“Ah yes Ms. Bacon, we have your reservation.”
The registration desk at Curry Village is housed in a brightly lit, freestanding building next to the shuttle stop. Three walls of four are floor to ceiling, multi-paned windows, making it a bright, albeit chilly beacon in a largely unlit park. I pulled open the door to join the short queue and felt welcomed by the rich aroma of coffee. Large canisters of black coffee and leaning pillars of paper cups stood at the ready and I debated pouring a cup to warm me.
“Your last name please? Ah yes Ms. Bacon, we have your reservation.” He found my reservation and took my credit card. He marked a placemat-sized map of Camp Curry with a highlighter and rotated it for my study as he oriented me to the registration desk in relation to my cabin. He laid two large, brass keys on the counter and slid them in my direction beneath his hand.
I slid one key back, “I only need one.”
“How many of you are there?” he asked.
“Only one?” He quickly regained composure, erasing surprise from his face. “Very good then, Ms. Bacon. The front desk is open twenty-four-hours-a-day if you require our assistance. Enjoy your stay.”
“I will,” I smiled before turning to foray into the darkness and find my cabin.
Beneath thick cloud cover obscuring a gibbous moon, Camp Curry was pitch black. People walked with flashlights and headlamps. I dug my headlamp from my backpack before sloshing through snow and mud.
Cabin #22A is pressed against resident housing and the row of cabins abutting the cliffs, forever closed by rock fall. The tent cabins of Tuolumne Meadows are heated by woodstove; I anticipated lighting a fire. I unlocked the door and was blasted back by heat of a wall furnace turned up high.
Curry’s log-accented cabins are of single wall construction. Unmilled log beams support log headers for doorways and windows. Board and batten slats complete walls and ceiling. Everything in #22A was painted a sickly shade of Grey Poupon. Lime-green and maroon plaid bedspreads covered the two brass beds. A small nightstand stood between them with a pine tree shaped table lamp. A dresser with unmilled corner posts stood in the corner.
“Honey, I’m home,” I yelled before throwing my stuff on the nearest bed.
I ferried gear from my auto to the cabin. Bear Aware signs were posted throughout the parking lot.
“Aren’t bears still in hibernation?” I’d asked at the registration desk.
“No. There is so much available food that bears in Yosemite hibernate for about three weeks,” he said. THREE WEEKS? “Get everything out of your car, just like in the summer.”
After unloading then sterilizing my auto for the bears (THREE WEEKS?), I sought dinner. Full dining facilities at Camp Curry do not open until April. The Coffee Corner serves continental breakfast then pizza until 9pm - but I seldom, almost never, eat pizza. I drove to Yosemite Village, bought a salad from their food court and spent the remainder of the evening reading, journaling, scouring maps, studying trail conditions and planned a morning climb.
The cabin had once been two rooms connected through an alley bathroom. A second bath had been added against the back wall of my half and the adjoining bathroom’s door was locked off. The single wall separating me from them might just as well been a cotton curtain. Cotton would not lend the illusion of privacy. With cotton they would know that every word, every zipper, every drop of every thing… would be heard. I coughed and shuffled my papers to clue them in. Their conversation continued beyond my bedtime; I sandwiched my head between pillows for sleep.
With Cary Stayner lurking in the dark recesses of my mind – I dreamt I was fleeing, running through the forest as Joie had – I awoke with a start, in a sweat, my heart racing, hammering in my ears. Eventually I slept again and woke to another gray day, as promised.
The Coffee Corner starts service at 0700. I dressed in layers, fleece, gloves, fur-trimmed boots, and my 2002 USA Winter Olympics beret. With temperatures in the 40’s, I stuck to high ground, avoiding the slurry of mud and snow as I picked my way past cabin after cabin.
I passed the communal bathroom as I reached the central village buildings and was thankful for my cabin’s indoor plumbing. I walked through the tent city, apparently abandoned for winter. Two large plumes of white smoke drifted upwards from the river rock chimneys of the Lodge and the Dining Pavilion. I followed the plumes until aroma café became its own siren’s song, luring me into right path finding.
“Nice hat,” someone said as I came through the doors and stood before the log fire crackling in the lobby.
“Thanks,” I smiled before queuing for coffee. Few people moved about at 0700. The log couch and chairs before the fire were vacant. In the café, small groups huddled over coffee and pastries, their conversations hushed by the cavernous room. I filled my cup and retraced my steps. I’d planned for several hours of writing before taking to the hills, to give the day a chance to warm as much as myself the pleasure of writing in Yosemite. With free coffee refills, I’d be back.
I passed a beautiful log home located behind the communal areas of the village. Private Residence, the sign stated. A bronze placard stood at the front gate: “Mother Curry’s Bungalow. In 1917, the first cabins were built with electric heat. After fifty years of living in a tent, Mother Curry got her bungalow.” (FIFTY YEARS OF LIVING IN A TENT?) A bicycle leaned against the front porch. Craftsman inlaid smaller logs around doors and windows, creating artistry in patterns. Smoke curled from the chimney. The home beckoned with quaint and charm. FIFTY YEARS OF LIVING IN A TENT? My mind got stuck like a phonograph needle in… you know… the broken record.
“Hi!” Two little boys played with a toboggan on a small mound of snow outside their cabin. The smaller squealed shrilly as only the very young can, ripping through camp, tearing away any vestiges of sleep and waking the neighbors.
“Hi!” I waved as their mother peeked out.
At 0945 I stood at the Upper Yosemite Falls trailhead. A large and noisy party of young adults congregated. I hustled from the parking lot to out distance them, in my foolish hope that they could not keep pace. The day remained gray with the threat of snow; the sun but a bright spot in the clouds.
“You are alone?” I passed a couple from Japan.
Freedom of the Hills, Rule #1: never, never, NEVER hike alone.
“No,” I smiled, “You’re here; now I’m not alone.” She giggled as I passed.
I expected to meet people on the trail but a danger of hiking alone is that when one does not return, no one is the wiser. None knew on which trail I hiked or my anticipated return. Some of that danger is mitigated with the advent of cell phones and Yosemite has excellent at&t coverage, as I would soon learn.
The lower trail was speckled in snow but primarily carpeted in dried, rusted oak leaves, gray granite, lime-green lichens, illuminated in the low, flat and shadow-less light of the day. Snow clung to the clouds, unable to let go, take the plunge and freefall to earth. The trail quickly assumed the familiar, tight switchbacks of the Sierra that carve a mountain into baby-steps. Hand-hewn granite blocks lined the up-side of the trail, temporarily preventing Yosemite’s reclamation from man’s messing.
It was a windless day; I sweated through my shirts in minutes and removed my jacket though the ambient temperature hovered near freezing. As if my body heat radiated ahead and warmed my path, clumps of snow slid from leaves overhead, dusting me in ice crystals that sparkled and glittered to the ground. Voices fell behind and only the sound of diesel busses growling across the valley floor drifted up-trail.
I stopped to jot a note when something moved on the trail above – I froze, waiting - a seemingly solo man wearing a white, long-sleeved shirt briefly emerged between trees. I eventually overtook George as he bent over his pack at the edge of a cliff. Not wanting to startle him, I called ahead.
He waved before turning around, “Yea, I’m getting my camera.”
George is a computer hardware engineer from one of northern California’s Santa cities: Santa Rosa, Santa Clara, Santa Teresa or Santa Cruz. His wife, a small animal veterinarian, attended a vet conference in the valley.
“We come here every year for this conference,” he said, “Usually its spring.”
George was tall, relatively lean, a bruxor I thought, as his yellowed teeth were evenly ground down. We walked together for a short time before I stopped, offering him the lead, rationalizing that my steps were shorter and my pace likely slower.
George declined, “No, I’ve sped up to keep up with you.”
We stopped for photos at Columbia Rock, 1.3 miles from the bottom and two miles from the top. Shglick! George clicked a pic on my iPhone. The valley floor lay at my feet; snow-covered Half Dome hovered over my left shoulder. With three-bar strength on my iPhone, I sent out another photo: Right here, right now!
George wore a Denali t-shirt. I inquired.
“I’m a wanna-be,” he said. He’d read books on hiking the John Muir (JMT) and Pacific Crest Trails; he attended lectures at REI. I spoke of my experience on both, of 1-week, bite-sized, 50-mile trips. We discussed bear cans and lockers, food drops, ranger stations and enrolling friends as mules to bring in food and entertainment for sections of the trail. Excitement grew in George with the possibility of hiking the JMT in sections.
“Are you planning to stay the night?” George eyed my pack.
“No, but after climbing in Alaska, my daypack grew. I always have enough stuff to stay the night in case I get hurt. I may not be comfortable but I should survive without loss of limbs or digits.”
Both solo hikers, we discussed Freedom of the Hills, Rule #1: never, never, NEVER hike alone. George was sticking to the lower, more populace trail. While he hiked alone, he would not be alone. I on the other hand, was headed for high ground and thin air.
“The problem is,” I justified, “If I wait for others, my life could be over –waiting. If badness befalls me, I figure Yosemite is a good a place as any to die and far better than most.” George applauded my ability and courage. Search and Rescue would call it anything but, were their services required.
The first and last people to pass on the up-climb did so, a young Russian couple that I would meet on top and again in Curry Village. George accompanied me to the base of the upper falls. There, water crystallized during its tumble, forming large snow dunes at the fall’s base. As far as George had ever hiked, it was once again his summit.
Before departing he dictated for me, my journal entry in his regard. “There she came upon George, a man of few words with an engaging smile, his face as cragged as the cliffs of Yosemite.” George smiled broadly, pleased with his work.
“Ooh, very good George!” I acknowledged, clapping. “I’ll need to write that down so I get it right in my journal. To which I will add, and my friends know this about me and will appreciate," I said parenthetically, "There she came upon George bent over his pack, providing her with the preferred view when meeting a man for the first time – his rear view.”
It was George’s turn to howl. “If I see you in Curry Village, I want to hear about the rest of the hike.” I promised to recount the tale. We shook hands and with that, George, computer hardware engineer and mountaineer wanna-be, retreated.
The trail beyond the base of upper Yosemite Falls turned cold with snow and ice. It veered slightly west into a narrow gorge carved by the falls itself until glacial moraine redirected its course and flow to its current location. I grew cold though still sweating beneath my two shirts. Occasionally, the sharp report of rock fall echoed above and looking for cover, I reviewed my protocol for rockslides and fall. Hiking against the cliffs of the narrow gorge, no cover from rock fall seemed to exist. That small "seeming" began to gnaw and I glanced overhead with anxiety.
I slowed with frequent starts and stops. I began counting my steps, discovering the switchbacks turned every 50 – 90 steps. I allowed myself to rest at the next turn or after 75 steps, though usually forcing myself to traverse one complete switchback before stopping. I scoured the trail for overnight shelter and feared being forced to seek such shelter. That being the case, I thought to turn around though there were still many, many hours of sunlight left in the day.
I pictured the contents of my pack and silently inventoried my gear and ability to live through an exposed night on a mountain. Down parka-check. Gortex pants and jacket-check-check. 200-weight fleece jacket-check. Food bars for 1.5 days-check. Space blanket-check. Lighter/matches-NO check! My matches were in the cabin. Auwe! I berated myself for stupidity.
If one can lasso these irrationalities, rein and recognize them as the clanging dinner bell, the beast is broken. It is yet again, another reason to hike with others. Companions may notice goofy, irritable and paranoiac behavior.
I did notice that I seemed unusually fearful and did follow the proverbial breadcrumbs. I stopped, threw on my jacket, groused around for a Clifbar and ate as I walked. I felt better within minutes: cheerful, lively, and sufficiently warmed to remove my jacket once again.
I met two young men on their way down. “Twenty more minutes,” they said as we passed.
“Five more minutes,” the young Russians said as they returned. Someone excavated the four-foot-tall trail signs from the snow and we stopped for pictures at the trail junction. It began to snow in earnest and I donned my gortex jacket.
I summited alone shortly before 1300. Five young adults met me on top: four men, one woman. Two men wore cotton t-shirts saturated in sweat.
Freedom of the Hills, Rule #2: cotton kills. Cotton does not wick water from skin. Cotton clings and cools and draws one’s body heat away. Several wore Cal Poly cotton sweatshirts, where they all attended classes. We assisted one another with the obligatory summit photos before I beat a hasty retreat.
It is in wilderness areas easily accessible by day-trips that one can witness such foolishness. Fortunately, the weather was not awful, they were young and strong and barring injury, would likely return to the valley floor without mishap or hypothermia.
On the lee side of trees, lichens cling and deep tree-wells form. A tree-well is the divot beneath the branches on the lee side, devoid of snow, that provides shelter. I left the summit, the wind and blowing snow and hiked until I found a tree-well into which I could sit upright, out of the storm and eat.
I brought graham crackers with mini Baby Bel cheese wheels as a birthday treat. I devoured an apple and noticed the stippling of snow on a nearby granite cliff. As I sat high on a mountain, tucked beneath the boughs of an evergreen, listening to the wind and watching the snow-fly… my cell phone rang and I Dream of Jeannie played.
Were I not tucked out of a snow storm, I Dream of Jeannie is usually followed by dance and exclamation, “Dance break!” I’ve done that in elevators with strangers, on escalators with friends, on street corners with street people.
I Dream of Jeannie is a reminder that my job is to come out to play, make merry and grant wishes. I Dream of Jeannie provides ballast for the curmudgeon-me that wants to hunker-down and hole-up.
My tree-well was as confining as a bottle, I had neither maneuverability nor inclination to find my cell phone. I listened to two stanzas of I Dream of Jeannie before my caller rolled into voicemail. Amazing, I thought, at&t must have a repeater tower high above the valley.
The trail down was slippery, icy and treacherous. I pitched and flailed like a newbie on ice skates. I wore Teva Snow-Monkey winter sport boots, boots I bought for their name as well as functionality. (I was born in the Chinese year of the Snow Monkey and while I have never ascribed to superstitions and folklore, I confess I am ALL snow monkey.) Mea culpa, I digress.
The soles of my Snow-Monkey Tevas are big snow-tire treads that bite and stick in snow. Nothing but crampons are useful on ice (I didn’t bring mine) and snowshoes did not fit within the well trampled, luge-run trail. I slipped and fell often, landing hard. When I found myself on the ground, I glissaded the run until the slope leveled before standing again.
Back at the base of Upper Yosemite Falls, I dug for my phone buried deep in my pack and returned a call to my neighbor and cat-sitter extraordinaire, Marcie.
“I don’t know why my phone called yours,” she said, “They just wanted to talk.” All was well with my cats. I shglicked a pic and sent it to Marcie: Right here, right now!
For a short time I followed a young couple in a timeless argument, “You don’t care about me,” he said. He turned in a huff and started down, responding to her pleading with sharp accusation.
Talk about NOT being present and in the moment. Standing high above Yosemite Valley, easily one of the most beautiful spots on earth, he pouted and spouted, “You don’t care about me.” It’s an age-old tug-o-war for power and control, of righteousness and domination.
Some years ago a friend admitted honestly, “You always seem like you’re upset with me.” Really? Auwe! He was the last man on the planet I wanted left there! His remark stung. I promised myself that I would be responsible for how he was left, that he would never be left there again.
In response, I invented a game named: No Squandering, a game with no allowances for pettiness and wasting of precious life. That game spawned another called: For you? Anything! In that game, there is no resistance. (I play this game with my pod of doctors at Kaiser.) His remark was a defining moment, a point on which our, and thereby many of my relationships, turned. These are games I continue to play and share with others.
I passed the quarreling couple and sent a silent prayer to Heaven, (which from Yosemite - is not so far) that he would learn No Squandering, to enjoy the moment and her company – soon, before he wore her and his welcome – out.
I hiked the final mile with two young men who, due to work commitments, were forced to return to Oakland same day. Parked side-by-side, we loaded our vehicles at 1500 and I bid them adieu.
I had a hankering for ice cream – my recurring food fantasy conjured in the mountains. I was far too cold to eat ice cream. I walked to lower Yosemite falls and stood on the footbridge visible from far above. I browsed through Yosemite Village to stretch and loosen my muscles. I visited the graveyard and read headstones, most dating to the mid-nineteenth century.
I returned to the food court at Yosemite Village seeking hot food to warm me: mashed potatoes, green beans, and rutabaga/garlic soup. I sat on the periphery to discourage conversation and study diners. Seated near the doorway, incoming patrons stopped to inquire about the soup, which was as good as it was garlicky. I had more conversations… shattering yet again my illusion of self as unapproachable and aloof.
The Lodge at Camp Curry is wi-fi free and the evening gathering spot. I plopped and sank deeply into a log chair next to the river rock hearth, a beer in one hand, laptop in the other. Portraits of David and Jennie Curry hung over the mantle, he on the left and she on the right.
I tipped my beer back and took in the open beamed ceiling and wagon-wheel chandeliers. The room was littered with large, comfortable log furniture and card tables surrounded by four chairs.
The fire was stoked with immense, split logs easily the circumference of my thigh, er... okay, maybe not so immense, and tended by the willing amongst us. A pencil-thin young man stood to return embers to the fire and rearrange logs. Flames rose to lick at fresh fuel even as he returned to the couch nearby.
She possessed the classic features of her people: blond hair in bilateral French-braids, bright blue eyes, creamy skin all the more pale against ruby cheeks and rosy lips.
“You know,” I’ve been known to say, “Y’all that are blond and blue from up-there.”
“You mean us northern Europeans?” my blond and blue friend laughed, requesting clarification.
“Yea, blond and blue from up-there.”
She was beautiful, blond and blue from up-there, Denmark as it turns out. They had planned to head into the high country but were unprepared for winter camping. They would stay through the weekend before leaving for San Francisco.
A group of four played a board game behind me.
“Why are you going to Santiago?” he sounded annoyed. “There’s no disease in Santiago.” Words like Ebola drifted from their huddle as they read cards and moved game pieces around the globe, containing outbreaks of plague, pestilence and deadly contagions.
I checked email, finished my beer, wished the Danes a spectacular trip and departed. The sharp crack of hockey sticks echoed against the cliffs while the unfamiliar music of Gen Y blared from the ice rink. I followed the small circle of light cast by my headlamp. Too exhausted for even the ghost of Cary Stayner to disturb, I slept well and awoke on my birthday in Yosemite.