I had just finished a way-too-short visit meandering around Mono Pass.
At 10,599 feet, stiff winds came blowing down mountain walls and up Bloody Canyon that had commanding views of Mono Lake and the Great Basin.
Several primitive cabins built over 125 years ago by men scouring the vastness of the eastern Sierra that abuts the boundary of Yosemite National Park in an elusive search for mineral riches stood nearby in arrested states of decay.
The hike up was perfect without a single soul in sight. There were stunning panoramic views of the Yosemite high country as I worked my way above the tree line.
Two weeks earlier, I had made my way to the nearby 13,061-foot summit of Mt. Dana. It is considered one of the easiest of California’s 13,000-foot plus peaks to conquer due to its close proximity to a trailhead some three miles away on Highway 120 at the Tioga Pass entrance station to Yosemite. The Mt. Dana summit offered 100-mile plus views looking eastward into the Great Basin past Mono Lake and equally impressive views to the north, west and south. The unmaintained trail was fairly easy to follow given a late August hail storm the day before had nicely caked the path for the last mile or so.
Mt. Dana was a stunner. I’ll hike it again. But due to the crowd — there were three groups at the top along with me making it 10 people — it wasn’t conducive to silent reflection.
That wasn’t the case at Mono Pass. I was able to soak in the solitude for a good hour while reflecting on life.
I’ll admit I was kind of impressed with myself given 30 years prior I would have been breathing hard just thinking about such a hike. But that isn’t why I ventured to Mono Pass or have hiked the dozens of other pikes, isolated desert canyons, and Sierra passes.
There is something about the vastness that helps you grasp the bigger picture of life and creation itself.
To see no traces of civilization save perhaps a worn trail or on certain peaks brass summit markers pounded into granite makes you realize we are only a small part of earth’s landscape.
Standing at places such as Mono Pass helps you keep things in perspective.
Perhaps it is wondering how pioneers 165 years ago made their way across the Sierra on foot without aid of roads, vehicles, or even well-known routes. They braved the terrain and weather without hiking boots wearing shoes that had been reduced to tatters
Today, you can reach this slice of heaven in the high Sierra with a drive of a little more than three hours from Manteca and a half-day hike. You can make the round trip in 14 hours.
As I was about to depart Mono Pass, a vacationing couple from England crested the trail. The 10,000-foot elevation was taking a slight toll as they were breathing a bit labored although the beaming smiles on their faces made it clear the exertion was more than worth the effort.
We had a pleasant five-minute chat during which time they noted how Californians were so fortunate to live in a place they said God had blessed with great mountains, great and bountiful valleys, great deserts, soaring trees with some predating the birth of Christ, and other natural wonders.
They were preaching to the choir.
They did mention, though, that they were surprised at the number of people they had met in California who seemed so preoccupied with day-to-day life that they never got out and saw the beauty around them.
On my way back down as I slipped below the tree line I heard rustling to my right. Running at full speed perhaps 50 feet in front of me passing at an angle was a massive buck. Seconds later a doe flashed by. As I was trying to get my smartphone to take a photo, the reason for their fleeing came galloping by — a black bear was in hot pursuit.
I’m not going to lie. My heart started pounding. I had been closer only once to a bear in the middle of nowhere but that time it wasn’t moving at a pace that would be the envy of a Kentucky Derby race horse.
Needless to say, I didn’t make a sound as the three continued their life-and-death run and disappeared into a cluster of trees, the noise of the race growing fainter and fainter by the second.
Had I left Mono Pass a minute or so earlier I would have been right in their path. It probably would not have been a good thing.
Upon returning home, I told a few people about the bear encounter, but then I stopped. Their response was how it was too dangerous to go hiking by myself. Why I stopped was simple: I didn’t want to risk letting concerns about my well-being stop me from doing what is arguably the best thing I’ve ever done for my well being — solitude hiking in the Sierra.
I get Henry David Thoreau. I get John Muir. And while they were light years away from what I will ever do with my life I get how they found their strength in the wilderness. I understand how that is the one place their souls weren’t lost.
Life is good.
If you doubt that go take a hike.