Leonie Sherman
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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Love Story

If you’ve been up there, you’ve felt it. The magic of the alpenglow. The stillness of fresh fallen snow. Carpets of wild flowers every spring. Summer days filled with granite and bluebird skies reflected in alpine lakes. The spell of the Sierra.

I first felt it 25 years ago. Changed my career so I could pursue it. Devoted a thousand days and a thousand and one nights to exploring it. Tattooed it across my forearms. Wrote songs and articles about it. Started romances and friendships based on it. 

The Paiute felt it and visited summer camps on hallowed ground for millennia- as they continue to do today. John Muir felt it and convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to preserve Yosemite National Park. Norman Clyde felt it and put up wild first ascents. Mary Curry Tresidder felt it and built a backcountry ski hut still loved a century later. David Brower felt it and co-authored the Wilderness Act. Shelton Johnson felt it and brought the history of Buffalo Soldiers to international attention. Gary Snyder felt it and wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry. Tom Killion felt it and created stunning woodblock prints. Mary Austin felt it and wrote a classic book. 

Photo of Kim Stanley Robinson


Some of the best speculative fiction of the past thirty years has been inspired by the spell of the Sierra as well. In between writing award-winning best-selling novels, Kim Stanley Robinson has been exploring the range of light for five decades. He will publish his first non-fiction book, The High Sierra: A Love Story in May 2022. 

“I often struggle with the titles of my books,” Robinson told me recently. “This is one of the few times I have felt really great about the title and the sub-title of a book.”

Robinson’s 22 novels have been translated into 24 languages. They are New York Times bestsellers and have won over 20 awards since 1984. According to the New Yorker, Robinson is “generally acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest living science fiction writers.” 

The pandemic and a lifelong love affair steered him towards non-fiction. On March 19, 2020, he emerged from an 8-day Grand Canyon rafting trip into lockdown. “Shelter-in-place was the perfect writing retreat!” he exclaimed. 

“I’ve been thinking about this Sierra book for at least 30 years,” he mused. “This Sierra effect, it’s been such a major feeling in my life, I didn’t want to avoid it any longer. I wanted to try and express what the mountains meant to me and why, why do you get the Sierra effect, and could it be written?”

After devoting almost two years to the project, he’s still not sure. “I have this lurking feeling that I somehow missed, there’s something on the tip of my tongue, or behind the back of my head, that I didn’t manage to get into the book,” he said. 

“I had to give up on that feeling, it’s not going to go away,” he admitted. “We talk about the inexpressible, the ineffable, and I’m thinking it’s a real thing. You can’t name it or expect to express it.” 

The spell of the Sierra can only be experienced, but The High Sierra: A Love Story, takes readers into the heart of the range. Part guidebook, part textbook, part biography and part memoir, its 536 pages are filled with poems, personal anecdotes, detailed maps, woodblock prints and satellite imagery. Robinson’s personal experience of the Sierra knits together chapters about geology, place names, gear suggestions, pocket biographies, hike recommendations and descriptions of wildlife. Sci-fi fans, Sierra lovers and complete newcomers will find love and learn something new in its pages. 

Kim Stanley Robinson's new book jacket

“Writing the memoir part was a little nerve-wracking,” he explained. “I’ve gotten comfortable with novels, I’m never there, my characters are never me, I always get to have a mask on, I’m always behind the scenes. And of course, this book isn’t just about me, it’s about my friends Terry Bauer and Michael Blumlein. Getting all the parts into balance was quite a challenging formal problem.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge he faced was philosophical. “Is it really a good idea to tell people to go up to the Sierra?” he asked. “Yosemite and Mammoth are already so heavily impacted they’re like sacrifice zones, and the John Muir Trail is suffering the same fate.” Despite these concerns he decided the benefits of inviting people to visit the High Sierra outweigh the risks.

“There are people who have never even had one wilderness experience, who have to imagine it. And if you have to imagine it, you’re not going to get it,” he said. “These folks are not quite connected to reality. It’s amazing, really, these highly intelligent primates conquered the world, and now spend most of their time living in boxes and staring at screens. It’s like a mass hallucination, a cultural insanity. We need to be connected to the planet, we need to get out there.”

“We need to have an open invitation to every living thing to get into the wild,” he continued. “I’m thinking of Antarctica, that’s a highly packaged, managed experience but every single person who goes, it blows their mind and they come back an advocate.”

“Most wild places aren’t that extreme, the effect isn’t so much like a sledgehammer to the head,” he admitted. “But there is something beguiling and charismatic about the High Sierra.”

Robinson reckons that exploring the High Sierra can alter the course of lives. “If you can get people to go up there, spend at least two nights, fumble around and come back out together, I reckon about a quarter of the people who try that, it will hit them the right way,” Robinson explained. “If it hits them while they’re young, their lives will be fundamentally changed.”

As he reflects on a lifetime of Sierra wandering, gratitude overwhelms him. “The High Sierra have been an incredible blessing for my whole life,” he explained. “I love it all- the insomnia, the bushwhacking, the talus slopes. I’ve gotten more and more appreciative.”

Mixed in with the gratitude is fear. “I’m scared to death about the future of the Sierra,” he admitted. “I was up there last summer and it’s so desiccated, the glaciers at the top of Deadman Canyon are gone. I have a sense of terror about the future for these mountains.”

Speaking at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference inspired that same mix of gratitude and terror. “Glasgow was awesome, definitely the most intense 12 days of my life as a public intellectual,” he recounted. “Instead of an observer I was part of the party.”

“It’s a great process, all the major players are there, but it’s too slow,” he explained. “Because every nation has to agree to every statement, statements are cautious and moderated. If we had 30 years, the process would be adequate to make the transition to a more sustainable world. But we only have 10 years.”

Participating in Glasgow forced Robinson to confront the limitations of bureaucracy and the importance of individual action, themes he often explores in his novels. “It comes back to us. You can’t actually say industry will change and the diplomats will take care of this for us. Each person is going to have to take action as they can. And it’s an open question: can people of the world pressure their governments to the point where they do more than they would otherwise? ” He paused. “It’s inspiring and frightening. Everything is getting great but scary.”

The spell of the Sierra gave Robinson the grounding and energy to write game-changing novels and this spectacular non-fiction debut. But enjoying the sublime is no longer enough. 

“As users and citizens, we’ve got to speak for government, for wilderness protection, for public land,” he said. “There is so much anti-government sentiment right now, we have to talk about the commons. We have to be complete ambassadors for the world.”


Read Leonie Sherman’s book review of KRS’s Ministry for the Future