After climbing Half Dome, I can’t bear to leave Yosemite.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — I’m lying in bed thinking how much I hate my friends Laura and Justin. I hate them because it’s six o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, and my cell phone is ringing, and it’s them calling, and no one should ever call me at 6 A.M. I push a button on my phone, sending them to the darkest bowels of the AT&T voicemail system: my cold, cruel voicemail greeting. It doesn’t even instruct callers to leave a message, because if I never get another voicemail message for the rest of my life, I’ll die a happy man. Then I roll over, make a mental note to hire a hit man to kill them, and go back to sleep.
When I wake again at ten o’clock, I see a big red dot on my phone’s screen, an indicator that I need to record a new voice mail greeting: one that’s even more unsympathetic, harsh, and threatening. I imagine it: “I screened your call because I hate you. Goodbye.” It then occurs to me that creating a nasty voicemail greeting may not be a healthy or mature response to being woken up early on a weekend day. I feel like maybe the urban sprawl of Los Angeles may be gnawing at me a bit too much, penetrating and poisoning my core.
“Get in your car right now and drive the six hours to meet us in Yosemite!” I hear Laura yelling enthusiastically from San Jose when I reluctantly play back the voicemail message. “We’re going to hike to the top of Half Dome tomorrow.”
I haven’t visited Yosemite National Park since middle school, but I’ve wanted to hike to the top of Half Dome ever since a girl, whom I secretly wanted to date after working with her in an office in Los Angeles, described her Half Dome hike to me one day. When she then showed me stunning photos of her boyfriend’s on-top-of-the-Dome marriage proposal, I reluctantly conceded that I had missed my chance with her, but her pictures of the bewilderingly enormous granite Dome captured my imagination. Later, when I read that early environmental crusader and Sierra Club-founder John Muir described Half Dome as “the most beautiful and most sublime of all the wonderful Yosemite rocks,” it further cemented my desire to tackle it.
I call Laura back, demand that she never call me at 6 A.M. ever, ever again, and then I tell her I’m on my way. I grab my backpack, a tent, and some Clif Bars, jump into my car, and drive toward the Park. As I drive through the Los Angeles traffic on Melrose Avenue, I think to myself, Good riddance, urban sprawl.
When I reach the edge of the Park, I see a forest fire billowing smoke in front of a glorious Yosemite sunset, and I realize that my friends have somehow tricked me into driving, on a whim, into the heart of a National Park that’s literally on fire. But the sight of striped red and orange bands of sunlight and smoke shooting across the sky, with helicopters overhead dropping water on the fire, is a majestic sight. I reluctantly decide not to hire the hit man to kill my friends, because, after all, when I arrive at the campsite, I don’t want two dead bodies on my hands.
When I arrive in the evening at the Park’s North Pines campground, I have two dead bodies on my hands. Okay, well not dead, exactly, but Laura and Justin are exhausted from their drive to the park, and since their plan is for us to start hiking at 4 A.M. to avoid a crowded trail (why do I have friends like this?!), we eat some grilled steak and go immediately to sleep in our tents. I casually mention that Yosemite is on fire, but they seem unperturbed.
I’m lying in my sleeping bag thinking, again, how much I hate my friends Laura and Justin. I hate them because it’s four o’clock in the morning, and they’re yelling at me to get out of my tent and grab my backpack. I weasel out of my sleeping bag, make another mental note to hire a hit man to kill them, and then we start tackling 16 miles and 4,750 feet of elevation, toward the top of Half Dome. John Muir would be proud, I think.
The first 90 minutes of our hike is before sunrise, and we climb up the notoriously slippery Mist Trail using headlamps, past Vernal and Nevada Falls. I know from reading John Muir’s classic wilderness book The Yosemite and seeing photographs that the Falls are beautiful, but in the dark, I can only hear the thousands of gallons of rushing water crashing down adjacent to the trail, showering us as we climb. As we near Little Yosemite Valley, the sun peeks out from behind mountaintops, casting a golden glow on the granite dome of Liberty Cap so that it looks like a massive popcorn kernel waiting to explode from the sun’s heat. We hike under enormous pine, fir, and cedar trees with dark red trunks and emerald pine needles soaring hundreds of feet above us, when a rattlesnake crosses the trail. Timid, it slithers off the path, warning us with its trademark rattle, and three deer elegantly prance past us under the tree branches.
When we begin the slow, exhausting climb up the sheer side of the sub-dome below Half Dome, I see a tiny, eight year old kid effortlessly jumping up the mountain as though his legs are made of springs. I am jealous of this show-off, who weighs only 80 pounds. I secretly hope he’ll start crying and get too scared to make it to the top, because he’s definitely making my sluggish ascent look stupid.
As Justin, Laura, the Annoying Show-Off Kid, and I crest the hill immediately below the final climb to the top of the Dome, we all gasp, half in awe and half in terror. We see a massive silver, granite slab rising about 1,000 feet above us into a cloudless blue sky. It’s so big that, from our vantage point at the bottom, I can’t fit the whole thing into a single wide-lens photo. Though I’ve seen previously countless photos of the hikers’ route to the top, which sports cables installed by the Park Service to aid in the ascent, the route looks shockingly precipitous. From our position, it feels like we’re grasshoppers readying to walk up the vertical, smooth side of the Empire State Building. Even the springing Annoying Show-Off Kid hesitates, waiting for his father to join him.
Justin and Laura start the climb, and I follow behind them. It’s a surprisingly strenuous cardiovascular workout, battling gravity to reach the top of Yosemite’s most recognizable rock formation. The normally unflappable Laura looks petrified as she slowly inches toward the peak. Finally, the three of us reach the summit, breathing heavily and sweating with adrenaline rushing through our bodies. Laura, finding that she has suddenly become terrified of heights, sits safely in the middle of the Dome’s surface, not wanting to get anywhere near the edges, though they are at least 200 feet in every direction. The three of us eat a lunch of turkey sandwiches as we look out from a height of 8,836 feet above the dramatic expanse of Yosemite Valley, with its complex granite rock formations, pine tree forests, and sprawling meadows. The epic views make us feel dizzy and drunk.
“I want to stay here forever,” I say, looking down into the Valley below.
“I never want to leave,” Justin agrees.
“I want to go down, right now,” Laura pleads.
Laura’s fear of heights aside, Justin and I are not the first people to feel such a strong, immediate connection to Yosemite.
“No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” John Muir wrote. “Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life… as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.” I find that my only regret in climbing Half Dome is that I’m not with my work crush at the peak.
When the Annoying Show Off Kid joins us at the top of the Dome with his father, I feel bad for labeling him the Annoying Show Off Kid. He’s actually an exceptionally brave eight year old, especially compared to Vertigo-Infected Laura, who is begging us to let her climb back down.
We congratulate and wave goodbye to the Incredibly Brave Kid and then begin the descent back to the Valley floor. During the trip down, I run into two women, Kathryn and Sharon, from my alma mater, who are hiking the entire 211-mile John Muir trail. I want to beg them to take me with them to spend 18 days surrounded by nothing but wilderness, but since I’m carrying nothing but two full bottles of water, I suspect they wouldn’t find me an asset to their journey.
As we continue to descend, Justin catches sight of a black bear, which I frustratingly manage to miss. But after a roundtrip total of 16 miles and nine hours, we reach Pizza Patio in Yosemite’s Curry Village, home of the tastiest pizza in the Park. We sit, gobbling the perfectly baked from-scratch crust smothered in gooey mozzarella. As we eat, I open Yosemite’s newspaper and see a huge scheduling grid of the Park’s hundreds of events and activities: photography classes, mountain climbing, backpacking trips, horseback riding, and much more. There’s a lifetime worth of stuff to do. It pains me knowing that in a few short hours, all of the Park’s weekend visitors, including me, will return to their homes, surrounded by urban sprawl, after spending only a day or two in the peaceful wilderness.
But when I gaze up at the severe granite slabs towering above me, I feel like I’m already home.
“I really do want to live here,” I say, dreamily.
Laura and Justin look into my eyes, and they can see that I’ve already decided. As they head back to San Jose in their car, I start looking for a place to live, maybe for a week, maybe more, in Yosemite National Park.
Living amidst rock climbing history
Moving into Yosemite’s Camp 4.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — When I arrive at Yosemite’s famous Camp 4, considered the birthplace of modern rock climbing, I see almost 100 tents strewn across a bevy of campsites with international climbers milling about speaking German, French, Spanish, Japanese, and even Arabic. I check in with the Park Ranger, and she tells me that for five dollars per night, I’ll be sharing campsite 13 with five other strangers. That’s only one dollar per stranger, I think. I pay her and walk across the Camp, past a plaque telling me that I’m in a Historic Place on the National Register. I learn that Camp 4 served as a temporary home for many pioneering rock climbers during Yosemite’s climbing golden age in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Swiss climber John Salathe, considered the father of American climbing, and pioneering California climbers Royal Robbins and Warren Harding, stayed at Camp 4 during this time.
On my way to campsite 13, I pass the famous Columbia Boulder, an enormous mass of rock with a painted white lightning bolt denoting Midnight Lightning, the boulder’s exceptionally difficult climbing problem. (Climbers refer to tricky climbing routes as “problems.”) I look at Midnight Lightning, a route first climbed successfully in 1978 by celebrated Yosemite climber Ron Kauk, and I resolve to climb to the top of it — just as soon as I learn to levitate.
After I erect my tent, I take a quick lap around the entire camp, people watching, and hoping, maybe, that I’ll run into a cute European girl, possibly an athletic one from Switzerland, when, suddenly, I come across a cute, athletic European girl who turns out to be from Switzerland. She’s eating gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, for which I quickly chastise her, because, well, eating cookies without gluten is like eating popcorn without corn. She tells me that her name is Wini and that she is a 23 year old nurse enjoying some time off work on a two-month vacation to the US. She offers me a gluten-free cookie, an offer that prompts me to fake-vomit and gag, and I tell her I’m living in Yosemite though I’ve only been here for two days, and she acts like this is the coolest thing she’s ever heard, and then she tells me that Swiss cheese isn’t anything like the cheese they actually have in Switzerland, and then suddenly, somehow, we’re friends.
In the evening, I explore Yosemite Village and discover the Village Store, Degnan’s Deli, the Ansel Adams Photo Gallery, the Post Office, and the Visitor Center. Then I enter the Yosemite Theater, a tiny auditorium connected to the Visitor Center. Inside, a 400 year old man spends 90 minutes on stage impersonating John Muir, who I learn almost single-handedly convinced Teddy Roosevelt to establish America’s National Park System. Fake John Muir has a real beard that’s long and white, and I think that if it’s true that Real John Muir looked and sounded exactly like Santa Claus, then this guy is a dead ringer for him. And Santa Claus.
Fake John Muir acts as if he lives full time in the Yosemite Theater when he welcomes all 50 of us to his “home.” He then proceeds to recite excerpts from Real John Muir’s books and diaries but in a clever conversational tone that makes us feel like we’re chatting with Real John Muir — except in a conversation where it’s impossible for us to get in a word edgewise.
“In all my mountaineering I have enjoyed only one avalanche ride,” Fake John Muir says, as he recounts the famous story from Real John Muir’s book, The Yosemite. Then, before we can say a thing, he talks about the history of Hetch Hetchy Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, two other beautiful Yosemite destinations.
At first I think I’m going to hate Fake John Muir and fall asleep during his quirky one-man show, but you can’t really hate Santa Claus, and he grows on me. By the end, he has convinced me: America’s National Parks are truly the country’s best idea ever; Real John Muir is now one of my personal heroes; and I really need to visit Hetch Hetchy and Tuolumne Meadows while I’m living here.
After the show, as I walk back toward Camp 4, a woman asks me if I know where the deli is.
“Degnan’s?” I ask. “It’s just over there past the Village Store.” The woman thanks me.
“No problem,” I say. After all, I live here, I think.
After I fall asleep in Camp 4, I awake at 4 A.M. to the sound of footsteps outside my tent. I hear loud crashes of metal and noisy chewing, just ten feet from my sleeping bag.
“Hank! Wake up!” a frightened Wini yells at me. At nightfall, this adorable Swiss girl somehow convinced me to let her sleep in my tent, because, she told me, she’s terrified of Yosemite’s black bears. “I think there’s a bear out there!”
I peek out of my tent’s rain cover, and though it’s too dark for me to see much, I make out a shadowy, moving shape that I assume is the world’s smartest bear — one that has seemingly figured out how to open our supposedly bear-proof food lockers. As if to spite me, he’s loudly chomping on and devouring all of our goodies. Sleepily, I yell “Bear! Get away, bear!” and slap the bottoms of my sandals together, making a very loud popping sound to scare him. As I do so, many other Camp 4 residents join me, yelling and banging their pots and pans together. I feel a strong camaraderie with these hikers and climbers in Camp 4 — people I’ve never met, who are surprisingly willing to help me chase a bear away from my campsite at four in the morning.
As I fall asleep, I think to myself what a special home Camp 4 makes — even if living here means involuntarily donating my food to bears in the middle of the night.
The world’s smartest bear strikes again
Making friends in Yosemite.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — I can’t seem to get enough of Yosemite, despite smoke filling the air from the Park’s Big Meadows Fire. By talking to Rangers, I learn, strangely, that the Park Service set the fire intentionally but overestimated their ability to control it. I start to become nervous that my entire new home will be burned to the ground while I’m living in it. Nevertheless, Wini and I spend time hiking in beautiful Hetch Hetchy below the full moon, exploring the impressive Mariposa Sequoia Grove, flirting in rocking chairs on the porch of the classic Wawona Hotel, and racing by car to see awe-inspiring Glacier Point at sunset. But after all of this fun, I start to worry that I’m not actually living in the Park but instead am just enjoying a long vacation. It occurs to me that I’m not sure I know the difference between “real life” and vacation. For most people, I suppose that the difference is going to work, but I’m writing (and thus working) every day in Yosemite, so I feel like I have some living-there credibility. But I’m still feeling insecure, so I start trying to think of the things people do in “real life.” That’s when I ask the cashier at the Curry Pavilion Breakfast Buffet if there’s a place in Yosemite to get a haircut.
She looks at the out-of-control jungle that my hair has become while living in Camp 4, and she nods sympathetically.
“If you go to where you get the employee uniforms, there’s a woman there who cuts the employees’ hair two days a week,” she explains helpfully.
I’m proud of myself, because after all of my Yosemite exploring, I know exactly where she means. I drive to the sign reading “Employee Uniforms,” and sure enough, just below that, the sign reads “& Yosemite Haircare.” Below the sign is Sarah, who offers to cut my hair for $30 (three times the employee rate). She tells me that she recently moved to Yosemite from the Bay Area, for the same reason everyone moves to Yosemite: she loves it. I ask her if she’s made any friends, and she says that the great thing about her haircutting job is that she meets everyone who lives in the Park. She tells me that she spends two days per week cutting employees’ hair and also volunteers in Camp 4 as a “bear chaser.” She explains that the Park lets her stay for free in a yurt in the Camp, and in exchange she stays up at night from 9 P.M. to 2 A.M. chasing and yelling at bears to keep them away from campers and their food. The World’s Smartest Bear was clever enough to visit me after Sarah went to sleep last night, I think. I decide that “bear chaser” may be the world’s strangest job.
I’m so excited to have met Sarah, a person who lives in Yosemite full-time, that I decide to try to meet more people. I figure if I have local friends, then I’ll really be living here. When I return to Camp 4, I introduce myself to a guy at my campsite, Garrett, an 18 year old guy from Detroit carrying almost no money, hitchhiking his way toward Montana. As he offers to make me some coffee, he tells me that sometimes he’s forced to sleep in ditches on the side of the road when he can’t find a ride. This is one tough dude, I think.
The next morning, I introduce myself to Becks and Susan, two girls from New Zealand who have just finished teaching at a youth rock climbing camp. I try some of the New Zealand slang I know on them (“scroggin” is their goofy word for trail mix), and they’re impressed. They respond with a piece of New Zealand slang I’ve never heard: “Keen as!” and I realize I still have a long way to go before I’m truly an honorary Kiwi. But I feel proud of myself, because within only a short time in the Park, I already have five friends. Not that I’m counting.
At night, I meet a mother and daughter in Yosemite’s Curry Lounge working on a puzzle of the map of Disneyland. They tell me nervously that they plan to hike to the top of Half Dome, and I try to set their minds at ease by telling them about the Incredibly Brave Kid. Then, the Crivellos, a creative Bay Area family with a photographer father, novelist mother, and actress daughter, adopt me for the evening and teach me to play dominoes for the first time. They are extremely competitive and I lose, badly. They seem pleased, as though this is a trick they play nightly on unsuspecting victims in Yosemite.
After my drubbing, I return to Camp 4. At 1 A.M., I’m happily asleep in my tent, when I awake to the sound of footsteps outside my tent again. I look over at Wini, who again looks terrified. I’m about to start yelling and banging my sandals together at the bear, when I hear a voice.
“This is the Park Ranger. Does anyone at campsite 13 drive a silver car with California license plates?” the bear says. As my sleepiness fades, I realize that the person outside my tent is not a talking bear.
“Yes, I think that’s my car,” I yell back. The Ranger then tells me that it’s illegally parked and says I need to move it immediately to avoid a parking ticket.
Annoyed, I emerge from my tent only to be blinded by a bright flashlight.
“Wow, nice haircut,” the Ranger says. Confused, I look up at her.
It’s Sarah. Apparently she’s a bear chaser and a car chaser. She reminds me suddenly of Kirk, the guy in the TV show Gilmore Girls who does every single job in Stars Hollow, the Girls’ tiny Connecticut town. Whenever Kirk appears on screen, he seems comfortingly familiar, reinforcing the show’s small-town, homey feel.
In Yosemite, too, seeing Sarah, my personal hair stylist and bear chaser, in the middle of the night, is a strange comfort. She makes Camp 4 feel like home.
An hour later, Wini and I are woken up yet again by the World’s Smartest Bear trying to infiltrate our bear locker. I start to wonder how long I really want to live in a place where I’m visited nightly by a bear. After all, in the three years I spent living in my Los Angeles apartment, not once did a bear break into my refrigerator in the middle of the night.
Learning to levitate
Taking a Yosemite climbing class with a 19-year-old, rock climbing heckler.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — Standing in front of Camp 4’s immense Columbia Boulder with its famously difficult Midnight Lighting climbing route, I watch a group of twenty-something climbers attempt to tackle the boulder. A fascinated crowd gives advice and support to them as they try to reach the top of the rock. But, one after another, each climber places a foot on the granite face, tries to maneuver himself to the top, and then falls onto his foam mat placed below. It occurs to me that this is a surprisingly masochistic activity, intentionally trying to scale a nearly impossible-to-climb rock, only to fall again and again.
Then, I realize that if I’m truly going to become a resident of Yosemite National Park, integrated into the climbing culture of Camp 4, I too need to become a masochist.
Early the next morning, I’m standing outside Yosemite Mountain Sports, with a rented climbing harness and shoes, next to Corey, a 19 year old athletic girl with long hair down to her waist. Jo, the 50 year old, blond instructor for our Crack Climbing class, doesn’t stop talking from the moment we meet her. She’s a little spacey, but she is clearly a climbing expert. I’m hoping she isn’t going to ask us about our experience level, because one look at Corey’s muscular calves lets me know that this 19 year old girl is about to make me look about as masculine as, well, a 19 year old girl. Then, of course, Jo asks us about our experience level. I’m not surprised when Corey reveals that she goes to a climbing gym three times per week and also climbs outdoors frequently. In barely a whisper, without making eye contact with either of them, I sheepishly explain that I have been to three climbing classes, total, in the last six months. Jo tells me not to worry, because she’s planning a fun day of climbing without forcing us to try anything too hard.
While I’m driving Corey in my car to Swan Slab, a granite rock face adjacent to Camp 4, she tells me that she’s afraid that Jo isn’t hard core enough and that we won’t get to climb anything challenging. I tell her that I’m sure we can ask Jo to push us harder if the climbing is too easy, but I’m secretly trying to figure out how I’m going to defend myself in case this ultra-fit girl tries to beat me up.
My first sight of Swan Slab doesn’t set my mind at ease. At the climbing gym, foot and hand holds are color-coded and obvious. Swan Slab, on the other hand, looks like a smooth, sheer slab of granite with no holds of any kind. After I attach my climbing harness, Corey sees me hesitate.
“Come on! Be a man!” she yells at me as she holds my safety rope.
“Trust your feet,” Jo urges as I stare at the rock. “Just stand up on it.”
“Stop being a pussy,” Corey taunts. I turn around and give her a dirty look. She just smiles. I turn back toward the rock and push the tip of my climbing shoe into the granite.
Then, I stand up on the Slab. I’m amazed that Jo is right. Surprisingly, my feet aren’t slipping much as I make my way up.
“We’re falling asleep here!” Corey heckles from below.
The next thing I know, I’ve climbed a 90 foot rock face with almost no hand or foot holds, simply by trusting that my feet will be able to stick to the rock. Looking down at Jo and Corey far below, I realize that the key to climbing is simply believing that the climb is possible.
I repel back to the ground. Then, as I hold her safety rope, Corey does the same climb twice as elegantly in half the time.
“What’s taking you so long?!” I yell to her. “Haven’t you climbed before?”
“I just made you look like a bitch,” she retorts as she repels down.
When she returns to the ground, she sticks her tongue out at me. Then, she offers me some homemade beef jerky that her mom made for her. As I chew the salty snack, Corey smiles at me mockingly as she attaches her harness for an even more difficult climb. I realize that I’ve just made my sixth Yosemite friend.
After our class ends, a blond, 20 year old California surfer-looking guy named Flip starts free climbing one of Swan Slab’s more difficult routes, without a rope and safety equipment. Corey watches him, drooling. I watch him, amazed. His climbing style is the New York City Ballet, Corey’s is the Newark Ballet, and mine is the Toddler Daycare Ballet.
Flip’s eyes shine when he tells us that he’s also staying at Camp 4, and he’s been climbing since age 12. He tells us that he works in construction during the week and climbs on the weekends, all so he can be outside almost all day, every day. For a moment, I yearn to be him, a person who has dedicated as much of his life as possible to the outdoors.
That night, while Corey goes to a family birthday dinner, Flip and I go to the Yosemite Theater to see Balance, a documentary film featuring renowned rock climber Ron Kauk tackling difficult routes in the Park. We feel a special affinity with Ron, because he too spent a long time as a young man living at Camp 4, perfecting his climbing technique. But if Flip’s climbing style is the New York City Ballet, Ron Kauk’s style is the famous St. Petersburg Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet, populated entirely with 40 copies of outstanding dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Flip and I watch the film in awe as Ron appears to levitate effortlessly to the top of Yosemite’s hardest climbs.
I wonder if I too can learn to levitate. But I know that learning to climb as well as Ron Kauk will undoubtedly take me the rest of my life. I picture myself living in Camp 4 perpetually, climbing outside every day, with Corey constantly ridiculing me from below. I realize suddenly that I have already been living in Yosemite for a week, and I start to wonder whether I will ever leave.
Meeting the Yosemite Oracle
A renowned rock climber gives some life advice.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — “Where the hell are you?” I hear my friend Suzanne yelling at me in a voice mail message. Surprisingly, this time, the message doesn’t prompt me to record a nastier voicemail greeting. Yosemite must be working on me, I think.
But moving to a National Park on a whim creates some awkward logistical issues. Suzanne’s voicemail reminds that my friends and family are probably on the verge of calling a SWAT team to find me. And the single pair of underwear I have brought to Yosemite has caused me to significantly lower my is-this-too-dirty-to-wear test. My new test has become, “Is this underwear caked in mud and/or are there insects living in it?”
I decide that I need to check my e-mail, so I drop by the Wi-Fi enabled Curry Lounge, also hoping to find out whether the mother-daughter pair made it to the top of Half Dome. They’re not there, and I realize sadly that I’ll probably never see them again. I read my e-mail, and I respond to my mom’s “Where are you?” e-mail by telling her that I’m living in Yosemite, which probably begs more questions than it answers.
It occurs to me that even though I’m living in the wilderness, there’s no reason for me to turn into a reclusive Unabomber. After all, even Henry David Thoreau visited friends while writing the American wilderness classic, Walden. I decide to respond to a “How was Yosemite?” e-mail from my Los Angeles friend Wendy with a cryptic, “Still in Yosemite. Long story. Interested in meeting me?” Unphased, she writes back with plans to meet me with her husband, Rich, in Tuolumne Meadows, a corner of the park I’ve been dying to visit since I arrived. I double the weirdness ante by replying, “Just so you know, there will be this girl from Switzerland and this dude from Detroit at our camp. They are cool.” Her reply doesn’t reveal any hesitation. Wendy is a great person to have around, because she’s up for anything and tolerates my antics, even when they result in her driving to a National Park — that is on fire — to meet a Swiss nurse and a Michigan hitchhiker.
Tuolumne Meadows is a more remote, less-visited part of the Park, normally about an hour’s drive from the Valley in which I have been living. But the ongoing Big Meadows Fire has gotten very out of control and has begun burning across Yosemite’s major road. The only way to avoid being burned alive in my car is a six hour drive, looping around the Park.
On the way, Wini, Garrett (who will go anywhere as long as it’s closer to Montana), and I treat ourselves to milkshakes at the Moonshine Cafe in Coulterville, a quaint 1850s gold mining town. We twist through winding mountain roads, under the fresh smelling pine tree forests of the Sierra National Forest. It’s an especially rural, rugged drive, and somehow this signals Swiss Wini to ask us if we might see an American rodeo. Garrett and I laugh and explain that though cowboys are American icons, they are a rare sight in 2009.
So when we arrive in Bridgeport, a rural town close to Tuolumne, we are all astonished when we spot a real, live rodeo, advertising a “Team Branding” competition. The three of us watch two cowboys on horses race to rope a calf while a third cowboy forces it to the ground, tagging it with a paint-covered branding iron. During her time in the U.S., I have also brought Wini to her first fast food drive-through, her first drive-through car wash, and her first Wal-Mart. I start to fear that I have somehow inadvertently reinforced every American stereotype to her, which I suspect she will inevitably convey to everyone she knows in Europe. “America is a place full of insatiable consumerism, fast food, and cowboy rodeos — and no one ever leaves his car,” she’ll tell them. And she’ll have the photos to prove it.
I’m relieved to see Wendy and Rich when we finally arrive in Tuolumne, because they are my friends, but, more importantly, they have brought me a more comfortable camping sleeping pad from my apartment. Now, the only thing stopping me from a full night’s rest in Camp 4 will be the World’s Smartest Bear, who has learned that a bear breakfast buffet is available every morning at 4 A.M. in campsite 13.
The five of us attend the Park’s nightly campfire program in Tuolumne. A Ranger with a guitar jovially sings a song about bear safety to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” then continues with Dr. Seuss’s “Waltzing with Bears.” Clearly, this guy isn’t terrorized nightly at 4 A.M. by the World’s Smartest Bear — or maybe he is and has learned to love it, I think. He asks one delighted child to walk around with a bear pelt on his back so that we can all pet it. I know I have never seen a kid have so much fun pretending to be a bear, and then I realize I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid pretend to be a bear, ever. Basking in the glow of the campfire, we are the only people at the program over 10 but under 40 years old, and yet, we enjoy it just as much as the Bear Pelt Kid.
The next morning, we wish Garrett luck as he leaves to continue hitchhiking toward Montana. We’re all a little worried about him, this 18 year old kid with nothing to his name but a free spirit. The rest of us hike to Young Lakes, a trio of picturesque, shimmering lagoons deep in Yosemite backcountry. We set up our tents next to one of the Lakes. When twilight falls and the air turns cool, we lie on huge granite slabs, still emanating heat from the day’s sun, and we marvel at the twinkling stars carpeting the expanse of sky above.
“We should just live here,” Wendy says.
“I already do,” I say.
Wini and I say goodbye to Wendy and Rich after our Young Lakes expedition, and we stop at Latte Da Coffee in the tiny town of Lee Vining, just outside Yosemite’s east entrance. We’re sitting on the porch, drinking tea and using the café’s free Internet access to call Switzerland, when renowned mountain climber Ron Kauk joins us on the porch. Seriously. I’m astonished. He tells us that he lives nearby, and I want to say, “What a coincidence! I live here too! We should totally hang out and go climbing together! Maybe you can teach me about the Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet!” But I stop myself, knowing he’ll have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Instead, I tell him awkwardly that though I like to climb, I’m not very good, because I’m still learning.
“We each do things in our own way,” he says. “We take our own path.”
I feel like I’m talking to the Yosemite Oracle. Or maybe to the ghost of Real John Muir.
“Well, you’re the smart one,” I say to the Oracle. “This must be one of the most beautiful places on Earth to live.”
“I think so,” he says. “But you can live here too, forever, if you want.”
When I awake in Camp 4 on my twelfth morning in Yosemite, Wini tells me that it’s time for her to leave the Park and continue her vacation. I think to myself that one of the hardest things about living in Yosemite is the transient nature of the people I meet here. During my time in the Park, almost all of the people I’ve befriended — the mother-daughter Half Dome hikers, Garrett the hitchhiker, Corey the “inspiring” climbing partner, Flip the California-surfer dude, and the domino-playing Crivello family — have left me behind.
And now, Wini, too, hugs me goodbye as she boards a bus toward Wyoming to visit Yellowstone National Park.
The next morning, I’m standing in line at the Camp 4 Ranger Station to pay my camping fee, when I start sneezing from to the smoke-filled air due the continuing Big Meadows Fire, which seems like it has no plans to stop burning until it engulfs Camp 4 in flames. I think to myself how much I miss Wini screaming at me in the middle of the night to protect her from the World’s Smartest Bear. I wonder whether it might be time for me to leave Yosemite too and return home.
While I’m waiting, Katie, a 25 year old girl treating herself to a Yosemite vacation after completing a Masters Degree in Geology, tells me that she’s planning to hike to the top of Half Dome, but she’s nervous. I find myself telling her about the Incredibly Brave Kid and the mother-daughter pair, and that I’m living in Yosemite, and she acts like this is the coolest thing she’s ever heard, and then she asks me if I want to share breakfast, and suddenly, somehow, we’re friends.
I realize that my life in Yosemite is like an iPod set on repeat, playing my favorite song, over and over and over. As I gaze at the severe granite slabs towering above me, the idea of returning to Los Angeles makes me queasy. I’m positive that I could stay forever and never grow tired of the song.
After breakfast, I get into my car and notice a copy of Yosemite’s newspaper on my passenger’s seat that Wini left there the morning before. At first, I think that she forgot it, but then it occurs to me that she left it for me, intentionally.
When I open the newspaper, I see a picture of a bear adjacent to a short blurb about some of the other National Parks.
I can’t go home until I’ve seen a bear, I think.
I shift my car into gear and turn on my iPod. I take one last look at Camp 4 and the beautiful granite valley surrounding me. I take a deep breath and start driving in the opposite direction of Los Angeles.
How to Hike Half Dome
- Because of safety concerns due to overcrowding, permits to hike Half Dome are now required on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays when the Half Dome cables are installed (usually May 21 through October 11). Yosemite issues 400 permits every day, but they are not available in the park. Hikers must apply for a permit in advance through the National Recreation Reservation Service from between four months to one week in advance of hiking.
- Park your car in the trailhead parking lot near Happy Isles. Starting at 7am, you can take a shuttle to the trailhead, but if you’re starting your hike before sunrise, simply walk the half-mile to the trailhead.
- Hiking Half Dome is a 16-mile round trip with a total elevation gain of 4,750 feet. If you are an experienced hiker, you can complete the hike in around eight hours, but most hikers will require 10 to 12 hours. Leave at sunrise (or earlier) to give yourself enough time. The earlier that you leave, the less crowded the cables will be.
- Be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight, at least four liters of water, a picnic lunch for a lunch break at the top, and a topographical map of the area in case you get lost (though the trail is very well marked).
- There are two different routes at the beginning of the hike: the Mist Trail route is steeper and shorter, while the John Muir Trail route is longer but not as steep. I recommend taking Mist Trail in at least one direction (on the way down is easiest) so you can see beautiful Vernal and Nevada Falls.
- Two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to Half Dome’s summit without requiring technical climbing equipment. The cables can become very crowded in the middle of the day. Use extreme caution and take your time when you’re using the cables, and whatever you do, do not attempt to climb up the Dome outside the cable route (unless you are knowledgeable and using climbing equipment).
View the route below or download the Without Baggage Half Dome GPS track in GPX or KML format.
How to Camp in Yosemite’s Camp 4
- Reservations are not available for Camp 4, but there are a limited number of campsites, which are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.
- The campground fills most mornings from spring to fall. Though the Park Ranger arrives at the Camp 4 kiosk at 8:30 A.M. every day to hand out the available spaces in the campground, you should be in line by 8:00 AM if you plan on getting a spot.
- The ranger assigns six people to each campsite, and groups may be split up depending on availability. The Park Service charges $5 per night per person, and you can pay in advance for the number of nights you want to stay.
- During the summer, campers are limited to seven days in Camp 4. During the rest of the year, campers are limited to 14 days.
- Showers are not available at Camp 4, but campers can pay $5 at Curry Village or Housekeeping Camp to take a shower. Parking is available adjacent to Camp 4.
How to Take a Rock Climbing Class in Yosemite
- A Yosemite Mountaineering School is located in Curry Village in Yosemite Valley. Another is located in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. The School offers classes and expert guides who can teach you anything you want to learn about rock climbing.
- Climbing lessons are offered every day starting at 8:30 A.M, April through October. Climbers can simply show up at the school in the morning to join a class, though reservations are strongly recommended. Classes are less expensive depending on the number of enrolled students, so reserving a space in advance increases your chance that others will want to join, reducing your cost. Call (209) 372-8344 to make a reservation.
- Classes are designed to be taken sequentially, and classes are offered for beginning, intermediate, and expert climbers.
- If you don’t have climbing equipment, Yosemite Mountaineering School will rent you what you need, though, if you plan on climbing frequently, it’s more cost effective to buy equipment (it isn’t very expensive). You’ll want to start with at least a climbing harness and climbing shoes.
- Yosemite Mountaineering School also takes climbers on guided climbs and offers private lessons.