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Sierra Daily

10/17/2013

Yosemite: Off Limits

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A long time ago, I took my very first trip to Yosemite. It was so long ago that there were still matchbooks in the hotel rooms. On the cover was a picture of Half Dome covered in snow with the words: "YOSEMITE. OPEN ALL YEAR." It made me laugh. The idea that anyone thought nature was something that could be left open or closed down seemed so preposterous that I've kept that matchbook all these years. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so funny.

During the stalemate in Washington, nature became a pawn, something that was opened and closed to the public at will. And that makes me sad. During the three years my family lived in Yosemite National Park, fall always marked one of our favorite times of year. Labor Day meant the end of Yosemite's crowds, when traffic jams and noise were replaced almost overnight by quiet, serenity and peace. For those lucky enough to experience the park in October, with its still warm days and resplendent fall color, Yosemite seemed especially blessed. But not this year.

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This year, no one was happy. Not the law enforcement rangers. They were charged with the duty of keeping people out of Yosemite Valley and enforcing the rules about the park’s shutdown status. Not the scientists, maintenance workers, interpretive rangers and fire specialists who woke one morning to find they were “non-essential.” Certainly not the employees of Delaware North Companies, Inc. (DNC ) who work at the shops, restaurants and hotels that cater to Yosemite visitors. Already hovering at the bottom of the pay scale, many of these people make it only because DNC helps subsidize their living expenses. And certainly not the visitors. They were greeted at the gate by one lone employee who hands a piece of paper stating that they may drive the highways, but the park itself was closed and that pulling off the road, even to gaze at the scenery, was forbidden. 

Yosemite 2And while DNC and the park service was doing everything they could to keep morale from sinking—the health center was still open and DNC offered nightly meals for $5 with children eating for free—the mood was anything but festive. Law enforcement rangers bemoaned the fact that they took their jobs because they love helping people and as one of them put it, "I'm the bad guy." People were restive and anxious, checking and rechecking the government website that posted updates on Washington's wrangling.

Because, while it's true those feelings were probably echoed by most furloughed employees, working in a place like Yosemite comes with an added incentive to feel useful—without a job and a reason to be there, the isolation can be soul crushing.

Unless you are a total mountain man, or a hermit, even the beauty of the place cannot hold you. Life in a wilderness park seems idyllic from afar but it asks far more of you than city living. With just a few hundred year-round residents scattered across an area the size of Rhode Island, keeping one’s life feeling "normal" takes an act of will and an awful lot of driving. Living on the Valley floor can mean a six-hour round trip just to get to a Costco or a Target. Living in the tiny hamlet of Wawona (our former home in the park) can send you on drives of up to three hours just to get your child to a soccer game or a birthday party.

It was the isolation that finally drove my family away. It's a phenomenon that is not uncommon. (During World War II, The Ahwanhee Hotel was turned into a convalescent hospital for soldiers, many of who complained that the isolation was making them sicker).

But there is an antidote for this—a job that orders your days and gives you purpose ... and people. Because if living in a national park isolates you from the world, it also brings the world to you. Some of my favorite Yosemite moments occurred at the BBQs on the lawn of the Wawona Hotel where we dined with people from Germany, France, Italy, Spain—even Colorado. Loving Yosemite, as so many of its residents do, (and silly as it sounds), it’s a thrill to give directions or advise visitors on the perfect hike (Sentinel Dome), or steer people to an underappreciated waterfall. It’s like showing off your home with pride knowing that “home” is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

During the shutdown, "home" blocked its roads to some of the best hiking and even closed Tunnel View, Yosemite's most popular spot for snapping the iconic Ansel Adams panoramic photo. This past Saturday, the park service allowed DNC to open the Wawona Hotel because it sits on a state thoroughfare. It also sits hiking distance away from the spectacular Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. But you couldn't even think of going there. Man's bluster had put those majestic trees off limits. It seems nature can be closed after all. Having lived in Yosemite all those years, I have the feeling that upon reopening, visitors were greeted at the gates with more than the usual, "Welcome to Yosemite." This time, I envision the rangers leaving their kiosks to greet the public with hugs.

(Photos by Jon Jay.)

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In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family lived in Yosemite for more than three years before returning to Orange County. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.

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