Off the Map, Week 13: The Last Moonlight

I was just beginning to nod off in my tent when an intense light burned through my eyelids, searing a line down my cornea and slicing deep into my drifting consciousness. I opened my eyes to see the white-hot flare of a shooting star cutting through the western sky and disappearing behind the dark silhouette of Cotter Mountain. I expected an explosion to come reverberating through the Sierra Nevada valleys, but only the sound of the cold wind met my ears. 

I fished outside the tent for my foam sandals and noticed they were already sparkling with frost like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. It was a chilly September night at 11,000 feet in the Sixty Lakes Basin. This was my final adventure of the long summer, and despite having a larger backpack than anyone else I’d encountered, I still hadn’t managed to bring enough warm layers. Darkness was falling at 7:30 p.m. now, and I was assured of at least ten hours of solid sleep … if I didn’t wake up shivering too often.

After a brief trip to the nearest shrubbery, I paused to look over my starlit surroundings. The land sloped down to the shores of a nameless alpine lake, which earlier today had tempted me with its clear, crystalline waters. Bold intentions to take an afternoon swim had resulted in little more than a timid, ankle-deep wade in the shallows after my body reacted childishly to the frigid temperatures.

The episode stood vivid in my mind because once the bathing had been finished, I sat on shore and picked a black blob off my foot, thinking I must have stepped on a marmot dropping. To my surprise, the blob came to life and began contorting and somersaulting across the boulder where I was sitting. It was a leech!  The bloodsucker inched its way to the edge of the rock, then arched its back like a gymnast and executed a graceful flip into the safety of the water. If I’d shivered then, it had nothing to do with the temperature.

After these disturbing reminisces, I returned to my carefully constructed cocoon of sleeping bags and jackets, which incubated my body until once again I was hovering at the edge of sleep. This time, a scuttling sound yanked my consciousness back to the waking world.  One eye popped open, and I wrestled an arm free so I could grab a flashlight. The beam exposed the white underbelly of a chubby mouse, which was scurrying up the transparent mesh of the tent directly above my head. A reflexive, not-so-gentle thwack sent the rodent flying back into darkness.  Like swatting a ping-pong ball, really.

The next morning I was shivering over a cup of hot chocolate, waiting desperately for the sun to peek out over the bulk of the mountain that loomed above my campsite, and I vowed to pitch my tent in a loftier location next time. When my patience and blood wore thin, I set off for Cotter Mountain still wearing every stitch of clothing I possessed. Most of the layers were ditched after reaching the sunlit realms, and I was sweating by the time I approached the base of the summit needle. 

Cotterpin would have been a more appropriate title for this peak, as it was topped not by one, but two narrow summit pinnacles. Still, I enjoyed a precarious, cramped picnic atop the highest slab of granite and watched a sea of smoke boiling in the valleys to the west. Fires were raging in Sequoia National Park this week, but morning skies in the Sixty Lakes region were usually clear until afternoon winds pushed smoke up through the eastern valleys. I felt a bit tense, like I was standing too close to a heavy smoker who was filling his lungs and preparing to exhale directly into my face. 

Already, the winds were picking up, and a brown haze was creeping up the canyons towards the base of Cotter Mountain. I tried to absorb the views quickly. To the south, the mountains looked like rows of hands, palms together, upraised in prayer… a fitting image for a place with so many cathedral spires. To the north lay a desiccated ghost town of a range, bleached by the sun of all but the mottled colors of tumbleweeds and rust. Very little vegetation could be seen; most of the moisture had been wrung out of the air to feed the giant sequoias further west.

To be honest, the panorama was not all that striking, even before the smoke began to obscure the scenery. Perhaps a summer spent marveling at the vivid colors of the Grand Canyon, the crimson Colorado mountains, the emerald green forests of New York and the neon exuberance of the Burning Man Festival had dulled my visual senses.

When airborne soot began to tickle my nose, I descended to my campsite and moved my tent from the mountain shadows up to a ridgeline between two alpine basins. Roosting there would guarantee exposure to as much light and heat as the sun could provide this time of year. And besides warmth, I found that this vantage point infused me with powerful energy as well. I felt the effortless freedom of falcons and eagles as my gaze roamed without obstruction over ridges and valleys colored orange by the smoky sunset. Though the scenery was similar to what I witnessed atop Cotter Mountain, my apathetic mood evaporated, if only because I now possessed the deep comfort of having made this perch into my home.

The feeling of giddy excitement was even stronger when I crawled out of my tent in the late evening and saw the same panorama lit lightly by the rising moon. The smoke had lifted, and immortal constellations had come to reassert their dominion over the capricious mountains. This was the last time I would see stars this crisp and clear for a while. Soon I would return to outdoor teaching in Santa Barbara, and although I might lead students on many night hike explorations, it would be a shared experience; I would never have the skies all to myself.

The summer was ending the same way that it began three months ago in the depths of the Grand Canyon… with solitude and moonlight. Tonight was fusing together the arc of my adventures, and in some small way, I could tell that the events of thirteen weeks had left me wiser, for I felt buoyant and more perceptive of the gift of life that lay inside and all around me. The world was rich, beautiful and wild, though not without perils of body and spirit. Hopefully luck will remain with me; if I survive nine months of Western civilization, I will once again walk the paths of wilderness and mystery. And you, dear reader, will be along for the journey.

So after drinking my fill of the moonlit majestic, I returned to my rustic bed and laid my head to rest. 

Morning came. Then another day. Then another.

Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and works as a naturalist at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School in Santa Barbara, CA. Previous adventures in the Rocky Mountains and across the globe will be republished weekly at

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