Visualize a white granite world beyond the tree line at 9000 feet above sea level, a world carved by glaciers, pushing, clawing through the materials over which they traveled in millennia past. The rockscape they left behind above Yosemite Valley in the high Sierras is as finely carved as marble statuary but on a scale that only mountain ranges exhibit, vast, angular, polished, more kindred with the sky and its cloud forms than with the land below. Within this pristine rock world, meadows flourish, quiet lakes mirror their surroundings so that up is down with equal detail. The vision has a sound track that in some places harmonizes bird, insect, and animal noises, and leaves catching breezes. In other places, coursing rivers crash over stone, falling hundreds of feet with a thunderous pounding that never ceases. I was there.
You are wondering, dear reader, how this story relates to wine as you should. That’s ahead. We began the journey in Yosemite Valley at 4,000 feet, Vernal Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Half Dome, quiet waterfalls in the distance and giant white rock outcroppings circling this blessed valley, teaming with tourists from around the world. We heard English only about ten percent of the time. We stayed in the lap of luxury at the magnificent Ahwahnee Hotel, built in the 1920s. The wine list was entirely Californian to honor the place.
From there we drove to our first camp in Tuolumne Meadows at 8,600 feet, pausing at Olmstead Point, on one side a smooth, gently sloping granite expanse, carved into wide rectangles like pavement, with rock strata forming steps, leading to perpendicular formations suggesting some ancient temple. On the other side below the road, boulders scattered on a polished granite flat like grave markers, with rows of mountains staggered in the distance. That night we slept four to a tent, dinner and breakfast served in a small dining hall. And you guessed it. No wine. A meal without wine was as much a revelation as the landscape. With only water in my glass, I felt malnourished and berated myself for deciding to minimize the weight in my backpack. But it got worse.
The next morning with 25 pounds in my pack, we began hiking down to Glen Aulin Camp at 7,800 feet, following the Tuolumne River at one point as it crashed through the terrain, cascading downward over barriers. Toward the end of the day, hiking downhill over rocks became arduous to the point that the last hour consisted of one exhausted foot forced in front of the other, the profound meaning of the phrase “one step at a time” painfully apparent. What I wanted most after arriving at camp was one magic glass of wine to alleviate the exhaustion. The previous day’s lesson was “Wine as Nutrition.” Today, the lesson was “Wine as Medication.”
The next day’s journey would take us to the high camp at May Lake, an eight mile hike up to 9,270 feet, through meadows, across streams, and up into a pristine world, occupied by shapes and vistas that stun urban eyes. As we climbed higher, the trail switched back across the face of the mountain, the path falling away on the down slope, revealing panoramas of valleys and mountains, both close and distant. Again the last mile toward camp was a forced march upward, but finally around a bend, May Lake appeared, silent and peaceful, unlike the blood that pounded through my veins. Of course there would be no wine. Supplies for these camps in the high Sierras arrive on over-burdened mule trains. The young people who maintain the camps hike in an out if they need to leave. So the camps supply only essentials, food and toilet paper. Visitors carry anything else they may need in their backpacks. Seasoned hikers bring wine. You could tell which group had it because they laughed while the weary souls without it tended toward silence. So this was the final lesson, “Wine as Social Interaction.”
What I saw, I revisit in dreams and will return when those dreams, like memories, wear thin. And when I return, I will bring wine, as valuable to me in the state of nature as it is in my urban world.