YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- There is an age-old mystery afoot here at the scene of the most iconic view of Yosemite Valley.
Or maybe the mystery lies in those not afoot, such as the man who just drove past and stuck a camera out of the car window.
Either way, this is one of the most viewed spots in the world, drawing up to 7,000 people a day. There seems to be something intrinsic in us that wants to look out over vast things. From this outlook, known as Tunnel View, you can look east over Yosemite Valley, taking in the massive granite face of El Capitan, towering Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls.
A recent $3 million renovation project fixed crumbling walls and created a larger viewing area separate from the parking lot. Its completion last month made international news. There are not many places on earth where a revamped parking lot is of world interest. But not many spots offer such a view of the natural world -- and people's reaction to it.
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Alan Bragg, 56, a Yosemite tour bus driver who has worked at the park for 30 years, says some visitors are overcome by the view.
"I've seen it happen a thousand times -- people are emotionally overwhelmed. They experience one of the high points of their lives," he says. "But there's such a cross-section. What's funny, and maybe also a little offensive, are the people who just stick their cameras out the door of the bus." Bragg empathizes with an emotional reaction. After all these years, the view can still move him.
"Not every day, every time," he says. "But then there will be a unique cloud formation or certain light and I'll feel -- it's hard to describe -- just a feeling of pleasure derived from nature.
"It's almost a feeling of being made to feel small. Isn't it funny? Say your wife says something to you over breakfast that makes you feel small, that's a bad feeling. But when you get it from nature, it's pleasurable." The first white man to write about the view was moved to tears.
"... As I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion," wrote Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the volunteer Mariposa Battalion that in 1851 chased members of the Ahwahneechee tribe into Yosemite Valley, the first recorded time that outsiders had seen the place.
"Peculiar" is also how Jacques Delacroix, 66, describes his reaction to Tunnel View.
"It's something I've wondered about for a long time. It has an effect on me -- it has an effect on everybody. I don't know why. I'm a rational guy, but rational explanations don't work," says Delacroix, a retired business professor and conservative radio host in Santa Cruz. ("I'm one of three conservatives in Santa Cruz," he says.) Delacroix says his reaction to the sweeping view is not emotional.
"It's more in my head. It's pictures that get stored and years later at some odd moment can be evoked." Delacroix, born in France, is in general no fan of Yosemite, finding it overly regulated for his tastes. He says he considers it a peculiarity of Americans that they allow themselves to be treated like they are attending "a low-level Soviet camp." Which is why he hasn't been here for 25 years. But he vividly remembers this view, so he came back and on this day is standing in the rain waiting to see if the clouds shift.
The view can change dramatically in a matter of minutes, depending on cloud breaks and glimmers of sun. Indeed, serious photographers favor visits on the edges of storms.
On a soupy November day the view, at first, is not much. In the distance is a dense wall of flat gray. In the forefront, it's raining.
Yuki Hirai, 43, a restaurant owner visiting from Japan with her mother, Tomoe Hirai, 73, and their friend and tour guide, Masaki Takahisa, from Emeryville wait an hour, but the gray doesn't budge.
A friend told Yuki that this was the one spot she had to visit on her U.S. trip. He told her it was a special place.
Finally, they lower their red umbrella and decide to move on. But just before they leave, the clouds start roiling, twisting themselves into shapes and breaking apart. Soon the outline of El Cap and Half Dome can be seen behind a soft gray veil as it continues to rain.
Six-year-old Hayley Jun of San Diego, resplendent in canary yellow rain gear, poses in front of the lookout for her parents, Sunyoung and Kyung Shik Jun, both armed with cameras. She's trying to grin while squinting from the rain splashing into her eyes.
A car pulls up to the curb. A young man and a young woman -- she in four-inch heels and a bare midriff top -- jump out of the car. They quickly snap a self-portrait, then get back in the car and drive away.
Hayley in her rain boots watches them and laughs.
"Her shoes were funny," she says, before turning her attention to the view behind her.
"It's so amazing," she says. "It makes me feel cool in my heart." Katie Krebs, 25, of San Diego held her breath all the way through the Wawona Tunnel on Highway 41 entering Yosemite Valley from the south.
Her boyfriend, Dylan Edwards, also 25, told her that was the tradition.
"It's amazing," Krebs exclaimed with her first post-tunnel breath.
"It takes you right out of normal, everyday life," she says from the viewing area.
It's her first time to Tunnel View. Edwards, who grew up in Mariposa, has seen it hundreds or maybe thousands of times before.
But he says his reaction is the same as hers.
"It never gets old," he says. "It's awe-inspiring. It puts you in your place."