There were many camping trips in which I engaged following my release from the Army. I have already written of one of those trips; the trip to Minaret Lake with my oldest friend Wes. That trip came early in my new civilian life and was among the best of my life. One year later Wes and I decided to hike out of Yosemite, up the north wall of that amazing canyon and onto the more or less level high ground which our hiking guide book said that we would find up there. We attacked the trail in mid-morning but by noon we seemed to be nowhere near reaching the top of that twisting, tortured, switch-backed trail. Wes and I decided that life is too short to waste on such energetic endeavors, so we returned to the valley floor.
Resting in the shade by my car, Wes and I scanned the book in search of another place to camp. We didn’t want to stay in the valley with the million-plus other tourists and vacationers, but we didn’t want to drive somewhere else either. Wes noticed that there was a trail which extended up the east end of the canyon, beyond the general tourist area, where it began to climb up into the Sierra Nevada mountains. That path followed the Merced River to the string of falls and small lakes that could be found up there. That path appeared to be a road commonly taken and we were interested in a road less travelled. Looking at our map we noticed that if we veered north from where the shuttle bus ended it’s route into the eastern end of the canyon, around the misnamed pond of Mirror Lake, there began a sort of path which followed a creek the name of which I forget which flowed out of a smaller canyon which climbed back up into the mountains too..
This was no formal trail, but others had been this way and a sort of path could be seen among the rocks and trees which lined the creek. I don’t know how long we walked; it didn’t seem like a very long time but these things become cloudy when a person is disconnected from their clock and enjoying nature. It couldn’t have been more than an hour or two because we reached a good place to camp with a good deal of the day left before us. Our camp was by a pool at the base of a ten or fifteen foot waterfall, beneath a tree which had dropped a thick bed of leaves over the years, which gave us a soft place to pitch our tents.
This spot was enchanting. The falls was beautiful and the valley secluded. Few other hikers came by that day or the next. Water birds called ‘dippers’, or ‘water ouzels’, would fly into the creek and walk along the bottom eating insect larvae, tadpoles or small fish if they could find them. We marveled at those birds. The only negatives to this campsite were the squirrels which quickly gnawed through Wes’ pack to get at the food items within before he could hang the pack by a rope from a tree limb, and the white noise from the waterfall.
The white noise was an interesting phenomenon. I paid little attention to it during the daytime but at night, after we had sipped a bit of our backpacking staple of cheap bourbon whiskey, and smoked a joint or two, the strangest sounds could be heard emanating from the noise made by the constant splash of water falling ten to fifteen feet into a pool. As I lay in my tent I could hear everything from people talking to ten speed bicycles clicking to police sirens, and all of this several miles from any possible police sirens or ten speed bikes.Like everything else in life one gets used to it, but it did detract from a good night’s sleep. Wes and I hung around that camp another day fishing (with better luck than we experienced at Minaret Lake), reading and relaxing, and then returned to my car and from there to San Diego.
That was not my last foray into that part of Yosemite however. One year later my best traveling partner, Joe Medina, and I were driving around Northern California visiting friends and camping out here and there and I mentioned the place where Wes and I had camped earlier. That sounded good to Joe and so we pointed his Volkswagon bus towards Yosemite National Park. We parked the bus near the visitor’s center and stocked up on food at the little store that is maintained there. A short shuttle ride later we were standing in front of Mirror Lake and ready to walk eastward into the wild canyon at the rear of the park.
The trail was a little busier than it had been when Wes and I had camped there the year before, but it was still very quiet as we walked further from the tourist area. We reached the waterfall where Wes and I had pitched our tents before but the day was still young, so we decided to push on. Climbing the steep bank over which the creek was falling was not too difficult a project and upon reaching the small plateau which gradually narrowed and rose as one walked further east we recognized instantly a perfect campsite. Two logs lay perfectly situated on the ground to provide seats in front of a fire. We brought stones together to make a fire pit in front of those logs and pitched our tents on the soft soil nearby. The bank over which the creek fell was just enough of a barrier to traffic that only a few hardy hikers passed by our camp, and they mostly just waved and walked on.
Our area seemed to have hardly been camped in at all and so there was no shortage of dry firewood littering the floor of the forest. We had small gas stoves to cook on, but a fire in the morning to brew coffee over and a fire at night before going to bed is something which makes a camp a camp. We were as comfortable as could be, and even being twenty two year olds and restless as that breed tends to be, we were very content to explore around our camp a little but mostly sit on those logs and talk about things that I couldn’t possibly remember today and probably wouldn’t interest me now anyway. They were interesting and speaking was effortless then however, and we spent the rest of that day and most of the next doing just that.
There were however three occurrences which added a little spice to the trip. Early the next morning I was forced out of my tent by the need to take care of some urgent business. Even in such an idyllic setting of nature one still must answer when nature calls. Taking the toilet paper and a collapsable shovel I looked around until I found a small log lying on the ground which looked as if it would serve for latrine duty. I dropped my drawers and positioned myself comfortably on the log, and proceeded to add another log to the forest floor. About midway through this process I heard a ‘snap’, and my attention went into high alert.
My first thought was that Joe might be sneaking up on me with his camera. We were young males and that kind of humor was (and remains) common to that set. My second thought was a bit more dire. Bears frequent the vicinity of Yosemite, usually on the valley floor where there are trash cans, picnic baskets and coolers to pillage in search of the crap that we humans usually like to eat. But the bears have to come from somewhere, and eventually return there when the garbage is gone, so I wondered if I had chosen to take my ease on some sort of bear highway.
That is a thought that will pinch things off in a hurry but I knew that it would be foolish to move an inch, so I just sat there bare to the world, waiting to see if a bear would come along to ruin my day. In a minute or two I heard soft rustlings in the leafy carpet of the forest floor and a large brown shape loomed from behind a boulder. “This is it”, I thought, “Smokey’s revenge”. The shape did not have the rounded bulk of a bear however, and as my panicked vision cleared I could see that my visitor was a deer. I don’t remember if there were antlers, so I couldn’t say if it was a buck or a doe. All I cared about was the fact that it didn’t have claws and teeth and a very bad attitude. The deer and I stood and sat motionless for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes at very close range. Slowly the deer ambled off towards the remote east end of the canyon. I quickly finished the business at hand and returned to the safety of our camp where Joe and his camera were still snuggled comfortably in his tent.
Later that morning a couple of parties of hikers came past our camp. The first was a middle aged man and woman who simply waved and walked on. That is usually how I liked it when I camped in the wilderness; I didn’t go to the woods to hang out with people. The second party was different though. Two guys, roughly our age, with German flags sewn onto their backpacks. This told us clearly that these were two guys who would bring interesting stories into our camp.
Pius and Rene were indeed from Germany; from Munich, or “Muenchen” to be exact, and with the customary German fondness for precision they insisted on being exact. We offered them coffee and rolled a couple of joints, and within an hour’s time we were fast friends. Pius and Rene were students traveling abroad during the summer, and this was a time in America when more people would still hitchhike from coast to coast with little fear. It was far from a perfect time, but two white guys with short hair and no beards had a good chance of traveling in America by the seat of their pants in relative safety. We spent a couple of hours with our two new friends, learning about them and their home as they learned about us and ours. The time came for Pius and Rene to move on, and we exchanged addresses. Oddly enough we were visited by Pius and Rene later that month at the house I shared with three other friends. I have not made it to Germany yet to repay that visit.
My last outstanding remembrance of that camping trip came later in the afternoon. It was a warm day but not uncomfortably so, and there was a nice breeze blowing which cooled things down to a very acceptable level. I had a can of deviled ham and some crackers and prepared to enjoy them while sitting on the bank over which flowed the creek into the falls. From that vantage point the view was stunning. Not a single evidence of human activity could be seen from that spot, and the whole of the Yosemite Valley opened up before me. The sheer walls of naked rock stood in their frozen permanence while the carpet of tree tops in the valley below swayed and rippled like tall grass in the wind.
Like every other stoned slacker of my age in those days I had read Carlos Castaneda’s books about a Yaqui sorcerer in Mexico with whom he allegedly spent time doing a research project. The first of the books which emerged from this project was entitled “A Separate Reality”. Many are doubtful of the academic seriousness of his books or even the existence of the focus of those books, Don Juan. Nevertheless those books were read voraciously by those of us who were comfortable living in our own separate realities, and I sat there trying to see the entire valley as a living, breathing organism. That effort failed miserably but the beauty of the simple, three dimensional here-and-now valley was deeply impressed into my memory. I finally picked my stoned self up and retreated to our camp, where our campfire coffee and reconstituted freeze dried food and another snort or two of whiskey completed our evening.
We broke camp the next morning and retraced our path to Mirror Lake in time to catch the shuttle to the visitor center and have a late breakfast there. We left Yosemite to continue our rounds of visiting friends in the north and I have never returned to Yosemite since. In a way I don’t have to. The diving birds, the waterfall, the deer, the breathtaking views of the valley, Pius and Rene; all remain in my mind as if it was yesterday instead of forty years ago. Part of the pleasure of retelling this story lies in the fact that I get to relive it That is a blessing indeed.