yellow sign

Our place in Jackson Hole was a motel, and when I opened the door the next morning to grab coffee, it was cold! In the mid-20s, the car windows all frosted. Looming just across the street was a steep ski slope covered in manmade snow. Mtuseni, who’s chilly when it’s below 65, was not gonna be happy! 

In the light of day — and sitting in the little breakfast room past the front desk — I realized this was the same place I’d stayed at when I visited in 1996! That’s crazy. And it just deepened my sense of connection to and affection for Jackson.

The day’s itinerary was the Tetons and Yellowstone. The park is big, so I was debating in my head how to approach it. But my options ended up being limited by that pesky low tire from Tahoe.

Heading out for the day — after making Mtuseni scrape the windshield for his first time ever — I saw the orange warning on the dashboard again. This time it was really low. I searched for a garage to get it repaired, which the guy said would take an hour. After waiting and walking around aimlessly, the guy calls and asks where the tool is to unlock the lug nuts. What!??

Evidently, the car’s prior owner had put locking nuts on the wheels. WTF? Who’s gonna steal tires off a Camry? I’d bought new tires for the trip. The shop never mentioned locking bolts — and they never put the unlocking tool back in the trunk, or anywhere. The mechanics went through the whole car looking for it. The bolts were locked on!

I called the tire place back east; they knew nothing. Thankfully the guy in Jackson said he could cut the nuts and put on new ones. I told him to do it on all four wheels. I didn’t want to deal with this again, ever. 

One good thing I realized later… thank god I never got a flat on the trip. If I’d waited for AAA to come change the tire on an endless prairie somewhere … and then found out the bolts were locked on, well, I would have experienced a new level of losing my shit!

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tetons wide

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So in the end, we lost two hours of the day. I was pissed, but the beauty of the Tetons quickly brightened my mood. They’re so majestic. In 1996, I’d spent the afternoon by an abandoned farmhouse, watching a snow squall blow through the peaks, near a shallow, rutted twin path heading north through the grass — the faded route of pioneer wagons so long ago. I never saw another person. And I’ll never forget that afternoon.

I looked for the farmhouse as we sped toward Yellowstone, but I couldn’t see it. We didn’t have time to stop anyway. Just enough for photos. I’d originally thought about hiking in the Tetons, but we were both freaked out by the bear warnings. You need to be in a group of at least three — and then I guess hope you can outrun your friends as the grizzly devours them! 

Check out our Instagram from the road to Yellowstone!

tetons pair

So glad there was snow on the Tetons! It just adds to their beauty.

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teton river

I just wanted to sit in this spot all day. Sigh.

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As with the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff, I’d forgotten how far it is from Jackson Hole to Yellowstone. I was hoping to do a sweep of the main park loop, through the main area where buffalo often block the road, then a quick hike to Yellowstone Falls, then finish off with Old Faithful. But Mother Nature and the Park Service had other ideas.

At the entry gate, the ranger told us the northern route had already been shut down; parts of the Rockies had been hit with a blizzard days earlier. The rest of the road was set to close for the season on October 15: tomorrow. She said our best bet was to head up to the geysers.

Yellowstone Park is big and sprawling. Unlike Yosemite, where so many sites are close together in the main valley, the key attractions in Yellowstone are separated by long drives through somewhat dull forest. A half hour later, we pulled into the fairly empty parking lot to see Old Faithful spouting off. Luckily it does that frequently, so I wasn’t upset that we caught the tail end of the show.

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old faithful

Old Faithful from deep into our walk. It’s actually better from afar.

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Mtuseni and I walked along the boardwalks. It’s like a moonscape there — but one surrounded by lush hills. Near the hotel lot, a woman jumped out of her car and ran with her camera toward a bison that was grazing. A woman ranger giving a tour yelled, “Lady, no! Get back! That’s a wild animal. He can charge you.” The woman stopped on a dime and sheepishly went back to her car. Mtuseni and I laughed. That ranger did not care about sounding polite: “Lady! No!” How many times does she have to do that during a season? People are so dumb. 

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Lady No!

This munching buffalo didn’t know the drama and hilarity he caused. The woman with the camera got about three feet away from him. “Lady! No! Get back!” LOL. (I zoomed in to get this guy from maybe 50 feet.)

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As we strolled among the the colorful bubbling pools and sulfurous steam, looking at the brittle crust that was off limits, we noticed big blobs of buffalo dung on it. We wondered how those heavy animals could just walk freely on that crust — but humans can fall in and turn into shabu-shabu. We joked that after dark when the visitors are gone, the bison probably relax in the geyser pools like hot tubs, laughing at the silly humans who are afraid to go near them.

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blue pool

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castle geyser

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Unlike in 1996, now there’s an app that tracks when certain geysers might erupt. I saw that Grand Geyser might erupt that afternoon. When we got to it, a bunch of people were waiting. But the potential window was about 90 minutes, and there was no guarantee: it’s a geyser, not a train. I wasn’t gonna sit there for nothing.

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grand sign

Mother Nature doesn’t give a guarantee on these things, and I wasn’t gonna sit and wait for nothing.

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So we kept following the path deeper into the geyser field. It’s a long, meandering boardwalk. We saw a few other smaller geysers erupt along the way. Mtuseni was pretty enthralled. At one point I turned to say something to him and saw Grand Geyser behind him start to erupt. I yelled, “Oh my god, it’s going!”

And then so did Mtuseni. He took off like a shot, running back toward the geyser. I trotted along behind, wanting to skip the meandering boardwalk curves and run straight across the crust of death.

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mtu geyser self

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It lived up to its grand name, spouting for a good 15 minutes with double jets. It’s better than Old Faithful, because you can get closer to it, and it creates a river of steaming water that flows under the boardwalk. It really is amazing. Later I watched Museni’s run to the geyser, which he captured with the GoPro and narrated continually. It’s hysterical. I’ve never heard someone say “wow” so many times.

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geyser river pair

This was the first day I had to pull out a winter jacket. A big change from the sticky, stifling September days in the South!

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When the show was over, we walked along another section of boardwalk. I wanted to show Mtuseni the stunning lobby of the historic hotel there, but it was already closed for the season. It felt a little bittersweet. We’d spent weeks in blazing heat and humidity at the start of the trip — and now places were closing down for winter. I felt the clock ticking…

I also knew this was our last really impressive sight to see for a while; there’s nothing spectacular in the Great Plains. But we were rewarded with a stunning view across a valley toward snow-capped peaks that seemed to be floating. It was breathtaking, and I knew we wouldn’t see any more snow on the trip.

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rockys lst shot

On the road out of Yellowstone. I had to get out and take this photo; there’s wasn’t even a turnoff! It’s like a glimpse of heaven.

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tetons fading

So long Grand Tetons. Till next time. (And I will be back!)

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We grabbed a few last dusky shots of the Tetons then headed back to Jackson. We had dinner at the historic Silver Dollar Bar, where brave Mtuseni ordered the bison chili. Actually, he’ll eat anything that’s meat. The place was packed, with TV screens showing baseball playoffs and a Monday Night Football game. Sports nuts Mtuseni tried to watch both… and learn the games. But he still preferred soccer.

The raucous atmosphere and sounds of football on a chilly night made it really feel like fall — and a good wrap to the adventurous part of the trip. I was dreading the days ahead of driving through flat nothing… and leaving my beloved West in the rearview mirror.

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cowboy bar

My old boyfriend in San Francisco used to call me cowboy. This place in Jackson brought back happy memories of him and those younger days. Damn, how quickly time flies.

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shoshone mtu cln

After a pretty nondescript breakfast at the hotel in Tahoe, we took off right away for Idaho — a stopover on the way to Wyoming. That is, we tried to. Picking up snacks at the local Safeway, I was surprised to see a warning light on my dashboard: an icon of a flat tire. Having owned the car for less than two months, I’d never seen this. I didn’t even know cars could sense low tires. 

Given that we were heading into pretty isolated country, I was a bit unnerved. I didn’t want to be stranded a million miles from civilization. After filling the tire we cruised back down the Sierras through Reno and off into the vast emptiness of Nevada. I’d only been to Reno before on ski trips from San Francisco. I never knew how barren and desolate Nevada is. Miles and miles of nothing but flat dusty plains with a few scrubby bushes here and there. 

It probably would have been the most boring drive of the trip… except that Mtuseni, who’s generally pretty quiet, opened up about his life like never before. After our massive argument in Yosemite the day before, he let everything spill out, nonstop, for almost two hours. He was like an oil well. It was cathartic for him, and enlightening for me. One of the gifts of long road trips.

Read my New York Times essay on the reward of long talks (and arguments) on the road. 

As we came into an enclave of small casinos and motels — called Jackpot — I figured it must be the end of Nevada. Sure enough, just up a hill and around a bend was the Welcome to Idaho sign! And then, one of the best views of the entire trip: Across a flat plain, the full moon rising behind a bluff on a crisp, clear October night. It was breathtaking, spiritual. I love the west.

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moonrise tall

How I wish I had a real camera — and a tripod — to capture this! Even the best phone wasn’t up to the task.

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moonrise wide

I wanted to follow that dirt road to catch the moon…

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We woke up the next morning in Twin Falls — merely a layover on the trek to Jackson Hole — but I was happy to see the place is aptly named. After a visit to the laundromat, we drove to Shoshone Falls, known as the Niagara of the West.

Mtuseni was happy to see a waterfall with some actual water in it. I felt bad that the falls in Yosemite were so meager, but autumn is a crapshoot for waterfalls there. Sometimes you’re lucky; usually you’re not 

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shoshone pair

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 After the falls we headed back to see Perrine Bridge, which crosses the Snake River Canyon. It’s right next to a shopping center. You can stand at the rim of this wild rocky gorge, then turn around and there’s like a Target and Taco Bell in front of you. Very strange. At least the center’s parking lots are nicely landscaped.

It’s high and scary — a 500-foot drop — though not as scary as the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico. At least I could get near the edge of this one!

Seeing a bunch of people along the rim stuffing sacks with brightly colored cloth, I realized they were base jumpers, We missed them by about a half hour! At the gift shop — (heavy emphasis on potato merch) — we discovered that the bridge is a common site for jumpers. I should have done more research, but I’d only seen Twin Falls as a place to eat and crash. 

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perrine tilt

Mtuseni took this, you can tell because he’s standing right at the edge of the gorge. The tilt makes it seem more scary. (It was scary enough for me without special effects!)

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mtu perrine

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After a few shots of the canyon, we headed out for Jackson, Wyoming, one of my favorite places. It’s a much more scenic drive than the moonscape of Nevada.

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woming pasture

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Wyoming creek mtns

Probably one of the most beautiful (unsanctioned) piss stops I’ve ever taken. 

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Wyoming road

I just wanted to pull a Forrest Gump and run down this road to wherever it took me. (I’d probably pass out by the third telephone pole. )

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Up in a mountain pass, Mtuseni finally encountered snow for the first time. He had to get a photo and a video, but he was not pleased when I threw a snowball at him. I guess when you don’t grow up with snow, you don’t realize that’s part of the fun. (And you’re supposed to retaliate!)

Despite his excitement, Mtuseni stayed in the snow for about five whole minutes. He hates the cold — which for him translates to anything under 65. (Don’t get me started on air conditioning in the car!)

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mtu snow

First time in snow! Clearly not the right choice of footwear.

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mtu snow portrait

Mtuseni was so proud to send a snow selfie to friends home in South Africa. 

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Coming down the mountain felt like a straight shot descent into Jackson. I swear the grade warning sign showed a truck practically heading downwards vertically. Seriously, it was a white knuckle drive. I don’t remember that from my earlier visit. Or else I was just young and fearless then. 

After checking into our motel, we walked the streets and wooden sidewalks of Jackson, and had pizza in an old renovated theater.

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teton pizza

Bad photo. Cool place. Good pizza.

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I’d been to Jackson in 1996, a much-needed break after quitting a stressful job. I’d eaten dinner at a very cool brewery — and my favorite t-shirt from the place had long ago dissolved from wear. After Mtuseni went to bed, I bundled up against the cold and tried to find it. After a couple blocks, sense memory kicked in and I turned down a dark side street. Sure enough, there it was!

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brewpub

Sense memory — or maybe just an instinct for good brew pubs, led me to find this place again after 25 years!

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Not the same name, but still a brewery. I popped my head in and thought back to that earlier trip … and what it felt like to be 36. I passed on getting a beer and a t-shirt. We had a big day ahead — theTetons and Yellowstone — and I certainly had acquired plenty of t-shirts already!

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wyoming sign

Another sign for the collection!

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tunnel view - pln

Our last day in Yosemite started out with bang. After spending weeks together in a car, in hotels, essentially attached at the hip — the stress finally crossed the threshold of human endurance. 

I’d been unsure about how to get to our stopover in Lake Tahoe that night: it’s not like there are tons of highways through the Sierras. I could drop back down into the Central Valley and take Rte 80 to Tahoe — a familiar ski trip route. I’d also considered stopping to see a friend in Grass Valley in the foothills. Both routes meant heading west to go east. In the end, we had to return to Yosemite Valley so Mtuseni could get souvenirs… probably the most meandering, inefficient way to get to Tahoe.

The dilemma over travel routes, the smoky-hazy Yosemite skies, the disappointment of the Bay Area, and general exhaustion had all coalesced into a crummy mood to start the day. So five minutes on the Wawona Road back to the valley, when Mtuseni made a snarky comment about I-can’t-remember-what… I Lost My Shit. We fought like we’ve never fought in a ten years together, screaming at the top of our lungs nonstop, all the way to the tunnel view. It was intense. Distressing. But in the end, it changed everything.

Read my New York Times essay about our brawl in Yosemite.

When we arrived at the tunnel view — for what I knew would be the last time — I was seething. We got out of the car and went in separate directions to get photos. Ironically, the smoke had cleared significantly; finally the full valley could be seen in all its glory. While the smoke was gone, the air between us was thick — but we managed to come together for a photo. 

After buying t-shirts in chilly silence, I headed toward the route to the northern gate, where we first entered the park. I felt a little sad; who knew when I’d return? Not wanting it to end, I pulled over for a last glimpse of El Cap. Mtuseni and I lay in the meadow at the base, pointing out climbers splayed all across the granite wall. We hoped to see three of them reach the top, but they took a break about twenty yards from the rim. Slackers! 

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merced cathedral

My peaceful oasis along the Merced River between El Cap and Cathedral Rocks.

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We stayed for about two hours — and the tension between us faded away. I took Mtuseni to the small beach along the Merced that I’d discovered while he was hiking the Four Mile Trail yesterday, and he understood that small things in Yosemite can be just as impressive as the monumental stuff. Finally, it was time to go. I knew there was a long drive ahead, and we’d stayed much longer than planned.

I’d set our location in the GPS and knew we’d be shooting directly east across the Sierras, but I didn’t look closely. Heading back toward the north gate, the GPS told me to take a right turn — and it all made sense. We would take the Tioga Road  through Tuolumne Meadows. I’d only been up there once, with a childhood friend in the mid-90s. It was a great trip.

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Tuolumne Dan

Tuolumne Meadows with my late friend Dan in October ’94. Best pals since second grade. Miss you, buddy.

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Most visitors to Yosemite, myself included, tend to stick around the valley. But the Tioga Road is stunning. You climb above the valley and come to a sweeping expanse of rock smoothed by glaciers and studded with boulders tossed there haphazardly thousands of years ago — with a backside view of the curving hump of Half Dome.

Beyond that, the serene grassy plain of Tuolumne Meadows. It reminded me of the caldera we saw in Los Alamos, only smaller. And colder.

After the meadow is the pristine crystal beauty of Tenaya Lake. Taken together, you get an entirely different experience of Yosemite on this route.

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mtu Tenaya

Tenaya Lake is like a sapphire along the northern route through Yosemite Park.

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On my previous trip, my friend and I turned around at the lake to head back to San Francisco. But Mtuseni and I followed the road all the way to the east gate of the park. I’d never thought about Yosemite having an eastern entry point! 

The last section of the Tioga is a steep and winding downhill route with stunning mountain views. It was hard to take it all in while keeping my eye on the road. At one point I noticed some large white patches on a mountain. Mtuseni insisted they were glare from the sun, but I knew different. When we got closer it became clear what they were, and Mtuseni got excited — it was his first glimpse of snow!

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busters mkt

After the majesty of Yosemite, the banal reality of western Nevada. Buster’s wasn’t open. I don’t think it has been for a while.

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After descending the Sierras, we drove for a while through dull flatland in Nevada. Because he slept through the drive down the San Gabriel mountains into Pasadena, Mtuseni didn’t get a “Welcome to California” photo — the gem in any American road tripper’s collection. He was happy to grab one at the Nevada crossing. 

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Cal sign

One more for the collection! He lucked out after sleeping through our entry into California from Arizona.

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Having been to Lake Tahoe on past ski trips, I knew it was in the mountains. But we were still in the Nevada lowlands. I couldn’t figure it out. Suddenly, we turned off into a small subdivision — with a mountain dead in front of us. Sure enough, the road headed straight up in an endless series of long switchbacks. We must have climbed 3,000 feet in ten minutes! It was wild to look down and see the small town we’d just left — now just a scattering of tiny lights in the darkening dusk. It felt like taking off in a plane.

After checking into the hotel, we headed out for a quick dinner. It was probably in the low 40s, the coldest temps we’d hit yet. The native New Englander in me was happy to have that first feel of cold fall air. Mtuseni, the South African, was not enjoying it. Lightweight!

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tunnel view - pair

Finally a pic with a clear view of Half Dome! We managed to smile after having spent a half hour arguing in the car.

tunnel view2b

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Driving back into the park from our hotel, I’d hoped the smoke from the Merced wildfire had cleared. But the fire was still burning, and our second day in Yosemite seemed just as hazy, if not more so. How I wanted to be dazzled by a crisp, blue Sierra sky!

One of the most breathtaking views in Yosemite is from Glacier Point. Mtuseni had to see it. But I didn’t want to do the hike. (I’d done it before, and based on yesterday’s hike to Vernal Falls I knew wouldn’t be able to keep up with my young gun son.) And it felt like driving up there was cheating.

So we split up for the day. Mtuseni took the Four Mile Trail up from the valley floor, while I explored the valley itself. Aside from my sick day in Los Alamos, this was our first day apart on the trip. We’re both somewhat solitary people, and I think we needed the break from each other.

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Yosemite Valley river

I could have chilled by this spot all day… a new discovery in the valley for me!

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I was excited to poke around the valley, which I’d not really done on all my past visits. Yosemite’s superstar waterfalls and rock formations and trails tend to grab all the attention. Finally I had a chance to follow the river as it meandered through the valley.

I discovered some sweet spots and views that I’d never seen before. I was so relaxed and content — and it gave me a chance to recharge. I even treated myself to a nice burger at the new commissary — a major, impressive upgrade from my visits in the 1990s!

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el cap

The majesty of El Capitan. I never say “awesome” unless I truly feel awe. El Cap fits the bill. You can’t see them here, but there are climbers on the wall. Just little specks. Lunatics!

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meadow pines

Another valley discovery… this view of a rock formation across from El Cap.

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oak selfie

Me, my spirit oak, and a hazy Half Dome. I hope my oak is still there on my next visit to Yosemite.

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Meanwhile, Mtuseni headed up the trail to Glacier Point, sending me occasional updates. I warned him that it was a pretty aggressive hike, and that he’d be tired on the way back down. I would meet him at the trailhead at 5:00 and told him to plan accordingly.

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mtu 4 mile trail

Along the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point. Note the hazy smoke in the valley.

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mtu trail mrkr

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He zoomed up the trail and was quite proud of himself. Mtuseni doesn’t do any hiking in South Africa. When you don’t have a car and you push a wheelbarrow three miles each way to pick up a canister of propane for the house, as he said, “You don’t take walks for pleasure.” He got great photos from the summit. I was jealous, but I loved my little discoveries in the valley.

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mtu glacier pt summit

The Grand Canyon… Yosemite… not bad for a kid from Drummond settlement in South Africa!

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mtu half dome ptr

I can barely take a normal selfie, and Mtuseni’s doing perspective tricks. Damn younger generation!

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As our rendezvous time approached, he texted he was on his way down and it was “steep.” I laughed. It’s no more steep than the way up — but after a strenuous hike with a 3,000-foot rise in elevation, your knees are quivering coming down.

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steep text

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I waited and waited by the trailhead, as many hikers emerged. It was past 5:45. I was starting to get nervous — maybe he fell and was hurt. Then I saw him talking and laughing with two other people. They stopped and took selfies, then the others peeled off to continue down the valley. Mtuseni had met a couple from Austria on his way down. I told him people come from all over the world to see Yosemite.

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mtu self trio

Mtuseni’s new hiking pals. The world comes together in Yosemite!

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I joked to Mtuseni that he looked a little tired, and he was 45 minutes late. He pointed out a park sign that said the original Four Mile Trail was redesigned to add some switchbacks — making it easier, but almost a half mile longer. Oh… okay. It was those three extra switchbacks. Right. Whatever you say. (It’s a tough trail for people who’ve never hiked.  Plus add in the elevation — not to mention the smoky air!) 

As we were getting in the car, another couple approached us. They were from Germany, had just finished the trail and asked me when the next shuttle bus was. I said they’d just missed it, and the next one wasn’t for a half hour. The light was almost fading. They’d parked near Vernal Falls and walked to the trailhead. They misjudged how long the Four Mile trail would take.

I could see they were exhausted, it was a long hike back to Vernal Falls, and they had dinner reservations — which they’d never make at this point. I offered to drive them back to their car. They were so grateful, and we all had a cheerful chat in the car.

Mtuseni was shocked that I gave them a ride, but I said that hikers tend to be nice people — and Yosemite makes everyone happy and friendly. So Mtuseni not only got to stand on top of the world, he got to meet several people from Europe. It was a good day.

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mtu glacier pt wide

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And it was topped off by dinner at the Hotel Wawona. I was so happy to be back in that classic old dining room, awash in memories. Sometimes I would go to Yosemite by myself to get a taste of real fall — I loved having breakfast there.

My dinner was just okay — it was probably dumb to order pasta primavera in October! But Mtuseni had one of his best meals of the trip: a massive hunk of pot roast with gravy, potatoes, and veggies — a perfect autumn dish.

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wawona dinner

The classic dining room at the Hotel Wawona. And a well-earned hearty hiker’s meal!

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I was kicking myself that I didn’t order it. He dug in heartily — though with his refined South African use of cutlery — and finally offered me his very last bite. I laughed and declined. After that hike, he’d earned it. 

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four mile trail sun

Another hazy sun view from the Four Mile Trail. Would the skies clear for our final day in Yosemite tomorrow?

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