This is the final part of a four part series.
(Don't miss Part 3: The Fountain Wilds)
What would a buck photograph if he got the chance? We may never know, sadly—our hot pursuit yields cold hooves. He unjaws the camera setup and bounds off into the night.
As we collect the camera, I wonder how many times I have been stirred awake by the sound of a deer masticating my sock, hat or bandana. Fragments of Einstein's comment on insanity enter my thoughts as we remove the salty strap and set the camera up again to capture the star movement. The remainder of the night passes as planned, uneventfully to our eyes and ears.
We rise early. This is our last day in Mineral King, and we face a half day of hiking followed by a 7-hour drive. The final day of a trip like this is always difficult, because I inevitably long to remain. There are so many peaks, canyons and lake shores I've yet to explore. So many sunny outcrops I've yet to contemplate life from, and tall trees whose shade I've yet to settle into. So many still, quiet moments waiting to be heard. Home is noisy, concretized, scheduled.
Later tonight, as I fall asleep in my bed, I'll marvel over the fact that I woke up among the firs and pines and wildflowers, far from any road (though perhaps not far enough), away from the cellular towers that are encouragements to my impulse and inattention. I will consider which of my journeys was the stranger. Was it the days I spent soaking up the mountains, the old woody giants, the alpine lakes and the winds? Or was it the hurtling drive at 70 miles per hour past the islands of big-box stores and back to a world that is typecast as nature's opposite?
The first leg of our return to the valley is downhill and passes quickly. We cross through meadows full of wildflowers—geraniums, arnica, daisies, paintbrush, lupine, clover and many more. The day is thick with sunshine, birdsong and the buzzing of bees. Granite islands stick up amid the floral sea, and their calls strengthen as we draw nearer the end. I hear them say: "Leaving so soon? Stay a while." And yet I know that all the time in the world wouldn't be enough to give attention to all that is deserving in this miraculous place.
When the ground levels, we skip over brisk Cliff Creek, a wide, shallow crossing, and start heading up the ridge above Timber Gap Creek. The ascent is nothing compared to the passes we climbed—Black Rock, Glacier and Sawtooth—that open to the lands east of the Great Western Divide. But it burns all the same.
Finally, we come to Timber Gap, a wonderfully wide and flat saddle between two drainages. California red fir tower above us, and we take a rest in their shade. The loudest sound is the light wind gently shaking their high branches.
"What is it that draws us to these places?" I ask Chris.
He stares up at the wooden elders around us before answering. "I guess it's to remember that we belong here, too," he finally replies.
Chris's response is still rolling around in my head when we come upon what is probably the defining view of the valley, from the stretch of trail up above the old Empire Mill. The view fills me with a sense of belonging—not just to this place, but to all "wild" places. Nature is indeed our home, not an exhibition that we visit from time to time. And we don't necessarily need to come to Mineral King to recognize that we're a part of it. In this moment, I endeavor to look for it amidst the noise and concrete of Oakland, in the hopes that it might be with me always.
We stop off in the ranger station before leaving. I'm curious if there are traces of the Disney ski plan—any historical memorabilia that detail the future that might have been. The same elderly ranger is on duty when I step inside.
"You're back," he says, uneffusively
"Yep. It was a great trip," I say. And it was, truly. I consider launching into a detailed description of the snow field that blocked our path but decide that I'm more interested in other things.
"I have a question about the ski resort that Walt Disney wanted to build in the valley. Do you have any old maps or other documents here that I could look at?" I ask.
The expression on his face is oddly blank, as if he's sorting through a mental file cabinet, trying to find the relevant documents. Eventually, he points to a small framed picture on the wall.
"That's all," he says.
Now, many months later, my recollection is that the framed picture was the title slide for Disney's Master Plan Presentation to the U.S. Forest Service, delivered in 1969. It is a view south, down the length of the valley towards Farewell Gap. Suitable to the topic, the mountains are covered in snow, which pronounces their dignified shape.
When I reemerge into the sunshine, I'm grateful to Earthjustice's founders for thinking big and finding a way to keep this place free from development—it's a testament to their success that a picture on the wall is all that remains of Disney in Mineral King. But I'm even more grateful to its current leaders, who recognize that climate change is rewriting the rules for protecting the places that are precious to us—wild and urban alike. Safeguarding our ecosystems in a warming world requires grit, experience and creativity, three things I've seen time and again in my six years of working here.
Chris and I stand by the creek for a few minutes, sad to leave. Two young children are sitting quietly on the rocks, infatuated with the cascading water. Chris smiles and takes a deep breath. Then he turns to me and puts into words the revelation of our trip, full of hope: "We belong to this earth, not the other way around."
In the summer of 2011, Sam Edmondson and Chris Jordan-Bloch backpacked through Mineral King. Their goal: to capture in words and images the magic of a place saved from development by one of the earliest legal fights on behalf of the environment.
Read the behind-the-scenes story of their journey to gather the video and photo materials for this website.
Above: California red firs (Abies magnifica) at Timber Gap (9,511 feet).
Inset: Sam and Chris's route on this final day.
Sam was an Earthjustice clean air campaign manager who worked on strengthening air quality standards in communities across the country.