in his stomach, able to cinch the waistbelt of his pack tighter and tighter.
They were walking down the side of a big glacial gorge to the John Muir Trail. When they reached it, they headed north on it for a short distance, going gently uphill as the trail followed the south fork of the Kings River up toward Upper Basin and Mather Pass. As they hiked it became obvious that the high basin meadows were much too dry for early August. They were desiccated; ponds were often pans of cracked dirt. Grass was brown. Plants were dead: trees, bushes, ground cover, grasses. Even mosses. There were no marmots to be seen, and few birds. Only the lichen seemed okay—although as Vince pointed out, it was hard to tell. “If lichen dies does it lose its color?” No one knew.
After a few of these discouraging miles they turned left and followed an entirely dry tributary uphill to the northwest, aiming at the Vennacher Needle, a prominent peak, extremely broad for a needle, as Vince pointed out. “One of those famous blunt-tipped needles. One of those spherical needles.”
Up and up, over broken granite, much whiter than the orange stuff east of Taboose Pass. This was the Cartridge Pluton, Troy told them as they ascended. A very pure bubble of granite. The batholith, meaning the whole mass of the range, was composed of about twenty or thirty plutons, which were the individual bubbles of granite making up the larger mass. The Cartridge was one of the most clearly differentiated plutons, separated as it was by glacial gorges from all the plutons around it. There was no easy way to get over its curving outer ridge into Lakes Basin, the high granite area atop the mass. They were hiking up to one of these entry points now, a pass called Vennacher Col.
The eastern approach to the col got steeper as they approached it, until they were grabbing the boulders facing them to help pull themselves up. And the other side was said to be steeper! But the destination was said to be fine: a remote basin, empty of trails and people, and dotted with lakes—many lakes—and lakes so big, Charlie saw with relief as he pulled into the airy pass, that they had survived the drought and were still there. They glittered in the white granite below like patches of cobalt silk.
Far, far below: for the western side of Vennacher Col was a very steep glacial headwall—in short, a cliff. The first five hundred vertical feet of their drop lay right under their toes, an airy nothing.
Troy had warned them about this. The Sierra guidebooks all rated this side of the pass class 3. In scrambling or (gulp) climbing terms, it was the crux of their week. Normally they avoided anything harder than class 2, and now they were remembering why.
“Troy?” Vince said. “Why are we here?” “We are here to suffer,” Troy intoned. “Bayer Aspirin, it was your idea to do this, what the fuck?” “I came up this way with these guys once. It’s not as bad as
it looks.” “You think you came up it,” Charlie reminded him. “It was
twenty years ago and you don’t remember exactly what you did.”
“It had to be here.” “Is this class 2?” Vince demanded. “This side has a little class 3 section that you see here.”
“You’re calling this cliff little?” “It’s mostly a class 2 cliff.” “But don’t you rate terrain by the highest level of difficulty?” “Yes.” “So this is a class 3 pass.” “Technically, yes.” “Technically? You mean in some other sense, this cliff is not
a cliff?” “That’s right.” The distinction between class 2 and class 3, Charlie main-
tained, lay precisely in what they were witnessing now: on class 2, one used one’s hands for balance, but the terrain was not very steep, so that if one fell one could not do more than crack an ankle, at most. So the scrambling was fun. Whereas class 3 indicated terrain steep enough that although one could still scramble up and down it fairly easily, a fall on it would be dangerous— perhaps fatally dangerous—making the scramble nerve-racking, even in places a little terrifying. The classic description in the Roper guidebook said of it, “like ascending a steep narrow old staircase on the outside of a tower, without banisters.” But it could be much worse than that. So the distinction between class 2 and class 3 was fuzzy in regard to rock, but very precise emotionally, marking as it did the border between fun and fear.
In this case, the actual class 3 route down the cliff, as described by the guidebooks and vaguely remembered by Troy from twenty years before, was a steep incision running transversely down the face from north to south. A kind of gully; and they could see that if they could get into this gully, they would be protected. The worst that could happen then was that they might slide down the gully a ways if they slipped.
But getting into the gully from the top was the trick. The class 3 moment, in effect. And no one liked the look of it, not even Troy.
The five old friends wandered back and forth anxiously on the giant rocks of the pass, peering down at the problem and talking it over. Frank sat off to the side, looking around at the view. The top of the inner wall of the slot was a sheer cliff and out of the question. The class 3 route appeared to require downclimbing a stack of huge boulders topping the outer wall of the slot.
No one was happy at the prospect of getting down the outer wall’s boulder stack. With backpacks or without, it was very exposed. Charlie wanted to be happy with it, but he wasn’t. Troy had come up it once, or so he said, but going up was generally easier than going down. Maybe Troy could now downclimb it; and presumably Frank could, being a climber and all. But the rest of them, no.
Charlie looked around to see what Frank might say. Finally he spotted him, sitting on the flat top of one of the pass rocks, looking out to the west. It seemed clear he didn’t care one way or the other what they did. As a climber he existed in a different universe, in which class 3 was the stuff you ran down on after climbing the real thing. Real climbing started with class 5, and even then it only got what climbers would call serious at 5.8 or 5.9, or 5.10 or 5.11. Looking at the boulder stack again, Charlie wondered what 5.11 would look like—or feel like to be on it! Never had he felt less inclined to take up rock climbing than he did at that moment.
But Frank didn’t look like he was thinking about the descent at all. He sat on his block looking down at Lakes Basin, biting off pieces of an energy bar. Charlie was impressed by his tact, if that’s what it was. Because they were in a bit of a quandary, and Charlie was pretty sure that Frank could have led them into the slot, or down some other route, if he had wanted to. But it wasn’t his trip; he was a guest; and so he kept his counsel.
Or maybe he was just spacing out, even to the point of being unaware there was any problem facing the rest of them. He sat staring at the view, chewing ruminatively, body relaxed. A man at peace. Charlie wandered up the narrow spine of the pass to his side.
“Oh my, yes,” Frank said. “Just gorgeous. What a beautiful basin.”
“It really is.”
“It’s strange to think how few people will ever see this,” Frank said. He had not volunteered even so much as this since they had met at Dulles, and Charlie crouched by his side to listen. “Maybe only a few hundred people in the history of the world have ever seen it. And if you don’t see it, you can’t really imagine it. So it’s almost like it doesn’t exist for most people. So really this basin is a kind of secret. A hidden valley that you have to search for. And even then you might never find it.”
“I guess so,” Charlie said. “We’re lucky.” “Yes.” “How’s your head feel up here?”
“Oh good. Good, sure. Interesting!” “No post-op bleeding, or psychosis or anything?” “No. Not as far as I can tell.” Charlie laughed. “That’s as good as.” He stood and walked down the spine to where the others
were continuing to discuss options. “What about straight down from the lowest point here?”
Vince demanded. Charlie objected, “That won’t work—look at the drop.” He
still wanted to want to try the boulder stack. “But around that buttress down there, maybe,” Dave pointed
out. “Something’s sure to go around it.” “Why do you say that?” “I don’t know. Because it always does in the Sierra.” “Except when it doesn’t!” “I’m going to try it,” Jeff declared, and took off before anyone
had time to point out that since he was by far the most reckless among them, his ability to descend a route said very little about it as far as the rest of them were concerned.
“Don’t forget your comb!” Vince said, in reference to a time when Jeff had used a plastic comb to hack steps up a vertical snowbank no one else had cared to try.
Ten minutes later, however, he was a good portion of the way down the cliff, considerably off to the left as they looked down, where the steepness of the rock angled outward, and looked quite comfy compared to where they were.
He yelled back up at them, “Piece of cake! Piece of cake!” “Yeah right!” they all yelled.
But there he was, and he had done it so fast that they had to try it. They found some very narrow ledges hidden under the buttress, trending down and left, and by holding onto the broken white granite of the wall next to their heads, and making their way carefully along the ledges and down from ledge to ledge, they had all soon followed Jeff to the less steep bulge in the cliff, and from there each took a different route to a horrible jumble of rocks in a flat trough at the bottom.
“Wow!” Charlie said as they regathered on a big white rock among the rest, next to a little bowl of caked black dust that had once been a pool of water. “That was class 2! I was wrong. It wasn’t so bad! Wasn’t that class 2?” he asked of Troy and Frank.
“It probably was,” Troy said.
“So you guys just discovered a class 2 route on a wall that all the guidebooks call class 3!”
“How could that happen?” Vince wondered. “Why would we be the ones to find it?”
“We were desperate,” Troy said, looking back up. From below the cliff looked even steeper than it had from above.
“That’s probably actually it,” Charlie said. “The class ratings up here have mostly been made by climbers, and when they came up to this pass they probably saw the big slot in the face, and ran right up it without a second thought, because it’s so obvious. The fact it was class 3 meant nothing to them, they didn’t care one way or the other, so they rated it 3, which is right if you’re only talking about the slot. They never even noticed there was a much trickier class 2 line off to the side, because they didn’t need it.”
Frank nodded. “Could be.”
“We’ll have to write to the authors of the guidebooks and see if we can get them to relist Vennacher Col as class 2! We can call the route the Jeffrey Dirretissimma.”
“Very cool. You do that.”
“Actually,” Vince pointed out, “it was my refusal to go down the slot that caused Jeff to take the new route, and I’m the one that spotted it first, so I’m thinking it should be called the Salami Dirretissima. That has a better ring to it anyway.”
That night, in a wonderful campsite next to the biggest of the Lake Basin’s lakes (none had names), their dinner party was extra cheery. They had crossed a hard pass—an impossible pass—and were now in the lap of beauty, lying around on ground pads dressed like pashas in colorful silken clothing, drinking an extra dram or two of their carefully hoarded liquor supplies, watching the sun burnish the landscape. The water copper, the granite bronze, the sky cobalt. On the northern wall of the basin a single tongue of cloud lapped up the slope like some sinuous creature, slowly turning pink. Each of them cooked his own dinner, on various kinds of tiny backpacking stoves, and in various styles of backpacking fare: Dave and Jeff sticking with the old ramen and mac-and-cheese, Vince with the weirdest freeze-dried meals currently available at REI; Troy downing a glop of his own devising, a mixture of powders from the bins of his food co-op, intensely healthy and fortified; Charlie employing the lark’s-tongues-in-aspic theory of extreme tastiness, in a somewhat vain attempt to overcome the appetite suppression that often struck him at altitude. Frank appeared to favor a diet that most resembled Troy’s, with bars and bags of nuts and grains supplying his meals.
After dinner the Maxfield Parrish blues of the twilight gave way to the stars, and then the Milky Way. The moon would not rise for a few hours, and in the starlight they could still see the strange tongue of low cloud, now gray, licking the north wall of the basin. The lake beside them stilled to a starry black mirror. Quickly the cold began to press on the little envelopes of warmth their clothes created, and they slid into their sleeping bags and continued to watch the tiny stove pellet fire that Dave kept going, feeding it from time to time with the tiniest of twigs and pine needles.
The conversation wandered, and sometimes grew ribald: Dave was outlining an all-too-convincing biological basis for the so-called midlife crisis, and general confessions of inappropriate lust for young women were soon augmented by one or two individual case studies of close calls, at work or in the gym. Oh my God. Laughter in the dark, and some long silences too.
Voices by starlight. But it’s stupid. It’s just your genes making one last desperate scream when they can feel they’re falling apart. Programmed cell death. Apoptosis, you bet. They want you to have more kids to up their chance of being immortal, they don’t give a shit about you or your actual happiness or anything.
If you’re just fooling around, if you don’t mean to leave your wife and go with that person, then it’s like masturbating in someone else’s body.
Yuck! Jesus, yuck!
Hoots of horrified hilarity, echoing off the cliffs across the lake. That’s so gross I’ll never again be able to think about having an affair!
So I cured you. So now you’re old. Your genes have given up.
My genes will never give up.
The little stove pellet burned out. The hikers went quiet and were soon asleep, under the great slow wheel of the stars.
The next day they explored the Lakes Basin, looking into a tributary of it called the Dumbbell Basin, and dropping to the Y-shaped Triple Falls on Cartridge Creek, before turning back up toward the head of the basin proper. It was a beautiful day, the heart of the trip, just as it was the heart of the pluton, and that pluton the heart of the Sierra itself. No trails, no people, no views out of the range. They walked on the heart of the world.
On such days some kind of freedom descended on them. Mornings were cold and clear, spent lazing around their sleeping bags and breakfast coffee. They chatted casually, discussed the quality of their night’s sleep. They asked Charlie about what it was like to work for the president: Charlie gave them his little testimonial. “He’s a good guy,” he told them. “He’s not a normal guy, but he’s a good one. He’s still real. He has the gift of a happy temperament. He sees the funny side of things.” Frank listened to this closely, head cocked to one side.
Once they got packed up and started, they wandered apart, or in duos, catching up on the year’s news, on the wives and kids, the work and play, the world at large. Stopping frequently to marvel at the landscapes that constantly shifted in perspective around them. It was very dry, a lot of the fellfields and meadows were brown, but the lakes were still there and their borders were green as of old. The distant ridges; the towering thunderheads in the afternoons; the height of the sky itself; the thin cold air; the pace of the seconds, tocking at the back of the throat; all combined to create a sense of spaciousness unlike any they ever felt anywhere else. It was another world.
But this world kept intruding. Their plan was to exit the basin by way of Cartridge Pass,
which was south of Vennacher Col, on the same border ridge of the pluton. This pass had been the original route for the Muir Trail; the trail over it had been abandoned in 1934, after the CCC built the replacement trail over Mather Pass. Now the old trail was no longer on the maps, and Troy said the guidebooks described it as being gone. But he didn’t believe it, and in yet another of his archeological quests, he wanted to see if they could relocate any signs of it. “I think what happened was that when the USGS did the ground check for their maps in 1968, they tried to find the trail over on the other side, and it’s all forest and brush over there, so they couldn’t pick it up, and they wrote it off. But over on this side there’s nothing but rock up near the top. I don’t believe much could happen to a trail up there. Anyway I want to look.”
Vince said, “So this is another cross-country pass, that’s what you’re saying.”
So once again they were on the hunt. They hiked slowly uphill, separating again into their own spaces. “ ‘Now I know you’re not the only starfish in the sea!’ Starfish? How many other great American songs are about starfish, I ask you? ‘Yeah, the worst is over now, the morning sun is rising like a red, rubber ball!’ ”
Then on the southeast slope of the headwall, where the maps showed the old trail had gone, their shouts rang out once more. Right where one would have hiked if one were simply following the path of least resistance up the slope, a trail appeared. As they hiked up, it became more and more evident, until high on the headwall it began to switchback up a broad talus gully that ran up between solid granite buttresses. In that gully the trail became as obvious as a Roman road, because its bed was made of decomposed granite that had been washed into a surface and then in effect cemented there by years of rain, without any summer boots ever breaking it up. It looked like the nearly concretized paths that landscapers created with decomposed granite in the world below, but here the raw material had been left in situ and shaped by feet. People had only hiked it for some thirty or forty years—unless the Native Americans had used this pass too—and it was another obvious one, and near Taboose, so maybe they had—in which case people had hiked it for five or ten thousand years. In any case, a great trail, with the archeological component adding to the sheer physical grandeur of it.
“There are lost trails like this on an island in Maine,” Frank remarked to no one in particular. He was looking around with what Charlie now thought of as his habitual hiking expression. It seemed he walked in a rapture.
The pass itself gave them long views in all directions—north back into the basin, south over the giant gap of the Muro Blanco, a granite-walled canyon. Peaks beyond in all directions.
After a leisurely lunch in the sun, they put on their packs and started down into the Muro Blanco. The lost trail held, thinning through high meadows, growing fainter as they descended, but always still there.
But here the grass was brown. This was a south-facing slope, and it almost looked like late autumn. Not quite, for autumn in the Sierra was marked by fall colors in the ground cover, including a neon scarlet that came out on slopes backlit by the sun. Now that same ground cover was simply brown. It was dead. Except for fringes of green around drying ponds, or algal mats on the exposed pond bottoms, every plant on this southfacing slope had died. It was as burnt as any range in Nevada. One of the loveliest landscapes on the planet, dead before their eyes.
They hiked at their different paces, each alone on the rocky rumpled landscape. Bench to bench, terrace to terrace, graben to graben, fellfield to fellfield, each in his own private world.
Charlie fell behind the rest, stumbling from time to time in his distress, careless of his feet as his gaze wandered from one little eco-disaster to the next. He loved these high meadows with all his heart, and the fellfields between them too. Each had been so perfect, like works of art, as if hundreds of meticulous bonsai gardeners had spent centuries clipping and arranging each watercourse and pad of moss. Every blade of grass deployed to best effect, every rock in its proper place. It had never occurred to Charlie that any of it could ever go away. And yet here it was, dead.
Desolation filled him. It pressed inside him, slowing him down, buffeting him from inside, making him stumble. Not the Sierra. Everything living that he loved in this Alpine world would go away, and then it would not be the Sierra. Suddenly he thought of Joe and a giant stab of fear pierced him like a sword, he sank back and sat on the nearest rock, felled by the feeling. Never doubt our emotions rule us; and no matter what we do, or say, or resolve, a single feeling can knock us down like a sword to the heart. A dead meadow—image of a black crisp on a bed—Charlie groaned and put his face to his knees.
He tried to pull himself back into the world. Behind him Frank was still wandering, lonely as a cloud, deep in his own space; but soon he would catch up.
Charlie took a deep breath, pulled himself together. Several more deep breaths. No one would ever know how shaken he had been by his thoughts. So much of life is a private experience.
Frank stood over him. He looked down at him with his head cocked. “You okay?”
“I’m okay. You?” “I’m okay.” He gestured around them. “Quite the drought.”
“That’s for sure!” Charlie shook his head violently from side to side. “It makes me sad—it makes me afraid! I mean—it looks so bad. It looks like it could be gone for good!”
“You think so?” “Sure! Don’t you?” Frank shrugged. “There’s been droughts up here before.
They’ve found dead trees a couple hundred feet down in Lake Tahoe. Stuff like that. Signs of big droughts. It seems like it dries out up here from time to time.”
“Yes. But—you know. What if it lasts a hundred years? What if it lasts a thousand years?”
“Well, sure. That would be bad. But we’re doing so much to the weather. And it’s pretty chaotic anyway. Hopefully it will be all right.”
Charlie shrugged. This was thin comfort. Again Frank regarded him. “Aside from that, you’re okay?” “Yeah sure.” It was so unlike Frank to ask, especially on
this trip. Charlie felt an urge to continue: “I’m worried about Joe. Nothing in particular, you know. Just worried. It’s hard to imagine, sometimes, how he is going to get on in this world.”
“Your Joe? He’ll get on fine. You don’t have to worry about him.”
Frank stood over Charlie, hands folded on the tops of his walking poles, looking out at the sweep of the Muro Blanco, the great granite canyon walled by long cliffs of white granite. At ease; distracted. Or so it seemed. As he wandered away he said over his shoulder, “Your kids will be fine.”