Suitably stunned by the scenery, yet utterly unprepared for the cold (Yosemite NP, California, USA)

Published: May 4th 2010
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(Day 756 on the road)My good old French friend Suzanne ("I want it to be top-e notch-e"), who had visited me in New Zealand just a month ago, was worried that Yosemite would be more of the same for me, as I had seen so much nature and so many mountains over the last few months in NZ. But she needn't have worried: Yosemite is an absolutely stunning piece of nature, and even though Suzanne has been there a few times over the last few years (I had been here once when I was 14 but couldn't remember a thing), we were both stunned by the varied scenery.

A short flight had taken me from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Suzanne's adopted home town. At Los Angeles airport I had been more than a little annoyed when American Airlines tried to charge me $25 to have my bag checked in, a fact that they conveniently forgot to mention when I booked the ticket And with all the restrictions these days what you can and cannot take on board (the ridiculous 100ml restrictions for liquid), taking my backpack as carry-on luggage wasn't an option either. In the end I argued that I was technically just stopping over in San Francisco - as I am on my way down to Mexico soon - and somehow that worked and I didn't have to pay (since they don't charge for international flights and transits).

A little off-topic, but I recently watched a documentary about these liquid restrictions on planes: A guy constructed a bomb with liquids that are freely available for purchase, and using these in quantities allowed by the airlines his bomb caused a massive explosion, definitely enough to crash a plane. So much for the sensible rules imposed on travellers ("Your safety is our concern"); it rather seems that governments are trying to appear to do something to put the public at ease, even if the imposed rules are completely ineffective. But let me not get carried away here.

After a night spent in San Francisco, Suzanne and I were off the next morning towards Yosemite, a four hour drive due east. Approaching Yosemite, and coming from sunny San Francisco, we didn't take the "Snow chains required" warning signs along the road serious (as you do), so when a park ranger told us that the road ahead was closed due to snow and ice we were more than a little surprised. Then we saw cars driving towards us that were just covered in thick snow, and we knew we should have done some research about the weather conditions.

But not to be disheartened, we set off on an amazing walk to the Lewis Falls (a winter wonderland stroll, with snow everywhere), where we soon found out that we were both utterly unprepared for sub-zero temperatures - it was absolutely freezing. So before long we checked into a cosy but severely overpriced bed and breakfast, utilising the electric heater to the fullest.

The next morning, the weather had much improved, but after an hour drive into the park yet another ranger told us that we couldn't drive any further without snow chains. It was absolutely ridiculous - the road was clear, it was close to 15 degrees (Celsius that is), and the sun was shining. I grew up in a fairly mountainous part of central western Germany with heavy snow every winter and spent a lot of my winter holidays in Switzerland, Austria and France, but I have never ever seen that a road was actually closed because there was some snow or that they wouldn't allow you to drive without snow chains.

This brings me to something that I have a real problem with here in the US: The culture of constantly being told what to do. I have mentioned this nanny-approach briefly before, but I feel it deserves a closer look: Roads that are shut because of a little bit of snow, gullies in the street that say "No dumping", the bus that constantly tells you to hold on as "sudden stops are sometimes necessary", and generally lots and lots of "Don't do this" or "Don't do that" signs everywhere.

My personal favourite was one on a four-metre tall bridge spanning a rocky river bed with maybe 30 centimetres of water in it that said "Diving and jumping from the bridge prohibited". Thanks, I really might have been tempted otherwise!

Unless I am missing an argument, I think there are only three possibilities why there are so many signs stating the obvious: 1) People and tourists here in the US are extremely dumb and lack any degree of common sense. 2) The government and companies think that people and tourists here in the US are extremely dumb and lack any degree of common sense. 3) The government and companies are scared out of their wits regarding liability lawsuits.

I really hope it is number three. Assuming that it is, this then begs another question: If one bridge has a sign "No jumping", and the next one doesn't, is it OK then to jump from that bridge and hold the National Park liable for your broken legs? Or since only some of the gullies in San Francisco have the "No dumping" signs, would it be acceptable to dump my chemical waste into a gully without a sign? How far do you have to go to state the obvious? This might be a ridiculous example, but since I haven't seen any signs "No hitting your head on the asphalt", could I sue the city of SF because they didn't tell me I shouldn't do that?

Even without stating all the rules and laws, they are still applicable, so what exactly is the point? If the legal system of the US allows you to sue, let's say, McDonald's, to state a widely-known example, because you are stupid enough to burn your lips on the hot coffee that you ordered, there will surely always be a way to something similar, no matter how many stupid and annoying signs you put up.

But back to Yosemite, before I keep rumbling on here forever. As mentioned above, the national park is absolutely stunning, and the variety of terrain makes it a haven for families and outdoorsy people alike. If only I had more time and all my hiking gear, I could really spend some time here!

Every peak in the park seems to be a perfect backdrop for the photographer in me, and I think I managed to get a few decent shots over the course of the two days that we spent in Yosemite. Unfortunately however, a Dutch woman broke my camera whilst she was attempting to take a picture of Suzanne and me - she walked backwards, tripped over a rock and the camera fell and broke. And feeling sorry for her and not wanting a confrontation, I just let her walk away. Great! Luckily Suzanne had her camera, else we would have almost no pictures of this amazing place.

Whilst we stopped at all the main tourist points (Bridalveil Fall, Tunnel View, Mirror Lake, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome etc) and even spotted a bear near Yosemite Village, our favourite part of it all was the hike up the Mist Trail, which, incidentally, gave us a good soaking as it goes right through the fall's mist. The path leads to the top of Vernal Fall, where we stood right at the edge of the 97 metre high water fall and watched the roaring water drop into the steep and narrow valley below. Wow!

And yes, in case you wondered, there are signs up there right at the edge of the waterfall, on the tall fence blocking the whole area off, saying "No swimming". Why wasn't I surprised?

On the drive back to San Francisco, we very narrowly avoided a head-on collision with another car that had completely ignored our right of way, turning into a side street even though it saw us coming from miles away on the straight road. Only a full-blown emergency stop and a hard steer to the left avoided the collision, which would have surly had serious consequences. The other car simply drove on and didn't even bother to stop.

This incident prompted me to have a look at fatal road accidents, comparing the US with a speed limit of less than 100 kph to Germany, which notoriously has no speed limit. Turns out, the US has a death rate of 15 per 100.000 people, whereas Germany has a rate of only 9 per 100.000 (2002 data, the latest comparable available). I must say after observing how crazy some people drive here (speeding in really heavy traffic, most people changing lanes without using their indicators, etc), I am not too surprised.

Next stop: San Francisco (California, USA).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


4th May 2010

The Nanny State
I've been especially intrigued by your observations of the "nanny state" here in the U.S. Those sentiments often crop up in debates between the political parties, but I've got to be honest - it's never really bothered me (or I've never really noticed it as unusual. Probably both). Perhaps its because the signs are never actually restrict what I could or would do anyhow, because as you've mentioned, a lot of them are good, common sense. But if I were to hypothesize on their prevalence (without any actual study, mind you, and with a lot of pure opinion) I would think the rationale is a combination of factors: 1) With an "I can do whatever I want" attitude comes folks who do lack a lot of common sense, so the signs actual serve a purpose. By and large Americans feel, rightly or wrongly, as though they are completely independent and autonomous. I can guarantee you there are people out there who would jump off an adjacently un-marked bridge, and when something harmful befalls them claim, "Well there wasn't anything that told me I couldn't do it!" There was a big controversy in NYC recently about some 'fake' metro signs put up in the subway telling people things like "Don't clip your toenails on the train" and reactions were split. Some people thought "How dare you tell me how I can or cannot do!" and the other half thought "Yeah, but that behavior is rude and impolite, so ....." The fact that we NEED signs to tell people how to behave in public says a lot more about the people, than the government. 2) It has become rather common for parental responsibility (and the socializing of youth) to take place in public schools and becomes the responsibility of teachers/authoritative figures that aren't family. So allowing the government to dictate what can/cannot be done on public land doesn't seem much of a stretch. 3) Frivolous lawsuits, like you said. If you put up a sign, you are "doing something" to prevent it. Plus I have seen some VERY stupid tourists (from all over the world, U.S included) in national parks. Remember, for every sign you see, there was someone who hurt themselves doing exactly what it tells you not to do. The signs in Yellowstone NP are by far the best at illustrating stupid tourist behavior. One of my favorite signs can be found close to my neighborhood growing up - I've always wondered what purpose it served. "No illegal drag-racing allowed between 10pm and 6am" Really? So at 8am it's completely okay to "illegally" drag race? Good to know! Happy travels! - Stephanie
4th May 2010

Tort system
Ben, glad to hear you enjoyed Yosemite. It's a beautiful park, and although it sounds like it was pretty cold up there, it's nice to go when it's not too crowded, so there's some upside to the temperatures and the silliness with the driving restrictions. The constant warnings for the obvious you see in the US are related to our ridiculous tort system - where you can sue anyone with money for just about anything. There was a guy that had his pants lost by a cleaners one day, and ended up suing the cleaners for over a million USD. The case eventually got thrown out, but not before the defendants had to spend their life savings defending themselves from the ridiculous law suit. The result? All the cleaners nearby probably ended up putting up signs stating the obvious that they are not responsible for lost clothing! As you point out, however, you can't state everything obvious - so you tend to see them where someone got burned once before (i.e. some idiot jumped into the water where they shouldn't have, and the govt. had to spend lots of money on rescue, so they decide to put up a sign on that one spot). Or you might see a warning where it might look obvious now, but would be extremely important at another time (i.e. June/July when all the melt water starts pouring through those creeks, you may be at risk of being swept away). In any case, it's all adds up to a pretty lame way of having to deal with legal liability...and the 'nanny' mentality definitely contributes to a dumber general public. For example, in the US, most ski resorts take pains to rope off/signage/warn/etc. anything of potential danger on the ski slopes. The result is that most skiers don't really pay much attention and ski like lemmings: "there's no warning sign so it must be safe". That also means really important signs are ignored since there's so much noise. Elsewhere in the world, there's very little signage - you need to pay attention to what you're doing and proceed accordingly. I would much rather prefer this approach, but in the US, that would simply result in the ski resorts getting sued out of existence.
4th May 2010

Yes, we do have a nanny state of some sort. Take, for instance, lifeguards at the beach who tell you where and when you can swim. I would be willing to bet that beaches without lifeguards probably have less stupid people doing stupid things. That said, our tort system has some beneficial aspects. I can be assured that my doctor is afraid of hurting me somehow due to liability concerns. For the handicapped, companies will accomodate them due to fear of an ADA lawsuit. Is that the way things work in a perfect world? No. But, hey, maybe those signs and closures saved someone's life. Now, maybe that person deserved to die in a model of Darwinian selection and not pass on there stupid genes. Who am I to say? Just some anonymous blog commenter.
4th May 2010

I can imagine that a person could happily spend a couple of weeks in this place if he had the time and your photographs are really amazing. I've never been to the states so I find your observations interesting, however as a law student I do have an understanding of Common Law. As far as am aware you can't sue for an injury caused by your own stupidity or incompetence, the McDonald case varies because I believe it was argued that the Coffee was too hot for human consumption, but how burning your lip entitles you to half a million dollars I don't know :D
5th May 2010

go go Ben
like to read all your news and comments , keep the spirit free , enjoy your days on the road bro ! patrick

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