The Wild West – Yosemite


I wrote this travel essay some time ago, but now I have a blog and so I thought I would publish it, along with some of the splendid photographs taken by my husband John Rainey-Smith

The Wild West

Yoh-see-might… No, no, no. Say Yo, and hold it. A long, lazy Yo. And then semite like cemetery. Yosemite with the emphasis on yo! Our bus driver was speaking in a slow, articulate drawl, and thankfully, he was taking the perilous corners in just the same manner. We were passengers on the early morning drop-off at Glacier Point, about to begin our trek into the wilderness in the ecological wonderland that is Yosemite National Park.

Friends from home had raved about this part of the world to us; boasted of conquering Half Dome (albeit crawling on their bellies) or hiking solo to the top of Yosemite Falls and sleeping out to catch the sunrise. We thought we were prepared, but nothing can prepare you for the astonishing geography of Yosemite, nor the dedication to conservation that the park exudes, the sense of something sacred. This is after all, America, and we, as supposed Green Kiwis, are used to the pointing the finger.

Astonishment is not limited to the grandeur of the scenery, but starts when you park your car on the valley floor and read the notices – Don’t feed the bears.

This piece of advice sinks in when checking into your accommodation and you are asked to sign a waiver, declaring that you have left not a skerrick of food in your car or you will be liable for a fine of one thousand dollars. We are regaled with stories of cars ripped asunder, and indeed, according to recent legend, an entire wedding cake, consisting of several tiers, left in a car outside the historic Ahwahnee Hotel was demolished along with the car.

We are warned that even a tiny crumb of chocolate in our car boot can lead to forced entry through a window and our car being ripped apart in the quest for food. It is autumn and hubby who normally eschews warnings such as keep of the grass (unless he can be convinced that there is a valid reason to stay off the grass) reluctantly concedes that the bears might indeed well be on the prowl and storing food for hibernation. And so, we carefully comb our car for any stray morsels of food, and debate momentarily, the risk of a lone peppermint and in the end decide not to tempt fate or indeed our wallets.

Now that we are officially registered and have signed our waiver, we deposit our luggage in our room. Our accommodation is similar to perhaps a budget ski lodge in New Zealand and the only touch of luxury is the ice-machine in the hallway, where cubes of ice fall in generous satisfying chunks, except we have no need of ice (no gin in our rucksacks). It is the cafeteria where we eat that intrigues us. Everything eaten at the park is grown within the park and all plastics and waste recycled. There appears to be an affirmative action programme at work with the employment of staff and we are greeted each day or night by warm, friendly staff with some obvious and some less obvious, physical or intellectual disabilities, Again, this is not what we expected, and we are impressed, yet again, humbled.

Our first walk is on the Meadow Floor to Mirror Lake which when full of water (in spring and summer) reflects Mt Watkins named after a photographer who captured the now very famous mirror image, a lake in which tourists once also swam, before evidently, silting changed this. We are surrounded by tourists of all nationalities, not ardent hikers and climbers, but Mr and Mrs Jo or Josephine average in their shorts and sneakers, blatant tourists really, unlikely to work up even a bead of perspiration on the meadow floor. The trail is pretty, and takes us less than an hour to complete, but it whets our appetite.
We enquire at the Information Centre…
Can you direct us to the more strenuous trails?
You’re not American. Americans never ask about the strenuous trails.

Fortunately (well, for me at least) it is too late in the season for us to test how intrepid we really are. The climb to Half Dome is now closed, the safety ropes removed, and so I am spared the chance to find out if I have the bottle required to inch across this spectacular rock face.

We settle for a Wilderness Trail that starts at Glacier Point. We know we are entering the wilderness when other tourists slip behind and return to the car park, and even more specific is the notice You are now entering the wilderness. In smaller print is advice on what to do in the event of an encounter with a mountain lion. You are asked to stand tall, open your jacket, pick up your children and throw something (ah not the kids). I practice standing tall, throwing open my jacket to look wider and perfect a deep and reassuring roar. I also search in the forest for a suitable stick to wave in the event of a black bear, or God forbid, a mountain lion.

Instead, I see endless blue sky, sequoias, rock formations that defy description and rivers and creeks that could double as Hollywood movie backdrops. I expect John Wayne on horseback to appear over each new horizon, or perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to be lurking behind the next boulder.
I am influenced too after reading Yosemite by Margaret Sanborn (a book I have purchased at the park), mindful of the indigenous Ahwahnee people, and in particular the story of Chief Tenaya. I’m reminded of my simplistic sixties childhood when the cowboy was the hero and the Indian the villain, a time when I was too young and ignorant to consider the plight of the indigenous American Indian other than as a fictional character. But now, in this haunting landscape, the giant boulders and rock faces taunt me with their secret histories, the sorrows they’ve absorbed. In particular, as a mother, I imagine the tragic sight of Tenaya’s favourite son, shot in the back by the callous white settlers, his warm blood still spilling. John Wayne on horseback is but Hollywood and the story that captures my heart is that of Chief Tenaya. The feelings that linger are of a father’s unimaginable grief at the sight of his dead son, his loss becomes to me, visceral.

Later, on a less serious note, we encounter chipmunks, creatures hitherto only known from my movie-going childhood in cartoons, or from the comics I read about Chip ‘n Dale. I learn for the first time, the difference between a chipmunk with striped back and face and a squirrel which in contrast has stripes only on its back. I much prefer this sort of encounter than the vague lurking menace of a mountain lion or black bear – although, while waving my stick around to ward off such an encounter, I am half hoping to meet a friendly bear, albeit from a safe distance.

Ah, the High Sierra – the great divide between the eastern and western frontiers of America – the mountain ranges from where the water flows to irrigate California. I know about this because I’ve read Joan Didion’s ‘Holy Water’ essay in the White Album and I read all about the journey of water from granite mountaintops and the funding required to capture this precious resource. The water from Nevada and Yosemite Falls is now but a trickle, but in another season, the rock faces are sheets of water. I marvel at the Meadows created by the Indians – the careful burning to encourage the growth of acorns, their food source….and the flowers. I begin to understand the spirit of Chief Tenaya of the Ahwahneeche Indians and his promise to haunt the rocks and river.

I’d left New Zealand thinking of Bush and Iraq; America as the land of waste and pollution. And here I was in this most pristine of environments. Yosemite is a tribute to the conservationists, and to the American spirit. How quickly we condemn and imagine our own backyard much cleaner and greener. When I thought of the thousands, possibly millions, of tourists who enjoy Yosemite year in year out, and the dedication it must take to retain this original Wild West I was walking in, I was humbled and respectful. Although one is also very aware that, the white settlers stole the Meadows from the Indians and nothing can change that piece of violent history – but now it seems the Meadows have been returned to all Americans, Indians, Mexicans, Hispanics, and Germanics… the great melting pot.

I’m not wishing to romanticise, but I challenge anyone to stand and gaze at El Capitan or Half Dome, and not feel just a tiny bit awestruck, inspired, and indeed, quite a bit hopeful. Yosemite beckons, and I feel that some day I will return – it’s that kind of place.

2 thoughts on “The Wild West – Yosemite

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