by Elizabeth Creely
A hiking trip turns disastrous for two sisters in California’s Desolation Wilderness.
Last July I went to Desolation Wilderness with my sister Emily to celebrate her fortieth birthday. I woke up at 5 a.m., kissed my husband goodbye, and walked to the nearest BART station with my backpack strapped to me. I felt silly making my way down Mission Street in San Francisco, wearing a garish purple and blue backpack (a hand-me-down).
The first person I saw in the near-empty BART station was a professional standing snug within the confines of her suit, primly pecking at her BlackBerry. She was headed for the steel and concrete canyons of San Francisco’s Financial District. I was going to a wilderness of made of granite and water, grass and wood. Two destinations: two women girded for the day ahead. She looked at me appraisingly. I looked at her with pity.
My pack was a marvel of perfectly balanced weight. It contained food, clothing for two days, a sleeping bag and pad, and a vegan chocolate birthday cake. I thought a cake with no dairy or eggs would weather a six-mile hike in moderate heat better than a traditional cake. I was going to serve Emmy a slice of this cake as we sat lakeside, looking at the stars, two brave and resourceful women enshrined in the granitic splendor of the Sierra wilderness.
Our planned base camp was to be at Lyons Lake, which is below three peaks of the Crystal Range: Pyramid Peak, Mount Price, and Mount Agassiz, my favorite. Centered between its siblings, Mount Agassiz’s peak appears to crumple to the side like a sorcerer’s hat. It looms possessively over Lyons Lake.
The snow drains from these mountain peaks into the small valley below. Lyons Creek is the most obvious path of drainage and runs alongside the Lyons Creek Trail, threading through the meadow, running rapidly silver, before vanishing from sight, just before the trailhead. Lyons Lake, one of the smaller lakes in Desolation Wilderness, is the very picture of subalpine perfection; round, sapphire-blue, framed by sparkling granite and full to the brim with water. The lake is tantalizing in the truest sense of the word: however hot a hiker may be from walking with a full pack for six miles up a grade, the lake offers little relief, unless anti-freeze runs in your veins. The water is icy cold.
About the water in Desolation Wilderness: we did expect to see a lot (mostly in the creek). The northern Sierra had gotten more than 500 inches of snow.
My sister and I travel quite well together. She’s an environmental scientist by training and a naturalist by heart. She’s my camping mentor and buddy. We’ve seen ospreys fly overhead with squirming salmon clutched in their talons. We’ve watched great horned owls glare at us from their perches in tall pine trees. She clarifies my muddy impressions of the natural world. I love California, and consider myself to be reasonably well informed about her flora and fauna, but there are big gaps in my knowledge. My vision lacks specificity. A dry weed? What had it been, earlier that spring, when it first poked out of the wet earth? Emmy would know. I’d just ask her.
Desolation Wilderness was no place to wander in dark ignorance: it was and is a place of startling specificity. The wilderness occupies 100 square miles in the Eldorado National Forest, west of Lake Tahoe, east of the Mother Lode. The granite that composes the Sierra Nevada is part of a uniquely large and imposing structure called a batholith (pronounced as if one was trying to say “basilisk” with a lisp). A batholith is contiguous igneous rock formed from volcanic plasma (granite, in other words). Batholiths cover 40 miles or more and are unfathomably deep. They have “no known bottom,” says John McPhee in Assembling California. The batholith: not just massive amounts of rock, but an entire geologic history. Millions and millions of years are contained within the 400 longitudinal miles of the Sierra.
The term “batholith” stayed with me. After she had picked me up in Truckee, I asked Emmy about the term, uncertain that I had read it correctly. “Batholith. Yup. That’s right.” Emmy said. “It’s a contiguous granite mass. Sounds like a monster, doesn’t it?” It did. I caught the Lovecraftian ring of the word, and instantly saw a terrible slate-gray monster unfurling its huge body from the rock, howling with rage and glaring with baleful eyes at the hapless hikers in the basin below. “Don’t awaken the Batholith!” Emmy shouted. We shrieked with laughter. As if.
We drove toward Lake Tahoe and decided that there was enough time for a swim. We parked the car, found a trail to the beach, and jumped in. I had never been in or seen Lake Tahoe—I was born in Newport Beach and had the ocean at my beck and call. I wanted to love it, but I had mixed feelings about the water quality. There were too many motorboats and jet skis rushing around on the surface of the water. Some of the jet skis, I suspected, were probably outfitted with crappy old two-stroke motors, which tend to dump fuel. I sneered at them and then found an old fishhook floating in the water.
“Why are rusted fishhooks floating in the water?” I shrieked. “I could have stepped on this!”
A small blond boy swimming nearby found a dead and partially decomposed crawfish.
“Look! Look what I found!” he crowed.
“It’s probably dead because of all the fuel in the water,” I told him.
“Okay. It’s time for us to leave,” Emmy said. She looked at me. “Behave yourself.”
* * *
We arrived at the Lyons Creek Trailhead at about 3 p.m., stopping briefly to study the bulletin board alongside the trail. The U.S. Forest Service requested that we leave the wilderness undisturbed, and noted a bear sighting “at the creek.” (This was like saying a bear had been seen “in the mountains.” Giving the location as the creek didn’t exactly narrow things down.) The California black bear (Ursus americanus californiensis) is smaller and shyer than the extinct California grizzly (Ursus californicus). This is small comfort. A black bear is strong enough to rip car doors off their hinges and adept at relieving hikers of their packed-in food.
Shouldering our packs, we strode in. After five minutes, I gasped and stopped. Wildflowers were everywhere. I saw native larkspur, tiny and voluptuously violet. I saw small five-spot flowers growing in clusters. Lavender shooting star plunged towards the earth in astral fury. I saw lupine, purple and harlequin. I saw star aster next to small yellow flowers I didn’t know the name of. I saw red columbine. The list went on. Life was vigorous in this valley. This stretch of land had been a tawny brown meadow when I walked through it the year before, in late summer. What had changed? Water. Water, the radical transformer, had been here and had changed everything.
Emmy directed my attention to a stately green plant with broad leaves and no visible flowers. They dominated the meadows.
“What are those?” I asked Emmy.
“Corn lilies. They’re wetland plants,” said Emmy brightly. “They love the water!”
Corn lily or California false hellebore grows in swamps, creek bottoms, and moist woodlands. It is poisonous, and can cause cyclopia—a congenital deformation of the eye socket in the offspring of livestock who graze on it. We gazed at this handsome plant fondly. I slapped a mosquito.
The corn lilies were our first clue that the Batholith was awake and watching.
* * *
The ground was moist under my feet and water flowed in rivulets over the rocky trail. A vista of green and a scent that reminded me of crushed cilantro—herby and sharp—surrounded us. The sun shone. We talked. It was perhaps 4 p.m. The sun hung squarely in the west. Feeling the release from the rigors of industrial time, we dawdled and digressed. “We have time. The sun sets at eight,” said Emmy with characteristic certitude, and I agreed. It did—on the coast. The fact that we were 150 miles from the Pacific curiously meant nothing to us, ambling around the High Sierra, in the yellowy-green of the water meadow. Just then, the creek made its first appearance. Emmy shrieked. “Oh my god!” she yelled. Throwing her pack down, she bounded off the trail through the innumerable corn lilies to investigate.
The creek was not tantalizing: it did not withhold itself. Its cool water was immediately available to the hot and dusty hiker. It gurgled and sped in its rocky bed. It flowed gymnastically, smooth and sure of itself, over the gray stones. Emmy spun around, eyes sparkling. “I want to camp here!” she said. “It’s my birthday!”
I had no reason to say no, other than my customary habit of resisting ideas that were not mine—a habit Emmy had, from the earliest days of our childhood, easily deflected.
“But…” I stammered, “Lyons Lake is so nice.”
“It’s my birthday,” said Emmy. “I want to camp here. I want to listen to the water. We can cook on that rock. It’s not because I don’t feel like hiking,” she added quickly.
I felt a nagging sense of suspicion; I had been mulling over something as we entered the wilderness. What was it? Surely it had been an important thought? I unlaced my boots, took off my socks, and stepped into the creek. The water caressed my feet and Lethe-like took the faint memory away from me completely. I could only feel the welcoming cold, could only hear the water running. Come to me, crooned the creek, cast your doubts away in my waters. Why not, I thought, why not? Why shouldn’t we camp next to a creek, where water is plentiful and the living is easy? Why worry?
We dumped our packs, stripped off our clothes, and immersed ourselves. I think Emmy turned forty as she splashed in Lyons Creek, naked as the day she was born, and as happy. We sat on sandy gravel with waves of golden green water rushing around us.
I announced, “This is how I want to live.” I didn’t know what I meant. I was only conscious of the golden present, and the verdant surroundings of the cool riparian environment.
“Yup, I hear you!” Emmy replied. “Totally! Let’s set up. I’m hungry.”
We waded out and began the process of setting up camp. We deconstructed our packs into their constituent parts: a sleeping bag, a tent, and sleeping pads. My sleeping pad was tightly compacted. It had taken me, with my small hands, at least fifteen minutes to compress it into a fraction of its size. It released to its full size with a hiss of relief. I pulled my tent apart, positioned it, and saw an ant—and then another. They scurried into small symmetrical holes dotting the area where I planned to sleep that night.
A half hour passed. We spoke of food, and the joys of passing the night next to this clean, untroubled creek. The sun sank slightly and the shadows subtly lengthened. Emmy walked over to a large upright granite rock that would serve as our kitchen. She came walking back with a troubled look on her face.
“You’re going to kill me,” she said. “ I think I found a bear burrow.”
Right. The bear. There was a notice about a bear, I thought. At the beginning of the trail.
“There was a note about a bear at the start of the trailhead,” said Emmy.
We walked over to the rock. There were long grooves in the dirt, curving under the rock. A shallow depression had been excavated. It wasn’t a very large rock, which made me wonder about the intelligence of any black bear that thought they could fit under it.
“You really think that’s a bear burrow?’ I asked.
“Yep,” she said.
“But… are they serious about making this their home, or are they just thinking about it?” I asked. “It looks like they’re just thinking about it.”
“Oh, honey. Who knows? I don’t want to stick around to find out,” said Emmy.
We looked at our little settlement. “Sorry,” Emmy said. The expansive sense of time I had felt scampering around in the creek was suddenly banished by the image of a clock, the face of which (in my imagination) was glaring at me. It was getting late.
* * *
“My god, the mosquitoes! Hordes of them. And their numbers unfortunately peak just when wildflowers usually are at their best, ” wrote Jeffrey P. Schaffer, author of Desolation Wilderness and the South Lake Tahoe Basin. These prescient words (unread by me) were written thirty years before Emmy and I walked the trail next to Lyons Creek.
* * *
Leaving the creek had been difficult; the mosquitoes had suddenly ratcheted up their patrol of the area and begun to bite viciously. I had reassembled my pack, which seemed to resent the change of plans. I couldn’t roll my sleeping pad as tightly, sitting on the bumpy ground with mosquitoes whining in my ears. My tent didn’t fold as easily and had to be hastily stuffed into its bag, which suddenly seemed too small. The straps on my pack, old and frayed, squeaked rather than slid through the buckles. The equilibrium was gone: my hasty hands had dispelled the magic balancing act of the pack.
“Just give your tent and pad to me,” Emmy said. She walked up the trail with my sleeping equipment carried under her arms, while I walked behind her. “Hi, bear!” she called brightly, to the unseen bear whose retreat we had disturbed.
I slapped a mosquito.
“I want to go to Sylvia Lake,” Emmy called out. Sylvia Lake was the next lake over from Lyons Lake.
“Why?” I asked, trying not to sound freaked out. I like sticking to plans, not departing from them.
“Lyons Lake is up a grade,” Emmy answered. “Sylvia Lake is closer to the trailhead. I don’t feel like doing the grade.”
The grade at that junction was steepish, I knew. It gained a few hundred feet, but the actual climb was quite brief—maybe ten minutes.
“I don’t want to do it,” declared Emmy flatly. “It’ll take longer.”
How did she know? “Em, it really isn’t that steep,” I said. “And…”
“It’s my birthday,” she said.
But I was going to give you cake placed on a granite slab next to a beautiful lake, I thought. I was going to look at Mount Agassiz and think of all the volcanic plutons that floated to the surface over millions of years just to build the batholith. I was going to think about time, and my place in it, and yours. But I said nothing. It was no use. These reasons faltered, impotent before Emmy’s implacable decisiveness.
“It’s your birthday,” I said. “Okay.” The whine in my inner dialogue was being matched by the whine of the mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes are not equal opportunity biters. Some people have a scent that intoxicates them. (Like me.) It isn’t the male mosquitoes that bite; they can live on nectar. It’s the female mosquitoes. When they smell a human being whose scent they like, they swarm to that person. They’re also multitasking: like so many busy women, lady mosquitoes are called upon to do two things at once. Females fly into swarms looking for a mate.
I slapped a mosquito. And another. I felt a tickling on my arm and looked down. There were five or six mosquitoes gathered together in prayerful communion on my arm, heads down and proboscises out, probing and piercing my skin. I could only blow on them, because my arms were now full of my tent and pad, which Emmy had handed back to me. We had stopped talking, focusing on the effort of walking and singing our bear song. “Hi, bear,” Emmy would say cheerfully to our invisible friends. “Whoot, whoot!” I’d sing out in response, too tired to form a compete sentence.
The trail seemed insubstantial. At points, it was clear—a brown gash in the muddy meadow. At points, it was a mini-creek—water dribbled down the length of it unceasingly. (Where was this water coming from? Had it rained?) My tired eyes strained to follow the trail, which seemed to get thinner and thinner, as it ran deeper and deeper into the darkening wilderness. A mosquito sung its screaming song in my ear, startlingly loud. I felt the unmistakable pinch of her bite.
Behind me Emmy slapped and swore. “These mosquitoes are bad!” she yelled. I was in front of her now, my body willing itself to go faster and faster.
My feet, less sure of themselves on the rocky path, stumbled several times. Once, stepping uncertainly, I wrenched my ankle. A flash of intense nerve pain shot out in a web, spreading and dropping across my metatarsals. The wildflowers dropped out of my consciousness completely. What I wanted to see was Mount Agassiz, the sentinel mountain above both lakes, whose peak would be a sign we were minutes from the campsite.
What I saw instead, dancing airborne in their fey and eldritch manner, was an enormous swarm of mosquitoes. A vanguard pulled away from the swarm and attached itself to my face.
The Batholith, it seemed, was not a terrible monster with a granite torso that writhed and twisted among the rock; instead it chipped tiny pieces of rock from its massive gray body and transformed these splinters into mosquitoes. It sent these piercing, stinging pieces out from itself, each carrying in its tiny body the full rage and fury of the giant Batholith.
“But while you may curse these needling females…you should bear in mind—as you try to identify or appreciate the meadow’s wildflowers—that many of the small-flowered species may in part rely on mosquitoes for propagation,” Schaffer reminds the reader, trying, perhaps, to dilute the unbridled hatred so many people feel for mosquitoes. The clearest manifestation of that hatred is DDT: its ecocidal impacts were felt far beyond the world’s population of mosquitoes. Nature is purposeful and has its reasons for producing these little bits of misery.
As it happens, the reason these all-female mosquito detachments were stinging every bit of exposed skin on my body was because of their need to reproduce. After they drank my blood, they would produce an enzyme, which transforms proteins in their miniscule bodies into amino acids, which are necessary for the manufacture of mosquito eggs. These purpose-driven females were answering the demands of their biological clocks, as single-mindedly as some women I know. I dropped my tent and pad and swatted furiously at the air. A mosquito, drunk on my scent, burrowed into my tear duct. I felt the burning pinch of another on the top of my head. I saw still another nestled in the crook of my arm, placid and content, like a cow in a field, grazing.
“Oh, shit. This is as bad as Alaska,” Emmy said.
Well, that she would know. Emmy had lived in Alaska for fifteen years. As an environmental scientist, she had worked in the field, simultaneously documenting the health of the Alaskan wilderness and doing battle with biting midges and mosquitoes, whose habitat she was working to preserve. I was happy to hear her admit that the situation was as bad as I thought it was. No one wants to think it’s all in their head.
At that moment, what was around my head and in my hair were the most incredibly persistent and indefatigable mosquitoes I had ever encountered. A few tried desperately to get into our mouths. Emmy gagged and spit out a mosquito that had succeeded. One tried to crawl inside my nostril.
“Emmy,” I said, suddenly furious that we were battling both time and blood-crazed mosquitoes, “this situation is not optimal.”
“I know. I held us up. I get that,” she said, evenly. “There’s nothing to do except keep moving.”
We kept walking. The light was fading into twilight. I walked as fast as I could, futilely trying to outpace the crazed she-mosquitoes. Sweat ran down my face, plastering both hair and mosquitoes on it. I thought of Lyons Lake and the cold water in it with longing. The sun continued to sink.
After walking for what seemed to be years in silence, we reached the signpost for Lyons Lake and Sylvia Lake. I caught my first sight of Mount Agassiz, a sight as moving to me as the Grail to Galahad.
“Emmy,” I said, “we’re almost there. Are you sure you don’t want to go to Lyons Lake? Here’s the sign…”
At that moment the abundance of corn lilies, the unrelenting attacks of the mosquitoes, and the watery environment of the trail were explained: huge sheets of snow lay all around us. At our feet, silvery trickles of melting snow ran down, down, down the inundated trail. Snow sprawled in large irregular patches that glowed bluish-white in the dusk, completely obliterating the trail to Lyons Lake. There was really no question of trying to push through: the snow was treacherous because of the cavities that lay beneath its smooth surface. Crashing through a few feet of snow to the trail was survivable, but probably injurious as well, and painful. My feet, in their boots, were soaked from the wet trail and unstable. They slipped and slid from side to side.
“Betsy. Listen to me,” said Emmy. “Sylvia Lake is less than a mile away. We’re almost there.”
We walked into the deepening dusk. After a few steps, the trail gave up the unequal fight against the blanketing snow. It vanished completely.
* * *
I understand, now, the difference between fear and anxiety. Anxiety anticipates what is possible; fear appreciates the utterly factual. Consider the following situation: There is no trail and the sun is setting. There are bears and they tend to come out at dusk. Under these dire circumstances, responding to fear by dropping to the ground and sobbing is totally understandable. Did I do that? No. Strangely, even when you’re absolutely sure the shit has hit the fan, embarrassment can still kick in. Retrospectively speaking, this was a blessing. Who really likes to make a scene? Or remember that they did so?
Still, we need fear and I certainly felt entitled to mine. In the olden days, fear protected us from carnivorous mega-fauna. Now fear was trying to protect me from my sister’s impulsive wilderness habits. I knew—I thought, rather—that Emmy was an experienced outdoorswoman, skilled at navigating her way through the wild bush and backcountry of Alaska and California. But I had to ask: Was she actually applying her skills to our situation? Or was she somehow held in the grip of Folly, that featherheaded creature, who keeps company with intemperance, self-delusion, and oblivion?
Yes, the trail was gone. In a suicidal plunge, it dove straight into a tributary stream of Lyons Creek and never emerged. Mutely, we stood in a patch of snow, looking, looking, and seeing nothing but snow snuggled tight against the ground. The sky was cobalt blue in the twilight, and it was windless—so still it seemed that we were covered by a glass dome: deux femmes sous cloche bleue, a new dish, served only in Desolation Wilderness.
“Emmy,” I said. “There’s no trail.”
Silence. She was looking around.
“Where the fuck is the lake? Why don’t we just go back to Lyons Lake?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
“It’s not that bad of a grade,” I continued desperately. “I’ve been there, remember? I know what I’m talking about.”
“The snow is blocking it, Betsy. We can’t go that way.”
“Well…which way are we supposed to go? Where is the fucking trail?” I could hear my voice rise. “There’s no trail! Shouldn’t there be warnings?”
“Let it go. We’re in the wilderness,” Emmy said. “There are some assumptions that go with that.” She looked at me. “Oh, honey. You’re freaked out, aren’t you?”
“Well…aren’t you? This is…there’s no…” I struggled for words and stared at her. What was this? What was this moment?
Arguing may have been a waste of energy, but it distracted me from the requests my body was urgently issuing: Run now. While there’s still time. Don’t argue, I thought. Don’t panic. This moment is a part of the hike. There is no climax; there is no simple cinematic narrative. This isn’t Deliverance.
“Glad I brought this,” Emmy said, pulling out a compass.
She fiddled with it in the gloaming. My eyes strained to see anything that looked like a trail.
“C’mon,” she said and set off.
The trees were set closely together. There was nothing I could see except trees and snow, and more trees and more snow. No rocks now. No creek. Emmy consulted her compass again, and we walked.
In the absence of comfort, the mind lingers on what is comforting. A few minutes ago, sweating and humid, I had promised myself that I would rinse my body of sweat in the coolness of the lake. Now, colder, standing in the snow with sweat drying on my body, I desperately wanted warmth: a fire, a cup of tea. And to be able to see more than a foot in front of me.
What I saw was glimmering snow and ghostly trees; each tree twinned by another. Spindly limbs and boughs made a ghastly arbor, a vista of infinity; a dark, dark wood.
“There’s the trail,” Emmy said, and we walked towards it, suddenly sure footed.
* * *
Later, crammed into my one-person tent that night, hungry, listening to the droning sound of the mosquitoes above us, we ate her birthday cake. I sang her happy birthday as we shoved the cake into our mouths with grimy fingers. She looked at me with her brown eyes—the eyes of my mother and grandmother—and said, “I love you. Give me a kiss. I’m going to sleep.”
I awoke the next morning and watched mosquitoes wheel and drift over my tent. “Hey, Em,” I called. She awoke. We assembled our packs and left.
* * *
Specificity: here’s an example. Aedes cataphyllaand Aedes clivisare two mosquito species known to be the first on the scene in the Sierra after the snowmelt.I don’t know which species was biting me; happily, neither one is known to carry disease. This was a concern of mine upon seeing my butt, which had taken the brunt of the mosquito’s ardor. The ill-fitting backpack had shoved my pants down my hips with each jouncing step, giving the mosquitoes some prime grazing territory.
I privately called my backside the “assolith”: hugely swollen, my derrière had been restructured by the mosquitoes into a contiguous structure of amazing shape and size. Both cheeks were riddled with more than 100 bites. My shoulder was so welted up that no bites were visible—it, too, was a new kind of batholith made of insulted flesh. My scalp wept lymph. Amazingly, my face was relatively untouched.
What our offense was, we do not know. Beware the Batholith!
Elizabeth Creely is a fifth generation Californian who lives and writes in San Francisco.
She received an M.F.A. from San Francisco State University in 2005 and has written two essays: “Imagined Nation” published in the Mississippi Review in 2004, and “Inherited Landscapes” soon to appear in the New Hibernia Review in 2012.
For a short time in 2010, she wrote a column on biking in San Francisco for the online newspaper examiner.com. She’s currently at work a monograph about Patricia Maginnis, a sixties-era abortion rights activist.
In her spare time she continues to explore California’s coastal ranges, rivers and is rapidly becoming an expert on mosquito repellent.