The Yosemite experience is so perfectly introduced by this line from John Muir, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike”. Written in 1912, his words summarize the overwhelmingly sacred nature of this place.
As I mentioned in my last post, I was aware that in those distant Sierras lay a new experience. Driving in from the west on Highway 140, we climbed quickly from 1,000 to 4,000 feet, clinging to a two-lane highway as it wound precipitously up and around the increasingly steep mountains and following the Merced River. The Ferguson mud slide, which happened in 2006, was still dramatically evident from our detour, a testimony to the immensity of nature’s power in this rugged and wild land of Yosemite National Park.
The road drops into the Yosemite Valley and suddenly opens and there, in all the mystery, lies the Valley. Muir wrote, “God’s love is manifest in the landscape”, and this Valley is a stunning witness. “Magnificent” is too small a word.
The thing about this Valley is that wherever you look, you are held in awe of the enormity of nature. The granite profiles of the legends of this place – El Capitan, Half Dome, the Cathedral Spires, Sentinel Dome, – are right there, less than half a mile in any direction and they are thousands of feet higher than where we were standing. The gaze is drawn upward, as if in prayer, to their heights and to the sky. Everything here – the pines and cedars point upward.
Looking in one direction Upper Falls plummets over the edge and crashes into Lower Falls. Over there, the exquisite Bridalveil Falls, spraying in the wind and spreading her gauzy mists over the cliffs. Open meadows have cedar boardwalks since their fragile grasses are vulnerable to the constant foot traffic of visitors. And everywhere, the Pacific dogwoods are in bloom, their waxy white faces framed by the backdrop of the intense greens of bursting spring.
We met our friends here and camped in the Lower Pines campground near the Merced River and beneath granite cliffs. We explored much of the Valley on our bicycles, touring Mirror Lake at the foot of Half Dome, visiting the legendary Ahwahnee Hotel, the wonderful Museum at the Visitor’s Center.
We also caught the showing of a wonderful film, A Gathering of Spirit, made in honor of the Park’s 150 anniversary, written and produced by none other than our fellow New Hampshirites, Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. It was an experience of enormous emotion to sit in the darkened theater and be carried into the inner world of sensation, listening to the familiar voices of men we personally know tell the brief history of the geology, the discovery, the annihilation of the native people who had inhabited the Valley for 8,000 years, the early attempts at commercialization and the commitment to ultimately preserve the Valley and its surrounding ecosystem.
While there, we learned of a Tuesday evening live reenactment about the Park’s first official guardian, Galen Clark, by an actor who is also a Yosemite naturalist. Clark had arrived in the mid-1860s after a life of hardship back east, built himself a cabin and dedicated himself to the management of this vast new land. In the opening minutes of the dialog, the actor spoke of Clark moving here from “Dublin, New Hampshire near Mt. Monadnock”. Once again on our travels, the delicate and synchronistic thread that connects us all was revealed. This is just where we were meant to be.
Galen Clark was a man who left New Hampshire to come west, discovered this place and committed his life to preserving it for the unknown future visitors like us. After the performance, we introduced ourselves to the actor/naturalist and promised him a gift, which we dropped off the next day. We gave him a copy of our Monadnock at the Millennium book, now moved by our personal connection to this Park’s first guardian. We wanted the naturalist to have a copy of our book, which captures contemporary images of the region Clark left behind over 150 years ago. Of course, the fact that two of the introductory comments in our book are by Dayton and Ken was not lost on us. This pilgrimage is pretty amazing, as you can tell.
We ended our four days here driving about 20 miles south in the Park to the historically significant Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. This is the first grove discovered by non-Native people and is the largest extant grove of sequoias in Yosemite. This is a cathedral of monumental proportions and in mostly reverential tones (aside from one group of raucous tourists) we walked the 1.2-mile trail through the grove. These trees, close relatives to the redwoods of coastal California, are powerfully built living systems. The last tree we visited here, named the Grizzly Giant, stands 209 feet tall, 96 feet in circumference, and 28 feet in diameter. The base of the tree is scarred black by fire that obviously raged around it sometime during its estimated 1,800 years of life.
As we have reflected on this trip, Peter observed that for an easterner, Yosemite’s scale is beyond what we can imagine. On one of our hikes, we stopped at a observation spot about ¾ mile from the base of El Capitan. This shear granite cliff, towering 3,000 feet above the Valley floor, is the largest single granite face in the world. As he was looking at the face through binoculars, Peter spotted some climbers working their way up the face – in neon orange and green, and blue their little ant-size bodies could be detected against the white shear granite. The scale of it all is humbling.
Muir said of Yosemite, “It is by far the greatest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter”.
And so it is for us…