Jenny Burman Jenny Burman
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Sleepless in Yosemite

Thursday night, I officially hated camping. I was in Yosemite, yes, near Yosemite Creek. But where was I really? On hard earth, with a broken sleeping bag, the zipper useless, cold air rushing over my body whenever I shifted position. My backpacker's mat was no softer than the bare, sloping ground. My daughter had taken my pillow, which disappeared, along with her entire body, under her sleeping bag. To get here, I had driven hundreds of miles of highway, stunning landscape I couldn't look at because I was the one driving and the road was hairpin turns and steep drops, the long drive finished with a flourish -- a drive over four miles of rough road, scraping the undercarriage of my car, probably destroying the transmission as I sought to save the brakes. The reward for making it to the end of this so-called "road" was an undignified scramble to get the last camping space before a couple in a graphite-colored big SUV decorated with skulls did, a high-altitude adjustment headache, and then dinner of instant noodles and, now, pure physical discomfort. There was no shower, and we didn't bring one. I have never been much of a camper.bear.jpg

But ... Friday morning. Despite the sleepless night, my mood improved the next morning. We found a better camp site -- next to a babbling brook, which should have been a gently singing river except this is a year of record dryness and everywhere you went in Yosemite, the big news was a question: where is the water? It's a year of record drought. Still, the new camp site was beautiful. And the pressure of acquiring it -- or a better one -- was gone. There were amazing hiking trails right at Yosemite Creek. Trout leapt for flies (real flies) in the rock pool near our tent (the poor fish were captive in barely seven feet of water). And my husband had brewed fresh, good coffee. Sometimes it doesn't take much to turn things around, for a human with a car and a cooler full of food, that is.

Of course, we were thinking about bears. A visitor could be forgiven for thinking that all of Yosemite was an installation whose purpose was to exhibit pictures of bears. Don't feed the bears. Don't drive too fast: "Speed kills bears." Don't talk to bears. Don't leave food in your car -- bears! Don't go into caves -- bears! Put your toothpaste into a big metal bear-safety box -- bears! What's the fire danger today? A big bear. And then there are the postcards, the cups, the stuffed teddies. All I wanted to do was not see a real bear.

But I did see a real one. S/he was munching green apples at the Ahwahnee Hotel.

On Friday afternoon, we drove the car-wrecking, rutted four miles from the campground back to Hwy 120 and then down to the crowded, but magnificent Yosemite Valley floor. The waterfalls were all dry, except for a trickle down the rock faces. One woman said to me, "If I had known there wouldn't be any water in them, I wouldn't have come!" But I didn't share her disappointment. Even without the drama of the falls, the valley floor is beautiful in a way that calls for a new name for beauty. It's a natural cathedral, if you've been fed and are feeling safe. Mid-summer, there are still lupines and blue daisies, all kinds of blooms in the meadows. And plenty of shade, which is a commodity in Los Angeles and most places at just a couple of thousand feet lesser elevation.

It was my daughter's birthday on Friday, so we went to the Ahwahnee Hotel for cake and civilized celebration in the afternoon. While we were having cake, the bear wandered onto the Ahwanee's grounds and climbed one of their apple trees. We hurried out to the wedding lawn to see him/her, feeling safe-ish because of the presence of other humans. On a hiking trail I never would have gone toward a bear I knew to be present. But this one was up a tree, and the presence of other people reduced (statistically, at least) the chances of our being the ones mauled should such a thing occur. S/he was brown with golden points (though s/he was a black bear by breed) and seemed content chomping the apples. About fifteen people stood at what we thought was a reasonable distance from the tree, except for a pair of children in bicycle helmets whose parents allowed them to stand at the base of the tree for a better view. I was so absorbed by the sight of the animal feasting on apples that I didn't even notice the kids until a hotel employee ran out and yelled, "whose children are these?" (Which is a lot better than "whose children were those?") -- causing the bear to drop some of his/her apples on the ground. The kids pointed at some adults in the very far distance, and the guy with the name tag went toward the adults, calling out, get your kids (or something like that), while the children returned to the tree.

At which point, two park rangers arrived and made everyone, ourselves included, go away from the wedding lawn and its bear. It was a good thing no one was trying to get married there on Friday afternoon.

I slept better that night, though not nearly as well as I would in my own bed. I listened to the brook. Saw an unbelievable array of bright stars dripping down to the horizon. I knew better than to listen for bears -- a ranger had told me you don't hear them unless they're getting into your food. If you hear a big animal, she said, it's mule deer, or it's other campers, stumbling around in the dark, trying to get their bear safety boxes opened or closed. The ones you hear, they're the ones who can't sleep.

Bear photo via

More by Jenny Burman:
Agri business
Sleepless in Yosemite
Woody Guthrie Bastille Day in the hood with superheroes
July 4 in Los Angeles
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