Heaven

A stiflingly dry heat permeates in the Yosemite Valley air, as the aroma of Christmas exudes from the conifer resin of the trees nearby. Pickup trucks and four-door sedans alike, crunch and grind their tires through the gravel parking lot, kicking up a cloud of gray dust in their wake.

Beside the lifted trunk of our parked car, I stuffed my backpack as tightly as possible. Inside were provisions, supplies, and an assortment of gear delicately packed and interwoven together like a strategic game of tetris. A few weeks prior, I had finally acquired all the equipment necessary for extensive backpacking trips, an all-encompassing set of tools required to maintain survival in the mountainous – and sometimes merciless – backcountry.

I had begun accumulating all these various tools and equipment in the early months of 2020. The instigating moment to embark on this acquisition journey came after I had gone on a car-camping trip to some hot springs in the Western Sierra Nevadas of California, with my then-roommate Dylan McElhatton and a few new friends. 

That car-camping trip would be my first introduction to life in the mountainous backcountry: with its hairpin-turn roads, dry air, monumental trees, and as I quickly learned – bitterly cold nights. 

Granted, our visit to the hot springs happened sometime in late October or early November, not exactly the prime time of year for camping. A few months prior to that, I had just returned to the States after having lived a consolidated life of only two suitcases’ worth of possessions for two years, so let’s just say I didn’t really have many things.

The temperature had dropped below freezing that night, one that left everything outside caked in a heavy coat of shimmering, sparkling frost. Not appropriately clothed or equipped for these sub-freezing temperatures, my extremities buzzed with a tingling numbness when I awoke the following morning. I learned the hard way that if I was to experience the beautiful Sierra Nevada backcountry, I had to not only prepare for its harshness, but respect its sheer power. 

It was time to invest in the proper gear.

Backpacking gear is not necessarily an economical endeavor, either. It required calculated steps in purchasing the bare essentials first: hiking boots, a tent, a three-season sleeping bag, and a first-aid kit, before rounding out my gear set with other necessities like a water filtration pump, stove kit, mess kit, sleeping pad, etc.

As I began this preparatory journey of acquiring these life-survival items, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world as we knew it to a halt.

As a graduate student based in Reno, Nevada, during this time, I found remote freelance work to financially support me through the summer. So with no in-person obligations for the near future, and uneasily acknowledging that not everyone had the privilege to embark on the journey I was about to, I set out on what became arguably one of the greatest and most adventurous summers of my life.  

The summer consisted of three, extensive road trips that in total covered over 2,000-plus miles.

First came a week-long road trip through the National Parks of Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon. The second week that followed included a visit to Joshua Tree National Park and a drive up the iconic Pacific Coast Highway – from San Diego to San Francisco – with a stop in Napa Valley before returning to Reno.

Then came another, third week of dramatic National Park landscapes visiting Crater Lake, Redwoods, Lassen Volcanic, Sequoia and Death Valley.

In total: I covered nine national parks in just under nine short weeks. 

Yet, due to the lack of proper gear, timing, and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of these trips consisted of stays at various Air BnBs and commuting by car into the parks instead of true, backcountry camping.

Additionally, there was also one, very significant National Park left off the summer itinerary: Yosemite.

Often considered the crown jewel of the United States’ National Park circuit, Yosemite was ironically one of the closest parks in proximity to me while I was living in Reno. But due to its massive popularity and high-volume visitor traffic, the park also had one of the strictest COVID-19 guidelines in place at the time. There were lotteries just to get into the lottery for admission into the park.

So I bit the bullet and decided to bide my time, abstaining from a trip into one of the U.S.’s most treasured national landscapes. But as the COVID-19 pandemic lingered on and my graduate studies concluded, I returned to Ohio without ever getting a chance to visit the world-renowned backpackers’ paradise. 

Which brings me back to this gravel parking lot, nearly two full years later, packing my bag under a stifling, early summer sun in the Yosemite Valley. Beside me was my old roommate, Dylan, and his friend Jared. The three of us were preparing to set out for our intended base camp above the Little Yosemite Valley, where Dylan’s other friends Andrew and Nicolette were set to meet us the following day. 

We loaded our 50-plus pound packs and mounted them on our backs, trekking up the mountains under the oppressive, midday sun. Other than the brief reprieves of cool mist, emanating from the trail-side Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, our initial hike to camp was painstakingly brutal. Hours upon hours were spent traversing over five miles and gaining nearly 7,000 feet in elevation. So to say the hike-in to our base camp was burdensome, frankly, would be a massive understatement. 

At this point, I’d been living in the bustling urban environment of Arlington, VA, on the outskirts of Washington D.C., for almost a year. A frequent runner, I like to think I manage to keep in good, healthy shape for hikes like this. But boy, was I wrong.

Luckily, we foresaw this as a reality and accounted for it in planning our itinerary.  We designated our second day to be a “rest” day, while still embarking on a brief, five-mile roundtrip to the Merced River in Little Yosemite Valley and back, to keep our bodies limber and loose while we waited for Andrew and Nicolette to join our camp. 

While we didn’t want to overtax our bodies, we also didn’t want them tightening up on us, either. For day three was the big day we had all set our sights on. 

From our base camp, the peak of Half Dome was visible through the canopy of trees, a tempestuous beacon provoking the most adventurous of spirits to summit its mount. 

Due to the convenient placement of our camp, just below the base of the Half Dome Trail, the summit was just over three miles and an additional 2,000 feet in elevation away. Collectively, we had determined it was advantageous for us to get a 4 a.m. start that morning, in hopes of summiting Half Dome in time for the sunrise that was sure to follow. 

Secretively, I was ecstatic. To summit an iconic landmark such as Half Dome and witness the sunrise of a dawning new day in the Yosemite Valley, was something I wouldn’t want to experience in any other way.

So on the morning of day three, our alarms rang out in the predawn darkness. Not that we needed them, of course, considering the fitful, sporadic sleep that often comes with backcountry camping, compounded with the excitement of the day ahead.

Donning a headlamp for visibility, I scarfed down a protein bar, packed my camera bag, laced up my boots, and stepped out into the pitch black, brisk, spring mountain air. 

Marching in a single-file line under an array of stars, the soft crunching of our footfalls was our only accompanying sound in the cool, dark night. 

We ascended the trail through the darkness, all the way to the base of Sub Dome, a “false summit” just beneath the iconic Half Dome landmark. By this point the black, star-speckled sky was slowly bleeding away to streaks of purple and pink. We continued climbing onward and upward, as the dense tree-line that had been escorting us along our way suddenly became sparse, the dirt path transitioning to one of hard, gray granite the farther we rose.

With each passing minute, our surroundings became increasingly visible in the early, pre-dawn light. Jagged, snow-covered mountain peaks loomed in the distance, interspersed among round, granite domes in a sea of green.

Before long we reached the top of Sub Dome, meaning we had one final, arduous task ahead of us to reach Half Dome’s rounded peak.

Frankly, I underestimated this final step in the Half Dome journey, one that requires the use of workman’s gloves to pull oneself up over 400 feet of steel-wired cables. It was largely an upper-body effort, pulling oneself up one slow step at a time, considering the cables ran a nearly 90-degree angle along Half Dome’s smooth, granite surface. Over 8,800 feet above sea level and with sharp drops on either side, this last stretch was not for the faint of heart.

This last climb was as exhilarating as it was laborious. With structured and focused breathing, I timed each stride with each exhale, pausing every several feet to sneak a peek at the awe-inspiring views to come. But with every careful, tenuous pull on the cable, my arms began growing heavy and weary under the strain of my own weight. 

“One step at a time,” I encouragingly whispered to myself between breaths. 

Just then a strong gust of wind rattled the cables in their steel-planted rings, a not-so-subtle reminder of things like, well, gravity.

“Okay, don’t be an idiot and quit looking around,” I muttered to myself. “Just get to the top.” 

Just then, sunlight suddenly illuminated the top of the rockface before me. Having finally cracked the cloudy, mountainous horizon to the East, the sun began spilling its light down the side of the mountain and into the valley below. 

Having climbed only two-thirds of the way at this point, a rush of newfound energy surged within me. I pulled myself up at a faster, more invigorated pace. The rockface soon flattened out and I broke out into a light jog toward the end of the cables and out onto the round, open summit of Half Dome.

Finally on somewhat flat, but certainly more stable ground, I turned to finally peer at the heavenly expanse that had unfolded around me. Beams of sunlight broke through the low-hanging clouds, striking past the Cloud’s Rest peak and casting its beams of light across the Half Dome surface. 

Following the beams out to the West, a rocky outcrop jutted out over the valley below. Beyond it, the sunlight lit up the “Dawn Wall,” the first portion of the famed El Capitan rockface to receive the sun’s light each morning. 

Enticed, I carefully stepped out onto the outcrop, gazing over the 5,000 foot drop toward the valley below. Straight ahead on the other side of the valley, the running waters of Snow Creek Falls scampered down a mountain crevice in a race to the bottom. Looking back up toward the top of Half Dome, the silhouetted figures of my companions were backlit by the now-clouded sun.

At this moment a cool chill, carried by an early morning mountain breeze, rustled my clothes. In a conditioned response, I drew my hands close and blew into them to keep warm. Returning back to the top of the summit, a hot canteen of coffee was heated on a camp stove and a cup was passed around, both warming and bringing new life to the lucky few of us blessed to witness the dawning of this brand new day.

By now, the pre-dawn purple of the sky had faded to a cloudy, muffled blue as the sun continued its rise, briefly illuminating the gray, granite mountains of the valley a soft, amber hue through the gaps in the clouds. Before long, the clouds blocked out the sun entirely, as their shadows spilled down the granite faces and pushed the sunlight downward until it flooded the valley floor and faded into oblivion. 

To the South, I examined the Little Yosemite Valley that seemed so remote and minuscule in the distance. Located at a higher elevation than the rest of the Yosemite Valley, I reflected on my previous days’ hike up to and through the Little Yosemite as we had explored its adjacent Merced River. It was hard to believe that this grassy meadow under a concaved, granite wall was our closest landmark to our base camp and the starting point of our early morning journey to this very spot. 

Turning back to the East, the valley converged into the rocky terrain of Tenaya Canyon. On the South side, overlooking the canyon from my right, was the peak of Cloud’s Rest. To the North, on the left side of the valley, another granite dome stood guard. This rounded dome, dubbed “Mount Watkins,” seemed unusually beaten and worn compared to the others that spotted the Yosemite National Park landscape. For just under its crown, the rockface concaved dramatically, as if it had taken a massive strike from some powerful and mythical force. It wore its wound proudly, however, a scarring reminder of the price it deemed worth paying for protecting a valley as beautiful as this.

Over the canyon and into the horizon, the jagged Tenaya, Tressider, and Echo Peaks of the Western Sierra Nevadas completed the jaw-dropping scene. 

It was, in every sense, a majestic and foreshadowing glimpse of heaven.

* * *

The following day we embarked on what was to be another arduous, almost Herculean journey. Awakening with another stiff stretch, I extended each of my limbs in various poses and stretches. It was a virtually futile attempt to bring them back to life, having tightened overnight after three grueling days of life in the backcountry. 

Another near-freezing, damp, and dreary morning didn’t help the cause. A soft rain had steadily fallen overnight, saturating the entirety of our camp in its foggy, early-morning wake. 

After warming a cup of coffee and a bowl of instant oatmeal, topped with a healthy dollop of peanut butter, we set off for our next summit of Cloud’s Rest.

We had decided on taking the roundabout way to the summit, venturing up the back route of the mountain and coming down the other side to return to our camp. We set out on our journey, only to soon find ourselves enveloped by the scorched remnants of a wildfire that must have raged a number of years ago. New growth, however, was emerging from the underbrush. From bright, purple flowers, to glistening, icy streams, and a field of wild green onions, the charred landscape was slowly arising from its disastrous ruin like a phoenix from the ashes. 

We continued onward and upward. Through the blackened, soot-covered bark of the stilted trees, snow-covered peaks domineered from their throne atop the crest of the opposing valley. They watched down on us from above, as one mile turned into three and three miles turned into six. Yet we continued climbing higher and higher, as the singed and seared landscape gradually morphed into one of sleepy green pines and evergreens. Heaps of not-yet-melted snow lay at their roots, evidence of Winter’s stubborn refusal to surrender the only high-ground it had left.

As time dragged on, the clouds began settling deep in and amongst the trees. Visibility dropped dramatically, as an eerie, unsettling chill soon followed and hushed the world around us to a soft and tender sleep.

Trudging onward, the trees became more sparse as the dirt trail once again gave way to a rocky terrain that rose further and further into the clouds. Engulfed in a soft, cool mist, we trekked on as the trail narrowed to what came to feel like a bridge in the sky. At this point, the trail couldn’t have been more than six feet across. While one couldn’t see the staggering 6,000 foot drop to the valley floor on either side, you could certainly sense its presence off the edge.

Nevertheless, onward we climbed on toward the summit of Cloud’s Rest, some 9,931 feet above sea level. To our right, there was supposed to be a view of Half Dome in the foreground of the Yosemite Valley, but all we saw was fog. To the left, strong winds tumbled the low-hanging clouds, tossing and swirling them around like clothes in a dryer. Between all this circulating motion were windows, albeit brief, into another snowy, canyon valley below. 

Populated with a surprising amount of hikers and adventurers at the top, people were milling about as they rested, eating their lunches and discussing their travel itineraries to come. 

Sore and weary, I took a seat beside a spindly brush protruding from a fissure in the stone. Exhaling softly, I surveyed what was supposed to be a stunning viewpoint of the Yosemite Valley before me. Instead, I found myself only to be immersed in a dense and frigid fog. Part of me was disappointed, I admit, understanding the realistic likelihood that I may never have another opportunity to reach this summit again in my lifetime.

But then, a smirk slipped across my face, as I couldn’t help but smile.

“Of course you can’t see anything, they call it ‘Cloud’s Rest’ for a reason,” I laughed to myself.

After our brief respite at the overcast summit, we picked back up and began our descent to camp. As we hiked down the mountain, the clouds that had encircled us at the summit slowly began to dissipate, as if to tease us of our timely misfortune. 

While not as high of a vantage point into the valley as Cloud’s Rest, a new vantage point soon appeared that was as striking as it was beautiful. Half Dome perched proudly in the center, stemming the tide of a rounding canyon, escorting one mountain valley into the next. Peering closely, one could even see dark specks of hikers crawling up its cabled-side like ants on a hill. 

With the valley’s hazy blue sky and granite mountains cast in rays of sunlight, the landscape commanded a stately and dignified respect from anyone so fortunate as to be graced by its presence. 

Presence.

It’s a concept that conveys an existence, a state of simply being. 

But even in this moment, I found it difficult to take the time and appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime view that lay before me. I was exhausted, weary, cold, and frankly, emotionally drained.

Then again, it isn’t often until well-after a significant moment has passed, that we can truly appreciate a particular experience for what it was truly worth.

I don’t think I’m alone in this understanding, as even Andy Bernard, a character from the much-loved popular culture television show The Office, once said: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

But maybe that’s by design. 

We as humans are wired, socially and culturally, to always keep moving forward. So much so that it’s inherently difficult for us to perceive the slowing down of time, particularly because we can’t ever actually stop the hands of Father Time from ticking. 

It took me nearly two years, a significant amount of time, money, and effort for my dream of backpacking Yosemite to come to fruition. I won’t sugarcoat it, either. Throughout this back-breaking journey from the heart of Yosemite Valley to the summit Cloud’s Rest, there were several moments where I truly questioned whether all that time, money, and effort was truly worth it. 

But looking back now, I consider the many words people use to describe the experience of Yosemite National Park and the presence it conveys: sacred, stately, majestic, divine.

But for me, one of the most commonly used words may, in fact, be the most accurate: Heaven.

While “Heaven” might mean different things to different people, I think we all envision our own place of purity and peace. Further, Heaven can also be perceived as an opportunity to finally, truly be present.

For it is only through a state of reflection that we can candidly appreciate the deep relationships we’ve cultivated, and reminisce on the profound experiences we’ve shared over the course of a single lifetime.

So today, as I reflect on my time at Yosemite nearly two months ago, I can’t help but feel a sense of purity, a sense of peace, and a recognition of the fact that I now have the opportunity to experience my own glimpse of Heaven each and every day.

For maybe, in order to truly experience Heaven, one must first leave the present.

Cheers!

One thought on “Heaven

  1. Aah, Scott–you make this retired English teacher want to go running back into the school building and get right back to teaching young minds how to describe the world around them and to reflect on their experiences!
    What joy you bring to the writing process. . .and what joy you bring to this reader! It is evident that you had a John Muir experience! You describe the journey in such descriptive detail and share how the experience has shaped you. How lucky for you! Not everyone gets that opportunity!I have enjoyed reading these exquisite pieces!

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