USM8s Part IV: Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is the most soul-stirring place I have ever had the privilege to visit. I’d never really been interested in visiting the United States until I researched its wilderness, and holy hell is that place unfairly dense with natural wonders. Australia is a large, dry country with a relatively barren middle; most life is found on the edge. But America is serviced by five major rivers which snake through its centre, allowing life to flourish throughout its diverse ecosystems. Yosemite stood out to me instantly (thanks, Looney Toons). This one’s got everything: glaciers, mountains, valleys, waterfalls, granite cliffs, lakes, rivers, giant sequoias, and animals I’d never even heard of.
Robert drove carefully from San Fran, squinting over the wheel and urging us to keep him awake with chatter. His mate Yuna was silent and hungover in the passenger seat, feet on the dash. Yellow hills rolled past, topped with enormous, slowly-revolving wind turbines. It reminded me a lot of the drive from Melbourne to Rainbow Serpent Festival every summer. Helena, Mario and I were sandwiched in the back beneath our gear, too excited to be uncomfortable. The city had tired us out; we longed for the wild. This was what I had come to America for.
Yosemite was forged by glaciers. The Sierra Nevada mountain range was uplifted and tilted around 10 million years ago, resulting in dramatic slopes and steep river beds which became narrow, deep canyons. Around one million years ago, snow and ice formed glaciers in the high alpine meadows. These glaciers moved down the canyons over time, sculpting the Yosemite Valley and its iconic slopes, peaks and rock formations. The indigenous people called the U-shaped valley Ahwahnee, meaning “big mouth”. 95 per cent of Yosemite is designated wilderness area. Its quintessential features include the imposing El Capitan, a sheer granite cliff looming 900 metres above the valley floor, and the infamous Half Dome, on every serious climber’s bucket list.
Yosemite was first protected in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Grant, cementing its status as a world heritage site (which set a precedent for the 1872 declaration of Yellowstone as America’s first National Park). Naturalist John Muir fell in love with Yosemite’s landscape and fought fiercely for its preservation. He built and lived in a tiny cabin by Lower Yosemite Falls. In 1903, he spent three days camping at Glacier Point with President Theodore Roosevelt, convincing him to remove the park from California’s jurisdiction and declare it a National Park. In 1906, Roosevelt signed a bill and made it so. Muir is known as the “Father of the National Parks” and has an almost mythical status; his name is peppered throughout Yosemite and wilderness areas worldwide.
A quote by Muir is inscribed on a plaque by the site of his cabin: “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail. Like a generous host, she offers here brimming cups in endless variety, served in a grand hall, the sky its ceiling, the mountains its walls, decorated with glorious paintings and enlivened with bands of music ever playing. The petty discomforts that beset the awkward guest, the unskilled camper, are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains. Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness.”
We’d snagged a campsite at Wawona, an hour’s drive out of the valley proper. Robert and Yuna had borrowed his sister’s camping gear, which they did not know how to operate. Neither had brought a torch or hiking boots. We explained to them what poison oak looked like (I was appalled), and that they must store anything fragrant in the bear-proof locker provided. Black bears have been known to literally tear the door off a car to access food. Yuna struggled with the tent alone, Robert on the sidelines throwing out useless advice, until it was satisfactorily half-erected. Helena took pity and cooked them dinner, and they accepted their hot dogs on sticks without complaint. After one night (during which Yuna would sleep peacefully beside her aromatic coconut shampoo in the tent), Robert and Yuna would pack up and head back to the city.
Mark (who we’d met at the Treasure Island Flea) appeared in the middle of our first night at Wawona, hanging out of his car and shouting our names into the dark. Keep in mind this is a family campsite and lights-out is at 10pm. After we’d shushed him sufficiently, Mark and Mario became instant friends, discussing at length the healing power of crystals. The following morning, Mark drove us up the hills and into the valley for our first glimpse of the fabled Yosemite National Park.
After an hour’s drive we entered a mile-long tunnel, playing the hold-your-breath game, which was dangerous given the amount of gasping we were about to do. Emerging into the light of day, our eyes adjusted to the sight of the creatively named Tunnel View, an expansive scenic overlook of most of Yosemite Valley and its famous features. This sight is so arresting it’s difficult to convey - the park itself, like much of America, is supersized. Everything is giant. From left to right at Tunnel View you can see El Capitan, the almost invisible Clouds Rest 17.7km away, the face of Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and the mystical Bridalveil Fall, which flows year-round.
We finally arrived at the Visitor Centre and tumbled out of the car like kids on Christmas. Back home, Helena and I had discussed doing the Clouds Rest hike, a 15-hour, 24km round-trip with 540m of elevation gain (mostly during a series of gruelling switchbacks, rising 300m over a 1.6km length). The final destination is a razor-sharp ridge with steep drop-offs either side, a great place to kill yourself if you can’t stomach the return journey. Why put ourselves through such intense torture? Clouds Rest is the ultimate Yosemite trek. It has 360-degree panoramic views of the valley and, if you bring binoculars, you can see hikers attempting the (even more strenuous) ascent of Half Dome’s cables. But, surprise! We didn’t make it anywhere near Clouds Rest. It was 35 degrees and sweltering every day; the river beckoned.
The Merced River meanders through Yosemite Valley, and on the first day we followed it to the foot of El Capitan for a scenic lunch. Mario taught us to skip stones. We made friends with a curious family of ducks. Later, we would float along the Merced in a rubber dinghy, a clandestinely-tripping Mario as captain. Our favourite spot was beneath Lower Yosemite Falls, where the creek negotiates its way over and under and around granite boulders. Helena discovered a natural and perfect massage chair, a secret she kept for most of the day (bastard). Mario risked his life seeking adventure under the Lower Falls, scaling slippery rocks and diving into blue pools. Combined with Upper Yosemite Falls, the two form the tallest waterfall in North America at 739 metres.
Yosemite is a mind-breakingly beautiful, immense and wild place, rightly declared one of the US’s most beloved and popular national parks. In 2016, the park received a record-breaking five million visitors. The central hub struck us as super American: a fully-stocked grocery store, bookstore, dental clinic, art gallery, and museums in the middle of the wilderness. Families puttered about on rental bikes, rowdy climbers prepared their carabiners, and all manner of tourists consulted maps and guides, arguing over which trail to hike. The Valley is buzzing during high summer.
After five days, Helena and I were due in Sacramento for a flight to Portland, and Mario had decided he’d return to the boardwalk and his igneous friends. This was, sadly, goodbye. Mario gifted us each a piece of jade and waved us off from Wawona, assuring Helena he’d be waiting for her in Venice when she returned in early November. He has not yet responded to our messages. I hope, hope, hope their paths cross again.
We gawked in wonder all week. Every sight was gorgeous, every lazy photo inevitably a masterpiece. Our eyes short-circuited and our brains refused to believe this was not CGI. Mario became more confident about his hair, testing out new and exotic styles. My heart sings at the thought of this place. We are so, so lucky to have the opportunity to experience beautiful and untamed Mother Nature. Go see it yourself and try not to keel over in astonishment. Yosemite is - and I don’t use this word often or lightly - awesome. Yosemite is awesome.