For many of us, the photographs of Ansel Adams are the first experience we have with Yosemite National Park. Ansel’s masterful use of light and shadow provide a window into a place of epic beauty. As a result of these photographs, Ansel Adams became one of the world’s most renowned photographers.
In September, our family vacation took us to see Yosemite firsthand and the experience gave me a new perspective on Ansel’s work. His pictures are wonderful, but I’m not sure he deserves all the reverence and accolades he has received? Yosemite is one of the most jaw-slackingly beautiful places on Earth. If you can’t fire off a couple of attractive pictures of the Half Dome or El Capitan, it’s because you suck and it’s irresponsible of you to own a camera. It’s just my observation. You can take it or leave it.
I didn’t do a lot of actual research in preparation for our trip to Yosemite. Instead, I did a lot of excited bragging. Any time I’d tell someone we were going to Yosemite they’d start talking about the giant trees; one in particular. “You can drive through one of them,” they’d say. “You gonna drive through the giant tree?”
“Yes, absolutely I am!” I got excited about driving through a tree. I was willing to go out of my way for it. I told my two-year old about the drive-through tree. I described to him the concept of a tree big enough to drive a car through. He was excited about it too. Sadly, a couple of days before we were due to arrive in the park, we learned that the drive-through tree had given up and fallen over.
It fell over in 1969! How is it, in the much-lauded information age, it has taken 40 years for the news of the Great Tree Collapse of 1969 to reach us in Ontario? For forty years Ontarians have been suffering under the delusion that glamorous people are motoring through trees in Yosemite and its’ just not the case. Never mind, I’m still a little bitter but I’ll get over it.
We arrived in Yosemite intending to take the Tioga Pass and drive through the park to Mammoth Lakes where a comfortable bed awaited us. We hoped for a leisurely drive, filled with dazzling sites and plenty of stops along the way. We reached the park gate and learned that our plan had hit a snag.
“The roads closed,” the man in the box told us. “It’s been closed for the past two weeks because of a wildfire. It’s supposed to open up at 5 o’clock today.”
A wildfire! How inconvenient. I did a little post mortem research on the fire with startling results. The Big Meadow Fire, as it came to be known, was the result of a prescribed burn gone wrong. It was purposely started on August 26, 2009 with the intent to burn 90 acres but it changed direction right off the bat and raged out of control. In the end, it had consumed 7,425 acres and cost $16.3 million USD to fight. Woops.
Well, at least Yosemite is an easy place to kill time. There is plenty of hiking to be done, and there are plenty of educational exhibits to be visited. We enjoyed ourselves and then, shortly before 5:00 p.m. we made our way to the road closure to join the other tourists waiting to make their way to the Tioga Pass.
Five o’clock came and went. Impatient Europeans paced back and forth along the road, wondering what the holdup was. I joined them. Pace, pace, pace, what’s taking so long? They’ve had two weeks! What could they possibly be doing to take an extra 20 minutes…an extra 40 minutes? You know the kind of ludicrous impatience that can develop when a group of strangers are waiting for something that’s behind schedule; an airplane to take off, a road to open. You know.
The road did, eventually, open and as we drove, we realized the magnitude of the fire that had delayed us. We saw acre upon acre of, still smoking, white ash covered ground. Sooty, tired looking firefighters were cleaning up their tools. The smell that hung in the air was the, normally pleasant, scent of campfires but magnified about 1,000,000 times, it became sickening and gave me a headache.
We drove out of the fire zone and through the Tioga Pass, which provided vista after vista of startling beauty. It’s seems surreal that views like that exist on Earth. Nature is often configured in some startling and awe-inspiring ways.
It was dark by the time we reached our hotel in Mammoth Lakes. A man who, I’m assuming from his attire, was a Jimmy Buffet fan, handed us a key to a 1980’s time capsule of a room and warned us that bears hang out in the hotel parking garage. I didn’t care anymore. I wanted a Big Mac and my bed. I was wiped out.