June 25, 2022

Utopia With a Side of Mosquitoes

Four days at 10,500ft. A backpacking travelogue.

It’s the beginning of summer and we need fresh air. We drive six hours from Los Angeles to Clover Meadow Ranger Station in North Fork, California where we park the car, pop the trunk, and sling 50 lb packs on our backs stuffed with dehydrated meals, our rods and our reels, whiskey, bear spray, a tent and a sleeping mat each.

We hike 9.3 miles up the Fernandez Trail through the charred remains of last year’s Hay Creek Fire and eventually we climb above the burn-zone to cross emerald meadows dotted with pink and yellow wildflowers; and then, going higher still, we zig-zag up switchbacks and over colossal granite rock slabs until, finally, we arrive.

We have made it to 10,500 feet of elevation—a different type of air. Perched high in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Eastern Sierra mountain range, we have found home for the next four days.

The weather is cooler than expected and this is we much appreciate. We are able to wear pants instead of shorts and while the breeze helps to keep our shirts from sticking to our backs, it does not help much with the black clouds of mosquitos that materialize at dusk.  We approach the open water and look across the lake and around its edges. An oasis of serenity. And there’s no one here but us.

We select a flat spot for our camp surrounded by lodgepole pines but with a full view of the lake. The sun is soon to drop behind the granite scree wall on the high side of the lake, and so we make haste to set up shelter before it is dark. Three tents go up quickly, each man to his own, and then both bear canisters and a trash bag are carried to a pine tree’s height away. The trash bag is tied to one end of paracord and a baseball-sized rock is tied to the other end. The rock is then thrown over a tree branch that sticks out straight, way up high, and when the rock comes back down we now have a pulley system, which we use to hoist our food scraps into the air and out of reach from any nearby black bears. Or so we hope.

It takes two of us to accomplish this task while the third gathers fallen logs and dead branches for kindling; the bigger logs are reduced with a travel hatchet, and everything is stacked in a teepee formation within the fire ring that has been assembled with rocks from around the campsite. We watch as the sun tucks itself behind the mountain and it’s at this time that the mosquitoes go to bed along with the breeze. No longer does the lake’s surface have ripples or waves; now it’s a mirror that reflect the large, glowing orb of the full moon rising.

We sit at our campfire and pass around the bottle of whiskey. Between the discussion of lures and flies and what it means to be alive, the snap of a twig alerts us to a deer that has stumbled nobly into our camp. The deer approaches us, unafraid of our presence, and he comes closer and closer and closer, all while staring directly into my eyes. I look at him and lean closer toward the fire. The deer lifts his head. If only he could speak, I think to myself. But perhaps he already does. “This is my home,” he says to me. “Who the hell are you?” I sit back in my travel chair that I purchased from Amazon and I feel the weight of empty words lost to the half-drunk bottle in my hand. This deer, of course, he does not speak. But we offer an invitation anyway and it’s at this gesture that the deer darts back into the forest whence he came.

There’s no way of knowing where he goes, even though the moon has climbed high in the sky, beaming down on us now like a giant spotlight with it's golden glow bright; so bright that it casts hard shadows across the pines and ultimately removes the need for wearing headlamps. The moon reveals everything around us but the stars. I look to the water and find it hard to tell where the mountains end and the reflection begins. There is a grunt from across the campfire. It seems the whiskey has somehow vanished in its entirety. The time has come for us to crawl into our tents like burrowing creatures, but first we take turns standing as fire extinguishers before brushing our teeth and saying goodnight. And while the day was cooler than expected, the night becomes frigid and my sleeping bag is rated down to 50 degrees only, and I did not even think to pack a proper jacket.

The next morning I am still awake when the birds begin to sing; the yellow-bellied marmots joining as they whistle from atop the scree. I have slept maybe a few hours in-between all the shivering and the tossing and turning, but when I unzip my rain fly and see the lake with it’s water still like glass, suddenly do I feel energized.

We spend four days like this, living as Huckleberry Finns. There’s breakfast every morning on the shore, followed by day hikes to the surrounding ponds where we catch brook trout on almost every cast—because, this far into the mountains, the water systems have not yet been pressured by human contact. It’s on the third day that my pants no longer fit my waist and my hair has chosen a life of its own. Our food supply allows for around 1,800 calories a day, and plus the hiking and the nightly shivering we are in a major caloric deficit, but still I feel good. I repurpose a carabiner to clip two of my belt loops together and this keeps my pants on my hips. We catch our fish on barbless hooks and we release them all except for two, which we cook with lemon pepper over our fire, giving thanks and respect for allowing us the ability to gain from their nourishment.

Not once do we feel the need for clocks or cell phones, and our bodies almost immediately attune to the natural circadian rhythm of light and dark. We do not bathe and we paint our skin with layers of sunscreen, deet and dirt, and even though we still suffer the bites of mosquitoes and sunburns on our skin we remain happy because we are living simply on the land.

It’s hard to remember what was left in Los Angeles given all we have found at Lillian Lake. If only all days could be like today. Where we fish and we hike, and we talk and then we stop, and, either way, even with all the mosquitoes, everything is perfect.

But for four days, this is what we do. This is our life at Lillian Lake.

Utopia With a Side of Mosquitoes

Four days at 10,500ft. A backpacking travelogue.

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