To the Headwaters
“I have come home at last! This is my real country (referring to landscape not a country)! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now… Come further up, come further in!” - C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
The Stanislaus River and its surrounding watershed is where I spent nearly the first two decades of my life. The house I grew up in isn’t far it, and the house my parents now live in sits along the canyon where it runs, cutting its way through granite, that stone that acts a messenger with the molten center of our planet and the surface of the Earth. The River, as we simply referred to it, was and is a character in our lives. It rages and torrents in the winter, and is slacked enough in the summer to offer us calm deep pools to leap into from the rocks above.
I’ve camped along the river my whole life, visited the grove of giant sequoias on its West bank that sits 10 minutes above my old house. I have dreamt about the trails that run down to it, and traced it banks in my memory like a finger on a map now that I live far from its flow.
Along with the granite, there are also limestone outcrops high up on the canyon walls, where if you know where to look, you can find caves and caverns that snake back into the earth like hollow fingers. These caves can be full of crystals if you go deep enough, or they can hide bears, bobcats, cougars, teenagers, or a variety of other intimidating creatures.
One December a few days after Christmas a few years back, my friend Tyler and I gathered all the remaining candles from Christmas Eve service, and we crawled into the tunnel system of a spot called Heater Cave, named for the steam that comes out of the mouth of the cave at night. To call the cave opening an opening, is a bit of stretch though. Making your way in is about the same as trying to crawl into a really small sleeping bag that’s already been synched shut. We typically get home with a list of different scrapes and bruises as proof (or entry fee) to this cave. Once you’ve paid your toll though, it really opens up inside and is worth the price paid for the bruises, thorn scrapes, and occasional poison oak.
This cave is also quirky because it’s really hard to find in the day because of its small opening. And because it’s on a steep canyon wall camouflaged with tons of other fragmented rocks amongst lots of thick deer brush. But Heater Cave is unique in that, when you go out at night with a headlamp, you can spot it by a surreal and rare sight.
In the winter months when the cave has high moisture levels, and the sun of a warm day warms the surface ground above it, a cloud of steam rises up from its mouth like a chimney. It doesn’t really occur during the day for a variety of reasons, so you have to go at night once the atmospheric conditions have swayed if you want to see it.
I always felt like we knew some ancient secret when we trekked through the forest at night through the cover of darkness, the stars up above us, and slipped into this surreal, silver-steaming opening into the body of the Earth itself.
So that late December night, we went out with the candles, sleeping bags and a xylophone and to have a self-made concert and spend the night in the cave.
We slept in a cavern room at the back of the cave that looked like someone had thrown glitter over all the walls with dripping stalactites and stalagmites like teeth and frozen wax-white pillars to hold up the flowing ceiling. It sparkled in streaks as we ran our lights over it, and we sang out loud to hear the echo. We set the candles up everywhere in there, rolled out sleeping bags, and performed a private xylophone concert in the bottom of Heater Cave. I slept in that perfect stillness with a pile of dust for a pillow, the rich silence almost palpable like you could scoop it up with your hand.
The river, its canyons, and its presence are a source of home for me, and for thousands of years before any white person had set foot on the continent it was home to the Miwok people, and their grinding stones can still be found on high ledges and in deep groves throughout the area, and since I was a kid, I have imagined them here, in these same woods, looking at the same water. The earth sees a thousand versions of itself everyday, and countless selves of the creatures that crawl upon it, ourselves included. It sees cruelty and joy, the end of cultures, and the start of others. It sees everything, and I dont know if it thinks about us or not; reserves judgment or not.
My friend Matt and I set out early in the afternoon in an attempt to get to the headwaters of the Stanislaus, existing further up and further in than either one of us had ever gone. Tucked high in the Lake Alpine region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the origins of the Stanislaus river are subtle and unassuming, a commingling of waters from creeks, reservoirs, runnels, rivulets, and minor run-offs. Perched high above California in a world drastically shaped by glaciers in the last ice age about ten thousand years ago. It was this same ice age and glacial system that gave Yosemite its iconic Half Dome and El Capitan, and although the granite features at the headwater of the Stanislaus certainly take a back seat to those other more well known landmarks, they never cease to amaze me, bringing a smallness to my mind that feels humbly, grounding yet expanding.
We trekked over ridges, and down trailing terraces of stone, noting twisted pines standing alone against the sky, glacial erratics like sculptures placed on the land by mysterious artists, and passed through wide peaceful glens of bracken ferns that rose up to our chest. The ferns reminded me of wading through a lake because we couldn’t see what was below the surface of the field of ferns as we walked slowly through them with our arms raised above our heads.
We frequently stopped to swim, and the water ran cold and brisk from the high elevation. Along its edges were revealed the polished places where thousands of years of glacial and hydraulic history have made the granite slabs as smooth as the back of a spoon. There were deep basins cut into the stone like someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the them, hollowing deep bowls and cisterns where water and pebbles to swirl, many of them large enough for a person to comfortably take a nap or swim in, dependably on how full or empty it was with either sand or water. The empty ones often have the remnants of water lines within them and look like modernist paintings or line drawings, void of subject, focusing on line, texture and form instead.
Early on in the hike I found one with an opening that was about the shape of what you could imagine to be a kid-sized manhole on a city street. Eagerly I shimmied into it, finding that the space inside was deep enough for me to fully submerge my head. The interior space was the size adult sized womb, as I tucked my knees up to my chest. Once I had successfully fit my whole self in, I tucked my head under arm to get a good look at the gravel floor I was sitting on when I immediately caught sight of something.
A coiled black snake against the side wall of the basin. Naturally startled a little by the snake, I stayed perfectly still and caught my breath. Instead of trying to climb back out and having it possibly strike my leg as I exited, I decided to quickly and fluidly attempt to catch it behind the head with my thumb and index finger and lift it out of the hole. I had done this many times before and if done in one swift motion, you can catch the snake without getting bit.
I whispered to Matt in a echoey voice from down in the hollow without taking my eyes away, “There’s a snake in here.”
He said later, because I was so calm and matter-of-fact about it, that he didn’t really believe me at first, but then sure enough, out of the hole came my arm holding the snake, then the rest of my body followed. As if the earth had just given birth to the snake and I both from that little womb like space. Later on, we also found a frog in another basin, which was far less of an adrenaline rush when discovered. All clear, no snake bites.
We crossed the river time and time again, which was more of a creek at this point, exploring through groves of aspens, tall grasses, gravel bars, and day dreaming about places to camp in the future.
This long walk to the source of the river, was like going to see where a new friend grew up for the first time, meeting their parents and childhood friends. You can learn a lot about a person this way, as well as a river. You get to know them better by seeing these places of origin, and although most folks don’t give credit to the animacy or sentience a river, I could feel the life pouring through it as our connection strengthened. Can a river think? What would be the thoughts of a river? Does it have an inner life? What does it dream as it flows under the milky way at night towards the sea?
As we eventually reached that final high water in the mountains, we sat down for a snack and a rest before turning around. Matt and I talked quietly, but in a state of great calm and content, and in the moments between Matt and I talking, I listened to what the river had to say as it poured over the small stones in front of us. I imagined it flowing here for generation after generation, and at the waterfall where I used to swim further down stream, and even further down where we’d camp, and past the grinding stones on the cliffs, and still further past my house, and still further to where it eventually joins other waters as it pours into the Pacific Ocean.
I remembered this quote from the book Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse:
“The river is everywhere at once. At the source, at the mouth, at the waterfall at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once. And that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future […] and when I learnt it, I looked at my life, and it was also a river, and the boy Siddhartha was only separated from man Siddhartha, and from the old man Siddhartha by a shadow, not by something real.”
We crossed back over the ridge and eventually back to our car and drove home to finish out the night sitting outside at my parents house along canyon belonging to the same river canyon, some 40 miles further downstream. Matt and I were best friends in 2nd grade and here we were together as adults still walking through these same woods, the same people somehow, at the source, the mouth, the waterfall and the sea. Rivers of selves everywhere at once.
What does the river know as it goes about its quiet work, always flowing, always present with itself, and the places where it lives. In every drop, cloud, lake, stream, puddle, sea and 70 something precent of every human body - interconnected to everything, covering the earth’s surface. Perhaps water has a consciousness far wider than our own, and we are too small, too separated, too naive in our own self granted wisdom to recognize its ever-present gift of paradox, that it is always flowing yet always in the same place. Or maybe my consciousness is the water’s consciousness, my thoughts the waters thoughts, or the other way around, or simply the same thing - because I am made of my water.
What are your thoughts on water? What significant experiences have you had with water in your life? Have you taken a pilgrimage journey like this to a significant place to you? Where would you go? What would you do? If you haven’t yet, take a little time to submit to the Public Prompt about water here. Please share your stories in the comment section below! Or even better send me pictures of your story at email@example.com