One of the most beautiful National Parks in the US is the California gem also known as”The big mouth”. Why? Read on and find out.
Words by Jonas Larsson Photos by Anders Bergersen
We take an exit off of Interstate 5 and roll onto Highway 140. Sacramento, the state capital of California, is a couple of dull hours of highway away from here. But to our surprise, this turns out to be something entirely different. The 140 winds its way between soft, green hills sprinkled with small, bent oak trees. The cows graze peacefully, and we’re as far away from long, lazy days on the surfer’s beaches by the coast as we could ever get.
– It feels more like we’re somewhere in the English countryside, says Anders, my travel companion and photographer, and curses under his breath about how we’re late for an appointment, as usual, and there’s no time to stop to take pictures.
But Anders is going to get plenty of great photo opportunities over the next few days, because the place we’re headed for is Yosemite National Park, a photographer’s paradise.
Yosemite was kept secret from the white man until somebody discovered gold in the Sierra Nevada in 1849, and thousands of fortune seekers began making their ways across the mountains to look for the precious metal. At the time, the Yosemite Valley was inhabited by the Miwok people, who had little or no contact with the outside world. In the mid-19th century, their relations with the prospectors began to sour, and violence soon erupted. The Mariposa battalion was sent out on a punitive expedition, and rode into Yosemite looking for natives to punish on 27 March 1851. Word soon spread of the wondrous valley they’d seen, and adventurous spirits began arriving in great numbers to explore the landscape. In fact, there were so many of them that on 30 June 1864, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, which stated that the giant sequoias, a kind of redwood tree that grew in Yosemite and Mariposa Grove, were to be protected and preserved for the future.
Yosemite was awarded National Park status in 1890 thanks to the stubborn efforts of naturalist John Muir (1838–1914), a local legend who worked hard to protect the nature around the Sierra Nevada. Several years earlier, the National Park Service and the Park Rangers had begun working in the area, a topic we’ll be returning to later on.
The Art of Landing
Two monstrous dogs glare suspiciously at us from the flatbed of the pickup. Further away, two little girls are practicing throwing lassos at the strangest looking mechanical rodeo machine I’ve ever seen.
– Hi there! A rugged cowboy with a friendly demeanor comes walking towards us.
– Don’t pay any attention to Max and Henk, they may look big and bad and all, but they’re lapdogs really.
We do the opposite, and pay lots of attention to Max and Henk; they don’t smell too great, but scratching and petting them is incredibly satisfying, and they roll around happily in the shade of an oak tree.
Along with their two daughters Sofia and Morgan, Bryan and Victoria Imrie run the Mariposa Zip line and Adventure Ranch, which is located in the outskirts of the charming little town of Mariposa. The Imries are a cool crowd, and there is a friendly mood about the whole ranch, which is framed by gentle hills and oak woodlands. We’re going to go zip-lining here in a couple of days, but now, we’re here to take a look around and say hi to the animals.
– Great! You have a mule!
– Yeah, that’s Uncle Rusty. He was about to be sent to a slaughterhouse in Texas when Morgan, our youngest daughter, caught sight of him online and said: “I’m dreaming of riding him with you, dad, and going riding in the mountains, and fishing!” And well, that sealed it of course. Now, Rusty is king of his pasture, surrounded by lots of beautiful horse ladies, and loving every minute of it!
Brian and Victoria mount up, while the girls and ourselves walk along next to them as they ride.
– We’ve had to work hard for this, but it’s all working really well now, Victoria informs us in her elegant British accent.
– How did you end up here, you’re from England aren’t you? I ask.
– Oh, you can tell? she says, with an ironic smile. Bryan and I went motor biking here on one of our first holidays together, and we fell in love with the area. I mean, just look around! she exclaims.
So, I look around, and I can see what she means immediately. As far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but lush, forested hills, with meadows and little farms in between. And in the other direction is the picturesque town of Mariposa. Suddenly, the silence is broken by a heartrending noise.
– It’s Uncle Rusty, Sofia and Morgan tell me, he wants his girls back. He’s in love with mom’s horse, Baby Dragon.
– Baby Dragon? I ask.
– Yeah, that’s her name, but we call her “Spider horse.”
– OK, I see, I say, with a confused look on my face.
– I do a lot of trail riding with her, and even though she’s very small, she’s an amazing climber, and she really enjoys it. There aren’t many slopes she can’t make her way up – she can climb like a spider! Victoria explains.
This family is a good crowd, there’s no mistaking that. They mainly employ people from the area; for example, their graphic designer is also their egg supplier.
– In a small place like this, people have to stick together, says Bryan. We love it here, and we think it’s a great place for our kids to grow up in.
I notice something interesting: in the hour or so that we’ve spent with the Imries, I’ve not seen either Sofia nor Morgan sitting around with their nose in a mobile phone – they seem almost unbelievably content! When Bryan tells us that Morgan’s greatest wish when she was younger was to ride a yellow taxi cab, like one that she’d seen in a movie, I can almost feel my eyes tear up.
Catching the Yosemite Bug
– You’ll be staying in that cabin over there. Doug will meet you in the restaurant in half an hour. The bearded (everybody here has a beard) dude behind the reception is a little stiff, but still a nice guy, and while the rest of the Yosemite Bug, which is where we’ll be staying for the next three days, is nice as well, it’s far from stiff. The Bug, as the resort is known, used to be a boy scout camp, but has been turned into a rather unique, slightly hippie-esque, awesome place. Doug, the eccentric owner and founder of The Bug, has added his own distinctive touch to most things here. It turns out that the furniture in the cabin where we’re staying used to be his mother’s – it has lots of floral patterns.
The restaurant at The Bug is really good, almost surprisingly so. Although the environment reminds me of summer camps and hot dogs, it’s nothing like that at all! Doug explains that this was one of his nonnegotiable demands, and we find out that the locals come here to eat, too, not just the visitors who are staying at the resort.
– Far out, man! Pete Donovan, sous chef at The Bug, appreciates my compliments regarding his cooking. Pete looks like he talks, lots of “rad” and “far out.” He came from Pennsylvania originally, but he moved out to California, where he’s living his dream: working at the Bug and hiking in nature in his spare time.
He’s one of many unusual characters we’ll be encountering during our days here. They all seem to have one thing in common: they’ve all escaped from major urban centers to get closer to nature and its healing powers. We don’t know it yet, but we’ll soon be meeting somebody who’s going to be able to put that sentiment into words, and explain why it’s so important to be a part of nature. But for now, we down our last pilsners for the day, and chitchat with the other guests who are staying at The Bug. Tomorrow, we’re going to head into the actual park itself.
Guardians of the Valley
– I visited Yosemite with my family when I was a child, but I grew up in Los Angeles. Here, take a look at this photo. It’s me with a Park Ranger when I was about ten years old, and look here! This is myself and my kids, at the same age that I was in the first picture, in the exact same place. Scott Gediman, Public Affairs Officer, is showing us the pictures he keeps in his office. On the walls, we can see photos of Scott with lots of different celebrities.
– President Obama and The First Lady made a visit with their family, and I got to plan their vacation for them. They hiked here, and they loved it. The president had never visited the park before, and he was very impressed.
There’s no mistaking how much Scott Gediman loves his job and his park – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who loves their job the way Scott does.
– The first time I saw a Park Ranger in his uniform and hat, that was it! I knew what I was going to be, no doubt about it! I did go to journalism school first, but I always wanted to be a Park Ranger in Yosemite!
– When you were a little kid, you were so impressed by all the rangers, and now that you’ve become one yourself. So, is this job as good as you hoped?
– It really is. There are 417 national parks in the country, and Yosemite is one of the ones that attracts the most visitors. This means that every day, there are lots of issues to resolve, and lots of emails. If something happens here, it’s a matter of national concern, and that’s something you need to bear in mind when you’re giving an interview. Some park rangers would never want to work here; they like the solitude and peace of the smaller parks, but for me, as I said, this is the best of both worlds.
Scott explains that there are three branches within the park rangers: Law Enforcement, who keep the peace among visitors, and act as police officers, firefighters, and security guards; Naturalists, who inform people about the park and its history, and organize walks and man the visitor centers; and then, there are the rangers who do everything from selling tickets to administrative tasks.
– Our uniforms are all a bit different, and the Law Enforcement Rangers are armed, but as far as I’m concerned, what makes a Park Ranger is the hat, the badge, and the love of the national parks and nature – those are the things we all have in common.
I’m very fortunate to be a park ranger, and I love it! I’m talking from the heart here. Most of my friends make more money than I do, but I have a job that I love.
The Healing Power of Nature and Buffalo Soldiers
We thank Scott for his time, and meet Park Ranger Shelton Johnson on the beautiful meadow at the bottom of the valley.
– My job is making the granite and the cultural history of the place come alive, Shelton tells us. The Ahwahnechee, a branch of the Miwok tribe, lived here in Yosemite for several generations before the European Americans ever came here. The Ahwahnechee called the valley “Awooni,” which means the gaping maw, and if you look at the rocks, it’s easy to imagine them as teeth in an enormous mouth.
In a way, Shelton is half Google, half Park Ranger, and he’s overflowing with knowledge that he simply has to let out, although he does so in an unassuming, friendly way.
– How did you end up here?
– I was born in Detroit, but I’ve lived in London and in Austria in the past. My father was in the military, and that’s how I came to take an interest in military history, especially the Buffalo soldiers in the parks.
– Buffalo Soldiers? You’ll have to tell us more about that.
– If you get me started, I’ll never stop! You’ll run away from here, and I’ll run after you, and I’ll be talking the whole time!
– Well, I’m fast, so you’ll have to run pretty hard!
– Hey man, I grew up in Detroit, and if you’re a scrawny little guy in Detroit, you learn to run fast, believe me! Born to run, like Bruce Springsteen sang, ha-ha-ha…
The Buffalo Soldiers thing sounds exciting, so I ask Shelton to tell me more, and promise that I won’t try to leg it out of here.
– The army was segregated until 1948, and after the civil war, African-American battalions fought in the Indian wars of the mid-West. The Great Plains tribes, the Lakota, Dakota, Sioux, and so on, thought that the African-American soldiers’ dark skin and curly hair resembled the color and hair of the buffalo, and out of respect, they named them “Buffalo Soldiers”.
– In those days, there was no National Park Service, so the army had to take on the duty of guarding the parks. This was considered a less prestigious posting, so guess who they gave it to? The African-Americans, of course. That caused some tensions – slavery had only been abolished 40 years ago, and Euro-Americans didn’t want to be told what to do or not do by African-American men. They probably had to apply a lot of psychology, and lots of patience.
– I try to teach this history, especially to the African-American population of the US; they’re under-represented in the National Parks, and it’s essential that everybody, including the minorities, should feel that the National Parks belong to them, too. They often live in the major urban centers and have very little contact with nature.
I think that a lot of the unhappiness people experience today is caused by their losing touch with nature. Just take the myth of Antheus: he was a wrestler who couldn’t be beaten as long as both his feet were planted on the ground. So, Hercules picked him up off the ground, and strangled him while he held him in the air. If you ask me, this serves to illustrate the way that the Industrial Revolution has distanced us from the Earth, and from the healing power of nature.
National Parks are the antidote to this. I wish that instead of giving people tickets for speeding, the police would stop them and tell them, “you were driving too fast!” – and then, when the driver says “Sorry! How much is the fine?” they’d say: “Nothing, but you have to go to Yosemite and spend three days there.” There ought to be a prescription for sending people to a National Park for a few days.
– I’m getting very inspired now, Shelton, I tell him, after having spent the last ten minutes listening silently.
– Of course, I work for the government! Ha-ha, but it’s what I do: I try to explain how everything is connected to nature – especially here, at Yosemite.
Waterfalls and Hiking
We’ve spent longer than we planned with Scott and Sheldon, but that’s what happens when you meet interesting people. The sun starts getting low in the sky, and we speed off to Mist Trail, an easy hike that is one of the more beautiful trails in the area. We work our way up to an increasingly narrow valley, which we follow until we reach the foot of Vernal falls, which crash into the granite from a height of 100 yards. We’re almost alone here, and seeing the water’s never-ending assault on the rock is quite illuminating.
We’re thinking about what Shelton told us about the healing force of nature, and we suddenly understand what he meant. We don’t say much to each other on our way back down to Awooni, the gaping maw. Maybe that’s because we’re hungry, or tired, or maybe it’s the pink sky, the mountains, and the moon that makes us feel so full of reverence.
Visit americantrailsmag.com if you want to learn more about National Parks in the USA.