Yosemite Falls

A reminder of the sanctity of wilderness

Posted in Nature on August 05, 2014

It's the week after Christmas and I'm on vacation with my family in a tiny mountain town called Groveland, about an hour from Yosemite Valley. We're all here together — my mom, dad, sister, and our yellow lab — to slow down for a few days, away from the distractions of work, social obligations, and the internet.

Our cabin is comically small: the loft my sister and I sleep in forces us to crawl on all fours; the front door runs into our parents' bedroom door when you open it; and the kitchen is the size of our bathroom back home.

Of course it's raining — and not just a soothing rainfall that helps you get in the mood for hot cocoa and a good book. No, this is a downpour of biblical proportions that hasn't let up for two days, and the dog is starting to look concerned.

We're holed up here in this miniature cabin together, getting far more quality bonding time than any of us needed. My dad and I bicker about plastic pollution, my mom snaps at my dad for arguing with me, the dog whines and nervously gnaws a carrot, and my sister retreats further into her Harry Potter novel. The next afternoon when the weather clears, we're in the car within minutes, headed to Yosemite Valley. 

We're holed up here in this miniature cabin together, getting far more quality bonding time than any of us needed.
Half Dome rises to the East and the light is soft, the air quiet.

Half Dome rises to the East and the light is soft, the air quiet.

After almost an hour we stop below Yosemite Falls. A coyote walks through the meadow adjacent to the full parking lot. He jumps high in the air, back arched, nose to the ground, landing softly in a pillow of snow. Entranced by the hunt, he is unperturbed by all the tourists. Most don't even notice him; they are too distracted taking photos of the waterfall. 

His coat shines with shades of autumn. He belongs in this meadow, leaping over small rocks, his fur glowing against the brilliant white. I watch him through binoculars while my family eats sandwiches in the car. His ears stand straight up, hearing everything. He trots with ease on the icy surface and I wish I could see his shining flanks up close.

I haven't been to Yosemite since the fifth grade and my sister has never been. Fifteen years have passed since my parents last gazed upon the valley but bad things have happened there to both of them, so it’s not surprising.

When my mom was twenty, her little brother Tom, fifteen at the time, slipped off one of the lower Yosemite Falls. Watching his blond curls disappear over the edge of the rocks, my mom's heart stopped in panic and dread. Miraculously, Tom surfaced, alive and unscathed, but the scare was permanent.

The sensation as they flew over the edge must have been terrifying and incredible.

My dad lost two friends only a year or so before, down the main waterfall. Standing in the meadow, looking up at Yosemite Falls and imagining two lovers slipping in the rapids and flying over the slick granite edge was…almost unimaginable. The falls are so huge, towering hundreds of feet above you in the sky, the water tumbling down in misty cascades over the vertical rock face, splashing off ledges and curves of rock. No one could survive the fall. 

The sensation as they flew over the edge must have been terrifying and incredible. How many minutes were they conscious — knowing, beyond a doubt — that they were free falling to their death? The waterfall is breathtaking and lifetaking. I am content to see it from below, the sheer power of water knocking me metaphorically off my feet.

Water tumbles down in misty cascades over the vertical rock face, splashing off ledges and curves of rock. No one could survive the fall.

Water tumbles down in misty cascades over the vertical rock face, splashing off ledges and curves of rock. No one could survive the fall.

Two black crows sit on a wooden fence, against a backdrop of snow-covered trees and a waterfall slipping down cold, gray granite. The rock behind the falls is almost blue, and the birds watch in stoic silence as countless travelers click cameras and flash bright lights in their beady eyes. The small forest behind them waits for spring in the shadows; the snow lies untouched. Without a sound, one of the crows flies away.

We walk on a snowy path winding between oak trees and pines. Large boulders coated in moss and patches of snow cast shadows over our footsteps and showers of melting snow fall on our heads and sometimes down our backs.

The small forest waits for spring in the shadows.

Granite steps climb the hill and as the trail flattens, small tumbling streams splash down the hillside. The icy water throws up a fine mist as it jumps over rocks. The trail runs directly through three of these streams, and we jump from rock to rock to cross them. The streams join one another on the other side of the trail, creating whirlpools. Threads of snow melt through the fallen frozen oak leaves.

My mom, dad, and sister all stop to admire these things. We comment on the mist, the black streaked walls of granite high above us, a giant old oak whose branches are as thick as an elephant’s leg, endless water pouring over the edges of every sheer cliff face, the river or stream on top always out of sight.

Black streaked walls of granite tower above us.

Black streaked walls of granite tower above us.

Our quiet, empty trail soon joins with the main fire road. Groups of hikers mill around the bathrooms. We seem to be the only family that chose to take the mountain trail away from the road that passed over misty streams and countless waterfalls. Everyone else took the main road, wide and safe, the freeway close by.

We take the main road back to save time and to save our aching feet. It is still beautiful, especially in the fading light. Soon the trail sparkles in shades of white and blue. A meadow spreads out before us, and in the distance, a waterfall cascades down into a thick layer of mist. A lone group of leafless trees stands in the middle of the meadow, almost blending in with the snow and white band of fog. Half Dome rises to the East and the light is soft, the air quiet. An oak tree bends in half farther down the trail. Its snow-laden branches disappear slowly into the mist.

Nature, and all its unturned rocks and unclimbed boulders, provides us with the will to live, with a passion for life.
An oak tree bends in half farther down the trail. Its snow-laden branches disappear slowly into the mist.

An oak tree bends in half farther down the trail. Its snow-laden branches disappear slowly into the mist.

This is a place where it is hard not to believe in fairies, shape-shifters, or a spirit world. It is hard not to believe in a higher being: something beyond our comprehension, something as ephemeral as the silhouette of the oak tree receding into the mist, something impossible to hold like the waterfalls, something so beautiful that you're anchored to the ground while you stare and fill your lungs with the very air around it.

We are not meant to live without seeing sights such as these. We are not meant to only know the colors of the city. We are not meant to understand everything in its entirety. We are meant to have mystery and wonder in our lives and to continue living because there are still questions to be answered. There are still waterfalls to be seen, still fog-shrouded meadows to unveil, still trails to wander. Without this mysterious beauty, we have nothing. We are nothing. Nature, and all its unturned rocks and unclimbed boulders, provides us with the will to live, with a passion for life.

Half Dome sits high above the highways, beyond reach of the most rugged all-terrain vehicle. Yosemite Falls catches a rainbow and tosses the colors from one drop to another, juggling the painted droplets for as long as the sun provides light for the stage. “Where is God?” many have asked. He is juggling the rainbow in the snowmelt of Yosemite Falls.