- 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
- 02. A Public Service
- 03. The 22% Solution
- 04. On The Campaign Trail
- 05. Athens of America
- 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
- 07. My Canadian Family
- 08. Edmonton? Why?
- 09. Prairie Singers
- 10. Deconstructing Calgary
- 11. My Kelowna
- 12. Wine Whine
- 13. Fire Mountain
- 14. A Stopover and a Popover
- 15. Inspiring Victoria
- 16. Planet Rosehip
- 17. Carry On Grunge
- 18. Street People
- 19. The Curse of Portland
- 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
- 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
- 22. Managing Yosemite
- 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
- 24. Parched
- 25. Brave New San Fran
- 26. Over The Hill
- 27. Greatest Again
Yosemite National Park attracts about four million visitors a year. Like America itself, they keep closer track of who is entering than who is leaving. I presume Yosemite repels as many visitors as it attracts, as otherwise it would fill up.
August is peak season, drawing a disproportionate number of tourists, with an average August day seeing over twenty thousand enter the park. Many of them are day-trippers, a necessity since when every bed and campsite in the park is in use it accommodates only about fifteen thousand overnight.
During our stay there were about were thirty thousand nature lovers driving through the park each day, most generally following the rules established to preserve their lives and protect the park’s very existence, with a small few running down the wildlife, littering the roadside, and improperly disposing of lit cigarettes. Spread over the park’s twelve hundred square miles, thirty thousand works out to only twenty-five people per square mile. That is about the same population density as the State of Vermont, which does not seem particularly crowded. The reality is, though, that almost all thirty thousand visitors remain in the eight square miles of the central Yosemite Valley floor. This yields a population density of 3,750 per square mile, which is about three times more crowded than New Jersey, the most densely populated US State.
It is easy to avoid the crowds, if that’s what you want to do, since you know where they are, and when they are there. One simply doesn’t go there then. The bad news is that, chances are, they are all headed where you want to go. If that’s the case, the strategy must be to get there early.
We were up with the sun at six, disappointed to find we couldn’t get breakfast – not even coffee – until seven. I don’t know about you, but I am not about to march off into the wilderness without a cup of coffee first.
In the meantime, we watched the sun rise over the awe-inspiring Half Dome with an eerily silent hundred acres of recreational camping vehicles at its base. It reminded me that we humans are part of nature ourselves, and of the troublesome lack of control of our mutual destiny that entails.
The cafeteria opened on schedule. A few dozen other early-risers elbowed their way through the breakfast buffet line with us. Once past the cashier, the early-birds dispersed across a dining area the size of a football field, making the place feel nearly empty. I vowed never to experience the bedlam that must ensue when it is full. If it wasn’t going to be full later that day, it never would be. We had prepared a picnic lunch, but started developing alternate plans for dinner.
As for breakfast, it was, well, you know. An Australian guidebook described it as “standard American fare”. That may be true from an Australian perspective, but is somewhat insulting to those standard Americans whose diet does not entirely consist of fast food from highway service centers. Scrambled eggs at once runny and overcooked, bacon strips so crispy Dante would have been impressed, coffee reconstituted from brown glop poured into a gasometer-sized urn of hot water. Without doubt, a person rescued from a week in the wilderness would have been most appreciative. For our purposes, it was good enough. We shoveled it in and moved along.
The plan was to walk to the trailhead for the hike up to Vernal Falls, but as we left the cafeteria the park loop shuttle bus pulled up. With crowds beginning to stir around us, we figured the sooner we got on the trailhead the better. We boarded the bus – a standard American fare metropolitan bus, half full – and took seats. Minutes later we alighted at the trailhead with thirty new friends. Between us, we spoke Spanish, Japanese, French, Mandarin, German, and something John Gielgud would have characterized as “A kind of English… learnt it in a place called Chicago.”
Our mob started up the trail. As you’d expect, the younger folk dashed ahead, with the older folk trailing behind. We were in the middle. Before long we came to a stop on a rocky ledge, unable to pass the party in front due to the narrow trail. This happened again. And again. And again. Eventually I could see far enough to understand that each delay was caused by those ahead taking selfies, arm or selfie-stick blocking the trail. Those blocked were being polite enough to allow this indulgence, even though there wasn’t anything particularly picturesque to photograph.
At first, I thought this wonderful. Civilisation in the wilderness, and all that — like opera in the jungle, you know? With time to kill, I counted fifty people on the concave cliff side curve in front of us, waiting for the picture-takers. I swung around to Frank behind me, saying “This is ridiculous”, simultaneously spying the endless queue of those behind us. So much for civilisation.
“Excuse me! Pardon! もういや! Scusi! Excusez-moi! Zur Seite gehen! 抱歉!
We squeezed, cajoled, and when necessary, plowed through the crowd. Most seemed more relieved than offended that someone else had had enough.
The selfie-obsessed source of the problem, on the other hand, was unresponsive to my entreaties that she let us pass. I pressed on, nudging her aside. She lost her balance and plunged thirty meters down the jagged cliffs to a gruesome and bloody death. The crowd cheered.
In reality, she glowered at her boyfriend with one of those “I’m being disrespected; what are you going to do?” looks. He was half my age, and thankfully, half my size. He squealed “What’s your problem, dude?”
I smiled and said “Thank you! Sorry!” Then a hundred people behind me did the same thing.
Rushing forward, we had the trail to ourselves for a while. The Merced River, one of the few rivers still flowing, roared below. Every now and then we’d come across a small fall, or a dramatic view of the valley, or a glimpse of Half Dome towering above. It was just like hiking. “This…” I said to myself “…is why people come to Yosemite.”
Before long we came to a wooden bridge over the river. Here we caught up with the next battalion of hikers taking selfies in front of a small unnamed fall, just upstream. Here, signs promised, was the last toilet, the last water, the last chance to turn tail back to camp without risking your life and/or making a fool of yourself. From here, the map indicated, the trail took a dramatic upward turn, rising a thousand feet in less than a mile.
A thousand feet may not seem like much to some of you, but in my book, that’s a lot of feet. It’s one-twenty-ninth of Mount Everest, for example. Or about a hundred stories. I can’t tell you the last time I walked up a hundred story building because I never have. I can tell you that anyone who has did so in response to the emotional scars of some childhood trauma.
Putting my numerous childhood traumas aside, we filled our water bottles, emptied our bladders, and pushed on past the milling throng. From this point the trail got much steeper, rockier and narrower, with numerous short stretches only allowing one to pass at a time.
Predictably, we started to encounter increasing numbers of hikers descending from our lofty objective, many sharing a knowing smirk at our breathless ascent.
We reached Vernal Fall at about ten o’clock, the sun and heat starting to take its toll. Vernal Fall was thunderous; absolutely mesmerizing. Given the drought, it may have been the only such fall in the valley, which would also explain the unanimous interest. After lord-knows-how-long staring at it, entranced, I viewed the greater surroundings, which were even more spectacular. I noticed there was not a fat person in sight, which is rather unusual in this day and age.
Our descent was less exerting but more harrowing. The “stay right” default of American hikers provided those ascending to cling to the cliff face, but in many places the descending hiker could cling to little more than his sense of balance. It was too clear what would befall me if I befell.
When we got back to the wooden bridge, I heard myself involuntarily exclaim “Holy shit!” Now there were hundreds of people there. We wasted no time barging back to the trailhead, dodging through the oncoming onslaught of sight-seekers.
The shuttle bus appeared again, from all indications running as often New York’s Fifth Avenue local, only more crowded. I was feeling the need for a little solitude. We decided to take the short walk back to something the map called the Nature Center at Happy Isles.
The Nature Center at Happy Isles revealed itself to be a token attempt at providing an opportunity for the disabled to get some sense of the wonder and splendor of Yosemite without losing themselves and their wheelchair over a cliff. We wandered in solitude around a maze of manicured paths through the woods and over bridges onto the Happy Isles themselves. Signs here and there explained the role of this tree in the ecosystem, or
that rock in the geologic development of the valley, or why you should not bring your firearms into the interpretive center.
The interpretive center itself was a small museum, gloriously air conditioned. It had an exhibit called “Hidden Yosemite” that featured dead stuffed critters that had long since abandoned the valley floor in response to being run over by Winnebagos with a regularity that threw fear into the hearts of mountain lions and everything smaller. It was really good. I would highly recommend it, except that if people with firearms and children and selfie-sticks start showing up, it might lose its appeal.
My twenty-first campaign pledge: The Smiling Kodiak administration will repurpose 1% of the federal prison budget to quadruple funding for National Parks. We can use that money to give all the non-violent criminals released as a result jobs building interpretive centers.
From there we made our way to Mirror Lake on what we discovered — a little too late — was a horseback riding trail. Ew. We picked up the pace a bit. It says something about the quality of the horseback riding experiences on offer that we not only caught up with, but passed a train of some two dozen horses and riders. I was grateful to have worn my old sneakers.
As for Mirror Lake, well, lakes lose their reflectivity without water. Had I been the first to happen upon the location its name would have been Murky Swamp. Distressingly, the riding trail had delivered us to the opposite side of the swamp from the hiking trails that would take us anywhere else we wanted to go. In this circumstance the low water was our savior, as a bridge of natural debris had formed at a narrow point in the lake. I say “natural debris” because it was impressive that this pile of logs, branches, rocks, leaves and gunk had virtually no plastic or packaging in it. But make no mistake, natural debris is no more pleasant to walk across than manmade debris. They both stink. We made it across, had our lunch, then took our time walking a couple miles through the towering redwoods back to Curry Village.
By then it was late afternoon and Curry Village was a swarm of activity. We checked out the recreation center, a rustic lounge where for fifty years visitors gathered to discuss their day’s exploits while playing Scrabble and Monopoly. Today, it is the only public WiFi available for a couple miles, so visitors gather to sit in solitude with their necks craned downward, eyes frozen on their devices. Occasionally, someone would ask aloud “What’s the network name?” or “What’s the password?” More often than not, nobody would answer. Awaiting proper introduction, I imagine.
Back at our cabin we agreed that we’d had enough of the standard American fare available at Curry Village, and determined to make our way to the Awahnee Hotel for dinner. Built in the roaring twenties, the Awahnee Hotel is something to behold. It offers rather pricey accommodation, which is probably quite nice, if out of my budget. Most stunning, though, are the numerous sitting rooms, open to the public. The décor might be described as Frank Lloyd Wright meets Native American, although that doesn’t do it justice. We spent a half hour pointing at things – furniture, murals, stain glass windows, staircases, fireplaces – going “Ooooooh!”
We elected not to afford the fancy restaurant there. In my value system, a forty dollar main course is outrageous, pretentious and decadent, whereas a sixty dollar bottle of wine is a bargain. Thus we dined at the poolside bar, starting with classic American martinis. We agreed that martinis really ought to be the national drink, as ordering one outside the US is playing Russian Roulette. Then we had some good Tex–Mex.
The Awahnee Lodge is on a spur of the shuttle bus circuit, so it was almost empty when we boarded for our trip home. When it reached the main Yosemite Visitors Center, it got very full very quickly. A ten-year-old girl stood beside where I was seated, with her mom seated across the aisle. As the bus pulled away, she stumbled and fell on my lap. Mortified as only a ten-year-old girl can be, she gathered herself up, apologizing profusely as the bus rounded a corner, sending her careening down the aisle into another old man’s lap. A sudden stop sent her tumbling forward again, this time to me feet.
She tentatively brought herself to her knees, now looking rather desperate, her mother oblivious to her humiliations.
“I gather you are not from New York City?” I asked.
“No…” she answered weakly, puzzled.
“Look, grab this bar with your hand, and spread your feet to form a triangle. Then you won’t fall over.”
She did so. “Wow. It works.” She noticed immediately. “We don’t have busses where I come from.”
“Yes we do!” came her mother’s voice from across the aisle, asserting proudly “We just don’t use them.”