IN A VALLEY OF BIG THINGS, SOMETIMES THE SMALL THINGS STAND OUT MOST
BY MARK A. NEIKIRK
Two small black dots contrasted dimly in the shadow of a linear, vertical indentation about one third of the way up El Capitan and just above where the tops of the trees of the Yosemite Valley floor obscured the big rock’s base.
Being in the foreground, the trees were like objects in a mirror designed to make them look larger in comparison to what was behind them. But the two dots were right-sized. El Cap was huge. The dots tiny.
One began to move. Upward. Slowly. Staining your eyes, you could see something between them. A rope.
Bryan Jones saw the two climbers first. He is a pilot and a champion at sporting clays, so he is accustomed to scanning vast, monotonous spaces for small objects. “There,” he said, “see them?” Eventually, I could or thought I could – imagining I did more than certain I did. They were impossibly small against an impossibly large and imposing block of granite, 3,000 feet from foot to crown.
A father and his young daughter joined us on the guardrail along the road that passes by El Cap. He had binoculars and loaned them to us for a view after he spotted them and then helped his daughter see them, too. It was too captivating to stop looking until the dad asked, “Could I have my binoculars back?”
Yosemite is a visual place. El Cap, of course. But also Half Dome. Glacier Point. All of the big falls, too. Bridalveil. Ribbon. Sentinel. Upper and Lower Yosemite. Each is spectacular, each is mesmerizing. But Yosemite is spectacular and mesmerizing, too, when the scale is smaller, whether looking at two climbers dwarfed by El Cap or at a backcountry landscape that doesn’t make the postcards but would be a state park were it located in, say, our Kentucky.
Close your eyes. See this. A cleavage cut first by glaciers then by little Snow Creek, acting as the sculptor commissioned to complete the finer details. It is perhaps five or six hundred yards from the crest of this cleavage to the creek, which tumbles over a staircase of rocks. At the base of the V’s steeper side, the bank of Snow Creek is a broad, stone plateau into which almost perfect circles were cut eons ago and in varying diameters and depths. Some of the circular cuts hold pools of still water replenished by underground eddies. Snow Creek rushes through others, menacingly appearing and disappearing within the circular frame of the holes.
It is frankly difficult to describe this obscure spot in Yosemite for fear of missing some detail or missing, for that matter, the overall drama of it. Too much is happening. There is the waterfall itself, deafening and boasting of hydraulic power. The stream, wide in some places, narrow in others, nips and tucks through a labyrinth of rock, still sculpting. This is why we came. To see. To see with awe. To see what tectonic plates and water can do, given time. To see what the Great Artist of the universe did before he gave Picasso his brushes and paint.
On our way out, we pulled into the overlook at Tunnel View, where a panoramic view of the Yosemite Valley is – on a clear day – breathtakingly beautiful. We took a group shot, asking a passing young woman to snap it for us. We lined up according to her instruction, all ten of us, Jay Brewer and his son, Keegan, our other father-son pair, Mark and Brian Goetz, brothers-in-law Jon Stratton and Bryan Jones, and then Dave Heidrich, Rick Rafferty, Harry Watson, and me.
We arrived just as a tourist tram was loading up to go. The tram was a contraption designed to transport people who want to “see” Yosemite with a minimum of effort. The tractor part of a tractor-trailer is hitched to a flatbed equipped with rows of seats, as if the passengers are settling in for a movie. Pass the popcorn. Cue the previews. The tram goes from site to site in Yosemite with the assigned tour guide providing commentary at each stop. It pauses for selfies.
“We’ve seen all of Yosemite,” one rider could be overheard saying.
She had not. I’m sure she saw Half Dome and El Cap (you could see both from this overlook), Glacier Point, and most of the major falls, which cascade in slender ribbons of water over the edges of Yosemite’s mighty cliffs. But I doubt she took time to marvel at the tiny, colorful wildflowers that populate Yosemite’s interior. I’m reasonably sure she saw not even a foot of Snow Creek, much less the hidden falls we saw. I doubt she caught a wild brown trout on a Tenkara rod, as Harry Watson and I did. I doubt she saw the setting sun as it made its last stand over the western horizon then, in afterglow, illuminated Half Dome on the eastern horizon in shades of purple that gave the grand rock more dimension the way a narrowing F-stop on an old manual 35mm camera does.
I realize the likes of Alex Honnold, the great climber who made his way up El Cap alone and without a rope in 2017, have seen Yosemite in ways that we did not and never will. So I intend no arrogance vis-à-vis what we saw. Others, who have spent more time in Yosemite and spent it more intensely, have seen far more. John Muir saw more. Teddy Roosevelt saw more. The Miwok people, whose land this is, saw more. I am only saying that if you have the time and opportunity, get off the tram to do. Treat yoursWander some.
Our first night in the Yosemite Valley National Park was at Curry Village, one of the tourist compounds on the park grounds. It includes a general store with groceries, camping supplies and souvenirs as well has a selection of restaurants. Its backside consists of row upon row of platform tents, which are small overnight huts covered in canvas. We had three of these for Sunday night, each with one double cot and two singles.
The huts are minimalist. The double cot sits on one side. The single cots sit end to end on the other. Aside from those, there is a shelf, a chair and a heater, which we did not need since it was in the nineties outside. A shower is within easy walking distance, and each camper is given one towel. The huts have electricity, which we used to charge iPhones, which would provide us with GPS-linked digital maps and cameras.
At Curry, we sorted our gear to make plans for what we would take, trying to reduce our pack weight by a few ounces or, better yet, a pound or two. Nothing – not a better pack, better boots, better socks or even training in a gym – does as much for making backpacking easier than a lighter load. I left a camp chair behind, an extra water bottle, a pair of clean pants, a phone charger, and a few snacks. Probably two pounds of stuff. I was trying for 25 pounds max.
It is important at this point in the preparation to resist the urge to put things back into the pack just because it fits. Everything is weight. What feels weightless is not. Ounces add up to pounds. I found myself holding a little bottle of mosquito repellent in my palm as if my arm and hand were a scale. It could not have weighed more than four ounces and I thought of leaving it behind. Good that I did not. Mosquitos are Yosemite’s dominant wildlife. The lie in wait.
With the sorting done, we turned to dinner. Mark Goetz went to commissary and returned with a loaded pizza that was NYC good. Called the Half Dome, it had it all: marinara, cheese, ham, bacon, pepperoni, sausage, all on a crust that was bubbly and burned in the right places. We popped the tops on a 12-pack of Michelob Ultras and sat atop the big metal bear boxes which sit outside each of the huts so that any food stored overnight doesn’t attract Ursus americanus. This was living.
The grill and coffee shop in Curry Village open at 7 a.m., and we were there by 6:45 a.m. to get in line. We had our packs trail-ready, our extra bags stowed in our two rental vans and our feet powdered to prevent blisters. This might be a good time to tell you Dave Heidrich’s Faultless Foot Protocol. One, remove socks. Two, liberally rub lip balm between your toes. Three, powder feet – Arm & Hammer with baking soda is a good option. Four, put socks and boots on, tighten laces but not too tight. Five, put that lip balm some place where it won’t be mistaken for lip balm ever again.
Oddly, the line for Peet’s Coffee was out the door but the line for the breakfast canteen was unformed. Jon Stratton, who goes to bed and wakes up thinking, “What’s for breakfast?” put an end to that obvious oversight. It was altogether appropriate that he ended up first in line, as it was his 60th birthday – what better present to himself? And his appetite was good for the Curry Village economy.
The breakfasts at Curry Village are exceptional and portions generous, so this was a good last stop in civilization before we headed to the trail. The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System, YARTS for short, ferried us and a busload of other hikers to our respective trailheads along Tioga Pass Road – ours being the south trailhead of the Ten Lakes Trail. We were out five days, four nights with the first two nights camped along Yosemite Creek about two miles from where it tumbles over the side of the mountain. Here’s our dailies:
Day One: Tioga Road to Yosemite Creek, 7.3 miles, started at 7,500 feet of elevation and ended at 6,800 feet. Camped by a big round rock that was perfect for stargazing and, on the opposite side of camp, Yosemite Creek provided easy access to drinking water, a fishing hole, and, one hot afternoon, a soaking pool.
Day Two: We stayed at the same camp but took a day hike to the Upper Yosemite Falls overlook, 4.7 miles with no net elevation gain. The Brewers added mileage (about 9) with a side trip to Eagle’s Peek and El Cap (hiking up the backside to edge where climbers finish), and I added mileage (about 6) with a side trip to Eagle’s Peak only, which offers a sweeping view of Half Dome and its surrounding mountains.
Day Three: Yosemite Creek to North Dome, 8.6 miles 6,800 to 8,100 feet. This was our hardest day. It started out gentle with abundant water but turned dry and grueling for its last two miles. Those two miles were almost entirely uphill and without a spring or stream, meaning we had to carry enough water for that evening’s dinner, the next morning’s breakfast, and the first couple of miles of the next day’s hike. I like to travel with just under a liter of water, stopping to replenish every three or four miles. For this leg of our hike, I carried four liters, which added about nine slushing pounds to my pack. Not fun. A couple of others in our group matched that load and everyone carried some extra to assure the group could hydrate and cook
Day Four: North Dome to Snow Creek, 5.0 miles, 8,100 feet to 6,800 feet. This was an easy hike, punctuated by our most luxurious stop: a seven-story waterfall with a stone beach. It was a double bar of granite that jutted out over the falls’ biggest drop. The two bars were about 30 feet long, and you could sit on one and prop your feet on the other. At one point, six shirtless men sat there sunbathing as if they were on the French Rivera, sunglasses and all. Two women were coming down the trail and we tried to warn them. Their curiosity got the better of them. I hope they can put what they saw out of mind.
Day Five: Snow Creek to Curry Village, 5.2 miles, 6,800 feet to 4,000 feet, a rapid descent to end the hike.
It was, as they say, “All good.” Truth is, I’m not good at remembering bad things about the outdoors – or anything else in life for that matter. If I were, I might have stopped going off the grid years ago. I’ve spent more than a year of my life in a tent, beginning 50 years ago in a canvas Army surplus shelter half with its wooden tent poles and no floor. It was lying with my head out the door beside my friend Kenny Ware that I watched two celestial objects collide one starlit night. They moved slowly across the sky toward one another, struck, and then bounced quickly back to their original positions. I have no idea what explains what we saw. I only know we saw it. And we saw it because we were camping.
Pressed, I can think of some unfavorable moments on this trip. Hauling the extra pounds of water uphill stands out somewhat, but it fades in my memory compared to where that climb took us. We ended up on a high, flat expanse of mountaintop and it was there we saw the sun set and light up Half Dome.
There were abundant mosquitos in some places, but as a British couple we met explained, “They don’t bother you much if you keep moving.” When you stopped, bug spray and a head net worked.
What else? I broke the tip of my pocketknife. No idea how. I’ll take it to the knife shop and ask them to put a new point on it. My electric air mattress pump was out of juice halfway through one inflation cycle. Bummer. It takes 40 deep breathes to blow up the mattress to a functional level and another 20 to get it firm, as I like it. One sock wore a hole in the big toe. I fell flat on my face when, for about 100 yards, I tried to trail run on a day hike. Nothing broken or cut – so all good. A stick poked me in the back once when I tried to duck under a fallen tree. It left a mark.
It was so dry out that one needed to wet one’s whistle often just to keep one’s mouth from drying out. Sorry, Mr. One. Not a serious setback. At night, I kept a water bottle within reach. The same dry air turned any sinus drainage to fossilized buggers that hurt the nostrils. And with eight of ten men near, at or over the age of 60, there was a lot more urinary infractions than anyone would care to see. Every time you turned around, someone was peeing. Like Lot’s wife, it was better not to look back.
Also, all men snore. Those who say they don’t need truth counseling. One-man tents are a godsend and campsites with enough room to spread those tents out are equally divine. Otherwise, when you wake up to pee, good luck getting back to sleep. Harry said he heard a bear one night. Maybe. Or maybe a dry-throated snore has a bruinesque brogue.
That’s the inventory of bad stuff.
What was good – great actually – in addition to what we saw was the exceptional company we kept. I don’t think any of us knew all ten of us before we started. Some of us knew some of us well. Some of us knew others a little. Each of us was connected to each other by something or someone in common. I’d hiked before with Mark, David, Rick, Jon, and Harry but never with Jay, Keegan, Brian or Bryan – and of those four I’d only met one before, Jay, and I think we had only met on Zoom. Three of the group were on their first-ever overnight hike, and they rented equipment for this trip. The rest of us have storage tubs full of gear, which we are forever updating. If anyone out there needs a sleeping mattress, a tent or a camp stove, let me know. I have several generations of each those.
Inasmuch as we are all white middle-class men who lived or once lived in Kentucky, we are homogenous. But we come from various walks of life professionally. Pilot. Journalist. Teachers (four). Pharmacist. Entrepreneur. Hospital administrator. College student. Our politics differ as do our religions. And no two of us drives the same model of car. I am the only once who ever owned an orange Renault 17 with a manual choke and Recaro seats.
Our differences aside, this was a group that melded quickly and stayed melded. When I asked them at the end of the trip what stood out most, no one mentioned the scenery first. Instead, they mentioned the fellowship. The good company. Just as women need time with women, men need time with men for reasons beyond farting without apologizing. Our 12-year-old selves mask the utter difficulties of being a grown up in this f’d up world, where we want the best for our children and not much more. We need time to talk to each other about that.
The first ripple or, as the case may be, roar, of a river is always a sound I welcome. My childhood was spent visiting a creek that emerged from a cave in Lexington, Ky., and it gave me a lifelong affection for running water. We lived in a newly constructed subdivision of $12,000, three-bedroom homes. But at the end of our street was a woods with a railroad track. A half mile or so down the tracks, the cave opened below a grove of hardwoods. The little creek was at first a pool, then a series of riffles and finally a long pool covered in watercress, which one of the mothers in our neighborhood requested that we harvest for her salads. The water was pure and cold and, because it came from underground, it was also mysterious. It was a place to escape the pressures of the first grade, then the second, and on through middle school. When my first true love broke my heart, I walked those tracks past the little creek. All these years later, a stream still brings me a tranquility like nothing else.
Yosemite Creek has its own intrigue. Eventually, it falls over a cliff and plunges to what one info website properly describes as a “staggering 2,425 feet.” It is the tallest waterfall in North America and the sixth tallest in the world, although some dispute that because it falls in two stages with a rapid below the first 1,430 feet. Let them split hairs. The falls, when it is not dry or nearly so – as it is later in the summer – is grandeur defined.
Where we first came beside the creek, it was a gentle stream with a long pool in which you can see trout darting out from the rocks. As I said, Yosemite is a visual place and the sight of trout is one of its more exciting visuals in my book and in Harry Watson’s, too. We both brought Tenkara rods, which are fly rods with no reels. The line attaches directly to the tip of a long rod. I was using mine for only the second time and Harry his for the first. We brought them because they are the ideal backpacking rods. They collapse to about a foot long and weigh almost nothing. They tuck neatly into a tent pole sack, and the tent poles then protect the rod. When it is time to fish, the rod telescopes to ten feet or more. The tip has a little piece of braided line attached, and to that you attach a braided casting line using a loop and fancy little maneuver that takes a few tries to learn. The casting line is about 20 feet in length and to it you attach a monofilament leader, the other end of which gets the fly.
We tied on dry flies, I a Parachute Adams, Harry a little black bug. Both drew strikes almost immediately. It’s a trick to learn to set a hook with a Tenkara rod. We both missed several fish. On our first stop to try the rods, the difference was, I missed all of mine. Harry caught two. The fish were small. Seven inches, plus or minus, but they were beautiful creatures. These were all brown trout, native to Yosemite and more colorful that the big brown trout that, in the East, hatcheries produce. Their spots were bright red, their bodies a shade of brown that was more golden and green-tinged than browns I’ve seen at home.
The Tenkara rod is very light tackle so a small fish can make a fight of it, pulling against your playing, leaping to spit the hook and resisting every effort to be landed. Because there is no reel, and on this trip no landing net (everything is weight), getting the fish to shore without losing it takes patience and an understanding of when to tug, when to lift, when to give slack. Harry has a sixth sense about those things. He also, by the second day, had developed an expert casting method that treated the line and rod like a bow and arrow, shooting the fly with precision to a spot where he saw fish.
Later on the hike, we’d both catch a few more brown trout and I would catch one tiger trout, which is a hybrid produced when a female brown trout breeds with a male brook trout. They are not native to Yosemite and probably will be removed in time by park biologists. But so long as they are present, they are a rare species to catch and it was fun add a species to my life roster. Don’t know if I’ll ever catch another.
PARDON THE DISGRESSION
All hail Mark Goetz, the king of logistics, who made this trip possible.
He secured the permits, talked to rangers about the possible routes and where to camp on them, where to find water on them, and how to connect one route to the next to assemble a five day, four night hike that would tax us but tax us gently, not kill us.
Mark Goetz has a hard and fast rule for backpacking: No misery. The rule is sometimes broken but never purposefully. What misery there was would be tolerable and serve to remind us that we always could have been routed further and on steeper grades where we would have to scramble not amble.
He also got us to the trail. He arranged for two rental vans to get us from the airport to Yosemite and back, made the Curry Village hut reservations to give us a bed that first night, made the YARTS reservations to get us to the trailhead, and booked the Fairfield Inn rooms in Fresno so we could make our 6 a.m. flight home on Saturday morning.
He put it all on a spreadsheet that, for each day, included where we would start, where we would stop, how far we would hike, and the net elevation gain. The latter became mildly controversial given that net gain doesn’t tell the whole story. If you have to hike up 500 feet, then down 400, then up 600, the net gain is 700 feet but the uphill climbing gross is 1,100 feet – which feels like exactly that: 1,100 feet, not 700 feet. We forgive him his equations, though if we were his teachers we might say: Next time, show us you work.
He also provided PDF’s of a map for each day and overall maps of the Yosemite Valley, Curry Village and Tioga Road. All any of the rest of us had to do is show up. Had Goetz planned Gettysburg, Lee might have conquered the Big Apple instead of tucking his tail and fleeing toward Mar-A-Lago.
Goetz built a zero day for us on Day Two, which is to say we could sit around the campsite or day hike or fish or do whatever our hearts desired. Harry and I fished a little, but then joined the others on a day hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, about three miles from camp. It’s a destination for day hikers, who can get to it from other routes. Consequently, it was busy and the National Park Service designed it knowing it will be visited. The ledges that overlook the falls are danger defined. One misstep equals death. Gravity will be neither denied nor defied. So that put guardrails along the edges.
I would go over any of these ledges with a rope, a harness and a guide, but being anywhere near one without such gear does something to me physically. I don’t know what the equivalent would be for a woman but for men our testicles get queasy in the same way a stomach might. I suppose it is the voice of the perpetuation of the species talking to us, since it is in our balls where the juice of life is manufactured. Fall here, our balls are telling us, and humanity will fall with you.
No matter all of that, the view was stunning. You could see Half Dome off in the distance and Curry Village in miniature far below. The great pinnacles of Yosemite were opposite us, as well, rising like a page from J. R. R. Tolkien.
As we left, a young woman, hiking alone, walked toward us. She had curly blonde hair, a tight, athletic body. She could have her own Marvel movie. Veins popped from her forearms. Her hands were too large for the rest of her. She was, undoubtedly, one of the Yosemite climbers who spend their lives here, perfecting their ability to scale these walls with or without ropes and always without fear. We felt we were in the presence of a Michael Jordan, who – like Mike – could defy gravity, though in a completely different way that is all the more impressive because it is not done for fame, fortune or a shoe contract. It’s done for oneself. For excellence. For the chance, perhaps, to say hello to God without dying first. Truth be told, I don’t know why it is done but I know that had I known about this life when I was 14, I might well have lived it.
Most of us headed back except for restless Jay Brewer and his son Keegan. Jay runs ultra-marathons, which are 50 miles when they are short and 100 when they are not. He can sit still about as long as a two-year-old, which I think is what makes him a good school superintendent back home where he presides over a district with some challenges. It needs a leader who is always on the move to ideate change. Jay loves to ideate, with ideas of all sizes. When he was a school principal, he had a “bring your extra candy to school” day after Halloween, and all of that went to a food pantry. These days, Jay is a leading voice for a newer concept that allows kids who want to do so take their high school classes at a university. He’s not capable of sitting still. So he and Keegan headed off to the Eagle’s Peak and El Cap trails.
Walking back to camp with the others, Harry and I slowed down to fish. The trail followed the creek, which alternated between rapids and deep pools. We tried both with modest success. More strikes than catches but fun all the same.
Back at camp, the rest of our crew had stripped to their underwear and were soaking in the stream, cooling off. I joined them, which was refreshing but dang cold even in the blazing sun. We emerged refreshed and somewhat cleaner. No soap was involved, so our accumulated grit and grime were diluted not washed away.
By now, it was 3:45 p.m. Eagle’s Peak was about three miles away with about two of those miles uphill along the same trail that continued on to El Cap. I decided to try and speed hike that and be back by 6 p.m. for dinner. The first mile was flat. It was the trail we had just taken to Upper Yosemite Falls. The next mile was steep and slow. I met Jay and Keegan on their way down. Predictably, they were both smiling – both because they were coming downhill but also because they are just men who smile. They go through life like that. They set a good example for how to live life. They assured me Eagle’s Peak was worth the two miles and advised me to not stop when I “think” I’m there but to proceed right for the best view of the valley and Half Dome. They could not have been more correct. Wow. A picture I took there could be a screen saver for Microsoft. I mean that as a compliment but admit it doesn’t sound like one.
It was good to walk alone and, I guess, something I’m known to do. Mark Goetz asked me to include this reflection about me from him, and I have to admit it is correct:
“Mark Neikirk is a ‘Recovering Ghost’ with those who walk with him. He will be hiking with nine people and then will disappear for an hour or two and miraculously reappear to the group. He disappears to go do the things he loves. He will fish for trout at a location he spots or climb to a location that is off-trail that looks interesting to him.
“Mr. Neikirk is on two trips: The large group's itinerary and then his own personal journey. It works for him because he can live with people wondering where the heck he is. He tells us he is working on trying to just stay on the large group's trip, but it is not in his wheelhouse. He is a free spirit and has to have the flexibility to go rogue. Mark was able to hold on for 1 hour and 7 minutes with the group before his own trip began. We felt lucky to have him for that long. Long Live the Ghost!”
The Ghost missed a memorable moment. Dave Heidrich would relate it to me later. While I was off looking for Eagle’s Peak, a gentleman and a companion, a woman, walked into camp to say hello. Conversation ensued, and he asked if they had heard of the science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson. No, our crew replied, cannot say that we have. Well, he said, Robinson had recently published a book about hiking in this part of California called, The High Sierra: A Love Story. Check it out, he suggested. Dave said he would and wrote the title down, then ordered the book so it would be at his house we he got home.
It’s nice, big book published by prestigious Little, Brown. On the inside of the jacket is a picture of the author. Turns out, it was Kim Stanley Robinson himself who had visited our camp. Dang!
Robinson is one of the leading science fiction writers of our time and, according to The New Yorker, perhaps our nation’s greatest political writer because, “Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics.”
Dave bought copies of The High Sierra for his son, Simon, a past Yosemite hiker with us and on his own, Mark Goetz, and me. I’ve started reading. Here is a sample of the book, a contemplation on contemplating while walking on a trail:
“There is time enough for a stream of consciousness that flows at the pace of walking. All parts of your life, all the time scales, smoosh together. This pace is a mode of being: the walking pace, pedestrian and prosy. Thinking is pedestrian. Aristotle’s Peripatetics: they talked things over while walking around the Lyceum, and their walking helped them to think. They felt that.”
At 7,000 feet and ascending, Kim Stanley Robinson elevated our hike exponentially by his ghostly visit, appearing, speaking, then disappearing into the trail’s winding, undulating miles – a literary specter bearing the gift of his written words.
A word about hiking in a big group.
Ten people in a line with backpacks and hiking poles and a determined look can appear to anyone hiking toward them as an approaching army. Trails are narrow, which makes the peloton of people loom larger, and they curve, sometimes sharply. Hence, an oncoming hiker can’t see the whole line at first – so when all ten of are in a line we’re a hoard. A herd. An antithesis of why you came to Yosemite’s backcountry, which is to get away from people.
But mostly, the ten of us were rarely together. No two people walk at the same pace and in a group our size there are faster walkers and slower walkers. Dave Heidrich, with whom I’ve hiked countless miles over the past decade or so, is particularly fast and, at six-four, has a long stride. Rick Rafferty, though not tall, moves in staccato steps that keep him out front, even though he carries a little extra weight in his pack – nothing extravagant, but he was over 30 instead of under. Every pound matters but Rick seemed to carry the extra weight the way Seabiscuit did. In a thoroughbred race, race officials can require a super-fast horse to carry extra pounds. As Seabiscuit won more races, officials added more lead to his saddle. Seabiscuit kept winning. Rick kept walking. And when he stopped, he had some luxuries in his pack that others of us had left behind.
The Brewers were typically up front, too, along with Brian Goetz. Jon Stratton and Bryan Jones sometimes hiked fast but mostly slowed to ride the middle, keeping one another’s company and catching up on family matters and the like. Harry Watson and Mark Goetz were happy in the back, taking their time – slow and steady. I migrated between the front and back, as did Dave, making sure everyone was holding up and no one lost or maimed.
While that was the routine line up, it was not the only line up. Mostly, a hike with a large group involves two or three people hiking together for a bit, then alternating to walk with others. If we didn’t know one another, we came to know each other. We talk about family. Work some. We talk about the beauty around us and identify the trees as best we can – sometimes guessing. We might stop together at an overlook and marvel at some sight. Politics were not off limits but didn’t come up much. Spiritual matters did. The backcountry brings the Creator to mind.
The conversations continued in camp, and Keegan Brewer offered an appreciation about this when I asked my fellow hikers their favorite part of this trip: “I liked setting up camp every night and making a community.” Sure enough, camp each evening was like building our only little tent city, American Bedouins on our iterant journey short-lived though it was. We pitched tents. Purified a night’s worth of water. Then collected wood and started a fire.
Yes, we had campfires on this trip. There was no fire ban. Why I don’t know since everything was bone dry and other parts of California were burning. The last time I was in Yosemite, 2020, it was on fire and we were evacuated. In a place of things to see, we could not see much. Even the ginormous Half Dome was hidden in the smoke. This time, we made smallish fires in the designated fire rings and extinguished them before we went to bed or left camp. Five buckets of water. Some dirt. Coals cold. Still, permission to build a fire in Yosemite seems, especially in retrospect, questionable. A week after we retuned, news broke that a new fire was threatening the sequoias in the Mariposa Grove near Yosemite’s south entrance and smoke was obscuring views in the park overall. The fire’s size doubled in a day from 500 to 1,000 acres and remained “0% contained,” according to fire officials. The cause was not immediately known. An ill-maintained campfire probably was not the culprit but it might have been. Lightning is the usual cause and the super dry conditions created by climate change make the park a tinderbox.
Should the day come when all campfires are banned, and that day seems to me to be within sight, outdoor enthusiasts will lose something invaluable. There is nothing like a campfire to get the stories going. Like this one. Jon Stratton was prevailed up to recount his aversion to dancing, first exhibited in high school when he secured a date to a dance and feared he might have to, well, dance. He’d seen his brother dance and was appalled at how ridiculous he looked. He would not be that fool. As it happened, there was a basketball game before the dance. Coach put Jon in at guard and, lo and behold, the defender bumped Jon, who went down. In the time it took to fall, he recognized an opportunity: If I’m injured, I cannot dance. And so he writhed in pain. Too bad the drama teacher wasn’t there to see this. Jon might have secured the lead in the school play and gone on to join the parade of Kentucky movies stars – George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and Jon Stratton. Coach, he pleaded, get me out of the game! The coach looked and told him, “If it was just sprained it would swell. It’s not swelling. Must be broken. Let’s get you to the hospital.” No, Jon replied, I’ll tough it out.
A young man on crutches at a dance gets the kind of attention he wants, not the ridicule he fears.
An then there was this story from Bryan Jones, who once was flying a charter to DC with a diplomatic contingent on board scheduled to meet with the U.S. Secretary of State. In his elegant, resonant mountain voice, he asked Air Traffic Control for permission to land. The dull, unaccented voice on the other end apparently expected a foreign pilot and, hearing this Kentucky voice instead, laughed – or as Bryan told it, “Laughed on the open mic.” She might at least have had the decency to key the mic off before laughing. It was insulting, but Bryan summoned a proper authority from the security detail on board and secured permission to land. If you are in the air circling Dulles International, you want someone with Bryan’s ice-in-veins calm. The cockpit is not a place to overreact.
Our topic turned to sleep aids at one point, since sound sleeping in the woods can be a challenge. We have one Ambien devotee but Brian Goetz, the actual pharmacist among who has a doctorate in these matters, cautioned us against it and recommended milder pharmaceuticals – or more precisely, recommended we speak with our physicians about these alternatives and follow the medical advice rather than the advice we were giving each other. In an age of elevated opinion, Brian reminded us of the value of facts – a lesson easily extended into realms beyond prescription medicines.
With each story and each conversation, we got to know one another better.
By the second night, we were comfortable enough to discuss the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. This is dicey territory. People have some pretty firm opinions on this topic, and in our crew were several Catholics and some evangelical Protestants. Yet what emerged was not didactic, not dogmatic but a grasp of the complexity. Might this decision fall unequally on the poor? If we want all fetuses to come to term, are we prepared to invest in child social and educational resources? Why do men have so much say over women’s bodies? What’s the Constitution tell us or fail to tell us? What other rights with this court rewrite? Why is Congress in perpetual paralysis when issues of such consequence face our nation?
With Rick Rafferty, our retired public school history teacher, moderating and prompting, we navigated through this difficult conversation. At one point, it got a little heated and we nearly stopped. But then someone said, “No, we need to have conversation in our country like this. We always avoid them.” What we learned is that if we had them, we might find common ground. No solution would be perfect in everyone’s evaluation but a solution respectful of our differences is within the realm of the possible.
We need a national campfire, not a national wild fire.
Have you tried the latest freeze-dried foods? Don’t.
Kidding. They actually have improved since I first relied on them in 1975. They now taste like a better grade of cardboard. And, to the industry’s credit, a few are very good. Though I’ve never had it, my companions swear by Mountain House Chili Mac and save it for special night so they have something to look forward, too. In contrast, I brought a packet of Patagonia’s Red Bean Chili. Don’t follow my example. This usually reliable brand might just as well get out of the food business.
I took a couple of Next Mile meals. This is a newer company that packs meals for one; most others are meals for two. This brands meals are meatier and decent, especially, I thought, the Italian Style Beef Marinara. But Harry Watson had the Beef Tacos and declared them one of the worst things he’s ever eaten. In contrast, Dave Heidrich swore by the Chicken Pesto Pasta from Peak. He gave Jon Stratton a bite and he confirmed as only he can: “That tastes so good that if you sat it on top of your head your tongue would beat your brains out trying to get to it.” Jon grew up in Hindman in Kentucky’s mountains where the great James Still moved to write. There clearly is something about Hindman and words.
The nearer our trip came to its end, the more we missed the simple things of civilization, including real food. Add to that list indoor plumbing, a cold beer, clean clothes, a shave, a bed. But to get to any of that, we first had to go downhill to the valley floor. While that might sound exciting after four days of hiking uphill, it was not just any downhill but a 2,800 foot decline over 2.5 miles with 118 switchbacks and any number of steep drops to one side that served to remind you that each step should be taken with care.
By the end of that segment of trail, everyone’s legs were, as Bryan Jones said of his, “Spongey.” Be that as it may, all that stood between us and another Clif Bar for lunch rather than, say, a cheeseburger was a mile or so of flat trail and a short ride on a shuttle. Then we would load the packs into the two mini-vans and head the Fresno Fairfield Inn with plans to find a local joint for burritos, pizza or burgers. Something simple. Something made in a kitchen. Something a little greasy. Also, a place where the wait staff (just imagine ... a wait staff!) brings you tall glass of ice water. Not to condemn fresh, cool water from a mountain stream, but such water has to be purified with a device before you can drink it and after an hour or so in a bottle in the sun it is still wet but no longer cold.
After a stop at the park’s diners and souvenir shops, we got in the vans to drive to Fresno. On the way there, Brian Goetz ordered some National Park posters from an online store where they were half the price charged at the Yosemite Valley General Store ($15 each instead of $30). If the New Deal’s WPA had an art style, and it did, these posters are created in that style. Bold, simple lines and sans serif typefaces are played against also bold colors that appear full strength, no shades of gray. These posters have become a thing with us. At least two among us have decorated a bathroom with them and I’m not far behind. Brian, too, presumably. He shopped for frames, too, but was shocked by how much it can cost to frame a $15 poster. “Part of becoming an adult is realizing how much frames cost,” he observed, in what we took as a metaphor for the broader experience of growing up and having to pay for things yourself. Wise fella, that Brian Goetz. Witty, too.
Just after leaving home, I had texted Debra Vance, who is from Fresno and who worked with me at the now defunct Kentucky Post, that I was flying into her hometown. She replied: “Guess what: I am in Fresno.”
Her reason for being home was not good news. Her sister, Yolanda, had been diagnosed with breast cancer and Debra came to be with her for a few weeks. We agreed to try and meet when the hike was over and, on the way from Yosemite to Fresno, I let her know we were on the way and would try to get dinner around six – did she know of dinner near the airport? Not really, she replied. Not much there. We Googled “Mexican food” and found Oaxaca with 4.6 stars. Debra agreed to meet us there.
Oaxaca turned out to be perfect. It was small, off the beaten path and welcoming. Only a couple of tables were taken, and there already were three or four table lined up together to seat 12. Everywhere were bright colors, yellows and reds especially and mostly in the bold image of flowers. A karaoke screen was against one wall and a man with a laptop and a mic was in charge of that. He was setting a good example, singing along with some pop classics and some traditional Latin songs. We ordered beer by pointing to bottles on the counter, given the language barrier – that is, we spoke un poco de español.
Next at the mic was an elegant man seated with his family nearer to the screen. With salt and pepper cut in a classic quaff, with nary a hair out of place, he cut a dashing figure. And what a voice! High notes, bass notes, held notes. He took a small bow after each number, and eventually passed the mic to a younger, burlier man – a Mexican Pavarotti with operatic range that rattled the dishes. Any thought we might have had of singing “Wagon Wheel” or “The Weight” was put to rest given the talent in the room and the fact that Oaxaca did not serve margueritas, which might have fueled such foolishness.
As we ordered, Debra and Yolanda, whom the family calls “Sue,” arrived, all smiles and warmth. They had other dinner plans but ordered Cokes and shared some chips with us. Debra seemed joyful to connect with so many people from Northern Kentucky, none of whom she knew other than me but all of whom knew someone she knew. Connections. When Dave Heidrich introduced himself, she said: “Oh, I remember you. The Drawbridge!” Dave’s father-in-law built a hotel and convention center called the Drawbridge Inn in Fort Mitchell, Ky., in the 1970s and, in 1987, it was home to Oldenberg Brewery, which a 27-year-old Dave started as one of the nation’s first craft breweries. Debra stayed for a time at the Drawbridge when she moved from California to Kentucky to work at The Post.
Debra took time to sit for a moment with each of us and chat and chuckle, and then sat with me to talk about old times and catch up. Yolanda and I talked some, too, and I was able to learn how valued Debra is to her family. She is, you could tell, a rock in the Vance family. She is fun and funny, too, and told my friends that when I was her editor her goal was to write a story about which I had no questions. Someone asked, “Did you?” “Never,” she answered laughing. That’s not true.
I wished Yolanda all the best with her treatment and told her my particular landmark. This was July 1, 20 years to the day since my surgery for prostate cancer on July 1, 2002. I only hoped I could do for her what others had done for me -- shine a light in the darkness.
On a trip so defined by fellowship, this little gathering was the cherry on top.
LITTLE THINGS ARE BIG
Last fall, I was in in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was just one of those lucky breaks that took me there with my wife, Kate. I really did not know what to expect once inside. I did not know, for example, that Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” was on a wall there.
It is among the world’s most famous paintings, and right now it’s the star, if you will, of some kind of high-tech recreating of the master’s art that is branded, sadly, “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.”
Were it actually, an immersive experience involving Van Gogh, one might expect to be repeatedly rejected by women to whom one has proposed. One might expect to be depressed a lot, and perhaps haunted by the fact that you had been named for your stillborn brother, who would have been a year older had he lived. You might expect to paint in a style and palette that would be esteemed only after you died. “Starry Night” would bring at least a billion dollars today where it auctioned. No one much wanted Van Gogh’s painting when he was alive, and he painted “Starry Night” while at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in France. This was not an immersion to envy.
“Starry Night” is a small painting. Two and a half feet by three – and it looks smaller on MoMA’s wall, where it is alone on plain white wall. If a painting’s soul could be tortured by loneliness the way Van Gough’s was, then “Starry Night” just surely suffer internally from its lack of company. But if you stand in front of it and let the actuality of it sink in, you will be moved almost to tears. If not tears, then just to some level of astounding something.
So it is with Yosemite. So it is with seeing of Yosemite’s big things. Half Dome is the most recognized rock on the planet. It is on the California quarter. It’s an impressive sight, and we saw it often.
One of the more memorable aspects of this trip is how many different ways we saw Half Dome. From Tunnel View, it blends with into a grand landscape of granite. El Cap is in the foreground and, in the position, looms larger. From Upper Yosemite Falls, Half Dome is in semi-profile and shows its beak-like profile. From above North Dome, it becomes large, dominant presence in an airy expanse of sky meeting mountains, as vast as a universe. From the base of the trail down from Yosemite Falls to Mirror Lake, Half Dome’s flat face is right there and massive. It isn’t utterly flat from this view, as it is from others. You can see routes up and even imagine hiking up by walking from one indentation to the next. Emphasis on imagine.
For all that, it was a little clump of asters that reminded me of seeing Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Defiantly growing out of crack in the granite atop Basket Dome, the clump of asters may not rival a view of Yosemite’s grand valley of rocks, but it was nonetheless a wonder. How, in this harshly sunbaked place with no soil or hint of moisture or even a bee to pollinate could a flower of this beauty thrive? I fertilize and water my lawn and still my grass dies. Yet this bouquet grows unaided by man or agribusiness.
Here was a work of art, unexpected where I found it, and ts colors as bright as Van Gogh’s happier images. His sunflowers. It grew against its own plain wall: a grey, smooth expanse of granite. And it mesmerized. Such majesty.
Farewell, Yosemite. Until we meet again.
TRIP DATES: Arrived in Yosemite on Monday, June 27 2022 and left on Friday, July 1, 2022.