What is home? I am 27 years old, and for the past 2 years, home has evolved into something I carry with me, rather than something I leave behind. From birth until I graduated college, home was my parents house. Sunny, beautiful, and full of comforts (and free food). It was a place that I had little motivation to leave. But after a couple months hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, the trail became my home. My tent, my house, though lacking in decorations and my family – I had the beauty of the wilderness around me to fill me with love. In Baja, home was my campsite under the shade of mesquite tree’s and I shared my space with dove’s, who perched above my head as I laid in a hammock. Each time I returned to my parents house, I felt more like a visiting guest. And as quickly as I had arrived, I was off again to my next adventure – this time, a summer in Yosemite National Park. Why visit a national park when I can just live there? Seems reasonable.
At the end of last spring I decided that hiking another long distance trail was too costly an endeavor to take on. I had to get a job… but not just any old job, a really cool job. I found myself applying for jobs in June. This is extremely late for summer jobs which are usually filled in December and January. I could only hope for a miracle. I applied for naturalist positions all over the country and did not get a single reply. I knew I was too late. Head in hands, I started asking around. A girl who I knew very briefly during my time in Mexico told me a position was open where she worked in Yosemite and needed to be filled immediately. I jumped right in, applied, got an interview and suddenly I was making plans to move to Central California in the Western Sierra Nevada mountains. I had about a week to figure out where I’d live. I arrived under the belief that I was going to be living on a farm owned by the well-known Double Rainbow guy, Bear. But when I arrived, an angry young woman scolded him for giving me permission to live there. Feeling uninvited, I drove off hoping to find a place to camp along the road. I arrived at a trashy campsite late in the night somewhere just before the National Park Boundary. Sleepy eyed, I set up my tent and went to bed.
The next day was my first day of work! So I freshened myself up in the Merced River, dodging the eyes of people in cars driving over a bridge in sight of my naked bum. Once I was reasonably clean, I was on a mission to find an electrical outlet. After making circles around public buildings, I spotted one near the front door of a general store in the tiny town of El Portal. I put my produce in a blender and nonchalantly approached the front of the small store and quickly (and noisily) made my breakfast and drove off to my first day of work. As I processed in for employment, I was offered a place to put my tent by a very lively and sweet woman my age who lived high on a ridge above Yosemite Valley. I was relieved to have a place to sleep, at least for now. I drove into the valley, seeing it as I had never seen it before – my work place. I was trained by a sweet hippie lady, who had hired me over the phone. She was the manager of the Wilderness Center. She showed me the ropes and before I knew it I was memorizing the maps, giving Leave No Trace talks to wilderness users, issuing permits, and taking wilderness reservations over the telephone. I spent my days talking to people about the wilderness that I was also paid to hike in. I couldn’t have found a better job to feed my hunger for wilderness. Twice a month I went on a four day backpacking trip (including shorter weekend trips almost every weekend) which helped me get to know the vast and beautiful land that makes up Yosemite National Park.
Did you know Yosemite Valley makes up only 1% of the entire national park? Yet it is usually the only part of Yosemite that people ever know simply because almost all park users never get farther than a mile away from their vehicles. Yosemite Valley cradles this type of visitor with roads, restaurants, hotels, crowded campgrounds, and of course gift shops. It is only those who are willing to do the work who get to have a real wilderness experience. They must decide on a route, obtain a wilderness permit, learn the rules and regulations (i.e. food storage, bears, human waste, etc.), and of course just get out there with their two trekkin feet and their dirty boots. People who are willing to do that experience the true, pristine beauty of the park – free of crowds, roads, cars, noise, and nonsense. I very much enjoyed my position to help those kinds of people who were seeking the experiences that I have grown so fond of. However, I also found myself surrounded by the crowds of the more common visitor who came for the gift shops and to say they had been to such a popular place, likely the most popular of all the national parks. Being surrounded by the yahoo’s who swarmed the valley, I often wondered to myself how the human species has survived.
Surely these people hadn’t lived their whole lives parking in the middle of roads, pooping and leaving poopy toilet paper next to pristine mountain springs, leaving their trash everywhere, feeding wild animals. Or had they? All I could do was hope for their sweet children whom they pushed around in strollers on paved paths to have a future of real life experience, not this gift shop bonanza where buying things is how they experience life. Thus only begins to express one of my daily challenges in life, being baffled by human ignorance and all the things they do that make me worry about the future of our planet and our species. Being in the tourism industry, I see a lot of really ridiculous stuff – it just makes me slap my forehead and pushes me further, to live a life with real meaning.
Soon after I arrived in Yosemite, a relentless young man from San Diego followed me. I allowed his presence but was focused on being on my own and experience the world as a solo woman. He was so easy to be around that I very much enjoyed his company, and he loved the wilderness just like me. So we hiked. And hiked. And hiked all summer long, till I realized that I’d be stupid to be so stubborn to push him away and not accept that which life was offering to me. So while I have remained true to growing my independence and doing what feels right in my heart, I have opened and allowed a new relationship to blossom in my life. Because after all, I can’t always choose what or when things happen to me. I realize that I can’t be in control of everything. So I let go. And in return I was blessed with a best friend, a hiking partner, and a lover. We explored over 300 miles of Yosemite trails together. We ate trout from high sierra lakes, skipped rocks, shared trail snacks, sang songs around the fire, jumped off rocks into wild and beautiful rivers, took shelter from thunder storms, shared the most epic mountain views the Sierra Nevada mountain range has to offer, and we laughed. His name is Ted, and he is the sweetest trekker to cross my path.
When I was a kid, my Dad took my brother and I backpacking for the first time. Our destination was Barney Lake, just a few miles from Mono Village in the Eastern Sierra. We never made it because my brother hurt his knee on a stream crossing. I recall the most uncomfortable night I’ve ever experienced in the wilderness. I woke up repeatedly scrunched up at the bottom of the tent because we were camped on a slope. Since we had to stop when the injury happened, it wasn’t an ideal location. To make matters worse, I was awoken by the sound of a bear roaring outside of the tent. My dad was awake already and trying to scare it off. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, and started cracking up inside the little tent with my brother. The bear had a cub and was trying to get our food hung high in a tree. They eventually ran off. I didn’t make it to Barney Lake on that trip, but now – at 27 years old I was setting off to hike Matterhorn Canyon with Ted from Mono Village to Tuolumne Meadows. In between those two places lay the ever illusive Barney Lake, and after only 5 or so miles, I was standing at the place I was supposed to see when I was 9 years old – 18 years later.
It was a beautiful lake beneath the mountains leading up toward Matterhorn Peak (named for it’s resemblance to the Matterhorn in Switzerland). We spent our first night praying for good weather when it was drizzling on our tent. We knew we had much higher to go and would prefer some gentle weather – either way we were going. Rain or shine. I do a lot of praying, especially when I am in the wilderness. I pray for safety, warmth, comfort, and a smooth trip. Not to anyone in particular, to God, to nature, to the universe – whatever may be hearing my request and my ever gratefulness for all the blessings I have received thus far in my journey through life. Our second day it rained on and off all day. We hiked through the mist into the majestic Matterhorn Canyon and almost as an answer to my prayers the rain stopped and we saw a few stars in the sky. That night we had a fire, Ted played his ukulele, and we cooked a fantastic feast.
That night we fell asleep with the rain door open. But when we woke up in the morning we realized that at some point the door had been shut and it had rained all night on us. Neither of us remember waking up and shutting it, not to mention it is a tight door that really takes some force to open and close. It was a mystery. Had we been protected by some guardian way out there in the middle of the mountains? We will never know. I did some research once our trip was over, and I learned of a man named Fred Claassen who went missing while on the same hike we were on. His body was found 7 years after his disappearance at the base of Whorl Mountain, very near to where we were camped that night. He had fallen to his death from a ledge during a deadly storm. Part of me would like to think it was Fred who heard my prayers and shielded us from the rain that night. All I asked for was to be warm and dry, and I was. Thanks to Fred!
During my summer living in the national park, I ate organic produce from a local CSA that delivered right to my work. I ate mostly raw fruits and vegetables, but weekly cooking up a big healthy stew of some sort consisting of whatever was in my CSA box, coconut milk, and a collection of spices. I had an outdoor kitchen made up of a camp stove, an old table, a giant pot and cutting board. While I cooked, the local dogs would smell my food from far away and come by to get some for themselves, I enjoyed their friendship. I’d watch the tree’s sway in the wind and enjoy the silence and solitude of my beautiful camp on a ridge, far from the tourist traffic and rowdy campgrounds. I half lived out of my tent, and half lived out of my car. I stored anything in there I might need while down in the valley, running clothes, hiking clothes, a large cooler, camp chairs, and backpacking supplies. You can imagine it got a little messy! I slept in a large tent with sky windows under a forest of pine, surrounded by wild, open space. Each night the wind blew, coyotes roamed, and snakes slithered. It hit me one night just how wild I have become when I was settling into my sleeping bag after a day of work. I could hear an animal under my tent, a gopher, snake, or lizard. Whatever it was, it’s movement kept me awake. At one point, I walked out of my tent without shoes or anything at all for that matter, lifted up the edge of the tent to find the tail of a garter snake, I grabbed it and tossed the snake through the air into some bushes. Here I was, this woman, standing naked outside in the middle of the night throwing a snake through the air. Then, I could finally rest and went back to bed. I realize that to the average person, I probably seem like a weirdo, and that is all right with me, because I know it’s not me that’s weird – it’s everyone else! What may appear to be weirdness is actually just a connection to the world around me, which so many people lack. Life in the cities can be too busy, noisy, and full of so much nonsense it is almost impossible to feel a connection to the earth. The truth is, we are disconnected from ourselves, because we are not separate from nature. Get closer to nature, become more of who you truly are. Your wild self. You could die tomorrow, and this could be the only chance you have to live an amazing life. Get out there and smell the flowers ya bunch of weirdos! Life rules!
In recent years, large areas in Yosemite had burned, and being our third year in drought, it wasn’t a surprise what a fiery summer this one would be. On an average day, I had gotten off work early for the first and only time all summer, so that I could attend a local concert in the nearby town of Groveland. On my drive out of the valley I picked up a female hitch hiker a little younger than me. We were driving and making conversation when I began approaching the road to the Flying Spur and saw a very large plume of smoke threatening the land that I camped on. We took a detour toward the flames to save my belongings from the fire that would certainly come through my camp. When we arrived, the fire was wildly burning towards us. Residents on the land began to show up to do the same. The hitch hiker helped me gather almost all my things until the fire was too close for comfort, and we drove out of there as quickly as possible. The firemen were just driving in as we were driving out. I went to the concert that night, but I knew I could not return to my camp. I was invited by some locals at the concert to sleep on their land. I drove to their farm in the middle of the night and caught some shut eye, but in the morning I drove to Mammoth Lakes to get away from all the smoke. When I returned for work, and after the firefighters let residents back in, Ted and I went to the Spur to see the damage. My home was replaced by a layer of black crust, but thankfully all of the permanent structures (except the shed) had been saved by the firefighters. I was now entirely living out of my car, and camping wherever I could find a place to sleep. It was frustrating to say the least. Again, I felt displaced and wanted desperately to find a new space to call my own.
After confiding in a coworker that I was homeless and stressed out about illegally camping, she told me she wanted to help me. She connected me to another Yosemite local who had land on the other side of the Merced River Valley. He allowed me to live in a tiny shack about 5 minutes walking distance from his home. I lived in the tiny 10X4 shack for the remainder of my summer. It had windows all around that overlooked the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and I had complete privacy there, besides the resident red-tailed hawk who perched high in a pine tree above my cabin every day, and the mama bear and her cub who occasionally sauntered through. Once again, I was afraid of something new. I missed my comfortable camp across the valley, but before I knew it, this little cabin became my home and I just loved waking up to the sun shining in my windows. Inside, I had a table, a futon bed, and a chair. I decorated the space with incense, a couple of candles, special stones and dried plants I’ve collected from places I’ve been, and a string of battery powered LED lights. It was a beautiful little home. Outside I had a couple camp chairs, a small metal table for eating on, and a giant tool box that I stored all my kitchen supplies in, and used as a kitchen counter top. I had all the necessities to make it work perfectly for me. It was cozy and beautiful, as well as fully functional. I even put up a hammock between my cabin and my kitchen. It felt like home. I’d often rush home after work to catch the sunset from the top of the ridge. A ten minute walk on a dirt road from the cabin lead to an overlook of the western foothills, and a perfect place to witness the setting sun. I often walked back in the dark, always feeling grateful for my shelter once I’d walk in the door of what became my sanctuary.
As with all my travels, in Yosemite I experienced the fear of integrating into a new environment with new people. An insecurity that has been with me since childhood. Despite my fear, I met people who were warm, kind, and open towards me. I also felt the tension of one particular woman who carried a heavy load of negativity in her heart and the pain she projected onto me. Why I am chosen for this projection is unknown to me, but it seems to happen with one person at every work place. So it was a challenge I’d been faced with in the past, and this one was just more practice to remain peaceful in my heart and keep my distance. It seems that some people who feel dim inside want to dim the light of others. I am so much stronger now than I was years ago, and these kinds of people no longer have power over me. They just make me shine brighter. I’m on a journey, I’m imperfect, I make mistakes, I get angry, I feel strong, I feel sad, I feel beautiful, I can be wrong, I’m the only me there will ever be and I’m proud to be myself. I’m just a person doing the best I can. I know I’ll never be able to please everyone, so I’ll just be happy anyway. Thanks to all the bullies who have reinforced that in me. While they have hurt me throughout my life, they hurt themselves far more. Meanwhile, my heart only blossoms. I become more open. I become more of myself.
I didn’t have too many visitors during my stint in the park, except for my mom. She is the kind of woman to require comforts like running water, electricity, walls, toilets, etc… you know, “regular” stuff. I’ve begun a lifestyle so minimal and cheap that I’ve grown comfortable without these things. I don’t mind pooping outside or carrying my water into camp. If I need it hot, I heat it up on my camp stove. If I need a light, I make a fire or carry around a lantern. Everything is just fine that way for me, but I knew it would be slightly uncomfortable for my mom. I was surprised when she followed through with her plans to visit me even after I told her how I live. She was brave and came to visit me anyway. I gave her my bed in “the cabin” and slept outside in my outdoor kitchen. I took her car camping in the High Sierra before taking her on an easy one nighter in the wilderness. We hiked out of Lyle Canyon and went a few miles. She carried a backpack with just a sleeping bag inside and a couple of clothes. Dutifully, I carried the rest, knowing we didn’t have too far to go before we would camp. That night we slept cozily inside my two man tent, only to awake to frost covering it in the morning. We cooked a meal with the river water flowing through the canyon, forded a stream, and enjoyed the sounds of the wild night. She did great, and I was proud to see her so tolerant of a lifestyle so far from hers. I really appreciated it and had no idea she could be so tough. Love ya Mom!
As fall arrived, my seasonal job came to an end. I decided to prolong my time there and take on a job in the visitor center after about two weeks off. I spent five days hiking solo on the High Sierra Trail, which is a pathway leading from west to east from the giant sequoia’s of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park all the way to the top of Mount Whitney, a 72 mile trek over the Great Western Divide and back to the eastern Sierra’s. It was a beautiful walk that I’ll never forget. It meandered up and down through the high country and down into the valleys and back up again. Something I love the most about backpacking is how strong I feel out there. Self-sufficient, light, quick, and just plain tough. When I got to the top of Mount Whitney on my fifth day, an old man who had seen me the day before setting up camp at Guitar Lake, saw me again on my way down from the top of Mount Whitney. He was sitting alongside the trail with his wife and said to me “Girl, you fly over mountains!”. I spent 3 more weeks working in the park before I packed up my stuff and drove over Tioga pass to begin a new chapter living in a studio apartment with my boyfriend Ted in Mammoth Lakes.
Here’s to another amazing Summer!! Goodbye Yosemite. Hello Mammoth.