Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Yo-Ho, part deux, 7: in which we ride up to Glacier Point, take a new way down, and meet the dark side of Yosemite hiking

The fringe benefit of taking the hiker's bus to Glacier Point is getting up early to walk over for a hiker's breakfast in the Yosemite Inn food court. Recalling the parlous state of the privies at the point, we took more than usual care to visit the necessaries here, and caught our bus with minimal waiting.

Sam, our driver, filled in several blanks in our knowledge and pointed out a trail seldom taken (more on that later). Two years ago CA 41, which is the route south from the Valley, was under heavy construction. Yesterday we'd noticed that the job looked about finished. Actually, Sam said, they were doing it again. Seems they had made a hash of the surfacing and had to do most of it over. Once again, these things don't just happen in Massachusetts.

We seemed to get stuck at odd places and times on this trip. This time, Christine actually had a souvenir shopping mission, and that had to include the shop at Glacier Point. Then there were the essential tourist photos, looking to make sure Half Dome was still there, and joining the queue at the privies. By the time we got going it was nearly noon.

Last visit, I commented on the brilliance of the NPS decision to locate water closet toilet facilities at Glacier Point, nearly 2000 feet above the water table. They didn't work, of course, and they're still not working. This kind of spoils my argument that NPS is good at fixing self-inflicted injuries.

This time we were going down the Four Mile Trail. Once--say 130 years ago--it really was four miles long. Over the years since, voluntary routing changes for hiker safety and involuntary ones caused by rockslides have made it 4.8 miles long: ish. Some sources, including trusty driver Sam, say five miles or more. Whatever: it's longer than it used to be.

It's a trail with an oddly bad reputation, even with people who like it. One online reviewer, speaking just of the trip up, called the trail "three hours on a Stairmaster." That is excessive: your gym never had such scenery.

The more vigourous sort, like Em, hike it up and down in a day. It's wiser, past a certain age, to choose one half and depend on the bus for going down or up.  One can buy a ticket down at the summit, assuming there's room on the bus, usually the case off-season. In summer, forget it: you'd best reserve your seat and then hike up against the deadline, or ride up to hike down, knowing you'll have to get down on your own feet.

No hiking trail is really easier going down, and rescuers will tell you there are twice as many accidents among people going downhill as up. Down is a little easier from an oxygenation point of view, but is has its own demands. There is a pernicious idea that "anyone can do" the downhill haul, usually spread by uber-fit hikers.

Stone's Day Hikes in Yosemite National Park doesn't join the disparaging chorus. It notes, correctly,that there are two distinct personalities to the Four Mile Trail. From the top to Union Point, about halfway down, it's a relatively easy descent (barring the dust) through Jeffrey pine, then into the Ponderosas, with a succession of Valley views not possible from anywhere else. Most people can do the trail this far, assuming they have enough water and decent footwear.

We noticed, as we had last trip, that random sections of the trail were blacktopped. Two days later we got the story. I had supposed this paving was some WPA relic, and I was startled to learn that the paving had been done in the early 1970s, for reasons which everyone was happy to forget. It had to have been a brutally difficult job in the first place, laying asphalt in Yosemite's bake-oven summers, and flattening it out with (presumably) small power rollers. But the blacktop went down directly on top of boulders and ledge, no subsurface preparation. The pavements had begun to fail in the first season. Soon after, NPS philosophy had changed from armour-plating nature in order to coddle visitors, to limiting visitors to what nature permitted. The blacktop surfaces were allowed to decay naturally (or as naturally as a petrochemical can) and that has created a new problem.

I've mentioned Yosemite's fine and persistent dust. On trails like this, it lies on top of the old asphalt, making a walking surface something like a bowling alley. When the dust slides over the blacktop, whatever is atop the dust slides with it. Hold that thought for a bit.

Blacktop and dust notwithstanding, we had a very pleasant hike down to the first set of switchbacks, which are just above Union Point. We weren't out to set any sort of time standard but between the easy grade, the shade, and the relatively light traffic, we made very good time. The switchbacks, like all such things in the Western mountains, were originally designed for horses and mules. They aren't remarkably steep, but there are an awful lot of them.

We hadn't gone far past Union Point, and were well into the switchbacks, when we came upon two older men who had been climbing up. I say "older," but they were probably no more than 70. At a glance, they looked like a pair who had been sucked into the "anyone can do it" propaganda. Both wore ordinary running-type shoes and street clothes. They had no day packs, and each had a pint bottle of water. (We carried 10 litres among the three of us and felt that was a bit sketchy.) One man was leaning over the other with a look of concern. As we came up, this man asked if we had anything sweet with us. We did, and produced some trail mix liberally dosed with M and Ms and a chocolate energy bar from our day packs.

At this moment Em stopped being a hiker for a couple of minutes and became a clinician. She determined that the badly-off man was diabetic and feared that his blood sugar was falling. She asked a couple of further questions about his ability to go on and whether he needed some help. They said they were OK to go on with the added sweets.  We started off again, but I could see from Em's face that she was far from satisfied with the situation. Although we were getting into the hairier parts of the switchbacks, we stepped up the pace as much as was safe, and every conversation turned around to wondering how the two men were doing.

Every state and national park shares a common problem. The mere fact of being on holiday turns even intelligent people into simpletons. Visitors to such places expect to be taken care of.  Men in particular think they can act out their macho fantasies, regardless of their age and conditioning. And if something goes wrong, someone will rescue them. In addition, people with far more hiking experience and in much better condition are quick to go on the Internet and say this trail or that is so easy that your great-grandma can do it. And then your great-grandma tries it.

Consider the numbers. The Four Mile Trail is, as I said above, something like five miles long. Its vertical gain is a whopping 3200 feet over that distance. The lower half of the trail is rated between moderate and strenuous: say moderate down, strenuous up. The Valley trailhead is 4000 feet above sea level. Anyone can do it, provided they are in at least average condition, have some experience hiking, three or four litres of water each, food, a first aid kit, a compass and a map. These two gentlemen had none of the above.

Rockslide path.
For a while, though, we had our own preoccupations. After Union Point, the trail map turns into a series of squiggles, and so does the trail. It is here that the combination of blacktop ruins underneath and dust on top becomes rather tricksy. The more so in that these switchbacks traverse ledges which are steep and none too stable. You're thoughtfully reminded of this here and there by rockslide warning signs.

Dust and blacktop...nice.

The switchbacks also advanced from challenging to just plain ridiculous, like this:

Christine, who is usually found surging out in front, began to flag as we hopped down these things. She was also the first to fall: nothing dramatic, just an old-fashioned sitz. We had a pause to make sure everything was still working. It was, although she admitted that various leg muscles weren't following orders.

After that, we descended into the woods, a relief after the sun and dust. Some of the references warn of mosquitoes down here, but that wasn't going to happen in these toasty dry conditions. The trail surface was still dust and blacktop, though, and I was the next one to fall. Em said it was almost graceful: I sank to one knee between my trekking poles, sliding down the pavement in a sort of dry-land Telemark.

The first thing I noticed was that my pants were ripped: my favourite hiking pants. Em saw the rip and said "better have a look under that." I rolled up my pant leg and, sure enough, there was a matching rip on my leg. There was no good place to do first aid, so we went on, leaky leg and all.

But the fun wasn't over. At the bottom of the next switchback we met two women about our age, puffing a little and trying to hurry up the trail. They stopped for a minute and asked if we had seen two men whose description matched the pair we had seen earlier. These were the spouses, hurrying up with more sweet stuff. We asked about water. "Oh, we have plenty of water," one said, and they held up a pint bottle each before hurrying on.

With four ill-prepared people up the trail, Em had had enough. She reached for her phone and found she'd left it behind. Incredibly, it was Dad who had a phone, but there was no signal where we were. Em took my phone and went ahead to find some place with a signal (Yosemite cell phone reception is sketchy at best). "Went ahead" is an understatement. We knew we were hiking well below the offspring's capacity; this was confirmed when she trotted down the trail.

The old folks soldiered on, and after a few minutes Em came trotting back. She'd managed to reach the Delaware North office at Housekeeping Camp, which connected her to the Rangers, who were looking into it. That was about all us civilians could do. Having heard nothing to the contrary, we suppose there was a happy ending.

All the hurrying brought us to the bottom in under three hours. Em and Mom opted to walk another mile or so back to Housekeeping Camp. Since I was bleeding with every step, I opted to wait for the bus. That turned out to be about even, time-wise. The Four Mile trailhead is on the secondary bus loop, running twice an hour. Comparing notes with a couple of other people at the trailhead, it appeared we had arrived just after the last bus left, so we had to wait the full half-hour for the bus. I used the time to wash out the leg wound with drinking water and a little hand sanitizer. After getting off the bus (one connection necessary), I caught up with the family units just outside our shelter.

Last time, we found out that there are two staples at Housekeeping Camp: ice and firewood. Em and I went off to the Yosemite Village store (more of a supermarket) to get those essentials, some other supplies, large bandages, and we continued Mom's search for souvenirs by proxy. My wife, while uninjured by her fall, admitted to uncommonly sore leg muscles, and begged off to spend time in the campground shower.

Naturally, there were deer near the village. In the morning, driver Sam commented that Yosemite has more injuries from encounters with deer than from any other animal contact. Most of these are self-inflicted, by the rafts of visitors who get visions of Bambi whenever they see a deer. Sam noted that the rut was just beginning in the Valley, and the hazards would be greater than usual.

For those unfamiliar with the lives of deer, the rut is the mating season. The bucks sharpen their antlers on brush and saplings. They strut around the woods and meadows, dripping with testosterone, ready to fight anything that moves and then make sexual conquests.

At least the deer do this for just a few weeks a year.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yo-Ho, part deux, 6: in which we meet Joe Btlspflk, a fool, and a very large bear

Hiking gives one appetite and thirst. Energy bars and trail mix, when chosen wisely, deal with the hunger. Water at close to body heat satisfies the inner engine's requirements, but it does build up a psychological desire for something really cold. As usual with us, there were no bears, no deer for a change, but we had the company of a very stubborn raven at lunch.

I'm convinced that Dewey Point isn't named for an individual, but from the universal question among hikers there. "Do we go on from here, or turn around and head back?" Motivation initially overruled legs and we set off for the next promontory west, Crocker Point. This added two mile round trip would give us a first day's hike of ten-ish miles and bragging rights pertaining thereto.

The motivation didn't last more than halfway. Realism said we needed some energy for the next several day's hikes. Em looked like she wanted to send for his and hers walkers for us.

We had not gone long on the return trip before we began talking about the next stages of our plans. At this point, I thought I'd prevailed, at least with Em, and that evidence-based decision making would rule. At this point Em piped up to say, "Oh, I thought you understood. The latest hantavirus case was at Tuolumne Meadows." Tuolumne Meadows was where we meant to spend the second half of the trip.

People who know my wife well call her determined when she is on their side of an issue, and stubborn otherwise. At this moment she became stubborn. Just how stubborn? Try to envision a person simultaneously hiking forward and digging her heels in. I had pledged at the start of this trip to observe majority rule and to avoid being a grouch as much as possible. It took only a few minutes of conversation to show me I was in the minority. I acquired two concessions. First, that the majority would do all it could to get facts from someone in authority before writing off Tuolumne, rather than relying solely upon news stories meant to gin up numbers.* Second, that if we did stay with the squirrels at Housekeeping Camps, we'd leave a day early to have a little time for San Francisco.

I was still grouchy, and felt I'd been had. So that my ill temper wouldn't show too much, instead of swapping positions as we had done coming up, I took permanent last place, where the dust cloud would obscure the Joe Btlspflk** cloud over my head. I felt then, and still do, that my last chance at staying in the high country had come and gone because of panic over a half-million to one risk.

By the time we reached the car, hunger, thirst and an urgent need for a privy helped to distract attention from my mood. We drove down to the nearest john, then headed for the camp, when something happened that distracted all of us.

Em came around a slight curve and jammed on the brakes. In front of us were stacked up half a dozen cars, all over the road, with doors open and people outside. "Accident?" I said aloud. Em pointed into the woods across the road: "No, a bear. And look!"

I have seen few live bears, only one in the wild on the last trip, but I have seen several dead, and I can't recall seeing a bigger black bear than this one. It was very lean, or I would have put it above 350 pounds. As it was, call it 275-300 pounds: cocoa coloured. And there was also a man; presumably the driver of one of the cars ahead. He was stepping through the brush directly toward the bear with a camera to his face.

I was always told this about bears: when they stand up and roar, they don't want to fight you. They want you to be scared and get lost. It usually works. When they don't stand up is when they mean business, and you want to act like Bigfoot whilst backing slowly away, and things end up with both you and the bear backing away.

This bear did not stand up (bad sign #1), and this bear was not backing away (bad sign #2). He (I say he from the size) was trying to move off to the man's side, shaking his head (bad sign #3). Even from some distance off, I could see his shoulder muscles flexing (bad sign #4). This was no Yogi Bear: this was a high country bear in a very bad mood.

So then, here's Camera-Boy, already no more than 30 feet away from a very uncooperative bear. What does he do? He goes closer, still with a face full of camera. When the bear started sidling around him, giving (to me) a convincing demonstration of a very pissed-off bear, the idiot cut the bear off. They were now about 20 feet apart. Had the bear turned on the fool then, nothing short of a high-power rifle already aimed could have spared the man from a severe mauling, at least: a bear can leap 20 feet in a second. We then had one of those "time slows down" moments: I don't know for sure how long the standoff lasted. At the end, I guess, the blowdowns and the underbrush made the man pause, pause just long enough for the bear to break away. He still didn't run; just kept up his sidling until he was able to disappear. The motorists, with the surly reluctance of a crowd breaking up after a car wreck, began to get back in their cars, and enough of them moved out to break up the bear jam. When we got going, I think Camera-Boy was still in the woods, looking for the bear.

Last trip, and this one, I've seen people pull potentially dangerous stunts with deer (more on this later). On farms, they can be similarly stupid around livestock. This was an act of the most incredible, willful stupidity, the most brazen I've ever seen. In those slow-mo moments of the standoff, one felt as if one chance thing, or one still more stupid act, would set the whole tragedy in motion, a tragedy in which the bystanders could have done almost nothing for the victim. One chance, one second, one tick of the clock: life, death, or mutilation. The bear looked unhealthy, and I'm glad it got away. But I'd consider mauling Camera-Boy, or any of the other jackasses who left their cars to be spectators.

* Late news. My skepticism was justified, as I would have found had we brought a laptop. An NPS bulletin that went online a couple of days later said that the latest case was tied only to one of four High Sierras Camps, including Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. And it wasn't a fatality. It was a case so mild that the patient didn't realise he had it until the media hype led him to his physician, by which time it was about over.  But we're all panicking about fungal meningitis now, so who cares?

**You'll have to click the link to see Joe. The Al Capp people are very anal about their intellectual property rights, although that seems like an odd term to apply to L'il Abner.

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Yo-Ho, part deux, 5: in which we march around in the hot damn dirty dust at 7000 feet

in which we march around in the hot damn dirty dust at 7000 feet
title line comes from Michael Shaara's novel Gettysburg, which has a apt accompanying line. "It's them first few thousand miles. After that, a man gets limber to his feet."

We went to the original hiking day 2 plan, skipping the acclimatizing valley hike. This was to take the Glacier Point Road about 2/3 of the way up, hike to McGurk Meadow, then to Dewey Point, and there review our next move.

The ostensible appeal of the route is that it offered what the hiking guidebooks called a "flat" hike at moderately high altitude (in the 7000 foot range). They got the high altitude part right. However, let's
refer back to the chief discovery of the last trip, about the truthiness of flattiness. Once off the valley floors, there is no such thing as "flat."

We began down the trail to McGurk, down as in downhill. Em turned to me and said "have you noticed how we're going?" I replied, "Yes. We're going into a fool's paradise."

 This was my first visit to McGurk Meadow. Unfortunately, in September most of its renowned wild alpine flowers had gone by, though there remained a few smaller specimens visible in the grass.

 It was also my first look at Mr McGurk's famous mountain shelter. Low it was, and looked exceptionally breezy, although I suppose in its time the cabin had the chinks between the logs filled with mud and vegetation. There is an urban legend that the McGurk cabin had inspired Tolkien's vision of hobbit houses. Pity there's no evidence that Tolkien was ever in California before the publication of either The Hobbit or the Ring trilogy. Nor does it match any of the narrative descriptions of hobbit architecture.It looks like what it was: a sheepherder's shelter.

As one leaves the Meadow, the true nature of the trail reveals itself. It goes up, then down; up a little more, then down a little. It throws in a lot of up and a lot of down for variety. And, this month, everything past the Meadow was the hot damn dirty dust. During our visit, this part of Yosemite had not had appreciable rainfall in two months. In dry conditions, as we knew, the dust here is incredibly tenacious. Even three people hiking in line churn up an awful lot of it. One coughs, one wheezes, one sips water constantly from dust-covered water bladders and bottles. But still, one begins to experience the companion of Sierra hikers: black boogers.

One lesson I've picked up from the various hiking guides I've been reading when I haven't been able to hike is that everybody who hikes, complains. Most hikers would no more think of hiking without bitching than they would of hiking without boots. The dust was inevitable in September, so there was nothing for it but to sneeze black, swear, and keep on hiking.

For me, the last trip was darkened by poorly-fitting boots (last time I buy boots online.)  This trip was to be the final test of my professionally fitted boots, lined with an additional arsenal of foot orthotics.
One of the gadgets was clearly not working out, so I stopped, removed it, and went on. There were no foot problems for the rest of the trip.

Last time in Yosemite, we'd discovered that the most important unit of measurement on Yosemite trails is the ish (aka the appx.). The official round trip to Dewey Point from the McGurk trailhead is, for example, eight-ish miles. For a variety of reasons, disclosed shortly, we covered more like nine-ish miles. One could find trail estimates varying a mile either way of the official distance. It all depends on what you wanted for bragging rights, I guess.

At 1.9-ish miles from the trailhead, the Meadows trail meets the Pohono Trail, the main drag along the top of the south escarpment, running from Glacier Point to Tunnel View, a round trip of 16-ish miles. This is somewhat less than halfway to Dewey Point, and we turned west toward Dewey.

The signs below illustrate what ish means. The one on the left is at the trail junction, and says 2.0-ish miles to Dewey Point. The one on the right is about 200 steps down that trail, but it's still  2.0 miles. Welcome to the twilight zone.

Considering that we were in Yosemite, with its 4 million annual visitors, and the temperature was pushing 90 F, there was very light traffic. That was one reason we'd chosen September, of course, but one couldn't help thinking that hantaphobia was also keeping the numbers down. By the way, although descriptions of the route to Dewey Point via McGurk said "flat," there was no such unanimity about the Pohono Trail. Some sources consider it flat, others moderate. Note that the last three letters of its name spell "o no."

I'm with the moderates on this one, because this is where the steep ups and downs become a bit wearing. The topography made me glad we'd favoured greater Boston's Blue Hills Reservation for our local training. This stretch resembles that reservation's Skyline Trail, minus two-thirds of the rocks. The Blue Hills haven't been as dusty in recorded history, and they are of course over a mile closer to sea level. Both these things make a difference, especially when you're an easterner on your first day hike of the trip. But that training kept us from saying "are we there yet?" except in jest.

As on most Yosemite outlooks, there are no guardrails or nannies at Dewey Point. It's a reasonable assumption that anyone who has completed four or more miles of "flat" hiking, or rock-climbed 3500 vertical feet, to reach these places will have enough brains to stay away from the drop back down those 3500 feet. So it proved the day we were there. Nevertheless, the transition is sudden. Before you come close to the edge, the dusty trail gives way to ledge, making the last 200-300 metres quite toasty at 90, with no apparent humidity. Then, the drop is there. Having now tried Sentinel, Taft and Dewey Points, I incline to the last. It's near the mid-point of the valley, and it's panoramas...well I hate to use that would, cliched as it's become, but this visual experience is what panorama means.

Anywhere along the south summit you have, in addition to Yosemite itself, the jumble of the Sierra Nevada rolling off into the distance, to peaks you can't name high and indistinct at the horizon.
I'd suppose there's more traffic at the height of the season, but I don't see Dewey Point becoming Bridalveil Falls. They can't drive buses there.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yo-Ho, part deux, 3: in which we go to Yosemite by way of a barren waste, bloodcurdling cliffs, mining camps and NPS death notices

The punctuality of one's departure on an auto trip is inversely proportional to the cubic capacity of the auto. Although we began with the best of intentions, one thing and another led to a last-minute packing that mostly resembled a stuffing. The first of the one things was breakfast at Sconehenge which despite its Hebridean name serves up a wicked good Mex breakfast...also decadent scones, if huevos revueltos with scones appeals.

It was also a Cal home game day, so grabbing good parking became a priority.

As we rode out of Dodge, I beheld a Cal student of the female persuasion heading off to what I suppose was a game day party. She was heading away from the stadium, at any rate, wearing the local Cal bearskin cap, a halter, and a nether garment that was somewhere north of shorts and south of belt. I kept my silence: nice neighbourhood.

By now, I've grown blase about California freeways, but it was a relief to see that in order to go south and west on the 205, it was first necessary to go north and east. It make me feel that Massachusetts highway engineering isn't totally unique. That was about that. The upper Valley's economic devastation has done nothing to improve one of America's dullest landscapes (except all of Oklahoma).

Some two hours later it became clear that plans were afoot for a late lunch. Ever since my spouse's solo trip out here in January I'd heard "In n Out...In n Out...." The context convinced me this was not sexually oriented. Now the term rose again, and shortly I found out what this was all about.

Manteca is, lord help it, a featureless suburb of recession-blasted Stockton. It's chief interest for us is that it's the place we leave the freeways and head east on CA 120. It also has an In-n-Out by the exit.

In a state where something 40 years old can be considered an historic site, In-n-Out is a musiem piece: a fast food, quondam drive-in, chain, in existence for over 60 years. Kindly leave your food preferences at the door. You're going to get a hamburger. With vegetables if you ask. And french fries (a vegetable). And catsup (ditto). Lay back, enjoy it, and be sure your cardiologist is on speed dial.

Eastbound on 120 is all agribusiness, nearly all the time, with the occasional local farm stand. We stopped at one to complete the fruit and veg provisioning, filling up the last cubic inches in the car. The Sierras were still a dark smudge in the haze.

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Yo-Ho, part deux, 4: In which we climb a long way in a hurry, and meet the rodents

When you approach Yosemite via CA 140, as we did last time, the transition from plain to mountain is gradual, lasting many miles. Not so on 120. At Oakdale, the highway takes the first of a couple of incomprehensible right angle turns, lining itself up with the approaches, seemingly. A few miles on comes the second turn, and suddenly the land starts to climb. You cross a narrow arm of a large reservoir, Lake San Pedro, with its odd flotilla of houseboats, and then....

The road climbs over 2000 feet in five miles over a series of the hairiest switchbacks to grace anything called a state highway anywhere. It is two slim lanes, without guardrails, save in a couple of spectacularly suicidal spots. The other side is almost all ledge, save one bay ominously occupied by an auto junkyard.

Before the climb began, we'd passed through the curiously-named hamlet of Chinese Camp. That
name is the first sign you're passing through the worm hole. You reach the top of the switchbacks at Priest, an even more unimpressive wide spot in the road. Here the road that mirrored 120 across the gulch connects: it's called Old Priest Grade. It is even clearer here that some time shift has occurred, and no historic sign even commemorated the Old Priest.

A short way along 120 come the first signs of something called Big Oak Flat, which in theory is a place of consequence. (Anything of consequence in these parts has the word "Flat" in its name, which gives an idea of the topography.) Here the built environment elides quickly from 1940s roadside ruins to stone and frame buildings showing signs of much older origins,

A mile or two down the highway is Groveland, which turns out to be civically united with Big Oak Flat. Here the highway narrows to a slender street lined with false front buildings both frame and stone. Groveland is the metropolis of Big Oak Flat, whose chief claim to fame is the Iron Door Saloon, which claims to be California's oldest. The place began in the 1849 gold rush as Savage's Diggings. It became known as Garrotte after that, in honour of its many hangings. Later in the 19th century more sensitive residents renamed the place Groveland, evidently hoping to appear civilised in the eyes of the world. (Apparently they forgot to rename another hamlet in the township, which is still on the map as Second Garrotte.)

Going into Yosemite to the south, via CA 140, you pass through Mariposa, which also tries on the mining camp thing, but Mariposa is larger, more self-conscious and more self-referential. Perhaps because it's been the epicentre of several booms, from gold mining to tourism, Oak Flat-Groveland looks and feels more like the real thing.

After Groveland, the road passes through a succession of ponderosa forests and pastures, a landscape that looks lifted from the vintage TV series Bonanza. There were miles of this, the pasture gradually disappearing and the ponderosas closing in, and the altitude climbing.  Then we were at the Yosemite entrance gate. Em and I had prearranged that we'd use her season pass instead of my lifetime pass, but mine was ready in case she had mislaid hers: not needed. Before we pulled away, the ranger handed us our information packet: including the one on hantavirus.

How much better it would have been if NPS had led with this matter-of-fact material, and stayed with it. Instead, somewhere along the line, they lost control of the story, and any PR grunt can tell you it's all over then. As we soon confirmed, things had already reached the point where few NPS employees, and fewer employees of the services contractor, Delaware North, had any idea what was really going on. This was to cast a long shadow very soon. My spouse, as panic-mistress in chief, glanced at the sheet (her motion sickness precluded close reading). She pulled out the latex gloves, the bleach-based cleaners and the surgical masks with which she had provided us, and began to plan her assault on our shelter.

At Crane Flat, CA 120 turns east toward Tuolumne Meadows, Tioga Pass and the eastern slope of the Sierras. Oak Flat Road continues toward Yosemite Valley. We were now all on familiar ground.

One reason films and photos don't convey the reality of Yosemite is they must show only a small slice of time. Much of the park's wonder is that it's changing all the time. Slopes that were forested during our last visit were burnt over now, and others that had been barren two years ago were covered in new growth. The Valley has scores of rockslides a year (one happened later in the week we were there), leaving fresh scars and altering trails.


Still, the big stuff stays in place. Approaching by the Oak Flat Road, one is descending into the valley, which gives a different perspective than CA 140, which ascends the Merced River valley into Yosemite. It's a different flavour of oohs and ahhs.

Big state, California. What looks on the map like
a little trot over from the Bay to Yosemite is close to 300 miles. As a result, dusk was slipping over the ridges by the time we pulled up to the entrance to Housekeeping Camp, again our home away from home. It was decorated with a sight rare in Yosemite: a "Vacancy" sign.

The funky Housekeeping Camp is one of the few Yosemite venues not implicated in the hantavirus media panic: and why? First, we were told, the critical interaction between the carrier deer mice and humans requires enclosed spaces, usually living spaces. Housekeeping Camp shelters aren't exactly enclosed. Second, there need to be circumstances in which unusually large numbers of deer mice can thrive. The Sierra's  mild winter allowed the large numbers of deer mice to thrive, but other small mammals throve too.

Like the California ground squirrel. We in the east are used to squirrels living in trees, but the California ground squirrel is more likely to live under them. They are very similar in appearance to Eastern grey squirrels, and like them are very adaptable. With critters their own size and smaller, it seems they can be very aggressive, driving competitors out of the niche: competitors like deer mice.

Housekeeping Camp is crawling with ground squirrels. Local opinion had it that Housekeeping Camp had had no hantavirus problems because the squirrels had driven off the mice, or had slaughtered them before they could move in.

Our shelter was close to the Merced River, as planned. The kid population of the camp (speaking of pests) was greatly reduced, thanks to school being open, And it soon appeared that a large community of squirrels was living underneath our shelter slab.

When we unpacked, out came the gloves, the masks, the bleach pads, the bleach spray and the strong lights. Nothing would do except that we examine every nook and cranny. Having grown up in the company of meeces, I was the resident authority on the question of "is this mouse poop?" I answered, repeatedly, "no. Mouse poop looks exactly like a black grain of rice." At last I found some piece of dust or whatever that remotely resembled a mouse poop, and let the cleaning crew have at it. (One may read that the best policy where hanta is concerned is to leave well enough alone. You're welcome to try to convince my wife of that.) By the time she declared the shelter and bear box disinfected and safe to receive food, the last fragments of daylight were disappearing. Em drove down to the HQ and returned with pillows, bed linens and firewood. We were at last able to cook, eat supper and sit by the fire ring for a few minutes before an unwontedly late bedtime, as camping things go.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Yo-Ho, Part Deux, 2: in which we discover the East Bay

Few cities in California are walkable, and I'd guess most of them are in the Bay area. Berkeley--at least the downtown part--is.

It's also a place that would send the average anti-bicycling Masshole motorist screaming for the exits as the embodiment of his worst nightmare. There aren't hundreds of bikes on the streets of the East Bay, but thousands; perhaps tens of thousands. There are also cars, many cars: it's California, of course. And pedestrians, as you'd expect. Berkeley's a culturally and economically diverse city, next door to a still more diverse city, Oakland, also full of cars and bikes and walkers. And of course Berkeley is home to a state university with a student body of over 35,000. For the most part, they all get along! Most bicyclists ride with traffic, in the streets, stop at signs and lights, and have their lights on at night. Drivers rarely assault bicyclists. Pedestrians--wait for it--wait for the pedestrian light and jaywalking is as rare as snowstorms.

Having had this conversation before, and elsewhere, I cross-examined Em on this behaviour. Alas, it isn't moral superiority, she said. It's even-handed, fair, law enforcement. Drivers don't go for cyclists because they face felony charges if they do. Cyclists using the sidewalks for a boulevard or cruising wrong-way on the streets face stiff fines that are collected. Same goes for jaywalkers. It's not rocket science.

I might have known that chances of getting across the Bay to San Fran had dwindled to the vanishing point when my librarian spouse located Secret Stairs-East Bay and bought it for Em. So when we were all up, with me ready to hop on the BART and truck over to Frisco, nothing would do except that we should take one of Charles Fleming's Berkeley hikes, whether we got across the bay or not.  The compromise was that we'd try to preserve a little time by walking to a nearby route that encompasses the Cal campus, instead of leaping on crosstown buses that were a mystery to us. So we dutifully followed Route #5, conveniently starting a few blocks from the apartment, had breakfast at one of Fleming's favoured establishments, and crossed the street to enter the Cal campus. My impression is that the illustrator's map-making abilities weren't up to the author's narrative skills. We got lost within 15 minutes. It wasn't until we paid our fare to ride to the top of the Cal carillon, and procured a proper map, that we were able to match the text and the real estate.

Even though Flower Power is much in evidence throughout Berkeley, on and immediately next the campus, the heritage of the Sixties seems as welcome as that relative of yours who danced at your wedding wearing only a tablecloth and an ice bucket. It's CAL, thankuverymuch, and the only bears here are Golden.  "Berkeley" is the city Cal inhabits. This insistence seems laboured when one reflects that Cal seems once again on its way to being the goat of the Pac-12 Conference.

It's also worthwhile to remember that the Berkeley free speech movement of the 1960s would have had little attention without the tender mercies of the college administration and city authorities, who were determined to put the reaction back in reactionary. As far as the city goes, they're still at it.

Em tells me the latest issue is an ordinance banning, so help me, sitting and lying down in public places. It's going on the ballot and promises to be hot. It takes very few brain cells to figure out the discriminatory nature of the proposals. Well-dressed people lying on the grass in city parks, or taking their lunch on public benches, have nothing to fear from the ordinance--assuming they keep their designer labels in view. This is all about giving the police another weapon in the never-ending fight against homelessness.

Here in the East, we tend to think of California architecture as an oxymoron, but the Cal campus has features of interest, and variety despite its youth, compared to some East coast institutions. That too can be overdone. After  all, Land Grant colleges all got a level start. Where they took it from there was their business.

We finished #5 at Top Dog, which was a touch of the old Berkeley. Customers get a generous dose of left-wing politics with the condiments: cute.

In the afternoon we ran a couple of trip-related errands, succumbed to jet lag, and then Em was home.

This night, dinner was at Pyramid Brewery. To get an idea of the venue, Massachusetts beer fanciers might imagine Boston's Canal Street Beer Works filling all of its block. It was very much in contrast to Jupiter, whose scale is more intimate and reminiscent of a Continental beer garden.

I see by the menu online that I was three weeks early for their barleywine, so had to console myself with Thunderhead IPA, good but I have to give Jupiter an edge there.

Friday evenings at home usually slide past quiet into comatose, but that wouldn't do with last-minute preparations undone, and a daughter who is young enough to end her weeks with energy. So it's off to complete provisioning, involving a dusk and dark trip through Emeryville, the chiefly industrial city where Em works, to the nearby northern environs of Oakland.

At length, car full of groceries, all of which had to be repacked for the trip. Ever-efficient and, as a frequent flyer, sympathetic to jet lag, set the parents to repacking their own gear, then tucked us in bed.

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Saturday, September 01, 2012

Yo Ho or not Yo Ho

Crikey, we haven't even left yet and I'm ranting.

Read, very carefully, this article about the hantavirus issues in Yosemite. Then look at the pretty picture.

The tent cabins in the picture aren't the new ones cited in the article, in between the new and breathlessly panicked statements from the Centers for Disease Control. The new ones, which are connected by evidence with hantavirus, are built more like houses, with inner and outer sheathing, creating nice homes for mice.* The old ones, in the picture, built like the GAR encampments of a century ago, have only outer sheathing and no shelter for mice. The Tuolumne Meadows tent cabins are actual tents, over steel frames, on concrete slabs.

But let's tar everything with the same brush, shall we? Let's succumb to the curse of the file photo and run something that is sort of like the affected units, instead of putting someone on the scene to take pictures of exactly the housing that is connected by evidence to the outbreak. While we're at it, let's also succumb to "if it bleeds, it leads" and not trouble ourselves with facts any more than we can help.

We were, and still are, going to Yosemite. It took some fast talking on my part, as the only family member with an acquired immunity to this dangerous outbreak of media-induced panic. I ran the numbers: at this moment one chance in two million of acquiring hantavirus if one is a Yosemite visitor who has not been in the affected tent cabins. I influenced my daughter to exercise some clinical due diligence, bone up on the epidemiology, and consider the risks after disclosure and countermeasures, against the risks she ran in numerous Yosemite visits before the hantavirus was noted. In a lax moment my spouse left the go or no-go decision in the family medical hands.

I never had to use my trump card: If I went out and bought lottery tickets with those odds with the same money we've already spent on this trip, they'd put me away.

Nevertheless it was a near-run thing. Not because there was any evidence-based risk: one chance in two million of death. Fear, even among thinking people, spread chiefly because journalism is dead to its changed impact in a digital age. In a time when a fake report of a celebrity death can circle the earth in five minutes, a report of disease in Yosemite, however slim the odds, will generate panic far out of proportion to the risk.

When Em confirmed our reservations, she noted that the park accommodations, normally full up in September, had developed numerous vacancies. If that's the worst that happens, fine. But how long will it be before this excuse for news is equated with shouting fire in a crowded theatre?

* There is something piquant in the idea that Curry Village's 90 new up-market "tents," presumably made to defend occupants from the great outdoors, turned into incubators for a heretofore obscure virus.