For our most recent blog post, Mr. BreMiller has asked us to write about a formative experience we have had in nature. Much of my meditation elaborated upon my relationship with fear, nature, and my growth as an individual, so I thought it would be fitting to present an edited portion of my piece on this blog.
This particular section surrounds a solo trip I made this summer to Yosemite and what it meant to me.
Bonnie Gisel, an expert on John Muir and a curator of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite, said, “here was the absolute manifestation of the divine, where they could celebrate God in nature.”
Indeed, once I hiked beyond the crowds and settled into the hushed surroundings, I understood what they meant.
In Moby Dick, Whenever Ishmael finds himself growing “grim about the mouth,” he “accounts it high time to get to the sea.” For me, I came to find, I just needed to go somewhere on my own: a short walk, a day hike, a weekend excursion, anything. One of those times – when I was close to “methodically knocking people’s hats off,” as Ishmael remarks – was this July. I was working in a Palo Alto lab with my friend, and, for six weeks, we lived on our own – cooking meals, tidying up the house, sleeping in bunk beds. I followed a remarkable routine, and two weeks in, I felt constricted. Every day, I woke up at the same time, ate the same meals, did the same work, even did the same workout, and I was going stir-crazy. So, on Friday, packed with a sleeping bag and a whole lot of beef jerky, I set out for Yosemite Valley. It took three trains, a shuttle bus, even an overnight stay in a town where, according to a taxi driver, locals regularly forced tourists to give up their clothes and walk around naked, but by early Saturday morning, I was setting up my tent in the backpackers’ camp under the colossal, granite walls of Yosemite.
I set up a tri-pod to capture photos on Half Dome as the sun rose.
That day, I roamed all over, passing through the mist of Upper Yosemite Fall and reaching the peak of El Capitan, the holy grail of big wall climbing. But the real test was coming: that night, I wanted to reach the summit of Half Dome, a literal half dome of granite that protrudes extravagantly into the California sky. It’s Yosemite’s masterpiece, and it was my plan to stand upon it as the sun rose, shedding its flushed light on the smooth rock walls.
At 12 a.m., my alarm sounded. It was pitch black and I had only slept three hours. I made my way down the dark, empty road to the start of the trailhead, and soon found myself clambering up slick, granite steps. I could hear the continuous roar of water, but all I saw was my headlamp’s beam disappearing into the darkness of night. As I schlepped along in this jet-black silence, I was petrified of turning a corner and illuminating a bear with my headlamp. Every 10 seconds or so, I let out these pitiful, high-pitched yips, as if that would keep them away.
As I arrived at a clearing, I saw four men, lying on the ground with their packs as props. “Sorry for the weird sounds—my version of a bear bell.” Crap, I thought, I must look like a freaking idiot. Luckily, the darkness veiled my flushed cheeks. “Not a problem! I’m Ted,” one of them said, shaking my hand. He was tall, strong, with a crew cut. “This is Ben, James, and Mark.” I soon learned that with a car full of supplies, they had come to Yosemite Valley from their Army base in San Diego, and, for the next hour, I hiked with the soldiers. We talked about why they joined the military, what they enjoyed, what they didn’t. We talked about my internship. We talked about our goals, aspirations, inspirations. When they decided to rest, I trudged on. Alone again, enveloped by night, I realized our brief conversation had been so honest and so open. I didn’t even know what they looked like, and yet I knew so much about their lives. It was as if the darkness had loosened our reticence and precipitated our friendship.
There were other hikers aiming for the summit at sunrise. Greg, another solo-hiker from Utah; two Europeans exploring America for the first time; a family, together before the youngest went off to college; and three co-workers from Genentech. Something about my being alone, about our shared goal, opened us up to each other. I expected a companionless journey in the dark, and yet, while I was mostly alone, I formed more genuine connections in these few, dark hours than I had in the past month.
At 4:00 a.m., I reached the Half Dome peak and sat on the edge of the arête, overlooking Yosemite Valley. I quickly realized, because of the sweat on my inner layer, that I was shivering, and so I ripped off my shirt, wrapped my freezing skin with an emergency thermal blanket, and quickly pulled my outer shell back on. I found a rock to shield my body from the whipping wind, and I lay down, staring up at the impeccably clear sky. The moon was dim, but the stars shimmered with all their might, and every minute or so, one of them would streak across the sky in a flare. With time, a ruddy alpenglow rose from the horizon, spreading its rays upon the verdant valley below and the soaring, granite walls on either side of it. The valley seemed an immense canyon, funneling the gentle light through it, so that almost everything was graced with the sun’s radiant magnificence and alluring warmth. One by one, my fellow hikers trickled onto the summit, shouting “Hey, Rex!” as they passed. Greg even lent me a jacket when he saw that I was still shaking.
As the sun climbed higher, Greg prepared to BASE jump – illegally – in a blue squirrel suit. The family arranged a Christmas photo. The soldiers huddled, sipping coffee. A man set up a trail of candles to propose to his girlfriend. And there I was, sitting quietly, surrounded by new companions, watching the valley awaken. Greg pushed off, plummeting out of sight. The man proposed and the girlfriend said yes. We all let out a cheer.
This was a very different solitude from the kinds I had felt earlier in life. I experienced a freeing seclusion and, at the same time, a common humanity with these strangers. I was in a foreign place, with foreign people, and practically freezing to death, and yet I was so comfortable. I was so comfortable being uncomfortable. There was no place I would have rather been. Not in a plane darting across the sky, nor in the cozy folds of my bed at home. I had allowed myself to discover another beauty of life.