One summer I rode in the mountains with a Paiute Indian cowboy, who according to local lore, bit the heads off rattlesnakes, but only if they came too close to him. Because he was a large, heavyset man, he needed a strong horse.
My friend sang strange songs when he ran his hand over the boulders by the river, and the beauty of the land was a cold, hard pain in his chest. So that he could be the only Paiute in the world to smoke like a KGB agent, I taught him to hold a cigarette in the Russian manner, between index finger and thumb, palm toward our face. On our rides at higher altitudes we often lingered at a west-facing outcrop or a clearing between aspen groves. There we dismounted and rested and on sunny days gazed clear across California’s girth to the Coast Range a hundred miles away.
From a flat bottom of coils my Yokuts basket flares to eighteen inches across, a fit under the full circle of my arm, held on the pelvic bone. Against a field of amber-colored stitches, bands of red diamondbacks edged in black ring the flare, ending in a black chevron border and the unusual and delicate rim ticking. There is a pinpoint hole where the coil begins at the base. Otherwise the dense weave is watertight and meticulously even. Such baskets held acorns, acorn meal, or hot stones for cooking. In larger baskets mothers ferried their babies across rivers. A newborn would fit inside mine.
When I look at this basket, I do not know how it was made, but I know that the soul of the Sierra Nevada went into the weave.
The true heart of a place does not come in a week’s vacation. To know it well, as Mary Austin wrote, one must “wait its occasions” - follow full seasons and cycles, a retreating snowpack, a six year drought, a ponderosa pine eating up a porch. Wild mountains offer a promise of undomesticated life, even in so over domesticated a place as California, and by necessity and sheer numbers of nature-starved pilgrims, visits there must be brief. I was fortunate to be a transient with a longer tenure and a family imprint. Memory, however, can still ignite a consuming longing for those Sierra days of witless youth and enflamed senses. I still carry the land so deep in my bones that I cannot bear to go back.
Excerpts from The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy