The last time I had been to Yosemite National Park was as a kid. My parents had rented a cabin in Yosemite Valley somewhere - a semi-rustic looking thing, set among tall firs and pines on the valley floor. We went out behind the cabin and there stood an enormous buck with a huge rack of antlers.
My sister, who was around three at the time, was ecstatic. "Bambi!" she proclaimed, and raced over and threw her arms around the buck's neck. My parents were ready to panic - a buck like that could do a lot of damage to a three-year-old girl. But it just stood there for a moment, looked at all of us, and departed.
That and a prodigious quantity of gray granite, are what I remember from my childhood trip to Yosemite.
My wife, who hails from New Jersey but identifies as a Californian, had never been to Yosemite, and I was long overdue for a return visit. Stories of the park awash in tourists had put me off on the idea. After all, we live next to Joshua Tree National Park and get to experience what three million annual visitors is like, so the thought of going somewhere with four million visitors per year didn't seem all that appealing.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And hit. And hit. We became hermits. I would go out to forage for food in our local grocery stores once every 10 days or so. My wife took her Jazzercise and Qigong classes online in the living room, in between practicing her Greek clarinet music. Our weekly gig performing Greek music at Koutouki Greek Estiatorio in Palm Desert had become a victim of the virus in late March. We almost never went anywhere. A trip to deliver kitty poop to the veterinarian became a cherished outing.
When it became clear that this pandemic was going to go on and on and on because some folks needed their freedumb to spread the disease without oppression (I wanted to get it over with and get back to work on the third season of our travel show, Southwest Stories, but no), and the desert moved into summer, we began to consider day trips to beat the heat - but safely. We took a couple of trips up to nearby Big Bear Lake where we hiked and dined all socially distanced and relatively safe (we chose not to shop in the Village at Big Bear because too many visitors weren't being safe - as if you're immune from a virus because you're on vacation).
As the summer crept on, our thoughts turned to our previous plans to visit our daughter's family with our precious grandchildren, in Ohio. Flying was clearly out. It was quite apparent that the airlines would not be able to do enough to minimize the risk. While some accounts were of nearly-empty planes, more talked about being packed into a flight, with some passengers not taking the situation seriously. While there are reasonable differences of opinion on the levels of risk in flying, some travel media were willing to push airline PR in place of public health guidance. That meant travel media couldn't be trusted entirely and travelers needed to do their own research and make their own, best, decisions for their safety.
We thought about driving to Ohio, but as we did, Arizona predictably began to spike and New Mexico instituted its own quarantine rules for travelers. With hospital beds and ICU units becoming less available in the event of an accident on the trip, our days on the road each way started to seem risky as well.
With all that on our minds, we still thought road tripping it to Ohio would be the alternative that would be most likely to be safe. But we decided we needed to try a shorter road trip to investigate how comfortable - and how safe - a road trip of that length would be.
The Yosemite trip was our trial run.
It was driving north on Highway 99 when the new dimensions of potential for disaster became apparent. A white BMW, driving at or above 90 mph, weaved through the heavy traffic. With a steady stream of trucks in the right lane, we were in the left when he whipped around us, missing us by perhaps six inches. Had I not taken my foot off the gas immediately as he passed - with a truck dangerously close to him in the right lane, I'm not sure we would have had the inches.
Had we collided, the best we could have hoped for is a quick trip to a Kern County hospital. But with COVID-19 rapidly filling hospital beds, we could have had any emergency medical care complicated by the pandemic. These complications rode along in the back of my mind as we continued north.
Mariposa, where we would spend the next two nights, made it feel like the trip would be worth the risk. The front desk clerk quickly pulled on a mask as we entered. Were hotels safe? We booked Best Western hotels for this trip after reading their pandemic protocols. We wiped down surfaces and took our own precautions, then set out to walk into town. Walking was definitely the thing to do, as we probably would have missed The Hideout if we were driving, since it does a pretty good job of, well, hiding out.
While The Hideout Saloon operates with an indoor bar and live music and plenty of fun activities during more normal times, they also offer outdoor dining in a secluded area, perfect for dinner and drinks in a Gold Rush town. We split one of their pizzas and a large salad. It sounds simple, yet it was extraordinary. Both were impeccably prepared and delicious, washed down perfectly by a pint of Heretic Brewing's "Make America Juicy Again," IPA. Dinner on the road really doesn't get any better than this.
The next morning, we hit the road for Yosemite National Park. The pandemic has led to changes in visiting this park. We had to make advance day use reservations in order to enter. Online reservations limit park visitors to half the usual number of vehicles. I had anticipated a difficult time getting reservations under these circumstances, but as the ranger at the entrance gate noted, they often didn't reach the daily limit, even at half the normal vehicle count. Evidently, the pandemic has its upside if you can visit Yo Semite, as the president calls it, with half the crowds.
While mid-summer is not the best time to visit if you want to see the park's waterfalls in all their glory, and Mirror Lake actually mirroring, there's never a bad time to take in the grandeur of Yosemite. We parked at Curry Village and hiked out to the Merced River and then on to Mirror Lake, which was delightful even as more of a stream than a lake. It felt good to be hiking through forests and meadows, enjoying the towering majestic granite monoliths that frame the valley. While the trams that normally operate throughout the park were offline due to the pandemic, it was enjoyable to walk and take in the park's views at a slower pace.
Lunch was back at Curry Village. It's remarkable that one of the world's most dramatically beautiful destinations can have some of the world's worst food, but that's Yosemite. Even the grand Ahwahnee frequently gets panned here, so its $27.50 box lunches didn't seem worth bothering with. We saw that two food trucks were there out in front of the village. Food trucks are often wonderful surprises, run by up-and-coming chefs, with creative menus and an eye for fresh and delicious offerings.
Not in Yosemite. It turned out that one truck only opened for dinner. The Get Yo-Tacos truck opened at 1 p.m. for lunch. We thought this would be our best option. If we were right, that bodes ill for travelers. The $15 three taco plate was a truly impressive disappointment. The blackened generic white fish tacos weren't blackened, or good. The carne asada tacos were mediocre at best, and the rice was akin to some form of building material.
But we didn't come for the fine dining, and won't as long as Aramark is the park concessionaire.
The afternoon was spent visiting various points around the valley, and then on up to Glacier Point, with its incredible perspective high over the valley. While the views are inspirational, looking out over Half Dome and Nevada and Vernal falls, don't miss the chance to stop along the way to the point to take in a mountain meadow, just as glorious and breathtaking in its own way.
As the day faded, we headed back to Mariposa. With Savoury's closed due to the pandemic, we headed to the 1850 Brewing Company for dinner. There was a bit of chaos with the outdoor seating, leaving multiple tables vacant as a number of parties were forced to stand in the parking lot waiting. It was unclear why. We had been served a pint of very average beer while waiting, and standing in the parking lot we came close to just paying for the beer and leaving. While the food and the service we did receive once seated were very good, we would have been happier dining back at The Hideout, especially after a young man at the table nearest us cut loose with a huge sneeze with no attempt made to cover his face.
Knowing the next day's itinerary would bring us through Yosemite's magnificent Tioga Pass, an area long on beauty and short on concessions, we stopped off at The Hideout to pick up a couple of sandwiches for the next day's lunch. We were warned there would be a bit of a wait. An hour and a half later (we timed it), we got our sandwiches. The lack of concern about leaving customers sitting around that long for a couple of sandwiches tarnished the memorably wonderful evening we had there the night before. The Hideout may - or may not be - a great experience if you go. And it didn't help to see employees get meals served while we waited, either. There's no excuse for a restaurant to take that long to put together two sandwiches, and they really didn't seem to think it mattered.
But the next morning erased all concerns as we headed up the Tioga Pass. This is, by far, my most favorite part of Yosemite. The seasonally-open pass sees far fewer visitors than the valley, but has beautiful rock domes, forests, meadows, and lakes. Tenaya Lake was a mandatory stop, as it's crystal clear waters, fed by snow melt, make it one of my wife's favorite places on the planet. We stopped at the eastern end where you can access an actual sandy beach via a short hike through the forest. Fewer people were at this end of the lake, and it's a relaxing, idyllic place to spend an hour, or the afternoon.
Then it was on to the Tuolumne Meadows, and a short hike out across the meadows, over the Tuolumne River, to Parsons Memorial Lodge, McCauley Cabin, and Soda Springs. Again, far fewer people than in Yosemite Valley, and a stunningly beautiful setting to wander.
Tuolumne Meadows, and indeed, all of Yosemite, is inextricably tied to naturalist John Muir. Muir outlined the boundaries he proposed for the national park back in 1889, and helped found the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect the region. The John Muir Trail runs through Tuolumne Meadows where he once worked as a shepherd. On the day we arrived, Muir's story had taken a new twist - the Sierra Club, the organization he helped found, was distancing themselves from Muir.
Muir was being called out for being racist, as the Sierra Club looked inward during the introspection brought about largely by the prominent role of Black Lives Matter activism this year. As is often the case with history, the truth is not that simple. The Sierra Club's "Pulling Down Our Monuments" column by Michael Brune, the organization's executive director, notes Muir was friends with "people like" Henry Fairfield Osborn, a conservationist and a eugenicist. Eugenics definitely was racist, but whether that's what drew Muir to have a friendship (which can mean so many different things) with him, is not known through Brune's column.
There's no doubt Muir made derisive and disrespectful comments about Native Americans. He referred to Cherokee homes as "wigwams of savages." Hardly out of place for a white man of his times, and unclear whether he only called out Native Americans on their living conditions, or if he possessed a more universal disdain for humanity and what he perceived to be filth and squalor. In fact, some sources indicate he didn't single out Native Americans in his scorn.
Of course, there's a larger issue underlying all of this, which is while we idolize one white man as an icon of preserving America's natural beauty, we sideline those whose home this has been for countless millennia, whose very existence often seemed to be that of natural conservation and respect for the wild (along with how to manage it properly). I see that issue as a much larger one, and I remain glad for Muir's work to conserve lands for posterity, especially since the world he lived in was being ravaged pretty efficiently by other white men.
It's important to place Muir in context. In 1851, the "Mariposa Battalion" - a group of vigilante Indian-hunters, rode into the Yosemite Valley, burning the homes and food reserves of the Native Americans living there. This was not an uncommon action during the genocide of Native peoples living in California. When Muir arrived in the serenity of the Tuolumne Meadows in 1869, he essentially encountered the survivors of genocide. His "derisive" comments about Native Americans he encountered may, in reality, be his attempt to describe their conditions accurately. That should probably disturb us more than thinking Muir was being racist.
Raymond Barnett, a retired biology professor from Chico State University who is an author of a study on John Muir, has an excellent look at Muir's perspective on Native Americans, "John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?" The exceedingly dogmatic will dismiss it as the work of an apologist, but Barnett relies on primary sources and the column is well documented. It includes the observations of the daughter of John Swett, the state superintendent of schools in 1880, and a friend of Muir's, on a dinner party conversation involving Muir and a guest who had been involved with the U.S. Army's campaign to exterminate California's Native American population. Muir "told Colonel Boyce the other night that Boyce's position was that of a champion for a mean, brutal policy.... Further, Muir is so truthful that he not only will never embellish sketch or word-picture by any imaginary addition, but even retains every unsightly feature lest his picture should not be true."
Objectively, it appears the Sierra Club and Muir's critics are enthusiastically taking Muir's comments out of context and ignoring any positive observations Muir made about Native Americans he encountered, and there are quite a few. In fact, one of Muir's supposedly denigrating comments about Native Americans is particular to an observation about one woman he met, and concludes with a rather universal comment, "Strange that mankind alone is dirty." "Mankind," not Native Americans.
Did Muir prefer the creatures of the wild to that of at least some human beings? That seems to be true. But when one reads his comments in context, they lose that easy racist edge. Concluding one observation, he notes, "Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better." He often contrasts Native learning and lifestyle with that of whites, and does not seem to exactly endorse white superiority in those comparisons. Was he inherently a product of white society of his time and was he flawed? Absolutely. And you can toss every single other person found in human history into that category while you're at it. I strongly encourage those quick to judge to read Muir's journals to place his comments into context, to get to know the man. This year has been about the iconoclasts tearing down idols and icons of the past. But while most of the points made about those historical figures is fairly accurate, there's no context provided - indeed, context is disdained and condemned as irrelevant. But it's not. It helps us understand, rather than remain ignorant. How do we hastily condemn those in the past out of hand without actually knowing hardly anything about them? Some certainly deserve condemnation. But is condemnation made superficially, legitimate?
I like to know more about someone I'm going to condemn. In the case of Muir, he has a lengthy record of interaction with Native Americans, not just in California, but in Alaska as well.
"I greatly enjoyed the Indians' camp-fire talk this evening on their ancient customs, how they were taught by their parents ere the whites came among them, their religion, ideas connected with the next world, the stars, plants, the behavior and language of animals under different circumstances, manner of getting a living, etc. When our talk was interrupted by the howling of a wolf on the opposite side of the strait, Kadachan (one of his paddlers) puzzled the minister (Young) with the question 'Have wolves souls?' The Indians believe that they have, giving as foundation for their belief that they are wise creatures who know how to catch seals and salmon by swimming slyly upon them with their heads hidden in a mouthful of grass."
That doesn't really sound like a rabid racist endorser of white supremacy, but then again, neither does this:
"It seems wonderful to me that these so-called savages can make one feel at home in their families. In good breeding, intelligence, and skill in accomplishing whatever they try to do with tools, they seem to me to rank above most of our uneducated white laborers. I have never yet seen a child ill-used, even to the extent of an angry word. Scolding, so common a curse in civilization, is not known here at all. On the contrary the young are fondly indulged without being spoiled."
Still, I think Muir would welcome discussion of his life and perspectives, as long as they're conducted objectively and aren't cherry-picking his words out of context. I'm aware that by not jumping on the "Muir's a racist" boat, I leave myself open to criticism. So be it. After 40 years in journalism, I've been criticized frequently for both being objective and for factual presentation in stories. Most folks really just want their own biases - on the right or the left - confirmed. In my experience, I've found there's paltry interest in truth or honesty.
Standing where Muir once tended the sheep he came to despise (he found them to be extremely destructive to the natural meadow ecology), it's easy to see how he came to passionately love this land. While he was friends on some level with Osborn, Brune and the Sierra Club conveniently forgot that he was also a big supporter of Charlees Lummis, a magazine publisher who in his editorial content and lawsuits, worked to protect the region's Native Americans. Were any of these people perfect? Absolutely not. But until I attain perfection, I'm going to try to be as objective as possible about others.
Coming down out of the Tioga Pass, we returned to one of my favorite regions of California - the eastern Sierra. It was hard to only spend a couple of days with Yosemite's beauty, but we immediately began outlining plans on how to return. I want to wander more of the trails, and perhaps even backpack into some locations. The beauty is breathtaking, and while travel via road trip certainly has its dangers during the time of COVID-19, it seemed that with proper preparation and precautions, it can be successful. Still, this year, I'll take nothing for granted.