Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Over the Hill: It's Just a Matter of Time before Everyone Must Cross to the Other Side

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Over the Hill: It's Just a Matter of Time before Everyone Must Cross to the Other Side

Article excerpt


THE INCONSOLABLE RANGE IN EASTERN CALIFORNIA IS well-named. It is best viewed from across the Owens Valley at the top of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to Methuselah, considered to be the oldest tree in the world at the robust age of 4,842. From the height of the pine forest, around 9,000 feet, you can view a stretch of snowy-capped peaks that yawn across the horizon like an unfriendly row of uneven teeth. That's how the Sierra Nevada got its name: Sierra means "saw" in Spanish; nevada means "snowy."

The jagged mountains are rarely viewed without their white caps since the snowfall can reach 80 inches a year, making skiing in July a real possibility.

The Sierras run 400 miles down eastern California and nearly 65 miles across. If there were such a thing as an official state spinal cord, this would be it. Snowmelt from these mountains contributes to two of the state's major rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, as well as 15 smaller rivers, some creeks, and the many lakes appearing in vacation brochures.

The "Snowy Saw" is responsible for the pleasures of such places as Yosemite, King's Canyon, Lake Tahoe, and Sequoia National Park. It also creates a sober geologic reality known as a rain shadow, tripping all the clouds on their eastward journey and inadvertently creating the most arid state in the country, Nevada.

The Sierras are well-known to any school-age California child, who can tell you that their tallest mountain peak is Mt. Whitney. At a formidable 14,505 feet, it is also the tallest in the lower 48 states.

Collisions of island arcs on coastal California influenced the original thrust of this mountain range, which continues to push upward through the dynamic trinity of volcanic action underneath, glacial carving over the top, and river erosion on either side. Which in plain English means that the Inconsolable Range just gets higher and more impassable.

STANDING IN THE BRISTLECONE FOREST WITH MY BACK TO some of the oldest living things on the planet, gazing across at an even more ancient mountain range, I begin to understand why it was named for heartbreak.

What was it like for settlers to take the long voyage from Europe, then journey across a relentless continent, enduring the dryness of that final desert of Nevada, only to emerge here, staring at a mountain range that can only be crossed another few hundred miles to the north or south--and even then only for a few months of the year? Arrive here at the wrong time, and you're facing at least eight months of encampment before you can go further. Choose unwisely, and you enter the history books alongside the tragic Donner party.

The Sierras are breathtakingly beautiful. They are what mountains should be, someone once said. If you live in an age of paved roads and state-funded snowplows, with the option to fly over the whole thing when preferable, or to stop to ski or fish when time is not of the essence, then you can afford the luxury of viewing the Sierras like a huge park evolved for your personal recreation. But take away the services of Caltrans, the airports, and the supermarkets, and you're staring into the impassive face of a killer.

Keeping company with a tree that was 800 years old at the time of Abraham and confronted by mountains born in the Triassic period, you realize you don't much count at this gathering. If children should be seen and not heard, perhaps humans don't even get an audience in the presence of such venerable creatures as these.

The Inconsolable Range is coldly beautiful, and it does not love you. …

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