California Dreams: Yosemite’s First and Lasting Impression
By Steven Lomangino
I had always been one to be anxious about little things, no matter how many times I might tell myself everything will be okay. In high school, even running late in the morning would plunge my gut far into the earth’s soil. This time was no different, except that I actually had a reason for my anxiety; being away from my mother’s protection, I was in the hands of my wild friends and older brother.
In the summer of my seventh grade year, I traveled from New York to California with my mom and older brother. We stayed at my mom’s best friend’s house in Tollhouse; she has two sons. I’d always had a childlike fascination with the surfer and skater haven I imagined was California, and I imagined a lavish lifestyle. Instead, however, I found myself on a huge acre of land, with nearby farms and dirt roads and a whole lot of open space. Our friend’s sons had no issue with driving around without a license, chucking tomahawks into logs, or shooting off a double-barrel shotgun in the woods while our parents weren’t paying attention. Needless to say, I found myself inspired, and I soon found myself sneaking behind my mom’s back to participate in these events. I had known these kids for quite some time — they’d visited us in Long Island many times. We once spent two days in New York City, somersaulting over hotel beds and wandering the prismatic city streets in bewilderment. Visiting them in California was no different. I was constantly thrown out of my comfort zone, in a good way. Growing up in Smithtown has the perk of being ten minutes away from everything you need, but you don’t have much space to connect with nature. Light pollution in Tollhouse is minimal and the night sky is picturesque, especially around a campfire — and the landscapes, waterfalls, and horizons of nearby Yosemite National Park are ridiculously gorgeous.
We planned to spend a few days camping in Yosemite; I had never actually camped before. After a long car ride up a winding mountain, we set our tents at Bear Lake. In the thick wilderness of the campgrounds, I felt nervous and clueless. We took a long walk away from our parents to fetch firewood. After returning, we decided to explore without a particular objective. As we walked further and further down the dirt road, I felt a mixture of anxiety and independence. My mother was protective, and this was one of the first times I just went with the flow and ignored the wrenching feeling of uncertainty in my gut.
The geography of California is drastically different than that of New York. Here in New York, we have gradual dirt hills that aren’t very much fun to climb. However the peaks at Yosemite were mind boggling, their magnificent size bearing close similarity to rock walls you’d pay good money to climb in New York.
The day was young and the rocky landscape was our oyster. Soon, one of our friends decided we should climb a bluff that was parallel to the road. Upon scaling the first sierra, we found a metropolis of mountaintops on the other side, with disparate gradients and inclines. The ridges were gnarly, and required deep effort and concentration to not fall. I remember the sight of the lake and the mellow green lily pads floating without a care calmed my raging stomach.
After an hour, we ventured off to find a real peak to scale. The group left me behind for a second when the trek uphill began, as my anxiety had literally stopped me in my place. I noticed extreme angles of rock wall and sprouts of shrubs and trees along the cleavage. I remember gazing at a skyscraper of a mountain. The vast horizon of greenery and blue sky gave me hope and delight in earth’s natural beauty.
The gritty, coarse texture of the rock necessitated a tactical climb. “Put your foot on that part, and then jump across the rocks down to that big one down there,” one of our friends advised calmly. I remember having a few close calls as we got higher and higher, to the point where I had to sit down and slide into a bush in order to avoid falling.
We finally stopped at a cave on the side of the mountain, physically unable to make it to the top. As I took in the magnificent horizons of the California valleys, I noted the incline I had just charted. Water-less and snack-less, we had to make our way back down soon — the sun was beginning to set. I had been fairly confident on the way up, not taking anytime to look back, not now a deep wave of anxiety and nervousness surged through me. As I started the descent, I shook with adrenaline, feeling a life or death sense of urgency when my balance faltered. I slid downhill on my behind, once luckily saved by a perfectly placed shrub, and I slid the rest of the way on my flat skate sneakers, jumping gaps and pits in the rocky terrain. We worked together, calling out gapes in the land and waiting for one another.
As we returned to the familiarity of the road, I felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment. I looked at the peaks from afar, knowing I had been somewhere within that breathtaking landscape. I left California less anxious about the unknown, pleasantly finding greater independence and self-confidence within the uncertainties of Yosemite's mountains.
Steven Lomangino is a writer from Long Island, New York, who also studies music and jazz drumming.
Banner photo by David Liu/ CC BY.