In many ways this trip began over a year ago, or at least it did in my imagination. I could see myself there, walking amongst the cliffs and sitting in waterside grasses. During sleepless nights and hospital stays and endless tests and scans, visions of the rocks and streams of the Upper Kern Basin provided a beacon, something comforting towards which I would direct my mind. The trout-filled pools and granite peaks of Milestone Basin filled my dreams and I felt the water and smelled the wind and I was transported, if only temporarily, away from charts and surgeons and fluorescent lights.
Heading in over Shepherd Pass.
Over a year ago I landed in the emergency room with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, a wild and irregular heart rhythm that came on suddenly and lasted two straight weeks before coming and going intermittently. I was left exhausted, my heart not working in sync with my body’s demands, racing and sputtering when at rest and failing to keep up when working. I was on powerful blood thinners to reduce stroke risks as well as other drugs to keep the rate and rhythm low. Many anxiety and fear-filled months passed before I blankly walked down a hall to surgery. I woke up eight hours later to begin a recovery that proved more difficult than I anticipated.
It was the first time in my life that there was ever reason to fear and question whether or not I would continue spending time outdoors, and if so, what sort of activities I would still be able to do. There was the possibility of not getting my heart back under control and having to remain on blood thinners and other drugs indefinitely, leaving me too vulnerable to be out far from help. Hiking in remote places, for a period of time, looked highly doubtful. These uncertainties proved to be a tremendous blow to my identity and so much of what I envisioned about my future.
Two summers ago I wandered the Upper Kern for my first time with Tom Kirchner and Adan Lopez, a beautiful exploratory trip that also branched into Milestone and Thunder Basins, as well as taking us through the high country surrounding Lake South America. I fell in love with this part of the Sierra immediately. Having been the last trip in the Sierra prior to my heart issues, naturally these were many of the places I imagined, places I could not help but wonder if I would see again. “If I can just make it back there…” became part of the many mantras and promises I found myself reciting in those dark days.
Tom understood well what I was going through, providing great support and doing his best to ease my fears without dismissing them. We communicated regularly through email and I always anxiously awaited his next letter, knowing it would bring some calm and balance. We immediately planned to get back into the Upper Kern together. Tom booked the permits and the Sierra soon became a post surgery goal, an important mental and physical benchmark. Recovery proved full of many false starts, but nine months later, I found myself standing beside Tom in the Upper Kern. Tears came to my eyes at many times, particularly on the first night hiking in when I got my first dose of the cool, thin air. So much weight was being shed by being back. I’m grateful to have shared it with such a good friend. For varying reasons, this trip proved to be somewhat profound for both of us, which I believe led to heightened sense of appreciation for everything we would witness. We settled into a fine, slow rhythm, making a base camp and taking day hikes in different directions from there, wandering the twists and turns of the Kern, hiking into Milestone for the day, simply going wherever it felt right. I was reenacting the dreams of the previous months. We couldn’t get anywhere without stopping every twenty minutes to just sit in the lazy shade and stare off contentedly.
This has become an emotional region of the Sierra for both of us, Tom with his own deep connections to this place, and it seemed we were preoccupied with cycles, the passing of time and life weighing heavily on our minds, contemplating our respective places amongst things. There is a certain indifference in the wilderness that I have always taken comfort in, primarily through witnessing the life that just goes on and on, endlessly morphing and repeating itself, never truly ending. Catching and cooking trout for lunch, something neither of us had done in years, seemed to tap directly into this cycle, confirming our connection to this land. As I cleaned one trout, bright amber eggs erupted from her body; we ate them raw, smiling and giving thanks, licking our fingers in the sun.
Impermanence and change are forces that are easy to believe you understand until you face a world turned suddenly askew, unsure if or when it will be righted. To be able to return to the Sierra, to a place that has always been a refuge, and to do so in such good company, was truly a rediscovered blessing. To walk there slowly, completely dismissing mileage and routes and itineraries was exactly what I needed. I find that for now, I have little interest in going far or fast. I want to savor it.
We speak of going into the wilderness to get a sense of perspective and renewal; this season I found I truly needed it, and sure enough, it was there for me, helping usher in a new cycle. Perhaps these mountains reflect something inside of us and renewal is given in proportion to what is needed.