At the beginning of the song Grown Ocean by the band Fleet Foxes, drummer J Tillman counts off two half notes and then four quarter notes right before a pounding, lush acoustic arrangement erupts into the band’s cavernous reverberated sonic environment. Within these first moments of the song, my memory transports me instantaneously to Sequoia National Forest in June of 2011.
As I drive past Hume Lake in gloaming of early morning, I hear “In that dream, I’m as old as the mountains; still as starlight reflected in fountains…” Canoes full of Christian camp visitors suffer in distant silence on the lake’s steaming surface on as a cool dawn blooms over the Monarch Divide. My Civic wound its way into the depths of the South Fork Kings River, which I’d soon be following past Mist Falls en route to Paradise Valley. At the conclusion of that hike, in which my ears were never more than a few hundred yards away from the deafening roar of the swollen Kings, I got back into the car and blasted Helplessness Blues on repeat, reveling at the cavernous reverbs and lush harmony arrangements perfectly complementing the towering Southern Sierra conifer belt.
Those songs, sounds, and lyrics are inextricable from that moment in time, which also represents the birth of my desire to hike as much as I possibly can while taking pictures and documenting my adventures. These moments ultimately led to five books on hiking trails and nearly 300 articles in Modern Hiker, not to mention thousands of memories from exploring one of myriad natural highlights within a day’s drive from Southern California. And so, songs like Grown Ocean evoke the beginning of that chapter of life as well.
I don’t tell many people these days, but several chapters ago I used to be a musician. My obsession for much of my adult life had never been hiking, although I enjoyed it from time to time. Instead, I lived for music, listening to everything I could get my hands on (this was before Spotify made music boring). I played a number of instruments, wrote songs, and taught myself how to use recording software. For about a decade, I spent most of my disposable income and free time on musical pursuits, which included writing, recording, performing, and producing two albums of original music; recording, producing, and performing an ultimately unfinished album with a progressive rock band; and recording numerous demos for friends who were also playing.
My desire to create music ended right around the time I started writing for Modern Hiker. I had thrown myself with abandon into hiking and writing, and I transferred my desire to create and maintain complex projects into first writing trail write-ups and later into authoring books on hiking. Music fell further to the wayside when my son, Hank, was born, after which time there simply wasn’t any space or energy left to play guitar.
However, music still has a powerful impact on me, especially in conjunction with the natural world. I don’t listen to music while I hike, as I still prefer to be immersed in natural sounds. However, music has usually blasted all the way up to and on the way back from the trailhead. Hearing music on long drives to natural places is nothing new in my life; my parents would play music on lengthy road trips to places like Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Palm Springs, and a number of different National Parks. To this day, I can’t hear a song like Run for Your Life by the Beetles without thinking about I-395 right around Bishop. I hear a song like Riders on the Storm by the Doors, and for a moment I’m in the backseat of a car watching Jeffrey pines fly by as my family winds its way to South Lake Tahoe.
Today, there are songs that I can’t hear without being brought back to the sensation of being in a particular place. With Olalla by Blanco White, I’m driving through Yosemite Valley along North Side Drive and looking up at El Capitan through spaces between golden black oak foliage. With San Luis by Gregory Alan Isakov, I’m passing through El Portal in the midst of a heavy rainstorm that’s about to transition to snow while I’m struggling to put a new set of chains on. With Cripple Creek by the Band, I’m pulling into the Elfin Forest parking lot with my kid, who wants to see Escondido Creek and big oak trees. With Through My Sails by Neil Young, I’m coming down from Tioga Pass on my way to eat pizza at the Whoa, Nellie! Deli in Lee Vining. I hear Excursions (or really anything off of Low End Theory) by A Tribe Called Quest, and I’m back in Mineral King driving on the dirt road to the Eagle-Mosquito Trailhead and wondering whether marmots will eat my radiator hose.
I can go on and on and on and on. . .
So the music is part of the mountains, and the mountains are part of the music. And while I love hiking for everything it is, I love it even more for the way music and my experiences have intertwined. Even as I move farther away from creating music, I’ve turned to music as a way to trap the experience of countless moments in emotional amber. And as I begin to introduce my son to places like Palomar Mountian, Joshua Tree, and local trails, I add songs like Dear Prudence and Bohemian Rhapsody to the neural imprint of his experience in the hopes that he can enjoy the gift that my parents gave me all of those years ago when Rubber Soul was the soundtrack to my childhood adventures.