Two weeks ago we went to Yosemite National Park, mainly to see the waterfalls. This year’s record snowfall has led to spectacular amounts of water crashing over the falls and roaring down the Merced River. On Saturday we took the most popular hike at Yosemite, to Vernal Falls.
When we got to the footbridge where lots of people take photos and then turn around, my enthusiastic companions suggested we take the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal. What we climbed through was not exactly mist — more like driving rain on steep rocky steps — but we made it. Not wanting to descend the slippery stones, I told my husband and son I’d be returning the long way, down the gentle John Muir Trail. They came along, but Micah (my fifteen-year-old) continued to tease me by squeezing water out of his Camelback whenever I was about to cross a rocky section, just so I could experience wet stones.
While walking down, I stepped aside not only for people to ascend narrow portions of the trail, but also for folks in a hurry. In particular, I made way for some young people literally running down the trail. They didn’t appear to be members of a cross country team – they were just racing to the bottom. All along the way, I observed people hiking quickly up as well as down the path.
Although their speed could be attributed to youth or superior fitness, it struck me that a number of my fellow hikers were indeed in a rush. They seemed to want to go up the trail as quickly as possible, tag in at the turnaround, then dash back down. Only to wait in line for the shuttle bus? I’m not sure.
The whole experience caused me to reflect on the idea of the destination versus the journey. It seemed the people who were zooming past me on the trail were not merely in better cardio shape – in many cases, they were focused on arriving, rather than on traveling. These were not the people pausing to take in views of distant Illilouette Falls, or to record video of birds in the trees, or to notice wildflowers beside the trail. They also were not the ones accompanying older relatives or children, pointing out trickles of water from cracks in the rocks where they stopped to rest.
No, they had more in common with someone I might see back home, darting through freeway lanes, not noticing when she cuts another driver off because she’s intent on getting to her destination. In fact, some reminded me of people who careen through the grocery aisles while yacking on their cell phones, but become irritated when someone slows down their progress through the checkout lane. While this characterization may be a bit harsh, it points out a sad truth: many of us are so driven to get to where we’re going, to reach our own goals, that we ignore or step over people in our way. We miss out on interesting experiences, and we hurt others’ feelings. For some of us, this happens occasionally. For others, it’s how we operate.
I still remember the first time I saw the “Valley View” at Yosemite, where Half Dome and El Capitan dominate a landscape of granite, trees and plants. Seeing it in a photo does not measure up to experiencing the vista firsthand – it’s a spiritual encounter. That’s one reason I like to return to Yosemite, even though I’m hardly a camper or “outdoorsy” person. Its grandeur gives me perspective. My own issues shrink in the face of nature’s enormity. It’s similar to the feeling one gains from a trip to the ocean, or to a favorite lake. Withdrawing from our habitual environment and plunging into something bigger than ourselves loosens our grip on everyday cares.
Another reason I visit Yosemite is that I enjoy remembering the other times I’ve been there, the “journeys” I’ve taken in the park with family and friends. While hiking to Vernal Falls, I remembered toting Micah in a backpack carrier, thirteen years ago. I saw little children chasing after squirrels and chipmunks on the trail, and I remembered how much more interested my own kids were in Yosemite squirrels than they had been in the squirrels in our own yard. I recalled how we sat with some friends and got lost in conversation while all our children went exploring near Curry Village, two of them nearly tumbling from a ledge (or so the other kids say). I remembered my husband’s and my ill-conceived decision to keep hiking one day when we should have turned around, resulting in an eight-mile descent from Glacier Point to the valley floor, a hitchhiked ride back up to our car, difficulty walking the next day, and a story that grows only better with age.
At any rate, it’s not the destinations that stand foremost in my mind, it’s how I got there. I recall times with people I love, surrounded by God’s creation, and the recognition that I myself am a bit player in a much bigger show. Getting out into the forest, or to the seaside, is a simple way for me to remember the journeys that make up my life, and to acknowledge I’m still traveling. I’m not always sure of the destination, but I believe that, too, will become clear over time. For now, appreciating the journey itself is enough.