On solitude and discovery
So this is it. The big one. THE post. Because this is the post about the trip that altered my life so fundamentally, it was like I jumped off a bridge and hit the icy water below and woke up – and saw for the first time. I was alone in the woods, as they say, and definitely tried to see the forest for the trees. Instead I saw a bear – but I’ll get to that later. First, let me start with an image:
When I took this image, I was by myself, in a small meadow – flanked by a now practically dried up river, it was no more than just a stream. On the way I had passed two deer who had crossed the main road and then continued to frolic and jump through the tall grasses; upon my approach from about 100 feet they stopped, curious yet wary, and then, with a snort, bounded off into the forest. I had seen a foraging bear up close; too close to be called safe when viewing a wild, American Black Bear by oneself. And I had found my calling.
The birds, the rustle of the grasses, the sun creeping up from the east to lightly splash El Capitán with the first rays of pinkish light. El Capitán – “The Captain” in Spanish – is a fitting name for this gigantic monolithic rock face, with a sheer wall thousands of feet high (3,000 feet, or 910 meters, according to Wikipedia). If you have the balls to climb it, it usually takes four to five full days of climbing; you bivy from wherever you are at night and hope to god the weather cooperates. Looking up at such a dominating natural formation it hit me; I was very much alone, and very much inconsequential in regards to such a display of sheer awesomeness.
I took my time. I enjoyed it. The silence, punctuated by the hard mechanical shutter of my EOS 1-N film camera. The anticipation, of wondering what my slides would come out like. The feel of the soft ground beneath my feet, and the sand of the river beach. The reflection of El Capitán in what was left of the once proud river, dried up from three months of summer:
and another in B&W:
All of this was not lost on me. My chance happenings with the denizens of the forest. The beautiful sunrise when storms had been predicted on last night’s weather report. I felt removed from everything and connected to it at the same time. I wanted to stay. For a long time.
Unfortunately, unless you choose to give up what we consider to be “normalcy”, it is impossible to be lost in such moments indefinitely. I wonder, if this was a harkening back to more natural instincts; the almost tangible feelings you encounter when you’re “alone in the woods” (as I mentioned earlier). It’s painfully obvious that places where you can be truly alone are a dying breed. As much as I wished I was alone, Yosemite in mid September was packed to bursting with campers and hikers, photographers and climbers thinking they avoided the summer rush and running into reality – the late summer rush. But given the circumstances, I fantasized, and this fantasy was – albeit short-lived – more real than a lot of “real” life that I’ve lived in the last 26 years.
Let me now take you through three days and two nights of shooting in Yosemite, if you’ll have me as your humble tour guide. Pictures will be marked as film or digital so you can see the difference, though to me, the digital shots feel more flat and clean, while the film scans have a grain that makes them come alive, and bold colors, especially blues, that I feel you just can’t get in digital. Regardless, I’m differentiating less about film and digital, and more about which shots are my favorites. I kept around 130 shots, so only a sampling will be up; you can see the rest here.
Surprised? No photos here – we spent the day driving down from Berkeley! (We being my friend Lisa, who I stayed with, and her friends: Eduardo from Chile, Hugo from France, Jolee – born in Vietnam, raised in China (Taiwan? I forgot…), now living in L.A., and Claire, Edo’s wife also from CA. With Lisa, born in Taiwan and now living in Toronto; and myself, American born Chinese with extensive experience in Japan, we formed one of the most international groups I’ve ever been in) We pitched our tents, had a good meal together, and headed off to bed.
I managed to drag Lisa and Jolee out with me at 6 am to a view-point back along the road we came into the park on. You could see the entirety of the Yosemite Valley, with the sun coming up directly in front of us. The main attraction was Half Dome, probably the most famous monument in the entire park. It was made famous by Ansel Adams and his amazing, seminal work “Moon and Half Dome”. The unique shape of it is unmistakable, even silhouetted against the golden yellows of the rising sun.
The rest of the progression to full day break:
After heading back to camp for breakfast, we hiked up out with the rest of the group to Vernal Fall, along the famous mist trail. The going was slow, the pace leisurely, and the photo ops endless! I took this time to shoot the group some; there are times, especially going over Mike’s blog, that I realize I don’t shoot people as much as I should. Maybe I’m just too into the idea of myself in the woods. It’s almost egotistical sometimes. I’m constantly reminding myself that my love of photography started with the idea of taking sports in mind, and that taking great pictures of people is as much an art as taking landscapes. Anyway, with the s90 as small as it is I was able to take a few shots without people noticing – the shots I like the best!
One of the things I was most enamored with about Yosemite was the almost surreal quality it had. Let me go into more detail about what I mean. The weather the whole weekend was picturesque, to say the least; the main attractions like Half Dome, El Capitán, Glacier Point, etc, were truly in form. Yet that’s not what made the trip for me. Rather it was the entire atmosphere about the park, and how anywhere you went you felt enveloped in a scene more beautiful than imaginable. The picture above was taken on the way to the trailhead of the first trail! It was as if anything I pointed my camera at became…art…or something of that sort.
I know, I know, the people are coming! Claire, our untiring team leader isn’t in these pictures because…she was ahead of us making a great pace up the trail! There are few of Claire later 😀
We climbed up higher as we worked towards Vernal Fall. Looking down you realize that Yosemite Valley is very steep on both sides – obviously it’s a valley, but the sheer vertical rise on both sides is astounding.
When we finally made it to Vernal Fall, I was glad to hop off the beaten path for a bit. There were a number of smaller trails leading to the bottom of the falls, and I chose the upper trail as it seemed less traveled; there would also be spots for me to shoot without having an extreme upwards angle to my pictures. It worked out well as I ended up above everyone else, on a little rocky outcrop, with a spectacular view of this:
Vernal Fall had obviously been reduced from its usual raging state to more a sublime and calm flow (you can see the marks on the rock face behind it that tells the story of its true girth); but this provided an opportunity to photograph the stillness of the pool below and its rich, deep blues. Always have to be looking for ways to turn situations to towards the positive side! I really loved the blue skies and the deep green of the pines at the height of the falls.
And a closer up shot of the rainbow:
Lisa had brought her sketch book; she does amazing work which I wish you all could see. It captures the moment so different from the work I do because she sketches anevolving scene, whereas I take and freeze a single moment in time. What she gets then is this conglomeration of moments from a half hour, and hour; it’s as if you can see time flowing, colors shifting, melding – how can I put it into words? I can’t. You just have to see it. Here she is getting a lot of attention!
The group headed out from Vernal Fall first but I stayed with Lisa while she finished a sketch. I was munching on an apple and the squirrels must have smelled it because when I dropped a piece they ran straight for it! Cute 🙂 Lisa and I made good time on the way back, mainly because we weren’t taking so many photos! When we caught back up with the group I did manage to get these quick grab shots:
And here’s one from our visit to the Ansel Adams Gallery (aka “The Temple”…! Ok maybe not, it’s a bit too much merchandise, but seeing original works was still pretty amazing!):
Here is where the group and I split ways for the evening. Everyone seemed to have tired out, but I was still raring to go, oddly enough. Jolee, Lisa and I had all been up since sunrise but something was spurring me on; perhaps it was the unflagging desire to crunch in as many shots as possible given the short nature of the trip; or maybe it was simply that I wanted to see as much of the park as I could; or maybe I just wanted to be alone for the first time since coming on this trip. Most likely some combination of the three. After considering Glacier Point, I decided instead to go to the closer Tunnel View. But before that, I hit up the Ahwahnee Meadows, where Ansel took his famous “Moon and Half Dome” shot. Of course, moonrise was way to the east, but it still made for some beautiful pictures in the fading afternoon sunlight.
I literally flew to Tunnel View, and cursed myself for staying so long at the meadows as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon. When I finally pulled in, there were about 30 people waiting around for sunset, and it was obvious that I had screwed up a bit, as the shadows had already crept more than halfway up the face of El Capitán.
Nonetheless, the pink tips of El Capitán., half dome and the Three Brothers were absolutely stunning.
As the sun marched towards the opposite (western) horizon (Tunnel View faces East), I chatted with a few of the people there; I met one older couple who come to Yosemite regularly, and a nice gentleman, with whom I talked – more like lamented – about being surrounded by the sound of the shutter; in other words, the way digital has fundamentally changed photography by introducing volume shooting. Seriously, there wasn’t a break in the click of the shutters for about 10 minutes straight – that is until everyone left when the sun went “down”. This is what they didn’t see:
It was amazing – like a mass exodus – and suddenly I’m alone with perhaps two other people and the gentleman I’d been talking to earlier. We laughed, because for us, this was the best part of the whole experience!
It’d been a long day and a hot shower and dinner were in order. After I made it back to camp I started a fire and then went to shower when the others had come back from their showers. Dinner was chili – yum! We headed to bed knowing we only had one more day left to enjoy the park and the weather. I had plans already forming in my head…! But on to…
I awoke again at about 6, though this time Lisa and Jolee decided to pass on the early morning expedition. So I set off by myself, hoping to catch a nice view of first light reflecting off of the monstrous El Capitán, which I had come to like more and more. I parked a bit of the way down the road towards the park exits, and decide to hike out a bit. Thinking there would be a trailhead nearby I accidentally stumbled through the brush and inner forest for about 25 minutes (!!) before finally getting to a path. By this time the sun was almost up and I was frantic – but also for a different reason. I-HAD-TO-GO! (to the bathroom I mean). My luck was holding strong, and I discovered a picnic area with a small outhouse which I helped myself to.
As I was exiting from the area I froze. Not 200 feet away from me was a large, solitary, BLACK BEAR!
I have to be perfectly honest – my instincts said get-the-hell out of there, but something in me wanted to…well…take some damn pictures! The former won out, but not before I was able to catch one shot with my s90, cropped in 15x digitally. Quality be damned, here’s the proof:
Later, after I had gotten back to the main road and spotted the deer frolicking through the woods, I realized how fortuitous I was – in many ways, one of which was that I was still alive after being so close to a wild, adult black bear. But what really hit me was a different sense of “alive-ness”; that here I was in a park full of thousands of visitors, and I felt completely, and utterly alone; the animals were out, the sun was coming up, this is what life should be like. This is what it feels like to be alive.
I made it to a small little grove just in time to see first light hit the eastern face of El Capitán:
You can see the other pictures I took at the top of the post. One more shot of El Capitán::
On my way back to camp, I took a few shot of Cathedral Spires; this one came out quite nicely.
And I was also able to get a few shots of the historic Ahwahnee Hotel:
After I got back to camp – and rejoined civilization! – I wolfed down some great pancakes that Claire had been so kind to make for me and helped the group clean up the site. We left with a slightly heavy heart – having only spent 36 hours in the park so far – but damn were they a great 36 hours! And our trip wasn’t quite over yet, with a visit to Tunnel View, this time during the day, and our final stop at the Mariposa Grove (old growth forest) in Wowona. A few nice people shots at Tunnel View; I also changed out to negative film as my slides had run their course at sunrise!
If you’ve never been to one of the old growth forests in Northern California or at the one in Mariposa in Yosemite – you ought to. In a word: Staggering. It’s hard to try to even imagine how big the trees are, frankly, because there is almost nothing in the natural world to compare them to. And these ones were the smaller ones too. Blows your mind just trying to deal with the existence of such things. Here’s a pic of Edo to give you an idea:
Humans are pretty insignificant, when it all comes down to it.
More from the grove:
And…that’s it! We spent the rest of the day driving back to Berkeley, and the next day returned the car and the tent and I flew home – after visiting San Fran a bit with Lisa. The irony of the whole story is that I ran out of film AND batteries so I couldn’t take any pics of San Fran! So it goes. I spent my time there eating tons of good food instead 🙂 Not a bad alternative.
This was my longest post to date and took me over ONE MONTH to write! Albeit grad school got in the way. Mike even beat me to my post with his great report of a rainy, foggy, adventure up in the Japanese Alps – check it out! I’ll finally get around to putting up photos from the last month – lots of small trips – so stay tuned! See ya then!