Explore: January 2010

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4 posts from January 2010


Year in Yosemite: Taken by Storm!

This car took a hit in last week's snowstorm. Photos courtesy Jon Jay.

"If you're hungry, the salad is in the freezer and the pasta is on the porch." I don't write notes like this to my husband every day, but ever since a storm rolled into Yosemite four days ago, taking out the roads and electricity with it, I've taken to doing all kinds of things I never imagined.

When we knew the weather was turning bad, we took all the measures our neighbors had advised. My husband put our chains on, then backed our front-wheel drive car into the driveway and pulled the windshield wipers up to prevent them from freezing to the glass. I spent the morning cooking -- stews, soups, anything I could make in large batches and have on hand. I did the laundry so we'd have clean clothes. I filled a bin with water in case the pipes froze. I went to the library and picked up stacks of books. I recharged phones, batteries, and lanterns. Then I sat down to write this week's blog and get it off days early … just in case.

"Just in case" happened as I was typing the words "Every time it snows the electricity goes out …." At that exact second, my computer went down. The lights went out. The fan on the fireplace (the one that keeps the house warm and toasty) stopped. But I wasn't worried. The electricity usually comes back on in hours. Now it's been days.

The first night of living in the dark, my daughter and I read by candle and lantern while my husband did a jigsaw puzzle. The second night, my husband went to bed … at 6:30. On the third night, he took a bath (we still have propane) while once again my daughter and I hit the books. But it's getting old. For the first time since moving here, I'm restless and discontent.


Downed tree and power lines.

The same could not be said of my family. The storm seems to have brought them into their own. The very second breakfast is over, our daughter puts on her ski clothes, then heads out the door to sled with her friends. This is then followed by lunch and a movie at the home of a neighbor who has both kids and a generator.

My husband (who normally hates snow and cold and has never really settled in here) has found his personal nirvana. Storms demand that one be helpful, and nothing on this planet makes him happier.

A little background here. My husband's family came to America with William Penn. They've been Quakers for more than four centuries. Although he doesn't practice, the Quaker way of life is so ingrained in his cells that he's really only happy when being useful. The storm has provided him ample opportunity to do just that. So he's been shoveling out people's cars, fixing generators, and once the roads out of the park were open again, accompanying those desperate to leave, just in case they need help getting out.


Gotta shovel that deck!

Which leaves me. For whatever reason, the lack of electricity has left me feeling disoriented -- pulling my thoughts together seems beyond my control. It's not that I haven't been doing what I need to do to make the best of the situation. I've been out. I visit neighbors. I come to the school every day to charge our phones, check our email, and write (the school has a generator). I've been literally keeping the home fires burning and doing what we need to do to get by -- hence the salad in the freezer and most of our food in coolers on the porch. Tonight we're having game night at our house -- everyone's invited as long as they bring a lantern and something to eat.

This isn't the way it was supposed to be. I’m the one who spent 10 years traveling around the planet. I'm the one who loves the outdoors. I'm the one who moved here with nary a look back and not one moment's heartache for what was. Known among my friends for jumping without a net, I'm amazed to find myself flat on my back, looking up into snow-covered trees festooned with drooping electric lines and wondering how I got here.

And so I spend a lot of time wondering about the families who settled this area, most especially the women. How did they cope? Is it possible to cook a meal over an open fire wearing a floor-length skirt and not go up in flames? Did they grow weary of the darkness? The lack of neighbors? The brutal cold? Did financial necessity trump desires for comfort? If given the choice, would they do it all again?

Would I?

-- Jamie Simons


Year in Yosemite: The Housing Crisis

Tent cabins at Camp Curry, Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy Delaware North Campanies.

If the idea of living inside Yosemite National Park sounds enchanting, I can tell you now that the key to accomplishing this feat can be summed up in one word…housing. The challenge? There isn’t any…or at least any that hasn’t been spoken for.

If you work for the park service, chances are you live outside the park. If you work for the concessionaire but you have children, chances are you live outside the park. If you are a private citizen and don’t own gobs of Berkshire Hathaway stock, chances are you live outside the park.

So what are all those homes I see on the valley floor, you ask? They belong to two groups of people. The first is park service employees who are deemed "required occupants." That means that they are essentially on call 24/7. So if you are a law- enforcement ranger -- the type who patrols the roads, or works in search and rescue, or arrests the drunk and disorderly -- you live inside the park. If you are a firefighter, you live inside the park. If you are the superintendent or the chief ranger, you live inside the park.


Ranger's house in Yosemite. Photo courtesy Jon Jay.

But if you are an interpretive ranger, the type of ranger who gives the walks and talks, you live outside the park. If you work in administration, you live outside the park. If you work in forestry, you live outside the park. If you are an archeologist, you live outside the park. If your area of expertise is trail building or sound control or education, you live outside the park. In other words, most park-service employees live outside the park.

The other group living inside the park is the concessionaire’s employees -- not all of them, just those in management and those who are willing to live in dorms (which is what makes it tough to house families).

So how did my husband, daughter, and I manage to live here? For one, we don’t live on the Yosemite Valley floor. We live in a teeny-tiny village where private home-ownership is allowed. But even here, housing is virtually non-existent. We’re only here because once I knew there were public schools in the park, nothing was going to deter me from my mission.

I began searching for a home in Yosemite last May. My goal was to be moved in by the time school started in mid-August. Since I’d just been in the park on a travel-writing assignment, I started with the people who played host during our stay, the concessionaire. In Yosemite’s case it’s a family business (one that’s two billion dollars strong) called Delaware North Companies (DNC). They are the people responsible for filling the beds and the restaurants in Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, The Ahwahnee, and the Wawona Hotel.

They instantly took to the idea of my living in the park with my family and writing about it. For a week, their top guns sought out housing for us. After seven days, the call came through: "The only housing we can locate is a tent cabin in Curry Village. There’s no kitchen, no bathroom, no heat or indoor plumbing, and one of you would have to work for DNC to qualify to get it."

"Um, no thanks." (Believe it or not, many DNC employees are ecstatic to get even this most basic of housing as it means they can live in the valley and avoid a long commute to work.)

Clearly this was not going to be as easy as I’d hoped. After ruling out Foresta and Yosemite West –- too much snow, too tiny, too far from our daughter’s school –- I took the advice of a DNC employee and zeroed in on Wawona.

It’s lovely here –- far from the hustle and bustle of the valley floor, close to the south gate so getting out of the park is not the time-consuming ordeal it is when you live on the valley floor. There’s a school, a library, and a vibrant, welcoming, interesting population. There’s only one problem. And you’ve probably guessed it. There is no housing.

If you want to buy, you have to wrap your mind around the fact that two-bedroom/two-bath cabins go for about a million dollars. People who own homes (which have usually been passed down in families for generations) either use them themselves or rent them for between $400 and $750 a night during high season.

So what’s a girl to do? In our case, we compromised. We knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who agreed to let us use their cabin, but we move out every time they, or their friends, want to use it. And I don’t mean "pack a suitcase and hit the road" moving out. I mean "empty the cupboards, the refrigerator, dressers and closets" moving out.

Is it fun? No. Do we do it so we can be here? Yep. Are we hoping to win the lottery so we can buy that two-bedroom/two-bath? You bet.

Still want to live in a national park? The park superintendent’s job is open and that house is amazing -- comes with everything including a view of Half Dome and indoor plumbing.

-- Jamie Simons


Year in Yosemite: Lessons on the Loop Trail

Meadow Loop Trail. Photo courtesy Jon Jay.

Here's what a day off from school looks like in a national park: No museums. No movies. No fast-food restaurants or visits to Chuck E. Cheese. Instead, you gather every child you know and head out on a trail.

That's when you find out that kids who have been raised in a national park don't necessarily like hiking. When nature is all you know, nature isn't necessarily that appealing. The kid who wants to organize a hiking club and walks for miles with nary a complaint happens to be my own. And she was raised in a city. The other kids make it about half a mile and then ask to turn back or beg to be carried or they stop every two seconds for something to eat.

Which brings me to my next important lesson. Think small. When I organized the day, I was thinking we’d drive out to Sentinel Dome, my favorite Yosemite trail. Sure, it's a long way from where we live but I thought it had all the kid essentials. It’s easy to do with a huge payoff — the views are some of the best in the park. Big news. When you are 4, 6, 8 or 9, as were the kids on our hike, hanging with your friends and throwing leaves at each other is more exciting than staring at Half Dome.

So after that half-mile on the virtually flat (but still quite gorgeous) Meadow Trail, we turned around and headed for home. The plan for the rest of the day? Arts and crafts collages made with leaves we’d found in the forest.

But wait. Not so fast. It was time for my next lesson. You see, the kids on this hike were not just any kids. For the most part, they were the children of park employees. Kids whose parents take the admonition that what you find in the park stays in the park very seriously. In the city, you might organize a hike, pick up leaves, take them home, hand out bottles of glue and glitter and pat yourself on the back for getting your kids outside at all. In a national park, you have a designated leaf picker who brings bags of them from her home outside the park. Who knew?

There are times since moving here when I feel as if I've entered a special realm — a place where Mayberry has collided with Northern Exposure with a hint of Seinfeld thrown in. Life up here is charming and funny and surprising too in ways this city mom could have never guessed. We came here for our daughter's schooling, but her mom is getting the education.

-- Jamie Simons


Year in Yosemite: Okay, I Admit It

Photo of Half Dome courtesy Tom Valtin.

Somewhere on this planet I know there's a 12-step program designed especially for me. "Hello. My name is Jamie. And I'm addicted to telling people I live in a national park." I can see it all. The dingy room, the folding chairs, the worn linoleum, the bad lighting. Next to me is a woman who calls the Loire Valley home. Across the room is a guy renting a flat in Istanbul. The leader runs a safari park in Kenya. Together we'll join hands and admit we've hit rock bottom. We can’t help ourselves. Wherever we go, we feel compelled to tell people where we live.

And who can blame us? How many times do you get to bask in the glow, not of what you've done, but where you live? I didn’t put Half Dome there or cause Yosemite Falls to thunder down the mountain. Yet I feel special because I inhabit the same piece of real estate they do. It’s the lazy man’s way to ego fulfillment.

Better yet, if done right, it’s subtle, even elegant. No boorish name-dropping (at least not human names). I get all the ooh's and aah's I can handle just from saying "We live in Yosemite. The National Park.

But there's a flip side to loving where you live. Your city friends don't want to hear it. As I wax poetic about the deer wandering by my window, I can sense my friends from home gearing up to stage an intervention.

So I think I've come up with a solution. I'm not going to tell a soul (or at least anyone I'm close to) that I wake up every day and say, "Pinch me, I can't believe I live here." I dwell instead on the bad stuff. Like the curvy mountain roads that become impassable in winter. The isolation. The teeny tiny population of our village. The scarcity of culture. The tension in my marriage because one of us loves the place and the other doesn't. The winter storms. The shoveling. The impossibly long drives just to shop. Moving in and out of our home every few weeks because that's the only way we could find housing. Every bit of it may be true but I don't let people know it's a price I'm willing to pay. Instead, I make it sound bad. Really bad. It's the only way my loved ones will believe I have a handle on my addiction.."

Then, when I can't stand it another moment, when I think I will go crazy, I go to the store and tell the clerk I am buying masses of food because I live in Yosemite National Park and it's a three-hour round trip just to get to Trader Joe's. Instantly I'm rewarded with the ooh's and aah's I crave. My city friends don't even have to know.

But should I slip up and tell them I'm happy, I'll rejoice when they drag me off to the 12-step program for inveterate braggarts. If I play my cards right, I might be able to befriend the woman in the Loire Valley. Surely, she’d like to trade houses for a month. After all, I live in Yosemite National Park.

-- Jamie Simons

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