Last October, a couple of my friends and I hiked to Gaylor Lakes in Yosemite.
On this sunny, crisp fall day, winter seemed far. Yet snow and cold temperatures would soon fall on the High Country, shutting the area to outdoorsy activities. The park rangers were already closing some roads and the campgrounds. At the foot of the lower lake the wind picked up. We ate lunch, keeping our jackets close to our bodies. The sun was softer on our skins and the light more delicate than in the summer. Small, playful fish swam right under the turquoise water of the lake. We lingered a little longer, knowing it would be our last hike before the return of spring.
On our way down we stopped for ice cream and coffee, a ritual we started years ago. Anticipation and dread for the winter season floated in the conversations between the last tourists and the locals. Perhaps because of the strange feeling that this part of the park would remain inaccessible for months, my friends and I decided right on the spot to hike the same trail again as soon as Tioga Road would reopen, usually around Memorial Day weekend.
This year, winter has been one of the driest in Californian history, including in Yosemite. For safety and probably budgetary reasons as well, some roads and trails remained closed, but the majority of the park was accessible through the whole winter. Badger Pass, the park’s only ski resort, opened for a brief period of time before closing for good, weeks ahead of the usual schedule, while Tioga Road opened weeks before Memorial Day.
One of the most striking components of nature is its unpredictability. So when everyone in California thought that summer had already arrived, temperatures dropped. Over three days the valley received a little bit of rain and it snowed above 7 000 feet. So Tioga Road closed again, putting our hike on hold. None of us believed that it would last, and indeed the road reopened to traffic right for Memorial Day weekend.
Early morning, just before entering the park, I drove pass a house surrounded by a simple gated fence. On the gate, the enlarged portrait of a young smiling man wearing a military uniform had been hung.
“It’s an awesome welcome home sign,” said my son.
“I don’t think it’s a welcome home sign,” I said.
Above the soldier’s handsome face, these words: For Our Fallen Son.
“I’m sorry,” my son said. “It’s sad.”
There were more words printed in smaller font on the banner. Neither one of us could read them from the car.
We remained silent, taking quick sips of coffee from our thermos.
The young soldier’s happy grin and trusting eyes stayed on my mind as I drove along the Merced River, pass Bridal Veil Fall, and through Yosemite Valley floor.
Lost in my thoughts, I would have missed the young deer that dashed across the road if my hiking partner, driving ahead of me, hadn’t suddenly braked.
Life can be so brutally interrupted.
We reached the trailhead by nine a.m. The parking lot would be packed later in the day, but for now it was totally empty, as if we had fallen into foreign land.
The trail to reach Gaylor Lakes is barely three miles long. The incline however is immediate and steep. And none of us had anticipated the several inches of packed snow. The boys wore shorts and my son his running Nikes. I was glad for my long leg hiking pants and my trusted, old hiking shoes. The sun was still low in the sky but would be soon merciless. We slathered sunscreen, pulled our baseball hats down and our sunglasses on.
The trail, so dusty and desolated-looking eight months ago, was unrecognizable. In fact, the official trail had simply vanished. So, one step after another, the six of us climbed up, inventing our own trail. Away from the shade, the snow wasn’t as tightly packed and we could see the top of rocks and icy water trickle down the slope.
Our short ascension took much more time than back in October. The three people who had never hiked the trail worried a little bit. My friends and I reassured them: the top of the ridge was within reach. Then we would cross a plateau before the descent to the lake.
Hiking in high altitude keeps most people quiet, and we made our way in total silence, taking in the outstanding views surrounding us, listening to the distinct sound of the snow crushing under our footsteps.
The top of the ridge kept us even more silent, until we all exclaimed in unison, “Whoa!”
Often there are just no words to match natural beauty.
And even less to describe the challenge of hiking through eight inches of snow in high elevation, without proper gear.
Since a ski accident back in 2011, climbing down makes me nervous. My son was skiing with me that day and saw the consequences of a fall in deep snow.
So when we stood on the ridge, blinded by snow and sun, he grabbed my hand and said, “You can do it, Mom. You’ll just have to hold my hand and relax. I won’t let you fall.”
So, holding my son’s hand, so much larger and stronger than mine, I climbed down the most challenging sections of the trail. I kept thinking that we were stupid, that we should have taken poles and crampons, but soon I realized that my son had been right.
Holding his hand through the hardest parts, I relaxed, not afraid of falling anymore.
The happy grin and trusting eyes of the soldier popped to my mind every so often.
When we were feet away from the lakeshore, my son turned around.
“Now, you can go,” he said.
He looked barely younger than the soldier. His smile was as bright. He had led me through the snow so I wouldn’t fall.
“Thank you,” I said.
He shrugged but beamed, too.
“Not so long ago,” I said. “I was the one holding your hand when you first hike Yosemite.”
“I know,” my son said. We know a lot when we are just eighteen years old.
I thought of Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. I told my son. He knew of the book, of course.
We ate lunch near the Great Sierra Mine, a historic site where you can find the remnants of what has been one of the largest silver mining operations in what would become Yosemite National Park. Lichen patched the rocks.
The wind picked up. Clouds masked the sun for a few seconds and cold fell on our shoulders. We all fetched a fleece. A rainbow-looking ring wrapped around the sun. A rumble rolled in the distance. Thunder? Avalanche?
We glanced at each other and heard at the same time the sound of water almost underneath our feet. Snow had started to melt. Under the ice, a gigantic lid over the lake, we could guess the color turquoise that had taken my breath away in October. So pale it could have only been a dream. A ghost.
We retraced our steps, following the music of the water, invisible to the eyes but a song to the ears.
On our way back, my son held my hand only for a short section, but for the sheer joy I kept it a little longer.
He looked at me when we met solid ground. “See,” he said, “I wouldn’t let you fall.”
Again those young soldier’s eyes.
Did you ever hike a memorable trail?