Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The BIG 50th Birthday Adventure, Part 2, Yosemite Valley

If I haven't mentioned it in your presence before, I was born in Yosemite Valley. I don't remember it, because we moved away when I was two years old. That was part of why I wanted to return for this momentous birthday, to see where my life began. And I had the best guides in the world: my parents and my two brothers. They filled me in on all the places they remembered.

First, though, we checked into the Ahwahnee Hotel so we could take showers and get pretty again. Three days of backpacking with no showers leaves one kind of stinky. It is a low water year in Yosemite, so even camps that normally had showers didn't allow any the week we went.

The Ahwahnee Hotel is every bit as wonderful as its reputation. It is stunningly magnificent and at the same time it blends with its surroundings so as not to claim too much notice. That's the way the architect wanted it, wisely. Here it is reflected in the pool out front.

When we got to our room, I was amazed at the views. We had a corner room on the fourth floor with windows on two sides and a balcony. Here's what we could see from our windows.

My dad had arranged for a birthday dinner in the Ahwahnee dining room, known for its fantastic high windows with views like the ones from our room. I was so in the moment, I didn't take any pictures of dinner. David, me, Wanda, Les, Mike, and Pat  were there, and we had a wonderful dinner. I told my parents that the best thing was raising us in the national parks, because I am such a nature girl, I love the outdoors so much, and I think growing up scrambling around in the mountains was the best childhood for me.

Then I got a big surprise.

Mmmmm. Yes, the six of us ate the whole thing. Well, almost. It was chocolate and raspberry with dark chocolate ribbons. Dad conspired with David to get just the right flavor. Well done.

Next Day: Where I Began

No one ever believes that someone can really be born in Yosemite. When we lived there, there was a hospital. Today it is a medical clinic, and I'm told that even without hospital accommodations, they delivered three babies there last year. You know, babies don't always arrive on schedule. But I did.

First stop on our itinerary was the hospital. Mom told me that they wouldn't let my brothers in to see me, so she held me up to the window and they came and looked at me. Dad told me he was in the coffee shop in the basement when the doctor came and told him I was a girl. Dad called up to him that my name was Neysa Carol. Doctor was a bit unsure about that at first. Aren't most people?

That's my mom, Wanda, and me outside the entrance. Up above, you'll notice the hospital nestled in the trees and a huge granite mountain behind. Normally, that's where Yosemite Falls splashes down, down, down. This year, as I mentioned, it is a dry year and the falls has stopped until more water fills the river. But this explains a lot of things about me: that I love waterfalls beyond any natural element, that I feel the rocks speak and live, and that I must have mountains. It all started right there. Wow.

Next was to visit my first house. The story has it that the family lived in a different house until I was born. While mom and I were in the hospital, the family moved into their new, larger house, with the help of my mom's Aunt Beth. (I think it was her aunt. My dad also had an Aunt Beth. Confusing.)

Again, within view, and certainly within earshot is Yosemite Falls. Most people don't realize this about national parks: the year round employees usually live in the park. The housing area in Yosemite Valley has about 40 homes, not including all the living quarters for the seasonal and DNC employees. There is a day care, a school, a post office, even a district court. My brothers went to elementary school just steps from our house. Mom told me every afternoon just as I went down for a nap, that was afternoon recess and the noise often woke me right up. My dad was the district ranger of Yosemite Valley, which meant whenever there was a crisis or a crime, he had to go. Mike, my oldest brother, tells me there were very few nights that dad got to sleep through the night.

Next on the list: Yosemite Chapel, where I was baptized. Again, looking right out at Yosemite Falls. Boy, I am one lucky girl.

The group is, from left to right: David, Pat McClanahan, Neysa, Mike McClanahan, Wanda and Les McClanahan. I had so much fun seeing all the sites with them in Yosemite Valley. They gave up their precious time to come celebrate with me.

At the chapel, a framed poem hung in the vestibule. I thought is was moving.(Not literally. Emotionally.)

Some of the falls did have a little water. We stopped by Bridalveil Fall for a look. Normally, you would get wet being this close to the falls. And all these rocks would be slippery. But they were bone dry.

Of course, we had to go see the visitor center and all the other interpretive stuff. They have a really cool exhibit there of the geological history of Yosemite. I love geology, so I ate that up. We went to the Ansel Adams Gallery. And the Museum.

Along the walkway, Dad decided to hug a tree. "That's one big ponderosa," he said.

We spent much of the rest of the day lounging around on the patio at the Ahwahnee, but not before being regular tourists and buying our fair share of souvenirs. I fell in love with this hotel, not only for its amazing setting, but also for the care and attention the builders and designers put into it. In order to make the concrete and steel look more natural, they set the concrete columns in molds of real timber and then painted it to look like wood. The interior design involves elements inspired by native American motifs. Below is the grand lounge (my apologies for the poor camera work. It is pretty dark.) We had tea here. Well, some of us had tea while others took a nap. (No, Melissa, I did not nap.)

 This tapestry was on the wall by the elevator
 Every room had a different medallion above the door.

These gorgeous stained glass ceiling tiles always made me look up when I was in the elevator.

The windows in the grand lounge each had a different stained glass design at the top.

 This mural was commissioned specifically for this position above the fireplace in the elevator alcove.

My dad told a story about when JFK (yes, THE JFK) came to Yosemite and stayed at the Ahwahnee. Dad was in charge of security that night at the hotel. They basically stayed up all night. There are many grand pianos at the hotel, and I guess one of JFK's staffers (dad will have to comment and remind me who it was) played the piano in the grand lounge all night. Cool.

For another perspective on our lovely room, here are some shots of it from outside. It was on the fourth floor, corner, with a balcony. Right up there by that giant cliff.

Here is a shot of El Capitan, like I need to tell anyone that. I couldn't get a good view of Half Dome from our hotel, because there were so many trees in the way. However, if you go back to Part 1 of my blog report, you can see Half Dome in the distance behind me as I stand on the ridge at May Lake. You've all seen hundreds of photos of it, anyway, so you don't need one from me.

For our final night in Yosemite, we ate dinner at the Mountain Room at Yosemite Falls Lodge. It was delicious. One of our waiters looked like Uncle Festus from the Adams Family. Really. The next day, it was time to leave Yosemite and start making our way home. We met up with the family again in the southern end of the park, at Wawona, for lunch. Here are Les and Wanda relaxing on the veranda.

Before we left, we needed to get a picture of the Queen on her throne.

It's hard to describe what this whole trip means to me. I am working on some poetry to try to express it. To see where I started my life is just incredible. What a wonderful way to enter this world, in the beauty of nature, massive mountains of granite, waterfalls everywhere you turn, the rush of biodiversity that appears down each path. To be with the people who were there at the start, to hear their stories and memories. To honor myself and feel connected to this place not just in abstract, but in reality. These were the things I hoped for as I planned this adventure. I challenged myself physically and did not collapse. I challenged myself emotionally by sharing with a family that has had its ups and downs. I challenged myself spiritually to find my roots and essence. It's always been with me, this place of glory. But I had never known it in person before. Now I have. And I feel fulfilled. I hope to return again and again. To explore deeper and further the trails and trees. To grow my mountain goat feet and not let that granite scare me. To see more waterfalls and dream of life as a drop of freefalling joy. This is awe.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The BIG 50th Birthday Adventure: Part 1, the High Sierra

For those of you who want to know all about my big adventure, read on. If you'd rather skim the photos, my feelings won't be hurt. If you couldn't care less, move on to another post.

So in case you don't follow me on Facebook, I have been planning this 50th birthday adventure most of this year. Actually, since I turned 40, but it became a reality this year. I was born in Yosemite National Park in 1962. My dad was district ranger for Yosemite Valley back then, and there was a hospital there where I was born. We moved away when I was two years old, and I've never been back. So I decided to make this my personal pilgrimage to the place of my birth and a celebration of my life.

Because part of the adventure I planned included three days of backpacking in the back country, I trained all year, doing longer and more frequent hikes in order to get ready for this physical challenge. So, here begins the adventure.

Our first day, last Sunday, Sept. 9, we left Boise and camped along the shore of Lake Tahoe. We arrived at around 10 p.m. and could hardly see what we were doing, but morning rewarded us with a beautiful view of the lake. Then we proceeded to spend two hours in a local coffee shop while David did some work. This is typical of our travels with David, which is partly the reason I chose to go to the back country--no internet.

Finally, we left Tahoe and drove to the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. Where, as you can see, the elevation is close to 10,000 feet.

So we spent our first night at Tuolomne  Meadows, the sort of base camp for all the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite. We had fun sorting our stuff into the bear boxes, where you have to keep everything that might attract a bear, even toothpaste or shampoo, not to mention food, dish washing soap, etc. Then we got our packs ready for the hike, beginning the next day. We took a short hike on a portion of the John Muir trail, which is not the trail we would be hiking on, but which David wanted to be able to say he had been on. That's me on the rocks in the Tuolomne River.

Day One: Tuolomne Meadows to Glen Aulin

So, on day one, we started out fresh: First day's hike was 5.5 miles along mostly flat-ish trail. Lots of peaks and granite in sight. We lunched along the Tuolomne River.
A huge sheet of granite demonstrated the mighty power of former glaciers, leaving a few huge boulders in its wake.

We had to scramble over so much granite that I literally began to hope for a soft dirt trail. More on that later. We had to climb up over piles of this stuff. I commented that I had not been told I needed to be part mountain goat to do this hike. Here was the top:
After this point, the trail went steadily down for about two miles. Because this is where the river started falling down the canyon, creating one fabulous waterfall after another:

So, while I was thrilled with all this waterfalling--I LOVE waterfalls--I was so tired of climbing down, down, down, usually over large rocks, trying to stay upright and balanced, and my knees getting pounded on each step. Ouch. And then, we finally arrived at camp, and saw the lovely Glen Aulin Falls.

I loved this spot. We took off our socks and boots and soaked our feet. Some more adventurous hikers got in the water all the way. Then we ate dinner with the other 26 campers. We shared our tent that night with a nice couple from Prior Lake, MN. You meet a lot of people on "the loop," the big network of trails connecting the High Sierra Camps. You can compare notes on the trails, the tough spots, and share complaints about how much your knees hurt.

Day Two: Glen Aulin to May Lake

I had heard the hike on this day was a tough one. For starters it was 8.1 miles and it gained 1,500 feet in elevation from start to finish. As we started out, I tried to be positive. Going up was at least easier on the knees, for sure. So there was that. And much of the trail meandered through forests, with soft dirt and pine needle paths. Oh, dirt, I love you. That became my refrain. Nice, smooth, flat dirt, which didn't require too much effort--just one foot in front of the other. Trees roots and large rocky paths make a trail so much more difficult to navigate. Lots.

Then, it got hard. The ground turned mostly to sheets of granite interrupted by trails of rocks, climbing in constant switchbacks up the side of the mountain. I described it as a cliff. David claimed it was not a cliff. You decide:

Here's another portion:

I have to give David credit for keeping my spirits up during this really hard part of the hike. He cracked jokes. He lied about how we were almost there. He'd say things like, "You just have to get up to that ridge. Then the lake should be there."

Well, we got to the ridge, and then had to go down. Talk about depressing! I didn't want to go down after I'd done all that work to get up! But we had a brief reprieve at this sweet, small lake before our final ascent.

I said I wanted to just stay there. Of course, at night, in the cold, with no hot food or drink didn't sound very enticing. But we rested and I got myself psyched up for the final climb. I was so exhausted at this point I felt like I was on a survivor show. I didn't care that everything ached or that I didn't think I could make it. I didn't care that at 9,400 feet I had to stop about every 20 feet and catch my breath. I just wanted to get there. So after another two hours of shuffling along climbing higher and higher, we finally arrived at May Lake, just in time to eat dinner. I didn't care how long it had taken, we made it.

May Lake was beautiful. The lake was calm and quiet. The stars were brilliant. That night we shared a tent with some folks we ate dinner with the night before at Glen Aulin. They were from the San Diego area. Here's what the camp tents look like:
Here's what they look like on the inside. There are four beds like this:
The view of the lake from our tent was awesome. We were practically on the water.

Day Three: May Lake to Tioga Road, 2.7 miles

So on my birthday, Thursday, September 13, we woke bright and early to see the sunrise on the lake. I am not an early riser by nature, so this is a rare occurrence for me. I couldn't ask for a better way to start my birthday.
That's Mt. Hoffman on the other side of the lake, at above 10,000 feet. It's the geographical center of Yosemite National Park. I chose not to hike up there.

From the May Lake Camp, you could see down to Yosemite  Valley. I wished for a nice balloon to carry me down. I was not thrilled about hiking more after the previous day's agony.

But, hike I must. This day was so easy compared to the first two days. We had to go down the whole way, which is indeed hard on the knees, but breathing at this elevation is so much easier when you are going downhill. Our pace was faster than the first two days. I almost wished I didn't have to return to civilization, and as we neared the highway, I felt the bittersweet ache of having achieved my goal and it being over.

From here we caught the shuttle back to our car and prepared for our trip down to Yosemite Valley. That's part 2.

Let me just add here that the food prepared for us by the High Sierra Camps was so wonderful. We had huge breakfasts and dinners, freshly made and delicious as anything you could ever want. At Glen Aulin we had homemade ravioli, salad, soup, bread, and even dessert. They have "hot drinks" for half and hour before the meal so you can get warmed up and have time to chat with other campers. At May Lake, we hate tomato basil soup, fresh ocean salmon, salad, bread, rice, roasted vegetables, and spice cake. The breakfasts we equally lovely with hot cereal and condiments, eggs, sausages, pancakes, and lots of hot drinks. We got a sack lunch the first day, but it was almost too much food. We had prepared plenty of our own trail food, including Cave Bread from our Jewel Cave days, so we didn't request lunches for the other two days. They certainly make sure you don't suffer from lack of fuel!