The Trouble with Tourons: Yosemite Valley, 10/9-10/10

I recognized how spoiled I am, living in the quiet of the Eastern Sierra, hiking and climbing in mostly solitude among the heights. I was, I thought, prepared for the barrage of humanity that comes with visiting one of the most over-adored spots in the entire country. My family has been camping over the Columbus Day weekend in the Valley for as long as I can remember, and, after a year of training and getting ready for the Challenge, I was excited to spend some quality time with my parents. Sitting, as well, does not come naturally to me, but I looked forward to the opportunity to quiet my mind and start thinking of where I would like to go and what I would like to do in the year (and years) to come.

And so, on Saturday morning in the dark, I loaded the TOF with a few simple things and jammed my foot on the accelerator as I turned her north, the dark outlines of the Crest in silent slumber as I guzzled a mug of fresh, warm coffee. Being out a lot, and having been awake for so many sunrises, you can count the stars as they fade into the grey shades of early morning, the first signs that the sun is threatening to, once again, mantle the horizon. In the weak and growing light, I could make out the fresh snow on the ridges below Mt. Dana, the white finally reaching the road around Ellery Lake. It’s always such a melancholy feel to see all the campgrounds closed for the season, the Tioga Pass Resort boarded shut, the thin sheen of ice growing on the surface of the lakes at the Pass. By the time I reached Olmsted Point, having passed on the yellowed expanse of Tuolumne Meadows, the gentle pink of dawn was hovering above the crowns of Clouds Rest and Half Dome. I strode down from the parking lot, the only car there, and out onto the slabs of the Point at various angles to try and capture the slow growth of the new day against the polish and boulders around me, a slight breeze keeping me from getting to comfortable as I sat under one of the pines perched in the cracks. I could hear a small trickling stream diving beneath me, the summit ridge of Clouds Rest tantalizingly close. I thought back to the summer day and hiking down Tenaya Canyon with my friends, swimming in every freezing water hole, jumping hand in hand with Amy into one as the guys watched and laughed with us. After the first light finally edged onto Half Dome, I scurried back up to the warmth of the TOF, only then noticing a few more people on the slabs just above the parking with their tripods and lenses.

The trees whizzed by as I ducked and wove along the dry road down and across the hills, a few deer scurrying into the forest but never crossing in front. I pulled into the empty lot at the Tuolumne Grove, relishing the last few minutes of alone time that I knew would be mine for the rest of the weekend. The sign on the road/trail offered a few laughs, warning of the “moderately strenuous” nature of the road down which I was about to walk. Sorry, I just can’t see 400 vertical feet over a mile as remotely steep or strenuous anymore. Different perceptions drawn from the endless hours of plodding up, down, and around my high mountains. With a sardonic grin, I set off down the pavement, enjoying the first rays of sun stretching through the trees above, smelling the soil damp from the night’s dew and recent rain, the emerald brightness of dogwood and mosses hugging the dark brown decaying trunks. The only noises were my footsteps as I half-walked, half-jogged the slope as it wound to the grove below.

I was shocked at how small the grove was, maybe a dozen trees, none of any advanced age, their high “branches” thick and bent, rising to the sky. Fences protected them all, allowing their shallow root systems to continue to absorb the moisture and allow moderate stability. Along a small offshoot trail, the skeletal remains of one such giant reaches silently, its base carved out to create a tunnel for the amusement of men. Fire scars blackened the inner walls of the remaining bark, the edges of the trunk worn smooth from so many visitors petting and sitting on the soft cover. I wandered about for a bit, looking for light play and listening for others, either animal or human, before starting back up the road back to the TOF. Other visitors started trickling into the grove by then, paper coffee cups in hand as they wondered out loud if they were headed in the right direction, a few teenagers looking bored as they were dragged around the park by their parents. It was odd, but no one was making eye contact. No one wanted to say good morning as I strode back up the hill. No one was even smiling. I got a distinct feeling, a chill, almost, that this was a chore, not something they really wanted to do.

The rest of the weekend just got more and more crowded. I was able to escape a bit by heading away from Bridalveil Falls, into the meadow across from Yosemite Falls. A few cool angles on the cliffs, light pouring through the trees, and air broken by the rush of cars rushing… around the Valley floor. People in a hurry to get somewhere first and fast and peering up as the rock and meadows and forest flew by. I could feel myself want to slow down, almost in an antagonistic sense to the bustle around me, but the bubble around me was penetrated too easily by the noise that reminded me of my apartment in west LA. I arrived at the campsite about an hour ahead of my parents, and sat quietly for a few minutes while I munched on a sammie and downed a few cold brews. As I looked around me, though, my eye started to catch a twinkle here, a sparkle there along the forest floor: the site was covered in litter and garbage from who knows how long. Bottle caps, cigarette butts, tent stakes, twist ties, and the most common pieces: the plastic wrappers from juice box straws. I spent at least 30 minutes bent over and scraping the site as clean as possible before my parents’ arrival, finally sitting down next to the fire pit with my paperwork for a few minutes before they arrived.

I really, really was hoping the transgressions would stop there, that I would be able to just spend some time with my folks and quietly sit and enjoy the grand cathedral that is the Valley. Then the two guys walked by, each on one end of the log as they carried it from the area by the stream and back to their campsite. Really? Really? If mom hadn’t been so mortified at the thought of my approaching the cidiots I would have said something, something about how apparently the rules didn’t apply to them and how do I get on that list? Argh. Scarily, this same scene repeated itself at least once more, this time with two climbers wandering through the campground loaded down with wood scraps and branches. Freakin’ IDIOTS…

So, here I was, sitting around the campfire with my parents, glass of wine to their martini and scotch, laughing and catching up on the insane year, hearing all the news and tales from back home in the Bay. It seemed so incredibly far away from what has become my mountain home. We ate and drank and laughed, I made breakfast and coffee for them to wake up to Sunday morning. I pointed out climbers on the cliffs above, only part of me longing to be up there at that moment. I wish I could get them to really understand the amazing sense I get from being up high in so many different ways. But they were happy to just walk with me in the sun across the Valley floor.

On the drive in and the drive out was were I got my quiet time for the entire weekend. As the road tumbled and turned through the high country, I flashed on plans for next year, when the snow and ice thaw and rock stands warm and true. What are they going to be? I have a list at home.

Stay tuned…


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