My family spent some time last week on the Sierra National Forest and in Yosemite National Park. Leading up to the trip, I had read about the multi-year drought in California and how the snow this past winter in the Sierra amounted to only six percent of the average. I knew things were going to be pretty dry.

But it wasn’t until I put boot on ground that it really hit me. I guess I’d never thought of “dry” as a sound, but it is. Every step was either a distinct crunch—a cracking, sharp crunch—or it kicked up a small cloud of dust. And this was in June!

On our first day, our sons wanted to explore along the easily accessible Merced River that winds through the Forest. They both were determined to find the perfect walking stick. Even within 25 yards of the water, the fallen limbs were bone dry, and when the boys went to break them into the right length, the sticks would basically shatter. Another “sound” of drought.

Snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, a mighty 400-mile long range that captures the moisture from the Pacific and stores it all winter long, is essential. The long, sloping east side is drained by two major rivers, the San Joaquin and the Sacramento (and several smaller), sending billions of precious gallons down to the Delta, to the Central Valley and to virtually every Californian there and beyond. Today, the levels are super low in rivers and reservoirs; the situation has been making major news all year.

In Yosemite National Park, I was surprised (and pleased) to see some water in the famed Yosemite Falls, a spectacular drop of 1,400 feet and one of the many iconic places in the Park. But it wasn’t the Falls of postcards and posters. It was more of a thin ribbon that hinted at their usual grandeur.

I learned a new sound: the sound of dry.

Though I grew up in watery, swampy Louisiana and live in plenty-moist Virginia now, I know the West is simply different. Snowpack and major forest lands slowly release the water to lower elevations that desperately need it. Stuff dries out faster. Forest fires are a perennial concern.

But, a hike off the Tioga Road made it all feel a lot MORE different. Everything just sort of crumbled in our hands. What small creeks we did cross looked lost in their channels. I found myself frequently thinking about fire, probably influenced by the several signs we saw along Highway 140: “Fire Danger Today: Extremely High.” The Forest Service is bracing for what could be a horrendous fire season. There were already a couple of small fires near us; though out of sight, we caught some whiffs of smoke.

When these sorts of places burn unnaturally, like they did in the Rim Fire in 2013, they lose a lot of their ecological function. The water doesn’t percolate and meander; it runs off faster and carries a lot more sediment with it (because the vegetation that literally holds the earth together is gone). The Rim Fire was the largest fire ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada, burning 178,000 acres of National Forest land and 79,000 acres of National Park land (in the backcountry of Yosemite), and it cost more than $100 million to extinguish. I kept thinking about a different kind of cost; that for years and decades to come, that quarter-million-acre swath won’t really be itself. It won’t harbor the same wildlife, hold water the same way or invite families in like it did before.

Forests do recover eventually. And the conservation measures being put in place plus efforts to protect unburned forests will help secure water supplies for a thirsty state. The Sierra is quite literally essential to the future of California.

Despite drought, heat, lots of dust and crunching across splintery sticks, we had a terrific family vacation. Even a diminished waterfall is lovely. Daniel, our seven-year-old, didn’t mind the dust one bit, though he was sort of bummed at not ever finding a great walking stick. Our trip made me thankful again for these public lands.

And I learned a new sound: the sound of dry.

National Forest Foundation