Exclusive Reservations at the High Sierra’s Hidden Honeymoon Suite

So…  I’ve been married 8 times.  You’re thinking that I must be crazy, right?  Probably.

Don’t worry, though.  All of them were to the same chick :).  I suppose that 7 of them have been “vow renewals,” but those don’t sound like they’re as much fun.  Today is the day we celebrate our anniversary.  Due to “tyranny of distance,” we won’t get a chance to be together for a 9th wedding this year, but we’ll make it happen somehow.  In the meantime, reminisce with us and read about our 7th wedding in Yosemite.  Love ya babe 😉

-JWa 

PS:  Happy 100th to our NPS!

My wife, Erica has always been up for an adventure. Sometimes, I’ve had trouble keeping up with her. At some point, maybe around 2010, her tireless energy began to wane. Though she always exuded an attitude that was positive and social, she felt lazy and lethargic. Stagnant. We lived on the sub-tropical island of Okinawa at the time. It was easy to pass off lethargy as living the beach-bum life. She noticed a lump in her neck around that time, but didn’t find it to be much of an issue. When we returned to the US, her energy did not seem to return with us. But, the lump seemed to grow.

That lump turned out to be the issue. Thyroid cancer. Those cancerous cells were robbing her body of its ability to regulate a whole host of functions. Soon after the diagnosis, Erica underwent a complete thyroidectomy. The surgeon also removed 30 cancerous lymph nodes from the left side of her neck (and sliced a gory, ‘J’ shaped incision from her trachea to her ear in the process). Following that, she was required to swallow a radioactive iodine pill to try and target any remaining thyroid cells. You should have seen the steel canister that the physician transported that little pill in. It was something out of a crappy sci-fi flick.

“Whaddya think your new superpowers will be after you eat that thing?” I asked Erica as the physician pulled a slender glass vial from the beefy steel cylinder.

“Idunno, it’d be cool to fly, I guess,” she said, “Or maybe drain the ocean to see what’s down there.” She grabbed the vial, threw her head back, and gulped the pill down like a shot of Wild Turkey.

Following the treatments, Erica was recovering well to her usual ornery self. With her health improving, we were free to plan our 2014 vow renewal (we ‘get married’ every year). In conjunction with a Wilderness First Responder class I was required to attend, we planned a vacation to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. We took in some beautiful Lake Tahoe vistas, and then decided to travel south and spend some time in Yosemite National Park.20140830-IMG_9251

The park is enormous, and offers some world-class backpacking opportunities. I Jedi-mind-tricked Erica into believing that taking an overnight backpacking trip would be awesome. So, while exploring Yosemite’s crowded valley, we stopped in the Wilderness Center to research trails and apply for a Wilderness Use Permit. We perused some local maps, and considered a few recommendations in the booklets provided. I was most intrigued with a specific area on the east side of the park called Tuolomne Meadows (pronounced, ‘too-all-oh-me,’ by those in-the-know). It was far from the tourist hub of the valley, and I had it on good authority that it was one of the most unique areas of the park. I showed the ranger behind the desk which route we were thinking of following. Her eyes lit up.

“Oh, yeah! That’s gotta be one of my favorite areas of the park,” she exclaimed. She dragged her finger along the route and stopped when it arrived at the Sunrise Lakes. “You should really try to make it here to camp. On the back side of this lake right here,” she tapped her nail on a tiny blue blotch, “there are some sweet rock shelves that are nice and flat, and you should have some awesome views. You’ll need a bear canister for the backcountry, though.”

The canister she spoke of looked like a small, hard plastic Donkey Kong barrel, and had specially designed, ‘bear-proof’ latches on one end.

“If it goes in your mouth or on your skin, keep it in the canister,” the ranger advised. She was pretty relaxed about most things, it seemed, but was quite stern about that bear canister.

The Donkey Kong barrel was large, heavy, and awkward to pack, but I figured that it was much better than waking up in the middle of the night to a pilfering bear. Erica was excited about the planned trek. Though, I’m not sure if she had a full idea of what hiking 12 miles in the mountains with a pack meant. I, somewhat selfishly, downplayed the difficulty of the trek, and attempted to bolster her confidence. We spent the rest of the day soaking in the beauty of the valley, and camped at a built-up site called Housekeeping Camp.

We rose early on the morning of our anniversary, quickly broke camp, and drove across the park to the trailhead. Other hikers were arriving and getting their gear together. There was an air of seriousness. Almost everyone was decked out like a pro in a North Face ad. I think this is the first time that Erica realized what she had signed up for.

“You look kinda nervous, babe. You all right?” I asked. Her eyes were wider than they should be at such an early hour. She kept fumbling with her pack, and double checking the car for forgotten items. Erica’s furrowed brow relaxed when I called her out. She giggled.

“Do I? I guess reality just now set in.” She glanced at a pair of especially over-equipped hikers. “I’m not sure I can do this.”

“Don’t worry about Team REI over there. You got this. We’ll just take it as slow as we need to. What’s the worst that could happen? We have everything we need on our backs, right?” I said. Erica half lifted her pack, and realized how heavy it was.

20140829-IMG_8370We started off at a quick pace. Too quick. The trail shot directly up the hill to our south. Both of us were soon struggling to pull enough oxygen from the thin alpine air. Another group of hikers caught up with us, and became great pace setters. We walked with them at a relaxed pace for a while, and took breaks when they did. We had all day, after all. The terrain was surreal and ever changing. We traversed up hill, and broke through the tall pine forest into a rocky, high sierra environment. Ancient, granite spires jutted up behind the hearty foliage forming peaks with accurate monikers like Cathedral, and Echo. We entered a vast meadow that was home to a small pond, and a man on a horse in a cowboy hat led a team of mules down the trail. The feeling was timeless. We were experiencing the same untouched environments as people like Ansel Adams, and John Muir.

20140829-IMG_8388That afternoon, after about seven miles on the trail, we arrived at a High Sierra camp called Sunrise. This is where the mule team was coming from. There were some large outfitter’s tents, a bathroom, and a community area where they cooked and served dinner for guests who had reserved a spot. We took some time to refill water, and massage our aching feet. Though the camp was a nice surprise, the caretaker was somewhat rude in answering our questions. He shooed us off to the edge of the camp with the rest of the folks without prior reservations. It turns out that the guests were somewhat snooty as well. But, both of us were tired, and there were some tempting campsites in the designated area.

“I think we should keep going,” Erica said. She was decisive, and  began putting her socks back on. “We didn’t come all the way out here to hang out with these ‘glampers,’ anyways.”

I laughed, and agreed. If we continued now, though, there would be no returning. We had to make it all the way to the lake. It was another two miles or so up the trail. The others hikers set up tents and prepared dinner. We laced our boots, fastened our packs, and pressed on.

Trail markings were poor around the camp, and smaller paths crisscrossed throughout the area. It was difficult to determine where the turnoff to Sunrise Lakes was, so I pulled out my compass and took a general heading. That brought us to a trail that was pointing in the right direction. It must be the right one, I thought, there’s nothing else around here. Our rest break had rejuvenated us. Despite cramping legs and sore shoulders, we were again moving at a quick pace en route to our ideal campsite. The falling sun rushed us even more.

But something wasn’t right. I could feel it. We were on the trail, but my compass no longer seemed to point the way it was supposed to. I decided to stop and get our definitive location. I matched the GPS to the map, the map to the terrain, and the terrain to the compass. Then, I did it again. It couldn’t be correct. We couldn’t afford to mess up. I had already pushed Erica farther than I probably should have. But the GPS, map, and compass did not lie. We had somehow missed the trail that wound up over the pass that led to the lakes. Not just barely, though. We had traveled almost an hour past the intersection. I tried to appear calm, and assured Erica that we weren’t lost- we were just on the wrong trail.

In my head, I was anything but calm. We were stuck on the wrong side of a mountain with no level campsites nearby, and our light was quickly fading. If we backtracked all the way to the intersection, there would be no chance of making it to the lakes before dark, or even back to Sunrise Camp for that matter. I pored over the map for a solution.   It seemed that if we headed directly uphill, through the closest drainage, we could cross over the ridgeline and link back up with the correct trail. It was a gamble, but it might just work.

Erica was not keen on the idea of walking off into the forest, especially uphill, but she was a bit more willing when she learned the definition of ‘bushwhacking.’ The drainage was steep, and full of loose rocks and tree slash. I began to wonder if it would take even longer than backtracking. When we finally crested the steep ridgeline, there was still no sight of the trail to the Sunrise Lakes. The sun was nearly behind the trees. Soon, it would drop behind the horizon, and we would be forced to set up camp where we stood.

“What if we just camp around here?” I said to Erica as I spun slowly in a circle, eyeing a few potential campsites.

Erica braced her hands on her knees, looked around, and, between deep breaths said, “But it’s not the lake.” I paused for a long moment, in thought.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.   “I’m just worried about making it to a good site before it gets too dark. How tired are ya?”

Without hesitation, but still between deep breaths, she said, “If you think we can make it, I got it in me.”

I was somewhat certain that our trail was just across the shallow depression ahead of us, but was a bit wary, given my recent navigational mishap. I decided to drop my pack where we stood, and run down the other side to try and find the trail. That would give Erica a chance to rest for a minute, and I could move faster on my recce mission without the weight. Sure enough, it was there. I raced back up to Erica’s position. We pressed on.

20140829-IMG_2662Getting back onto something that resembled a trail was comforting. We easily crossed over the small pass and began descending. Through gaps in the tall stands of trees, we were able to catch glimpses of the setting sun glinting off a mirror-like surface. The sight put a spring back into our steps. This first lake was tucked into the shadow of the surrounding mountain. The air was already feeling cool and moist. It would be a poor place to camp. We pressed on. As we rounded the corner, though, a few final rays of sunlight bathed our faces and the rocky hillside. The air was warmer and less damp. To our north, and downhill from the trail, we could see the middle Sunset Lake. That was it! We might have just enough light to find our perfect site. We picked our way through the rocks to the south edge of the lake. The surface of the lake was glass. One large lump of granite rose from the center of the lake like a small island. On it, a single, gnarled pine fought for life, against all odds. Across the lake I could see the rock shelves that the ranger spoke of. They were still basking in late afternoon light. I was drawn to the other side, and encouraged Erica to dig for a little bit more strength. We saw another group of campers near the north side of the pond. They invited us to stay near them. Still, I was drawn upwards. I found a reserve of energy, and bounded up the boulders above the lake. There it was- a perfectly flat shelf overlooking the lake. No, wait. I hopped up one more shelf, and gazed west. I could see down the entire valley. It was filled with an evening haze. Long beams of the setting sun were shining perfectly on the giant granite batholith known as Half Dome.20140829-IMG_2670

“Here it is, babe!” I shouted down the rocks to Erica, “Your honeymoon suite awaits, Madame.” She climbed as fast as she could up to our site, and dropped her pack.

“Oh, wow! This is so awesome,” she said. She was breathing heavily and bent over looking south towards the lake. I put my arm around her and pointed down the valley.

“No, no. Look that way,” I said. Erica’s jaw dropped. She turned and gave me a big kiss.

We should have set up camp right away and fed our dizzy, dehydrated brains.   We were both mystified by the front row seat for the once in a lifetime Yosemite sunset, though. I scrambled to get my camera set up. We left our packs in a pile, and ran in circles for a few minutes trying to find the best view. There was a perfect overlook a few paces from our campsite. Erica and I sat against a fallen log and shared a few sips from our flask of fancy whisky (not Wild Turkey). Inevitably, we set up camp in the dark that night, but it was worth it. Erica heated water for our delicious, freeze-dried dinner, and I built a small fire to fight off the chilled night breeze.20140829-IMG_9209

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