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Dispatches From
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Tuolumne Meadows In Grand Style

At Vogelsang Camp, Betty tells stories about little people in Tierra Del Fuego, Rumanian vampires, and Shangri-La in Nepal. Betty, age 74, travels all over the world following the origins of folk tales and fables. I listen as I chew on filet mignon and wonder why I havenít done this sooner.

My hike around the High Sierra Camps loop trail is a treat after years of schlepping a backpack around Yosemite's high country. Iíve visited all of the camps at one time or another, staying at the nearby backpacker camps and eating freeze-dried glue-and-noodle dinners. This time all Iím carrying is a daypack. The five camps are connected by a network of trails winding along the meadows, streams, and glacier-scoured outcrops of Tuolumne Meadows. Ranging from six to nine miles apart, the camps provide good food, hot showers, wool blankets, and great company after a day on the trail.

Meanwhile, the waiters are celebrating Halloween. The camps are open only in the summer, and the workers like to enjoy the holidays together. ďChristmas,Ē says the skunk, ďgets a little weird.Ē

The skunk refills water glasses as the man across the table shares a bottle of wine he's carried in from Tuolumne Meadows Camp. I have spent worse nights on the trail than this.

A few summers ago, the crisp white tent cabins looked (and smelled) especially good from my campsite near Glen Aulin Camp. Having failed miserably at my first attempt to hang food bags from a not-nearly-high-enough tree limb, all I could do was watch from my tent as a bear tore open my food containers and ate everything, including instant coffee and toothpaste. I ended up walking miles back to my car, my trip ruined, and my stomach empty. The bears never got my food again, but they did keep trying. And the little white tent cabins continued to beckon.

After dinner Betty and I take a seat outside near Fletcher Creek. We are near the timberline here, at just over 10,000 feet. It's mid-July, and snow still clings to the shadier patches of Fletcher Peak, which rises above us. Fletcher, like the other peaks and outcrops of the Cathedral Range, is composed of Cathedral Peak granodiorite, a rock type similar to granite. Large pinkish-gray crystals of potassium feldspar remain as the salt and pepper rock weathers away, leaving the ground littered with what looks like pink dominoes. Clouds are building up and the occasional thunder has increased. After a couple of raindrops, itís time to move inside.

I snuggle under the down quilt (yes, at Vogelsang, there are down quilts), and pull out Schaffer and Winnettís High Sierra Hiking Guide to Tuolumne Meadows, to size up tomorrow's hike. The next camp is Merced, nestled deep in the forest along the Merced River. I'll be hiking mostly downhill, a nice break from the gradual uphill climb from Tuolumne Meadows Camp. After only a few hours, I have already forgotten about work, home, and everything except the excitement of being here and the anticipation of the rest of the trip. As I drift off to sleep, I can hear singing in the next cabin over.

After a hearty breakfast, I buy a sack lunch and stick it in my daypack. A bit stiff from the first long hike, my muscles soon loosen up as I work my way south along Fletcher Creek. Small butterflies cling to trailside shrubs and spread their solar panel wings. I recognize an orange fritillary and maybe a checker. As the day warms up, they flitter around too quickly for me to identify.

The air smells of rock dust, and I can hear the hollow ring of mule shoes striking bare rock. From the top of the switchbacks, a pack string work its way up the trail, carrying tourists and supplies. Handsome and intelligent, these Park Service mules are making easy work of the climb. Some of the tourists though, look as though theyíve been carrying the mules up the trail.

The last few miles to Merced Camp are through deep forest. Douglas Pine squirrels (also known as chikorys), sound their high-pitched alarms and dash up trees at my approach. I round a corner and on a nearby stump, a young porcupine rises up onto his rear legs to smell me better. With a frightening display of quills a foot and a half high, I want nothing to do with him. He is cute, but hardly cuddly.

A half-mile from camp, I stop for a water break, and spot something on the trail about two inches long, curved, and the color of ivory. A black bear has shed a claw. Bear power. A good omen for me. Two years ago, while camped nearby with a friend, the largest black bear Iíve ever seen (well over 400 pounds) got much too interested in our dinner. It took a lot of hollering and pot banging before he decided we were too much work, and we eventually heard screaming and banging from another campsite down the trail.

I arrive at the Merced River early in the afternoon, take off my dusty boots, and wade in. The water is more than refreshingly cold, and after a minute or so, my feet have turned an odd color of blue. I quickly return to the bank and sit in the sun with my binoculars and notebook. A family of four common mergansers fly by a foot above the water's surface, on their way down river. Iím at a much lower elevation now, and the forest is filled with juncos, Clark's nutcrackers, Stellar's jays, and even an Anna's hummingbird. An afternoon spent by the river ends with another fantastic dinner, rounding out another near perfect day.

In the morning, I hike with Betty to the trail junction that will take her to Yosemite Valley, and me up the hill to Sunrise Camp. A bird lights on a limb just off the trail, so I stop for a break and pull out my binoculars. Not quite as large as a robin, but bigger than a finch, the rosy colored bird is a pine grosbeak. They are fairly common along the edges of high Sierran meadows, but this is a first for me, and my day has already been made.

Itís a long hot dirty walk, but the views of the peaks and meadow are well worth the climb. Sunrise Camp is perched on a rock bench just above Long Meadow. The show starts in the late afternoon as the spectacular peaks of the Cathedral Range and Matthes Crest turn from golden to orange. As the sun begins to sink behind the camp, the alpenglow increases in intensity and color, and soon the peaks are crimson.

The early mountaineers John Muir and Frances Matthes first described Cathedral Peak, Columbia Finger, and the many other landforms of Tuolumne Meadows. Muir noticed that the u-shaped valleys were carved from thousands of feet of slow moving ice, and that the striations on the polished surfaces show the direction of the ice flow. Matthes, a French geologist, spent several seasons making the first accurate maps of the region. It was over a campfire near Soda Springs that plans were made to create Yosemite National Park. Muir eventually formed became the founder of the Sierra Club.

Sunrise over the peaks and across Long Meadow inspires genuine awe and the inspiration I need to get back on the trail. Todayís walk will take me past the Sunrise Lakes, down to Tenaya Lake, and back up along the old road to May Lake.

The wildflowers are at their height. The background of nearly white rock and green leaves with purple lupines, Indian paintbrush, penstemmons, and shooting stars turn the trailside into a Monet painting. Young Belding squirrels pop up and down like prairie dogs, and a blue grouse and three chicks walk across the trail without noticing me.

Mt. Hoffman is upside down in May Lake, and patches of snow still linger near its summit. A California gull cruises the edge of the lake. Fish are jumping after the mosquitoes that make an easy dinner for them, and in turn begin to make an easy dinner out of me. I put on an unhealthy dose of repellant and sit on the front step of my cabin and watch as a man and his son throw rocks into the lake. He has a baseball arm and can really heave them out there. As the sun sets, Mt. Hoffman becomes enshrouded in orange clouds.

Small fires from the backpacker camp reflect like lanterns floating on the lake. A few summers ago, on a warm clear night, I camped there without a tent. Using my coat for a pillow, I lay awake looking at stars until very late. Well before sunrise, I woke to a snuffling noise, and found myself looking into the two beady little eyes of a young black bear. He was as startled as I was, and the last I saw of him was his furry behind disappearing in a trail of dust.

My trip is winding down, and in the morning, I return to my car and drive home slowly, stopping to look at birds and scenery. I think about Betty, trekking all over the world, looking for lost cities and myths. My twinge of envy disappears as I realize that I am the fortunate one: I have found my Shangri La right here in the Sierra.

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