Escape to Kings Canyon, part 4: climbers, rangers, wilderness lovers

This post is part 4 of a series. Click here to read the first post. To see the gallery, click here.


Back at the campground, Bev read her book and I darted away with my camera. There were things I needed to see more closely, some flowers and birds and rocks to attend to, some niches of the river to explore. On my walk I revisited the Cedar Grove pack station. Sundari and I had passed it the day before. From here, for a fee, visitors can leave for wilderness trips on horseback. Cedar Grove is a popular point of departure for people going to the Kings Canyon backcountry. Many campers take the Rae Lakes Loop trail, 46 miles of beauty: soaring vistas, waterfalls, stunning valleys, forests. They hike on foot, or bring horses, mules, or llamas. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed on the 800 miles of Sequoia and Kings Canyon park trails. Even bicycles are forbidden.

Access to the wilder parts of the park was on my mind because of The Last Season, the book I was reading about the disappearance of ranger Randy Morgenson. When his absence was noticed, search parties left from Cedar Grove. I looked at the horses and imagined saddling up to go on a search, one that might lead to finding an injured friend, or his body, or perhaps finding nothing at all. At the point I’d reached in the book, they were still trying to find him.

Morgenson's disappearance was tragic, but before it happened he enjoyed many years of often solitary wandering in exquisite natural settings, places that can’t be approached in a car. I thought about traveling in the RV, how it differs from traveling on foot. Part of me wanted to dispense with all the apparatus of the RV, but I was grateful for this vehicle which allowed me to travel with Bev and Sundari. Someday there would be time for wandering up into the backcountry. Until then, I could experience the rougher form of travel vicariously by reading about it.


Norman Clyde was a famous climber who began in the Sierras in 1910 and continued his alpine explorations in various parts of the world for over 50 years. He made at least 160 first ascents (meaning he was the first person to reach a particular peak). Well-respected for his speed and stamina, Clyde also gained notoriety for the enormous pack he carried, which included as many as five cameras and a stack of hardcover books. His photos were used to illustrate the articles he wrote, a series which first appeared in 1928 in an automobile club magazine.

In Norman Clyde’s time, hiking boots were heavy and access to climbing routes was often difficult. This makes his accomplishments as a climber even more impressive. But Clyde didn’t care about accomplishments. He often failed to announce when he’d reached a peak first. He climbed because he loved the mountains, and possibly because it made sense as a way of life after he experienced a terrible loss. His wife died in 1919 after they’d been married just four years, and though he’d already been climbing for a decade, it was after this bereavement that he devoted his life to the mountains.

It may be that heartbreak drove him deeper into the wilderness. Nobody knows for sure. I spent a lot of time thinking about Norman Clyde after I read about him, fascinated by his unconventional path in life and by the idea, so familiar to me, that full engagement with the natural world can provide solace for pain incurred in the human world.


Norman Clyde’s first summer in the Sierras just happened to be in 1914, the same year John Muir died. Muir’s own first Sierra summer was in 1869, when he took the job as a summer shepherd at Tolumne Meadows. He wrote a book about the experience titled My First Summer in the Sierra in which he describes his experience of falling in love with the Sierra backcountry in vivid, often euphoric language. Here’s an example:

Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty- making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood...

Muir's prose is gorgeous, poetic, and sometimes a bit over the top. He frequently falls into a state of religious rapture in this book, not necessarily about God, but about nature, a tendency which made sense to me when I read more about his upbringing. Muir was compelled by his father to memorize the entire New Testament and parts of the Old Testament. It’s easy to hear the scriptural cadence in his writing. In childhood he was made to work hard with little time for play, and his precious free time was spent exploring the natural landscape of his Wisconsin farm. Early on, nature became linked with his concept of freedom and recreation.

John Muir had a wife and children and from all accounts his family life seems to have been happy, but he always longed to be in the Sierras when he wasn’t there. He considered the mountains to be his true home. Perhaps he wasn’t seeking to soothe emotional pain as much as he was hungry for a kind of spiritual delight. Delight and pain relief seem to come from the same source for these two and many others like them: direct contact with a natural landscape.


I sat by the Kings River that afternoon watching water break over the rocks and listening to the sounds of thousands of tiny splashes. After dinner in the RV I was back at the river again, and the water sounds had been joined by wind sounds, gusts through the canyon treetops as daylight fled. The evening was warm and the granite peaks around me were lit with alpenglow. I thought of another bit of My First Summer in the Sierra and this time, reading it here in this spot, the prose did not strike me as being at all over the top, but rather an accurate description of the moment I was living:

Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.

Though I hadn’t had the same kind of glorious Sierra day that he used to have, outdoors the whole time with the sheep and just a few other people, I still felt the essence of his remark. Especially the part about being “dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where.” It seemed, as always, like the solution to all my worries, the burden of concern I carried on this trip, the emotional entanglements with loved ones both here and elsewhere. Just go into nature and let yourself be dispersed into the elements.

I remembered how many times I’d been on these trips and lingered outside in the evening after all social activity was done, wanting to stay there, out on that edge of civilization. John Muir’s writing seemed to lend that urge a new spiritual legitimacy somehow. Now I was doing it again, relishing that first deep breath upon reaching solitude outdoors, that sense of relief as the constructs of my persona ceased to matter and I assumed the wordless ever-changing identity I could only have in a wild, natural place. 


As the darkness crept nearer I thought about Randy Morgenson. I had reached the point in the book where his motivations and conflicting desires had been explained and the author was about to reveal when and how they finally found him. Morgenson had struggled to balance his need for solitude and time in the backcountry with his complicated connections to other human beings, and his disappearance came at a moment when his personal life was coming unraveled, prompting many to wonder if his death was a suicide. I too had asked “was it suicide?” after the death of a loved one, so I’d become emotionally gripped by Morgenson's story.

Friends who didn’t think he had died on purpose knew that Morgenson was easily capable of retreating to the backcountry as a solace, where in a state of emotional confusion and distress he might have an accident. I spent a lot of time thinking about this, a continuation of my earlier meditations on the value of being dissolved and absorbed by nature. Is it safe to become one with the wilderness? I wondered. What happens if you go too far? I thought about this dilemma as I looked down from the bridge over the Kings River, a short walk from the campground where my travel companions awaited my return.

Thinking of Norman Clyde and the five cameras he took into the wilderness, I shot long exposures of river water flowing over rocks, longer and longer as the twilight came to an end. I didn’t have a tripod so I held my breath while I leaned against the bridge railing and pressed down the shutter, thinking vaguely about water and escape and mysteries, feeling somehow unsettled and comforted at the same time. And then, when it was too dark to take these kinds of pictures anymore, I went back to the RV and my sleeping bag and finally found out what really happened to the missing ranger.

« Escape to Kings Canyon, part 5: the past and present of Hume Lake | Main | Escape to Kings Canyon, part 3: glaciers were here »

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