by Dean Wallraff

Independence Day 2002


I led a Sierra Club backpack in Yosemite National Park over the July 4 weekend in 2002. It was just a 4-day affair, but the route was glorious: Glacier Point, Panorama Trail, Half Dome, Cloud's Rest, Mist Trail past Nevada and Vernal falls.
     Yosemite is associated with my father Fred, who died a dozen years ago. One of the last things he did with his father, who died when he was an early teenager, was to hike in Yosemite together. At the end Fred had Alzheimer's disease, which made his early memories much more vivid than recent ones. He was always asking me "have you been to Yosemite?" and I went a few months before he died, so I could answer his question in the affirmative. When I'd done it I showed him the pictures, but afterwards he didn't remember, of course, and kept asking. At least I could now answer "yes."
     As America's first national park, Yosemite is a primo sort of place to spend July 4. The landscape is vast and spectacularly beautiful in a uniquely American way. The lodgings in the Valley, where we got lunch on our last day, were crowded, but the trails, some of the most famous in the country, weren't at all. The backcountry campground at Little Yosemite Valley was never full.
     Yosemite is also closely associated with the Sierra Club. I'd recently read My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir, the Club's founder. He talked about coming to Yosemite Valley in 1869 after sensing in some ESPish sort of way the presence there of his old Scottish professor. I enjoy reading him and admire his adventurousness, but I get tired of his mystical religious mumbo-jumbo. It also annoys me that, for all of his being a naturalist and natural scientist, he ignores Darwin's theory of evolution, which had been published a decade before, and which could have provided a basis for his interpretation of the flora and fauna. But it was fun to read of the ladders, precursors of the steep rock staircases, that Muir climbed when he hiked up the Mist trail over 130 years ago.
     Half Dome is a long hike from the Valley, but from Little Yosemite, where we camped, the numbers make it look easy: 7 miles round-trip, about 2700' of gain. This belies the adventurouseness of the last segment: a 1000' climb up a steeply angled rock face. It would be a technical mountaineering climb, though an easy one, were it not for a long pair of steel handrail cables, and wood slats placed like steps every few feet. The Sierra Club donated the funds to install the cables in 1919, and they were replaced by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s. The ascent is scary because a slip could send you sliding back down hundreds of feet. I've never heard of an accident like this, but it certainly seems risky when you're doing it. I doubt that the Park Service would build something this difficult today. I was greeted on top by a teenager calling on his cell phone, telling all his friends where he was; most of them seemed not to have heard of Half Dome.
     There was a visual theme to the trip. John Eng and my co-leader Gordon Sundberg are, like me, avid photographers, and Onno De Jong is an illustrator. He was telling me how Yosemite presented too much to him visually - an overwhelming amount of material - for him to be able to condense it down into a drawing. He'd have to digest it a while first. My experience is that a camera can isolate you from your surroundings; I've seen travelers for whom the main point of the trip is to take photos to show their friends at home, and they're not interested in experiencing anything themselves. But a camera can also help you see by focusing your attention. That's what happened to me on this trip, though my photos came out badly because I brought just a small APS point-and-shoot camera. I bet John and Gordon did better.
     Ten days later I was in Paris on Bastille Day, which made me compare the two independence days. It was a disappointment walking through the deserted streets there. The main event was a big military parade down the Champs Elysées, with tanks and regiments and fighter planes overhead. How strange that the French, who were commemorating the most intellectual of all revolutions, should express their national identity in military terms. It left me hoping that the U.S. could avoid this feeling of military nationalism, and take pride instead in the rights and liberties we provide to all our people, cooperation instead of contention with other countries, and our beautiful wilderness landscapes such as Yosemite.

Copyright © 2000 - 2008 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.