I’ve written about it before, but I think it bears repeating: Awe is good. Awe triggers happy hormones in our brains. A little bit of awe changes everything.
For a number of reasons, my girls and I have had a wobbly beginning of summer. My husband could see that we desperately needed to shift ourselves into a better place, so at six o’clock on Saturday morning he loaded us into the car and headed north toward Yosemite National Park. This past winter the snowfall was well above average in the Sierra Nevada. A chilly spring coupled with a few recent weeks of hot weather meant that the Merced River running through Yosemite Valley was draining at 199 percent of average. All that sudden melting snow was creating powerful waterfalls throughout the whole park, and we were on our way to see them.
The drive to Yosemite was quiet. The girls napped and read books. My husband sipped strong coffee. I struggled to shake my funk after a sleepless night spent tossing and turning with worry as a bed companion. But as we entered the park, the mood in the car lifted. We pulled into Olmsted Point where Half Dome, a huge granite boulder, magnificent and powerful, beckoned us from the other end of the Valley, our destination.
As we drove on, the girls sang silly songs and looked for bears in the passing woods. Stephen pointed out waterfalls that were draining into swollen lakes and flooded meadows. When we neared the center of the valley, the traffic became heavier. We searched for a parking spot among the endless rows of cars, avoiding pedestrians who stepped out onto the road to snap photos. I thought of John Muir, the guiding force behind preserving Yosemite as a National Park, and muttered to myself, “Muir would have a stroke if he saw this chaos.”
After we parked and loaded our backpacks with food and water, we joined the hoards of other tourists headed toward Happy Isles trailhead. Our plan was to hike the Mist Trail, which led to Vernal Falls and then, if we felt up to it, Nevada Falls that lay several hundred vertical feet further up. Stephen had been on the Mist Trail before–traveling down it when he and a buddy completed a seven-day spring ski tour that began approximately fifty miles south. As they hiked down the trail, loaded with heavy backpacks, they alternated who took the lead and fielded the flurry of questions from tourists asking where they’d been and why in the world they were carrying skis.
Stephen had been dropping little comments all week about the Mist Trail. “It can get pretty wet depending on how much spray there is from the waterfall,” and “Sometimes the steps can get a little slippery so we’ll just have to take it slow.” He suggested I find some kind of rain gear for the kids, something we don’t keep on hand living in the high desert.
The night before we headed out I read a description of the trail that he’d accidentally left up on the computer screen. The trail to Vernal Falls was “up a steep granite stairway of over 600 steps. Prepare for slippery footing and a tremendous amount of waterfall spray in spring and early summer.”
“‘Tremendous amount of waterfall spray,’” I read aloud. “‘Slippery footing?’”
Stephen looked over my shoulder. “I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t read that.”
“Are the kids going to be okay?” I asked, a new little knot of worry forming in my stomach.
“They’ll be fine,” he assured me. “Scott and I did it in ski boots. We’ll take it slow, and can turn around any time you want.”
I nodded, and tried to swallow the image of one of the girls slipping off the edge and plunging into the waterfall below. “Think positively,” I reminded myself silently.
The first half of the trail was dry, but steep. At the bottom of the granite steps, half way up the Mist Trail, the waterfall thundered loudly. Mist enveloped the trail ahead of us. We stopped and donned our rain gear. “Are you guys ready for this?” Stephen shouted.
“YEAH!” hollered the girls excitedly. Their faces were little moons in the hoods of the oversized jackets I’d found them at the local mountaineering consignment shop.
Stephen looked at me. “We’ll take it slow,” he promised.
“Just hang on to them,” I shouted as he led us forward.
We walked a dozen steps and were immediately drenched in a relentless downpour of water. Visibility was terrible, and the waterfall so loud that our words were lost as soon as they left our mouths. I hung on to our youngest daughter as Stephen gripped the hand of our oldest. The steps were high and exhausting, but there was nowhere to stop on the narrow path. There was a line of hikers behind us, and a number of hikers descending from above. We kept moving. Stephen carried the girls over the largest puddles of water, and eventually we burst out into the sunshine at the top of Vernal Falls.
“Was that okay?” Stephen asked me.
I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t help but notice that in the immediacy of navigating the slippery trail, my turmoil of the past few weeks had disappeared. We stripped off wet jackets and socks, and draped them over pine tree branches to dry. Among the millions of other tourist, we sprawled out on rocks and warmed ourselves in the sun while we ate our lunch. The girls counted the squirrels and chatted excitedly about our hike while the river and falls roared powerfully beside us. I lay back and let the negative ions created by the breaking water particles lull me into a relaxed and happy state. Within five minutes, I felt better than I had in weeks. Thirty minutes later, when Stephen asked if we should push on further to the top of Nevada Falls, we all eagerly agreed.
The hike to the Nevada Falls ascended steeply upward, but was dry. The waterfall framed our view to the right the whole way up, and without the spray clouding our vision we could enjoy it. The girls said the spray around the edges of the waterfall looked like dying fireworks. We sat on a rock and watched awhile, oohing and aahing with each descending burst. The girls zipped up the trail like little mountain sheep, sometimes leaving me behind as I nursed an old injury. They didn’t complain once, pointing out birds and flowers along the way.
We again rested at the top among the tourists and backpackers. Liberty Cap, another large domed granite rock, watched over us. Despite the crowd, it was a lovely place to be, and we lingered, reluctant to head back down. Eventually, we did move on, making a loop by traveling down the other side of the waterfalls on the John Muir Trail. Less challenging and dryer than the Mist Trail, it was crowded with people moving at many different speeds. As we drew closer to the bottom, the wide trail was almost as crowded as Disneyland on a busy day. When we got back to the car, and maneuvered ourselves out of our tight parking spot and into the stop-and-go traffic queue, we decided to skip visiting Yosemite Falls and Bridal Veil Fall as planned. We’d had our adventure, and it was time to head back.
We all relaxed into the drive home. Half Dome bid us farewell as we passed Olmstead Point. Despite only a couple of hours of sleep the night before and my tired legs, I felt wonderful. Not only had the power of the waterfalls revived me, but I was newly overwhelmed by the awesomeness of my children who happily hiked eight miles and two thousand vertical feet. I looked out the window at the passing meadows and lakes that seemed to shimmer with energy. I’d had a good dose of awe, and life shone again.
I rested my head back on the seat. I revised my opinion of what John Muir’s reaction would be regarding the crowds at Yosemite. Muir, who was known to climb trees to experience storms firsthand, knew all about collecting awe–that is why he dedicated his life to preserving one of the most beautiful places on earth. I think he would smile to see that even in our busy, high-tech world, people are still flocking to Yosemite. People are braving the Mist Trail to experience the power of the waterfalls. Half Dome is still beckoning. The trail that bears his name is well-traveled. Awe is still a daily commodity at Yosemite National Park.
We left the park and turned south at Lee Vining to head home. Replenished, I added the memories of our day to the collection of awe moments that I keep stored in my heart and mind. I gave a little prayer of thanks for my new brain state, for the man beside me and my two girls in the backseat, for John Muir, and for the beauty and power of waterfalls. I closed my eyes, content and grateful for the awe.
(See the essay entitled “The Nature Response” posted April 19, 2011 for more information on awe, John Muir, and negative ions.)