19 Jul Learning from Libby Lightning in Yosemite National Park
When I am heartsick, I go to Yosemite National Park. It always seems to hold the cure.
And I am blue. With our birds, lands and oceans under attack and our hard-won national parks and monuments being scrutinized for possible size reductions, I need the restorative powers I can find only in those 1,200 square miles of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
It wasn’t always like that for me, of course. Everyone has his or her “first trip” to Yosemite. Mine was in May 2010. At that time, my son, Travis, had moved from our Wisconsin home and was living and working as a musician in San Francisco. On a visit to see him seven years ago, John, my husband; Travis; and I drove to see America’s third national park for the first time.
Our jaws dropped the typical three inches that most visitors’ mandibles do on their initial drive into Yosemite Valley. Seeing El Capitan—one of the largest exposed pieces of granite in the world—rising nearly 3,600 feet above the valley floor (and a neck-stretching 7,500 feet above sea level) is a vision that burns itself into human memories. We knew we’d be back.
We were, in fact, the very next year. In May 2011, though, it was just Travis and me who ventured into the valley. John contracted a dangerous infection in his leg, which put him into the hospital two days before we were to depart. It was this second visit that solidified Yosemite as our family’s healing place. With me being worried about my husband and Travis in the midst of a relationship breakup, the two of us realized as we got into the park that we actually were, as John Muir wrote, going to the mountains to “get their good tidings.”
Those happy tidings came to us in the form of snow. In an opportune moment between park road closings, we were able to drive the 34 miles from Yosemite Valley through the mountain pass to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias near Wawona, California. When we arrived, we found we had the hushed, pristine-white landscape almost all to ourselves. We hiked through that magical spot of ancient elders. Amid the wide trunks and white limbs, we forgot our worries with our significant others and found peace, delight and gratitude in the quiet, ivory landscape.
In October 2013, we returned to Yosemite for a far happier gathering. Travis and the love of his life, Megan, got married there, in a fall meadow.
This year, in May 2017, my husband, son, daughter-in-law and I once again traveled to Yosemite National Park. But this time, we were bringing someone new with us: my granddaughter, one-year-and-11-month-old Libby Lightning.
This spring marked the wettest winter for the Northern Sierra on record. That, combined with some warm weather, brought booming waterfalls to Yosemite National Park.
Heavy rains prime the watersheds and saturate the soils, but it is snowmelt that feeds Yosemite’s waterfalls. A March 1, 2017, snow survey showed that the Merced River watershed’s water content was 177 percent of normal. The water content of the Tuolumne River drainages was 208 percent of normal. Grace Meadow in Tuolumne County had 16.5 feet of snow with a water content that represented 85 inches of rain. Tuolumne Meadows had a snowpack of 119 inches, just shy of 10 feet.
As all that snow finally started to melt, Yosemite’s waterfalls were nothing short of epic.
You could hear, feel and see that voluminous power even on the short walk to Lower Yosemite Falls. On a path that in other months of May had just misted us, we got soaking wet. And the sound was a voice-canceling thunder.
Riding in a carrier strapped to Travis’s back, Libby was ferried on the footpath across the falls. I don’t know if she saw them, as the force of the water forced her to close her eyes, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t matter to her that this was an unusual year for water. But I could see that she felt the wetness on her fingers and on her tongue. And I know she saw the double rainbow just above the current on the other side.
After the hike to Lower Yosemite Falls, we took the long way back to our rooms at the lodge. We walked over a small bridge—not once, but again and again and again.
What should have taken us about two minutes took an hour. That’s because, we soon learned, Libby loves running across bridges. The first time she made it across on her own two feet, she promptly turned around and ran back over it. This particular part of the route—at least, in Libby’s mind, it seems—should be completed multiple times before moving on. And each tiptoed dash was accompanied by a large, loud laugh.
One of the last times she breezed by me as I stood watching from my post in the middle of the bridge, I saw her overtake two elderly gentlemen who were enjoying their leisurely stroll. As they walked by me, I heard one of them say, “That’s got to be the best sound in the whole, wide world.”
“It sure is,” the other replied.
When you hike in Yosemite and in other parks, the etiquette is to say “hello,” “good morning” or to give a nod of acknowledgment when you pass another person on a path. But I can’t say I’ve ever lingered for more than a minute or two with those sharing my trail.
Libby changed all that when she met the salukis.
The two dogs were with a man and a woman who had stopped to enjoy the spot where, in 1869, John Muir had constructed a cabin along Yosemite Creek, just below Lower Yosemite Falls. More closely resembling a wooden shack, the “cabin” was attached to a sawmill. Muir lived here—seeing the water by day and hearing it by night—for two years.
This place was a special one for Travis and me. John Muir had grown up in Wisconsin, and he had attended our alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I like to think that Muir is number one in the triumvirate that defines my state’s environmental tradition: John Muir to Aldo Leopold to Gaylord Nelson. It is Muir, though, who embodies what we recognized in ourselves in Yosemite: somehow, Wisconsin-flatlander roots deeply connect to California-mountain-man vistas.
Libby, though, mostly saw the salukis that stood just about at her eye level. She wanted to stay for a while, content to pet their soft, long fur. As she did that, we chatted with the dogs’ human companions for almost an hour, as the skies began the long process of dimming the lights for the day. Just as the experience at the waterfalls had been, this taking-time-out to more deeply engage with others who happened to be in Yosemite at the same, exact moment that we were was refreshing.
On our second morning in Yosemite Valley, on another short hike up to Lower Yosemite Falls, we stopped to sit on a wood bench and let Libby enjoy some fresh blueberries that her mother had brought along. When we hiked passed the same seat again on our third morning, Libby insisted that we pause once more to sit and have blueberries.
With all of the sights, sounds and places to go in the vast and majestic Yosemite National Park, I had hardly noticed that brief break and block bench that was part of our meanderings the previous day. But for one just under two years old, such an event—and site—was memorable and monumental.
I’d like to say that with Libby Lightning, I “saw Yosemite through the eyes of a child.” But I can’t. I don’t know what Libby saw and will remember. I only know what I witnessed, this time in the park, watching her.
What I glimpsed was the grace of strangers in the overheard comments of two old men passing by and in the chats with dog owners who tarried. I saw the humor in bridges and learned that waterfalls are wondrous to see but are even more exceptional when felt on the skin with our eyes closed.
I know the next time I go to Yosemite, or any destination, really, I won’t have to see a certain list of sights—such as El Capitan or Half Dome—the landmarks that are touted as the most spectacular. As a remedy for heartsickness, I will search for the best place to approach a stranger; to pet a dog; to let out a good, hearty laugh; and to eat blueberries on a bench.
And that last one, I’ve come to learn with Libby, could be the most important thing you ever discover about a place.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”—John Muir, 1901
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