Yosemite Valley feels like it’s tucked away in its own little bubble, kept apart from the rest of the world. By this point, that’s how we felt too. It was great.
When we first arrived at Yosemite’s Upper Pines campsite, we checked in with one of the ‘hosts’, Vinnie, who had the heroic looks, white muttonchops and twinkling eyes of a perfectly-aged matinee star enjoying a late-career resurgence playing good-guy sheriffs and leading cavalry rescues at the end of classic adventure films. That was my initial impression, anyway.
He gave us an overview of the site, the rules and regulations, and dire warnings about locking away food and toiletries (and anything else that might smell funny) away in the bear-proof lockers. This point was backed up by a photo at the rangers’ entrance kiosk, of a bear that had forced its way into a family car and gotten stuck.
He also told us that snow had kept a few of the higher trails closed, including a couple we’d hoped to climb. But that wasn’t a problem – he provided us with maps and we could figure out the best alternative routes to walk along.
After rescuing our surviving food from all the melted ice in the coolbox (from the heat in Death Valley) we drained it into a former disabled toilet that had been repurposed as a general dump station and resembled The Worst Toilet In Scotland in Trainspotting.
We were exhausted. I enjoyed a fantastic night’s sleep, and did not even once feel my wife poking me in the ribs in the hopes of stopping my incessant snoring.
Tenaya Creek and Mirror Lake
The next morning was cold, with more rain due in the afternoon. We contented ourselves with a forest walk along Tenaya Creek to Mirror Lake, which began with a warning sign saying that if you saw a mountain lion, make yourself look bigger, make lots of noise, don’t run away from it, and fight it if you have to. I told my wife that if that happened, she’d have to hold my camera – I thought it would get in the way and give the lion an unfair advantage, but she thought it was so she could take pictures.
Incidentally, I was psyched up to scare off bears as well (you’re supposed to throw small stones and make noise at them), by singing Hooked On A Feeling (partly for that ‘Hooka-Chaka’ opening, and partly because my singing voice could curdle milk), or performing the Geordie haka.
The forest walk provided us with mossy boulders, detours over creeks, and plenty of familiar woodland creatures including squirrels, ducks, deer and German hikers.
We spent the afternoon hiding from the rain in the dining room at Half Dome Village, eating pizza and writing up our journal. It was a much-needed day of relaxation.
Vernal and Nevada Falls
The rain had stopped by next morning, so we were all set for a hike up the Vernal and Nevada waterfalls, 2000 feet (over 600m) above the campsite. The lower part of the trail along the Merced River is filled with ‘Oh, WOW!’ views, of a forested valley hemmed in by steep sides, with trees poking through the snowline high above, fringed by clouds lingering at the mountaintops in a vivid blue sky. It was like a scene from an epic fantasy.
No photo can convey the scale of the place, but that didn’t stop me from trying. At Vernal Fall, people lined up at the edge to record the view (which was fetchingly framed by a rainbow), including one guy who was filming everything on his cellphone, in portrait. I can only assume it was some dark and malevolent intervention that prevented me from beating him around the face, head, and neck, and then nudging him over the edge of the cliff.
All the way up, we were pestered by squirrels. Signs warn against feeding them, since they’re wild and likely to bite, scratch and give you some sort of squirrel-AIDS (I wasn’t paying full attention to those signs, but that was the gist). I started regarding them like the Killer Bunny from Monty Python And The Holy Grail. The little, scampering bastards were everywhere; didn’t they ever get tired? I was knackered.
We got to the top of the thundering Nevada Fall for an early lunch. All the rains made for quite a spectacle, as well as an interesting set of obstacle courses to be negotiated on the way back down – seeking fallen logs over streams, submerged stepping stones near drops of hundreds of feet, a stone path that passed right through a waterfall – this was not a path for anyone who cared about getting wet.
We returned to the start by 2pm. After a bit of shopping (I had earnt my beer), we had a relaxing afternoon at our campsite in the sun and trees. I said hello to our other campsite neighbours (not the antisocial ones in the titanic Ass Wagon we saw the night before). Jerry and Minda said they were quite impressed we chose to have our first meal under an awning in the cold and wet when we arrived. When I said we were from Scotland, they said “Ah, that explains it!” (Minda used to work in Scotland.)
They’re in their 70s and visit Yosemite every year from San Diego. Jerry explained that the government owned the land (hence the park rangers), but the amenities are privately owned by companies and corporations – and since none of these companies care much for continuity or history, the Ahwanhee Hotel (named after the people who originally lived here) became ‘The Majestic’, and the original tourist spot Curry Village was renamed ‘Half Dome Village’. We chatted by their campfire until long after sunset; it was all thoroughly agreeable.
The Valley Loop
We had a lie in the following morning until the birdsong and distant rumble of waterfalls was drowned out by the dawn chorus of RV generators. For our last day in the valley we decided to take it easy, and walked from Bridalveil Fall to Tunnel View for a look at the place in sunshine. Then it was across the Pohono Bridge and along the Merced river, for glimpses of mighty and imposing cliffs and crags like Catheral Rocks and El Capitan (where people set out deckchairs to watch climbers through their binoculars).
As we waited for a bus back to the campsite, we watched the rescue helicopter team practise in a nearby meadow and chatted with a group of old-timers who’d been visiting Yosemite since 1958. They said they’d never seen it ‘this bad’ – referring to the busy-ness, and all the roadworks going on, and the limits on where you were allowed to drive to (unlike the old days). I said that we’d nothing else to compare it with and were just glad to be here.
Our final afternoon was spent finishing off our campfood, washing the car and packing up, and in my case making a ceremonial Viking cremation for my oldest, favourite shirt which, after 23 years of travel, could be worn no more.
Flowers in our hair
We left Yosemite before sunrise so I could get one last photo of the valley before negotiating our way through thin, winding roads and narrow bridges first to Mariposa, and then to Sacramento.
We arrived sweaty, tired and hungry, and after the past couple of weeks quite unused to city bustle (which began with a homeless guy asking every woman he saw “Hey beautiful, I’ll letcha take ma picture f’r a san’wich!”). We found a table in a noisy, cluttered cafe that did nothing to improve my state of mind.
For a dare, I chose biscuits and gravy for brunch. To British ears, this is a bizarre combination (our gravy is typically made from meat juices and served with Sunday lunch; our biscuits are cookies in the USA, but with a wider range of styles and ingredients).
What I got was a couple of scones drowned in some sort of cheesy or creamy sauce with bits of mystery meat floating in it. The bacon that came with it wasn’t the succulent pink rashers I was hoping for, but thin strips of fat held together with lines of meat, and burned almost to carbon. It looked like a cat had thrown up on a plate left on the floor during a torrid orgy. It tasted awful. I made it through less than a quarter of it before giving up, adding queasiness to my tiredness and hunger. It was possibly the worst thing I’ve ever put into my body. NEVER AGAIN. (The last food dare I took up was in my first week at university when I was seventeen, and managed about five bites of a deep-fried pizza.)
I only mention this because it was a long, long drive to San Francisco after that (including a delighful traffic jam at the tidal wetlands west of Vallejo). Fortunately, it was sunny and clear, so we got our photos of the Golden Gate Bridge before plunging into Friday afternoon commuter traffic.
The driving style is similar to Los Angeles, but in much narrower roads. And to paraphrase Boyle’s Law: for a fixed mass of traffic, as volume of road to drive on decreases, pressure on the drivers increases. Pedestrians step onto the roads glued to their cellphones; cars pull in and out of the roadside without indicating; cyclists weave in and out wherever they see a space; parked car doors will fly open just to keep you on your toes. It was hell. Everybody drove with their horns. I’m assuming they use horns to censor what’s coming out of their mouths.
Our last stop to tank up was blocked by an eighteen-wheeler unloading at a neighbouring warehouse. I was too tired to drive around looking for another gas station, so with sheer bloody-mindedness I manoeuvred around it bit by bit to become the only customer.
It was with profound relief that I switched off the car engine one last time at Lost Campers. We’d driven just under 2000 miles across three states in nine days. We don’t drive much at home, so this meant that 1/7 of our mileage since passing our tests has been on US soil.
The woman in the office kindly phoned a cab for us, and on the way to our hotel we got to hear the driver say all the things his horn should have censored. He told us that if you can drive in San Francisco, you can drive anywhere.
To be concluded…