Rama's family goes on an annual or so trip to Yosemite, spearheaded by his stepdad Dave, whereon they stay at the tent cabins at Camp Curry, do a bunch of hiking, and just generally enjoy each other and the natch byoot (natural beauty). I got to join in last year, May 2014, and I could see why Rama spoke abut the trip with such anticipation. Somehow I'd only been through Yosemite once before 2014, back in the diz-niz as a stop on a fam RV trip, and really don't remember much more than a trolley ride through golden valley meadows and just being vilely overheated and basking like the proverbial hog in shit in a souvenir shop's blasting air conditioning.
Rama and I went there for just a night in April 2014--it seems silly in retrospect that we drove all that way for a night and a day, but zero regrets. That jaunt we stayed in Housekeeping, or as we refer to it (incessantly, in an eerie falsetto) "Housecreeping." To be clear, the accommodations are not in any sense sketch--it's just a fun word to say. I actually think they seem pretty optimal, especially if you're going to be there in any kind of Weather. For sleeping you have actual beds, a double and a bunk, housed under a snug roof with three concrete walls and a plastic curtain as your fourth. There are also shelves for your crap, plugs for your electric crap, lights, and a large mirror, which can even serve as a full-length if you stand on the table outside (ah, vanity)! What really recommends Housecreeping though is the covered patio/cooking space/dining table, so you're not screwed if it's dinnertime and raining. There's also a little fire pit located right outside your patio space, so s'mores are all systems go. For all its considerable charm there is no cooking permitted at Camp Curry, and cooking can be a central part of the camping experience. To say nothing of the primal satisfaction of a fire. (Though, counterpoint, camp cooking and campfires tend to be massively time-consuming, and there is something to be said for grabbing a burrito on the way to your destinate and hopping right into your tent, or, as at Camp Curry, having a full day of adventuring and a hot meal "waiting" for you with no energy expenditure on your exhausted end.) Anyway, April 2014 was a great little peek at the valley--we were mainly on the floor, did the Mirror Lake amble, cooked up some salmon for dinner, made the aforementioned s'mores in our fire pit (I think I conked out pre-s'mores actually, but as I recollect Rama made some in a light drizzle and brought me one in bed), then hit Tunnel View and the Mariposa Grove on our way out the next day.
We returned a month later in May 2014 for a properly longer stay and with a merry band: Dave, R's brother Esan, sister Sita, friend Zeke, Zeke's sister Sierra, his baby Kingsley, and Rama and me. Our first hike there was the Mist Trail and on up to Nevada Falls on May 13 (I know the date because it was my birthday). I remember being cliché-edly struck by the rainbowed beauty of the lower Yosemite Falls and the frightening strength of the upper Nevada Falls. I also got hit by the altitude and recall toiling on the steep stone switchbacks ascending to Nevada Falls.
When Rama and I started dating I'd been a regular runner, but exercised almost exclusively on level terrain (Lake Merritt being My Spot). We'd hike and I'd be huffing and hard heartbeat-ing on hills. At some point (probably after the May 2014 Yosemite trip) I decided to address that neglected muscle group--I don't know jack-dookie about anatomy so I can't say which--by integrating the "Cleveland Cascade" Lake Merritt stairs into my runs. After a bit of that, I remember one particular Sea Ranch hike where I gamboled up a hillock that had even mountain-goat Rommer gasping, and I was Well Pleased. The other longer hike we did that 2014 trip was North Dome, which gave me an idea of the vistas the valley has to offer, and which was also physically a gratifying excursion for me. (I'm not going to put up any pics from that trip because if I do I think this will be the longest blog of all time.)
The June 2015 trip had to be postponed due to various circumstances, but Dave was heck-bent on doing Half Dome and entered the lottery for various sets of dates. What he ended up with was Wednesday, September 16th, 2015. I never did watch the informational video on Half Dome, which is probably just as well, but I had a sense that in addition to being terrifying (I have Problems with heights), it was going to be physically challenging. The couple weeks before, I made a point of not missing runs, and of including stairs in those runs.
As far as other trip prep went: I needed new jean shorts. For half a year I was wearing a pair of Liz's I'd borrowed "for the day" on a camping trip, but eventually my conscience got the better of me and they were reluctantly returned. I bought one pair the Friday before we left at a Gap sale, but Gap jeans are I believe intended for enviably bigger booty-ed individuals than I (case in point, Liz loves Gap denim), and these, wait for it, gapped at the waist and got "they're fine I guess" reviews from Maddy and Rama. Saturday morning Rama and I went on a final training hikey-poo in Tilden. My phone, which I'd been using and abusing for pictures because it was misty and beautiful out, was holstered in the back pocket of these same jean shorts. Cue to a pit stop: I was in the hook-less stall, bent down putting my bag as far away from the toilet as possible, and my phone wiggled its way out of my gaping back pocket to plop into the (pee-free and relatively clean but still Public) toilet. I snatched it out with superhuman speed and wrapped it tenderly in my scarf like a wounded lover. Rama managed to turn it off though it already seemed tweak-y, and when we got home we stuck it immediately in a bag of rice and left it there for the day and night (your overpowering instinct is to try to turn it on, but this is the thing you must not do). I could use Rama's own old iPhone 5s if mine was kaput, and so I resolved to wait, not bug out, and see.
I still had a few hours before work, so we went to Ross or Marshall's (I can never differentiate) per Rama's scheme to buy me some cheap jeans to cut off. I came away with a couple pairs that were heinous at their full length but had ass potential. I'm really not too crafty with shit like that, but as Rama said, "clothing modification is [his] thing." Our first crude, deliberately overlong scissoring yielded a pair of shorts so profoundly unflattering they recalled the "shorteralls" Liz Lemon sports at the end of the "Brooklyn Without Limits" 30 Rock 'sode (if you have not seen this and do not know what I'm talking about, you should, because it is amazingly funny). Ever-ingenious Rama lit up and blew out a stick of palo santo wood, and I stood wearing the shorts while he used the incense's blackened end to trace on the thighs a more promising line. It worked, and he patiently repeated the process on the other pair of jeans I'd bought, and then on a pair from high school whose knee patches I'd worked my way through (I, and they, are old). Et voilà I had buttloads of shorts! I did most of my packing that night after work while watching Roman Holiday, which was very relaxing for me (Rama was consigned to watching Trestles on his phone on the couch).
Unlike the next morning when we opened up the bag of rice to discover my phone worked...except for the camera (a little too ironic). I was wicked pissed; we spent some time getting R's old phone up-and-running with my crap--too much time, in fact, and I biked to work at the Flo harried with unwashed hair, feeling all out of sorts. At work I stewed and then simmered, and by the time Rama, Sita, and Tim arrived to brunch I’d more or less made peace. I finished work as they did their meal, and Rama, Sita, and I headed back to the house, where I grabbed a shower while Rama car-packed. We hit TJs for trail mix, dried fruit, nuts, wasabi seaweed, canned beer, and other Trail Necessities, then a bit down the road stopped at the Livermore Chipotle for a burrito bowl and two of the most enormous burritos I have ever seen (really). The parking lot sunset was red and radical, but I couldn't get any shots unobstructed by 'burb, and not to be a betch but I'm kind of sick of sunset (and sunrise) pics.
We drove on down dusking highways, past yellow windmilled hills and shadowy almond orchards. By the time we hit Modesto it was black night, and we kept having to close windows on the overpowering agro stink--shit and chemicals. I hate that people have to live in that pollution. Rama went into a trance state on the 140 between Merced and Catheys Valley with its "undulating turns and nice blacktop," and then we drove along the Merced River for what felt like forever, passed a gnarly accident in the Yosemite Valley (the sirens' lights colored the night, dyeing the smoky air from the nearby Tenaya fire), and finally arrived safe, sound, and sleepy at Housecreeping. Because Yosemite bears will (they say) rip off your car door for a forgotten mint tin, we put in some hard time combing the car and bear-boxing our smellies, then finally finally crawled into our sleeping bags.
It's off-feeling rolling into a spot in the dead of night, but waking up Already There the next morning makes it all worthwhile; it's a working stiff's trick to max out off-time. We woke up at 6:15 and I danced around in my nightgown taking pictures up the blue-hued dawn trees, which all came out a little blurry.
We got dressed and with many extol-ations snapped photos off the Housecreeping bridge of the sunrisen cliffs' river reflection.
I, however, was starting to tick that something was amiss--all my pics lacked the sharpness to which I'd grown accustomed on my own iPhone 5s. I peeped the lens and sure enough there was a little constellation of dust motes trapped within. I don't know how they got in (R had had the phone in a drawer since he'd upgraded to the 6), and I didn't know how to get them out, though I'm afraid I did attempt mouth-to-phone, sealing my mouth over the top corner and sucking. Though I repeated it with troubling obsessiveness my vacuum method didn't work, and I resigned myself to blurry approximations. Rama of course said I should use his 6 whenever a picture struck me, and I did borrow it a lot throughout the trip, but there's something about using your own machine, its seeming a seamless extension of your own person, that is somehow necessary to a right-feeling photograph. That's probably very spoiled of me, but I had trouble finding my rhythm and wasn't resoundingly stoked on any of my photos this go-around.
While I'm on the subject of Black Eyes (Yossarian???!!!), I had one other major gripe. My glasses are super fucked up. I'm really picky about frames, and after I fell on my face a couple years ago and broke my new glasses I'd decided were ugly anyway I happily went back to my previous pair. Which did unfortunately have an older prescription in them and a lot of hard miles on them (I am not gentle with my things). Anyway, I was using these for a spell, and then lost an arm off them while biking. My mom is handy and replaced it with an arm off another old pair, which wasn't made quite the same and flopped out farther than ninety degrees. But it worked, and I wore these contentedly until very recently when the other original arm came off. Rama fixed it as well as it could be, but now the other arm also flops out too far, and the glasses fall off my face constantly, down onto too-weak (prescription-wise) outrageously scratched-up lenses. They became so maddening I actually resorted to my stash of disposable contacts, which I am historically loath to wear. I don't know if it's my astigmatism or what, but contacts are not comfy for me (the time of night when they're finally removed is ecstatically pleasurable). So, confronted with my little Scylla and Charybdis vision sitch, I'd been wearing contacts on the reg for a month, and had actually started to feel a little less bugged by them and a little more used to my naked face. Packing the day before Yosemite I reached into my right eye box and grabbed a couple dozen lenses, then reached into my left eye box...and found it totally empty. How does this happen? And so I was in Yosemite and all its dramatic beauty, equipped with a dust-riddled camera and scratched-to-shit (ill-fitting) glasses. Bitch fin (as in, thus concludes my complaint).
We went to the Curry Village coffee spot and got some big boys (caffeine really makes everything peachy keen) and boring bagels. We had the day to while away waiting for Dave to arrive that evening, and we decided to do Mirror Lake and then hike on to picnic at the "secret waterfall," something Rama and I had done in January. We paused at a few meadows along the way.
We walked the horse-poop-ridden trail to Mirror Lake and found no lake there--just a drought-dried sand pit with a couple boulders.
I don't know what's normal for summer, but it was a bummer, and seemed a stark show of drought. We realized the probable pointlessness of continuing on to the waterfall spot, and so set up a blanket "in" the lake under the shelter of some riparian willows (it had ironically begun to drizzle off and on). We had some cheese and crackers and beer and apples, and then I ran around taking ugly pictures of the lake where there was no lake there, and Sita dozed while Rama remained gormandizing.
Sita was being swarmed by mosquitoes so we lit some Nag Champa she had in her pack in the hopes the smoke would ward them off, and then the three of us played some poker.
We got walking again after a couple hours, admiring the dogwoods and dismaying at the dry riverbed.
We hit another meadow adorned with little purple wildflowers, and then another decked out in showy milkweed, a plant I've had a boner for since I saw it gone to seed on the Nevada City property. It has these pods that bust open with fluffy white profusions (also butterflies love their flowers).
We figured we'd make the most of the waning daylight and hit Tunnel View before awaiting Dave at Camp Curry. Sita caught up on texts, etc. in the car, and Rama and I took some T.V. pics$ and then attempted the requisite selfie, several times with dubious success.
Sita joined us at the vista and we discussed our next move, Rama yoking that if we stuck around Tunnel View long enough we were bound to see Dave (as it is a favorite time-lapse spot of his). I shit you not, moments after we watched Dave pull into the parking lot. We were dying Maximus, and, shaking with quieted laughter, turned our backs while he set up his tripod, then sidestepped our way into the background of his shot. O merry capers!
We had dinner that evening at the Curry Village cafeteria--not the tastiest, but sometimes a hot meal is just the thing. They were broadcasting the season's first 49ers game, and Dave, Sita, and Rama watched that while I dipped back into Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, which had me lolzing with fair frequency (he's good at choosing the perfectly hilarious "right word"). Dave headed back to his tent, and we three followed suit an hour or so after (I am a patient woman, sometimes). It rained a lot in the night, which was extremely pleasant to hear on the snug roof of our tent cabin--much the cozy.
It was still raining the next morning, but not as hard as it had sounded on the canvas, and Curry Village looked very fresh on our walk to breakfast, the dust washed from the white cabins and their surrounding trees.
A stay at Curry Village comes with breakfast tickets for their cafeteria. They have a few different meal options, and since I'm not much of a pancakes/French toast person I get the "Curry Bundle." This includes: wheat toast, scrambled eggs, a meat (veggie sausage for me), and "potatoes." These potatoes are unfortch hash browns, so I pass on those and make a breakfast sando with the rest--it's a pretty good protein blast to start the day.
We would be tackling Half Dome the next day Wednesday, so Tuesday we wanted to do a mild amount of hiking to have fun and get somewhat acclimated without any consequent exhaustion or soreness. And so it was decided we'd do the Sentinel Dome loop, a mostly level 2.2 miles, and then the Taft Point loop, another relaxed 2.2. It was rainy and blustery when we started, weather I LOVE to exercise in, but it reminded me I need to figure out my gear for rain runs this winter. I am a hot potato almost always, but positively combust when I run, which is why I usually opt to wear Maddy's cross country shorts from high school (I have maybe ten pairs of red running shorts) and old cotton t-shirts (all white--or originally white). Really breathable and good for sunny days, but soggy and sloggy for rain. I don't know what waterproofing wouldn't have me positively sweltering and steaming inside it, but I haven't done any research yet about new teckmologies they may have developed.
Anyway, we reached the summit of Sentinel and it was stunning with storming stints and fast-rolling clouds. Dave went ape with his time-lapse tripod and steady cam rig (that thing makes iPhone videos look like full-fledged motion pictures--so dang cool), and we also took many pictures. Here's a superfluous, unruly sampling:
We probably hung out on Sentinel about two hours, picnicking, reading (me), internet-ing (Rama--though to be fair he had a deadline on ordering some new surf boards), snapping photos, and taking in the 360 views (with a vested interest in Half Dome).
Then back down and around to Taft Point. Near the parking lot there's a white hill of quartz. We crawled around on that for a few minutes looking for choice pieces--Dave actually cut himself without even realizing it. There was also some lychen in thee most divine chartreuse!
We continued into some lovely deep green woods, Rama and I falling a bit behind with all our picture-taking tomfoolery.
After the woodsy bit we emerged out onto the canyon-surrounded plateau, joining Dave, whose tripod was firing away, and Sita, who was on her belly peering down a cliff face. It was dramatically beautiful, the clouds swirling above and around us as we saddled up to mesmerized precipices and skirted heart-stopping fissures.
We came to a an overlook where they'd stuck up some railing. I made myself creep up and peep down, then scurried back to a spot some ten feet from the edge. Rama was completely unaffected, strutting back and forth on the little protuberance, leaning casually against the rails, craning to see down farther into the abyss. When he put me over the proverbial edge, however, was when he offered to take a selfie-ing guy's picture, positioning himself back a ways to frame the shot, an infinite drop not a foot behind him. At least three times I felt compelled to remind him not to step backward (it was way too easy to imagine myself distractedly adjusting my vantage and falling to my death).
We didn't see Dave and Sita anywhere and figured they must have headed out (since they'd already been at the point for a while before we arrived), and so we decided to walk back toward the car. This was stupid as it would be unlike them to leave without telling us, but I was feeling very shaky and strange, my hands a startling purple-white.
This is perhaps a good time to talk about fear of heights/fear of falling/acrophobia/vertigo. I think I was probably born with a heights thing (I guess most everyone is, in a survival sense, but some of us were apportioned an extra sensitivity). My mom recalls taking me to Cirque du Soleil when I was three and watching me go down on all fours to crawl up the bleachers to our seats--something about the gaping spaces between steps evidently triggered me. I've found myself dropping into an unintentional squat many times since, and it's kind of weird the things that flip my switch and those that leave me unruffled. I've always, for example, been a tree climber, but I am atrociously bad with ropes courses (not to mention structured "team-building" exercises in general--blegh). I've been shaky-legged on rock walls, but have no issues at all with being suspended midair belaying down. I'm fine with ladders, and usually with stairs (though I've caught myself edifice-clinging on the Getty's outdoor escaliers, in a cowed crouch on the St. Paul Cathedral dome's spiraled metal affair, and practically snake-slithering my way up the wind-ripped Scott Monument tower). I'm pins and needles on the ferris wheel's ascent, but the second we hit the pinnacle and start heading down I'm wine and roses, taking in the view (generally I don't have problems with descents). I once availed myself of the ignominious last-minute fraidy-cat exit at California Adventure's Tower of Terror--twenty minutes in line listening to free-falling screams proved too much for me (this still makes me laugh).
I've always been cautious, at times downright yeller. I was a worried kid--I remember vividly lying awake at night planning my family's evacuation strategies in the events of tsunami, wildfire, flash flood, plane crashing on the roof of our house, etc. I thanked God I lived far from Laura Ingalls's tornado-torn prairie, and don't even get me started on how I felt (and feel) about earthquakes. Truly the only thing I hate about being a California girl. I was and am careful with my body--I try to avoid throwing it into harm's way.
Anyway, to get back on track, my point is that I have a moderate amount of chicken-hearted shit, and I had always grouped my feelings about heights in with this general fearfulness. In college I got philosophical with it, spending some time mulling over Milan Kundera's take: "What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves." Also compelling is Nietzsche's chilling chiasmus(ish): "And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee." There is an inexpressible element to what I feel when I peer over an edge, but as I get older I think the problem is more physical than anything else. I used to be A-okay in the motion sickness department--I could read a novel in the back of the van on a mountain road. I was an avid swing-setter. Now that I'm old I get sick just watching someone swing, and if I gander even a glance at a map in the car I can get hit with an hour-long headache (lucky for me Rama's a born navigator and doesn't require my inept co-piloting). I don't know for sure it's related, but heights have started to make me not so much scared as powerfully dizzy. Even thinking of how to describe it now is making me rub a headache out of the backs of my eyes, though I'm sure it doesn't help that I'm writing this on a train.
Anyway, Taft Point evidently angered my vertigo, and back on the forest path I felt so light-headed and bloodless I could have just keeled over. Rama kept pausing our walk to press down firmly on my inner wrists' pressure points, which was tremendously helpful and grounding and gave him the idea I should get some of those motion sickness bracelets for Half Dome the next day (we ended up getting back to Curry after the mountaineering-type store had already closed, so the jury's still out on if that would've worked). We did not find Dave and Sita at the car so we walked back to the quartz hill to await them. Eventually they appeared--they'd been elsewhere on the point, didn't know where we'd disappeared to, etc. Our bad.
We had pizza that evening on the Curry deck, positioning ourselves at a remote corner table so we could play Cards Against Humanity while we ate without making everyone hate us. Rama and I ended up tying, which was nice, though one of the things I like about that game is that winning is kind of beside the point, so I can chill out my competitive poor sport shit and Just Have Fun. Back to the cabin, where we tried to pre-pack as much as possible for the morning, though all food had to sleep in the bear box. Then to bed to rest up for the next day's early wake-up-called hike-zilla.
I slept badly, as did Rama, and then it was 4:45 AM and time get it started (we would depart no later than 5:45). Whenever we discussed Dome-Day I was down for whatevs with one caveat: there must be coffee. Rama and I had brought grounds, half and half, and the jetboil/drip set-up we use for camping. I went to wash my face and brush, and when I returned to the cabin Rama was standing over the bed sorting through our congeries of trail chow. I insinuatingly offered to fetch water for the coffee, and it was at this time that Rama realized Camp Curry regulations forbade fire of any kind, including the Jetboil's wee flame. And for the first time in his noncompliant life he was apparently feeling docious, so there would be no coffee. (I know I'm being bitchy.) We finished stuffing our packs in silence, me stewing about what wasn't brewing. At 5:40 it occurred to Rama that he could perhaps boil water out by the car, but by then it was nearly time to leave, and damned if I was going to diva out and make us late. It was still dark when we embarked, but we walked without flashlights and let our eyes acclimate to the gradually greying sky.
By the time we arrived at the trail head the granite had taken on a pale moon-like glow. We trudged up the steep start in silence, each deep in our own thoughts (mine were: I am so fucking livid I am not drinking coffee right now), re-grouping at the bridge to avail ourselves of the trail's first and final water fountain. I'd (unfairly, I know, I know) already rebuffed a few of Rama's pats and chats, and when he checked in I broke it down: "Maybe I'll be in the mood to talk to you in a couple hours when I don't want coffee so badly, but until then I'm just going to be really pissed off." This all seems very bratty I know (plus it's lame and passive of me that I hadn't previously learned how to work the little drip thing so I could make my own damn coffee), but I did feel it was at least partly a matter of poor time management on Rama's end, and I also think I don't have too many Things, and I had communicated very clearly that coffee was one of them. It's not even that I have a physical dependence on the stuff--I don't get headaches if I miss a day--it's that it's my Ritual, and it's particularly imperative to me that I have it before I exercise. Every run is preceded by coffee; it's my ignition switch, my gasoline, my grown-up gatorade, my centering thing. So I sure as shit wanted to swill some on the outset of what would be my bitchass life's longest hike to date. So, sorry, I needed to sound and fury about that for a sec, and now I think I'm set.
Knowing how we can be wont to dilly and dally, Dave had sagaciously suggested that we try to keep the bullshit down to a minimum on our way up, saving the more meandering mindset for the summit and descent. I didn't want to be holding up the crew with photo-taking, so I started at a vigorous pace so I could be a bit ahead if I did see a pic. Also I was still fuming, so walking fast felt right. I somewhat swiftly scaled the Mist Trail steps; we had a sweat-drenched reunion and then continued on up to Nevada Falls.
The trail was pleasantly autumnal with yellow leaves fallen on the grey granite. It's always a pleasure to go to the same places in different seasons.
I was all warmed-up at this point, and found myself positively locomoting up the stone switchbacks that done me in the year before. Thanks, half-assed training! Also its not being hot out was an absolute game-changer, plus, bonus, I was listening to my ipod in one ear (I guess I figured if I couldn't have coffee I Would Have Music). Does it make me a hack hiker that I sometimes like to listen to music on the trail? I haven't too much--my ex-boyfriend acted like it was a practical sacrilege, thought that it took me out of the present, and so I refrained from Profaning Nature with an inserted earbud. But I do enjoy it periodically--I guess there's something about the way my mind works that I like to feel a measure removed, or to be stimulated variously. In some moods my experience is enhanced by a soundtrack. Though Rama himself prefers to hike ear-pricked and eagle-eyed, he doesn't care if I 'pod, and so, some days, I do.
We passed Nevada Falls and continued on into Little Yosemite Valley--virgin territory for us all except Sita who had hiked Half Dome some years earlier. Seeking a water source for Dave to iodize we temporarily sidestepped the beaten path. He filled up at a stream near a ranger station horse camp, and I ate half of a chocolate protein Clif Bar, then, dark mood finally lifted, gave Rama the rest.
Back to the trail, on and on, up and up. Rama and I were a bit ahead and were both feeling pretty good (after we warmed back up), though his knees had started to bug, and I was feeling a little tightness in my right leg's abductor muscle, or GROIN if you will. We kept on truckin', snacking on banana chips whose potassium Rama said should help with crampy feelings.
We re-convened with Dave and Sita at what we think was the poorly-signed Two Miles to Half Dome mark; they were both feeling it a bit also in their hips and knees respectively, but we were drawing closer. And so onward!
The landscape became more bare and dome-like, and Rama and I stopped at a large plateau with some scrub and skeletal dead trees to await Dave and Sita.
When they arrived Sita announced that her knees didn't feel okay and that she was already experiencing some vertigo symptoms, and so she wouldn't go on, but would remain there and wait. Most bummerish, but she had previously Done the Dome, and when I saw the scary shit that lay ahead I understood utterly why she chose to stop where she did. As we emerged from the view-obstructing trees I finally started to register the degree of gnar—an impossibly steep-looking subdome bulged obscenely upward, while beyond it loomed the in-fact insane Actual Dome. I stopped, staring, and wondered how the expletive people could possibly scale its sheer-faced mass. With burgeoning dread, I put my head down and stepped up onto the subdome’s first stone stair. So these stairs: they're hewn into the rock, and they are rough, gravel-riddled, and narrow--objectively treacherous. They also are structured to switchback you up the slope, and I don't know exactly how to describe it, but there are parts where you reach the last stair going in one direction, and if you were to take one more step in that same direction you would literally fall off the mountain. My peripheral vision was going berserk, and though I tried to mentally blinder myself I kept catching irresistible glimpses of the imminent drop and felt it pulling me over. It's hard to explain unless you've experienced it, but you feel like you are swiveled upside down from your head and diving. Several times I had to stop and hug rock until the dizziness subsided enough to continue my crawl (or, at more respectable moments, my hunched stagger).
I was starting to realize this might be all I had left in me, ascent-wise. The vertigo was real and I couldn’t seem to regain my balance once we did reach the subdome’s wind-ripped summit. Though the walkable part of the subdome spanned some 60 feet in width, I felt like I was on a tightrope and one misstep on its uneven arcing ground and I’d go careening off the side. Dizzily and gingerly I navigated the subdome’s rounded, crater-pocked terrain, striving to keep my eyes fixed on my baby-steps and off the hypnotizing hulk of proper Half Dome before me. Additionally alarming-looking was the single-file line of human ants that ran up the rock’s cabled center at an unlikely vertical.
We paused at a centrally-located boulder and put down our packs to join the crowd gaping up at the dome's improbable face. So, the "trail" up the dome runs between two metal cable "handrails" that are attached to the rock every ten feet or so with vertical posts, and between these posts there is a two-by-four that acts as a kind of ladder rung. I slowly pulled on the gloves Rama'd brought me for the cables, but I was feeling almost positive I would not/could not complete the final 400 vertical feet up the dome, and I said as much to Rama and Dave. A really sweet nerdy couple who'd just returned overheard and tried to reassure me: "O, it's not too bad. The scariest part is actually coming back down, but it's really slippery so you pretty much just slide like you're skiing--it's kind of fun!" Slippery?!?! This was, it probably goes without saying, absolutely horrifying to me. As was: "Yeah, when you get to the top you're like, 'O god, this is really high!' And it's extremely windy up there, so make sure you put on all your layers!" Any idea I had of giving it the old college try died then and there. I was already feeling like the wind on the subdome was about to blow me right off, and the vision of myself stuck on the cliff, clinging to cables, contending with ever-stronger gusts--it was grim. I was certain they'd be heli-evac-ing my straitjacketed self off that thing if I tried it. And so I ended my ascent--one plus was I could stay with our crap so Dave and Rama could climb unburdened. I nervously chewed on dried mango while they layered up--Rama wore a bright yellow jacket and Dave a bright red beanie, which meant I'd be able to pick them out from the other ants. I wished them a fun time (forbidding Rama to do anything too cray) and adieu, then curled up by the boulder, make-shifting an ineffective windbreak with our packs.
I didn't actually watch them go up--I was feeling too weird. It sounds melodramatic, but I battled mild panic for the ninety or so minutes Rama and Dave were off doming. I was just so dizzy, and it was so windy and cold. I was ill-equipped for the chill, because my concern packing had been keeping cool and sun-protected. I did what I could, put on my light jacket, pulled on my UnderArmour capris leggings over my jean shorts (yeah), wrapped my cotton scarf around my calves, and wore my "cable gloves," but the wind wouldn't quit and I was freezing. I tried to take a nap but that's hard when you're cold, plus I kept having falling hypnic jerk feelings and general sense that if I rolled over I'd be rolling off the mountain. Surrounding hikers were swapping all kinds of high-places horror stories which did nothing to alleviate my unease; I tried listening to my music to drown them out, but that uncentered my senses, aggravating my dizziness. I swear--I was in such a state that a bird overhead made my brain spiral and reel. It sucked. And here's one last rub: I bring a book with me pretty much everywhere. I rarely end up reading more than a page or two, but I drag one around nonetheless, like a security blanket or a ready escape hatch. It's probably a vestigial outlet for the same nervous energy that has us all balls-deep in our phones twenty-fo. That morning while we were loading our packs I had judged my book an extravagance; it was after all a Big Hike and we were supposed to be economical and shit. I don't know who I was kidding--my pack's a joke anyway as Rama stubbornly (and sweetly) carries most of our crap. I felt pretty bereft up there, and I will never again not bring my book.
After some time I saw a reckless yellow spot zooming down the cables I knew must be Rama. He's such a crazy fucking monkey man, and while I wanted to kill him watching him practically swinging his way down the cliff face, passing people outside the cables, I was really glad my purgatorial wait was almost over. I carefully made my way over to meet him, then, emboldened with relief, moved more freely around the subdome to peep the panorama.
Dave also made his triumphant return; it's pretty great, he's wanted to climb Half Dome for years and years, and, two days before his sixty-fifth birthday, he does. I call that Badass. Milestones, symbolic actions, meaning-making--these things matter. It's not exactly the same thing, but it reminds me a little of this Robert Hass bit that's stayed with me:
Private pain is easy, in a way. It doesn't go away,
but you can teach yourself to see its size. Invent a ritual.
Walk up a mountain in the afternoon, gather up pine twigs.
Light a fire, thin smoke, not an ambitious fire,
and sit before it and watch it till it burns to ash
and the last gleam is gone from it, and dark falls.
Then you get up, brush yourself off, and walk back to the world.
If you're lucky, you're hungry.
God I love that.
I'd been dreading the subdome descent, but it was okay. There was a certain amount of crab-crawling, but I was really happy to be getting off that thing.
We met up with Sita and had up a little picnic, which Dave time-lapsed. Rama and Sita were on duty throughout trying to drive away a persistent little squirrel who wanted a piece, and who seemed completely unperturbed by their pitched projectiles. He was super cute and cheeky, but the little dude could possibly have been a carrier of the Bubonic Plague. I shit you not--Yosemite rodents and their fleas could potensch be bringers of the same Black Death that decimated the European population in the 1300s (actually decimate would mean one in ten perished, and the plague actually killed many more than that, it's thought 30 to 60 percent of the pop in Europe). That being said, it seems pretty treatable in the US today. Am I bad that I found this kind of funny?
Then the return--ha, almost forgot we were only halfway done! We were however a bit more lighthearted and chatty on the way down, and though our legs were thoroughly noodled by the end of their 17.5 mile journey, it wasn't too bad. We were very, very tired however. I had to literally drag Rama out of bed for dinner; we did the Curry Cafeteria. I can't even recall what we ate (nevermind I think it was some gross fish and a mac & cheese--R and I shared and he ate the former while I stuck with the latter); I do definitely remember Rama got two desserts and began his meal with those. I was about to face-first into the mac, so Rama and I excused ourselves early to shower before bed. Rama did; I didn't. I know it's disgusting, but I was just too tired and Rama said he didn't mind sharing a bag with my dirt-streaked person.
We slept like the dead--it was great, and I woke up a new woman. I have to have one hateful smug moment here: I was not at all sore that next day. I think Rama found it a little irritating actually. (Feel free to imagine a slappable smirk on my face as I write this.) Everyone was feeling pretty good though, and after breakfast we set out for a level eight-mile loop on the valley floor.
It was mild and pleasant, mostly wooded with sections along meadows and the Merced River. Dave and I nerded out about movies for a while, which was fun. We all got to talking about place names--Dave was saying about how people were all burnt that they changed "Mount McKinley" to "Denali," an indigenous Alaskan word translating to "the high one." He was saying how the name "Denali" was much more sexy anyway, and we were speculating about what "Yosemite" meant. I wikipedia-ed it on the drive home and learned it probably comes from the Miwok language, meaning "they are killers," referring to the Yosemite Valley's first inhabitants the Ahwahneechee (the Miwok were their mucho judgement neighbors). Start thinking about place names (to say nothing of the act of naming places), and you're down the rabbit hole right quick.
It was mid-afternoon near the river that I had spot of reception and got a call from Madz that started with the blood-draining "Everything's okay, but--." She told me, crying, that she had been in the city on her way to class, and had been rear-ended, hard, stopped at a stoplight. She had been jolted back and then whiplashed forward into the steering wheel, the airbag had not gone off, and her neck and head really hurt. She was also very distressed because she had been using Stacy's car (since hers had experienced brake failure on the bridge a couple weeks earlier), and she felt terrible it might be totaled. In addition to being obviously upset, she sounded confused, and her speech was slurring. The paramedics started loading her into an ambulance, so I hung up and called my mom, who was of course freaking out but Being Strong and getting 'er done. We were both worried about the slurring (hard to resist catastrophic thinking--brain bleeding, sudden death, etc.), but had to wait and have faith she was getting good care in the ambulance en route UCSF. I felt awful (and, I know irrationally, guilty) that I wasn't there, but Mom arranged for her friend Leslie who lives in SF to go be with and advocate for Maddy, and we both felt really relieved that she'd have a veritable Mom-away-from-Mom there at her side.
Dave, Sita, and Rama were really patient, waiting by the river so I could make calls from our reception hotspot, and were very sweet and supportive, optimistic about Maddy's condition and flexible about our game-plan. Even if we hiked right back to the car and Rama and I threw our things together and left straightaway we would not arrive in SF until about eleven at night, and so it seemed smartest to see what happened with Maddy's medical assessment before we rushed back.
Rama and I jetted ahead to get hopeful reception at the car and hear how Maddy's triage had gone; the power-walking helped, as did crying. I couldn't help but be reminded of the previous October when we had belatedly celebrated Maddy's July birthday at the magical Dillon beach house. We hadn't had reception, and it wasn't until Rama and I had gone off to put air in Selam's flat tire that my phone had received the onslaught of texts and voicemails that Dad had had what seemed to be a stroke and was in the ER. Maddy and I passed the next few days in the darkest limbo; we had decided with Mom that it made most sense for us to stick with our previous plan and remain the week at the beach house. We had flown home the weekend before, and since Dad was unconscious (they had sedated him to prevent strokes, and when they lifted sedation he didn't wake back up), we would wait and see. We lived hinged on the beach house's landline phone, crying, fearing, casting spells, bracing, bargaining. It was profound and surreal being in such beauty and with the sea during all this, and we felt the guilt and gratitude of being thus removed, knowing Mom and Franz were on the front lines deep in the grief trenches. That was an inexpressibly insane time, and I get down on my knees that it turned out the way it did. Dad had had not a stroke, but West Nile virus, and survived it with (once they took him off the fucking anti-seizure meds) all faculties well intact.
And so again, I was away, in beauty, phone cord cut, awaiting the fate of one of my hostages to fortune. I wasn't being ungrateful; I knew how lucky it was a minor accident, but I wanted to know for sure that Maddy, my special little person on this earth, was okay. I was thinking all these thoughts in the woods when Rama and I spotted a coyote coming down the path toward us. Rama picked up a stick just in case, but I felt weirdly unafraid, almost elated as we watched the creature cross the clearing and vanish into underbrush. There's a magic to coyotes, starved mangy pet-eaters that they sometimes are, and I thought of my Uncle Ron, post-stroke, hardly capable of speech, who, dying, wanted urgently to speak to his daughter Chris about the coyote pack back on his high desert property. Earth's the right place for love, and there is for me a meaning contained in this story that I would like to leave un-examined and ineffable. I hoped that coyote sighting, if it was an omen, was a good one.
An hour or two after, back on the Curry wifi deck with Rama and a beer, I learned Maddy was being released from the hospital with a minor concussion (Mom assured me they wouldn't send her home unless she was definitely in the clear), and so Rama and I wouldn't leave until the next day in accordance with our original schedule. We had dinner that night at the Ahwahnee as a pre-celebration on the eve of Dave's birthday. It's such a beautiful hotel (flush with rugs) and restaurant (gorgeously tall tapering candles on each table that are apparently convincing fakes), and we had a lot of great conversation.
A power-tripping cop pulled us over on the way back from dinner; Rama hadn't used his signal, twice, on the deserted road. I think they must have a policy to stop people over the most minor infractions to discourage drunk-driving. She let us go with a warning, but Rama was incensed. I'm fascinated with his hatred of police. I abominate the racist cultures and actions of many police forces, and possess the natural wariness of the unarmed confronted with the possibly untrustworthy gun-toting, but Rama's loathing is raw and connate. It all has something to do with power and I'll probably keep studying it.
Sita headed to bed and Rama and I tagged along with Dave to the dramatically star-ceilinged meadow, the night sky pinned with planets and stroked with galaxies. D set up his tripod and camera while Rama, lying next to me on the wooden walkway, badgered me to stay awake and look for shooting stars (I did eventually see one--that nehvuh happens!). Dave experimented with a bunch of long-exposure shots with varied sources, some with Rama and me posed in from of the camera, some with Dave. It was getting late, and though we kept saying, "Just one more picture," it was so durned fun and fascinating that one turned into many, and we ended up ringing in Dave's birthday there in the meadow, which was actually pretty special.
We had an early brekkie the next day and then Dave and Sita rolled out so Dave could bday lunch with Rama's mama. Rama and I followed shortly thereafter at a more dawdling pace.
Rama was keen to collect some dogwood seed and pulled over at a couple exceptional specimens to surreptitiously gather their drupes and cut a couple autumnal boughs for me to bouquet at home.
We stopped by the Tuolomne Grove on our way out, and Rama could not conceive the vast number of dead sugar pines, many of which were old growth. We exited the park through the North Gateway and continued down the 120, the highway lined on either side with swaths of dead pine. The drive home was sobering, the car-windowed landscapes flickering wastelands of drastic drought.
As we went I felt in me a new solidarity for the gnarled old oaks, inked scrubby and stubborn on their fields of bone-dry grasses. It's supposed to be a wet winter here down in California, un El Niño realmente monstruoso, but I suspect this is all but one tip of the (it almost goes without saying) rapidly melting iceberg. We'll see. I'm really ready for some rain though.