Friday, June 16, 2017


I've now washed everything from my backpacking trip except for a red bandana. If memory serves me correctly, my former students would have called it karipakku; something that you 'borrow' until it 'becomes yours'. There is a gentle undertone of thievery, but also a level of acknowledgement from the burgled party. Out of all the karipakku that I have amassed through the years, the red bandanna seems to have stuck with me the longest.

My friends and I loaded up our gear into the back of my new/used Rav4 on a Friday afternoon, checking with each other that we remembered all the supplies that the Yosemite wilderness would require. Do you think we have enough fuel? Will hiking poles actually help on this trail or will they just add weight? Are there bathrooms near Half Dome or should we pack the poop shovel? After reaching a 'close enough' consensus, the car door slammed shut and we headed East. A collection of CDs dating back to my high school days cycled through the speakers as the landscape grew wilder. Perfumed breezes and the calls of Stellar's Jays drifted through our open windows until finally, the crooked mountain road opened up into the park's wide mouth. "Welcome to Yosemite," greeted the ranger at the gate. The sun danced with the clouds over cascading waterfalls and around immense rock spires.

"Sorry guys," I said to my companions, "time to join the paparazzi." We stepped out of the car and waited for our photo-op in front of an impressive fall. We snapped a few more of us 'climbing' the miniature Half Dome statue, and agreed to tell people it was the real deal if we chickened out of the final ascent. Little did we know that it wouldn't be our lack of courage, but the guiles of Mother Nature that would disrupt our carefully laid plans.

Our first morning in the backcountry began with utter disbelief. "Is that... hail... ?" It was mid-June, and yes, it appeared to be hailing. After working so hard to win a lottery-based permit for one of the park's most infamous climbs, but we were forced to begrudgingly admit that the smooth granite face of Half Dome would be insurmountable with the current conditions. "Well, shit... whose got a Plan B?" Sitting on stumps and drinking coffee from a small boiler, we mulled over our options. "We could wait it out until tomorrow and try again, maybe? Find a baby hike around here today - something short and flat?" Seemingly the best option, the others went to the river to filter more water for the impromptu hike. I stayed behind and built a fire. The crackling logs began heaving life, and the hail hissed as it was consumed by the heat. The night's chill finally began to melt out of my body. It wasn't long before I had company, drawn in by the warmth.

Where are you from? What hikes are you doing? Can you believe this effing weather? As we chatted around the fire, strangers became tribe. There's something about fire that bonds people. You need extra fuel? Blankets? Yeah, we'll definitely take your unused ramen, thanks. I tied my red bandana around my braids to keep off the ashes as I stirred the fire. Wendy and Scott returned from the river, and I introduced them to the newcomers. As we discussed our hiking plans, three became five.

The trail we embarked upon wound through a forest that told its own fire story. Blackened trees spindled up to a payne's grey sky, and colorful birds landed on charred branches. We were relatively alone, although signs of fresh scat and claw marks indicated that bears were not far off. The morning's hail turned into a light snow, which floated silently through the black forest and down to a lush carpet of greenery and wildflowers. A stream emptied into several glittering pools and another waterfall gushed around a bend. The company laughed together and marveled at the wonder of the place; surely this was a forest meant for casting wishes in.

That night we had simple dinners from packets over an evening fire, and laughed until our bellies hurt. The snow had not let up through the course of the day, and it began to pick up as night fell. With the dipping nightly temperatures, it became important to retreat to shelter. I wished my new friends a fond farewell and stayed to put out the fire. Smoke curled around me and I savored a reflective moment alone, in the silent, snowy darkness.

Back in my tent, I untied my wet braids. It had become apparent that we would not be able to make our climb the following morning either. I smiled as I set my red bandana on my lap. It reeked of campfire. My cherished karipakku would be leaving Yosemite not with the memory of an adventure I had anticipated, but with the smell of one wholly unexpected.

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