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

Part 10 
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The bus zoomed out of Yosemite Valley on curvy narrow roads. I was in the back with my head against the window. Boulders and cliff walls zipped by, sometimes only a few feet from my face. Tree branches growing over the road whacked at my eyes behind the thin pane of glass. I sat unflinching, thinking about the months that would follow. My next excursion was a long gray winter away and I was consumed by wanderlust.

Returning home from my last few trips have been met with prolonged feelings of anxiety. Feelings that stem from knowing there was something I needed to do, but I was not doing it. I knew I needed to leave Indiana, at least for a while. Well, not just Indiana, everything. It’s not the first time I felt this way, but I have always managed to convince myself to take the easier path instead, to always side with the comfortable and the familiar. But no matter how good that can be, it is no substitute for adventure and the thrill of the unknown.

Outside the window, the granite terrain of the Yosemite Valley merged into less dramatic rolling hills, the color of California sun-bleached hair.

Since the time my grandpa told me about a lawyer who quit his job to hike the Appalachian Trail, I dreamed of living my own simple nomadic life. All morning, I thought of the two hikers I met yesterday on their trip of a lifetime. They were doing it, and they seemed okay. Why did I always squelch these desires? They too were consumed by wanderlust, but they didn’t struggle with it. They ran with it. 

I have tried to satisfy this feeling with weeklong journeys into the woods, but rather than quench these feelings, they have only served to embolden them. 

The two hikers, or at least the version of them I built up in my head, weren’t waiting for some external thing to happen to set them in motion. Nor were they waiting for someone else to lead them. 

- - - 

We approached a bus stop where a girl was sitting on the ground, next to a backpack that seemed to weigh more than she did. She jumped up and hoisted it on her back as the bus came to a stop. Her long dark hair was tossed and twisted like it only does when you’ve been living on a trail for a while. 

On that final morning before heading into the valley, I convinced myself that the next chapter of my life had started now. That somehow I would forever think of Yosemite as where it started. But when I turned down the invitation to hike the John Muir Trail so quickly, I wondered if anything really changed at all. 

For a time, however, that regret took a back seat when she got on the bus.  I knew she would sit somewhere near me. I knew I would drum up the courage to start up a conversation. And I knew that I would no longer be disappointed that I was leaving today, because I wouldn’t have met this person if I wasn’t. 

I now feel that I was simply struggling to not be dragged back home. I was grasping at anything, or anyone, to keep me there. The poor unsuspecting girl, you really had to feel sorry for her. 

I think the reason the idea of destiny or fate is so appealing to us is because we don’t want to make big decisions. It is much easier to say, “If it was meant to happen, it will happen.” It allows us to push the blame onto something outside ourselves when we fail to step outside our comfort zone and take control over our own lives. 

She climbed aboard and walked down the aisle, scanning for a friendly face to sit next to. She sat in the crowded front half of the bus. Okay, so maybe I was wrong. And I couldn’t just walk up to someone on a bus and start talking. What would I even say? 

Meanwhile, in the back of the bus with many empty seats around me, two teenage girls jabbered about their pregnancies and the baby names they were considering. They gossiped about how so-and-so in their high school was pregnant too, and how like, so crazy it is, all these babies.  "I know, riiiiiight?” one said with a high-pitched kryptonite voice. 

There are moments like these when I wish I could just turn off my hearing. That moment of silence would have been so soothing, like when you finally turn off a loud radio that has been struggling to find a static-free station. 

I did the next best thing, though. I took a nap. The kind of nap that feels like it lasts for hours, but mere minutes pass by. The highest ranking nap there is. 

When I woke, I could see that the backpacking girl was reading a magazine.  The article's headline in large bold print proclaimed that $75,000 was the cost of happiness. As though what you had to do to obtain that salary didn’t factor in at all. The very idea made me kind of angry, because it brought into question everything I confirmed on this trip about living a simple minimalist existence. 

Money and possessions have never been motivating goals in my life. I always felt that the true measure of success was in experiences, even though I don’t feel I’ve lived like I believe that. I want to wake up in the morning not knowing what the day will bring. I want each day to feel like collecting a new precious gem, that is beautiful and rare, instead of endlessly polishing the same one in a vain attempt to make it into something prettier or new. 

For some reason, I wondered what she thought about it. 

We arrived at the train station. I went inside and sat on a chair with my backpack on the floor between my legs. I rearranged gear to get it ready for two more airplane rides. The backpacking girl sat a few seats away, within talking distance. 

The course of many lives have been changed by the simplest of words: hi. 

But I couldn’t get it out. When the train arrived in front of the station, a part of me was relieved. Sorry, can’t talk now; I have a train to catch. 

I loaded my backpack on the train’s luggage rack and took a seat on the upper deck. Over a few rows of seats, I saw that tossed and twisted dark hair. Oh good, I would get another chance. Dammit. 

A man with a conductor hat, name tag, and walkie-talkie strolled down the aisle checking our tickets. He attached little blue tags, which displayed our arrival location above our seats. As we approached the next stop, the conductor walked by to remove the tags of those that would be getting off. I looked up from my book, that I was really only pretending to read, and saw the top of her head again, leaning over her cell phone. 

Another unrecoverable half hour went by. The conductor made another pass, pulling my blue tag, then the next, and the next. I watched him walk by her seat, but he passed without grabbing hers. So, she wasn’t getting off at my stop. My window of time was closing. 

I’m not even sure why I cared. But not unlike the offer to hike the John Muir Trail, she made me see that there was an endless number of forks in the road. Brand new paths not rutted by routine. I didn’t have to be this person spending fifty weeks out of the year simply deepening the rut. It made me realize that next year could be completely unknown, and that thought was powerfully thrilling. 

I sat and stared at that lingering blue tag, but I did nothing. If this was fiction, I would have written the ending in a lovelier way, but it is not. It’s my life, and the dismal and often perplexing way I live it. 

“But, what about bears?” several said before this trip. I mocked their irrational fears, but I’m no better. My fears are no more logical than theirs. Most of us have something keeping us from another, possibly more rewarding, life. If it’s not bears, or a fear of quitting an unfulfilling job, or a particularly intense shyness, it’s something. 

When I was sitting on North Dome a few nights ago, having one of the best nights of my life, I made a wish on a shooting star. I wished that the way I felt at that moment never had to change and that I could always feel that joyful and free. Life is constantly offering us moments like those, but I have to face the fact that there is no destiny. There is no fate. Wishes only come true if you make them come true. 

- - - 

On my last flight, I sat next to a stout ginger man wearing camouflage. When the seatbelt sign went off he stood to grab a camo backpack out of the overhead and pulled out a portable DVD player. 

I turned to rest my head on the window and stared dumbly at the flashing lights on the wing, blurred by clouds. For a moment, the sky cleared and I could see the lights from an unknown city in Middle America. Thick storm clouds, orange with the glow of city lights, hung over it like smoke-gray anvils. At every moment, lightning streaked through the clouds. It reminded me of a computer animation of firing neurons in an active human brain. Even though the city’s inhabitants haven’t seen the Milky Way from inside city limits in decades, above the storm clouds the sky was clear, and magnificently starry. 

The plane disappeared back into storm clouds. The view from my window was now the reflection of my scruffy week-in-the-woods face. I shut the shade. 

I looked at the portable DVD player sitting on the man’s camouflaged lap. He was watching “Over the Top”, the greatest arm wrestling/child custody movie ever created. Well, top three anyway. 

Eventually I started a conversation with him. We talked about the trips we just experienced. My whole life I’ve been presented with different paths to take. In nearly every instance, I’ve taken the safer route. For example, when given two opportunities to talk to a traveling stranger, I chose a guy in camo that owns “Over the Top” on DVD instead of an attractive backpacking girl. 

Suddenly, strong turbulence jarred the plane, stronger than I’ve ever felt before. The first thing that went through my brain was how tragic it would be if the plane went down when I could have been hiking the John Muir Trail. Everyone would be screaming for their lives and I would be berating myself for thinking this was the safe option. Life is unpredictable. There are so many unknowns. You think you’re playing it safe and suddenly, your airplanes wings fall off. 

I looked at the flight attendants face. It was calm, and therefore, so was I. Although, thinking I’m safe is really a falsehood. I need that fear for motivation. Nobody lives forever and the fact remains that death doesn’t wait for us to have lived our lives to the fullest. 

- - -

When I got home, I was so tired I crashed into my bed without changing or unpacking. When I woke up, I immediately turned on the shower. I peeled off my socks and flicked them right side out. An endless cloud of dusty soil flew from them with every flick, like beating a rug on a clothesline. The smell of soil transported me back to the pine forest on Yosemite’s north rim. 

I turned on the space heater to warm the bathroom. I thought about how I warmed myself by lying on a sun-drenched slab of bedrock just two mornings before. It seemed like ages ago. For a while, everything went back to normal. The next morning my alarm blared at 6:30 AM: work, stress, Indiana, boredom. The rut. 

My dreams of finally starting the next chapter of my life were stifled by the realization that change was hard work. I started to question again why I would even want to change things. My life is not bad; honestly it’s better than it has ever been. But if my life list has taught me anything, it’s that there is so much to experience and so little time to experience it. A safe and comfortable life is fine if that’s what suits you, but I’m not satisfied with a “safe and comfortable” life anymore. At least not right now. I think for now, I’d like to take a shot at having an “amazing” one. 

I have been thinking about the billions of years that passed before I was born, and the billions that will pass after I’m gone. I get this tiny sliver of time in between to be conscious. To experience everything that I can. It is such an incredible gift, such an astonishingly rare gift. Playing it safe is no way to spend it, because in the grand scheme of things, whether it lasts for thirty years or ninety is insignificant. What matters is that I recognize it for what it is. One chance to take advantage of it while it lasts. One chance to live an amazing life.  

Clicking send on my Letter of Resignation
By the time you read my next post, I will be jobless, homeless, and heading to Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail. I’m not exactly sure what stories I will have to tell over the next few months, but then again, that’s exactly why I’m doing this. Yes, I’m finally doing this. Right now it still feels like a dream that I will soon wake up from. 

Please stay tuned. 

- - -

The blog will be updated as frequently as possible from the trail. Through both good times and bad. Please come back and see how things are going. Whether I remain positive and blissful for the five-month journey, or the trail manages to drive me insane, I can assure you it will at least be entertaining for you.

As always, thanks for reading -RG

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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

Part 9
Back to the Valley
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“When you’re alone in nature, a second week is really important. Right before the second week, that’s when you start to feel that bliss, you know what I mean? When you feel connected to everything,” a co-worker said the day before I left for Yosemite. “You really need two weeks.”

I’ve had many fleeting mentors in my life. Some I’ve never even met in person. Some I only talked to in passing or while helping them with a computer. Sometimes we live thousands of miles apart but meet briefly while hiking on the same trail. They go about their lives not realizing they carry words like chunks of flint. One day they rattle off just the right sentence, at just the right time, and a spark ignites something in me.

“If only I was your age again,” he said.

“If you were, if you don't mind me asking, what would you do differently?” I asked because I saw a lot of me in him. In a way I felt like I had an opportunity to ask my sixty-year-old self for direction. If I continued to work here for another thirty years, even though my passions were elsewhere, what would I want to tell my younger self?

"I would go live in the mountains,” he said. 

- - -

I emerged from my tent. The forest was chilly in the shadows. Through the trees, I saw rays of sunlight warming bedrock by the cascades of Snow Creek. I grabbed breakfast and a water bottle then went to lay on the rock to absorb the heat. 

After a backpacking trip, there is often a part of me that is happy to be heading home; happy to find the absolute nearest greasy diner or to feel the heat of a much needed shower. Sometimes I daydream about falling onto my bed and sinking into that marshmallow-soft pillow. But not this time. Not even a little bit. I needed that second week. I came to the woods to cure monotony. Stopping the treatment after only a week was too early.

Two nights ago, on North Dome, I looked into the valley and fantasized about eating pizza and drinking a bottle of cold beer. I didn’t even want that anymore. I wanted to drink from the stream. I wanted cold trail foods like pop tarts, trail mix, or foil packages of tuna salad and Spam. I wanted to sleep on the ground even though I’d be woken frequently from back pain. I actually wanted the burden of pack weight on my tired shoulders. I wanted to warm myself on solar-heated bedrock on a chilly morning, even though my home could be warmed with a slight turn of a thermostat dial.

The sound of the gurgling stream made me crave a drink. I didn’t mess around with purifying it. I crawled to the rivulet, plunged my face in the water, and sucked it down. It was ice cold, flavorless, perfect. No aftertaste of chemicals or rubber filter hoses. I came up for a breath then went in for one more drink. I pulled back with cold water dripping down my face. I didn’t bother to dry off. I laid back on the warm bedrock and let the wind and sun do that. 

As I lay there, that feeling of bliss washed over me again. That co-worker would know what I’m talking about. With it came a fervent resolve to start a new chapter of my life. Not because life was bad, but because life is good. And unfortunately, it is also short. There isn’t enough time to do the same things again and again. I wanted a life built on a wealth of experiences, not possessions. I wanted a tensionless job over money. And contrary to the norm, I actually wanted uncertainty over security. I wanted to see if I could cherish simplicity and embrace the unknown, rather than cling to things that make my life safe and comfortable, but dull.

I wondered if I would be able to maintain this sentiment when I got back home. Would the trees go back to being just trees? A safe and comfortable life has a way of convincing you that you shouldn’t change. And what did change even mean? Would I leave Indiana? Would I go back to school and start a career that would allow me to spend more time outdoors? Did I need a career? Would I use the next few months to have one life-changing adventure? I had no idea. All I could really say for sure was that I’d take down my camp for the last time on Yosemite’s North Rim. I would head down the mountain. Beyond that, who knew? And not knowing was exactly how I wanted it to be. The rut has to die, preferably before I do.

- - -

The first couple of trail miles were undemanding. I stared down at my shadow deep in thought. This would be the last day, for a while, when the length of my shadow told me all I needed to know about time. Tomorrow I would be back to schedules, deadlines, and alarm clocks. 

The trail turned into a three-thousand-foot descent into the valley with over two miles of switchbacks. Back and forth I hiked the narrow twisting trail. Each time I looked at the valley, I was closer to that blanket of pines I watched over all week. 

I caught up to a young couple also finishing their trip. We reached the valley and got to know each other while strolling down a mile of flat wooded trail. The man was a doctor who used his career as an opportunity to work all over the world, rather than to acquire the highest salary. More inspiring words like flint. I had become increasingly fascinated to learn how others managed to lead interesting and unconventional lives.  I enjoyed talking to them, but my voice was raspy, like I had been screaming at a Paul Anka concert all night. (Yes, that's right, Paul Anka.)

“Wow, my voice sounds terrible,” I said. “It’s hoarse from not talking much all week.”

“Oh, it’s not normally like that?” The girl asked, and then we all laughed at me.

The road parted, and so did we. At the backpacker camp, I set my gear on a picnic table and sat down to rest. At the adjacent site, two guys were sitting on the top of a picnic table with their feet on the bench. They wore cotton t-shirts, flannel, and jeans, so I didn’t think they were backpackers, but just taking a break from walking around the valley. When one of the guys headed toward the restrooms, the other walked over to me.

“Where you headed?” he asked and ran his fingers though his shaggy mop of curled dark hair. 

“Well tomorrow, back to Indiana. I just finished my hike.” 

“We’re getting ready to hike the John Muir Trail.”

The John Muir Trail is arguably the best trail, with the most spectacular mountain scenery on planet Earth. They will hike over two hundred miles through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, and some of the most breathtaking wilderness areas in the country. They will gaze at numerous scenes made famous by the photographer Ansel Adams and will end their journey on the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.

“That’ll be amazing,” I said. “It’s on my list. I plan to come back to do it someday.”

“You by yourself?” he asked and I answered. “That’s cool. So, you’re from Indiana, huh? Do you take a lot of trips like this?”

I told him about a few of the places I’ve hiked. When I mentioned Shenandoah, he told me about his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, as Shenandoah makes up 105 miles of the nearly 2,200-mile trail. 

“You should add the Wonderland Trail to your list,” he said. The 93-mile trail circles the base of Mount Rainier and is considered, by many, one of the best trails in the country. 

“It already is,” I said, knowing that only getting one week of vacation at a time limits my opportunities to complete these longer trails.

“We hiked all but twenty-three miles of it,” he said. “Then the weather got too dangerous and we had to get off the trail.” 

“Hey, hold this.” His friend came back and handed him a metal mug. He had thick dark hair and a thick matching beard.

“What for?” he replied.

“I need to go lay down on top of that big rock over there.” He pointed at a large round boulder ten or fifteen feet high, and ran off. 

“So, you’ve been living on a trail quite a bit then.” I said.

“Yeah. Everyone says I should have gone to college, but this is what I want to do for now. I just asked myself, do I want to live the life I want, or the one I’m supposed to live.” This sentence has been smoldering in my brain ever since. It was like my own subconscious talking to me, the angel on one shoulder arguing with the devil on the other. 

They seemed like drifters, wanderers with no particular place they would call home. The kind of guys that would get a job only long enough to fund the next big trip, without worrying about savings accounts, 401ks, or promotions. But could anyone look them in the eyes and say they are wasting their youth? Actually, I can imagine many people saying to them, “You’re doing it wrong. You should be getting your degree. Don’t you know you need a career? You need to make money, so when you’re old and retired, you’ll have the time and freedom to travel.” I can imagine many people saying that, but never noticing the irony.

“So, how many days are you taking to hike the John Muir?” I asked him.

“Well, he’s made a work commitment,” he took a sip from his friend’s mug. “So, we only have thirteen days.”

“Wow, so that’s what—” I tried to do the math quickly in my head, “—seventeen miles a day?”

“Eighteen,” he said. His friend jogged back with dirt and leaves stuck to his hair and clothes.

“Jesus, what’s all over you?” he asked. “What happened over there?”

“What? I was laying down on a rock. What do you expect?” He brushed the debris from his hair and shirt. “So, did you tell him about our 2010 Summer Expedition Madness?”

“Yes he did. But, I didn’t know it had a title,” I said. “I’m jealous. It doesn’t get much better than The John Muir Trail.”

“Why don’t you come with us,” he said without considering his friends thoughts on the matter.

“No, I can’t. I’d have to quit my job to do that.”

“So, quit your job,” he said it as though it shouldn't even require any consideration.

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. You decide you need to explore new opportunities and one falls in your lap almost immediately. There’s nothing magical going on. There are opportunities everywhere, I just don't notice if they aren't part of my usual routine.  Just like how when I'm driving home, I don't really think about all the roads that don’t lead to my house. That is until a day comes when I don’t feel like going home. Sometimes I turn down a road I've never been on just to see where it leads.

Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those moments. The offer didn't even seem like a possibility at first. I had responsibilities. I had people depending on me. These kinds of things required planning, right? I wasn’t even back home and my determination to dramatically shuffle up my routine was slipping. 

“No, I can’t,” I said.  

“Are you sure?” said the guy with the mop of curly hair. “We lost the third member of our crew. His partner,” he nudged toward his bearded friend.

“Yeah, that was too bad. I miss her,” he said. “She had really nice eyes.” He stared down for a couple of silent seconds. “We need to go get our gear. You camping here tonight?” he asked.

“Well, I’m going to head into the village and find a shower and do laundry,” I said. “Mostly for the poor bastard that has to sit next to me on the plane tomorrow, but yeah, I’ll be here.”

“Cool, we’ll see you later then." And they headed off to their car.

After setting up my camp, I walked toward the village. I passed them at their parking spot, pulling out gear that was scattered in the back seat of a car with New York plates. I realized I never asked them where they were from. I’m not surprised that they drove three-thousand miles to get here, but this made me want to learn more about this, “2010 Summer Expedition Madness”.

“See you later,” I said as I passed.

- - -

I walked by a parking lot in the heart of Yosemite Village. A coyote sauntered across the road then stopped in front of me. He looked around, appearing groggy and out of place, like he had just woken up in an episode of the Twilight Zone and found himself in a mysterious futuristic version of his familiar world. It was curious why he looked out of place and not the parking lot, the hundreds of cars, the crowds of tourists. Not the stores, restaurants, canvas tent cabins, or Yosemite shuttles. The coyote seemed out of place in his own territory. After a week on the trail, I kind of felt the same way. He walked between parked cars and out of sight. A few tourists closed in on him, camera phones in hand. 

The laundry room hummed with the sound of washers and dryers. Clothes thumped and clanked in tumblers. The air was moist and smelled like dryer sheets. I threw my clothes into a washer then went to the showers next door. 

The small room had individual curtained-off stalls lined up on both sides with a narrow aisle between. A man with a white crew cut stepped out of one of the stalls and walked down the aisle toward me. When he saw me, his face seemed to light up in a friendly way. 

“Hi,” he said. 

“Hello,” I replied, but barely looked at him. I quickly retreated into a stall, so he could fit down the aisle. I kicked off my shoes then realized the man was the tax attorney from Ohio. I blew him off again! I felt terrible. I rushed outside with bare feet, but couldn’t find him and went back to the stall.

The shower was old and worn, but clean. I stood on a grated floor whose main purpose seemed to be to irritate your feet, so you’d be less inclined to take long showers. I pressed the button that delivered less than a minute of pressurized hot water blasting against my grimy skin. 

God. Damn. That’s amazing.” It was one of the best showers I've ever felt. I pressed the button at least thirty times. 

After my clothes dried, I went to Curry Village for that pizza and large soda with free refills. I planned on getting that cold beer, but I was so thirsty that the alcohol in the quantity of liquid I wanted to drink would have made even David Hasselhoff's liver cower.

After eating, I began to walk toward camp. It started to get dark so I hopped on a shuttle. 

“The next stop is the Village Store,” the driver said. “The only store still open until tomorrow morning, folks.”

I got off to pick up a couple things to eat for breakfast. I passed a cooler and went back to grab three tall cans of Guinness. This would be my pretext to have another conversation with the John Muir Trail backpackers from New York. I wanted to hear more about their trip. Maybe have their particular approach to life rub off on me. Actually, I think I wanted to be convinced to go. 

When I got back, the campground was full of backpackers. It was too dark to see much of anything other than the light around all the campfires. At the John Muir Trail hiker's campsite, food covered their picnic table where they sat immersed in conversation and laughing. There was a girl with them now. “He must have talked the girl ‘with nice eyes’ into going after all,” I thought. I didn’t want to bother them. I decided to have a snack and read, and then maybe head over after their meal.

Later, I looked up from my book and saw one of the guys and the girl walking down the trail following circles of headlamp light on the ground.  When they passed I said hello then noticed it wasn’t even them at all. Someone else must have taken their site or they decided to setup somewhere else. 

There was no chance of finding them in the dark. I was a little disappointed. I hadn’t convinced myself that my decision to say no to their invitation was the right one. Had I gone with them, my history would be unwritten. At home, I more or less knew the life waiting for me, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable. I climbed on top of the picnic table with my feet on the bench. Feeling down about the missed opportunity, I knocked back two cans of Guinness.

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

Part 8 
Snow Creek
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It’s hard to get out of bed before sunrise, even when you know you have to. But what about when you don't have to? The forest was still blue and shadowless.  I could have stayed asleep. My body definitely lobbied for more sleep, but I got up anyway. When this is the first decision you make in the morning, you know the day isn't ordinary.

When I was seven, all it took to get me out of bed was the promise of Saturday morning cartoons and a bowl of Mr. T Cereal. Today it was my addiction to moments like last night. It lured me back over the spine of North Dome to wait for the sunrise, even though the wind blew cold streaks of yawning tears across my cheeks. 

At the top, I sat on a large flat rock. My back straight, my feet pulled up in front of me. My silhouette was halfway between the statue of the young meditative Buddha, and sadly, the version with the big proud belly. I soothed my tired eyes by clenching them shut and rolling them against my eyelids. And sometimes keeping them closed, while breathing in deep. 

There was no sound, like being underwater. At home silence makes me anxious. I turn on the TV, as though silence is something to be eradicated. At work, the monotonous hum of the factory floor outside my office goes silent when the shift ends, and I turn on music. I don’t know why it’s different now, but it is. The silence here doesn't make me feel like something is missing, rather something significant has been added to the scene. Turning on that noise now would seem like graffiti on the side of Half Dome. 

When the sun came up, it didn’t turn the sky to bright pink, orange, or red. It simply faded to a brighter blue with a golden halo around the sun. For those living and working in the valley, I’m sure it was ordinary. I wonder what it's like to be able to call this ordinary? 

Back at my camp, I slipped inside my sleeping bag to get warm. I oscillated between sleep and wakefulness. The tent slowly turned into a solar oven in the late morning sun. I unzipped the door to let a cool breeze in.

Ants crawled along the huge log just outside my tent. I was back in the micro-world of the trees again. Each with its own ridges, peaks, and valleys. Every trunk a world inhabited by monsters. Ant armies gather to battle winged beasts ten times their size. Eight-legged captors in fields of sticky webs sit motionless, biding their time. The ants disappear under shingles of bark and into wooden tunnels perhaps tending to food stores or fertilized eggs. I wonder what kinds of cities they have built around here. There was evidence that bear claws had shredded part of the log in a search for grubs. How does it look, from the ant’s point of view, when an entire neighborhood is destroyed by one swipe of that hulking leviathan? 

While floating in prosaic routine back home, it’s so easy for me to get bored. How is that possible? I want to tell that version of me to quit being so pathetic, to get up and just look around. There is always something amazing happening. 

I romanticize nature. There is no denying it.  And if you are reading this, I suspect you already know that. I often wonder, though, how I would do on a long hike. A really long hike. When I was a young boy, my grandpa told me of a lawyer who quit his job to hike the Appalachian Trail. He told me that he walked so long and so far that he had to keep buying new shoes in order to finish. I remember thinking, "Wow, imagine going on a walk for so long that you had to stop off for more shoes!" My boyhood imagination pictured a pyramid of worn out shoes piled up on a floor somewhere. Would I still romanticize nature after something like that? 

My grandpa’s story had certainly planted a seed. I thought about that lawyer a lot over the years. I’ve had many moments where I wanted to head out my front door and just walk until I couldn’t walk anymore. How far could I get? What story would I have to tell by the end of it?

Every nature-loving backpacker has their own romanticized stories. But it's a lie if any of them say they have no stories of frustration or discomfort. On a walk so long that I wear out my shoes, would the forest become another banal routine that I would get bored with? Could I actually get tired of watching the sun rise over a valley? Would I spend more time romanticizing the lives of ants, or cursing the lives of ticks and mosquitoes?

Still I wonder, if a week alone in Yosemite could alter my outlook so much, what would several months do? 

The afternoon certainly had its share of aches and irritations. Since last night, the temperature rose forty degrees. I spent much of the day without any shade. My skin burned red, demanding to be taken out of the sun. My sunscreen sat somewhere at home in Indiana. I triple-checked my pack before leaving, but still managed to forget it. Water would be scarce for a few miles this morning as well, so I conserved, compounding my discomfort. 

At the spur trail to Indian Rock, I nearly decided to skip it to shorten my time in the sun. The rock is a granite arch, commonly seen in sandstone, but rare for granite. I’m glad I didn’t let my discomfort get the better of me. When you have a chance to see something rare and beautiful, its a good general rule to always take it.

As I walked, I stared at the trail passing under me. Images of condensation dripping from a glass of ice water flashed in my brain. Airplane noise polluted the silent forest, as it had for most of the day. I didn’t realize just how thunderous it was until the moment it stopped. I stopped too. I shut my eyes and just listened. The reversed image of the passing trail had burned into my retinas. On the back of my eyelids, it looked like trillions of stars were being sucked into a black hole. Snow Creek hissed on my left, but out of sight. A soft wind glided across my ears. I binaurally listened to the faint songs of birds. A resonance so beautiful it almost seems impossible that they were emanating from delicate beings that could sit in the palm of my hand. 

The airplane noise came back. The peaceful moment ceased for now. 

The sound of Snow Creek grew louder and louder as the afternoon progressed. The discomfort from today melted away when I saw it cascading over rocks with plenty of shade. Behind the cascades, I could see a clearing in the woods. I walked back and found a great place to setup camp. A large flat boulder sat near a fire pit, ideal for my sleeping pad and book. The creek filled the air with a relaxing hiss and gurgle. 

Maybe I could finish a really long, multiple-pairs-of-shoes, hike. There are discomforts of course, but they are always temporary. And it takes so little from nature to turn my mood around. Such as lying on a flat stone with the trees towering overhead, reading a good book in their shade, and sipping on all the cold water I could drink.

It was another late night before turning in. I broke a dead branch of pine into small pieces. Many dried needles still clung to it like thin brown leaches. The fire loved this like kerosene and roared with demented delight every time I threw a piece in. It was my last Yosemite campfire. Tomorrow I’d head back to the valley. I felt that foreboding back home in Indiana feeling. It's alright though. I didn't know it then, but my week in Yosemite wasn't finished altering my outlook.

Part 9 >
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Yosemite, Part Seven
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 7
North Dome
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It was another lazy morning with no reason to rush.  My next campsite on North Dome was only six miles away.  It was quiet, with the exception of a numerous variety of bird calls.  In the valley below, I watched two birds chase each other.  Seeing their backs from above gave scale to the deep valley.

“Let’s have cereal for breakfast,” I said.

“Mmm, that sounds good, but maybe put pants on first?” I replied.

“Right, good idea,” I agreed.

Yes, that conversation actually happened.  No reason to pretend we don't all talk to ourselves on occasion. It happens considerably more often when I've been alone in the woods.  And the amazing thing is, these short conversations with myself are generally friendly chatter and not just the usual berating.

I put on pants, ate cereal, and said farewell to another great campsite.

I made my way toward Yosemite Point, but my first stop today was to stare at a tree.  It wasn’t exactly part of the itinerary, but the size of the tree made me stop.  The micro-world taking place on its surface compelled me to get out my camera.  When closely examined, it was easy to see it as a world as wonderful as Yosemite itself.   Every lofty pine is a planet covered in lime green moss meadows, timberland ravines and cliffs.  There are grooves in the bark like tiny dry riverbeds and deep gullies. Spider webs stretch over them like tightropes and zip lines.

Anyone that happened to walk by would have seen a man with his hands against a huge pine tree, leaning into it, his eyes inches from the bark, panning its surface slowly.  I was engrossed in a world that I have often looked at, but never saw.  

I didn't actually see anyone until I got to Upper Yosemite falls. The creek was too low for the falls to draw the crowd it usually does, but I passed two couples coming up from the valley.

“Did you just come down the mountain?” one of the men asked.  “Is it hard to hike up?”

I have found that the level of difficulty is so subjective, that I didn’t know how to answer him.  After a short  pause I just said, “Not hard enough to not give it a try.”

They didn’t give it a try.

I crossed a wooden bridge over the creek then began my climb to Yosemite Point.  Enduring the heat with rare moments of shade was well worth the reward that awaited me. The sky was bright blue and nearly cloudless.  The sharp peaks of the battleship gray mountains rose high in the distance like big top circus tents. I crept right up to the edge and saw the whole of Yosemite Valley laid out before me: the village, the serpentine highway, and cars that raced along like toy Hot Wheels. The opposite effect of that micro-world on the tree. My familiar macro-world was now in miniature.

When nearing North Dome four miles later, I stopped at a summit thinking I had arrived.  The view offered a new angle I hadn’t seen before, and was every bit as impressive as the one at Yosemite Point.  It planted a wide grin on my face.  It was the kind of elation that pours over you making the hair on your neck rise and your skin shiver.

I was ready to put down my pack, set up camp, and stare at the view for the next few hours, but after reviewing my map I realized I hadn’t yet made it to my destination.  North Dome was actually the smooth rounded peak two thousand feet away and two hundred feet below.  From this height, it looked like a great white whale.  Not a real one, but the version in cartoons with the disproportionately large head that slopes down to an undersized tail.
I dropped my gear off on the tail and hiked along the spine to the top of the big round head.   When I returned, I decided to setup camp where I left my pack. I unrolled my tent on a rectangle patch of land that had been flattened by previous tents.  On the other side of the log there was a fire ring and an unobstructed view of the large flat face of Half Dome.  What started as a tiny point in the distance, that I was hiking toward all week, was now up close and massive.  I sat on the ground against the log and enjoyed another tuna salad pita while considering my good fortune to be alive and sitting at another amazing campsite.

The sun began to tuck behind the horizon. I climbed back onto North Dome as the sky turned salmon pink.  I watched a shadow creep up Half Dome until it covered all but a sunny cap on top.    Soon that too was gone.  

Drivers heading down the serpentine highway began to turn on headlights.  From up here, all that bustling activity was completely silent.  I couldn’t even hear a single cricket’s chirp.  It was so quiet, that occasionally I heard faint voices coming from backpackers on the other side of the valley. 

“There is pizza and cold beer down there,” I said to myself, all alone on the granite dome.  I began to see the appeal of a restaurant or two.

I found a boulder with a perfect dimple worn into it forming a comfortable seat. With the sunlight gone, and the pink faded from the sky, a few campfires on the other side of the valley popped into view.  Not even a wisp of cloud shrouded the brilliance of the starlight. 

“Eee, eeee, eeeee.”  The sudden presence of a bat fluttering above my head startled me.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Bat. I thought I was alone.”

Maybe an hour later (but who really knows) I was beginning to get cold and sore from sitting on granite, but leaving wasn’t easy.  This night has made the short list of the most amazing nights of my life.  And in that ephemeral moment I wanted to memorize every mountain slope lit by the half moon, every tree forming the saw-toothed edge of the horizon, and the position of every star that hung so radiant above a view that stretched for miles. 

I started to head back to camp in the darkness, thinking of a warm crackling campfire, but turned for another look.  Half Dome looked so beautiful under the azure glow of the half moon.

I’ll just stay a bit longer, I thought. I laid on my back and stared up at the stars. 

The temperature continued to drop, but I needed to feel that moment of closure when I felt like I could call it a night without having wasted any of it.  In my life, most of my anxiety comes not from the bad things that could happen, but all the good things that could happen, but through some fault of my own, might not.  This night was too great and too rare to allow it to end too quickly.  Consequently, that “bit longer” turned into an hour.

In the deep silence under the stars, my eyes kept closing slowly, but I wouldn’t allow myself to fall asleep.  Just then a bright meteor shot across the sky exactly where my eyes were focused.  The fiery tail lasted for a few seconds then faded away.  I grinned. There was my moment, I had my closure. 

I wished on that shooting star that nothing had to change.  Not that I didn’t want to eventually leave and experience other things, but that the way I felt never had to change.  I want to feel like that always.  And why not? Life is constantly offering opportunities like these if only we choose to make them happen.  I know that I can’t do this all of the time, but is it more crazy to measure a successful life in moments like these, than in dollars in the bank?  Everything I surround myself with in pursuit of having a comfortable life cannot hold a candle to how I feel in these moments when I have the least.

I got up and stood with both hands leaning on a trekking pole. I panned around in a complete circle to see it all one last time then headed back to camp.  Reflective flakes in North Dome’s granite surface sparkled. Its color in the moonlight looked like snow and even the fine gravel crunched like snow under my steps.

When I got back to camp, I struck a match and dropped it into the fire ring onto dried pine needles surrounded by finger-thick twigs that I arranged earlier.  It roared to life in a few seconds. As it burned down, I placed wrist-thick branches on top.  I warmed myself while watching them burn for quite some time. When I couldn’t keep myself awake any longer, I crawled into my tent.

“But, what about bears?” several asked me before my trip.  What about living a version of my life that didn’t include this unforgettable night on North Dome?  Honestly, I do appreciate the concern, but the latter worries me far more.

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