This morning I landed back at the Buffalo airport after a week long vacation with my family. Together the six of us- mom, dad, Ben, hannah, allyson and I- made our way through San Fransico to Yosemite and finally ended our trip at Sequioa.
Before this trip I was quite apprehensive. It has been a long summer or travels, including one trip already to the west coast. This combined with the general anxieties that plague such an expedition and the trepidation of new territory didn’t exactly make me feel 100% sure the whole thing would go over well.
But it was marvelous.
San Fransico, though not my favorite city, was beautiful. And it opened the gates of its art and culture wide enough for my ego and doubt to make its way in. We walked the hallways of their art galleries and I marveled at the delicate and dedicated way that it was geared towards inclusion and appreciation. We drove through groves at once a mix of pine trees and palm trees- blending together a strangely familiar and yet other worldly forest. We fought our way through crowds to gawk at sea lions and finally ended the days journey at the birthplace of Ginsberg’s Howl. And, as I stood in the dim hallway of that bookstore staring at a picture of the poet himself with Bob Dylan I felt the first stirrings of excitement. Perhaps the west coast does not offer all the history I want it to- but what it does offer, it breaths to the very beat of it. Suddenly my body ached to be here in the moment that picture was taken- to smell the sweat of unclean hippies, to feel the fear of those who rushed Stonewall, to live alongside the Chinese who built this city. But before I could inhale this reality we were gone- off to the next leg of our trip.
Which landed us in Yosemite. A place which, at first, made me feel trapped. Upon waking the first morning and opening the tent I saw rising around me in all directions great monolithic mountains. We were not perched high but rather surrounded by the ancient guards and I felt the unfamiliar sensation of claustrophobia. I took that first morning slow- gathering coffee and a book on an empty stomach and checking the wifi at the lodge to see if I could talk to Sarah- needing both the comfort of connection and also the reassurance that my hesitation to hike all day was not actually a moral failure on my part. But as that day and indeed the following few days progressed, I began to feel myself swept away in all it’s beauty.
Actually, I can boil this sweeping down into three moments:
1. Swimming in the river. Hannah had been to Yosemite before and was excited to show us a particular swimming hole she remembered as a child. I was hesitant but followed. How stupid I am ever to not trust her instruction. Not only was the river lovely and deep as she described, but it was the cleanest water I have ever seen. Even in its current one can see straight to the bottom. It is cold and crisp- fresh run-off from the mountain tops, the final gatherings of the winters icey mountain tops. It rushes down and onward in beautiful swiftness, never loosing its sweetness or perfection. I soon found my favorite thing to do was swim hard against the current until I came to a fallen tree where I would push myself into the fastest moving part and let the water pull me downstream while I stared up at the impossibly blue sky punctuated with the turrets of rock-faced mountains. I did not plan to forgo showers the whole time we were in Yosemite. But once I felt that water I knew I didn’t care to take them. What could be cleaner than that river? Nothing I tell you.
2. There isn’t much to say about my second moment, except that it was unexpected. Our last full day in the park Hannah and Mom and I went on an open air tour. This simply means we rode in a sort of hay wagon with a park ranger and he told us some of the history and natural elements of the park. Our ranger was a quirky guy- he had a funny cadence in his speech and liked to quip punnily about things, including his own self reflective moments. And he was very good at his job- I think we all enjoyed the whole experience. But the best part was near the end. At that point we had driven to what they call the tunnel lookout point- an area and allows for a beautiful scenic moment through rows of mountains and The Valley cutting through them all. It was here that our ranger (Ranger K) got out his banjo and began to play. He was not vague about his intentions, which i liked. Rather he said directly that he wanted us to imagine all of the music that came before us, and maybe his playing would give us a starting point to what we imagined that could be. And then he played. Two songs, the second which I would continue to hum for the rest of the week, an old Pete Seeger song. The chorus goes “and may the world be, and may the world be, and may the world be, when I’m far away”. Looking out at the mountains I felt this in my soul, a pray, a cry, that long, long after I am gone let this world go on. Let these mountains stand and this place run with clear water and May it be. May it simply be- as it always has- without us. When he was finished Hannah said “it’s like church” and my heart leapt as if to say- “this is the only church.”
3. My third moment I fought against. Mom and Dad wanted to hike down to an old grove that had great Sequioas and I desperately did not want to walk. But for better or worse they rather tricked me into it and so I found myself sweaty and crazed on the adventure.
The first tree we saw took my breath away. So did every one after it. They are enormous. Their trunks are large and sturdy. They reach to the sky with great arms covered in round soft needles and pine cones comically small for their proportion. The glow red in the rays of sunlight and their bark is soft and furry to the touch. They are some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen or could ever imagine seeing. As I stood staring at the first tree along the walk I overheard a tour guide giving details about these giants. She said they stand for 2,000-3,000 years and then they fall. And then they lay on the ground for another 2,000-4,000 years before they are decomposed. And I wanted to cry. A feeling I would shake for the remainder of our trip. This thing- this beast, this beauty- this was proof of my insignificance and my significance. This thing measures my life in the blink of an eye- seeing me and my grandparents and The ancient peoples of this place as one being- no one more important than another, watching our lives drift in an out. And yet I placed my hands on its trunk and I felt it breath. I felt this great trees life- instintaneous and momentary and living alongside me- me in this moment. That for a moment I was in communion with something that reached beyond me and endowed its memory there. Suddenly we two carry a combined understanding of the world into one singluar breath of time- time which in its abstractness dictates that only the present truly matters, as much as all of us hate that.
Mom and Dad and I walked through the grove, seeing those trees still standing and laying like beached whales alike. Near the end of the walk we found a tree that had begun to hollow out and I crawled inside it. I slowly made my way down and stopped about 20 feet in, and quieted. What a privilege, what an indescribable moment. To sit in the bones of such an ancient god. To breath in and touch the sides of a creature some 3,000 or more years old. To get a chance to wonder what this old being has seen.
That wonder never ceases. By this point Yosemite had won my love. Or at least, the trees and river had. And so I was sad to drive out of its arms and on to our next adventure.
But it did not disappoint. Sequoia brought with it some breathtaking stars and deep cool crystal caves. We had one full day there and we were determined to make it count. I even saw a bear (well the butt of a bear). So after many adventures and more than a few hikes I found myself with blisters on my feet and dirt covering my mosquito bitten legs at an old grove meadow that I desperately, once again, did not want to hike around.
But once again, I was proven wrong.
Sequoia is a quieter place in general than Yosemite. It offers long stretches where there are no other people and a silence that is refreshing. There in that meadow this was most true. Every few feet an enormous Giant Sequioa rose from the ground – it’s signature burn marks healed defiantly on its side and roots tangled into the ground formed great arches to stand in. In between to the trees grew great patches of ferns and undergrowth and gave the whole thing a feeling of the Jurassic. My father said that the earth used to be covered in such giant trees- that nearly everything was so big thousands of years ago. That’s not hard to believe when you see this creatures- the largest living things on earth. How I marveled at every one, how I fell in love with every one. How I desperately wanted to take one home with me. How I despaired that, even if I brought a sapling it wouldn’t matter, I would be long dead before it felt this strong.
Actuallly, i question even now why I didn’t bring back a seed and try to plant one here. Yes, it might not grow, but then again it might. After all, these trees all withstand fires and literally thousands of years to be where they are- who says they couldn’t make it in New York. But Ben pointed out that one has to have a lot of faith in humanity to plant one. That the way our world is going, well, what’s the point.
So did I choose to not bring a seed back on purpose? Or do I believe they should remain a mythical place one has to get to to see? Or do I selfishly want the tree i plant to belong to me- and i know it never would.
How silly, to think such a thing could ever belong to a human. A human who is truly only blip on the life span of these trees.
But oh, how safe one feels with these trees. And oh, what I would give to have one here to crawl into and breath deep in. The steadiest of monsters- carefully cradling life and nature in their lives and sheltering in their deaths (if death you call something that still resists decay).
I did not expect to fall in love with anything on this trip. I expected some beauty, some impressive views and undertakings. I did not expect to feel as though I had buried a piece of my heart in a creature far more mystical and powerful than I. But as it turns out, I did.
And, as it turns out, I do intend to return to those trees again some day. To give them a hug, sit beneath them, and try to feel their wisdom seep into my bones as much as is possible for a fool like me.
in the meantime, I will place their pictures in my family album, an honorary place.
And, when I look back at this trip I will remember the feeling of their bark and the sounds of my family inhaling and exhaling and we drove off the mountain, listening to the sound track from The Great Beauty.