Some days you feel like a little kid. You get to play. You laugh a lot. You wonder at the world.
Our second day in Yosemite was like this.
We awakened refreshed and peeked out the curtain to see just what we’d hoped for: blue sky. We feasted at breakfast – isn’t that why you stay at a Bed and Breakfast? – and were out the door before nine. We had so much more to see!
We had decided to drive through the nearby town of Mariposa (Spanish for ‘butterfly’), and up into the park via a different entrance. The drive was even more spectacular than the day before, and we coupled it with a Bill Bryson audio book to keep us company. His take on the world is hilarious. Between laughs I looked out at the ever deepening blue of the sky, and I just knew this was going to be a good day.
There was a little bit of excitement on the drive, when we had to detour around a giant rockslide that had buried about 300 meters of the road. The detour meant crossing the river on a single lane bridge, and then repeating this process when we were passed the rockslide. I made a mental note to pay more attention to those signs. “Rock Slide Area,” they say. Until that detour, I would get a mental image of rounding a bend and seeing little rocks sliding down a playground slide. “Weeeee,” they would cry as they launched off the end. No, this was serious business, and we both wondered aloud if anyone had been caught under it.
A few miles out of the park we pulled over for our first photo opportunity. We had a great view back down the valley we’d just driven, and the river was doing battle with the giant boulders stemming its flow. Impressive. We climbed a big, round, wet rock and looked up and down the valley. We didn’t know then to save our exclamations for the really cool stuff we had yet to see, but we both took in the fresh air and rocky view.
Then we had to get back down the big, round, wet rock. “You just have to trust your shoes,” said Ben, helpfully. “See?” He demonstrated a little flat-footed shuffle down the VERY STEEP, ROUND, WET rock. I looked down at my trainers, wanting to trust them, but not. When Ben turned around to see how I was doing, and saw I was in the same spot with a look of apprehension plastered on my face, he came back for me (good boyfriend!), taking my hand and encouraging my own little shuffle. It worked. I made it. I am still alive!
“How good are my shoes?!” I asked as though I had done it myself. I made a mental note that I had used my ‘Damsel in Distress’ card for the day, and I would have to get myself out of any further pickles.
We drove a few miles on and into the southeast entrance. This was when the ‘very cool’ stuff started to appear. We actually had to drive through a rock! I should say that the rock had a giant hole blasted out of it, but it was still a rock and we drove through it.
This part of the park was even more beautiful than what I had seen the day before. Because we were entering the valley floor, the road only climbed a few hundred feet, rather than the few thousand we had accomplished the day before. This pleased us both, because Ben had a head cold and the change in altitude had played havoc the day before, causing him great pain on descent. The other advantage of this route was that things got really pretty, pretty quickly, except for the roadworks.
We ignored the roadworks. We would come to consider them ubiquitous in days to come, as after we had spotted the first lot, we realised they were EVERYWHERE. This was the only disadvantage (and in the scheme of things, it is a small hiccup) of travelling during the shoulder season. “It’s October 1st! Quick! We gotta get these roads perfect before the ski season! Hustle!!” Lake Tahoe, we would discover, was far worse (and there is only one road all the way around – when they close a section and say ‘Go Back’, they mean drive 3/4 around the lake instead of 1/4 – nice!).
Disregarding the smell of asphalt, we climbed from the car to begin our playdate with nature. The river bed was down a small slope, and when we stood on the sandy bank, we could see promises of views to come: cliff faces played peekaboo with us behind the tree line. We could only smell good things down there, away from the road, like river water, and damp earth, and things that lived. The air was a little chilly, but we were the only ones there so we took a few minutes to enjoy it and take some photos.
At the most awe-inspiring photo opportunity yet we learned that the valley floor is essentially flat. Apparently this has to do with the glacier and ancient lakes and sediment, and other scientific stuff. At the risk of sounding a bit dim, I am only slightly interested in that – too many reminders of ninth grade science, which was taught by the dreadfully dull, Mr Lullfitz (He lulled us into fits of boredom – get it?) Back in the valley, I was more interested in the enormous and imposing El Capitan.
Wow. I could not stop looking. It is grand and handsome and I reacted in a similar way when I saw The Coliseum. Just ‘Wow’. It is about 1900feet from the peak to the valley floor and it is a sheer cliff face. People climb it, but it requires sleeping in a sling attached to the cliff face. Um, no thanks! We stopped a few times to see it from different angles, and it became even more imposing. El Capitan dominated the natural skyline, and like Giant Grizzly was in Mariposa Grove, was clearly the patriarch of the Yosemite Valley.
BIKES! We wanted to hire bikes, so we drove to the heart of Yosemite Village, and parked up. The bike hire place was well equipped with many to choose from – all red – and all upright, single gear, back-pedal to brake bikes. Splendid! We suited up in always fetching bike helmets and with slight wobbles, rode through the car park to the nearest bike path. Fortunately, riding a bike is like, well, riding a bike, and within minutes we had the hang of the primitive beasts.
The park has 9 miles of paths for bikes, and they meander along the valley floor through forests, alongside river beds, and over bridges. We stopped intermittently to view the vistas, hike a trail, and even to visit the Ansel Adams gallery. ‘Gallery’ is probably a generous description of what is essentially a gift shop, but the work of Adams and other landscape photographers was incredible, capturing Yosemite in every season, and at all times of the day.
It would be great to go back and see it under snow, or in the bloom of Spring. As it was, the marks of Autumn were everywhere, green giving way to gold and burnt orange. The autumnal changing of the trees is something I haven’t experienced much living in Sydney. But even Ben, who grew up with four distinct seasons each year, commented frequently about how beautiful the leaves and fields were. The colours!
Once passed the gallery, and out of the hub of Yosemite Village, the bike paths opened up, and so did we. We rode with abandon, giddy like kids, in the awkward positions required by the primitive bikes. To get any purchase on the pedals we either had to bend like a ‘C’ over the handle bars, or sit bolt upright, and lean back a little. We laughed at ourselves, but mostly, it just felt good to feel the sun on our skin, the wind rushing passed us, and the muscles working to move us forward.
We took a detour to see Mirror Lake. We had to park the bikes at the bottom of a (mild) hill, because the hire bikes were not allowed any further, and walked the rest of the way. “We’re biking and hiking.” I offered. Ben countered with, “We’re bikers who hike, and hikers who bike.” Oh yeah, we were hard core adventurers. We strutted ahead of a family, young children tugging reluctantly on their parents’ hands as they were pulled up the hill.
Three guys walked towards us, carrying backpacks and camping equipment. They had obviously not showered for a few days, and were a little battered and bruised, but had huge grins on their faces as they talked loudly amongst themselves in a Germanic language. I looked down at my nice, neat ‘sporty’ ensemble. I didn’t even have any dirty smudges yet. So hardcore!
We got to where Mirror Lake should have been, and looked around at other disappointed faces – some of which were red from the exertion of cycling up the hill. We took a little trail, hoping that just on the other side of that huge boulder there would be SOME water. Nope. But there was a fallen log in the sun, and while Ben went for a wander into the dry lake, I sat and snacked on nuts and berries (well, Craisins). Ben returned, camera at the ready, just in time to capture my bonding moments with a little squirrel.
“Hey, Lady, you got any food?” the squirrel boldly asked as he sniffed the air, and me. He jumped up on the log, one paw holding the pine nut he was nibbling, and one paw scratching his rump. If he’s broken out a little can of beer, I would not have been surprised. Now, I have read those signs. I know that you NEVER feed the wildlife. I looked at my bag of raw almonds. Surely, a raw almond would not kill a squirrel. I thought of the monkey in the Perth zoo, who on a field trip in 10th grade, stole my pencil and ate it right in front of me. I had nightmares for weeks about that poor monkey dying from lead poisoning. No news articles appeared in the subsequent weeks, so I had to believe that he had lived.
An almond was definitely closer to the natural diet of a squirrel than a pencil was to that of a monkey. I put the almond about a foot from my body, and the sassy squirrel collected it, stuffed it in his mouth and looked at me expectantly.
What had I expected? Of course he would ask for more. I had to accept that he was smarter than me about these things. I held out another almond. This time he plucked it from my hand, and shoved it into his mouth. I watched as his little cheeks filled up. As someone who lived with the junior high moniker ‘Chipmunk Cheeks’, I started to feel a kinship with this little guy. When it was clear to him that no more almonds would be forthcoming, he popped an almond out of his cheek, and proceeded to peel it with his teeth. Who knew that the skin of an almond was so offensive?
He peeled it as a human bites the kernels from a corn cob. Then he spat out the skin, and took big bites until it was gone. He repeated this with the second almond. I was mesmerised. I had never seen this before, and I have to say that it is far more satisfying to watch than a monkey eating a pencil.
We moved on.
We were pretty much just following signs and playing our day by ear, so we headed towards the lookout for Vernal Falls. We could park and hike as we’d done before, and were keen to see a waterfall, even if it would only be a trickle. The hike along the riverbed sounded promising; we could hear water rushing. We stopped to take a shot of us amongst it all – my favourite shot of the trip – but we didn’t know then that maps are deceptive, and we still had a long way to go – up!
We started on the path to the lookout to Vernal Falls – not even to Vernal Falls itself. It got steep quickly, and it stayed steep – for nearly a mile. We approached it like hardcore adventurers would – with gusto. Neither of us wanted to admit that it was tough, until I slowed a bit. “My calves are on fire,” I confessed. “Really? This isn’t tough for me at all!” replied my boyfriend. He was kidding. It was a strenuous 35% climb, but it was unspoken that we would finish it.
Finally we rounded a bend, and there it was, a decline! Not only did the path dip down towards the bridge from which we would see Vernal Falls, the tree canopy thickened, and we emerged into an oasis. There were dozens of people milling about. This was where (actual) hardcore hikers started their trek to Vernal Falls, which we could see in the distance, trickling down a cliff face.
“Don’t read this,” said Ben covering a giant sign warning against the perils of feeding the wildlife. I thought back to the monkey again, and imagined the fresh headline, “Stupid Australian kills rare Californian squirrel”. I laughed it off.
We took photos, had a snack, and headed back along the track to our bikes. A mile feels a lot shorter when you’re going downhill. On the way down we passed an endless stream of pink-faced people, some of whom were twice my age. We encouraged the few who were close to their destination, and pitied those further down the trail.
When we hit flat ground the couple ahead of us stopped dead in their tracks. Something had run across the path in front of them, and they were watching it. We moved up closer, observing the immediate silence. At first I thought it was a raccoon, but no, it was a bobcat. About one and a half times the size of a house cat, it was stalking something further into the forest. It was aware of us though, as it threw a look back over its shoulder and stared at the four of us. We didn’t move. It’s face was marked like a Tabby cat, but its eyes were far more intense, and its fur fanned out around his face like a mane. He went back to his prey, and skulked away into the forest. We walked on.
Back on our bikes, we rode the long stretch back towards where we’d started. Photo ops abounded, as we flew through dark forest paths and into the bright sunlight of the valley floor. There was one section of the ride where we were the only ones on the path in either direction and we were flying up and down the gently undulating path. We were playing, grinning like kids, and a little breathless when we stopped for a stop sign.
“We can do another loop if you like, add a few miles to the ride?” Ben agreed and I led us on paths that criss-crossed the valley floor, through dry fields of grass, and across bridges made of railway sleepers. Eventually, when we’d covered all the paths there were – and some of them twice – we pulled up at the hire place and dropped off our bikes. “That was fun!” Ben agreed – and he is a cyclist with two high tech bikes sitting at home in Seattle. Despite our wobbly start, we made friends with our big, clunky bikes, and they took us on an unexpected adventure.
I drove us out of the park, enjoying the winding roads, and little traffic. We stopped in Mariposa for a late lunch / early dinner at an odd cafe just off the main drag. “What did you guys want?” was our reception. “Uh, food? We came to eat,” was my reply, toned to impart that I thought her question was both stupid and rude. We ordered but they were out of half the menu, so we ordered again. Finally plates of food arrived and we ate ravenously. After ‘dunch’, we stopped at a grocery store and stocked up on delicious treats for later, when we planned to drink a bottle of wine on the deck of the B+B while the sun went down.
Some hours later, when the sun had dipped below the mountains in the distance, and I was starting to feel the cold, we drained our glasses, abandoned the Adirondack chairs, and went inside. We would leave in the morning, driving from there through the park and up to Tahoe. More adventures to come for the hardcore biker/hikers.