Not your average travel blog
It began like grinding teeth, dragging nails down a blackboard or maybe, sitting handcuffed to a chair while someone tries to tune in a radio without any available channels behind you, and force you to stare at a television screen with only images of traffic jams on a loop.
It took over an hour to drive to the first available campsite in Yosemite – and that was without a traffic jam once in the park. She really is a large beast.
Despite time spent travelling through and up the valley to a seemingly peaceful camp spot, Yosemite still evokes an emotional and tranquil awesomeness in the mid day sun. Surrounded by pine trees, granite cliffs, boulders, and dusty tracks, it would be a fairly peaceful place if it were not for the constant traffic, vocal ravens, tourist hoards and the incessant, loud and fearless, scavenger, blue jay birds.
Each evening around 7.30pm, I begin to dream of a soft cushion, a soundtrack that doesn’t include mosquitos buzzing around my thin, nylon walls, temperatures which don’t drastically change each night and over the course of the last few months have ranged from the 30’s down to -3 centigrade. Although I came well prepared, it would be a dream to avoid possible dust storms, hailstones or just to wake up and not be in the rain. I imagine a room where railroad trains clinking down an old track or honking their horns just feet from my tent are not near by, or a torrent flow of water which may seem relaxing, but intermittently, is just as bad as early morning traffic. I dream of waking up without the noise of other disrespectful campers, squabbling squirrels or energetic birds enjoying some love making before dawn. I crave not to wear my earplugs to attempt to block out such a hectic world, and although nature truly is helpful at resetting your natural body clock, waking up at dawn is a ritual and feeling sleepy at dusk is quickly a natural feeling. It is hard to escape all of man’s influences, but even in the very rural locations where I have slept, it has been hard to find any rhythm or sleep peacefully for more than a few hours.
Three days in Yosemite are planned. On the first, my Swiss friends and I hike the few miles up the steep, concreted climb to Vernal Waterfall. It isn’t a long hike, but for the unfit, unhealthy and elderly, it’s quite a stressful walk. It is however accessible, and close to the overwhelmed and busy visitor centre in the historic Yosemite valley. Most of the walk is spent zigzagging around families and photo-grabbers – of which I must remember I am one of.
Patience is one of my virtues, so even though it doesn’t feel like the great outdoors, the experience is still pleasant and it’s difficult not to appreciate the grandeur of the “wild” canyon. Us young striders walk quickly, and even though crowded, the spectacle at the end of the trail is well worth it. Part of me wants to see these kinds of wonders in the wet season…but we can’t have everything in life as instantly as we can send a text. We may have gone off trail a little (of which there are no instructions to avoid), but the enthusiastic chaps and I river run and boulder hop from the waterfall, down stream for a few hundred yards. We all feel pretty childish again, but while avoiding falling in and breaking any ankles, we realise that we are all sleep-deprived and in need of an afternoon nap!
With a budget as tight as it is, I haven’t been able to buy or replace many items of clothing on my trip. I have been given a couple of T-shirts, a pair of socks and a cap by few friendly individuals, but the one indulgence which I haven’t been able to spend on, is trousers (American pants). You may think that there are a load of US stores with pants for $10, the type you might just kick around in, even wear as pyjama bottoms – and that these would be suitable for a chap on the cheap. It’s true, wallet-friendly pants are everywhere! However, cotton between the legs or around my shoulders when carrying my bag is the worst material for any active hiker, runner, Footloose-lover or just your average social lunger. Despite my lycra underwear taking quite a beating, it has held things together rather well – but my hiking trousers/zip-off shorts sadly haven’t been so loyal. Without being made from cotton, they wick moisture away from my legs, breath more efficiently, resist holding moisture and dry quickly. Most importantly, they are lightweight. Hiking around rocks and steep trails, wooded areas and essentially, just wearing the same two pairs of pants for the same five months does mean that by now, my stylish, ripped crotch has been repaired three times with superglue, and most people I have strolled past or sat next to in a café have been the reluctant recipients of a flash of my gleaming-white, lycra bollocks. Most people have been quite polite, and the rest haven’t minded that I have been wearing my “casual” underwear as temporary shorts – my lycra-clad man-zone loyally protected beneath.
The tourist hoards in Yosemite are relentless (maybe they’ve heard of my tightly-wrapped, bright white groin), and if you can’t get off the beaten trail, they are just something that this wild comes with. One thing that many busy parks have in the US are busses. Initially, I disliked being shipped around like a bearded sheep, but on reflection, while being snuggly seated next to a sweaty student, sporting a white man’s “soul-glow” hair do, the busses do avoid over-polluting and unnecessary traffic from intensely visited areas for the park. They also funnel the tourists to desired areas, rather than have them simply wander around willy nilly, and keep the hoards safely on the move, sharing them between the concentrated areas of interest.
One thing is never certain, but even if you wet yourself in childish glee when it happens, it is still welcome! Seeing a bear is something people dream about when wanting to visit the great outdoors. Blessed with not only (my last pair of unholy) dry pants, but spoilt with seeing two bears in Yosemite, for me it was beginning to be a wonderful habit. Unsurprisingly, they looked a little thin after their long winter, and while “snappin’ their fingers and shufflin’ their feet” they were looking to fatten themselves up.
After all the leg-busting wonderment, I know how hungry they feel, and a first for my Swiss friends was on our menu as we sat by our evening campfire – awful American, just-add-water, macaroni cheese. How it is not sold in the plastics section in the grocery store, is a mystery, but it is, as many americans have told me, “the flavour of their youth”. We’re all hoping for a better nights sleep, although a couple of sleeping pills seriously help.
Within Yosemite, Touloumne Meadows is almost two hours drive away from our camp spot, and we head there to begin an eight mile hike to Cathedral Lake.
With awesome views and a tough trek up the stoney and sandy path, the lake is sat on a granite and grass plateau, with pine trees woven between the rocks and into the moist crevices. Urs, Danny and I are getting faster as shuffling hikers, and I think we’ve come to resemble the marching elephants in the Disney’s Jungle Book, one behind the other. The hike was merely up, and then rather slippery under foot on the steep trek down again. Incredibly, my body has adapted to the fire that I keep putting in my shoes, and at this point in the trip, I’m going through plasters and Vaseline like I am water. My skin has never been dryer, hair never longer, feet never tougher, hands never rougher, muscles never tighter, sleep patterns never been so out of rhythm, dust, sweat, dirt and grime have never been quite so engrained as I fall asleep at night and it’s all spectacularly tiresome. Showers are a luxury; time spent grooming has increased simply because each day I am covered in skin-sores, sweat and deet. I think I reach an acceptable cleanliness state so that my skin doesn’t start falling apart, but it’s quite an unpleasant, daily feeling. It is however, even more paralysingly-appreciated to jump into lakes, rivers, or even under a water bottle’s trickle to clean any part of myself!
Some people have asked what necessities I would not leave home without if I had to do a similar trip again for any lengthy activity; a tent, a sleeping bag, good socks and boots, things to handle mosquitos and without a doubt – lycra underwear! To be detailed, when I reluctantly have to wear the the only cotton pair I brought with me as “casuals”, or when I don’t pull my lycra ones up far enough, I chaf as raw as a desert-dried fish, and certain personal areas, somedays resemble the thrashed backside of a bashful baboon. Apologies for the image, but this is reality, and it is ALL worth it.
On my final day in Yosemite, it is fitting to seek out a(nother) view which hopefully will be epic, but also not be too much of a hike. Sentinel Dome is a couple of miles from the roadside, and we extend it to make an easy, six mile loop before having a relaxing, last afternoon back at camp. It feels appropriate to take a moment, recline, and breath in the eventual, peaceful tranquility of Yosemite.
Often while I am concentrating on taking photos, writing notes or trying to speak, read and learn as much as possible as a nosy neighbour, it is hard to focus and reflect on anything that I am managing to accomplish. Not just from an environmental or fundraising point of view, but on a personal level; I have visited over twenty national or state parks in the last five months, as well as seeing and staying in some beautiful natural and remote places around the USA. I am repeatedly told that “I have seen more of America than most Americans” and although most of the country which I have experienced has been away from intensely populated areas, I can’t express in words (or through interpretive dance) just how humbled I feel to have been able to adventure and see so much of what is a completely diverse and beautifully-big country.
It isn’t hard to “escape” and lose yourself in the USA, and even though many feel like they are tied to a governed existence, or often have their lifestyle choices dictated to them by what society expects – North America does, and hopefully always will, harbour wild environments like no other country on earth. I sincerely hope similar American experiences are available for many more in the distant future, and that those who I have interacted with will explore more of what is on their extremely near, and very accessible doorstep.