It was an ache.
A longing kind of pain in my chest that told me I was already missing a place I hadn’t even left yet! Sheltered beneath a stand of sweet-smelling pines to escape the growing heat of a summer’s morning, I was nursing a coffee-to-go and recalling how much better I’d come to know this place in only a day – and realizing the very last thing I wanted to do now was leave.
This was sixteen years ago and the place was Squaw Valley, California. It was an earlier, pixel-ly challenged era for me (apologies…), but the memory of that achy feeling is still keen. It came back to me both because I’d recently been camping not far away, and because I was excitedly watching the Rio Olympics and checking off the host cities I’ve visited – Squaw Valley just happens also to be known as Olympic Valley. (Click here for a post with more Olympic views!)
Even though it’s best known for wintertime activities (it hosted the Winter Games in 1960), having proved myself more of a faller than a skier, I chose to get a summer perspective on this picturesque plain – and to get my fix of the kind of beloved terrain I’d grown up backpacking through in the nearby Emigrant Wilderness.
One of my backpacking buddies on many of those adventures was my dear friend, Kelly, who I’ve known since junior high. Residing at opposite ends of the state now, Kelly and I decided to take a break from our hectic work lives and meet at Squaw Valley for a quick weekend catch-up. We were used to roughing it in this neck of the literal woods. (You just haven’t lived until you’ve gulped down a sierra cupful of freeze-dried, dayglo-seasoned noodles that didn’t cook all the way through at altitude…) But we decided this time to travel in style with reservations at a hotel and fancy restaurant right on the valley floor.
During our only full day there, we knew we wanted to get a look at the high ground up beyond the imposing rock face that towered over our weekend lodgings. The most obvious way was to zip up and back via the tram that headed straight over the face and beyond to an area called High Camp. Easy peasy!
But even though this was supposed to be a respite from toil, I found myself wondering where would be the fun in that? Back in the day, Kelly, my dad, and friends Kathy and Kirsten and I had conquered many a mountain trail! We may sometimes have gotten a bit lost and confounded during the conquering – but that’s not really the point. Here was the chance to do something we couldn’t in the course of our everyday lives – to go out and bond with nature as we tackled another mountainside for old time’s sake!
So Kelly and I decided our job for the day would be an end-around hike past the mountain face to High Camp. Although excited at the thought of hitting a trail again, part of me was thinking how much easier it would be to take that tram up and do the hiking thing back. I mean, the elevation change from the valley to High Camp is something like 6,200 feet to 8,200 feet. That’s a difference of 2,000 feet or, as I’d call it – kind of a lot. And since most of the exercise I was getting back home was power walking to the break room for coffee (although, in fairness, I did loads of reps!), the thought of letting gravity do most of the work had some appeal. Because up or down, technically, we’d still have done all the nature bonding and tackling stuff, right?
Then again, I did have to own that trekking downhill (not to say, down mountain) could be taxing on the limbs. Plus, we’d been trying anyway to find a proper rationalization for getting massages at the hotel. So boom! Quandary solved. Without further hesitation or guilt, we booked 30-minute – no, better make it 60-minute – Swedish massages, packed water and snacks, and set off to hike up the mountainside.
It was a wonderfully pretty trail which we basically had to ourselves. I decided to enjoy the solitude and not entertain the idea that everyone else knew better than to be out there exerting themselves in the heat of the day. (Naturally, our option to get up super early to avoid the heat had long before and very rapidly been dismissed.)
But we didn’t have to worry about that. In fact, we had no worries at all! Just an enjoyable hike through magical-looking forests and boulder-sprinkled meadows – some of my favorite topography in the world! I took a fair amount of breaks along the way, but no sooner did I catch my breath than it was taken away again by the scenery!
At lunchtime, instead of the usual meal inhaled at my desk, Kelly and I dined “al fresco” beside a tranquil mountain lake thank you very much!
Then it was back to the business of making a slow (thanks to me) but steady climb up the trail. Yes, we worked hard – but not really. For one thing, we weren’t “working” over the racket of ringing phones and grinding office equipment, but to the pleasing whoosh of wind in the trees, the chirping of birds and the satisfying crunch of pebbly dirt underfoot that reminded us we were making progress.
Although the area was alive at the time with green foliage and bubbling streams, there were also dormant ski lifts to remind us that the mountains would come to life in an entirely different way come wintertime.
And what a sense of freedom and accomplishment to make it onto the expansive plateau of High Camp! From here we could see not only where we’d just been but also catch an inviting glimpse of the blue, blue waters of Lake Tahoe far beyond. And here were reminders of the 1960 Olympics which had included a U.S. men’s ice hockey gold medal – a “Miracle on Ice” twenty years older than the one that unfolded in Lake Placid (a place I haven’t been yet, but give me time)!
All too soon, it was time to board the tram for a different perspective on the ground we’d just covered. Although an unnatural intrusion, the tram system with its cables and towers is still dwarfed by the vast landscape it traverses. And as we glided back down to the valley, it was satisfying to know we’d been right in there among the trees way below, that we’d paused beside shimmering lakes and been treated to the variety of tunes on nature’s playlist. The bird’s eye view was spectacular – but it was well worth the effort also to have gotten up close!
Hence that ache…
I mean, there I was the next morning, still basking in my own bit of paradise under the pines – in a place not everyone gets to be! Even so, I finished my coffee and I drove away. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t really “paradise lost.” I’ve since been back to that splendid country – and I know I’ll return over and over again. But there’s earning to be done in the meantime, in more than one sense of the word.
And although some details of my former visits are fading from my memory, I just can’t imagine I’d ever forget the feeling of sharing those mountain trails with family and friends, and of getting to savor that day in Squaw Valley.
A day in paradise that was all the sweeter not just for having been granted – but having been gained.