By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/19/2019
Occurred: 7/24/1981
Posted: 7/28/2010
Topics/Keywords: #California #Camping #YosemiteNationalPark Page Views: 3944
I recall my first visit to one of my two favorite places in the world.

Just over 29 years ago, I made my first trip to Yosemite National Park. This was combined with my first trip to San Francisco. It's almost hard for me to imagine how untraveled I was before this trip, and how many places I've gone since. And yet, Yosemite is still one of my two favorite places in the world.

I had been on a lengthy computer software installation for my Omaha-based employer, Applied Communications, Inc. We were installing software for Wells Fargo Bank in Fresno, California, for a new device they had called an "automated teller machine" (ATM for short). The installation was supposed to take two weeks. However, due to the minor problem that we hadn't actually completed the software when we went to install it, the job took six weeks.

ACI paid for me to fly home each weekend; and, most weekends, I did. However, I was in California…a place I'd never before visited…and who knew if I would ever have another chance to be there? Fresno was rather boring; but I had friends living in San Francisco, and so one weekend I made arrangements to visit them and go camping at Yosemite.

I was familiar with the name, "Yosemite", as that had been the name of the ship to which I was assigned during my brief Navy career. But I knew absolutely nothing about the park for which it was named.

The first leg of my trip was by jet from Omaha. The views from the jet of the ground were spectacular.

My Friday afternoon flight from Fresno to San Francisco was made on a regional carrier whose name I no longer remember. (I generally think of it as "Basket Airways".) It was a propeller plane, the first large one I'd ridden. We were close enough to the ground for me to actually take recognizable pictures of California scenery from the air.

California's golden hills from the air.

I believe I've made it clear in these pages that I am not a fan of cities in general. But remember, at this time the biggest city I'd even seen (or at least, the tallest) was Jacksonville, Florida. Omaha was big but spread out, without many tall buildings. My friend, Dick (who now calls himself Richard but he was Dick at the time) picked me up at the airport and treated me to a tour of downtown San Francisco. And, yes, I was impressed at the beauty and grandeur of the architecture…especially when the "morning" fog finally rolled away around three in the afternoon.

Dick and I met up with his roommate, Rick, and they took me to a fancy Chinese dinner near Fisherman's Wharf. Afterwards, as we were walking along, I experienced an unexpected psychic event. I was following close behind Rick as Dick and I were chatting, and were just about to cross a busy intersection. The light changed and Rick stepped off the curb. Without my conscious volition, my hand jabbed forward, grabbed Rick by the belt, and jerked him back onto the sidewalk, just as a Volkswagen came careening against the light. It hurtled by exactly where Rick had stood a split-second before. If I hadn't have pulled him back, he would have been hit for certain. Rick thanked me for saving him, but I didn't feel I could take credit—I hadn't seen the car, and had been paying zero attention to what was going on around me. Whoever or whatever was responsible for saving Rick, it hadn't been my conscious self.

I spent the night on Dick and Rick's sofa, but not for long: We were up—more or less—at 2:00 am to begin our camping trip. I hope I helped load the car but I don't really remember much. I am not really myself at that hour. And I slept pretty soundly in the car as Rick drove eastward toward the park, so I missed all of that scenery.

We were in the foothills by the time the sun rose, and climbed steadily upward as I roused, took a photo, dozed off, and roused again.

The foothills approaching Yosemite National Park.

I learned later that we had entered the park from the Northwest Entrance, State Highway 120, and continued on the northern road through the park, This bypasses the Yosemite Canyon floor and its most famous landmarks, such as El Capitan (of which, at the time, I'd never heard). So, for me, it was just pretty. Incredible, in fact.

View of Yosemite's northern reaches.

I knew we were gaining altitude as we drove, of course. But I had no idea how much. I was unaware, for example, that when we reached Tuolumne Meadows, from which we planned to hike, that we were more than two-and-a-half miles higher than we'd been when we started out at 2 am from San Francisco.

The high country of eastern Yosemite.

I had fallen asleep again when we arrived at a small general store near our planned trailhead. Dick woke me, and I immediately realized I had to go to the bathroom something fierce. I opened the door, jumped out of the car, and started running for the general store—and found myself on my knees, gasping for breath. We were at nearly 9,000 feet in altitude, and I had spent no time acclimating.

But I was young and able to get back up. We picked up a few last-minute supplies from the store, and began our hike.

Me and Rick on the John Muir Trail in Yosemite.

Our packs were pretty heavy, as Dick used to be an Eagle Scout (Dick will always be an Eagle Scout) and intended to cook full meals from scratch on this trip. So we had a frying pan, a sauce pan, a camp stove, ingredients, and so on. Add that to the altitude and the fact we weren't used to it, and it will surprise no one that we started out literally having to stop and rest every six or seven steps. A half hour after leaving, we could still see Rick's car. I wondered if we would ever get anywhere.

But eventually we got into a rhythm and made some progress, continuing to climb even higher.

One of the peaks visible from the trail.

We began hiking about 10 or 10:30. When we pulled our packs from the car, that included the last-minute transfer of lunch sandwiches from a cooler into our packs. Dick set an alarm on his watch. He had researched exactly how long the sandwiches could remain unrefrigerated without causing health problems.

As I said, Dick will always be an Eagle Scout!

Similarly, Dick had brought some kind of tablets to treat any water before we drank it. There's lots of water in Yosemite's high country, but (as I now know) all water west of the Continental Divide is potentially contaminated with Giardia, a genus of anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasites that colonize and reproduce in the small intestines of several vertebrates, including humans. Dick knew that but didn't explain why he was so careful with the water he drank.

I couldn't argue with the wisdom of drinking treated water. Nevertheless, some of the springs and creeks we came upon looked so inviting, and just darn tasty, that I simply cupped my hands, filled them with water, and drank. I didn't even wash my hands first.

Inviting water in Yosemite's high country.

Dick, of course, was horrified. And I can't say he was wrong…but the fact is, I never got sick, and subsequent tests just to be sure have shown I do not have a Giardia infection.

Sometimes it's best to go with your gut.

We came within sight of an exquisite alpine lake around lunchtime, that we agreed would be an awesome place to enjoy lunch. But Dick's watch alarm went off while we were still about ten minutes away from it, indicating his unrefrigerated sandwich must be eaten now or it wouldn't be safe. He sat on the spot and ate it, while Rick and I continued to the lake, unrefrigerated sandwiches be damned. Dick joined us after his potentially deadly pepperoni sandwich had been consumed.

Me, Rick and Dick having lunch in the Yosemite high country.

Did I mention, Dick was the only one of us who ate the pepperoni?

In any case, we continued on our way, which was to some spot Dick had found on his topographic map. This being long before GPS, we had to go by landmarks which in this area change with the seasons; and one granite dome looks pretty much like the other five. So it wasn't easy to be sure we were where he thought we were.

An alpine meadow at 10,000 feet in Yosemite high country.

And we kept climbing, reaching an 11,000 foot ridge just around sunset. At this point, I didn't care where the hell we were. I wanted to stop, set up camp, and sleep. Even eating was optional at this point. But, as cranky as I was, even I was enthralled by the fantastic sight of the chalk-white hill across from us, reflecting the light of the setting sun.

Sunset reflects on caldera wall of Harvey Lake, in Yosemite's high country.

Pouring over his topo map, Dick was still not certain where we were. It was clearly a volcanic caldera, but there were at least three in what was probably our immediate area and five within a wider circle. But we didn't really care. While Rick and I pitched our tents, Dick started cooking dinner, carefully frozen hamburger patties with aluminum-wrapped potatoes and corn-on-the-cob baked in the fire.

The sky was still light enough to see after dinner, so I suggested we go for a swim. Dick was hesitant—it was still accepted folk wisdom in 1981 that one should never go into water less than an hour after eating. But Rick and I both laughed and bullied him out of his clothes and into the water with the rest of us.

As it turns out, it was a good thing we shallow-dove into the lake instead of wading slowly, as it turned out the lake was infested with leeches. But we didn't learn that until morning, because we never actually touched the lake bottom for more than a moment.

There was a lone eagle flying in the crater, around and around and around. It appeared he (or she) couldn't leave. I guessed the air was too thin for him to quite cross the 11,000 foot ridge we'd climbed. A wind may have blown him into the caldera, where he was now trapped, able to hunt and eat and drink, but unable to leave or enjoy the company of other eagles. It made me sad, but I couldn't think of anything I could do to help.

By the time it was full-on dark, with the sky splattered with a magnificent array of brilliant and unwinking stars, I was too tired to enjoy it. I crawled into my sleeping bag and was out like a light.

So I was unaware that Dick got sick. He insists it was altitude sickness, as the symptoms matched and we were, after all, a lot higher than any of us was used to. Still, I teased him for years after that, that it was either his water purification pills, or the pepperoni sandwiches that only he ate, that were what really made him sick.

In any case, he was sick enough all night that he kept Rick awake. And by the bear sign we found in the morning all around but at a respectful distance from our camp, his moans and puking may also have scared off the bears.

I awoke late. Sick as he was, Dick had managed to make pancakes from scratch, along with fried bacon. Now, oddly, I was not only not sick…I felt better than I ever had before in my life! So when I saw how miserable Dick was, I suggested Rick and I split the contents of his pack, each adding half to our own. And then…with this heavy load…I ran!

I do not run. I have never run. I never liked running. I didn't like it in gym. I don't even run for the parking meter.

But this day, this one day, wearing a 60-pound pack at almost 11,000 feet above sea level…I felt as if I were floating; and I trail ran for at least a mile before stopping to wait for Rick and Dick to catch up. Which is probably why I was quiet long enough for the deer, or elk, or whatever it was, to come relatively close to me.

Some kind of elk or deer in the Yosemite high country.

This kind of special moment, when we enter the world of nature and are accepted by it, is what makes people who've experienced it want to come back for more.

Since the return trip was more-or-less downhill, and we'd had a night to get used to the thin air, it passed more quickly. That we didn't know our exact location wasn't a problem; we had a compass and as long as we kept heading north we had to reach the road. But in fact, we soon recognized the lake at which we'd had lunch, and then, before long, we were back at the general store and Rick's car.

Rick, with his stuff and half of Dick's, was happy to see his car.

Dick was already much improved; by the time we got back to the Bay Area he was almost better, though he later said it took a couple of days before he was completely back to normal.

As for me, I was hooked: On the West, on high mountains, on Yosemite, on camping in these places. And I knew I would be back…though I would never have guessed at the time that it would be 14 years before my next visit.