A friend telephoned to say that she was going to travel by mule among the High Sierra camps of Yosemite.
What, she asked, would be the best luggage?
I remembered the dust along some of those meadow trails. I remembered how swiftly my red canvas bag turned to brick-brown, and how unzipping it each night sent up puffs of dirt like smoke signals.
I thought once again of the dentist's wife whom I met as we saddled up at the Tuolumne Meadows stables. We hit it off because neither of us knew anything about riding mules or horses.
"My husband and I brought matched luggage," she said, pointing toward the pack mule where a wrangler was strapping down two giant, green, Hefty bags. She turned out to be the smartest of the lot--the lady with disposable duffels.
For years I had yearned to see the high world of Yosemite National Park, which naturalist John Muir so loved. But I am neither a mountain climber nor backpacker, and there are no roads to the tent camps that fan out in a ragged circle from Tuolumne, west of Tioga Pass.
So it was to be on muleback, if at all.
From early July into September (the dates vary with the snow) the camps provide a key to the Sierra Nevada for those who love these peaks, but not the challenge of lugging their provisions on their shoulders.
I am one of those people, fit with more dreams than stamina, liking my wilderness and hot breakfast, too. The tent camps have mess halls and college-age cooks who have the coffee ready each morning before clanging the wake-up triangle.
Like most in our band of eight, I had written in December to reserve space for the summer ahead. However, there are always some cancellations and a few standbys do get to go on rides.
For six days in August I placed my trust in a sure-footed mule named Buttermilk, a temperate, well-cushioned beast with coarse golden hair and eyes that were liquid amber.
Buttermilk held a steady gait, fording icy streams, ambling through alpine meadows and gingerly mounting rough granite stairs by the shores of glacial lakes.
In that hushed and ethereal world the sound of cascading water can be heard miles away. Forests of hemlock and fragrant Jeffrey pines are so deeply carpeted that the cry of a magpie is startling.
Deer graze unafraid in grassy glades. Meadow squirrels, called picket pins, stiffen on their haunches like tiny periscopes and then slip back into their holes. The only light more compelling than the gilded pink of sunrise is the plum of alpenglow.
We rarely rode more than two hours without stopping to stretch and savor the rock-ribbed scene.
One day after a picnic, beneath a sky of stained-glass blue, I offered Buttermilk an apple from my pack. She spurned me, her eyes dead ahead, her ears turned forward. I crooned that it was OK; I'd had a bite. She refused to budge.
Then I followed her gaze and saw the cinnamon bear with her cub. They crossed our path and lumbered to the far side of the stream. We followed parallel courses for much of an hour, smudges of gold in the brush. There is plenty of room for such an encounter.
The days were hot. The nights were cold. At the highest camp, the timberline perch of Vogelsang that tops 10,000 feet, the temperature fell into the 30s. Sheer winds rattled the flaps of our four-bed tent. Blocks of cedar firewood snapped in our pot-bellied stove.
By candlelight, I climbed into bed wearing a fleecy warm-up suit and wool socks, and read from Muir's notes.
A century ago--in a quieter California--he wrote of the need for solitude and of the healing power of these blessed mountains.
Some hours later, with a blanket around my shoulders and a flashlight to ward off surprises, I had to venture briefly into the night of black velvet, the night pinned with silver stars. When I returned, the screen door creaked.
But the jolly woman with the Hefty-bag luggage slept, which was good because she'd failed to duck a branch that day and had taken a mighty wallop on her arm.
I fell asleep hoping that in the corral down the trail old Buttermilk was resting well, too.