A Mineral King Esthetic

By Robert Michael Pyle

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Surely Mineral King will change in some ways, some year, no matter how the current development controversy would be resolved.

 
Author’s Note: In the late 1960s, I was attempting to fashion a made-up general studies degree in natural history and conservation at the University of Washington. Finally finding a sympathetic dean, I saw it all come together in a Bachelor of Science called Nature Perception and Protection. This essay, or a longer version of it, served as my senior thesis for the College of Arts and Sciences. This is its first publication. As for the place itself, Congress did the right thing, and Mineral King was annexed to Sequoia National Park. I hear that it has changed little. I have not been back in the 50 years since.

 

The black-and-white bullets shot past, faster than birds are supposed to fly. Snatching the scrap of cellophane I released onto the breeze, one of the long-winged darts took it aloft perhaps a thousand feet, then dropped the shiny trophy. It shimmered as it drifted through the blue Sierra sky. Before being lost in the sugar pine tops, the cellophane filled the bill of another pied sailor that once more launched skyward with the toy. All the while, half a dozen non-players exploded through our vision, clicking and flip-flopping like mad, exultant racers. These bicolored speed freaks were white-throated swifts, and their watchers were a group of visitors to the top of Moro Rock, a granite dome in Sequoia National Park. As a ranger-naturalist for the National Park Service, I recruited the artful swifts as thrilling interpreters of the Sierran scene. The tourists and I shared pleasure over the playful performance between stone and sky.

Excerpted from Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays, copyright © 2020 by Robert Michael Pyle. Reprinted with permission of Counterpoint Press.

Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays, by Robert Michael Pyle

Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays contains 16 pieces that encompass the philosophy, ethic, and aesthetic of Robert Michael Pyle. The essays range from Pyle’s experience as a young national park ranger in the Sierra Nevada to the streets of Manhattan; from the suburban jungle to the tangles of the written word; and from the phenomenon of Bigfoot to that of the Big Year—a personal exercise in extreme birding and butterflying. They include deep profiles of John Jacob Astor I and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as excursions into wild places with teachers, children, and writers.

Learn more about the book.

Each time I climbed Moro Rock to show off its swifts and its views, I found myself distracted. All perspectives beckoned, from the high summits of the Great Western Divide on the east to the wilderness redwood forests vaguely visible on the south. But in the southwest there lay special intrigue, inviting my imagination again and again. For there, 20 miles away through the resin mist, lay Mineral King. I could just make out its mountain rooftops.

The ranger-naturalist’s daily work consists of the stuff from which great vacations are made. Nature walks took me deep into Big Tree groves, across the lush meadows called “gems of the Sierra” by John Muir, down into marble caves of wonder, and up to high-country lookouts such as Moro Rock. But I longed to see corners and stretches unpeopled. So on days off, I backpacked into remote sections of the granite parkland. Through my work and my leisure, I experienced many of the intriguing features of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. I was trying (vainly, of course) to embrace the entire Sequoia experience in a single summer. All along, I wanted most especially to visit Mineral King, whose mystique sailed up the rivers on the wings of a swift.

Mineral King. In 1969, the name recalled a dozen recent articles, scores of fiery altercations, and the introduction of a classic environmental law case pitting a planned super-resort against wilderness. All implications of a powerful land-use battle, each saturated with iron economics and acid emotion so contradictory that those to judge must be bewildered. No further summaries are needed of the political and legal aspects of the fray, no further catalogs of the ecological travesty purportedly in store, no more bared ledgers in prediction of recreational treasure to be lost or gained. The Sierra Club and Walt Disney Enterprises, the residents of the valley and the café operators in Three Rivers, the backpackers and the skiers, all had been represented and pleaded for repeatedly in widespread print. As a college activist, I was no stranger to this battle, and many others. But I was also seeking to educate myself as a naturalist, and that’s how I wanted to encounter the place. I wanted to experience, take in, and form for myself what I called a Mineral King Esthetic.

From Giant Forest, where my wife JoAnne and I lived in a small Park Service tent house, Mineral King was within relatively ready access. The distance is 45 miles on rather unusual “highways,” however, and JoAnne had only one day off a week from her job selling curios for Fred Harvey, the park concessionaire. We had, therefore, some trepidation about undertaking a one-day visit, including getting-there time, knowing that the King required much more, even for a cursory look around. On a Thursday in late July, I spent my first of two days off exploring a few of the many miles of trail in the glorious Big Tree groves of the Giant Forest Plateau. When I came home, I found our car packed with hiking and camping gear, and JoAnne, home from work, sitting on the porch with an excited “Let’s go!” look on her face.

This was a good idea. There was still an hour of light remaining and we hoped, by scurrying down the steep and curvy Ash Mountain road into the valley below, to be able to travel at least some of the still trickier Mineral King road while vision held. Petrified eastern tourists in front maintained a conservative speed for us. We were delayed further by a special meeting that occurred just past Amphitheater Point, where one passes out of forest and into the oak-and-yucca chaparral. It was our first tarantula, gingerly plodding across the warm asphalt. We stopped, leaped out, and set the furry creature into the shrubbery by the road. Then I invited it onto my boot, where the great chestnut spider was photographed. Its spinnerets brandished on an uplifted abdomen, the tarantula was obviously upset. So we left, thinking it a wonderfully exciting rendezvous. As we drove down the mountain we were followed by the lengthening shadow of Moro Rock, Sequoia’s monumental, silvery exfoliation dome of granite, jutting out of Giant Forest.

At Three Rivers, the voluminous Kaweah River’s three forks coalesce, and the Mineral King Road leaves the state highway. It was dark by the time we regained mountain altitude and the oaks changed back into giant sequoias and white firs. The road’s primitive, serpentine nature revealed itself in the headlights and the shocks. The express superhighway proposed through here was madness, I could see already. Not only would sequoias fall to the bulldozers, but also thin and bony soils would rebel—as would the citizens, when their tax backs broke under the state subsidy for such a folly. We rolled past Atwell Mill and Silver City, specters of a former kind of time. We made a simple camp at Cold Springs Forest Service campground, at the foot of Mineral King Valley.

Morning sun shone through a roof of fir and pine and into a bower of red currant and leopard lily. Cold Kaweah water on our faces made the morning clearer in our eyes. Looking up from the stream, I was surprised to see a forest of aspens lying snapped in flattened, frustrated palisades. Quaking aspens have evolved very limber trunks and can weather a snowy niche hostile to other trees. Their defeat here told dramatically of the extremely rigorous winters served up yearly in snowballed Mineral King. Consecutive avalanches challenge any winter resident; recently one of the Disney surveyors had been killed here by an avalanche. This hardly portended anything good for the proposed massive ski facility. Yet the plan called for 5,000 to 10,000 visitors daily to be concentrated in this wild, fickle ice-crusher.

Where Monarch Creek merges with the East Fork of the Kaweah on the valley floor, the Mineral King spectacle came out in full: massive, implacable peaks on three sides; a narrow green valley running up toward a graceful gap on the south, slit all along by wild canyons, and life zones mingling in floral richness. Rustic cabins, unfinished or faded red, told of earlier arrivers to live with the King. What the settlers took was little, and they left behind nothing more but a scattering of pretty cabins that might as well have grown from the red soil itself. I tried not to think of the plastic, aluminum, and shoddy veneers that would replace those weathered boards if Disney came in. In fact, I tried not to think about Disney at all for the next few hours.

Faced as we were by numerous glorious possibilities, we elected to start right there. So at eight, we left the cabin cluster and headed up an easterly slope of sagebrush and lupine. In early exultation JoAnne sped upward. I wanted to dawdle, to “ramble” as the British say, so I could see and hear the place, smell it and taste its summer ripeness; so I could feel the way it still was. An olive-sided flycatcher buzzed “Pick THREE beers” from a hidden perch. I thought of the swifts and was glad they’d sent us here.

Padding along past rosy pussypaws, I noticed bracken fern among the sagebrush, a strange combo brought about by the meeting of the higher and the lower alpine elements. Soon, however, open space was replaced by thick scrub of manzanita, bearing the “little apples” that give the plant its Spanish name. These fruits, and the protective cover of the brush, attracted rufous-crowned sparrows in numbers, the rich auburn of the manzanita trunks echoed in their caps. Looking back at a parent and immature bird scratching in the trail gravel, I was dismayed to see the veil of smog from the west, which penetrates the vision far into the High Sierra. My eyes shifted back around, and scanning the valley from this first higher viewpoint, I was reminded sharply of the Grindelwald Valley near the base of the Jungfrau in Switzerland—only without the tourists and their trams.

I was alone on the trail; that is, except for those who hang their shingles in the valley and tolerate visitors such as myself, such as marmots sunning in a rocky draw and the flicker laughing from a cherry copse.

Flowers decked the trailside. Mariposa lily was easy to pick out of the confusing brocade, with its triad of heliotrope-on-ivory petals. Scarlet penstemon launched from a ledge. A trail crew passed carrying power saws, picks, and spades. Happily for me they took the Timber Gap trail, while I was continuing on toward Sawtooth Peak. The efforts of these Forest Service employees are appreciated, but I didn’t need their noise that day over the calls of ubiquitous robins. Otherwise I was alone on the trail; that is, except for those who hang their shingles in the valley and tolerate visitors such as myself, such as marmots sunning in a rocky draw and the flicker laughing from a cherry copse. Twisted, giant Sierra junipers dotted the slopes, their affinity with the giant sequoias obvious in their russet trunks and bluish, scaly foliage. Twisted, metamorphic rocks underlay the trail, gneisses, schists, quartzite, and slate.

This meant that these mountains were not wholly a result of the recent orogeny that produced the present Sierra Nevada, but actually were remnants of a much older range. The first Sierra consisted of upthrust ocean sediments, most of which were stripped away hundreds of millions of years ago. Fragments such as these rocks in Mineral King, known as roof pendants, were preserved, and metamorphosed by the heat and pressure of the rising, molten pluton that would eventually extrude to become the younger, granitic mountains.

One of my colleagues gave his weekly campfire talks in the park on this topic. My own fireside talk, on Sierra birdlife, came to mind when the ruby crown of a Cassin’s finch glistened from a dewy meadow, a Nashville warbler’s color bespoke the rising sun, and a pair of house wrens conversed in a snow-broken juniper, attracting a third who gave a different call and approached as I walked on. Overhead, a green female rufous hummingbird led two rusty males through an aerobatic pursuit. The trail reached the level of a snow bed on the creek and tunneled simultaneously into a snowbrush ceanothus brake. Not far below to the right, in a rocky draw, lay a fat pair of yellow-bellied marmots, doing nothing but delighting me, and that unintentionally.

Trailside vegetation switched to chinquapin, underscored by a yellow morning glory. Chinquapin, known by the golden ventral surfaces of its long, lance-like leaves, was a favorite with the children on my nature walks in the park, and I was glad to see it here. Now soft, green, and unimposing, the prickly fruit hardens into a botanical pincushion more formidable than a chestnut bur. Steller’s jays and chickaree squirrels eat this fruit, I am told. The jay should have no problem piercing the spiny hull and extracting the tasty kernel within, but the chickaree’s methods elude me if its face remains unpierced. But then, pumas do eat porcupines!

Groundhog Meadow was scored by two rutted trails, one heading south to Crystal Lake, mine proceeding north and east to Monarch Lakes. A sizable snowfield formed an impermanent pergola over the stream. Where the meltwater seeped into boggy soil, lush growth of corn lily burgeoned and blue butterflies harmoniously flew among mountain bluebells. Among the sedges bloomed Sierra star tulips, downy cream and pale lilac, their parts in threes. The trail wrapped around a low cirque and over a scree of sharp cobbles. Even the rockslide was alive, brightened by an alighting West Coast lady butterfly, all salmon and black. Looming above were particularly ragged crags; at my feet, lemon wallflowers and a deep purple larkspur, both potential nectar for the rare short-tailed black swallowtails that plied the breeze below me. They crossed a dissected, some say “rotten” snowfield, which I saw was mine to negotiate as well. For me it would be more tenuous. l had to leave the trail to cross it, and soon I arrived at the head of the cirque, where I was greeted by luxuriant blooming heads of blue elderberry and by vermilion patches of paintbrush and red columbine.

The high country was officially introduced by a bird I had sought fruitlessly on many an alpine trek—the gray-crowned rosy finch. I especially like birds, such as these and redpolls, which flash just a hint of bright color from otherwise dun plumages. Somehow in the boreal north and the cool alpine, such packages of muted beauty seem more appropriate than flagrant color spectacles. I had that also, though, in the form of a great magenta clump of mountain pride (Newberry’s penstemon). This flower forms a fine brocade along the General’s Highway in Sequoia in June, but is later replaced by bright pink mustang clover. Here, the season retarded, the pride had just reached its peak. A clearwing bumblebee sphinx moth raided these colorful pitchers for nectar, its guise likely warding off the birds that prey upon moths but eschew bees. Over patches of yellow stonecrop flitted a pair of green hairstreak butterflies. Most mountain walkers never see these common things, and would be doubtful if told that there were emerald-green butterflies in these north-temperate mountains.

Leaving the trail was a decision of some finality, as I was not to regain it all the way up.

Leaving the trail was a decision of some finality, as I was not to regain it all the way up. I headed east and up into a second cirque bowl, this one pervaded with the scent of marsh willows as the plants became fewer and browner, the crags more jagged. The few remaining trees looked weather-pummeled, their branches trending eastward in response to winter westerlies. Then into a higher, wet, white, green, and pink hollow, and across a blinding snowfield up a steep southeastern gap choked with yellow columbines.

This is the alpine species; it varies from a delicate butter-yellow to a deeper shade infused with pink. A few summers later, in the Rockies, my fellow graduate student Russ Miller would show that these color phases are driven by the dominant pollinators, whether sphinx moth or hummingbird, in a given vicinity. Marmots piped. Yellow-bellied marmots pipe, rather than whistling like the hoaries of the Rockies.

I came into a stony, grassy swale with a few junipers on the south side of the main Monarch drainage. Immediately above me was the transition from juniper to foxtail pine, a five-needle species with red, reptilian bark. By the time I began the ascent of the fifth cirque, I came to the rather obvious realization that these many “cirque bowls” were, in fact, glacial steps—hollows plucked out by a single glacier, not just at its head, but all up and down a steep valley of jointed rock. When I felt there could be no more rises, there always materialized still another step. The sixth was bisected longitudinally by a wide and shallow stream coursing over polished rock directly beneath the prominence of Sawtooth Peak. This topography reminded me of John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra and his first glimmers of alpine glaciology (as opposed to the continental he already knew from Wisconsin) and how it functioned, a study that would occupy much of his life.

Few nature experiences from our travels in Europe of two summers before will I remember as keenly as the Lüneburger Heide, the great heaths of northern Germany. So when I came upon red heather high in the fastness of Mineral King, I knew it already in kind and rejoiced at its purple presence. The flowers were larger and opened more broadly than those of the German prototypes (Cassiope vs. Erica and Calluna), but their bell-shaped corolla and needly, low green foliage showed their kinship to heathers in general. The heather grew abundantly in a high, wide gap to the south, out of which flowed many streams, some broadening into ephemeral pools of unthinkable clarity.

There was another generous snowfield to cross as I skirted this gap, trending east, certain only of the general direction I wanted. The sapphire Sierrasphere had not diminished in hue; it transmitted the summer temperature well, and I was warm. Each expanse of white occasioned several stops to rest my eyes and scoop a handful of grainy snow, called firn, with which to slake my thirst and ice my forehead. I had to be careful in this: the weird rufous patches of algae known as red snow were all about. It makes a striking sight where their masses have migrated to the surface of the snow, as they do in the day. The dusty snow only benefits from the addition of these rose highlights. But the red snow algae are supposed to be bad to eat, causing vile effects upon the stomach. Once, as I knelt to examine an especially scarlet patch of algae, I found a track. Then several, pacing toward a willowy slope. They were not very distinct, just clear enough to show that their maker was a bobcat. I was excited by the nearness of such a magnificent beast. Then I thought ruefully how ludicrous it was that the animal would be totally protected just a mile away over the crest of Sawtooth Pass in Sequoia National Park, while here on Forest Service land it could be killed at any time, in any way. How many times must that cat, with a home range of many square miles, have crossed that invisible line, oblivious to its significance?

The last couple of hundred feet of the 3,500 feet I was to ascend that day came as a scramble to a high, foxtail-piney rise capped with heather, a violet penstemon, and a chipping Oregon junco. The promontory itself was granite; this meant I had crossed a geologic contact somewhere and was now standing on 150-million-year-young Sierra rock #2. The nature of my substrate was not as important, though, as the fact that it was there at all, supporting me on high.

Dominating the south was Mineral Peak itself. Just as impressive, though radically different in countenance, is Sawtooth. How many Sawtooth Peaks might there be in the world, I wonder. As many as there are Deer Creeks, or Hidden Valleys perhaps? Surely none, however, that more deserve the hackneyed name than this. The day being limited, I topped out on a sharp shoulder summit between Sawtooth and Mineral peaks. Mineral is a horn carved from iron-tinted veneers of stone stacked very high. Sawtooth, like nearby Mount Whitney, has the skin of a quarry pile—small, bare boulders rolled into a warty, slaggy hide. It’s the sort of place one expects to see bighorns, not butterflies. Yet gray-brown arctics, just a little darker than the wind, live hardy lives against the uninviting backdrop of the granite matrix. I watched one battle the currents along with tiny, dusky Shasta blues, almost impossible to distinguish from the speckled rock once they alighted.

Now, for the first time since she had bounded past me down in the sage, I saw JoAnne—tiny against the bony, snowy, upper flanks of Sawtooth. Obviously she, like me, was on no kind of a trail. I worried a little for JoAnne, but just a little. I knew her savvy for the highlands was great and that she was a better hiker than I. I watched her progress. When she was within signaling range, we somehow communicated our mutual desire to meet at the west end of Upper Monarch Lake.

Had I remained on the trail back at the first snowfield I encountered, it would have brought me to the foot of Lower Monarch. In my solo pathfinding I had passed instead behind a long ridge that hid the usual route from my view. When finally I came out onto this rocky peaklet, I found myself several hundred feet above and south of Upper Monarch, on the shoulder of Mineral Peak. Singing from a stunted pine-top, an eloquent white-crowned sparrow enhanced the clarity of the air. I leaned against a thick, slanted pine and allowed the breeze to cool my overheated body, as it blew the columbines and heather, the mountains and the water, and my mind. JoAnne and I met, after our respective scrambles downward, at the foot of Upper Monarch Lake. Dry sandwiches vanished with quantities of very cold water drawn straight from snowmelt. “Refresh” is a strange word to use in the wilderness, for one is always fresh there. Maybe replenish, or refuel. Anyway, while doing it, we were stunningly occupied by piercing patterns of ice melt. Indigo potholes and palest blue pools punctuated the quasi-polar expanse. It was hard to leave the ice. Cross-country took us down snowfields and rockslides.

Our feet ignored the sharp-rock trail; our minds bathed in columbines, larkspurs, and corn lilies. This was balm for the weary.

We regained the trail somewhere near the point of earlier loss. Once taken, the path was a visual, if not pedal, delight. The warm day had brought many-gallon rivulets down every available drainage, the trail serving well to water huge flower gardens that no one tended. Our feet ignored the sharp-rock trail; our minds bathed in columbines, larkspurs, and corn lilies. This was balm for the weary. Thoreau spoke of wild pleasures as “barks and tonics,” and so they are. One such for us was an aggregation of blue butterflies, involving several scores of winged jewels of four different species. Male butterflies often gather at muddy or wet sandy spots to extract salts through their soda-straw “tongues.” Disturbing them in passing, we became immersed in a veritable blue haze, reminiscent of a similar swarm we encountered several years before in western Colorado, involving tens of thousands of participants.

As the last of the blues were left behind, we met a young couple, Jim and Barbara Muff, whom we had seen fishing at the lakes. They were the only other people we encountered on this, one of the notorious “hiked to death” Sierra trails. We walked down together and, near the bottom, we paused to contemplate the valley’s future. Jim, who hiked here often and knew the Disney plans explicitly, outlined several phases of the intended development for us. We had just been through an unfaked, unstaged true-life adventure. Thoroughly steeped in the day’s sensations, along with the King’s more brash and muted beauties, these Disneyfied details seemed not only horrific but utterly out of proportion with the resources available.

“Do you see the point where Monarch Creek runs into the Kaweah River?” Jim asked. The juncture was sharply inscribed in silver against a background of arboreal jade: a point of such simple glory that even the tiny dirt road and the few campsites looked anomalous. “That spot,” he continued, “will be the hub of the entire $35 million complex.” Jim tried to speak with the leaping enthusiasm of the developer and entrepreneur. “The lodge will actually span both creeks”—his words becoming rueful—“which will be lined with concrete and stones for 500 feet in each direction, to make a natural-looking setting here in the wilderness.”

Driving home that afternoon through hot chaparral, the air gold-infused by the setting sun over the San Joaquin, we did not know whether we would return to Mineral King that summer; or ever again, if the worst came to pass.

As it turned out, there would be two more visits before we headed back north at summer’s end. Sometime earlier, during a day spent on tour duty at Sequoia’s beautiful Crystal Cave, supervisory park naturalist Jack Hickey had asked me if I might be interested in flying over the park. The Park Service leased a light plane and a pilot for purposes of aerial fire patrol, and it was aloft daily throughout the fire season. Rangers were permitted to go along if there was room available. I responded enthusiastically, and a date was duly reserved.

So on Friday, August 15, JoAnne and I drove to Three Rivers early. We were to meet the pilot at the teensy Three Rivers airport at 9:30. By 10, we were getting worried that he might have forgotten to stop for us. It was always over 100 degrees in the valley and foothills deeper into the day, but this morning was still comfortable. Acorn woodpeckers glided between field-dotting oaks. As the day grew warmer, people came to splash and plunge in a deep pool on the lazy, California sycamore-lined North Fork of the Kaweah River. But our anticipation was sky-high and we were beginning to despair. Abruptly, a small green plane landed from the north.

I almost felt an impersonal satisfaction when later, while passing very close to Mount Whitney’s eastern face, we saw the wreckage of a plane that had been denied its impetuous penetration of the wild mountains. But one was enough.

From it emerged Jim Josephson, who was to be our pilot for the next three incomparable hours. We fueled and took off into the now hot, lazy morning. The first few minutes aloft were spent circling the oak-and-orchard lowlands, gaining altitude. As we turned east, we passed over Kaweah Lake. It glittered, but showed muddy drawdown hems as well. Striking southeast, we traversed a great expanse of blue and California black and live oaks, trending higher into Jeffrey pine and white fir. It seemed a very short time until we were in Mineral King country, which we easily picked out from the surrounding peak land by Sawtooth’s stony scimitar and blunter, blacker Mineral Peak close by. For our benefit, Jim circled close around the two mountains. From above, our entire route of the previous trip was visible. He executed a low swoop the length of Mineral King Valley’s green crease. Quickly we skimmed pristine White Chief, then rose to cross alpine Farewell Gap. Immense slopes of red talus, soft patches of tundra, and serpentine lakelets made the passage one of the most transfixing of a flight that was later to include close-ups of the Great Western Divide, the classic glacial Big Arroyo and Kern Canyon, Whitney’s crest itself, and the whole of the wild Kings Canyon wilderness. It was a heartrending passage, for unlike those places, Farewell Gap and its snowy, vaulting cataracts were not sacrosanct. The Disney plan called for great armies of steel towers to 27 heights from valley to summit. It seemed a travesty at the time, though we too were violating White Chief’s wilderness in a metal contrivance. I almost felt an impersonal satisfaction when later, while passing very close to Mount Whitney’s eastern face, we saw the wreckage of a plane that had been denied its impetuous penetration of the wild mountains. But one was enough.

The summer waned. In Giant Forest, the meadows that John Muir had so loved metamorphosed from low spring carpets of pink shooting stars to tall, waving fields of carrot-like Queen Anne’s lace. The several families of white-headed woodpeckers that had lived in our tent house dooryard had brought up their broods and vanished. When weekends grew few, I knew we should get back to Mineral King. The time we chose was toward the end of August. One night before we were to leave, JoAnne didn’t feel well and decided to spend her day off resting. Nevertheless, I had a delightful companion: Dr. Gertrude Tank of Corvallis, Oregon.

A retired professor of dentistry, the 77-year-old Frau Doktor Tank still spent each summer hiking as she has done her whole life in Europe and America. I invited her to finish her month-long stay in Sequoia by hiking with me at the King. With Betty Etson, a manager for the Fred Harvey store, we drove down the mountain through blue elderberry, buckeye, and redbud. While the berry was still in bloom, the latter two trees were already coppery and crisply autumnal, telling of the advancing season in the lowlands. At 10:30 we arrived in the valley and camped in the heart of it.

Next morning, we might have driven a mile farther, but chose to walk when walk we could. It was better that way. We could catch the balsam air wafting from black cottonwoods along the wayside. We could both covet and have the treasure trove of gold in the valley bottom: goldenrod, groundsel, sneezeweed, and a buckwheat. Red and purple rimmed the roadside in the person of paintbrush and asters. As the trail began, I noticed a gathering of cheery white-crowned sparrows in among thickets of prickly gooseberries. The white heads of the composite pearly everlasting and the umbel Queen Anne’s lace can look similar from a little distance, but here they grew side by side, giving close comparison. A little farther along there dripped and bubbled a tiny stream-garden of bracken and small willows, fabricating the lushest of greens, even so late.

Gertrude and Betty left me far behind, as had JoAnne before. But in their rapidity they couldn’t have missed the spectacle I saw next. From the rocky soil of the trail-cut sprang a glorious cluster of lemony blossoms, looking like some strange, out-of-place exotic from a florist’s hothouse. The Sierra blazing star astonishes the wilderness traveler with its exquisite form and brilliant hue. A broad flower with knife-like petals radiating outward from a center spray of dozens of waxy stamens, it is well named. Several clumps adorned the trail for a few tens of feet; they were the only ones I encountered all summer, and the first of my life. We didn’t have that in Botany 113!

The unobscured sun was as intense as the blazing stars that day, so I enjoyed a water-pause at spectacular Franklin Creek Falls. This was one of a score or more falls lacing the day’s walk—all quenching, in those pre-giardia days. Hereafter moisture was abundant in seeps and freshets, each fostering a lush garden. A cool breeze carried me into a meadow of mint framed by blues and purples of larkspurs, lupine, and another first for me—gentians. Of a species called explorer’s, they were the same chalky blue as the lycaenid butterflies flitting over trailside seeps.

The valley narrowed. Its bottom was snow-filled and deep, the sides supporting gnarled junipers outlined against the white V below. The upper slopes opposite were Tyrolean in aspect, yet ungrazed. The trail crossed a scree of shining slate, which clinked under my worn boots. Between clinks I heard the grouped, sweet whistles of the yellow-barred, streaked finches called pine siskins. These were hosted by a very little pine that had found a tenuous foothold upslope.

I caught up with Gertrude and Betty as they ate their late lunch. We paused to rest and absorb the Heidiesque scene. Here the carpet was woven scarlet with columbine and paintbrush, there yellow with coneflower and daisy; under all, a verdant fabric of sedges and grasses, becoming autumn straw in the upper ends of sunny vales. We were a mile still beneath the pass that had been our original destination, but we decided to descend because of time. That we did, after gazing long at Vandever Mountain on the west, Florence Peak on the east, and the great green crotch that is Farewell Gap in the middle.

Each thing that bid us stop earlier deserved a return visit going down. We marveled anew at the blazing stars, just closing for the evening.

Each thing that bid us stop earlier deserved a return visit going down. We marveled anew at the blazing stars, just closing for the evening. Nearby, on a bank that held a festival of flowers, Gertrude pointed out more gentians, of which I couldn’t get enough. Along with the blue explorer’s she discovered the Sierra gentian as well. This species is tinted deepest purple, my favorite color. Once more pausing at Franklin Creek, I dipped graham crackers in the alpine ice water. Creek dogwood quivered mildly in the waterfall’s breeze beside me. Brown towhees skittered into the manzanita and out again and a dust devil swirled as we reached the car.

Rolling back into Sequoia’s forests we talked a little, thought a lot. My mind followed paths of history. The old-time characterizers, in the days of Albert Bierstadt and George Perkins Marsh, spoke of the American wilderness in terms of sublimity. Such descriptions have passed out of common usage in the utilitarian literature of preservation ecology. Yet the experience I had undergone may certainly be called sublime, esthetically and ecologically. Surely Mineral King will change in some ways, some year, no matter how the current development controversy would be resolved.

For even if a montane Disneyland were defeated, the valley camping facilities would need to be expanded. Although Mr. Disney, some say, would never have let it happen, the Disney Corporation hopes to introduce 5,000 to 10,000 people per day into Mineral King. Such numbers would require a truly park-wrecking road. But even if Disney’s proposed superhighway were denied, the visitors will likely multiply. For the battle is serving to popularize Mineral King, if nothing else.

So we were fortunate to have seen Mineral King exactly as it was, that summer of 1969; it will never be quite the same again. But if Congress reads the issue as I and many others do, at least there will still be a Mineral King—instead of the alpine Anaheim envisioned by poor Walt’s avaricious outfit.

 

 

Robert Michael PyleRobert Michael Pyle is a biologist and writer who has worked in conservation biology around the world. His 24 books include Wintergreen, Where Bigfoot Walks (which has been adapted into a feature film, Dark Divide, to be released in mid-September 2020), Mariposa Road, three collections of poetry, the novel Magdalena Mountain, and a flight of butterfly books. Founder of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, he is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Spring Creek Project, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. Pyle lives, writes, and studies natural history in rural southwest Washington.
 
Read other writing by Robert Michael Pyle appearing in Terrain.org: “Magdalena Mountain: Excerpts from a Place-Based Novel,” two poems, two other poems, and “Reflections on 50 Years of Engagement with the Natural World: Holly J. Hughes Interviews Robert Michael Pyle.”

Header photo of Sequoia National Park viewed from Moro Rock by Nickolay Stanev, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Robert Michael Pyle by David Lee Myers.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.