Imagine a valley tucked inside of the mountains that stretches as far as your eyes can see. Inside that valley, everywhere you look, thin trails of water stream down rocky cliffsides. As your eyes wander across those rocks, they find a dome that’s cut in half, facing one of the largest rock walls on the planet.
Welcome to Yosemite Valley.
I have had the fortune of calling this must-see destination home for over half my life. I grew up just fifteen minutes from the gate of the park, and seeing Yosemite was like going out in my backyard.
But the same as a lot of people do with where they’re from, I took it for granted all those years. The wonder of it all somehow seemed to slip out of consciousness, and a sense of boredom filled the gap where excitement used to be.
For me, the growing irritation came from all of the tourists. I understood that Yosemite was breathtaking, but I didn’t understand why people fled from all over the world just to lay eyes on it.
Mind you, I was a child and I had a lot to learn. I left the Yosemite area after high school, because I wanted to know what else was out in the world. To me, Yosemite was only one of innumerable places to witness nature’s grandeur first-hand.
Then something funny happened:
When I left, it wasn’t as though I never thought I’d be back, but when I came back, I never thought I’d look at Yosemite with brand new eyes.
Having grown up in California, I couldn’t help the sadness that overtook me as its drought became more serious. The lush, green nature that had inspired me my entire life withered and shrank into dry, dusty remains. Every other day seemed to produce a wildfire unlike any we’d seen, and my heart broke as I watched all of the places I’d grown up loving burn to the ground.
Yosemite, fortunately, survived that natural disaster. The waterfalls may have dried, but the rock walls and formations that people really come to see stand strong in the face of any adversity.
When I came back from New Zealand, I expressed utter hatred for what California had become: burned to a crisp, a far cry from its former glory. While I was in New Zealand, I bat off any questions or comments about how wonderful it was, because I could no longer see it. I preferred the settings I found in New Zealand; ones that were still full of life.
Then, tickets went on sale for flights from New Zealand to San Francisco, and I invited Josh on the adventure of a lifetime through all 50 states. Initially, he just wanted to stay for California, but I convinced him to push through the rest of it with me.
Regardless of his decision to aim for the whole country, Yosemite stayed his number one must-visit location. He’d heard about it from me during my time in New Zealand, where I taught him it’s pronounced “Yo-sem-it-ee” and not “Yo-se-mite.” He didn’t know much about Half Dome or El Capitan, apart from the hundreds of pictures he’d seen of them both.
Due to his excitement, my own desire to return to Yosemite grew. In September 2016, when rain and snow returned to California at last and opened up months of wet weather, I knew Yosemite would be everything we could have hoped for and more.
“Oh, my God, is that it? Oh, my God, is that Half Dome? Is that actually the Half Dome?!”
We’d made it. Two weeks into our journey across the states, we drove along the winding roads and through the underground tunnel to catch our first glimpse of Yosemite.
It was hardly the first time I’d seen it, of course, but there was something different, now. Something special that I hadn’t noticed before:
It was alive.
The 2016-2017 winter restored all of California, and Yosemite was no exception in the least. Waterfalls I didn’t even know existed cascaded down the rocky mountains and into the valley below. Little patches of snow still flecked the surroundings, but acted as no obstruction to us. What had seemed dead to me for so long suddenly transitioned into something better than it had ever been.
“Yep, that’s the one,” I answered Josh as I parked at the tunnel view and got out of the car. “And that there is El Capitan, just across the way from it.”
Still dazed out of his mind and fingers taking pictures as fast as they could, Josh said, “I can’t believe that’s Half Dome. Like, that’s Half Dome. And it’s right there, Andrew! Oh, my God, it’s right…there!”
I couldn’t help but smile. I had come a long way since the last time I looked at Half Dome myself, and staring at it now, I couldn’t hide my own excitement. People speak in awed whispers about Half Dome, and hearing other people’s experiences, other people’s desires to see it, changed my perception on what it was.
I pointed to the patches of yellow that mark the face of Half Dome. “Right there, on the side of the cliff, what looks like a face?”
After pulling out the camera and zooming in closer, he said, “Yeah, I think so.”
“According to Native American legend, that’s the face of Tis-sa-ack. She and her husband found this valley first, and there was a great lake. She was so thirsty that she drank the entire lake before her husband arrived. When he did, he attacked her with his walking stick, and when she fought back, they were separated and turned into what we now refer to as Half Dome and the Washington Column, which is in front of El Capitan.”
Josh, still listening but lost in his own sense of wonder, merely said, “That is so cool.”
“Third grade history for you right there. Come on, let’s head into the valley.”
From there, we drove to Bridalveil Falls at the base of the mountain. Careful as we trudged up the wet paths, we made it as close as we could to gaze in wonder at the rushing water.
“Consider yourself lucky,” I said. “These waterfalls have been dried up for years, and this is the biggest I’ve ever seen these.”
On our way out, we stopped at a small, doorless phonebooth. “See this?” I said as we gathered around. “Every year in high school, the juniors do a field trip to Yosemite with the English and History teachers, and every year, they try to fit as many students as possible into this phone booth.”
Josh, ever bewildered by American customs, furrowed his brows and said, “What?”
Walking around the small booth, I said, “Yeah, people were stuffed in here, asses in faces, faces in feet. Stuffed. We had 15, which was the record at the time, but I hear it now stands at 16. I’ve also heard it’s since moved to an outhouse, but I have no confirmation of that.”
With an incredulous expression, Josh said, “15 people in this phonebooth?”
“Well, I definitely wasn’t one of them because I was way too tall, but yeah. 15 of us.”
“That is insane.”
I smiled as I lost myself to all the memories I’d accrued in Yosemite over the years. Now, as I looked around at all of the jagged rock formations, studied how everything connected, and immersed myself in its wonder, I couldn’t help but agree with all of the people who named Yosemite as their favorite place.
Josh and I made our way out of Bridalveil and into the Curry Village. Since the last time I’d visited, almost everything in the park fell under a new name, but I refuse to call them by anything else.
After we parked, I found myself taking multiple pictures and videos of my surroundings, and I found myself wondering if any of this was even real. I’d visited so many times throughout my life, but I never noticed the true beauty behind what thousands flock to see year after year.
Having visited at the tail-end of the winter, a lot of things still weren’t open in the park. Our feet found their way to the trails around the base of the village, and we spent most of the day in awe-filled silence.
After standing near the base of Half Dome, I asked, “What do you think about Yosemite, Josh?”
“Um, I want to live here forever. I never want to go home.”
“Are you jealous that this is where I grew up?”
“Yes. I am.”
Funny that, since I spent my entire time in New Zealand being jealous over the fact Josh grew up there. It’s strange, really, how we always take advantage of our home surroundings. Oftentimes, we find ourselves asking why anybody would want to visit. What about where we are is so special to somebody else?
The truth is, Yosemite is truly something remarkable. There’s still many corners of the world I hope to visit, of course. From what I’ve seen so far, however, there’s truly nothing comparable to the Yosemite Valley.
I’ll never get over the wonder in people’s eyes when I tell them that’s where I grew up. More importantly, I’ll never take it for granted again, either. In rain, in snow, in drought and in full lusciousness, Yosemite is and always will be one of the world’s finest natural creations.