Humbled in Yosemite

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” -John Muir

When I say I’m an adamant city-dweller, I know I say it with some defiance. Having grown up in Nebraska, a state in the US that can sometimes make Northamptonshire look exciting, I always insist, upon meeting someone new, that “I have never been on a farm.”

That’s probably a lie; I seem to remember a photo of myself as a 3-year-old, sitting on a hay bale next to my sister and looking angelic as can be, but I remember neither the experience of the farm nor the time in my life when I was, in fact, angelic.

Where I live in England now is the smallest place I’ve ever settled. With a surrounding-area population of around 250,000, Brighton is as “country” as I ever desire to be.

I found a secret "swimming hole" in the river to have some quiet reflection time.

I found a secret “swimming hole” in the river to have some quiet reflection time.

So I am always taken by surprise when, upon finally retreating into nature once again, I breathe a sigh of relief, wishing I could quiet my mind in my “normal life” like I do under the stars or a canopy of trees.

While visiting Yosemite National Park on a family trip this summer, I was finally able to relax into my own skin, my own bones, and reconnect with something that resides within all of us, just waiting to make its presence known again when we allow ourselves to stop and listen.

I realize that the timing of this entry is (or is not) apropos, given that, at this very moment, Yosemite is ablaze in one of the park’s worst wildfires in history. But renewal is a natural, and sometimes menacing, part of the wilderness. It is oftentimes uncontrollable, placing humankind in the awkward position of being helpless, and perhaps humbled as a result.

Historical Yosemite

Though there are many sources for historical information on the national park, I want to draw your attention to some of the bits that most interest me, dear reader.

As with much of America’s – and indeed much of the world’s – history, Yosemite was first inhabited by a native tribe, which was then starved out, burned out and otherwise forced out by invading settlers. In the case of Yosemite, the native tribe happened to be the Ahwahnechee, and the invaders happened to be Euro-American settlers.

The Wawona Hotel opened in 1865 as a primitive setting for the Valley's early tourists.

The Wawona Hotel opened in 1865 as a primitive setting for the Valley’s early tourists.

As this settlement began to occur on a larger scale in the mid-1800s – by foot, on horseback and by rail – the beautiful landscape that went relatively untouched by the native inhabitants for hundreds of years suddenly became exploited. There was gold to be had here in the West, and mining communities sprung up, as did early places of lodging, like the Wawona Hotel, where I stayed this summer.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill giving Yosemite Valley to the State of California. A Scottish immigrant named John Muir came to the Yosemite Valley to seek the solitude of nature and stayed, writing about glaciology and the wilderness – sometimes with a quill made from a golden eagle feather found on Mt. Hoffmann.

Unhappy with the state of the valley, and worried about how the area would be preserved for the future, Muir convinced the US Congress to create a federally administered park service around the Yosemite Valley, creating Yosemite National Park as a protected entity in 1890.

Rediscovering the American Spirit

As an American werewolf in England, I sometimes find myself tempering my outgoing nature in the wake of a more subdued or refined temperament. Americans abroad are often labeled as “that loud American,” and I’m often questioned why it is that we’re so loud. It’s not necessarily that our voices ring at a higher volume, but our personalities are sometimes larger, filling the space that Europe so often lacks.

When faced with this question, I have decided that we had to be loud, we were forced to have an indomitable spirit as we travelled West across a country the size of 75 Englands put together. How else would we have been able to handle the harsh conditions of a large, untouched landmass that challenged us at every turn?

And of course, by “us,” I mostly mean Europeans, because it’s the brave and adventurous – and perhaps a little desperate – ones who decided to venture out and boldly go where no (white) man has gone before.

Yes, I’m a conflicted American, and I’m also a “divided self,” as Nebraska author Willa Cather once wrote about the fractured identity that develops as a result of constantly moving away from one’s home. And one’s comfort zone.

Can you find me in this picture? I'd like to say I'm meditating, but I've just collapsed trying to catch up to my uncle on the way back down.

Can you find me in this picture? I’d like to say I’m meditating, but I’ve just collapsed trying to catch up to my uncle on the way back down.

But being back in the West reminded me of how lucky I am to have this “wild American” side. I was reminded of this even more as my uncle coaxed me all the way up Yosemite Falls under the guise of “just 30 minutes more.” Four hours later, nearly 3,000 vertical feet, in temperatures well over 100 degrees F, I thought to myself: this is the definition of persistence. When he and his partner Susan – both twice my age – beat me to the bottom, I thought to myself: I’ve gotten soft.

And then there’s the soul, that maybe has less to do with America and more to do with my Dad, that really reminded me of who I am. As he warmed up on the piano of the Yosemite chapel just before my cousin’s wedding (he played for the ceremony), I took a short video of him in action:

A few seconds in, he catches me filming him and flashes that smile, the one I’ve known my whole life. It’s never-changing, but I suppose I’ve changed in relation to it over the years. Loving it as a child, scowling at it as a teen, missing it in my early twenties, and now, seeing myself in it. That spirit – full of joy, wonder, humor and curiosity – is who I am.

That is the true definition for vintage: Of lasting interest and importance. And it’s not really about me, it’s about everything and everyone.

Being inextricably linked to the past, whether you’re an American who has traveled far from home, or a mountain in a national park that has been and will be around for a very long time.

Andrew - my forever traveling companion - and me in Yosemite Valley

Andrew – my forever traveling companion – and me in Yosemite Valley

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