Steele, a retired forest ranger and naturalist at Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming, then had me eat a few pine needles and kneel in the snow to see whether a squirrel caused the micro tracks. It was a veritable John Muir experience.
As an avid outdoorsman, I always knew there was beauty in nature's details. That's not necessarily a strength for me — I'm more a big-picture guy — but now I was embarking on a trip that required that perspective Steele introduced me to that day in Wyoming.
I spent a month crisscrossing California, exploring four natural landscapes identified as potential national monuments.
My journey took me to the Bodie Hills, northeast of Lee Vining; Berryessa-Snow Mountain, an hour north of San Francisco; an expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which straddles the California- Oregon border near the Klamath River; and Modoc Plateau, tucked in California's upper-eastern corner.
California is blessed with an abundance of natural — and obvious — beauty. It's easy enough to see and get to Yosemite, Death Valley or Joshua Tree. They're so accessible, in fact, that nearly 6 million people explored those national parks in 2009.
The four California places I visited were a bigger challenge to reach. Their remoteness meant I would drive hundreds of miles across deserted rutted roads and rely on my instincts to navigate in the absence of any signs.
Proudly wearing my CSI badge (that's Critter Scene Investigator) and toting camping and camera gear, I set off to explore the four and was rewarded with a new understanding of the subtle beauty that comes from understanding these massive landscapes a few square feet at a time.
To the untrained eye (read: everyone who blows by the Bodie Hills at 70 mph on U.S. 395) the landscape may appear desolate, a terrain covered in low-lying scrub, crossed by dirt roads and pocked with abandoned mines.
Most of the vast Bodie Hills, about 25 miles from Lee Vining, is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. But the world-renowned ghost town of Bodie, which is what attracts the crowds, is a sliver of land managed by California State Parks.
I had seen the landscape as a lad, but I wanted to see it again through adult eyes, so I met up with Drew Foster, a local botanist and volunteer for Friends of the Inyo, an environmental group dedicated to Inyo National Forest and the surrounding region. I wanted to get beyond the crowds and into the hills and see what was here.
"I really get excited about small things," Foster said as we drove past another meadow drenched with wildflowers. "This area is filled with small things. It's really a micro-landscape and then you look up and there are views of the Sierra to the west."
We turned onto a scarred dirt road and drove a few miles before stopping to hike. Foster couldn't walk more than 50 feet without bending down to inspect a flower the size of a dime or watch a wandering butterfly. Soon the slow nature of the hike had me in a downward-gazing trance and ignoring the impressive views behind us.
I spent the next two days exploring the hills on foot and by car. The land was mostly open — the only real trees were patches of aspens near small creeks and springs — and the rolling landscape gave the impression that the land had been shaken out like a bed sheet, only to be frozen in mid-shake.
The dirt was dry and hard-packed against my boots as I walked along deserted roads. Pockets of wildflowers added color to the yellow-brown scrub. Exploring the hills I saw only three other cars in my two days and never ran into anyone on foot.
This place wasn't about destination hikes that lead to impressive waterfalls or alpine lakes. Instead, the hike is the destination. It was about uncovering tidbits of information explaining why, for instance, shallow lakes may slowly change into a marsh (sediment filling the lake may be one reason) or why a flower the size of a fingernail is important to the local ecology. There are grand views of the snowcapped Sierra, of course, but, for me, the subtleties held me in their thrall.
After Bodie I drove to Davis to meet up with Bob Schneider, a former climber and senior policy director at Tuleyome, an environmental organization based in Woodland, Calif.
The Berryessa-Snow Mountain region, an hour north of the Bay Area and two hours west of Sacramento, is a patchwork of BLM, National Forest, Fish and Game, and privately owned land that make up this half-million-acre region.
I wanted to see this region from top to bottom, so I spent four days exploring the folded landscape crossing dirt roads, two-lane highways and camping along the way. In spring, the hills are usually covered with a fresh green mantle, but the hot summer had turned the grasslands a golden hue.
Stretching nearly 100 miles along the coastal range, the area is filled with Forest Service and BLM campsites — usually no hookups and sometimes no water — swimming holes, off-highway-vehicle trails and glassy lakes. There are abundant recreational opportunities, but the landscape usually remains quiet.
"We sometimes call this the undiscovered landscape," Schneider said, as we rested at an overlook atop Lake Berryessa, shimmering in the sun one morning during a short hike. "The reality is if we don't do something to save it, it will go away."
Schneider elaborated on the region's biodiversity, which includes herds of Tule elk, one of the four remaining subspecies of elk in North America and three subspecies in California. They're often visible in the meadow west of Cowboy Camp near California Highway 16 during winter and spring.
Later standing atop 3,655-foot Goat Mountain (which Schneider insisted I summit), I took in the view of California's vast coastal range as it must have looked for thousands of years. Roads were hidden, towns were obscured and all that stood in front of me were the silhouettes of folded ridgelines extending deep into the horizon.
In a state filled with people and sprawling concrete jungles, I was elated to know untouched land still exists so close to some of the people who need it the most.
I was at a dead stop in the middle of nowhere, and my guide, Laurel Sutherlin from KS Wild, an Ashland, Ore., environmental group, was pounding the steering wheel with excitement.
We'd been driving down a one-lane dirt road flanked by a thick mixed-conifer forest and swarms of butterflies when a mountain lion darted across the road. Sutherlin slammed on the brakes, skidding and kicking up a cloud of dust.
"Oh my God, did you see that?" he shouted. "That was my first mountain lion!"
The large cats are hard to spot and even though he knew the regions where they're seen, they had eluded him until today.
We were exploring the Cascade Siskiyou Crest, a dramatic east-to-west ridgeline that straddles the California and Oregon border in one of the state's most remote and hard-to-access regions.
At night while camping along the crest, I watched thunderstorms and sunsets play across the sky. On the second day I went for a low-key, five-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail to the summit of 6,969-foot Red Mountain, a serpentine mountain formation locked between two granite peaks less than five miles away.
The red-rock summit and 360-degree view were spectacular. Mt. Shasta hung in the air to the east and the dramatic, folded geography of the Klamath National Forest stretched out before me to the south.
I had seen its beauty in summer, but I realized that the nuances of nature meant I had to come back again and again to see how the seasons worked their magic on this place.
The last stop was the Modoc Plateau, a landscape locked in the Wild West of the early 1900s.
About 3 million acres could be protected if the area attains monument status, but I devoted my time to the 1.6- million-acre Modoc National Forest, on the northern edge of the potential monument.
I camped two nights in the Warner Mountains and spent a day driving around the mountains and plateau with Modoc public affairs officer Jim Gumm and recreation officer Jessie Berner.
From the air-conditioned comfort of their SUV, we drove dirt roads flanked by juniper forests and man-made marshlands used by migrating birds. Gumm explained that the juniper trees were taking over the ecosystem and how that damaged the region's diverse sagebrush steppe ecosystem.
Gumm and Berner both highlighted the forest's ability to provide a true wilderness experience, but in the end it was the night sky that really stood out.
Sitting at my campsite after the fire died down, the blackened sky opened into a blanket of shimmering stars and a Milky Way so dramatic I felt as though I could almost touch it.
Swilling a beer and resting my feet, I reflected on the last month. I covered 3,500 miles, hiked nearly 100, spent almost every night under the stars and explored millions of acres of land. In today's hyperactive outdoor recreation environment, I realized that slowing down to a crawl can make the small beauty of a single wildflower transcend all the grandeur of the Yosemite Valley.