After my extended day of exertion and exposure, I decided to sleep in a bit before beginning my second day of activities in Yosemite Valley. Sleep had not come easily either night, which surprised me. I had chosen what I thought was a relatively secluded spot in site 9 with no obvious neighbors. Just beyond site 10, however, lies Northside Drive. Running alongside the Merced River, this generally one-way road funnels all park patrons towards the exit of Yosemite Valley. To my surprise, this road did not quiet down throughout the night. As massive trailers and quieter passenger vehicles rumbled by, the sound reverberated through Camp 4. With my earplugs safely tucked away in my dopp kit, which was locked up tight in my bear box, I had no protection.
When I woke up in the morning, I heard that same sporadic traffic continuing to roll past the campsite. With an admittedly groggy curiosity, I decided to devote my next day in Yosemite Valley learning about the historic and continued impact of human activity and tourism on the valley floor. In an effort to turn it into an athletic enterprise, I donned my running gear and headed for the Valley Loop Trail.
Leaving Camp 4, I bypassed much of Yosemite Village en route to Mirror Lake, hoping to catch it later in the afternoon when it would undoubtedly be the most crowded. My path ran alongside the piles of broken granite resting at the feet of the towering valley cliffs. The soft, springy trail rambled through towering groves of ponderosa pines, California black oak, and the occasional giant sequoia, all nestled among colossal slabs of granite. Occasionally, tumbling waters from the lip of the valley would converge, running across the path in a controlled ribbon of melodic serenity. What an amazing way to start the day!
My solitary wandering continued past empty campsites, low bouldering rocks, and continually bumped into the Yosemite Bike Trail. Eventually, I ended up on a road, closed to vehicle traffic, which dead-ended at Mirror Lake. In recent years, this wonderfully stagnant pool of placid water had been a dry meadow. Once again, I thanked El Niño for continuing to make my west coast experience so magical. The shimmering reflections of Tenaya Canyon, chiseled chunks of granite, and Half Dome angled beneath me as I leaned over to peer into its depths. As I focused on the mirrored reflections of rocks, trees, and cliffs, a pebble shattered the illusion. I watched the ripple cascading across my image like an apparition. Loosed from the fist of a small French girl, the pebble drew open criticism from most of the photographers in the area, chastising her parents for not paying closer attention to her. I quietly noticed that a small dose of patience eventually brought the reflections back into sharp focus.
Moving back down the trail, I wandered through Curry Village or Camp Curry, a touristy campground just below Glacier Point that David Curry established in 1899. The employees of this timeless Yosemite campground that dropped hot embers from the top of Glacier Point to create a year-round Firefall. My next stop was the massive Ahwahnee Hotel. Completed in 1927, this rustic edifice pays homage to the early years of the National Park Service. Even though the east wing was under renovation when I arrived, I could still explore the grounds and most of the public areas of the hotel. As soon as I walked past the valet, I felt immediately out of place. Even the outside of the hotel had an air of class about it that I couldn’t hope to attain while sporting purple running shorts and a sweaty (and shaggy) head of hair. That apprehension evaporated when the concierge welcomed me inside, asking me if it was my first time to the Ahwahnee. She proceeded to usher me into the Great Lounge, sharing some of its history before moving onto the next. In effect, she had transported me into an entirely different world. I now stood in a massive hall filled with burning chandeliers, ornamental rugs depicting traditional Native American designs, countless comfy couches and arm chairs, and, at each end of the room, massive granite fireplaces with a healthy fire crackling away. I can only imagine the reactions that guests in the early 1930s might have had upon entering this monumental room. It was breathtaking. I walked slowly between the display cases, ogling vintage snowshoes, old photographs, and exquisite Native American basketwork. Then, I plopped down in a couch for a few minutes. What a spot!
Alas, the Ahwahnee Hotel is no more. On March 1st, only a few days after I had left the park, the name of the Ahwahnee Hotel changed to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. For almost a century, the name “Ahwahnee” celebrated the Valley’s native ancestors: The Ahwahneechee Tribe. It would seem, however, that the history behind that name isn’t nearly as important as the potential for legal action between the hotel’s concessioners. In 2014, Delaware North lost its control of the Ahwahnee Hotel to Yosemite Hospitality LLC. That decision transferred all furniture, equipment, etc., but did not specifically state intellectual property. That loophole allowed Delaware North to retain its right to the name “Ahwahnee,” forcing Yosemite Hospitality LLC to rebrand this iconic institution of Yosemite history.
At the time, I did not know that these were some of the last days of the Ahwahnee as so many remember it, but I would find out later that night. After checking a few quick emails, I hopped back on the trail, heading in the direction of Yosemite Village, knowing that I was walking into a sticky situation. One of the major questions that I continue to grapple with on this trip is my definition of “wild” and “wilderness.” Unpacking those terms will be a lifelong pursuit, but I will definitely make a concerted effort later on to share how this trip has shaped my views, such as they are. Upon my arrival, simply driving through Yosemite Village made me realize that I would be forced to confront the demons of urbanity in the sublime wilderness of the Yosemite Valley.
Strolling towards the village, I passed by a medical center, dozens of cabins clustered alongside the main road, and even a district court! That was quite a shock. Not wanting to get caught up in any legal strife, I moved right along. I had been itching to check out the Village Store ever since I arrived, so I headed there first. At first glance, this building seems to be filled largely with touristy knickknacks, clothing, and cheap camping supplies. Venturing further into the room, however, I made a shocking discovery: a thriving section of colorful produce! Walking further around the corner, I found a full grocery store, complete with a foreign foods section, two full walls of refrigerated delicacies, a liquor section, and a passable pharmaceutical section. It was a top-notch grocery store with a shocking amount of vegan foods. I could have happily cooked all of my favorite dishes using items procured entirely from this well-curated grocery store. My wallet, however, might have protested long before my waistline did.
Still a bit dazed from the culinary options available in the Valley, I headed out the back walking towards the main visitor’s center. The revelatory experience continued as I wandered past the post office, theatre, art gallery, multiple restaurants, barbershop, and a thriving public transportation system. I had seen all of the makings of a small city in one of America’s most treasured, scenic valleys. I lingered in the visitor’s center, watching both films about the park, before returning to the Valley Loop Trail. Jogging now, I finished the loop, running under El Capitan, Sentinel Peak before returning to Camp 4.
Without much time to think, I gathered my tripod and camera back together and drove up to Tunnel View, the quintessential viewpoint that showcases Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan from the mouth of the Wawona Tunnel on Highway 41. There, I found a more relaxed group of photographers than I had the night before at the Firefall. They were all hoping for a miraculous burst of red color that would illuminate Half Dome and El Capitan just after sunset. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. The scenery can’t be beat though.
As dusk set in, I drove straight to the Ahwahnee Hotel. Who was I to pass up an opportunity to write and process pictures in front of a roaring fire! Once I had nestled into my couch, I found myself wanting to know more about Yosemite Village and the park in general. Not necessarily about its history, but about its statistics. To my astonishment, over one thousand people call Yosemite Village home. They are, of course, the rangers, maintenance workers, and service employees that allow Yosemite to function so smoothly. The park does seem to run like clockwork. The busses are always on time. The park is clean. Everyone seems so chipper! I do have the luxury of visiting in the off-season though. According to the National Park Service, 75% of the park’s visitors descend on the park between May and August. Annually, almost four million people visit Yosemite. That infrastructure of mass transit, fresh food, medical care, and accommodations has to support each one of those four million people.
Sitting there in front of the roaring fire, my mind continued to wander. Yosemite has two different faces. It has the valley floor, filled with the convenience and comfort of modern society. A community designed to usher millions of people into a wild landscape filled with steep precipices, wild animals, and countless other dangers. Those semblances of civilization might be the only things allowing certain visitors to make the trek to Yosemite, the only things making them feel somewhat at ease in an uncomfortable setting.
At the same time, all that disappears as soon as you begin climbing the steep faces of the valley or even wander the less trafficked trails. The crowds thin, while the silence thickens. Tree cover slowly obscures the amenities below, hiding them from memory. You begin to realize once more that you are exposed to nature, that your life is still in your hands. If you step out of line, no amount of civilization or medical support will be able to save you. Those quiet moments when you feel alone and one with nature are just as available once you rise above the hustle and bustle of the Village below. It is wild. It is sublime. Is the majesty of Half Dome diminished by its proximity to a United States District Court? Maybe to some, but not to me.
The beauty of the partnership between Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Village is that their symbiosis is conditional and within the control of each visitor. I can choose to immerse myself in the Ansel Adam’s Art Gallery or get my beard trimmed at Yosemite Hair Care. I can just as easily forsake the Village and flee to Glacier Point, leaving it all behind, thousands of feet below me. By the end of the night I had made my peace with Yosemite Village. I wonder, however, would John Muir be able to do the same?
More on his story tomorrow as I had towards Hetch Hetchy for the day!