Today is our very first full day in Yosemite and with the trailer in good standing and a twitch in our legs that yearned for the trail we headed down to the valley. The short drive along winding roads, bordered by tall pines eventually opened up to reveal the majestic views of Yosemite Valley. The road ahead and beauty below fought a biter battle for my attention that ended in a forfeit when I decided to take the first pullout I came across.
Here perched high above the ravine far below we stood, mouths agape, eyes peeled in awe. In the distance a waterfall cut a white line down a sheer granite face and a river wove its way through the forest floor, over and around massive boulders left static since the last glaciers cut through thousands of years ago. This was our welcome. This made every long mile across the country, every night spent at a truck stop, every bout with traffic along bumpy, overpopulated roads, every penny pinched and want neglected, every comfort and stability left behind, every possession sold or donated, every sacrifice made was all worth it. We had made it. In two years, on a hope and a dream, we had gone from volunteers to paid employees and our reward laid itself out in front of us at that pullout. We would make little pay and had nowhere to go come October, but we would spend our summer in this epic wonderland of natural beauty helping others enjoy and protect its resources and spending our days off enjoying and protecting them ourselves.
After a swell of emotion had finally began to settle we proceeded onward where the waves of joy continued to crash intermittently over our tear laden eyes. There is no way to articulate the monumental nature of the scenery of Yosemite. Others have tried and failed and I will hopefully learn from there mistakes. The best I might do here is pass the challenge to Lindsay. Her photos—though marvelous—will only provide a fraction of the essence that is Yosemite Valley. The monolithic behemoths of rock ascending to the heavens at dizzying heights, the waterfalls sending white locks of water plunging hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet to the ground below, and the overwhelming realization that all this grandeur inhabits one, central valley. Look at the pictures, take in the visual reproduction and then recognize all that is lacking. Pictures, words, paintings, films, nothing compares to standing at the base of El Capitan or Half Dome, or peering up at Yosemite Falls as the mist from the Lower Falls graces your sun drenched skin. Well almost nothing.
Much like the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park, or really any park for that matter – you are robbing yourself of a life-altering experience by looking up from below or down from above. Gaining a sense of scale requires scaling up—or down depending on where your journey begins. Ours began at the bottom and so up we would need to go.
Never timid we embarked on a fairly strenuous hike, originally planned to be about 7.5 miles roundtrip we’re guessing the trek across the valley’s floor from where we parked and the additional section of trail added past the summit put us around 10 miles and a little under a 3000 ft ascent and descent. Not bad for our first day.
Starting at Lower Yosemite Falls we located our trail head and took our first amongst many steps. Initially we covered a set of rolling hills that cut through a canopy of forest which allowed in very little sunlight. These long switch backs next carried us to a set of very short and steeper zig zags. It was here we joined the small horde of hikers we’d spend a good part of our day passing and later being passed by, over and over. Each interaction we exchanged subtle smiles of acknowledgement or sarcastic jokes about almost being there or a tiny stream that cut the trail being Upper Yosemite Falls. “It looked bigger from below,” I said in one of these instances.
But despite the stain of our legs bound in tightly stretched muscle and tendon we all slogged on and couldn’t be happier. The trail erases all. The repetition of motion and ever-changing terrain below your feet is hypnotizing. The trance like state you find yourself in after a mile or two is almost meditative and is only broken when a corner is rounded and a view saluting your effort is revealed. Some trails are unrelenting, offering few if any rewards until the very end, but the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls was littered with breathtaking views—which after a long stretch can nearly leave you completely breathless. We were climbing up and out of the valley we had just driven into and nearly every bend of trail awarded more amazing views and a better idea of the magnitude of this sacred place.
With considerable effort we found ourselves at the base of Upper Yosemite Falls. The top tier of Yosemite Falls, it sits above the Lower and Middle sections of the falls. Here we bathed in the spray that floated away from the crashing water at the base. Freshly melted snow from the high country provided a cool shower that attempted to rinse away some of the dirt emanating from the mostly dry trail. The falls roared at an unbelievable volume, overcoming any sound that echoed from the busy valley below.
After paying proper homage we continued our ascension. We had another 1400 ft to climb to the top of this massive falls. The next section was where the fatigue made its case heard and through perseverance a smaller selection of hikers—though still many—continued. Its disheartening to see the cuts of the trail all laid out before you with specks of hikers dotting the edges far above. So we kept our eyes on the cobble stone trail at our feet, taking refuge in the outward views of the valley. The roads and cars shrinking to scales beyond that of any model. The area below began to take on characteristics most often associated with the view from a plane that is taking off or landing. Back and forth. Up and up. Nothing flat lie ahead of us and absolutely nothing down. An unforgiving trail. And yet the pleasure of such an experience overrode all of the pains and anguish.
As we summited the final sections we were light as feathers. Bouncing our way over to the cliff’s edge. Here set high above most of the valley the spectacle that presented itself erased every single step. My mind was so engulfed by the surrounding scenery it had little capacity to respond to the blisters on my feet, my high strung calfs or my aching knees. Every sense and neurological pulse was directed outward or dismissed. Out into a view that should be available only to birds or the more courageous mountain climber types. Here—and so far only here—we began to grasp the true size and offerings of Yosemite Valley. Down below a river cut through the humble green meadows, the thinnest lines denoting roads spread from one end to the other and buildings dotted the landscape represented by tiny little squares. Directly across the way huge stands of solid granite erupted upward in powerful stances, the most imposing of which is Half Dome. And beyond them peaks of greater stature lay dormant and snow covered—a few shrouded in clouds—all of which was separated from the valley by stretches of alpine forest.
In time the cold wind cut through the daze we were enraptured by and chilled us enough to stir movement. We took a brief, but hair-raising jaunt down to the overlook along a tiny footpath not much wider than my two feet and then decided we hadn’t had enough climbing for the day and continued up the trail to Yosemite Point. We cut through a few snow covered paths and found our way again to the edge of the cliff. This time we were a little higher up and we were afforded a more all encompassing view of the valley. This is where we sat for some time. The sun had reappeared and the wind died down. So outside of the ticking of the clock reminding us that we had a two hour hike back down we were once again arrested by the the view. Together, but in solitary confinement, our thoughts ventured outward surveying the seemingly endless beauty time and nature had sculpted for us. I could have spent the whole day and night there—and we promised ourselves a some juncture this summer we would—but with no provisions and daylight fading we freed ourselves from the tranquility of this heavenly summit and began our march downward.
The drive up and out of the valley was an arresting voyage through picturesque foothills covered in rich, spring green grass and dotted with elderly oaks with crooked trunks and twisted branches. There was very little as far as man made structures. The occasional road probably led to a house or farm, but we saw very few. It was almost too inviting. The sun shining, the cloud speckled sky and the enchanting shade of the old oak trees. I yearned to pull over and set up camp right there. A house could be built in subsequent seasons and a garden started. We could travel to Yosemite when wanted and otherwise live a quiet, pleasant life right here.
But duty demanded we continue on. Leaving the foothills behind and beginning a torturous, but gorgeous schlep up the steep road that would take us into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The truck strained as we scaled countless switchbacks with hairpin turns sending us this way and then that. The cats bellowed, the engine whined and the tires groaned. It was a short section of road, but the trailer in tow, the sharp turns and the steep grade required a very slow pace.
Eventually we summited the worst of it and the wonderful views were behind us. A thick, mature forest barricaded our sides and directed our path as our anticipation rose ever higher and higher along with our elevation. Each turn could be the final bend of road that revealed the entrance station where Lindsay would soon go to work. Right, left, up and down. Left and up, right and down. Then up again once more and there it was the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station. Our hearts sung in harmony with inaudible joy, our ears too flush with the blood rushing to the five mile wide smiles upon our faces to hear.
We pulled up and met our future coworkers, one of which was just about to take her lunch and would lead us to our trailer pad. We sat, parked off to the side, waiting. Taking in all of our surroundings and remarking on how strange it will be when this unfamiliar place becomes home. Everything now was strange and new. It was exciting, yet a little scary. Not in a fear-based nature, but in the anxiety tickling your nerves sort of way. There were new people to meet and new places to get acquainted with.
As we pondered these things our escort pulled up with a friendly smile and led us down the road and to our new neighborhood. It was not what we had expected. Not bad, but not in line with the visions we had conjured up in our head along the way. There was no cement pad as we had envisioned, but rather a very uneven patch of dirt. After pulling in straight—as the orientation of the site had intended—we quickly realized our hookups would not reach parked like this. So we reanalyzed the situation and decided to park perpendicular to the suggested manner. Our trailer is so small it actually worked. We were close to level—nothing a block of wood under one tire couldn’t fix—and we could hook everything up properly and without too much strain. That said it did look a little off and so we held off until the housing director/maintenance man arrived to check us in.
After killing a little time putting away groceries and getting things as set up as we could, keeping in mind we might have to move the maintenance man arrived and apologized for not having the site properly leveled. To be fair we had given our supervisor a very vague estimated time of arrival and had arrived early with regards to that vague estimation. He promptly addressed the problem with a giant piece of construction equipment and then very kindly walked us through check in, then a thoroughly helpful explanation of the immediate area – bathrooms, showers, laundry and the surrounding area – grocery stores, hardware stores and restaurants.
Parked in our new, level spot we spent the rest of the day attending to the arduous task of unpacking. On the way down we had congratulated ourselves several times on our improved efficiency. We had brought even less than we had last time. The truck—which before was packed floor to ceiling now only contained bike tires that would reside outside upon bikes once we arrived and a box full of home brew and homemade wine that would eventually reside in our bellies. But as we began to unpack and reorganize it soon became apparent that we had not cut back on the amount of stuff we hauled along. We had simply become more efficient at packing.
An explosion of sorts scattered belongings throughout the trailer and out across the ground surrounding the trailer. We were both soon overwhelmed with where to put it all. In the past we packed things beneath the trailer or in a storage shed that was provided. Now, sitting in bear country and without any additional storage our meager assortment of possessions seemed excessive. With time and a little patience—which for me is hard to come by—we found homes for it all. It wasn’t pretty, but the days that followed allowed time for reorganizing and fresh perspectives and everything is now in fine order.
We began the last major leg of our journey today. With no need for an early start to our eight hour haul we took our time in the morning. I went for a run and another dip in the pool and we pulled out, trailer in tow around eleven.
The first segment was a steep and drawn out climb out of the low lying desert and up through a range of mountains. The views were magnificent as we chugged along at a slow, strained pace. Up, up and away. Away from the desert and into the mountains. Then down, down, down into the central valley we went. Hopping on 99 we had a lengthy stretch of flat road ahead of us, shouldered by groves of fruit and nut trees and the occasional vineyard. Our path was well beaten and for the most part left that way. The cracks and patches of the road shook the truck and trailer with a nerve-racking fervor.
Then around five in the evening traffic picked up. Besides a few brief stints here and there we had avoided the hazard and stress of heavy traffic, planning our passage through metropolitan areas for off hours when most of the city was busy at work or finishing their weekend in front of the TV. Now, while the towns we passed were fairly small their populations flooded the main thoroughfare, filling in all the gaps between us and the small convoy of semis that we had spent the day with.
Stop, stop, go. Gas, brake, punch. Trucks and cars flying by me frustrated that I adhered to the 55 mph towing speed limit and was obstructing their path and pace of 75. Two lanes of road and two separate speed limits may lead to white-knuckle driving, neck aches, and short tempers. But the traffic eventually thinned and allowed my tightly wound nerves and muscles to relax a little.
We were tired and wanted to get some decent rest—the kind a Wal-Mart or truck stop parking lot doesn’t seem to allow for—so we broke from our miserly ways and stayed at a hotel. The cheapest we could find. Sometimes, after a 2400 mile, 40+ hour journey you just feel like you’ve earned a well worn bed with a scratchy comforter and a random collection of cable channels airing shows about noodling for catfish or hunting gators. Tomorrow would bring about a long stretch without such creature comforts. After less than an hour of it I was ready to say goodbye.
Today it was on through the rest of Arizona and into California. The roads were rough and the weather was windy. Despite it being another fairly short drive—for us that’s anything under six hours—it was a stressful one. The cats had had enough of their bumpy confinement. Rambo let his grievances be known with constant howling of varying tones in hopes we might understand or acknowledge him by stopping. But we had to keep moving. We had places to be and times to be there.
As planned we stopped in Needles, California. But we altered our plans of dropping the trailer and heading into the Mojave Desert—another 3 hours round trip in the truck—in exchange for a day of rest. After getting settled we drove to a nearby gas station and picked up a little beer. The rest of the day we spent sipping brews and dipping in and out of the campground’s pool.
While we were standing around an older gentlemen moseyed on over and struck up a conversation. Turns out he was retired army, retired union truck driver, and recently retired, retired i.e. on social security. He and his wife had camp hosted across the country and were basically on a never ending journey to wherever the wind or weather or his own whims would take him. He had more stories to tell than the day was long and he was ready to tell us everyone of them between sips from the Milwaukee’s Best Ice beer can he held. “I was once up in San Fran Cisco hauling a load through the tight downtown streets. And I got ta dis corna and I couldn’t cut it because there was a bran new BMW parked illegally on da corna. I was holding up traffic for awhile, figgerin’ out what ta do and then a cop pulled up and tol me I had to move. I explained the situation and he said ‘run the car over’. I said ‘what?’ He said ‘either you run that car over or I’m writing you a ticket.’ He wrote me a slip with his name, signature, an badge number in case the guy who owned the car tried to sue and over the BMW I went!”
He was full of these stories. Everyone more grandiose than the last. I’m sure some were a little indulgent, but I had to admire his spirit. He came and went as he pleased. He saw value in travel and new places as well as new people. His wife had some health issues that put her in a wheelchair, but that didn’t stop them. They got a bigger trailer and a place to put her Hover Round and they kept at it. Driving here or there to visit family or for a change in weather. South in the winter, north in the summer. Here, there and everywhere they pleased. That’s the way life should be. Why do we limit ourselves, our outlooks and the possibilities of life to one town, county or state—heck even one country—is beyond my grasp. There’s so much out there and so little time to see it my bones rattle with restlessness when I’m too still and my mind reels when I consider the abundance of places beyond our borders. I’ve spent the last five years or so attempting to see the US and I’ve only sampled a few choice cuts. When I think of what the rest of the world has to offer it’s a daunting and concerning thought, but as was once said “every journey starts with a single step.”
From Santa Fe we resumed our place among the masses headed west. The pioneer spirit seemed alive and well along these well trodden trails. Like those who came before us we all were in search of greener pastures. License plates from almost every state made their way past us. Cars packed window to window and floor to ceiling with gear for camping or seemingly all of one’s meager and assorted possessions. Following them were U-Haul trucks and trailers and then RVs and travel trailers some as long as semis others smaller than the average bathroom.
We were all headed west as people have for hundreds of years, but our pace has increased along with our comforts. No longer were we beholden to the slow strides of horses, donkeys or mules. Or the multitude of dangers be it lack of water or of food, attack or illness. Now we have mechanical steeds with cruise control and smooth trails to race down at 75 mph. We have convenient stores and fast food chains set short distances apart should our stomachs show the slightest urge for giant sugary drinks, big bags of potato chips, hot dogs, burgers or ice cream. Just about anything one might ever desire. And forget sleeping on the ground, in the cold. Most people seem to have reconfigured their home somehow to fit on a few axles and roll right on down the road with every convenience they had while sitting in their stationary home.
I don’t say this curmudgeonly. I myself am towing a home, albeit a considerably smaller one, but a home just the same. And I travel well beyond any equine driven pace – stopping at gas stations to fuel up my tank and my tummy. But barreling down the interstate I had to question our amazing ability to put faith in our new modes of transport and their operators. Were we able to place a pioneer from the 1800s in a 40 ft RV going 80 mph I think he or she might be in need of some clean britches. To trust that every vehicle and all it’s intricate and requisite parts are operating properly, not to mention the ability and state of the person in control of the two ton pile of metal flying just two dozen feet ahead of us is truly a leap of faith one prefers not to spend too much time thinking about unless you wish to become a true homebody.
But by chance or luck we made it all the way to Holbrook, Arizona. What’s the significance of this stop most might ask – it’s the closest city in proximity to Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert. After dropping the trailer and the furry children off at a campground we headed south and into the park. With daylight dwindling fast we made a quick stop at the visitors center and entered the park.
Like other parks we’ve visited Petrified Forest National Park was a car friendly, drive thru park meaning there was very little in the way of hiking and most of the stops required the visitor to do very little to see the sights other than pull over, jump out, take a picture and jump back in. I’ve found these parks tend to devalue the experience and the scenery – even for me. Some of the most beautiful places I’ve seen required a long hike in. Part of the experience is the struggle to get there and the reward of arriving. You’ve fully immersed yourself in the landscape and your tired legs beg you to sit and enjoy it. In drive through parks you almost feel foolish taking ten steps from the car and then sitting there for an hour.
Despite my feelings, it was very windy and fairly cold so our stops were brief. The painted desert pull offs reminded me of the Badlands in South Dakota, the painted rock of northern Arizona and similar formations in Death Valley – in my opinion Death Valley and Arizona have the best, but it was stunning none the less. But the petrified wood stole the show. We’ve seen some in Arizona, but it was nowhere near the quantity or the scale. There were areas that literally appeared to be an entire fallen forest of petrified wood. Massive trunks up to 10 feet in diameter, long fallen rows over 100 feet long. One even spanned a small wash creating a sizable bridge. It was overwhelming to say the least – the age of these fossils and the specific circumstances that created them as well as the fact that they’ve been sitting here for millions of years. According to the park’s literature the theory is a volcanic blast similar to Mount St. Helens leveled the forest and events and factors that followed allowed for this pristine preservation.
We had just enough time to sample a small tasting of this park’s offerings, but I could see us returning for a second go at it.