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Year in Yosemite: The Long and Winding Road, Part 2 - Explore

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Sierra Daily

11/04/2010

Year in Yosemite: The Long and Winding Road, Part 2

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It seems to me there are two kinds of fear—the real kind that warns us to fight or take flight and the kind that exists in our head. I excel at the latter. When my family and I moved to the village of Wawona in Yosemite National Park a year ago, we moved to a place that is the very epitome of serenity and quiet. Life—or what most people call life—seems far, far away. I don’t read the newspaper (at least when the news is happening), seldom watch television or listen to the radio. Instead I take walks, watch the wind in the trees that tower over our home, and escort my daughter to her various activities. But tranquility must be more than my mind can stand because I’ve found a way to be white-knuckle Blair Witch afraid. And it’s not from thoughts of anything or anyone jumping out at me from the forest. I’ve put all my fear eggs in one basket, a basket I call The Road.

Starting in the town of Oakhurst 22 miles south of us, and snaking its way through the park to the Valley floor 26 miles north is a two-lane highway the state calls 41 and I call pure hell. It twists and turns and presents endless blind curves and that’s just on the way going down. Coming back to Wawona from either Oakhurst or the Valley, there are numerous places where one could plummet off the side, if one chose to do so.

You would think that anyone with half a brain would keep their eyes trained on the road up ahead or at least on the double yellow line. But like all people who have a fear of roads with drop-offs, I don’t. I fixate on the gaps between the trees and imagine what it would feel like to careen off the side like a bird taking flight. And once my brain shifts into this gear, I stop dead with fright, usually on a blind curve. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is not a good move. In fact, my fear has rendered me more vulnerable and helpless than I would be if I weren’t afraid at all.

Since Oakhurst is where we have to go to get everything from eggs to hammers, like it or not, I’ve had to find a way to conquer my fear of driving at least that portion of the road. My first stab at doing this had me driving it daily with no one else in the car. I did this very badly. Every time my eyes would wander over to the part of the road where plummeting off into the forest is not out of the question I would slow to a ridiculously low speed (mind you everyone else was flying up and down this road at 50 miles an hour), or just come to a dead halt—a driving method that is only effective if you have a death wish. Over and over I’d try but I didn’t seem to get any better.

Then one day a miracle happened. One of the rangers had a knee operation, was in a cast, and couldn’t drive. So I offered to take her to her doctor appointment. We started out on the relatively flat roads of Wawona where she quickly pointed out that I was going 40 in a 25-mph zone, reminded me that she was a law enforcement ranger and told me that even though she was off-duty, if I didn’t slow down she was going to have to do something about it.

She needn’t have worried. When we hit the up and down hills and valleys of the road, I was crawling along, braking every time there was an oncoming truck or car and—according to my passenger—pulling the car to the right each time I hit the brakes.

Halfway to town, she was gasping, clutching the door handle and warning me that she was going to be late for her appointment. Finally, in desperation, she started slapping my leg when I applied the brakes while yelling things like, “Downshift, downshift,” or “There’s no reason to brake going uphill.” I thought she might be slapping my leg to keep from throttling me but she maintained she was doing it to save my life. “If you hit the brakes in snow and ice, you’re dead,” she’d say, slapping harder. “You’ve got to get over that NOW!”

By the time we got to Oakhurst, she had aged by decades and I was elated. Thanks to her instructions I felt I had my first glimmer of what it took to drive the road. She obviously had not reached the same conclusion. When I picked her up after her appointment, she insisted on driving us back to the park, cast and all.

Shortly later, she’s transferred to another park (I swear it had nothing to do with my driving) but I wish she’d come back to witness the finesse with which I now take those twists and turns. Most days I manage to go the speed limit. And there are even times people pull over to let me pass instead of cursing me for going too slow.

It’s autumn now and the leaves along the road from Oakhurst are turning to shades of orange and gold. Going up and down it sometimes five times a week, I’m surprised at how much I enjoy its beauty. With that 22-mile stretch conquered, I now have a new eggs-in-basket fright. Driving the L.A. freeways I used to move along with ease…and the road from the Valley. One year in I still haven’t managed to work up the courage to drive home from the Valley floor. A wise friend pointed out that no matter what’s going on around me, I still have to stay in my lane. True, but tell that to my fear-based brain and to the foot that loves the brake.

-- Jamie Simons

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