All of these events occurred in my head. Some of them occurred in real life as well.

Friday, September 21, 2012

yosemite: on elephant trainers, half dome, and mountain conquest


The man merely grunted but the accent was clear and thick. It was not particularly distinguishable but it was thick. New Jersey, maybe. Regardless of its origin, the accent had transformed America’s favorite expletive from its proper, Germanic pronunciation into something new, something larger, a grandiose expression of blue-collar discontent with a hint of self-aware mischief. This f—k, this f—k was different. Take your standard f—k and replace the “uh” of the U with an everyman’s “ooh” and you just might get it. My God it was endearing. It was the f—k that your small-town, brown-bag, alcoholic uncle would sigh the morning he woke up hungover with a flat tire on his truck. Soften the F, dwell on the vowels, tie things up with a crash, kiss your fingers like a French chef and acknowledge the masterpiece you have fathered.

This man recognized his masterpiece. There was an arch grin on his lips as he breathed it out that betrayed as much. That same knowing smirk sympathized immediately with every misfortune I had ever experienced and every one lurking in my future. A man after my own heart.

He was stout, no taller than five-foot-six with a chest as wide as it was tall. His face was broad and flat with a nose that had resolutely interrupted the movement of innumerable fists over his years. His bright red sideburns faded into a stubble beard and his curly red hair was obvious despite the broad-rimmed Mexican sombrero he wore to hide it. It was a cheap trinket, made of straw and spray painted with clichéd, faux-Aztec drawings and it was perfect in every way. He had two hams for fists that had, in times past, had their movement resolutely interrupted by innumerable noses but, in present times, clung desperately to two shoulder-height polished wood walking sticks. The man himself was doubled over, having just caught his breath enough to let slip the aforementioned “f—k…”

The man’s name was Sean and he was not from New Jersey but rather from Baltimore but at the time lived in California. He was married and he had a wonderful daughter. I cannot validate his daughter’s wonderfulness but I can validate her father’s forthrightness and I can also validate the way in which his superfluously large fists intimidated me and I have therefore resolved to maintain that his daughter is, as he asserted, quite wonderful. He was not old but he was no longer young and he was fit enough to get away with thinking he could still climb mountains and he was stubborn enough that he just might actually follow through with his fantasy.

It is an ancient and well-known obligation of all hikers to greet all other hikers in a good-humored manner and I greeted Sean accordingly with a perfunctory salutation, “I feel your pain, brother.” In return, Sean offered me his own interpretation of pleasantries. It was a deeply personal and quite radical re-imagination of genteel discourse. Radical in the sense that genteel discourse has long avoided the word, “bulls—t” as well as avoiding the address, “you skinny bastard” and in the event wherein genteel discourse has seen fit to include the word, “bulls—t” and the address, “you skinny bastard” it typically has included other niceties as well. Sean thought that this was bulls—t and, like the rogue rhetorician he was, discarded those banal niceties. That is to say that Sean replied to me with a simple, “Bulls—t, you skinny bastard,” to which I replied to Sean with a simple, “Headed up?” to which Sean replied to me with a simple, “Well, I’m sure as s—t not going down yet,” to which I replied to Sean with a simple, “then you’re more than welcome to join us.”

We proceeded up the narrow, uneven, and above all steep, staircase of a hike that lay before us, taking pains to make sure that we were never more than a flip of the wrist away from my stash of chocolate-covered espresso beans. We joked and complained and moaned and grunted as we heaved our bodies in a generally upward direction pausing regularly to offer the superlatively beautiful scenery some cursory admiration. Sean joined us as we played standard road-trip games: “Would You Rather…” and “Who Would Win in a Fight Between…” among other similarly inane diversions that lose their appeal the second that actual conversation arises.

It was somewhere in the midst of my stubborn refusal to accept that a male elephant could defeat a male polar bear that Sean left me speechless with the revelation that he had previously been an elephant trainer for the San Diego Safari Park. Of course there are hundreds of employees at the Safari Park and even dozens of them that work with the elephants, nonetheless, to personally meet one that held a job so dear to my childhood imagination was startling. The giddiness of nostalgia that overcame me could have only been eclipsed if he had said that he personally cared for the velociraptors during the filming of Jurassic Park.

Deferring to Sean’s expertise I quickly accepted that the bull elephant could actually win his death match with the polar bear. I was not so quick, however, to drop the subject of his zoological employment, peppering him with questions about the eating, sleeping, mating, and defecating habits of his monstrous charges. He explained each with a thorough answer made all the more pleasant by his indeterminate accent and the singular dexterity with which he wielded his broad repertoire of expletives.

Our inane conversations having provided us with proper motivation, or at least sufficient distraction, we approached the final stage of the ascent with much greater speed than I had previously anticipated. The Half Dome hike is over 8 miles each way and is not covered without much deliberation on account of the significant elevation gain. This deliberation allows for plenty of time admiring the cascading waterfalls and the lovely Merced River along with dramatic vistas and abundant wildlife. The truly unique aspect of the hike, however, is the summit. Literally a half of a dome, hikers are faced with the smooth, curved side of this granite edifice wondering how it came into a person’s mind that waywardly propelling human bodies towards the summit would be a diverting pursuit.

In fact, when Josiah Whitney (of Mt. Whitney fame) was surveying the Yosemite Valley he declared Half Dome “Perfectly inaccessible” (pg. 27) and elected to deal no further with it. Not satisfied to leave such a challenge unanswered nor to leave the profits of its accomplishment to another, a Scottish sailor named George Anderson decided to construct a path to the summit that he could use to guide visitors to the peak. Ever since, the summit has been approachable to anyone with or without technical climbing expertise. Half Dome was, so to speak, conquered.

The concept of conquering a peak remains largely undefined for me, however. Anderson built the cable route and made the hike easier, hundreds others have improved upon the trail, expedited the process of summitting or increased the convenience thereof. But the mountain has, in a certain sense, conquered each and every one of the tens of thousands of hikers both before and since it was tamed.

Our entire group made it to the summit and we descended slowly but safely, ultimately arriving back at the trailhead an even twelve hours after we started. I have no doubt that we all felt a little conquered at that moment. Half Dome captivated us with its views, it challenged physically, it made us rely on each other, and it humbled us with the concept of our own relative insignificance. Hiking for me isn’t about conquering, but about being conquered. In that sense, any cries of triumph at the top or our sighs of relief at the end fail to capture the spirit of the mountain the way that Sean did the first time he breathed out, “f—k…”



  1. Half Dome
  2. Yosemite Valley Floor Loop
hidden gems:
  1. Giant Sequoia Grove
  2. Campfire orange cakes

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