Reflections on Labor Day from Desolation Wilderness

With the weekend festivities having come to a close, looking back, Labor Day really is a curious holiday. In comparison, Independence Day celebrates the birth of a nation, Memorial Day commemorates those who fought for our freedom, and Martin Luther King Day celebrates one of the greatest civil rights activists this nation (and world) has ever seen.

How many Americans, however, can give a definitive answer as to why we celebrate Labor Day? A holiday which has questionably lost sight of its original meaning (much like chocolate bunnies being associated with Easter), Labor Day in modern terms seems to translate into BBQ, boating, and the start of college football season, which don’t get me wrong, are all great things.

Somewhere between the third bratwurst and the fourth beer, however, I doubt very many of us take that moment to pause and reflect on what we’re actually celebrating. First signed into law as a national holiday by President Cleveland in 1894, it’s a day meant to honor and reflect upon that tireless bastion of success and freedom, the everyday American worker.

So this past Labor Day, in order to properly reflect on this, I knew I was going to have to remove myself from the social atmosphere, lest my reasoning be skewed by the ambiguous merriment. No BBQ. No beers. No boats. I was going to have to go someplace I could actually hear my thoughts.

Living on the shores of California’s Lake Tahoe, the swollen lakeshore that consistently drowns under inflatable rafts and EZ-up tents was not going to be the place. I needed somewhere removed from the crowds and the usual scene; somewhere where Labor Day was still just called Monday.

Somewhere, like Desolation Wilderness.

One of the West’s truly wild places, the name alone screams of empty solitude. 64,000 acres of glacially formed lakes and craggy granite peaks, it’s one of the few remaining areas you can still find the endangered sound of silence.

Grabbing an old pair of hiking boots, three bottles of water, and a hopefully unnecessary can of bear mace, I amble off down a Desolation Wilderness trailhead ready to get back to nature and properly ruminate on the concept of work.

About a mile up the trail on a scree filled switchback overlooking Fallen Leaf Lake, my gaze to the horizon is suddenly interrupted by a golden eagle gliding on the thin morning breeze. Above the rare predator, a commercial jet paints a long set of contrails across the gaping blue sky.

I think about the first settlers who walked amongst these hills, and wonder if they could ever have comprehended the speed with which we now travel. They arrived in this wilderness by wagon, train, horse, and steamboat, all willing to work towards achieving the American dream. A trip that once took weeks we now cover in hours, all thanks to hard working laborers on a factory room floor who piece together metal eagles that now race across the sky.

Taking a long quaff of water from my blue Nalgene, my eyes wander into the dense canopy of pine wrapping its way around the mountainside. Examining the thin dirt trail below, I reflect on the fact that even this stroll through the woods which I’m taking was at one point considered part of going to work. For the original Native American tribes who relied on this land to survive, a walk through the woods was all part of a greater task. Food, water, and shelter were all derived from these hills, and this mountainside high in the Sierra was all part of their greater office.

Startled by a loud knocking from above, I peer up the rotted trunk of a tree that’s in dire need of autumn rains. High atop the branches, a lone woodpecker repeatedly drives his face into the hard wood, which I realize, strangely enough, is all part of his line of work.

I realize that this far back in the forest the only sounds I hear are those of nature working all around me. The same sun that’s searing my shoulders is also melting the high mountain snows, in turn slowly feeding the stream I hear which has worked to carve this alpine canyon. Similarly, the spiderweb I walked through half a mile ago was the proud handiwork of an animal who has just seen his hard work instantly erased.

On a trek where I intended to leave labor behind, I instead find myself completely surrounded by it. I suddenly bask in the luxury of a day free of work, because as the forest has managed to bring to my attention, though we are all still a part of nature, nature isn’t given the luxury of rest. As strange as it all may seem, there is no Labor Day for woodpecker.