My performance on the slopes of Sonora Peak was underwhelming. I was breathing hard and felt sapped of vitality, which did not bode well for the more ambitious hikes I’d planned to undertake during the last two weeks of summer. At first I blamed the altitude, or the extended period of missed meals I endured at the Burning Man Festival. But then I finally remembered … Oh yeah … I’m sick. I sniffled a little extra to remind myself of that fact, then continued up the mountain at a less punishing pace.
It was hard to feel sick when the wildflowers covering the land around me looked so rich and vibrant. Sonora Peak stood midway between the gentler northern Sierras and the windswept alpine country of the “high” Sierras, which included Mt. Whitney and Yosemite National Park. Upon reaching the summit, I blew my nose and stared south into the white-capped sea of ragged ridgelines, contemplating the challenges that were sure to arise in the weeks ahead. A resurgence of good health would go a long ways towards helping me survive if winter came early to the mountains.
Heavy cloudcover rolled in from the east, which better mirrored my physical condition than blue skies or wildflowers. The foul weather gave me motivation to cancel additional explorations and to take my overtaxed systems to a lower elevation. Outside the nearby town of Bridgeport lay Travertine Hot Springs, which I had somehow neglected to visit in all my wanderings. It sounded like the perfect place to begin nursing myself back to health.
What I found in the hills east of Bridgeport was a far more unique geothermal feature than I had been expecting. I had visited dozens of hot springs in my travels, but I had never seen anything like the worm-like tubes of travertine rock that hugged the land like the petrified carcasses of giant centipedes.
Over the centuries, the flow of hot, mineralized water had created ever-advancing ridges of travertine that snaked down the hillside. Water had coursed through a crevice along the crest of each ridge, patiently traversing the full length of the natural aqueduct until it poured off the far end, depositing small amounts of calcium carbonate and creating the creamy orange-colored rock known as travertine.
The effect was the opposite of what waterfalls do. Waterfalls erode and eat away at cliffs, retreating backwards over time. These cliffs were growing, working their way inexorably towards the valley floor. Each finger extended for hundreds of feet and stood ten to twenty feet above the surrounding land...