by Hank Leukart
April 1, 2010
Meeting the Yosemite Oracle
A renowned rock climber gives some life advice.
Meadow view in Tuolumne Meadows
OSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — “Where the hell are you?” I hear my friend Suzanne yelling at me in a voice mail message. Surprisingly, this time, the message doesn’t prompt me to record a nastier voicemail greeting. Yosemite must be working on me, I think.
But moving to a National Park on a whim creates some awkward logistical issues. Suzanne’s voicemail reminds that my friends and family are probably on the verge of calling a SWAT team to find me. And the single pair of underwear I have brought to Yosemite has caused me to significantly lower my is-this-too-dirty-to-wear test. My new test has become, “Is this underwear caked in mud and/or are there insects living in it?”
I decide that I need to check my e-mail, so I drop by the Wi-Fi enabled Curry Lounge, also hoping to find out whether the mother-daughter pair made it to the top of Half Dome. They’re not there, and I realize sadly that I’ll probably never see them again. I read my e-mail, and I respond to my mom’s “Where are you?” e-mail by telling her that I’m living in Yosemite, which probably begs more questions than it answers.
It occurs to me that even though I’m living in the wilderness, there’s no reason for me to turn into a reclusive Unabomber. After all, even Henry David Thoreau visited friends while writing the American wilderness classic, Walden. I decide to respond to a “How was Yosemite?” e-mail from my Los Angeles friend Wendy with a cryptic, “Still in Yosemite. Long story. Interested in meeting me?” Unphased, she writes back with plans to meet me with her husband, Rich, in Tuolumne Meadows, a corner of the park I’ve been dying to visit since I arrived. I double the weirdness ante by replying, “Just so you know, there will be this girl from Switzerland and this dude from Detroit at our camp. They are cool.” Her reply doesn’t reveal any hesitation. Wendy is a great person to have around, because she’s up for anything and tolerates my antics, even when they result in her driving to a National Park — that is on fire — to meet a Swiss nurse and a Michigan hitchhiker.
Tuolumne Meadows is a more remote, less-visited part of the Park, normally about an hour’s drive from the Valley in which I have been living. But the ongoing Big Meadows Fire has gotten very out of control and has begun burning across Yosemite’s major road. The only way to avoid being burned alive in my car is a six hour drive, looping around the Park.
On the way, Wini, Garrett (who will go anywhere as long as it’s closer to Montana), and I treat ourselves to milkshakes at the Moonshine Cafe in Coulterville, a quaint 1850s gold mining town. We twist through winding mountain roads, under the fresh smelling pine tree forests of the Sierra National Forest. It’s an especially rural, rugged drive, and somehow this signals Swiss Wini to ask us if we might see an American rodeo. Garrett and I laugh and explain that though cowboys are American icons, they are a rare sight in 2009.
So when we arrive in Bridgeport, a rural town close to Tuolumne, we are all astonished when we spot a real, live rodeo, advertising a “Team Branding” competition. The three of us watch two cowboys on horses race to rope a calf while a third cowboy forces it to the ground, tagging it with a paint-covered branding iron. During her time in the U.S., I have also brought Wini to her first fast food drive-through, her first drive-through car wash, and her first Wal-Mart. I start to fear that I have somehow inadvertently reinforced every American stereotype to her, which I suspect she will inevitably convey to everyone she knows in Europe. “America is a place full of insatiable consumerism, fast food, and cowboy rodeos — and no one ever leaves his car,” she’ll tell them. And she’ll have the photos to prove it.
I’m relieved to see Wendy and Rich when we finally arrive in Tuolumne, because they are my friends, but, more importantly, they have brought me a more comfortable camping sleeping pad from my apartment. Now, the only thing stopping me from a full night’s rest in Camp 4 will be the World’s Smartest Bear, who has learned that a bear breakfast buffet is available every morning at 4 A.M. in campsite 13.
The five of us attend the Park’s nightly campfire program in Tuolumne. A Ranger with a guitar jovially sings a song about bear safety to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” then continues with Dr. Seuss’s “Waltzing with Bears.” Clearly, this guy isn’t terrorized nightly at 4 A.M. by the World’s Smartest Bear — or maybe he is and has learned to love it, I think. He asks one delighted child to walk around with a bear pelt on his back so that we can all pet it. I know I have never seen a kid have so much fun pretending to be a bear, and then I realize I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid pretend to be a bear, ever. Basking in the glow of the campfire, we are the only people at the program over 10 but under 40 years old, and yet, we enjoy it just as much as the Bear Pelt Kid.
The next morning, we wish Garrett luck as he leaves to continue hitchhiking toward Montana. We’re all a little worried about him, this 18 year old kid with nothing to his name but a free spirit. The rest of us hike to Young Lakes, a trio of picturesque, shimmering lagoons deep in Yosemite backcountry. We set up our tents next to one of the Lakes. When twilight falls and the air turns cool, we lie on huge granite slabs, still emanating heat from the day’s sun, and we marvel at the twinkling stars carpeting the expanse of sky above.
“We should just live here,” Wendy says.
“I already do,” I say.
Wini and I say goodbye to Wendy and Rich after our Young Lakes expedition, and we stop at Latte Da Coffee in the tiny town of Lee Vining, just outside Yosemite’s east entrance. We’re sitting on the porch, drinking tea and using the café’s free Internet access to call Switzerland, when renowned mountain climber Ron Kauk joins us on the porch. Seriously. I’m astonished. He tells us that he lives nearby, and I want to say, “What a coincidence! I live here too! We should totally hang out and go climbing together! Maybe you can teach me about the Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet!” But I stop myself, knowing he’ll have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Instead, I tell him awkwardly that though I like to climb, I’m not very good, because I’m still learning.
“We each do things in our own way,” he says. “We take our own path.”
I feel like I’m talking to the Yosemite Oracle. Or maybe to the ghost of Real John Muir.
“Well, you’re the smart one,” I say to the Oracle. “This must be one of the most beautiful places on Earth to live.”
“I think so,” he says. “But you can live here too, forever, if you want.”
When I awake in Camp 4 on my twelfth morning in Yosemite, Wini tells me that it’s time for her to leave the Park and continue her vacation. I think to myself that one of the hardest things about living in Yosemite is the transient nature of the people I meet here. During my time in the Park, almost all of the people I’ve befriended — the mother-daughter Half Dome hikers, Garrett the hitchhiker, Corey the “inspiring” climbing partner, Flip the California-surfer dude, and the domino-playing Crivello family — have left me behind.
And now, Wini, too, hugs me goodbye as she boards a bus toward Wyoming to visit Yellowstone National Park.
The next morning, I’m standing in line at the Camp 4 Ranger Station to pay my camping fee, when I start sneezing from to the smoke-filled air due the continuing Big Meadows Fire, which seems like it has no plans to stop burning until it engulfs Camp 4 in flames. I think to myself how much I miss Wini screaming at me in the middle of the night to protect her from the World’s Smartest Bear. I wonder whether it might be time for me to leave Yosemite too and return home.
While I’m waiting, Katie, a 25 year old girl treating herself to a Yosemite vacation after completing a Masters Degree in Geology, tells me that she’s planning to hike to the top of Half Dome, but she’s nervous. I find myself telling her about the Incredibly Brave Kid and the mother-daughter pair, and that I’m living in Yosemite, and she acts like this is the coolest thing she’s ever heard, and then she asks me if I want to share breakfast, and suddenly, somehow, we’re friends.
I realize that my life in Yosemite is like an iPod set on repeat, playing my favorite song, over and over and over. As I gaze at the severe granite slabs towering above me, the idea of returning to Los Angeles makes me queasy. I’m positive that I could stay forever and never grow tired of the song.
After breakfast, I get into my car and notice a copy of Yosemite’s newspaper on my passenger’s seat that Wini left there the morning before. At first, I think that she forgot it, but then it occurs to me that she left it for me, intentionally.
When I open the newspaper, I see a picture of a bear adjacent to a short blurb about some of the other National Parks.
I can’t go home until I’ve seen a bear, I think.
I shift my car into gear and turn on my iPod. I take one last look at Camp 4 and the beautiful granite valley surrounding me. I take a deep breath and start driving in the opposite direction of Los Angeles.