On the Road to Yosemite
There is no finer feeling than having a good truck under you and a beautiful stretch of highway in front of you. I end my short stay in Tahoe by descending Hwy 89 toward US Hwy 395 and the high desert. Within a couple of hours I’ll ascend once again, this time toward Yosemite, deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The truck is running perfectly, an obvious concern following my earlier misfortunes, and ahead is a quick scenic lope of 160 miles.
I pass through BLM land, national forests, and ranch land, through small towns with only a post office, a general store and a church. The scope, variety and strength of our country’s outback are truly inspirational. It strikes me that the real source of our strength all begins with someone laboring outdoors: the timber cutter, the rancher or farmer, the highway builder, the oilfield roustabout, the fisherman, the carpenter, the roofer—nothing is possible without their toil. I’ve witnessed all of them and more on my journey.
In the early 1980’s, William Least Heat-Moon’s book Blue Highways: A Journey into America seized my imagination. In the old days before GPS, the back roads and byways were printed in blue ink on those devilishly-folded paper maps; I still keep a large box full of them at home, a collection I’ve added to for decades. I make it a principle to choose the blue highway whenever possible, avoiding the Interstate and the big city unless absolutely necessary.
Mono Lake lies along no Interstate. It’s a large, saline, shallow lake at the base of the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada near the hamlet named Lee Vining. Geographically, it also sits on the western edge of the Great Basin. Having no outlet, the only way it loses water is by evaporation. I’ve always imagined it as a weird anomaly, and indeed it has the surreal aspect of a Salvadore Dali painting, so I stop by its shores for an hour to stretch my legs and absorb its unique ambience.
Then I pass through Lee Vining, stopping long enough to buy fuel and groceries. From Lee Vining, I take the Tioga Pass Road as it rises steadily up the eastern buttress of the Sierra Nevada to Tuolumne Meadows, my next camp.
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 in the old days.
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, as well as 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 highway their roots buckle the pavement 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 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?
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.
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 up here because I’m not distracted by careening motorcycles, honking cars and surly tourists.
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 apposite 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, a choice I would have believed unthinkable before today. The truth is, I associate Yosemite closely with Jane, who has often mentioned her early sorties here while still a California resident. While I've missed her much, it's here in Yosemite, more than anywhere else I've been, that I miss her most. It seems incomplete without her.