Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows

July 23, 2006

I should be taking the bus, I thought upon waking up. I didn't feel much like hiking, but neither did I want to remain in the Valley. I was tired of being on trail. I was weary and only the thought that Tuolumne Meadows was a short day and a half from here got me out of my sleeping bag and packed up. We went in search of a breakfast buffet, which required several shuttle bus rides and asking around before we arrived at the right spot. Although I knew that I should moderate my eating, for I had a long climb and hot temperatures to deal with, I ate three full plates of various fatty foods and even made a final trip for a few more muffins and pastries. I felt fat and bloated when we finally stepped off the shuttle bus and began the long crawl up toward Nevada Falls.

We took the JMT this time and were able to avoid the spray on the Mist trail and many of the day hikers. A thousand feet into the climb we encountered an overweight hikers sprawled out on the trail, looking like he was in trouble. Birdie went into nurse mode to try to help him, though it turned out that he looked a lot worse than he really was: His knees were shot and he had little water. He had set out on a backpacking trip and was on his return when he found that his legs hurt so bad that he could only move a hundred feet before he had to stop and rest away the pain. Slowly but surely he was making his way back to the Valley and he was glad to hear that it was not too much further. A day hiker gave him some more water and we parted ways.

It was noon before we reached the top of the falls and found it much less busy that the afternoon before. But after lounging for an hour the place was thoroughly crowded once again, just in time for us to set off on the JMT once again. The trail above the falls was thronged with day hikers making the trek to the top of Half Dome, despite the presence of a nasty looking storm looming in the mountains just beyond. The storm had not moved since we had first spotted it several hours earlier, but that didn't mean that it couldn't quickly descend on Half Dome. I was glad when the Half Dome trail finally split off from the JMT and we could have some measure of solitude once again. The irony of seeking out the JMT for solitude was not lost on me.

The bloated, fat feeling from breakfast stayed with me through the early afternoon and it was not until nearly 6 pm that I felt any desire to eat. Even drinking water was difficult, and I was quite thirsty as my body used up all the water it had to digest the eggs, biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon, ham, cheese, toast, muffins, pastries, cottage cheese, pineapple, and peaches that were swirling around in my stomach. However, as we crested out on after a steep climb, we found ourselves on the storm's boundary and the rumbling of thunder. Of course, now I was hungry and wanted to eat. We bypassed one campsite as there were other people in the woods above us and hurried along beyond Sunrise Camp to a small creek where the mosquitoes swarmed, but there was no official campsite to pollute the stream.

The rain held off while we ate, though thunder stilled rolled ominously. As we had put in a fair number of miles already, we hiked across the large meadow we had dined in and then picked our way for a few yards in the woods to a nice clear area for camp.

It was still early, but there was little sense in putting in a long day as we would be in Tuolumne Meadows before noon anyways. After pitching in the normal cloud of mosquitoes, Birdie and I sat down and talked for an hour as we watched the sunset together. The sunset should have been terrible, but the presence of so many clouds in the sky helped make a spectacular show. My hike was just about over, with only a few more hours of walking to reach Tuolumne. The others were going to hike on for another two and a half days to Twin Lakes, where the Sierra High Route had been ended by Roper. I was going in search of La Flaca, whom I had only known for an evening several months ago. I didn't know if she would be in Lee Vining or not, but wanted to take the chance. I didn't feel bad in the least about not continuing with them, for my time out here was not about doing some arbitrary route that another had set up. At first it had been about the experience and knowledge gained in a long sojourn in wilderness. But I was using the wilderness as a tool, much the same way others used retreats, fishing streams, or temples. And there are some in this world that needed no such crutch, though I cannot count myself among them. Over the course of the last two weeks, I had realized that I was happy with my life at home, in contrast to so many other summers, when spending months on the road or on trail was more enjoyable, when running after something was more important than the thing itself. I liked Washington and the opportunities it afforded me. And, more importantly, I liked the people I was around. I wanted to spend time with them, I wanted to be around them.

Although there was no reason to rush this morning, we all quickly broke down camp and hit the trail early. Town was calling, and a much better town than the Valley. Tuolumne Meadows has much less tourist infrastructure and attracts far fewer people than the gaudy Yosemite Valley. With little other than a postoffice-store-grill complex, there isn't much for car-bound people to do. Lembert Dome attracts some, others do little day hikes, but there isn't nearly the same level of services in Tuolumne as in the Valley. Even the "lodge" in Tuolumne: Rooms are cabin tents with cots.

We had done almost all of the elevation gain already and most of the early morning was soaked up under blue skies and the dominating Cathedral Peak. Cathedral Pass was a matter of walking downhill, rather than uphill. Crossing a large lakes basin, the mosquitoes came out in force despite the early hour, providing us with even more incentive to keep moving.

I tried to think more about what I had accomplished on the trip as I hiked, but found myself constantly distracted by the near presence of a town, even a miniscule one like Tuolumne Meadows. I had come to understand, by direct experience rather than thought, some of my reasons for setting out on long trips during each of the past five years. I had come to understand exactly what I had begun to build for myself back in Washington ever since the suffering of the Continental Divide Trail last summer. I had promised myself something then, and I seemed to have been able to make progress on fulfilling that promise.

The trail wound downhill into the Tuolumne Meadows campground, spitting Birdie and I out on the far end of it. The walk along the paved road seemed to take forever, but in reality couldn't have taken more than about seven minutes. We reached the familiar white-tent complex and found Ishmael chatting with a PCT hiker, lounging on the tables outside the store. I dropped my pack, elated to be there and to be done with the hiking part of the trip, and went inside to grab a celebratory beer and cookie. Being on vacation, a beer before noon is perfectly acceptable.

We lazed away the day, talking with hikers, eating, drinking beer, and even indulging in a shower at the Tuolumne Lodge. Birdie and Ishmael went off for dinner at the lodge, but I prefered the cheaper fare at the grill and a nap after an afternoon of swilling King Cobra. When the others returned from dinner, we lit the fire we had prepared before hand and invited a few other campground dwellers over to share its warmth and cheer. One of the people who came over was Nancy Robbins, a local photographer whose work can be found in various calendars for sale in the park. Her and a friend were heading up toward Cathedral Pass to take some photos and play around in the subalpine lakes found there. The pile of wood we had gathered, perhaps illegally, from the surrounding forest slowly diminished and, when left with only a pile of coals, our guests departed for their tents and tarps, as indeed we did shortly thereafter.

Ishmael and Birdie were hiking on tomorrow, following the High Route toward Gailor Lakes and eventually out to Twin Lakes. They were following the path that made the most sense to them, that was most desireable for them. I was taking a different path, the one that made the most sense to me, that was most desireable to me. They had a trek through trail-less wilderness, I was trusting to Providence that I could find La Flaca, a woman that I barely knew, who might or might not be in Lee Vining, whom I had no way to contact, and who might not even remember me. None of these things bothered me in the least, however. I had the time to let things happen of their own accord, rather than having to try to force things or to move according to some pre-set plan, deviation from which was not possible. That is the beauty of travel done right and what attracted me in the first place to long distance hiking. At some point in the past, I had lost focus, mistaking a set path for something more than it actually is. I had assumed that I had to be out in the woods with a pack on, in some far off place with no one around in order to have that taste, that feeling, that overriding contentment. I could see now that the activity itself did not matter. My location did not matter. What mattered was myself, how I approached things. I had to have an open mind and enough time to float on the wind, to let things happen, to let go of control of everything around me and to simply be. I felt more at peace, sipping on the last of my beer, there under the stars of central California, than I had for some time. I could have been under the stars in Nepal, or Houston, or even alongside some muddy pond in Massachusetts.