“Range after range of mountains
Year after year. I am still in love.” –Gary Snyder, No Nature
Poetry of motion, the poetry of the wild—I think about this when I hike, words versus action. I think of Gary Snyder. His poetry crackles with the same immediacy it must have had in the 1950s when he first began writing in the lush Pacific forests as logger, lookout, climber. The ecological ethic he discovered and chose to live by he kept all his life, and it infuses his work to this day, all of which I own and have read so many times I’ve lost count. It’s dangerous to let a poet into your heart because you might try to emulate them. The closing poem of his first collection Riprap compares building poems to building trails, two paths that defined his life: writing and walking. A dangerous path to follow.
So naturally when I recently hiked southern Nevada’s Mt. Charleston with some friends, I decided to take Gary Snyder along with me for the ride. So far as I knew Snyder never walked here, and a book of poetry weighs less than a water bottle, so light you hardly notice it, even when you’re making a strong uphill push. Mt. Charleston is no easy hike: southern Nevada’s highest peak stands just below 12,000’, the shortest route an 18-mile walk that rises about 4,600’ from trailhead to summit. We were doing the 22-mile route, four of us and a Jack Russell terrier. The mountain’s acreage expanded in 2002 to more than 56,000 acres of protected wilderness. If Mt. Charleston was anywhere else in the USA it would be a National Park, it’s that special.
The basin and range of Nevada is pretty special, as well. Because of the state’s boundaries and the vagaries of plate tectonics, only one state has more mountain ranges than Nevada: Alaska. If you love wild places, truly wild, this state’s for you. Snyder fell in love with the state and expresses it in his poem “Finding the Space in the Heart” in Mountains and Rivers Without End. But I’m not carrying that volume with me today.
The higher you push into Charleston’s wilderness, the more the topography opens: you leave behind smaller brush and trees and move into hardier areas where the vegetation has to be stronger to survive harsh winds and low levels of moisture, though some seasons can be wetter than others. There are no streams up here, no real springs like what Snyder walks through in his part journal/part poetic illustrated The High Sierra of California. The limestone of Mt. Charleston resists all but the ever-present wind. On those wind-swept ridges, pushing above 10,000’, stand some of the longest-living beings on our planet: the bristlecone pine, gnarled and twisted, sometimes only a piece of green on one burnished limb, some of them in this area well over 3,000 years old. They live all across the basin and range at higher elevations. You have to wonder what stories they could tell.
Pushing above the treeline, the world opens as it so rarely does except on vistas well-earned. There’s nothing like breaking into open space at altitude when you’ve worked for it all day, pushing yourself beyond normal limits: legs tight, lungs burning from less oxygen, sweat and dust caking your face, shoulders pulling back and sore from the pack even though a good chunk of the water weight is gone. On the summit, all the effort rewarded. The view that so few get to see. From the top of Mt. Charleston on a clear day you can see almost 300 miles: south into Arizona, east into Utah, and west into California, the spike of 11,000’ Telescope Peak on Death Valley’s far side visible across the false desert emptiness.
All connected, all one. It’s easy to think, but sometimes you need a vantage. Mountain wisdom, maybe. Snyder knows.
We high-five, shake hands, drink water, grab snacks, stretch. Before we settle into the windbreak for a rest I pull the book from my pack and squat on sore quads to take a photo. Gary Snyder, Danger on Peaks.
My Jack licks my face, her whole form coated in trail dust, but her tail wags and her eyes are bright with the joy of being up here, alive. I read to her:
Hail all true and grounded beings
in all directions, in all the realms of form,
of no-form, or of hot desire
hail all noble woke-up big-heart beings;
hail—great wisdom of the path that goes beyond…