Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hurry Up and Wait - A Cautionary Tale

Sometimes I need to just slow the flock down.  Chill the hell out, forget about the "plan", and not worry so damn much.  Sometimes we all do, I suppose.  Such good advice: so easy to remember but so hard to implement on a daily basis.

Case in point.  My sister Molly and her good friend Mike recently came to San Francisco from Ohio, and while here they wanted to spend some time in Yosemite.

"Hell yeah I'll go to Yosemite with you!" I sputtered.

I’m crazy about Yosemite.  Freaking adore it.  And the prospect of taking two people who have never before been – watch their faces as they get that first glimpse of the world-renowned, glacier-carved valley, of the stately sequoias and jumbled granite rocks, of the crystal clear waters of the mighty Merced River; listen to their oohs and ahhs when the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan looms into view, when we reach the eastern end of the valley and voila…Half Dome! – the prospect of that makes me salivate like a pig in shit.  “Crack a fat,” as our friends Down Under might say.

Looking east into Yosemite Valley.

Bright and early on Thursday June 21st we hit the asphalt, reaching the valley around 10:30 a.m.  Once inside the park I took the wheel and leisurely drove the entire loop road once, allowing Molly and Mike an unfettered visual taste of the whole enchilada and the chance to decide where they wanted to spend the afternoon.  The campsite for our two-night stay was in Tuolumne Meadows up in the High Sierra, another hour and a half drive, so I figured we had until 5 p.m. or so to snoop around the valley, especially if we wanted to make Tuolumne in the soft orange and pink glow before sunset.  That was the plan, and I did.

Together we spent some time on the grassy meadow by Camp Curry, the one with the unobstructed, drop dead gorgeous view of Half Dome and North Dome.  We stocked up on ham and turkey sandwiches at Degnan’s Deli in Yosemite Village.  We walked the short trail to Bridal Veil Fall, which, along with Yosemite Falls, was the only one still running.  Finally we settled down for a quiet spell on the Merced River, on the sandy stretch beneath El Capitan.  The beach by the parking area was filled with what looked like a goodly amount of the 4 million tourists that visit Yosemite annually, but a brief five-minute walk along the shore led us to a more desirable stretch of river, one with a deep swimming hole and a big fat rock in the center for scaling, sunning, jumping and diving.  The water was chilly but oh-so refreshing in the valley heat.  It was peaceful: the whisper of the river, the pleasing rustle of trees, the distant peal of laughter, the noisy quack of ducks as they zipped by or, at one point, swam over to inspect our food supply.  It was, as it always is, absolutely lovely.

Mike and Molly, with Yosemite Falls.

Half Dome.

Several hours later and halfway up Tioga Road we passed the Porcupine Creek Trailhead, important to the story because it’s the start of the fabled hike to North Dome, which was on my radar.  I’ve done lots of hiking in the park – Yosemite Falls, Half Dome (twice), Illouette Falls, Indian Creek, May Lake, Dog Lake, Chilnualna Falls in Wawona, Lembert Dome, the Mist Trail up Vernal and Nevada Falls (several times) – and for some time had my eyes and heart set on North Dome.

From the trailhead the round trip hike is 9 miles or so, with an elevation change of 1,200 feet, some of it down but lots of it up, much of which is on the return trip.  A biggish hike anywhere, but this, remember, is at 8,000 feet above sea level.

On Friday morning I woke in the chilly mountain air, tumbled out of the SUV (Molly and Mike had the tent) and, with a cup of joe from Tuolumne Lodge and a McYosemite Muffin from the Tuolumne Grill, began my mental assault of North Dome.   The idea, at least in my mind, was to crank it out as quickly as possible and spend the remainder of the afternoon/evening relaxing on camp chairs by the side of the Tuolumne River, watching the sun set and light up the meadow, the various lofty domes and granite peaks of high country.  To achieve my master plan, however – and get back in time to find some food, because we had none, save a quickly disappearing mixed berry pie and a half bag of tortilla chips – I knew we were gonna have to motor: drive 45 minutes to the trailhead, get hiking, keep up a good steady pace on the tramp, not dawdle too long, and drive back to our campsite.  An ambitious undertaking, I know, but I had to have it ALL.

Somewhere a long time ago I remember reading that on flat terrain, and at sea level, the human being walks around 3.5 miles an hour.  In my diligent and more recent research for our Yosemite escapade I read that the hike to North Dome usually takes between 4 and 6 hours.  The former if you’re huffing through it all, the latter if you’re not.  Neither scenario took into account my sister Molly and her trusty sidekick Mike.

At the start of the hike.

I knew the pace would be slow(ish); that the elevation and mileage and ups and downs would take their toll.  Hell, I had even thought about scrapping the whole idea and finding a much less demanding but equally enjoyable adventure for our Friday, just to be able to spend the whole time together.  Deep in my soul - come hell or high water - I wanted North Dome.  Wanted it bad.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the actual hike.  The first mile took us 45 minutes, and that was all downhill.  45 minutes!  At that pace I figured it would take us, oh, I don’t know, 8 hours to complete the hike.  For a while I tried remain calm, tried to contain my frustration and remind myself that this was not an ordinary experience: I was with my sister Molly and our good family friend Mike, the three of us in Yosemite for Christ’s sake, tackling a hike I had dreamed of for some years.

“Peter,” Molly reassured me, several times, well before and during the actual hike, “if we get tired and decide not to go on, you can leave us and we’ll just sit by the trail and wait for you.”

So I left them behind.  I really did.

“You guys are never going to make it,” I muttered, then walked off.

The uphill to Indian Ridge soon had me huffing and puffing, but I loved it.  I was in my element, working up a healthy sweat and as I breathed in the sweet and clean mountain air, as I listened to the lovely silence of the forest and marveled at the vistas that got finer and more expansive as I climbed.

I finished the hike in four hours and forty-five minutes, and it was gorgeous: the trail, the surrounding wilderness and the actual view from North Dome!  Clouds Rest and several other 10,000’+ peaks reach skyward, Yosemite Valley twists and turns 3,000 feet below the exposed perch, and across a vertiginous expanse the face of Half Dome seems so close one might actually reach out and…hmmm.  Rein it in, Palmer.

View down to North Dome proper.
Beyond that last little hump is a 3,000' drop.

Half Dome, from half way down.

I didn’t linger long on the dome itself as my adult-onset vertigo started to rear its ugly head.  All that open space was softly calling my name, so I quickly started back up and back home.  On the return I expected to find Molly and Mike around every bend in the trail, hear their ever-present laughter before I saw them, but the miles went on and I never did.  I wanted to take the short spur trail to Indian Rock, Yosemite’s only natural arch, but I figured they must have been lounging at the car already, so I hoofed it back to the trailhead and found…an empty SUV.  Molly and Mike were nowhere around.

What the what?

So I waited.  I sat, I paced, I thought, I watched the sun dip ever closer toward the mountainous horizon, I worried, I got frustrated, I read the Yosemite paper and perused the park map, I hopped in the car and drove briefly up and down Tioga Road, thinking they might have walked off to explore, then I sat and waited some more.  I waited for over three hours!  I waited until finally a young couple trudged up the last incline, walked in my direction and asked, ”Are you Peter?”  After assuring them that I was, they quickly added: “Your sister Molly and Mike are about 20 minutes behind us.  They’re on the way.”

“Where did you find them?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“On North Dome.  We were just descending and they were on the way back up.  Told us about that cool shoe-like rock formation.”

Shoe…what shoe? I thought.  In my haste I didn’t really explore much, briefly relishing the view then retracing my steps.

Sure enough, before long I recognized the familiar shape of two incredibly slow slowpokes slowly plodding up the hill.  The time was 6:30 p.m.  It had taken them seven and a half hours.  I wanted to be mad, or upset, but I couldn’t.  Wasn’t their fault I had forged ahead, and that somehow we had missed each other on the trail.  That somehow turned out to be the fact that Molly and Mike confused the side-trail to Indian Rock as the one they needed to get to North Dome, so they took the detour and spent a lovely interlude beneath the singular (and from the photos I saw, beautiful) Yosemite natural arch.  Damn it!  While they were up there I probably zipped by on my way back to the trailhead.  Double damn it!

After the hike.

Food…we needed food.  After a brief celebration the three of us hopped into the car and quickly drove to Tenaya Lake for a plunge, then on to Tuolumne Lodge in hopes of snagging a table before they closed, if they had one (reservations are highly recommended, I had read).

“I can probably seat you in 45 minutes,” the kinda’ grungy but kinda’ handsome young nature boy-trail hiker-rock climber-park employee explained.  As I turned to tell Molly and Mike this, the family behind me in line walked up and cancelled their reservation.  Thus we were seated promptly and with plenty of time to spare enjoyed a surprisingly delicious (and not so surprisingly memorable) dinner: a huge green salad served communal style, individual bowls of minestrone soup, all three of us broiled Idaho trout and a glass of Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc.

I was confused and perplexed by my feelings, but, once again, I couldn’t be mad or frustrated or anything but pleased, because it all was my fault.  My fault for the impatience, for having some grand master plan set in concrete (or granite), for not just slowing the hell down and enjoying the day all three of us as one, whatever that day turned out to be.

And an extraordinary day it was.  An extraordinary trip!  My sister Molly and her buddy Mike and I went to Yosemite.  They loved it.  I loved it.  The weather was fantastic.  We swam in the Merced River.  It was their first time in the park and I got to show them around.  Watch them take in the mind-boggling splendor of it all.  The experience was awesome, and on top of it all we tackled the fabled, jaw-droppingly beautiful hike to North Dome, something I have been dying to do for a long, long time.

Just not together.

They made it!

*  *  *

"Chill and ill and dill."  That's a phrase from this West Indian guy I used to work with at Piccola Marina Café in Saint Thomas, USVI.  He was a line cook.  I was a server.

Remember it, Mr. Peter J. Palmer.


  1. Right there with ya- a lot of the time I end up short-changing myself on an outing because I'm either trying to keep everyone on schedule, or have tunnel-vision on the final objective...Really enjoyed reading this. Good reminder that sometimes it's better to just roll with the punches, but I'm not quite there yet X)

  2. Loved this! Very true, slow down and enjoy the gifts of the moment. Your cousin, Dee