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Rae Lakes

The truth is that life is hard and dangerous; that truth is only for the brave; that joy is only for him who does not fear to be alone; that life is only for the one who is not afraid to die.  –Joyce Carey

I had dreamed of backpacking into Rae Lakes — said to be the most beautiful in the Sierra — ever since seeing them on a trail sign in Kings Canyon years before.

On a cold winter night, I scored one of the hard-to-get permits. But, as the dates approached in August, wildfires raged in California. Then my partner had to cancel at the last minute. Still, I did not hesitate to go. I would not miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity.

But, there was fear: Though I’ve spent many days by myself in wilderness, this trip was near my current limit: Almost 30 miles of rugged hiking over two near-12,000 ft. passes. The weather would have to be perfect. My recovered legs would have to last. My SideStix forearm crutches could not fail me. And I could make no mistakes.

I would bivy in my camper van at the trailhead the night before, to get an early start.

As I arrived in the town of Independence, smoke from wildfires completely obscured the towering Sierra. As I drove up to the high trailhead in the deepening gloom, my heart was heavy. Would I have to cancel my trip?

I woke just after 5 am. The skies seemed relatively clear, so I hoisted my full pack and began the 2,600 foot climb up to Kearsarge Pass. Hours later, a few hundred feet below the pass, dense smoke rolled in from the west. Some hikers turned back. The rest of us used our pandemic masks in earnest — to filter out smoke.

I fell asleep that night above beautiful but somber Charlotte Lake, neck gaiter pulled across my face to filter the acrid air. What would tomorrow bring?

* * *

Day dawns and it is a gift. Clear and crisp as the Sierra was meant to be. How long these conditions will last before more smoke rolls in, I do not know. So I resolve to make the most of it.

I begin the trek to towering Glen Pass. These high Sierra passes feel more like mountaineering than hiking to me. This “pass” is actually just a low spot on a knife-edge ridge. Far above treeline, the exposure is complete. Thank heavens for the clear weather, and stellar trail construction up steep scree fields by generations past.

Early afternoon, I’m feeling woozy from exertion/altitude/sun, and take a long rest in the shade. But Rae Lakes are in sight.

Soon I’m strolling across a remarkable natural isthmus, and along aquamarine shores. The area is a cross between the Maine coast and the Bahamas, embedded in the heart of the Sierra. Storied high peaks surround me: Painted Lady, Fin Dome, and Mt. Clarence King.

I pause to snack. Swim in the lake. Dry in the sun. A young couple bathes in the distance. I too am young again. For a few hours I have no agenda, few thoughts, no hopes or fears. Just awareness in the mountains. It’s an afternoon I will always remember.

Eventually the lengthening shadows and dipping temperatures spur me to action. I’m down to a small bag of food and it’s 12 hard miles back to my van. I decide to climb partway back to Glen Pass, to ease tomorrow’s hike out.

Just before sunset, I stop at a lonely tarn surrounded by the final small trees before endless scree begins, and make camp.

* * *

I sleep fitfully, worried about food, feet, weather and the two high passes I must make it over on my last day.

I rise before the sun, strike camp while brewing a hot drink, then begin the trudge back up scree to Glen Pass.

I’m the first one up this morning and have the mountain to myself, for an hour. Then, super-fit long-distance hikers begin to catch me. Still, I’m the third to make the pass. It’s 9 am. I sit there for a long while and drink in the beauty of Rae Lakes, and beyond, for the last time.

After days of relative solitude, I’m thinking about people today. It’s Caroline’s birthday. One of the few we haven’t spent together in 34 years of marriage.

Here on the trail, it’s a unique fraternity: At the pass I make a friend. We leapfrog for an hour, exchanging thoughts. Some sort of connection. Past lives? Then she is gone down the trail, name unknown, never to be seen again.

My SideStix forearm crutches are good conversation starters: Some people don’t notice, some see me as “handicapped,” others as heroic. I’m not exactly either. Strength manifests in many forms. A kindly older backpacker, maybe a doctor, is curious. Later, a fit young woman strides past with a cheery “I like your sticks!”

I step off the trail and discover a magical, hidden tarn. The water is the clearest I’ve ever seen. I have to dip my hand to believe it’s really there. I fill a bottle. Water mirrors the mind at this altitude. Everything is apparent here. Nothing is hidden.

I traverse far above Bullfrog Lake — an indescribable shade of blue-green, backgrounded by high peaks.

I spend the afternoon patiently toiling back up toward Kearsarge Pass, taking long rests, body tired and sore, heart light. My aim is to be over the pass in the cool of late afternoon, then use the rest of daylight for the long descent to my van. I stop for my last water of the trip at a tiny stream in a small meadow not shown on maps.

At the pass a ranger is checking her email, the only spot with a signal for many miles. It’s a magnificent office, in fair weather.

Now I’m winding down through scree, past ancient pine trees and a string of lakes, in the waning light. A stiff wind starts, and the temperature drops. The sun is firing up the peaks and clouds behind me. A thin sheen of smoke begins to shroud the mountains again. But it can’t stop me now.

Two large guys with big packs and fishing rods are chugging up the trail toward me in the dusk. They ask where I’m coming from. “Rae Lakes,” I say, suddenly proud. “How was it?” “Fantastic, you won’t be disappointed,” I reply.

My aching feet and a new set of blisters slow me down only a little, and I reach the van at dark.