Visitor, centered

Since when did a visit to Yosemite National Park become the barometer of outdoorsmanship? If I tell someone I’ve never been to Joshua Tree or Kings

Canyon, all I’m likely to hear is, “Yeah, me neither.” But not having been to Yosemite always meant bracing myself for accusing stares and dropped jaws. It was worse if I admitted I’m a native Californian; yes, thousands of international tourists drag their multicultural fanny packs up Half Dome each year, yet I couldn’t manage the four-hour drive from Sacramento?

I’d tried defending myself by describing trips to the Grand Canyon or the Appalachians, to no avail. Ultimately, there was nothing to do but suffer the inevitable lecture about John Muir, Ansel Adams and the grandeur of El Capitan and make yet another resolution to get there someday.

So, after 31 years of living in Yosemite’s general vicinity, I decided to join my mother and her boyfriend—who camp there annually—for a three-day trip.

No sooner had I loaded my backpack into their pickup than I was handed a photo taken on my first trip to Yosemite, at age 8. All this time I’d been enduring condescension for never having visited the place, but here was photographic evidence of a forgotten trek.

I studied the picture. My mom’s in the foreground, a sleek 28-year-old in blue nylon running shorts, standing on the Mist Trail and stretching her arms to catch the falling runoff from a tiny waterfall. I’m behind her with scruffy pigtails, knee socks and a missing-tooth grin. A manmade rock wall borders the bottom of the shot. As the truck wound through the golden hills of Highway 4, we hatched a plan to find the spot and take another photo in the same poses.

The next day we set out for the Mist Trail with a camera and the photo sealed in a Ziploc bag. On a rainy Tuesday, we didn’t expect to see many people, but we were mistaken. After such a wet winter, the park’s waterfalls are at peak flow this year, and so are its tourists.

As we climbed toward Vernal Falls and the Mist Trail, I quickly realized the flat Sacramento grid has made me soft. My mom and her boyfriend, foothill residents, sped up the mountainside while I wheezed and sputtered behind them. I was so busy coping with the humiliation of being out-hiked by the previous generation that I forgot to notice nature at all—until it hit me in the face.

The Mist Trail is essentially a steep stone staircase running alongside Vernal Falls, a gorgeous waterfall that casts perpetual rainbows and lightly mists hikers with spray. Lightly, that is, unless it’s a peak-flow year.

There are probably at least a hundred stairs on the Mist Trail, and by the third, I was drenched. My hair was dripping, my jeans clung like wet cement, and icy needles of water pelted me from all sides. Because the stairs are slippery and run along the edge of a cliff, it is impossible to hurry this hike. I slowly marched up every step, unable to see the waterfall through the torrents in my eyes, baring my teeth at smug hikers who’d had the foresight to bring waterproof ponchos—several of whom paused in their dry comfort to say, “Wow! You’re wet!” At times, I simply howled.

Needless to say, my mother and I were unable to recreate our Kodak moment. Later, safely out of the spray, we couldn’t say for sure where the picture had been taken. Neither of us had seen a rock wall.

As we hiked back to the car, a man offered to take our picture. Drenched and disheveled, we handed him our camera. He told us he hadn’t been to Yosemite since he was 19. He was now 53. “It all looks 10,000 feet taller,” he said in awe.

So, save your lectures, outdoorsmen. Even if you have visited Yosemite, you haven’t. It’s never the same twice.