Monday, March 06, 2006

California Dreaming

Photo: Eventful Woman with "Half Dome" in background. Yosemite National Park, August 2004

Our first night of camping was not what we expected. We got caught by darkness and lack of vacancies in the accommodation area around Yosemite National Park. It was camping or nothing. It was Day16 on our expedition (Wednesday 18 March 1998).

Back that morning, in Squaw Valley, I opened the curtains and WOWED at the sight. Snow had fallen overnight and had piled up in the yard around Katherine’s comfy little Swiss style home. Magical!

We took another ride on the cable car. Annette and Marcus, where F1 and F2 were staying, had heard that F2 had opted out of the ride the day before. F2 was apprehensive about most new experiences, especially ones involving height. She had stayed back in the Land Rover to continue her embroidery, rather than accompany the three of us in the cable car. Annette, horrified that anyone could choose to miss out on this special experience, had found us all some free tickets and had persuaded F2 to at least try it.

Once more we sailed above the trees and the rocks, and soared high up the mountain face. TH and I stood as close to the window as possible, pressing our noses against the glass. The fresh fall of snow gleamed untouched in the early morning sunshine. F2 planted herself in the middle of the cable car, surrounded by skiers and snow boarders, and looked straight ahead.

The skiers and snowboarders let off great whoops of joy as they hurtled out at the last stop, and swished off down the fresh slopes. I wished I could join them. I had never skied, but I was sure I would have no problems trying snowboarding (yeah, right!)

Back on solid land and with one last look at the inviting slopes, we set forth, planning to be in Yosemite National Park that night.

The road ambled by Lake Tahoe and then ground its way up over Kit Carson’s Pass. These mountain ranges were not just "up and over" as they are in a narrow country like New Zealand. With a huge great North American continent to spread out in, this traverse went on forever. The road undulated up and down, cutting its passage through the snow and ice. Eventually we hit the summit at 8574 ft, more than the height of some mountains in NZ. I tried to imagine driving our Land Rover up Mt Egmont. Wouldn’t that be really something?

Although I had been quite fascinated with all the snow, even I let out a cheer when we finally crawled down the other side of the ranges and started driving through green paddocks once more.

Night caught us out when we still had at least 40 miles to travel to Yosemite National Park. There was no room anywhere until we arrived at the old gold mining town of Groveland, where we were offered a spot in the deserted campsite just out of town.

By the light of the headlamps we pitched our tents. Well, three of us did. F2 was distracted by her attempts to light her gas-operated camping lamp. She was swearing at each failed strike, getting louder and louder in the still night air. F1 calmly walked over to her, took the lamp out of her hands and threw it into the nearby bushes. Then, he just went back to pitching the tents without saying a word. I could have cheered.

We enjoyed a peaceful night. The next morning we had a quick explore of Groveland. It was such an interesting place, with many old buildings dating back to the gold mining era. We moved on, as were wanting to get into Yosemite National Park as early as possible to make the most of our day. But, I felt that I would see Groveland again.

And, 6 years later, in 2004 I did. What follows is not our adventure in the Land Rovers in 1998, but what Eventful Woman got up to in 2004:

My London based brother (R), who I don’t see very often, suggested I meet him in Northern California for a road trip, taking in a visit to Yosemite National Park. Knowing how expensive the National Park is for accommodation, I suggested we base ourselves in Groveland for a couple of days.

R and I met at San Francisco airport. With me at the wheel of our hire car, I aimed straight for the Sierra Nevada mountains, along Highway 120.

Four hours later, we had arrived and were sauntering through the western-style swing doors of the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland. Poised, gun fighter style on the threshold, I ran my eye down the long bar and into the darkened interior. This was my sort of joint.

R and I slid onto the barstools, and eyed up the shelves of booze. The barman was tall, tanned and well muscled. He summed us up with one eyebrow cocked over his blue eyes, and suggested an excellent Californian pinot noir. "He looks like a life guard", I purred, over my second glass. My brother snorted back, "Hardly likely in these parts, darling! More of a hunting, shooting, fishing sort of bloke. Anyway, he’s nearly half your age."

"Whatever", I dreamily replied.

I am still married to TH and am madly in love with him, as ever. However, a gal is still allowed to LOOK at the talent, even if she doesn’t taste it.

A slight fluttering in the ceiling finally distracted my eye. Leaning back on my barstool I saw what looked like small green bats, with their wings folded around them, high in the smoke-blackened ceiling. Further squinting confirmed they were dollar notes, which were pinned to the substantial roof planks. My bronzed barman clarified that these were contributions for the great dollar bill party, held in September. He said that anyone could contribute and return in September to help drink their way through the lucrative haul from the ceiling. This was August and I made a mental note to return one September.

I swayed dangerously back in my chair to guess how much might be up there. No doubt fearing I would teeter onto the floor, the barman provided a quick answer "Around $4000, ma’am." That was US dollars, of course, and I gazed back up with renewed appreciation.

We finished our drinks and skipped back across the road to the historic Hotel Charlotte, our bed & breakfast lodging for the next two nights. Built in 1918, it still looked a trim little place with soft blue exterior paint, cream coloured windowsills and hanging flower baskets dangling from the veranda. The beds were luxurious and topped with patchwork quilts. I smiled as I slipped between the crisp linen sheets, recalling that night six years ago, when we made camp in the dark, and slept on the cold, hard ground.

R and I loaded up on pancakes for breakfast and hit the road for the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park. After the entry gates, the road shoots downwards into the Yosemite Valley.

We stopped at one of the numerous viewing areas rather than risk slithering off the road, while gawking at the amazing view. The valley was stretched out below us, a thick green carpet of trees, while gargantuan granite outcrops thrust straight out of the ground and upwards into the over-arching blue sky.

I had the impression of mountain gods frozen in stone. Some were seated while others slept on their backs, bent knees forming the grey, solid, steep-sided cliffs looming over the valley. Many of the seated ones ended bluntly at their shoulder levels. Others had jagged or rounded "heads", mounted on their massive "shoulders".

The natural forces of weather, water, fire and ice created Yosemite’s unique landscape. Originally, the area lay under an ancient sea. The grinding of the earth’s tectonic plates against each other shoved the thick
sedimentary-layered sea bed upwards to form the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The tremendous pressure and heat in this process caused one of the plates to melt into magma, which pulsated up and then cooled underneath the sedimentary layers. Over time, glaciers, wind, water and weather have worn away the sedimentary skin of the Sierra Nevadas, exposing the granite beneath. Yosemite National Park is a preserved chunk of this land (around 300,000 hectares) comprising rolling meadows, valleys, groves of huge sequoia trees and the gaping granite cliffs which range from 5,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level.

We hopped onto one of the free, air-conditioned shuttle buses, which depart from the main car park area and visitor centre. These buses trot around a short loop road in the Valley, while the friendly driver points out scenic spots and obligingly stops for passengers to "ooh" and "aah" and to click madly with their cameras. It’s all a big advertisement to sell some of the longer coach tours. Within half an hour we were back at the visitor centre, with everyone inspired to buy tours on the open-topped trams.

Both my brother and I have inherited the fair skin of our Celtic ancestors, which, in may case, was accentuated by my fresh arrival from wintry New Zealand. The Yosemite Valley is actually quite high at an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet. Even with sun block and hat, I knew I’d be risking sunburn during a two-hour open-topped tram ride.

However, from the bus we had spotted an idyllic place by the river, to which we returned in our car. Giggling like the kids we had been, we kicked off our shoes, hiked up our shorts and waded over to a fallen tree washed up under the shade of a large sequoia. Perched on our log, we idled the rest of afternoon away, enjoying the grandeur of the mountains around us, chattering non-stop about old times, while dangling our feet in the cool water.

The Southern Sierra Miwok people call Yosemite Valley, "Ahwahnee", which loosely translates as "place of the gaping mouth". For us, this had a double meaning. The first refers to the yawning, granite precipices, but the other was more personal in that there was a lot to talk about after several years apart as brother and sister.

Later in the warm evening air, we stood together on the valley floor and gazed up at Half Dome, a huge, rounded granite formation towering above us. We were waiting for sunset, almost holding our breaths. Half Dome suddenly gleamed a rosy pink in the last rays of the dying sun. For a few gorgeous seconds, it seemed it was molten magma, once more. And then, it was in darkness, outlined against a faintly pink sky.

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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