It's night. Mary Breckenridge is zooming her truck along the narrow, twisting road to Edison Lake.
"You ever get nervous driving in the mountains?" I ask, trying to sound merely curious.
"Never!" she says, accelerating.
Once in the sagging white tent at the "resort," Mary takes out her bear earrings and her hearing aid, lays down in her sleeping bag on one of the four cots and that's it, she's asleep. Her strong, steady snore begins as her head sinks into the pillow. No time wasted on wandering thoughts.
Here's the thing. There really is nothing to experiencing wilderness, or to riding a horse — until suddenly there is.
My horse, Bishop, is trained to just walk along, following the trail horse in front of him. Anyone who can sit upright can manage to handle that, right?
So not 10 minutes into our first day on the trail, as we're moseying through pine trees and swarms of butterflies, Bishop starts bucking.
"Bucko! Help!" I shout to the front of the pack line.
"Pull up his head," Bucko Davis yells.
I'm trying to pull the reins up when Bucko yells at me to give Bishop his head and kick his sides
Give a bucking horse his head? But I trust Bucko. I give Bishop all the reins, and he surges forward.
Then I can hear Mary shouting: "Bees!"
Granite can look ordinary at first.
Take this boulder I'm resting on. It's rough and speckled with black and white, like it's been doused with seasonings. But turn my head just a little this way or that, and sunlight glints off its crystals of quartz and mica.
The Sierra Nevada is largely exposed granite. The Range of Light — as John Muir dubbed it — sparkles.
Mary and Bucko are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a boulder, their heads hunched over his beaded medicine bag.
She asks what he puts in it. He says it can be anything that has meaning to him: a pebble, a twig, something from someone he loves. Once it's in the bag, it never leaves. It becomes one of the pieces that keep him whole. She wonders aloud what she would put in her medicine bag if she had one.
Mary says her solo trips are mostly moving meditations. But she also usually picks a poem to memorize along the way.
I followed suit and brought a work by Phillip Levine, who just finished up a stint as the nation's poet laureate. He lives in the Central Valley, and his words about our mountains ("If you live here you begin to believe they know everything") keep playing in my head:
We don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.
You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you're thrilled and terrified.
You have to remember this isn't your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
The images keep changing, one luminous picture laid atop another, until I lose track of the individual snapshots.
The ground is covered with Mary's favorite flower, shooting stars. They're past bloom, but still add a feathery touch to a dense carpet of leaves.
Fluttering leaves on the aspen flash sunlight around like a disco ball. Their white trunks are dotted with shadows, circular designs that make it appear as though they've been collecting passport stamps.
We pass two backpackers. Mary gives them a hearty hello, asks where they're going, where they've been. She has stopped to talk to everyone with whom we've crossed paths, trying to inject friendliness into a thorny debate about land use.
Some backpackers think horses and mules don't belong in wilderness areas. Some horse people disagree — they were in these mountains a long time before anyone ever bought an ultralight backpack at REI. Last spring, all horse packing trips were suspended for a while in Sequoia Kings National Park because the government feared an environmental lawsuit over the park not properly managing packing stations.
Unprompted, one of the backpackers, a woman from the Valley, exclaims: "Oh, I love seeing horses in the Sierra!"
"Really?" asks Mary.