A colleague of mine–to whom I will forever be grateful—had taken up the mantle of advisor and revived the high school backpacking and outdoor club. She organized the field-trip and I was invited to go along as part of the staff contingent. Though excited, I was apprehensive. It had been nearly twenty years since I’d last hiked in altitude, and I was no longer in the shape I was. I had gained 100 pounds, developed a “bad” knee and lost nearly all of my stamina. All week I brooded on whether or not I should bow out. Prom is next weekend, I thought; I could use this weekend to work on associated projects. I have tons of grading to do; I could get it done on Saturday. My mother was–and is–sick; she might need me for something. I had moved multiple times and couldn’t find my hiking gear (particularly my boots).
Friday after school, however, I ended up purchasing a few items and settled on using my day-hikers–don’t let that fool you; I hadn’t used them in true anger for years. I continued to wrestle with cancelling almost until my alarm rang at 03:00. As it was, I arrived a bit late, but just a bit before the last person boarded the bus. It was only when I’d settled into my seat, that I decided I was going.
When we stopped at the Yosemite vista-point and took our group photo, I truly comprehended the endeavor’s scope. Back in the day, it had been myself, one other advisor and never more than a dozen students on our pack trips. Small numbers were a guideline set down by CDF and we had followed it religiously. This, being a day-hike and not an over-nighter, was different and a massive affair. Nearly 45 students and a dozen staff were on this gig. Hat’s off to Ms. C. for ramrodding the event. I felt wanted to do everything I could to help make it a successful endeavor, as well as, personally make it to the end of the trail.
When we finally arrived at the Vernal Falls trail-head, my apprehension was full blown. As I pulled on my knee brace and broke out the trekking poles, I wished my wife was there to give me her much appreciated encouragement. As it was, I offered a quick prayer to Yeshua and put my game face on. One of my former students turned District After School Program employee, Carlos, must have seen something pretty grim there because as we hit the trail, he sidled up to me and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. P., I’ll help you with whatever you need. You need me to carry something, you let me know.”
I had to bit my lip not to joke, how ’bout carrying me?
I knew I was in trouble the moment we truly started moving. The pace, set by the healthy young men and women and adults who were in seriously better shape than I, was brutal. By the time we started to ascend, I was far behind the others, many of whom were glancing back at me with both speculative and worried looks. After a few more yards, I had to stop. I was sucking and blowing like a billows. I couldn’t get enough air. Panic washed over me and left me sweating and embarrassed. One of my companions, a very nice counselor from the junior high, stopped and waited for me to catch my breath. Our group was nearly out of sight.
“Don’t stay for me; I’m not sure, I can do this. In fact, my leg is hurting already and I’m short of breath; I’m going to go back to basecamp take a nap or just kick it for the rest of the day with Mrs. LW (a high school counselor who had volunteered to have lunch prepped when the kids finished their hike).”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “Do you need help getting back?”
“Naw. I’m sure,” I said. “Go on; I can find my way. No worries.”
“Well, alright. See you later…”
He nodded farewell and headed on up the trail.
“Be sure to tell the others (staff), I’ve gone back,” I called after him. I then turned to find my way to the Swinging Bridge basecamp.
My spirit screamed and my heart wept. My emotions began to travel a well trodden path to around a familiar dark pool in my mind. Why had I let things go?! Why had I neglect my health?! Why hadn’t I gone more into the mountains more often?! Why didn’t I even mountain-bike any more?! Why, instead of carrying-on, had I let my pain dictate a psychologically unsound course. All these thoughts and more rose up from the depths of the pool like bubbles. With each step my heart grew heavier and my emotions spiraled further. I thought about how some of my students would return from the hike and ask “…what happened, Mr. P.?” or worse, politely say nothing but have that look of pity for an old man in their eyes. I’d have to tell my wife, I hadn’t made it. What would she say? I’d have to admit to what the district has been working so hard to make my believe: you’re too old for this–make way for the young.
I stopped dead in my tracks. Wait a bloody minute. First, I thought, you’re making stuff up in your head that hasn’t happened and most likely won’t…unless you want it too. This is the same stuff you warn the kids about all the time. Time to put the brakes on, bro! Second, you no longer have to worry about them worrying about you; they think you’ve headed back, so you’re free to hike at your own pace. At least make an attempt, I remonstrated myself, and if your knee truly screams “halt!” or you feel like you’re going to die gawping like a beached fish, you can turn back.
I reversed direction and started after the horde.
During the approach to the lower falls, I had to stop for a breather just about every 50 paces depending on the incline. My heart was hammering. I could see my chest bouncing. Unbidden, headlines flashed in my head: “High School Teacher Dies of Heart Failure On Yosemite Field-trip.” At least it’s a pretty location, I mentally responded. When I’d caught my breath and began again, it was with a “Hoka-hey” today-is-a-good-day-to-die mentality. At least it wouldn’t be in a bed hooked up to machines, I thought as I paced off another 50 steps and halted once again. That became my rhythm for the rest of the adventure: 50+ paces, pull off the trail, huff and puff, mumble a “Hoka-hey,” and maneuver back into trail traffic for another 50 paces.
Being it was Yosemite, one of the true wonders of the world and, more significantly, one open to the public, trail-traffic was horrendous. Because I was slow, I had to pull over a lot for faster moving tourists. It had been a long time, but I can honestly say, I have never seen worse trail-etiquette in my life. Groups of people were walking abreast taking up the whole trail; folks stopping dead in the middle of the trail to adjust a strap, check phones, dig into a backpack or adjust the volume on their backpack speakers (yes, that’s right, not headphones, bloody speakers!) without looking over their shoulders; children running pellmell down the trail dodging adults while their parents called half-heartedly after them to stop. Bad stuff. More than once I had to rein-in my teacher voice and the urge to start calling folk on it. I found myself fervently wishing I could speak the various languages I was hearing, so I could ask people to turn down their backpack speakers, get down off the railing, stop trying to feed the deer or “…make a hole!”
Lower Vernal Falls was a zoo as tourists on the bridge jockeyed for a shot of their compadres posing before the Upper Falls in the background. This was as far as many of them would go (thank the gods) as the trail forward to the upper falls was wetter, steeper and harder. I will say here and now, emphatically, and for the record that people are stupid…I state this as someone who knows fully well that their blog-post is essentially dedicated to his own stupidity. That being said…
Witness the folks out on the rocks above the lower falls, dipping their feet into the rushing torrent, not ten paces from a warning sign which quoted a grief stricken mother who lost her sons over the falls in 2012 as saying her children had been “…only wading…”
Witness the parent trying to entice the possibly diseased squirrel with bread for her children to pet.
Witness the fools trying to drink directly from the river instead of the giardia-free drinking fountain thoughtfully and purposefully supplied by the park service.
Witness the girl cutting trail over mist-slicked granite never thinking that if she happened to lose control and bump anyone on the way down, they’re in for a ten to 20′ fall on to solid rock.
Witness the parent cajoling his toddler to piss against a rock not 4′ from the river because the line was too long to the bathroom.
Regardless of my exhaustion, ever growing and insistent knee, and hammering heart, I knew I had to get the hell out of there before the stupid rubbed off on me. I was already doing something that could be categorized as such and didn’t want to lose my air of superiority or my determination to tackle the Endless-Stair which was the next part of my journey.
Like something out of the Lord of the Rings, the Upper Vernal Falls granite stair is a marvel of trail construction, but like Tolkien’s dwarven engineering, it is not for the faint of heart and mine was calling me all kinds of names as I approached. The stairs were slick with mist from the upper falls and for someone with a bad knee, each step was treacherous. Folk were crowded on its narrow confines, and it took but a few flights to decide I would not be taking the stairs back down. It was simply too dangerous in my present condition. The next time I stopped for a Pause-and-Pant, I called blessings down on our fearless leader’s bun-bedecked head for choosing an alternate route back down to the Valley.
It was a struggle to position my feet so my right leg did most of the lifting giving my left a chance to settle thus, sparing the knee. The brace was doing its job as well as it could, but there was only so much it could do. A further challenge involved timing my 50 pace spurts strategically, so I had a place to pull off and catch my breath–something not always possible. At such times, things got a bit freaky as whole families tried to pass each other and me at the same time. More than once I came away fully soaked along one side of my body as I tried to become one-with-the-wet-mountain and give them room. The stair seemed to go on forever. Up to this point, I had kept track of how many times I’d pulled over for a Pause and Pant (about 35), but there on the stairs, I lost count—I was too busy trying to survive. There better be a guru or Shangri-La or a cold beer or something up there!
When I finally reached the top, I was both elated and relieved. I half expected the groups to be gone, heading back toward the Valley, but they were still there though nearly ready to descend having rested for about a half-an-hour. They were just as surprised to see me as I was to be there. I admit to feeling a bit sheepish, especially with staff. I’d said I couldn’t do it, but here I was. I made a joke of it by weaving a silly story about raw determination, trail-relationships of convenience, yoga pants and nearly dying every eighth-of-a-mile–all of which wasn’t too far off the mark. I tried to remain the upbeat teacher Mr. P. is known to be, but truth be told, I was nearly toast. All too soon, our trail-master was gathering her chicks under her wing and preparing to head off. If it wasn’t for my firm belief I’d die on those stairs if I attempted to descend them, I might have stayed there for a short rest and taken them down afterward.
Carlos was both happy for my triumphant return from the dead but was now even more concerned considering my obvious state. He stuck with me as we moved out and after I insisted he go on ahead and stay with the group, he would only leave me if I accepted group B’s radio saying, “…if we need to check on you, we can.” At first this moved me, and there was a certain logic to it. It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that I was no longer a part of the working-staff. See, the walkie-talkies were meant for staff to use in case one of our charges was hurt and needed help. There were three of them: one with group A, one with group B and one at base camp, so they could all stay in touch with each other—Just In Case. They were not intended to keep tabs on an old man struggling to retain memories of healthier happier times. I wasn’t fulfilling my professional role anymore and had become a very unprofessional and unlooked for concern. Now they were worried about me. I was a liability and should a crisis arise and they needed this radio, they wouldn’t have it. Unfortunately, by the time I’d processed this, Carlos was long gone up the trail. I whistled loudly and called out his name, but unsurprisingly got no response. I began praying nothing untoward happened. As it was, a girl did roll her ankle from the group whose radio I had and they had to take the Valley Shuttle to finish the last part of the trip…but what if she’d broken her ankle? What if she’d fallen and been knocked unconscious? Could I live with that? Hell, no! Bottomline: I will never put myself in that kind of position again.
Well, what’s done, is done and it is, what it is. I shouldered my day-pack and began climbing more granite stairs, These were not as steep as those below, but they rose nonetheless and I was soon back to my pace-and-pant pattern…although I hoped there were a few more paces in there.
I had a wonderful view of distant Nevada Falls and the east side of Half-Dome. I talked to quite a few people, wondering at how young they all seemed ruefully half-remembering my immature reactions to those of age when I was younger and immortal. While I fully believe focus determines reality, I also believe that time waits for no one and if allowed to, will run its course without so much as a “by-your-leave.” So sad, that humans do not yet have more than one life time. They need two: one in which to make all the mistakes and another in which to try and employ the wisdom they learned from them.
The descent was murder. I’d quite forgotten the feeling of controlled chaos a down-sloping trail can afford. Soon reminders in the form of jammed toes, loose underfoot debris, and broken bones resurfaced. On one of my long ago solo excursions, I had broken an ankle on a descent after a rock rolled out from under the pressure of my foot. The nearly three mile hike-out on a broken foot had resulted in surgery and weeks of recovery. Both knees were now reliving that memory and warning me of missteps. I was much slower going down, and I soon suspected I was much more than a half-an-hour behind. A quick radio exchange confirmed that the first group was already down on the Valley floor.
I’m going to guesstimate it took some two hours to get down. With each hesitation, I felt a growing sense of urgency and guilt. I must admit though, on deserted stretches of trail higher up, in the illusion of privacy, I remembered things I’d nearly forgotten. I remembered summers when I spent more nights under the stars than under a roof. I remembered my daughters, all smiles and dirty faces, carrying backpacks as big as they were happy to be with dad…no others necessary. I remembered three six-point bucks leaping a morning stream, pine martins fussing on a pond’s edge, owls holding court, a black bear fishing, an eagle that looked at me, tarantulas dancing, “…the frontal lobe of a pica…” skull and a wolverine heading toward camp. I remembered my brothers and I chanting Wild Horse songs in heart-drum rhythm under a night sky so clear we were drowning in stars and immortality. I remember reading easily under a full moon. I remembered week-long solos into the Immigrant when I’d seen only a handful of kindred spirits who with a nod, or a smile, or an exchanged word acknowledged and blessed each other’s holy quest. It reminded me of so many other moments and times…times when the night embers spoke secrets for my ears and eyes alone…times when the high glide of a hawk was the harbinger of self-realization…times when the Milky Way was my blanket and the world was silent without the sound of cars or highways or phones…times when the business of the day comprised picking a peak, heading in a direction and napping under a tree…times before the self-imposed darkness, before I’d lied myself into believing I wasn’t worthy of such things and made myself grow old. Sweet memories and bone-deep wishes I had more of them to recall.
Too early and before I hit the turn at Lower Vernal Falls, the trail was once again crowded with flatlanders with no more clue about trail etiquette than I do about “snapchat.” With all the speeding up and slowing down, pulling off to pant and dodging another tourist group, I was so tired that it doesn’t surprise me I missed Shuttle Stop 16. I think I stuck too close to the river on the way out. That was fine, by golly, because I wanted to finish in style by walking the route the kids did along the Valley Loop Trail. By the time I hit Shuttle Stop 13, however, and got a good look at the detailed shuttle map and the distance I still had to go, I knew that there was little chance of making it by our 16:00 depart-time. Besides, I was physically exhausted, so at Shuttle Stop 13, I boarded the sardine packed bus and rode it all the way around to SS 8. As soon as I got off, I found an honest-to-goodness Park Ranger and she gave me directions to Swinging Bridge, our rendezvous.
“See that flowering dog-wood over there? Well, just beyond it is a trail that veers off to the right. Take that trail, stay on it, and you should be there in about 15 minutes.”
About ten minutes into that walk and from across a small meadow, I saw Mr. H. and Mrs. S. over by a set of busses. Whether they were looking to round up wandering teenagers or slow old men who take too long, I didn’t now or care, but they looked like they were looking for someone, so I headed in their direction. By the time I got there, however, they were gone. I checked out a couple of busses, but they weren’t ours. About that time Mrs. S. called me on the radio.
“Mr. P., have you made it to a shuttle yet? Mr. H. and I are at Shuttle Stop 8, but we haven’t seen you…”
Well, damn. If I’d just waited a few minutes when I got off the shuttle…
“Mr. P. here. Been on the Shuttle and off already. Thought I saw you two over by the busses, but it appears not.”
“No problem,” she replied. “Stay there and Mr. H. will come find you.”
I swear, it felt like the longest five minutes of the day until Mr. H. appeared out of the trees with a “Marco!” and a smile. We crossed the meadow over to Swinging Bridge and a waiting couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, made by our Trail-Master’s own two mits. Mrs. LW and the some of the kids gave me a cheer which I embarrassingly acknowledged with a weak-wave. The final lost sheep accounted for, we soon headed out on another small hike, which my knee let me know was cruel and unusual punishment, to the bus and a three hour drive home.
On the way home, my wife texted that she was proud of me for having attempted and finished the route. I think she somehow sensed, as the best of women do, that there was more at stake than simply her man’s dignity. Considering the unexpected emotional and mental, as well as physical, route the adventure took, I’d say she was right. It wasn’t simply a journey of distance, elevation and endurance; it was one of time, memory and introspection. As for the upshot of it all? I honestly don’t know. I’m not a man of predictions. I try to navigate the Great River, but I know better than try and dictate, or even second guess, its course. Will I change my life-style enough to better accommodate a healthier performance next time? Will there even be a next time? Only time will tell. I will hazard the following, however.
I was at the end of a pace-and-pant cycle, about midway down the return leg of the descent from Upper Vernal Falls. In my near hyperventilation, I was vaguely aware of an approaching uphill band of about half a dozen folk but had yet to scan them. When I finally did, I was surprised to see what I can only term as a Matriarch in the lead, bent nearly double and leaning heavily on a set of trekking poles. She’s come a long way, I thought, and still has far to go before she reaches the top. Those following were obviously her family, chattering away seeming unconcerned for their relative’s slowness or fragility, but the closer they came, the more I noted their strategic positioning all around her. If she were to fall, these would be there to catch her. I say all around her, but that’s not true. No one was out in front. No one was blocking her way. To even the casual observer, that was sacred space. She somehow sensed me and with hardly a glance in my direction, she said in a surprisingly robust though age-inflected voice,
“I’m sorry I’m in your way; I’m as slow as a slug!” Oh, yes, I chuckled to myself, and I’m just the picture of a trail savvy spring chicken.
“No, no, no,” I responded. “You’re going as fast as you need to go, so don’t you worry about it. No problem at all. You take your time. I’m still trying to recover from my last print and that down hill!”
I watched as she carefully planted her poles and just as deliberately and firmly planted her feet in follow-up. She must be in her 80s, I marveled, and here she is climbing this same trail, its altitude and terrain notwithstanding. She and her entourage eventually passed with appreciative smiles and thankful nods.
Time waits for no one and the truth is, I’ll never regain the time I lost in the losing of myself (see “And some folks say, he’s up there still 1”). That’s just as gone as the moments it took to write and revise this sentence. At the very least, however, I sense I still have some choices, not as many and maybe not the same ones, but choices nonetheless.
I can chose to write my memories down as I have here displaying them as jewels fashioned during my life–lessons and insights, defeats and triumphs, a completed collection, mounted, finished and unique.
I can chose to lament my losses sacrificing time like some deluded penitent to a ravenous god of his own making–sad and regretful, frustrated and bitter, a burnt offering, perpetual, tragic and mindless.
I can chose to move, one step at a time, firmly planting one pole at a time, and experiencing what is still mine to do–careful and diligent, purposeful and determined, a wiser elder, aware, accepting and alive.
What will I choose? All, none, one, some other I have yet to understand? I wish I knew. I can say this, however, at least now I know I have them.