My four-week southwestern pilgrimage is drawing to a close, and what stands between my current location in Mammoth Lakes and the San Francisco airport is. . . . Yosemite National Park, John Muir’s temple of the wilderness, in which “every rock seems to glow with life.”
This is sacred ground, with 4.3 million visitors last year. This year, having just reopened after a month’s closure due to forest fires, no doubt the park will be thronged. What’s needed is a thoughtful plan: an infiltration route from a remote trailhead to a suitable vantage point overlooking the valley, sparing me the crowds below. A chance encounter with a friendly trail volunteer supplies me with exactly this: a 16-mile route from Porcupine Creek Trailhead to North Dome and the top of Yosemite Falls.
I’m up at 5:00 AM, packed, and on the road before first light. But the car needs gas, and the pump is dispensing the fuel in slow motion. “I was wondering why you were still here,” the clerk admits when I point this out. She switches on a reserve tank (evidently the main is running low), and this helps a little. But now there’s another delay: the Black Velvet Espresso Bar opens at 6:45 AM. I stand around for thirty minutes, drink a cappuccino, and finally get going, reaching Porcupine Creek Trailhead around 8:00 AM.
On with the pack, off with the shoes, it’s time to take my first steps in Yosemite National Park — and initially there’s an unpleasant surprise: the trail is paved, with a hard gritty surface that hurts my feet. I didn’t come to Yosemite to walk on a sidewalk, I fume to myself, wondering if I’ve stumbled onto a 16-mile bike path. But after a half mile, the asphalt begins to fall apart, and a few steps later it’s turned into a sandy path, and now I’m moving along at a brisk pace, enjoying the soft surface, feeling cheerful.
Immense ponderosa pines soaring from the gray sandy soil, with fissured brown-black bark and long needles. If you’re going to clear the trail around here, bring a big chainsaw, because much of the deadfall is four or five feet in diameter. Relatively little undergrowth. The path is lined with lupines, similar to the ones I saw on Telescope Peak in Death Valley, but here they’re taller, growing waist- or even chest-high in places, the blue flowers having faded, the plants have produced a crop of bean pods on long stalks. Tiny white flower clusters of yarrow, and purple asters, too. An impressive forest, but upon reflection, it’s not very lush (like what we have back home in the Hudson Valley): I see little or no moss, club moss, lichen, fern, fungus, or slime mold — those diminutive, ancient species, long predating flowering plants and trees, which persist quietly in the shadows.
But then another surprise (evidently I spoke too soon), for around the next corner the tall, massive pine trees are covered with lichens, running up the bark of mature trees, in some cases enshrouding the lower branches, and dotting the trail where bark or branches have been knocked down by wind — and these lichens are a wild flamboyant lime green, glowing almost yellow where they catch the morning sun — totally out of place among the forest’s subtle earth tones, as if the lichens had no sense of style. These are wolf lichens (Letharia vulpine), a fruticose (bushy) lichen that is said to grow abundantly in the Sierras, but it’s the first and only fruticose lichen I’ve noticed in four weeks of wandering the southwest.
More surprises. Another species of lupin, the same characteristic whorl of six or more narrow leaves and an occasional blue-purple flower sticking out, but these aren’t waist-high, rather they’re spreading around on the ground, barely an inch tall.
Here’s some bracken fern, familiar to me from the fire-swept ridges of New York’s Shawangunk Mountains. In his first summer in the Sierras, John Muir wrote about a grove of bracken growing seven feet tall, where you could “walk erect over several acres without being seen, as if beneath a roof.” These ones, however, are barely knee-height.
The sandy trail crosses a small stream and enters a meadow, where orange butterflies flit among purple clover. I pass a charred stump and soon notice many burnt trees. A dry forest, vulnerable to the smallest spark.
In due course I arrive at North Dome, the hike’s first objective, offering a vantage point overlooking Yosemite Valley, and across the way, the mighty Half Dome, “the most beautiful and the most sublime of all the mountain rocks about the valley,” according to Muir. With the sun still hanging in the east, the huge gray face is cast in shadow. I squint, trying to spot hikers climbing up the curved slope along the cables, but can’t make anything out in the haze.
Onwards to Yosemite Falls. The path crosses a stream with a trickle of water, duly noted in case I need to resupply on the way back. The temperature’s rising into the 90s, and the sun is strong here at 8.000 feet in elevation. Across another stream – stronger flow duly noted – and onto an exposed knob with more views of the valley. Shadows flit across the ground. A pair of turkey vultures, circling in a low-altitude orbit some twenty or thirty feet off the ground. This is not a good place to be a chipmunk. In the distance, Half Dome once again.
I’m walking downhill now on exposed slabs of granite, the path marked with small cairns and less distinct. My pace slows, as the rocks are heating in the morning sun and becoming prickly underfoot: they may look smooth from afar, but up close layers are cracking off and breaking apart into grit, in a process that geologists call “exfoliation.” I make it down to the bridge across Yosemite Creek, and this is 9.1 miles barefoot and far enough for today. I step into a pool, decide the water’s too cold to jump in any further, filter water to refill my bottles, and finally put on shoes.
Just beyond the bridge, the path takes you onto another knob and then down a set of stone steps for a close-up view of the waterfall. Some European tourists are splashing in the last pool before the drop-off, and one is sitting on the lip of the polished granite ledge, right before it begins to curve down toward the valley floor, over two thousand feet below.
John Muir explored that ledge. “I took off my shoes and stockings and worked my way cautiously down alongside the rushing flood,” he wrote, wanting to study the form and behavior of the water as it plunged into the valley. He spotted a three-inch shelf in the granite that would offer him a closer view, but it looked quite dangerous. “I therefore concluded not to venture farther, but did nonetheless.”
While perched on that narrow niche I was not distinctly conscious of danger. The tremendous grandeur of the fall in form and sound and motion, acting at close range, smothered the sense of fear, and in such places one’s body takes keen care for safety on its own account.
Today I have a similar reaction, but in my case, my body takes keen care to keep me safely behind the metal hand-rail bolted into the rocks, which I grip uneasily.
Yosemite Falls isn’t even trickling, but the valley views are striking: straight down 2,600 feet to the valley floor where there are meadows, forests, an occasional building, a paved road; to the west some 3.5 miles distant, some 2,000 feet higher than the falls, Half Dome rearing up once again and now shining brightly with the sun overhead; beyond it the Sierra massif winding off into the heights.
Time to head back. I return across the Yosemite Creek bridge, hoof back up the exposed nob where the vultures are still orbiting overhead, and pause for a moment to study Half Dome. Like any good tourist, I take a selfie. . . . and strangely enough, the camera on my phone shows Half Dome as smaller than my head, which is certainly not the way I see it, because it seems to fill my entire mind. And that’s not just a subjective impression: the Dome is massive and distinctive: three miles long, rising almost a mile from the valley floor, and sliced in half like a melon.
But then I reflect: I’ve seen plenty other domes on my trip, for example the dome of Navajo Sandstone at Capitol Reef National Park that resembles the U.S. Capitol Building, not to mention semi-circular caves and arches around Moab (later on an internet search will find 38 domes in the Sierras). And as for mass, Half Dome is only slightly more than half as high as Mt. Whitney (8,839 feet vs. 15,000) and but a tiny dot on the Sierra Nevada, which stretches 500 miles long by 70 wide and ranges from 7,000 to 15,000 in height.
With Half Dome put in proper perspective, it’s back through the forest, passing all the streams, trees, and plants I’d seen on the way down. Among the bits of wolf lichen dotting the trail, I find another kind of fruticose species, gray-blue in color, with twisted gnarled branches, and large brown cup-shaped apothecia, possibly some kind of hypogymnia.
Back eventually to the car, and back onto the narrow highway winding through the park. And back to reality: a large pick-up truck with an OHV strapped to its bed roars past me and swerves back into the proper lane just before the oncoming traffic. And then it’s my turn to get stuck behind a timid driver who brakes on the downhills.
Eventually leaving Yosemite behind, its into the immense foothills of the western Sierras, huge mountain tentacles snaking down into the valleys. Signs advise that fire restrictions are in effect, and these warnings seem credible given the large number of blackened leafless trees dotting the slopes. Nature surely loves every one of her living creatures, yet she sprinkles the flames among them with abandon and presumably takes delight in their conflagration — otherwise why toss out the spark?
Further down into the valley, rolling hills covered in the soft tawny grass of late summer, inviting one to wander up onto a hilltop, repose beneath a live oak tree, and study sun setting over ocean.
One last night in a motel, the next morning up at 4:30 AM for the drive to the airport, crossing over some lake en route, the pavement flanked by light poles on the right, telephone lines on the left, everything perfectly straight and evenly spaced – and my first reaction is how sterile and lifeless, these mechanical slaves of mankind facilitating our endless travel and communication (and don’t we ourselves sometimes sometimes feel like mechanical slaves?). But then it occurs to me, these wires and poles are Nature’s creations, as surely as are lichen filaments and arrow-straight pines — true, she lets us take the credit for these structures, as if they were our design, but we are merely agents. Having created Half Dome, she quickly lost interest, delegated its further sculpting to the water and ice, and is now breathing life into the digital ecosystem which we are dutifully building at her command.
I resign myself to reentering the sprawl, fail to anticipate rush hour congestion, miss my plane, catch the next one, and eventually return from my pilgrimage, having seen, learned, and experienced so much, but also somewhat strangely feeling as if I’d never left home.