Kim Stanley Robinson on Waking Up in the High Sierra
A Love Letter to Western Mornings
When the sky gets light in the east I often wake. Pleased that day has almost arrived, I sometimes snuggle back into my sleeping bag for a last snooze; other times I put my glasses on and lie on my back and watch the stars wink out. The dawn sky is gray before it takes on the blue color. Sometimes peaks to the west of camp have a dawn alpenglow, more yellow than pink. It’s cold, but often I’m done with sleeping, and things are visible, and very likely I have to pee.
Once up and about, I seldom climb back into my sleeping bag and lie down. Easier to sit on my scrap of egg-crate foam that serves as butt pad, hip belt, and pillow, and pull my sleeping bag across my legs, and brew up my coffee and sit watching the morning happen. If the sky is clear, the first blast of sun over the mountains to the east will immediately warm things up. Between coffee and my warmies, and the bag draped over me, it’s usually warm enough. Although for sure I am also waiting for the sun.
Packing up gets intermingled with eating breakfast. Pour dried milk powder carefully into water bottle, shake. Pour milk onto my cup of cereal. Nice to feel a little hunger. Same breakfast as at home. Quotidian reality. Pack up whatever is at hand that needs packing. Things go into my backpack in a certain rough order, mainly just hard things away from my back, soft things stacked horizontally against my back. Nicer that way. No need to hurry, not usually; all the chores and pleasures of the morning can be completed in about an hour and a half. Two hours is leisurely, an hour is not hard. It’s best not to hurry, not to look at one’s watch.
Definitely one of the great hours of the day. A chance to see where we are in a different light. And morning light is so beautiful. Water noises are the only thing breaking the silence, little clucks from the nearby stream, sometimes more if there’s a waterfall or a bigger stream; liquid clatter. But quiet. The time of day when you’re most likely to see the local birds going about their business.
They flit from tree to tree, they cheep, they fly hard in the thin air. They seem busy. Sometimes we see Steller’s jays, like my scrub jays at home, but with a jaunty black crest at the backs of their heads, quite a handsome flourish. More usually finches or swallows or robins, or their Sierra equivalents. Clark’s nutcracker is a substantial bird. Crows flap by and swoop around in the treetops. Occasionally water ouzels, now called the American dipper, I’m told; and rosy finches, bold camp robbers with their subtle rich wing color, a dusky rose.
Chickadees, more heard than seen. I whistle their song back at them, one note high, two low and syncopated, and they will reply in a kind of conversation, although they always say the same thing, as far as I can tell. I only recently learned that those three notes are made by chickadees, and that the name of the bird is supposed to be a transcription of their call. I’m not that happy to have learned this; before, their three notes were pure music to me, like clarinet notes.
Now that I know it’s a chickadee making the notes, I find myself annoyed with that name: there is no “chick,” there is no “dee,” it’s a terrible transcription, which only messes up your ability to hear the actual call. Bad lyrics, instead of a good instrumental; Nashville instead of Brahms. I would just whistle to designate those little birds, and call them that.Then a peak or ridge to your east flares at one brilliant point, and the sunlight hits you, radiant and warm on your skin.
Often the main business of the morning becomes waiting for the sun. This can be mesmerizing. Very often there are ridges above the camp to the east, which means that almost every camp is in a little bit of a hollow—although there are those rare camps that overlook the Owens Valley, and the sun cracks the distant horizon before it even comes level with you: you are higher than sunrise. But mostly you’re in a hollow, and thus in the shade for a while, sometimes a long while. And there are ridges and slopes to the west of you too.
So sunlight strikes the peaks to your west, really all across the westward semicircle of your horizon, from the highest peaks on down. All that is quite visible to you, and it means there’s a shadow line, usually uneven, as it’s being cast by an eastern ridgeline that can be very jagged, onto a western slope that is sure to be lumpy. But no matter the topography, above this shadow line it’s bright and sunny, and obviously warmer than where you are, if it happens to be cold, as it so often is; and you are down in the shadows below, waiting for the sun.
And the line moves, down and down and down. This is the speed of the planet rolling under your feet. It’s slow, but not so slow that you can’t see it. If you watch a boulder near the sun, but still in shadow, and keep watching it, then the sunlight will hit the top of the boulder, then move down the boulder—also the whole slope—slowly, slowly, but not imperceptibly, not quite—you can see it, if you watch. It doesn’t even require that much patience. It’s moving. The Earth is rolling under you, at that slow stately pace. At the pace of time itself, it seems. You can see time.
Of course at every sunset you can also see the speed of our planet’s rotation, but you’re used to that, and blinded by it physically and conceptually. This indirect vision, of sunlight moving down a mountain slope, feels different. It’s natural, it’s eerie. It’s beautiful but disturbing. This particular morning is passing at this very speed, it won’t come back. The rocks will be here for millions of years, but not this moment, which creeps down and down at you, even if you hold your breath, even if you suspend your usual busy stream of consciousness and just look at it, be with it. Time passes.
If you’re camped by a lake, as we often are, the lake surface can be perfectly still, and reflect the opposite shore as if in a mirror, everything upside down in it, an effect very striking, surreal but real. The Sierra as God’s art gallery.
Then a peak or ridge to your east flares at one brilliant point, and the sunlight hits you, radiant and warm on your skin. You can go from almost shivering to too warm in five minutes. Ahh. The day begins. Time to finish packing and start hiking.
Excerpted from The High Sierra: A Love Story by Kim Stanley Robinson, available via Little Brown and Company.