Yosemite, Part Two
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 2
Into the Valley
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The taxi came to a stop outside the station, just as a departing train began to trudge forward. Palm trees circled the building with a cloudless blue sky over its Spanish tile roof. I could tell I wasn't in Indiana anymore. I grabbed my pack, paid the driver, and walked inside.

“I can help you right here,” said the guy behind the counter.

I slid my ticket confirmation under the divider. “Hi, I got here quicker than I thought, is there an earlier train to Merced?”

“Sorry man, that’s the earlier train right there.” Through the window, he pointed at the caboose end of the train I saw when I arrived. He checked me in and slid a ticket back. I had three hours to kill.

“Are there any good restaurants near here?” I asked.  One of the joys of traveling is finding that great hole-in-the-wall restaurant the locals recommend.

And so there I was, walking down the streets of an exciting unfamiliar Golden State city, toward an IHOP.  The franchises will gradually turn our cities into clones, but I didn't care, I love having a huge breakfast before a hike. A big meal here meant two fewer meals to pack, and one less pound to carry. I tossed my gear in a booth and sat on the opposite side.

"What can I get for ya?" the waitress asked.  She didn't seem to think it was strange that I had the backpack, and never asked where I was headed. I felt at home in a place where backpackers are normal.

The frantic morning finally calmed down. I took my time eating the cinnamon and apple pancakes, hash browns, eggs over-easy, and crispy strips of bacon. I didn't need to hurry back to the station, so I read my book and nursed a glass of orange juice.

The train station was empty when I got back, but slowly filled with people as the time on my ticket neared. I started to pace. The quickness of the morning travel made me anxious, now it was the idleness of standing still making me anxious. I knew once I got on the trail that would go away.

It's like when I go kayaking.  There is all the effort to make the plans, check the weather, get dressed, get packed, load the kayak on my car, and often a long drive to the river or lake.  Then I unload everything, carry it to the water’s edge, pack my gear into the hull, and then ease into the wobbly kayak.  The morning can be stressful, but then you push off into the water.  The kayak slides across the sandy shore, sssssssshhh. And then, silence.

I take a deep breath and pause to enjoy those tranquil seconds before paddling away.  It's as though the hectic morning never existed.

Hiking is a lot like that.  There can be a lot of stress while planning and getting there, but once you disappear into that green tunnel of trees at the trailhead, everything becomes simple and quiet.  You can’t help but leave the stress or anxiety behind you.

My train arrived right on time.  The doors slid open and the conductors came out, followed by the arriving passengers.  I threw my pack on a luggage rack just inside the door then found a seat on the upper deck. I couldn't stop thinking of my gear sitting by the open door. It was too critical for this trip. Two minutes later, I went down to make sure it was still safe, like a paranoid little bird checking her eggs.

When the doors closed and the train eased into motion, I stopped worrying about my gear. We accelerated to full speed toward Merced, horn blaring. Graffitied walls and grain elevators whipped by out the window. I felt a renewed enthusiasm to fulfill number 25 on my life list, "Travel cross-country, any country, on a train".

Tracks and stations aren't generally the most awe-inspiring parts of a city, but once leaving the urban area, that changed. Soon the train rambled through orchards ready for harvest, the green parallel lines of vineyards, and acres of golden fields. A mountain range materialized behind the thick hazy sky.

At the station in Merced, I had another hour to wait for a bus to take me into Yosemite. I sat on the ground outside facing the tracks, with my back against the station’s brick wall. Spanish music blared from a dilapidated pale blue motel turned apartment building, a hundred yards away. Voices en Español vociferated from its open windows and doors. From somewhere far away, live Spanish music was being amplified throughout the city. 

When the bus arrived, I bought my ticket and loaded my pack in the luggage compartment. For two and a half hours, we meandered along the curvy roads entering the valley, picking up a few more passengers along the way. As the sun set, the view of golden fields merged with sharp granite cliffs and pine tree forests.

By the time we got into the valley, it was too dark to see anything, except the infamous Merced River, which flowed parallel to the road. I watched it speed by with my head against the window.

Hello, Merced River. I've heard so much about you. Nice to finally meet. 

The bus came to its final stop in Yosemite’s Curry Village. I got out and looked around, unsure of how to get to the backpacker camp.  I decided to look for food first.

There was a crowd of people gathered around the only restaurant still open, a pizza stand and a bar. I took my place in line, surrounded by twenty to fifty year old eternal frat boys.  They talked in that loud inebriated voice, like a person talking while wearing headphones, not realizing how loud they are.

While the line slowly crept forward, I thought of John Muir.  He was a naturalist whose poetic writing and activism helped inspire Americans to preserve our most beautiful places, before it was too late.  When he learned of plans to make the nearby Hetch Hetchy Valley into a reservoir, he fought against it vehemently until his death in 1914.  He called it the second Yosemite Valley.

Of those pushing for a Hetch Hetchy reservoir, John Muir wrote: "These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

Sadly, years of pleading were not enough to sway nearsighted politicians. Hetch Hetchy is now three hundred feet underwater.

The defeat crushed him. Afterwards he wrote in a letter to his daughter, “I wonder if leaves feel lonely when they see their neighbors falling.” That quote always breaks my heart.

I thought of John Muir, and I write about it now, because I was curious what he would think of Yosemite today: the crowds, traffic, shops, restaurants, hotels, bars. There have been some amazing improvements over the last few decades, and obviously filling the valley with cars, stores, and this drunken nightlife is nothing like filling it with water, but at the time, I felt a bit of an aversion to it.  At a different time, in a different mood, that may change.  A  big reason I felt this way was because what makes Yosemite so grand, was still veiled in the darkness.

When I reached the front of the line, I learned that there was an hour wait for a personal-sized pizza. Hot dogs rotated on a gas-station style cooker, however, ready to eat.

“Okay, just give me two hot dogs and a large drink,” I said. They were stale and tasteless, but filled me up. They would have been perfect, though, if used for crossing number 55 from my life list, "Start a Food Fight".

I was ready to get away from the crowd and found a shuttle to take me to the backpacker campground. Interior lights lit up the shuttle like a huge fish tank on wheels. In the front, a few seats were lined up on each side facing each other.

“Where you headed?” a woman of about forty, sitting across the aisle, asked.  Due to her and her friend’s attire, I could tell they were fellow backpackers.

“Right now the backpacker camp,” I said. “But tomorrow to the north rim, starting at the Rockslides trailhead,”

“I haven't heard of that one,"

“Oh, it’s not on any published maps anymore,”

"You going up there alone?” she said. “You’re brave. I don’t think I would ever do that.”

“No, not brave.  Naive, maybe.  It’s just not the same if I'm with someone.  The first time I went alone I thought it would be a little frightening, but it wasn't.  You get used to it.”

We talked the remainder of the ride about trips and gear, things backpackers never get tired of talking about. The shuttle screeched to a stop, its air brakes exhaled, and the doors folded open. The last of several modes of transportation, other than my walk to the backpacker camp on foot, finally came to an end.

My new shuttle friends led me to the camp, which would have been difficult in the darkness on my own. We followed our three circles of headlamp light as they panned the ground in front of us.

The night didn't last long after that. Once I set up my tent and crawled inside, I was out almost as fast as my headlamp. In my final conscious moments I stared through the tent mesh up eighty-foot towering pine trees stretching toward a starry sky.

I woke a few times as the temperature dropped. One time to get in my sleeping bag, another to zip it up, and a third time to sink into it and pull it over my head. I must have rolled off my sleeping pad at some point, as my nose was against the side of my tent when I woke a fourth time.

I heard rapid sniffing and quiet footsteps walking along the side of my tent, then it stopped at my face. It pushed its nose to mine with only a thin layer of polyester taffeta between us. Sniff, sniff, sniff.  My head jerked back instinctively and, whatever it was, scurried away.

I poked my head outside and looked in every direction. I would have been excited to see just about anything, except maybe a crawling human. How creepy would that be?  I expected to see the back of a fat raccoon, but saw nothing.  I went back to bed figuring it was nothing of much interest. Unless the people I would meet tomorrow were correct.

Part 3 >
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