Yosemite. The word in itself has the power to evoke great emotion. A symbol, and to many the epitome, of grandeur. With towering peaks, broad meadows and dancing waters it’s a nature lovers paradise and a photographers dream. This was a playground for such influential figures as John Muir and Ansel Adams; and seeking a glimpse of common inspiration, for the millions who came after. On a personal level, this was also where I first laid eyes on the woman who would become my wife. It’s an enchanted realm, and one deeply embedded in the American psyche.
Ironically, for as much as this park symbolizes and even what it means to me, the famed Valley is not a place that I know well. On my only prior visit to Yosemite, I snuck in through the backdoor. I climbed over Donahue Pass while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and walked first to Tuolumne Meadows before diverting down to the Valley on a sidetrip along the JMT. I got to climb Half Dome and enjoy views of Nevada Falls, but by the time I reached the village my head was spinning from the bustle and chaos of the frontcountry crowd. I tried to see a few sights, but eventually just took refuge in my tent. Early the next morning I caught a shuttle back to Tuolumne and resumed my journey north. So while I’d been here before this was still a new experience for me; approaching as most visitors will in a car coming from Central California, rather than three months from the Mexican border afoot.
Despite the now quicker transit I’d built a lot of anticipation by the time I pulled up to the park entrance gate. I’m not going to lie, photographically speaking I expected Yosemite to be the pinnacle of my trip. I handed the ranger my park pass and she asked if I was carrying chains. The roads ahead were snow packed and state law required them. I did, in fact, have a set; which Cris and I had bought several weeks earlier in Montana. We never needed them there, and got lucky on the tailend of a storm coming down I-5 (every pass we came to through Oregon and Northern California had its restrictions lifted moments before our arrival.) Of course bouncing around the west in the middle of winter meant this streak had to end sometime, and I felt a tinge of nervousness as I continued to the chain-up area ahead.
I’ve lived in places with true winter all of my life. I grew up and now live back in Iowa (where it seems the frigid season has settled on us again this late April night) and spent five winters in northwest Montana. In all that time, not once have I ever had to install tire chains. I guess I always had four wheel drive and snow tires, and chains were just never a concern. And while we’re on the subject of confessions and justifications, I might as well break it to you: I am not mechanically inclined. Not that this should matter when it comes to wrapping chains around a tire, but I’m seriously the type of guy who can screw up filling wiper fluid, so… yeah. That’s where the nervousness came from.
For those of you who are also novices when it comes to this sort of thing, installing tire chains is supposed to be pretty easy. And it is, if you know what you’re doing. My set came with a handy little laminated instruction guide that could double as a kneeling mat for your comfort and convenience. I’d even pulled it out and looked the instructions over while staying at Cris’ parents, just to reassure myself that it would be easy as 1-2-3. But reassurance, as it turns out, is a fickle thing; one that stands barrel chested and proud in the comfort of your in-laws shop, but ten days later roadside is nowhere to be found.
My biggest problem with the tire chains was that they came out of their case in two clanky tangled heavy balls. The instructions were fairly succinct, color coded and complete with a diagram, but given the circumstance that did little good. For example, “attach the red hook to the cable loop” sounds simple enough, but when you realize the “red hook” is actually a “red double-hook” and it’s caught on the main chain body in two places, and you’re not sure which is right, confusion sets in. And then panic. And then a little anger. I spent the next half hour lying on the pavement beside my car in snowy, slushy slop; trying to untangle the chains, trying to slide and stretch and reach behind the tire of my low profile little clearance economy coupe, and using any available body part other than my knee (elbow, side of face, chicken winged leg) to keep the instructions from blowing away. All the while, a line of tourists sat patiently in their cars waiting for professionals who were also there, available for hire performing roadside chain install service. I overheard one motorist being told it was a hundred dollars if they needed to purchase chains, forty for just an install. People couldn’t give their money away fast enough! At one point, one of the installers came over and asked if I wanted help.
“No,” I said. “I’ll figure it out.”
And I did. After thirty minutes of cursing and untangling, I sat in disbelief looking at the shiny new traction I’d somehow mounted to my car.
And twenty minutes later, I had the second chain on too…
In a way, the chain-up ordeal sadly set the tone for what my Yosemite experience would be. From the turn-out I continued on into the park, but pulled over twice because my car was rattling so bad and I wasn’t sure I had put the chains on correctly. My next two days were full of uncertainty, lack of confidence, and frustration (of course still more than tolerable when happening in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.) It took me a little while that afternoon to set up camp and get my barings, which cost me a chance at a beautiful sunset. I arrived that evening at Valley View, the site shown above, almost reluctantly. I’ll save my feelings on “trophy shots” for another post, but it’s something I struggled with morally throughout this entire trip. Regardless, I was running late and got there just as the horde of serious photographers began to disperse. I played around with some long exposures until I was the last one standing, so at least on this day I got a shot that felt like my own.
That night, I camped with ten below windchills, got up the next morning before dawn, and was foiled with a location I couldn’t quite find and a shot that didn’t quite work out. The rest of the day felt like I was chasing the light and chasing my tail, never quite able to put myself in the right place at the right time. I drove giant single direction loops around the valley over and again, topping out at twenty miles per hour as my car jangled along, constantly second guessing any decision to stay or go. I was honestly trying harder to capture good photos than I ever have in my life, but it was just one of those weekends when things wouldn’t come together. Like putting the chains on, I knew what I wanted but nothing seemed to happen as easily as it seemed it should.
I’ll have more to share about my visit to Yosemite with posts in days to come. As I’m sure you can tell I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the photos I got there, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a good stop. It was a great stop; I’d do it all again in a second even if guarenteed the same results. I think more than anything my frustration resulted from unfamiliarity and difficult conditions, and the fact that I’m still learning. I’ve studied beautiful images from generations of photographers coming out of this place, and somehow thought that if things came together just right perhaps I’d capture something to stack up. Not even close. But what I did get reflects a full hearted effort through a day and a half of getting to know Yosemite Valley, with the conditions I was given, and a base to build on for the next time around.