It is two o’clock on a coal-dark Tuesday morning in March, and you are sleeping very soundly high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. There is nothing taking place so far this night to disturb this sleep – the sparse traffic which consisted mostly of the occasional clatter of horse’s hooves and the rumble of wagon wheels on the road passing by your wood frame cabin have died away many hours ago, and your few neighbors in this high mountain valley have long ago drifted off into a sleep just as deep as your own. As this year has thus far progressed only as far as late March and the temperature outside is still well below freezing, your valley, though beautiful, has seen few visitors for the past several months; a state of affairs which is completely to your preference. There are still numerous deer and bear, of course; as well as many wolves and coyotes; they are at home here any time of year. But the human element of this valley – your valley, as you sometimes like to think of it – has mostly migrated to the lower elevations of the mountains and they await the return of warmer air before they once again begin their summer sojourns back to this beautiful place; a valley which was a well-kept secret until just a few short years ago. But you have chosen to spend the winter here in the High Sierra, a prospect which would bring trepidation into the hearts of most, but for you it has instead been an experience which has been found to be challenging, even exciting. You have taken on a job as a winter caretaker for a hotel which is empty of residents on this cold spring night. Watching after the building and its contents takes little of your time, which is worth exactly the little amount of money being paid to you by its owner. In return you get a cabin in which to live, enough food to keep body and soul together, and perhaps just a bit of pocket change left at the end of it all. But that last bit really doesn’t matter all that much as there is no place nearby for you to spend that money; nor is there anything more you need on which you wish to spend it. After all – what more could you possibly want? You already have everything you need – a bit of food (good, even though it is mostly beans and crackers); a roof (true, it leaks in places); and the mountains (splendid!).What most people spend their lives chasing after you find superfluous, even laughable. And so you lay here on your cot in warm contentment; your blanket covering almost all of your long body as it is pulled up past your chin, leaving your sock-clad feet exposed as the fire dies out and you resist getting out of bed to feed into it some of those pieces of wood which lie scattered on the floor near the hearth. The year is 1872. Tuesday, the twenty-sixth day of March, has barely circled into existence on the hands of your pocket watch – if you were to bother to look at your watch, but keeping track of time is very far down, or not even on, the list of things you consider enjoyable. This winter has thus far shown few surprises, but many pleasures, and you sleep on soundly, snoring gently. You are in a rough wood cabin on the floor of Yosemite Valley. Your name is John Muir, and life is good. The hands on your pocket watch, unseen, silently move to show that it is 2:10.
Then the Unexpected suddenly barges into your sleep like some monster of the mountains with giant hands, shaking you violently from your slumber and knocking you off your cot onto the floor, sending your long skinny legs into painful confrontation with the sharp edges of those scattered pieces of firewood which should have been keeping you warm on this heretofore peaceful winter night instead of banging into and bruising your bony shins. You try to get to your feet but the rough plank floor beneath you just won’t cooperate; it keeps shaking and moving and sliding out from beneath your socks as you slip around on all fours. You finally manage to make it to your feet but almost immediately wish you were back on your hands and knees, a much more stable position in this unstable reality which has suddenly overtaken your peaceful valley. As you stand there in the dark with only the red glow of the embers in your fire to cast a dim glow, you see one of the log remnants roll out of the fire and onto the floor. At the same time the door to your cabin flies open letting a rush of cold air inside. But you are oblivious to the brisk March night air and the open door stands as a welcome invitation to quit this shaking cabin and take refuge outside. The irony of the great outdoors offering refuge does not escape you as you kick the smoldering piece of firewood off the floor and outside then quickly follow it through the door as fast as your legs will take you, noting on some distant mental level that getting about has suddenly taken on aspects somewhat similar to navigating oneself along the rocking deck of a sailing ship caught in a storm. Once outside and clear of the cabin by several feet (it would, after all, be an ignoble end to one’s life to be crushed to death by the collapsing detritus of some long lost mountain man’s shack), you pause and look around, your knees bending in time to the swaying of the ground in a sort of primitive dance with the earth itself. Then you come to grips with what is actually taking place and your heart soars with happiness at being able to experience the nature of the High Sierra in all of its violent fury. A smile lights up your face and you raise your hands high at the glory of it all. You run several staggering steps more so that your view of the valley walls is unimpeded by the cabin and turn in circles and take it all in. Then you take a deep breath and shout with joy.
“An earthquake!” But the valley floor is rumbling, drowning out your voice.
“A noble earthquake!”
As you look around you can see that the rocky walls of the valley are also moving violently as they shimmer in the moonlight; shaking from side to side and beginning to flake off here and there like the uneven crust on a loaf of bread which is being handled too roughly. Then the shaking suddenly stops just as quickly as it had begun and you find yourself having difficulty finding a balance for your body in this sudden calm. Your knees still try to bend and twist as they anticipate the next rolling movements of the earth, but the shaking has ceased as the earth itself seems to have found a balance. The night is suddenly silent, completely still; an unnatural peace which seems at best to be an uneasy truce brokered between the gods of the Underworld. As your legs gradually resume a somewhat normal posture you turn and look around, gazing at the high valley walls and wondering how they are still standing in place after all the shaking; why have they not tumbled to the valley floor, filling your beautiful valley and burying it forever. Your gaze comes to rest on Sentinel Rock, a huge outcropping which rises some three thousand feet above the valley floor, and a shiver of anticipation runs down your spine at the thought of what it might do to you and your shack should it become disengaged from the valley wall and arc across the night sky toward you. You watch, looking for any sign of portending instability, but it remains still. You sigh in relief. Then you hear something; just a small sound, and far away. Still, it catches your attention and you try to focus, leaning one ear into the night air to see if you can catch it again. After a few seconds it does indeed repeat and you swivel your gaze to focus on that part of the valley wall from whence you think it came. It comes at you again, but this time the sound does not stop. Instead it increases to a rattle, then to a roar, then to a crescendo. Part of the valley wall is moving. It’s not the part about which you were so worried just a moment ago; not that high outcropping of Sentinel Peak. Instead this roar seems to be coming from a neighboring rock; one almost as high and large; one known to the locals as Eagle Peak. As you stare you can see it moving in the moonlight, shaking from side to side there on the valley wall even though everything around it has come to rest. The roar increases and it moves, slowly at first, but with a definite sinking as it separates from the rest of the valley wall and begins its descent. Then it seems to hang there for a moment, a very long moment, as if it can’t quite make up its mind if it really wants to leave behind the home which has held it in place for unknown millennia. Finally, almost sadly, it gives in to the tug of gravity which proves irresistible after it has now been loosed from its hold on the mountain by the earthquake. It arcs away from the rocky wall and out into the cold night air; Eagle Peak falling silently as the loose rocks below and above it crash down the valley wall in an avalanche which gives every indication of being headed straight towards you. So you run, seeking cover. A large pine tree stands near and you angle toward it, keeping the tumbling rocks in view as you move. You take cover behind the tree and then peer out around it, watching the spectacle unfold before your eyes. It seems to you that the earth itself has found a voice and is shouting in joy at being able to let loose. The rocks themselves, as they tumble toward you like a broad wall of advancing soldiers, seem to light up with a fiery glow as if alive with an inner fire. Eagle Peak is moving closer now, plummeting down to meet the advance guard of house-sized boulders which have raced it to the valley floor. And you laugh at the sheer joy and absurdity of it, knowing that the pine tree behind which you have taken cover, though large in comparison to its neighboring trees, will offer no shelter whatsoever should the mountain of falling rock make its way this far across the valley floor. But you laugh again, because this would indeed be a noble way to end one’s life.
But the advancing rock does not make it as far as your place of refuge, nor does the head of Eagle Peak find you as it comes crashing to its final resting place amongst the boulders as they slow to a stop. There is still a clatter of smaller stones falling when you deem it safe enough to move from your refuge behind the pine tree and run toward the fallen monolith. You scramble up on top of some of the smaller stones, then leap from rock to larger rock until you stand high enough so that your eyes can now command a view of the entire field of carnage. The moon shines down on you as the fall of rock ceases and a cloud of dust slowly rises like a bank of fog, shutting off your view across the valley and diffusing the moonlight into a soft glow. Then the world falls into total silence once again, just as it had been silent before this all happened – How long ago was that? Just moments, but in those moments you feel as if you have lived a lifetime. You stand there on top of that boulder for a long time, reveling in the unpredictability of nature and the changing beauty of the mountains you love. It might be minutes or hours before you finally leap down from the boulders and make your way back to your shack; you don’t know and you don’t really care; your pocket watch is still in its pocket; still in the shack if the shack is still standing. In years to come many will write of this great earthquake. Seismologists will conjecture that it is one of the largest in all of recorded history; one which gave birth to thousands of aftershocks felt over the following months. Statisticians will count the number of crumbled buildings and the sad toll of fallen bodies. Historians will observe that it was felt all the way out to the Pacific Ocean to the west and to Nevada in the east; all the way to Oregon in the north and to Mexico to the South. But you, John Muir; you in later years will share the most eloquent description of them all. You will write of the feeling that sprang from your heart as the ground shook and the rocks fell, and your pen will once again give voice to those few brief words:
“A Noble Earthquake!”
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501(c)(3) nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy
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