by Jeff Cepek
“…and I wandered enchanted in long wavering curves, knowing by my pocket map that Yosemite Valley lay to the east and that I should surely find it.” – John Muir / The Yosemite
The topographic map hung on my living room wall for 5 years and it’s 4′ x 4′ size made it the focal point of the room. Now and then I would use my finger to trace a hiking route out into the wilderness, beyond the valley, while the recurring doubt crept into my mind. For years I had wanted to be there, really be there, not as a tourist, not for a day, but to really know and live it. For years I made excuses for not visiting the park: I had a new job, it’s too crowded, the time was just not right, etc. So it was with a great sense of pride that this past Spring I put all my convenient excuses aside and took action. I was actually going to do it, I was going to Yosemite!
On April 26 of this year, with my car packed with supplies and pointed west, I embarked on a six-month journey to a place that until then had seemed only a distant dream. That morning my life seemed a bit more clear, a bit more purposeful as I merged onto 35-W and set the cruise control.
Earlier in the year I visited the National Parks website, clicked Yosemite, clicked careers, and was eventually hired as a Transportation Agent. Basically I sold tours of the park, trail rides, raft trips, and answered questions. Lots of questions! If you want to learn everything there is to know about a place, get a job where you have to be the one with the answers!
In the weeks before my trip I was so excited I was finally going to see Yosemite in person that I sent pictures and videos of the park to my family. On the day I arrived at the park I had a moment of mild panic. What if all those stunning pictures and awesome videos gave me a false idea of how beautiful the park really was? What if the real thing didn’t measure up to what I was expecting?
As you make the turns toward the valley you catch glimpses of what is ahead. The road teases as you wind your way closer with a quick view here and there while you try not to lose control and plunge into a ravine.
My first stop was at Tunnel View which offered a jaw dropping view of Yosemite Valley. El Capitan on the left, Bridal Veil Falls on the right and Half Dome straight ahead. I tried to take it all in but the sheer size of what I was seeing was overwhelming. It was early in the day and just a hand full of people there as I sat on the ledge processing all sorts of feelings that came and went. It was eerily quiet and the valley seemed to welcome me as I took the lens cap off the camera.
As I started the routine of working and living in Yosemite, my dorm roommate asked me, “Do you know how to ruin Disneyland? Go there everyday.” That made me think and from that day forward I stopped the routine and started to make the most of my time in Yosemite.
Many days after work I drove up Glacier Point road and eventually explored all the trails along the way. The first time I went to Glacier Point where John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt were photographed I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing was real with the snow-capped Clark Range in the distance and Half Dome so close it seemed that I could reach out and touch it.
On my days off, Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows areas became my escape from the crowds in the valley. Tioga Road climbs to an elevation of just under 10,000 feet as you travel east toward the park exit and into the Inyo National Forest. Even at that elevation the views on the mountains that reach to over 13,000 feet is amazing. Olmstead Point offers stunning views of Half Dome from a different perspective and is a must-see along Tioga Road.
My wilderness adventures started up in this area as I explored May Lake, The Glen Aulin Trail, Lyell Canyon, Lake Elizabeth and Saddleback areas. I loved the alpine setting up there and still saw bits of snow tucked away in shaded areas on my last trip through in late September. Camping at May Lake was wonderful and gave me a chance to reflect on my good fortune. I had a sense that John Muir, Jack London, Thoreau, Emerson and Steinbeck were somewhere near every time I visited those areas and I felt a part of something bigger than myself.
I took pictures, lots of pictures! Eventually I realized that putting the camera away and allowing myself to be more in the moment was what I needed. I enjoyed myself more and quickly realized that I could store to memory so many images of the beauty around me. I did compile many of my favorite photos and put them together as a video presentation.
Somewhere around the time that I began to rely less on my camera and more on my own senses I started to feel that Yosemite had effected a change in me. I felt that in a small way I knew Yosemite, and I understood what drew John Muir there all those years ago. I got what caused him to work to preserve and protect it and why he loved it. Though my time there is over for now and a coffee shop in Minneapolis is a long way from that special place, I’ll cherish my summer in Yosemite. I hope to see its granite cliffs again sometime down the road.
Are you inspired by Jeff’s story? Get started yourself today by exploring Minnesota’s Great Outdoors with a Sierra Club outing.
Jeff Cepek is originally from Chicago and now calls the Twin Cities home. He is a long-time supporter of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.