The mountains. The valley. The scored, striated, soaring granite cliffs. The falls crashing between them. The thinness of the air, the precipitousness of the drops, the windiness of the roads — the way you round a bend or come through a tunnel, then look up and gasp with wonder, then look down and gasp with fright. The world feels bigger in Yosemite. Older. It feels more present. Its time is eternal and immediate, because you can see those millions of years within the rock. You can feel those thousands of years inside those yawning glacial chasms.
My dad brought me and my kids on a nine-day trip to Yosemite, and I’ve already written about our first day there and my first encounter with the ancient and majestic giant (they’re not kidding!) sequoias. But it’s hard not to write about them again, because I fell in love with them, and once you’re in love, all you can do is yammer on like a ninny about your infatuation and infatuee, right? I WANT TO MARRY THOSE TREES. (No. Not literally. Go away.)
Clearly, I was gobsmacked. I continued to be gobsmacked as we explored the park, hiking and snapping pictures that I knew would fail to capture the scope and scene. We saw Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and its towering crags. Lembert Dome and its breathtaking, high-altitude, low-oxygen views of the snow-capped Sierras. Yosemite Valley and its massive bluffs and falls (El Capitan is IMMENSE). Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome, where we summitted with two friends from Fresno, and one of them, hearing me gasp at the view, turned and asked: “What do you see?”
I tried to explain it: how the mountains were different from my relatively cozy Northeastern ranges, which were stunning, yes, but a little smaller and a whole lot more familiar to me. And greener.
These mountains are mostly bald, I said. You can see the time etched in their sides. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s somehow foreign. Alien, even.
Later on, I thought about this a little. In part I was blown away by Yosemite because, OK, I’m just a farty old Northeasterner who doesn’t know the West and its landscape that well. But I decided that wasn’t all of it. I decided that in Yosemite I collided with beauty, fell into it, yielded to it, in a way I’d never quite done before. And I came away changed.
I’m not sure how. I’m not sure I can put it into words just yet (though obviously I’ve been trying pretty hard). Sometimes life alters us in ways that are obvious and immediately graspable; sometimes it alters us without our even knowing; sometimes it WHOMPS us with such thundering force that we know in an instant we’ve been changed, though we can’t say how. In the past I’ve been mutated — keelhauled, more like it — by loss and grief, forces I know and recognize as powerfully transformative, even when I don’t know how and why and what I’m actually becoming.
But this was different. This time, the transmogrifying forces were the opposite of death — or no, not the opposite. Something more. Something closer to everything: the epochal hugeness of it encompassed life and death and creation and decay, all of it, every resounding tear and crash, since the broken earth first spat up magma three million years ago. What terror! What violence! And it’s still there — a window into the trauma that made our world. Because I believe in a creator behind the creation, I looked out at Yosemite and saw a wild genius at work. But even if I didn’t, I’d still be faced with the brilliant, beautiful, savage ingenuity of the natural world. And I’d still be awed.