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Living and Writing in the Natural World

High Country People

Tam on Tuolumne River above Glen Aulin

“My daughter wants to hear you speak Chinese,” said the Polish father on my right at the dinner table of White Wolf Lodge, some ten miles southeast of the point where the Tuolumne river is dammed to form the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park. The 12-year-old’s bright eyes widened as I spouted bromides in the exotic language. My wife Tammy and I were in the Yosemite high country this past week, and the people we met there were as delightful as the mountains and streams.

It began 6:30 the first morning, as we waited in line at Tuolumne Meadows campground for a site, where half the spots are reservable 168 days in advance, the other half on a first-come basis daily. The young lady next to me turned out to be a fellow graduate of Yale, tho class of ’91 to my class of ’67. She and her boyfriend had flown from upstate New York to Sacramento and driven all night, arriving in Yosemite just hours before. They were here for the rock-climbing, a granite change from the conglomerate quartzite of the famous “Gunks” in New York.

Six days later, leaving the Lembert Dome area, we noticed two climbers festooned with carabiners, chocks, slings, and rope sauntering contentedly away from the steep western face of the dome—and recognized our friends. They positively glowed with health and happiness as they recounted their days of climbing Yosemite’s classic granite walls.

It was three days before that encounter that we had shared the dinner table at White Wolf Lodge with a delightful family of four from Poland. The father and the 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter were fairly proficient in English, and we exchanged travel experiences and life-stories in general. The father, a business manager for Hewlett Packard in Warsaw and Paris, had enjoyed reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (written and published in English, tho Conrad was a Pole), and Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, all of which is certainly superior to my knowledge of Polish literature. “I think I enjoy stories with a dark side,” the father confided to me, which seemed very Polish to me, somehow. The son had expressed an enjoyment in reading Treasure Island, whereupon I immodestly suggested he might enjoy my own Return to Treasure Island, which he promised to obtain and read.

Earlier that day, while Tammy and I played gin rummy at the same table waiting for dinner after a 6-mile hike to Lukens Lake and back, the trail festooned with Alpen lilies and Fritillary butterflies, a French family of four there was snacking (and drinking a fine bottle of white wine with the potato chips!). I inclined to them the book I was reading, Papillon by the Frenchman Henri Charriere. They nodded, laughed, and began speaking amongst themselves. Tammy picked up the words “Steve McQueen,” and we all agreed the film about the book (starring McQueen) was well-done. Shortly thereafter, the father, mother, and two teenage sons left amidst many “Bon voyages” and surprised us by climbing, two by two, upon a pair of huge motorcycles and roaring off down the gravel road towards Tenaya Lake.

After three days at the Tuolumne Meadows campground, Tammy and I hiked six miles down the Tuolumne river to the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, situated in a dell next to a 40-foot waterfall where great billowing sprays of mist float over a dark pool of the river. Most of our fellow tent-cabin-dwellers were part of a week-long Ranger-led circuit of all six of the High Sierra Camps, and they were a diverse crew.

Sharing my tent-cabin (which features real beds, tho rudimentary steel-frame design) was a father, mother, and their teenage son whom I’d noticed swimming under the waterfall. We said a brief "hello," and I was a bit surprised very early the next morning to see them climbing up to a high knob down the trail to view the sunrise, as I had just done. My tent-mates turned out to have just arrived the day before from Iowa, where the mother is a personnel officer for Wells Fargo bank, and the father a systems analyst for a firm providing mathematical descriptions of large-scale phenomena. Iowa! Their circuit of the High Sierra Camps which they’d just begun (involving between 6 and 12 miles per day, sometimes a climb of 2500 feet) was complicated by jet-lag, but they were keen for the challenge and already enjoying themselves.

The sunrise was magnificent, its warm rays glinting on Wildcat Point several miles down the Lodgepole-pine-clad slopes of the Tuolumne river valley, then finally reaching us as we stood atop the knob. The rock at our feet was half-granite and half-metamorphic septum, the latter representing the ancient Sierra Nevada before the irruption of the granite plutons between 130 and 40 million years ago. Most of this reddish metamorphic rock eroded away over this period to fill the Central Valley of California (a former inland sea in the Mesozoic), and provide such rich nutrients to the soil there that California grows over half the vegetable crop and virtually all the almonds and pistachios of the entire United States.

Also in the High Sierra Camp group was a willowy, soft-spoken Chinese attorney from Singapore, from whom we learned of the British foundation of the Singapore law (of course, I later realized; Sir Stamford Raffles and all that) and the complications of being so close to Malaysia, where the current government’s policy of legal advantages to ethnic Malays in employment and other areas poses challenges to the significant Chinese minority there.

But the Glen Aulin sojourner whom I most enjoyed was Randy, a most convivial fellow whose love of Yosemite's granite and trees is matched only by his love of highballs. He had arrived that day after an 8-mile hike from the High Sierra Camp at May Lake, laden with cocktail makings. Since cocktail ingredients are mainly liquid, and liquid is quite heavy to carry 8 miles on your back, Randy was eager to share the joys of highballs with me.

So I found myself with a very enjoyable brandy Manhattan in my hands at 7,800 feet in the Sierra high country. The drink was even cold, Randy having purchased ice cubes from the bemused kitchen staff at 50 cents a cube, well worth the price. The Maraschino cherries in my Manhattan were skewered by lodgepole pine twigs which Randy had picked and shaved to points earlier that afternoon, the drink resting on the Miller High Life coasters he provided.

Randy himself is a gin martini man (if you know any martini drinkers, you know they are inclined to be on the zealous side regarding their martinis), and of course his olives were also pierced by sharpened pine twigs. It was all rather civilized, in a Sir Stamford Raffles, British sort of way, and most definitely enjoyable, sitting there beside Glen Aulin’s roaring waterfall, watching people swim in the Tuolumne river in the bright Sierra sunshine as you drank your highball. Here’s to high country people in the Sierra Nevada!

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