And the rest of us working stiffs? I spend my week jerked back and forth by the park’s relentless contrasts. Riding my bike, I pass a traffic jam of Winnebagos on my right, and to my left get a clear shot of a heavenly beam of light bouncing off Half Dome. I spend the morning in rubber gloves, picking trash out of some disgusting bin, then follow it with a nap beside the Merced River’s luminescent khaki glow.
This tension between heartbreaking beauty and heartrending ugliness is woven inextricably into the park’s history. Pick up any book on the subject, and you won’t get far in before it reveals itself: The Ahwaneechees who weren’t killed or driven out of their homeland were dragged off to languish on some Central Valley reservation, long before the interlopers marred the landscape in the ways we know today.
Still, the valley’s enduring magic is that you can view it through this lens and still be stirred by its beauty. Before work one morning I go to the visitor center and plan a hike for my day off. The loop starts up the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, then circles down on the Panoramic and John Muir Trails–14-plus miles, all told.
It’s as rewarding as any I’ve done. So over-trodden, so over-photographed, and still so stunning. The first trail is even paved, and has been for the better part of a century, and yet none of this can touch the ragged beauty of the place. If you’ve hiked here, or on any epic trail for that matter, you can supply your own details. Make sure you get the lighting right, a thousand different angles on a half-dozen waterfalls, a little bit of rain for drama, an endorphin-filled afternoon, souvenir blisters, and then feet kicked up on a bear box in the moonlight, beer bottle in hand.