Thursday, 10 May 2012

Yosemite to the Canadian Border, Part 1

Yosemite is basically the holy grail of America’s National Parks. Though Yellowstone was technically founded earlier—formed by legislation in 1873, it was the first national park in the world—the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees were set aside for preservation by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.  It is also the last in what Brahna and I have dubbed “Tier A” of the country’s national parks that I had not yet visited (the only other members of Tier A, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, having been first graced with my presence in the years of 2000 and 2005, respectively). What’s more, while the draw in Yellowstone is the interesting geological phenomena caused by its location over a volcanic "hot spot," and the draw of the Grand Canyon is, of course, the canyon itself, the unique feature of Yosemite is nothing more than its outstanding beauty. It’s really as simple, and as complicated, as that. For all these reasons, at some point in February I reserved three nights at the Wawona Campground, intent on making our time in Yosemite truly count.
Generally, when I think about camping, the image in my mind is of a cool morning among the trees, the early light filtered through damp spring leaves, a cup of coffee in hand, a cool clear stream moseying by. I rarely have time for considering those other images—cooking bad food by lamplight, staying awake at night for fear of bears, staring into the campfire many hours (many weeks, rather) since this activity actually seemed meaningful, enjoyable, or fun. These deceitful visions of mine, and their corresponding blindnesses, tend to get us into trouble. Yosemite, despite its promise, despite our plans, turned out to be the absolute low point of our trip so far. It also ended up being a turning point, the end of a chapter, as Brahna and I have started to say.

Using the bear-proof garbage bins at Yosemite. For paranoiacs like myself, it can often seem that the Parks Service is more concerned about saving bears than about saving us. The words on the dumpster read: "USE CLIP. SAVE A BEAR."
In my haste to reserve a site somewhere in the park, I hadn’t noticed that the Wawona Campground happens to be at the far southern end of the park, near the sequoia trees but about an hour’s drive from the Yosemite Valley, which is really what everyone comes to the park to see. This was a mixed blessing: while the words “commute” and “nature” don’t exactly complement one another, the week from April 21st through April 28th was the officially anointed National Parks Week, guaranteeing free admission to all and sundry, and we were pleased to have guaranteed ourselves at least forty miles distance from the awful circus that would presumably be the campgrounds in the valley. Anyway, for the two nights we camped before the first day of Parks Week, the campground was mostly empty. The site I had reserved months earlier ended up being in a little bottleneck of the campground road between the second and third loops. No other site was reserved anywhere nearby for the first two nights, which was probably why I chose the site in the first place. The gap is large, let me tell you, between the impressive courage I have while picking the most remote site in the campground when the sites are simply little icons on a bright green map on my computer screen and the helplessness I felt in that tent at night, wondering whether we ended up remembering to move all our food from the car to the metal bear box, whether bears might be attracted to sweaty, unshowered body odor, whether some crumbs might have gotten on my clothes from dinner, and whether bear claws can fight through a mesh tent.
That theme should probably be familiar if you have read our post on backcountry camping in Big Bend: I am constantly urging Brahna towards more exposure to the elements, and then I spend most of the night lamenting that same exposure (while Brahna sleeps soundly) and hoping that we live to see the morning. 

But our Yosemite blues cannot be attributed only to this weird nocturnal fear of mine: every day we were there, a few hours before sundown, we both got notably depressed. It wasn’t so much the fear of what would happen after retiring to the tent that had us feeling bad, but even more so the thought of those hours between sundown and bedtime, the hours of staring into the fire, cooking s’mores yet again, and listening closely to every rustling in the leaves, that had us longing for a bed, for a ceiling, for walls. Every afternoon I began to dread those long silent dark hours whose praise I am always singing in the bright comfort of beds and ceilings and walls.

Since we did, of course, survive, the most unfortunate thing is that our memories of Yosemite will 
forever be marred by those cold, fearsome nights. The days were awesome. Yosemite Valley unquestionably lived up to its Tier A reputation.

The Merced River downstream from Vernal Falls.
I have a lot of ground to cover in this post, so I’ll refrain from discussing all the waterfalls we saw in Yosemite, all the wonderful angles of sunlight through the mist, the resulting rainbows, et cetera. We did go on one long-ish noteworthy hike up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls. Brahna described it as the perfect hike: the initial ascent exposes you directly to the sun, then a lush forest cools you off before unloading you onto a bridge over the Merced River, where you can view the waterfall up ahead. The ascent up to the base of the falls heats you up again, but then the massive clouds of mist and soothing shots of wind wash over and cool you. The hike up a few switchbacks to the top of the falls makes you hot again, but there is plenty of relaxation to be had at the top, where you can lie down right next to the lip and watch as comet after comet of white water shoots out and into the air. The mist on the way back down is perfectly refreshing.

Three of the record-breaking 30-something people who died at Yosemite National Park last year lost their lives at Vernal Falls. Apparently, the deceased were members of a church group who climbed over the metal fence separating visitors from the Merced River just a few feet before it drops 317 feet into a big pool filled with truck-size boulders. One slipped into the river and was swept away. Another tried to save her, and also slipped. A third tried to save the second, and was swept away. All three were presumed dead, their bodies never found. A fourth person died last year on the Mist Trail, slipping and falling into the raging river. A few months later, the Mist Trail claimed a fifth life.

This was a gruesome, if beautiful, trail to climb.

A rainbow at the base of Vernal Falls.
The absolute low point of this trip so far happened on our second night in the park. Tortured equally by the thought of cooking by flashlight and the boredom that follows nightfall, we brought our laptops to the nearby Wawona Hotel, a massive structure built for the high-class visitors to Yosemite in the early 20th century and still used by rich visitors today. We just wanted to have something to do after it got dark, and thought that if we bought a drink from the bar we could sit in the lobby for a while. We made comically ineffectual efforts to conceal our steerage-class appearance: I brushed my beard and put on a collared shirt, Brahna changed out of her slippers. We ordered tea from a member of the hotel staff who pretended not to know what we were up to, asking if we wanted to pay cash or charge it to our room. We wanted to pay cash. An older man playing classical music on the lobby piano asked for requests. I wanted to hear Chopin’s “Winter Wind Etude”—reflecting, I guess, the winter in my soul—but thought it better not to make ourselves any more conspicuous than we already were. Brahna and I craned our necks to look at the ornate appetizers ordered by dress- and jacket-bedecked hotelgoers. The Wawona Hotel was making us feel worse, not better. As hungry guests began to fill the lobby outside the hotel’s restaurant, we felt our wildness grow into sharper distinction from the affluent surroundings. We fled the hotel and returned to the campground, made a fire, and went to bed without dinner, knowing it wasn’t even our last night there.
Miserable, at the Wawona Hotel.

One afternoon in the park we were walking back to the car from Yosemite Falls when we heard people mention that they had seen a bear about a half mile up the road and in some trees. Having had bears so much on our mind—in Fresno, Brahna bought a small book called Bear Aware and we picked up a can of bear spray—we were eager to actually get a glimpse of one in the park. Privately, I wanted to see the bear in the same way that I like to go down the  nuts aisle in the grocery store to look at brazil nuts, to which I am seriously allergic, sitting so harmlessly in their little plastic containers. I wanted to stare into the abyss.

It was a mature black bear, though colored brown, which, according to Bear Aware, is not unusual. We waited with a few other tourists, binoculars in hand, for a few minutes on a boardwalk in the marsh. Suddenly, the bear poked its head and massive shoulders out of the brush, and walked tentatively towards our little group before heading back into the marsh. We continued across the marsh and towards another, larger group standing next to the park road. When the bear emerged from the trees and walked towards this new group, a young female park ranger, armed only with her walkie-talkie, started to run towards it. The bear started running in the opposite direction as if a huge monster was after it. The ranger chased it west across the meadow, towards the opening of the valley. Brahna and I walked in that direction for a little while, just wanting to get a few more looks, but we eventually lost it. I felt better, though, having seen the park ranger’s size and the bear’s obvious fear. Lying awake in the tent that night, I thought of the bear running through the meadow, and imagined myself as the one giving chase.

Looking for the bear before the bear looks for me.
Finally, we were on our way to San Francisco. Brahna had made a connection with a McGill friend and reserved for us a place in what she had long heard was essentially a unofficial youth hostel run by his family. The force of our emotional and physical despair, post-Yosemite, was met, as in Newtown’s law, with the equal and opposite force that was the softness of the mattress the family gave us, and we recuperated surprisingly quickly from what had seemed just a few days earlier like an irredeemable slump. It also helped that we were in the process of making a few resolutions regarding the rest of the trip, which we hoped would help bring us back to the same feeling of excitement that accompanied us as we drove down the East Coast, across the South and the Southwest, and up through California, around 10,000 miles of very circuitous road from New Jersey to San Francisco.
Those reforms basically came out of just a few realizations:

1)      You actually can camp too much. Brahna seems to have known this before the Yosemite misadventure; indeed, somewhat mysteriously to me, she seems to have been born with this knowledge. On the phone, my dad compared it to eating hot dogs. They’re fun to eat occasionally, but somewhat less so when that’s all you have the money for. 

2)      Driving across the country can be pretty isolating. We embarked on this trip not only to see the natural beauties of America, but also to meet a few members of that species known to some of us only by rumor as the “real Americans.” Such interactions rarely happen when by day you’re driving five hours a day, connected only to the world via NPR and the radio preachers, and then camp deep in the woods as far from other people as possible.

3)      Motels are not the best indoor-sleeping bet. On those rare occasions when the call of the wild falls silent and we allow ourselves the pleasures of the aforementioned bed, ceiling, and walls, we usually stop at the ugliest, tackiest, oldest motels we could find. Even on days when we have other sleeping arrangements, “real Americans” can see us passing through their logging towns ranking motels according to their aptitude on precisely those marks. “That one looks good,” I said, pointing, as we passed through Lompoc, California. Brahna, noting the boarded-up windows and doors, suggested it may have recently caught fire and closed—or perhaps not so recently. When the bed bugs found us in the Squaw Valley Motel room, I was actually surprised we had lasted even that long. Why shouldn’t the Shelby Motor Lodge in Alabaster, Alabama have bed bugs? Besides all this, we meet nobody. We can’t cook. And WiFi? One time in Mississippi, Brahna was calling a bunch of motels 50 miles down the road and asking the usual questions. “How much for two people one bed one night non-smoking with AAA discount and do you have Internet WiFi?” The woman answered: “No ma’am, we’re way out in the boonies.”

We decided that more Couchsurfing would replace the hole of camping and motels, which were not out of the question now, but just not the default plan. Instead, we decided it would be worth it to put more work—what turns out to be a lot more work—into sending out “couch requests” for places all around the country and seeing who replied. Thus, while the first half of the trip had us finding housing near the places we wanted to visit, the second half of the trip would reverse things: now, we would find places to visit near our hosts’ houses. Beggars can’t be choosers, and by the time we hit the San Francisco Bay, we certainly felt like beggars.

We left the San Francisco family’s house on April 24th, Brahna’s birthday. Since, quite frankly, people don’t like to be poor on their birthdays, we allowed ourselves to accept a room in a nice hotel—that’s with a genuine, fancy-schmancy “h”—and an amazing dinner on one of the docks in Sausalito, our corner table surrounded by a nearly 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay, courtesy of her and my parents respectively. Word on the street is that Brahna may also have enjoyed the hot-stone massage, a discount on which her thoughtful boyfriend found for a pretty good price on Groupon the day before.
The next morning, we borrowed bikes for free from the hotel and cruised through the marsh near the hotel and checked out some house-boat communities. We commented on our micro-sized experience of the truth that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer: cheap motels get you bed bugs, while expensive hotels give you a bike for the day. As we have learned so many times on this trip, you get what you pay for. Except, in a situation like Couchsurfing, when that truth seems quite limited.

Biking in Sausalito.
By that point it began to feel that we would never actually leave the Bay Area. There were so many interesting places we wanted to explore in Marin County, so many different ways we wanted to explore them, that we could easily have spent another week there just hitting all the spots. As a balance of nature and culture, I’m not sure the Bay Area—counting everything from San Francisco to Martinez, Oakland and Berkeley, Marin County, and down south—has any rivals in North America. Eventually, we decided to cut out a few things—Napa Valley, Sonoma County, John Muir’s house in Martinez—and only explored Muir Woods National Monument and Point Reyes National Seashore. Muir Woods, of course, has the coastal redwood trees, which are the taller, thinner (though often still massively wide) cousin of the Sequoia trees we saw in the Sierra Nevadas. Its grove is relatively small compared to redwoods and sequoia groves elsewhere. We did the basic trail around and above the grove, and gaped, for neither the first nor the last time that week, at the still-incomprehensible scale of the trees.
We continued north on Highway 1, as we had begun doing almost three weeks earlier in Los Angeles and Malibu, though the highway seemingly points in all directions at once as it twists around the hills of Marin County. We arrived at Point Reyes—the only National Seashore on the West Coast—just as the visitor’s center was closing. We still didn’t know where we were staying for the night—the motels along the Northern coast are insanely priced, and, despite the hotel room and comfortable mattress in San Francisco, we were not feeling ready to camp again. Fortunately, we saw a brochure for a hostel that was actually inside Point Reyes, and decided to try that out. We got dorm beds for $24, though unfortunately the dorm rooms were not mixed. After driving down to the beach and lying for a while on the sand, we returned to the hostel and made some of Brahna’s famous tofu and sweet potato mush. We shared it with a bike-touring engineer from New Jersey, who charmed us with a story that his bread had been stolen by seagulls on the beach after he spotted a whale spout and ran to notify some people up the shore. It was pretty weird to fall asleep that night alone, as I’m rarely apart from Brahna longer than the time it takes one of us to shower or do our business. I’ve gotten so used to needing headphones in hostels to block out the snores of heavy older men (male snorers in hostels are disproportionately Australian), that, even without good reason, I fell asleep with music in my ears. Of course, it was Bob Dylan. This is what he was saying:

I'm out here a thousand miles from my home
Walking a road other men have gone down
I'm seeing a new world of people and things
Hear paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that's coming along
Seems sick and it's hungry, it's tired and it's torn
It looks like it's dying and it's hardly been born.

The beach at Point Reyes.
The next morning we drove down the park road to check out the famous Point Reyes lighthouse. It is set on a large bluff over the ocean, a small peninsula jutting out from the main Point Reyes peninsula, which is itself large enough to be seen in the outline of any self-respectingly detailed California map. This gives the lighthouse an incredibly expansive view of the ocean and the long shoreline heading north. To the south, you can still see the opening of the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay. We stopped briefly in the museum devoted to the lighthouse, which told us that the keepers of the light routinely sought refuge in alcohol to help them get through the cold, windy days and the dark, lonely nights. They still had an old desk from 150 years ago or something, where the keepers recorded all the important events of their days. Many miles from their nearest neighbors, and stuck alone in an often blinding fog, Point Reyes felt like its own world, and the men often lost their minds.

Point Reyes National Seashore.
By this point, it had been exactly four weeks since we entered California in Death Valley. Despite the great diversity and size of the state, we were ready to leave. For weeks we had criss-crossed the state, driving north one day and south the next, heading east to Sequoia and Yosemite and back west to San Francisco, giving little if any thought to actually getting anywhere outside California anytime soon. We had also spent a good amount of time on the coast in the past four weeks, and felt like there was a whole country not living in incredibly picturesque oceanside locations like Big Sur that we also wanted to see. So, after taking Highway 1 to its conclusion near the town of Eureka, we stopped for a few short hikes in Redwoods National Park and for a picnic in the coastal town of Crescent City, where we tried and failed yet again to distinguish the spouts of migrating grey whales from the ordinary distant foam of prematurely crashing waves.

The northern terminus of California's famous Highway 1.
Shortly after we finally veered off the coast and started driving northeast, I began to notice that same state-to-state transition I had gotten used to noticing earlier in the trip, when we were crossing state lines with about the same frequency as we stopped to pump gas, and had kind of missed for the whole month we had been in California. As we drive from one state into another, I’ve noticed that the natural landscape begins to effect a transition that mirrors, or might even be caused by, the conceptual transition that is occurring at the same time in my mind. Just as I begin to lose the sense of being “in Mississippi” and begin to feel myself "in Louisiana," the natural landscape sheds those vague elements that make it conform to my mental image of what Mississippi looks like, and it begins to dress itself in those equally vague elements that conform to my image of Louisiana. So Louisiana blended into East Texas, West Texas blended into New Mexico, and, this time, northern California blended into Oregon. The woods grow wilder, the trees more uniform and dense—the forests, basically, turn into a kind of forest that makes me ashamed to have ever used the term before. The streams and rivers assume a kind of icy green color that reminds me not quite of the glacier-fed waters in Alaska nor of the putrid, polluted rivers back east, but somehow perfectly encompasses the color that comes to mind when I think of the word “sea."

As if to notarize this theory of mine in a way perfectly suited to my interests, we happened to suddenly find a covered bridge in this far northern section of California, just miles from the border with Oregon, a state I had been particularly looking forward to visiting if only for its status as the only Western state with a noteworthy population of my beloved covered bridges.

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