The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done
The morning dawned on our campsite, at the normal time mornings do, but unlike most mornings, instead of sleeping later than necessary and then having a slow, luxurious breakfast that takes until the afternoon to complete, we woke up with a chiming alarm at 7:30am. The air was cold—it had dropped to at least 40 degrees in the night—but we knew it would heat up to around 80 as the day wore on. We made a decision to do something we had not yet done in our micro-camper travels: we would return to this same campsite that evening again. Sleeping in the same spot twice, located about thirty minutes outside the Yosemite National Park, meant we could spend all day exploring by foot without worrying about searching for our next place of rest.
We had purchased our 7-day pass into Yosemite the day before, so once we were dressed and our camp tidied up, we made a relatively quick journey into the park. We drove around the valley for a short while, wondering where we ought to leave our car and begin our day hike…and this is where our decision-making broke down.
You see, we were in Yosemite National Park. I have a feeling you’ve heard of it. Most people have. Once we were out among the crowds, we may have passed more foreign visitors than Americans, because this place is kind of a big deal. The rocks are really impressive. Normal people may have thought ahead a little and maybe researched what hikes were available and found one that suited their style (read: abilities). There are over 800 miles of trail in Yosemite National Park! This, we did not do.
We pulled over somewhere on Southside Drive, between the Swinging Bridge picnic area and the Cathedral picnic area because we passed some signs that looked like trailheads. We packed one of our daypacks (just one, because this was going to be a casual day) with two PB&J granola bars (from Trader Joe’s), two maple-pecan granola bars (from Trader Joe’s), two bananas, and a little milk chocolate bar from Trader Joe’s which is the best chocolate ever, probably. Oh, and about a liter of water. And off we went!
Across the street from our parking spot was a sign that gave a couple of destination options, including “Yosemite Falls, 3.6.” Yosemite Falls sounded cool, and 3.6 miles was nothing. We were starting in the valley, which is fairly flat, and our trail wove between Southside Drive and Northside Drive, crossing over the Merced a few times and getting some spectacular views from the bottom of some very tall rocks.
Andrew was getting antsy and discouraged though; we could still see cars from most places on the trail, and he wanted to Experience Nature today. We continued on, hopeful that eventually our trail would get interesting.
We wandered through fields and through campgrounds and even through what looked like a family bouldering clinic, all the while seeing the sign for “Yosemite Falls” and a decreasing distance. Finally, our trail took us to a parking lot and a bigger sign that read “Yosemite Falls Trailhead: Top Yosemite Falls, 3.4.” Ahhhh. So the last 3.6 miles we walked were not toward the actual Yosemite Falls, but this trailhead. We looked up at the trail. It was crowded—hikers were enthusiastic—but it was straight up as far as we could see. We deliberated. Also on the trailhead sign was “Lower Yosemite Falls, 0.6.” We could walk about half a mile more and get to the bottom of the famous waterfall... I’ll state clearly here, this was my vote.
But poor, sweet Andrew…wanted to Experience Nature today. I couldn’t say no to his hopeful and gleeful face. Look, there was a family with young children coming down the trail right now, so it must not be too bad!
Off we went.
Andrew and I enjoy hiking together. We have done a number of challenging hikes, and come out on the other side proud of ourselves and thrilled with the accomplishment. We once hiked with all of our camping gear up to Pratt Lake, spent the night, and then hiked home in the morning. We once climbed to the top of Mount Si while hungover (Andrew actually threw up at the trailhead) and made it faster than the average hike time, according to the Internet. We once hiked Oyster Dome in the snow. We are not seasoned climbers, but we have a pretty good attitude about hiking.
Today, though, we began our hike around 1:15pm. Neither of us had slept well the previous two nights, and we’d eaten breakfast around 8:30 that morning. We had 4 granola bars, 2 bananas, and a bar of chocolate between us. We’d already drank half the liter of water we’d brought from the car.
And this hike was STRAIGHT. UP. You know how it feels when you have to climb a long staircase that you weren’t expecting? That feeling in your legs and your hips and your back as you push your sad body upwards even though you’re not sure what the point is? Imagine that feeling… for hours. HOURS. Our knees ached with each step. The trail was not made of the soft earth we were used to in the Pacific Northwest, but a million large stones, all jumbled together so there was just barely enough traction for you to think your steps were solid, but then on the upward push, your foot would slip and all the muscles in your legs would tense to catch you. We were glad for our hi-top hiking boots for the ankle support, but they were heavy. Sweat pooled at our backs, and the swarm of flies around Andrew intensified. We would ask each hiker on their way down if we were getting close; every single one of them laughed. No, no, we were not close. We were never getting closer. (It became apparent, as the number of children on the trail thinned, that most families had turned back by now.) The sheets of rock that are the side of the mountain towered over us, making us feel like tiny, incapable goats.
How could three-plus miles be this long? We started to check Google Maps to see our progress. This was possibly more depressing than just hoping blindly that each switchback would be the last; somehow half an hour would only get us 0.2 miles further. We ate all of our bars and bananas. (Well, I did.) Andrew gasped encouraging words through labored breathing: "Imagine we are climbing towards a great temple! Or Mount Doom!" I was not encouraged.
When it's not really fun anymore...
Around 4:00pm (though it felt like it should be midnight) we reached the top. This time of year, there is no actual waterfall, but there are some pools of water where the Falls will run once theres's some moisture in this place. Some weary hikers were soaking their feet in these, but you actually had to climb down to them, and my trembling legs couldn't take anymore, so I had to tell Andrew my line was drawn. The views though... absolutely nuts. We hardly knew what we were seeing due to oxygen deprivation and certain dehydration, but it was awe-inspiring.
Was our painful, long hike worth it for these views? We wished at that moment that we had a definitive answer, but it was late afternoon, we had no food or water left, our sore knees were trembling, and we still had to get down.
And oh, getting down. Easier than going up? Hard to say. It was slightly faster work, but not by much; the tread of our boots was covered with a fine layer of sand and dust, and the classic Yosemite rocks are smooth. Each step had to be taken with great care. The tiny muscles in my knees that are only used for downhill walking are certainly out of shape, and were protesting almost immediately. About halfway back down, we had just enough cell reception to call our dear friend Melina, who, on a Sunday afternoon, was having a relaxing time snuggling her baby, and had the listening ear and dose of reality that we needed in that moment: she compassionately reminded us that we were idiots, we would survive, and we were in one of the most beautiful natural places in the world.
Melina requested a selfie of us eating the very last of our chocolate bar at the bottom of the trail, which we delivered. Our exhausted feet found the floor of the valley around 6:00pm.
And if only the bottom of the trail meant the end of our saga. Reminder: we walked 3.6 miles through the valley from our car to this very spot. Desperate, we saw a shuttle bus in the parking lot for this trailhead. On our way to find out if this blessed four-wheeled vehicle could shorten our journey, we passed a sign that said "Make sure you bring enough water! Recommended for Yosemite Falls hike: 3 liters per person MINIMUM." Ha. Ha. Ha.
Andrew helpfully points to where we were as the sun goes down.
We limped to the doors of the shuttle bus. Alas, this vessel was being used for training tonight, not actually giving rides. "This is the closest a shuttle can take you to your car if you're parked on Southside Drive," the driver said, "You'll need to take that bike path to the road on foot. It will be dark in about 15 minutes, so make sure you have a light, and walk against traffic."
And so it was, that off we went. The sun dipped behind the great mountains just as the bike path met Southside Drive. Our car was a good two miles down the road. Andrew held my phone with its flashlight on out in front of him, and we walked as far off the road as we could, which wasn't much before the ground dropped off into woods. I was feeling the evening chill more than Andrew, so he let me wear his down puffy, which is obviously too big for me, and overlapping my loose North Face hiking pants, made me look like a walking (stumbling) trash bag in the dark. If we thought 3.4 miles was long to the top of Yosemite Falls... these two miles could not have felt longer. It was dark. Our feet and our legs hurt. Our socks felt soupy in our big boots. This day was never ending.
Finally, finally, around the dark forest bend, we saw something that was catching the light from passing cars. Could it be!? The Buddy Bus!? Andrew pressed the buttons on the key fob as we drew nearer, our hearts in our throats as we waited to be within range for it to recognize us. Minutes that seemed like hours later, its little lights flashed and our sweet, sweet Element let out a feeble beep of a greeting. I have never felt such a rush of emotion towards an inanimate object.
"BUS!" we cried. "BUS! IT'S YOU!" The Buddy Bus was there, dutifully waiting, with fresh water and a week's worth of food and places to sit and fresh socks and clothes and everything we could ever need. There are so many perks to a home on four wheels.
If you are laughing at me right now for this being the hardest thing I've ever done, that would be fair. Andrew and I had many a discussion as we hobbled through the experience about how much better this would have been if we'd slept, brought food, had enough water, and knew what we were getting into. Perhaps one day we will return to Yosemite to redeem ourselves. (Andrew maintains that maybe the four years we spent in college were slightly more difficult.)
Anyway, we were back at our car, but it wasn't over yet. We still had our drive back to our campsite, we had to cook dinner, and make our bed. We barely navigated out of the park, and stopped in El Portal for a bit of gas and more water. I was reminded why I married Andrew when he returned from the gas station shop with a box of Cheez-Its and a bottle of wine; we ate the entire box on the rest of the drive to our campsite, where Andrew somehow had enough energy to cook us pasta and sausage with pesto and grape tomatoes. We drank a modest amount of wine before we passed the fuck out.
Quite possibly the easiest night's sleep I've ever had.