(The following is a memoir piece I’ve been working on off and on for several years about my family’s annual camping trips to Yosemite in the late 1950s and 1960s)
In August, my middle class family packed up our ’56 Chevy Bel Air red and white station wagon and left our suburban L.A. home to camp among the cool pines of the Yosemite Valley. We left in the wee hours of the morning to avoid driving in the oppressive Central Valley heat. My older brother, Steve, and I would occupy the “way back,” converted into a bed with layers of soft quilts. This functioned as our sleeping and play area. Seat belts were not even thought of back then. There was no digital world in the late 1950s and early 1960s so upon awakening we would occupy ourselves by reading our stash of comic books and Mad Magazines. We would play endless card games of War. When we were tired of that we would sing folk songs in lively two-part harmony, our parents joining in on “I’ve been working on the Railroad, Suwanee River, Clementine, or our favorite, “the Titanic ”.
We were a young post-War family. Camping was an affordable way to take 2 adults and 3 children on a two week vacation. I was maybe four years old when the tradition started, my older brother, Steve, seven. We started with a musty-smelling army surplus umbrella-style tent. It was olive drab, dark inside, and cramped with four cots. When my younger brother Jeff was born, we upgraded to a one-wheeled tent trailer that my father could skillfully maneuver into the tightest of campsites.
Dad made painted plywood boxes that slid into the four compartments that opened up on the sides of the trailer. Each box was carefully organized into food, dishes, and utensils. My parents slept on the bed. We kids slept on cots in heavy rectangular Dacron-filled sleeping bags that were covered in dark green canvas and lined with red tartan plaid flannel.
The steep descent into Yosemite Valley was magical as we entered a world of steep granite walls punctuated with cascading waterfalls. After we drove the campground loops numerous times.my mother would finally declare the perfect campsite. We always stayed in Camp 11 (since renamed to Upper Pines years ago). A rope was strung around the perimeter of our campsite from which my parents hung bedsheets my mother had dyed a color similar to postwar elementary school green. Our privacy secured, my brothers and I were instructed to collect armloads of pine needles to spread about the campsite for what my mother called “wall to wall pine needles”. Once camp was set up, we kids were set free. It didn’t take much time to connect with other children in the campground and with our new friends we were off climbing boulders, chasing chipmunks, and playing in the nearby creek.
In the morning I would wake to the “shhhhhhh” of the Coleman stove. My parents would be up fixing breakfast. Our favorites were a can of Spam sliced thin and fried to crisp perfection or a can of Hormel corned beef hash opened on both ends, removed , sliced, and then browned to a crisp in a frying pan. These delicacies would accompany sunny-side-up fried eggs with plenty of ketchup. There would be hot chocolate made with real milk in a pot. All this would be served on sturdy melamine dishes of different pastel colors with our camp utensils with plastic handles .
In Yosemite I shed the skin of my awkwardness. For 2 weeks I was a mountain sprite. I would run about the pine trees. My keds had a satisfying grip on the granite boulders I climbed. My older brother and I would spend hours playing in the creek that flowed behind our campground. I would turn over rocks and marvel at the alien-looking creatures I would find- later finding out they were various types of larvae. Minnows and tadpoles were quick to elude our hands but eventually, some would be taken back to camp in a glass jar to be proudly shown off. My mother packed tin snips and brought a supply of empty tin cans with the ends still attached. We would sit at the table and cut and pull flaps out of the can. Then we would pound a hole with a nail into each end of the can and then push a stick through the two holes eventually forming a primitive water wheel. Then off we would go placing our water wheels strategically between rocks in the creek. We were filled with delight as the current turned the wheels in the tiny channels. When we tired of water wheels we would build sailboats out of scrap wood for the hull, sticks for the masks, and triangles of cut-up old sheets for sails with hand tools my father packed just for this purpose. Again we would fashion these at the campsite picnic table and then race off to sail our boats in the creek.
In the afternoons we walked to the Camp Curry store, its creaking wood floor polished smooth by scores of visitors. We bought Charms suckers, a Yosemite treat and nursed them on the walk home with tongues in shades purple or red. As long as we were back to camp by appointed times, we were free to roam.
Daily camp life was punctuated with special activities. We always hiked to a waterfall. There were numerous waterfalls in the valley among them Bridalveil, Nevada, Horsetail, Sentinel, Yosemite Falls, and others. Among those, Vernal Falls was our favorite family hike. The trailhead started at Happy Isles up to the first viewpoint and up the Mist trail to its base. The falls in those days was a torrent of white water thundering down the granite to the boulders below. The hike was steep up the sides of the canyon but worth the spectacular view through the cool mist that the falls generated.
My father was one of those dads that went to work every day and came home through the front door late. We didn’t see much of him except on weekends. He always seemed to make sure to give us his time during these camping trips. He rented the well-worn bikes for us and we would ride together. At one point I was so young, maybe four years old at most that I rode in a child’s seat on his handlebars. Safety wasn’t thought of too much in the late 1950s. I remember sitting in that red, hard vinyl seat, gripping curved chrome rails, absolutely petrified as we rode around the valley seemingly at high speed. There was one summer where he rented mules for my little brother and me to ride on. I was in heaven perched upon my big white mule, Snowball. Jeff, maybe 3 years old, was in front on a dark brown mule. Dad was leading us down a dusty trail when Snowball bit Jeff’s mule in the rear end. In an instant poor little Jeff was bucked off his indignant ride and was sprawled on the side of the trail wailing as only a small child can. He refused to get back up on his mule. We had to turn around and head back to the stable ending my dream ride. My brother has never ridden another mule or horse again.
On hot afternoons we would all head over to a swimming hole on the Merced River by the swinging bridge. The bridge was suspended across the river with cables and a base made of joined planks. When you walked across the bridge it undulated with your weight. For a child, it was a most satisfying experience to jump up and down to create “waves” in the bridge and then hang onto the cables to keep your balance. The hanging bridge has since been replaced by a fixed bridge but for us retains the name, Hanging Bridge in its memory. We brought a picnic lunch and inner tubes. Once when I was maybe four years old I was floating blissfully down the river almost out of sight before my parents noticed I was missing. My father ran downstream to catch me bravely wading out in the water even though he couldn’t swim.
We had this ritual of setting up a peanut string or two to provide both the Stellars Jays and ourselves some entertainment. This involved tying peanuts in their shells every 5 inches on a piece of brown twine. The stringed peanuts would be tied to two trees that were fairly close together. The jays in all their fine feathers of royal blue and stylish head crest would quickly spy the string and swoop down for a seemingly easy treat. Unfortunately for them would have to employ more than their usual scavenger tactics. We would sit in our chairs or lie in the hammock watching as the jays would latch onto the string and then go round and round on the string like trapeze artists in the circus. They would flap their wings and squawk in frustration trying to extract the peanut. We would laugh our heads off with their antics. Eventually, a persistent jay would get a peanut but it would take a lot of effort
Seeing a bear was always not uncommon but always an exciting event in Yosemite. In those days the garbage cans were numerous in the campgrounds with easy access lids. There was also an open dump where the collected garbage was disposed of. If you didn’t spot one in the campground, you could go down to the dump and watch the bears as they pawed through the trash. Even if you were mindful about not leaving food around your campsite, they frequently broke into cars, took out the ice chests, opened them, and had a feast. Not even a large canned ham was safe from their claws. You could hear them sometimes clattering about in the campground in the wee hours looking for something to eat. In the morning we were eager for the news of whose campsite was robbed or car broken into.
After the alpenglow faded from Halfdome, deer came to graze languidly in the meadows. Then night came and magical things happened. Flashlights came out and a campfire was lit. The evening meal was often something like Dinty Moore beef stew or Van Camp’s Pork and Beans with chopped up hot dogs. Then we would gather around the fire with our filthy faces and pitchy rear –ends and toast marshmallows and sing songs. The high point of the evening was the Firefall, an event that is now passing out of the consciousness of Yosemite history. Our family would walk over to a viewing point in a meadow, below Glacier Point and wait in anticipation, our flashlights making light doodles on the way. At 9 PM every night a voice rang out “Let the fire fall!” Down poured burning embers from 3000’ above from the top of Glacier Point at the termination of a ranger-led campfire program. It resembled a brightly glowing orange waterfall streaming down the face of the granite. We all oohed and awed, never tiring of this nightly spectacle. (note: in 1968 this practice ended due to environmental concerns). Then we walked back to camp to our bedtime. On warm nights Steve and I pulled the cots outside and slept out under the stars. I would scan the cosmos for shooting stars until I would drift off to sleep snug and warm in my sleeping bag.
Some years we camped at Wowona, about an hour’s drive up from the Yosemite Valley. Wowona lacked the grandeur we were accustomed to but there was a large creek that ran right by the campground, pine trees and lots of other children to play with so there were no complaints. My father along with some other dads pitched in and moved rocks in the creek to form a chute for us kids to ride our air mattresses in. We would take turns, plop on our air mattresses and shoot down the boulder-lined course with laughter. At the bottom we would drag our air mattress to the top and go down over and over again. We spent most of the afternoons doing just that, soaking wet, the gurgle of the creek in our ears, and filled with delight.
Wowona lacked the variety of hiking trails we were accustomed to. Still, Dad wanted to go on a hike. The only trail of any significance in the area was Chilnualna Falls, 8 miles roundtrip with a 22oo foot elevation gain. I was maybe 10 years old, my brother Steve 12. Jeff at 4 years old was too young to go along. I don’t remember too much about the actual hike other than the way up was long, steep and we took many rest stops along the way. It was a big accomplishment when we reached the top of the falls even though the actual falls were out of view down a steep ravine. Still, there was a fabulous view and a small waterfall farther up the granite plateau and a plethora of lovely pools to play in. Some of the smaller ones were perfectly round. I called them moon pools. After lunch I explored them as Steve went off to do his own explorations. I was fascinated by the squiggly creatures that rose up and down in some of the stagnant moon pools, realizing in later years that what I observed were mosquito larvae. Dad napped on a granite slab in the sun, content. We returned that day back to camp triumphant with our great accomplishment of summiting Chilnualna Falls. From my father’s talk, you would have thought we had conquered Everest and he often reminisced about that hike.
Three years ago my family and I trudged the 4 miles back up the Chilnualna Falls trail and had a celebration of my father’s life at the top of the falls per his request. It had been over thirty years since I had last been to Yosemite. I was shocked by the crowds in the valley. Climate change had taken its toll with drought and wildfires had taken their toll. Waterfalls were dry or barely a trickle. Still, the spirit of Yosemite greeted me like an old friend. I’m so grateful for my childhood memories there.
As a teenager the Yosemite camping trips ceased – but I never forgot them. They left an indelible mark on my young life. Just like glaciers sculpted Yosemite, Yosemite formed me. Later I became an ardent backpacker and outdoorswoman criss-crossing the Sierra Nevadas to discover all the hidden jewels those mountains had to offer and then beyond to Alaska. I went on to be a naturalist, middle school science teacher and ardent environmentalist. This was because I was allowed to explore and play in one of nature’s most grandest places every summer as a child.
Nature grounds us and makes us whole. The only way we will save this planet is to fall in love with the natural world so we will fight for it. The best time to do that is as a child. Still, no matter how old you are, go out into nature and play. Have an adventure. Bring your children. Find a river, a forest, a lake or other wild place. Pay attention with all your senses. It’s never too late to start.