…When the day ended and darkness fell, Thomas walked away from the wagon train and into the wilderness, headed south with a vague notion of going to Mexico, with nothing on his person but the clothes on his back, the knife on his belt and, in his satchel, a flint, a small package of hardtack and dried beef, and his father’s edition of Lyell’s Principles of Geology.
Through the night and the next day he walked, seeing not a trace of humanity and scant signs of wildlife. The next evening he found himself standing atop a high hill overlooking a desolate valley.
Close to the west, a range of snow-tipped mountains rose like the ramparts of a citadel. At the valley’s south end lay a shallow marsh fed by snowmelt, mostly dried up from the long summer’s heat, miles of alkali flats left in the ebb. The mountain shadows were growing long across the valley floor. The desert heat was cooling rapidly as the sky began to shift into the loveliest, most vivid palette he had ever seen—a parasol of pastels over hills turning tangerine and deep saffron, the mountains tinted cornflower-blue and violet. He gathered enough deadfall and brush for a small fire and, after a light supper, nestled down beside a low wall of stone he built to hold the fire’s heat. After reading a chapter of Lyell by firelight, he slept, with moonlight for his blanket and a stone for his pillow.
He spent three days alone on the summit—reading, thinking, remembering his father, considering his future, weighing his options, taking in the view. On the fourth morning, the fire had gone cold in the night. The scant supply of brush and wood on the summit was exhausted, as was his meager store of food. But looking out over the valley, he judged it to be the most beautiful place he had ever seen. The assessment was, he knew, due in no small part to the fact that he, Thomas Thornton Hale, was the only person in the valley. He had never enjoyed the luxury of having even the smallest corner of earth he could call his own. He and his father had shared the bedroom of their two-room cabin. On the wagon trail, a person had to venture over a hill or around a stand of trees for any privacy from fellow travelers. He looked around him that morning, from the rocks at his feet to the far horizons, and he said—“My hill.” He said it to himself and to the land and to the sky—“My hill. My valley. My world.”
There was no one there to dispute his claim. And so it was so.
He wanted to memorialize the moment and the place, but there was nothing resembling a flag or stake to plant in the ground. He had burned all of the loose wood. Other than rocks and scattered scrub, the only thing of substance left nearby was a barely living, severely torqued tree—an ancient bristlecone pine, wide at its base, with stunted arms and spindly fingers reaching for the sky, a few clusters of needles still surviving in the branches, roots clinging tenaciously to the back side of the summit. Other than a narrow strip of bark running up one side, the twisted torso and limbs were all but denuded, the exposed wood blanched white and polished smooth and hard as stone by the elements. Thomas carved his initials and the date into the trunk with his knife.
Having left his mark, he wanted something of the place to take with him. Over the past days, he had noticed a long thin vein of reddish quartz, not more than a few inches wide, cutting diagonally across the summit like a scar, exposed between the upended layers of porphyritic strata. Scattered pieces of the quartz had broken off at the surface. He chose one the size of a dove’s egg and put it in his pocket.
He was ready to rejoin civilization. There were things he needed to do before he could return to the valley….