I have developed a bad habit of trying to make time on the road, trying to get camp pitched before dark. A road trip or a long weekend away in nature is supposed to banish anxiety, but I have a habit of channeling all of mine into timing. It’s been beaten into me.
And yet, I never pack on time, so I never get out the door on time. Not even for a three-day weekend in Yosemite. Already feeling the guilt of taking one day off, paralyzed with unspent exhaustion and unable to pack the car in advance, I hit the road an hour later than planned.
It was the fourth day in April, and the campgrounds had just opened. I had not been there since I was eight years old, and we spent most of that trip outside of the valley. Coming up from Fresno, I was so proud of myself for making it to the park entrance just after five, blissfully ignorant, as my GPS ran aground, of how much further I had to go on this one winding road.
The silky velvet blacktop twisted, tangled, ahead of me, and only me. No ranger manned the station, no one was on the road. The road glistened, wet, and the higher I climbed the higher the snowbanks tunneling my route grew. And the trees… I miss them more than anything else, living in Southern California. I will never understand what the appeal of a hike in Santa Monica mountains could be, without a forest that turns dark as night in the right shade of the full sun.
Whenever I passed a clearing, I saw only clouds. They were large, menacing, and ahead of me. I prepared every moment to meet a thunderstorm, but it never came. It was apparently heralding my arrival. I drove at the speed of the swift-moving rain giant ahead of me, right in its clear, sunny wake.
The tall, tall evergreens and the low angle of a triumphant evening sun, so proud to get one last word in on this day over the clouds, made magic through the forest floor. The sun only broke through in spheres of all sizes, like driving through floating bubbles of light, as it wove through the canopy. I dodged the light and shadows, swerving left and right and left in rhythm with the S-turns and switchbacks, through a sieve of dappled sun.
I felt like King Midas, but that with every touch of gold I had more gold to give out to the world. I gathered as many of the brilliant spots of light as I could.
It went on impossibly long for an early April evening. I must have been driving an hour-and-a-half, past magical Mairiposa Grove, snowed under. Past an old timey Victorian hotel, abandoned. The sequoia groves blanketed my dogs and I safely as we embarked on a first for us: solo camping - one human to handle two Central Asian Homefront Defenders. I made a note that we should camp in the redwood groves next time, just as we had when I was a kid, making stew out of acorns, leaves, pine needles, and bright red bark with our cousins while our dads set a gas lantern hanging on a redwood bough up in flames. This was something familiar, something cozy and comfortable in an uncertain life, yet still an adventure.
Then, a tunnel. I snapped back through reality’s portal, back to executing our time-stopped plan. Sunglasses off, confirmed. Headlights on, confirmed. Right lane, here we go. The sudden darkness was enough to jolt me out of my flowing, dreamy ride right back into action. I approached the exit. Sunglasses accessible, confirmed. Headlights off, confirmed.
Then my breath ceased completely. All thoughts ceased. What plan? What timing? What reservation? I had to force myself to focus enough to check my rear view mirror, slow, blinker, and turn off across traffic to the left. I didn’t even bother with my camera, but I will never forget the sight as we entered the mythic valley at dusk.