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Backpacker Magazine – October 1999

The Faces Of Fall

If you think autumn is simply a time to rake leaves, then you need to read our guide to the best of the fall season.

by: Thom Hogan and Sherry Simpson, C.L. Rawlins and Franklin Burroughs


California

You can still find gold in the Sierra, and it's just as precious and fleeting as the ore pulled from the ground and streams.

The Season Of Riches

There's still gold in the Sierra Nevada, and this morning I intend to find it.

Dozens of marked-up maps clutter the seat beside me, my cheat sheets to riches. I'll need them later, but right now I'm late by at least an hour. The predawn sky has gone from black to deep purple to a hint of blue, and I curse myself for having slept so soundly.

It's early October, and this northern half of Yosemite National Park is deserted. Mine is the only vehicle on Old Tioga Road, and I had the campground pretty much to myself last night. As I pass Tuolumne Meadows, there's just enough light to get a sense of how far this high meadow stretches, but I'm not paying attention to the sights. Some primitive portion of my brain is watching for animals on the road, but other than that, I can think only about the canyons to the east.

For five years now I've made this trip a late fall ritual. Last year, I didn't find any gold at all and spent the entire winter and spring in a deep funk as a result. I'm not greedy. Even a minuscule vein can make me happy. But getting skunked two years in a row would be unthinkable.

As my truck reports the strain of the climb up Tioga Pass, I ignore its protests and push harder. I just might make it. If I can get to the other side of the crest before the sun clears the horizon, the task ahead will be made easier. More important, I'll know whether this will be a good year or another winter of despair.

I run through the canyons and trails in my mind: Rock Creek, Virginia Lakes, Spooky Meadow, Wheeler Crest. Which should I try first? Surely one of them will yield the riches I seek.

Suddenly the accelerator becomes more responsive as I near the top of the pass. A bright, orange glow begins to dominate the horizon, making it difficult to see the road. As I top the pass, I pull off the road for a moment and scan the terrain below.

And I see it. Gold. In the canyon below, a solitary slash of bright yellow stands out amongst the dark green pines. This riverside grove is only a hundred yards long, but I can't take my eyes off it for fear the light will change and the gold will disappear. Never mind the spectacular peaks around me and sunrise over Mono Lake in the background. I stand in one of the most dramatic spots in North America, but at this moment all I see is this sunlit patch of gold.

Oh, this will make up for last year, I think, instantly forgiving myself for the morning's slow start.

It doesn't always happen this way, but in a good year-and this is going to be a very good year-the aspens and other deciduous trees on the eastern slopes of the Sierra put on a display that rivals any in the country. Just one glance has told me what I needed to know.

My body is relaxing now. I pull the nearest map off the seat and check my notes. Soon I'll be hiking up to my favorite, private place, setting up camp so that tomorrow's sunrise will put me at the end of a rainbow. And I'll fill my pot with Sierra gold.

-By Thom Hogan Photo by Londie G. Padelsky




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