I’ve always been a fast walker. I think my typical pace on the trip has been about 2.5 mph, including stops for food, photographs, and writing. But the last 4 days of the walk (May 6-9) were a new pace, as I covered 60 miles on the ground and climbed nearly a mile up. Sometimes when the motor gets turned on, it can be hard to turn off. Or maybe it was simply the gravity of those dense granites that make up the park, pulling me more and more quickly to the end.
From Greeley Hill, I continued east through the Stanislaus National Forest. I made a stop at Bower Cave, once a popular tourist destination, now fenced off, swarmed with swallows, and overgrown with poison oak. Remnants of an old stage cling to the walls of the pit, though the dance floor is gone. I climbed up and around the cave, then down to the bottom, despite stories I had heard of rattlesnake fights and rashes. There was something of a ghostly atmosphere in the cave – knowing it had once housed so many travelers on the way to the park including Muir himself, hearing now only the cries of swallows, not seeing another person on the road for several days – all these contributed to the feeling. Something too of history gone by – the kind of entertainment provided by the cave wouldn’t work for the modern traveler, regulations and designations of the land itself might no longer permit such use if it were sought (much like they no longer permit constructing beds out of cut pine boughs, as was Muir’s custom). For the moment, the cave’s natural and human histories seem to have diverged, though the not-so-friendly folks who tried to run me out of town the day before (did I mention that the shorter, heavier set man of the pair began bleeding profusely and mysteriously from his finger mid conversation?) mentioned that there had been murders near the cave in recent memory, a bitter rapprochement.
Ghosts of past and present stayed with me throughout Stanislaus NF. These ghosts, as ghosts like to do , appeared not in person (after meeting the two fellows on dogtown road, I didn’t see another person for 2 days) but came out in the surroundings. There was evidence of the region’s mining history. I am still unclear whether mining continues in the forest today, as “placer claim” markers dot roadsides, mining claim signs come brightly out of the verdure, and “no mining” signs often accompany private property markers. Near one stream was a well used during the “Groveland Fire,” embossed on the rusted metal covering. At times there were clear lines through the forest, where logging or managed burns had taken place. The constructed world was not untouched by the natural, as flowers crowded road cuts, washouts and potholes made roads impassable for cars, and rivers and valleys dictated a great deal about land use and the distribution of public and private land.
Late on May 7, the valley I was walking through became steeper and steeper, and finally I saw the first signs of granite on the hillsides. I camped at Anderson Flat, and dined on the best meal of the trip – corned beef and cheddar potato soup mix, combined with just a little water to make something close to mashed potatoes and corned beef hash. Followed, of course, by the tediousness of bear-bagging, though I admit it is exciting to stay in bear country. A few days later, in the park, I saw a bear, seemingly unaware of his own circumference, almost like a man in a bear suit, cross the street and try to squeeze between two rocks not quite wide enough apart.
The highlight of May 8 was an off-trail stint straight uphill, from around 4500 to 5500 feet in just under a mile. I followed a dry creek bed to a deer trail, having at times to crawl under thicker patches of madrone, and reaching the summit as sweaty as I’ve ever been. My partially cotton shirt, anathema among most campers, dried quickly in the sun. (I side with Colin Fletcher here in suggesting that I am not a camper, backpacker, tramper, or hiker, but simply a walker. The others all carry heavy technical, ethical, and social baggage that don’t often find traction with me). A few miles further along the ridge, through one last tract of private land, and there it was. On a shabby barb wire fence, the green and white sign marking the boundary of Yosemite National Park. The jewel that drew Muir, that has drawn millions over the years, and that drew me as well. As powerful as the journey has been, it takes the gravity of a place like Yosemite to draw one so far. The park’s sheer power and splendor almost strike fear, terror even as the pure granite bursts surprisingly from the Earth.
A friend once argued that he agreed with Daoist teachings, that place is nothing compared to mind, and that whatever place can offer exists already within the mind. No. Place and imagination cannot be separated. Each inspires and colors the other, just as on a larger scale people and nature cannot be truly distinguished, their interactions shaping one another (seen so clearly in the National Forest alone). Even within humans, places provide the substrate that inspires imagination and intellect – what is present in the mind might be unlocked through spatial experience. Some places, like Yosemite, move us almost out of body entirely, defying our human sensibilities and constructions and giving us a new, non-anthropocentric perspective. I agree with Steinbeck, who argued that many of our national parks are more like “Disneylands” representing outliers in the ecology of the country. But I can understand too why such outliers might be so eagerly protected, and why they might remain important in shaping environmental thinking.
And so, at the boundary of the beginning of journey’s end, place was thus coloring my thoughts and expectations. I stepped over the fence and entered the park.