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As a child the word mountain used to evoke for me one image, of God Shiva sitting atop a snowy peak in the Himalayas, a snake draped around his neck. Of foreign mountains, I had only heard of the Alps. The Sierra Nevada, I was not even aware of.
When I arrived in Berkeley as a graduate student in the late seventies, my classmates took me on a camping trip to Yosemite. I woke up in the valley the next morning and was surprised to see granite peaks surrounding me. I hiked ten miles up and down some waterfalls and beyond in a pair of borrowed hiking boots, feeling exhilarated.
Still, my love for the Sierras was not the first-sight kind. Rather, they grew on me slowly, until they became a part of my psyche.
I suppose the love affair really started when, two years later, I drove up to Tahoe all by myself from Sacramento where I was working. I knew not a soul in that bedroom community, so I decided to travel alone to an exhibit of passive solar homes organized by an ex-professor from Berkeley. I had recently gotten my driver’s license and was still at a stage when, my adrenaline pumping, I would cruise up and down suburban streets in the valley, practicing turns.
That spring morning, I drove up in my new Datsun B-210, watching the landscape change from suburban sprawl to foothill bush to majestic pines and firs. The air was nippy; the sky a deep blue; the road smooth and silent; the snow-covered crests unreal. A sweet melancholy overcame me. I was all alone; not a soul knew that I was venturing into these gigantic mountains all by myself; I was a pioneer. The thought gave me goose bumps.
Since then I have traveled to the Sierras with my husband, my children, my friends. All the important milestones in my children’s lives have taken place in these mountains. When my older son Ravi was a year old, he accidentally fell into the river in Yosemite. Before we had a chance to scoop him up, he began swimming like a fish. Later, at a campground in Tahoe, unbeknownst to me, he traced my steps in pitch dark, demonstrating perfect coordination skills.
A few years later, it was at the Fallen Leaf Lake campground that we took Ravi’s training wheels off. It was in the Sierras that my younger son Sebastian got his first tooth and began his potty training.
It was in the Sierras, too, that one summer, Sebastian drifted off in his raft, far away into the lake until I could barely see him. The sands were full of white people. Suddenly, I was overcome with terror. There was no lifeguard; I did not know how to raise an alarm. Ravi jumped into the lake and swam as fast as he could, until both my sons became dots in the water. My hands shading my eyes, I searched the horizon, standing on the edge of calamity. When I finally saw my boys paddling back, such sweet relief overcame me. “You are the bravest, the strongest boy,” I told Ravi, buying him a special treat of ice cream that afternoon.
My puzzlement at not finding too many Indians in the Sierras magnified that day.
It is in the Sierras that I have read some of the most memorable books. It was in the Sierras that I rode my first American bike.
What is special about the Sierras is that they are not formidable like the Himalayas but rather, accessible, friendly, warm, and inviting. I have seen the mountains in Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado, British Columbia, Hawaii, and New Zealand. But after every such out-of-state trip, I have wanted to stop by the Sierras, where, in the summertime, it is possible to camp without insects, mud, or other hazards. It still seems miraculous to me that one can travel from the seashore to the mountains of California in four hours.
The Sierras, to me, are more than a place for recreation and relaxation. They are inhabited by sacred spirits. I can feel it when I walk in the woods, hear the breeze whistling in the trees, see a snake rustling underfoot. In recent years, I have hiked alone. On those solitary walks, I have experienced a spiritual peace I have not found elsewhere. An occasional woodpecker knocking on a tree-trunk, a deer venturing into my path, a tree branch crackling underfoot, are things that open up a magical world for me. I spent one afternoon recently just watching a bee trying to fly off the surface of the hot springs I was sitting in. I watched its antennae searching for direction, its wings futilely flapping to take off. After a while, I was moved to rescue that poor bee, even though it was annoying me by getting into my food earlier. Bees, after all, are endangered, I rationalized. Never have I spent a more productive afternoon. Later, when I ran into a young man visiting the hot springs with the aim of including them in an iPhone app, I begged him to please not list this, my favorite place.
I suppose I am selfish in that way. I am glad that unlike Kashmir, which has been cannibalized by Bollywood, the Sierras have pretty much been left alone by Hollywood. I can recall only one significant movie, A Place in the Sun, with the Sierras as a backdrop. It is amazing to me that there are still large swaths of the Sierras without civilization, housing, or traffic. When I took an Indian friend to see them recently, she marveled that there were no zopadpattis dotting the landscape.
Unlike the Himalayas, which boast of the great river Ganga, the Sierras give birth to rivers like Sacramento, San Joaquin, Feather, Yuba, and King, many of which people have not even heard of, perhaps because they are dammed.
I have gone skinny dipping in mountain lakes, strolled through gardens of wild flowers, dipped in peak-top ponds, and watched the sunrise in the woods. I still want to trek the Himalayas someday, but it is the Sierras I have adopted as my very own mountains. It is in them that I seek refuge when life becomes too much to bear. Now that I have no parents and my children go camping with partners or friends, the Sierras have become my father, my mother, and my family. It is in them that I feel a warm rush of affection enveloping me.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.