Day 8: Geo-Mythology, Ranger Karen, and Lisa-Chu-rri Sauce
I am up before my 5:45am alarm again. Today’s breakfast menu is hash browns, scrambled eggs, sausage patties, and the leftover black bean and corn salad from last night’s dinner. I find out Mary Lou has never made hash browns from boxed or frozen potatoes…only by grating fresh ones.
“Trust me, it’ll work,” I say. We have picked up a carton of dehydrated shredded potatoes from Yosemite Lodge, and I am ready to go at them, testing my hash brown flipping skills on a larger scale than I’ve ever done before. The skillets we have are the size of backyard garbage can lids. The spatula is the size of a Kindle reader. Mary Lou is a skeptic all the way until the moment she tastes the cooked hash browns.
“WOW! Those are actually GOOD!” She is totally floored that she has agreed to serve rehydrated food, and it tastes acceptable to her. Mary Lou has high standards. She uses saffron in a campground. I am glad my hash browns make the cut this morning.
The forecast for today’s high is 96 degrees Fahrenheit. I read this on the information board at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, which opens at 9. I have arrived before 8:30, so I pass the time by sketching while sitting on a big log bench in front of the bike racks, facing the Visitor Center and offering a particular view of Eagle Peak I haven’t seen before. I start to notice all the colors within the rock – oranges, blues, browns, yellows. So much more than just grey.
This morning, before leaving camp, I consulted the park newspaper we received at the entrance gate, and learned that today’s ranger program is a Geology Walk at 9:30am. In all my visits here, I have never taken part in any ranger-led programs at Yosemite. I decide to give this one a try.
Ranger Karen has shoulder-length, sandy blonde hair, wears two semi-precious stone rings on each hand, and a woven friendship bracelet. She is conversing with two visitors who clearly “go way back” with her when I approach, asking if she is leading the Geology Walk. She is telling her visitor friends about the woman who has woven baskets in the Yosemite Museum for over fifty years, and retired this past year. How she has had to reassure the regulars that yes, she is still alive, and no, they have not hired a replacement yet. She is also talking about Ranger Shelton, who not only presents the Buffalo Soldier show each Sunday night in the Theater, but also (new to me) plays the Mayan flute in the Museum on occasion.
“He can make poetry out of anything, and make a grown man cry over a rock,” she says.
She also relates, with giggles punctuating each sentence, the story of getting barfed on while leading the tram tour the day before. A visitor had become overcome with heat exhaustion, and Ranger Karen had thrown a cold towel over her neck. While lifting her into the front of the cab to ride in the shade, she turned her head and… “I jumped out of the way so that my uniform didn’t get anything on it. But it did get all over my arm…had to do a lot of self-talk to tell myself it was something’ else…just to keep it down, ya know.”
This was a part of the rangers’ jobs I had never considered. But without fail, whenever I meet a national park ranger and hear their story, I end up saying to myself, “How did I miss this? How did I not know I could study trees, or insects, or fungi, or rocks, or soil, or poetry, and get to live and work in a place like this?”.
Ranger Karen is a graduate of UCSB in geology. She is effusive and full of self-deprecating humor when sharing her crazy love of rocks. She tells the story of one of her professors, who handed her a bag of marbles on her first day of class. He said, “From now on, any time you collect a sample from the field, I want you to take one marble out of this bag. You’ll know you’ve become an expert geologist when you’ve lost all your marbles!”.
Our group includes visitors from southern California, Missouri, Cape Cod, Australia, and the Bay Area (me). The first story Ranger Karen tells about Yosemite Valley is the one of the traditional stories of the Ahwahneechee people, who inhabited the Valley for several thousand years before American settlers arrived. As an introduction, she shares her fascination with an emerging field of geology called “geo-mythology”, which takes into account the stories of native people in the study of earth’s geological formations. She tells us that her first job with the National Parks was at Hawai’i Volcanoes, where the traditional story holds that Pele, Goddess of Fire, created the islands. Geologists wanted to know the date of the first eruption of the volcano on the island, so they began collecting samples to perform carbon dating and other scientific methods. One geologist asked to speak to a native Hawaiian priestess who could sing the song of Pele. In the Hawaiian song, there are numbers referring to each of the eruptions of the volcanoes. The geologist listened carefully to the song, and to the numbers all the way back to the first eruption. He wrote down the number of years this corresponded to, and put it in his pocket.
When the other scientists were finished with their carbon dating techniques, this geologist compared his number, derived from listening to the song of the people, to the one derived from carbon dating. The two numbers were almost identical.
With this introduction, Ranger Karen launches into the story of Tul-Tok’-A-Na, the Ahwahneechee name for El Capitan:
There were once two little bear cubs living in the Valley of Ah-wah-nee, who went down to the river to swim. When they had finished their bath they lay down on a large boulder to dry themselves in the sun. While lying there they fell asleep, and slept so soundly that they never woke up again. Through many moons and many snows they slept, and while they slept the great rock on which they lay was slowly rising, little by little, until it soon lifted them up out of sight, and Mother Bear searched for them everywhere without success.
Thus they were carried up into the blue sky, until they scraped their faces against the moon; and still they slept on.
Then all the animals assembled to bring down the little cubs from the top of the great rock. Each animal sprang up the face of the rock as far as he could. The mouse could only spring a hand’s breadth, the rat two hands’ breadths, the raccoon a little more, and so on. The grizzly bear made a great leap up the wall, but fell back like all the others, without reaching the top. Finally came the lion, who jumped up farther than any of the others, but even he fell back and could not reach the top.
Then came the tul-tok’-a-na, the insignificant inch worm, who was despised by all the other creatures, and began to creep up the face of the rock. Step by step, little by little, he measured his way up until he was soon above the lion’s jump, and still farther and farther, until presently he was out of sight; and still he crawled up and up, day and night, through many moons, and at length he reached the top, and took the little cubs and brought them safely down to the ground. And therefore the rock was named for the inch worm, and was called Tu-tok-a-nu’-la (source).
I experience a moment of “the chills” as I hear that the native people named this mighty rock, which we call “El Capitan”, after an inchworm. My grandest lesson from this trip has been “sherpa steps”. It is the tiniest of steps that enabled us to complete our hike to El Capitan and our backpacking trip as a whole. I feel, for a moment, that the ancestors may have been calling to me. Ranger Karen points out that within this story is a clue to the geological origins of this valley — that the “slowly rising” rocks correspond to a modern theory of volcanic uplifts being responsible for the Sierra Nevada.
We walk from the Visitor Center to Cook’s Meadow, which is the site where President Obama gave his speech on Fathers’ Day weekend of this year. Ranger Karen laments the fact that her favorite sign – indicating the height of the flood waters at that site in 1997 – had to be removed for the Presidential visit. We learn about the types of minerals in the granite walls surrounding us. We look at photos of the major rockfalls that have occurred in recent Yosemite history. We smell California bay tree leaves, and learn about their mosquito repellent properties. We watch a pair of young mule deer bucks approach the group, munching on wild raspberries and blackberries that are still relatively abundant in the meadow.
Ranger Karen delights in stories of catastrophe…namely rock falls. She tells of being the ranger scheduled for Coffee With A Ranger on the very morning of the Curry Village rock slide of 2008, and guiding 150 pajama-clad visitors, all stranded from their cabins due to the slide, on her Geology Walk later that day.
She tells of the visitor who asked one morning when she predicted the next rock slide would be, and later that afternoon witnessing a major rock fall near the Ahwahnee Hotel in 2009.
There is never a dull moment for a ranger in Yosemite. Once again, I wonder how I missed this particular boat in the career option department.
With unobstructed views comes unobstructed sun. The days are hot, and I am quickly realizing that prime sketching time is early morning. By the time eleven o’clock rolls around, it’s time to find some shade, or take a dip in the river. Randy and I each have inflatable mattresses that we purchased three years ago just for the purpose of floating on the Merced River.
After the tour, I manage to make one more sketch, using water soluble graphite and my Sennelier watercolors. Then it is time float in the icy cold Merced.
Dinner is grilled flatiron steaks with chimichurri sauce, ratatouille, and rice. Mary Lou is in charge of the ratatouille and rice. I am set free to create the chimichurri sauce. I make a version of this to serve with lamb skewers at home. The base is minced garlic, lime juice and pulp, avocado, cilantro, and Serrano pepper. For lamb at home, I add mint. We don’t have mint here, but I add fresh parsley, basil, and shallots. The whole thing is suspended in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.
I think one of the magic ingredients in our campground meals is letting the sauces sit during preparation in the summer evening temperatures. There is a depth and development of flavors that does not compare to some of my attempts at home, in compressed time. This particular chimichurri turns out to be epic. It compliments the rare steaks perfectly. And I get more requests for recipes for the sauce. Unfortunately I can only spout out a list of ingredients, as I have eyeballed all the proportions. Randy renames the sauce “Lisa-Chu-rri”.
Somehow, we all find room for dessert of brownies, fresh strawberries and whipped cream.
See the entire Yosemite sketch and story series here.