The Merced River
Updated: Jan 16
Somewhere between the bars and the futons in San Francisco, Jill and I forgot how to camp in our car. Truly, our first night in the wilderness near Yosemite was a rude awakening. That is to say, we slept very little in our very uneven double bed. We rolled in and out of our first campsite, situated near the Nelder Grove in the Sierra National Forest just outside Yosemite State Park, in a matter most befitting two weary, lazy travelers. In late, out late, looking sort of grumpy. Incredible? I'm sure it was, but a life on the road sort of deadens you to things like natural beauty, so we left without even taking a picture and headed into town for some wifi and coffee.
Just a cursory glance at the booking site for campgrounds in Yosemite showed how unprepared we were. Most people, it would seem, preferred to book their excursions several months in advance. Which, of course, would not have worked for us, because up until the day I updated our Mac just before departure, I had forgotten that Yosemite was a place (The Macbook pro I recently sold was running on Yosemite). Obviously, we would have to get creative with our camping, but even the forums were failing us. Most of the free sites in the area were closed due to fire (at least we checked this time), and we couldn't see much else anywhere near the park. So, in a manner most fitting for two weary, lazy travelers, we said, "Lets just wing it."
That afternoon found us winding through Yosemite Valley, hemming and hawing over all the natural beauty (maybe we've just seen too many groves), and ultimately feeling good about our prospects. Having just spoken to the park ranger while purchasing our park passes, we had learned that there were many places to camp past El Portal, on HW 140. (He also told us about the brilliant Whitmore Springs, where we would later end up spending a hectic night).
Dusk was upon us as we approached El Portal. Campers and vans were parked at the fogline just outside of the park, so we knew we could park anywhere, but we really wanted to find a nice place for the next few nights. Somewhere close enough, but still lovely, and maybe a bit secluded. We drove along 140, following the river, always looking to the banks for tents or campers.
What seemed like ages passed with nothing good showing up, all the while moving further away from Yosemite, and into the fading evening light. Finally, I saw a van parked in a turnaround and figured I could ask them for information. I was greeted by the smell of weed mixed with body odor and set of brown, very stoned eyes.
I approached, with excellent posture
"How can I help you, bro?" he rasped through his yellowing beard. I gave him my life story, while maintaining excellent posture, and kindly asked if he knew of any campsites off the river. A glimmer of recognition flashed across his heavily dilated pupils, and slowly uttered, "Camping..." He told me of a place three miles down the road, on the left after the third bridge, where you could drive on gravel for up to 30 miles along the river and take your pick of campsites. "You can't miss it," he said. I was then invited to his show later that night in the town of Mariposa. He was a musician, also living in his van, and that all made sense. I thanked him (in proper English) for his time, and headed back to Jill.
Six miles and two bridges later, we missed our turn into the Merced River Recreation Area. After turning around, we were bobbing merrily along a gravel road. We passed a car, and I asked them what was ahead. "Oh, it's a beautiful river!" they exclaimed, "And you can have your pick of campsites!" Feeling encouraged, I asked them if they had change for a $20. They did. All was well.
Precisely 4.8 miles passed, and we had reached the end of the road. We found a nice spot close to the bathroom and paid just $10 for one night. I put some flat rocks beneath our back wheels to help level the car, and we started dinner just as the sun began it's descent.
Jill rapidly deployed the bed as I prepared dinner. Night would be upon us quickly, and there was no time to waste as the light faded around us. We were not too busy, however, to notice a man quietly approaching.
The moon was exceptionally bright and beautiful here
"Hello you two, where are you from?" he hailed us from afar. Within roughly 30 minutes of meeting Dave, we would learn two things about him: he is extremely kind, and we could not possibly keep up with him. Dave was essentially the self appointed keeper of this land. For almost a month he had been at this site, and it seemed as though he knew all the ins and outs of the river and the surrounding hills. I would describe his look as old-time-prospector meets one of my old college professors. That is to say, he had an adventurous glint in his eyes, a white beard, and wore either a nice sherpa pullover or a heavy duty set of overalls. Accompanied by his cattle dog, Shorty, Dave lived in the mountains, volunteering and working where possible, and otherwise just enjoying the area. Though we were unable to integrate much of what he said, we recognized in him a love for the land that was as inspiring as it was endearing. After giving us a new pour spout for our camp stove (which has been incredibly useful), along with a lot of information about our campsite, Dave and Shorty left us alone to finish our dinner.
Early the next morning, we awoke to the majestic beauty of Merced River, and Shorty, sneakily snooping about for scraps. Attempting a small greeting, it became clear that Shorty was not interested in pets or pleasantry, just the food. Bellowing from his campsite, maybe 40 meters away, Dave called off his hound while pulling on some overalls. He was preparing to investigate something he'd found in the bushes... In hindsight, we should have written down every word he said, as it would later become obvious that we didn't know anything about where we were or what there was to see. Everywhere we went from that day on until Las Vegas was a somewhere Dave had mentioned, we just couldn't quite remember what he had said about it.
We moved so that we could really spread out...Over the next couple of days, we found that we really loved this camp. We dithered about, visited Mariposa for some food, made a strenuous yet rewarding hike up Yosemite Falls, and skipped stones across the lazier sections of the river by our campsite. Though we did find a more secluded campground for the last two nights that we spent on the Merced, we continued to see Dave, and Shorty, just sort of around. And it was oddly comforting. I've come to think of him as a river spirit, talking to everyone, spreading his infectious enthusiasm, and protecting the land.
Dave, if you're reading this, we did go through Tioga Pass and we did see Mono Lake, and it was incredible.
Farewell, beautiful campsite! You're fading into the rear view now, but we won't ever forget.