Authors: Peter Brown Hoffmeister
F+W Media, Inc.
Who is my
And to Kenny
As a memorial
The Yosemite Valley tells the extinction of the wolf: broken sideways, .30-caliber bullet in his hip, licking the wet fur of a stillborn. The Merced turns a corner toward Bridalveil, poisoned meat at the cutbank
You have to listen to me
Tenaya rides a paint to the lip where striations took the granite. Not glacial sheer. He opens his eyes to the no longer. He was born a Mono to the north, and all of what you see became his, before the war. But this Valley is yours by birthright
Tenaya scrambles along the ridge until he sees the half-circle and the meadow, the old growths swaying in the breath like a fire’s gasping. We put our ears to the river boulders to hear the first story. The last. But do not wait for the smell. The smell of the water belongs to the liars, and they are all
I’d slept against the bear box, the iron food cache cold through my sleeping bag, and woke when it was dark. I couldn’t sleep a night without picturing her, eight years after, the way she lay against the river boulder, her right hand turned away, fisted, like it held a valuable.
I choked on nothing and sat up.
I leaned back against the box and looked out at the sleeping camp, the orange, blue, and red tents pieced together like cars in the Curry lot. I stood. Pulled on my wool hat and slid into my shoes. Started to walk.
Low clouds hung in the Valley, the ends torn as wet paper. I crossed at the T near the Lower Falls, toward the meadow, moving south, spooking mule deer on the road, their hooves skittering against the asphalt like young horses’. Then they were gone. I had no headlamp to follow.
I stepped through the bracken fern and followed the dirt road up to the boardwalk, left across the meadow. Halfway into the open, I lay down, back flat on the fiberglass replacement boards that the Park Service bolted down the year before. Looking up at the sky, I couldn’t see anything but gray, the mist backed with massing low clouds.
I lay shivering. Thinking of her at the river. Her body, and my mother. The stories I’d heard my whole life. I was fourteen years old, and I would not make it back to camp.
I braided my hair, three feet. Pulled my braids tight. A long-haired boy, never a hair cut, I’d been confused for a girl when I was younger.
I rolled over and did push-ups to stay warm, a trick my father had taught me. He’d say,
Lie back and wait for the blood to move
. I pictured him pointing with that missing index finger. People who didn’t know him would just see a fist, no pointing at all.
I got up and walked the boardwalk, back and forth, waiting for the smell of wet granite and ponderosa, bark like puzzle pieces chipped into moving water. I slept away from camp now sometimes, but still I couldn’t sleep. My mind pounded the Upper Falls in spring. I would add to that now. This morning.
He came alone, in the haze, and I didn’t know who he was. I was pacing the boardwalk in the early light, near the Merced, no sleep, tired like two stones grating behind my eyes.
He walked up in a full suit, expensive clothes, rare in the Valley. There were all-night gatherings at the Ahwahnee, and I guessed at that. But his suit had no wrinkles, the suit pressed, a white shirt starched clean, and the pants creased to the outside. He had his right hand in his pocket as he stared off, standing on the edge of the boardwalk while the sun struggled to rise south of Half Dome.
That was how it looked. The sun there as a slit. My mind the big falls, 2,000 feet above the meadow, pumping into the daylight elevation. Me walking toward him.
The man said, “It’s a beautiful morning, huh?”
I looked around. The mist was in and I couldn’t see the details of the south side: the Shield, the Sentinel, the triple pillars of the Cathedrals. I’d seen more beautiful mornings in the Valley, but I said, “Yes.”
He didn’t say anything else for a minute.
I didn’t know about his programs. I didn’t know about his new park plan. How he’d moved from the private sector to the National Park Service three years earlier. I would read all of that later in the newspaper accounts of what was about to happen.
A few feet from me, he was a man in a suit, nobody I knew, a man with a belly like something hidden underneath his shirt. He was tall above his paunch, as if three people were put together: A thin man, the heavier middle man, then a third person’s legs.
I smelled cologne and smoke. He brought the cigar up to his lips and puffed, the smell like two fingers snapping in front of my eyes.
The Valley was in me. The Valley yellow turning to brown, a thousand bears in late fall. I looked down at my hands, the dirty black fingernail ends, and I bit one off. Spit that into the blooming milkweed.
The man leaned down to mash out his cigar, marking a stain on the low rail. He flicked the butt on the same trajectory as my fingernail, following it into the green. Dark mud crawling up the reed stalks, black bottomed, waiting for the next rain.
He said, “Do you spend a lot of time in the park?”
“No,” I said, the lie that my father had asked me to tell when I was eight years old, when I first found out that it was illegal to live where we did. That no one else camped their whole lives off of the Northside Loop Road near the 120.
The man stood in front of me. The Valley rolling its shoulders, ten thousand years, after the final ice receded, boulders sitting as terminal moraines, the chambers of the ancient volcano exposed in white-and-gray plugs, flakes weakened by freeze water and the sloughed granite crashing, the Domes shrugging awake.
“Not camping, huh?” The man smiled like a forest fire. “It’s a beautiful place to camp.”
“No,” I said. I didn’t walk away. Didn’t explain. I was never good at saying what I was thinking.
He stepped toward me. That smile. I was fourteen that day, but not small, never small, and my hands were like the rocks that they climbed.
The man was going to hit me or reach out to shake my hand. I didn’t know which one. His shoulder came up, twitched, and he started to move his right arm toward me.
But I pushed him before that happened. With two hands and hard. I didn’t know what I was hoping for. There was the Valley, and the Valley was in me, and the Valley was with me.
It was only a few feet down off the boardwalk there, only four or five feet down to the ground, to the milkweed and the reeds, not far, but his shoe caught on the low rail near the cigar stain, and the rail flipped him. He went over, upside down, a scrub jay caught by a gust. I smiled as I watched him fall into the wet reeds and the mud, smiled as I imagined him scrambling back up, muddy and angry in his soiled clothes, yelling at me, chasing me.
But his left hand stayed down in his pocket, where it had been before he went over the rail. His right hand reached out in front of him, waving once, touching nothing. He hit a rock, a foot wide, with his head, and his face twisted around beneath him, under the weight of his body. His head turned six inches too far, and I heard something pop as his body rolled over the top.
I bit a hole though the front left corner of my tongue. Bit down, and the blood filled my mouth. A tongue can bleed, and fast. I coughed blood there on the boardwalk, spit and drooled it into my hand, my palm filling with blood before I dumped it at my feet.
But the man did not bleed. Not at all. His legs flattened and his arms twisted, limbs in the reeds like the loose limbs of an old doll.
Her doll. The way she dragged it, wet, that hand-sewn cloth doll, as it went through the pool above the rocks my father stacked to make a swimming hole at Ribbon Creek’s narrows. I found her doll months later, under a blanket in the tent, blackening with mold.
The man’s face was looking over his shoulder, his eyes open, and I stared down into those eyes. The mist came, new smoke above me, and soon there was nothing I could see farther away than ten feet. The man’s body and the boardwalk. The flash of green leading to the river, the dark-bottomed reeds, the tongue blood in my hands.
The man never blinked or twitched. His eyes open, and I didn’t mean that. Not at all. Like suffocating doves.
Storm coming. Early 1850. This is true Yosemite history. The start: a Glacier Point rockslide buries a boy, and his friend cannot find him. He calls his name and walks the talus field. Unsettled flakes creak under his feet, the cloud of granite dust drying the membranes of his nose and eyes, coating his throat in white
Miners are in the Sierra Nevadas, looking for that other dust. People hear the stories from the Paiutes in the mountains. Miners are panning the creeks and rivers, building settlements and taking wives. California new from Mexico one year
Some of the miners still speak in Spanish. Others English. Miwoks are there as well, living to the south at Mariposa, by the big grove of trees. The Diggers
James Savage is with them, the miner and trader who owns two stores and five wives. Gaining wealth and purchasing respect, his Indian brides are twelve years old and walk like green-broke horses
But your people wait to the north, here in this Valley. Some call them The Grizzlies. Others The Killers
The Miwoks tell Savage that the Yosemiti will never allow people to enter this Valley. They will die for this place. Like you
I slept in the backcountry, running past Illilouette, Vernal, and Nevada Falls on the first day, past the asphalt and stone-cut steps of the tourist trail built for pilgrimages to the near high country. The first night in a meadow, loam thicker than the backseat of my father’s Plymouth. Snow plants bright red in the patches between moss strings. And the cold.
The drifts harbored the mosquito hatch, so I used bank mud as a face coat. But the granules dried by midnight and the mosquitoes came up my nose before that.
I kept my thatch tight. Wound reeds until I was worried about oxygen.
I read the news report at the Tuolumne store on the morning of July 4th. The story read, “Although evidence at the scene suggests a scuffle, no suspects have been arrested. The superintendent’s concessions plan for the park was hotly debated, but e-mail and phone records uncovered zero threats to his life.”
I was sure that the evidence they were writing about was my blood, the blood from my tongue. The hole in my tongue had swollen and become a canker sore, and I had to chew food now without closing my mouth.
I had no bear canister and a bear came after my food bundle the third night, peanut butter and syrup wrapped in half of a tarp, pulled up with cord. The bear shuffled around my hang-tree, then he came to my debris shelter, his enormous footfalls like logs dragged and set down. But I couldn’t see him in the dark.
It was the night of Independence Day. July 4th. I heard someone light off an illegal firework in the Tuolumne campground over the next ridge. I’d seen arrests for that in Camp 4 when I was younger, the rangers zip-tying middle-aged men, lecturing as they hauled them up the trail.
The bear continued to smell me in my shelter. I wondered about the grizzlies in the old days. When my grandfather lived here before the Depression. Grizzlies with hook-claws four inches long. Standing nine feet against a tree, smart enough to pull on a rope.