Yosemite Questions

Most days, I feel guilty knowing I’m here and it’s there. It’s there with its waterfall towers spewing green to the brown valleys, its alpine lakes thawing to the hue of the finest blue jewel, its light striking orange on 3,000-foot granite faces as the day retires. 

The endless perfection of Yosemite was officially recognized and set aside for preservation in 1864, the first of such actions by our government. The Yosemite Grant, approved by Lincoln, recognized that some land is worth protecting from ourselves, and it eventually inspired the National Park system – Yellowstone first in 1872 and Yosemite joining in 1890.  

In this year of 2013, over 3.7 million of us will play within Yosemite’s bounds. Whether you’re stepping off the electric bus in your unscuffed white Asics or chalking the sweat off your fingers 27 pitches up El Capitan, Yosemite speaks. It asks the questions whose answers may not agree with our truths.

A few weeks ago, I questioned whether I would be anywhere near Yosemite in the next year, and the mere question made motion. I blew my boring gas budget and pointed the van south, calling up a guy whose only answer is YES. People think he and I are brothers, two men with strong convictions lost in being curious about everything at the same time… wanderers trapped in a body of expectations. 

Donny and I needed just 5 minutes to agree on our route, a 3-day, 45-mile hike into the Yosemite high country. Outings like this build stories worth telling at weddings. With only one partner, you can’t escape, so you either go deep or go silent, and in three days you can forget what you were doing and where you came from, giving the booming rivers, morning birds and rattlesnakes their chance. 

We picked a route where we expected only our voices among the firs, a trail where snow was certain but the amount was not. This time of year, the snow tentatively releases itself, allowing life to continue on the farms in the center and the cities on the coast. 

Far from tall buildings on the coast, we hiked long days and talked long nights. Donny made rules, but strangely his rules always asked for more, like Rule #5anytime either of us thinks about swimming, we swim

At 9,000 feet on day 2, we crested a saddle and discovered an alpine stream zig-zagging through a snowy meadow. I heard a devilish howl rumble inside Donny and knew we would be cold for the next half hour. 

We don’t know the German’s first thought when he walked up on two nude, sheet-white, supposed adults screaming and tearing around like we were fighting 1,000 leeches. We do know Dominik’s next thought… after some goading, he stripped down, jumped in and joined us for the rest of our 17.4-mile day.  

Two hours later the bliss wore off and our words became fewer; each of us lived in our own heads, knowing we were headed into a mini-epic. The word epic is a climbing, mountaineering, backpacking, etc. word used to describe the worst kind of day, like a miscalculated route leading to 20 miles without food or water, an unexpected storm forcing a night in a cave with no sleeping bag or a fall that leads to a team evacuation. Epics are told in hopes they aren’t copied.  

At 3PM, not even halfway finished with the route, we shoved the last food into restless bellies. We knew we were in no real danger, but we also knew we would be skinnier and the sky would be dotted by the end of this. We had just one pair of snowshoes, which I slapped on as navigator, a self-declared title in attempt to stay atop the deteriorating snowpack. 

Every few minutes I turned and watched Donny and Dominik falling in up to their waists. Their legs turned some kind of bruised purple as they drilled up the slope, and I felt their hate in each of my snowshoe steps. Ninety minutes of this kind of travel brought the gentle German to his ends, and in a tone that cried despair in any language, he roared – scheize!!!!!

Finally, at 4:30PM at the day’s halfway point, the 10,750-foot Vogelsang Pass, we rested and readjusted our minds. I thought about the fierce mind of Muir, who traveled these parts for weeks with only bread for food and fire for warmth. We shake our heads at his methods now, reinforcing our weak modern minds, but even when suffering was the outcome of Muir’s weeks in the wilderness, he returned fresh with wisdom for his next one. He simply needed a new loaf of bread. 

Stumbling down the last three miles into the 9PM purple of spring, guided by the voice of the Merced River, Donny spoke, “If you knew today was going to be like this, would you gone?” “Absolutely.” “Good man.” There was no reason to ask him the same question.

[This hike took place from 5/1/13-5/313]

Half Dome in the distance after a long day of hiking
Half dome in the evening pink light
Swimming in a nearly frozen river in Yosemite on the way to the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp
Merced Lake in the evening glow
Donny lights his pipe camping on the shores of Merced Lake
A view of Nevada Falls from the John Muir trail in Yosemite