I saw some old friends in Yosemite last week. And made a few new ones.
I hadn’t really expected so much human contact. Sure, I knew there would be bus after bus of Asian tourists, day and night. Probably lots of avid hikers and climbers, clomping around the cafeteria with their big boots and ropes, and racing past me on the trail. And the happy noisy groups of school kids studying native Americans and geology and counting fish in the Merced River – didn’t bother me much.
My intention had been to get away from people. Which really wasn’t that hard. Sure, 4 million people visit this national park each year, but it’s a big place and a steep place. On several popular trails I walked for miles without passing another soul. My plan was for silent communing with massive cliffs and meditative hiking to distant waterfalls, and my hopes were met. One day we drove up to the remote high country and over the 10,000 ft. Tioga Pass, open only half the year. Ours was one of the few cars on the road.
John Muir often called Yosemite a temple, a cathedral, a holy place. Indeed one huge arched rock formation opposite Half Dome is called Cathedral Arch. Yosemite Valley can feel like a giant cathedral, sacred and solemn, high soaring stone, another world, a place to leave behind mundane concerns and stand in awe.
And like many cathedrals these days, it can seem empty. Or so big that even a congregation or a tour group only fills part of its vast space.
But it’s never completely empty of human presence or history. In Yosemite, as in many an ancient cathedral, one can feel the spirits of past residents and guardians of the place, those who in centuries past have wandered and wondered and just plain worked in this temple.
One group of old friends I met again were those past guardians I have written of in here for the past five weeks. I surely saw the old tramp John Muir on the trail, one of many grizzled hikers whom I imagine spend much of their lives there. I actually did see the spot where he camped with president Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 and together they “talked forest good.”
When we drove up to Tuolome Meadows near the Pate Valley I could imagine there the young Gary Snyder, working on a summer road crew to build the Tioga Pass Road. There he felt the spirits of the ancient Ahwahnechee and their original trails, built with no need for blasting dynamite, and he wrote the poem, “Pate Valley.”
I had read how Ansel Adams tried to stop the government from opening up access to this wilderness, from paving this high country paradise, but I had to admit I appreciated the ease now of driving to 10,000 ft. But the wilderness is still in charge. Thanks, Ansel, old friend, for your fierce advocacy for wilderness. And for your creative eye and camera. Your descendents were there in full force, photographers and painters, at dawn, at sunset, alone and in classes sponsored by your gallery, quietly trying to create more sacred icons of this temple.
Two old friends I hadn’t expected to see in Yosemite were Mark Liebenow and Phil Frank. Mark should be familiar to Back Road Café readers; he is an old friend of Dale’s, and an acquaintance of mine from graduate school days. I had sort of looked at his writings here at the Café, but obviously not too closely. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been surprised to find his fantastic book, Mountains of Light, in a prominent place in the Yosemite bookstore. It’s an award winning account of his many visits, many months at Yosemite in all seasons, deep reflections on nature and grief and surprise.
I had been secretly praising myself after hiking the 8 mile Panorama Trail from Granite Point down past three waterfalls to the Valley. Then I stood there in the bookstore transfixed by Mark’s account of hiking that same trail in winter. And going up the waterfall trails, not down. And how he had planned to do a big loop, but got lost in the snow and had to backtrack and turn back in the freezing dark. That tale was worth the purchase of the book. Better writing than anything I’ve done here about Yosemite, or much else. Thanks, Mark.
And in the same bookstore I re-met another old friend, Phil Frank, the late San Francisco Chronicle comic strip artist whose pointed and political and hilarious strip “Farley” featured acculturated bears Hilda and Alphonse who summer in Yosemite feeding off tourist cars and hotel dumpsters and winter in San Francisco. Also urban camper Velma Melmak who daily vacuums and bug sprays her campsite. And a host of other odd characters. I bought his collection “Fur and Loathing in Yosemite” and it took me right back to the 70’s and 80’s, a simpler time when California was more free spirited and less corporate, and when a younger me looked forward every day to that strip. Hello again, old friend.
I could go on about old friends and new. Faithful readers of this column know I love cemeteries. On all my previous trips I had never discovered the pilgrim cemetery at Yosemite, but one day I spent a quiet hour there. The rough graves of Indians, the marker for a young waitress who drowned in the Merced River in 1901, the Polish immigrant who came looking for gold and lived out his days there building trails, the beloved ranger who raised his family there and his son is now a ranger – these and many more new friends.
Ok, one last set of new friends. Two hikers on the Panorama Trail, one of the very few I saw, a very fit young couple with good equipment. We met at a trail intersection, contemplating the sign; they were speaking French. From Montreal it turned out, their second fall in a row spent hiking here, way back and way high. I tried my bad French with them, we shared tales of Yosemite. They said they were leaving that day, but had three open days til returning to Canada. Did I recommend Monterey, where they had never been there? Of course I did, and offered to show them free around the Aquarium where I am a volunteer guide. We parted on the trail, and then later in the day I ran into them again at the top of Nevada Falls. As they walked toward me out of the woods I threw out my arms and shouted,
I liked seeing my old friends the rocks and falls, but my old and new human friends were a treat also. Thanks, Yosemite.
Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter