The valley in summer is as hot and buggy and crowded as I would have thought, but I’m here for a trails workshop and spending much of the day indoors anyway. The point was to learn to use tools, become handy … but I can’t help but maneuver into my comfort zone—i.e., bullshit—and instead wind up debating fundraising language with a rep from another nonprofit. His expression suggests he may fake a seizure in order to end the conversation. Whatever.
The workshop also includes a bit by the park geologist, whose job it is to investigate rockfall in the middle of the night and shoot LiDAR at El Cap. He’s pretty cute and also talking casually past my farthest points of reference in space and time: of bedrock 2,000 feet below the valley floor, of using cosmic rays from another solar system (????) to measure isotopes in flecks of quartz. In combination with the heat this is dreamlike and soothing. “The granite you see is the guts,” he says, “of hundred-million-year-old volcanoes.”
At 10 p.m. that night I’m hiking back down from Glacier Point when I encounter a mule deer glowing electric white, like it’s Harry’s patronus* or being abducted by aliens. In reality it’s backlit by the headlamp of an off-duty ranger, who mitigates my initial disappointment by walking the rest of the way with me and reciting draft tour scripts that didn’t pass muster with his supervisor. These include a talk on the cultural role of selfie sticks and another I would have titled, “Did you guys have any idea how badly this park fucked over the Miwok?”
The following evening finds me at the base of Yosemite Falls. I’ve never been before, and in the fast-failing twilight the hurtling plumes appear as a massive, warlike spectre, emitting a howl from another world. I have water on my face, my heart in my mouth.
I’m usually the only one in the car who wants to stop at the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. But today is different: Alex is game. There’s goat-tying, steer-riding, and an unattended toddler marching industriously back and forth across a mud puddle. We debate expensive shirts that say “RODEO” in a lariat script and ask to pat the vendor’s unimpressed pony. “We used to ride but now we live in the city,” Alex explains, as if it needed explaining. As a kid she’d take her horse to the gas station in town as a lark.
In Sonora I instead buy a cheap necklace with a tiny charm of the state flag’s bear. I wasn’t born here, but I am certainly closer to being Californian than to being the type of Californian who knows how to tie up a goat.
Shiny stuff and legitimate claims are interesting subjects to consider in Gold Country. Its history is in front of my face in literal ways—Sonora, Mi-Wuk Village, Chinese Camp—and yet I’ve never really thought about the names or pictured anyone living here other than grizzled white miners. Now, though, I’m reading Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land, and getting schooled.
The trouble began, naturally enough, in the mines … . In 1850 a mob of 2,000 American miners descended on the Mexican mining town of Sonora and … proceeded to raze the town. The rioting lasted for nearly a week, with scores of murders and lynchings being reported … .”We can see only indirectly, wrote [Josiah] Royce, “through the furious and confused reports of the Americans themselves, how much of organized and coarse brutality these Mexicans suffered from the miners’ meetings.”
In the first 25 pages I also learn that the indigenous population of California pre-Columbus had four times the density of the rest of what would become the country—whereas previously I imagined Indians living mostly in the Great Plains and dying mostly because of East Coast people.
My ignorance is especially egregious because I was assigned this book in college and hardly touched it. Nor was this the first time such a history lesson was lost on me: fourth grade I recall building a model of Mission San Luis Obispo without having the slightest idea of what a mission was—my closest point of reference being Redwall Abbey, where certainly no one (“nobeast”) was ever held against his will, even by weasels.
The road to the Grotto crosses the hills that front the highway and descends unexpectedly into a broad green valley that for its part doesn’t look Californian at all. “Kentucky,” Alex says. She’s in sales and has lived a lot more places than I have. The asphalt runs out amid a smattering of muddy yards and “KEEP OUT” signs, but we determine we’re in the right spot based on the presence (here I initially wrote “pretense”) of a Subaru and a Tesla.
The approach trail winds up from a red dirt road and runs a gauntlet of poison oak, emptying high on a scree slope of volcanic rock. There’s a lake on the horizon and columns of lichen-accented basalt looming overhead like organ pipes; something about the afternoon light makes me expect grazing brontosaurus. There aren’t any of those, but for a relic from the past I instead end up climbing next to some dude I met once on an ancient Internet date. Neither of us says anything, of course.
Both climbing and dating are things I previously believed I could learn to enjoy by diligence and repetition. Having grown bored and skeptical of this I wonder now, why not simply do things that are pleasant from the get-go? To find out, I brunch lavishly on French toast and biscuits on the porch of the Jamestown Hotel and then, instead of climbing, ride my bike. Not far, and real easy—in a place that’s new and warm and blowing up with flowers.