“make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.”
― Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
At what point on the tightrope of the horizon does the sky become sea? The sun, the equilibrist, ripples as it straddles the two in early evening. Where does its true loyalty lie? At what exact point on the curve of the planet does water in the plug suddenly spin in the opposite direction? When does the outlook on life become nostalgia, memory, as opposed to anticipation; future?
The hands of time tick in mysterious ways. It’s difficult to believe that I am almost one-third of the way through my stay here and, try as I might to resist, I can feel the cooling coils of routine winding themselves around me. Come the end of March, final exams for this quarter will be over, and I will be forced to accept that the current classes I adore now belong in the realm of memory. Change, again. But change is good – I have found that the only way for things to feel more real-time and less flash-by is to deliberately cause disruption and upheaval to a major aspect of life. It has been brought acutely to my attention that there is a definite change in mindset as we near life’s midpoints; begging the question, when will I begin to cling to this place as I realise what has been invested, rather than being excited about the seemingly endless months ahead? By this time next month, I will have more of the trip behind me than ahead of me.
As the warm February sun gives way to – well – the warmer sun of Spring, Californians rejoice in the fact that their “coldest Winter in living memory” is drawing to a close. It’s now pleasant enough for me to sit with a book on my favourite musing bench above the sea quite comfortably for several hours a day (and thus I have done this and actually got ahead in my reading for once); in thermatic terms, we’re talking 19- 26 degrees C (66- 78 Fahrenheit) for the past week, which feels all the hotter for the dry sea air which at the moment is nicely devoid of that sometimes-chilly ocean breeze. I have tentatively stripped off and bared skin to the unsuspecting pelicans, leaving certain body parts nicely pinked as opposed to the usual angry red thanks to my new SPF 25 moisturiser. With further Prometheus-esque forethought, I also pack a pair of leggings and a hoodie for later, when the sun abandons UCSB post-5pm and the dark-spotted face of the moon comes to chill the night sky, dropping the temperature to at least 7 degrees C. California – the dedicatee of so many songs, the final frontier for the claims of Manifest Destiny – is perpetually paradisical. It seems to be, in my limited experience, the woman who never ages and rarely rages; the sun’s heat slips in stages throughout the year, but never truly wanes. When it rains, it’s on an epic scale, blowing a gale: enough to render me a drowned and disgruntled rodent after struggling to bike through it to get to class, for the wind usually decides to join in, doubling discomfort. This kind of weather, which has made an appearance all of twice in my time so far, instils a totally spoilt and irrational sense of betrayal in me: “this is California, how can it be so cold and wet?!” But her moods clear as quickly as they came about; one, maybe two days of uncharacteristic grey later, the skies are bright and blue again. A collective sigh of relief is breathed; everything reverts to the status quo. Just how we like it.
Californians are exceptionally friendly, bubbly people. Of course they are – it’s always sunny. And it’s wonderful to be surrounded by such positivity. Excuse the sweeping statement, but I’m pretty sure countless case studies have proven that the near-constant presence of warm sunshine correlates with a greater degree of happiness for the general population of a place. But what must living in such endless, glorious sunshine do for the soul? You get the quality of life here, no doubt about that; but variety? I try to envisage a midwinter log fire blazing in the hearth, a huddle of blankets and hot beverages; the fact that no one here even seems to know what a kettle is, let alone how to use one, answers how commonly that scene occurs (no joke – the request for a kettle is met with genuine bewilderment). With no metamorphosis in the surroundings, no cycle of seasons and fallen leaves, no mist and mellow fruitfulness.. I could go on. My point is, doesn’t it all start to get a bit, well, boring? Californians grow up at the edge of Western civilisation, but at the very centre of the pop cultural universe. Five of the world’s six most visited websites are based here: Google, Facebook, YouTube (owned by Google), Wikipedia (the fifth is a Chinese language site), and Yahoo!. The majority of Americans I’ve met at this university also grew up in California (although much of this is down to the lower tuition fees granted if they stay in-state), a surprising amount have never left, and some express no desire to. And why would they? Technologically, meteorologically, financially and culturally at the top of the ladder, California has the potential to fulfil every aspiring American Dream. Hell, maybe it’s even the American Dream itself. One can bask in a stream of sunlight, feet up, and say, “that’s it. I’ve achieved everything I ever wanted. I have the best of everything.”
I’m not so sure, though. First off, staying in the same place for a lifetime sounds like a nightmare to me. Looking out west across the North Pacific, you won’t reach land (in the form of Hawaii) for a good 2,300 miles or so. It’s very easy to lose perspective here; I can see why, growing up in these surroundings, one can believe that any life outside of California would be inferior in some aspect. My peers can helpfully tell me everything there is to know about Californian geography, but when it comes to the rest of the world, or even the rest of the States, they are pretty clueless. In truth, many Brits aren’t much better in terms of European geographical knowledge, so it’s not entirely fair to target Americans. I guess my shock is derived from the fact that everyone I have met elsewhere in the world has inherent ideas about California and all it represents on a global, somewhat superficial level – Hollywood, great weather, beautiful people – while being here has taught me not to expect the same of the state’s inhabitants with regard to other significant places. It’s easy to believe that this diverse state offers everything one could ever want – snowy mountains, National Parks, swollen seas, deserted highways, fast-paced cities.
O, but to live as one dreams – alone! Are there any lost wildernesses left? But to live in a world less inhabited, with continents yet unexplored, virgin snows untrod… Yosemite National Park in Northern California is arguably one such “wilderness”. A smooth glacial valley sweeps across a vast expanse of land framed by a single, staggering, 400-mile long / 80-mile wide piece of granite thrust from the earth millions of years ago. As you drive into the camp made up of little canvas tents raised from the muddy ground on wooden structures, the crisp force of the altitude (4,003 feet, 1,200 metres) robs you of lungfuls of the pure air. The camp itself is nestled at the foot of the cliff like a penguin’s egg, and there are hefty fines for not using the bear-proof boxes to store anything fragranced which might attract them – that includes food, cosmetics and even toothpaste. The park covers an area of 761,268 acres (3,080.74 km2) but most of the 3.7 million annual visitors spend their time in the seven square miles (18 km2) of the Yosemite Valley (thank you Wikipedia). This leaves an enormous amount of the Park undiscovered or at least not commonly explored. It was damn refreshing to be surrounded by an area of such dense forest, genuine danger (in the form of animals, rivers, cold) and about as untouched as it gets here in California. There was no wi-fi, and signal on peers’ mobile phones was worse than patchy.
A seven-mile hike to ‘Dewy Point’ the next day took a good five hours, and made me glad I chose not to rent the snowshoes for $25 – they seem more of a hindrance than anything since I wanted the freedom to jump around and explore, although my amateur trainers did cause me to fall through a good half metre of powdery snow when I strayed off the compacted path, something the snowshoes helped to avoid. But even to call it a path is too civilised; it was more a wayward trail marked by tiny yellow flags on the trees every 200m or so. The turning point and highlight of the hike was a view 7,000 feet up, looking down over the edge of the sheer cliff to the broad valley. I was having slight breathing difficulties from the altitude, but it was entirely worth it. The view was seemingly endless and spectacular; never have I looked out from such a height at such vast silent beauty. For the silence is what really gets to you out here. In the middle of Winter, with wildlife mostly hibernating, no buzz of insects or rush of streams, and few human beings to disturb the peace, it’s almost deafening. On the way back I got ahead of the group in order to feel the penetrating atmosphere at its fullest. Having run out of water, I strayed off the track and crawled to a patch of stark white snow a few metres away. Plunging my hands into it, I swallowed mouthfuls of the stuff, knowing it had never known the touch of a boot, the outline of another body. The best technique for hydration, by the way, is to allow a good cheekful to melt onto your tongue, then let the cold water slide down your throat in large quantities (if you can bear the brainfreeze). I lay down in the middle of the snow, outer layers stripped off, and marvelled at the dense silence pounding in my ears. It was loud as a roar but gentle as a whisper. It was profound.
No crunch of footsteps,
No swoop of wings,
The yawn of a long-slumbering bear, perhaps;
Was that a star dying? – No, A great redwood falling?
No one to hear it but me,
and the air so thick with noiselessness
That there is barely air at all,
but a solid wall of silence inside a nut
you can’t cut.
As though all of nature is holding its breath
Waiting for the avalanche.
They say calm precedes a storm,
so I wonder what, from this serenity, is borne…
On the outskirts of Yosemite we stopped at Mariposa Grove, full of majestic old redwood souls and so intensely tranquil it needs quiet respect, like a cathedral. The silence between the trees was palpable, trunks towering dark, straight-backed and strong, but with a shy humility. A short walk down a path led us to a redwood graveyard. Fallen giants take hundreds of years to rot away so gradually become part of the wooded area itself, the roots torn from the earth like a mass of soily tentacles. It’s strangely and terribly sad to see something so grand topple from grace. But the way in which creatures and plants house themselves in its horizontal trunk, with other smaller trees eagerly leaning into the new cylinder of sunlight streaming through the canopy in its wake, reminds you that the redwoods fuel life long after they expire.
Yosemite is a liberating place for the soul. It was enough to free some trapped imagination and increase my appreciation for the natural world. It made me realise some of the extent of California’s diversity. But this is still America. Is Yosemite a true wilderness? Do wildernesses even exist any more? The huts were comfortable, the bathroom facilities were more than good enough, there was fast-food readily available (the prices were extortionate, of course). Phone signal and even 3G were accessible at points. Is the Earth encased in a web of Instant Access, ready to tap into in any location, no matter how remote? It’s not that I am complaining about the amenities – they made my experience very pleasurable, and after all, it’s much more hygienic to have them than not. But I still can’t help deploring, despairing, the attachment to technology which we all crave. Yosemite National Park gives a glimpse into the natural world before it became that anyone could get anywhere with the right money. Thank goodness that places like this are allowed to be strictly preserved and protected. It was satisfying to escape the sunshine and confines of our little Santa Barbara bubble, to feel the prick of cold on my nose, to spend time reading, writing, conversing and playing board games. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be back in my comfortable bed. But my experience away brings me back to an old point: life goes slower, and is frankly more enjoyable, with variation. I aim and hope to reach into the most juxtaposed corners of the world, the hot and the cold, the natural and the urban, the wealthy and the poor. There is nothing better for a young person to spend their money on than travelling – because a perpetual stretch of life in a sunny sanctuary does not equal fulfilment in my view.
“Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”
― Ansel Adams