Friday, July 29, 2011

The I-It Relationship

It’s possible that I built this day up a bit too much. True, the scenery was spectacular and did live up to my expectations, but the experience as a whole was less pleasant than my days at Tuolumne Meadows and Glacier Point. There was far more people in Yosemite Valley, many more of whom seemed to be there to see Yosemite rather than to do Yosemite. While this wasn’t inherently a problem, I didn’t find myself surrounded by folks who wanted to immerse themselves in nature. While it never seemed as crowded as the Grand Canyon, the peacefully seclusion that other parts of the park had offered were nowhere to be found here. In short, while in the past few days Yosemite and I have approached I-Thou status, today was firmly planted in I-It.

I woke up to the coldest morning I’d experienced since about March. I think it was between 32 and 35 degrees, because a) there was no frost on the car and b) when I finally started the car an hour later the temperature read 44, and it had definitely gotten warmer already. Regardless of the actual number, it was snap-off-body-parts cold.

This made my hot breakfast of pancakes and bacon even more enjoyable. For this one, I even had to bust out the measuring spoon. I have 2 tips for making this meal, especially at a campsite at 7,500 feet near freezing. First, use dry milk. It works fine for this application and you don’t need to worry about spoilage like you would with real milk. Second, cook the bacon first and use the bacon fat instead of butter for the pancakes. That way, you don’t have to make sure you have butter (You probably would need to do that if you like butter on pancakes. Although, pancakes topped with bacon fat…).

After a relatively easy cleanup – despite the fact that my frying pan doesn’t fit in my dishwashing bucket – I headed down into Yosemite Valley for the day. As I descended, I began shedding layers, finally reaching the bottom in shorts and a t-shirt, to be greeted by a temperature of 75. Crossing through the Wawona Tunnel, the first view of the valley is called, appropriately enough, Tunnel View. An iconic image of Yosemite, my view there was a little different than what I expected. Probably because I was there so early in the morning, the fog hadn’t burned off yet, and a haze hovered over the valley walls and floor, lending a surreal quality to the scene. It reminded me that this place wasn’t just there to say “Here I am, come have your turn looking at me.” It’s an ever-changing place with a life of its own.

Once inside the valley, I tried to make my way to the visitor center, but I got sidetracked a few times along the way. Once when El Capitan popped up right in front of me and the park conveniently created parking space in the same place, and once at a sign for Swinging Bridge. I wasn’t sure what exactly Swinging Bridge was or why it swung, but I decided to go find out. Turns out it doesn’t really swing at all, but the trip out there was worth it nonetheless. The trail to the bridge passed through a meadow, and thus I passed through a meadow (not to be at all confused with frolicking in a meadow).

From the bridge itself, I had my first excellent view of the Merced River and Upper Yosemite Falls perched high above (the 1,000-foot-plus waterfall actually drops in 3 stages – the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls. More on the Lower Falls later).

Next, I reached the visitor center. At least I thought I did. I followed the signs for parking, found a nice spot in Lot D (never a good sign when the lots have names or numbers) and started making my way towards all the other people. Then I saw the sign – “Visitor Center 0.5 miles. Take free shuttle here.” I wasn’t about to take a shuttle a half mile from a parking lot to a visitor center (What am I? 90 years old?) so I walked. The problem is that the roads and paths in Yosemite Valley are not nearly as straightforward as the roads and paths in any other park I’ve visited. In Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and even other parts of Yosemite, there’s a main road, and everything you need is off of that road. In Yosemite Valley there are 2 one-way roads on either side of the river along with several one-way connecting bridges (some of which are pedestrian-only). Things get even crazier when you approach the visitor center and the area known as Yosemite Village. There, I can’t even describe the road situation because I never figured it out. I just followed signs for whatever I was going to, and hoped for the best. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn’t.

Thankfully, when I did reach the visitor center I was not disappointed by what it had to offer. While the actual NPS building there was small and sparse, it was surrounded by bookstores, general stores, museums, art galleries, and even a deli (but I know better than to trust a deli this far from New York). Unlike at the Grand Canyon, none of this seemed contrived or fake. The stores there provided services and goods that the people frequenting the area needed. For example, the general store sold its fair share of crap, but it also had a decent grocery and pharmacy section. The art gallery wasn’t just by “local” artists to help them make money, it was the Ansel Adams Gallery, who did much of his best work in Yosemite. So while I was in the village, I got another poster for the classroom, a book by John Muir with photographs by Ansel Adams, and a giant carabineer (which I’m going to use for carrying all my grocery bags in at once. I’d been looking for one of those forever and was convinced they didn’t make them anymore).

Once I got finished there, I set off for my big hike of the day – a loop trail I had read about online that passed most of the major viewpoints within a reasonable walking distance (3-4 miles) in the valley. Since it was all flat, I wasn’t concerned about the little bit more distance than usual.

Problem was, remember how I said it’s impossible to find your way around in that valley? Yeah, that’s true with hiking trails too. The first stop on this one was the Lower Yosemite Falls trailhead, which apparently has views just as good as at the end of the trail, so the website suggested taking a picture there and keeping on the bigger trail. My problem was that there are apparently 2 Lower Falls trailheads, and only one has the fantastic view. I found myself at the other one. Maybe if I go a little further up the trail, I thought, then I’ll get that view that I’m expecting. Nope, I was on a completely different trail. This one did offer great views of just the lower falls (which, on their own, constitute the tallest waterfall I’ve ever seen). At the end of the trail, just outside the falls’ “mist zone” there’s a sign that subtly suggests you may not want to go any further, and that if you do, this sign’s anemic warning would prevent you from being able to sue over your injuries.

Past that point laid a pile of random boulders leading up to the actual edge of the falls. It was early and I had energy, so I figured: why not? I spent about a half hour scrambling up the rocks, getting closer and closer and wetter and wetter, until I had to bust out my secret camera weapon: A specially-made plastic bag with a hole for your hand and another hole for the lens. This kept my camera from getting ruined, but didn’t prevent me from having to wipe the water off the lens after every picture. Still, it was nice to cool off on a warm day. Too bad I was dry by the time I got back to the main road, and now my feet hurt from climbing over uneven rocks with sneakers on.

Getting back to the main trail, I walked a little further and found the spectacular trailhead overlook. This one is one of the only places where you can see both the Upper and Lower Falls at once.

Plus, the trees there, and all over that area, are ridiculously tall. I kept looking for signs that maybe they were redwoods (they definitely weren’t wide enough to be sequoias) but I think they were just really tall pine trees.

Continuing on the trail, I passed Yosemite Lodge (nothing special) and a lot of nothing scenery for a while. That’s hard to do, since pretty much everywhere you look you’re staring at massive granite walls towering thousands of feet over you. That’s what I think makes this place unique. Other parks may have individual vistas that are perhaps more stunning than most views at Yosemite, but at Yosemite it’s impossible to look around and not see something spectacular. At Zion, for example, if you spun me around and had me look at whatever I ended up facing, it might be something great, but it might be a big old talus slope. Try that at Yosemite and less than a mile distant I’d be able to see the valley walls, which are all amazing.

Anyway, back on the loop, I passed Swinging Bridge again, crossed through another meadow (still no frolicking) and made my way to Sentinel Bridge. From there, I got my first good view of Half Dome from the valley floor, but I’m not going to show you a picture of it, because I went back there for sunset and those pictures came out much better. Here’s one of that second meadow instead.

By the time I got back to the parking area, I was done with the whole walking thing for a while. So I decided to drive around and see if there was anything exciting in the eastern part of the valley. There wasn’t. So, needing to kill more time before dinner, I decided to drive around more and see if there was anything exciting in the western part of the valley. There, I had better luck.

Near Tunnel View, but on the other side of the river, is an overlook called Valley View. The stars of this vista are El Capitan and the Three Brothers. The difference here is that you get the river and some meadow in the picture, along with the towering granite monoliths.

You also get a decent view of Bridalveil Falls there, which was nice because I was getting a little sick of looking at Yosemite Falls all day and trying to find new ways to take pictures of it that didn’t all look the same.

Valley View alone made it worth the trip (despite my unsuccessfully trying to spot climbers on El Capitan), but turning back east to return to the village, I had company.

Several people were stopped at a wooded rest area (so they couldn’t have been looking up at something) and when I drove by I realized there was a deer just hanging out next ot the road. Determined to get a picture of a deer that wasn’t half-obscured by branches, I pulled over and decided to try my luck.

Like most of the Yosemite deer, this one wasn’t fazed by people at all (it might have helped that it looked like someone might have been feeding it!). I tried not to inch too close because I didn’t want to be responsible for making it run away. Eventually, after stopping to relieve herself in Bridalveil Creek (the second deer I’ve seen perform such a maneuver in as many days) the deer, munching on weeds, munched her way up onto the road, where she began licking something as obsessively as Gordo does. A group of European tourists decided to get real close, with one even succeeding in petting her. I half hoped she had bitten his finger off. This is why you need to learn English when you come here – so you can read the dozens of flashing signs everywhere that say “Do Not Approach Wildlife!”

This is what "getting too close" looks like.
I returned to Sentinel Bridge for sunset, arriving early because I was told the place would be crowded with people trying to do the same. Well, for the first 45 minutes I was the only person there. Then 2 dudes showed up with serious tripods and extra cameras hanging on their belts (it was a shame they wasted all that effort on a ho-hum sunset).

On the way out, since I had to pass there anyway, I decided to stop at Tunnel View and see how it looked now (knowing it would certainly look different than this morning). As it turned out, I probably should have gone there for sunset, since even after the sun was down, it was a pretty remarkable scene. This was the Tunnel View that I had expected.

So now I try to keep all my fingers and toes intact through another night in the alpine sub-arctic tundra known as Bridalveil Campground. Tomorrow, my last day in Yosemite, I see the “big trees” of Mariposa Grove. Hopefully once again leaving the valley in favor of less-visited sites will provide me with less an experience of a park and more an experience of nature.


  1. wait til you get to Yellowstone to get up close & personal with wildlife! those bison are huge- and stall traffic for miles!

  2. the pictures from here are gorgeous!!

  3. That's Yosemite Valley for you!