Thursday, May 14, 2015

Art? or vandalism? at Mirror Lake

When HH's son David was here last week he drove us around to places we hadn't yet been. David had been here before, for a shorter time than we've been, but saw much more. I have to say that because we don't live in the park and it takes at least a half-hour to get inside and to the Valley, we don't go all that often. It's just like living anywhere: I lived in northern Virginia, right outside Washington DC, for ten years and while I went a lot of places there were just as many I never saw. There, as here, it was a matter of horrendous traffic, lack of parking, and the idea that I had plenty of time that kept me from those places. It's an easy trap to fall into, especially the "plenty of time" idea.

So David played tour guide and nowhere he took us was a disappointment. One such place was Mirror Lake, which we had to get to early in the season before the water disappears and it becomes Mirror Meadow. It was much less crowded than I expected it to be, always a pleasant surprise.

It's a beautiful setting and the weather cooperated with little wind to disturb the lake. This is the view, the only perspective that provides the perfect reflection.

Across the trail from the lake is a hill of boulders, and peeking over the top is a cairn forest, like fairy monuments. The Park Service does not encourage them and will usually actively remove them from the landscape. I don't know why it hasn't been done here. While at Death Valley, my friend Deb saw a huge one built near a canyon. It was newly built and she remarked that it must have taken the builders all day to erect. She reported it and was given the go-ahead to break it down. We also saw some while hiking in canyons that supposedly helpful former hikers put up to direct the way to go on trailless hikes. I always wondered about the helpfulness, though, because who's to say what the cairn is really pointing to - maybe not the trail we were necessarily looking for, or even put there by someone deliberately trying to misdirect.

There are legitimate cairns, those that mark old mining claims or are Native American-built for various reasons, dating back to prehistoric time, so not every one should be destroyed. While discouraging their use, the Park Service also wants to be notified about them to determine if they're legitimate. That's why Deb reported the one she found, even though she knew it was brand new and had no business being there.

Death Valley has a Facebook post about what they call the Monkey See, Monkey Do activity of cairn building. Cairns are like written graffiti in that once one has marked the landscape, it becomes viral. I always thought that if my car had some body damage it should be repaired because the damage seemed to encourage further door dings or bumper scrapes. There's something about human nature that makes us want to join in or one-up someone else.

Last week I was able to go on a one-hour tour of the Valley, narrated by an Interpretation Ranger who is really good at his job. He started the tour by explaining the significance of the National Park Service badge.

The Service's mission is three-fold (I'm paraphrasing based on my memory of his narrative): to protect the nation's natural resources, as noted by the solitary tree, the forest, and the bison; to protect our cultural heritage, as represented by the arrowhead, and to provide for the enjoyment and recreation of visitors, as portrayed by the lake and mountain. It's a delicate balancing act. The more time I spend in our national parks, the more I understand and appreciate the difficulty of the job. People love their parks, and the parks are often loved to death.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk given by one of the people on the wilderness crew who illustrated the work that's been done to reclaim meadows that have had trails worn into them over the years. He explained their job is not to restore the meadows to their original condition, but to restore their functionality. Meadows, when they haven't been trampled to concrete, act as sponges for snowmelt from the mountains. They're basins, collecting water and holding it there until it seeps into the water table. When trails have been worn into the meadows, in some cases as much as knee-deep, their functionality as reservoirs is disrupted because water now runs off, not only not having time to percolate into the soil, but causing damaging erosion that further contributes to the problem. The differences in the before and after photos could be seen as miraculous if he hadn't shown that the crew's work is time-consuming and back-breaking, in many cases digging and hauling all by hand.

This is a round-about path that leads back to the cairns that follow. The issue is polarizing, with the Leave No Trace people staunchly on one side, and the What Harm Is There people firmly on the other. I understand both sides, having found that position the best one to take for sanity. 

So here's this fairyland of piled rocks. Some are astonishing feats of engineering. All are unauthorized. Somehow, as much of a rule-follower as I've always been, I'm lightening up in my old age and, on this issue, couldn't find anything to complain about. For one thing, they're confined to this one, small area. People were recreating with minimal impact. This isn't a wilderness area. There was a respectful, almost reverential hush about it. People walked gingerly among them. To me, the area was enchanting and charming.

Take a look at them and see what you think. Are they art, or are they a form of vandalism?

What do you think?

A last look at the Mirror Lake area is of the river that still flows, but not for long. Soon it will all be dry here - but the cairn builders will still come.


Thought of the day:

Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place. - Banksy, Wall and Piece

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Ahwahnee

As long as we've been here we hadn't yet gone to the Ahwahnee Hotel, but HH's son visited us from Albany this weekend, and we celebrated HH's and my birthdays and David's visit by breakfasting there yesterday morning. I've been to Yosemite twice before this stint as a volunteer but didn't go to the Ahwahnee then either, or don't remember going. It was a long time ago. But I would have felt outclassed and like I didn't belong or thought I would have been challenged and tossed out. If I think I have self-esteem issues now, hoo boy, back then was the dark ages.

Room rates there are in the $500 a night range and unless someone else is paying for it I won't be staying there in this lifetime, but breakfast is a drop in the bucket in comparison and now I can say I went.

The Ahwahnee opened in 1927 with a construction cost of $1.25 million. The site was chosen for its views of Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls (none of which appear in the photo below), as well as its exposure to the sun to take advantage of solar heating. The architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, also designed the lodges at Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon's North Rim. The Ahwahnee, according to Wikipedia, is a prime example of National Park Service rustic architecture, or "parkitecture." 

Original plans called for a dining room capable of seating 1,000 (what?!) but they were scaled back to room for 350. As the maitre'd was leading us to our table yesterday I asked about the full house I expected they would have today, Mother's Day. (Happy Mother's Day to all you moms!) He sighed wearily, a day ahead of the horde, and said they were expecting 1,000. HH and I were going to go again today for their Sunday brunch. When I went online last week to make a reservation, availability was down to 9:15 and 9:30 for a brunch session that lasts for at least six hours, but yesterday was enough. It has the kind of prices you'd expect for a $500-a-night hotel. There's a regular menu but the Sunday brunch buffet is $45. Each. I'd have to not eat for a couple of days to get my money's worth at a cost like that. That's the dangerous thing about buffets.

The hotel is a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register. I had no idea what the difference was so I looked it up. National Historic Landmarks are "historic buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts" that "possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States."  

The National Register is the "official list of the nation’s historic properties deemed worthy of preservation." There are over 90,000 of them, which is pretty funny because when I went on the road two years ago one ambition I had was to see all the places on the National Register. On the other hand, there are just over 2,500 Landmarks, which not only make them special but more likely to be crossed off my list.

The Great Lounge is the major public space in the hotel. It is 77 feet by 51 with 24-foot ceilings. There are fireplaces at both ends.

The other fireplace across the lounge:

Note the sign on the left side of the hearth, the same fireplace as above but a different view. It asks people not to dry their clothes by the fire. It's always amazing to me that people have to be instructed in basic manners...

...such as with this sign on the wall at the entrance to the lounge. What kind of behavior would necessitate a sign like this?

Ten floor-to-ceiling windows line the length of the room, each topped with a hand-stained, unique window. It's a shame they're blocked from the sun by an overhang, because their colors aren't as brilliant as they could be.

In 1943 the Ahwahnee was converted to a Naval Convalescent center. An improvement the Navy made was repainting the interior, covering the hand-painted designs of the original building.

This is one of the best examples I've seen of "parkitecture" blending seamlessly into its environment. 

This time around I wasn't overwhelmed or intimidated. I'm not one of those people who has to be told not to drape my wet clothes around the fireplace, or that I should behave appropriately. I wouldn't have had to be told back in 1977 or 1988, either. I suppose I was classy enough then after all.

I've been thinking about my friend Jane a lot this past week. The consistent theme of what people have said about her is her enthusiasm for life. I've said she went after it with heart and hands open; others said she lived her life full out, full of enjoyment; she was always of great spirit; still others remembered her laugh and her irreverent sense of humor. What a legacy to leave to those who love you. What a kind of life to live.

Thought of the day:

At the end of life, what really matters
is not what we bought but what we built;
not what we got but what we shared;
not our competence but our character;
and not our success, but our significance.
Live a life that matters. Live a life of love. - unknown

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