Falling in Love with Mountains, Pebbles, and Waterfalls: Our Relationship with Place

Yosemite Valley, Merced River, El Capitan--Yosemite National Park, California. I love Yosemite's meadows as much as I do its mountains and cliffs.

Most of us have memories of falling in love with someone.  And I’m not just referring to that first love that often occurs in high school and never goes away.  No, I’m talking about finding the first perfect love, or what at the time seemed to be perfect, when we were mature enough and experienced enough to recognize that we had stumbled upon something that would never be repeated and that would be with us forever, even if that intangible “something” must persist only in recollection.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

I hear people reminisce about such relationships all the time.  In some cases they’re still with the man or woman who helped create such happy memories.  Often, though, there is an underlying tone of longing and regret that accompanies the remembrance of something lost.  Such people talk about how idyllic it all was, and how nonetheless there were also moments of pain and sadness that acted as counterbalances to the more euphoric periods.  They speak at great length of how they felt, how they behaved, how reality itself was transformed by their contact with this other being.  They remember the strangest details, the most irrelevant and trivial facts only because such minutiae coincided with their fleeting encounter with contentment.  It may be that one day at lunch a loose strand of hair dangled over their lover’s glacier-blue eyes and somehow made them especially attractive.  Or it may be something as silly as the name of the waiter where they had an incredible dinner one night.

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California

I have no such memories, at least not in connection with one specific girl.  I’ve been in love before, but I’ve never been in what seemed to be a perfect relationship.  When people  tell me how in love they are and how wonderful everything is as a result, instead of thinking back to a time with someone, I think of my relationship with some place.  I think of mountains, snow, sheer cliffs and waterfalls.  Images of undulating green meadows and towering sequoias stream through my mind and I am inundated with thoughts of lying alone next to rushing rivers, swinging my legs over bottomless canyons, or sitting in rocking chairs talking to curious strangers and random tourists.

I recall standing for hours in Yosemite Valley peering up at moonlit cliffs to see climbers flash lights on and off all through the night, or standing in the same spot during the day convincing myself that I could actually see these people working their way to the top of their climbing routes.  I remember anonymous little pebbles in the river that fascinated me for no reason at all.  I think of staring captivated at the glint of the guard rail at Glacier Point, 3,200 ft above Curry Village, riding the shuttle round and round the valley for no reason except that I had nothing better to do, or wading up and down the Merced one day and coming across a middle aged woman with a wide smile doing exactly the same thing.

From the trail to the brink of Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California. Most of the rest of the photos are from 2000 and were taken with a point and shoot film camera.

These memories are my point of reference when anyone speaks to me of being in love.  It’s odd, really, because I went to Yosemite with this naïve, romantic notion that I would find a girl there and we would fall in love.  If my boyish fantasy had been realized, I’m sure that instead of always speaking obsessively (and monotonously) about nature, I would spend my time remembering that girl and the relationship she and I had together.  I would do so with a smile, and perhaps I would let escape a hint of regret over losing what seemed to be so perfect.  I would not forget the cliffs, the waterfalls, and the odd people I came to know, nor would I fail to remember what a wonderful place Yosemite is, but these memories would be dimmed, and they would rest concealed in the shadow of other memories.

But as it happens, I did not fall in love with that girl, though I’m sure I might have had I gone about things differently.  So instead of speaking today about how she and I met and how I’ll never forget our time together, I talk yet again of inanimate cliffs and stoic monoliths, as if I had fallen in love with a park and not a person–because that’s just what happened.

From Eagle Peak, about 3,000 ft. above Yosemite Valley.

Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon as seen from Glacier Point.

Vernal Falls, where the Merced River drops over a 317 ft. shelf before calming down and entering Yosemite Valley within about another half mile.

Yosemite Valley as seen from Half Dome, about 5,000 ft. above the valley. There's a much better picture of a similar view in the May or June 2011 issue of National Geographic.

North Dome, during a winter of rock slides and avalanches.

The only picture I have available at the moment of the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. See the buses parked along the road for scale.

For more national park photos, see the following recent posts:

National Parks Cure Melancholy

I don’t have a long, polished post in me for this weekend, so instead of writing something I’m going to share some pictures of national parks.  Over time I would like to profile each park I’ve been to, but for now pictures will suffice.  Whenever I’m sad or just plain grumpy, if I think of the leaping waterfalls of Yosemite, the sublime emptiness of Death Valley, or the convoluted chasms of the Grand Canyon, usually I feel a little better.  I’ll be back next week.  Have a good weekend.

Monument Valley, Navajo Nation (not a national park, but it protects sacred beauty in the same way)

Denali National Park, Mt. McKinley, Alaska

Redwood National Park, California

Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite National Park, California, looking down Tenaya Canyon from atop Half Dome (taken with a film camera in 2001)

 

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Arches National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Death Valley National Park, California

Be a Traveler

When I go somewhere new, I don’t want to be a tourist; I want to be a traveler. To tour is to touch the surface of something, to understand its general outlines, to arrive at a condensed summation of what it is. To travel is to penetrate deeper, to discern the nooks and crannies of a place and to become aware of its beautiful and ugly imperfections. It’s not the postcard picture that defines a place. The lifeblood of a place is everything the postcard leaves out. The postcard says nothing about a city’s slums and ghettos, or the people who live and toil there every day. A city that is stripped of its inhabitants, with their daily comings and goings, their problems, their hopes, their fears, and their dreams, is an empty shell, a vacuous ghost town. In a word, it is dead.

Iguazú Falls, Argentina

Likewise, one view of one sharp mountain peak leaves out the expansive range that peak is a part of. To understand the scope of the range, we must traverse its rugged contours, peer over its abrupt precipices, drink of its fresh lakes and rivers. Only then can we arrive at an intimate understanding of its immensity and scale. But even this understanding would be incomplete without an attention to the details: the trees, the mosses, the flowers, the birds, the bears, the marmots, the lizards, the bats, the bugs, everything that goes unnoticed, a favorite rock to lie down on, a gurgling spring, a misshapen tree trunk carved in the form of Richard Nixon’s face. Even with all of these details, we exclude a multitude of others. The mountain range’s features are infinite; its wealth of discoveries and marvels boundless.

The Andes, near the Argentina/Chile border.

When I arrive in a new city, or even when I arrive in a familiar one, I want to stroll its streets as just another pedestrian, to smell its air and watch its people as they go about their routines. I want to know their wishes and understand something of how they live. I want to talk to them in cafes, in markets, in plazas, and in parks. I want to see the uglier side of town, to know the vicissitudes of local life, and to learn about local preoccupations and partake in local customs. Anywhere I go, I want that place to tell me its story through the mouths of the people who live there, through their music and their dance, their laughter and their smiles, their tears and their sorrow. Let me decipher old buildings with my eyes, touch their decaying structures with my hands, read their history in the flaking paint and crumbling brick of their aging walls.

Drink it all in. Experience it all. Don’t let the opportunity to see something new, to feel something strange, disconcerting, and unexpected pass you by. Seek out the unknown, throw yourself off balance, challenge your conception of the world. Grow. Be a traveler.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Near Poás Volcano, Costa Rica

San José, Costa Rica

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