Only an hour drive from the main street of Placerville, which fades from past to present and back again, with its wagon train celebrations and organic farmer’s markets, weirdly historic Hangman’s Tree tavern, where an old stump is all that remains of lynchings and rightfully hides in the cellar, and the bell tower, which only serves to give shade to teens smoking cigarettes, is a vast area of escape known as Desolation Wilderness. I grew up in the forests outside of Placerville, seemingly far from the local bar brawls and bean sprout turkey sandwiches, and most of my time was spent playing in the trees surrounding my home or in Desolation Wilderness, hiking and swimming. The drive there was hardly long, but as a child, it seemed as if we were crossing a border into a magical land, where granite slopes and stark white logs baking on them, became a kingdom that was all our own.
My brother and I could be occupied for hours, climbing up boulders, and running through meadows that appeared like apparitions. He would be forced to play an ogre, giant, or beast of some terrifying kind, while I would be the damsel in distress. My favorite thing about being a big sister was being able to direct our plays and not be questioned. Our parents would be in a campsite or by our tent, making coffee on a camping stove, or idly reading a book. My main memories of my parents are of my dad starting the fire and employing us to find sticks and my mom jumping into the cold lake water of the Sierra Nevada’s and promising that it felt refreshing, although none of us believed her.
I hadn’t been to Desolation Wilderness in a couple of years and my mom asked me to go back for a hike to Twin Lakes for Labor Day. The drive seemed less magical and more stressful than before, as my mom swerved around tight corners on a cliff and crawled down roads full of potholes that led to the trailhead. Once we were out on the trail, I felt flooded with memories I didn’t know I had and my mom was breathing in deeply, as if trying to flood her nose with the scent of rock and pine. There weren’t many other hikers out on the trail and the few we saw gave us a nod and a “good morning”. Out in the real world, it’s fine to ignore strangers on the street, but in the wilderness, we go back to our country-living ways. It took us almost two hours to hike the three miles to Twin Lakes, as I kept stopping to chug water. The altitude was new for me. Once we were there, I was struck by the quiet and total emptiness surrounding us, as we sat and ate our wasabi peas and nuts. There was hardly a ripple on the lake and the only creature I could see was a bee trying to land on my snacks. Of course, there were plants, animals, and a whole natural world there, but the modern world was nowhere to be seen and it was thrilling, but also disconcerting. I felt insignificant. Such a feeling was comforting and surprisingly, upsetting.
This is why so many go to Desolation Wilderness. It’s a reminder of what we come from and what we still can be. It gives a clear head, scenery to inspire, and a better yet, a place where phones have no reception and we must actually speak to those dearest to us.
Back in Placerville, we drove past a sign speaking out against horses on the bridge and a girl with turquoise hair pushing a baby stroller, as we took the turn to head back to our home in the forest. It had been a good escape, but we had been captured, yet again.