Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Northern California Adventure Part 3 - Wawona

The first time I went to Yosemite I was six. I was wearing a Princeton t-shirt (the closest I'd ever get to an Ivy League school) and looked at the camera in dazed confusion while my mom, dad and sister smiled. In the background was Half Dome--a spectacular sight, even now after all of the times I've seen it. But at that point, I was six and definitely not impressed. I didn't get what the big deal was about Yosemite. It meant 10 hour drives cooped up in our blue VW bus staring out the window at the dusty and hot valley as we chugged up I-5. There were no McDonald's to be found and instead of riding my horse for hours I had to WALK for hours. I hated hiking. I couldn't say any of this however because the adults LOVED Yosemite, LIVED for Yosemite. Oh the open air! Oh the stars! Oh the lack of McDonald's! Don't these hikes feel GREAT?!

Uh no! Where were the TV's? The malls? And where was the water? I was raised by the beach, I needed water. Sure there were falls--Bridal Veil, Vernal, Upper & Lower Yosemite Falls--beautiful, but unaccessible. You could hike them but not swim in them. The falls were one more thing that I could look at as a kid but not touch. I lived for water and would swim in any body of water that would have me. To this day I have a back full of freckles due to summers spent boogie boarding in San Diego. And then just as I had about given up, we found it. We found Wawona.

Wawona is a small town just after you enter the park through the South Entrance. Wawona had swimming holes in abundance, it had a swinging bridge, rocks to jump off and small rapids that washed over slick rocks we'd use as slides. My uncle would take us swimming in places he found on hikes. We'd dive down deep into a cold mountain pool, swim through a hole in a rock that had been formed thousands of years prior and come out in a different place than where we began. The chill and darkness as I'd plunge deeper into the water scared me but not enough to keep me from saying "let's do it again." And so, as we'd return to Wawona year after year, the pictures inevitably found me in my bathing suit, hair slicked back posing just long enough for my mom to get a shot, but not so long that I'd be kept out of the water for any length of time.

As I got older and would drive up to Yosemite myself, I could finally understand what the adults meant. I'd hit Highway 41 to the east of Fresno where it winds through the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. In the summer the hills are gold and the oak trees a deep shade of green. Driving that section of road would become a favorite part of my Yosemite trips, for it meant I was almost there. As if shedding layers of clothing, time constraints would slip away, school and work pressures would become distant memories. I'd roll down the windows, turn up the radio and an hour later pass the crisp white Wawona Hotel. After a few turns on Chilnualna Falls Road I'd reach the cabin, where inevitably dinner would be waiting.

"Camp Duke" has its own menu--moist chicken marinated in lemon, garlic and rosemary fresh off the grill, roasted squash and red onions, multi grain bread and salad in the wood salad bowl shaped like an acorn. We eat well, and are guilty of planning the next meal before finishing whatever meal happens to be in front of us at the time. Breakfast comes together early with oatmeal pancakes, fruit salad and pure maple syrup. Lunch arrives shortly thereafter with sandwiches stuffed full of curried chicken salad. These are things I could probably get anywhere, but it wouldn't taste the same. This is mountain food.

We did occasionally have some structure in Wawona. My grandmother, mom and I used to walk down to the Wawona Hotel, pretend to be guests and get coffee from the lobby to take outside. We'd sit on their large front porch, ensconsed in wicker furniture and contented silence, gazing out over the meadow that would serve as a golf course once the deer were done with their breakfast. Friday nights included cocktail hour in the hotel lobby where we'd listen to Tom Bopp--the resident pianist--who has been playing and singing at the hotel for 25 years. Saturday nights meant the summer barbecue out on the hotel's expansive front lawn where red and white tablecloths reign and three grills churned out mahi mahi, chicken and steak. Ate too much? No problem, we could work it off at the dance held in the old barn down by the river. Which meant there was always room for one more piece of german chocolate cake. Wawona is full of memories, these are just some of my favorites.

This trip was the first time I had taken the ladies to Yosemite. My uncle was kind enough to host three giggly former college roommates. There would be no swimming this trip, but we did go down to the valley. Half Dome, El Capitan and Sentinal Rock still faithfully hold their posts. The falls were just beginning their springtime rush. The valley floor was blanketed with a late winter snow. New leaves were starting to form on the birch trees that stood pure against a clear blue sky.

The valley was a vison, but the things that stick out most in my mind? Looking into the paned window of my uncle's studio and seeing him at work behind his desk, the smell of the wood burning in the cabin fireplace, Tom Bopp on the piano, chicken on the grill and the music of wine being poured into a glass. Wawona, simple you may be, but oh how deep and rich you make us.