Back from two weeks in sunny California, touring some of the world’s greatest countryside, ogling the world’s tallest trees (redwoods), the world’s most massive trees (sequoias), and the world’s oldest living things (bristlecone pines). What struck me in particular, however, was the beautiful chocolate-brown bark of the California red fir, a tree I’d never heard of before. Sniffing the pineapple-vanilla scent of the bark of the Jeffrey pine was also quite a thrill.
Yosemite is a land of amazing vistas and hardly less amazing crowds. But here I exaggerate a little. And in any case, the people you meet in the midst of such splendor can be interesting.
For example, while waiting for the bus to ferry us back to the parking lot from Mariposa Grove we struck up a conversation with a Latino couple—hardly an oddity in California. But these folks turned out to be from the Yucatan. They’d flown north to Denver to escape the searing heat back home and were now touring the parks. They’d loved the Rockies but were surprised to arrive at Yellowstone and find that there were no accommodations available. “We drove to the nearest Wal-Mart and bought a tent,” the man said cheerfully. “It’s been OK,” his wife added doubtfully.
We got to talking about books and libraries and scholarship, and he informed us that he’d contributed a few lines to a Wikipedia article about a famous garden in his home town."They don't really check anything," he said. "The essay is very choppy."
The next morning, on our way down the trail to North Dome, we met up with a man from the Bay area who had recently retired and taken up "search and rescue." He and his buddies were in Yosemite to take some lessons from the local pros. “These guys really know how to get people off cliffs,” he told us. As if on cue, a rescue helicopter came into view, about the size of a pinto bean, moving slowly up the valley on its way to snatch someone from death’s door at Half Dome or down ion the Tenaya Valley.
At one point on our way back through the woods to the car we stopped to rest and took off our shoes. A ranger came by and I began to grill her about the trees. “I was afraid you were going to bring that up,” she said. “Trees are not my strong suit.” Anna is from Michigan, she graduated recently from a college in the U.P. She’d volunteered every summer at Yosemite, and when she applied for a job after graduating they found her one. “Michigan is not a good place to find work right now,” she added. The park service supplies her with a cabin by a creek, free of charge, and she’s having a ball.
I asked her for some hiking recommendations and she suggested the trail to Gaylor Lakes. “The initial climb is sort of stiff,” she said, “but it starts at 10,00 feet, so you’re up amid the peaks in no time.” She also recommended that we grab a bite to eat at the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining on our way out of the park. “When my parents visit I always take them there,” she said. “Some five-star chef runs the place.” (Both tips proved to be good ones.)
Back at our campsite at North Pines in the Valley, I struck up a conversation with our neighbor, a crusty old man who had recently purchased the old trailer that was parked in the next site. “I’ve been to Half Dome fourteen times,” he told me. “I would never go there again unless somebody wanted me to take them there.” I told him we had no intention of hiking to Half Dome, and he replied, “It isn’t that hard. I’m sure you could do it. But the key is to start at midnight. Christ, the trail is ten feet wide! You can’t miss it. Then you’ll get to the top at sunrise, and be back at camp by noon.”
I assured him we were not going to Half Dome any time soon, but he insisted on explaining in great detail why a trip to Cloud’s Rest would be even better. Sure, there was that section with a thousand-foot drop on either side. But you could do the nineteen-mile trek from there down past Half Dome and Nevada Falls, and it would mostly be downhill!
His wife, who was grilling chicken nearby, invited us to stay for dinner, but we declined, explaining that we’d already consumed large quantities of Tostitos and salsa down at the riverside. “If you’re ever in LA be sure to look us up,” she cried sincerely as we were leaving to watch the moon rise from the meadow out in the Valley.
The next day we headed up to Tuolumne Meadows, and on a hike out to Mono Pass we were overtaken by an enthusiastic young couple from Plymouth, England. They’d done some hikes in Wales and the Alps, but this was their first visit to an American National Park. They were on the ninth day of an eighteen-day wilderness trip, but to judge from their energy and enthusiasm (not the mention their clothes) you would have guessed they’d just stepped off the bus. “A glass of orange juice,” the woman said, laughing. “All I can think of is a glass of fresh orange juice.”