This summer I am taking a geology class at Stanford, and last week we were talking about the Sierra Nevada’s exfoliated granite domes. On the hour-long drive home, the class discussion got me thinking about my first extended backpack years ago in the Mineral King backcountry with my brother Jim. We were woefully unprepared: although it was late in the season, our only shelter was a flimsy plastic tube tent, and our food consisted of packets of tasteless, freeze-dried glop.
We ended our four-day hike with an ascent over Farewell Gap, a 10,587-foot pass with vertigo-producing vistas. Farewell Gap is breathtaking: the geology of California stretches before you. But we also knew that a tragedy had occurred at Farewell Gap. On the drive home, a poem popped into my head about that day so long ago in the High Sierras that left us listening for ghosts.
Song of Solace
We lean our bodies into the wind
ascending the last oxygen-starved quarter mile
to Farewell Gap.
In this rocky portal
lie nine melted aluminum markers
supported in cairns of granite
that are remembrances of those who died here.
It was just after the war ended,
a night-training mission gone awry,
the pilots guiding their crippled aircraft toward the pass
fighting the plane’s uncontrolled and deadly descent.
Farewell Gap: a final gamble to reach the safety
of the outstretched valleys in the dark distance,
their only chance to evade the mountains’ teeth.
Imagine those last desperate moments:
milking every last bit of altitude from the shuddering fuselage,
bracing their bodies against the fireball to come.
As Farewell Gap loomed ahead,
they must have known
they had missed salvation by mere yards.
We eat our snacks in silence.
Blue shooting stars
bloom on the slopes below.
The landscape falls away,
to generous valleys: flat, wide, placid, welcoming.
The wind softens,
embracing the mountains with warmth,
whispering a song of solace.