There is no place so essentially Sierran as Yosemite Valley. Ansel Adams' photo, Clearing Winter Storm -- Bridalveil Falls and El Capitan in the snow, Half Dome obscured in cloud -- is arguably one of the most recognizable mountain pictures in the world, and an iconic symbol of our National Parks. Nature working as a sculptor in granite, falling water, forest and cloud, Yosemite is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Overrun with cars and admirers, all one need do is look up to lose them all.
Yosemite draws tourists and hikers from all over the world. It provided the spiritual awakening to a young John Muir, who went on to write with such authority and brilliance that he helped change our nation’s relation to wilderness, its preservation and the need for it in our own lives. Beauty can be transformative.
I balk at the crowds in the Valley but it doesn’t matter how many times I go back there, it’s always fresh to my eyes. The layering of the views, massif upon massif, beginning with the delicate introduction of Bridalveil Falls set across from the imposing stone ramparts of El Capitan, always seems a particularly perfect expression of nature's artistic abilities. But all this is but the prelude to the thundering explosion of Yosemite Falls that follows. This visual crescendo works us through the turns of the canyon to complete itself with the imposing presence of Half Dome at the far end, a wonder of compositional contrasts. Smooth, staid, watcher of the valley, exuding strength and peace on its south side. All of which is shattered on its broken northern face, the dome, gashed and exposed, split wide open by the glacier that originally carved the spectacle.
Yosemite will always be woven into the thread of my childhood with memories of watching the “fire fall” at nine o'clock on summer evenings in the 1950s. Much too Hollywood for today and certainly not needed, as if we could ever out do the grand experience of that place, it nonetheless is part of the history of our human incursion. Or returning in my late teens just in time to be part of the huge hippie parties at night in Stoneman Meadow. The name took on a whole new meaning. My apologies to the rangers who had to deal with the scene. Then years later having the door torn off our car when Katie and I took our infant daughter Sarah for her first trip to the mountains. I had been very careful to take all food out of the car one evening when we stayed at Curry Village, but stupidly left her baby backpack on the back seat. That night a bear ripped open 5 cars in the parking lot. Mine for that backpack, the one next to it for a box of scented Kleenex. Yosemite!
Three years ago, Yoshihiro Murakami, a Japanese professor of Educational Psychology and an avid backpacker in Japan, came to the Sierra to see Yosemite and hike the John Muir Trail. He’s been back every summer since to do it again. Along with the unparalleled scenery, the High Sierra has the most benign summer weather of any major mountain range in the world. Backpacking in Japan is often extremely dangerous, not due to the terrain which is tough, but because of the weather which can change violently in a matter of minutes, and is the cause of many backcountry deaths every year.
I got to know Yoshihiro thru the PCT List, the email forum on which many of us Pacific Crest Trail hikers communicate, and enjoyed his intelligent “professorial” insight, and great sense of humor for nearly two years by email. He told me of a recent study in Japan that found measurable and marked changes when kids are taken camping. Most notably, their IQ increases over the duration of the trip, and continues to go up for several months. Also, they gain a greater sense of personal and emotional strength. I’m paraphrasing from a conversation in limited English, but it echoed our experience of Sarah going away to Girl Scout Camp each summer when she was little. She came home so much more sure of herself. Katie and I noted this to each other yearly.
This year Yoshihiro mentioned he was interested in seeing John Muir’s home. How could I resist? I invited him to stay with us in Martinez while getting over his jet lag. He flew in just as I returned from Alaska, and got the grand tour of our little town and of Muir’s home. Then we went off to Yosemite where he had lodging arranged at Curry Village. We ended up spending the better part of a week together in Martinez and Yosemite Valley.
Coming back to Yosemite last week with Yoshihiro was a particular delight as I got to see it through the eyes of a foreigner who loved it as much as I did, but had only just met the venerable old place a few years ago. We had become PCT list email friends largely due to his marvelous photography of backpacking in Japan, where he teaches at Toyama University, and has authored seventeen books in his field. His backpacking web site, the CompleteWalker, https://sites.google.com/site/completewalker/home-page/2009nen is worth a look just to see the pictures of backpacking in the snows of Japan. Much of the site is in English and it is quite accessible and worth an exploration.
Getting over jet lag from an eleven hour time difference takes a few days, so much of our sojourn was spent laying around and enjoying the views, but we took one hike, the Mist Trail, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mist_Trail, a 3,000 foot climb from Happy Isles to the top of Vernal Falls, and then on to Nevada Falls. One of the most popular hikes in Yosemite Valley, it is one of the few places to see a complete, circular rainbow.
The day was sunny and warm and the crowds were legion. People swarmed up that famous path, which is the northern terminus of the John Muir Trail. The JMT will stretch over 211 miles, unbroken by road, through the heart of the High Sierra to Mt. Whitney at its southern end. Many of the walkers stop at the bridge over the Merced River, where the Mist Trail branches off the JMT. They are rewarded with a stunning view of Vernal Falls framed by maples on one side and towering pines on the other.
From here we joined a host of more intrepid hikers, some donning rain gear and others, like ourselves, ready to welcome the perpetual rain created by the falls. In early August the Merced River was still a torrent given the unusually high snow pack and relatively mild summer we’ve had. Within a short distance we felt the first waft of spray hit us. Before long we were shielding our cameras, only whipping them out to take quick shots of rainbows and the lines of people climbing those Depression Era, WPA stone steps.
As I climbed through the spray and people, I remembered many years ago as a soldier in the Far East, seeing the lines of school children and their teachers in Korea and Japan on temple grounds and sacred places, which are both a tourist destination and a significant part of each country’s history and spiritual heritage. The great stone steps of the Mist Trail could easily have led on a rainy day to a centuries old temple. These lines of people were here to experience a particularly American spiritualism centered on the wild and the beauty to be found in nature.
The rainbows on that trail are ever-present and ever-changing. I couldn’t capture the whole span of any of them as my camera’s lens just wasn’t wide enough, but at one point I followed the arc over the heads of Yoshihiro and the others behind me, and found that it swung around all the way to my right foot, before starting again at my left. I’ve never seen this before and found it magical.
Soon after, the trail rose above the mist and people were only too glad to reach the flat, granite slab at the top of Vernal Falls, the sun pouring down and drying us all. Postings all along the trail and at the barrier on the verge of the falls asked that we be on the lookout for the three young people who had climbed over the fence only two weeks before and plunged to their deaths at this very spot. Three of fourteen this year to have died in Yosemite, one from a fall off Half Dome on a rainy day, and others washed away trying to cross the swollen snow melt streams.
I spoke with two rangers who were patrolling the area and had just pulled back and cited several climbers who had gone over the barrier. They said it was a daily occurrence. With all the warnings and the recent tragedies, you’d think people would listen, but they don’t. The deaths have been a recent topic on the PCT List, and one person likened the human attraction to moving water as, “moths to a flame.”
Yoshihiro and I continued on up the trail to Nevada Falls for lunch, a much higher waterfall, but without the drenching spray of Vernal. Then we made a loop by hiking back via the John Muir Trail to our starting place at Happy Isles.
The following day I drove Yoshihiro to Tuolumne Meadows where his hike this year was to begin, and spent part of the afternoon feeding PCT thru hikers who were all spread out at the picnic tables next to the snack bar, sorting the contents of their food boxes. This is the last place for a mail drop before Sonora Pass to the north, the point at which they will leave the “High Sierra.” South of Tuolumne Meadows they had hiked the spine of the tallest mountains in the lower 48, for five weeks, this year in deep snow. They were bushed but all were excited to continue an epic summer adventure. Their goal, Canada.
As I packed up to leave, I heard the first claps of thunder and felt a drop of rain. It was just the afternoon moisture laden Pacific air hitting the cold mountains, condensing and providing some of the only real weather California gets in summer. Not a time to be on the cables on Half Dome.
"Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life." John Muir