T.S. Eliot stated that April is the cruelest month, and that April I had to agree. One moment, I was paying off old debt with the rest of America; the next, I was staring down at the proverbial pink slip. The layoff hadn’t been entirely unexpected, but it still had an effect similar to someone performing a vigorous two-step on my chest.
Facing this sudden shift in the ratio of disposable time to disposable income, it seemed appropriate that I spend a few days seeking a sign, some vision for Contemporary Unemployed Man.
I finally settled on spending a few days in what might be called the Shangri-La of the Sierra Nevada. A six-hour drive from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paradise Valley somehow manages to retain its essential wildness in the face of increasing urban pressure from both cities. I had not been back to this spot, folded into the western slope of Kings Canyon National Park, for over 25 years. But it was where I took my first real backpacking trip beyond the confines of the Boy Scouts, and began a relationship with nature that remains one of the few constants in life’s long succession of change.
I arrived in Kings Canyon early in the morning. But before I could begin hiking, I had to place an obligatory phone call to the agency dispensing my unemployment checks. The Employment Development Department had somehow detected my thoughts of wilderness retreat, and a letter arrived a few days before my departure instructing me to call without fail within a two-hour time slot on one of the few days I planned to be as far from a telephone as possible.
Sensing that a camping trip would not be an acceptable excuse for missing my telephone date, I managed to find a pay phone at the appointed hour. I hoped the EDD would attribute the roar of the river to freeway noise. But what if the EDD utilized caller ID? I imagined my whereabouts flashing in tiny red clusters like electronic salmon eggs on the EDD’s telephone display: PAYPHONE, KINGS CANYON NAT’L PARK. There might be some explaining to do. But after a few brief questions that only repeated the inquiries I had already answered weeks before on paper, I was free to go. No further questions about me, no questions about the river.
After stashing a few final items in my pack, I started up the long incline that connected the trailhead to Paradise Valley, seven miles north and 2,000 feet higher.
I remembered very little of my first time up that same trail 25 years earlier, except that I had set out in late summer with a group of six from the local YMCA, all of us strangers to each other, all of us about 16 years old.
I had turned to wilderness as an antidote to a variety of juvenile offenses, and it had answered in clear, redeeming tones. My companions and I hiked the seven miles into the valley and remained there for nine days, doing little more than sitting next to the cold water of the Kings River that flowed a few hundred yards from our campsite at the foot of a large fire-scarred boulder, beneath which we talked late into the night and loosened the burdens of our souls.
Now, much earlier in the season, ferns are folded tight as small fists, and plugs of grass spring up through coarse soil like bad hair implants. A lone pony paws the ground, tethered beneath the boulder where our late-night campsite had been.
The river is shaded and dark. I search for more memories, but recall almost nothing. After a while, I decide to continue beyond the spot where I had stopped as a younger man. I hike along Woods Creek to its junction with the John Muir Trail, savoring the scenery, the higher altitudes, and the privacy. I kneel down to look closely at flowers whose names I never learned, 10 of which fill the space of my smallest fingernail, and glance longingly up and down the trail. The high passes, I know, are still deeply buried in snow.
Perhaps the vision I set out to find is locked away, inaccessible in the solitude and rarified air of those higher passes. If so, it will have to wait for another time, a warmer season. The following morning I am up again before dawn, hoist my pack one last time, and begin descending back to the trailhead to beat the rush of hikers who will arrive for the start of the Memorial Day weekend.
By the time I reach the lower section of the trail, it seems as if all of California — a full 10 percent of America — has converged upon Kings Canyon. But I keep moving forward, listening to the crunch of the small rocks beneath my boots, anticipating the parking lot and all that awaits me on the other side of this narrow canopy of light and trees.
It came on this final morning as most visions do, unexpected and almost unnoticed. It came on the other side of all my thinking, high on the trail where it slowly curves from east to south: a small pocket, protected by trees, of dense vegetation glowing emerald green, catching the first light of the rising sun and the last of the evening stars, dense vegetation glowing intact, resplendent — an amulet against unemployment, a shield against cares — in its refuge of silence morning after morning.
Byron Schneider is a senior editor at Jossey-Bass in San Francisco.