By Caelen McQuilkin
Oct 30, 2017
Atop a remote mountaintop in the Sierra backcountry, I lift my arms and turn in a slow circle, feeling on top of the world. The view from Volunteer Peak is so stunning, so purely wild that it doesn’t make sense until I’ve taken the time to soak in every detail. The mountains unfold beneath me, rippling out in jagged ridgelines, smooth polished granite, and soft green meadows. A piercing blue sky arches above, dotted with towering cumulous clouds that intensify the dense green of the forest below.
Turning to the north, I can see almost all the way down Matterhorn Canyon and out towards Twin Lakes. Eastward, I recognize all the peaks at the head of Lundy Canyon, but they look strangely different from here, seeing what I’ve always known as their backsides. All the way south, I can just barely make out Tuolumne Meadows as a miniscule blur in the distance. To the west, I don’t recognize anything. Tall peaks rise up from canyons and valleys, shadowing the Jeffrey pine-dotted granite below. I shiver at the raw unexplored-ness of it all.
Even though I have hiked all over the Sierra and have seen it from many different perspectives, something about this new angle makes me realize that I have never truly understood the sheer vastness of my mountains. Before this moment, I had never looked west of the Sawtooths or seen at Tuolumne Meadows from a peak 20 miles northwest. I had never realized how hugely unexplored the mountains I thought I knew so well, actually were.
But instead of inwardly cringing at the tumult of it all, something inside me shifted that day. I felt myself begin to see that what made this view so beyond breathtaking, so beyond remarkable, was the unfamiliarity of it. Taking in the exhilarating chaos of the horizon beyond, I realized that I loved that feeling. All I wanted in that moment was to spend the rest of my summer in these mountains; submerging myself in the beauty of the places I had never laid foot on before. I wanted to truly explore; get lost sauntering through canyons and meadows, swimming in deep rivers and lakes, sleeping under the stars and watching them fall through a canopy of pine needles.
For the first time in my life, I found peace in the utter disorganization of nature, its natural confusion and tangle. For the first time, I sincerely understood the reason why people strap forty-pound packs to their backs and trek into the backcountry. It’s not just to summit as many peaks as possible or to photograph perfectly symmetrical ridgelines. It is to plunge ourselves into the confusion and wild of nature.
It is waking up during the night to stand under the stars, searching and searching for a pattern in the vast unknown, it is hiking the extra two miles because the bridge was washed away under the sheer power of the river, it is climbing as far up the peak as you can, and then having to turn back because it’s just too steep, it is standing in an open meadow and letting the rain soak your clothes through and laughing, because you can’t control it and you love that. It is taking out a map, letting your finger fall on a random spot, and spending a week getting lost there. It is letting yourself understand that you are both miniscule and infinite in this world that is so complicatedly beautiful.
The revelation that one needs to get out and explore the unknown, that one must let herself get lost in order to find what really matters, has stuck with me even after I left the backcountry. In the big picture of my life, as I contemplate college and my future, this lesson inspires me to strive to experience the new, the different, and the mysterious; and to never back down from a challenge, especially if it requires me to struggle up an unknown peak to discover who I truly am.