By Mark Neikirk

An apocalyptic smoke nestled into Ansel Adam’s iconic mountains, rendering them in his monochromatic tones though, in rebuke of the master, out of focus and shielded from light. Yosemite had become the antithesis of itself. A place of spectacular views lacked them. Its preternatural fresh air was fouled by the sting of whatever residue fire effuses as it consumes oxygen.Whereas other Americans wore masks to ward off COVID, Yosemite’s visitors wore them also to ward off falling ash and the acrid, awful smoke.

Inside the park, Yosemite Valley is a mall of amenities. An information kiosk. A grocery store. A bar. Public restrooms. RV parks and campgrounds. All of those were oerating like an iPhone on Low Power Mode. At the picnic tables outside the grill, only the ravens constituted a crowd. In faint reminder of what is usually here, a German boy about five built a fort of sticks and stones. His little sister, maybe three, rushed over to knock it down and laughed in delight. Mom scolded. The boy rebuilt and spoke quietly in his native tongue to his creation. A few feet away, the ravens pecked about for fragments of potato chips – usually so abundant, now scarce. A stern woman in Patagonia glared at a hiker who wasn't wearing a mask, as if  summonong the Angel of Death to render his punishment for what Pink Floyd might call a momentary lapse of reason. Judgent was atmospheric. 

Welcome to hell.

Okay, that was overkill. This wasn’t hell. But it was far from the Yosemite we planned to visit when this trip was mapped out last winter. The national park had lost some of its mojo.


Our numbers on this hike were diminished, as if in alliance with the park, which had been diminished by the smoke. Thirteen of us were on the original travel roster. Five – Bob Pauly, Jon Stratton, Eric Krosnes, Colin Jennings and Mac Riley – could not make the trip make, each for reasons of their own, the best of which was the imminent birth of a first grandson (Bob).

Able to make it were Mark Goetz, Dave Heidrich, Hank Heidrich, John Hennessey, Brian Hennessey, Rick Rafferty, Rob Seddon, and me. Eight of us.

Ours would be an adventure together, experienced in the most unusual of times. Could it get stranger than going to the National Park that the president had just called “Yo Semite” during a signing ceremony for the Great American Outdoors Act?

There are jokes and memes going around about 2020, a year that keeps redefining what’s normal. Sane people wish this year straight out of the Book of Job would just go way. I suspect Baby 2021 will tell Old Man 2020 in the classic annual Dec. 31 political cartoon, “Don’t talk to me. Don’t look at me. Most of all, don’t touch me.”

2020 began with an impeachment, during which calm, thoughtful Americans gave sworn testimony about how a reality television star turned world leader governed as though he were Richard Hatch in the original season of “Survivor.” Here is how Richard explained his strategy: “People are a little paranoid and that's a good, good state to have them in.” The president’s tribe, the U.S. Senate, when given a chance to vote him off the island, did not.

By the time the opposition tribe had settled on a nominee, the public’s s attention had turned to the pandemic. Then, along came the death of George Floyd in police custody, his plaintive words, “I can’t breathe,” a resonate cry from the depths of American history. American streets roiled. Our collective rhetoric blew a fuse. The real news was called fake, the fake news real. Then came the fires. Yeats rolled over in his grave thinking he wrote his 1919 poem The Second Coming (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”) a hundred years too soon.


Our hike became less certain with each passing news cycle showing the exhaused firefighters, the burning forests, the threatened homes. But a Yosemite ranger assured us the most damaging fires were further north. So on Saturday, Sept. 5, we boarded Delta flights from Cincinnati to Fresno.

I last flew eleven months ago. Much has changed. Back then, passengers were Delta’s sardines, a Boeing its tin can. I found myself seated on a flight to Denver beside a man the size of a sumo wrestler. He sat down in seat 16C next to my 16B and promptly chicken-winged his elbow beyond the armrest we were ostensibly to share. Without so much as a hello, he installed earphones in his waxy ears and played Matrix with a joystick he got through security – the same security that confiscates nail clippers but saw no reason to prevent this would-be Keanu Reeves from sharpening his mayhem skills.

COVID’s unlikely gift was a row to yourself. If 16A was yours, so was 16B and 16C. Indeed, the only inconvenience on the flight out was a young woman in the Cincinnati terminal dressed like a lime green whore and talking loudly into her phone, saying over and over, “Girl, she’s on my dick,” which cannot be translated literally given the gender of the speaker. I’m guessing this is the new, fouler slang for “on my case.” While I’m always glad to be educated in the latest nuance of language – it is, as Hart Crane put it, as water beneath a bridge, ever flowing and changing – I wished for a busier airport where the ordinary cacophony of conversation might act as a noise neutralizer against this young woman’s creative but offensive declarations. She kept it up after we boarded. Engine noise eventually provided a public service.

The airport at Fresno was an immediate awakening to the reality of the West’s fires. Our shuttle driver likened his hometown’s evening sky to a Star Wars set. An eerie, ugly exhaust hung everywhere. The sun, a softly glowing ball, could barely pierce this new, contaminated atmosphere.

The check-in clerk at the Fairfield Inn was the poster child for the new normal, wearing a mask, standing behind Plexiglas and telling you how well the inn’s rooms had been sanitized. One used to worry, when staying at a hotel, about the residuals from any lovemaking by the room’s previous inhabitants. Now one worries about whether they’d been COVID-tested or gave a damn about it. But trust we must, and to bed we went as it would be an early morning departure to Yosemite.

Outside of Fresno the next morning, we stopped in Fish Camp, Calif. It was 9 a.m. It looked like 9 p.m. Our iPhones received an evacuation alert for a nearby town. Fire trucks packed hotel parking lots. Snowflakes of ash settled on windshields. A hard rain’s gonna fall.

Fresno is 64 miles from the Mariposa Grove entrance to Yosemite. Within a couple of hours, we were in the park. By early evening, we walked into the Tuolumne Meadows backpackers’ campground in pitch black, promising the camp host we would check in at daylight – which we did. The full moon had begun to wane. It might as well have gone Pink Floyd, turning its dark side to us. Any hope of a Van Gogh night was lost.

We were up by 7 a.m., which would become the week’s routine. The winds had shifted overnight and we hiked under a crisp, clear blue sky. There is a God. We set out to find the John Muir Trail’s intersection with the campground. Someone asked us directions. His mistake. The Patio Boys have a way of getting misplaced. Not lost mind you. Just misplaced, like car keys. In due time, we found a trail and took it. Not the right trail. But a trail. It, in its own due time, it intersected with the correct trail. An extra mile and we were on our way. We had maps. We had not consulted them.

The early sections of the John Muir Trail were pastoral, with bubbling brooks and tall pines. Soon enough, the trail began to go up. Straight up. Officially, we were going from 8,635 feet to 9,575 and back down to 9,301 over 6.1 miles to Lower Cathedral Lake, with a net gain of 1,280 feet. Doesn’t seem like a lot; still, the longer of the uphill slogs turned us into slugs, inching across the terrain in slow motion.

We arrived at Lower Cathedral Lake around 3 p.m. It is a beautiful mountain lake. Classic in every respect. Water fit for an Evian bottle. Tall groves of pines spattered behind the immediate shore, which is narrow band of sand. Beyond the trees is a combination of smooth, slick granite knobs interlaced with jagged, broken rocks. The well-named Cathedral Peak rises above it all, looking very much like Barad-dûr, J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth castle, though less evil under this bright sky. The winds would shift again within 48 hours, darkening the skies back to Mordor tones. What you see and how you see it in the mountains is always being shaped by the light and atmosphere. They change a changeless landscape.

We found flat ground for our tents and settled in for our first night backcountry. David got out his spinning rod. I assembled my fly rod. With a gentle wind on the water, the two of us fished while others relaxed on the shore on a perfect High Sierra afternoon.

Park biologists have been killing off the trout in Yosemite since trout, though prized by anglers, were stocked and now compete with the native amphibians for bugs. Whether Lower Cathedral is on the kill-the-invaders list, I’m not sure. But if any trout are left, they weren’t feeding. In an hour’s time, one snapped a bug of the water’s surface. One.

David, undaunted, waded deeper and got a strike. He reeled in a beautiful, fiesty brown trout, a foot long. Unfamiliar with handling a trout, which is a particularly slick-skinned fish, he juggled and flayed as it wiggled and flopped until a photo could be snapped, then released the little fellow back to the wild, perhaps to be poisoned by an ichthyologist hell bent on biological purity in the wild.

Later, we would meet a couple of California anglers, who educated us the termperament of Yosemite trout: “They wear leather jackets and have USMC tattoos.” Dave’s fish fit the Don’t Trend on Me personality profile to a T. 


The friends who did not make this trip were on the trip nonetheless, inasmuch as certain moments or scenes conjured their presence, intruding on the vacuum of their absence.

Had Bob Pauly been with us, I suspect our evening conversations would have been a little more vibrant, as Bob likes “the stir the pot,” as he describes the questions he poses. They range from, “Do you believe in God?” to “Where is your old girlfriend now?” And he would have been rating our campsites on his point scale, one to five. A site gets one point each for being flat enough for tents, having easy access to water, having firewood, having a view and being visited by the Swedish Bikini Team or some other fantasy of the unlikely. It is probable that the very existence of the fifth criteria explains why it is never achieved. Misogyny is not a chick magnet.

Jon Stratton came to mind any time we saw a doughnut shop at an airport or in town. He would not have left without a tasty glazed or powdered or iced specimen. Maybe one of each. The man loves doughnuts. His pack might have gained a few pounds. Not Jon. At birth, he was 6-3, 140 pounds and he is still 6-3, 140 pounds, 36,192 doughnuts later. That’s a dozen a week.

The only way I could have been sure that Lower Cathedral Lake was or was not on the Trout Death Squad list was if Eric Krosnes had been fishing it, too. He was off in Germany, saving people there from COVID-19. Every cast made me miss his presence and expertise. If he caught nothing, then there would be no fish to catch. He would have loved the fact that Dave Heidrich caught the only trout using spinning rod rather than a fly rod. It is Eric’s mission in life to demonstrate the superiority of the spinning rod versus the fly rod. Eric also came to mind every time I tied a knot. I’m pretty good with knots. He is better at the clove hitch. Mine makes him laugh. Simple as that might seem, it’s part of the joy of trip. Laughter. Good medicine.

Colin Jennings and Mac Riley, who work together in DC, come as a team; it is hard to think of one without the other. Colin, is the young by years, is Mac’s Sherpa. Mac’s pack is somehow the lightest on the trip. A baggie of Q-tips would weigh less. Colin, however, carries an ancient Jansport (it’s got to be older than he is), loaded past its maximum, and yet somehow he climbs every grade effortlessly. How’s he do that? It can’t be, can it, that his threadbare Washington National’s cap, is magic – although given the outcome of last year’s World Series, maybe such hats are preternatural? Maybe Colin’s trail name should be Frosty.

There must have been some magic in
That ol' silk hat they found
For when they placed it on his head
He began to dance around, oh…

We thought of Colin, too, while in Fresno, where the National’s Triple A team, the Grizzlies, play in Chukchansi Park. The name is for stadium’s underwriter, the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, located 40 miles north. Had he come, young Colin could have explained to us how it is Pete Rose remains banned from baseball for life but the National’s organization can have a stadium financed by a casino. Lady Justice, your scales need a recalibration.

As for Mac, we missed hearing him say as we sat down together for dinner: “This is the finest assembly of gentlemen ever, and I am truly honored to be in your inestimable company.” No one else can utter a sentence like that and sound sincere. Mac can because he would be utterly sincere. He has gift for elevating others.

Also, since we’re talking Mac, there would some kind of ceremony. Perhaps we would all be inducted into the Secret Society of the Cathedral Peak Shadows. There would be a patch or a necklace handed out to affirm membership. A password and handshake would be established. We would all avow to keep the society’s secrets, though there are none. It would be a bit like being a Bush at Yale, I guess. Some real Skull and Bones shit. Probably not a coincidence that Mac was a Pentagon undersecretary in the first Bush administration.

Missing, too, was Silver Pops – John Curtin – who never planned to come but was missed all the same. Pops was in Wyoming and Montana with his wife, Maryann. His being out West made it seem we were journeying together. We traded a few text messages about smoke and fire. His conditions were more favorable than ours.

As for those us who did make it, the salutations begin with Mark Goetz. If you take a trip with complicated logistics, you want Goetzie along. We had spreadsheets with each day’s itinerary. We had maps. We had elevation profiles. Our transportation to and from the trail was organized as were our campsites and hotels. Goetz is like American Express. Don’t leave home without him.

He also is former Air Force medic. When Dave Heidrich walked into a protruding tree branch and slashed his forehead so that it looked like Harry Potter’s Z-mark, Goetz was there with the medical kit, cleaning, disinfecting and applying butterfly bandages so that, after the wound healed, Dave would be no more or less handsome than before the unfortunate incident.

As for Dave Heidrich, if he were a glue, he’d be Gorilla brand. He holds a group together. He takes an interest in everyone. He initiates conversations he knows will interest the person he’s talking with. For Dave, it’s not all about him. It’s all about you.

He is insufferable in one way. He won’t stop reminding you of the rules of Scouting. His introduction to backpacking began with his taking his sons to Philmont, the New Mexico destination that the Boy Scouts of America describe as their “premier High Adventure™ base.” Beats me why the Scouts trademarked “High Adventure.” Where they afraid a Colorado ganjapreneur might trademark it first? Philmont taught Dave such useful lessons as rolling up your sleeping pad and bag before you exit in tent in the morning: “The last thing to come out of your tent is you.” Dave was particularly obsessed with passing these sagacious scoutisms along to his son, Hank, who had not backpacked since Philmont many years ago and may have forgotten them.

Hank was more interested in missing golf and his wife, not in that order necessarily. What Hank brought to the trip was incredible effervescence. He was, after all, Mr. Red and, once, to show a potential employer his personality, he once brought a photograph of himself in a University of Louisville t-shirt, arms outstretched and a smile to match, while standing in the University of Kentucky student section at Rupp Arena. How can you not admire the verve? Hank is joy made human. It’s hard to be down and out in his presence. A smoke invested Yosemite boosts the odds of being down and out, so we needed Hank.

Hank’s positivity was tested. His older brother, Simon, is a backpacking virtuoso. He loaned Hank a sleeping bag, tossing him the stuff sack – “Here’s your bag.” Hank dutifully put it into his pack. He didn’t ask Simon for a tent because he and Dave were sharing one, which David was carrying. First night out, Hank opened the stuff sack to find a sleeping bag plus a two-man tent. He laughed, promised to have words with Simon, and never complained once about the extra weight. A joyful man, Hank.

Brian Hennessey was the other son on the trip. He is John Hennessey’s youngest and had just moved back to Kentucky from Boston. Burning the candle on both ends as ambitious 30-somethings do, he had worked up to the last minute and ended up with a laptop in his backpack. Its battery was dead so it was dead weight. Do you see a theme emerging among the younger fellows? Extra weight, so what? Like Hank, Brian never complained about carting around a laptop he couldn’t use. He laughed about it. And every time we ate something for a dinner that he had been carrying, he offered to put some portion of the next night’s dinner in his pack to take a load off someone else. Bring more sons!

David and John were delighted to have their sons with them, and such delight just makes you happy to be along for the ride. We as a group are close to our fathers, though mostly our fathers are gone now. I lost a dear uncle, who had been like a second father to me, just days before we left for California. He was on my mind all week, and seeing how much John and Dave enjoyed having their sons along was grounding. Real circle of life stuff. Cue the Elton John. Better yet, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

John is a man who worries. He worried about the smoke. About COVID. When we called to tell him we needed propane canisters for the stoves he worried about finding them. He and Brian were a day behind us because Brian had a wedding to attend on Saturday in South Carolina. Consequently, the Hennesseys were in Fresno as we arrived in Yosemite. Turned out, getting propane canisters was harder than expected. Dick’s Sporting Goods was sold out. Wal-Mart was across town through horrific traffic. John favors the word “horrific” when describing things he considers horrific. The Wal-Mart excursion might make the Hennesseys late for our shuttle to the trailhead at 5:30 p.m. There was no next shuttle. John being John, he found the canisters and got to the bus stop on time. John worries. We don’t. If John’s on the task, it’s getting done. No one is more reliable. Or has better hair (well, Brian might).

Rick Rafferty is new to backpacking. He came with Goetz and Heidrich (and Simon and Jon) to Yosemite in the summer, hiking section of the John Muir trail just above the section we hiked this trip. That was his maiden backpacking trip. It speaks well of him that he came back. Rick is a retired sixth-grade social studies teacher and it shows. When he’s not teaching, he’s learning. He is an endless stream of questions. He also exudes kindness, and his stories often are of former students, their successes and their challenges. We live in a time of teacher-bashing. I invite those given to this vile habit to meet Rick, Exhibit A for the selfless, thinking, and empathetic personality drawn to teaching. They don’t do it for the money, folks.

Rick was especially curious about the Patio Boys. How long have they been around? Who is Bob Pauly again? Are there rules? Dave had mentioned the rule about what constitutes an approved Patio Boy trip, which qualifies all who are on the trip to nights out. If you want to burnish your Patio Boy bona fides, get more nights out. Once you have accumulated more than the late Shaun Hudson, who died with 48, you achieve ambassador status. If two or more ambassadors are on a trip – and if the trip was open all Patio Boys, living or dead – then the trip is officially a Patio Boy trip and the nights out count. We met the first criteria. John and I are ambassadors and Dave is close. Whether the “all invited” criteria was met is subject to debate. Bob (119 nights out) rules on those. It’s not a democracy so save your logic for some other debate. It won’t work on Bob.

Sounds complicated, Rick observed. You have no idea, Dave replied: “Basically, it is the same as how faith becomes a religion. You have a group of people who all enjoy being outside. They revere the majesty of the landscape and the sense of community, and they like each other. Then someone starts making rules and establishing hierarchy. In another twenty years, there may be Patio Boys icons and feast days.”

Dave, like Hank, is a minister, so he knows these things. Both were ordained by the Universal life Church of Modesto, Calif., an institution they found on Google, to which they paid a small fee so they could preside at a wedding or two for friends and family.

Rob Seddon, in contrast, is an actual minister. It was Rob who called on God the Father each evening to bless us, bless our food, keep us safe, and watch over our families back home. And blessed we were, so God was listening to Reverend Rob. This proves that God is love and is that God without restriction because Rob is Cleveland Browns fan and, were God selective, Rob might not get the attention he does.

Rob was also equally talented in another kind of mystical communication. His cell phone seemed to get service when no one else’s would. He made good use of it, calling home to talk to his wife and his girls, taking every chance he could to tell them he loved them and was anxious to see them again. To be in the presence of love. It is a grace.

As for me, I’m just the cook.

A hike is about the place but also about the people, and for us, the time on the trails and the years have created a bond that, while hiking, is strengthened as we pair off and walk in pace with one friend, then another and, with each pairing. In such increments, we come to know one another as we would not in daily life, when pace is not controlled by a trail’s grade but by the obligations of career and all the rest. A hike is improved by a place like Yosemite, but is not the scenery that makes or breaks a trip. It is the people, and how they interact and how they regard each other’s lives. With each conversation, smoke clears. We see each other more clearly.

By 8.m. on Tuesday, we were packed to depart Lower Cathedral Lake. A buck came dashing through camp, a harbinger of the day. It would be good one.


As the cook, I would like to say a few words about food.

All eight of us agreed to be in the Food Consortium, which means I bought the food, packed it and cooked it. Hank was my sous-chef de cuisine, and did so with aplomb.

My approach to backcountry cooking begins weeks before a trip, scouring grocery stores for foods that are dry, lightweight and need only water to cook. There’s a lot more on the shelf than you might imagine. To supplement the locally acquired goods, I ordered a No. 10 can each of freeze-dried beef and chicken. The weekend before the trip, I composed the meals and vacuum-sealed them for use in the field. Dinner was chicken and rice for Monday, chili mac for Tuesday, spaghetti for Wednesday, and cheese tortellini with chicken for Thursday. The week’s favorite was the chili. Here’s how it is made, mostly in a single pot:

  • One packet of Darn Good Chili, which says it makes eight servings – exactly our number. That’s only true if the eight are very light eaters. Hence the rest of this recipe.
  • Two tubes of tomato paste.
  • About four cups from freeze-dried beef; roughly a half cup per diner.
  • Two beef bouillon cubes.
  • A packet of Cincinnati-style chili seasoning.
  • A half cup of tomato powder. This stuff is gold. And nearly as hard to find. I have a source.
  • An onion.
  • Black pepper. Red pepper. White pepper.
  • Cumin and paprika, of course.
  • Olive oil. It helps with taste and with digestion.
  • A box of mac and cheese. This is magic. It almost doubles the servings but without adding much pack weight, and the powdered cheese reconstitutes well. Cincinnati chili is served with a heaping helping of finely shredded cheddar. This isn’t quite that, but you might be surprised how close it comes.
  • A little powdered milk and a little powdered butter. They improve the cheese.

Chili is best with crackers, but those get pulverized in a pack. So I bring OSEM / Gefen Mini Croutons, which you can find in the Kosher section of Kroger’s. They taste good and are as resilient as an I-beam.


Day 3 took us from Lower Cathedral Lake to Sunrise Lakes, 7.2 miles with a 1,138 feet net gain. The day’s climbs were not as challenging as the day before. Perhaps our legs and lungs were acclimated. We found a campsite at Middle Sunrise Lake, hoping to bathe it its waters but the shoreline was muck – making access impossible. As evening came, Hank climbed higher for a cell phone signal so he could call his wife, Natalie, and then came down and reported, “Guys, you have to go up there. The view is incredible! You can see Half Dome.” It was our last clear night, and Half Dome was magnificent from the higher perch. But as it loomed left, a plume of thick smoke loomed right. It was the Creek Fire, and got larger and denser as we watched. By sundown, Half Dome wore in a ghostly cerement.

By morning, Middle Sunrise Lake seemed fogged in. The fog was smoke, and the rest our trip would be thus shrouded. A few miles into Wednesday’s hike, we came upon a trail crew’s camp. They were evacuating. It was time to plan our exit.

We had intended to climb Cloud’s Nest. At 9,931 feet, it would have been our hike’s highest point. Our reason for going high was for the view of Yosemite Valley. There would be no view. We went around Cloud’s Nest.

The trail around went through a burned out forest. Thorny bushes crowded the trail. They were harbingers of the forest’s regrowth. Fires are part of a cycle, and good for the forest, which needs to renew itself. But these fires, in the fall of 2020, are well beyond the natural cycles. California Gov. Gavin Newsom put it plainly, “If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.” A Paul Simon lyric comes to mind:

Well I'm accustomed to the smooth ride
Or maybe I'm a dog who's lost its bite
I don't expect to be treated like a fool no more
I don't expect to sleep through the night
Some people say a lie's a lie's a lie
But I say, why

Why deny the obvious child?

The President told America a few days after we returned that science doesn’t know everything and that the West Coast will get cooler – “just you watch.” I say, “I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more. Why deny the obvious?”


Our final day in Yosemite took us to Nevada Falls, where a divot in a plain of granite first captures the upper mountains’ melting snow in an oasis of water, then releases it in measured but ample portions over a sheer drop. Right next to all of this, the backside of Half Dome loomed massive yet nearly invisible. Half Dome is 8,800 feet plus tall and roughly the size of a small planet or at least as big as Rhode Island. How could a rock so present seem so distant?

Dave later shared a stock photo of Nevada Falls on a clear day, taken from that granite plain. Beyond its edge is Yosemite Valley, grand and vast and framed in snow-capped mountains against a blue sky. The colors are a kaleidoscope. He included a photograph he took the day we were there. The granite plain, cut by the water, is clear in the picture but beyond the edge is nothing. The valley and the mountains, so clear and dominant in the other photograph, are invisible behind a shroud of dirty orange haze.

Coming down, we also passed Vernal Falls, a tall cascade that was below the worst of the smoke, and so a reminder of what Yosemite might have been, had we made it here outside the moment of this destruction.

Back home, people ask me about the trip. I cannot tell our story without talking about the smoke. I sound like I am complaining. I am not. We were extraordinary lucky to be away for a week. Away from work. Away from COVID. Away from lawn mowers and weed eaters. Away from iPhones (mostly). We tried to be mindful throughout the trip that people were suffering from the fires. Losing their land, their homes and, in some instances, their lives. The long-term consequences to people’s lungs and to the water table may not be known for years.

I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more. Why deny the obvious, child?

Addendum: One week to the day after we left, the National Park Service announced Yosemite’s closing. CNN reported: “The air quality in the park is projected to be in the unhealthy to hazardous range over the coming days.” CNN is fake news so apparently everything is fine in Yosemite. Just ask the president.