The fourth 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 IV chronicles his descent through the Upper Merced River Canyon via Washburn and Merced Lakes. Click here to go back to where it all began.
Every meal has its best bite, every wardrobe has its best pair of shoes. And if all goes well, every trip has its best day.
For me, out here, today is that day. An incomparable setting, a waterfall plunge I won’t soon forget, one hell of a campfire, that old stretch-run feeling…these all play significant roles.
Tonight is my last night in the wilderness before I plan to emerge at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley tomorrow afternoon. Matteo, with two nights left, lingers at his campsite in the morning, so we exchange contact information and say our so-longs before I set off down the dusty path. Two hours later, I pull off at a bridge over the Merced for a long break. The spot is such a portrait of true serenity, it’s almost cliché: the babbling brook below, pines and aspens gently rustling in the late morning breeze, sunlight streaking through the forest canopy. Really? This isn’t just in those hokey Irish Spring ads on TV? It’s one of my favorite rest stops on the whole trek.
The trail descends steeply near the Merced River, which in late August is a shadow of its roaring June self. Several miles into my day’s hike, with the river on my immediate left, I come upon another one of those you-must-be-kidding moments you get out here several times daily: a free-falling water cascade, maybe eight to ten feet tall, right into a small pool. The pool empties into the slow-flowing river beyond and looks easily accessible from the trail. A little bushwhacking is all it takes. It’s another 75-degree afternoon in the Yosemite high country. I’m going swimming.
So I go swimming…for about ten seconds. Even on a warm day in late summer, with minimal water flow, the water temperature up here is cool enough to make even a polar bear think twice. But it’s definitely the right call. How often do you get the chance to do something completely spontaneous, especially when there’s a waterfall involved? The whole shenanigan is already a great memory before I leave the scene.
As if on cue, Matteo arrives after I’ve crawled back up on warm granite next to the swimming hole. He decides against emulating my high-altitude Nestea plunge, so once I pull my pack back on and look like a hiker again, we walk together down to neighboring Washburn Lake. It’s only early afternoon, but he holes up here for the rest of the day (and night), content to watch the half-dozen fishermen — almost as many people as we’ve seen over the last three days — and the trout jumping at flying insects above the lake’s crystal-blue surface. We re-enact this morning’s arrivederci with additional gusto, and I am off again.
I next plow through an area that, its 7,000-foot altitude notwithstanding, looks suspiciously like California’s north coast: trees of the sequoia family sporting extra girth; unusually soft footing along the trail; much shade; ferns galore. Instead of watching for black bears, should I be on the lookout for Bigfoot? Muir Woods tour buses? BMWs on Panoramic Highway?
I arrive at the Merced Lake ranger station, which is actually a good mile east of Merced Lake itself. I’ve been somewhat eagerly looking forward to getting here all day, just to say hello to whomever’s inside. The idea of backcountry ranger stations has always held appeal for me — pockets of log cabin safety and shelter in the deep, dark wilderness.
So imagine my disappointment when I see that the flagpole out front is bare and the building is shuttered. I don’t get it. It’s a week before Labor Day weekend. Summer is still on.
I press on down toward Merced Lake, which — like everywhere on my route between Glacier Point and Echo Valley a few miles ahead — is terra incognita for me. Just before reaching the lake, I come upon the Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, one of several such retreats in the Yosemite backcountry. Its rows of white tent cabins and large water tanks are unmissable from the trail.
I have two minds about these camps, several of which are strewn about the Yosemite high country. Mostly, I think they’re pretty all right, as they afford an opportunity for non-backpackers to penetrate deep into the backcountry. All provisions are lugged in via pack train, while the tent cabin lodging provides a step up from the tent and sleeping bag I’ve been hauling the last several days. So basically, you day-hike between these camps without having to haul everything yourself. What’s not to appreciate?
Of course, you pay handsomely for the privilege, and I suppose that’s the issue I have with the High Sierra Camps. I picture well-heeled (if fairly hardy) singles, couples, and families buying the easy way in. Hrumph.
Then, before I get too carried away with my distorted perception, I pass and exchange hi-theres with a pair of fit retirees walking back from Merced Lake, just down the trail. They’re probably up here with their kids, and maybe even their grandkids, and I suddenly get it. Right there, I become a better citizen.
Just because I choose to spend five days acting out a movable feast of dried snacks, trail mix, and pouch meals doesn’t mean I should begrudge others the right to reach the same place while four-legged porters cart their goods up the big hill. Any way you reach a place like this, it beats watching the NFL preseason on Fox.
I get my chug on. I have a general idea of where I’d like to camp this evening, but nothing more. There’s a trail junction a mile or two past Merced Lake, and I’m hoping just past that junction I can find a choice spot along the river, much like last night. The window of opportunity around here is thin, though. I remember from a hike along that stretch of trail last year that the river’s canyon is fairly steep and narrow. You don’t have to be a world-class outdoors person to know that it’s less than ideal to try setting up camp on a 30-degree granite incline above a cold river.
But I luck out. Between the trail junction and the area where the river canyon narrows, I sniff out a sizable camping area up on a knoll; further reconnaissance reveals it to be the only real campsite in the immediate area. I rejoice by dropping my pack and heading the short distance down to the river bank for an au naturel wash, and the evening just gets better from there.
The knoll offers a striking panoramic view, especially to the east (where I’ve been) and west (where I’m heading). As dusk falls and I tackle my camp chores — getting my bedroom together under a couple towering pines, setting up my kitchen on a couple tree stumps next to the fire ring — I watch the sky change from light blue to lighter gold to lightest purple. Even though I appreciate the foggy grey of my coastal neighborhood back home, I find myself smirking at my colorful surroundings. Or perhaps I’m just smirking at the fact that I’m eating freeze-dried beef stroganoff with noodles, and actually quite enjoying it.
But the biggest deal this evening is the campfire I create. My dirty secret about my outdoors skill set is that I’ve always been reticent to play with fire; as a result, the few campfires I’ve made over the years have all been in developed campgrounds in the frontcountry. However, given the plethora of fuel here that’s tailor-made for a carefully contained blaze — there are enough pine needles within 15 feet of my fire ring to ignite a thousand campfires — I draw inspiration and intelligence from Matteo’s fire the previous evening and try my hand at this standard-issue camping pursuit.
Admittedly, building a good campfire isn’t exactly rocket surgery, but I’m proud as can be of my two-and-a-half-hour ultramini-inferno. I totally nail the campfire thing tonight. I stoke the logs, I stare at the blue-orange flames, I get entranced.
At one point, I dial up some sparse sounds on my iPod: Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas, followed by a random mix of songs by Texas singer-songwriter Will Johnson. Even though I’m listening on earphones, Cooder’s creepy slide guitar seems to echo off the granite walls of the Merced River canyon, while Johnson’s spare folk arrangements and torn shirt cuff of a voice throw shadows over this rugged landscape as the flames dance in the cool night air. The muted, cautionary music of Cooder and Johnson fits my setting like a snug wool-knit cap. This goes on for at least an hour.
Then out of nowhere, I feel the sudden need for sonic exuberance. I take a chance on significantly louder sounds: Disco Inferno, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth. My change in DJ-direction could bomb completely, as we’ve all been raised to believe the mountain wilds are built for quiet reflection and gently strummed acoustic notes, not heaps of squall and amplified distortion.
But the wild card here is the elation I’m feeling for my temporary home, and the twisted and bent beauty of “Second Language,” “Soon,” and “Pink Steam” play that elation for all it’s worth. Senses tend to become extra-aware in the wilderness, and just as you more easily notice things like pine needles on the ground or ant hills near your tent’s door, you listen so much more closely as well. I know every corner of these songs, but tonight I hear their dynamics and sonics with fresh ears.
Later, I sleep the sleep of a thousand children.