First Time in Yosemite
Our first experience in Yosemite National Park left a lasting impression on the two of us that we won't soon forget.
TREMBLING EXPECTATIONS, APRIL 20
We drove through a tunnel, yellow light coloring the hewn rock that made up the walls. At the end, an overexposed scene to which my eyes had yet to adjust.
It’s an image I have seen a hundred times before in photos and videos, each time wondering how this could possibly be so striking a place. Thoughts of visiting have filled my mind as of late, appearing not just in my travel plans but in dreams at night. Tall granite cliffs I’ve only seen as pixels towering above me. I felt fear, not awe. Suspiciousness, not familiarity. In my dreams this place is a box, imposing, claustrophobic. How else could it feel if my only impression of it so far had been to see it on screens and prints? It filled me with a horrible sense of fear mixed with uneasy wonder. How odd that I should dream so vividly about a place I’d never seen and yet there it was, night after night. And day after day, I put off visiting. I didn’t want to fear but most of all I didn’t want to be let down. I wanted to believe it was as incredible as has been said but that was all I wanted to know.
I stood there, holding my camera, unable to raise it up.
The tunnel’s end neared and I shuttered at what was to come. A let down. I had resolved to manage my expectations.
But as we drew nearer the tunnel’s end, the overexposed light of the sunset began to reveal details of trees and cliffs bathed in a host of colors so vivid and real, I lost my breath. When it all came into view, I was in utter disbelief. Something so huge, so monstrous, so beautiful that I was at that moment completely disarmed.
I stood there, holding my camera, unable to raise it up. I couldn’t. I looked down the valley, in awe of the colors as the sun painted its gray and white cliffs pink saturating them more and more as the minutes passed. I looked, transfixed, at the peaks and sheer walls, trembling at the sight. Nature’s steeples touching heaven forming a valley as perfect as can be imagined. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t blink. My only response was to simply stand in wonder. I looked first up and then down, at the Bridal Veil falls and then over to El Capitan. Farther down, my eyes reached to the top of Half Dome, splashed in the million colors of the setting sun. My eyes felt hot and began to fill, my body felt warm, as if the hands of gods had lead me to touch divinity.
Jess approached me from my left. My voice cracked. I searched for words that could quickly cut through on rushing tears. With uncharacteristic brevity, I managed to whisper “This is the most incredible sight I’ve ever seen.”
No pixels can tell the story of this scene. No man can make such a beautiful thing. Only time can.
HALF DOME, APRIL 21
We walked towards silhouetted peaks as the blue of night’s final hurrah enveloped the rising morning. Breathless. Again. The site of granite splitting the sky, its body stretching down to the earth, its dress stitched carefully with pines and cedars, down to where its feet are firmly planted in the valley below. It’s sheer cliff, facing north, gazing out over its home in the Sierras. Weathered, beautiful. To its south the billowing hum and thunder of a pair waterfalls filled the morning air, their water leaping out into the void. Drop after drop reaching the ragged brink before tumbling, spreading its wings and turning into a fan of mist and then cotton, some drops hugging the stone while others flew outward diffusing the morning light on their way to the valley floor.
The blue began to give way to pink and pale orange. The horizon burned setting saw toothed mountain peaks ablaze, painting a scene no Dali or Picasso could ever create. Only a million years of ice, melt, more ice and repeat can create such a spectacular work. Jessica turns to me and says, quietly, reverently, “Glaciers make the best artists.” No doubt true.
From every vantage, I felt my fear of heights give way to wonder and excitement. I wanted to reach out over the empty space between granite walls and touch its lovely northward face.
Pink yielded its post to gold, and pale gray granite soaked in the light to turn a white, silver and harvest yellow. The paint of morning ran down its sides as the sun rose further into the sky laying another morning at its feet. The brightness of sun, warming everything, coloring all else purple. That blue again appears over distant Sierras. How so much beauty be contained within such a space as this?
INSPIRATION POINT, APRIL 22
The trek up was short, steep, rocky. There’s no other way to say that I nearly lack the constitution to walk a little over over a mile uphill. The wild doesn’t take into account convenience. It has time only for destruction, creation and over and over.
We reached the Point of Inspiration wherefrom one can see as did Ansel Adams and John Muir before him the valley’s granite towers scraping the sky. This night, their gray and white hues mixed with the on rushing clouds filled with rain, thunder, lightning heeding this Cathedral’s prayer for respite from the drought. To the west, the sun sets creating a stunning contrast of yellow mixing with blue wherever shadows meet light. As the sun disappears, a tide of shadows fills in the valley floor, an ocean of darker tints turning what was once bright into muted tones of green, brown, yellow and orange.
Pieces of rocks and smaller domes reach into the slivers of remaining light making the contrast of day and the coming night that much more vivid.
There is silence here. If not for the click of the camera, you could almost hear your heart beat with the rhythm of the life around you. I’ve heard silence before but if a symphony could fill in the spaces between the flat sound waves, Yosemite would fill the air with a grand concerto.
No place has ever captured my imagination so. It’s as if I’m falling in love. This place asks you to walk it, touch it, to feel it, to make it your beloved.
EL CAPITAN, APRIL 23
I looked up and down its face, trying to frame the entire thing without my eyes darting about to piece the vertical panorama together. My neck craned all the way back, throat stretching, blood rushing, searching the wall for climbers. I could just see the top from this point of view. I returned to a normal position so as not to pass out and to ponder the size of what rest before me. A wall this immense makes one lose their sense of scale even when presented with it in person. Imagine the futility of grasping its immensity in a photo!
I’ve seen the Empire State Building. A massive structure whose height makes my knees wobble just thinking about being atop one of man’s most storied monuments. Now multiply its height by three and you have but a single pillar in Nature’s monument to itself. The valley’s anchor, 3000 feet of solid rock, a monolith. It’s like the hull of a ship, scraped by icebergs, polished by water, barren and white, making headway through a green sea of conifers.
From another view, it points you down the valley, directing your eye to the other priests and priestesses of this grand temple. I wanted to walk to its feet and rest my hands on Nature’s million year old masonry. Smooth, white, looming over top of me, white clouds barely clearing its summit.
People climb this monster. From bottom to top, man has accepted its challenge to scale its hull, to reach the top of its deck, adorned by more stones and scattered trees. What a site to behold.
For millions of years, it’s southern face has caught the dawn and awoken to the sun warming its walls. To me, its relentless brilliance, its uncompromising faithfulness is an inspiration, a reminder to hold fast. A decorated veteran of this once secret valley, with scars to prove it. El Capitan. A worthy name.
LEAVING, APRIL 23
Morning came and I peered out the window of our camper. Rain again. It’s crash composing a gentle rhythm on our roof. I began to feel a pain. Today was the day we had to leave to make it to another destination, and the rain further limited what sorts of things I could see and explore. I was suddenly filled with a sense of remorse and regret. I am a weak hiker, being so out of shape from sitting for so many years in front of a computer and refusing to get on a treadmill. To beat a path on a rubber belt has always felt so very alien to me. To spend hours in a building filled with machines and pounding music has never motivated me to reshape myself. And here I was, in Nature’s most stunning masterpiece, a place I had immediately fell in deep love with, unable to walk it how it asked me, to explore every corner of it with adventurous abandon. I sat up in bed, thinking of what else we could do before leaving. This place was love. Every morning I was in it, I felt alive, I felt a sense of purpose. I don’t know what it was. My spirit felt new, fresh, ready to take on these peaks which is unusual given my acute fear of heights. But physically I was not yet ready. Heartbreak. Yosemite felt like home to me. Nowhere has ever so captured my imagination and changed my perspective. There are so many thoughts I’ve had over the last week that I am still working through, but change came to me in one fell swoop of seeing the valley anchored before me. Like a message reading that I reconsider, reassess, recommit myself to living life in a way consistent with the strength of granite, in way paralleling the steadfastness of these edifices, in a way open to the change from the upheavals that I will inevitably encounter. I left this secret valley in the same awe I entered it. I left it and felt a loss. I ache to return, but not before I apply the lessons it taught me in our short time together.