Before we leave camp on our first morning in the High Sierra, Obi gives us some advice.
“Harvesting in the Sierra Nevada is always tricky because the weather is predictably unpredictable.”
He squints towards the broad, flat valley to the east. “That’s the Great Basin. Thunderheads can push up fast from down there, roll up over the ridge, and hit whoever is on the other side pretty hard.”
We nod, packing up our loppers, hand-pruners, small saws, and knives, It’s 85 degrees and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Sunburn is going to be more of a problem today than thunderstorms.
Four hours later, at 10,000 feet, the storm hits us. Hard.
We’d spent the morning happily gathering bouquets of wildflowers at around 9,000 feet, tucking them away for Tom to tincture later. We’d just made our way up to a postcard-perfect, high-elevation lake, carved from granite by glaciers. The lake’s mirror-calm surface was kissed by a dusting of pollen from the White Pines, Red Firs, and Mountain Hemlocks surrounding it, and we’re basking in the view when the sun goes dark. We look up. Dark clouds overhead. The temperature plummets with the first drops of rain, winds rocking the tree branches around us.
An epic BOOM of thunder. Rain pits the surface of the lake, gently at first, then a deluge. We huddle underneath a Mountain Hemlock, getting soaked despite the cover, sure lightning is going to kill all of us, and sad that our families will have to live with the knowledge that we sacrificed everything for a bottle of perfume.
It’s at this moment, with thunderclaps going off like shotgun blasts, that Obi and Hall decide they need to go swimming. Against our advice that a thunderstorm may not be the best time for a dip in an exposed mountain lake, they peel off their clothes and jump into the water, splashing around and hollering like little kids.
We watch, shaking our heads.
A half hour later, the storm moves on. The sun comes out again, and we step out from the shelter of the trees. The air is full of pine, ozone, and that intoxicating smell of rain-wet stone. That smell has a name, Obi tells us when he finally climbs out of the lake. It’s called petrichor.
We'd just made our way up to a postcard-perfect, high-elevation lake, carved from granite by glaciers.
We collect some pinecones and use a knife to scrape sap from the Firs and Pines, applying the gooey resin to the pinecones like butter on corn on the cob. Then we fill our backpacks with the cones, knowing it’ll take us weeks to clean the sap out of the canvas. Hall’s homemade mushroom ragu is on the menu for dinner, and we’re all getting hungry. So we grab a few last pinecones and hike back down to camp. We get a big fire going, and change into dry clothes while Hall makes dinner. Then it’s time to set up our still. We load it with cold water from the mountain and pack in the sap-covered pinecones, along with other tree trimmings from the day. Then we set it over the fire and wait. As the still starts to bubble and spit, Hall brings out a bottle of whiskey and his vaguely tuned ukulele, serenading us with the White Stripe’s “Hotel Yorba,” and other campfire favorites. The still keeps going for hours, producing more essential oil than we’ve ever seen from a campfire distillation. The whole day comes back to us in aromatic snapshots—the sun-warmed granite, the sweet pine pollen, the bright notes of Fir. Pablo, Tom, and Obi tend to the still until 3 AM, when it finally gives up its last ounces of wilderness perfume. At which point they find their sleeping bags and drift off to sleep. Tomorrow we’ll get up early and do it again. The mountains are calling, and the Sierra summer has just begun.