By John Yewell
No one is more associated with Yosemite than John Muir – not even, alas, the Ahwahneechee people, who still live in the area. Yet there is no record of Muir’s reaction to seeing the valley for the first time, in the spring of 1868. Perhaps our great national wilderness prophet was struck speechless at the sight.
Muir returned the next year, and from its north rim described the glaciated valley of soaring granite and leaping cataracts below. “Into this one mountain mansion, Nature had gathered her choicest treasures,” he wrote. Gazing at the distant Clark and Cathedral Ranges, he added, “Shall I be allowed to enter into their midst and dwell with them?”
To Muir, Yosemite’s remarkable valley was the jewel in the crown of something greater: the Sierra Nevada, his beloved Range of Light, much of which, with his help, was eventually included within the boundaries of the park.
Flash forward to 1962. My family arrived at Yosemite Valley’s Upper River campground, pulling a camper bulging with the trappings of civilization – my father was especially proud of his two-burner Coleman stove. Campsites in those days were a squeeze-in-where-you-could proposition, but we found a spot right on the Merced River. The nightly firefalls were featured on the cover of a special issue of Life magazine that summer, bears gorged on campground food scraps in an open dump and a ranger in a Montana Peak hat was always at hand to answer an 8-year-old’s questions.
I learned, for example, that there are four times as many miles of trail in the park as paved roads, and as soon as I could, I began hiking them. When I was 15, my cousins and I backpacked Yosemite Creek. The next year, friends and I tackled a portion of the John Muir Trail, followed, a year later, by an off-trail crossing of the Ritter Range and the Southeast Yosemite Crest from east to west.
We sauntered, as Muir called it, up Lyell Canyon, Illilouette Creek to Red Peak Pass, the Tuolumne River, each a new opportunity to feel the granite skin of the Sierra under my boots, to watch the sun set over pearl-blue lakes above timberline, to hear and breathe the crystalline air moving through the pines, to drink the purest water in the world. Going into the mountains was to me, as it was to Muir, going home.
At the same time, a darker narrative involving people and climate was playing itself out. It took a century for annual visitor numbers to hit 1 million, the year I was born. Just eight years later, I was one of a million and a half. The glacier we traversed in 1972 to climb Mt. Lyell, the highest point in the park, is almost gone. Upper River campground was swept away in the 1997 flood, caused by a freak mid-winter storm, and never rebuilt. The cables draping the flanks of Half Dome were empty in 1969, when I first climbed it. Today they are dangerously overcrowded, despite a lottery designed to control access.
Lotteries, reservations and quotas now dictate access to virtually all park and wilderness areas. Mountain veterans get no special consideration, nor do legions of fresh 8-year-olds eager to begin their own wilderness romances.
The rules chafe, but I know the park overall is better off now than in 1962. So I deal with today’s throngs by imagining I am alone, my gaze sweeping from forest to granite to cascade as I saunter, every meadow, trail and campground saturated with memories. The canvas sprawl of Camp Curry’s tent city recedes, and I am again sipping hot chocolate in its comfy lodge or sitting by the campfire listening to nature talks. In the century-old apple orchard, a bear has climbed a tree for a snack. I sit and watch. I like bears.
Most of the four and a half million who now visit Yosemite each year will never travel beyond the valley’s six square miles. Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Glacier Point, viewed from the safety of a campground, will be as close as they get to the park’s 1,100-plus square miles of mostly pristine wilderness.
But to Wallace Stegner, who understood better than most how the Western landscape formed our national character, that was enough. “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in,” he wrote, “for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures.”
If you are able and willing, the rewards of the backcountry are worth every labored breath. If that is not an option, then there is no better place than Yosemite – where wilderness and civilization collide – to look into that wild country, that great repository of sanity, and embrace nature’s choicest treasures.