YOSEMITE SUMMER: July 4 Weekend

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

Friday, July 3

The onslaught began long before this weekend, but Independence Day Weekend saw the dam burst. It began quietly enough. On Friday, July 3, I handled Olmsted Point. The highlights were seeing a couple from Charlotte and a UVA family (parents are UVA alumni and the children have either graduated from UVA or currently attend).

Every available parking space along Tioga Road between Olmsted Point and the Visitor Center (about 8 miles) looked occupied by 2:00. Driving down the road, one has to be prepared for a driver overwhelmed by a photo op – car doors fly open, the driver or passenger oblivious to oncoming traffic in hot pursuit of the perfect picture. Beautiful lakes and granite domes have a way of throwing the human thought process completely out of kilter.

After my shift I headed to the Tuolumne Grill with visions of a soft ice cream swirl cone dancing in my head. It was not to be. The order line extended fifteen people outside the entrance. I had laundry to do, so I opted for an ice cream bar from the general store. After polishing off “lunch,” I gathered my laundry and headed for the washers and dryers on Bug Camp Road. Both washers were available, much to my delight. It’s the small things that bring joy when you are away from the conveniences of home.

While the washing machines filled and grunted in response to the 10-day loads, I called the home front to catch up on the most recent news. That lasted a full wash cycle and half of the drying time. Soon I was back to the campground with a load of clean “outdoor scent” clothes. My laundry detergent had to stick with this summer’s overall theme.

I attended a ranger talk and performance after my ten-minute meal of ham, crackers, fruit, and cookies. The ranger is an accomplished flutist, having performed with the Santa Monica Symphony. Her love for the park and the planet shone through as members of the audience read quotes from American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts about the tremendous personal impact they experienced while viewing Earth from space. Ours is a fragile planet, with no evidence of a similar life-sustaining planet nearby. The quotes and the music should make any listener give greater thought to our good fortune and our obligation to preserve a healthy planet for the generations that follow us.

Now it’s off to bed with three free days ahead of me. I plan to hike Clouds Rest on Sunday. I hope my 63 year old bones and muscles are up to the challenge.

Saturday, July 4

View through telescope of hikers ascending steel cables on Half Dome

View through telescope of hikers ascending steel cables on Half Dome

Happy Independence Day. Well, not quite three days off. I filled in for another volunteer whose friend had come to visit. Once again, I headed to Olmsted Point.

During my previous work days at Olmsted, several visitors unsuccessfully tried taking a photograph through the telescope. Today, one young man succeeded in doing so. I seized the moment and the young man did the same for my iPhone as well as for several other visitors. It was nice to be on the receiving end of a kind gesture.

Rain was in the forecast, but was limited to threatening storm clouds and a few minutes of drizzle. The real storm came in Yosemite Valley where traffic became so overwhelming that the Rangers had to turn away any visitors who did not have lodging reservations.

Like the day before, traffic was heavy on Tioga Road. The scene at Tenaya Lake looked like Myrtle Beach during high season. I hope the tourists treated the shoreline gently, taking away their sandwich wrappers and empty soda cans.

At the Visitors Center, tourists were overwhelming the Rangers. Whenever a tourist asks how to see all of the Park’s world-famous features in the next three hours, I try to remember my first visit when I could not believe a 45-mile drive can take 90 minutes. These are mountain roads, and on a holiday weekend, very crowded mountains roads. There are no interstates with 65 miles per hour speed limits.

Upon completing my duties, I showered and did some grocery shopping at the general store. One of the volunteers had organized a pot luck dinner and my humble contribution was a container of pine nut hummus. The ladies graciously accepted the fare, but probably wondered why I could not do more. (I have not cooked a meal during my entire period of service. Meal preparation is limited to preparing sandwiches and adding lukewarm water to oatmeal.)

The potluck dinner included chips and dips, a quiche, pasta, salads, and dessert. Conversation was warm and laughter constant. The meal was followed by several friendly games. Our group has learned and accepted one another’s idiosyncrasies, and we all appreciate the talents each of us brings to the team. It was a wonderful, warm gathering, enhanced by the charm of two volunteers’ guests. One is a young French engineering student who is working in the United States for six months as part of his collegiate requirements. The other is a sweet young woman who is the lifelong friend of one of the volunteers.

It’s time to get to bed so I can rise early for a 15-mile hike to Clouds Rest. I’ll report on that experience tomorrow.

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View of section of Half Dome from Clouds Rest

Sunday, July 5

Occasionally it’s good to test your physical limits. Today I tested mine. The longest hike I had taken so far was the Mono Pass trail, a little less than eight miles. Clouds Rest, counting the distance to the trail head, is about 15 miles. On the recommendation of my colleagues, I left the hiking boots behind and used my sneakers instead, thus giving my heels a fighting chance.

For those unacquainted with hiking in the Sierra Nevada, you should not equate hiking trail distances with walking through your neighborhood or time spent on the treadmill. Grades vary and the hiker is constantly avoiding rocks and roots on the trail or sometimes using them like stair steps. I had hiked Clouds Rest twice before, most recently 10 years ago. I remembered much of the terrain but had forgotten that about 1 1/2 miles of the early section of the trail are all switchbacks and much of that section is little more than a rock-strewn gully. Average hiking time on mountain trails is 2 miles per hour. On this section of the trail, the time extends to one mile per hour.

And while Clouds Rest is 1700 feet above the elevation of the trailhead, there is a lot of up and down, making the hike seem more like a 2500 foot elevation gain.

Those are the challenges. Now for the positives. Today proved prime time for Yosemite’s wildflowers. Indian paintbrush, showy lupine, and California corn lily – just to mention a few – were in full bloom. And the views once I climbed Clouds Rest? In one direction Yosemite Valley lay out before me. In other directions, I could see all the major features of the High Sierra. Tenaya Lake, where I began my hike, looked like a tiny blue speck in the distance (And, of course, I had to return to that tiny blue speck over seven miles away to conclude my hike.).

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Wildflowers on Clouds Rest trail

That 1 1/2 mile section of trail alluded to earlier proved extremely challenging to my cartilage depleted knees, particularly the part where my size 13 feet had to handle treads meant for size sixes. Nevertheless, I finished the hike around 4:30 in the afternoon and planned to reward my achievement with fine dining at the Mobil after a hot shower. But time ran late and no one else wanted to go, so I satisfied myself with deli food. Tonight, every muscle and bone in my body aches. Those aches will disappear in a few days and I will be able to count another challenging but wonderful Yosemite memory.

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