Crossing USA: Yosemite & Death Valley
America is built on machine scale.
Humans are merely passengers, riding along in immense cars. No one in their right minds would cover any distance on foot, because everything is so incredibly far apart. Except for maybe in the city centers, going out to buy socks would take a whole day.
Things become easier by car. Lanes are wide, regulations are… scarce, and there is much room for human error. Queue the images of my friend standing still on the wrong lane.
So by car we travel, and somehow, things that seem far away in a place like Belgium, are now within reach. With no real hiccups to speak of, we waltz from park to park, drinking in more of the enormity on which the US was built. In my daydreams, I get to do this kind of thing for the rest of my life, I know every corner of every national park, every animal within, and every visitor’s name.
In reality, we have about 2 days at every location, just enough to see the most visited sites before we scurry off to the next place. We stink and our clothes are dirty, and the battery of my laptop never makes it above 15%. Which is why I haven’t been writing a lot.
We took our sweet time leaving San Francisco, which is why we didn’t get to Yosemite National Park before dark. The first few campsites in sight were full, so eventually we ended up at Tamarack Flat, a nice-ish place with no running water, hidden behind 3km of the worst road in the US. Which is at the same level as the best roads in Belgium.
We moved to Camp 4 the next day though, which is supposedly famous among climbers, because it sits in the shadow of El Capitan, one of the world’s toughest challenges.
We go to bed late and wake up long after sunrise, which is the main reason (next to poor preparation) why we could only do one trail. We chose the climb to Glacier Point, a short but hard trail leading to a spectacular view of the central valley.
Yosemite is much, much bigger than just this valley but from what I could tell, the gray stone and little rivers all looked quite European and while certainly breath taking, we felt like the views offered little new for us. Certainly not enough to warrant such an elaborate installation, with visitor centers, shops and asphalt trails (you read that right) valley to summit.
And tourists, good lord. Fat families taking photos from their tour busses, at the peak that we worked so hard for to reach. Weddings were going on there, probably divorces too. As if being birthed, they huffed and puffed their way down the steps of their palace on wheels, and scaled the last few meters to the view point. Past the souvenir shop, take a left.
This might all be standard in US natural parks, but where I come from, we reach the peak one way alone: We struggle. Seeing that simple truth melt away, one might begin to wonder why we bothered in the first place. Those blimps can’t even be bothered to look jealous.
East of Glacier point, we could see a small plume on the horizon. The ranger on duty explained that it was a small forest fire from a lightning strike, and they were letting it burn since fire is an essential factor in Yosemite’s ecosystem.
As we were leaving the park though, this little plume had turned into a gigantic, sky-wide monster of a cloud, reddish brown in color. As we passed underneath and looked up, we saw the sun turn blood red. Everything around us changed to a weird orange hue. People turned beet red. It was surreal.
Death Valley too, we reached in the dark. Thanks to Linh’s Rough Guide To California (recommended!) we had our sights on a free campsite, far beyond a sign stating, ‘ROAD CLOSED’. Well merde.
A detour of about 45km later, we found the site, little more than a number of platforms hugging the mountainside. The Guide insisted that Death Valley did not cool down at night, but the instead the sun’s heat was trapped between the mountains. This allowed us to leave the tent in the car and sleep under the stars, and see the sunrise by opening one lazy eye.
It rains about 6cm/year in Death Valley, and the first of those began to fill just about when we were having breakfast. The rest of them, yes all of them, followed soon after.
When it rains in the desert, it pours. We managed to save our gear but while we were driving, the valley turned into a mudpool. When we finally reached the one panoramic point we had time for, clouds obscured our view and we never caught more than a few glimpses of the sight supposedly so beautiful, that a local gold digger constructed a road just so he could share it with others.
Luckily, all of those 6cm had filled up by then and the rain disappeared as quickly as it came, opening the skies for some unbelievable scenery on our way down the mountains.
I never thought anything could top the Norwegian fjords, but the American deserts come very close. The views spread out so incredibly far, you lose your sense of perspective and feel like you’re observing a scale model. The heat, the shivering of the air, the crows in the shadow… The atmosphere is so thick here, you can smell it. I am deeply in love.
We didn’t know what we were in for but looking back, I gladly would have traded in our time at Yosemite for a longer stay in Death Valley.
Sadly, what we didn’t get to do, was check out the places not infested with tourists. When you’re short on time and info, there’s not much else to do but find the places you know will be worth it, rather than waste time looking for hidden gems.
Regardless, with its many huge national parks, the US has a real treasure on its hands, and a complicated responsibility to preserve the fragile ecosystems while at the same time, herding the hundreds of thousands of tourists around.
The parks are a result of millions of years of erosion and evolution, which still continues today. You see careful attempts here and there to maintain the geography as it is, but these efforts are both pointless and futile.
I for one, am happy I finally got to see them. I gravely underestimated just how amazing they were.
Next stop is Las Vegas, after which we head out once more, to see Zion, Bryce, and Canyonlands. I can’t wait.