To watch this Part 4 as a video (that has WAY MORE spectacular photos and videos)
To listen to Part 4 as a podcast
After four days in the wilderness, as the same shirt and pants got dirtier and smellier each day, and the body got sticker, and the taste of freeze-dried food became less appealing, we were eager to go home. Just one more night. Tomorrow is the treacherous and dangerous hike down 3,665 feet along wet, slippery, steep, and narrow path next to cliffs and roaring waterfalls.
I heard from mountain climbers before that “climbing up is easy, climbing down is hard.” I didn’t totally believe it until we descended the Mist Trail to Yosemite Valley.
Daley, out of concern for me, was talking and showing me how to use the trekking pole, which distracted his concentration on a steep stairs of slippery sand on rocks, so he slipped and fell, next to a sharp drop of elevation. It scared the daylights out of me.
I insisted on walking ahead of him every time he got ahead of me, always saying: “I’m 62 years old, I cannot keep up with you. If I follow you, I will be out of breath. Please let me take the lead, thank you.” I wanted to demonstrate to him how to use extreme caution to make sure every step is solid, not hurried, with total concentration. There was no margin for error. The narrow, deep, slippery, and crowded trail next to the roaring monster of water down the cliff was already treacherous for hikers. For us carrying a 30-pound backpack each, it was like going downhill while “someone” (which is the weight on our backs) pushed you from behind – if I rolled down the cliff due to loss of balance and control, the body would be smashed to unrecognizable pieces by the pounding power of the fall.
“Sideways, go down sideways,” I kept telling my son, since going straight down the steep steps with weight pushing from behind can trigger loss of control. When it got slippery, I warned him.
The etiquette of the trail is to yield the safe side – the side along the mountain, NOT the side next to the cliff – to the most vulnerable: and those are backpackers carrying weight going downhill. The second most vulnerable are the backpackers carrying weight going uphill.
But most of the tourists had no clue! They also sometimes rested ON the trail, instead of OFF the trail, which could trip others passing. When they did not yield to us, the most vulnerable, I was telling Daley again and again: This is NOT the time to be “nice”, you must stand your ground, and let them yield. “Never yield to stupidity. They need to be taught, by your not yielding to them.”
When we completed the 3,665 feet descent to the Happy Isle Trail Head down at the Valley, at the turn of the bridge around 2:30pm, June 29, 2023, I stopped Daley, and said what I was holding since early morning: “Happy Birthday Daley! We made it! HAPPY 23rd BIRTHDAY!” We hugged for a long time.
“Daley, remember that you were gripped with fear on the first day?
You feared asthma, but it never happened.
You thought you were not able to do this, but you have proven your fears wrong.
You climbed Half Dome.
You overcame altitude sickness and reached Clouds Rest.
You can do anything you put your mind to. Happy birthday!” I said to my son.
“Daley, I was scared too, about camping by myself. But I acknowledged it, and figured that I could handle it, before you decided to come. It is OK to feel fear – we all have fear and we all have to face our own demons. But it is not OK to let fear rule your life. You recognize it, and deal with it, just like you did on Half Dome.”
Unbeknownst to himself, The mountains have transformed him. He came down to the Valley a more confident, more caring, more experienced young man. I am so proud of him.
Over this adventure, I got a chance to appreciate my son, seeing my little boy now turned into a good natured, capable, handsome, loving and caring young man. (Now I know why his girlfriend and her family were crazy about him.) But he will always be my little boy in my heart. On this adventure, we looked out for each other, challenged each other’s decisions, encouraged and supported each other with love and care. This trip brought us closer in heart. I admired his kindness, patience, independent thinking (even though he sometimes could be quite wrong), and considerateness for others.
I too had the chance to pass on my skills, experience, and wisdom to him.
Getting connected to the mountains humbles our self importance. What is truly permanent and eternal is nature. All life forms in it are mere passing phenomena, be it the blooming wildflowers, the passing clouds, the bygone glacier that sculpted the granite, dinosaurs that roamed the Earth millions of years ago, and us humans… Life’s cycle is eternal, life and death are eternal but unsentimental, devoid of our imbued values and morality, practicality, rationality, logic, or reason – it is what it is. It is made by God.
In the wilderness, the jagged peaks covered in snow high up in the sky, the torrential water like an unchained beast, the tiny lady bugs, the fast moving black lizards…nothing is “important” – by whose standard? Yet everything is perfect the way it is, as part of the tapestry of an interwoven, interdependent, diverse, and beautiful system of life.
Going to nature is going to God. Its solitude, peace, and power is healing, nourishing, and inspiring. It has provided me with calm, wisdom, perspectives, insights, and detachment.
At high elevation, my thoughts got automatically clear, without even trying to think – they just came to me. What was cloudy and hidden before all appeared crystal clear – about relationships, about my priorities and the next steps of my journey …
As I cruised out of Yosemite Valley, I let the dreamy, lush meadows mesmerize me one last time, the spectacular falls hanging high up on the monumental cliffs, the solid granite topped by the white fluffy clouds, and the unrelenting columns of white water trying to bring the clouds down…
In my heart, I thanked the mountains for hosting me, for showing me nature’s grand vision and point of view, for transferring its quiet power to my soul.
On the way home, I listened to “electro” (computer generated) music Daley introduced me to, and some of his favorite country music.
About 30 minutes away from the boundary of Yosemite, by the roadside there was a little stopover with a restaurant and a few stores, all looking the old fashioned cowboy town for the rednecks. There was a typical all American breakfast-lunch-dinner place called “Hungry Bear Diner”. We looked forward to our first freshly cooked meal in four days.
Getting out of the car was a struggle: after walking down with weight 3,665 feet, over about 8 miles (including the added miles on the John Muir Trail that was marked closed, and looking for the parking lot later), my 62-year-old knees and Daleys’ 23-year-old knees were all in such pain that we limped out of the car slowly and walked in pain.
It was in between lunch and dinner time so we were the only customers in the entire eatery.
I used to frown upon fatty, greasy food and had only eaten healthy food. But I so enjoyed the “Texas Cheese Fries” my son ordered, which were French fries mixed with nacho cheese, bacon pieces, and chopped green onions. How many calories? How much fat? Is it cardio healthy? – Who cares!
My son ordered a “Western BBQ Burger”, a juicy, tasty, 1/2 pound of hand-made beef burger topped with bacon, pepper jack cheese, and a tangy BBQ sauce. Daley took out the lettuce leaves, tomato slice, onions, and just sank his teeth into it. The huge burger vanished in no time.
For his 23rd birthday on this day, I wish their menu could have featured cakes. The only thing close to it was a “Nutella S’mores with Graham Crumbles Milkshake”, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Daley enjoyed it very much, while I sang “Happy Birthday”.
I ordered a Zesty Chicken Wrap, fried chicken pieces in the center, with cheese, fresh pico, lettuce & black bean corn and tomato salsa, chipotle lime sauce, wrapped by a flour tortilla outside. No food had ever tasted so good!
We ate to our hearts’ content. I said to the only waitress: “If ever the owner wants to rename this place, call it ‘Backpackers’ Heaven’.” It was the most satisfying meal I had ever had, with calories in thousands.
Greasy mouthed, green onion breathed, we staggered out of the Hungry Bear with a full stomach, feeling happy while looking dusty, dirty, and beat up, and for sure we didn’t smell too good either. (Maybe that’s why we didn’t see any bears – we stunk them away!)
Arriving home, everything looked the way it did five days ago, but now seemed a little strange and foreign to me, because I was no longer the same. The mountains gave me a new lens.
It was a luxury to take my time sitting on a flush toilet without worrying about mosquito bites.
In the mountains, after getting bitten by a mosquito on my butt within 5 seconds of my “going to the bathroom” in the wild, I had to apply insect repellent lotion on my butt each time before hurrying up to do my business.
The hot shower was such a luxury: SO MUCH water, and hot water, that took no labor to fetch, to filter, all by just turning on the faucets. After five days without a shower, I had to soap myself twice, even with the rich lather of French triple milled goat milk soap of pure shea butter.
But I felt uneasiness, even guilt, for using so much water for a shower.
Un-coincidentally, this came up in the news: The Earth was spinning on a suddenly deviated axis moving from the North Pole towards Canada, due to over-consumption of groundwater, melting ice sheets at the poles, and global warming.
We all knew that the Three Gorges Dam in China slows the Earth’s rotation.
A week after my return, our Mother Earth scored the hottest June ever, in this Bloomberg article: “Earth keeps breaking temperature records due to global warming”.
Our unnatural, wasteful, “civilized” lifestyle is destroying our natural environment, and in the process will wipe humans off the face of the Earth.
In the grand scheme of things, we are insignificant – no different from dinosaurs who were wiped out by a stroke of God’s hands, after so many hundreds of millions of years. As mere PASSING creatures of nature, in the Creator’s eyes, we are no different from the bugs, squirrels, butterflies, birds, bears, in spite of our self assumed intelligence. In the high mountains, one cannot help but get nature’s indifference towards the human race, and our place in this world. Personally, for me, a totally new perspective about how to live out this fleetingly short life of mine.
We humans are not indispensable for nature. Nature has been around for billions of years, and we deviated from the natural way of living since the Industrial Revolution only for over 100 years, and we already are destroying the Earth in an irreversible manner. Nature will and can do without us. Nothing and nobody is a big deal in nature.
What is eternal? – The mountains, the ocean, the sun and the moon. (As a church-going Christian, this came as a surprise to myself.) We humans will soon be long gone from this planet Earth, like a firefly meeting its death in the campfire, wiping ourselves out with our own greed and disconnection from the natural way of living, the Godly way. Frankly, no one gives a damn.
A year ago, I weighed my own record of 142 pounds. Now, I weigh 127 pounds, with BMI at 20, thanks to half a year of training, hiking, mountain climbing, the crucible in Ohlone, and the past two weeks.
Noticeable muscle tone is added to my thighs, lower legs, upper arms.
My tummy is much flatter now.
My feet now look different: the big toes developed slightly larger bones and the shapes of my feet look different.
My hands look weathered, tanned, and transformed from the bourgeois tender skin to that of a laborer’s. I don’t mind.
I have learned to trust the resilience of my body. The back pain, knee pain, toe pain, thigh muscle pain, pain in the lower thumbs (from pressing into the trekking poles every step) and in my shoulder blades (from the straps of a weighty backpack eating into them),… all these pains, bruises, and swollen lower legs made me doubt if I could complete the Yosemite hikes. In the few months before the trip, I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night, feeling fearful and doubtful.
Yet after each round of pain, my body grew stronger. I felt less pain with each endeavor. My swollen lower legs from the crucible at Ohlone 10 days before the trip did not re-occur in Yosemite. The blisters soon gave life to new skin.
I no longer view my aging body with insecurity and self criticism. The mountains let me view it as part of nature, with total acceptance. It is what it is. I am part of a much grander picture.
As long as my mind doesn’t give up, the body will catch up, and become trimmer, more muscular, stronger.
But most importantly, going to the mountains is an ultimate SPIRITUAL experience, based on physical, mental, psychological, and emotional perseverance.
Now I have returned to our digital and societal world, to deal with all kinds of trivialities, contentions, discords, regulations, a city citation to abate weeds, the bills, the chores … but now with detachment, ease, and grace imbued in me by the the calm and towering mountains, the babbling brooks, the birds singing at the crack of dawn, the fallen pines stricken by lightning and burned to charcoal, the cool mountain breezes, and the simple, honest way of living in tune with nature.
All religious dogmas pale at the quiet power of the mountains and the splendid nature, the true eternity.
While on Earth, while in the thick of thin things every day, and frankly much a do about nothing a lot of the time, we can choose to do the small things differently, – use less plastic, waste less water, litter less garbage, squander less time on emails, watch less toxic TV “news”, and spend less time on social media junk messages…
Connect more with nature, and with loved ones.
Use our time and energy wisely, to enjoy simple pleasures in life. Do what’s meaningful, joyful, loving.
Life is so very short.
Do what you love.
Hang out with family and friends.
Love and protect the natural environment.
Be a law-abiding citizen.
Value our freedom, defend our democracy, and uphold liberty.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. No one, nothing, is a big deal.
I pray the spirit of the mountains stays with me, stays inside of me, and anchors me through thick and thin. I pray that I become as solid, calm, and gracious as the mountains, inside out.
I shall go back to the mountains again and again, in reverence, to stay in tune with nature and with the cosmos.
© Joanne Z. Tan (Written June 22 – July 6, 2023) All photos except the last one by Joanne Tan or her designee. All videos by Joanne Tan, all rights reserved.