Howard recommended a visit early in the day to Yosemite Valley to beat the crowds. So we working backwards from the first valley shuttle of the day of 7am, we left Mammoth Lakes in the pre-dawn darkness about 5am.
We went back through the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. Ranger Dan was still asleep and the ranger station was not manned. We continued down to the main part of the park. So that’s two days and no fee paid.
After spotting a mule deer on the way to Bodie, seeing the nearly tame variety near the Yosemite Visitor Center was a bit of a let down. They were more like a herd of pet sheep than wild animals. It seemed somehow… pathetic.
The valley is about 7.5 miles long, but only 1 mile wide on average. You could walk across it in about a quarter of an hour. But the granite domes, like Half Dome and El Capitan, can rise 3-4,000 feet above the valley floor. It gave me a surreal feeling. The sheer mass of the granite cliffs looming overhead made the valley feel a bit claustrophobic whenever the cliffs were “eye-filling” and not obscured by the trees.
The drought in California was reported to be the worst since the 1930s and its evidence was everywhere. The Yosemite Falls were dry and the Merced River (which ran down the center of the valley) was low. The only thing which looked green and healthy were the trees.
We parked at the “Day Use” lot and hopped the shuttle which is the best way to go. After hiking out to the dry and visually boring(without the water) Yosemite Falls, we headed out to several of the vistas to get a good look at Half Dome.
Now I just said the shuttle was the best way to go… but not always. Actually Howard and I talked about banning RVs and cars completely from the valley and just shuttling everyone in from some giant parking lot outside the park. Well, I digress. Riding the shuttle is a good idea. In theory.
But as Jean Paul Sartre concluded, “Hell is other people.”
The rather subdued passengers we shared the shuttle with were joined at a stop by a young man, perhaps 17 or 18, who stood at the front near the driver. He was unshaven, unkempt in attire, and generally slovenly. While most of the passengers were quiet and respectful in their conversations with each other, this lout was loud and boorish. The only portion of his conversation with the driver I recall verbatim was a terrible joke, “Why did the gum cross the road?” “Why?” the driver predictably asks. “Because it was stuck to the chicken’s foot.” He guffaws awkwardly.
“The nation of Douchebag,” I whisper to Howard, “has no borders… only ambassadors.”
We promptly hopped off a the next stop. After the last couple days of hiking and camping away from the crowds, we were shocked back to the harsh reality of the so-called “ugly American.”
So… take the shuttle, but pack your headphones.
Thankfully away from the madding crowd we were able to take in the stunning views.
After getting off the shuttle, Howard and I wandered around a bit heading in the general direction of Half Dome.
We looked at the map and the best place to get a good up close look at Half Dome(other than doing the 2 day 16 mile hike) was Mirror Lake. Everywhere we looked the views were stunning.
When we finally made it to Mirror Lake, we had two problems. First, we were on the wrong side of the lake to get a good view of Half Dome. Half Dome was obscured by the trees. Second, Mirror Lake was dry. Normally this would have damaged the picturesque quality of the area, but we were able to walk out across the gravel which was normally the bottom of the lake. There were several families on the far shore, reading the vista guide, shooting pictures, and the like.
As we crossed the dry lake, I fiddled with my camera to get it set up for the brightly lit granite. Suddenly Howard pointed toward the far “shore” of Mirror Lake, “B-b-bear!” And there it was. A black bear.
He wasn’t moving quickly, but still a little too quickly for me to change the camera settings. So I quickly snapped three images with the current settings.
The bear looked to be a juvenile, perhaps 2-4 years old, but it was tough to make a good guess as we saw him so briefly.
It was an amazing moment. We looked at each other in stunned silence. None of the people on the far shore had seen anything. The children ran about, the parents tried not to scold too harshly, and the bear just ambled off into the woods.
To recount the remainder of our day in full would be to lessen the moment. The only thing I’ll add here is what we saw on a sign on the road out of the park.
We made it back to Fresno by mid-afternoon. And although we were exhausted, sunburnt and peeling, dirty and footsore… I longed again for the remote places, those place off the beaten path where people rarely went.
I think John Muir put it best:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”