We lost track of time somewhere in the miles of switchbacks. We couldn’t see the sun in the sky, but we could feel it. When we saw him, he gave us a big grin and said, “You guys made it. This is it.”
He had a large pack on his back and the generous stubble on his face indicated he had been in the park a few days. He stood by the first sign we’ve seen since the beginning of the trailhead. His smile like a cold glass of water in that heat.
“Where is the waterfall?” I asked.
He pointed to the clearing just behind the trees. “Only about .2 miles that way,” he replied.
“Are you going on up or going on down?”
“Oh, I’m going down,” he answered. “I hiked to El Capitan yesterday and set up camp out there; now I’m on my way back down to the valley floor.”
“That sounds awesome.”
His eyes sparkled. “It really was.”
I asked him how far El Cap was. He pointed to the sign.
“Good luck to you,” I said.
Four hours earlier, they asked me what I wanted to do. I had somehow been elected the leader. I guess it only made sense. I sold them all on my dream of adventure. I drove over 300 miles through the night from San Diego to Fresno. Rallied them all at 5 AM that morning and watched the sunrise on the way to Yosemite Valley. I don’t know why I was unprepared for that question.
When I asked if any of them had researched what they wanted to see or do in Yosemite; the resounding silence was strikingly clear.
“Not really,” my cousin Kayla shrugged, “I just figured you’d have an idea.”
“Um…whatever you want to do,” my aunt reiterated.
The thing was—I wasn’t sure either. After a week of research, I hadn’t narrowed my selection to a realistic list. I was still thinking very broadly. I want to hike Half Dome, see rock climbers on El Capitan, feel 16 again at Vernal Falls, take photos from Glacier Point, find out if I recognize my reflection at Mirror Lake, wander into a meadow and watch the autumn leaves blow in the wind, drink coffee and wonder how it feels to linger like mist between the trees, catch the sunset over the valley as the deer graze, put my hands against granite and be rendered speechless by his passion for big walls.
I mean, we were in Yosemite. It wasn’t really a question as to “what” we wanted to see or do. Obviously, there was the matter of time. We were only going to be there for 12 hours. There’s this famous quote from The Lord of the Rings by Gandalf: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was in that moment.
“Well, I wanted to hike to Yosemite Falls,” I told them. “There are two trails. One to Lower Yosemite Falls, which is shorter and less strenuous. The other to Upper Yosemite Falls, which is longer and I hear that it’s basically all booty work. Maybe we can take the Lower Yosemite Falls trail first and see how we feel after that? If we’re not tired, we can possibly do Upper Yosemite Falls too.”
From Camp Four, we walked across the road to the trail, following the map the park ranger gave us at the entrance. I forged forward, leading them down a dirt path to the base of a granite wall until we came to a sign.
“It looks like Lower Yosemite Falls trail is half a mile down that way,” Preston pointed down the road, scratched his head, and then furrowed his nose deeper into the map. “This is the start of Upper Yosemite Falls.”
The sign indicated 3.5 miles to the top of Yosemite Falls.
“I think that’s roundtrip,” I remember my aunt said. “I don’t think that sounds too bad.”
I knew she was wrong but I gave her the benefit of the doubt. “Yeah, it might be. But 3.5 miles might be the distance one-way.”
“Well what do you want to do?” She asked, one trekking pole in her hand. I gave it to her after she had Preston wrap up her ankle back at the car. We hadn’t even started the hike yet. This will help you take some weight off that, I told her, handing it over.
“Well we’re already here…” I bit my lower lip. “Do you guys mind if we take the Upper Yosemite Falls trail? If it’s too difficult, we can turn back around and do the shorter one.”
One by one they chimed their agreement. Morale was high. It was still early. Not yet 10 AM. We were inebriated on the promise of adventure. Or maybe it was delusion from lack of sleep. Either way, we had made our decision.
We talked about relationships new and past. I shared the text my ex-boyfriend sent me Friday at 12 AM. We debated on what it meant, whether it was worth my time to respond. I tell them he doesn’t know who I am because I’m not that 17 year old girl anymore. We are not strangers—we are estranged. There was a difference.
The conversation makes the time go by fast. Everyone is engaged. The base of the hike is shrouded by trees and it is easy to forget we were in Yosemite—but in between the pockets of branches, Half Dome and El Capitan loom larger than life in the distance—and everything is put into perspective again every time I look up.
We talked about love. About how sometimes it doesn’t work out even when you really care about someone. About the importance of letting go, and not holding on too tightly, about allowing people to show up as themselves.
“You never know, Melissa,” my aunt said.
“Don’t say that!” Preston snapped.
“What?” his mom shouted in defense, “I’m just saying you never know what’s gonna happen in the future.”
Eventually the conversation fizzled. Our energy evaporated under the sun. We took more breaks. My aunt’s knee started hurting. She made Preston wrap it too. The trail never got crowded but people are starting to pass us up. Our morale dipped. I wondered if my aunt wanted to turn back.
We came across a couple on the way down and I stopped to talk to them.
“There’s the switch backs, and then into the green for a while, around the mountain and then you reach the waterfall,” they said. “But it’s totally worth it. Maybe two more hours from this point on.”
When we depart from them, Kayla said, “I could have done without knowing how much longer it will take.”
She was right. Two more hours sounded daunting. At that point we were taking breaks every five minutes for my aunt. She was struggling. But despite the pain apparent on her face, she was still making jokes, “Great. We’re almost halfway to the halfway!” She laughed.
The marathoner’s mindset kicks in for me. I just focus on small milestones—which was usually just the next shady patch we could find on the trail. Every time I said, “I think we’re almost there,” my aunt replied, “We were “almost there” a half hour ago.” And we all laughed because it was true—it didn’t feel like we would ever see the end. But we intended to.
I stripped down to my underwear and said, “I’m gonna do it.”
We had made it. We were finally there at the very top of Yosemite Falls, the tallest freestanding waterfall in North America. And we were staring at the two pools of water that fed directly into the 2425 foot drop.
“Are you really gonna do it?” Kayla’s eyes go big.
“Yeah,” I answered, standing there in front of at least 30 other hikers in just my Calvin Klein undies. “We hiked all this way! It seems silly not to jump into the water. How many people can say they swam in the water at the top of the tallest waterfall in North America?”
Its moments like these when I jump into icy water, that I realize how life should be lived. It’s about making a decision and the follow through. Life isn’t about the “You never know’s” because you can’t make a life in the uncertainties. You make life in the definites, in the choices, in the actions, and in the follow throughs.
When we finally make it back down to the Valley, the moon is brighter than the light from the sun. We are exhausted, but we know we are tougher than we were in the morning. Before we even make it out of the park, I have already decided to return. We scheme of future plans. I tell them of my intentions for more outdoor adventures. And my excitement makes them excited. I want to always live my life like this–pursuing my definites.