Yosemite Valley holds a special place in our family’s heart. Its roots run deep in my wife’s matriarchal lineage, as her mom’s family were Central Valley ranchers that would sometimes run their cattle into the park decades ago. To be fair, my East coast self had barely heard of it before moving out to California in the nineties, but its magic gripped me instantly and I fell for it hard. After meeting my wife we spent many weeks in the area on long backpacks through the Sierra, then eventually fled our weekday jobs every Friday evening to escape to the peacefulness and sanctity of hanging from its granite walls. The thought that our boys would grow up any differently was never an option – our oldest was “baptized” in Fern Spring at the age of 15 days, and our youngest was dunked into the icy waters of Lake Tenaya at a mere month old. As we get older our trips to the Valley have gotten a bit more infrequent, but we still try to fit them in a couple times a year. It’s hard now that we have so many other places on the planet that we love (Joshua Tree, the Alps, the East Bay Hills), and yet there’s really no feeling like seeing the soaring walls of El Cap from the meadow as the sun sets behind the rocks.
October is one of the times that my wife traditionally takes the boys up for a camping trip on their Fall Break and this year was no exception. They loaded up the bikes on the roof and crushed some big loops on the valley trails this trip – exploring habitation sites, swimming in the river, and discovering the best secret beaches that shoulder season has to offer. They were so fired up on their return that the excitement was contagious, and I immedaitely began scheming for a trip up there of my own. At first it started as a leave-the-kids-behind and go crush a big running loop idea, which eventually morphed into a whole family camping trip, which finally ended up as a Boys Trip to the Valley when my wife had to stay home for work.
I ran out of the doors from my classroom at 3:30 PM sharp, beating even the high schoolers out the door, and swooped by the boys’ school to pick them up at 3:45. We were on the road before 4:00 PM, the magic hour at which traffic begins to gradually get more and more insane fleeing the Bay Area on a Friday. We made pretty good time cruising some back roads to Highway 120 and pulled into our dusty and slightly unaesthetic campsite in Upper Pines about 9:30 PM. Unless you’re on a ledge on a wall the campsites are not the attraction for me in the park – it’s more about the easy access to the natural beauty and trails that surround them. I had floated the idea of a big hike on the drive up, proposing that we attempt the Upper Yosemite Falls trail which climbs out of the valley and up to the Northern Rim. At first my little guy muttered something about it being “too hard” – I let it go and decided to address it in the morning when they were more rested and had woken up amongst the magic. I had planted the seed and that was really my intention.
One of my favorite moments in the Sierra was at the end of our Sierra High Route adventure in 2007. We had spent 35 days of our summer moving south to north on Roper’s off-trail linkup, following vague descriptions in his guidebook as we stayed above tree-line and walked over endless talus fields in paradise. We had no idea how long the trip would take, and ended up planning quite short days that we were stuck with as we had friends and families meeting us at set times and locations for our resupplies. We had no cell phones, GPS, or .gpx routes to follow, and so we meandered at a slow pace, really having time to soak in the wilderness and the majestic crest. At the time it felt as slow as molasses – I remember getting frustrated that we were often done hiking by 1 PM and had nothing to do but circumnavigate the lake and fish until we caught dinner. At this point in my life I would trade a lot for a todo list that included exactly those things and nothing more. At the end of that thru-hike my wife and I spent our last peaceful night on the shores of McGee Lake, north of Tuolumne Meadows, and it hit us – we were going to have kids soon, and this was probably the last trip we would be on up there in the high mountains alone. We had no idea what the adventures of our future would look like, but we knew they would be different than that one.
Fast-forward more then a decade and there I was, waking up with my 7 and 10 year old on a very cold November morning in Yosemite Valley. They were turning into extremely strong hikers and outdoorsmen of their own, having completed a 6 day backpack and off-trail adventure through Sequoiah National Park in August of 2018 and crushing a big trip through the French Alps in July of 2019. I thought that they were ready to hike out of the valley on foot, and so we set off for the trailhead as soon as we were warm enough to be able to crawl out of the tent.
I spend a lot of time thinking about rites-of-passage in our modern US culture (and more accurately how we really don’t have any for kids anymore). I have been working with 13-17 year olds for almost twenty years now, and the one recurring pattern that I see class after class and year after year is that the transition from a kid to a teenager to an adult is very nebulous and fuzzy at times. Many cultures have a defining moment of when a kid turns into an adult – a ceremony, a task that they must perform, a vision quest or hunt that they must complete. And yet we just kind of say “ehh, when you’re 18 you are an adult, because you can buy cigarettes and serve your country”. It feels artificial and forced and it leaves kids confused and longing for more – which unfortunately can lead to some negative consequences, such as gangs, risky behavior, and falling in with the “wrong crowds”. The truth is that the kids are not to blame – they are searching for something that we, the adults and mentors of the community, are not providing. What else are they supposed to do?
And so as we began our journey up to the rim I began to introduce the idea of a “rite of passage” with my boys. I discussed how it was one step toward growing up, and we began recalling how much time they had spent in Yosemite Valley already in their short lives. And yet, they had never hiked out of the Valley floor and up to the Rim. It was going to be hard, and they were going to have to dig deep, but I assured them that I knew they were more than capable. It must be an interesting situation growing up with two ultra-running parents that are always pushing and rediscovering their own physical limits. Just like we as adults are always stronger than we think we are, I firmly believe that kids are always stronger than they think they are. It’s our job to present them with a safe and fun arena to explore their boundaries and limits.
We started in hats and down jackets and by Columbia Rock we had stripped down to shorts and t-shirts. I packed all of our extra clothes into the over-filled day pack and began schlepping up the trail. The boys were cruising – the oldest taking the lead and confidently power hiking up the incline, while the little guy dragged a bit behind at times but rallied and caught up without too much of a problem. The flat middle section came at just the right point and they were propelled by the small group of hikers along the way that couldn’t believe they were heading all the way to the top. A spring greeted us about two thirds of the way up, and Sage examined it and traced the water back to its source before declaring that it would be clean enough to drink on the way down (I had our Steri-pen but very much appreciated his assessment!) It got hotter and hotter but we kept on passing more and more adults as they sputtered and stalled in the final steep switchbacks climbing out to the rim. The boys kept pushing and Dev kept asking when we would be at the top. I told him at one point “You’ll know when you’re on the rim!” and as soon as he got close he sprinted ahead to the trail junction before turning around and declaring “Dad, we made it to the rim!”
The falls were incredibly dry this time of year, with barely a trickle of water pouring out of the prominent V shaped notch and down to the ledges below. A fellow hiker on the way up told us that the water was so low that you could go explore the pools right before the notch – an area usually off limits, especially with kids. We decided to go check out the pools and post up there or a quick lunch break. The boys basked in the elation of their climb as they threw stick boats in the water, ate crackers and guacamole, and I jumped in for a quick frigid dip in Yosemite Creek.
We were meeting friends at the campsite for Saturday Night S’mores, so while we could have sunned on the granite slabs and soaked in the pools all afternoon we eventually had to begin our descent. It was here that the true magic of the trip hit me – it was like ten years of successful, attachment parenting in the outdoors had come to fruition with the flip of a switch. My little guy turned on his auto-pilot and achieved a flow state that only happens on the best of days in the mountains, as he floated nimbly down the 3000 feet of switchbacks on his descent back to the valley floor. He was hopping and skipping over the rocks and steps, weaving between the other hikers inching their way up the climb, doing double takes as he whizzed past their knees. True to his personality, my older guy was keeping up through sheer determination and persistence, but was definitely calculating every single step and thinking about very single foot placement. Just as we had to take a few breaks for the little one on the way up we stopped for the big guy on the way down so he could “let his eyes rest a bit”. They were tired from looking at all the individual rocks, and while we munched on Halloween Kit-Kats I mentioned to him “imagine how I felt after 31 hours of that” to which he laughed as he finally got it.
We hit the valley floor less than six hours after we started, including our break for lunch and a swim at the top. The boys were elated, exhausted, and getting hungrier by the minute. We paused for a moment on the way back to the car to stare up at the notch in the wall and appreciate our efforts – Dev could literally not believe that was where we just enjoyed lunch over an hour ago. I was a Proud Papa in the biggest sense of the term – I had pushed the edge of their hiking abilities while still keeping it fun, and more importantly let them explore their own perceived limits and physical abilities. It’s one of the best lessons that moving in the mountains can teach us; the next time they have a hard situation in life, whether it’s at school, on the soccer pitch, or with one of us they can think back to hiking out of the Valley and remember how tough and strong they really are. And just like with any rite of passage, as they stuffed themselves on marshmallows around the fire that night, they were one small step (and one giant climb) closer to becoming a man.