Chapter 58: From Heaven to Hell

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Chapter 58: From Heaven to Hell

If the Sierra Nevada's are considered God's country, then Yosemite is his Eden. We came into the park by way of Mariposa Grove along the Wawona Road from Yosemite Forks. Here is home of some of the largest and oldest trees in the park: the Giant Grizzly, the Washington Tree, the California, and the fallen Wawona, gouged by a large tunnel, once a famous tourist attraction for cars to drive through before being uprooted by a horrific snowstorm in the late sixties. These magnificent giants, prolific reminders of California's unique link to the prehistoric past, the last remaining guardians to the stunning glacial valley of Yosemite several miles distance. Here we discovered another history altogether unknown to us.

The Wawona Hotel, a Victorian style structure reminiscent of plantations of the old south during the Civil War, stood regally surrounded in a forest. Originally Clarks station, named after an ailing gold miner, who built his dream of a tourist waypoint in 1856 for pilgrims en route to the Yosemite Valley, and later renamed Wawona, (or Wah-wo-nah,) an Indian word meaning Big Tree, after the destruction of the original site by fire. Since its establishment, presidents and dignitaries have stayed within these walls, including the legendary Ulysses S. Grant, who they say arrived by stagecoach like a ghost covered with dust after a twelve-hour ride from Madera.

I found it fascinating to wander through the historic halls with cordoned-off rooms depicting what life was like in the late 1800s, the bedrooms furnished with distorting vanity mirrors, elegant porcelain wash basins, and portable potties, just as endowed, contradictory to the intended use. I remarked that the beds were much smaller than those of contemporary design, which made me wonder if people were actually smaller a century earlier. We decided to have lunch here, consisting of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, and garden fresh vegetables, neither the best nor the worst meal I have ever had. Afterwards, I stretched out on the soft maintained lawn near a Willow tree and daydreamed while Lucinda went exploring. For some unexplained reason, this place made me a little homesick. Not that my childhood home in the Carolinas was anything like this. Rather, a feeling of being home, as I closed my eyes, feeling the caress of a familiar spring breeze that swayed the upper branches, meshing with saber leaves of the Weeping Willow, mingled with subtle odors of mountain Dogwood mixed with Redwood and a variety of coniferous pines.

"Ready to go, Van Winkle," Lucinda's voice intruded, a hovering presence overshadowing me like an exotic bird wearing a multicolored shirt, purple knickers, and her auburn hair tied up by a green scarf to keep out the bugs.

"I guess I could sleep another hundred years," I mumbled. "I'm glad we stopped here, a very peaceful place, a place I will remember always."

Such moments of lasting peace are rare and unforgettable. I would have a remarkably similar experience of absolute rest many years later in Salzburg western Austria, exhausted after driving all day from Dachau, Germany. I wandered into a church in the central part of the Old Town near the Hohensalzburg Castle sponsoring a free Mozart concert in honor of the musical genius. The central large dome ceiling dazzled in stunning white with light blue trim, the music so peaceful, immediately transporting me into the most pleasant slumber. I awakened after only a few minutes altogether refreshed. Another memorable recline found fleetingly in the busy commune through life's shadows, yet forever enduring.

The forty-five minute drive to Yosemite Valley is as the narrow yellow brick road followed by Dorothy and her loyal companions to the gates of the grand city of Oz, twisting and winding through hill and dale, each turn the promise of something new in the golden stream of the afternoon sun. El Capitan, a mammoth granite monolith, rises above the valley as a grand guardian greeting us newcomers; and to the right, Cathedral Rocks with a spectacular waterfall spilling out of its mouth. Except for the traffic, it was every bit as enchanting of a place as I have ever seen. Each turn offered something new and unexpected, each geological piece of the puzzle designated with a name easily identifiable. There was the sharp obelisk of Sentinel Rock to the south opposite the tiered gables of the Three Brothers and Eagle Peak; and to the west the highest crest of the Sierras, the great granite monolith, respectfully known as El Capitan, dominates the horizon like a North American Matterhorn inviting conquest to those brave enough to attempt the ascent. Half Dome Rock, another stunning giant, rises regally above a haze of smog. True to its name, this massive rock face appears sliced in half, occupied by ants of novelist rock climbers up for a day's challenge. In appearance, it represents clear evidence that an ancient glacier once pushed through this region, shearing away part of the mountain. However, this is only an illusion, dependent upon from which angle one views the rugged giant. The prevailing geological theory is that this grand granite exposure evidence of "intrusions", when molten magma solidifies underground and cools into these very impressive solid formations.

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