In the subalpine wilderness of Yosemite National Park, the Pacific Coast Trail meanders across flat open meadow, under the impossibly pointy mountains of the Sierra Nevada and into forests of pine. The air is deliciously tree-scented and fresh, with the last patches of snow outlining granite formations under a blue June sky.
We walk between twisting trunks of dying ponderosa, pinyon and lodgepole pines, turned yellow and black with a combination of sap and sun. Pinyon and lodgepole pines turn grey and add to the high risk of fire. This is the driest year on record. Six years of drought across California and dwindling snowpack levels mean less water for thirsty trees. The bark beetle, endemic to California’s mountains, usually helps to maintain the health of a forest by attacking weaker trees, but because of the change in climate, the beetle has flourished and the forests are suffering. Short, gnarled limbs reach outwards like burnt arms reaching for rescue and the trail enters a graveyard of fallen, rotting tree corpses. Whole families have fallen together and lie side by side in the bird-tweeting late afternoon.
Healthy new saplings rise up from the wreckage, vivid needles luminous and shining with life. They are sharp to the touch, sturdy and self-protective. Pine cones a few inches long decorate the trail and rocks change colour from stripy, rust-stained reds and purples to white stones flashing with quartz, to yellow, sandy, gravelly pieces. Large boulders loom from the woods like quiet elephants sleeping behind the trees. These massive rocks would have been transported by melting glaciers, carried for miles over the now-polished moonscape where trees stand on sheets of rock and appear as though they might scuttle along when my back is turned… Their determination to grow in cracks, on ledges and without any apparent room for roots is a testimony to the strength of nature. Tufts of wiry grass sprout in the rough, sandy soil, with yellow flowers and mosses shaped like sage-green stars erupting in unassuming clumps, minding their own business as the humans pass by.
We ascend, my barefoot Alaskan companion and I, the trees and boulders becoming bigger as we cross patches of dirty snow, stepping into lengthening shadows as the sun disappears below the horizon. Zach stubs his toe and puts on Crocs with purple socks, a bright reminder of the twenty-first century world we left behind. Before nightfall, we set up camp beside the wonderfully tranquil Young Lake, edged by stunning snow-covered mountains on the opposite shore.
During the night, I step outside and walk around, the lakeside trees and boulders illuminated by moonlight. The temperature had dropped below freezing and my bones hurt with the ache of cold. In the lake is a perfect reflection of the snowy mountains under a full moon caught exactly at the midpoint between the two highest peaks. This is beautiful and I am fully alive.