How Yosemite Changed My Life

Over the past week I’ve been trying to put my love for Yosemite into words. I wanted to show why I need to hike all of the trails there. I imagine this is what it’s like writing wedding vows. How do you concisely describing your love and awe for something that’s so complex and amazing?

Two days ago I even took a spontaneous trip to Yosemite. I was trying to find the words for my love. I hadn’t been back since I moved away last year and it was surreal and wonderful. It was like coming home. As always she made me involuntarily laugh and sing. I’m a better person when I am there: I’m more relaxed, nicer and helpful. I even gave some tourists directions! It was so good to see old friends, both former co-workers and the Park itself. I left with a full heart.

I blame Stephen Mather for my love for Yosemite. It was his idea to offer free educational programs in the National Park System. All of the Ranger walks and presentations that I’ve attended taught me what’s around me. I learned the names of the plants and stories about the animals. I learned how Yosemite Valley was formed and how it became a National Park. Now that I know about it, I’ve come to love it and I want to protect it. And that was Stephen Mather’s master plan. Get people to love the National Parks so that we protect them.

Over the year and a half that I lived and worked in Yosemite, I attended 56 programs, which then led me to read 29 ecology books. I don’t say this for bragging rights, but rather to show you my level of obsession with all things Yosemite.

Although I did attend many art classes through the Yosemite Conservancy, most of the programs that I went to were Interpretive programs. An Interpretive Program is much more than a tour guide spouting off facts to an audience. It’s an engaging program where information is presented in a relatable manner to a visitor’s own experience, with the hope to provoke an emotional connection, new thoughts or to inspire action.

Yosemite’s educational programs changed me. One of these educational programs helped me to get over my debilitating fear of the dark. From watching Ron Kauk’s documentary, Return to Balance, a Climber’s Journey, my outlook changed. Ron is a rock climbing legend, but I think of him as the person who gave me my freedom. His documentary led me to stop focusing on my fear of spooky shadows, but instead on how everything is connected, both the stalking mountain lions and the peaceful granite walls. That night after the show, I walked home by myself from the Yosemite Theater to the Ahwahnee dorms! That is something I’d tried many times before with a flashlight and chickened out, but this time, with a new mindset, I walked by the light of the moon. Thank you Ron.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I took my mom to her first art class ever. We set up easels along the edge of Liedig Meadow and painted Yosemite Falls. It’s shocking to me that mom didn’t even have art class in grade school, because she is very creative and she encouraged me to earn my Bachelors in Sculpture. It was an honor getting to see my mom discover her new passion for painting. Thank you Karen!

I was a regular at the Interp programs, often going to the same presentation more than once.

One memorable Ranger walk was in December of 2016. I brought my out-of-town-company to Ranger Dick Ewart’s program. I’d previously been on his snowshoeing walk, so I knew that he had a dead mole in his jacket pocket that he was going to scare the crowd with it. The whole time I keep I was giddy with anticipation. I was in on the joke. And sure enough one person screamed! It was such a great program, (besides the screaming,) getting to learn about how the animals and the trees survive the winter. (Ranger Dick has since retired, so I’m not giving away his surprise. Thank you Ranger Dick! I learned so much from you!)

It was to my utmost disappointment that I  had to work almost every Saturday, making me miss one of my favorite programs: Ranger Ben Cunningham- Summerfield’s  “Ahwahneechee stories and games.” Ranger Ben led his tour group from the Indian Cultural Museum to the local elementary school, pointing out the native plants and their uses. I loved learning this valuable knowledge, like how to get clean using Soap Root or how to make a whistle from an acorn. Once at the school, he’d show us how to throw a 6 foot long dark, called an Atl Atl. Thinking about it gets me all revved up! It is so much fun hurling a huge dark across the baseball field!

IMG_2720 The moment I decided that I’d enjoy being an Interpretive Ranger was when Ranger Erik Westerlund inspired a large group to line up and smell a tree. Even grown men did this of their own volition! Ranger Erik set the ground work by telling us that we can identify a Jeffery Pine if the bark smells like butterscotch. Who doesn’t want to smell butterscotch?! This was an immediate result of an effective Interpretive Program, but what really inspires me is imagining all of the unknown positive effects from these Interp programs.

I’d like to blend my love for Interp with my passion for Braille. Right now I’m in school learning how to read and write in Braille. I’d love to create the tactile illustrations for children’s books and write about nature (in Braille of course). I’m passionate about codes, interactive art, and contributing to the world in a meaningful way. I’m excited to see what’s great things are in store in the future!

Earlier I mentioned Stephen Mather’s great idea of how to get us to want to protect the National Parks. I first heard of Mather while out for a walk in Yosemite Valley. I was on a bridge when I came across a bronze plaque with his name on it. I shared this with my boyfriend and he gushed about Mather (he’s a big fan). He wanted to know where did I find it? I made him work for it. I turned this into a scavenger hunt. When he got stuck I’d periodically give him clues. (I’ve already given you two clues.) He could have googled the answer, but where’s the fun in that?

Mather was the first Superintendent of the National Park System. Subsequently, because of all of the good that he did, this plaque is in many of the National Parks and Monuments. Have you seen them before?

It was the inscription that spurred me on to reevaluate my life:

Stephen Tyng Mather

July 4, 1867 – January 22, 1930

“He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”

This got me thinking about what good did he do and how did I not know about it? This led me to learn more about him and to attended a live performance on his life and to read a biography about his life. He inspires me to create a lasting legacy. I want to leave behind an endless amount of good.

Do you know where to find Mather’s plaque in Yosemite? Keep an eye out for it on your next visit. And if you already know where it’s at, please don’t give it away in the comments. Leave it as a mystery for everyone else to discover.

This was Day 4 of the 31 Day series on the Summer of Service, planning a 800-mile backpacking thru-hike of Yosemite National Park.

Summer of Service Table of Contents

Day 3: What do I need? A map.

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