I’m nothing,” Gary Snyder once observed, discussing California. “My ancestors’ bones are not buried here. What do I know? If you want to talk about place, the sense of place, or the placedness of human beings prior to the mid-nineteenth century, you’re talking about something entirely different that we have almost no idea of.” What Snyder’s getting at is the density of history, which, when it comes to California, is both narrow and deep, depending on the angle of your lens.
On the one hand, there is the 20th-century suburban culture described by William Everson as “the land of non-death.… There is no intrinsic knowledge in the sense of locality—our graveyards have been built within living memory.”
On the other, there are Indigenous histories, lithic histories, dating back thousands, millions of years.
Such a set of divides—or tensions—sits at the center of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The High Sierra: A Love Story, which is a book that operates on a variety of levels at once. In part, it is a memoir, tracing the author’s fascination and engagement with the Sierra, going back nearly half a century.
“There are people,” he writes in the opening chapter, “who go up to California’s Sierra Nevada, fall in love with the place, and then live the rest of their lives in ways that will get them back up there as often as possible. I’m one of those.”
At the same time, this is an expansive inquiry, a field guide to the region and its ecosystem, and an investigation of what Robinson calls psychogeology. It’s a term he uses to describe, among other effects, a “temporal foreshortening in our minds,” which blurs the line between place and person, leading us to reckon with the effects, and the mysteries, of deep time.
The Sierra Nevada, he writes, “is the result of the Farallon Plate subducting under the main mass of North America. It got shoved under and began to melt about 120 million years ago. Just the rounding error here is several million years—think of that!… It’s a long time.”
Robinson’s enthusiasm—his gee-whiz optimism, we might call it—will hardly surprise anyone familiar with his novels, which add up to one of the most essential oeuvres in contemporary science fiction. His métier (or one of them) is climate change. Yet while he’s no Pollyanna, he refuses to succumb to despair.
The Three Californias trilogy posits a trio of futures for the state: imagining ways in which we might start over, acknowledging what might happen should we continue as we have been, and presenting a vision of new, ecologically conscious societies on the footprints of the past. In Green Earth (originally published in three volumes as Science in the Capital), he projects the effects of global warming as well as its potential mitigation.
These and other works, he acknowledges, were inspired by his experiences in the Sierra, which “have always played an important role in my fiction. How could they not? They are the spirit of the place.”
The spirit of the place is what Robinson seeks to evoke in The High Sierra. The book’s structure grows out of a kind of controlled chaos, chapters of recollection intercut with treatises on geology and weather and the politics of place names, and a sequence of capsule biographies recalling iconic “Sierra People” such as John Muir, Mary Austin, and Clarence King.
There’s a lot of practical information—descriptions of routes and gear and close calls—and an annotated bibliography of Sierra books. The High Sierra is also packed with photographs, many taken by the author, as well as a selection of his poems.
The whole thing works because it mirrors what Robinson portrays as the serendipity of the Sierra, where one must remain open because anything can happen at any time. Storms and other disruptions arise, and improvisations are required. The key is to focus on the walking. “If you go backpacking mainly to enjoy your time in camp, and only endure the time you spend walking from camp to camp, then backpacking ultimately will not appeal to you,” Robinson asserts.
Instead, why not think of walking as “dance, or maybe tai chi. A devotional exercise, a form of Zen”?
Be here now, in other words, to borrow from Ram Dass. Robinson’s approach is very much in that meditative vein. “There is time enough for a stream of consciousness,” he writes, “that flows at the pace of walking. All the parts of your life, all the time scales, smoosh together. This pace is a mode of being: the walking pace, pedestrian and prosy. Thinking is pedestrian.”
It’s a fascinating point, especially for a reader such as myself—a city walker, who has never quite considered hiking in this way. Wilderness discomforts me; can I just say that? I never feel safe, not really, when I am off the grid. Robinson is the opposite, a long-distance hiker, prone to spend a week or more in the Sierra, dedicated to the art of going off the trail.
There is much I recognize in his peregrinations, not least that sense of intention, of presence and of time.
The High Sierra recounts a number of relationships: most essentially involving the author’s old friend Terry, another dedicated hiker, with whom he breaks late in the book. The history of the place reflects the history of their friendship, another instance of psychogeography, another layering of present and past. “The Sierras,” Robinson notes, “may be a place of solace, but they are not a place of forgetting. As you look down from that high perch, the world can seem so strange, so awful. If only you didn’t have to go down; if only you could live up there forever.”
And yet, you do have to go down; you do have to return. This too is a foundational lesson. Time, after all, takes its toll on every one of us, a point Robinson affirms by recalling not only his own story but also that of the Sierra itself. Early on, he describes coming upon a field of obsidian flakes, “a Native American knapping site,” where blocks of stone had been cut into arrowheads and other tools. “Here in this book,” he explains, “I’ll just say that to see those black chips of glass on the land is to feel something deep.… Possibly that’s one of the greatest values of walking up there. It’s a chance to imagine the deep time of human history, and feel it in one’s body, in the act of walking all day.”
That’s a circle Robinson closes toward the end of The High Sierra, when he reflects on Snyder, who is another of the “Sierra People” he invokes. Snyder wrote about this landscape in the 1959 collection Riprap; his poem “Above Pate Valley” recalls finding “thousands / Of arrowhead leavings over a / Hundred yards. Not one good / Head, just razor flakes.” The image is striking, both for itself and also as an echo, another illustration of the vicissitudes of time.
“This is what the Sierras can give you,” Robinson reflects, “hours like that. Hours stolen from the gods.”•