Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yosemite People

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.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bear Head and Others

A recent on-line poll sponsored by Coca-Cola to determine the nation’s favorite park was won by little-known Bear Head State Park in northeastern Minnesota. Even in Minnesota, Bear Head is nowhere near the most popular park in terms of annual visits. And when we throw Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountain parks into the mix, the result is downright absurd. The win has been attributed to a video camera that was strapped to a bear in the park last winter and transmitted via the park’s website. Of 5.7 million votes cast, Bear Head snagged a whopping 28 percent. To achieve that result, every man, woman, and child who visited the park last year would have had to vote for it ten times.

I was at Bear Head a few weeks ago, and I would put it in the category of “nice” but hardly extraordinary. The lake is attractive and there are some impressive white pines at the picnic area, but the campground is flat and the loops are utterly conventional. If someone asked me to name the best parks in Minnesota, the list might go something like this:

BWCA: A wilderness paradise, with sparkling lakes, luscious pine woods, and picturesque rocky campsites and portages extending for miles in every direction.

Itasca: A miniature Yellowstone with rugged log cabins, plenty of history, old growth forests, numerous lakes and backpacking sites and a fine 18-mile bike trail through the woods.

Gooseberry: It has a beautiful Salmela-designed visitor center, great hiking and cross-country ski trails both down to the lake and up into the hills, five spectacular waterfalls, and a rugged shoreline facing majestic Lake Superior. (But to be honest, Split Rock and Tettegouche are no less impressive.)

Forestville: Two branches of the Root River wend their way through the hardwood-covered hills here. The river bottoms are festooned with wildflowers in the spring, owls and coyotes howl nightly, there are trails everywhere and a ghost town where the river opens out across the valley.

Afton: There’s something awfully nice about backpacking in to the widely-separated campsites in the hilly fields above the St. Croix on a weekday. Once settled, you can hike down to the river or back into the fields through sunflowers and bluestem, with burr oak here and there and swallows knitting the sky a few feet above your head.

Grand Portage: The reconstructed fur-trading fort is impressive, but the view from the hills behind it are positively sublime. It may be corny buy it’s true—you can easily imagine brigades of canoes approaching loaded with trade goods and “On roll-on du la jean roll-on” echoing off nearby Mt. Josephine. You can gamble at the casino or hike to the high falls on Pigeon River: the atmosphere of history and remoteness is everywhere.

Frontenac: A spectacular view our across Lake Pepin and a skein of trails through the woods and fields make this an easy winner. Spring birding is always good.

Pipestone: The trails are nice, the quarries are fascinating, the history deep.

Jay Cooke: There are miles of trails through the lovely, hilly woods and the St. Louis River has the best rock-jumping in the state.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Victory and Defeat

The annual boules tournament has come and gone once again. As an event it’s smaller than the World Cup … but bigger than the state fair. I call it a tournament but it’s actually a festival. The matches are more than a pretext to socialize … but less than a reason d’ĂȘtre. Which is as it should be, because boules as it is played in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris or the city parks of southern France epitomizes the attractive mix of grandeur and inconsequence that many find so attractive in French culture. This year (coincidentally) the event was held on Darius Milhaud’s birthday, which added an extra Provençal touch.

The seriousness of the occasion may be suggested by the fact that our hosts, Tim and Carol, have built a boules court in their back yard. Yet when you consider that the event lasted nine hours, though most of the participants were actually engaged in competition for less than twenty minutes, it becomes clear that the afternoon held other attractions in store as well, the most important being food, drink, and conversation—though not necessarily in that order.

On the appointed day friends that we haven’t seen in months arrive from every corner of the city, and our friend Rollo—who speaks French fluently and was on business in Milan and Paris just a few weeks ago—also drops in from Seattle on his way to a family reunion in the Red River Valley. The assembly spans three generations, and a stray elder brother-in-law, just back from some financial consulting in New York, comes close to adding a fourth. There’s meat on the grill and salads on the buffet table inside the house. Our hosts try to keep the competition progressing, minding the pairings and rousting whomever is up next, and someone usually has a tape measure in hand, at the ready to adjudicate if two balls come to rest equidistant from the “target ball,” more familiarly known as the cochonnet.

About the food, only one thing can be said: fantastic! As for the conversation, it’s easy and fluid among friends who’ve known one another for decades. People losing jobs, working harder on contract for less, writing books about anti-gravity, making large batches of garlic-ginger paste and freezing them in thin sheets, going to Inception for the second or third time, reminiscing about a death-defying trip to Venezuela’s Angel Falls, bicycling from Rushford to Fountain and back at 95 degrees, telling BWCA bear stories, reliving those glorious moments on stage at a recent folk festival in Denver—not to mention Rocky Mountain National Park! The kids duck inside to watch Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland. The 9-point rounds of boules continue.

There was a time when, perhaps, I was a contender. (Well, I won two of the first three competitions.) But my star has long since faded, and the limelight has shifted to Dave and Jim. Yet Tim was always lurking in the shadows, waiting his moment. This year Dave fell from competition in the early rounds and Jim was knocked out in an intense nip-and-tuck battle with his wife, Debbie. I knocked her out of the competition in turn, though not without difficulty; Michel outlasted Carol, and Tim continued an exhibition of brilliant sky-balling that Michel could not overcome.

There we were, Tim and I, in the final. Darkness had fallen. He surged to a five-zip lead, but I crawled back into contention. The score stood at seven to eight. I got close. He sent me to the back wall with another brilliant sky-ball, then put another one close. With my last ball I had no choice but to try to hit him away. I hit the mark and his metal ball went streaming to the limestone wall. But mine wound up nowhere near the cochonnet. Tim rolled a final ball effortlessly within three inches of the litte piglet, and the trophy was his.