I woke up furious with the hotel manager for putting us into a highway-adjacent room. A consistent pounding, like wheels on pavement humming nearby. I hopped from the squeaky bed, tore open the curtain, not really prepared to do anything to make the noise stop, slid open the slider door and stood barefoot in total blackness.
No headlights. No cars. No movement of any kind that I could see. Yet sight was the only sense out of the five not bombarded by stimulation.
Immediately my skin felt the brisk wind whip down from the high rock walls. The peaceful aroma of cool, damp foliage clung under my nose. I breathed it all in and my taste buds tickled with the rugged taste of nature, earthy like stream water with a finish on the back-end reminiscent of the granola bar I ate earlier. My eyes still had nothing to consume – how could they, there was no light to be had in the valley that night; they had warned us snow clouds in the higher elevations might cover the normally vibrant starlight panorama.
But the sound quite specifically detailed the landscape. I closed my eyes and tilted my head to where Yosemite Falls crashed over the sheer walls and plunged into the valley. Even in total darkness, the sound outlines precisely where the waterfall spills into view, freefalling 1430 feet before colliding with a first rocky basin, then cascading another 995 feet to the valley floor. The booming comes from the water slamming into the rock, but not solely. If you listen at night, your ears will pick out different chords, like a complex musical piece played by an infallible orchestra. The distinct sound of rushing water echoes from high atop the cliffs; a subtle pop as the torrent bursts from land into open air. The wind current along the rocky face strums the falls like fingers across harpstrings, brushing stray water droplets from the edges of the chute. Each piece occurring simultaneously, the final harmony something otherworldly: regardless of how much it sounds like a 747 taking off.
I did not experience Yosemite’s other waterfalls at night, but having climbed atop several in daytime, I an assured that the auditory experience is the same as Yosemite Falls, the park’s most famous waterfall and the tallest in North America.
Don’t get me wrong, Yosemite’s ocular carnival is one of our nation’s greatest experiences. As you drive into the park from Route 140 you climb then descend a series of winding roads, ultimately spilling like one of those waterfalls onto a cliffside drive. The valley opens under the azure blue sky and for some reason the words to, “America the Beautiful” begin humming in your head. There are no amber waves of grain, but the purple mountains majesty was definitely on point. In the distance Yosemite falls crashes over the horizon, a miniature, silent sculpture of the real-life gargantuan. Along the top ridges that surround the valley, the park’s most recognizable rocky soldiers welcome you with proud dignity. El Capitan, Half Dome and spots of other falls can be picked out by an eager eye. Once on the valley floor, the roads loop to the civilized camps past the sights high above.
For a day hike, engage the challenging trip to the top of Vernal Falls, continuing on to Nevada Falls. Lying at the southeast corner of the valley, the trail also leads to the top of Half Dome, for those with the lungs and balls to attempt it. We never had the chance, due to that aforementioned snowfall. Half Dome’s summit was closed, the two cables that hikers must use to scale the final push up its curved, slick rock head weren’t even erected for summer season yet.
But we went the almost 5 miles into a gulley, along a river between two mountains, around the back of the valley walls and up, up, up to the top of Vernal Falls. On my prodding, we followed the snaking river further upward, at one point jumping off trail to reach a hilly peninsula that granted us secret views of the valley below and the treasures up ahead.
At the base of Nevada Falls the terrain had an eerie similarity to the white, dry rock of the Badlands, only here there was very evident presence of water. We went hand over hand up countless inclined switchbacks, like Hobbits scaling Mt. Doom (and here I ask for no jokes about my wife’s diminutive stature or my referencing Tolkien; if you have a problem go read how he described nature, take out the mystical creatures and you’ve got a pretty accurate description of the Sierra Nevada mountain range).
Once atop, a little ways back the metal signs warn you that Half Dome is closed and any further would be futile, unless you plan to continue on one of the other 22 mile trails out of the valley and into the vast Yosemite wilderness. Our day hike didn’t really allow for that.
As you approach Nevada Falls you realize immediately that there are few barriers between you and oblivion. For most of the edge is a slow declining cliffrock, rounded just enough to give confidence and hesitant footing. A few trees cling at the precipice and highwire squirrels scurry up and down as if a fall into the ether wasn’t a claw-slip away. But you are a the end of a valley, the forest and river below sprawl out like spilt green paint. Birds big enough to spot but too far out to recognize catch the updrafts and simply float, debating whether they too want to climb up to the rear side of Half Dome, which is tucked around a corner out of sight, for the moment. And in that moment, you close your eyes and listen to the rushing water, so much closer than the night before when you were in total darkness on a patio, 1500 feet below this one’s cousin.
But the sounds are the same, amplified by proximity and natural cliffrock punctuation. There’s “America the Beautiful” again, playing in tune with the roaring, tumbling water. The effort to reach the summit is worth it. You know that there’s another way down; a nearly 4 miles along the opposite cliff wall, then into the forest through back country and more switchbacks.
At the top of Nevada Falls your legs burn, not from the sun that broke through but from the constant incline and granite footfalls. And you don’t care. Because there’s so much more to see on the way down – different views, different perspectives.
Yosemite is good at that – different perspective. From the trail back you see the rear of Half Dome, which the day before we hiked along a trail to Mirror Lake and sat in a meadow along the river staring up at Half Dome’s terrifyingly sheer face. Posters on the shuttle bus warn you of bears but up high on a trail the signs are severe, metal and urgent. Down on the patio, in inky blackness listening to Yosemite Falls and then two days later I climbed it, staring into the water face from a hundred yards and not thousands of feet.
Perspective. It’s what Yosemite offers each of your senses. A different perspective on the world you explore. What sounds like concrete highway is actually liquid majesty; just depends on how you listen. What looks like Yogi on a bus poster is really a sly, deadly hunter; just depends on where you’re hiking. When an easy trail is filled with people, further up the strenuous conditions thin the crowd; just depends how much you want the peace.
The perspective is of peace. Peace of mind. Peace of soul. Peace of nature. I took out my cell phone at the top of Nevada Falls because I wanted the shot as my background. As I stood with my arm outstretched trying to capture as much as I could, I cringed. I put the thing away quickly. The juxtaposition was almost vomit-inducing, moreso than the thin air and the dizzying heights.
Then I remembered taking a photo with my phone of the poster on the shuttle bus (which are totally worth taking around the park, by the way) that was next to the bear warning. On the poster was an enlarged photo of the valley as seen from Glacier Point at twilight, purple peaks disappearing into a multi-tiered pink sky. Superimposed in bold black letters: “Only the soul can comprehend what the eyes see.”