I’ve always thought Time-Life books were something to page through, bored, at my Grandma’s house while she watched Perry Mason. I’d flip through the pages, looking at the photos, but never, ever reading the text. In fact, I thought those books were all pictures and captions. Until reading (yes, reading) The High Sierra, I didn’t realize there was more to the books than pretty pictures.
Not only does the book have text, it’s good text. I’m not sure why I was so surprised by the quality of the writing, but I was. Ezra Bowen pulls the reader into his mounted Sierran journeys with keen observations, crisp descriptions, and a little of that cowboy attitude. I appreciate the history and naturalist text, but it’s Bowen’s opinions that entertained me most. He comes across as a crotchety old man complaining about how his wilderness is being taken over by dirty hippies with backpacks and lazy people in cars. I found myself nodding along, especially when I was visiting some of the more crowded areas. Bowen writes:
...most of the sightseers, lured to the area by its reputation and by its relative convenience to heavily populated metropolitan areas of California, arrive to experience only a brief and superficial encounter with the beauty of Yosemite. There are still a few such as the visitor who was heard to snarl at her husband, “Now I don’t want to hear NOTHIN’ about flora, fauna, or geology, understand?”Written in 1972, the issues he grouses about are the same that plague the area today: overuse and development. Purists complain that the wildernesses are “too available.” Conflict between horse and hiker use continues. “Is a park a natural museum or a natural resort?” Reflecting on my own visits this summer to Yosemite and Sequoia, I’m starting to favor a daily car entry quota for the more popular parks.
Some of the conflicts have been lost to history. For instance, who knew that Walt Disney Productions planned to build a ski and summer resort in the Mineral King Valley that would have included a multilane access road through part of the Sequoia National Park? (The current highway though the park, The Generals Highway, is two lanes and steep and winding.) The Sierra Club blocked the development long enough for the area to be added to national park status, ending the plan.
Although the book is now 44 years old, I found it a good companion for my summer. As expected, I saw pretty pictures and learned a little about Sierra science and history. As not expected, I was prompted to contemplate the politics of the region. In the end, it left me hopeful. Currently, more of the Sierra is protected in wilderness status than shown in the 1972 map. Wildlife is rebounding. New restrictions and limits on use protect sensitive and popular areas. We are successfully being kept from “loving our wilderness to death.”
Next time you’re at your Grandma’s, don’t just flip through the pages of her Time-Life Books collection; pause to read a little. You might be surprised at what you find.
Bowen, E. (1972). The High Sierra. New York, NY: Time-Life Books.