I Become a Better Citizen: Several Days in Yosemite’s Backcountry, Part VI — Doorframes, Mashed Potatoes, and Hoping for Conviviality

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The sixth and final episode in 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 V chronicles the final day of his 48-mile trek along the Merced River into Yosemite Valley. Click here to go back to where it all began.

Monday evening

I’ve taken enough trips to know how to design an itinerary the right way. For one thing, you don’t front-load it so much that you give yourself nothing to look forward once the main adventure is over and done. We’ve all had trips where the final homeward slog is just that — a death march back to reality.

So to ease my return to the world of house keys and doorframes, I’ve booked a tent-cabin for tonight at Yosemite Bug, a “rustic mountain resort” 25 miles out of Yosemite Valley along Highway 140, my bus route. I stayed there with a friend on the way to Yosemite the year before, and it worked out pretty alright. It’s got a café/restaurant, and just as crucially, a hot tub. My bus ride out of the national park goes smoothly, and I’m checked in at Yosemite Bug (unaffiliated with the park) before 5:30 p.m.

Last year’s visit to Yosemite Bug was convivial, and not just because I was there with a pal. I expect more of the same this time through, and hope that it will counteract my overall fatigue.

After a mildly warm, vaguely satisfying shower, I walk down from my desultory tent-cabin on the hill to the café, which features an inviting patio seemingly designed for commingling. I pass my credit card to the woman at the register, tell her I’d like to run a tab, order a pint of Anchor Steam, and grab a table on the front patio. If nothing else, it’s a good spot to watch people: the 40-something man here with his extremely hard-of-hearing parents, discussing his currently futile job hunt at Sonic Youth-like volume; the perma-grinning guy from the downstairs spa making repeated trips up to the café for ice to put in the spa’s water pitchers; and, a handful of young couples.

I head back inside to order my food, along with a second pint of Anchor Steam. Yosemite Bug strikes me as, more or less, a hostel with a few more ambitious lodging options (e.g., a guesthouse or two), so I’m a bit surprised at the upmarket slant of the café’s dinner menu. Honestly, I’d be totally content tonight with a burger, but I give in to relative decadence and order the tri-tip beef with mashed potatoes, green beans, red onions, a side salad, and a roll, all for $16. It’s to my liking, so much so that I follow it up with a double-scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with a generous pour of what I assume is Hershey’s chocolate sauce. Hey, back off, I just hiked 48 miles.

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My spa experience a bit later is less fulfilling. It’s a warm evening, and combined with the smoking-hot water in the tub, I keep on having to get out and walk outside just to cool down. After repeating this routine a few times, I find a suitable compromise and keep only my legs in the water, which is really the main part of my body I want to soak anyway. It’s a large tub, probably 12 feet long, and I share it with a young couple at the other end, rubbing one another’s feet and clearly in their own world. Now I really miss my wife. Hell, I think I might even miss the guy at Curry Village a few hours before who asked me how far I’d hiked.

Again I walk out onto deck outside the large room that hosts the hot tub, and the view from it reminds me of my back yard where I grew up: oak trees everywhere, and a creek bed far below. When I head back inside, the couple has departed, replaced by a solemn-looking woman, probably in her 30s. She’s leaning out of the tub, looking for something in her canvas bag. The only English lettering on the bag reads, “Beijing Jumping School”; everything else is in what I assume to be Mandarin.

I soak my moderately aching calves a few more minutes, then head back out onto the deck where I sit awhile and, as a San Franciscan on holiday, enjoy the novelty of warm evening air.

20 or 30 minutes pass, and I go back inside the spa to change out of my damp shorts. On my way back up to my tent cabin well up the hill, I approach a few of the hostel bunkhouses along the narrow boardwalk path. The same woman from the hot tub a half-hour before emerges from a bunkhouse called “Half Dome 2.” I step aside to let her pass, which she does hesitantly. As I continue up the path, she asks in a thick accent, “You stay in one of these?” I shake my head and point up the hill. “No, in one of the dirty tent-cabins up there.” She pauses, mutters an “oh” to herself, and heads down the path.

Yosemite Bug is not so convivial this time.

Tuesday

After five nights on the ground, you’d think I’d get a good night’s sleep in a proper bed. Sadly, that’s not the case. I’m awake much earlier than planned due to the surprisingly cool early morning temperature (the bed’s blanket proves insufficient); I’ll also gladly toss some blame at the young German couple in the tent-cabin next door who, while departing around 5:00 a.m., clearly fail to grasp the concept of hushed speaking tones.

I eat my weight again at breakfast, enjoying a nearly laptop-sized buckwheat pancake along with scrambled eggs, potatoes, a couple cuts of ham, and toast. It’s 80 degrees by 9:30 a.m., so I linger in the shade on the café’s patio, jotting down some notes and looking at my Yosemite trail map. The map makes me happy…it’s the first time I’ve really taken stock of my trek since I finished the previous afternoon.

Before leaving my tent-cabin at 11:00 a.m., I accidentally break a sweat while re-packing everything as sensibly as possible — including my boots, which I jettison today in favor of my sandals. The 10-minute walk down Yosemite Bug’s long driveway to the bus stop along Highway 140 makes for some sweltering moments, and while the full-size bus is crowded, at least it’s air-conditioned. Still, a stinky someone within noseshot doesn’t seem to have had a shower recently, which makes the 80-minute trip kind of a drag.

As I’m retrieving my pack from one of the luggage compartments underneath the bus in the parking lot of the Amtrak station in Merced, I hear someone call my name. Hmm, sounds Venetian, I think to myself. Of course, it’s Matteo.

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We’ve got a 45-minute wait for our train back to the Bay Area, so we head inside to the mercifully air-conditioned waiting area. Turns out he camped at Little Yosemite Valley last night, got a good jump on the morning today, and hopped on an earlier bus out of Yosemite Valley. He tells me that he stopped by the Wilderness Center in Yosemite Valley this morning, where wilderness permits are issued. I ask him why.

“I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do at the end of a backpacking trip. I thought they would want to know.”

What did they say? Matteo chuckles.

“’Congratulations!’”

Once onboard the train, we sit in adjacent rows. At one point, we walk up to the train’s café car to get sandwiches; for the rest of the ride, I’m flopped in my seat watching central California roll by. The guy behind me talks incessantly on his phone. Usually this would irritate me to no end, but his voice reminds me of Don Cornelius’ ultramega-baritone, so I get a kick out of it.

Right on schedule, the train leaves us in Emeryville in late afternoon, where Matteo and I say goodbye for the third or fourth time this week. He catches a bus to Berkeley; I take my Amtrak connector bus to the Embarcadero across the Bay Bridge. Before I know it, I’m back in 65-degree San Francisco in a T-shirt and shorts, wondering how far down in my pack I’ve buried my jacket.

I take a Muni express bus to my neighborhood across town. With my enormo-pack, I feel like a space-hog among the weekday commute crowd, but I chalk it up to my self-consciousness at being back among urbanity. Walking the final few blocks home up the slight hill from Sunset Blvd., I dig into my pocket for my house key. I walk into my garage.

My car. Unharmed, rested. We all win.

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 more than 10 years now.

2 comments for “I Become a Better Citizen: Several Days in Yosemite’s Backcountry, Part VI — Doorframes, Mashed Potatoes, and Hoping for Conviviality

  1. David Williams
    November 12, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Hi Charles,
    It was fun reading your story, especially since Pierre and I did a trip through Yosemite last year and had some interesting experiences. We didn’t get to experience the train and bus, however.
    Pamela says hello
    David

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