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