Contrast lines those glacial tremors and barren scratches. They need not apologize for their appearance; they are equal to any of Earth’s luscious or fertile lands, even if our tongues obscure them in the language of austerity. We call the high desert a stark backdrop to greater dramas – but why is the landscape, itself, not a protagonist? Or, more precisely, if each severe peak and bleak valley seduces the eye and pulls at our shoes, what is humanity’s attraction to such purported wastelands?
Both example and answer can be found in eastern California’s White Mountains, a range of desolation and characteristic starkness. From base to peak, the chain rises nearly 10,000 feet. It sits in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada – and, like an overlooked coloring book, is slowly revealed in the few colors that survive its harsh, sparse conditions. Yet, the allure of the range is undeniable. It beckons like Earth’s nude body, its message sensual, and therefore, slowly revealing: what is first witnessed unfolds in the strange music of memory. No one glance is enough, no one experience is satisfying. The White Mountains embody a future nostalgia. They grip you: just a sip, a small dip – a tiny trip – into their fertile scarceness. From their surface evanesce the process of Earth’s stark wilds.
With resources far-flung and topography variant, a hike through the White Mountains is highly localized, and a brief taste is all that is possible. In this way, the austere earth is an ever-closer, always-nearer horizon. It is, first, an abstract body; then – closer – a set of limbs; nearer still, a part; then, a patch; a cell; an indelible process. What is superficially barren becomes a deep face whose skin changes radically with every new vantage. From across valley floor, the White Mountains rise like nameless lasagne: ridges, visible; flavor, unknown. At their base, they are mountains of attenuated tortellini. Having gained 2000 feet of elevation, bedraggled rocks unfurl like Rapunzel’s generous linguini. Look again with more altitude, and fusilli swirl outwards into strandless fields.
Finally, having walked the trail to its summit, one fact is certain: geometry is no thing to be followed, it is a table for feasting. Brilliant nights are matched by constellations of ancient bristlecone pines, bighorn sheep, and petroglyphs in the habitats below. Collectively, this diversity is invisible from just a few miles away. The range’s remoteness adds to its exotica. Its rhythms arise in close exploration. The careful listening demanded by the outdoors – the ever-churning gears of life’s microscope – demonstrate a sensuality that is always already present.
[Photo: “John Muir Wilderness”, Reeva Harrison, reevaharrison.com]