Monday, May 4, 2015

My friend Jane

This weekend I got news that my friend Jane had suddenly died. It was a shock, a blow to my heart.

I met Jane about 1985. She was already working as an auditor for the state of Texas in Beaumont when I was hired for the same position.

She was sophisticated and elegant, graceful and gracious, lovely, and kind - the epitome of a Southern lady. I was anything but the traits she effortlessly lived, but she was instantly my friend, my mentor, my support when I went through tough times.

After a couple of years I moved to Washington and she moved to Austin and we lost touch, but thanks to Facebook we found each other after a long time, and it seemed like yesterday since I'd talked to her.

I'm so very glad I found her again. She was a luminous spot in my life. I was emailing a mutual friend yesterday who said he broke down and cried when he got the news. He's not alone. Jane was loved by many, many people whose hearts were broken when they heard the sad news.

Thought of the day:

She is a friend of mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind. ~Toni Morrison, Beloved

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Now this is what I'm talkin' 'bout!

After the major disappointment of the Nelder Forest of Dead and Dying Tall Trees and Dead Trees Lying on the Ground, I knew I had to brave the crowds at the Mariposa Grove in the southern end of the park. When HH and I drove through the southern entrance one day to go to Oakhurst, rangers were all over the place directing traffic, turning would-be circling vultures away from the full parking lots, and generally looking frazzled. Whew!, I thought at the time, because we were headed to the Dead and Dying Tall Trees where I would find nirvana and solitude, but we all know how that turned out. So when I decided I was going to see the "real" giant sequoias we knew we had to get there early, if only to get a parking space.

We left the house at 6:40 and got to the grove an hour later. It's that far from El Portal to the south end of the park. There were three other cars in the lot but I could already feel the multitudes breathing down our necks, so we gathered water, camera, and a hiking stick and set out.

The first tree we came to is called the Fallen Monarch. It fell centuries ago and because the wood is tannin-rich it's rot-resistant and unpalatable to insects, which accounts for it still being in the grove.

The tree provided a backdrop for the U.S. Army each summer from 1891 through 1914 when cavalrymen rode from San Francisco to Yosemite to protect the park. Buffalo soldiers of the 9th and 24th Infantry also performed this role. Among the first park rangers, the cavalry held a tradition to ride out onto this giant sequoia to pose for photographs. 

Today it's not only frowned upon, it's forbidden to climb on the fallen trees. Below is the Fallen Monarch as it looks today. 

Sequoias don't have tap roots; instead the roots spread out near the surface, usually not more than six feet deep - but fanning out more than 150 feet - to catch water. 

HH returned to the truck to wait out the rest of my hike with a book on his iPad. He's the best and most patient waiter I've ever known. 

I continued to the Grizzly Giant. It's estimated to be between 1900 and 2400 years old and is the largest tree in the grove at 210 feet, with a buttressed base measuring 30 feet in diameter. I'll give you a minute to remember high school geometry to figure its circumference, or I can just tell you: 92 feet. Above the buttresses the diameter is 75 feet. This tree won't blow over in a storm.

The first branch up from the base, on the right, is about seven feet in diameter.

The Park Service has excellent graphic waysides here. Here's one about the Grizzly Giant that puts it in perspective. 

Next up for me was the Tunnel Tree, eviscerated in 1895. It's the second tree in the grove to have been tunneled, and the only one still standing.

Standing inside the tunnel one can see the tree trying to heal itself by continuing to grow bark. Unfortunately, people are still trying to kill it, as evidenced by the graffiti carved into the walls of the tunnel.

There were a few other people at the Tunnel Tree and when they took the left fork of the trail, I went right. As I glanced back at the tree to see it from the other direction, I saw these two deer, placidly watching the activity.

Another tree along the way is the Clothespin Tree. Fires have excavated a natural tunnel wider than a car. It doesn't look that large from a distance.

It's impossible for my camera to take in an entire tree without my having to stand so far back that its presence is diminished.


Look at the bottom of this photo for the post-and-rope fence that will give a sense of the dimensions of these giants.

Another excellent wayside is this one showing the different kinds of trees in the grove and their respective cones.

There are Ponderosa pine cones littering the ground around the house. They're huge, larger than will fit in my hand, but look at the compact size of the giant sequoia cone I found in the grove. It's a beautiful piece of engineering.

There wasn't a lot in bloom yesterday. I have yet to identify this one but the color was too good to ignore.

This tiny yellow wood violet was one of just three or four.

Another noteworthy sequoia is the Telescope Tree.

A giant cavity allows you to walk inside, look straight up, and see the sky. This amazing tree is still alive and producing viable seeds.

From the time I left the people at the Tunnel Tree, I saw and heard no one for the next couple of hours. The tweets, trills, chirps, and whistles of birds, the jackhammering of woodpeckers, the rustling of squirrels in the forest debris, and distant wind through tree tops were all I heard.

Most birds were visually elusive and I felt lucky to see this one, a long way off.

Another fallen tree is called the Stable Tree. During the days of stagecoach travel, mangers were built into the fire-scarred center and the space served as stables for horses. The base of the tree is behind the sign.

As much as I hate to see the graffiti that's everywhere in parks, I have to admit to an appreciation of the wit who carved into the Stable Tree's sign. You will perhaps appreciate my plagiarism of the history of the Stable Tree, taken directly from the same sign.

Finally, the Wawona Tunnel Tree. Carved in 1881 and falling under a record snowfall in 1969, it was a portal for untold numbers of visitors and undoubtedly contributed to the popularity and preservation of Yosemite.

This section of the tree is about one-fourth its length.

This is a closer view of the base.

I returned to a packed and frenzied parking lot with people creating their own spaces wherever they could squeeze in. HH told me there had been a steady flood of visitors into the grove throughout the morning. I had seen no more than a dozen since I left the people behind at the Tunnel Tree and don't know how I had been so lucky. I'd found nirvana and solitude in one of the busiest areas of the park.

As a postscript, I'm adding a couple of photos from an afternoon forward attack HH and I made on the park. We live about 20 minutes from the entrance and it's one lane in all the way. A second lane for employees and vendors opens up just yards from the fee station, and it doesn't matter who you are, you wait in line. On this trip in we waited in line about 20 minutes. On days like this, rain or snow or shine, a ranger moves down the line, handing out the park newspaper and answering questions so all people have to do is pay their money when they get to the booth.

What is it about waiting in line like this that makes it so much more palatable when you look in your rearview mirror and see a lot of cars behind you? Suddenly the line ahead doesn't seem so bad. What a weird phenomenon.

Anyway, we stopped at the Pohono Bridge, a small one that crosses the Merced River, and took a little stroll. There are dogwoods in bloom everywhere along here but the light wasn't right for them. I think it did fine for the river, though.

A road loops around the Valley floor in one direction. I don't know if that helps or hurts the traffic, but almost every time we go in, traffic is at a crawl. People are gawping, they don't know if they should pull over, they're looking for a place to pull over - they're on vacation. This time I didn't mind too much more than usual because the stopped traffic let me take in this cross-Valley view in softening afternoon light.

In violation of every rule about not feeding the animals, we have put out a hummingbird feeder at four parks now and haven't been busted yet. The family bird expert thinks this is an Anna's hummingbird.

And finally, a scrub jay that visited the yard last week. It looks like it was taking home carryout.

Thought of the day:

And this, our life exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. 
- William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Random wanderings

When we decided to come to Yosemite for the summer, we learned of a detour that we'd have to take to get to El Portal, where we're now parked. There are only a few entrances to Yosemite and one, over Tioga Pass, is still under snow, and the GPS warned us off another because of low clearance. Our last option was the road with the detour. Highway 140 enters the park from the west, through Mariposa, travels along the Merced River for a long, mesmerizing distance, and then is routed across a bridge or two. There's a length limit of 45 feet, but my boss at Death Valley, who used to live and work at Yosemite, told me we'd have no problem getting the house across the bridge. It's not the bridge that's the problem, anyway; it's the turns we had to make to zig-zag around and through.

In 2006 there was an 800,000-ton rockslide that buried 600 feet of Highway 140. Work to clear the slide didn't start until a few weeks ago. I couldn't understand what took so long until I saw the damage, and learned that the slide wasn't a one-time avalanche but continued over a couple of months.

Traffic from Mariposa was blocked, and employees who lived there had a two-hour, one-way commute to get to work. The slide also had a significant impact on the local economy. A bridge was erected to open access to the park, but it limited vehicles to 28 feet. Two years later, another bridge went up to allow up to 45 feet. 

The solution, which isn't expected to be completed until 2020, is a 750-foot rock shed, only the second in the state, the other being in Big Sur which is only 300 feet.

There's no parking along the highway, so I can't show photos of the entire slide, or of the helicopter we watched while caught at a light, waiting to cross the bridge. The helicopter was carrying immense rolls of wire mesh from the undamaged side of the river to the debris side. Back and forth, back and forth. Then, another day, when we were going to Mariposa and were caught at the light again - the light allows one-way traffic to cross - we saw what has to be a good-sized machine on the side of the hill, scooping rock, swinging around, and dropping it on the other side. It looked to be a Sisyphean task, moving a mountain a teaspoon at a time.

That's it, that spidery blue machine in the middle of the photo, clinging to the slope, like a climber on El Capitan without ropes. It was positioned below the wire mesh that was laid down and anchored in place, to prevent loose rock from bouncing down, is my guess.

A closer view shows the machine better with someone, maybe the rock-watcher, standing at its side. If ever a job deserved hazardous duty pay, this is it.

We haven't seen it on the slope again. It's at the bottom and HH is convinced it slid down.

- - - - - -

Last weekend we drove through the Valley on our way to Nelder Grove (more on that in a bit), when clouds and fog were being dramatic. A boardwalk crosses a meadow, pointing the way to Yosemite Falls.

I got back in the truck and drove about 10 feet when I saw the lower falls, which I hadn't seen before.

This is from the other side of the road that rings the valley.

- - - - - -

My first job here is to clean up the Resource Management library. Among the documents I handled a couple of weeks ago was an account of native women gathering to grind acorns into flour. They had their favorite location, their favorite rock, even their favorite hole, called a mortar, in the rock, one they'd spent years using and wearing down just right. One day at lunch I walked down the road that parallels the Merced River a short distance and found this rock below. Wow is about all I could say. This wasn't brought in as a tourist attraction; at least I like to think it was used, here, in this spot. Here is an 1893 account of acorn collection and preparation. It's interesting.

- - - - - -

A couple of weeks ago we drove across the park to Hetch Hetchy, the location of the O'Shaughnessy Dam and the cause of a bitter controversy at the turn of the last century.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 showed the inadequacy of the city's water supply. Even though interest in Hetch Hetchy as a water source went back to the 1850s, it took the 1906 disaster to prompt the city to lobby for the rights to develop the Tuolomne River. They got those rights in 1908 and the fight was on, with the Sierra Club and John Muir on one side, arguing that the beauty of the valley rivaled that of Yosemite Valley, and seemingly everyone else on the other side. Of course the city got the rights and work began in 1914. Today all the water going to San Francisco comes from the reservoir behind the dam. Even today, San Francisco is not required to filter its water because of its quality. 

Swimming and boating are prohibited, although fishing is allowed.

- - - - 

Last weekend we went to Merced and stopped at the Merced County Courthouse Museum. They don't allow photos inside. I never understand that, and because we had a docent giving us a tour, I couldn't sneak any.

The building is the best example of the Italian Renaissance revival remaining between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was built in 1875 and served as the county courthouse for 100 years. Upon its retirement it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The docent told us that the architect, Albert Bennett, believed that justice is not blind, so his figure at the cupola shows her without a blindfold. Its collection is related to the history of Merced County, and is arranged among 8500 square feet. It's one of the nicest local museums I've been in, and has free admission.

- - - - - -

When HH and I started reading about the area we learned of Nelder Grove, supposedly the smart person's alternative to Mariposa Grove, Yosemite's area of giant Sequoias. Just as good, none of the crowds. Having experienced the crowds, even this early in the season, I was all in favor of getting away from them.

The directions were a little vague and we did a lot of scenic route-ing before finding someone who directed us to the right road. I started out on the one-mile loop, full of anticipation of seeing these gigantic marvels. I walked. And walked. No giant trees. OK, I thought maybe at the apex of the loop the grove would open out into a vast forest of big trees. I crested the apex and when I began the homeward-bound section of the trail, I realized I'd been had. Instead of calling it the Nelder Grove, it should have been called the Nelder Stump-Field, or the Nelder Forest of Dead and Dying Tall Trees and Dead Trees Lying on the Ground.

Seriously, the reviews painted a transcendent experience, bonding with nature, an experience of a lifetime. What forest where they in?

Yes, indeed, the trees were tall, but giant, no.

Among the tall trees is what I noticed more of than anything: stumps. Someone had gotten to the really big ones a long time ago.

One interesting thing was this log, looking as though felled by axes, not chain saws. I wonder why it wasn't good enough to haul off.
The reviews said it was likely you'd find yourself alone in the grove, communing with nature in peace and quiet, far from the madding crowd. I was alone for the most part except when I came across a group of bicyclists from Venezuela. I really hoped they didn't think these trees were a good representation of what America has to offer.

- - - - - -

On our way to the grove we stopped at Tunnel View, still in Yosemite. Silly me, I thought the spot was where we could get some unusual view of the tunnel that cuts through rock, along the road that leads to the south entrance. No, it was a view of a different tunnel, one that looks forever across trees and mountain tops, all the way to endless blue.

There was a massive scrum of visitors all around me, jockeying for position, taking selfies, walking into everyone's photos, yet this view almost made me feel as if I were alone, bringing peaceful calm. Isn't it lovely? 


Thought of the day:

The clearest way to the Universe is through a forest wilderness. - John Muir, John of the Mountains

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sweet land of liberty

On Sunday I went on my first Yosemite hike, me and 500 friends, to the top of Vernal Fall. I went in early just as the sun was lighting the Valley, and as much as I wanted to get going on the trail so I could avoid the crowds, I couldn't pass by the views I was seeing for the first time.

That's Yosemite Falls, looking as if it's fed by the contrail above it. Didn't I plan that well?

There's a hike to the top of Yosemite Falls but it's not for me. My hiking book says it's 3.6 miles up, with an elevation gain of 2700 feet. I will admire from afar. There's another hike I want to look into, though, simply because I'm tickled by its name. It's supposed to be a steep one but it might be worth the misery to be able to say I hiked the Poopenaut Valley trail.

This was down the road a little, where the sun hadn't yet made an appearance. There were contrails across the sky all day. 

There's about a one-mile walk from the parking lot to the beginning of the trail, crossing a bridge and looking up- and down-canyon.

The trail was uphill right from the start.  It's 1.5 miles to the top with an elevation gain of 1000 feet. I knew that ahead of time. I knew there were steps involved, and knew there were more than 600 of them, but didn't know that they all occurred within 3/10 of a mile from the top. Here they begin, and as I started up I found myself counting 1, 2, 3, and had gotten to about 40 when I asked myself if I was crazy. Did I really want to keep track?

The beginning of the stairs was actually pretty easy; they were shallow and dry. The higher the climb, though, the steeper they got, and it's not called the Mist Trail for nothing. Most of the way there's no railing, even with a drop almost straight down, but where it's wettest and steepest a railing has been installed and I clung to it like a lifeline.

And that is the end of the photos I have approaching the fall, or even being on top. Really. I had some, but what they showed was a river falling off the edge. I couldn't see down the fall. It was beautiful up there but oddly enough, not very photogenic.

I wasn't looking forward to the descent, especially because more and more people were coming up and crowding the steps. Luckily, a woman told me about continuing past the fall to connect with the John Muir Trail, a stairless, dry way to go back to the Valley. 

I looked at a map and saw a series of switchbacks. I know switchbacks and thought how nice they would be to my knees, which are acting their age recently. What the woman didn't say, and what the map didn't show, is that the switchbacks continue up the mountain.

Yes, this is the trail. The photo isn't crooked. Some poor crew, maybe the CCC, laid rocks on end to level the path a bit and to mark the way.

But it was lovely up there. To the right of Liberty Cap is Nevada Fall. I had considered and discarded the idea of continuing to Nevada Fall because it involved more climbing. Ha! Look at where I am in relation to the top of the fall. I shoulda gone.

Here is Vernal Fall, my destination for the day, from the trail I was supposed to be descending on. To the right of the fall is a more or less level area surrounded by a railing which some people consider merely an impediment to getting a great selfie by the fall. And have fallen the 317 feet to the bottom.

That's Nevada Fall again on the right, with Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick, and Half Dome. The only way I could get them all in one photo was using the panorama feature on the camera, the first time I've used it.

The John Muir Trail was nice to be on because not many others were using it for most of the way. I poked along, looking for wildflowers, listening to the rush of the river far below, and enjoying the sunshine.

While I was lounging around the top of Vernal Fall a group (also known as a band, a cast, a party, or a scold) of Stellers jays was creating a racket in the trees. I love these birds. We had them in Washington, where I fed them peanuts in the shell. They're noisy, brash, and in-your-face birds, and smart as can be. One settled just long enough for me to get his portrait.

Another jay lives here too, a scrub jay. They're not as flamboyant but they have the same attitude.

P.S. We are happy, happy people: AT&T installed DSL internet at the house today, 250 Gb a month. It feels like we've been emancipated. The world is wide open. We can stream! 

I may never leave.


Thought of the day:

Now there is more to a bluejay than any other animal. He has got more different kinds of feeling. Whatever a bluejay feels he can put into language, and not mere commonplace language, but straight out and out book talk, and there is such a command of language. You never saw a bluejay get stuck for a word. He is a vocabularized geyser. - Mark Twain, What Stumped the Blue Jay