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Yosemite

September 8/Day 53. Tuolumne Meadows campground, to my surprise, is not a meadow at all.  Instead, it’s tucked deep in the forest, a maze of crumbling roads and tiny campsites that’s showing its obvious age. Because I stated I have a 30 foot 5th wheel when I made my reservation, I’m provided one of the few sites that will accommodate me, and even then my rig is leaning about 4 degrees to the  left. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s kind of like living in one of those “gravity houses” you used to see at tourist traps.

Classic view of Yosemite Valley

Neither is Tuolumne Meadows the picture postcard of Yosemite most people carry in their minds. That would be Yosemite Valley, with its iconic Half Dome and El Capitan monoliths and dozens of towering waterfalls, including the highest in America, Yosemite Falls.

I decide to make Yosemite Valley my first destination, a 55 mile drive that takes an hour and a half along a narrow park road lined with pine trees, in some places so close to the pavement their roots buckle it upward. The scenery is uniquely fascinating, in some ways quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. Ancient, grizzled pines grow out of smooth, apparently seamless granite surfaces. To grow here, a seed would need to lodge in an almost invisible depression in the glacier-polished rock. Then, against

Tree in an unlikely place. The root is in the horizontal crack mid-picture. Note Half Dome in the distance.

impossible odds it would need the perfect temperature and precise amount of moisture required to sprout. Having sprouted, its tender tendril must slowly, tenaciously seek out a microscopic fissure in the few millimeters around it. If it fails, it dies. But if somehow it succeeds to gently insinuate its nascent root into the tiniest fracture, it has the infinitely small opportunity to struggle against the hard rock, to push it aside over centuries with its soft tissue, to flourish. And then I think, isn’t that the way with each of us, infinitely improbable stardust that we are?

Erratics

Erratics

Another delight I see is fields of boulders called “erratics” that sit precariously on polished granite surfaces, deposited lightly where they sit as the last Ice Age glaciers melted. They were rolled and tumbled and ground smooth inside the glacier for thousands of years, only to be left behind on some improbable slope or meadow floor as the mother ice retreated. They’re scattered by the thousands over many square miles, immobile for millennia, losing a vanishing fraction of their atoms every season to wind, water and ice. Someday a million years from now each will disappear, dust to dust.

The landscape of Yosemite was molded by ice; the U-shaped valleys, the smooth surface of Half Dome, the fields of erratics, the broad meadows and moraines. Only the two highest mountain peaks in the park managed to stand above the glaciers, which were several thousand feet deep; they’re jagged and knife-edged at the summit, in startling juxtaposition to the lower mountains around them that were honed smooth by ice.

I’m dismayed when I arrive in Yosemite Valley. Cars are in gridlock, roads are haphazardly laid out with one-way two-lane traffic suddenly turning into two-way traffic, poor signage, shifting lanes, parking lots scooped out of gravel with no apparent thought given to their usability. The hodge-podge of buildings include a store, visitor center, generic fast food restaurant, vehicle maintenance yard, staff apartments, housekeeping residences that are little more than shacks—all thrown together in an incomprehensible jumble. It reminds me of a house that’s had haphazard additions hung off of it over the years. Without a doubt, the ugliest, most unusable national park visitor center I’ve yet encountered. It should all be razed and rebuilt with a master plan.

Glacier-sculpted

I decide to make my escape from the valley and drive some 30 miles farther to Glacier Point, which stands high above the valley and gives an unparalleled view of Half Dome and the surrounding mountains. A hundred years ago a large hotel and a lodge were built at Glacier Point out of trees cut down in the immediate area. Both structures burned to the ground in 1969 and the Park Service decided, wisely considering what they’ve done to Yosemite Valley, not to rebuild them. Most of the photographs I take are from here because I’m not distracted by careening motorcycles, honking cars and surly tourists.

The Valley

The Valley

Because of the design of Yosemite’s road system, I have to go twenty miles out of my way, up the length of Yosemite Valley and back, to reach Tuolumne Meadows. Famished, I decide to grab a burger at the fast food joint in the visitor center. It’s as bad as I feared it would be. Now this part just kills me: as I’m sitting there eating, three couples come up and take the table next to me. Upper middle-aged, they’re all wearing Harley-Davidson gear—T-shirts, silver key fobs, biker’s hats, leather chaps, buckled motorcycle boots, tattoos—the entire clichéd panoply of gear.

Okay, here it comes, the part that gets me: they’re speaking German! The only word they speak in English is “cheeseburger.”  I’m thrown into a severe state of cognitive dissonance. Finally, wiping the ketchup off my cheek where it disembarked when I missed my mouth with a French fry, I’m able to enjoy the irony. In Germany, they pretend to be Hell’s Angels, probably acquiring the paraphernalia by watching American videos. Here they can actually live the role by pretending to be an American icon.

Following this episode I drive an hour and a half back to my camp. Somewhat depressed, and still unable to take a decent hike because of my foot, I decide to leave Yosemite a day early. I would have believed that to be unthinkable before today.

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