Letters Best Left Unsent iv

I really hated that book, The Long Way ‘Round…

Yosemite is best taken as a destination and not a throughway.  I learned that lesson with this trip.  Again, I’m a geography teacher, but for some reason I didn’t understand the layout and accessibility of Yosemite, regardless of the number of maps and descriptions I poured over.  Needless to say I will consider this a “reconnaissance” trip, as I will go back to Yosemite, and stay in the park, for an extended period of time.

I did get packed up early at French Creek that morning. I would not be heading over Tioga Pass the most direct route to Yosemite, or over Sonora or Ebbetts Passes, but instead my new route would take me over Carson Pass.  This equated to a 200 mile detour and put me into my destination, Jamestown, much later than I’d wanted.

Unfortunately the clouds had not moved over night.  Instead they hung on the western edge of the valley, mudding the light, and at the higher elevations, the clouds completely hid any sunlight.  I rushed north on 395 hoping for some sort of clearing over Mono Lake, but none would appear. Instead I was greeted with blustery winds that whipped up the water, and the cloud’s eastern edge extended across the entire valley.  No cotton-candy sunrise this morning.  But, the Tufas themselves are fascinating. They are calcium-carbonate deposits that formed into underwater columns when springs from the Sierras percolated up and fed a much deeper lake.  The City of Los Angeles began to actively divert water that fed Mono Lake in 1941, and with high rates of evaporation water levels dropped risking a fragile ecosystems that supports many species of migratory birds and other inhabitants of the Valley.  The Tufas themselves offer an intriguing path to walk around.  Intriguing in that they hold such interesting shapes and forms, but more importantly because of their symbolism.  Humans can reach too far, we are insatiable at times.  Yet, we can repair, reconnect, and redirect.  We can fix our mistakes.  I did wait for the sun to rise and I did take a few photos, and I did head out quickly, anxious for a breakfast and what the road had to offer.


Eagle Peak from Bridgeport – These big images are pure Eastern Sierras. It seems that horizons run on for ever and every hill provides a vista just that much more spectacular than the previous.   What I was not prepared for though, was how indirect all the traveling would be; 30 miles north to go 10 miles west seems to be the norm.  I guess I just need to learn to live at a slower pace. 

A bakery in Lee Vining, as quick set of images of Eagle Peak from Bridgeport, and the road was back in the clouds, with rain threatening at any moment.  This part of 395 will be a true joy to one day ride.  It skirts the seem of the foothills and valley so effortlessly, yet you are continuously climbing and descending, carving left and right at an easy and entertaining pace.  Monitor Pass did offer to cut a few miles off the drive, but as soon as I started to climb the threatening rain finally introduced itself, and I would spend the next two hours in and out of rain, snow, sleet and fog.  The road over Carson Pass would be equally entertaining in better conditions, and what few vistas were offered this day certainly made a compelling argument for a future ride.  

Cresting the pass and making a long, slow descent in the central valley of California, I could easily feel the changes in climate and culture that I was about to encounter.  Jamestown is in the celebrated Calaveras County.  The gold camps along the American River and its tributaries help to populate California with those from the East Coast.  Spanish settlements as well as the indigenous populations were long and well established when the gold mines opened up and it seems the collision of cultures still forms an ominous rift.  

I navigated my way to my accommodations for the night.  A small guest cabin with access to a running shower seemed like a perfect spot after six nights of camping, at least when I was making my original plans.  Again, part of those plans had included being able to go INTO Yosemite.  So what was originally supposed to be a place to clean up, wind down, and offer me time to start to look at this images I’d already collected, instead became a staging point for two, very long and tiring trips INTO Yosemite.  A late lunch and a shower, and unloading extra gear from the car all took me in different directions of tiredness and excitement. Tired obviously from the road and some of the emotional strain, but wholly excited to FINALLY see Yosemite.  The only issue was the distance.  I was currently sitting 43 miles from the actual entrance of the park and an additional 23 mile to the Yosemite Valley.  On an unencumbered stretch of highway 66 miles can pass by fairly quickly.  But, given the speed limits, traffic and the nature of the route, this would actually take two hours.  Zigging and zagging, making a few extra-legal passes and certainly tempting fate with the speed limit, I finally arrived on the Valley floor at 7:30.  There was a little over an hour and a half of light left, so I absentmindedly made my way to Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Falls, and the Sentinel Bridge with it’s crushing view of Half Dome. It was all one monumental, stumbling accident after the other. Sheer luck alone got me to where I needed to be.



Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge – Long exposure image at sunset.  I needed a filter graduated filter for the upper portion of the image, but in my haste I didn’t want to miss the sunset while attaching extra pieces to my lens.  Overall, I’m very happy with this composition.

While standing on the Sentinal Bridge I was able to strike up a conversation with one of the photographers to my left.  Quick exchanges about the hows and whats of the site and location, and she quickly shared with me the must see sites, if I really only had one day to explore.  Again, that sense of “you are out of your element” began to wash over me as I moved away from the bridge.  Walking towards Yosemite Falls passed the Mercer River, I did that the sense of “awe” seep in.  The one that says “this really is a magical place!”  I recall vividly the Wide World of Sports episodes that featured climbers scaling Half Dome and El Capitan.  I remember the bewilderment of those climbers spending the night in bivouacs tied to the side of those granite faces.  The epic images that Adams produced, setting up his camera on top of his car, or hiking in for days with fewer than ten slides in order to capture that one scene?!  How much easier my experiences had been, but were they any better?  Was I losing something because of the ease?  Was I losing something in my haste?  Was I being reckless and forgetful because I could be?  How has pace at which we live impacted our ability to connect to and create a statement?  I know that I have literally stumbled onto some of my favorite photographs; timing does play a huge role when capturing a candid moment.  But what the planning and the perseverance? Does that make a journey or piece of art any more noteworthy?  The idea that I was running around and missing opportunities to photograph Yosemite’s most noted sites hadn’t quite registered yet.  Finally being at the destination I’d set out for seven days before had elevated me. I felt that things could now begin to fall into place and that some “real photography” could happen.  The sun had long since set by the time I got to the car.  I was close to 9:30 as I headed onto the road, so I quickly did my driving math and deduced “11:00” as the time I’d be getting back to my bed. But before I was even out of the Valley floor a lane closure stopped traffic for 20 minutes. Add to this the fact that I was way more generous with time estimates, and it was 12:15 when I shut out my lights.     

Determined to not miss any more than I had too, I was doing laundry and repacking as quickly as I could. I knew today would be another long day, but knowing I wouldn’t catch a sunrise in the park, I decided to think about a sunset, and Glacier Point is the obvious place for that.  Getting to Glacier point for sunset would also insure that I made it to Tunnel View.  So, all I had to do was figure out a couple of other places, and I would have a complete day in Yosemite under my hat.  The village of Groveland is high above region that Jamestown sits in.  It’s a quaint throwback town, reminiscent of small-town America in the 1960s.  Complete with fire station, art studios, various hostels and hotels, it also is home to a bakery whose owner was born and raised in Groveland, and she never intends to leave.  It’s humbling when you encounter that level of contentedness. I’m in awe of this peacefulness, this gratitude.  As someone who has moved and relocated and wandered as much as I have, I’ve often revered this placidity.  I’ve learned to accept my restlessness, my curiosity as strengths and I’m grateful for the adventures they’ve lead me on.

I found myself back on the Valley floor near 11 that morning, and now I wanted to see as much as possible; the waterfalls, El Capitan, Sentinel Beach, Tunnel View and Glacier Point, everything.  A hallmark of the Yosemite Valley, this year the waterfalls were at their peak.  The heavy snowpack that had blocked my way was now filling up the Merced River and the entire valley from every possible drop and flume.  The Mercer River often fills the meadow along its banks, creating perfect reflecting pools.  The green and the rushing blue, combined with the bright, white light and stark granite faces creating equally blinding and mesmerizing scenes.  To walk about, to take the trolley to the far ends of the valley, to hide under the Ponderosa and Redwood canopy, all options held perfect possibility.  In my mind the only places I “had” to see would be Tunnel View and then Glacier Point at sunset.  I was realizing how impossibly short my time was, and with ghosts of emotions starting to creep into my thoughts, I just wanted to walk, and witness and breathe in the call and the space and volume that Yosemite offered.

The trolley to the west end of the valley quickly approached and was crowded immediately once it was stopped. We lumbered up the Valley as the driver called out the different landmarks and points of interest.  The tent village at Housekeeping Camp is probably the most interesting place to camp in the park. The rows of large, canvas tents would offer little true privacy, but the sense of community that could be found amongst them has to rival any family reunion that has ever gathered!  Dozens upon dozens of other campsites exist in the park.  And in thinking back I can’t recall if they were all already booked when I was making my reservations, or had I conscientiously chosen not to stay in the park?  I honestly can’t recall, but as I am looking backwards on it I know I missed something by not having that experience, but I am so motivated to return to it. To sink into the space that Yosemite offers, and without any difficult or complicate memories of it.  



Yosemite Falls – Apparently, there’s a “Moon-Bow” that can be caught during the night, when the moon is out.  I definitely want to try to capture one. For now, I’ll be content with this image of the falls.  

Vernal Falls and the hike to view it would be my first actual destination.  These are at the far end of the valley and it is a well traveled route of moderate difficulty.  I felt that the overview bridge, which is actually downstream from the falls would offer a satisfying view.  I was able to see the falls from the small bridge crossing the Mercer, but I was left with the without a photo that actually capture the rush of the water and energy that it released.  The sun was its brightest at this point and every surface was reflecting it heavily.  There was just too much light to fight against at this point. It was all about learning to know what the park offered, and then working out the details for a later visit.  Next was Mirror Lake. Under ideal conditions it captures the perfect reflection of Half Dome, towering above the eastern shore. But today, with the direct light, the mirror was a muted and murky sight.  The six miles I’d hiked to these two locations, along with the earlier missed bus stop pushed my visit into the late afternoon. Feeling hunger creep in, and knowing I would need a solid hour to make the trip up to Glacier Point, I was sensing my time running out.  I rushed through a market on the grounds, but unfortunately it seemed that every other person in the park was sensing the same hunger.  More refrigerator magnets were purchased, and I walked out of the store unwrapped packaged food that I normally would have never touched.  I had one more site to see before leaving the Valley Floor, and that was the Ansel Adams Studio.  


Half Dome – Black & White – I was overwhelmed by the scenery in so many ways. Overwhelmed by the beauty, and by the scale.  I took a lot of images, very few though that seem to give this place any real justice. This is probably the cleanest, and technically correct shot from the park.

It isn’t a large space, and it is retail space much more so than a gallery or actual studio, and even though there have been many, many other talented artists who have created stunning images of Yosemite, it is Adams who is the icon. It’s humbling and inspiring to be around his work.  To see how he pushed himself and his work.  How he could trudge out to a location for three or four days, carrying less than 10 plates to make images with, and walk back with perfection. As I’ve shared earlier, I took over 1500 images on this trip.  A large portion are an exercise in learning, will many more will never make it off of my computer.  So the few that I have produced have a very special meaning, and continuously get passed under a critical eye.  And fully knowing that even Adams had his flawed work, it was hard not to walk around in awe of what was on display.  I did find great value in the time spent flipping open the different coffee table books, and gazing at the larger prints that hung throughout the space. Adams chronicled the Internment Camps of the California and Colorado. He also spent a good deal of time in the Eastern Sierras, around Bishop and Lone Pine, and obviously venturing to the Bristlecones and Death Valley. He has an extensive writing collection as well, which I need to start to pursue. The inspiration found that those few minutes will easily resonate over many seasons of photography for me. I didn’t find any souvenirs, as has been my habit on this trip, but the presence I’d entered left a mark that I hope I can honorably recall, and work with seamlessly.



Yosemite Falls – Black & White  – This meadow view also receives much due attention. Water flood the meadow from the Mercer River adds to many of the compositions complexity, I missed that aspect in my hurrying about.

Packed back up and on the route to Glacier Point, I was settling in to the idea that this was the adventure I had wanted, and needed, even though I was left wanting so much more.  I took that as a good sign.  I knew I was leaving a lot of ground uncovered, I knew there were more paths to explore, and I knew that many more images were being framed in my imagination now precisely BECAUSE of the trip, that will later come to life.  The road out cuts across the Mercer, the switches back in the opposite direction almost immediately as the grade changes to a sharp rise. One more switch and you are traveling southwest, climbing quickly away from the valley floor.  The road cuts in and out of the stands of Ponderosa, before driving through the Tunnel. Tunnel View is, again, one of the eponymous views offered up in Yosemite. The entire valley floor spreads out in front of you, with Sentinel Dome, El Capitan, and Half Dome set as a perfect and majestic framing.  Since it was later in the day, the best light had long passed Sentinel Dome  and El Capitan, but Half Dome maintained its brilliance.  Even this late Tunnel View was holding a large crowd, but the traffic filing past to either south out of the park, or up to Glacier Point was a constant, steady stream.  Jumping back into the line of traffic probably quicker than I needed to, I was heading to my last, uncharted destination of this trip.  The road turns sharply south once it has crested the southern rampart of the valley, and zig-zags its way to Chinquapin where the turn-off for Glacier Point exits.  The road heads roughly north west, and by the time you reach the Glacier Point parking lot you have literally retraced the route to the valley floor, the only difference is your elevation.  For the first time you are now staring down onto Half Dome and the other grand features!  Glacier Point’s height is so great that it is actually lost on you while you are in the valley.  Before actually reaching Glacier Point the park offers one last secret, Washburn Point.  This spot seems to collect as many Volkswagen camper, skateboarding, and light-painted shots as any other site in the park.  



Half Dome from Glacier Point – The sunset gathering was a hectic mass, even for a mid-week, early summer Tuesday.  I’ll be back.

Washburn is a truly splendid overlook, and one I nearly drove past in my haste to get to Glacier Point.  I stopped, without the intention of photographing any of it.  I wanted to savor it, to just sit in it. I’d been asked earlier, while putting this plan, this trip together, if there would be any time for “just sitting.”  Was every stop, every walk, every moment going to be “on,” or would there be time just to revel in the wonder of it all. Did every situation have to produce “the” image, or could there just be the quiet reflection.  I absentmindedly scoffed when the question was asked, and then corrected myself and quickly worked to assuage the concern.  “No, of course not?! I can stop, I can walk, I can let to moment speak in volumes greater than any image could imagine.  I know how to “sit.” I know how to just “be.”  All these counters were useless though. The whole purpose of the trip WAS to shoot.  And if I wasn’t talking pictures of these places, why was I even bothering to go?!  This trip was a chance to reconnect with something that had been lost. It was a chance to collect new meaning and value in this new life I’d been forming. If it wasn’t going to be about photography, what was it going to be about?!

Glacier Point – Yosemite Falls in the background..I’m sure I’ll edit this as a black and white, but I do enjoy the solemnity of the muted colors.

The trip ended up being about getting lost, losing my heart, losing my way, and trying to reconcile what 27 years had brought me. The trip ended up being a big lesson in the consequences of choices.  This trip was definitely about going the long way around, complaining way more than I should have, and letting indignance and entitlement creep into a place they had no business being.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s