Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Bearly Famous Yosemite Trip – a Cautionary Tale

Yosemite Valley, a symphony in granite.


I love to camp and have spent many happy days swatting mosquitoes out in the wilds. But, sad to say, not all camping trips are successful. One that stands out in my family’s memory is the one to Yosemite.

   My husband and I had looked forward to it for a long time and finally one year carefully chose the perfect sites in the valley floor campgrounds. But nature skunked us in more ways than one.

   That winter floods destroyed those campgrounds and my husband was ill and  on chemo-therapy. But my daughter Heather and I were certain between the two of us we could handle the children and the work of camping so he could relax and the kids could be exposed to the grandeur of granite. Hah!

   She borrowed a VW camping van to simplify things. We had our non-camping van but lots of tents. We took one moody pre-teen, Juju, Heather took another, Jasper, and her other two children, Eva and Cooper.

   Little had we reckoned on the Park Service greed. Having lost hundreds of campsites it was determined to make its revenues and shoved everyone into one campground. A hundred or so of us had to share one restroom, one sink and one faucet. There were always long lines.

   There was a heat wave and the campground was buried under four inches of dust after all the wear and tear, and it was overrun with ground squirrels. The first thing that leaped to my mind was Hantavirus.

   “Don’t feed the squirrels, kids, no matter how cute they are,” I kept shouting.

   Still things might have been fine except for the “bears”. The ranger manning the gate took one look at my pretty, then single, daughter, swelled out his chest and told her how he had bravely faced down a bear the night before.

   Heather bit. She gasped and said, “I better have my children sleep in the van.”

   “Pooh, bears open a van like it was a tuna fish can. We had a mountain lion here last week, too.”

   My husband and I had camped in bear country, though she had not, and we knew our bear hygiene, so weren’t alarmed but Heather was frantic. We carefully packed all the food and toiletries in the clumsy bear box.

   We set up a couple tents and I strung a hammock for my husband, who found it uncomfortable and went into a tent to nap. Jasper took over the hammock so he could brood about not having been able to bring his buddies. Juju pouted because she wanted to swim. She also wanted a turn in the hammock.

   Cooper and Eva discovered that the battery operated mister fans I had bought them could be recalibrated  to shoot like water guns and promptly filled them with melting ice from the ice chests. Sudden screams from the older kids revealed their targets.

   There were so many bear alarms I decided imaginary bears were worse to camp with than real ones. I finally announced, “The only time I want to hear the word bear is when one is behind me and about to bite me. Got it?”

   Camp set up we set off for the valley. We were really eager to show the kids the magnificence of Yosemite. But just a mile down the road Heather’s VW broke down. Fortunately the chest-beating ranger was behind her and offered to rebuild her engine with his Swiss army knife and her can opener (he soon bailed but she replaced the fan belt with her butter knife).  We took as many kids as we had seat belts. Jasper volunteered to stay behind so he could brood some more.

   The younger kids complained about the heat. Juju still pouted because she wanted to swim. We promised them popsicles from the store in the valley if they’d just be patient and admire rocks and waterfalls on the way.

   The line at the store was over an hour long especially as everyone in line spoke a different language the clerk didn’t understand. Even the kids realized their Popsicles would melt before we could pay for them and agreed to slushies from a hand cart outside.

   On our way back to camp we stopped by the river so Juju could swim. I was tired of complaints so must confess to enjoying the look on her face when she jumped in and realized the river was freshly melted snow. The famous swim lasted 30 seconds.

   While we were gone, Heather’s fears of bears had been intensified by her ranger friend. We began cooking dinner. More campers had arrived and our space had been reduced to something smaller than my bathroom at home. The squirrels were relentless; so were the kids.

   “Eek!” I screamed when I got shot in the back with ice water. “Eva, don’t shot me without asking me first.”

   “But Cooper won’t let me shoot him. He’s a nose booger.”

   “He is not a nose booger. Cooper, don’t feed the squirrels. Jasper, let Juju have a turn in the hammock. She’s allowed to brood, too.”

   Suddenly a space I thought was part of our campsite was taken over by revelers on Harleys.

   Heather, whom my husband and I had nicknamed the “food Nazi’, had brought seaweed chips as snacks. I had brought the makings of s’mores. This led to frustration for both of us.

   “Oh, lighten up. A couple marshmallows won’t kill them.”

   The kids agreed and ate a lot more than a couple getting belly aches. Mom is always right.

   The crummy bear box was difficult to manage. We finally got everything in and between Heather and I we got it slammed shut.

   “I forgot to brush my teeth,” Cooper announced. Naturally, the toiletries were behind all the food.

   I obediently stood in the ladies room line. Some young women had stripped to waist and were using the sinks to bathe since there were no showers. Two young French men ignoring the line, barged in and took over a sink and began their ablutions. When asked to leave they sneered at us. One woman went to find the bear-fighting ranger who had, of course, left for the night.

   Finally, scared by ghost stories, terrified by bears, the kids went to bed and us exhausted adults climbed in the sack and tried to sleep.

   That’s when we discovered our biker neighbors had had chili with beans for dinner. Then the Vietnam veteran on the other side had a flashback nightmare. He sounded just like an enraged bear. The kids woke screaming, as the vet’s wife soothed him back to sleep.

  In the morning I dutifully waited in line for water to make coffee. Heather and I battled because I had made bacon – I always bring it camping just because it smells so good to wake up to. I agreed the nitrites would probably kill the kids instantly, “But they can smell it can’t they?”

   “So can the bears!” she wailed.

   Our ranger friend showed up again with more bear stories. I refrained with difficulty from hitting him in the kisser with my bacon spatula. But then he announced more campers were expected since the weekend was approaching and the heat would reach 109 degrees in the park that day.

   That did it. My husband and I looked at each other and began packing. We bailed, leaving behind hantavirus, imaginary bears, rude Frenchmen, gassy bikers, and growling vets. Air conditioner going full bore we crossed the Central Valley at 117 degrees, making only one pit stop. Heather was not far behind us.

   We made up our differences on the phone that night and she designed a T-shirt with paw prints on the back that said, “We bearly made it out of Yosemite.”

   From now on I will stay in lodgings in Yosemite. The Park Service has done the same things for the pleasure of camping that airlines have done for the pleasure of tra