Desolation Valley Wilderness Area, California

On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


The Grey Wall, Desolation Valley Wilderness Area


Haunting personal memories of the past are sometimes ugly ones, but in repeated exercises to maintain mental health, most of his preferred recollections induce smiles and pleasant thoughts.  We all would rather remember pleasant things; thus the nostalgia of older folks most often is like a mental scrapbook of the good times.  Memories of the Grey Wall are, in some ways, forbidding ones filled with scenes of darkness, desolation, and untamed winds. But the mental image of Desolation Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is his standard by which the beauty of landscapes is measured, and it is under the shadow of the Grey Wall that the Footloose Forester hopes to spend eternity.  

The Grey Wall does not appear on any map; it is the local name for the rocky divide that separates the upper reaches of the Silver Creek Trail that lead to the friendly environs of the heavily forested Wrights Lake area on the South West side; and the expanded region of bare rock in the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area, looking off in the direction toward Lake Tahoe.  On a topographic map, the Grey Wall is an unnamed ridge spur of the Pacific Coast Trail that is one of the most popular ways to reach Desolation Valley Wilderness Area.  In times past, Desolation Valley was beyond the ring of mountain passes of which the Grey Wall was part, but some 20-25 years ago the wilderness area was expanded to spill over into the narrow basin that includes Twin Lakes and Island Lake, both of which are only a few miles above Wrights Lake.  Given the expanse of bare rock within that narrow basin that embraces both Island and Twin Lakes, the terrain there does resemble wilderness and fits nicely into the expanded wilderness scheme.

A hiker who loves the tall red firs and sugar pine trees of the shaded glades lower down the mountain can enjoy the whispering wind and more benign options on the Wrights Lake side. Approaching the Grey Wall and spilling beyond it, one finds rock, lake, more rock, whistling wind, more rock, and desolation. But its enchantment is so haunting, that the Footloose Forester still yearns for the sight of the place and the sounds of meltwater rushing down the mountainsides.

The western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains record the deepest annual snowfalls of any place on earth.  There are places where there is more snow on the ground, such as in Antarctica, or the snowfields of Greenland, but those places of ancient glaciers have accumulated their snowfields slowly and steadily for centuries.  In the Sierras, the snow may melt each year, but snowfall each winter is normally very heavy. Thanks to the simplifications made by Austrian meteorologist Dr. Irwin Biel at Rutgers, he made those issues clear in his classes in Meteorology 301, and especially in Climates of the USA 401.  No wonder that the Footloose Forester wanted to add a trek into the snowy Sierras to his agenda of lifelong wanderlust.  He got that opportunity when he was working in the Pacific District of the El Dorado National Forest in California.  Thanks to the US Forest Service for providing him with the loan of a down sleeping bag and outer shell, he also got to sleep in the midst of a snowpack that was about 10 feet deep. 



Island Lake: the Grey Wall is in the foreground

The memory was as sunny as the time he hiked from the snow line on the Wrights Lake Road to the upper reaches of the tree line, just below the Grey Wall. It was March and the air temperature was a balmy 70 degrees or so.  As he climbed further upward toward the crest of the pass overlooking Desolation Valley, he knew that he would have to cross a raging Silver Creek, the only difficult obstacle on his trek in deep snow.  He also knew if he got too wet while fording Silver Creek, drying off—even in the blessed sunshine—was not a sure thing before the sun went down.  Fortunately, Silver Creek was not too deep, so he removed his boots, socks, and pants and forded the stream while gingerly picking his way along a stony streambed. After air-drying his lower body, he retrieved his outer clothing from his pack and continued on his way. There was nobody around for several miles, so there was no need for modesty.  The rest of the day was spent trudging through ever-deepening snow, to his anticipated camping site at the edge of timberline, at sunset.  He still needed to pick out a suitable place to spend the night, but it was easier than he anticipated.  The Footloose Forester spotted a huge rock that was elevated on all sides, thus affording some protection from wild animals, and was flat enough on top to allow him to spread out his sleeping bag to full length.  Despite the 10 foot deep snow all around it, the top of the rock was devoid of snow.  After cutting some fir branches to smooth out the rough surfaces of the rock, and to serve as a mattress, the Footloose Forester spent a peaceful and contented night inside the warm, toasty confines of his sleeping bag. And the view from the Grey Wall the following morning was spectacular. 

Perhaps mortals subconsciously don’t want to be forgotten after they die; one reason why cemeteries exist in all the nations of the earth.  This mortal doesn’t much care about his body, but would like his soul to be near the Grey Wall that rings Twin Lakes and Island Lake so that he can hear the whispering wind and the sounds of water trickling down the rocks and into Silver Creek.  That is why, in his Last Will and Testament, he included a printed map of where he would like his ashes to be spread, with a red-line path on the map of how to get there.  That place is on the trail at the outlet of Island Lake. When it is not covered in snow, you can see the trail at N38° 52′ 11.89″ and W120° 11′ 34.09″, also written in digital notation as 38.873549, -120.190499. July or August would be good months to go. The Wrights Lake area, the Grey Wall, and Desolation Valley captured his soul, and he would readily return his soul there for eternity.


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