TEN MILLION YEARS AGO, a massive block of the earth’s crust ripped through the surface as it tilted to the west. Rivers cut deep ravines on both sides of the new mountain range. Lava boiled up and then flowed down into canyons which over millennia, eroded to leave high plains along the ancient river channels.
Still, the gods were not done sculpting. Glaciers carved out crescent-shaped gorges throughout the range. Working in unison, river and glacier exposed the uppermost portions of the plutons forming the Sierra’s crest.
Long before Garcí Ordóñez de Montalvo dreamed of gilded Amazons, or the Franciscan missionary and chronicler Pedro Font, named the serrated peaks ‘Sierra Nevada’, the mountains were home to America’s native peoples. In Yokut lore, the birth of the peaks is explained:
There was once a time in the world when nothing existed but water. At the place where Lake Tulare is now, a pole stood far out of the water. This pole provided a perch for Hawk and Crow.
First, Hawk would rest on the pole for a while, then Crow would knock him off and sit on it. Thus, they took turns sitting on the pole above the water for a very long time. At last, they created the birds which prey on fish; Kingfisher, Eagle, Pelican, and others. They also created Duck. Duck was very small, but she dived to the bottom of the water, filled her beak with mud, and then died when trying to return from the depths. Duck floated on the water, lying dead. Then Hawk and Crow took the mud from Duck’s beak and began making the mountains.
They began at the place now known as Ta-hi-cha-pa Pass, with Hawk building the eastern range and Crow forming the west one. They tamped the mud down hard into the water and piled it high, working toward the north. Finally, Hawk and Crow met at the place we call Mount Shasta. Their work was done, but when they looked at their mountains, Crow’s range was by far larger than Hawk’s.
Hawk said to Crow, “How did this happen, you rascal? You have been stealing earth from my bill. That is why your mountains are biggest.”
Crow laughed at Hawk.
Then Hawk chewed some Indian tobacco and it made him wise. At once he took hold of the mountains and turned them around almost in a circle, putting his smaller range where Crow’s had been. And that is why the Sierra Nevada Range is larger than the Coastal Range.