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

 

 

On the Trail of the Pack Rat Poet

Larger than lifesize murals of Neruda decorate the streets of Chile.

He was a poet beloved by the world. He was an ardent politician – a communist. He was a hero who once rescued 2000 people. Above all, he was a passionate collector, a true pack rat, who collected everything, including, it seems, women.

I wanted to know Chile, and to know Chile, I had to know Pablo Neruda, her most revered son.

I had read his work; loved most of it, excited by some of it, driven to righteous anger by much of it, impressed by it all. But because of his legendary collections, I realized to really get to know Neruda, I had to visit the pack rat’s houses.

Houses, plural. He built three. Yes, he collected those, too.

ISLA NEGRA


Living room at Isla Negra with ships’ mastheads. Photo courtesy Neruda Foundation.

There’s a small stone tower that defines the house, but Neruda kept adding to its structure to house his ever growing collections of ships items, pottery, shells, books, statuary – you name it.

He began working on the house with his second wife Delia del Carril. He had begun an affair with her while still married to his first wife, a Dutch woman, Maria Hagenaar, from Indonesia.

Delia, a gifted artist, his best editor and critic, and an ardent political colleague, was also from a privileged Argentine family with many servants. As such, she never learned such basic domestic skills as cooking, cleaning and entertaining. Neruda, a thorough Latin male, was no help, and was always adding to the construction-zone they lived in, so the early years of Isla Negra tended to be messy and chaotic, but fun.

Delia was 20 years Neruda’s senior and eventually, after 18 years of marriage, the latter years strictly platonic, he began an affair with Mathilde Urrutia who became his third wife. Delia got a form of revenge, though, through longevity. She lived to be over 100 and outlived both Neruda and Mathilde.

At Isla Negra Neruda built a bar that only he was permitted to tend since he loved dispensing drinks to his friends. He also beached a boat for cocktail parties saying one did not need to go to sea in a boat to feel unsteady if one brought a drink.

The drinking boat and ship’s bell to summon the neighbors.

 

He installed a great ship’s bell he would ring to let his neighbors know he was home and party was about to begin.

            In his living room he installed most of a collection of ships’ mastheads, reserving a couple nudes to surprise guests in other parts of the house. Artist friends contributed various works to Isla Negra as well as his other houses. In his dining room large windows look out over the sea and opposite, over the garden. He placed his collection of blue and green vinters’ jugs on the sea side, the earth-toned ones on the garden side.

            Galleries linking living spaces are lined with other collections: masks, pipes, Indonesian idols (he served as Chile’s ambassador to Indonesia in his youth – and had a passionate affair with a wild and violent native woman), sea shells, fabrics – you name it. On one wall is a plaque donated after his death to Isla Negra by the descendants of the Winnepeg. That was a Canadian fishing vessel he managed to commandeer in France that he used to rescue 2000 refugees from Spain’s Civil War who were dying in concentration camps.

            His writing studio features a desk made of a hatch cover . He saw it bobbing in the waves and told his third wife, Mathilde, “I see my desk coming.” He waited on the beach all day until the sea delivered it.

            His bed was set at an angle so he could see the sea from all directions. He had furniture built to maintain the angle after the housekeeper insisted on moving it to sweep.

            Towards the end, he lay ill and dying on the bed looking at his beloved sea. Pinochet, who had just murdered Neruda’s dearest friend and newly elected Chilean president, Salvatore Allende (uncle to Isabelle), ordered his soldiers to invade and trash the house of the communist poet.

            But when the young officer burst into the room,  Neruda said, “Look around  – there’s just one thing of danger for you here  – poetry.” The soldier was overwhelmed at actually seeing the revered Nobel Prize winner. He apologized, ordered his men out and left Neruda and Isla Negra in peace.

The bed at Isla Negra where he was last conscious. Towards the end, he lay ill and dying on the bed looking at his beloved sea. Pinochet, who had just  murdered  Neruda’s dearest friend and newly elected Chilean president, Salvatore Allende (uncle to Isabelle), ordered his soldiers to invade and trash the house of the communist poet.


LA CHASCONA

            Neruda  and his wife Delia had a house in Santiago but when he brought Mathilde to Santiago, the lovers bought a piece of property and began building a home for her as a trysting place. It is nowhere near the sea but Neruda and Mathilde’s  house still feels like a ship.

            Although Neruda was a tall and burly man, he favored small doors and narrow steep stairs like a ship. He designed an artificial stream to water his gardens and so he could always hear water – it no longer exists, alas. His dining room is long and narrow, like a captain’s dining saloon. Narrow walkways link living spaces, and secret back spiral staircases pop up everywhere.

            The house overlooks Bellavista, a poor working class neighborhood until Neruda moved in. Artists followed him, mingled with or grew out of the workers’ numbers until now Bellavista is the lively, colorful, Bohemian district Neruda envisioned when he built his home there.

            He called his house La Chascona which means woman with wild hair after Mathilde who sported an unruly mop of a vivid maroon shade of red still favored by some Latin American women.

            The artist Diego Rivera painted a portrait of her with Neruda’s distinctive profile emerging from her curls. It hangs in La Chascona.

            This home, sadly, Pinochet’s soldiers did tear apart, burning his books. They ripped out the artificial stream. All the while Neruda lay dying in a nearby hospital. But Mathilde insisted a few days later, after Neruda’s death, on holding his funeral amidst the flooded ruins in a pouring rain.

            The city rose in sorrow and protest, to march by the thousands behind his casket to the cemetery. They chanted a roll call: “Comrade Neruda. Present! Now and forever!” The foreign press was out in force so Pinochet was helpless to stop the brave procession

Mural painted for Neruda outside La Chascona, restored after Pinoichet’s fall..

LA SEBASTIANA

            As Neruda had loved blue-collar Bellavista, he also loved the tough working class of the gritty but colorful port of Valparaiso. He had fallen in love with the place when he was in hiding from a hostile government there, before he made a famous escape for his life over the Andes on horseback to Argentina.

            Valparaiso, or Valpo, as the locals dub it, cascades down 42 hills to the bay at its feet. Neruda chose a steep top peak for his home like a sea eagle’s eerie. He and Mathilde bought an unfinished home and began to reshape it to suit Neruda.

            Smaller than the other homes, the shiplike feeling still permeates this house. A porthole replaces a window, blue and green tiles in a bath suddenly take you underwater. The bedroom at the top of the house seems to hover over the sea port below. Mathilde’s dressing robes still hang in the closet.

This house, too, was demolished by Pinochet’s soldiers after his death. Mathilde got a frantic call from neighbors to come to Valpo and see if she could somehow seal the house. Even the front door was gone. Shortly afterwards a friend of Neruda’s was in Valparaiso when he saw a huge crowd gathered around the house in an uproar. It turned out an angry eagle had flown into the rooms at the top through the broken windows,  frightening everyone and it wouldn’t leave. This struck all who knew the poet because Neruda had always said if there was such a thing as reincarnation he would come back as an eagle.

            La Sebastiana is not only the smallest, but seems in some ways, the most personal and private of Neruda’s homes. Despite his love of entertaining and the ever-present bar for him to tend, this home feels as though two people shared many close times here.

            Neruda wrote a poem about watching La Sebastiana grow organically, and it is still on his desk written in green ink as he wrote all his work – saying it was the color of hope.

            It took ousting Pinochet before the Chilean people could demand that La Chascona in Santiago be restored, and that all of Neruda’s homes be opened to the public as he had wanted. Isla Negra had to be sealed for years to legally protect it from being seized and destroyed by Pinochet, so it was the only one to survive intact.

Mathilde was active in making it all happen. She wanted a foundation in his honor established, but while she put all the pieces in place, the foundation couldn’t  operate until after her death when Pinochet was finally gone. 

             Neruda would get a chuckle out of the prosperity of the once poor neighborhoods in Santiago and Valpo whose inhabitants capitalize on visitors’ interest in his homes today. Souvenir stalls abound; handicrafts as well as refreshments are hawked outside La Chascona and La Sebastiana.

            His and Mathilde’s bodies were eventually moved to Isla Negra where he wanted to be buried and they lie beneath the slope. It is the most peaceful of the three homes he built, and even free of the souvenir stalls.

            The houses are the fruit of a life lived fully, richly, generously, without restraint. The collections are not merely acquisitions, but obviously loved and honored. Like his work they excite, depress or anger you, but they always enrich you.

             Pablo Neruda, I think I begin to know you now. I think I begin to understand your beloved Chile.

You can go home again!

“Look girls, cowboys!” my friend Bev said. My other friend Devorah said, “Yippee ki yay.”

Sure enough our vehicle was met by some nice looking young men in Stetsons and chaps, and by one older, smiling, bearded gentleman.

The cowboys, Dale and Chad, whisked away our luggage to our cabins and Jerry, the ranch owner led us to the sprawling main ranch house. The sign at the door didn’t say welcome, it said, “Welcome home.” That said it all.

Chad, a wrangler.

Most Americans have had a family farm in their backgrounds or wish they did. A laid back, comfortable home where you are always welcome, the kitchen always smells good, and there are wonderful animals to get to know.

The Bar Lazy J ranch in Parshall, Colorado is exactly that place. The minute we arrived we felt totally at home. The old log buildings from the early 1900s with their slightly out of square angles as the buildings have settled comfortably, the stone fireplaces, the warm, slightly worn furnishings are part of the homey charm. But the real secret of the ranch’s lure is the people who live and work there.

Jerry and Cheri Amos-Helmicki, who own the ranch, have a philosophy. “We have three priorities: first the help, second the horses, third the guests. If the first is happy they take good care of the second, and then when the first two are happy, so are the guests,” Cheri explained.

It definitely works. The Bar Lazy J is the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in Colorado. Everyone who works there from the wranglers, both male and female, to the kitchen staff, loves the ranch and their work. That doesn’t stop the wranglers from teasing greenhorns, but it’s all good natured fun.

The cabins, like the ranch house, date back to 1907 – 1911. They all front on the Colorado River which runs through the property, making fly fishing a popular activity. Equipment is available in the Fishin’ Shack behind the wranglers’ bunkhouses.

The first afternoon that guests arrive they learn about one of the unique events the Bar Lazy J offers – the running of the horses. The ranch herd of 70 to 100 horses have a pasture a short distance from the guest facilities where the barns and paddocks are located. The wranglers let the horses gallop from one place to the other. The horses clearly enjoy the wild race and everyone enjoys the sight and sound of such a large herd galloping by. The morning and evening run is one of the high points of the day for people and horses.

The running of the herd.

One of the first things the crew likes to show visitors is the “bottomless cookie box” – a chest kept constantly filled with fresh offerings. The kitchen is open to the guests to fetch coffee, cocoa, or cold drinks between meals. The meals are something else. It’s not the “bacon and beans most every day, sooner be eatin’ the prairie hay” of the old song. It’s a gourmet spread three times a day with a little exotica like buffalo meatloaf sometimes added to the menu. The ranch house bell rings a half hour before meals to warn riders, fishermen, hikers, and loafers that the grub is coming, and then again when it’s time to go to the table. No one misses the meals.

The first night after dinner guests got to meet the horses that would be theirs to ride for the duration of the stay – usually a week. Cochise, a paint, was mine because I was a novice rider. It’s a relationship that develops rapidly, easily becoming a love affair.

One guest who has been coming back for several years (three quarters of the guests are returnees) walked up to the corral fence. The horse he had ridden each year recognized him from across the paddock, neighed, and trotted right up to nuzzle him.

Jerry believes in a thorough education before he trusts anyone with his beloved horses. After breakfast the next morning he and Shawnee, another paint, carefully instructed us newbies in horsemanship.

“You are not a passenger. This is a partnership,” he said. After his 45 minute orientation, a group of wranglers got us all mounted and led us to a hill top where they put us and our horses through our paces. Before long the wranglers were satisfied that we knew how to control our mounts and that we felt secure. We had learned some of our horses’ personal quirks and habits – Cochise was having a hard time resisting the new grass.. After a buffet lunch on a screened porch overlooking the river, we were ready for the trails.

Bev opted to sit by the river and read a book, Devorah decided to learn the intricacies of fly fishing from a pro, while the rest of us rode. About two hours later I dismounted and discovered Cochise had not done all of the work. My muscles barely allowed me to hobble to the hot tub for a solid soak. That made all the difference.

In fact, by the time Jerry and Cheri had launched a laid back cocktail party, I was ready for a cold one. After a while, the bells rang, the horses ran, the bells rang again, and we entered the dining room where a fire blazed in the fire place illuminating the wonderful Western art collection on the mantel. The meal was spectacular.

Still weary from my ride, I sat on the screened in porch of my cabin and listened to the river. I had snagged a cookie from the bin on the way back to my cabin and nibbled it. In a bit I’d join the girls in the living room of the ranch house in front of the fire.

I thought about my family farm in the South. It had long since passed out of the family when my grandparents died. I thought about my husband’s family farm in Minnesota, snatched up by an agribusiness when his uncle died. We’d never had a ranch in the family, but the Bar Lazy J was so familiar because of the farm memories. I realized even if there had never been a farm in the family this place would feel the same. It’s as if we share a national nostalgia, a collective memory of what should be.

I sat back and nibbled my chocolate chip cookie and realized at the Bar Lazy J, contrary to conventional wisdom, you CAN go home again, even if you never had one in the first place.

To contact Bar Lazy J – www.barlazyj.com

Rates are $1725 a week for adults and include all meals, horse riding and other activities

$1195 for kids 7-12, $995 for kids 3-6 – includes special children’s activities

5 weeks of the year are set aside for adults, and there is 10% discount, and some 3 day stays are offered during the adult weeks

Meet the meanderer

I have a zest for adventure. I love going to new cultures and learning how the people there solve the basic problems of life. I love seeing new animals, plants, places. I am a woman alone wandering the world, but when I can I find a good travel companion. Before I leave for a new place I try to learn about it as much as possible – explore its history, art and music. Once there I let it swallow me whole. These blogs are from my journeys, inner and outer.