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:

It’s Going to Be All Right: Rest In Peace, Grandpa

My grandfather, Albert Russell, passed away yesterday morning at age 83. Grandpa was a protector. He would come to the defense of anyone, not only those whom he knew and loved, but also complete strangers. He didn’t merely understand other people’s pain; he felt it. If you were lonely and lost in life, unsure of where to go or what to do with yourself; if you found yourself in the depths of an existential funk and could see no way out of it; when Grandpa furrowed his brow, grimaced at your words, and let out a quiet sigh, you knew that he suffered with you. And when he squinted his eyes, laid his hand gently on yours, and said, “You know, I think. . .,” you knew that he wanted to help you and that wise words would follow.

Grandpa’s empathy gave him an intimate understanding of the suffering that pervades this world, yet somehow, instead of subtracting from his hope for a better future, where fewer people suffered and more found contentment, his unique insight into the human condition impelled him to make the world better and to believe in the feasibility of the endeavor. 

He once told me that he wished the young understood that things improve, that there’s time for things to get better. So often youth feels like this binary experience of joy or sorrow, love or hate, hope or pessimism, and when we’re young we seem to leap back and forth from state to state. Grandpa was telling me that there were shades in between these states, that usually we would find ourselves in these grey, kinda/sorta regions of emotion and well-being, and that fluctuations were inevitable and natural. He told me that when you’re young, if you can figure out how to be patient, most of what ails you will melt away in time, and that while you have to do your part to press onward, you also have to learn to let the healing process play out on its own, to allow time a chance to flow, for its current to wash away your troubles or lay down new layers of experience on top of old ones. You have to live and have faith in life itself.

Grandpa, everything about you said, “It’s going to be OK.” And you were always right. I say that all the time to my students: “It’s going to be OK. You’re going to be all right.” But I don’t convey the reassurance half as well as you did. My students may be flipping out over losing a pencil, and even in this mild sort of circumstance I sometimes fail to calm them down and convince them that everything is all right; pens work just as well. You didn’t need to say anything at all to make everything seem right with the world. You embodied the message. Everything was all right because you were you.

You knew how to soothe. You knew how to see into a person’s soul and ease her worries, alleviate her fears with the calm tone of your voice and the melodic cadence of your speech, with its thoughtful pauses pregnant with quiet wisdom. You evoked patience in every expression, every gesture; in the way you punctuated sentences with your hands and in the way you raised them and lowered them as if you were synching your words to some beautiful rhythm that pervaded the world and that only you could hear. Maybe that’s why you told such gripping stories. Maybe the world was your metronome, and you set your words to its perfect beat.

We’re told often that we live in an age of decline, in which morals are eroding, families are fracturing, and life is losing meaning and purpose. But how can that be so when people like my grandfather lived, when people like him loved their children, who in turn loved their own children? Can we really credit ourselves now with short-circuiting the transfer of wisdom and love from one generation to the next that has seen us through thousands of years of catastrophes and challenges to our existence? How can we be as lost as we think we are when we descend from people like my grandfather (or your grandfather, your grandmother, your mother or your father), who saw a world war that killed tens of millions, lived through the threat of nuclear annihilation, and fought for racial and gender equality?

I love you, Grandpa.  I miss you.  Thank you for showing me how to be a good, compassionate man, and for raising my wonderful mother with Grandma.  You inherited from your parents and the community that brought you into this world strength, compassion, and kindness.  You carried these gifts with you through life, and with them you brightened the lives of everyone who knew you.  You passed these gifts on to your children, and they to their children, and we, your grandchildren, will strive to do the same.  The world isn’t broken; it’s going to be all right.  You were right, Grandpa.  You would know.