Sometimes, you just need to take the hike that you can.
My very knowledgeable and impassioned husband wanted to take a fitness hike in Yosemite. He is celebrating his 60 years of life by backpacking across the Sierra Nevada Range, from the Owens Valley to Vermillion Valley, and high elevation training is on the top of his trip preparation list. “Let’s hike Yosemite’s Four Mile Trail, I will go up from the Valley and you can come down from Glacier Point.” He eagerly planned our hike.
But, as with nature, the environment, and National Parks, things aren’t always the postcard picture perfect way you think they should be.
On the day of our hike there was not one, but five different fires in the Wilderness and the evening down-slope winds filled the Yosemite Valley with smoke. Not just any smoke, but dark brown, large particulate, nose and throat burning, firefighter flashback, so thick you need a Pulaski to cut through it, smoke.
There was not much to see from Tunnel View. Two Park Rangers, were doing damage control with the German and French visitors who just spent many days, and many euros for this once in a lifetime photo of thick haze with no waterfalls and no Half Dome. “You could try to go higher, go to Tuolumne Meadows if you still want to take a hike today,” they gave us their wise-ranger advice to keep moving upslope, and out of the downslope drifting smoke.
Tuolumne Meadow, the legendary place that motivated conservationist John Muir to push for the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890. I remember the stories from my Wilderness Management 101 class at Humboldt State. High in the Sierra Nevada, John Muir and his sheep trampled the lush green meadows and dramatic granite outcroppings turning them into a philosophic pilgrimage. OK, my memory of the story may not be complete or accurate, but I do know that Tuolumne Meadow is a very special place.
The sheep are long gone and now the meadows are trampled by hordes of visitors trying to get their part of the American National Park Dream. Cars line the roadways and people vie for a parking space. Tourists gawk at the glacier carved rock formations while attempting to negotiate highway 120 that traverses Ansel Addams’ “Range of Light”.
It was still smoky in the high country, but after a three hour drive we weren’t leaving without a hike. “Damn it, we came this far and I’m going to get out of this car and stretch my legs.” The parking along the road was crowed and there were hundreds of cars in the area. “We’ll just have to make the best of it.”
The Wilderness boundary started only a few feet from the parking lot.
On the trail, we passed a Park Ranger walk and I could overhear the geology talk as the group stood on the granite face. But then after that, things changed. We walked for only a few minutes, and we were alone. It was us and the meadow. There was no vehicle noise. Just us and the rock. There was no cellular service, just us and the three deer hiding in the shade. There was no one taking selfies, just us and the western hemlock and lodge pole pine. There was no pavement, sidewalk, or concrete, just us and the squishy trail along the meadow. There were no advertisements, no sponsors, no sales, just us and the rushing of the water flowing over glacier carved slopes.
It was just two close companions and the quiet peace of a Wilderness landscape.
We hiked for an hour as the sky cleared and thunderheads started to form. We put out feet into the icy cold water sinking into the squishy mountain mud. We sat on the edge of the river with no other people in sight. An osprey flew over looking for fish. Wind blew through the trees making a soft swoosh in the distance. Water ran along its course with soft splashes and gurgles.
We talked about our travels, our plans, our relationship, the nature of time, and the value of preserving wild spaces.
When we returned to our car, the parking lot was overflowing. A steady stream of cars passed us as we prepared for our drive back home. The crowd was still on the road but the smoke had cleared away. We didn't have the fitness hike we planned, but we did get a few hours of solitude in the amazing Yosemite Wilderness.
This wasn’t the hike we set out to take this morning, but it was the hike we could take, and we are thankful.