The store was vibrating, no aisle left unpopulated. Under the pale lights, I read park maps from a rack next to the ice machine. Somewhere behind me, Ryan and Sheikh were picking out a six-pack and a traveler of Smirnoff. I refolded the map and squeezed past a bulging man inspecting two bottles of Jameson. It felt like any liquor store in America, people swiping cards, crinkling paper bags, but it wasn't. When we left the store, booze secured into a backpack, we were flanked by massive, granite rock formations. The face of El Capitan straight ahead, towering thousands of feet high, just as I'd seen on my MacBook wallpaper. Half Dome to the right, its sharp curve like the biggest dogtooth in the world.
We walked past the restaurant, The Meadow Grill, the bar, pizza deck, Internet café, and swimming pool. I caught myself staring at the Coffee Corner, a kid on his laptop. "Can you believe that?" Sheikh said. "All these people brought their computers."
"I have mine in the tent cabin," I said. "You've got yours, too."
"At least we're not using them."
The sun was still up over the valley walls, but in camp it had been dark for an hour. We passed under sodium-vapor streetlamps that cast orange circles of light across the parking lot.
Our tent cabin was a short walk from the store, in an area of Curry Village that looked like a housing development. There were small huts with wooden foundations, doors and frames all painted olive. The cabins were the same height, flesh-colored canvas draped and fitted around each one. Ours had three cots, a safe, and a small electric heater. Sitting outside the door was a small animal-proof storage locker, which we used to store beer bottles, toiletries, anything we thought might attract a mother black bear.
I collapsed onto my cot, breathing loudly. Even on the valley floor, the altitude—compared to the Midwest—was about three thousand feet higher. I felt good, clean, and every heaving breath came with a nice buzz. We were only a few drinks in when the chessboard came out. I wasn't any good at the game so Sheikh put me down fast. We drank more and played again while Ryan told us about his friends in San Francisco. After a while, the three of us were red-faced and slaphappy.
The next morning we left the tent cabin for a large meadow ten minutes from Curry Village. A pair of mule deer ate cordgrass and butterweed next to a fallen tree. They were graceful, stoic, with cartoonish ears protruding out three-fourths the size of their heads. I saw a mother with her young daughter edging toward the grass. The mother urged the girl into the meadow, "Get in close," she said. "Let me get a picture." I didn't say anything, hungover and curious. The mule deer booked for the tree line when the little girl came near. She laughed, fell in the tall stalks. The mother came over and picked her up, face tense with disappointment.
About a mile from the meadow was Yosemite Village. This area, more tourist-friendly, was complete with bookstores, gift shops, food vendors, an info center, art gallery and a theater. At the end of the road was an open graveyard and a model Ahwahneechee village. We were closer to Yosemite Falls, which meant we could hear the water cascading, somewhere 2,400 feet above us. Later, I'd learn that these waterfalls only run for a few weeks in early spring; we were lucky to have seen them.
Sheikh, Ryan and I wandered into a small museum. Artist renderings of the valley hung on the walls. There were glass cases filled with registry books, Winchester rifles, tools, and photographs from the 1800's. In the corner of the other room, there was a small, elevated platform. The wall behind it was decked out like the inside of a trapper's cabin. Brain tanned leather pouches and animal skins hung from rusted hooks. There was a man, early forties, wearing a cream-colored park ranger uniform. He had on a wide brimmed hat, thin glasses and thick wool socks. Somebody asked him a question and within minutes, everyone in the building was sitting before him on the floor. He was a wonderful storyteller; I could see he'd told these stories a thousand times.
"Thank god," Sheikh whispered.
I leaned in. "What?"
"I thought I was the only black guy in Yosemite."
The ranger, Shelton Johnson, began weaving together a history of the park. He told us about the native tribes that first settled: the Awahneechee and the Miwok. He explained that the origins of the name Yosemite were debated. Some believed the word to be a corruption of the Miwok word for grizzly bear. He explained that the Miwok used the word Yohhe'meti to describe the Awahneechee people of the valley. We watched his hand gestures the way one would a magician's.
"Translated," he said, "the term means those who kill."
It was a warning.
"Watch out for the Awahneechee." He said, miming a Miwok chief. "For some among them are killers."
By story's end, we were all slack-jawed, legs crossed like dumbfounded first-graders. The ranger stuck around to answer more questions. I got up, stretching my legs. To me, everyone in the valley was an expert on something. The flora, the fauna, the peak elevation, the bugs, the history.
People would ask, What brings you to the park? And I'd tell them I was a geology student, studying wind erosion. That I was following the footsteps of my nature-writing heroes. Or I was a historian, researching Awahneechee Chief Teneiya. I imagined what word the Miwok might've used to describe me. My pale arms, tapered sweatpants, gold souvenir bottle clipped to my daypack.
Later that night, we filed into a theater for a showing of Lee Stetson's The Spirit of John Muir. Stetson stood by the doorway and thanked us for coming. He had a long, silver beard, balding head, white cotton shirt, a brown vest and some tan slacks. He stroked his forearms and checked a gold pocket watch. Inside the theater, the lights were dim. There was a short stage under the curtains. It was dressed up like Muir's cottage: desk, fireplace, rocking chair, potted-plants in opposite corners. We took our seats near the front. There were posters for Stetson's other shows on a table off to the side:
A Conversation with a Tramp.
The Tramp and the Roughrider.
John Muir's Back and Boy! Is He Ticked Off!
After a few minutes the theater went dark and people shifted in their seats. Sheikh was asleep within an hour.
Stetson, as John Muir, paraded up and down the stage. He was electric, moved his arms in large arcs above his head while he spoke. He described his adventures in a thick, Scottish accent. The groves of sequoias, the crystal waters of Hetch-Hetchy, the waterfalls and vistas. He talked about how the glaciers formed the valley, how "big business" wanted to privatize it. I realized he was adding some drama; he was an accomplished English professor, a few stints on Hawaii 5-0. But I saw in Stetson that he belonged here, that he deserved this place, and by the time the show ended, it was clear that he'd known this for decades.
After the show, Ryan left for the meadow to take long exposure shots of the night in the moonlit sky. Sheikh and I wandered through Yosemite Village to the graveyard. We arrived at the end of the street. There was a wooden fence around the entire perimeter, gravel walkways webbing out between plots. It reminded me of an apple orchard, the area before the rows of trees where kids would play on hay bales and wait for wagon rides. A small plaque at the entrance read Yosemite Cemetery. The place was still, quiet. Tombstones varied from elegant sculptures of horseheads and crosses to planks of wood, nailed together with names like Infant, Boy, and Soldier scratched into them. There was one monolithic stone that had the name Effie Maude Crippen engraved into it. Below the name it read: "She faltered by the wayside and the angels took her home."
"Look at this," I said to Sheikh, who was sketching graves in a notebook.
He walked over.
"If I ever falter by the wayside," he said, "I better get one of these."
He stretched his arms lovingly around the gravestone.
I checked the time. It was only nine, but in the valley it might as well have been midnight.
We left the cemetery and walked past the meadow. Next to the road, before entering Curry Village, we followed a wooden fence until we heard gentle guitar music. Someone plucking out a bluesy, folk tune. Our eyes adjusted and we saw the silhouette of a man, leaning against the fence post. He strummed away and watched the moon over El Capitan. I saw a cluster of small, bobbing lights on the broad side of the rock face. Headlamps. Rock climbers, suspended hundreds of feet up in the darkness like stars.
Sheikh and I took a seat on the fence and listened to the man play. Singing raspy and low-octave, he crooned about a dream he'd had, a girl he'd been with, a past life. He played a few tunes, then turned and thanked us for listening.
"You've got a great sound," I said. "Where are you from?"
We shook hands.
"Atlanta," he said.
"What are you doing in the valley?" I asked.
He looked natural, like Johnson, Stetson, like he'd lived in Yosemite for years. Rough jeans, green windbreaker. His face heavy and weathered but kind. I could tell he felt at home.
"You know," he said, "I just thought it would be cool."
I nodded, his words sinking, lodging somewhere in my gut. Above the tree line, the night climber's lights swayed back and forth. The air was cool and there was no sound, save for our voices and the wind.
"It's funny," I said, "I just thought it would be cool, too."
Images appear courtesy of Alex Tronson.