The photography students are up well before dawn, their tripods planted firmly in the dirt, lenses trained on a landscape the students cannot yet see. The sky is black, but their teacher explains that with the earliest seep of light, the sky will flush deep blue. Against it, the still-black mountains will sharpen in relief. The light will change every second, and so will the artistic possibilities. By so closely watching the sun’s rise here with an expert, the students will gain far more insight into the Sierra than they might have acquired on their own.
Such intimate knowledge of a place is best learned in classes, conservation projects, or celebrations and festivals that gather people from all over the world. Sierra locals share their knowledge by teaching, guiding, hosting volunteer days, organizing festivals and selling goods they’ve grown or made themselves. For example, bicycle clubs share their favorite rides in organized tours in Mt. Lassen, Lake Tahoe, the Eastern Sierra, and Indian Valley; trail restoration projects give people a chance go deep into the backcountry and improve eroding trails; animal and bird habitat restoration reveal how interconnected everything is in the ecosystem; festivals celebrate the region’s ethnic diversity, which includes Basque, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese and more. One festival commemorates America’s first downhill ski races, organized by gold miners. Others celebrate animals, including mules in Bishop, jumping frogs in Calaveras, and camels in Virginia City, Nevada.
Locals are the most knowledgeable guides to their home territory. Helping them to preserve and celebrate it is a great way to enjoy a place.