I steered the car through Wawona Tunnel back into sunlight and the view that stops my heart every time: Yosemite Valley in all its granite-walled grandeur. Bridalveil Fall! El Capitan! Half Dome! Beneath them, the valley itself, its oaks and cottonwoods fired with the coppers and golds of the season.
I parked, stepped out of the car and drank in the landscape the way a hiker swigs from a canteen after a long uphill climb. “The Incomparable Yosemite,” naturalist John Muir christened it. “Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life.”
I direly needed some glowing life and made this trip with the hopes of finding it here.
Sheltering in place
It was 10 months into the COVID-19 pandemic but it felt like 10 years. I say this knowing that my family had been very lucky. None of us got sick, and we remained gainfully employed.
But it had been a hard 10 months. My wife works with organ transplant patients — most with suppressed immune systems — in a hospital in our hometown of San Francisco. At that time, during the pandemic and before the vaccine, the world was still wrestling with the new COVID reality, and my wife had to take the virus very seriously because it hit San Francisco particularly hard. She double-masked and wore protective goggles at the hospital, then stripped off potentially contaminated work clothes in our garage the minute she came home and rushed into the shower. “It’s like an obstacle course getting through the day,” she sighed one evening. “Then coming home and worrying that I’m going to infect my family.”
I had it easier, but my teaching and editing work had moved to Zoom, which I adapted to slowly: Each time I created breakout rooms I would fling conference participants into the cyber-ether. Funny the first time, less so the next 10. Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, our first-job-out-of-college son was stuck working remotely in a cramped New Jersey basement: That’s where the Wi-Fi worked best in his shared house. When would we see him again? All around us, our city felt like it was on life support, restaurants closing, bars closing, everything closing, streets bleak and stilled, as if San Francisco had been turned over to ghosts.
We tried to be upbeat. We bought masks in bright colors, we made pandemic plans — mine big on shelter-in-place self-improvement. I signed up for online Pilates. My core would become so hard that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would compliment me: “Hey man, nice core.” I would perfect my roto (broken) Spanish and learn to make a decent piecrust. Picture The Rock with his abs of steel in a kitchen rolling out pie dough and exclaiming, “¡Que delicioso pastel de manzana!” That would be me.
It worked for a while — until I began to feel that I was living in a minimum-security prison. I made a deal with myself that as soon as travel restrictions made it permissible, I would return to one of the places I love most in the world: Yosemite National Park in eastern California, less than a three-hour drive from my home.
Not the same park
I followed Wawona Road down into the valley. If you’ve been there, you know the view that welcomed me. The meadows, golden in fall, and the cottonwoods and oaks. The Merced River, a docile trickle this time of year, and the glacier-carved valley walls.
I recalled memories of a lifetime of Yosemite visits. The campground where my parents and I camped when I was 8, where a bear swiped the half a hamburger we left on our grill. The stretch of the Merced where we inner-tubed. The gentle trail where I took our 5-year-old son on his first Yosemite hike, and the steep trail down from Glacier Point, our most recent trek together.
But the park was different on this sunny midweek autumn day; when it should have been mildly busy, Yosemite was silent and empty. I had thought it would be insulated from the virus-rattled world outside. It wasn’t. Although the park had reopened after being shut down for three months earlier in the year, most campgrounds remained closed. The visitor center was shuttered, replaced by two information tents in a parking lot. You saw COVID cautions everywhere: posted reminders about masks, social distancing, sanitizer.
Still, it was a fine fall day that I didn’t want to waste, so I headed toward one of my favorite spots, up the Mist Trail toward Nevada Fall. I kept my eyes open for wildlife, having heard that, with fewer people in the valley, bears and bobcats were reclaiming their habitats. I then ambled across Cook’s Meadow, watching a herd of grazing deer.
I missed the people — kids gathering for Junior Ranger talks, foreign tourists exclaiming over Half Dome’s beauty in French or Japanese. I missed displaying my park knowledge when newcomers asked directions. “That’s El Capitan over there. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain Kirk climbed it,” I’d say.
I’d made a reservation for a fancy dinner at the Ahwahnee, Yosemite’s grandest hotel, now socially distanced and regimented. The sparse, masked crowd of diners kept our distance from one another, grabbing our prime rib and Caesar salads cafeteria-style, in cardboard boxes. I had bought a newspaper at the valley grocery store and brought it to read, unwisely, given all the virus-related headlines. I ordered an expensive glass of wine, the type you buy when you want to toast somebody, but there was only me.
Another day, more exploring
The next day I drove to Yosemite’s south edge, to Mariposa Grove, the park’s largest grove of giant sequoias: 500 in all. The last time I had visited it had been mobbed by us tree-gazers shuffling past the sequoias like Disneyland day-trippers in an interminable line for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Now only a few of us were admiring the 209-foot-tall Grizzly Giant and the Faithful Couple (two sequoias grown together), trying to capture the arboreal majesty with smartphone cameras.
Walking beneath living things thousands of years old, I found myself thinking about the park’s history, both heroic and troubled. Established by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Yosemite was the first natural landscape in America set aside for its beauty. But its original inhabitants, the Miwok people, were essentially pushed off the land they called their own. (Now, belatedly, the park service and other agencies are trying to partially right these wrongs; projects include a new roundhouse for Native American cultural and spiritual ceremonies.) Over its 150 years, Yosemite has endured illegal logging, floods and wildfires, even war. In World War II, the Ahwahnee became a naval hospital, treating hundreds of wounded vets. The trees had witnessed all of these crises and more. What was a pandemic to them?
But we were not trees.
Up high in the park
On my last day in the park, I headed to the high country. Yosemite is big — about the size of Rhode Island — and while most travelers spend most of their time in the valley, you haven’t really seen the park until you’ve seen its mountains.
When I asked a ranger to suggest a moderately strenuous high-elevation hike that wouldn’t be crowded, she looked at me like I was insane. Nothing in the park was crowded. She steered me to a 7-mile round-trip near Yosemite’s eastern boundary.
I drove out of the valley on Tioga Pass Road, through an austere, exhilarating landscape of 12,000-foot peaks and crystalline lakes, and found my trailhead. I hadn’t hiked this trail before, but I had hiked plenty like it: 7½ miles round trip, starting at 8,600 feet with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet. I wasn’t expecting trouble, but it turned out that my 10 months of sheltering in place rendered me unable to easily handle high elevations and uphill climbs. After just 10 minutes on the trail, I was huffing and puffing like the Little Engine That Couldn’t.
I trudged on. The scenery was stirring but I wasn’t appreciating it. I lost the trail as it dwindled across steep slopes of loose rocks. I misstepped and slid and turned my ankle — not badly but enough that I needed to sit and massage it for a few minutes.
Weariness and muscle pain encourage depressive thoughts, and I was beginning to believe that the hike was a big mistake. Also, that the trip was a mistake, and that nothing was going to get any better — not on the hike, not in our masked, worried world. But I didn’t turn back. I followed the trail’s switchbacks up another rocky slope to the ridgetop, where I looked down at a tidy blue lake shimmering among lodgepole pines, with craggy mountains rising behind it.
Logically, one view shouldn’t suddenly make you feel better, but this one did. I followed the trail down toward the lake, found a log to sit on, then just looked — for a long time. Maybe because I had to work to get here, or maybe because I was seeing someplace new, or maybe it was just the light, but I immediately felt at ease. The light in Yosemite’s mountains possesses a ferocious clarity you cannot find anywhere else on the planet. It is, perhaps, Muir’s glow. You feel that you’re seeing the world for the first time.
The hike back was easy, and I started the drive home. The trip now seemed too short, but that’s what I always feel about my Yosemite visits. When I had cell reception again, I called my wife. “It sounds like you had a good time,” she said. I concurred and said she needed to take her own getaway.
That trip was well over a year ago now. The pandemic is better understood now, though far from over. Yosemite was a prescription for my malaise and made me reset, refocus and appreciate the beauty in the world, even when the world is struggling with its own reflection.
And because I’ve had well over a year to compile my own pandemic report card, I’m somewhat down on my progress. Core of steel? No. Fluent Spanish? No. Improved piecrusts? Yeah, but I still have trouble with lattices. If nothing else, I have a reason to return to Yosemite, if but only in my mind, and reset my symmetry. I close my eyes and see every moment: trees, peaks, lakes, the hope that we would all could come out of this OK. The glow.
San Francisco–based writer Peter Fish first visited Yosemite when he was 8 and has returned countless times in the decades since. He has written about California and the American West for Afar, Coastal Loving, the San Francisco Chronicle and Sunset.
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