Missing the train…

For the last two years, at exactly this time, I would be traveling through the Rocky Mountains on my way to Macworld. I would have left Chicago yesterday, around 3 in the afternoon on Friday and would not be reaching my final destination of San Francisco until Sunday evening. I began taking the train not because of my fears of flying even though the current administration seems intent on scaring the hell out of us for political reasons whenever possible. No I just wanted to travel in a way that most people don’t experience. And it was more than I could have imagined. A tremendous memory.

I’m not going this year because editing work is keeping me in town, but I have to say I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wistfully thinking of how I’d like to be on the train again this year. In that spirit, I’m going to post a journal I kept on my very first train trip to San Francisco back in January 2003, and the side trip to Yosemite National Park. Since I seem to have temporarily misplaced the Amtrak part of the journal, we’ll go a little out of order and start with the Yosemite trip. Enjoy.

Billy

Today I rented a car and headed out of San Francisco east toward the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I planned a few extra days after my Macworld vacation because, smartly, I knew even though a week of Apple-related revelry would be fun, I knew it would also be exhausting. I was correct. Man, I’m beat. It was already going to be a busy week, and then somehow I managed to find myself writing a column for the Chicago Tribune. It wasn’t part of the plan. One minute I’m having lunch and the next minute, I’m on the phone with Christine Tatum, one of the technology writers for the Trib. They’re having trouble getting anything good from the wire services and how would I feel about writing a few paragraphs for them about what I’ve seen? I really didn’t know what they were going to do with what I would write. I sent off a few paragraphs with the promise of more and I got a very enthusiastic “keep writing – and send a photo.” A photo? For as much photography as I do, I really don’t have a photograph of myself. I logged onto my computer at home and couldn’t find anything that seemed appropriate, but since I had a digital camera with me (thanks again Mark Johnson), I decided to take a self portrait. But how do you take a picture of yourself in a hotel room and not make it look like it’s a picture in a hotel room? To make a long story short, using the hotel room window as a background, I set up two table lamps and click. A little cleanup in Photoshop and there was my Chicago Tribune photo!

Much to my surprise the next day on the online edition, there was my column and my own “special to the Tribune” byline and my photo on the same page as Apple president Steve Jobs’. In fact my photo was actually bigger than Steve’s. Pretty cool. I also had a message from the Tribune to keep writing and I did. Every spare minute I could find, I wrote a little more and sent it on. It was interesting being edited. Poetic justice perhaps. The editor edited. It wasn’t necessarily my voice at first, but after the first day I figured out what they were looking for and began to write in that style. I have to say that, added to the rest of my Macworld responsibilities, really cut into my sleep, but I have to admit, it was a dream come true.

You see my background is actually in news. By the time I was 24 years old I had already been news director of two radio stations and one television station. Small markets, but really. 24 years old. I made the move from television to post production when I started to see the trend to make television news profitable. It just seemed less and less like real journalism a lot of the time. I’m sure the same can be said for newspapers in a way, but much less so. Print journalists are the ones who never get any celebrity status and have to write more than a minute of copy.

So there I was with my own byline. And a deadline. Every day.

I was now really looking forward to a few days away from the latest in technology. The anti-technology portion of the vacation. As I got further away from San Fran, the highway went from six lanes to four to two. I no longer had any signal strength indicators on my cell phone. It’s about a four hour drive from the ocean to Yosemite Valley and even not so new technology was starting to fade. I managed to catch about an hour of Whad’ya Know from the NPR station in San Fran before that faded behind a hill. Then it was a choice between a very strong country station, a clear christian station, a Spanish language station or a somewhat static-y classic rock station called The Bear. So it was the Scorpions, Rush and Van Halen before I reached the last small town outside Yosemite.

Time to rent chains. You see I was traveling into what could be a bad movie of the week if I wasn’t careful. Yosemite had just been dumped on by a huge blizzard over the holidays with several feet of snow and resulting in road closures all over the park. Even though the roads had been cleared and all but a few were open again, it was pretty much a no brainer to get a little extra traction insurance. Storms come up quickly in these parts and you don’t want to take any chances. With my chain kit, complete with “idiot proof instructions” according to the woman who set me up with them on how to install them should I need to, I was on my way toward the entrance of Yosemite National Park.

Now, I had been watching the mountain range grow closer in my windshield, but you just don’t have the sense of the scale until you’re in this thick of it. First the little foot hills. Driving them is exactly like driving in a video game. You really can’t see past the turn in front of you and you just keep turning left, then right, then left. It was at this point that I was glad I opted out of the SUV rental. I had considered getting one because of the snow, but since I’m so outspoken on our need to reduce oil consumption, I decided to do as I say. A few days earlier in San Francisco, I saw an SUV rolled over on an exit ramp. They do that a lot. And I was quite sure the curves and dips and sharp turns I was driving though would be just the conditions that would cause an SUV to flip. No, I was glad to be hugging the ground in a plain ol’ car.

I had decided to take a round about southern route to get there to avoid any snow coming from the north and it was looking like my decision was paying off. The roads were dry all the way to the gate at the park’s entrance. I pulled up to the gate and told the ranger I’d be staying at the Ahwahnee Hotel for a few days. She asked me if this was my first time at the hotel and I responded that it was my first time at Yosemite or any national park for that matter. She smiled big. The kind of smile that says I know something you don’t know and gave me directions to get to the hotel.

Now Yosemite National Park is 1,200 square miles big. It’s not like you pay your $20 entrance fee and make a left at the next stop sign. I still had a lot of driving to do. I would be staying in Yosemite Valley which is only seven square miles of the whole park. A tiny sliver that runs down the center. But as I continued my drive twisting and turning, following the Merced River toward the valley, it was clear that I was a very small speck of a creature in the grand scheme of things. I was really trying to keep my eyes on the road but every once in a while though the corner of my eye I began to spot the ever growing walls of granite that surrounded me and everything else down in the valley. I’m sure I’ll say this a few times, but the scale was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and I still really had no idea about how big everything was.

I managed to find the hotel parking lot without making one wrong turn, even though at one point I was sure I had. I grabbed my bags and walked toward the rather oddly uninspiring entrance to the Ahwahnee Hotel. I would find out later that with 10 days to go before the grand opening in 1927, someone discovered that the main entrance where all the cars would pull up was directly underneath a large wing of rooms. The fumes were seeping into the guest areas and at the last minute and at great expense, a new entrance was created at the back of the hotel to solve the problems of gas fumes. And that’s the entrance I walked through and into the roaring 20s.

The Ahwahnee is a big old classic four star hotel (or is it five stars? It’s whatever the highest is, I can never remember.) The registration desk is old and wonderful. After you check in you walk down the hall past the great room, which is really great, and then take the stairs, or if you’re loaded down with bags, the elevator. One floor up and I walk down to room 111. I should mention at this point that in my hand is a key. Not the plastic credit card looking key that you get at every hotel now, but a real actual key. I put it into my real actual keyhole and turn my real actual doorknob. It’s a wonderful room. Two large beds, a sofa, a real chair and then I look out my window. This is the definitive “room with a view.” Out my window is a sheer glacier formed wall of granite several thousand feel tall. Infinitely better than the view of the alley I had at the San Francisco Marriott. A few days of looking at this and I’m convinced I’ll forget how to check my email.

I drop my bags where I’m standing and head back downstairs. I explore the vast dining hall. It’s huge. It’s right out of Harry Potter if you ask me. It sits 350 for dinner and has a vaulted ceiling so high I wonder if you could play baseball in there. I walk outside to the original front of the hotel. It’s too bad they didn’t figure out the fumes problem earlier, it’s really a beautiful hotel if you don’t come in through the back, now front. I take a little walk, but I’m so tired from the lack of sleep the week before, that I give up and head back to my room. I wake up 13 hours later at 7am.

Since it’s Sunday morning, brunch is being served in the dining hall. If any of you have every had brunch at The Drake Hotel in Chicago, but this was sort of like that. Food I had no idea of what it was along with wonderful things I did know about waiting to be sampled. It was good. It was forty dollars. But that’s how things are at the Ahwahnee. Good and expensive.

The wait staff is very interesting. Some are very polished and some not so polished, but very polite all the same. The reason I found out is that much of the staff is made up of daredevil rock climbers. They serve me expensive eggs so they can go climb El Capitan on their days off. I should mention that El Capitan is the ultimate in rock climbing for the insane. It takes anywhere from three to seven days to climb the sheer granite face and sometimes you can see climbers strapped in for the night hanging thousands of feet in the air. Not the place for bed spins. More about El Capitan later.

I wandered outside to begin my first real day of Yosemite. I have decided to take the two hour tour of the valley floor just to get my bearings. I usually resist the offer to climb onto a bus and hear “on your left…” for hours at a time, but I could tell I was going to need some reference points if I was going to explore on my own and this seemed a good way to do it. It ended up being a great idea. No only did we get off the bus a half dozen times to take pictures at scenic locations, but I got an earful of interesting information. For example, the pine and oak forest that lines the bottom of the valley is actually only about 150 years old. Every year for thousands of years prior to that, the Ahwahneegee Native Americans would set fire to the valley floor on their way out to migrate to nearby lands. When they returned, the oaks were still in place, barely damaged by the fires, a nice layer of ash had made the ground very fertile for growing, and tall grass had begun to sprout that would support the animals the tribe would need to feed and clothe themselves. And the pines would be prevented from overrunning the plains.

Let’s face it, the white settlers made, to put it gently, more mistakes and questionable judgments that you can name on the feet of a centipede, but even in trying to preserve the valley, they nearly killed it. Only recently have controlled fires been part of the park maintenance. Without them, a layer of 50 feet or more of forest debris can build up and when it catches fire becomes an uncontrollable inferno destroying everything including the resilient oaks that the Native Americans depended on for acorns, their main source of food. Now, passing though the forest you can see the scorched trunks of trees that continue to thrive even after standing in the middle of smaller fires. Who knew?

We stop at one of the few plains still surviving the constant encroachment of the forest in between two giant walls. On one side is El Capitan. It’s probably the most famous icon of Yosemite having been immortalized by Ansel Adams in his art. Even standing at it’s base we can’t get a good idea of how huge it really is. For reference we turn to the other side of the canyon to the Cathedral Wall. We’re a little closer to that wall than El Capitan and they look similar in size. But that is an illusion. There are two spires off to one side of Cathedral. We’re told that if you stack three Empire State buildings on TOP of those spires, it still would not equal the height of El Capitan. It seems impossible to believe, but over the next few days of driving and walking past it, I begin to understand the scale. Everything is so big here, your eyes and brain seem to want to scale it down to a more manageable size. We also see the Bridalveil Falls, The Three Brothers, Half Dome and the extraordinary Yosemite Falls. In many ways it seems impossible that all these icons of nature are within several miles of each other, but they are. The amazing thing is that being so close to them makes it impossible to photograph them. I have normal lenses with me and find myself wishing I had my widest lenses to capture them properly. Or you can always move away. We end up about two thousand feet off the valley floor near it’s west end. The view is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Only here, at a distance, do you really understand what you’ve been wandering around in. A sketch of the same view from the mid 1800’s on a nearby sign, reveals an open valley floor still under the care of the Ahwahneegee, unlike the pine tree forest that exists today.

Ahwahnee means valley of the gaping mouth, and we’ve managed to recreate that as we stand speechless on the edge of the valley. The Native Americans actually meant that the valley looked like a giant gaping mouth, but our individual impressions of the valley seem somehow appropriate.

I make as many images as I can, but I begin to realize that to really photograph this place, you can’t expect to come in for a few days and understand how it changes from hour to hour. Light and weather conditions constantly hide and reveal new textures. I know I’ll not come back with the perfect images, but still, even in random light and weather, it’s stunning. Overwhelming. Almost too much to bear. Only here do I begin understand the power of what is happening beneath the surface to create such spectacle. Email? What is email?

I decide to walk back to the hotel from the Yosemite Lodge that is the beginning and end of the tour. On my way back I pass by the Yosemite visitors center and stop in. I read about rock slides and black bears. There’s a twenty minute film that plays in a very well equipped theater in the back and I decide to rest my feet. After seeing the valley with my own eyes, I find that while the film is very well done, it’s impossible to convey the scope of it all. And mind you I’ve only seen less than seven square miles of the 120,000 that make up the park.

Next door is a must stop for me. It’s the Ansel Adams Gallery. There are prints and books and videotapes to be had. There are many other artists showing there as well. Some I like, but really there is nothing to compare with Adams’ lifetime of work at Yosemite. Here was a man who learned what the changing light did just by showing up day after day, year after year until he knew what it would look like. But even with that knowledge, the weather remained an unpredictable and wonderful factor. Spending a few days standing in the places he stood with his unwieldy, cumbersome and delicate view camera and later his Hasselblad, I stand there with my own Hasselblad knowing I’m not even really succeeding in walking in his footsteps. But it’s fun to be here trying.

I continue to walk the rest of the way back to the Ahwahnee Hotel, a distance that much like the rest of the Yosemite Valley I have underestimated. But it’s good to take your time, and I’m rewarded by a view of a half moon peeking over Half Dome. I never would have noticed it by car or the free shuttle bus that runs all day around the valley floor. I make a few more pictures.

I finally make it back to the hotel ready to relieve myself of my camera bag and notice that a tour of the historic hotel takes place in less than an hour. I sign up and return at the proper time. It’s me and two other couples. A small group, but that’s nice. Heidi tells us about the history of Yosemite. One of the interesting points is that in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln took time out of the battle planning to sign a little something called the Yosemite Grant. This set aside part of what is now Yosemite as a state park under the control of California. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Yosemite became a National Park, after Yellowstone and one other who’s name escapes me at the moment. So even though Yosemite was not the first National Park, it was the first area set aside by the federal government as a park. Props to Illinois. Land of Lincoln indeed! Too bad the current administration can’t take time out of their battle plans to do a little good like that.

Back on the tour, Heidi took us to the outside of the hotel to show us the wooden exterior, except that it isn’t wooden. Apparently several much smaller lodges before it had burned to the ground over the years and the architects, while wanting to give it a look that blended into it’s surroundings, didn’t want to tempt fate and used cement, colored and textured to look like wood. Even after being in on the secret, I couldn’t tell. Nice job. There were lots of other fascinating facts on the tour, but you can hear them yourselves should you ever find yourself looking to burn some cash at a beautiful hotel located in a valley that time forgot.

After another great night sleep, I woke up Monday morning with a great plan. I was going to try to get down to the Sequoia Grove on the very southern tip of Yosemite. After more expensive eggs, I packed up my gear, consulted the map and drove off. It’s 33 miles from Yosemite Valley to where the giant redwoods are, and since the winter has forced the closure of one the local roads, there’s a two mile walk to get to the grove itself. It takes about an hour to drive there, full of more twisting and turning roads that hug the side of the mountains at elevations of up to 6,000 feet. I didn’t even look over the edge. Once again, good for me to get the low center of gravity car instead of the tipping SUV.

I asked my tour guide the day before about the walk to the grove. He told me that with the exception of a little incline at the beginning of the two mile trail, for the most part it was fairly level. Okay, snow covered trail, two miles, but basically flat. I can do this. I walk through Chicago winters all the time. Miles. But this isn’t Chicago, and there won’t be a cab to flag down if something goes wrong.

I’m definitely breaking a few common sense rules here in doing this. First, I’m hiking alone. Always advised against. Second, to say I’m lacking in hiking gear is an understatement. I selected the gym shoes that I own that have a similar looking tread to hiking boots, but who are we kidding? I went a little cross country the day before about 50 yards through a field in knee high snow and hiking boots they are not. I brought some water and food, but we’re not supposed to leave food in the cars because bears don’t need a key to get what they smell. So, in a moment of inexperience, I chose to take the food, but leave the water to reduce the weight of my pack. Always thinking about the cameras, not about surviving.

I start off on the trail and the slight incline. Now I should mention that this trail is actually a road covered with snow. It’s about 15 feet wide so even though hikers have been through here packing down the snow, it’s been packed down rather haphazardly. There’s no definitive trail so to speak. I trudge along. Oh yeah, and I’m hiking at 5,000 feet. Thin air. I’m out of breath very soon. I take lots of breaks enjoying the trees and the sounds of silence. Soon though I notice that I must be a quarter of a mile in and I’m still climbing. I continue to walk in unsure baby steps over the snow waiting for the promised leveling off. I figure I’m not traveling but one or two miles an hour at this incline and I begin to do a little math in my head. I started walking about 11:30am. That means it will take me until maybe 1:30 to reach the grove. Unless the path levels off and I can begin to move a little faster. That means I spend maybe a half an hour photographing the same giant old trees as Ansel did and then two hours back to the car by 4pm. I really don’t want to begin the drive back much later than that because sun sets is at 5 and I don’t want to be driving along mountain edges in the dark. The plan is becoming a little tighter than I had imagined.

I’ve been hiking about 45 minutes now and I’m still going up hill. Clearly I’ve gotten some bad information. I’m stopping more frequently to rest, but the altitude, my lack of hiking shoes and the snow are really taking a toll. Now I realize that not bringing the water was a big mistake. The one thing going through my head is how far along am I? Am I halfway? Am I three quarters? Perhaps my initial estimation of a quarter mile way back there was premature. I have no way of knowing. I’m still going up. I look back at the winding trail and see that the incline is not leveling off at all. Two people have passed me in on the way down and for some unknown reason I just say hello and don’t ask them how much farther. I’ve just done the classic guy not asking for directions thing. Unbelievable. Maybe I’m afraid if I know I’ll turn back.

Now I’ve been hiking an hour. I now suspect the entire way to the grove is uphill, and I’m trying to imagine how much energy I have left for the rest of the journey in, an unknown distance, and the known distance back down the mountain. I stop and decide to really consider what I’m doing for a moment. It’s killing me that I don’t know how much further I have to go. Have I been traveling at two miles and hour or one? That difference is the difference between arriving at the grove in a few minutes or another hour. I decide to give myself 15 more minutes and if I’m not there, then turn back.

I continue to walk, up and around and up some more. It’s maddening that I can only see about 25 or 30 yards ahead and behind me because of the curves of the road. There is no way to see where I am. I do know that when I come to a clearing at the side of the road I am up here. Way up. There’s a lot off to the side that’s below me. In front is above me. Perhaps around the next turn I’ll get a better idea, or maybe I’ll have arrived. I realize it’s staring to sound like the insane thinking of someone who is going to hurt themselves on the side of a snowy mountain. I stop once more and consider what I know and what I don’t know.

I know I’m getting very tired. I know I made a mistake in not bringing the water. I know the road is still going up. I know I’m all alone. I’m wearing gym shoes. Disappointedly, I make the decision that what I don’t know could really end up hurting or killing me, and I turn and head back down. I take one last look at the curve in the road now behind me and wonder how much further the giant trees were. I’ll never know.

The journey back down is no picnic either. I’m not as out of breath, but footing seems more difficult if that is possible. Is the ground been freezing since I’ve been by? It seem much more slippery. I take even smaller steps than on the way up to avoid slipping. Damn these shoes. It took me an hour and 15 minutes to get up. How long will it take me to get down. With each step though, I realize I have made the right decision and as frustrating as it is to not know how close I came, I try to imagine that even after an hour and 15 minutes I may have only made it a mile or maybe even less. It makes me feel a little better. A group of hikers in proper shoes overtake me on the way down, and I admit to myself that I’m too embarrassed to ask how much further it was. If they tell me another quarter mile further up, I’m afraid I’ll reverse my decision to pull the plug on this hike. Another smile and a hello. I continue down the road.

Finally after 45 minutes, I’m back at the car. I have a drink of the water that everyone in the world but me knew I should have carried with me. Could have traded one of my cameras for water. Oh well. I’m back and safe… and tired. I have a little of the food I brought and finish off the water. I begin to feel much better. I made it back without twisting an ankle or worse. There’s plenty of daylight left to get back over the mountains to the valley and I’ll have a great adventure to write about.

I’m sure if I ever return in a warmer season, and that same road is open to cars this time, and I drive the two miles in a few minutes, I’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. But I know that for this typically thickheaded stubborn man, I gave it a good shot, probably more than I should have and there’s always next time. I did the right thing.

On the way back around one of the many curves, I spot a deer starting to cross the road. I brake quickly and stop about 10 feet from the deer. We look at each other for a few seconds and the deer takes it’s time and walks in front of me to the other side of the road and then scampers away. I try to come up with some symbolic significance to the event, but I can’t at the moment. Something about stopping before your hurt something. I don’t know. Not everything has to be symbolic you know.

Near the end of the drive back I will pass through a long tunnel blasted out of the mountain with black powder perhaps a hundred years ago. It’s about a half a mile long and it’s really cool to see actual rock passing by on both sides. I’m really traveling though a mountain and I can see the insides of it to prove it. The really amazing thing is on the other side though. I’ve been waiting for this moment ever since I went through the other way. The tunnel ends at the opening to the Yosemite Valley thousands of feel below. Even though I was here with the tour bus the day before, I stop. Sure enough, the afternoon light is different. Not better or worse, just different. I try to imagine what it was like for the first discoverers to reach the other side of this mountain and see this view appear instantly before them. I try to imagine the Ahawaneegee who were pushed out of this paradise in such a short period of time after living here thousands of years.

I continue the drive down to the valley floor, I’m getting the lay of the land really well now. I know where all the roads go and decide to do a little more exploring. I’m trying to find the spot that Ansel Adams made his most famous photograph of El Capitan. I wonder if there were as many pine trees here when he made it. He most assuredly had a wider lens. After a while of driving up and down the valley floor I think I’ve figured out what side of El Capitan he was when he made the image. It’s doubtful that he simply stopped by the side of the road that may have not even been there at the time, but I’ve done enough cross country on foot for one day. I find a few places to stop and make several photographs by the side of the road. I haven’t quite got the angle right, but I’m in the ballpark. Maybe within a hundred yards or so. Or maybe I’m off by a mile. It’s so hard to judge distance when dealing with things of this scale.

I return back in one piece, safe and sound to the land of expensive eggs at the Ahwahnee. I lug my pack upstairs and look at some of the digital pictures I’ve made. Some are pretty good. I’m still trying to figure out how to get the exposure just the way I want it. Perhaps that’s why I’ve stayed with manual film cameras so long. No surprises with them. I know exactly what I want, and when my batteries became too cold to fire the digital camera this afternoon, my Hasselblad just kept on making images. I’m sure I’ll eventually move to digital. I do like to skip the processing step though. Someday.

I’m writing this in front of one of the massive fireplaces at the hotel. Good to warm my cold bones by. They’re huge Citizen Kane type fireplaces. I saw a man actually inside one of them earlier today adding more wood. It’s amazing how much warmth radiates from a fireplace of that size. I may skip dinner tonight. I’m feeling pretty satisfied from my post hike snack and it’s getting late anyway.

Tomorrow, I’ll leave the beauty and isolation that is Yosemite Valley and head back to San Francisco for a day or so and then catch the California Zephyr for the two and a half day train trip back to Chicago. This has certainly been the most unusual and diverse vacation I’ve ever had. It’s been full of extremes, which I guess if you know me, is the way it should be. Time for bed and dreams of El Capitan, unseen redwoods and expensive eggs.

Nestled in the forest floor of Yosemite Valley,

Billy

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