In Their Element | Mike Peach

Some moments in life stick with us, imparting vivid memories of places, encounters and feelings that forever imprint on our soul. These experiences often shape our lives and provide comfort in times of need. As an outdoor enthusiast and seasoned adventure guide, I’ve had many such experiences. But one stands out above the rest.

Hiking staffs make miserable crutches. I learned this the hard way my junior year of college. A solo hike to Sequoia National Park’s Bearpaw Meadow had seemed the perfect Spring Break adventure. However, one overloaded pack and blown out knee later, the romance of the wild was waning.

I must have looked a pitiful sight setting up camp. As I hobbled around, a park ranger approached and explained that bears had upset a nearby site the night before. He gave the typical warnings, reminding me not to leave any food in my tent. My youthful self nodded and carried on with tent adjustments in between bites of a chocolate bar.

Too tired to fix dinner, I collapsed across my sleeping bag in hope that a short rest would calm my throbbing knee. When I reopened my eyes, it was dark.

The wind was blowing in my dream, and as I blinked awake, the sound continued. Yet, there was no breeze. As I sat listening, a low grunt came from outside. It did not take long to realize that the “breeze” was a bear licking chocolate residue off the tent fabric… just a few inches from my ear!

I broke into cold sweat, and as my fingers nervously crinkled the empty wrapper by my side, I scarcely dared to breathe. Outside, a second bear could be heard investigating my pack. After what seemed like an eternity, they both ambled away. I quickly burned the candy wrapper and then returned to the tent, twitching at every forest sound until exhaustion overcame me.

The next morning, I broke course and took a four-mile detour up to Hamilton Lake, hoping that soaking my knee in the frigid water might provide relief. The lake was breathtakingly beautiful. Clouds clung to the jagged granite peaks of Valhalla beneath a blue vault of sky, the entire scene captured in reflection across the water’s glass surface.

Looking down onto Hamilton Lake and across at Valhalla's granite wall in Sequoia National Park

Mountains reflect across Hamilton Lake in Sequoia National Park

I ran out of daylight trying to get back on schedule and spent the night huddled in my sleeping bag beside the trail. Despite the resulting discomfort, the detour remains one of the most soul-sustaining decisions I’ve ever made. To this day, the memory of Hamilton Lake has the power to dispel darkness and fill my heart with joy.

The following day, I pitched my tent at Lodgepole Campground and hobbled into a grove of giant trees to meditate in thankful pause. As I emerged from the trees, a bearded, white-haired gentleman was standing in the trail. He was bent over, intently examining something on the ground, and straightened as I approached.

Sunlight streams through giant sequoias onto the forest floor in Sequoia National Park

“I was just admiring this leaf,” he said. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” A conversation ensued as we strolled along the trail. His name was Salvatore Terranova, and he lived with his wife in Chicago. “Any time my work brings me within a hundred miles of this place, I come here. It always brings me such peace.”

Sal and I met for breakfast the next morning and took a short hike on another of his favorite trails. He was immensely likable and took obvious delight in sharing his favorite views. He shared insights he’d gained over six decades of life, and in return, I confided fears about shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood.

“Everyone has doubts,” he explained. Sal believed that we are given life as an opportunity to try to make the world a better place. “If we have the courage to face our challenges and live life one day at a time, a higher purpose may be revealed to us.”

Alta Peak rises above the forest along the trail to Tokopah falls, Sequoia National Park

After we parted company, I never saw Sal again. I think of him and our chance encounter often, though. In retrospect, it seems as if he was waiting for me on that trail. There is a saying, often attributed to Buddha, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

For me, Sal was one of those teachers. Our exchange of stories ignited a passion in me that would shape my career: there is an art to storytelling, and by pure serendipity, I was shown to have a knack for it. Forty years later, I remain an interpreter of the cultural and natural resources of the places I call home.

The highest purpose of a guide is to help others experience a connection with the natural world. When we connect with nature, we learn about our interdependence and can better express our own humanity. Emotion and intellect fuse, tethering memories to a specific time and place. Remembering these moments reawakens the connections, once again imbuing us with awe and wonder. My memories of Bearpaw Meadow, Hamilton Lake and Sal have done this for a lifetime.

A man sits in a cave above a ladder at Bandelier National Monument and stands at canyon overlook

A guide’s interactions are like ripples in a pond. We share stories that honor the contributions of those who have come before, hoping to inspire others to do the same. Together, in concert, we strive to make the world a better place. Sal may not know the influence he had on me that day, but I like to think he would be proud.