About a week into the trip and still in the state of California. The smart money says we better get out of here before the state officially secedes by printing its own currency. If you think IOU’s can’t be considered legal tender, you should consider that they have exactly the same properties that all our other tender does – people ascribe value to them and they are made of nothing tangibly valuable in and of themselves. But I’m getting all political and I haven’t even told you what I’ve been up to.
We’ve spent much of the trip with Em’s family – the Paul IV set in Tracy, followed by the Paul III set and Jen/Geoff and kids in Fresno/Clovis/Sanger. There was a whole lot of Transamerica, a pretty fierce board-game losing streak by me (I think my first loss of Puerto Rico among Em’s family in a couple years), and a lot of heat. It was hot enough for me to both wear shorts and get in an outdoor pool. As I commented repeatedly, it’s been seven years since I’ve seen summer. Quite a welcome change.
On Sunday, we wound our way up into the mountains above Fresno to visit Yosemite and get a wildnerness pass to camp in the high country. Emily and I have noted a devolution in the terms and practices of camping in modern America – “camping” used to mean taking a tent and a backpack into the woods and, after a decent hike, unrolling them for an overnight stay. Apparently this term has now come to mean driving one’s car to a parking lot and getting some things out of the trunk for an overnight stay within a stone’s throw of the bumper. Meanwhile, “backpacking” is now the term of choice for what camping used to be. And pretty much nobody does it.
I mean, not nobody, but it’s pretty proportionally rare. Legend has it that camping spots fill up in Yosemite between 9-18 months in advance, especially for summer months. And while the park deliberately keeps somewhere between 30-50% of its camping reservations free for same-day spontaneous booking (thus debunking the legend on face), it’s true that the “campground” spots fill up quite early in the morning, especially for summer weekends. Of course, close examination reveals that this is all for bumper-proximity “camping”, while there are essentially limitless wilderness passes for real camping, er, backpacking.
Of course, everyone could just be reacting to an up-sell practice from the local rangers that we only discovered on Sunday. Witness:
“We’d like a wilderness pass for one night and we’d love to get a suggestion or two.”
“How many miles are you looking to hike?”
“About four each way.”
“How about 6.2?”
“Uh, maybe. Is it mostly flat?”
“Yeah, it’s kinda flat. I mean, there’s a pretty steep uphill just at the end, but it’s worth it. It’s a beautiful lake.”
[pause, wherein we realize that we could be totally screwed]
I mean, yes, we could have counter-offered and demanded four flat miles. But in response to our uncertainty, the ranger (who looked young enough to be my child had I lacked moral discipline in high school) waxed eloquent about the beauty of the lake, the grandeur of the views, and the quick pace with which we would conquer the mileage. We pretty much had no choice, lest we appear to this precocious thirteen-year-old completely unworthy of our wildnerness pass. And it wasn’t just about image – there would be a lot of regret if we wound our way through a runner-up mulligan trail that wasn’t so beautiful and did it with ease. We would always wonder if we could have done more. Plus, we’re still hoping to hike into the base of the Grand Canyon and back up (a mere half – or really less – of what I did in the summer of 2000’s fabled Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim journey), so I figured this would be good preparation.
But there are some big differences between the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, not the least of which is that one can see and evaluate the Grand Canyon before descending into it. The main difference, in July at least, is what one packs.
In Yosemite, the lows (even in July) are in the high 40’s or low 50’s, which necessitates your narrator packing a variety of layers. In the Grand Canyon, if memory serves, the low might hit 85 or 90 in the base of the Canyon on a cold night, while the temperatures otherwise hover close to 120 if there’s anything resembling sunshine about. Plus, there’s no real need for a tent in the Canyon, or a bear canister (required silo for all food and scented items to prevent Marpellian “bear country” attacks). And, I wasn’t reading War and Peace in the Canyon. Yeah, I know, this sounds like a bad joke. But I start reading it a few days ago and thought briefly about ditching it for a shorter tome for one hike only. But then I thought it would make a good story that I actually packed in Tolstoy’s epic on an uphill journey into Yosemite.
I hope you’re enjoying the story, because I don’t think it proved worth it.
Part of the problem, of course, is that our juvenile delinquent of a park ranger totally sold us a bill of goods. The 6.2 miles were almost entirely uphill, with exactly four downhill stretches combining for some hundred yards tops. The first 3 miles were a gentle uphill, enough to create a false sense of security to be shattered on the loose rocks of the grueling latter half of the trail. We spent the last mile and a half pausing every few hundred feet. It was laughable. Spurred by the promise of a shining lake on the hill, we pushed ourselves well beyond any predicted limits of exertion, only failing to collapse in anguish by the sheer force of will. Emily encouraged me on with discussion of a forthcoming sense of accomplishment, but I think it unwise to trust anyone who spent high school running cross-country in matters of endurance or the reasonable expenditure of physical energy.
Suffice it to say, of course, that despite this pain (and the journey was still punctuated by lovely views, countless butterflies [and mosquitoes] of many shapes and sizes, and an expanse of blooming flora, making it enjoyable despite the struggles), we almost immediately determined the trip worth it upon arriving at the lake. The lake (Ostrander Lake for those scoring at home or considering similar trips in future) was gorgeous, contained the cleanest water I have ever seen in my life, and surrounded by enough boulders of varying shapes and sizes to satisfy a year’s worth of rockhopping urges (this is one of my favorite physical diversions – slightly better on rocks nestled amongst creeks, but pretty good without rushing water as well).
We navigated a few boulders, found a patch of flat dirt already tamped by previous campers nestled between three boulders, checked for minimal frequency of ant tunnel openings, and set up shop. We were still in the setting sunlight and had a good view of the lake and only when the tent was set up did we suddenly realize how starved and exhausted we felt.
After a scarfed and inelegant dinner of snack food (we were certainly not packing any cooking gear), I headed to the lake to do some rockhopping and soon discovered that the only sound audible for miles (we were the only ones at the secluded lake, one of the joys of Sunday-night camping) were periodic bloops in the water, which it didn’t take long to discover as fish jumping out of the lake to swallow surface-skimming bugs whole. I immediately had to trek back to the tent (almost getting lost amongst the Rohrshach of boulders, manzanita, and dirt) to retrieve the camera and waste many digital shots attempting to get one of a fish mid-jump. I’m pretty sure I got one (the image is almost inscrutably small on the digital camera’s playback window), which I may upload before we leave LA if time permits, but paid for the shot with about a dozen mosquito bites and near discarding of the camera in the lake out of quick swiveling to the sound of bloops as they crested the water.
Then I returned to the tent where Em was already asleep, to read War and Peace as the light faded. I spent a good bit of time laying awake thereafter, failing to acclimate to the silence punctuated by wind rustling the rain-fly across our tent. The first night I go camping after a long while, especially when there are no other people around and I’m camping either alone or with Emily (I’m talking about this like it’s a common phenomenon, though it’s been unfortunately relatively rare), I tend to have a hard time adjusting to sounds. And when there has been much prepping for how to deal with bears, mountain lions, and so forth, every sound sounds like an approaching predatory mammal. I almost never have trouble falling asleep, making the process of having trouble doubly consternating in this environment, all due to a primal irrational interpretation of auditory experience. Suffice it to say that I eventually had to haul out the booklight and immerse myself in Napoleonic Russia to the point of lid-drooping exhaustion, which I should have just done in the first place. But it’s so easy to go from that state to adrenaline-pumping frozen listening with just one good rustle that sounds for all the world like an approaching bear.
The moral of the vignette is that I need to get out more. Way out way more.
As an aside, it’s interesting to trace patterns of fear over the course of my life. Not only have I realized a marked increase in weird fears and even random paranoia as I’ve gotten older, being able to at once rationally grasp that I’m going through the hackneyed process of becoming more conservative and fearful as I age and yet irrationally feel it all the same, but my fear of death may be at an all-time high. As someone who was pretty sure he had conquered such a trivial phobia at age eleven, this is both extremely disconcerting and supremely annoying.
The problem, of course, is that I like my life way more than I did when I was eleven. Don’t get me wrong – I had baseball and animals and my parents were very supportive. But I frankly spent most of the years between 11-21 being able to take or leave my life. I talked pretty openly about this perspective with a bunch of friends and family, to most of their chagrin and loquacious objection. And I simultaneously touted a spirit of fearlessness and triumph over concerns about mortality with intellectual trappings that I now fear were somewhat baseless, at least on a primal level.
I mean, yes, I had reasoned out the limits of this mortal coil, consolidated my reasoned belief in God and an open-ended afterlife, and come to accept how insane it was to truly fear the only surely inevitable result of life on Earth. It seemed pretty academic, and it was. And certainly my bout with suicidalism just before shored up my appreciation of life and my understanding of its fragility. All true thoughts that haven’t faded over the last 18 years.
What has changed, though, is an ever-increasing feeling that I have something to lose in this mortal experience on this planet. And the big difference between 21 and 29 is that not only do I have Emily, giving me a massively unprecedented reason to live, but I am now about to embark on the first open-ended stage of my life where I am doing what I feel I should be doing with my time and mental energy, namely in writing full-time. It’s hard to fully convey what it feels like to have felt like one is primarily wasting one’s time or building limited and mostly pointless skills for some unnamed and unmarked future for three decades. Three decades. I realize, of course, that most people live their entire existences in that state, often discarding the idea that they should even try to do something they feel called or driven to do amidst the endless compromises of their passing life. But to actually be in the midst of transition to that higher use of time and energy is to understand how vivid the contrast is between that state of being and everything else.
It’s a white-hot glow of excitement approaching euphoria, yet it comes with a burdensome sense of responsibility that mostly seems to be manifesting in really really not wanting to die. Which, frankly, is a newish feeling for me. So maybe this will help shed some light on why the wind rustling on the tent in the secluded wilderness bothered me even more than usual, bothered someone who used to brag about having cast out fear of death like a pair of shoes that no longer fit.
Anyway, morning brought an end to the fitful sleep and more pain for my already backpack-sore hips. For some reason, Emily and I have decided along the way that bedrolls are excesses in camping trips, given their awkward bulk and limited assistance. My hipbones are the only part of me that ever disagrees with this assessment, but they were certainly singing about it Monday morning. We had breakfast, relaxed by the lake (wherein Em managed to get severely sunburned reading amongst shining white rocks), did some rockhopping, and packed out. The downhill version of the 6.2 miles was a cool breeze, though the last 1.5 miles were painful (I think our self-assessment of 4 miles each way was pretty much precise, though hopefully we’re stretching out our endurance by processes like this). We then booked it by car to the Wawona Hotel, wherein our Yosemite experience shifted gears from hardcore wildnerness exploring to refined old-school hotel visiting.
Both aspects of the trip were fantastic and complemented each other nicely. The Wawona Hotel was not our first choice from the largely misleading Yosemite website, but proved to be by far the best option (it was the only place with vacancy when we booked, which made us sad right up until we actually visited the various lodging facilities). The oldest standing hotel in the park, the Wawona has retained most of its 1870’s appeal and appearance, and was replete with baseball-park-style bunting that bothered me less than most displays of American patriotism, probably because it just seemed nostalgic rather than jingoistic in this particular manifestation. We lucked into some really prime real estate within the hotel, a second-floor corner room of the main building, with claw-foot bathtub in-room and a sprawling green veranda(h) overlooking the lawn, swimming tank, and other buildings.
We celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary with a leisurely four-course meal in the downstairs restaurant, sitting outside on the hotel’s front porch as we worked our way through some pretty decent vegetarian food for a place aspiring to finer dining. The highlight was a lentil-and-spinach soup, but every item was surprisingly edible and the overall experience was exquisite.
The next morning (we’re up to yesterday morning), we toured a bit more Yosemite, including the expansive historical village, then flew down the mountain all the way to LA, with Emily picking up a good stretch of driving while continually telling me how much of her promised 8% of the total trip she was already fulfilling. Years of “splitting” driving on roadtrips with me have convinced her that “under-promise, over-deliver” is the method of choice, made all the more amusing to me in light of our wedding “sermon” that her brother delivered six years ago, highlighted by his apt and eloquent comparison of marriage to a long car ride.
Our slate is rapidly filling in LA, with most every trip to LA being somewhat similar but all quite rejuvenating and fun. I was going to note something in here as well about how I have really struggled to write about this trip while on it so far, but I’ve pretty well shot that theory to pieces with this post. Indeed, I have a green comp book with me that remains unsullied by written word as yet, despite my intent to write most every day. Perhaps I just haven’t had enough time for reflection until this morning, with Russ asleep and Emily dozing and reading. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last eight years, it’s that I need time for reflection to write most anything. I’m hoping, however, that when Internet is less plentiful, I still have time to chronicle this journey. I guess my journals like this always get off to a slow start – I’m thinking of Russia ‘95 and India ‘08 in particular. Someday I will transcribe all those to the web as well.
For now, people are stirring and there are games and activities to pursue. I am elated to consider that we still have a month left on this trip, that it really has just begun. And that all of this is just prologue to the greatest adventure of all, my upcoming foray into the written word. No wonder I put so much stock in how well I can use same to track my progress toward that shining year on the hill to come.
Pray with me that I make it there against these weirdly resurgent fears that actually signal hope and promise of a future that matters.