As an avid outdoorsman, I am loathe, and slightly embarrassed to acknowledge that I have never before visited Yosemite. I have lived in California for many years, and have known that the right time would come for me to explore this legendary, spiritual place that, as many of us learned from Ken Burn's recent masterpiece, our forefathers had the good sense to preserve for their posterity. John Muir was as instrumental in the preservation of this wonder as any man, and he went to his grave fighting to save one of the two great valleys of the park, Hetch Hetchy. He ultimately lost his struggle, and the modern environmental movement was born in the process. Coincidentally, Muir's March to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley was scheduled for the week I had planned to finally make my pilgrimage to what Muir had called "one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples." Serendipitously, the organization was looking for a blogger to provide a lens for other Americans to understand the importance of his movement.
The night before the march we gathered together in Hodgdon Meadows. In the midst of paring down superfluous items from our packs, distributing packets of freeze dried, dehydrated and jerkied everything, a strange and wondrous creature appeared in our midst. Dr. Barbara Mossberg, poet, teacher, environmentalist and scholar had come to blow some Yosemite fairy dust upon us. To gaze upon her is to smile; she of crazy wisps of bright red hair flowing off to one side like a runaway combover. When she began to speak it was if she was channeling Julia Childs, Gilda Radner and a bit of Martin Short. "Oh I must say!" My WTF was very quickly to transformed to OMG as she showered upon us the most beautiful observations, inspirations and incantations, both hers and Muir's. Yosemite, and particularly Hetch Hetchy, were sacred places to John Muir. He spoke of every wildflower, mellifluous mountain stream and butterfly with the reverence of an apostle. This lovely, wizened priestess of poetry and prose did him such great justice. The site of her straining to jump up and down rejoicing, "The glory, the glory, the glory," as Muir had done when he came upon a High Sierra Meadow, will forever be etched in my mind, and my heart.
If you were to read the myriad mosquito bites that dot my legs like Braille, this is the story they would tell you. Ten of us started the journey north of Mono lake at the Buckeye trailhead. We were eight trekkers and two guides: male, female, gay, straight, young and old. We came from different places, held different beliefs about so many things and had varying levels of outdoor experience. We were united in our belief in something greater than ourselves. Ahead of us lay 54 miles of unfathomable beauty, great challenges of endurance and patience, and endless opportunities for kindness.
Over the course of the week our little group of pilgrims bonded and started to feel like a family. I took John, the thirteen year old son of a board member, under my wing and guided him through the second day, plying him and others with Jolly Ranchers and pistachios like Mansa Musa in his great and extravagant hajj. He had nearly turned back on the first day and I was desperate to have access to his youthful perspective, his wonderment, his discovery. Together we dove, jumped and swam in the most pristine and effervescent lakes and streams. We sang songs and cracked word puzzles created by some of the sages amongst us. One day I jumped into one emerald pool under a waterfall in Falls Creek, with an exuberant, exhilarating howl; to call it refreshing would be an understatement. I waited for John to join me, promising him that it was worth the slightly chilly discomfort. When he finally jumped in, his smile was so broad I thought the braces would surely be unleashed from his teeth. This look of pure ecstasy and joy will be a touchstone for my own joy for many years to come.
After the fourth or fifth day there was a tacit sense of dread that we had fewer days left than we had completed. John, who days earlier was contemplating a retreat, was wishing aloud that our time here would never end. We all felt the same. It felt like summer camp was about to be over and we'd all soon be headed back to the "real" world to deal with emails, voicemails, snail mail. As we lunched on the shore of Wilmer lake and gulped in the beauty together, we sat silently basking in the glow of the collective knowledge we now shared. Red salamanders, a white headed bald eagle attacking baby ducks, brilliant blue dragon flies working diligently on the preponderance of mosquitoes. America the beautiful, God has surely shed his grace on thee. And then there's this bit, the second verse that no one knows.
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
My beautifully blistered pilgrim's feet descended upon Hetch Hetchy on the seventh day of my journey across the wilderness. There had been a fire in the park. We had seen and smelled evidence of it for days. The reservoir was shrouded in so much smoke that it looked, at first, as if we were descending from the cliffs above towards Mordor. As we made our way down the trail, the wind blew the smoke to the west and revealed our captive princess, wrapped in several hundred feet of cellophane. Absent the untouchable water and the ugly dam that holds her hostage, the valley is a gorgeous site to behold. Above me I could see where melting Sierra snow cascades a thousand feet down Tueeulala falls. Across the valley stood the sheer granite cliff called Kola, half dome's smaller twin. To the east Wapama falls reigns down from towering heights, tears of joy turned to tears of sorrow for the thousands of plants, animals and native lands lost to progress, innovation and exploitation. Confirm thy soul in self-control indeed.
I know Christopher Hitchens is convinced that there is no God. I question if he would feel the same way if I was somehow able to distill the wonder that I sauntered, stumbled, traipsed, tripped, hopped, skipped, swam, dove and splashed my way through over the course of this incredible week. As we descended from Buckeye Pass on day two into an endless meadow of wildflowers framed by granite peaks and azure sky, I was filled with such wonder and joy that I began to cry, and then did cartwheels. As a gay American of reasonable intellect, I too have had my struggles with a belief in a higher power.
In this place I felt God. It's impossible not to. When you look across that meadow and see fish jumping out of the stream, butterflies and dragonflies dancing as elegantly as Rogers and Astaire, a solitary dear munching wildflowers with barely a care, it's impossible not to feel the pure love that surrounds you. As we ten lay on the cooling rocks to observe our universe and the millions of stars above us one night, it dawned on me that, in our cities, we cover God up. It makes it very difficult to see God peaking up from the concrete; the city lights obscure the stars. We pay slight homage with parks and gardens, and if we look closely, with a soulfully discerning eye, we can see God in a beautiful caprese salad, a freshly groomed baseball diamond, the line of a gorgeous shoe. But the drone of depressing news, hustle, bustle, violence and hostility compete with these moments of wonder and joy.
As the only valley virgin amongst the marchers, I was particularly equipped to annotate the religious and convergent nature of this experience. Having read extensively about Muir through his own writings, the history of the spectacular Hetch Hetchy Valley, and the story of the O'Shaughnessy Dam that has held her prisoner for nearly a century, I was primed and ready for my spiritual conversion. Intellectually, I was already on board with this endeavor. In a time of so much environmental degradation and devastation, what a wonder it would be for us to band together to restore this nature temple to its original grandeur. So many of us go through our daily lives feeling powerless as images of giant Buddhas and massive sheets of glacial ice come tumbling down, unfathomably large swaths of forest burn, species become extinct, and wetlands are covered with errant streams of oil. So many things are lost forever. Hetch Hetchy is a treasure we can recover, together, for our own posterity.
We linked arms as we marched together across the dam on that last day, carrying banners, chanting for the freedom of the valley below. Our hearts and minds had merged only days before as we summited peaks on the wings of hawks and butterflies. Now we stood before our friends, family and well-wishers to bask in some ephemeral glory. We reeked of pride, hope and optimism as much as the funk of a week au naturel. We are now glowing embers of intention, mountain friars to spread the word and start a fire of interest and concern about this temple that we nearly destroyed. In a time of so much religious strife, this is an idea that cuts across all faiths. This earth that we all share and take for granted dishonors all of our heavenly mothers and fathers The recovery, and rediscovery of Hetch Hetchy is something that could unite us. It's a global lab of restoration, awaiting us to summon our better angels and take action. My heart and mind are open. I came here on your behalf. I hope that I have been successful in my goal to march for your edification, and inspiration.