By Dan Gordon
Some 3.5 million acres of hiking trails, lakes, canyons and breathtaking vistas lie south of Yosemite National Park and west of the Sierra Nevada crest, making up what’s commonly known as the Southern Sierras. Just a few hours by car but a world apart from the UCLA campus, it is where S. Thomas Carmichael, MD (FEL ’01), PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and his sons Chap and Grant have taken regular backpacking pilgrimages over the past 15 summers.
Away from the daily grind — and unable, even if he wanted to, to respond to any of the 300 or so emails he receives each day — Dr. Carmichael, a renowned brain scientist, looks deep into nature, recharges and then returns with renewed purpose to his task of climbing figurative rather than literal mountains.
As a clinician-scientist, Dr. Carmichael divides his time between caring for stroke patients and conducting research in the lab to unravel the mysteries of how the brain reconstitutes itself after a stroke, with the ultimate goal of translating those insights into medications that enhance the brain’s plasticity and ability to repair.
But those tasks seem distant when Dr. Carmichael climbs out of his tent on a chilly morning to begin his first day in the woods, soaking in the tranquility as he watches the sunrise. “I’m usually the first one up in the group, and for me, that’s the start of the full wilderness immersion,” he says. “I really enjoy that feeling of beginning, with the whole day in front of you.”
Backpacking is a family tradition for Dr. Carmichael, an activity that has been integral to the lives of his father, brothers, uncles and great uncles. He began taking his sons into the woods when they were 10 and 12 — Grant now is 24 and Chap is 26 — and it’s been a summer ritual ever since, most often to the Southern Sierras to minimize the time on the road, though the family has made it to Wyoming, Montana and Northern California as well.
The bonding on these trips occurs along several routes. “Walking on the trail, with the repetitive movement, frees the mind and gets you to talk a lot,” he says. “Then, working as a team to make camp and cook brings you together. You also tend to experience unexpected situations where you might be a little more open to certain conversations. When you’re on a mountaintop, sitting there looking over the ridgeline, you have a tendency to think more broadly.”
Beyond the opportunity to bond with his sons, Dr. Carmichael relishes the elemental nature of the experience. He remembers the “learning moment” on their first outing together when, walking downstream after assigning his youngest the task of filtering water, he watched as the water purification gear floated by. He jokes about catching and cooking trout at one of the high-altitude lakes — a process of casting, patiently waiting, reeling in, cleaning and cooking that, because the altitude keeps the fish small, typically yields a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre. He describes the ritual hoisting of the “bear bag” — the essential task of placing all yummy-smelling items out of the reach of bears for the night by tying twin ropes in opposing trees, so that the bag hangs high between them — as “a competition in accuracy, distance and arm skill.”
“When you’re backpacking, you’re dependent on your actions simply to exist, whether it’s catching a fish for dinner or making it that six miles to the next campsite,” Dr. Carmichael says. “It’s a parallel disconnection from everything else, where it’s impossible to have the trappings of modern life with you.” As for all those emails: “Normally, when you travel, people assume you’re still going to respond. But in this case, with no cell reception, I can’t even if I wanted to.”
Not surprisingly, this love affair with nature has fueled Dr. Carmichael’s passion for conservation. “The idea of treating wilderness areas and the environment as commodities is really dangerous and extremely outmoded,” he says. “We have to actively manage our lands — limiting roads, motorized vehicles and other things that degrade them.”
In his professional life, Dr. Carmichael’s research focus is driven by a tremendous unmet clinical need. Stroke is the leading cause of disability in adults, with no treatment capable of reversing the damage. “We can help with the plumbing — we can open a clot and get the blood in — but we can’t address patients’ deficits in any meaningful way,” he notes.
The pursuit is also scientifically compelling. “The mechanisms that the brain uses to recover are very similar to the mechanism it uses to wire itself as it develops,” Dr. Carmichael says. “Philosophically, it’s very interesting to consider reactivating a younger state of the brain as a means of getting it to recover and repair.”
When he’s not in the wilderness or at work, Dr. Carmichael can often be found running or mountain biking on trails in the brushy hills near his home. It’s during those activities that he tends to think about his research. “It’s almost like part of the brain disengages, and you can think more creatively during those experiences,” he says.
That’s not what happens in the serenity of the Southern Sierras and his other backcountry escapes. There, in a universe fully removed from everyday city life, Dr. Carmichael finds that rather than thinking about work, he clears his brain for better use when he returns. He likes to cite a quote from the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder: “Fields left fallow recover their fertility.”
Dan Gordon is a regular contributor to U Magazine.