Birthday in Yosemite

The City had been really grinding my nerves lately. And it was becoming more apparent that I had to give myself space and piece of mind. I've been noticing how sensitive I'd become over things: the noise of neighbors in my building; the homeless people moving deeper into the neighborhood; the lack of money, inconsistent work, stress, loneliness, heartbreak and more. The rising tension was only exacerbated by the pending arrival of my birthday. I asked myself for weeks: "What do I want to do? Who can I spend it with?" A party? A trip somewhere?

A trip. I thought back to February of this year when I went to Death Valley to shoot Beacon. I fell in love with the desert and its vastness. And its' absolute quiet. I made a reservation for a tent for two nights.

At the same time, I thought that Yosemite would be the other choice. I booked a heated-tent at Curry Village for the same two nights.

After some back and forth about where to go, I decided to go to Yosemite. For its closeness, and its memories, and because I felt it would give me exactly what I needed. Some solitude. Death Valley could wait.

Car reserved. Food for the road obtained. Loaded my bike. Hit the road at 8a.

I love road trips - the journey in getting there is just as much as a part of the destination itself.  Over the years, I've made it a point to explore more frequently, especially on the road to Yosemite.  There are so many interesting areas to see on the way over there.  I have some rituals.  I make it a point a point to stop in two specific places:  the Starbucks in Oakdale, CA; and the Rim of the World Vista Point on Hwy 120 in the Stanislaus National Forest.  Making these two stops does two things for me:  first, I get a good coffee at the midway point; second, the view from the Vista Point is a great place to breathe and get some fresh air.  But more than that, I get to reflect and think about the person I shared these places with.  I have a lot of memories that I associate with these two places; it's bittersweet and sentimental, but I can't just drive past these places without honoring those memories.

I also enjoy the drive out of Oakdale, and into the foothills.  Especially the area including Knight's Ferry and Chinese Camp.  Knight's Ferry has one of the most beautiful (and longest) covered bridges west of the Mississippi.

Knight's Ferry Covered Bridge, 2010

It's 330 feet long, and has been standing for over 140 years.  It's very well-preserved, too.  Back in the day, the bridge was open to vehicles; but in 1981, they were prohibited, and now it's a pedestrian bridge over the Stanislaus River.

Thirty minutes up the highway, Chinese Camp sits on Rte. 120.  It was originally a Gold Rush settlement, and some of the remaining buildings date back to that era.  As you drive past, look for a California Historical Landmark plaque, describing the town's founding and notable events.  You have to turn off of 120 and drive down a few of the side streets to find the older buildings, but it's a very nice detour.

In the future, I'd like to explore the area's surrounding Lake Don Pedro; Moccasin; Hwy. 49 South of Moccasin; Big Oak Flat, and Groveland, all on the way to Yosemite.

After passing Chinese Camp, you have to navigate the Priest Grade - which is divided between a 'New' and 'Old' grade.  The Old Priest Grade is a straighter and less curvier option, yet is narrower, and a bit harrowing on the way back down.  Yet when going up this road, you're essentially gaining a huge elevation gain in a very short distance.  Whereas, if you take the 'New' Grade, or Rte. 120, you're driving over 6 miles over a gazillion turns and switchbacks.  Either way, this part of the journey can be a nail-biter or an exercise in controlling your stomach. But the view back toward the rest is breathtaking.

Priest Grade and Old Priest Grade


Once inside the Park, I made my way directly to one of my favorite views - Tunnel View.  It's one of those views that for me represents what the entire Valley can look like in an instant.  You might have brilliant sunlight or overcast skies, but the mood is always changing.  I'm not talking about the tourists and cars that are all parked there, too, taking photos.  But to really get a moment to look at the light, and try to block out the noise from the traffic and tourists nearby - can be a rewarding thing.  When I visited Yosemite back in January (a one-day trip, out and back to SF) - I stopped here at 9p to get a look at the clear sky, and to enjoy the silence.  Today, on this visit, I turned around to walk back toward my rental car when I noticed a trailhead sign and steps leading up the mountainside.  The sign listed three destinations, one of them named Inspiration Point.  I hadn't heard of this area, and I didn't take the mile-and-a-half hike, but that will be something for next time.  Here's what the first picture I took from Tunnel View.

Tunnel View, Yosemite - Nov. 23, 2014


So, with several hours to kill before checking in at Curry Village, I drove further into the Valley, all the way to the parking lot closest to Happy Isles.  Time to ride the bike.  I unloaded the bike and attached the front tire.  Then threw all of my food into a bear locker.  I biked out onto the Happy Isles Loop Road.  The air was fresh, and as I was riding, I saw steam rising from the rocks of the Merced. I mistook the steam for smoke. Since the Upper Pines Campground was nearby, and people had campfires going, I took the smoke for the steam that was rising from the rocks near the road.  I had to get off the bike and make sure I wasn't witnessing a small fire.

I decided to take my bike up to Mirror Lake.  The path was wet, and I think this is where I suddenly felt like this wasn't real.  When I visited in January, I had brought my bike.  When I parked and took the bike out to attach the front tire, I couldn't find the connecting bolt.  I tore the car apart, trying to find it.  Never did.  I had a useless bike, and I returned to SF, defeated.  Not this time.  I was coasting along, smelling the fresh forest and disappearing further into the Valley.  When I parked at the trailhead and looked up, I didn't know what I wanted to do, except to lay in the dry lakebed and stare straight up at Half Dome. Which is exactly what I did.

So after laying in the lakebed for an hour, enjoying the silence and (mostly) looking up at Half Dome, I decided to get closer to the base of it, by walking on a trail that headed northward and up into Tenaya Canyon.  Essentially called the Mirror Lake Loop Trail, it takes you past the debris field at the base of Half Dome, through forests, and ending at a bridge that takes you over Tenaya Creek and back down the South side of the Canyon.  So here's something crazy, looking up from the base of the debris field, this is where climbers start their ascent to climb the face of Half Dome!  You can find tons of videos on YouTube by people who have done this climb.  It looks absolutely terrifying.  Here's one of my favorites:

Heart-stopper, right?

So, with daylight retreating, I completed the loop in about two hours, and once I got back on the bike, I headed over to Curry Village.  My bike was already covered in mud, dirt, grime.  But I didn't care.  Once I got checked in, I found my tent, and locked the bike outside. As well as remaining food; that went in the bear locker.

I reserved a heated tent, and I discovered that the heater did not want to work.  Now, I'm fine with roughing it, but I was in no mood to return to reception and try to get moved.  I had my trusty electric blanket with me.  So, by cranking that heat up to 11, and piling on about a half-dozen blankets that were already in the tent, I figured I'd be alright.  The mattress was horribly soft, with no support.  And these tents are in such close proximity to each other, that the conversation of the campers next door was easily heard.  But I thought ahead:  I had earplugs.  I fell asleep pretty quickly.

In the middle of the night, around 3a, I stepped outside and looked up.  Very quiet, but the stars could be seen through the trees.  So bright.  It was freezing, too.  I figured it was already below freezing.

I woke up at 6:30a.  My first thought was:  get outside!  I wanted to see the sunrise.  And so, still bundled up in my clothes that I slept in overnight, I grabbed my bike and rode out of Curry Village and toward an open meadow.  My fingers were frozen within minutes while I rode out.  I had tipless-gloves on.  I parked and watched the sun illuminate the walls of the eastern end of the Valley; Half-Dome was a huge silhouette.  I took a gazillion pictures.


And after about an hour.  I realized how hungry I was.  So I went to the Ahwahnee Hotel to grab the breakfast buffet.  And happy with this, I warmed up by the fire in the Lounge.  I decided then to head out again on the bike, further out into the Valley.  I found myself at the trailhead for Lower Yosemite Falls, and took a short hike to its base.  I'd never done this hike before; never had been close to the Falls.  There was a good flow coming down, and surprisingly, the water was pretty powerful.  For some reason, I couldn't force myself to take a picture, but could only look up and up to the very top of the Falls.  The water was falling gracefully, there was snow to be seen at the top, and birds flew close by.  The tourists nearby seemed to not really see the Falls, but were only looking at it through their phones, or cameras.  Some people were scrambling over the huge rocks that are piled up at the Falls' base, which I thought was potentially dangerous.  But after a while, I got back on the bike and headed out again, this time, down to a large meadow near the Yosemite Chapel.

I spent some time hanging around in the meadow until I had to return to Curry Village and check-out.  Once I had the rental car loaded up, I decided that I would take a drive down to Mariposa Grove and look at the Sequoias.  I'd never seen the Grove before, and I was pretty sure that I'd never seen a Sequoia.  At least not in Yosemite.  As I was driving out, I stopped in front of El Capitan to take a look.  I was hoping that I could spot some climbers up there, but to my eyes, I couldn't make anything out.  As I was standing there, looking up, I realized that my ring was missing.

This wasn't any ring.  It was a ring that I bought at the Ahwahnee on a visit here in 2006.  It has sentimental value.  Over the years, it has stayed with me, through thick and thin.  And there have been many times that I'd lost it.

My One Ring

But it's always come back to me. And every time I'd misplace it, I had strong confidence that it would return to me.  Not like the One Ring, just this ordinary pewter ring with water designs etched into it.

As I was standing in this meadow, realizing that it was not in my pocket; it was not on my finger, and it was nowhere else I expected it to be, I concluded that it could possibly be back at the Ahwahnee, in the Lounge.  Earlier that morning, after breakfast, I had taken the ring off to wash my hands, and placed it nearby.  At this point, I was torn between heading back to the Ahwahnee to see if it could be found, or just continuing on my drive to Mariposa.  I was already getting worried about the time of the day, and how much time I'd be spending in Mariposa.  Plus, I could always come back to the Ahwahnee afterward and check.  So, I drove on, feeling like a familiar part of myself was missing, yet somehow comfortable in knowing that it was probably safe and sound.  If it was truly lost, I figured it was meant to be left where it had been first acquired.

The drive to Mariposa Grove was lovely, taking about a half-hour or so, winding up Wawona Road and down Hwy. 41, near the south entrance to the Park.  Again, I'd never been to this area of the Park, and once I parked and stowed my food in another bear locker at the parking out, I was hiking through the Grove, spending a lot of time looking up.

These trees are gigantic, and I took a lot of time walking on the loop trail.  The Grove covers around an acre, and according to the trail guide, there were many notable trees to look at.  I stopped at some of the major trees, such as the Grizzly Giant - and marveled at their size. I can only say that to think that these trees have been here for thousands of years is astonishing.

A part of me wished that the vandalism on the trees could've been stopped.  The California Tunnel Tree is only what it is, because in 1895, people decided to cut out a huge portion of it to allow coach passage through it.  Of course, that's a thing of the past, but as a result, the Tunnel Tree is badly scarred, and it is covered in etched graffiti.  Another sad thing about the Grove is that the Fallen Monarch has a huge sign next to it that says, "Do Not Climb on Fallen Monarch."  But parents were letting their kids crawl all over it for the purpose of taking a picture.  Otherwise, the Grove is beautiful, and I really enjoyed my afternoon hike.

Once I returned to the Valley, I returned to Tunnel View, and watched the dimming light take hold.  As sundown approached, the light turned a pink and orange.  It was very chilly - I was

Yosemite Valley at Sunset.

freezing.  And I sat out there for an hour or so, taking photos.  I realized that I need to come back to Yosemite more often.  There's so much to discover here, and for this visit, I had accomplished what I most wanted:  to get some solitude, visit new areas, practice photography, take my bike for a ride, and to think about my life ahead.

Before leaving to head home, there was still one thing left to do.  To return to the Ahwahnee and see if my ring had been turned in.  It was now dark, and a sliver of a crescent moon had appeared in the west.  I approached the front desk and asked if a ring had been turned in.  The clerk pulled out a box and opened it, and sure enough, my ring was there.  Returned to me again.

I don't think I can get rid of this ring, no matter how hard I try.

It was a long drive home, but I made it back by midnight.  In the end, it was the best gift I could give myself. I'm already aching to go back.

If you have recommendations for other places to visit within Yosemite (hikes or drives) or anything off the beaten path, let me know in the comments.