Dirt under my fingernails. This is the worst thing about not showering for almost a week. Although, for a week of camping, hiking and swimming in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, I guess it’s worth it! But let me start over…
Arriving into San Francisco was humbling. Flying over the suburbs of a new city I’m always struck by how ‘same’ the world is. Why do I leave Melbourne to come to another big city, filled with more people, all working to pay for their material things? All these people on the other side of the world, just doing the same thing as the people at home. I’m reminded that what I am trying to escape, to find, when I travel is myself. And I’m still with me!
The generosity of friends meant that we had use of an apartment in the Lower Haight – very central, and very cool (thanks J and V). And thank goodness. Jetlag and the culture shock of not knowing how anything works always zonks me for about a week. It was so lovely not to add to that the pressure of expensive accommodation and no internet to our days (I am resigned to the fact that internet is pretty damn important to my way of life now).
In San Fran we took it pretty easy – hanging out in local cafes (I may be the only Melbournian who actually likes American coffee), lots of walking through the new-and-yet-strangely-familiar streets, catching the Muni up and down (didn’t manage to catch the tram from Melbourne, although we rode on ones from Milan, Lisbon, Philadelphia), realising how big the city is even though it looks kinda small on the map, visiting the Castro (to see the rainbow-coloured crosswalks), Haight-Ashbury’s hippie shops and street festival, Alamo Square (disappointing as the houses weren’t nearly as colourful as in pictures [link to Jannie’s pic]), cycling through the parks and over the Golden Gate Bridge (windy). The Presidio park is home to a number of Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures and I was pretty happy to see these in real life.
Traveller, or immigrant? I feel torn between being a tourist, and the thought that, actually, we might stay here. I can stay here. How will that work out? I’m finding it difficult to play both roles. As well as playing the tourist we have begun to navigate the bureaucracy of living here – bank accounts, a credit record, drivers license, car purchase and registration. I am not sure whether the bureaucracy here is worse than at home, or whether it’s just that I don’t understand it. Either way, it is driving me mad.
Despite being told to keep my social security card safe at home, that I would only be required to quote the number (both the USCIS and Janet told me this), the bank wanted to see it in order to open a resident’s account. Not because they need to see it, but because it’s so new, and has not much activity. And the DMV want to see it in order that I get my California driver’s license. Since my card was stored so safely (!) at J&V’s place that I could not find it, I opened a non-resident alien bank account for now but the delights of sitting my drivers’ license written test, and taking an actual driving test on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD still await. The good news is that I did find a company who will insure our yet-to-be-purchased car without me having a local license. Yippee! Alan is giving Craigslist a workout as I type. I am dreaming of this.
The June gloom meant that the days were cool and foggy, not quite the summer we had been expecting. That changed pretty soon though. We hired a car (like this) for 10 days and headed out of San Francisco and straight to the hills. The big, beautiful, granite ‘hills’ of Yosemite National Park. It was sunny and warm and perfect. And the hills were 9000 feet high with snow on them. And it was still sunny and warm and perfect.
Being summer, it was ridiculously busy. The campsite reservations book out months in advance, as do a lot of the backcountry walk permits and the gold Wonka tickets themselves – permits to climb Half Dome (only 300 of these are available per day and they go fast). But, there is a quota reserved for ‘walk ups’, on a first-come first-served basis. Get into camp before lunchtime and you should be able to score a site, queue for 2 hours the day before your hike and you might be able to score a backcountry permit. This caused us great angst on our trip in – would we or wouldn’t we have somewhere to sleep, were we prepared to queue despite our anathaema about queuing for anything, what was our back up plan? In spite, or perhaps because, of our worrying we easily got a campsite – we’re not quite in peak season yet. And, when we went to the Wilderness Office about 4pm we discovered that there were still permits available for our chosen hike starting the next day (no queuing necessary), and, something I hadn’t even entertained, we could add on a permit to climb half dome. Plus we were entitled to cheap camping the night before and after our hike. Score!
So we walked for three sublime days (OK, two and a half as we spent the afternoon of the first day lazing around a perfect alpine lake and being eaten by mosquitos) from Tuolomne Meadows, at a height of 8000 feet, up over Clouds Rest and Half Dome at nearly 10,000 feet, down to the valley floor at 4000 feet. Yes, I am glad we walked down rather than up, but that descending was hell on the thigh muscles! We were struck by the lack of snow. At this time of year there should still be quite a lot about, but California is into it’s fourth year of drought (the news here is filled with reports of water-saving initiatives – oh so familiar) and the snowpack is scanty – the iconic Bridal Veil Falls was reduced to a slight mist of water that had almost blown away before it reached the end of it’s long drop and a stream without water meant we had to make a three hour backtrack for water – the longest water run either of us have undertaken.
The water run was needed so that we could camp high up on the north east shoulder of half dome in order that we might get onto the cables to the summit before the crowds of day hikers arrived and the climb becomes something of a slow upwards shuffle. Our ploy worked and after a glorious night camped on our own (!) overlooking an amazing granite-filled valley 4000 feet below us we were climbing by 8am. The climb to the summit is quite something. 45 degrees most of the way up, the granite is slick from so many feet and despite best intentions we found ourselves hauling our weight up the cables using our arms (climbing tip 101: legs have more power and tire less easily). Exhausting, especially in the thin mountain air. The trip down, by contrast, was dead easy. In Europe this would be a ‘via ferrata’ route that requires wearing a safety harness and clipping to a cable for safety, but here there is only my strength and balance preventing a long slide down the mountain. And yet there are many less fit than I on this route. In fact, they are also almost all younger than I, and almost all dressed in the same outfit of brightly coloured, running clothes. It’s kinda like being in a gym.
In other news, we saw a bear!
I have been quite concerned about bears, and to Alan’s eternal amusement most diligent with bear-proofing our food each night. We had to carry a bear canister whilst hiking (all food goes in it and it goes 50ft away from the tent) and use food lockers in campsites. I imagined the bear fronting up to us for food and ripping into our bags and tent (which can and does happen). But this cub was minding it’s own business and foraging happily in the bushes near the backpacker campsite. So cute and cuddly-looking.
My crush on Yosemite began 20 years ago – it was love at first sight when I saw an Ansel Adams picture on a friend’s wall. It’s a little bittersweet to realise that if I had come here 10 years ago I would have been climbing the rock faces rather than hiking the trails. There’s a sense of regret that I never made it during that stage of my life, but who knows what comes next? I might just have to get my rack out of storage for next time! But first, I’m off to have a shower to get that dirt out.