Our Yosemite package made me realize that I now live 3,000 miles from this special place. Yet regardless of how many miles lie between me and the park, no such gap exists in my head.
Every hike I've made in this California park has brought rewards beyond what I sought. Indeed, Yosemite is so captivating that even the worst backpacking experience I've ever had is one I think back on fondly.
It was the July 4th weekend of 1984 and my first backcountry trip in years, and I did everything wrong.
My first problem was I was out of shape and 50 pounds overweight. Not exactly the peak condition for a strenuous four-day hike with a 45-pound pack. But from that weak starting point, I simply kept finding ways to make things worse.
I drove from sea level to 8,000 feet, slept in my cramped sports car overnight, and got up early for our group hike. Sounds innocent, right? No way. Hiking in most of the Sierra is best done with a bit more acclimatization-starting a Yosemite backcountry hike without taking the time for your body to adjust is asking for trouble. I immediately compounded that problem by hiking too fast and not drinking enough water. And as sometimes happens in Yosemite in midsummer, the temperatures rapidly climbed into the low 90s. To add a final touch, forest fires raged out of control in the next canyon, filling the air with smoke and making it seem even hotter. I was oxygen deprived from the start.
Not that I noticed. We passed the still waters of May Lake and headed up the side of Tuolumne Peak. I was ecstatic. An eight-year absence from my cherished Sierra was over. I could feel the trees breathing around me, sense the wildlife lurking at the edges of meadows, and I reveled in the views of the dramatic landscape. I barely noticed as, one by one, the rest of my group passed me on a long uphill switchback.
I caught up to my friends as they were finishing lunch in an open area just above Polly Dome Lakes. Dehydrated, tired, but still upbeat, I shrugged off my pack and sat down for what I thought was a well-deserved lunch. I didn't get back up.
Most of the rest of the group headed out as I sat down. Maureen, my girlfriend, sensing something was amiss, lingered behind. Halfway through my sandwich I realized that I felt sick and was experiencing most of the symptoms of heat exhaustion. My pulse was rapid and weak, my thinking fuzzy, and I was slightly nauseous. I had stopped sweating and my skin felt clammy and foreign.
I dragged myself out of the sun into a shady area and promptly drank every bit of liquid in sight. Maureen fetched more, and wet a bandanna to cool my head. I remember the next hour much like a dream: Vague shadows of the real world danced just out of my vision and comprehension. I know Maureen and I talked, but I doubt I made much sense. I do remember listening to the wind gently rustling through the pines, singing a song I hadn't heard in a long time. My body may have been hurting, but the sounds of Yosemite kept my spirits flying.
Eventually, the liquids, rest, and shade helped my body revive-I regained strength and lucidity. By mid-afternoon we were finally beginning to contemplate whether to head back down or follow after the rest of the group, when Maureen's brother Bill and their friend Joseph magically appeared, wondering where the heck we were. Bill grabbed my pack, Joseph took Maureen's, and we headed very slowly up the mountain. Not wanting to repeat my mistakes, I took slow, deliberate steps and drank two full bottles of water as we headed up through the woods.
I tell this story not to warn of the hazards of hiking, but for another reason: Despite piling up a deplorable list of stupid hiker tricks and walking myself halfway to the "other side," I rejoiced in this trip in Yosemite backcountry, as I have in all the others I've taken. You simply can't ignore the spectacular nature of this place, even half-conscious as I was. Whether it be a hike to North Dome to peek over the edge of granite at the remarkable valley below, a long trek on the High Route through dramatic landscapes like those that surround Vogelsang, on the Pacific Crest Trail in the quiet of Lyell Canyon, or even just a dayhike amongst the sequoias in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite rewards every glance, every breath, and every step.
During the three days that followed, we continued on to Ten Lakes and took a few side trips into the nearby mountains and canyons. We cavorted in water colder than your icebox. We grappled with storms of mosquitoes and slogged up and down seemingly endless sets of switchbacks knowing that each pass or canyon would reveal some new, inspiring aspect of the park. I soaked up the scenery despite my worn-down state.
If you don't dream of hiking in this backcountry paradise, you should. Yes, there are many great places to hike in North America. Yet every person I know who's spent significant time in the real Yosemite, outside Yosemite Valley's roads and crowds, has stories to tell of magical moments, extraordinary places, and exceptional beauty. Inspirational stories. Funny stories. Dreamlike stories. Stories of enchantment and of beauty. Stories of enjoyment while their bodies screamed.
Endless controversies surround the status of Yosemite National Park and its management. In some places the trails have been worn 2 or more feet into the ground. It's hard to get backcountry permits for some of the more popular trails without planning months in advance. Two consecutive rough winters have had a negative impact on trail maintenance. It's getting harder to find real solitude, even in previously off-the-beaten-path trails (for example, of the 100 hikes described in Jeffrey Schaffer's book Yosemite National Park, only 28 are "lightly used"). Increasing atmospheric pollution is now evident to even the casual observer, and Muir's descriptions of "the flush of the alpenglow" and the Sierra in general as a "Range of Light" are in danger of becoming merely historic accounts.
But you won't understand why such problems are important to solve unless you've hiked the Yosemite backcountry. You need to walk between sprays of waterfalls and domes of granite, to witness the ever-changing light, to stand at the bottom of a rock wall and feel its warmth radiate in the midday sun. And even if you make that hike in pain, as I did, you'll discover a truth that remains: even a bad day in Yosemite can be good.