Monday, July 11-Wednesday, July 13
First, I would like to retract a statement in the last blog, which said that in addition to representing Absolute Beauty, Yosemite “is Exhibit A of how we humans tend to screw everything up.” That is not fair. My failure at the time of that writing was due to a paradigm confusion, that is, thinking of Yosemite Valley as a wilderness paradise. The more appropriate comparison is Times Square. Once you understand that, the accomplishments of this extraordinary park become even more impressive.
The average number of people who visit the park in July is a tad under 600,000 or 20,000 people on any given day, and 99% of them end up in the valley. That is a lot of people in a relatively small space and accounts for the bumper-to-bumper traffic and over booked parking lots. To relieve the congestion the Park Service runs free shuttles every 10 minutes on a 22-stop route that connects all the villages, and the buses are packed. The easy trails are also usually crowded as is just about everything else in the valley. But once you understand that the goal is to allow as many people as possible to enjoy the park, you realize that not only is it remarkable that the Park Service pulls this off without ruining the park experience, it adds to the fun—especially if you like people watching. And if you are a wilderness person, you are only minutes away from a trailhead which will take you far away from the maddening crowd. The national parks are a treasure and evidence that government can and does do a lot of things right.
But, of course, everything does not go right all of the time. Take the “Curry Village/Half Dome Village” name confusion. Well, it turns out that just about every name in Yosemite has been changed due to a trademarks dispute. Yosemite, like most national parks, uses private management companies to operate the hotels and campgrounds and provide food service. When the Park Service was not paying attention, the former private management company, Delaware North, proceeded to trademark under their name virtually every historic place in the park; and when they were replaced by Aramark, they offered to return the trademarks to the Park Service for a mere $52 million. (Does this sound like something Trump would do?) In fact, there is no such thing as Yosemite National Park anymore because Delaware North trademarked that name as well; so it is now just “Yosemite.” Lawsuits, counter lawsuits, and outrage by park visitors will probably continue for a while before this is resolved. In the meantime all the new names are on signs that are designed to look temporary.
The four days we spent in Yosemite with our daughter, Jessica, and her kids, Jasper(age 11) and Josie (age 8) were fabulous. The first two days of tent camping –contrary to my expectations– were actually fun though the first night when temperatures dipped into the 40s, I thought I was going to freeze to death. The first day the five of us took a hike to Vernal Falls, billed as a 1.6 mile “moderate” hike with a 400 foot elevation change. I should have paid more attention to the elevation change since my strained knee is still a problem. The paved “trail” was quite crowed with people coming and going almost in a continuous line, but the views of the stream and valley walls were spectacular. The uphill part was manageable but coming back downhill very slow and painful; and at times I was wondering if I might become one of the 200 hikers each year who are carted back to the valley on stretchers. But I made it. Jessica and Jasper kept going another five miles (out and back) to Nevada Falls, an elevation gain of 2,500 feet, and returned later in the day, exhausted, to join us at the Half Dome Village pool.
The second day we all hopped in Jessica’s car and drove 50 plus miles on winding roads up the mountain to Tuolumne Meadows, which is the center of the high country, at an elevation of almost 9,000 feet. We were disappointed that we came too late in the season to see the magnificent wild flowers but had a pleasant walk in the meadows, and enjoyed a picnic lunch beside a meandering brook where the Ellis family all took a dunk in the ice cold water. I was pleasantly surprised to see so few people there, unlike the congested valley.
On the way back to the car, two serious hikers approached us. You can easily tell a serious hiker because of the heavy back pack, the walking sticks, hiking boots and a look of determination and resolve. They move steadily as if on a mission and keep a sharp eye on the path ahead. These two guys looked older than most of the serious hikers, a bit bedraggled, and their pace was slow. They stopped to ask if we had any idea if there was a visitor’s center around; and when pointed to it a few hundred yards away, they suddenly became elated, confessing that they had been hiking for five days, were already a day behind schedule, and ready to go home. When Embry asked if they had had a good time, one responded, “Well, yes and no.”
While his hiking partner chatted with Embry and Jessica, I asked him about what it was like, hiking in the back country. He grimaced and said: “Are you kidding me? It should be against the law to let anyone over 70 do something like this—and we both turned 70 this year. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. You can’t believe how steep the paths are, and they go on forever. You round a bend and think you are at the peak and look up to an endless path even steeper. You fry during the day and freeze at night. You walk on narrow paths where one false step will send you dropping thousands of feet. You are thirsty all the time and can’t get enough water. We are from Minnesota where the altitude is 900 feet, not 9,000 feet like it is here. All I can say is thank God we made it here. Would I ever do something like this again? Never in a hundred years. Now where did you say the Visitors Center is…?”
We wished them luck and hoped that could find someone to give them a lift to their campsite where they started.
Day 3 was the transition day for us. Embry and I are saying goodbye to our tent and the Half Dome Village. This was part of the deal we negotiated way back when we planned the trip; and I was ready for it. It was not that it was freezing cold in the middle of the night or that our neighbors were two feet away on each side, or that you could hear every word being said within 20 feet of your tent, or the stopped-up toilets that left water standing several inches deep in the rest rooms. Actually it was the energy level. There was so much going on and so many families coming and going, kids playing everywhere, serious hikers off on a trek or staggering home to their tents, the gatherings for dinner at the massive dining pavilion, and streams of people at the shops or café or laundry mat or amphitheater. We needed a break. The solution: off to the “Yosemite Majestic Hotel” formerly The Ahwahnee Hotel, an historical landmark.
Josie protested that it was not fair for us to leave them even though she and Jasper had already made friends their age and they were perfectly happy.
“Oh come on, Pepe, suck it up!” she said. “You can stick it out a couple of more days.”
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel and the Half Dome Village represent the alpha and omega of tourist accommodations at Yosemite or practically anywhere else for that matter. The hotel was constructed in the 1920’s and underwent a $12 million renovation a few years ago. It was what I was expecting the Crescent Hotel in the Ozarks would be like: huge formal dining room with tall ceilings and high windows, a walk-in fireplace, dinner by candlelight with superb service, a vast lounge area and beautiful grounds. Our room on the fifth floor shared a huge balcony with one other room and looked out on Half Dome. The décor was elegant but understated. The food was not quite up to the level of the environment but certainly not bad. We hosted Josie, Jasper and Jessica for one breakfast and one dinner and heard no more from Josie about sucking it up.
On the final day, everyone but me went biking in the morning and rafting in the afternoon. I spent the time catching up on the blog and riding the shuttle bus. It took almost one and a half hours to complete the loop with passengers crammed in like sardines most of the way, struggling to get on and struggling to get off. More languages than I could count were spoken and complexions were every shade of white and brown. I do not know the split between residents of the U.S. and visitors, but it was about as diverse a population as you will find on one bus or, for that matter, the Planet Earth. This, I thought, is what makes our country great. To try to return to “good old days” when white folks ruled the roost is a pipe dream. As they say, that train has done left the station. How we adjust to the new normal is, of course, in part what the election of 2016 is all about and right now, Hillary and The Donald are tied in the polls at 40-40. Scary.
Tomorrow we leave Yosemite for points east. It has been a magical four days. Yosemite is a magical place in a vast and beautiful country. We Americans are blessed.