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

Part 5
El Capitan 
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Most Monday mornings I’ll roll out of bed eighteen or twenty seven minutes after the time set on my alarm, depending on how many times I hit the snooze bar. I get ready for work then shuffle off to sit in my windowless office. I answer emails and take phone calls, all for the purpose of keeping a factory's computers running.

Rarely does one weekday feel any different from the others. Fifty weeks out of the year I'm immersed in my routine, often daydreaming about a future where rolling out of bed is met with enthusiasm. The other two weeks of the year, however, I'm on a trail.  And during that time that depressing reality never enters my mind.

This Monday morning could never be confused with any other.  It began with a stop at Cascade Creek, potentially my only water source until tomorrow. It looked like boulders rained down on the land eons ago, some as large as Airstream Campers.

The creek was indifferent to the piles of rock in its way. It moseyed over and around the boulders as needed. Gradually it carved the rock into granite waterslides and pools. Meanwhile, ferns and a variety of green-leafed plants filled every niche between water and stone. 

Before pouring over a small waterfall then escaping into the woods, the creek filled a pool with clear water. I sat next to it filtering it into my hydration pack. My freshly rinsed shirt lay drying in the sun on warm bedrock. I put it back on when it was still damp.  I felt cool and refreshed; ready for the new day on the trail.

The morning stroll started out easy, but became more demanding as I ascended to the top of El Capitan. The path was dusted in a fine soil, like powdered cocoa. It meandered through a forest of giant pine trees, with thick trunks covered in bright lime green moss, and cones the size of thermoses.

The air smelled like a mixture of Christmas trees, cedar sawdust, and the aroma moments before a thunderstorm. My nose was pleased. It was the kind of scent that gets implanted into your memory forever. The whiff of a similar fragrance, even years from now, will indeed transport me back onto Yosemite’s North Rim. 

I saw another hiker a hundred yards ahead, the first I have seen since entering the trailhead. Slowly our distance dwindled, as he frequently stopped to rest. When I finally passed him, I saw he had a white beard and a green bandana covering a white crew cut. He wore cargo shorts, boots, and thick wool socks pulled around his calves. An eight-inch sheathed hunting knife hung from his belt. If passing him in the city, I may have given him a wide berth, but out here we were kin. 

About halfway to El Cap, the dusty trail turned to grayish-white rock, porous gravel, and coarse sand that crunched under my steps. It radiated the heat and light of the sun. The trail became less discernible now that it was made of rock. I momentarily went a few yards in the wrong direction, and paused to look for a cairn to show the way. The white-haired hiker caught back up with me. 

“Do you see where the trail picks back up?” I asked. 

“Actually I was following you,” he said. 

“Well, clearly that was a mistake,” I said with a smile, but he seemed to take my joke as an obvious statement and remained straight faced. We soon found cairns to lead the way and I put some distance between us again. 

Finger-sized lizards and the occasional slender snake scurried along the ground in front of me. Grasshoppers frequently jumped wildly to get out of my way, their short flight accompanied by rapid clicking. So much activity on the ground, but at eye level everything was serene. The number of trees thinned out and opened the view for miles. The mountains seemed to go on forever, each distant ridge a fainter shade of blue as it faded into the horizon. 

Under the shade of a tree sat a boulder, curved on top forming a perfect place to laze. I laid on top. The bend in the rock and the cool surface felt wonderful on my spine. I closed my eyes and listened to the breeze jostle the leaves. 

“Looks like a good spot for lunch,” said the white-haired hiker catching up with me again. 

“Sounds good to me,” I said. He sat on another boulder a few feet away that lay beside two short trees. He pulled out a camp stove and set water to boil. 

He lost the name, “white-haired hiker”. Through conversation I began to know him as, “the tax attorney from Ohio”. At least my job didn't sound as mind-numbing as that, I thought.

"I backpack five weeks out of the year," he said.  "I get ten weeks of vacation, but spend the other five weeks with my wife."  Alright, so, he wins.

We discovered that we had planned the exact same route. I worried I would lose my precious solitude. He pulled a hammock from his pack and walked over to the two nearby trees.

"So, how'd you do coming up that scree slope at the end of the rockslides?" I asked.

“I started late yesterday," he said while tying the hammock to the trees. "I didn't find a way up before it got dark, so I just slept at the bottom of the hill then figured out a way up this morning.”

I was selfishly pleased that he had as much trouble on the scree slope as I did. I did not like how my difficulty shone a light on my relative inexperience, but if he had trouble… 

He told me the story of when he ran out of water in Death Valley. As a person that loves to talk and write about backpacking trips, it’s a little disturbing to know that the best stories I'll have will be from when my life was in danger. His trouble in the hottest desert in the United States trivialized any issue I’ve ever had, so far, on the trail. 

Stress on the trail is different than stress at work. I feel like I’m gaining useful experiences and learning important things about myself. I feel proud of myself once I’ve gotten through it unscathed. At work my job is usually repetitive, so the stress is just stress. 

His food finished cooking, so I pulled out a foil pack of tuna salad, a half piece of pita bread, and a mixture of nuts and dried fruit. He ate then nap as promised. I got a head start on the trail, but when there were no bends or hills, I could see him behind me. 

He caught up again when something caught my eye and I had to stop for photos. I didn’t notice at first because the word “Snakes!” was written in the gravel ahead of me, along with an arrow pointing to flat rocks just off the trail. I curved around to avoid the area while scanning the ground for movement. When I looked back up, the volume of bright green moss growing on the pines was too brilliant to ignore. 

I struggled to get a picture that would do it justice, but I couldn’t do it. I heard the crunching footsteps of the tax attorney from Ohio behind me. He walked toward me while staring at the warning on the ground and looking out for snakes. 

“Hi,” I said. “Just had to stop for another photo,” 

“Of what?”

Granted, in a land of a million photo opportunities, most people wouldn’t consider this one of them.

“All the green,” I said. 

“Hmm? Oh yeah, look at all that.” He pulled his camera from a hip pocket, snapped a photo, then continued up the trail. 

We leap-frogged each other this way all afternoon. I’d pass him when he stopped for a break. He’d pass me when I stopped to take photos. At one such passing, he mentioned that he was low on water, so I helped keep an eye out. I knew he wouldn’t get to a source of water the ranger guaranteed until the following morning. There were stagnant puddles here and there, but nothing safe. I passed him again at Rainbow Creek. 

“Bone dry,” he said. “I saw it on the map, thought this is where I’d finally find water.”

"We might find some puddles in the creek bed,"  I said.  "You can use my filter if you want."

We hiked down the empty creek until we found something. There was a meager source of trickling water, that looked clean.  He filled his bottles, and then we got back on the trail and put some distance between us again.

Not a mile later, I was tiptoeing over stones to cross a portion of Rainbow Creek that had plenty of clear water flowing by. Like gas stations, you seem to pass water sources all day, until you really need it. 

When I neared the El Capitan summit, the view stopped me in my tracks. My mouth hung open like a cargo bay door. So far as I experienced it, Yosemite never looked more beautiful. The granite rock I traversed all day dropped three-thousand feet to the pine carpeted valley floor. Beyond the valley the layers of blue mountains were back, fading into the horizon. The tax attorney passed me again as I took photos. He stopped to do the same. 

“Why do I live in Indiana?” I asked. He didn’t have an answer either. 

The summit of El Cap was flat, nearly treeless, and jutted out into the valley giving us amazing unobstructed views. We dropped our packs on the ground and hiked toward the edge. We passed a group of backpackers; a couple with their daughter. We all wandered around El Cap fusing that unbelievable view to our memories. I found a tree and sat in its shade. Before long, the tax attorney from Ohio joined me again. 

“My name’s Rick, by the way, I don’t think we ever formally introduced each other.” 

“I’m Ryan,” We shook hands. 

“You plan on staying on El Cap tonight?” he asked. 

“I think so. I passed an established camp site on the way out here that looked pretty good.” I worried we would end up hiking together all week. I actually enjoyed talking to him and I know I could have learned a lot from his experience, but I get so few weeks like this. I really wanted to spend the time alone. 

The site I referred to was perfect. It had a stone fire ring, spectacular view to watch the sunset, and only one nearby tree. I noted that specifically because I knew he slept in a hammock. I felt bad, but what could I do? I mean, of course, besides just being honest. 

When we left the summit, I stopped at the campsite. He continued toward the tree line. I stood for a while looking at the valley. The family of three plopped their gear on the ground fifteen yards from me, making it clear they were staying there for the night. 

I searched for another site, but failed and came back. My tent has to be staked in the ground to stand upright, and finding a spot where I could stake a tent on ground made of solid granite proved to be as difficult as you’d expect. Not only that, but I had my heart set on watching the sunset and sitting by a warm fire, which are only allowed in the limited established fire rings. 

“Do you mind if I setup camp right over there?” I asked the family of backpackers. I didn’t expect them to care, but asking made me feel better about it. 

“Oh of course not, go ahead,” the father said in an accent I couldn’t place, but I assumed they were from a Scandinavian country. Throughout the night I could hear their chatter, but I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I loved hearing the accent in their words and laughter, even though I didn’t understand any of it. They could have been laughing and talking about how they planned to murder me, and I would have been grinning dumbly at the wonderful sound of their voices. 

I ate another meager supper and watched the sunset. It was beautiful. The setting sun turned the sky to amber. The color of everything around me: the coral white granite, the pine needles, the stone fire ring; all suffused with the orange glow in the sky.

 At nightfall, I gathered wood and got a fire going. It was another brilliant starry night. City lights from miles away popped into view. Their light mirrored the starlight like they were not cities at all, but majestic lakes. 

Backpacking has a way of simplifying the pursuit of happiness. Place yourself all alone on a beautiful trail. Put one foot in front of the other, repeat. All too often my default mood is one of cynicism or boredom, but with enough time given to hiking, giddiness becomes my default. That transition began to solidify tonight while I looked at the amber sky and listened to the crackling fire.  And would continue to do so exponentially every day this week.


Part Six > 
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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a 
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