Opinion

Take a good look at the mountains – before they disappear behind a curtain of smog

The snow-covered Kaweah Range of the Sierra Nevada looms over the foothills and Kaweah River near Woodlake on Tuesday.
The snow-covered Kaweah Range of the Sierra Nevada looms over the foothills and Kaweah River near Woodlake on Tuesday. jwalker@fresnobee.com

For a week or two every year, Fresno transforms into a mountain city. Or more precisely, a city tucked up against one of the world’s great mountain ranges.

Doubt me? Just step outside, find an unobstructed view looking east and see for yourself. The peaks, ridges and river drainages of the Sierra Nevada, all glistening with freshly fallen snow, are inescapable.

If your eyes are anything like mine, they can’t get enough. I covet these rare, clear days when so much of John Muir’s Range of Light is visible from the central San Joaquin Valley floor.

“It just makes everything seem clean and refreshed,” said Julie Buchert, co-owner of Kings River Expeditions. “When the air is crystal clear, it literally makes you stop and look.”

What exactly are we seeing? Gazing north, the obvious snow-covered hump is Shuteye Ridge – and behind that the Clark Range of Yosemite National Park. Moving south, the deep gorge is the San Joaquin River drainage with Kaiser Ridge and Kaiser Peak rising above it, followed by the peaks of the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. The next obvious landmark is Mount Goddard, a solitary pyramid that can be seen peeking out from behind two ridges.

South of Goddard rise the peaks of the Kings River drainage (Mount Gardiner and Mount Brewer are the most prominent) and then the Great Western Divide, which separates Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Beyond that, as captured beautifully last week in a front-page photo by The Bee’s John Walker, sit the Kaweah Peaks Ridge, Alta Peak and the mountains of Mineral King, of which Sawtooth Peak is the most distinctive.

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The snow-cloaked Sierra range looms over Orosi’s Crusaders of the Divine Church of Christ and its crown-topped tower and surrounding orange groves, Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 16, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Gawk while you can. Because it won’t be long before they all disappear behind a curtain of smog and many of us forget about their very existence.

Such is the unfortunate reality, thanks to the Valley’s bowl-shaped topography and horrific air pollution.

But what if it wasn’t like that? What if the mountains were visible all year instead of only briefly after a storm passes through? Would Fresnans feel more pride about where they live? Would there be a greater, deeper connection to the natural world?

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Fresno Bee file image of the downtown Fresno skyline seen below snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains and clouds along the foothills in December 2009. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

And how would outsiders feel differently about Fresno? Instead of an ag town with scorching summers, maybe we’d be a destination city for outdoor recreation, a la Denver. Which doesn’t sit any closer to the Rockies than Fresno does to the Sierra Nevada.

Sure, this is all conjecture. But it seems reasonable to assume that if we could see the mountains on a regular basis they’d occupy a larger part of our collective consciousness.

“I think people would be more active and more fired up to be outside,” said Chris Casado, a backpacking enthusiast who founded the Trans-Sierra Xtreme Challenge. “Out of sight, out of mind, know what I mean?”

Valley natives and longtime residents tell me it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early ‘80s that our air pollution got so bad that the Sierra Nevada vanished from view.

I’m sure glad it wasn’t like that in the 1880s, when a 14-year-old kid from San Francisco visited his uncle’s cattle farm near Selma. Theodore Solomons was enthralled by the mountains. He would imagine himself scaling peaks and hiking along ridgetops.

Those visits led to Solomons’ grand vision of establishing a route that paralleled the Sierra crest between Yosemite and Mount Whitney, which he accomplished and mapped in the 1890s. Today that route is known as the John Muir Trail.

How many potential Solomons were never allowed to have their imaginations soar because of smog? I can only wonder.

Smoke from a Northern California wildfire and Fourth of July fireworks adds to existing air quality and breathing challenges in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Likewise, I can only wonder what Fresno and the Valley would be like if only clean-burning cars and trucks zoomed up and down our streets and freeways. If more farmers employed whole orchard recycling instead of setting fire to burn piles. If more restaurants filtered their char broilers. If more people didn’t throw a log in their fireplaces whenever temperatures dipped into the 50s, and instead just put on a sweater.

Not only would this be a healthier place to live – just ask any asthma sufferer, of which there are plenty – but a prettier one, too. A place we’d all have more pride in.

Something to think about while you’re waiting at a stoplight, heading east, and gazing at the majestic Sierra Nevada. Just do it soon. Because in a day or two it’ll be out of sight, out of mind.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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