As a part of this Everglades Wilderness Expedition writing team, I’ve been asked to write about what wilderness and especially National Parks mean to me. It’s also an inspiration to re-open this blog so… let’s go for it. A lot of the other young writers are accomplished poets, lyrically weaving beautiful words through imagery and metaphor, but I’m not really a poet. I’m just a story teller. So instead I thought I’d tell a story.
My first experience in a National Park was in one of the biggest and grandest in my own home state of California. I’d done a bit of camping and RVing, but always with my aunt and uncle. My aunt can magically make a full breakfast of biscuits and gravy appear at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and I slept on a bouncy air mattress. This experience was to be considerably different, two full weeks backpacking through Yosemite with my high school boyfriend, John, and his dad. We were both 17. This was in the days before GPS, before cell phones. We had a paper map and trust in my boyfriend’s dad, Mike, and that was it. Mike was a fairly seasoned backcountry backpacker. He’d been taking John backpacking since John was 12 and much longer back with friends so I pretty much assumed I’d be making it out.
In the evenings of the days and week beforehand, I watched the guys assembling, organizing, shuffling, and repacking equipment into three old-style exterior frame backpacks in their garage. There was plenty of horse play and funny stories often involving Gus, his father’s slight, be speckled, and good-natured best friend. A favorite was the one about Gus eating a can of asparagus and the externalities of peeing upwind afterwards (“Dammit Gus what is that smell?!” “The whole campsite reeked that night. It was awful.” “I didn’t know a human could produce such a foul smell. Then again, I have had to deal with his farts after canned chili in the tent before.”). There was an excitement that stirred in the air, growing each day as the moment of departure grew nearer.
I spent most of my evenings at their house in those years. Ostensibly it was because there was food at their house and none at mine. Really I was just trying to spend as little time at home as I could. There were 3 or 4 of us at times in our giant house on the hill and if you timed your movements just right, you could go an entire day without seeing each other. But then again, this plan could still have errors. Instead in exchange for a hot meal at every night, I drove my boyfriend to and from school every day, leaving my house at 6 am and making it back home no later (nor no earlier) than 10 every night, just in time to slip down into my mom’s cave-like bedroom on the bottom floor to kiss her good night. I kept asking John if his family minded having me around so much, but he insisted it was no problem. The presence of an outside young lady seemed to have a calming influence on everyone. One is less apt to squabble and jab at the dinner table when someone outside the family is around. The tone of the house always changed when his dad got home as a sort of deference was paid, though he was always gracious with me. Besides the free meal, I think his mom enjoyed my company too. His family was as complicated as mine, but did a better job of hiding it, mostly due to the patriarchy of his father. Their household routine was orderly and normal. Dinner was the same time every night (6:30, meat, veg, starch) and mass every Sunday. Cheerleading practice, track team meets, work, etc. rolled by with dependable regularity.
Both of his parents were brilliant, trained in engineering and math and some of the first computer scientists to graduate from UC Irvine. His mom in particular graduated sum cum laude and did the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning in pen. Any attempts to praise her intelligence were always quickly brushed away with an awkward and self-effacing, but clever reply, normally some dark illusion to her role as a housewife who sometimes burned dinner. We all knew that back in the day, she wrote code for the CIA. Burnt rice be damned, this lady had a hand in the Cold War and I found her story fascinating, even if others did not.
My boyfriend was also quite bright and it was expected that he would achieve similar success. His dad in particular had high expectations. John tried desperately to earn his father’s respect, competing in the same sports his dad had excelled in, focusing on similar subjects, but in my boyfriend’s sensitive eyes, he never thought he was good enough. Looking back it was clear, if subtly so, that had had always been his father’s pride. But being a son, I think his father thought being critical of him might toughen him up for the rocks life would throw at him. As a child, a fever had left John legally deaf and the school bullying early on disabled him more than his weak hearing. He became a far more jaded and reckless young man, I believe, for it. The transition to adulthood did nothing to correct this and four years later, it helped drive an impenetrable wedge between us. If his father thought his criticism toughened him up, I politely disagreed but still, I understand.
Yosemite though, this was something else. Watching those two laughing and conspiring on the plan for this big adventure in the garage, I knew I was watching something special unfold. There were no physics tests discussed, no SATs, no work deadlines, no family tension.
“My dad is the happiest when he’s out there, away from work. You’ll see. He’s a different man,” John would saw with optimism when we talked about the trip. He was also happier and more hopeful than I’d ever seen him.
The journey started with a road trip to the entrance of Yosemite to the tunes of Bob Marley, Dave Matthews, and classic rock CDs from Mike’s college years played many decibels louder than they ever were in our suburb. Mike’s normally biting humor lost its acerbity and instead we teased each other into laughter, butchered song lyrics and fully entertained ourselves with the spectacle of oddities, ghost towns, and one-off species found only on the backwoods highways of the California desert.
The packbacking itself was both grueling and energizing. We covered as much as 10 miles in a day with heavy packs, up mountains and down valleys. In the shadow of Half Dome, we climbed its lesser known brother, Cloud’s Rest. This slice of granite rises suddenly a thousand feet off the ground, its crest a narrow sliver extending into nothingness, 10 feet wide at the most from tip to tail, with a tumble to your death guaranteed on all sides, including the steep, narrow trail you had to ascend to reach it. At the top it feels like any sudden gust could end your life, but the unrivaled 360 degree view of the park more than makes up for the risk.
Around the 10th day, we were deep into the park, hiking switchbacks up the side of a mountain when Mike informed us that the very trail we were on was named for the adventurer who had himself first blazed it, the one and only John Muir. A deep sense of history filled me as I looked back down on the meadow we had just traversed, crisscrossed with tiny babbling brooks filled with smooth river stones and juvenile trout. So these were the views that had moved a man and an admiring president to undertake the salvation of a nation’s wild places.
Our dinner that night was supplemented with a few silvery, slippery trout we’d caught in a stream. We were so hungry after completing the longest hike of our trip that we ended up eating the fish still half raw in the frying pan, picking at it greedily claiming we were just “checking to see it if was done”. Mike knocked a particularly succulent bike off John’s fork and quickly popped it into his mouth with a self-satisfied grin.
“What!! You jerk!” John shrieked, trying to stifle laughs as his dad, grinning like an ass, made a show of noisily slurping and sucking the tips of his fingers. Already behaving like half-starved animals, we further descended into light shoving, balking, and flat out thievery.
The next morning we woke up and crawled out our tents. Breakfast was Pop-Tarts as usual. I hadn’t realized when I’d let the guys plan the meals that that would mean lots of Pop-Tarts and gooey energy gel packs, neither of which I had ever eaten before and which I have staunchly avoided since. Cinnamon brown sugar was the only variety I could stomach as I could recognize the flavor they were trying to achieve, as opposed to “blue raspberry” or “wild fruit”, neither of which is an actual food.
While we nibbled on fake pastries out of tinfoil wrappers, Mike stood in an open patch of the meadow, hands on his hips and head thrown back into a ray of sunshine filtering through the trees, exhalted and at one with his surroundings.
“Is this not the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen!” he exclaimed. “I mean, it’s perfect. Just absolutely perfect. You guys gotta come see this. What is it with teenagers, sleeping the day away and missing everything? Lazy I tell you,” he grumbled with a light smirk. “Wait! I’ve got an idea.”
Next thing John and I were corralled into an opening in the center of the meadow, sunlight tumbling down, gracing every blade of grass, and lighting up each speck of pollen in the air like confetti.
“Ok now you two kneel down,” said Mike.
We found ourselves on our knees in foot-tall green grass, facing each other, giggling nervously at the situation while Mike fussed with his camera, checking the lighting from different angles until he found just the right view.
“Alright John, now give her a kiss.”
I looked at John a bit wide-eyed. We’d always kept physical affection to a minimum around his dad, both out of respect and fear. Until then the most I’d ever risked was using his shoulder to nap on far too early on Saturday mornings. I would go with him and his dad to cheer on John at his mountain bike races several weekends a month. We leaned in for a modest peck, looking quite a lot like a life-sized Dutch girl and boy figurine set, and held the pose as his dad snapped, capturing a moment of that rare stuff I think they call innocence.
“Ooh that’s a good one! Ok, got it. Alright troops, let’s get going. Still tons to see today,” and with that Mike strolled back to camp to finish packing, whistling the loudest tune he could muster and relishing in the acoustics as the sounds filled the stone walls of our valley.
We smiled at each other and rose, likely sneaking in another kiss if my memory recalls correctly. The bubbly, indefatigable nature of his normally serious father was infectious. There really was no time to lose. We only had three more days left to savor this until we had to go back. Back meant the real world where their every day roles were stern father and petulant son. But here was no ceiling here to hold in the bad air. No mention of disappointment, no strained “yes, sir’s”. They talked as freely as they breathed and each breath was fresh and restorative. For me it was affirmation that these places are important and worth protecting. They give us something which nothing else in our busy lives can the same, breathing room.
In yoga we learn to connect our breath with our body with our mood and with our spirit. In that practice and outside in the big wilderness are the only places sometimes where I can find my breath. I don’t realize most days how tightly I’m holding it in until I get those first few long, luxurious breaths out. It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve seen either John or Mike and I wonder sometimes what their relationship became. Those foundations I saw forming around campfires and on mountain trails were strong, stronger I hope, than the things that we as families always do and never mean to try to tear them down.