Monday, October 6

ahwahnee adventures

Centuries ago, small bands of people lived sprinkled throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Sierra Miwok were traditional hunter-gatherers with a temperament like the placid, meandering foothills of the western Sierra Nevada. The Mono Paiute, the aggressive neighbors of the Miwok, inhabited the Sierra high country and its rugged eastern escarpment. Years of warfare led renegades from both groups to settle in a valley among the mountains. Protected by an edifice of granite, this new tribe subsisted primarily on acorns and practiced controlled fire techniques to maintain healthy forest growth and protect meadows. The tribe referred to their home as Ahwahnee (place like a gaping mouth) and themselves as Ahwahnechee (dwellers of Ahwahnee). The Ahwahnechee's reputation for violence, however, earned them a name that in Southern Miwok translates to "they are killers": Yohhe'meti.

In the mid-19th century, the Ahwahnechee, led by Chief Tenaya, engaged in bloody territorial disputes with the Miwoks and white settlers who were drawn west by the California Gold Rush. Conflict with miners reached a climax in 1851 when the Mariposa Battalion, led by Major Jim Savage, chased the Ahwahnechee up the Merced River. Upon reaching the western entrance of the valley where the Ahwahnechee sought refuge, a member of the battalion, Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, wrote:
The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley--light as gossamer--and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.
What the Mariposa Battalion saw in 1851

In "honor" of the Ahwahnechee, who were about to be captured and driven from their home, Dr. Bunnell decided to call this place "Yosemite" (which had been mistaken as "grizzly bear" during translation).

More than 150 years later, my modest existence briefly coincided with that of an epic landscape sculpted by erosion and the words of men.

Beginning in Los Angeles, the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park can be reached in just under four hours (assuming no traffic and a cruise control set to 80 mph). I arrived at the ranger station around five, just as the sun's power began to dissipate.

Whether climbing the slopes of Mount Whitney along the Mountaineer's Route or gazing upon the gentle inclines of Little Lakes Valley from my high camp on the rocky shore of Dade Lake, I am familiar with and find comfort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The initial drive from the entrance, characterized by towering evergreens and the fresh smell of a pine forest, brought to mind images of the campgrounds at the Whitney Portal. Yet when I drove around a corner and saw Yosemite Valley, I could easily have been in a different world.

In the waning light the valley was resplendent. Waves of green lapped against sheer granite cliffs that rose 3,000 feet above the valley floor before abruptly giving way to a vast expanse of blue unblemished by clouds. In the distance, Half Dome rested at the tip of the valley like a king whose subjects knelt in homage before him.

I felt as though I had been taken from the real world and placed within one of the fantastical landscapes I had read about in fantasy novels as a child. I half expected to see dragons battling in the skies above as I journeyed to some legendary valley to complete my quest.

If there is a point at which superlatives lose the ability to convey additional meaning and simply become tiresome, Yosemite refuses to acknowledge such a meddlesome constraint.

My daydreaming was rudely interrupted by the need to continue driving and avoid taking myself, and any other drivers, off a cliff. I arrived in Curry Village just before dark and checked in.

Curry Village is essentially a motel comprised of canvas tents, each with two cots, a bear box and a locking screen door. I found the village to be quite charming, though I hear that during the high season the crowds render the area intolerable. The amenities I've grown accustomed to on camping trips include wag bags and contaminated mountain streams, so restrooms, running water and electricity are a four-star luxury. I was also very impressed by a dining facility with not one, but three restaurants: a cafe, a pizza shop, and an all-you-can-eat buffet for $12.

Following a carb-packed dinner at the buffet, I promptly hit the sack. The next morning I planned to day hike Half Dome and I needed to get an early start. I'll post the the remainder of the trip report later.

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