El Capitan, Big Laugh Falls, and Other Savory Characters

As I prepare to depart from the Green Tortoise hostel to the meeting point for the Yosemite-bound bus, I meet two others going along from the trip. It’s a small and synchronistic world: the one guy was from Chicago, one neighborhood over from me. The other, a woman from Australia, was currently on the trip I’ve been dreaming up for myself. She had an around the world ticket to study various cultural dances. So far she had crossed off her list dancing in Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina, and after the U.S. was on to Spain and India. My eyes popped out, and I blinked, “seriously?! That’s my dream!” Wow. Soon after I met Deborah, who was a mandala sculptor from Brazil currently studying glass blowing in San Francisco. Turns out she was formerly a professional contemporary dancer. The three of us delighted in our common interests and quickly bonded.

The first night on the bus I chatted with some of my fellow passengers, hailing from the U.K., Germany, The Czech Republic, Australia, the U.S., Brazil, and Spain. That night the self-proclaimed “miracle” was performed where the bus converted into a sleeper for up to 36 passengers, and we snuggled up next to our new friends (not much choice in the matter with this close proximity) and went to sleep as the bus drove through the night to Yosemite. I was quite used to this having done a two-week Green Tortoise trip two years ago.

The mobile kitchen was set up the next morning at Yosemite and we prepared ourselves some coffee, fruit, and bagels. It was overcast and cool, and just as we prepared to start our hike, a slight drizzle began. It didn’t last long and we set off to enter the mighty peaks of Yosemite. The weather ended up being perfect for hiking—cool and without oppressive sun. The mighty peak of El Capitan was beckoning us.

We approached the first major waterfall, Vernal Fall, and silently took in its majesty. The falls were running really small this time of year but this did not detract from its beauty. Deborah started laughing as if she had remembered some hilarious joke. “It’s just so beautiful,” she says. Without hesitation, Paige says, “I’m going down there.” We get off the trail and follow right behind her, and now it felt like the real adventure was beginning. I felt my body thank me as I climbed down the rocks. My legs love to activate and feel the exertion of pushing and pulling on the earth. The monkey in me said “yes!” It had been too long. We got so close that we felt the mist of the water hitting our faces. We were lulled by the crashing of the water on the rocks. Deborah continued with her bursts of laughter which subsequently incited giggles in me and Paige. Paige decided that we should rename this fall to “Big Laugh Falls.”

As we continued to hike our way up to the taller falls, our hiking crew trickled off until it was just Paige and I that wanted to attempt the climb to Nevada Falls with the allotted time given. The further we went the further we realized we were from the top of the fall. The hike became more and more challenging. We had come this far so we had to make it all the way up. When we finally made it it was well worth the effort. The view at 594 ft was spectacular. Unfortunately we had less time to get back to the bus than we needed so we descended soon after we had arrived.

The bus would leave us if we were late. I knew this because I had almost been left in the Grand Canyon on the last trip. Paige and I got in the zone and hiked quietly and vigorously at full speed until we made it back down to the shuttle bus. Once the bus finally came, we got on it and it ever so slowly made it’s way to our meeting spot. The Chicago in me started coming out as I burnt holes into the back of the driver’s head who was ever so casually fixing her hair and chatting with each person as they got on the bus. I had to breathe and remind myself that I was on vacation. Even if we got left behind, I would be in one of the most beautiful places on earth. In the end, the extra nice Green Tortoise bus drivers did wait and extra 10 minutes, and opened it’s door for us as we ran to catch it.

That night we made pesto pasta and set up camp for the night. No way was I sleeping outside—it was freezing! I would be sleeping on the bus, which albeit was not a whole heck of a lot warmer.

The second day the bus took us to beautifully bizarre tufa towers at Mono lake. Wikipedia describes tufa as “a terrestrial sedimentary rock, formed by the precipitation of carbonate minerals from ambient temperature water bodies.” The young British clan decided to “swim” in this super saline (three times as salty as the ocean) and freezing water and entertained the rest of us as we watched them squeal. The cold was enough to deter me but the flies and brine shrimp surrounding the area made it even more unappealing. The folks that went in the water reported it to be “slimy,” and it turns out this is probably due to the high alkalinity of the water which supposedly behaves a lot like soapy water. I had no problem letting the others experiment as I sat in the sun and ate my packed lunch.

Next we drove to June Lake, a sparkling lake in the Sierras with a sandy beach. This is my ideal landscape—lake, mountains, and pines—perfection. It’s beauty lured me to dawn my bathing suit regardless of the knowledge that it would be bitter cold. I had not put my bathing suit on once this summer and hell, if I was going to do it anywhere it was going to be in this idyllic landscape. I walked in, forced myself to immerse myself up to my shoulders and then ran out. It was painful, but I’m glad I did it. I dried off in the sun and tried my hardest to take in the environment. I would be here for such a short time and I wanted to make sure I was present for every moment of it.

Following this the bus took us to Obsidian Dome in Mammoth Lakes. Surely this would be the name of my new all girl metal band, and it’s corresponding album name. The actual site did not rock any less than it’s name promised. Walking amongst this mile-long mound of volcanic black glass felt akin to walking on Mars. Walking over the obsidian, the material used by Native Americans for spearheads, made a very satisfying crunching sound. In order to really feel the essence of a place I like to experience it alone. I also wanted to pretend I really was walking on another planet, so a wandered off alone until I could no longer see anyone. After spending a while in this rocky wonderland I figured I better find my way back to the bus for it would soon be leaving. I encountered several earthy looking guys sitting on top of a large mound and we got to chatting. They told me they were from “here” and I said “where is here?” realizing that I really had no idea what part of the earth I was on at this point. “Mammoth Lakes” they responded and laughed. I said goodbye because I really needed to find my crew at this point. As I casually made my way back I realized that it all looked the same and perhaps I had been walking in circles, or worse, walking further away from the entrance. I started to panic and at this point actually started running. My Tortoids were nowhere to be found! Had they left with out me? Eventually I did find them, and all was well. Another close call.

That night we made tacos for dinner and prepared the final campfire to our short little trip. It turns out that our driver Bill, was a fabulous musician, playing the guitar, singing, and playing the harmonica without the use of his hands (this was quite something to watch). We sang along, made smores, and drank till we were merry.

The final day of the Green Tortoise Yosemite trip took us to Tuolumne Meadows in the Sierras. We had several options for the area and a bunch of us chose the hike up to Lembert Dome. The hiking and the partying from the previous day had us moving quite slow on this steep hike (about 12% average grade) with a high altitude. I found myself a quality hiking stick to assist. Once we reached the granite dome there were already breathtaking panoramic views of Yosemite’s high country. The base of the dome was

Someone elses photo used to show the climb at Lembert Dome
Someone else’s photo used to show the climb at Lembert Dome

wide open and sloping, making one feel a bit exposed and unstable. Not for one with a fear of heights. I started climbing the actual dome which offered nothing to hold on to. The way up was relatively easy but I made the mistake of looking down and anticipating that the climb down would offer even less support. I experienced vertigo so I decided that the climb was not for me today unfortunately and returned to the flat area of the dome. I ate lunch amongst the splendid view of the Sierras. It was cool, sunny, and spectacular.

Our final destination in the mighty land of Yosemite was Tuolumne Grove to see some giant sequoias. Deborah told me that when she was little she had a poster of a giant sequoia and she dreamed from that moment on that she would see some in person one day. We spent the day hugging, climbing through, and dancing through these giant wonders. This was one of my dreams–to dance in a natural space—combining two of my great loves. We were so in love with this forest that yes, again we were late for the bus.

We made our final dinner that night and then went to a saloon style karaoke bar. Before we arrived the only clear foreigners were a young Spanish couple that were highly committed to and entertained by their own performances. I got up the nerve to put my slip in and before I knew it found myself on stage singing Mary J. Blige’s “Sweet Thang” with Scottish Michael as my backup man-ho. Our chemistry must have made for quite a show because we received high accolades from the crowd. The Spanish girl came up and asked me where I was from and enthusiastically told me that they were the biggest fans of my hilarious performance. In addition, the bartender sat next to me and said that the man at the bar in a black jacket and glasses wanted to buy me a drink for my performance. Well, maybe I should move to California if I’m going to be so popular. This got the rest of the group going and we all laughed to tears at the various performances including the dry, British-accented version of “Baby Got Back,” the Czechoslovakian’s manic dancing, among other hilarities. Michael became the M.C. and his true comedian came out. We quickly thinned the place out, and this made us even more pleased with ourselves. Little did I know that this would end up being one of the most entertaining nights of the entire trip.

We drove over night back to San Fran and went our separate ways in the wee early morning. Emails were traded, and hugs were given, very well knowing that only a small few of us may ever cross paths again.

Southwest Chief: Chicago to Albuquerque

9/19/09

I made it. 26 hours on the train. It was lovely. Here are some musings from this leg of the train journey.

Slow Train From Mid To West

blue lollipop swirl sky / fluttering green corn field stripes / roads leading to…somewhere / yellow sparks in a sea of green / surprising hills / amish girl eating cheetos / the lure of simplicity / oh train, slow and steady / romance me / black cow / blue tin house / stand in the field and belt a tune / hands grazing the feathery fields / checkerboard cow field / hazy twilight / glued to the seat / white horses, can i touch you? / no words / no bulletins / sunset beam reflecting on the lake / pink emerges / industrial bridge / black pudding lake / stowed accordion / ALL ABOARD!

I sat with Clyde, and airforce retiree, who bought me my $12 breakfast. We sipped coffee and talked about our lives. His wife passed away six months ago and he was trying to stay busy. He told me of all the interesting characters he’s met during his years riding the train. He pointed out the “cay-otes” on the Colorado plain.

I am here

fried barren grassland / nothing but open space / space and more space / rickety houses ravaged by natural forces / be still and know / strange loner bush trees, i like your style / telephone lines keep us connected / way out here / we are somewhere / clydesdales…”you don’t see dem too ofen” / fat cow runs / green puff hills / my new friend clyde says i missed the antelopes / follow my heart / that knows the truth / the train / it was meant to be / i am filled with peace and joy on this ride / with this window / my fellow passengers / the camera can’t catch this / i am here

I slept very comfortably last night being fortunate enough to have the window seat. There is ample room to recline and stretch out. My Amish seat mate, on the other hand, seemed to struggle all night. I was woken up several times as she accidentally tried to wrap her leg over mine. She would apologize in a start and try to squeeze back into her space. Poor thing must have been mortified.

Glorieta

red earth / green ponderosa pine/ cracked rocks / shadow mountain / textural wonder / orange tree rebellion / purple and yellow petals scattered / tell me god is not an artist / i hope i would never stop admiring his work