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Monday 7 Oct 2013
Yosemite, USA

The beauty of nature, the power of fire and the frustration of politics

Shortly after leaving Mono Lake, we turned left onto Highway 120 and climbed our way up to the Tioga gateway into Yosemite National Park.  At almost 10,000’, this was the highest point in our journey so far.  Rangers were again working at the Park entrance, handing out leaflets explaining the situation.  This one didn’t have much of a sense of humour and made it abundantly clear all services were closed and stopping was forbidden, including car parks and lay-bys at viewpoints.  The speed limit was around 45mph for most of Highway 120, but we crawled along at 15-20mph.  Once again Verity took the drive-by photos, while I pulled in to let every vehicle pass us so we could see things at our own pace.  Tuolumne Meadows were beautiful, full of rich golden grasses and surrounded by evergreens.  It would have been a lovely place to stop for lunch. 

Our first glimpse of the real Yosemite was at Olmstead Point, a large (fenced-off) vista point revealing the infamous Half Dome in the distance.  There must have been 15 cars parked along the sides of the road, so we stopped briefly to join them.  It was incredibly frustrating to feel like a criminal for enjoying the stunning views.  I understand shutting the trails and the services, but really, how does closing the viewpoints on the side of the road actually help anyone or save any money?  We’d already paid for our now-redundant America the Beautiful Pass, so it wasn’t as if we’d even snuck in for free!

We continued past Lake Ellery and then Mirror Lake, which I recognized as my memory of Mono Lake.  I am fairly certain we have family photos taken by the side of its quiet perfect reflection. We again risked pulling over to take a few quick photos here.  At the end of the Tioga road, we had a choice: to go right and continue along Highway 120, out of the Park and on to Livermore, or go left and see if we could get any further into Yosemite Valley.  After all, we’d got into the Park, why not see as much as we could?  Feeling a bit like kids exploring their school after hours, we turned left and followed the Merced River to the entrance of Yosemite Valley.  We were rewarded with a fabulous view looking up to Half Dome along the valley. 

However, instead of driving right through to Yosemite Village, we found a Ranger parked across the road at the first crossing, turning everyone around and sending them back down the other side of the river out of the valley again.  We played innocent and claimed to have taken a wrong turn somewhere.  He was friendly and good-natured, showing us the way to get back to Highway 120 and answered a few questions.  As we rounded the corner, less than half a mile from where he stood, we found the classic Yosemite scene: meadows to the left, El Capitain standing bold and tall to the right, with about 40 cars pulled over at the side of the road and everyone talking photos while they could.  Naturally, we joined them.  After all, a Ranger can only write tickets one at a time, right?  Emboldened by our success, we stopped again a little further down the valley to admire the reflections of Half Dome and El Cap in the shallow Merced River, when our luck ran out.  The Ranger pulled up in his truck and we were caught red-handed on the riverbank.  Thankfully, he just gave us that school teacher look that said ‘you know you’re in the wrong, so just get back in your car and we’ll say no more about it’ as we scurried back across the road.  He drove off without actually saying a word, for which we were grateful, but were left feeling even more resentful and frustrated.  Why should politicians in Washington be allowed to behave like spoiled brats and wreak such havoc?  We were innocent tourists on a trip of a lifetime, whose plans were being utterly ruined over something so wholly unconnected to the National parks.  I know we were by no means the worst affected – some people had had to cancel their weddings due to the Park closures, while hundreds of seasonal workers had been laid off and livelihoods that depended on the tourist income were being threatened – but the further we drove through Yosemite, the more angry Verity and I became.  Instead of staying to relax and enjoy this beautiful place, we were made to feel guilty about even being there.

But all anger and frustration evaporated when we drove out along the Big Oak Flats road and entered the devastation left by the Rim Fire.  The road was lined with blackened tree stumps, brown foliage singed by the heat, open barren sections of hillside where fire had raged only a few weeks earlier.  We stopped at the viewpoint known as Rim of the World, peering over the low wall at what should have been rolling forested hillsides and valleys.  What remained now was nothing but blackened, charred earth and tree stumps as far as the eye could see.  One of the local Fire volunteers was standing by a display board with the burned area mapped out and talking to stunned onlookers.  The fire had actually started in the next valley at a campground by the Tuolumne River.  It began with an unattended campfire that got out of control, spreading rapidly through the dry forest until it covered an area of 401 square miles.  The estimated cost of tackling the fire was $145 million.  We could still see smoke rising in the distance and he explained the perimeter was now 98% contained with a few small fires burning themselves out.  All along the roadside, fire crews were spraying pale green fire retardant foam to coat the trees and undergrowth to reduce the risk of further fires.  He implied they knew who the camper was that left his fire unattended and there would be serious repercussions coming his way.  It was heartbreaking so see such devastation and smell the smoke and ash still in the air. Forest fires are a natural phenomenon and are good for the forest – helping to clear out the build up of forest debris on the ground, make space for new seedlings to take root and return nutrients to the soil through the ash – but it will take over 70 years for an area like this to regenerate.

We had really run the gamut of emotions in Yosemite today: elation that the Tioga Pass was open for us; wonder at the views of Tuolumne Meadows and Half Dome; cheeky thrill at getting into Yosemite Valley to see El Capitan; guilt and anger at getting caught by the Ranger; frustration at being there but not being there; then finally subdued sadness at the loss of such beauty at the hands of a powerful force of nature, caused by one man’s stupidity.  We left area lost in our own thoughts and headed west towards Livermore.

Back in the early 70’s, my parents spent the first few years of their married life in Palo Alto and Dallas as a result of my Dad’s work with Xerox.  They had a great group of friends out there, a mixture of Americans and ex-pats.  One couple in particular has remained firm friends, and it was to Bill and Donna’s that we now drove.  The last time I was here was in 1988, though I’ve met them in the UK several times since.  We arrived, tired and hungry after our long drive, and were greeted with wonderful hospitality and welcomed into their home.  Within moments Donna had us seated at the breakfast bar with a glass of wine and a platter of cheese and crackers, chatting like old friends.  It was a wonderful end to an emotional day.


Mileage: 2250

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