Explore: December 2009

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4 posts from December 2009


Year in Yosemite: Mail Time

Wawona post boxes. Photo by Jon Jay.

On nice days we often walk to the post office. We leave our house, go past the bear-proof dumpster, through the forest, over a bridge and down Spelt Road (obviously named by natural food fanatics). There we pass the Indian matate sites, get on the trail that runs behind the library and up to the school, cross the road and finish up on the hilly horse trail that takes us directly to Pioneer Village.

At Pioneer Village we walk past the horse stables and a collection of log cabins built in the 1800s, through a covered bridge erected in 1857 and make our way to the parking lot of the Wawona General Store.

To the right of the general store is a stamp-size post office so old there are still bars on the window –- the old-fashioned kind like you see in banks in Westerns –- where you ask for your mail. That is if you don't have a post box.

For the first few months we lived in Yosemite, our mail went to “General Delivery.” Before we moved here I had so little knowledge of rural life that I actually had to ask what “General Delivery” meant. It means this. No home delivery. No residential address. You just go to the window and ask. My daughter loved this. Xboxes and computer games aside, asking for the mail from a real, live human being gave her an incredible thrill. Sometimes, it's the little things that count.

Then one day I decided it would be nice to have a post box. You have to pay for them but it means you can pick up your mail anytime, 24/7, and not just when the post office is officially open.

If I had realized what a thrill these boxes would give me, I would have rented one sooner. Because they are so charming and old, they remind you more of square dancing than of modern communication. Combinations go something like: circle three times right to A1/2, then left two times to G, pass your partner and it's on to K1/2. Then you do-si-do.

The boxes themselves are so tiny they were surely installed at a time when people wrote on small, wispy pieces of crinkly paper that got tucked into little envelopes and addressed with a perfect hand.

And that hand belonged to a righty. Left-handed myself, it is impossible for me to open my mailbox without my fingers getting in the way, blocking the letters of my weird and wacky combination. No, these boxes belong to a time when teachers prowled the classroom and slapped all lefties' hands with a ruler, forcing them to change to the right.

But it’s worth the finger gymnastics. In these days of instant communication, these boxes are so whimsical and unexpected that one day I know I'll dial in our combination and out will jump Seuss's Thing 1 and Thing 2. I have no doubt they will do-si-do, do an allemande left and then, like us, promenade back home.

-- Jamie Simons


Year in Yosemite: Santa's Baby

The writer's daughter and her friend know exactly what to do when it dumps snow in Yosemite.

Remember the old warning, "If you don't behave, Santa's going to leave a snowball in your stocking?" Turns out at our house that threat rings hollow. There's nothing our daughter would rather get than snow.

Raised in Los Angeles and too young to remember her first and only encounter with the white stuff, she was positively aching to experience it. In October, when the first few flurries showed up, she ran outside, crazy with excitement. But by the time she’d stuck her tongue out to catch the flakes, they had melted in the warming air.

So desperate was she that a November hailstorm sent her flying out onto the deck, where she built teeny little hailmen complete with stone eyes and noses. But then the weather turned unseasonably warm. Most of November was in the 70s.

And they're off!

This, of course, made me incredibly happy. In spite of living in a place where snow, ice and cold hang on for 4 or 5 months, I was secretly hoping that this year, winter (perhaps out of sympathy for my thin L.A. blood) would show up for maybe a week or so. In June … while I'm away on vacation.

Promises of global warming aside, at exactly midnight on December 7th, the snow began to fall. It then proceeded to float and flutter to the ground for the next twelve hours. When I first saw it, I thought about waking my daughter. But my ever-practical mother mind (the one that likes to sleep) took over, and I let it go 'til morning.

By then, snow covered everything –- ground, rocks, roads, roofs, trees and cars –- in its winter coat of white. Outside the temperature was a balmy 11 degrees. But that didn't bother my daughter. Normally, she prefers to lie in bed, groaning that she's tired and cold. But on this morning, she jumped out of bed, threw on whatever she could find and made herself breakfast. Then, too excited to eat, she ran out, grabbed the shovel and began to clear off the deck. She might have been trying to get on Santa's good side. She certainly got on mine.

As did the snow. For months I had dreaded its arrival. I don't like to be cold. I certainly have no desire to drive in it. Shoveling? No way. Not for me. But there I was, wrapped up in every outdoor garment I could find, walking my daughter to school in weather that has people across the country making a beeline for the Sun Belt. And I was enjoying every step. In fact, it seemed perfect. Like the way Yosemite is meant to be. Quiet. And white. And beautiful. And serene. Sort of, I imagine, like the North Pole. No wonder Santa lives there.

-- Jamie Simons


Year in Yosemite: Silent Night


When I crawl into bed at night I hear absolutely nothing, or leastways, nothing human. Around my house the air hangs as quiet and still as freshly fallen snow. There's no freeway roar. No garbled noise from a neighbor's TV. No radios. No car engines. Not even conversations. At night, Yosemite is absolutely quiet. For someone like me, who craves silence the way some people crave chocolate, this feels like the ultimate indulgence.

Having a husband who loves the sounds of a city – for him it's a kind of human lullaby –- I understand that there are people who don't love silence the way I do. They love the hustle and bustle. The comings and goings. The sense that life is going on around them at a furious pace. I thought I was one of those people. And, truth be told, for years I was. But during my final two years in Los Angeles, I would wake up every night to the roar of the freeway (which was more than two miles from our home) and know I had to leave the city. The noise was driving me away.

That I ended up somewhere so peaceful is mere happenstance. But as I've quieted down, I've noticed something strange. When people visit from the city they conduct their lives at a louder decibel level than those who live here year round.

This came as a shock. It never occurred to me that city dwellers are so surrounded by noise that they up their sound level just to compete. I'm sure it’s unconscious. But now that I live here, it's startling to me. My findings are less than scientific, just my observations. But it makes me wonder. What did the world sound like before there was man? How noisy were cities 100, 500, 3000 years ago?

Photos by Jon Jay.

As a child I was fascinated with the image of Indians walking through forests, one foot in front of another, so quiet they could track a deer without being heard. Now I wonder if it went beyond their prowess at hunting. As people who lived in nature, did they have an aptitude for quiet?

One of the groups of people on the government payroll in a national park are those in charge of sound control. They monitor the human noise level and, if it gets too loud, remind us to keep it down. They do this as much for the animals as for the visitors. Turns out that one of the ways you protect wildlife is to keep the lid on the sounds produced by humans.

If that's what it takes to keep Yosemite quiet, I say thank you to every deer, bear, mountain lion and fox living in the park. Because of you my nights are filled with silence, broken only by the occasional yipping and howling of a coyote pack on its nighttime rounds, waking me to marvel at its magic and the peacefulness of life away from the freeway's roar.

-- Jamie Simons


Year in Yosemite: Into the Park

Last May, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, Jamie Simons and her family stumbled across the public school on the Valley floor. As her daughter made a beeline for the slide, Jamie turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Easier said than done if you don't work for the park. But Jamie is persistent and so today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse. While Jamie writes, her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the sights and sounds of the city.

This is Jamie's first weekly post. Please welcome her!

-- Tioga Jenny

I'm standing on top of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park. Below me thunder the waters of Yosemite and Nevada Falls. Directly to my right is Half Dome, to my left, El Capitan and the Three Brothers. My head feels light, whether from the altitude or the view, I can't say. I only know that I feel like the luckiest person alive. For this year, at least, Yosemite is my home.

We moved into the park in mid-August so our daughter could attend one of the park's public schools. She's eight, and as hard as it is for the adult in me to believe that second grade can be grueling, for her it was. It wasn’t that she couldn't keep up (her grades were fine), it's that her natural exuberance and confident nature were being undermined. Now she goes to a one-room schoolhouse with only seven other students. As the only third grader, there is no one with whom to compare herself, nobody who can do third-grade math faster or spell better or read more books. There is no chart up on the classroom door reminding her that everyone is doing better on their timed math tests than she is. With only one teacher, and kids ranging in age from 5 to 10, it’s imperative that she is self-motivated and responsible and she's blossoming under the challenge.

So am I. This summer, once we knew a move to the park was imminent, I kept saying to my L.A. friends (Los Angeles has been our home for over three decades), “I don't know what to expect and that absolutely thrills me.” I loved not knowing what this year would bring. I loved the thought of going somewhere completely different than L.A. I loved not knowing anyone. I loved the idea of having total control of my day. Like my daughter at her new school, the quality of my experience is completely up to me. Now that I'm here, that still thrills me.

Yesterday morning, while talking on the phone, I saw a family of deer run by. My daughter spends hours in the forest that surrounds our home, building forts and stone sculptures. We live in a town so tiny it is the living embodiment of a village raising a child—everyone watches out for each other and for each other's children.

It's not perfect. With winter setting in, you realize that without tasks and hobbies and interests, one could lose one's mind. The nearest groceries are an hour-round-trip on a curvy mountain road. In winter, that same drive, with the added challenges of black ice and snow, can take twice as long. Every once in a while I'll find myself with two or three hours with absolutely nothing to do. Coming from L.A., where it is easy to fill every moment of every day with runs to the store, gabbing or meeting friends, working or running one's kid to endless classes, I find my reaction to the quiet and solitude is panic.

Then the magic of Yosemite takes hold again. I'll go for a walk. Or a hike. Or simply look out the window to see the sun hitting the fall leaves, making them look like a shower of golden coins raining from the trees. On a daily basis, the park surprises and fascinates me: like the Hassidic man standing in Pioneer Village talking on his cell phone or the Germans who stopped to ask me if there is anything worth seeing in Yosemite Valley or the way parents here will drive two hours just to take their kids to school or soccer practice or martial arts. I'm fascinated by the inner workings of the park service and the tourist board and the concessionaire and the homeowners, each with their own agenda and way of perceiving the park. Then there are the visitors, four million of them every year, each with their own experience.

I intend to spend my time in the park getting to know my new home better. Yes, the trails and the hikes and the secret places only the locals know. But I also want to understand just how this place works. Who runs it? How? What does each group bring to the table? I remember years ago (back when Californians actually smoked), picking up a book of matches from Yosemite Lodge. On the front was a picture of Half Dome covered in snow. On the other side were the words “Yosemite. Open all year.” It made me laugh to think that anyone had the chutzpah to think they would or could shut down nature. Of course, Yosemite is open all year—whether any of us are here or not. That is the Yosemite I want to understand as well as the one controlled by man, the one that takes this wild creation of nature and deems it a tourist destination. I hope you'll come along for the walk.

-- Jamie Simons

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