Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Birthday in Yosemite

In years past I have let birthdays slip by without fanfare. It’s much ado ‘bout nuthin’, I thought. With the advent of age however, I appreciate more fully the gift of each birthday.

A few years ago, a dear friend made extra-special birthday arrangements. “I’m going to wake up in Yosemite on my birthday,” he informed.

Few places more readily display God’s broad brush – my heaven, Her canvas. No other place can literally steal my breath… from a parking lot. I thought his birthday strategy brilliant and decided this year I too would awaken in Yosemite on my birthday.

In 2005, my friends and I hiked a section of the John Muir Trail (JMT) from Yosemite Valley to Mammoth. One day as I climbed out of Garnet Lake, I met two men, a father and son. The father carried a large pack and stopped to chat. He said he had hiked the JMT, all 220 miles, over ten times, that he brought his son to the trail as a little boy. Both men were card-carrying members of the National Park's Eagle Pass. He was eighty-something, on his “bon voyage trip” hiking a final section of the JMT.

In my journals, I came to call him the Ancient Man. I wrote of him and remember him often. I aspire to hike the JMT again, if only a section and for the last time, in my eighties. What frequently brings the Ancient Man to mind is a question I thought to ask but did not.

Knowing it’s the last time; what does it look like?

I suspect the water was bluer and moon glow softer, the sky more infinite, the granite more chiseled, the flora more fragrant, the fauna more arresting, the starlight more brilliant and the world… more breathtaking than on the seventh day. I suspect he saw newly, as if not for the last time, but the first.

We never know what's left in our wake. I love the Ancient Man, for in his wake I am attentive to everyday beauty in the natural world. I stop for sunsets and geese overhead, I run in the rain and listen to thunder. I drink in nature and let it steep, suffusing my cells and etching my memory in its unassuming tea… for later, for me and in remembrance of the Ancient Man.

The Ancient Man and my Yosemite birthday buddy also crossed paths above Garnet Lake, though I doubt they met. Too bad, they would have liked one another methinks. Both men were couriers of sorts as my birthday neared with an opportunity to create a lasting memory - a birthday in Yosemite. I may not have another birthday. I certainly will not pass this way again. Let me make time to spend time in a special place on my special day.

I have never seen Yosemite shrouded in winter. Always in the backcountry, I have stayed only once on the valley floor. The summer sun glares off bare granite and Yosemite Falls is known as Yosemite Walls. I have seen Yosemite Walls and summer traffic called the Yosemite Crawl but I have never seen Yosemite Falls and heard its roar.

I reserved a cabin at Camp Curry and made celebratory plans: a birthday brunch at the Ahwahnee, time to snowshoe, read and write.

I always draw a rudimentary picture of my destination and intended activities to post on my office door: stick figures golfing in AZ, mountain climbing in CO, birding in Big Sur, and beaching in HI. My staff love it.

The caption read, “Off to God’s country, snowshoeing in Yosemite. My heaven, Her canvas.” My picture depicted a stick figure snowshoeing amid 3 Brothers mountains, Half Dome, El Cap, Bridal Veil Falls, and the Merced River, Yosemite’s “Tunnel View”, that view from the Hwy 41valley entrance. I taped it to my door and departed for six days.

I emailed friends: Happy birthday to me, Happy birthday to me.

Happy birthday to Lorin. Happy birthday to meeeeeee.

Headed for snowshoeing in Yosemite. I intend to awaken on my birthday in Yosemite. Perhaps Sunday brunch at the Ahwahnee.

Methinks a winter trip into Yosemite is a good sieve. I will meet people like me. I'll probably LIKE THEM! A good time will be had by all... me, myself, and I.

Back Sunday... maybe. toodles noodles! xoxo lb

After filling my tank and packing winter gear, I headed south on CA Hwy 99 and pulled off 90-minutes later in Manteca, at the CA Hwy 120 – Yosemite exit. One hundred twenty miles west of Yosemite Valley, the mountains were but a dark stain at the feet of a dove gray sky.

This is cowboy country, the fertile fruit basket of our nation, the San Joaquin valley. No Target’s, no Walmart’s, no Safeway’s venture deeply into cowboy country. Rather, they cling to the commercial corridor edging the freeway – and suckle.

In my eagerness to reach Yosemite, I normally race through this stretch of California. This time, with the Ancient Man in mind, I drove slower, in the right lane, and scrutinized the scenery.

I passed through Escalon, it’s old streets lined with fifty-foot sycamores, bare and bent in winter. I passed the Cowboy’s Church. CA Hwy 120 is lined with orchards and vineyards and small cow farms. Stately, plantation-style mansions occasionally ornament the roadway in tobacco-row charm.

Spent almond blossoms sprinkled to the ground in pink petal confetti. These same grounds will be gilded in gold leaf following autumnal rains in a stunning shock of color.

Wrapped in white, newly planted saplings, perfectly aligned, sent my thoughts cross-country to Arlington’s National Cemetery. Odd, that flight of thought, from beginning to end, sprout to stone, west to east, the peculiarity of neurochemical dots connected instantaneously by the geometry of sprigs in soil.

Knowing I'd be losing da lua (bathrooms), I stopped at McDonald’s in Oakdale and sampled their answer to Starbuck’s frappuccino. I listened as gravely grating turned to whir and my iced coffee drink blended chunky to smooth. Even kids eating Happy Meals wear cowboy boots. This IS cowboy country!

As for McDonald’s frappé mocha? Like their billboards boast, it’s yummé!

On the outskirts of Oakdale, 66 miles from the park entrance and 94 miles from the valley floor, the ground begins to rise and orchards surrender to expansive pasturelands. Rolling hills shone chartreuse in fresh stems and shoots. Calves frolicked near their mamas. Spring had clearly sprung in central California.

Farms have many outbuildings with uses that remain a mystery to me. They always appear in some semblance of derelict and disrepair. Sunlight peeks through weathered wood and doors lean heavily, all but unhinged. Windmills, rusted mute and motionless, tower over solar panels erected in their shadow. Old metal cisterns, eviscerated and left for dead, decay amongst the weeds.

Massive oaks stud the hills like sentries – posted for centuries. Naked and gnarled, their trunks lean, arthritic branches reach toward dirt, like crotchety old men falling, slowly, tarrying in their tumble. Their lacy silhouettes against the gray day were despairingly lonely with devastating beauty.

I stopped at Lake Don Pedro, at The Rim of the World vista point for my last out-house break. The sound of rushing water ricocheted off steep canyon walls and spilled into the parking lot. Lake Don Pedro is a two-million-acre-foot water reservoir with 160 shoreline miles. The 1849 town of Jacksonville was flooded and inundated in 1971 with the completion of Don Pedro dam. Visible from an airplane, I use it as a beacon to Yosemite’s gate, for a wanton glimpse of Half Dome.

Old Priest Grade is a 2.7-mile, two-lane, twister that snakes up the southern slope of the gorge that feeds Lake Don Pedro. Its 45-degree pitch connects the towns of Moccasin and Big Oak Flat. Moccasin is a company town built to house the workers of the Hetch Hetchy Dam that supplies water to San Francisco, many crow miles away. The road was replaced some years ago with a kinder, more genteel route (Priest Grade) that covers the 1540-foot rise in six miles. I shifted into low gear and took the Old Priest like leftover communal wine, in one shot and straight up.

Two-point-seven miles and 1500 vertical feet later, I popped onto Big Oak Flat, population 200, elevation 2803’ and snow-lined roads. The big oaks quickly gave ground to evergreens and scrub mahogany, traffic became sparse and not for the first time, I feared being a small, solo female in Yosemite, remembering Cary Stayner and the small, solo, female park ranger he hunted and beheaded.

California’s mountain communities can be equally quaint and frightening when my mind wanders to ex-cons. Mountain communities reportedly contain a disproportionately high concentration of ex-cons. "Cary Stayner is imprisoned," I said aloud, reminding myself as I passed through his killing field.

At the park gate, I paid the weekly winter fee of twenty dollars. The ranger warned of icy roads and a maximum 20 mph speed limit. As if enchanted, the magical, mystical land beyond the gate was deeply blanketed in snow, the roads edged with six-foot berms. ICY signs announced slushy areas in bright orange as I wound my way to the valley floor. Nightfall approached and I weighed my options before making a right turn onto CA Hwy 41 Fresno, en route to the famous “Tunnel View” lookout.

A brisk wind bit as I marched across the parking lot, mesmerized by the view that captivated the cavalry two centuries ago. Several photographers stood tri-pod ready, awaiting fading light for flawless photos. I extended my iPhone and centered the valley “tunnel” view. Shglick!

The iPhone does not have the clean, crisp click of mechanical shutters of yore. Rather, it’s the wheezy, slurry, slushy click of an insufficient, vegetative mechanism. Were it a heart valve? Dx: endocarditis; Rx: valve replacement surgery. Mea culpa, yet again I digress.

Shglick! I sent the captioned photo to several requiring no explanation, “Right here, right now!”

Quietly joyful at my return, I stayed to drink in Yosemite and let her steep, suffusing my cells and etching my memory in her unassuming tea… for later, for me and to honor the Ancient Man. I watched darkness creep through Yosemite and scale the opposing slopes until the valley dissolved into darkness. Only then did I drive to Curry Village.


  1. Lovely, just lovely. I'm trying to finish my income tax right now but soon I will come back and luxuriate in your words; so like music; beautiful and restful music. Maybe Mahler's Adagio from his marvelous 5th. Am I not rhapsodic (sp?) tonite. That's what your writing does to me. But you know that. Nite, nite.

  2. Any guesses why I love this man? :-D

  3. Lorin, I read this when I got home from the seminar tonight. I love your words as they bring peace to my heart. I particularly love the phrase "We don't know what we leave in our wake." I am going to be thinking about this for a while.

  4. Mahalo Allison for your thoughts, thinking, and thoughtfulness.

  5. A very close friend of mine said to me one evening, as we watched the westering summer sun from near the Sierra Crest, "You never know when you might be looking at your last summer sunset." I've recited her words many times--she was gone the following year. But she lived the ethic.