The Most Important Trail in the World

Deep fragrance memories from your childhood.

Everyone carries deep fragrance memories from their childhood— epic landscapes of detail so complete, so potent, that even decades later a mere hint of its breath can hurl one backward to that moment, that place, with the vibrancy of perfect recall.

For me, it’s a walk I’ve since made a summer tradition, but was first made well over thirty years ago. Looking back to that first time, it was as if that little expanse of earth was introducing itself to me, as if the path itself was a force, an entity that, as I walked, imprinted itself upon me. Pollen nodes lodged deep in the olfactory valleys behind the bridge of my nose, tucked up against the base of my brain, the oldest part. I keep them safe, these tiny pieces of dust, until it’s hard to know if I am remembering the place, or it’s remembering me. We own each other. We are of each other, this place and I.

This walk, up from Davos Road to the top of Donner Peak, winding up Forest Service Road 22, is not the most epic or even the most interesting hikes in the Sierras. In fact, to most people its most notable feature would be what mountain ecologists call ‘high-montane,’ a ubiquitously unremarkable Buck Brush scrub ecotype forest, as common as the day is long.

But to me, the unique magic of this 4 mile walk, from my mother’s back door to the top of the hill, is the rhythm as the place unfolds. From 7000 to 8000 feet, the flowers, trees and shrubs transform in theme and variety as the soil mix and major topography shift and change, and the scent strata along with it. The snow doesn’t completely melt at this altitude until the summer solstice; the first flowers to come are the most fragrant, and the smallest. Along the firebreak, where we often see bears foraging for spiny Goose Berries, the tiny, white flowers of the Buck Brush and Rabbit Brush overstory hide beneath their five-lobed leaves, their tall density obscuring acres once thick with Red and White Fir Trees, cleared by men long since passed. The wind is dry and the flower pollen is sweet. In late afternoon, thick, sweet curds of perfume kicked up in the bright heat and informed by last night’s thunderstorm reminds me of wine and leather, an old jacket left too long in the sun.

Up the road a mile and a half, I come to Copenhagen Creek. Here the Alder trees enjoy water year-round, unusual in this part of the range. The place rewards me with tall blooms of white Yarrow, the big, golden faces of blooming Mule’s Ears, the low-dipping, red Columbine flowers whose grace and structure add a fairy-garden-like fantasy element to the riparian show. The prismatic spray of green through the Fir carries with it distinct notes of citrus and flowers, advertising to the multitude of humming pollinators their vitality, their tender nodes of intimate communication, the secret cause and course of every flower in every garden under heaven.

Veering from the creek, the path steepens up to the ridge beyond, past the diminutive, blue Stickseed flowers, on to the hike’s greatest treasure. Past the tall, red Fireweed that dances in the sunset, the road turns abruptly from red clay to the flecked gray of High Sierra granite. Up over the ridge, the Fir trees yield to welcome old Lodgepole Pines, moved by centuries of wind, characters of place whose real names will never be known in the world of men.

And finally, beyond the old pines I can see the drop: 3 thousand feet. This is where eagles continue to dare, on ancient wind carried up from Donner Lake, to cool with remembered ice, the hottest of summer days. This is where the glacial valley spreads out so deep and so far, that it’s hard to imagine that at some point this immortal scene might not have existed, or could ever change. This is where, in summer’s bright gown, snow and fire seem like improbable dreams, climbing and stratifying the distant peaks with alternating bands of black and white. They speak the language of other climates, of the endless, seasonal birth and destruction across the California wilderness. This is where silence is a tactile force in the sweet, sublime wind.

To me this trail, this story, is nothing less than the most beautiful and important trail in the world. There is certainly no better avenue to the many-fold chapters of my own life than the tiny perfumes of sun and flower hidden in the myriad lives of this Sierran paradise— no better way to open the book of myself. We are of each other, this place and I. As I travel forth, this place becomes every place and all other things are permitted in their sense.