Reading notes: The High Sierra

An ink wash sketch of the High Sierra skyline

I’m about one-third of the way through Kim Stanley Robinson’s The High Sierra: A love story.

I’m an ardent fan of his books and by now I’ve read (and re-read) just about everything he’s written, from the Three Californias trilogy to the Mars epics to his recent The Ministry for the Future. His stories are often vast in scale and densely layered. There are complicated characters living in complicated communities; there are intertwined political, economic, and cultural forces that span worlds and solar systems; and there are big scientific, moral, and ontological questions swirling around underneath it all.

I return again and again to his books; every time I find something new, some facet or depth I’d missed before. His stories have stayed with me through adulthood, my understanding of them changing as I’ve grown. (Note: I’ll probably write more about his other work later; stay tuned. )

Robinson is primarily a science fiction writer, and so The High Sierra is the first non-fiction work of his that I’ve read (Note: I’m not sure, but I believe he’s published other non-fiction stuff, including some academic work on literature, and he’s a frequent interview subject for topics like climate change and space colonization. ) . It’s primarily a memoir of his travels in the High Sierra mountain range, but it makes frequent detours: the history of the Sierra Club and American conservation, portraits of the region’s people and animals, literature and his own creative process, geology and its effects on human psychology, and West coast culture.

My copy is a hardcover filled with lush photos, illustrations, and maps, and printed on heavy paper with generous margins and elegant type. It has the look of something substantial and encyclopedic. But the writing itself has a looser, more casual (almost stream-of-consciousness) style than I’ve seen in his fiction. This book feels less edited and less deliberately composed, but also more intimate, like I’m sitting there by a campfire, listening to him tell stories as they come to mind. Which, perhaps, I am.

In no particular order, here’s some of my favorite bits:

The map is not the territory, this is always true, but it’s extra true when the maps you have are wrong. Why mapmakers feel compelled to fill in their blanks with fictional features is an enduring question, and maybe the answer is always right there: It’s embarrassing to have blank spots on your map, even when there are blank spots in your knowledge. Maybe especially then. Maps don’t like blanks because people don’t like ignorance.

The [Swiss] Alps are about ten degrees of latitude farther north than the high Sierra, and they’re on the receiving end of the Gulf Stream’s immense load of precipitation, so they have lain under a much heavier lifetime load of ice than the Sierra — roughly ten times as much. That’s made major differences. Canyons in the Alps are often twice as deep as those in the Sierra, and the at the upper ends of these deeper canyons, ice has also carved the headwater basins deeper — often fully as deep as the canyons they debouch into. And in that harsher scouring, the floors were almost completely smoothed, so that the high ponds that dot Sierra basins just aren’t there in the Alps. What remains in the Alps are clean downhill runs, from the tops of the highest peaks all the way down to the giant lakes that pool at the foot of the range. … My attempts to hike in them as if they were the Sierra led me into more than one fiasco, as I will relate.

Underfoot, the variety of forms is part of the glory — a few steps, moving in what I call a vertical meadow, meaning really a tilted or terraced meadow, takes you past different types of plants, mosses, grasses, flowers, and lichens, all clustering in different kinds of microbiomes, and always intermixed with big chunks of rock. … And look, there’s a buckwheat — I think — there are so many different kinds of buckwheat. And saxifrage, after which I named my terraforming scientist Sax, in my Mars trilogy: Latin for “rock breaker.” Which that plant does. Not that’s a good name. So are most of the lichen names, all those different kinds of plastering the granite like living paint, their names usually metaphors, tiny poems. Battleship-gray lichen, eggyolk lichen, bloodstain lichen, rock pimple lichen, peppermint drop lichen, sulphur lichen, map lichen, witch’s hair lichen — on and on it goes.

But this is to turn the experience into language, and the commentary in my head.

In San Diego we would go see surfing films, and the audience would hoot in approval or laugh scornfully, depending on the line the surfers on the screen took. Busywork to show one’s virtuosity was scorned by the crowd, but just staying inertly on the wave was not approved either. What they liked to see was a surfer shaping his ride organically to the wave’s surprises, and getting through problems with style and ingenuity — a nifty fitting into the evolving givens of the situation, accomplished decisively.

That’s what cross-country hiking is like. You’re surfing a wave that is stuck and motionless (or moving extremely slowly compared to you!), so that you have to provide the locomotion yourself; but the principle of where to go is the same.

By the time I got together with Lisa I was 28, and had been going to the Sierra for seven years, in perhaps 25 trips, in all seasons, but always as an escape from the world, a scramble to hold my head together despite my many mistakes, and a general sense of flailing ignorance. Maybe this is the way many people’s twenties feel. Not that mine were bad, indeed lots of the time they were great: a huge adventure, free to do anything, carve a life, fumbling along day to day, year to year, feeling time fly by, things disappearing in the rearview mirror, childhood that once had been remembered in full now drifting along into nothing; trying new things with very few responsibilities, go go go, go go go.

I’m now a couple years into my forties and Robinson’s musing on his younger days bring my own to mind. Not because our experiences were so similar, but because they were so different. I’ve been on the East coast my whole life. I grew up in the mountains, like he did, but the Appalachians, which, by the standards of the Sierra, would maybe qualify as leafy foothills. And I remember my twenties as being mostly absorbed in the city, trying to find my way in Baltimore and DC and build something resembling a career, a voice, a community, a life. I pulled long hours; I worried a lot about making rent and about deadlines; I remember more night skies than sunlight.

But the way Robinson describes backpacking and hiking across Sierra peaks sounds exactly like the way I felt (and still feel) running on the Appalachian trail along the the Blue Ridge, or walking along creekbeds near Sherando Lake back home, or, more recently, riding my bike around the Patapsco river up here. Exploring a place and being there, taking it all in. Feeling so perfectly connected that you feel like you’re home even if this is your first time here.

Turning forty is a weird inflection point in life — or at least it has been in mine — and I find myself a little wistful about my younger days. Looking back I can’t help but regret that I didn’t spend more of my time walking around mountains and sitting by campfires, being aimless. I was a responsible young man with his ducks in a row and a fifty-year plan, as I think the Avett Brothers lyric goes. Or at least I wanted to appear that way. I wish I’d been a bit dumber and freer, that I’d been able to cast off worry and doubt enough to look around more.

But I guess that’s nostalgia in a nutshell. It is, by definition, a distorted picture. I see myself then through the lens of myself now. I’ve had the time to try a bunch of things out and think things through, and it’s given me a much clearer sense of what really matters to me and what doesn’t. I have, I suppose, the advantage of some certainty of who I am and what I want. If it’s clear to me now that my life should include more mountains and campfires, it definitely wasn’t clear to me 20 years ago.

In that way, I have The High Sierra: A Love Story to thank for making me think hard about my priorities from here out. I’m only part of the way through but this book has made me think really hard about experiences versus stories (Note: And in particular the stories we tell ourselves, or how we spin our experiences into less-meaningful stories. ) , seeing a place versus building a life there, and how the land we live on changes the way we see (even when we don’t realize it). And, ironically, this book profoundly makes me want to put down my books and get out into the world more to experience things.

At this point, coming out of a pandemic and coming into my forties, with so much changing and so much on my mind, that's exactly what I needed. Thank you, once more, Stan.