Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The natural habitat of ursa major

Every night the Big Dipper reveals itself overhead. Masked by the tall pines, but still visible.

Our final morning in Yosemite begins like the others, with sun on Sentinel Dome and shady cool in the trees. Then:

  • first thing, a Curry truck idling its V8 several feet from tent cabin
  • stump coffee derailed by boil-over incident
  • $4 for Curry coffee (with a queue slower than the stump)
  • annoying Curry employee keeping vigil outside tent cabin, waiting for us to leave
  • chastising from same employee for leaving key in lock (while in cabin)
  • navigation issues reaching Tunnel View

We set off for Inspiration Point with energy, seeking reliable things like dirt and rock and sky.

Promptly miss a switchback covered in rocks and lose the trail. Bushwhack cross country, traversing rock slabs and manzanita scrub. Follow cairns, or ducks, left by previous hikers. Curse the National Park Service for minimalist signage and budget cuts. Encounter bear scat. Lose trail entirely with a sheer 200-foot drop below. Opt to retrace our steps, head back to the car.

Then, the wrong turn reveals itself! We reboot and head uphill again, enjoying a proper, shady beautiful trek for 1.3 miles. The noise of tour buses and Harleys and humans below is swallowed up by wilderness. Halfway up we cross what used to be the old road, Wawona Road. Abandoned in 1933, it's now part of the trail system.

Finally at the top, a view. There is only one view from here, the one everyone comes for.

At the mouth of Yosemite Valley, looking east toward El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, Sentinel Rock, Half Dome.
We toast a proper farewell, with crackers and cheese and apples.

This flat spot was the viewpoint along the old road and a surprising amount of pavement remains. We fend off a persistent mosquito and then yellowjackets... Somehow they just knew we'd show up. Every day good weather brings a steady procession of humans to this spot. The insects have learned and adapted to our patterns.

A successful outing. We salvaged the day and took photos. It was an uneventful descent back to the car.

Except a minute or two down the trail we cross paths with a young couple heading up. They are a little breathless and shaken. The guy volunteers that they saw a bear next to the trail about 10 minutes ago. He looks both excited and scared, emotions outpacing his language skills. I say, there are no bears in France, and they both nod.

There are no wild animals of any kind in Europe. Over thousands of years humans killed them and settled their habitats. Gone. That's why all the Europeans get in an airplane and then a car to come to Yosemite. 

Several minutes on we encounter a woman standing with her back against a tree. She asks if we've heard about a bear on the trail (yes) and seen her husband heading up (yes). She looks a little uncertain and wants to head down but not alone. The bear is apparently 3 or 4 switchbacks down the hill. She waits for her husband, we press on.

Whatever we were talking about it must have been interesting. But a bush next to the trail is clearly shaking. The bear pokes her head out of the manzanita for a second, checking us out. She has a thin face, cinnamon brown, smaller than expected. I call out hello, then start moving back up the trail. I'm not actually sure it's an adult bear. And that's worrisome. I start checking out the bushwhacking options to give her lots of room.

While we discuss the bear ambles up and away, slowly and deliberately. She's an adult, on the small side but large enough. She moves gracefully with hardly any noise, even through the brush.

At the end of the trail a Scottish couple sits on a rock, gazing at the hill. In sight of their tour bus. Someone told them a bear was right there at the parking lot, someone saw it a few minutes ago. The guy wants to see a bear in Yosemite. His wife looks less sure. I say, these bears are largely after food. You could spread peanut butter all over yourselves. Here, I have some trail mix, you could scatter it around and wait. They smile nervously and say no thanks.

If you come to Yosemite Valley seeking solitude you will be disappointed. This place is filled with humans trying to reconnect with something meaningful. Humans are the only creatures here not seeking food, not trying to survive. Our agenda has nothing in common with the bears and lizards and insects and birds. We are trying to find our primitive selves and quiet the human noise. We seek them out even as they avoid us. 

If you come to remember how small humans really are, how unremarkable and even mediocre, THAT feeling will surely find you here.


  1. Thanks Elaine. Good to hear from you and be reminded how lucky I am to live near Yosemite. I was last there in Aug '11 for a wedding. I will never, never, maybe never, go back to the valley again in the summer. It was wall to wall humans and cars. The Ahwahnee lodge wedding green was the only quite spot. Always enjoy your blog. Barry

    1. Hi Barry, thanks for checking in!

      It's the last 20 years and with cheap air travel, Yosemite has become a world-wide brand. Had the same feeling when I saw Starbucks in Paris. I think maybe the high country is the place to be...

  2. Every time I visit Yosemite, I wonder why I don't go there more often. Your photos capture its spirit, Elaine. Thanks for the "trip." :)