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Kim Stanley Robinson’s love letter to the wilderness

The acclaimed science-fiction writer turns his hand to nature writing in a book that’s part hiking journal, part history lesson

“The High Sierra” by Kim Stanley Robinson (Darryl DeVinney; Little, Brown and Company)
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Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning science fiction, stories like the enormously popular “The Ministry for the Future” (2021), often grapples with environmental issues. Little wonder, then, that his first major nonfiction outing, “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” is about the wilderness place he knows best.

“The High Sierra” wants to be a hybrid: a personal memoir and a hiking journal, a geology lesson and a history lesson about one of the truly epic nature spots in the world. The book’s structure attempts to create order out of Robinson’s sheer exuberance and enthusiasm, but only half-delivers on that promise. Several chapter types have been woven into a kind of Sierra Nevada quilt: “My Sierra Life” (hiking experiences), “Geology,” “Sierra People” (Indigenous people in general and prominent contemporary figures), “Snow Camping,” “Moments of Being,” “Routes,” “Names” and, um, “The Swiss Alps.”

The book begins with “Not to Touch the Earth,” a gorgeous but too brief account of Robinson’s initial hike in those eastern Californian mountains with his friend Terry, whose companionship is an important and poignant touchstone. A geology section jarringly intercedes before Robinson continues, like a flashback occurring too soon in a novel.

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The rest of the account of that first day, “Break on Through,” includes an acknowledgment that he was on LSD and an unnecessary section about the benefits and dangers of doing drugs. “It definitely made for a cosmic day, as we say. Hilarity overcame us. But what struck me most that day … was a stupendous sensation of significance … more real than real — the real reality — something like that.”

I was curious as to how the landscape felt different under the influence, but Robinson, for a time, shies away from lived experience. Instead, he has a brief discussion with himself about which word — surreal, mystical or metaphysical — best describes that day. Then he veers into a nostalgia-laden account of his life in California at the time, among “long-haired stoner students” steeped in “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” but also “hippie jocks,” whose interests included surfing and hiking.

Throughout these chapters, it felt as if Robison had recorded freewheeling riffs on his life in mountains and I was reading a transcript. The narrative is peppered with variations on “I loved it,” “What fun! Let’s do it again!,” “What a beautiful day” and “What a beautiful Sierra life we had.” Sometimes these moments have an ecstatic crescendo similar to the effect of a Walt Whitman poem. But sometimes Robinson cannot quite show us what he’s telling us, despite detailed accounts of his various hikes.

The book includes many mountain photographs of varying quality, some by the author. Woodblock prints by Tom Killion of peaks and passes provide needed contrast. Some images, like a just-okay photo of the map at the Baxter Pass trailhead sport exuberant captions from Robinson. (”Touch the photo and take off!”) The overall effect is of someone showing slides to a neighbor, with a definite homespun charm.

Robinson is also fascinated by the original Indigenous inhabitants of his beloved mountain range and postulates that one site with many obsidian shards used for arrowheads was used because of the great view: “They were just like us, Terry mused.” But did the landscape look the same back then, and wasn’t there a strategic value to the view — the ability to see anyone coming up the mountain toward you?

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The naturalist John Muir, recently excoriated as a racist by the Sierra Club, is covered here in a chapter recounting his role in land conservation around the Sierra Nevada region. Later, in the chapter “The Ugly,” Robinson decides to redeem Muir, writing, in part, that the man had “post-traumatic triggers”: “If he saw people sitting around in the middle of the day, he got angry. If he saw dirty clothes, he was disgusted. These overreactions account for almost all his negative statements concerning the people of color he ran into in his travels.” Robinson writes that Muir’s attitudes changed as he got to know more Native Americans.

The “Geology” chapters present a different kind of history. Robinson offers the disclaimer that “I’m not competent to go too deeply into this” during a wiki-type description of plate tectonics. Then he has a more interesting section on masses of granite called batholiths. He describes them as “something like a backpacker’s air mattress,” except “four hundred and fifty miles long,” with individual “blobs called plutons” that are “lumped together like party balloons.”

A chapter on “Fellfields,” or “The God Zone,” provides a personal view of high-altitude “sky islands,” where “the higher you go, the greater the proportion of stone to flower,” but we can’t really hear, smell or taste it. Eric Blehm did a much better, more exhilarating job of making the reader not just see but also feel this kind of awe-inspiring terrain in his pulse-pounding “The Last Season” (2005), about a missing ranger. Robinson’s book is an exploration and a journey, not a true-life thriller, but did the subject of “Basins” warrant two “Geology” chapters? And why does “Gear Talk,” advice on what you need for backpacking, occur midway through rather than in the beginning?

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It sometimes feels as if readers have been given raw materials from which they might write their own book. Separating “My Sierra Life” from “Snow Camps” and “Moments of Being” just puts similar experiences under different signposts. The “Swiss Alps” chapters may be included as contrast, but a book composed of fragments with little synthesis cannot afford to include a vacation. Robinson acknowledges as much by ending an Alps chapter with, “Now, back to the Sierra, my home ground.” By the time I got to a chapter titled “Have I Mentioned How Much I Like the Fall Colors Up Here?” I must admit large sections of the book had blurred together like the pattern of leaves on a forest floor.

Yet the book also has passion galore and glorious moments when science and poetry meet, like this description of twilight caught between mountain and sky: “Pure black and pure blue, divided by a jagged line so sharp and clean that often the border between the two colors vibrates a little … the blue inside of blue, electrically cracking from its own oversaturation.”

“The map is not the territory,” Robinson writes, but neither is a territory always useful without the anchor of a good map — a strong argument for dipping into “The High Sierra,” rather than journeying through it end-to-end.

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of 13 novels, including “Annihilation,” and, most recently, “Hummingbird Salamander.”

The High Sierra

A Love Story

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Little, Brown. 560 pp. $40

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