california life travels

Around Yosemite

15 August 2011


[Yosemite Valley from above, August 2011.]

It’s difficult to do justice to Yosemite through words though I can try — the waterfalls, especially this summer after an enormous snow fall and long spring, are spilling over in a mad torrent, crashing down into the valley and roaring in a blur of white and green past hikers toiling up alongside. The mountains stand as they have for centuries: still, tipped with gold at certain moments of the day, and almost too perfect to be real. In the back country little streams rush and hum, ferns droop low to touch the water, mosquitoes linger too long and will not depart even when swatted-at. Almost everywhere you turn there is a surprise: a bear sticking its nose into Lukens Lake, a shooting star falling through a Pleiades-flecked sky, the faint sweetness of smoke from a forest wildfire drifting through the air, the bluest afternoon sky at the base of Half Dome, the cleanest, whitest-gold sun.

I can write these things, but they feel thin; most of us know the feeling Yosemite and the high Sierra creates, and each of us has our own private experience of it, perhaps even too precious to articulate. We spent five days there — my brother, my sister-in-law, D, and I — and it never ceases to amaze me how easy it is, in the end, to leave everything behind. Existing without computer, bed (!), running water, or electricity, sleeping outside and waking with the sun (or, err, not), hiking miles up and down rocky trails every day carrying heavy packs, is to reduce life to its most elemental. Time pauses somehow, or at least eases and slows. When I am out there I believe I could stay, and happily so. I would not miss this more settled life; I think I would prefer one fashioned of rock and sky and sharp trees, the world spread out before me to be discovered at my leisure.

Now back in San Francisco, with the press of ‘normal’ daily life once again weighing down a bit, it feels surreal to remember what I was doing a week ago (hiking 18 miles up to Half Dome and back; filtering glacially cold water from mountain streams). I know I was there but — was I?

Instead of analyzing too much, I should just tell you about what we ate.


[Breakfast, Yosemite, August 2011.]

Mornings were usually: oatmeal with chopped apples, dried cranberries, a sprinkle of cashew nuts, nescafe with dried milk and sugar. We’d eat, clean the dishes, finish packing up and set off, stopping in an hour or so for a piece of fruit, an oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie, a granola bar. Lunch was, the first day, hummus and cheese and tomato on whole-wheat bread, with peanut butter and blackberry jam on bread for lunches the rest of of the time, probably more fruit, some trail mix, and whatever bits and pieces survived the smashing into the bear canisters every day that still looked good. Dinner was different each night, thanks to master planners Kurt and Emily: fried tofu with rice noodles, broccoli, and scallions the first; chili mac (the standard Annie’s shells and cheddar, essential to all backpacking trips in the Spiridakis tradition, mixed with vegetarian chili) the second; and brothy noodle soup and a couple of those reconstituted ‘backpacker meals’ the final night (hey — we were tired!). There were also an assortment of chocolate, little snacks, teas (and emergen-Cs) scattered throughout the days at whim.

You could probably argue we brought perhaps too much food but in the end ate nearly all of it, and nothing was sacrificed to bears, raccoons, or forgetfulness. Often we made campfires, and if not too tired sat up and watched the stars come out. We slept two nights next to fairly significant creeks — or, significant enough so their gurgles and rushes sang us to sleep. The last day we packed out and eventually made our way down to the valley for beer, tacos, and the end of the Giants game which they actually won, and recounted our adventures and tallied up minor injuries. Afterward we swam in the frigid Merced near the backpackers camp and went to bed earlyish to wake up at dawn for the long trek up to Half Dome (no cables for me this time, alas; fourth time was apparently not the charm) and back down the John Muir Trail from Nevada Falls to Happy Isles, thirsty and dust-spattered.


[Vernal Falls, August 2011.]

Yosemite basically puts almost everything to rights. It is clean air and the high mountains — lavender some times, grey-blue at others — rising behind Curry Village nearly close enough to touch and granite warmed by the summer sun. It is childhood and memory and climbing and hiking and sweat in your eyes. It is quiet. It reminds you to breathe even when it takes it away (the altitude gains, the sheer beauty of the place). It is the most gorgeous place on earth to me — magical, yet so solid and real that I only need picture it in my mind to be soothed.

In the back country it all fades away: Wedding planning, tired, stupid injury, deadlines, tasks, burn-out. And to be there with three of my most favorite people in the world was a gift. We are still young and childless for now, and I know how special this time was: to walk along for miles, singing — particularly when we saw the bear, to scare it away — or talking desultorily about whatever was on our minds, stopping to eat lunch and swim at the perfect expanse of flat rock along Yosemite Creek, to simply be together without worry or responsibility. I was slightly nervous I wouldn’t be able to handle it all due to the ongoing injury but it turned out to be exactly what I needed. I am still biding my time until I can run again, but it feels just a little bit less desperate (that and hiking all those miles was an enormous ego boost as well as a wake-up call to my muscles), and I am grateful. Sometimes maybe you have to force yourself over the worry, to push past and through.

As we left the valley, tired from the miles logged, dirty and a bit footsore but very happy, I peered round the last bend that takes you away and out, trying to imprint those mountains and trees in my mind. They are already lodged firmly in my heart — so far away now, with the clattering of cars outside my apartment the last sounds I hear as I go to sleep rather than the wind through the pine trees, I cannot help but wish to be back. Still — I know I will be, even if it’s an almost physical pain to not be there right now. The valley and the trails above wait for my returning, shining by early morning sunlight, by starlight, by the moon’s light. I always think of Yosemite as shining somehow, though its surfaces are battered by storm and sun and wear down and evolve each day that goes by. But yes: shining.

While it may be ‘too much’ to quote John Muir yet again I must, for his words still hold as true today as when he wrote them about this beloved spot. I half expected to see him coming down the trail to the Yosemite Falls overlook, the breeze tossing his beard over his shoulder and his feet set straight ahead of him as he ‘sauntered’ over the switchbacks. In his memory, the Yosemite: home, still and always.


Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad, whatever is done and suffered by her creatures. All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.

No dogma taught by the present civilization seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in the way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wildness as that which regards the world as made especially for the uses of man. Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged.

~ John Muir

  • Anne Zimmerman 18 August 2011 at 10:25 am

    This is like a mini-vacation in itself. Just what I needed — so beautiful.

  • emily 18 August 2011 at 8:44 am

    stunning photos – what a magical adventure! gave me the chills to read this and relive..

  • EB 16 August 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Never “too much” Muir. Though sometimes even his words fail. Such an amazing place. It really does have to be experienced.

  • denise (chez danisse) 16 August 2011 at 6:52 am

    Fountains of life, indeed.