Published: October 21st 2009October 21st 2009
ears are a species I have never encountered, and to be honest, a species I’ve always wished to experience. A bear by my car. A bear in my trashcan. A bear in the sights of my telephoto or a bear scurrying away in daylight at the trailhead. But a bear near my bed or next to my tent? I don’t care for that.
Ah yes, Yosemite National Park
. In my first twenty-five years of being human I never witnessed The Colossus despite living a mere five hours south. It was always one of those undesired, over-populated RV hog-towns where my family imagined last. We never rented the Cruisin’ America boxes. We never bought the Coleman stovetop with double burners. Instead, we piled into our old teal ’93 Ford Explorer with stained cotton seats and ventured to campsites, cabins and destinations far off-radar; places like Joshua Tree, Mammoth Lakes and Loreto south of the border. We carried, and found, few amenities—a toilet with paper, a campfire ring if lucky—and simply observed the stars above our sleeping bags after journeying to the General Store for stashes of marshmallows, Hershey’s chocolate and Graham Crackers.
Then alas I reached the age of
twenty-five. Friends were flabbergasted.
“You’ve never been?” they asked.
“Been where?” I was dumbfounded.
“To Yosemite, you douche!”
“Nah man. Too crowded.”
“But it’s Yosemite. There is no too crowded
. It is the
I heard enough. It was time. Twenty-five years ancient and it was now my destiny, within the year, to visit the Valley of personal recriminations. But I had a plan. I needed to make it my
Yosemite. I yearned to ditch the crowds.
So what do you do? Of course you travel off-season. But not only that; you choose a weekend after a major holiday. And you choose a location less populated. Thus my equation: Late summer, the weekend after Labor Day, up and out of the Valley along Tioga Pass. This was my Yosemite, bears and all. I
pulled into the park’s boundary via backroads. The drive was long and miasmically tongue-tied with twists, turns and hairpins. Traveling along Highway 49 from Sacramento, I rolled through rural, vast, woody landscapes. I surpassed minuscule towns and discreet hideaways with names like Rawhide and Angels Camp; places I wished to stop
and wander into the country-style diner to locations I didn’t bother moving a cheek muscle in fear of upheaval. So I kept moving.
Hours later, enter Yosemite at Big Oak Flat Entrance of Highway 120. Pay the $20 fee per private car. Then continue. Cruising into the park, my excitement escalated. Finally! Yosemite Valley!
There was a fork in the road. To the right led into the heart of the valley with spas, resorts
, Yosemite Village and RV mayhem. To the left—Tioga Pass.
I spun the wheel and veered northward onto Tioga Road and into the Sierra Nevada.
Now, when choosing a Yosemite campsite, you have three choices. Depending on how you look at it there are 5 stars, 3 stars and 1 star. For most, 5 is luxury with tap water, electricity, RV setup, maybe even a restaurant. 3 stars get you a comfy john with a nearby dump station. 1 is the bare minimum: a toilet seat and campfire ring with a neighboring bear-can.
I thought of the rating system in reverse and chose my 5 star with john, fire and bears. That’s $10 per night compared to a hefty $20.
Pulling into Porcupine Flats
without a reservation, I drove as far back into the site as possible, reaching the outer-limits furthest from the roadway. At site 44 out of 52, I park, strolled to the entrance, and paid my dues with exact change. Then, the setup.
Looking around was wilderness, exquisite unreserved wilderness. Vast trees, verdant glens and a twittering brook with shy cutthroat trout dashing my shadows. I heard nothing but the canopy’s breezes, clusters of whistling wrens and a chirping chipmunk. I was in Yosemite, my own, camping in the wild. Y
osemite is host to an eclectic array of possibilities. It is often overwhelming to decide where to go, which sites to see, or how many trailheads to jump onto in one stay. Therefore, you don’t do it all. For a three-night stay you want flavor, a taste, a sampling to return home with and say, “See losers, I was in Yosemite and I got to slide down the Falls bareback.”
In actuality, don’t do that. Instead of the 2,420 foot drop-off, now that you’re out of the crowds and nestled along Tioga Road with complete wilderness between toes and fingertips,
you simply pick and choose and begin exploring.
Across from Porcupine Flats was a bushy trail. I took to its dirt path and wandered through hemlock, spruce and fir into a heavily wooded valley. There was another brook filled with three-inch trout picking off a fresh hatch of midgets. I stood and watched, observing the forest, inhaling the woods and their life, listening to the cracking branches. I cocked my head left. Creeping like a soft-footed horse on thin ice were two young bucks nearly ten yards away. They remained unaware of my presence and continued grazing. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. A half hour ticked and they eventually disappeared. All the while I absorbed nature. She breathed me as I breathed her. Little else was significant. R
ising next morning after a chilly night, I prepared the basics. When camping, it’s always good to go back to simplicity like an astonished simpleton. Sure, a grill of fresh lemon-dill salmon with organic sautéed asparagus is a tasty dinner, but you entirely miss the point. Go camping, backpacking, traveling overseas to an exotic culture not to haul home and office in toe, but to leave clutter behind for the new
experience, a new encounter apart from routine. It was a breakfast of plain instant oatmeal and hot green tea… well… this is the usual in my books, but I did forget the honey, granola and peanut butter.
A full day underneath 75-degree sun. Perfection for Yosemite. Securing my site with food stashed in bear-box, tent tidied and zipped, I loaded into the car and drove to the nearby Porcupine Creek trailhead
. My plan was to hike to the rim of the Valley then move southward to Upper Yosemite Falls. I packed water, fuel and camera with an extra layer for warmth, along with my trusted windbreaker.
The day was young, my feet were alive, legs strong and lungs full of blue sky. I came to North Dome and followed the cairns, or pyramidal stacks of stone, to the summit. A viewpoint of the entire valley below. In a northeastern direction was Half Dome with Mono Pass in the distance. Down below was Merced Lake feeding into the Valley. Roofs of shelters, buildings and four walls looked like strips of paper while Micro-Machines shuttled back and forth along asphalted ant trails. No noise. Not a sound but
the howling of a conch shell as the wind passed over my ear canals.
I continued onward, south across a forested valley and up onto the cliffs. Helicopters thundered overhead. They were closer than expected as I observed their dangling lines of 200 feet, which hauled large drums of lake water back and forth between fires. Over the last couple of summers, Yosemite has been scarred by wildfires whipped by heat, lightning and wind. All along the roadways are black fringes of death. Fields of tree stumps appear like mass graveyards of fallen arbors, decapitated and left to bake in the elements. In a controlled effort, firefighters now conduct supervised floor fires to burn away excessive brush, pine needles and debris. Naturally, an ecosystem allows this to happen, losing the lives of unlucky creatures in Mother Earth’s Darwin Awards, but now with the overabundant presence of Homo sapiens
whom possess the need to control all procedures, scientists recognize this natural process. Therefore, a large contingent of forest service men and women continuously burn the woods to help clean the floor and activate the germination of various seeds.
But this fire was close. I could smell it. I could see the remnants of smoke lingering among trunks. There were no hikers; only the echo of the copter’s blades, wily chipmunks squealing Morse code and a lone fawn sipping from a dry creek. Crows, scrub jays and a large falcon drifted between the limbs, keeping a guardian’s eye on surrounding movement.
Eventually I came to a crest jetting out over the Valley. At its edge, I perched on a round bulbous outcropping eroded from eons of weather. My feet were now as hard as stone, with legs jellified and lungs wispy. Already, my internal odometer registered eight miles one-way. As all mountaineers express; the easiest part of a summit is the ascent. Therefore, judging my body’s state of fatigue, I guzzled the remaining water, tossed the leftover sunflower seeds down my throat, and retraced the steps. Over the crest, through the smoky valley, up North Dome and back passed Indian Rock. Shortly, more or less after nine hours from my departure, I returned to the car, dragging what was left of me. Damn, I was diggin’ Yosemite. A
ll things stopped. My heart. My breath. The crickets and night noises. All I could hear through pulsing eardrums and beaming eyeballs were howls, shouts, screams and loud disturbances. This was my second night, and my second time I woke in the midst of the darkness to such eerie cries. They were not wild animals or rabid creatures. No, these were rabid humans and they were shrieking. And no, it was not a pagan ritual or a shrooming psychedelic reverie. Unfortunately it was nothing foreign.
Remembered upon arrival was a sign. It was posted on the bear-can and I read it meticulously. It stated an implicit need: Pack away all food inside this metal container. DO NOT leave in car. DO NOT leave in tent or stuffed into sleeping bag, pillow, socks. DO NOT leave hotdogs astray. And DO NOT approach, tease or hug bears. Their name is NOT Smoky
After careful scrutiny, I nodded and continued unpacking. I could see myself hugging a bear. I somewhat had the urge… then. But now, as night surrounded my body and shadows filled my imaginative mind, I was prepared to heed to all wilderness instructions: Grab pots and pans, clash together, make noise… as much as possible.
This was the noise ringing throughout Porcupine Flats. It was from my fellow campers, clanging cooking gear and ululating to their throats’ content, and the noise neared my private perimeters.
From campsite to campsite I pictured the bear wandering, sloughing through gear, trash, crisp firewood and the inevitable tent/sleeping bag/human cadaver. I was next. I could feel it in each pore as hairs rose to salute the destined finish of twenty-five year young Cameron Karsten. I knew I should never have come.
The night before I froze still, statuesque, naked and buried in down. But tonight I wasn’t standing it. Bareback like a scrubby caveman, I unzipped one, unzipped two and emerged in the night. Suddenly, all cracks, crows and clashes ceased. It was like a moonless night at the edge of some placid lake. Stars burning carcinogenic gases light years away while antimatter buzzed inaudibly. But it was Yosemite high on Tioga Pass. The end of summer and large 4-wheeling brown beasts sought to fatten their bellies for winter’s hibernation. Damn, I was fucked.
Quickly, shivering from cold and fright, I tiptoed to the bear-box, opened it with screech and thud, and removed two MSR pots
and my Crocodile Dundee knife. Then, like a mouse with cheese, I plotted back into my nylon bomb-shelter and waited. People howled and yelped. Someone cried bear!
as if nobody could figure that out by now. Good Samaritan. I
slept little for the second consecutive night. Rising, scratching my eyeballs, stretching and discovering complete body parts, I pinched, rubbed and recognized all of me. I survived the bears.
Cooking, grubbing and warming belly, I hopped in the car and disappeared down road. Today was Tuolumne Grove
; a distinct collection of Giant Sequoias. Now these are the bears of the arbors, or more like the Sasquatches. As the world’s tallest tree, the Giant Sequoia is beyond comprehension. They can weigh up to six tons, which appears more like six megatons when observing the girth of their trunk.
An asphalted pathway leads you steeply down the hillside to the first Sequoia. Gawking rudely with mouth agape, I pictured a T-rex scratching its back on the bark, much like a dog, or that infamous bear. Pinecones littered the base and were sized like jackfruits, spikes and all. I stood behind the fence and tweaked my neck until it ached to catch sight of the canopy, but I could not. Then I waited, waited for one of those bomb cones to fall so I could hear its explosion.
The trail is set up as a guided tour with signboards strategically placed in the right locales at the right time with the right tidy information. Strolling between Sasquatch shadows, you gain valuable knowledge and read facts about how the English once stripped the bark off an entire Sequoia, shipping it eastward to later reassemble it back in the UK as a marvel of the New World. I wandered how it would feel if aliens stripped our skin for show and tell. Obviously, that tree did not survive, and instead rested as a mummy in front of me, severed at the trunk with a giant hole through its core. Here, early 1900s pioneers once drove cars through it. Good Samaritans. N
ight was falling. I no longer obtained the wishful thought of a pleasant bear encounter. To be honest, I just wanted to sleep soundly through the night. At a crux, discovering my own fork in the road with wilderness one direction and urbanity the other, I needed to make a decision.
So I flicked on the headlights and pulled away. My gear was packed. My pots, pans and Croc knife were stored in the back of the car. And the bear-can was empty. Leaving Yosemite felt as liberating as it felt upon arrival. I came and I went, until another day with another Colossus equation. Resources:
Yosemite is open year-round and can be accessed via all five entrance points only during summer season. Winter closes Tioga Pass due to heavy snowfall, leaving only the Valley open to visitors.
Arriving at the gate, you will $20 per private car and receive a map and a newsletter with useful information about Yosemite Village, available workshops, and specialized guided tours. If your stay is intended to be about the family-postcard visit, stay within the Valley. There are more resources and options catering to all needs. Accommodation needs may be found here: www.yosemitepark.com/Accommodations.aspx
If you’re looking for the remote wilderness with little human traffic, choose one of the campsites along Tioga Pass, preferably nearest the Tioga Pass Entrance. 5 star camping includes toilets, tap water, RV amenities and more at $20 per night. 3 star camping includes toilets and tap water at $14 per night. 1 star camping includes basic toilet amenities, fire pit and bear-can at $10 per night. Be sure to bring exact change for payment, as each site has a self-pay kiosk. The more expensive/popular campsites require reservations before arrival. For more info and a list of campsites, visit the campsite directory: www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/campground.htm
When hiking the network of trails (url=http://www.yosemitehikes.com/]www.yosemitehikes.com[/url]), be prepared for the unexpected. Extra layers, food and water are essential. If you are overnight backpacking, a backcountry permit is required and can be obtained at a Ranger’s office. Gas and groceries are available within Yosemite at select locations, but come prepared before entering the park. Prices skyrocket once inside.
Visit www.nps.gov/Yose/index.htm for a complete overview of Yosemite National Park with updated information, including weather and wildfire warnings. Two out of the three 1 star ($10/night) campsites were closed upon my arrival, which caused me to reorganize my plans unexpectedly. The website has detailed maps and information regarding your stay in Yosemite.