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Yosemite

Family Tradition

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Family Tradition

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1010225_10152105545334538_2418952057446437744_nBecause it’s raining so hard we decide to stop in Salinas and visit the John Steinbeck museum. It was interesting—partly because I love Steinbeck (although I’ve never quite figured out how Grapes of Wrath is the work that he’s most famous for, that and Of Mice and Men. I mean I get it—they’re great works, but his best? Not in my book. Easiest to pigeonhole into a genre maybe—that’s why they get the press. But I digress), and partly because why not? It’s pouring and we’re going to Yosemite, where we’re both pretty sure we’ll end up sitting in the rain, or at least hiding from it. Kind of unbelievable considering California is in a drought, but then again, we saw Lake Shasta, a startling picture of blue against a myriad of red rings that told us where the water should be. It’s an unnerving sight, at best. Now it’s hard to believe though, here inside the John Steinbeck museum, listening to the rain on the roof while exploring a mock version of Cannery Row. Our chances for climbing aren’t great—even though we both know it, there’s still a little glimmer of hope that remains by not actually saying it out loud. We were going to climb the side of Half Dome on an epic, 8-pitch route called Snake Dike, perfectly timed for Darren’s 27th birthday. We quickly realize, once we get there—it hits us sometime between buying extra tarps in the frenzy at the village store and going to bed at 7:30 in a downpour—that there will be no climbing. In fact, when we get up the next morning, even though the rain has stopped, we realize that it’s snowing on top of Half Dome. That’s when it gets said out loud. Darren laughs when I ask. No—we’re not climbing today.

Our piece of luck though comes in the form of my parents, and I know that even though we won’t be climbing and it’ll probably rain today, we’re guaranteed some kind of fun with those two and the other people they cart around. A whole lot of crazy in that clan, but fun too. So we call them just at the right time, which is how our rainy, cold night has a happy ending—day breaks on us while we enjoy brunch at the Awahnee Lodge, reveling in those magnificent leaded glass windows and fireplaces you could roast a boar in.  I suggested it to the maitre d’. He said no.

And then the inevitable question—well, and, so what should we do today? We go to collect the others—my siblings, minus Rachelle, and decide, after brief deliberation, we should go on a walk. The trailhead to Yosemite Falls isn’t too far, my mom discovers, isn’t too far from where they’re staying. So we head out. It’s heads craned back for the trip, you have to realize, because that’s what Yosemite is, all sheer granite walls and trees, soaring vistas, water and more water, coming from above and rushing below. It’s a lot to take in, but it distracts us for awhile—the trailhead is actually about a mile from the hotel. And then we see signs, one to lower Yosemite Falls, and one to upper. We’ll do the upper. I don’t know who decides this, I think it may have been my Dad. But suddenly we’re headed up switchbacks towards upper falls, no questions asked.

About ten minutes in Garrett starts to ask for water. We brought no water. Then I realize that he’s wearing aviator sunglasses and chuck taylor lace-ups as his hiking gear. Sam’s in fashion boots. My parents have quickly fallen off the back—if the bears don’t get them, they’re a cougar snack for sure. The family walk has rapidly become something differently entirely and no one is prepared for it.

But! We continue, steadfast in that wonderful Hobson quality of not complaining even in the direst of circumstances, and ascend ever higher towards the top of the falls. It’s actually a decently hard hike, rarely flat, and with enough sheer cliffs to make me happy that my mom isn’t up front with us to see how close Garrett is toeing the line. Don’t be one of those tourists who fall off a trail and die, I tell him. Come on. That’s not us. He takes a selfie with Half Dome in the back. Maybe it is us.

It’s fun, though, because it’s like being a kid again. All the ingredients are here—a vacation with my family, a hike that goes south, weather that doesn’t cooperate. These are the circumstances that have created the best stories of my childhood. Maybe not my fondest memories—I once had pneumonia in Yellowstone and hiked with it for a solid two days before receiving medical attention from a man who was more equipped to handle bear bites than a little phlegm in the lungs—but definitely the best stories. And it’s this bullheadedness that runs in my family that has served us so well, making the best out of the worst, saying yes to something bigger and grander, upper falls versus lower falls that make our lives memorable and keeps contributing to our family lore. These are the kinds of trips I hope we’ll always take, and then I’ll take my kids on, and they’ll take their kids on. This is the kind of chaos that I love best, that resonates with me the most. Barely managed chaos outside—that’s perfection.

It’s worth it—we don’t go all the way to the top, but we do see that iconic panorama of Half Dome and the Falls mirrored across the valley floor and we goof off endlessly on the trip up and especially the trip back. We get close enough to the Falls to hear the thunder of all that water hitting the rock. We imagine that we feel the spray—but I think really it’s just the rain coming back. We made friends with a Danish guy and see a Japanese tourist crouched tiger style on a boulder, taking pictures of himself. I learn that Garrett wants to be a high school teacher and director now, and that Sam has a new boyfriend. It’s good. I wouldn’t find that kind of stuff out unless we were on a hell hike together. Darren spends his birthday with my clan and loves it—or at least pretends to. Either way, it’s a win.

When we get done with the upper falls, we then go to the Lower Falls, which are beautiful, but somehow less impressive. Maybe because we didn’t tear ourselves apart getting to see it—the walk in to this one was paved. Later we go on another walk to Mirror Pond, pretty uneventful but still, the same kind of fun. The best part is that even though we didn’t climb today, didn’t do anything we had planned to do, we got something better—a return to the clan and the familiar rhythm of time with my family.

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Bad Case of the Humans

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Bad Case of the Humans

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Half DomeThe tree’s bald patch is startling—an oasis of smooth white exposure amidst all that brown. We think, at first, that it’s an animal that took to it. An elk rubbing velvet maybe, a bear sharpening claws? This is Yosemite, after all, there’s a sign around every corner warning you of the dangers of every other living creature.  We’re forest-savvy kids, raised by parents—a Dad especially—who have always turned to the land as a kind of sanctuary, prayed in that church of the wild, made a home in the woods. We've all been indoctrinated in the same religion, and though we were raised in a city (money, that old terrible truth) we know an animal when we see one, we know a this scat from that, and could find a game trail faster than most. This tree proves perplexing, however, thick bark torn away at shoulder-height, revealing the pale trunk underneath. It's not quite right, so we all turn to my Dad as the knower of all things to know about being outside. As we're moving down the trail he says, pointing an accusatory finger at the tree, not an animal, kids--that tree's got a bad case of the humans.

This is the odd dichotomy that has always troubled me about National Parks. In theory, they're protected land. And they are--sort of. Who knows what kind of havoc our endless greed would have wreaked on some of the most beautiful terrain we have if not for someone telling us to not to. All those sweeping vistas, soaring views, all those places that exceed imagination would be razed without hesitation. There are so many ways to capitalize on the majesty of this landscape--and, to an extent, I will concede, the National Park Service has. We ate, one night, at a beautiful restaurant that captured the setting sun on Yosemite falls so beautifully it was breathtaking--and it didn't come for free. You just have to hope that the money you pay to the NPS will go to managing the presence of people in the parks as best they can.

Our bare tree though seemed to prove the opposite. Here was a testament to the destructive power of humanity--our mindlessness, our innate selfishness, tore away the bark of the tree without a second thought. I doubt that it was just one person, it seemed more like the work of many, many people walking by, hitting each tree with a stick as they go, but still--that kind of obliviousness is a hallmark of our species. At the risk of sounding condescending, I have to wonder what it is that lets some people to "get it"--understand the outdoors, and others, to not.

In protecting the parks, the government created a sort of "lite" version of flora and fauna--a brief exposure to the elements that promises instant gratification and the rejuvenation that our society has long associated with being out in the fresh air. All you have to do is look at how many driving tours are recommended--you don't even have to get out of your car to see the sights. Face it--the only way to make it better--by better, I mean truly protected--would be to make it harder. For the National Park Service to say, only the strong deserve to see those sights. Only the people who are willing to hike miles, get eaten by bears, rappel off cliffs and climb mountains can stand and look up at the foot of Half Dome and feel the awesome power of that sheer rock face. I doubt you would have any naked trees if that were how the park was managed.

We stood one afternoon at the base of lower Yosemite falls and looked up. It was an easy,  half-mile walk in after we'd already done the two (uphill!) miles to upper Yosemite falls--paved the whole way. We walked past multiple groups of people, a lot of them from other countries, that were varying degrees of irritated (my Dad overheard one German woman say to her husband, this is the last goddamn picture) to excited (mostly  kids). Many of them were on guided tours, and most of the tours stopped just off the trails. People posed for photos inside trees, under talus caves, wherever they could. When we actually reached the falls, there were so many people that pushed past the end of the trail and onto the enormous boulders near the river--far enough away that they looked like so many ants, crawling over the rocks. It was, after the quiet of our earlier hike, unsettling at best.

In my perfect world, none of them would have been there, but perhaps I'm being unkind. Are we not all there for the very same reason? Even the tree-hitters are seeking the trees out, by default, when they visit the parks. Whether we know how to behave and respect nature or not, a lot of people are drawn to the parks every year that may not have any other outdoor exposure at all. These are the people's parks after all--even when the people aren't who you would choose to have in them. I have to believe that, at the very least, the people who go and have zero understanding of the natural world may learn something.

Even the worst offenders, people who hate bugs and physical exertion, can't help but be moved by the enormity of the Yosemite Valley--or really, at any of the Parks. Very few people can refuse the primal pull that the rocks and trees exert on us, the beauty and the terror of being shown your place in the natural world. How it happens matters less, but one can only hope that it happens at all.

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