While walking through yesterday’s landscape I enjoyed the mental exercise of dialing time back through various ages in an effort to envision how the world around me may have looked in the distant past. I settled my mind on 20,000 BC when the effects of the last ice age were passing, and the area was a warm, temperate land of enormous lakes and interconnected rivers. Most of North America resembled the plains of Africa then, and giant predators were everywhere. The canyons I walked yesterday were likely once stalked by Dire Wolves, Sabre Tooth Cats, perhaps even the American Lion and the enormous apex predator of the Pleistocene, the Short Faced Bear. Twice the size of a Grizzly and able to outrun a horse, an encounter with such an animal must have been a terrifying episode of awe. And then I thought of another animal which lived here then, man. Humans walked these canyons, too and left their marks on the stone cliffs and their tools in nearby obsidian quarries. The early humans who lived here certainly walked along the shoreline of nearby Lake Manly (now just a dusty, alkali playa), listened to the howl of the extinct Dire Wolf and certainly came face-to-face with the great Short Faced Bear.
When I reached the far side of yesterday’s Volcano Wilderness, I scrambled alone up the steep side of a lava mountain to take in a vista encompassing hundreds of square miles; from the region above the Colorado River in the east, to the snow-capped Panamint mountains in the north hanging like heaven over Death Valley, and then west to Mt. Whitney in the heart of the Sierras marking the edge of the desert. While standing on that black lava desert peak, with the cold wind of evening rising and the first drops of a coming evening rain pelted me with precious drops of water, I tried to picture this enormous landscape not parched and silent; but wet, fertile and alive with the sounds of water and the voice and movement of life. Perhaps some human hunter had passed this way in the distant past, returning home ahead of an evening rain. Maybe he’d climbed this very peak…to gain his bearings and take in the expansive vista. He’d seen then the identical landscape I witnessed now. How similar, yet different: forests to desert, lakes to dust fields, rivers to dry wash, soil to sand and wooded mountains to raw, exposed stone and earth. And life too, with all but the hardiest and best adapted creatures now extinct or transformed into new species with a desert mandate and will to live.
I know I’ll keep the experience of yesterday’s hike with me always in memory. As an adventure both spacial and temporal, and as an experience of a place as it is now and an imagined remembrance of how it once was.