Peace in the (Yosemite) Valley

Rolling amber hills stretched out before us as we coasted through the desolate Southern California interior between Santa Barbara and Yosemite National Park. Daydreaming most of the drive, I awoke once to look out over the expanse and find a lonely farmhouse perched atop a mound about a mile off the highway. I wondered who lived there, what that life was like (so isolated from other people), and why it was vacant. Sadly we had no time to stop and explore and continued our drive through rural California where we eventually came upon mountainous areas.

The day wore on and eventually faded to evening. I clung desperately to my seat while Peyton sped around precarious corners along the mountainside approaching Yosemite. (Later I proved to be no better of a driver, swerving down winding roads in the coastal redwood forest so fast that both Daniel and Peyton nearly became sick.)

When we arrived at Hodgdon Meadows, dusk permeated the campground, and the dark clouds were only just beginning to release a steady drizzle. But it was pouring by the time we set up tents and moved our food into the bear locker. Luckily I was able to string a tarp over the picnic table while Daniel and Peyton started a fire underneath it. We sat under the tarp and ate our standard camp dinners of rice, beans, and canned meat while the flames fought back the cold, rainy night.

From the moment we began planning Yosemite, I knew I would have to visit again when I could devote more time to the park—maybe two weeks or more. Because of this, we planned Yosemite fairly loosely and deliberately avoided packing too much into our two days.

Hodgdon Meadow is located about 45 minutes out of the main valley, so we set out fairly early to find a ranger station. We got a couple of free maps and received advice on where to find boulders for a little climbing. Most of the problems in Yosemite are far too advanced for beginning and amateur climbers, but we decided just seeing the areas where so many climbers had cut their chops would be interesting. For those who haven’t climbed, a problem is a short climbing route on a boulder that typically ends 12 feet or so off the ground.

The road into the Valley wound around steep rock faces, between towering redwoods, and through dark, narrow tunnels. When El Cap, Cathedral, Sentinel Dome, and Half Dome came into view, the feeling was similar to being star-struck. We gazed in awe at the massive monoliths surrounding us as we drove to Camp Four, a famous hangout and bouldering location for some of the world’s greatest climbers. For a couple of hours we explored the small area and clambered up whatever boulder problems we could. Peyton eventually gave up on the rocks and climbed a tree instead. After scarfing down packed lunches, we set out for a new location. During a long search marked by discussions of which tree was the biggest we had ever seen, we came upon some climbable problems in the Half Dome Village area and spent another hour scrambling around the rocks.

Finding problems on our level was difficult, but our real challenge of the day was finding showers. At that point our last ones were at the Grand Canyon, about five days previous. Obviously there were no showers in the Mojave Desert, and unfortunately neither our Santa Barbara campground nor our Yosemite campground offered showers either. So we decided to try our luck in Half Dome Village. However, we arrived at the shower house to discover the door only opened with a code. Luckily a man saw me trying numbers at random, assumed I had just forgotten the code, and told me the correct numbers. Thus five days become zero and we no longer repelled any living thing within a ten foot radius.

For a solid end to the day, we drove to Glacier Point to experience the iconic view of Half Dome and watch the sunset. Sadly thick clouds shrouded Half Dome for all but a moment of our time there, and a dense haze lay over the rest of the valley. But still, the overwhelming beauty of such a place cannot be dimmed by these mischances.

We began our second full day by driving nearly all the way back to where we had been the night before—blaring 90s country hits the whole time. The hike to Taft Point was short and traversed mud and snow, but it was rewarding. Lying on the sunbathed rocks overlooking the valley transpired to be a brilliant way to pass the morning into afternoon. While at the point, we noticed a small group of people lugging around ropes and other gear. We soon found out they were there to highline across a ravine featuring a near seventy foot drop. If you haven’t seen highlining before, it is basically the practice and art of a walking a slackline (like a tightrope but loose) very high off the ground.

When they started I curiously wandered over to join the crowd of onlookers. The first guy, the veteran of the group, walked across and back seemingly easily. However, the second guy was still learning, and I nervously watched him fall off the line several times. A girl who tried later had no better luck. They were all harnessed in when walking, but a feeling of panic pervaded anyway while someone was on the line. That panic exploded and encapsulated even the bystanders when the walker trembled and lurched from the line only to be saved by the harness.

As if that was not enough excitement, an elderly man asked me if I had seen any of the figures climbing El Capitan. I had not, so he let me borrow his binoculars. Lo and behold I watched three guys slowly making their way up the rock face, lugging bundles of gear beneath them. I no longer have a desire to highline, but as those climbers made progress on El Cap, a strong wave of envy overcame me. One day, I would very much like to conquer that climb.

After lazing around at the top of the valley, what could be better than lazing around in the meadow for a new perspective? We parked the truck off the road in front of El Cap and spent the rest of the day chilling in the meadow just taking in the sights and sounds around us. The monoliths staring down from either side, imposing their strength. The mighty redwoods with their contrasting green branches forming windbreaks to leave only a comfortable breeze. We found peace in Yosemite Valley.

Leaving that afternoon was difficult, but our next campsite was several miles out of the park. The next day promised the Pacific Ocean its storied coastal redwoods.

Grand Adventure – Lousy Plan

Daniel, Peyton, and I arrived in Mather Campground close to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park late in the evening of May 20 and set up camp in near dark once again. At least this time it wasn’t hailing on us like in our previous one night stop in Santa Fe. After a quick camp stove meal, we planned out how we would experience the Grand Canyon the next day and then retired to get the best sleep we could on the hard, cold ground. Our idea was simple enough and was actually a suggestion from a book I read: we would hike down the Bright Angel Trail, 8 miles into the canyon to the Colorado River, eat our lunch, and hike back up.

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The Grand Canyon from a viewing point along the Rim Trail, South Rim.

We were all in fairly good shape, so we judged that with approximately 30 pounds of gear on each of our backs we could make the hike in about 8 hours. Looking back now, that assumption is hilarious and a little embarrassing.

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Nearing Indian Gardens Campground, Grand Canyon.

After parking and receiving directions from an old cowboy with an appropriately horseshoe-shaped mustache, we made our way to the trailhead. With a cautious skip in our step, we eagerly began our walk into the canyon with barely a pause to actually appreciate its magnificence from the top. Our first few hundred yards of hiking were marked by a zealous reprimand from a park ranger who saw Daniel stepping up onto a worn path to a restricted “Dangerous Overlook.” Daniel unfortunately missed the Do Not Enter sign just before being sternly instructed to stay off the rocks.

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Canyon walls tower above rough vegetation.

Despite several areas under trail maintenance and a hectic, crowded pathway, we reached Three Mile House, a rest stop and water refilling station, rather quickly; I think I spent a majority of that section of twists, turns, and switchbacks with my mouth gaping and my head on a swivel. Viewing the canyon from even just inside offers a perspective that the Rim just can’t provide. It’s difficult to describe the vastness of the Grand Canyon at all, but it’s even harder to describe the feelings that arise from looking up at its walls while also peering into its depths.

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Taken approximately 2.5 miles from the Colorado River on the Bright Angel Trail.

We hiked on at a level pace, passing through the Indian Gardens campground and beginning our final 3.5 mile descent to the Colorado River. Three miles from the canyon base, we came across a sign warning that a down-and-back hike should not be attempted in a day due to exhaustion, but we had come too far to turn back without seeing the river that cut such a massive expanse into the earth. Daniel, later regretting his comment, said something about the sign being for people who weren’t young and in shape.

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The Bright Angel Trail nearing the Colorado River.

About two miles from the bottom, my right shoulder and Daniel’s as well had nearly locked up from soreness, but we pushed on and arrived at the Colorado 3.5 hours after entering the canyon. It was a great feeling sitting on the rocks, eating lunch, and watching the mighty river rush by. It was a great feeling until we began looking back toward the Rim and thinking about the return back up.

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Colorado River from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Frequent breaks—including one long rest on an upturned wheelbarrow in a shallow cave—characterized the ascent back to Indian Gardens. The weight we were carrying nagged and slowed us more than ever. After resting on a bench in a crowded clearing near some too-bold squirrels, we refilled our water supplies and lumbered out of the camp towards the steep uphill climb out of the canyon.

I began struggling first on the way out. I knew how tired I was, and I made the decision to not push myself too hard. Instead I slowed my pace and began taking breaks again. Daniel and Peyton would move on and take longer breaks while waiting for me to catch up. Then Daniel, plagued with knee pain and hip pain that began on the trip down, started to hang back with me. Peyton was in the best endurance shape of the three of us, and we lost sight of him pretty quickly.

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Various rock formations stand out within the Grand Canyon.

Daniel and I trudged headlong up switchback after switchback trying not to stare at the rock walls towering hundreds of feet above us. We kept an efficient system of pace where I would walk slower while he moved ahead; then he would have to stop and take a break. I caught up and took shorter breaks before we moved on to do it all again, over and over, for what actually was hours. Then, when we thought we were getting close, the Three Mile House showed up to tell us how we had not even hiked halfway from Indian Gardens.

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Grand Canyon nearing sunset.

I’ve blocked most of the rest of the hike from my memory, but I do know at one point, I saw Daniel swaying and his eyes shifting in and out of focus. I remember telling him to walk closer to the inner wall and stay away from ledges at that point. Then a mile from the top, a Good Samaritan stopped and gave us a Clif Bar (we had eaten all of our food), an energy gel, and a Gatorade. Those gave us enough of an energy boost to get to the Rim without another rest. We found Peyton waiting at the top—where he had been for about an hour and a half—with snacks from the gift shop. It took a total of 11.5 hours for Daniel and me to hike down and back, not including the time spent for lunch. We descended about 4,500 feet and ascended the same to get out. Needless to say, our bodies were wasted from exhaustion and sore for the next 4 days or so. Yet despite our poor planning and obvious ignorance about the difficulty of the hike, we made it and saw one of the most amazing landscapes in our country in the process.

To top things off, we checked out the visitor center the next morning and found a list of hikes and their difficulties. Just the hike down to the river was labeled as very difficult; down and up was labeled as “Not a day hike.” Long story short, had we seen a sign at the top of the canyon warning against day-hiking the Bright Angel Trail to the river and back, we probably would have only gone a few miles and come back. However, thanks only to our ignorance and sheer determination, we now have this crazy adventure to remember for the rest of lives.

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Travelling Wall-e poses by the Grand Canyon at a viewpoint along the Rim Trail, South Rim.