A Youth Spent Dirtbagging in Yosemite

Some people fall for the parks so hard, they can’t bring themselves to leave.
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Some people fall for the parks so hard, they can’t bring themselves to leave.
James Lucas El Capitan

The author after climbing El Capitan in a day in 2015. (Photo by Austin Siadak)

HONK! I laid on the horn, trying to roust the SUV that sat in front me on the road just past El Capitan. I waited two more minutes, honked again, waited more, and then rolled through the gravel to get by.

“You’re parked in the middle of the road,” I called out as I passed.

A telephoto camera receded into the car and a blue-haired woman replaced it in the window. “It’s a bear, asshole!” she yelled.

Every year, park visitors leave food in their cars, on their picnic tables, and in their campsites, rewarding the bears’ ever-boldening behavior. That’s why Yosemite’s lifers call tourists “terrorists.”

In the summer of 2001, I rode a bus with a dozen other terrorists to Yosemite National Park. I gawked at the enormous walls as the bus dropped me off in Yosemite Village. With me, I had two duffel bags and a simple plan: climb granite.

Like any 19-year-old itinerant climber, I knew the simple life comes cheap, but never free. I cleaned rooms at the Yosemite Lodge and sold gear at the Mountain Shop. The concessionaire housed me, fed me, and paid me a pittance in exchange for the opportunity to walk outside my canvas cabin and look at Half Dome. It was the deal of a lifetime.

Quiet winters built into rowdy springs. They turned the falls on again, as the joke goes. I woke at 4 a.m. and ran up Half Dome to see the sunrise before work. Within a year, I graduated to climbing El Cap in a single day. When my body felt broken, I floated a raft down the Merced. I had nothing and wanted for less.

It wasn’t until a year and a half later that I felt those great granite walls start to close in on me. We call it Valley Fever. No matter how high or how fast I climbed, I was never getting anywhere. It was time to plan my escape, or so I thought.

I found “real” work in San Francisco, but it felt petty and frivolous after doing time in the clutch of the glacier-polished granite. Maybe this is the real Valley Fever—seeing the world through the lens of the sublime and having it never measure up. A few months later, I landed back at Yosemite, sleeping behind the boulders at Camp 4 at night and climbing during the day. I alternated between there and Santa Cruz when my shoestring budget came untied.

A couple years later, I started school, eventually earning a degree in economics and business management at UC Santa Cruz. I skipped graduation to climb Cathedral Peak in the park. I’d learned no better way to confront and celebrate the monumental.

Degree in hand, I became perhaps the most highly educated scrubber of ketchup slime from the garbage cans in Yosemite Village. It was my thirteenth summer in the park. Maybe it should have seemed beneath me at that point, but I was in good company. A photographer, a BASE jumper—friends and permanent park bums—cleaned with me, a silent legion of the park’s most devout.

When my shift let off a few hours before sunrise, it seemed as worth it as it did when I first dropped my duffel bags. Because the park puts on a special show for the devoted. The smell of ketchup slime, the angry blue-hairs—all are washed clean in Yosemite’s moonlight. I knew I wouldn’t stay forever in this place, but that didn’t matter. Not anymore. I’d stayed long enough that this place would always be a part of me.