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

Part 6
Yosemite Creek
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I slipped out of my tent before sunrise. I tried to be quiet. My neighbors were scattered on the ground in sleeping bags, like caterpillars that cocooned last night. My shoes gnawed noisily at the gravel, so I made a wide arch around their camp. Once out of earshot, I walked freely and alone on El Capitan.

The sun was still behind the mountains.  It colored the sky above me pink, but left a layer of blue over the valley, like a sunrise in the plains turned upside down. I sat and stared at Half Dome with my camera sitting in my lap and my sleeves pulled over my cold hands, waiting.

During Yosemite’s peak season, as many as nine hundred people will hike to the top of Half Dome in a given day. I preferred to see it from across the valley where there were no crowds. 

To further guarantee this solitude, I came to Yosemite after the tourist-luring waterfalls had dried up for the year. Some might say I didn’t see Yosemite at its best, but I believe being there alone in silence, with or without waterfalls, was seeing it at its best.

The sun crested the granite skyline and beamed at me like a lighthouse beacon. The point of golden light soon fanned out and illuminated the tips of distant mountain peaks. If I spent as much time watching sunrises as I do watching progress bars crawl across computer screens, could I be this happy every day?

I watched until the sun was high enough to shine onto the quiet valley below. The campgrounds were filling with light. A few bleary-eyed campers were surely up and breathing in this brisk morning air with me now. I got to my feet and went back to camp. My gangly shadow walked in front of me like a man on stilts.

I crawled back into my sleeping bag to get warm. I dozed off and woke when I heard my neighbors getting up. I took down my tent, ate breakfast, and got back on the trail.

Every time the trees parted this morning, Half Dome was in the distance, growing larger and more detailed with every mile. 

When again surrounded by tall pine tree trunks, I saw a squirrel running toward me, leaping from branch to branch. He stopped in a tree overhead just off the trail. He stared me down and chattered angrily. I’m unable to spell the sound he was making, but I’m sure it translated to, “You shall not pass!” His body convulsed with every chirp and squeak. His tail twitched and flicked. 

He tried hard to instill fear into me, seemingly unaware of our significant size differences. He only managed to put a grin on my face and for a moment the loudest sound in the forest was my laughter. It’s great to be in such a mood. I wish I could bottle it and take it home. If I was in this mood at home, however, those familiar with my normal demeanor would suspect recreational drug use.  And justifiably so.

I hope my laughter didn’t make the squirrel feel inadequate, though. This was his shining moment to prove he could defend his enchanted forest. I couldn’t help it. I was in an extraordinarily good mood and his defiance was adorable. 

Regardless, I eventually moved on. I guess as far as the squirrel knows, his defense worked. His home was, after all, safe from the human intruder. I liked to think that as I walked away, his squirrel friends scurried out of hiding to celebrate the successful standoff. Maybe he was approached by the attractive female squirrel that he had a crush on for years. The one who never thought he was good enough for her. Maybe with his new fame she finally noticed him. Maybe he walked right passed her and embraced another, a cute-but-nerdy female. The one he suddenly realized had always loved him, and would have loved him no matter what happened with the human. Maybe the attractive female squirrel stormed off upset, but the others didn't care because they all thought she was a bitch anyway. Or perhaps a childhood watching bad eighties movies severely limited my imagination.

I walked away smiling at the thought. I hiked into these woods to cure my boredom, and it was working. Sometimes I'm in such a good mood on the trail that I stop to write these thoughts down in my journal, believing they are actually interesting or humorous. Then I come back home wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I suppose every cure has its side effects, a general apathy towards work and responsibility of course, but in this case euphoria and an unusual cheerfulness as well.

Another frequent side effect of hiking is increased appetite. I turned on the spur trail to Eagle Peak to find an unforgettable spot to eat lunch. My shadow was now squished to the shape of a bulbous dwarf, with the sun blazing hot overhead.

I found some shaded bedrock facing the valley and Half Dome. I pulled food out of my bear canister as a man walk passed on the trail behind me.

“Quite a view isn’t it!” he said. 

Over three million visitors to Yosemite each year and he was the only person I remember seeing today. 

I didn’t leave immediately after eating. I wasn't hiking many miles becuase I wanted to camp near Yosemite Creek tonight, which wasn't far away. I wanted this to be a relaxing vacation. I left plenty of time to slow down and enjoy the views. I could stay up late next to a campfire, sleep in as long as I wanted, and take drawn-out lunch breaks like this one.

I took so long that I got sore from sitting. I stood at the edge and looked into the valley. I imagined leaning out, catching the wind underneath me, and gliding peacefully to the valley floor. (Go hang gliding, number 35 on my life list.) 

I searched around Yosemite Creek for a campsite. I wanted to be close to the creek so I could drink as much as I wanted tonight and at breakfast. A minor thing, perhaps, but made wonderful when rationing water all week. A minimalist life is filled with small, easy to acquire pleasures. This joy is indistinguishable from the joy I get from the more expensive things that require more work to obtain. Or maybe it’s just that new things keep life exciting, and deprivation makes old things seem new again. Either way, in the end I’m happy.

I found an area fifty yards off the trail that had many worthy places to setup camp. It was hard to choose. Feeling light as a feather without my gear on my back, I rambled through the sparse trees over granite bedrock to locate the best spot. Not a single care, or person, in sight.

I chose the highest spot on a plateau of solid rock that had the best view of the woods around me. In the middle a fire ring circled white ash and the remains of blackened logs. Surrounding that were several crisscrossing logs to sit on. 

I spent the remaining sunlight collecting firewood. The thought of sitting by a fire with my book made me happy all day. Before the sun had even set, I had the fire going. As I sat on a log to read, the sky dimmed to dark purple and the stars came out. My world a few hours ago stretched out for miles, as far as the eye could see. The night shrank that to the three-foot radius around my fire.

The flames warmed the left side of my face, but the wind kept my right side cold. I moved closer to the fire, sat Indian-style on the ground, and continued reading in the flickering light. 

It took less than an hour to realize I was too old for Indian-style. I stood to get more logs for the fire and my spine, ankles, and knees popped like I was walking over dry twigs wrapped in bubble wrap. The fire showed its enthusiasm for the extra fuel. It crackled and gave excited flicks like a flag snapping in the wind. I continued to read for hours in a more age-appropriate sitting position. 

Sounds emanated from the fire all night, often loudly. A log broke into two shooting fireworks of ash into the sky. On another log, the red hot bark made a tinging sound like cracking glass. Air escaped one log with a high-pitched buzzing hum that felt like something dramatic and unsafe was about to take place, but faded with an anti-climactic silence.

When the fired died down the night went perfectly silent, other than the wind calmly whooshing through the valley. My eyes got heavy, but I fought sleep as long as I could. I wouldn’t have had to if I had more days like today. The rareness of them forces me to hold onto them as long as I can.  I took my book to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag.  I read until I dozed off.  My book slid out of my hands and dropped to the ground, my headlamp still glowing on my forehead.


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