In the days since we’ve crossed over and into Yosemite Valley I’ve been thinking. Wondering. Considering the Sierras with a new perspective, a discovered reverence. There is little worth explaining the majesty of the valley … to consider that the entirety of the Sierra mountain range is but one large exposed rock jutting high out of its once subterranean environment is boggling. To see and experience the high alpine slopes west of Lee Vining before rolling and descending into a verdant valley congested with the thousands of park visitors is another telling, one that left me less convinced that the Appalachians of my younger reckoning are in fact the superior mountains. Put simply, humbly, our ride from Lee Vining into Yosemite Valley was my favorite ride ever. The morning began at 5:30. The ground was crunchy. We had 75 miles to our campsite with our road angel Dakota (the man with the van) and his road angel wife, Chelsea. They’d offered the back half of their campsite for our scraggly crew of six to camp because every campsite – all 1,000 within the park – was reserved during the duration of our stay. Once again Dakota came through in the clutch for our team, again in spades. We’d had such a hard time getting to Yosemite, what with the five days of ascending out of Death Valley, plus the snow in Bishop, plus the freezing weather, plus Tioga pass – our only road into the valley from the east – being closed, that to now have the opportunity to make it into this park but to have nowhere to stay was crushing. But boom! Bang! Text from the Digital Nomad himself offering up their campsite. We felt loved, and excited, and ready to finally see what this park was all about.
To ride into Yosemite, from any direction, one must ascend. It was a twelve mile climb from Lee Vining to Tioga Pass, elevation 9,945 feet above sea level. That is, in metric, dumping high. And cold. Snow returned as a thing once we climbed over 8,000 feet and snot froze and crusted to my mustache, which by the end looked like and had the texture of a frozen Snickers bar … kissy kissy.
Waiting for Brady and Rachel to meet us at the pass Tyler and I did a photoshoot in the bathroom, our prop a jar of peanut butter. Yum. Come give Daddy a lick.
Our day from there was defined by rolling passes. We would descend for five miles, climb for four, maintaining an elevation of 8,000 feet through the late afternoon. As we rode deeper into the Sierras the land took on a subtle change. Large pines sprouted from the deepening slopes, and when we descended steep granite walls would rise from the road. We were descending into the land of dinosaurs.
What I came to learn later was that Yosemite Valley was carved by a glacier system some 18,000 years ago. It cut out a large swath of land at 3,700 feet, leaving only the hard granite walls definitive of Yosemite unscathed. With the snowmelt of the alpine meadows above a number of waterfalls churned thick with their heavy flow over the cliffs, and Tyler and I rode into the crush of visitor congestion as the top of the sun fell headlong behind the western edge of the range. Cars parked along meadows, cars stopped in the road, videotaping the deer munching leaves off the shoulder.
Dakota and Chelsea were waiting for us in the Upper Pines campground. We set up camp, locked all of our food, toiletries, chapsticks, and scented sunscreens into the big bear box set at the campsite’s edge. The exercise seemed perfunctory. We’d been told about bears in Yosemite but there were a thousand people in this campground. It’d have to be a pretty plucky bear to come marching into our site to go rooting about our leavings. Still, better safe than bear sorry.
I did not sleep especially well that night. There was so much activity in the camp. A thousand people … and in one camp! There was also Lower Pines, and Curry Village, and Campsite #4 (home of the climbers). Maybe 4,000 people slept in the valley that night. I do not know. I was claustrophobic, stuck between six campers surrounding our four little tents. I felt like a mouse in a maze. I hated the clunking, dunking generators around us, the people stomping around the dumpsters, breaking beer bottles against their empty inner shells at midnight. It was obscene, a feel of a music festival. It was concentrated impact on an environmental utopia, sure, but it felt wrong to be surrounded by so many people. I felt wrong for being thrust into the heart of it all. But there I was, naked and farting into my sleeping bag and choosing to pee into my favorite water bottle rather than put on clothes and walk the hundred steps to the bathroom.
And so the night passed without incidence. In the morning I woke and made coffee and talked with the gang about the hikes we wanted to do that day. We settled on a walk past Vernal Falls to Nevada Falls and then down a piece of the John Muir trail. A beautiful experience. Walking up to Vernal Falls a rainbow followed us. I felt like magic.
The rest of the hike I passed in silence. Brady, Rachel, and Tyler talked about all sorts of things and I chose to stay out of the conversation. Sometimes I like being stunned into a quiet devotion. Our hike was spectacular. I spent a long time on a rock looking at the whole of Nevada Falls, watching the fractilization of its droplets explode and form millions of times over as they fell onto the rock slope below. I felt small, and stupid, itty bitty. I got put back in my place. It’s funny how nature will do that to you every now and then.
Back in camp we rode our bikes, generally a sin on Off Days, over to the Visitor’s Center to check out their museum and read up on the place. I did a lot of reading on the man John Muir and think that he’s a piece of environmental history that is oft underrepresented in standard curriculum. John Muir is the man! Go Wikipedia him. Jesus, that guy changed the game. Look him up!
Additionally I learned that every year somebody dies from wading in the pools above Vernal and Nevada Falls. They slip, get swept up in the current, and go cascading over the cliff. Death in Yosemite. Death in Grand Canyon. A famous rock climber died in Zion last year BASE jumping. It happens. A reminder to be thankful for every day we all make it safe to our destination.
A reminder to be thankful we make it safe through our nights, too. For our second night in Yosemite was the night we had a bear come looking for some easy food.
It was midnight, and camp was quiet. I heard Brady get up to use the bathroom and decided it would be reasonable to pee into my water bottle instead of putting on clothes and following him into the restroom. As I lay back down to sleep I heard heavy breathing. Snorting. Typical Tyler noises.
Wrong. Because about that time I heard Brady, who is legally blind without his glasses, whisper to Rachel from the other side of their tent. “Rachel! Let me in! Please!” I wondered why Brady had chosen to go around the other side of the tent.
Then Tyler said from his tent. “Wait, Brady? No. Is that a bear?”
Why yes, yes it was. Brady had returned from the bathroom and heard the heavy breathing. His initial thought was that it was me or Tyler looking for food. Then he heard the grunting and realized it was a bear.
Instead of making a lot of noise to scare the bear away he snuck around the back of camp to whisper to Rachel to let him back within the safety of our nylon ripcord sheeting. When Tyler woke to Brady zipping closed his tent we all engaged in a brief conversation.
“That’s a bear, right?”
“I … I think so?”
“No man, that’s definitely a bear.”
Then we heard the bear lifting up the tent tarp covering our bikes. Thus engaged a loud bout of name calling and hand clapping, tactics we’d read work well to dissuade bears from slashing through your sole belongings.
The bear ignored us for a few minutes. This was a bear operating life on its own terms. It eventually snorted and walked away, its shadow silhouetted against my tent fly. Big bear.
I threw on some shorts and stuck my head outside. Tyler and I looked about from our tent and saw two rangers walk past. One was carrying a whizzing machine, the other what looked like a rifle with a gravy bowl stuck on top.
There were a few quick pop pop pops and then the rangers came back to our site. They were two pretty women who had woken up to all the shouting coming from the campsites Blue 54, the bear’s name, had visited before coming to our site. One held a tracking device, the other a paintball gun, the gravy bowl the vessel holding the paint balls. They shoot Blue 54 in the rump to encourage his departure from camp.
“But he’ll probably be back. He likes to come through a few times in the night.”
And Blue 54 did come back, but not specifically to our camp. He was around. I woke up twice more to shouts from nearby campsites. The funny thing is, Blue 54 did no harm to our bikes or our gear. He managed to unzip Tyler’s front handlebar bag just enough for him to get a paw into. From there he scooped out belongings, puncturing only a cardboard box containing a fresh bike tube. His prize, a Poptart wrapper, was left on the ground by our tents. A hungry creature with a very specific agenda.
The socialization of bears is a terrifying thing.
Oh! So that was Yosemite. The next morning, dragging out of camp we passed under the Dawn Wall of El Capitan and left the valley, the beauty that has inspired the millions who frequent this granite land every year. To Yosemite I request wait for me. I will be back, for more than two nights, and I promise that I’ll spend more time in your back country.
And to Blue 54, wherever you are, you are a delicate beast indeed.