As I raised my children, somewhere along the journey I seemed to forget that I was ever a person in my own right, and then at some point I realized that, over all of those years, I had stopped doing many of the things that had once brought me joy. Before I became a mother, one of my favorite pastimes was meandering in the outdoors— sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback— discovering trails, and places off trails, that often held surprises. Though I was never an intrepid world traveler, I was the kind of person who wandered close to home, finding the small hidden places that were easily accessed, even if no one else bothered to look for them. For a period of time in late spring one year, I rode my horse every evening to a spot less than a half-mile from my home, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood still being developed, to watch an owl tend to her nest. I had a favorite weir in a canal just a few minute’s ride from my house, where I enjoyed letting my horse eat a little grass while I sat by the cascading water. Sometimes I hiked the roads in the designated wetland parks, stopping to watch waterfowl through my binoculars. Occasionally, I enjoyed trips into wilder, more remote places, although I do not want to give the impression that I was ever an experienced backpacker or hiker.
But then I had kids, and I embarked on a long odyssey of watching my sons participate in activities, an almost full-time commitment which required surrendering most of my non-working hours, and along with them, a sense of my personality as separate from those of my children. Looking back, it seems as though I spent decades watching my children kick around soccer balls, propel themselves between lanes in a pool, lob water polo balls at other kids, bang on drums, and engage in all manner of endeavors that I would never have found even remotely interesting had they not involved my progeny. And then, just as suddenly as they came into my world, my children moved out and embarked on their own lives, and I am finding myself with a lot of free time and a desire to reclaim the person I once was.
But now the suburban landscape which 26 years ago still featured plenty of open land is today fully developed, and unless I can somehow gain access to other people’s backyards, there is nothing left to discover in my neighborhood. So I find myself with a new dilemma: I have the time for wandering, but I have no idea where I might wander to.
And then my husband Matt and I purchased a one-year national parks pass, and I conceived the notion of devoting the summer and fall to hiking in Yosemite. We started with a hike along the south fork of the Merced in Wawona. We did not take a designated trail, but instead chose a path I knew from previous visits I’d made alone, and we enjoyed a really beautiful trek along the river, with just enough minor decisions and tiny challenges (do we walk through the rivulet and get our shoes wet, or do we risk losing our balance by traversing the log bridge?) to make the hike interesting. But it was short hike, and my plan is to find hikes that are more satisfying and make use of designated trails, so the next day at Costco, when I happened across a book entitled Hiking Yosemite National Park: A Guide to 61 of the Park’s Greatest Hiking Adventures, I immediately decided to buy it.
“We could do these hikes one-by-one until we’ve done at least half of them,” I told Matt, who nodded in agreement while he scrolled through his Facebook page.
I have no intention of doing the truly adventurous hikes, such as the 233-mile-long John Muir Trail, as doing so would necessitate weeks without a proper shower or a flush toilet, and I am not prepared to throw civilization to the wind in my quest for adventure. Also, of course, I’m far too out of shape for such strenuous activity, and I cannot imagine hiking the Muir Trail without also wondering about how one might go about contacting EMT personnel if one were to, say, have a heart attack in the high country. My hiking ambitions are, therefore, modest. I want six hours in and out, ending in a cold beer or chilled glass of Chardonnay, or both, and a comfortable armchair from which to contemplate my achievement. So when I opened my new guidebook at home I went straight for the hikes labeled Easy.
I started reading about Chilnualna Falls. I knew this hike, having done a small part of it once, and it definitely met my criteria of short (eight miles round trip) with a reward of a nice place to sit and drink afterwards (the Wawona Hotel, now called the depressingly less-poetic Big Trees Lodge). This hike was considered moderate in difficulty by the author, Suzanne Swedo, who is undoubtedly more fit than I am, but I read on, thinking one could always stop and rest along the way. Long, wide switchbacks make the northward climb almost painless, Swedo wrote. Views of the sensuous, rounded curve of Wawona Dome come and go.
I smiled. This was exactly what I meant by a hike.
As you gain height, more of Chilnualna’s upper fall comes into view behind clouds of rising mist . . . . The smooth rock near the water invites exploration, but move carefully—the rocks are slippery and it’s a long way down.
Hmm, I thought.
And then I came across this passage: Watch for rattlesnakes in this low-elevation area . . . they do not like to be stepped on.
So, maybe not this hike then, I decided.
I flipped the pages to find a hike that fit my personal definition of moderate, which would be along the lines of a hike that would not end with plummeting off a waterfall to my death or suffering an attack from a poisonous reptile.
I read next about an easy hike to Taft Point, only 2 miles in and back.
Well, I thought, that’s shorter than I’d like, but on the other hand, a short hike suggests relative safety. And indeed, as I read along, it seemed clear that a hike to Taft Point seemed entirely without risk. The trail, I was advised, began in a sandy clearing surrounded by pine trees.
That sounds pleasant, I thought.
The guide book promised vistas rivaling those that can be found at Glacier Point, and then I came across this:
On the way you can peek down into the fabulous Fissures, cracks that are . . . thousands of feet deep, through which you can see all the way to the valley floor.
Well, that sounds kind of scary, I thought, but I read on:
The Fissures have not been defaced by protective railings and warning signs; you won’t see them until you are very close. I studied the picture of a fissure on the next page to see if it was wide enough for someone to fall into. The answer seemed to be that it was.
For a moment, I pondered what it would be like to fall into such a crevice, knowing that my fall would end thousands of feet below. Or, possibly just as bad, what it would be like to fall into a crevice and get stuck. What if I fell in, and my husband tumbled in after me? What if no one came by, and we were stuck there for days, some of our limbs mangled by the fall?
So I looked for another hike, but as I read through the book I began to suspect that the author’s true intent was to keep people like me off the trails of Yosemite National Park. Another so-called easy hike warned me that the area was notorious for troublesome bears. Carry your food in a bear canister and keep it locked even if it’s right beside you, the author mentioned casually.
Holy cow, I thought, as I envisioned large hairy carnivores rumbling toward me, determined to possess my Doritos and peppered beef jerky for themselves.
And so it went—it seemed that every easy or moderate hike described by Swedo carried with it a possibility of sudden painful death.
I have not been dissuaded, however. Try as she might, Swedo cannot prevent me from trying to find my youthful self once more somewhere in the wild landscape of Yosemite National Park. But I will also admit that Swedo has given me pause. She has forced me to consider listening to my older, wiser self—the person who thinks it might be just as nice to take a walk along Bear Creek and then go home, crack open a cold beer, and watch the Nat Geo channel on my 62-inch television.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.