By Vickie Cimprich
Arriving by the Panama steamer, I stopped one day in San Francisco and then inquired for the nearest way out of town. “But where do you want to go?” asked the man to whom I had applied for this important information. “To any place that is wild,” I said. – John Muir
ARRIVING: “Elbows-fingers-and-toes” says the flight attendant walking backwards, dragging the beverage cart. En route to Fresno on Wednesday, some indeterminate airspace over the Great Basin, Marjorie imagines that a group of flat-topped mountains is a partly surfaced convoy of whales or seals. From Fresno airport a rental Chev Sonic delivers her and her husband to the Oakhurst Trailside Lodge south of Yosemite National Park. While Leonard signs in, she crushes yellow aster-like Tarweed flowers between her fingers. Sticky and fragrant. Some spears whose leaves smell like sage poke up where the parking lot pavement is broken.
Several discarded mattresses, a sink, a washing machine and water heater line the advertised trail. That evening in the shower, Marjorie’s first thought is to exhibit the long black hair that got on her. She herself is a carrot top. Second thought, to leave it on the plastic wall for Leonard to find or be too tired to see or care about. But he planned the trip and blindly chose the Lodge. No discouraging word belongs to the first night out. Somehow she manages to wipe up the hair in the washcloth and throw it on the floor. “Dear God,” she mutters in her mind: “I offer up my exhaustion and pissed-offness for the thousands and thousands of Syrian refugees on Lesbos, in Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Germany, crossing borders with no places to stay.” This highly imaginative religious economy has often allowed her provisional deposits, withdrawals and exchanges.
Here, the drought and bark beetles are stressing to death trees that have no place to go. If they die from the top down, it’s beetles. From the ground up, drought. Or is it the other way around? No snow last winter; Californians have their hopes pinned on El Nino. Through the balding crowns of the Lodge’s twin firs, smoke from scattered hillside fires wafts towards the Lodge. She soaks her airplane-swollen feet in the pool. Tourists and refugees, she puzzles. Refugees and tourists. All at the mercy of local arrangements or chaos.
DAY ONE: “Why is the little girl throwing a fit?” she asks Leonard on Thursday at Glacier Point.
“That’s too strong, dearest,” he replies, turning his back on Muir’s “great telling view” of peaks, domes, now-dry waterfalls and moraines to view empathetically the toddler and mother who stand further back from the guardrail. “She’s genuinely miserable. There could be any number of reasons. Scared of heights. Hates crowds.” Indeed, hundreds of Germans, French, Chinese, Hispanics, Japanese and generic U.S. whites and blacks hourly get out of buses and cars, gape, and pose before smartphones. “Maybe she thinks Half Dome is a horrible giant ghost in a granite sheet. Or mother braided her hair too tight and her head hurts.”
DAY TWO: Leonard waits patiently for his turn at the Sentinel Dome perch for looking at El Capitan. “Darn Theodore Roosevelt,” says a tall man in a brown ranger uniform, surveying the Friday scene, as if Teddy were responsible for the dearth of solitude at this 360 degree view. How fair is the ranger’s beef? By 1890 the valley was cleared of Indians. In 1903 the meeting of Muir and Roosevelt resulted in National Park status.
“That’s John Muir’s tree,” a group hike leader from a Sierra Club New Hampshire chapter points out. “Same tree where he stood to view all this.” Marjorie curls up in a curve of desiccated gnarled trunk. In the distance rock cliffs end and the valley takes a more regular V than U shape at the point where the Yosemite Valley glacier ended.
At the talus base of Bridal Veil Fall, where Muir watched a “gauzy sun-sifted spray” waver back and forth far above at the peak of the rocks, a Los Angeles/Argentinean grandmother softly says words of worship. Intrepid fools ignore a warning sign and find rocks too slick for rubber soles. On to Yosemite Village where grey squirrels traffic near the grill. A poem by Gary Snyder in the Visitors’ Center beginning with the word “Water” ends with Snyder dunking his head into a pool at the bottom, coming face to face with a trout.
DAY THREE: The Mariposa Grove trail makes a thin passage up from Wawona through thick shrubs whose leaves look like a miniature mimosa, smell pungent as Tarweed and feel just as sticky when crushed. Muir proclaims that “glad animation of small wings make all air into music.” This Saturday morning a fly orbits Marjorie’s head like a ditsy electron, as she labors upward for most of a 3 1/2 miles round trip. The Albuterol inhaler isn’t really helping. John Muir walked his marvelous excursions into his late 60s or 70s. Doubtless he didn’t grow up breathing second-hand smoke of Chesterfield Kings and Mike Ibold maduros.
DAY FOUR: The Lodge manager, wanting to catch the weekend business at the main road campus, has awarded Marjorie and Leonard an unbelievable upgrade at no extra charge: a quiet four bedroom property, Rock View, four miles out of town. Ideal for taking a sabbath! Brown towhees scratch the duff near the porch. It’s too early yet for the acorn woodpeckers to gloat. First thing, Marjorie curls up by Leonard on a sofa with a mug of Equal Exchange Organic Love Bug Coffee as she savors Clarence King’s 1864 account of being caught in a Sierra storm:
We toiled slowly and heavily up Chowchilla trail. The branches of the great pines and firs were overloaded with snow, which now and then fell in small avalanches upon our heads. . . . We took turns breaking trail, Napoleon, the one-eyed mule, distinguishing himself greatly by following its intricate crooks, while the bravest of us, by turns, held to his tail. There is something deeply humiliating in this process.
Early afternoon, the couple sits out on the wicker porch furniture. Some smoke visible towards town. Sirens and sirens. A helicopter passes over and over really low. Leonard notes that it looks like it’s landing a property or two over. Marjorie notes that there are no fire extinguishers in the house. More sirens coming in from the south. A very low flying red-tailed plane looks like a commercial passenger flight. Number 10 on the fuselage. The red ball hanging from the helicopter carries fire retardant. More brown smoke in the direction of Oakhurst.
Inside the house: what smells? What smells damn bad through the whole house like Brussels sprouts? Worst in the entrance room. What to do? Buy expensive incense, oil or candles at The Purple Cow gift store? Free alternative: just keep the door to in-there closed! Smoking gun: the gas stove burners’ auto-light fails and the stinky breath spews out: propane.
Afternoon meditation: is Marjorie’s brain vibrating on the cusp of California or merely squeezed between two millionths of a centimeter-thick growth ring on the cut Douglas fir she crawled over on the Mariposa Grove trail? The thought crosses her mind then heads west.
DAY FIVE: 88.9 megahertz of concerti and symphonies from Sacramento stream north along Wawona Road in the Sonic. Which spurs riders and wheels on through the curvy miles, past plenty of turn-outs for slower traffic, past Half Dome, El Capitan, dry Yosemite Falls, a forest fire that a few helicopters kept transversing. Marjorie warbles along with Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, What though the mountains fall? The Lord is God of all. “Eat your heart out, John Muir,” gloats Leonard. No Mendelssohn for Muir as he walked and climbed and wrote.
Vernal Fall and Mirror Lake. Mirror Lake, all dry, like an inversion of Sentinel Dome. Down in a bowl with 360 degrees of peaks to look up at.
Big Oak Flat Road follows an old wagon road down to Tuolumne Sequoia Grove. Marjorie’s memory restores her to six weeks at Redwoods monastery in northern California. And to Il Foresta Fossile at Dunarobba in Umbria, where ancient mammoth chars under girder-and-metal-roof shelters know songs sparrows sang in the Pliocene.
Tioga Road up towards the high country follows some of the watershed divide between the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers. Tenaya Lake: Pyweak. Lake of shining rocks. Its spirits waft among smooth granite faces, roches moutonées and nunatak peaks throughout the upper part the valley. “Everything is flowing,” John Muir wrote, “going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water.” “Note how much bedrock shows,” says Bob Roney in his Road Guide to Yosemite. “See also the Yellow-Bellied Marmot. You may encounter some large rodents waddling about, looking cute, and accepting handouts. They are called marmots . . . Marmota flaviventris. Please do not feed them or any wildlife you may see in the park.”
Off Tioga Road at dry upper montane zones, Bob says “The Jeffrey pine can be identified by its smell — it has a sweet odor. Try it yourself: put your nose inside one of the large cracks in one of the trees and breathe deeply. Some smell like vanilla; others like butterscotch. What do you smell?” Leonard says his favorite flavored coffee.
In a little much-appreciated rain at Tuolumne Meadow, elevation 8,600 feet, the best store in all the park or towns sells everything backpackers could ever want, including a $7.50 packaged s’mores kit. Outside the store: a bedraggled wet Afghan dog with his hiker. Is the dog glad to be included in the trek or would he have been as glad or gladder to be left at home? Marjorie feels kinda bad upside the backpackers, having just blitzed here in the Sonic, but she’s all the more grateful for bygone backcountry trips in Rocky Mountain and Smoky Mountain National Parks, Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon, and Shawnee State Park in Ohio.
Back down from the high country, they pull off the road to get close to a source. Ripples of thought on a Merced River, river of mercy.
DAY SIX: Chilnualna Falls trail follows Chilnualna Creek for 1/2 mile, then switchbacks lead away from the creek into the open forest. Douglas Fir, Red Oak. A 3-needle-bundle pine’s thick bark offers more cracks to smell. A whiff of vanilla, then charred wood. Fall wildflowers: purple aster, fuchsia pink little trumpet flowers. Marjorie and Leonard meet a couple from Melbourne, Australia with their daughters. The mother whips out a video of Iguazu Falls roaring down the Brazil-Argentina border, her favorite vacation site.
“Isn’t that where the movie ‘The Mission’ was filmed?” asks Leonard. Jeremy Irons the priest climbs the falls, assembles an oboe and plays a haunting melody by Ennio Morricone. The indigenous people who’d sent a previous Jesuit bound to a cross over the falls draw close and listen. Him they’d have a use for.
If it were spring, Chilnualna Falls would have five large cascades sliding through and over rock formations above the Wawona Basin. Now there are just shallow pools of yesterday’s rainwater. At a pool’s edge three young people sit, enjoying a break from their restaurant and hotel jobs in the Valley. A boy plays his guitar and sings, to the delight of acorn woodpeckers who had never heard anything like it.
8 1/2 miles today, the best Marjorie and Leonard have done in years. Her happiness matches that of the hours when she walked miles and miles of level ridgetop stretches alone on the Appalachian Trail.
GOING HOME: “What do you do?” the woman sitting behind Marjorie and Leonard on the Friday 12:23 a.m. flight out of Denver asks of her seatmate.
“I design programs to track outcomes for johns in county court criminal justice systems.” Marjorie is not too tired to register that it is not toilets but men convicted of soliciting prostitutes with whom the young woman is virtually involved.
Leonard’s head leans on his wife’s shoulder as the plane banks over the river and touches down. He is dreaming that Marjorie arrives at baggage claim before any of the luggage and leaps up on the revolving plates of the carousel. Pee-ple, she belts out at the top of her quavering contralto. Pee-ple who need marmots, Are the luckiest people in the worrld. He is able to collect her and the rest of the baggage before security arrives.
Vickie Cimprich was a student of Sandra Cuni’s. Vickie’s poetry collection Pretty Mother’s Home – A Shakeress Daybook (Broadstone Books, 2007) was researched at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, KY with the support of grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. “Rocks Are Going Somewhere” is her third Marjorie and Leonard story. The others appeared in Jesture, Thomas More’s 1970s literary magazine, and Clifton Magazine.