Archive for August, 2011

Yosemite Week One


The job part of this adventure has been filled with the expected amount of bureaucracy, powerpoint presentations, and facetime with a computer screen, but thankfully the hiking has also lived up to expectations.

After five days in a place so outrageously beautiful that artists of every sort have devoted their entire lives to it, I had not been out exploring.   Unacceptable.  Obviously.  So I got up early again, despite a sort of jet lag from being forced to trade my night owl lifestyle for my roommate’s earlybird one, and I went exploring; I made a quick discovery.

The island is not, as I’ve believed for most of my life, my favorite geographical feature.  Turns out, I’m an isle girl.  Isles are mini-islands, but instead of perching calmly amid the quiet waters of a lake or bay, or the rhythmic waves of the ocean, they sit serenely in the center of the relentless rapids and tireless currents of a river.

The billions and billions of drops of water that combine with gravity to make a river, can be strong enough to move boulders along with ease, but sometimes those boulders get the better of all that rushing water and manage to wedge themselves tightly into the river floor.  This creates a resting place for other boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles, and bits of sand, which gradually collect and make themselves into the ideal destination for seeds floating or hurtling down the river to stop and put down roots. Those roots stabilize the whole concoction, enabling it to grow bigger, plants to thrive, new plants to cling on, and the process to continue until the isle and the river arrive at a comfortable balance.

Once this mixture of rock, soil, and roots becomes solid, it also becomes the perfect habitat for Jessicas with good books and a yen for meandering.  An isle or three in the middle of a beautiful, raucous, bouncing river, with good sitting stones, tall trees, and various birds to offer distraction when I’m tired of reading or staring into the rapids will now occupy that place in my brain common culture likes to call one’s “happy place.”  I’m not at all surprised someone named this place Happy Isles.

My next exploration ended at a recent rockfall, an event which transformed the trail from a loop to two separate legs.  I stood near the base of all the fallen rock, gazed up at the pile of stones and granite sand that still towered a good hundred feet over my head even though it had been settling there for years, and still — still — could not comprehend the magnitude of rockfall.

The size of this place is difficult to come to grips with in general, but I’ve arrived at a comfortable relationship with my giant, nature-world now, except for rockfall.  The scale of it is just beyond my comprehension.  Even when I stand at the edge of a pile of talus, even when I look at pictures and diagrams of the most famous rockfalls in the valley, even when rangers explain it in a clear, logic-laden way, my brain simply can’t make the connection that a bit of something falling from waaaay up there, waaaay far away is actually a rock the size of a house or a football field tumbling with such force that it will bring down a gaggle of rocks just as big and create an airblast and a dust cloud strong enough to knock over trees in the vicinity and pose a serious, likely fatal threat to me maybe a quarter-mile away.   I know it to be true, but I don’t believe it.  A simultaneous contradiction.

This trail used to loop around Mirror Lake, a place notable because it exposes in the starkest way, water’s absolute two-facedness.  There is one spot, at the edge of Mirror Lake, where the water abruptly switches from glassy stillness, to rough, white, chaos.  The delineation was fascinating to me, and impossible to capture with my camera, so I tried to absorb it as I sat on the banks beside it alternately staring at the water and casually people-watching.

I returned to my isles again, before heading home, something I’m sure I’ll do countless times before the summer is over.  Being alone with a good book beside rushing water is a special utopia for me.

Sunday was for a different kind of utopia, the kind you can create through challenge and triumph, the kind that makes you sore the next day.  It was also a day to respect water.

I’ve always been drawn to water, calmed by it, at home in it.   It’s the perfect metaphor for many of my fundamental life philosophies.   Every thought and action matters, no matter how small.  There’s space in the world for something or someone to be many things at once even if they are opposites; we’re all full of simultaneous contradictions. The world is not black and white; nuance rules the day.

A huge river, a monstrous waterfall, a rainstorm, a tsunami, an 8 foot wave, a persistent dripping leak, a glacier, a geyser — all made up of single drops of water.  Enough of them together to make something deadly, jaw-droppingly beautiful, destructive and productive, life-giving, and earth-shaping.  Water is the ultimate demonstration of perseverance and teamwork.  It simultaneously adapts to its environment and shapes it to suit its whims.  It has a complex, multi-layered personality, like all the masks we wear depending on our mood, environment, and goals.  It can be mist, ice, lake, ocean, stream, cloud, snow, dew, vapor.  My kindred spirit — I am in love and in awe, and I can never get enough.

We hiked and hiked, over bridges that crossed the rushing waters I was both drawn to and afraid of; I took a ridiculous number of pictures, all useless.  But pretty soon we were on the Mist Trail — 700 wet, slippery, steps where tripping is potentially fatal.  There are gusts of wind, thankfully blowing away from the falls and into the at least psychological safety of the rock wall on one side of you, but these gusts carry so much mist, that someone may as well be dropping buckets of water on you.  In minutes we were soaked through.  It was so loud, and the falls so close, and my surroundings so overwhelmingly beautiful that naturally I kept trying to take my camera out and capture some modicum of it all.  This was a worthless pursuit, which I should have abandoned entirely.  Once, we looked up towards the top of the stairs to see the sun behind a stand of trees, streaming down at us in a perfect starburst of rays through the mist.  I did take a few seconds to gasp and blink and let that image seep into my memory, but I couldn’t help trying to capture it too.

All I got was a slide of overexposure (metaphorically of course; I was using a digital.)  I’m learning that there are simply two different goals that are in conflict with each other.  I can’t pursue both simultaneously.  Experiencing something fully requires being present, using all my senses, allowing time to pass slowly.  Capturing the level of beauty here in Yosemite on film (or in a digital file) requires the proper equipment, practice, and time and mind devoted to that goal.  When you’re taking a picture, you can’t take it absent-mindedly with your phone camera while also staring at the beauty and trying to feel it.  Either the photo or the experience must be your primary goal.  They can exist near each other, and you don’t have to sacrifice all of one for the other, but you can’t get 100% of both, and if you don’t get 100% of a picture in Yosemite, why even bother.

As we hiked, I felt repeated bewilderment and appreciation for the trailworkers who installed this trail.  It reminds me of the kind of vision and blind perseverance that must have driven the people who built the ancient churches in Europe.  Behemoth structures that took more than one person’s lifetime to build.  The US doesn’t have the same kinds of buildings.  We have old things, and we’ll keep preserving/(accumulating?) more, but we build skyscrapers and bridges in a few years or maybe decades, not lifetimes.  And the John Muir trail and beautiful stonework portions of the Vernal Fall trail are perhaps the same.  I don’t know how long they took to build, or how many people did it.  I don’t know if some died during its construction, or who conceived of the plan, but somehow, paved paths, stone walls, and over a thousand stone steps were transported up the side of Yosemite Valley to make a trail that is safe-ish and reasonable for hundreds of thousands (millions?) to traverse every year.  We can safely walk beside a fall  x thousand feet tall, inches away from that very drop ourselves, thanks to someone’s vision and faith that it was possible and then the ambition, determination, and flat-out competence to make it happen.  Wow.  Thank you trailblazers.  The act of carrying a stone up a cliff face and placing it to form a trail, repeated over and over, created an experience for a hiker, and that experience repeated over and over, helped make Yosemite what it is today.  Seemingly insignificant acts can be incredibly meaningful.  Drops of water combine to make a raging river.