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Destinations: A Walk in the Park Short Cuts

Story by Robert McKenney - 11/2000

Photo by Kammy Caruss Burleson
Yosemite Valley
Kammy Caruss Burleson

It all started when Brian came home one day and informed our hero (me) that I was going camping in Yosemite National Park during the upcoming weekend with him and his girlfriend. It seemed that some of the original members of their expedition (I was not such a member) had cancelled, so they had decided to take pity on me and allow me to tag along, at least that was the line that he fed me. He planned to leave on Friday and return Monday. In between would be much hiking, camping and avoiding hungry forest creatures with a taste for human flesh.

While I was looking forward to the chance to see Yosemite, I could not help but have mixed emotions regarding the opportunity. You see, I have developed a certain fondness (okay, maybe fanaticism) for the glitz and glamour of swing dancing here in California, and was looking forward to getting dressed-up and dancing Friday night. After a quick game of rock-paper-scissors with myself, I decided to stay and dance Friday and then catch a bus to the park Saturday morning.

After Brian took off on Friday, I realized that he had forgotten to load some of our camping supplies in his car before he left (specifically a 12-pack of Cokes, some hamburger meat and some cheese). This meant that I would have to lug them with me the next day. At the time, I simply considered it an inconvenience. In retrospect, I recognize it as the first subtle threads in another of Brian's elaborate plots to bring about my demise.

Photo by Kammy Caruss Burleson
El Capitan
Kammy Caruss Burleson
Photo by Kammy Caruss Burleson
Bridal Veil Falls and Half Dome
Kammy Caruss Burleson

The drive into Yosemite Valley was spectacular. The road wound through tall western cedar trees while leaping back and forth across the Merced River on the backs of squat granite bridges. We cruised past several well known landmarks, such as El Capitan, sinuous and bulging like a huge granite muscle flexing in the noonday sun, and Bridal Veil and Yosemite Falls, which fluttered like fine lace as they cascaded to the valley floor. In the distance, I could make out the smooth symmetry of Half Dome.

My plan upon arrival was that either Brian would meet me where the buses dropped people off, or I would try to find the campsite and meet him there. Not seeing him at the Yosemite Lodge when I de-bussed (he claims that we must have just missed each other), I hopped on the park shuttle and headed for the campground reservation shack. At the shack, I quickly discovered the next layer of Brian's diabolical plan to thwart me. I was informed that their campsite was not actually in Yosemite Valley, but rather 17 miles away in another area of the park. (Yosemite Valley is actually only a small, tourist-infested area of the larger Yosemite National Park.)

Cardboard sign

Attempting to roll with the punches, I inquired about what ground transportation was available to get me to Crane Flat, their actual campsite. The answer... NONE. Since I didn't want to accept that answer, I chalked it up to bureaucratic stupidity and headed back to the Visitor's Center, certain that I would be able to get better information there. Repeated queries at various locations produced the same result. There was NO organized transportation to the Crane Flat campgrounds. Brian's plot was beginning to thicken. At the last place I asked, I was handed a piece of cardboard and a magic marker and given the helpful suggestion to make a sign and then stand by the side of the road until someone gave me a ride. At this point, I was still in good enough humor to accept the suggestion gracefully and make the sign. Now began the next phase of my ordeal.

First, I took up a position beside the road and held up my sign. After 10 minutes and one false pull-off, I was beginning to feel impatient and grumpy. Since I have never really been comfortable relying completely on the generosity of random strangers, I decided that I should at least start hiking in the right direction. Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard the sage voice of Tommy Lee Jones (from the movie The Fugitive) saying that the average adult foot speed over uneven ground was 4 mph. Considering myself to be above average (not to mention, walking on a road), I decided this meant that, even if no one picked me up, I should be able to make the campsite in about 4 hours. Perhaps a gross oversimplification, since I was lugging a pack and (unbeknownst at the time) would be hiking uphill for over half the trek, but it made me feel less frustrated.

Now would probably be a good point to describe my pack and equipment situation. As I had not been expecting to hike right away, I had not planned my cargo with any particular care. My pack was an inner-frame conversion pack that can look like regular luggage or a backpack depending on my mood and the distance that I have to lug it. So, at least that part was suitable to the adventure. Unfortunately, the contents weren't quite as appropriate. Inside the pack, on this particular day, I had one pair of hiking boots (or at least a pretty good imitation of hiking boots), some random articles of clothing, my shaving kit, one pound of frozen hamburger (read "bear bait"), a package of cheddar cheese, and a 12-pack of Cokes. Strapped to the outside of the pack were my sleeping bag and a self-inflating foam sleeping pad. When all was said and done the entire ensemble probably weighed around 30 lbs., but could have been more.

There'll be signs
There will be signs, right?

Those of you reading carefully and familiar with wilderness hiking may note a glaring absence of certain things normally considered hiking essentials, such as a canteen with water, readily edible food, and a reliable map. I was least concerned with the lack of a map, since my repeated discussions about transportation had given me a vague notion of the direction in which the campsite lay. And being male, I figured that my innate sense of direction, combined with my standard navigational mantra "there'll be signs," would see me to my destination. In all candor, I should admit that the mantra about signs has lead me more often to diverting adventures than timely arrivals. First though, I decided that the deck shoes I was wearing were not conducive to happy hiking. So, I quickly stowed them and, after stomping into my hiking boots, began my long march.

Photo by Kammy Caruss Burleson
Merced river and Half Dome

The first part of the hike was fairly easy and I maintained a good pace. I was walking through Yosemite Valley, so it was mostly level. Periodically I would wave my sign at passing cars, but never had any takers. After a little over an hour, I had become very thirsty and my shoulders where starting to ache a bit. My thirst was heightened by the sight and sound of the crystalline waters of the Merced River gurgling along beside the road. As it winds through the heart of the Yosemite Valley, the river is the perfect image of the kind of pure mountain stream that adorns countless bottles of high-priced tap water at your local health shop. However, unlike those advertising icons (at least as far as we know), I was well aware that hundreds of tourists (not to mention countless forest animals) had been using this river for who knows what bodily functions just upstream. Unfortunately, I was REALLY getting thirsty. Yes, I did have the Cokes. But they were warm and would only make me more thirsty in the long run. So, I decided to take my chances drinking the water rather than feel my tongue continually glued to the roof of my mouth. It actually tasted quite good.

After a quick break to wade in the river, I continued on until I saw a sign for Hwy. 120 (which I thought had been mentioned as the road to Crane Flat). I wasn't entirely sure that this was the right road, but my naturally intrepid nature and thirst for adventure (not to mention, pathological aversion to asking for directions) spurred me on. With only a slight hesitation, I strode across the road and turned onto my new path. Now I was really putting all my chips on the table. This definitely wasn't a main road. If it also wasn't the right road, there was no telling where I would end up or how far I would have to walk to find civilization again. I had my first second thoughts when I turned the first corner and the road began to climb uphill. By climb, I don't mean some gentle incline. I mean winding mountain switchbacks designed to suck the life out of anyone foolish enough to attempt it on foot. As Brian later commented, "it's tiring just to drive it."

After a half-mile or so, I realized that it would be almost impossible to hitchhike on this road because there was nowhere to pull over. Steep cliffs usually rose on one side, with a sheer 20-foot or better drop on the other. This also meant that there was virtually no shoulder, so I was often walking in the road. My best hope was that Brian would drive by soon and pick me up. Little did I know, part of his plan was to stay in the Valley as long as possible to avoid that very thing.

The sheer drops did provide some spectacular views; bald granite hilltops rose above forested slopes, which were occasionally punctuated by the far-off glint of sunlight on an exposed bend in the river. Of course, this natural grandeur was increasingly lost on me, as I became more and more obsessed with cresting the next ridge to find a downhill stretch to hike. In order to get a feel for what this portion of the adventure was like, read the next paragraph slowly and then repeat a few thousand times.

NOTE: Giardia is a protozoan parasite that causes severe diarrhea plus a host of other unpleasant symptoms and requires medical treatment to cure. This would have been problematic had I actually acquired it (I did not), because my current "health plan" consists of simply staying healthy (i.e., I have no health plan).

Plod, plod, plod... Still climbing... Pack's heavy. Plod, plod, plod... Shoulders sore. Plod, plod, plod... Getting' thirsty. Plod, plod, plod... Pack is still heavy. Shift pack. Plod, plod, plod... Glance at view. Plod, plod, plod... Jump when passing car honks... Look ahead at curve and think, "maybe that's where it will turn downhill," or, "can't go much higher, running out of mountain to climb." Plod, plod, plod... Reach curve. Still climbing. Plod, plod, plod... Shift pack again... Attempt to extract underwear from tender, increasingly chafed portions of my anatomy. Plod, plod, plod... Consider hurling Cokes over cliff. Decide to keep them so that I can hurl them at Brian. Plod, plod, plod... mouth's really dry. Plod, plod, plod... See another curve and repeat previous "happy thoughts." Plod, plod, plod... Reach curve. Still climbing. Plod, plod, plod... "Stupid mountains, always stupid going up stupid hill." Plod, plod, plod... Find small, potentially giardia-laden stream crossing the road and quench thirst. Rest briefly. Resume plodding...

Now it was getting dark, yet another situation for which I was woefully unprepared. The first difficulty with darkness was the fact that I was wearing dark clothing and walking on an unlit mountain road (since there was no shoulder to walk on) with many blind curves where the oncoming traffic would not be able to see me until the last minute. The second difficulty with darkness was that I had no flashlight or matches. Therefore, any effort at making camp on my own (which I was seriously starting to consider) would be done in the dark with no way of knowing what was really around me or what I was laying my sleeping bag on. To add potential injury to insult, I lacked the necessary equipment to safely store the "bear bait" I was carrying. And if I had to camp on my own, I was hoping to save the cheese for breakfast rather than feed it the bears.

Scary Bear
Carnivorous Forest Creature

Suddenly, I was struck by the elegant simplicity of Brian's plan to kill me. He had managed to maneuver me into the habitat of large, carnivorous forest creatures and place on my person the exact items that would make me an irresistible morsel for them. And to the casual observer, it would seem to be just another tragic forest accident. No one would ever suspect that the entire sinister plot was a coldly premeditated attempt to bring about my demise. Unless, of course, someone had heard him attempting to convince me that I could use bacon to protect myself from bears. He claimed that bears are very finicky and health conscious eaters who would assiduously avoid such fatty, cholesterol-laden food as bacon and steer clear of any tent that was surrounded by it.

At this point, I decided that stopping to rest would just make it easier for the bears to locate me, so I continued plodding along determinedly. Checking my watch, I realized that I had been walking about 4.5 hours, mostly uphill with no downhill in sight. And I still had seen no signs confirming that I was even on the right road.

In sheer desperation, I was holding out my thumb to every car going in the right direction, even though there was still no place to pull over. Finally, I saw a car stopping. I almost didn't believe it. The car was driven by two Germans from Hamburg (we'll call them Matthias and Philipe). Matthias was working for Lufthansa in San Francisco and spoke very good English. Philipe was studying to be a male nurse, was just visiting the States, and had a fondness for hand-rolled cigarettes. Unfortunately, they hadn't heard of Crane Flat and didn't know if this was the right road. Finally, about a mile up the road, we saw a sign for the campsite. Another mile and we were there. As thankful as I was for the ride, I couldn't stifle a groan at having quit when I was so close to my goal. We drove through the site for a few minutes until I spotted Brian's car (evidently Brian had gone to the park in his girlfriend's car).

I had survived my ordeal.

During my brief ride with my new best friends, I discovered that they had lost out on the waiting list for a campsite and didn't have anywhere to stay that night. I, of course, invited them to share our campsite, since we had plenty of space. They came equipped with plenty of beer, which they claimed they had intended to use to barter for a campsite.

By an amazing "coincidence," Brian and his girlfriend showed up not more than 10 minutes after we arrived. Brian did a good job of masking his disappointment at my survival (but I am sure that he was surprised to see me). We made burgers for dinner with the thoroughly thawed bear bait I had been carrying, then drank beer and swapped travel stories around the campfire until late. It definitely added a pleasantly random twist to the end of a memorable day.

The next morning, I was surprised that I could still move and was only a little bit sore. We measured the distance I hiked with the car. I had traversed roughly 15 miles, 8.5 uphill, in 4.5 hours. Not too shabby, even if it wasn't done with enthusiasm. For anyone that is wondering... YES, I still think it was worth it to stay and dance on Friday.

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