Friday, August 01, 2008


Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.--Ansel Adams

For me, his words evoke that country even better than his photographs of it. The iconic images of Yosemite are great art: black-and-white studies in line and form: very fine photographs of an important landscape.

Powerful as they are, they can't evoke the sublimity of the place. I'm damned sure that I can't, either. That's why I've taken more than a month to even begin to fumble my way toward a post about Yosemite. We didn't go for a visit; we drove through the High Sierras on our way to Las Vegas.

Photos shrink the magnificence into a two-dimensional rectangle that can be held in the hand -- just another object humans can look at, which will disappear when they close their eyes. This distorts and reverses the proper relation of human to landscape. Yosemite -- all of the Sierras -- are overwhelming, enfolding. You can't close your eyes and make it go away. You can't control it or ignore it. When you are in that country, you are subject to all its laws, and no plea of ignorance or good intentions can save you. The mountains are implacable, indifferent, stark.

And yet my spirits rise the moment I go from flat land into hills, and in the Sierras I was giddy with it. (Yes, some of that may be due to thin air, but it starts immediately. I love mountains.)

Approaching Yosemite from the west, we climbed and climbed from the level, densely cultivated Central Valley. As the altitude increases, population decreases, and orchards give way to pines and fir trees. Even the greatest photo can't convey that Yosemite is not one image, a single view carefully shot so that the power lines and fast-food places don't show. Yosemite is wilderness embedded in wilderness. The mountain range runs for 400 miles north and south -- much of it wild, because the altitude is so high, the snow so deep in winter, the escarpment lethally steep. Yet it is within a few hours' drive of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

On the western edge of the park are a few hamlets and millions of conifers (lodgepole pines, incense cedar, Coast Douglas firs) on steep hillsides; inside, a few park buildings and a couple of roads open only a few months of the year. Even the tour buses cannot diminish the utter wildness of the place.

On the way to the park, I kept seeing warnings that it would cost money to get into Yosemite, but none of the signs indicated how much money. (It was $20 for a passenger car.) I'm used to parks being free. In California, many state parks charge an entrance fee of $5 or so, and still the state park system is crumbling. Yosemite is a national park, though, and none of the other ones I've been to (Valley Forge, Gettysburg) have charged admission fees.

We skipped the loop road that tours the Yosemite Valley and showcases the waterfalls, El Capitan, Half-Dome, and the other famous sites and sights. (To give an idea of the scale of the park: it covers 1200 square miles, about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island.) But the road to Tioga Pass is magnificent enough; the road itself, made of the local granite, sparkles like snow. And we kept stopping (Look, snow! Look, a river! Look, Olmstead Point!) and looking. And lamenting that we didn't have a weekend, a week, to give to this landscape.

From the overlook at Olmstead Point you can see through oceans of air down the valley to Half Dome. People who love flat land talk about the big sky, but mountains offer something better: the sensation of dwelling within the sky. Olmstead Point does not quite hang out over space, but it gives a view down the valley of sheer glacier-scoured mountainsides. There's also a cast-bronze scale model of the viewable area -- Half Dome and all -- so you can see and touch the shapes of the mountains.

I was having geology-geek orgasms all the way -- the local geology is utterly spectacular. Spotting moraines and glacial erratics in the High Sierras is disorienting for me; the glaciated places where I have lived are much lower and much more seriously ground down. And until now I've never seen glaciers in action, carving their characteristic U-shaped valleys, scooping lakes at different levels in the mountains.

And glacial polish! In the east I'd seen it only as a little shine here and there. In the Sierras, vast shields of granite are polished almost to a gravestone gloss. With their joints, they look almost fake, almost like poured concrete, but it's real, all right. I spotted several intrusions -- dikes or sills -- where long ago, hot magma had forced its way into the granite. And more than one xenolith, a stone that had fallen into the granite when it was still a bath of hot magma and now hung suspended like fruit in a Jello mold. I was even lucky enough to see a xenolith that had been split by an intrusion -- one hell of an angular unconformity. Unfortunately, my picture of it didn't come out.

When the polished granite expanses are cracked, plants take root: small cushiony plants with brilliant fuchsia flowers, or tree seedlings. When the trees survive, they eventually split the boulder they took root in. I found this tough persistence of life extraordinarily moving; it's what my first Joe Decker picture shows. (Not incidentally, that photograph was taken in the Eastern Sierra.) A bristlecone pine not just clinging to life on the edge of the abyss, but beautiful in its twisted starkness and its determination to endure.

The High Sierras are an extreme environment, but there are places where bare granite gives way to something more hospitable. After the windswept grandeur of Olmstead Point comes Tuolumne Meadows, a tender, verdant landscape so welcoming it brought tears to my eyes. This level water meadow is lush with grass and bright with wildflowers.

We went out through the pass (at nearly 10,000 feet) and down into the rich world of the Owens Valley.

It's easy to see national parks as a kind of zoo designed to cage and display geological freaks. Despite its extremes, Yosemite isn't a freak. A magnificent landscape; a world of half a dozen ecosystems; a place of dry, tingling air fragrant with pine and fir. Magnificent, unique, but not alone: one part of a vast mountain range. The next valley over, Yosemite's twin, is Hetch Hetchy, which was dammed in 1923 to provide water and power for the San Francisco Bay Area. I drink the waters of the Tuolumne every day.

Watch a day pass in Yosemite with time-lapse video.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Quite a few of the parks out here have $5 entrance fees. Yosemite is the most expensive partially because with the huge amount of traffic, it's expensive to run. I get in free because of gimpitude, though -- the golden access pass for disabled people allows free access and half-price camping at all national park facilities.

Also, I linked to this, or am linking, on I have written a post and will publish it later today.