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Steinbeck in the Sierras

It's an odd feeling after the luxuries of town to suddenly find yourself back on the trail, exactly where you left off a day or more ago. At those moments it often felt to me as if I were still tethered to civilization by a giant rubber band. It would stretch and stretch throughout the day until finally sometime in the late afternoon it would snap and release me and I would once again fall back into the familiar rhythm of life on the trail.

Heading north from Echo Summit, I passed by Talking Mountain and below it Echo Lake. I continued on to Lake Aloha - large and vast and full of miniscule rock islands and dead trees as if the land had only just recently flooded. While "Steinbeck Country" was far to the southwest from where I was, along the coast in the areas including Salinas and Monterey, Steinbeck had at one point in his life called my current location home. In a letter to a friend he had told a fantastical story involving Lake Aloha, a story most likely conjured up in his own imagination. Employed at a hatchery near Tahoe, Steinbeck had been stripping the eggs from trout in Taylor Creek and a local Indian appeared and asked if he could have one of the trapped fish. In Benson's paraphrasing of Steinbeck's story, the Indian explains his intentions:

"My father is quite sick, and the medicine man at Linden said that if I went to Taylor Creek, got a fish, took it up to Lake Aloha, and gave it to the lady at Lake Aloha, my father would get well."

He took off his clothes - it was March, very cold, with snow still on the ground - went into the river, and caught a fish with his hands. He laid it on the snow, put his clothes back on, and started out for Lake Aloha, ten miles into the back country. They saw him a few days later and asked, "Fred, did you take the fish to Lake Aloha?" and he replied, "Yes, my father will get well now." They asked, "What happened at Lake Aloha?" He said, "The lady came out of the lake, I gave her the fish, and she went back into the lake with it.


Fallen Leaf Lake, where he spent his first year in the Tahoe area is a mere two miles from the PCT, on the opposite side of Mt. Tallac. In the summer he had spent his days off fishing, hiking at times five or six miles to the headwaters of the South Fork of the American River, found only a few hundred feet from the PCT at Echo Summit where thru-hikers hitch into South Lake Tahoe. He would also go for long walks, sometimes as far as Desolation Valley near Lake Aloha. Benson notes that "he had sharp eyes and a keen interest in everything there was to see in the mountains: the trees, plants, rock formations, and animal traces." To reach Desolation Valley he would certainly have passed along trails that would eventually become part of the PCT.

Leaving Lake Aloha behind I struggled through the afternoon - both mentally and physically - and finally stopped to rest. A plane flew low overhead and I could make out its every detail, seeing exactly where the contrails formed just off the back edge of its wings. It seemed so close and thus I could more easily sense its speed. It traveled north in the same direction as the trail and made it painfully obvious just how slow I was traveling on foot. The state of California, not to mention the entire PCT, seemed so unfathomably long when taken one step at a time. As Steinbeck expressed as he drove his looping route around the country in Travels With Charley, "Suddenly the United States became huge beyond belief and impossible ever to cross. I wondered how in hell I'd got myself mixed up in a project that couldn't be carried out. It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing."

Steinbeck's explanation encapsulates the thru-hiker's desired mentality. When viewed in totality the PCT is an impossible endeavor, therefore it must be approached in more manageable doses. The hiker must permit himself to contemplate only the prospect of reaching the next town and upon arriving, then divert his attention to the next one north with no thought given to the trail as a whole. There in the Desolation Wilderness of Eldorado National Forest I had allowed myself to contemplate the "desolate impossibility" of reaching Canada so many hundreds of miles north. Bear in mind that Canada lay north along a route not as the crow flies, but rather along the twisting, snaking and sometimes maddening route of the PCT as it traces the spines of our great Western mountain ranges, up and over high passes and down into valleys and even as low as sea level at the Columbia River. It turns west and east and yes, sometimes even south, as it slowly leads the hiker to Monument 78 at the Canadian border.

I camped alone just past Thelma Lake amidst the worst cloud of mosquitoes I had experienced so far. The sun was a blazing white light shining through the trees as it disappeared over a ridge. I couldn't see the actual sunset, obscured as it was behind the mountains, but as the evening progressed I witnessed its effects. The trees off in the distance were bathed in an orange light and the snowfields on distant peaks took on a soft, pink glow. I gazed at it all through the mosquito-covered head net draped over my face. Other insects floated through the air catching the fading sunlight as they moved about. Grotesquely large black ants covered the ground around me and flies congregated on my water bottle, drawn to it for some mysterious reason. I sliced open my thumb on the aluminum wind screen I used to shield my cooking stove and a few drops of blood fell to the dry dirt at my feet. The sky turned almost a brilliant blue just before night fell and later, as I slept, some animal visited my campsite and chewed the sweat-stained wrist straps of my trekking poles in search of salt.

Regarding his time in the area, Steinbeck wrote that "for two succeeding years I was alone each winter for eight months at a stretch in the Sierra Nevada mountains on Lake Tahoe. I was a caretaker on a summer estate during the winter months when it was snowed in. And I made some observations then. As the time went on I found that my reactions thickened. Ordinarily I am a whistler. I stopped whistling. I stopped conversing with my dogs, and I believe that subtleties of feeling began to disappear until finally I was on a pleasure-pain basis. Then it occurred to me that the delicate shades of feeling, of reaction, are the result of communication, and without such communication they tend to disappear. A man with nothing to say has no words. Can its reverse be true - a man who has no one to say anything to has no words as he has no need for words?"

That evening as I sat in my camp, a hiker passed by talking to himself and cursing under his breath, not knowing I was sitting there a few yards from the trail. The thru-hiker it would seem, often solitary, finds the lack of a companion hardly a hindrance in expressing himself. The thru-hiker with no one to say anything to simply voices his thoughts to the silent forest and mountains and sometimes, unbeknownst to him, there is someone there to listen.

Steinbeck most certainly exaggerated his image of complete isolation and his claims of having no need for words. In fact, words were as vital to him as ever as he worked to complete the manuscript of his first novel, Cup of Gold. Even at times with no one to talk to, Steinbeck did not refrain from reciting aloud what he wrote. From Benson's biography:

"Probably the reason the book can be read aloud is that I talked it aloud as I wrote it. That is one reason why I have to work in the hills. I drive people crazy with singing my sentences, but I find it necessary for the sake of rhythm." It is a marvelous image to think of Steinbeck alone in his cabin during a winter of deep snow, dressed in his long johns, pacing back and forth in front of his pot-bellied stove and singing out to himself the sentences of his manuscript.

Perhaps in the silence of winter, nearby Talking Mountain failed to send its voice out over Echo Lake, but Steinbeck's must have rang out loud and bright in the lyrical prose of Cup of Gold.

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