The first in Charles Hodgkins’ “I Become a Better Citizen” series. Late this past summer, Charles spent the better part of a week hiking through particularly remote areas of Yosemite National Park’s wilderness. He thought he’d be a pioneer by leaving his car at home and riding transit between San Francisco and Yosemite, but no, it turned out he wasn’t much of a pioneer in that way at all. Part I chronicles his trip out to Yosemite and the subsequent evening in Yosemite Valley.
My car isn’t getting any younger. I’ve got a 1995 Volkswagen Golf with nearly 190,000 miles to its credit. It runs fine most of the time, and it’s a great city car, so I’m hoping it will stick around awhile longer. The older it gets, though, the more I think it appreciates during down time in my garage.
This is why I’m sitting on a bench along San Francisco’s bayfront Embarcadero at 7:15 AM, my big pack propped up next to me as I await an Amtrak California bus. The towers of the Bay Bridge poke through the fog beyond the bay’s abrupt shoreline. I’m taking transit all the way to Yosemite today, and pretty much all that’s missing from my itinerary is a twin-prop plane and a flatbed truck. Perhaps I should have arranged to take a ferry to the East Bay to further fill out my transport visa.
So why don’t I just drive? Aside from simply wanting to give my car the week off, I have several reasons. At the top of the list is the seemingly novel option of train travel within my home state. The bus I’m waiting for will drop me across the bay in Emeryville, just north of Oakland; from there, Amtrak California’s San Joaquin rail line will whisk me out to the Central Valley city of Merced (a.k.a. “The Gateway to Yosemite,” according to Merced’s marketing literature) in just under three hours. Trains can be great fun, especially when they run on time, which I’ve been assured this one does regularly.
Other reasons for today’s transit-fest include the fact that the odds of my vehicle being broken into — either by black bears or malicious humans — are greatly reduced if it’s parked in my San Francisco garage rather than at a trailhead for several days. I’m also not liable for Yosemite’s vehicle entry fee by riding transit into the park. Anyway, does Yosemite Valley really need another car?
But mostly, I’m traveling this way to simply switch things up. I’ve driven to Yosemite many times, in and out of each of the park’s four entrances. You tend to see things differently from a window seat of a train or bus, whether it’s the San Pablo Bay shoreline, the Sacramento River Delta, a small Sierra foothill town such as Mariposa, or the storied granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley itself. You can also eat a sandwich in peace without the nuisance of steering and shifting.
Another thing about traveling via transit, particularly solo: There’s always potential for camaraderie. For example, I probably wouldn’t meet July and Katrine — here visiting a few western states this month from their home in France — in my car. But on the bus between Merced and Yosemite, I do. Same goes for Gerald from Georgia (the American state, not the country in the Caucasus Mountains), who even at only 4000 feet can’t shake his altitude sickness. Or the mightily Afro’d Berkeley student whose name I don’t get, but who’s starting in on the 211-mile John Muir Trail the next day and hiking all the way south to Mt. Whitney over the next few weeks.
Despite both transit travel and the lure of Yosemite itself being excellent icebreakers, fatigue eventually tightens its grip on me as I get settled for the evening at Backpackers Camp in Yosemite Valley. I decide to revert to my comfort zone of simply observing the crowd rather than becoming part of it. Of course, there’s no shortage of crowds in Yosemite Valley during summer.
After a late afternoon waking siesta spent half-gazing up toward the tops of the pines rising from Backpackers Camp, I wander over to Curry Village, a full-service lodging/dining/grocery shopping/etc. area nearby. I’d been to Curry the previous summer with a friend, the evening before he and I set out into the backcountry for a few nights, and I was kind of turned off by the scene: noisy families scarfing on overpriced tacos, seemingly blind and deaf to the gushing cascades and granite majesty all around them. At the time, I felt I’d landed in an amusement park — a sort of federally funded Country Bear Jamboree, only with real-life Snickers-seeking bears lurking in the valley’s shadows.
But this visit turns me around on my grouchy Curry Village worldview. With a 23-ounce Mammoth Double Nut Brown porter in hand, I don’t much mind the long line for my dinner, a four-slice pizza.
I see the place differently this time. I’m amused by young Japanese hipsters on Stateside rural holiday; of pony-tailed bros at the adjacent Village Bar, bro’ing down hard over a spirited game of liars dice; of the impatient older German couple in line behind me, one of whom keeps suggesting to the other that they simply get quick scoops of ice cream next door and be done with it; of four San Diego kids, aged maybe 7-14, sharing a table and having a ton of laughs with a pair of lesbians from Long Beach whom the kids’ father has compensated with drinks as a trade-off for holding the table while he orders pizzas for his family.
Mostly, I see people sharing fun times (and just-OK pizza) in an uncommonly special setting. The madding crowd isn’t really my thing, but I find elements of the whole scene I can appreciate and find enjoyment in. Plus, the mint chocolate chip ice cream next door is truly outstanding.
It also helps that I’m departing the next morning for an area of Yosemite where, at one point, I’ll see a total of eight people over a 72-hour period.
Click here for part II, chronicling Charles’ first two days on the trail, from Glacier Point to Lower Ottoway Lake.
Charles Hodgkins has written and edited for a number of print publications and Web sites, including Rough Guides, San Francisco Bay Guardian, KGO-TV, SFist.com, AllMusic.com, MP3.com, and way back when, Listen.com. He is also the founder and author of Burritoeater.com, San Francisco’s top resource for taquerias and mustaches. He enjoys mainstream fruits (apples, bananas, pears, etc. etc.) and that new Polvo record. He lives in San Francisco and has for over ten years now.