As I lay asleep in the back of my parents’ pickup truck, they drive through the pitch-black forest, down the steep and winding Wawona Road. I wake up as the humming lullaby of the truck engine goes silent.
It’s 5 a.m.
Disoriented, I rub my eyes and stumble out of the truck to see a single nearby lamp post with its dim light being strangled by the night. Desperate to orient myself in the darkness, I look above and watch the silhouettes of pine trees sway in the wind, amidst the milky way and a sea of stars. The calming flow of the Merced River echoes off the granite valley, another sound in the symphony of the environment. I forget just how overwhelming nature can be. I forget just how much I miss Yosemite.
As a child, Yosemite National Park was my favorite place to be. I looked forward to my family’s yearly pilgrimage from our suburban house in Los Angeles to one of the valley’s many campsites that would act as my temporary home as I explored all its scenic wonders.
I remember proudly hiking the Mist Trail by myself at 6 years old, and how my dad whittled a hiking stick for me and nailed a metal Vernal Fall pin to the staff, commemorating the occasion.
I remember excitedly visiting every visitor center throughout the valley at 10 years old, soaking up more science and history than any school could teach me.
At 12 years old, I remember the first of many encounters with bears, sneaking up on us in the night as we made ourselves cozy in the campfire.
With each passing year, Yosemite felt more and more like my second home. It was a place apart from the chaos and stresses of suburban life. As a child unknowingly suffering from mental illnesses exacerbated by the business of Los Angeles, Yosemite was a refuge.
But with a growing popularity that has brought dense crowds, visitor limits that make it almost impossible to get in and modern infrastructure creeping into the park to maintain the hordes of guests over the years; the national park can often feel as wild as Disneyland.
At least with Disneyland I can get in whenever I want.
“It was always difficult to get reservations for a campsite,” said Sharon Gyselaar, 72, a Yosemite veteran who has been camping in the valley since the 1970s. “But in the last 15 years, it’s been impossible.”
It has been 10 years since she last visited Yosemite.
As far back as the 1990s, guests would have to make reservations for campsites six months in advance due to the high demand and limited availability of campsites. This time limit was also the earliest guests were allowed to make reservations, which meant everyone calling the same phone number at the same time.
“Gail Sunyough and I would wake up at 6 a.m. and start calling the reservation offices as soon as it opened. It would take days or weeks of trying before we could get through,” Gyselaar said.
She and her friend would share responsibility obtaining sites for both families.
The method was akin to calling a radio station for concert tickets. Now, guests are able to make reservations online, but the model resembles its phone model on a first come, first served basis that anyone in the world can access.
“It was easier back when no one knew the phone number. At least fewer people from out of country made reservations,” Gyselaar said.
The cost of international calls and the frequency one needed to call to make reservations may have deterred many from attempting the tedious process.
Those without reservations are not forbidden from entering the park for the day, but recently these visits have seen delays of 2-3 hours in the normal summer hours due to overcrowding.
It has been 12 years since I last made Yosemite my temporary home. Now that I am an adult, it is on me to make the reservations and the long trip through Wawona Road in the dead of night. While getting reservations is possible through the online National Parks Service website, it is never a guarantee.
In addition, planning a trip so far in advance without any guarantees of good weather or notices of possible closures makes the endeavor risky in our fast-paced world today.
Between global warming causing fires and droughts or the massive influx of visitors polluting and crowding the hiking trails, I also wonder if Yosemite will be anything like how I remember it; the picturesque landscape just outside the grasp of the civilized world.
But I fear that time has passed.