Yosemite Series: Day Ten

Day 10: Starting Out Early In The Morning

Thursday. I am well aware that I have only this and one more morning in which to get out early enough to sketch and paint before the baking sun begins to saturate the Valley. I’m on my bike by eight o’clock. Sara Midda’s South of France sketchbook pops into my head, with her delicate vignettes depicting details, colors, and memories of every season of the year in southern France. I decide to make vignettes of the smallest details I can find this morning on my bike ride. I’ve been trying to stare at massive granite walls and follow the contours with my eyes and hands. Now I’m going to notice the minutiae.

The first meadow I pass is the one just on the other side of Swinging Bridge. While it looks mostly “Naples Yellow” (the name for an opaque beige yellow paint color), when I look with noticing eyes, I see that there are tiny lavender flowers sprinkled among the drying tall grasses.

I use a thumbnail technique I picked up from some illustrator-designer’s blog or book. It helps me define a border or frame of focus within the larger blank space of the paper, like a window I am looking through. I am sitting on my portable stool, my bike leaning against the low fence just off the paved trail. My backpack, bike panier, and stool are all off the trail, and I am not obstructing walkers or bikers. I am staring into a large open meadow, nothing particularly postcard-worthy. But it’s always interesting to see passers-by turn their heads toward me, as I’m sketching, and then turn their heads to look at what is opposite me, which they presume to be my subject. “Is there something to see here?” their gestures seem to ask.

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Morning vignettes 1.

I am just getting started on these tiny vignette sketches when a man with dark, buzz-cut hair and glasses, who appears to be in his thirties, walks up the path from my right. He has a daypack on and walks with an energetic, light step. He stops and turns his head to look at my page from my perspective. “It’s very nice,” he says quietly, as if trying not to disturb me.

I look up and smile. “Thanks! Where are you visiting from?”

“Germany.”

“Oh! How long are you in the U.S.A.?”

“For…almost…two weeks?” he is pausing and looking up between words, as if translating them in his head first.

“Oh! Where else have you gone?”

“Um…Las Vegas? Then Bryce Canyon? Then Zion? And then…Monu..Monu…”

“Monument Valley?”

“Ah yes! Monument Valley? And then here…and then we will go to…San Francisco? And then L.A…and then…back to Germany.”

I smile, as he has named several of the stops on one of my favorite road trips ever: from Las Vegas, to Zion National Park, to Monument Valley, to Albuquerque, to Sedona, and back to Las Vegas. Randy and I didn’t make it to Bryce on that trip. But it — along with the rest of the southeastern Utah national parks — is on our list.

“You’ve seen some very nice places in our country,” I say.

“Yes, very nice!”

We exchange smiles, and I savor the moment as I imagine someone visiting the United States for the first time and following that particular itinerary, which has taken me almost forty years here to experience. What an impression to have left on someone coming here for the first – and perhaps only – time.

I decide to take a different route after I am done with my page in this meadow. Instead of continuing along the path behind Yosemite Lodge, I backtrack over the Swinging Bridge, and take the fork onto the bike path along the Valley Loop road and in front of Yosemite Valley Chapel. I set up my chair a few feet away from a large cedar tree, and instead of looking at Yosemite Falls, I look down at the particular texture of the meadow. Indian Yellow. Sap Green Hue. Jenkins Green. I am imagining the mixtures of acrylic paints that I think will produce the brilliant tones I see in this morning light. None of these colors are in my watercolor set, but I save those ideas for a future session at home.

I do the same vignette exercise on a new page, sitting in this new spot. The sun is still relatively low, just peeking out from behind Sentinel Rock behind me. I notice the very few clusters of aspen and birch trees, the masses of lodgepole pines blanketing the rims of the meadow and heading up the granite walls. I zoom in and look at the leafy stems clustered close to my feet, just on the other side of the fence. After I paint them, I rub the leaves between my index finger and thumb and smell. Mint!

I experience filling the same-sized tiny pencil square with a cluster of mint, a cluster of trees, a section of meadow, a single cedar tree, a few blades of grass, and the entire Three Brothers rock formation with foreground and sky. This is the magic and fun of making an image on paper. I can zoom in and out, become a bird soaring high, or a field mouse scampering across the ground, or a squirrel climbing a tree, without leaving the stool I am sitting in. I can practice seeing as an act of imagination.

Morning vignettes 2.
Morning vignettes 2.

I am ready to close my book, fold up my stool, and head to my next location, presumably to paint more vignettes. But as I turn toward Yosemite Falls (having been facing about thirty degrees away from it all this time) I am stopped in my tracks by the way the light is hitting the rock wall at that very moment. The trickle of the waterfall is exposed to full light, but the spires, the cracks and crags on the eastern face are bathed in light and shadow that cast a spell on me. My breath is taken away for a moment. I take a picture with my phone, but it’s not enough to spend just that split second with it.

I turn the page of my sketchbook and take out my trusty water-soluble graphite crayon, a regular pencil, and then my watercolor set. Sometimes I paint just to be able to linger a bit longer with a magical moment in time. Painting allows — and requires — me to be still in a way that the touchscreen of a phone’s camera does not. Sometimes I value the instantaneous capture of my phone camera, and its inconspicuousness as a tool. The commitment of getting something onto paper allows me — requires me — to enter a different state. A wise rabbit once said, “It takes time to open up a space inside yourself wide enough to let ideas in and shed light on them.” (source) The act of sitting and sketching — moving hand across paper with the intention of creating an impression or artifact of that space created by sitting — is what opens this space inside myself, hopefully wide enough to let something in and shed light on it.

Yosemite Falls with sketch - morning
Morning light and shadows on Yosemite Falls.
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Better lit version of sketch of Yosemite Falls – morning.

By now it is a little after eleven o’clock. The sun is higher, and my time for comfortable outdoor sketching is getting limited. But I am determined to find more vignettes today. I get on my bike and cross Sentinel Bridge, retracing the route back to Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, continuing along Ahwahnee Meadow, and back toward Mirror Lake. I remember seeing a trail running below the bike path, along the Merced River, and I imagine finding myself a shaded rock, putting my feet in the water, and doing more sketches.

I am walking my bike along this lower trail, which is narrow, rocky, and quite well-traveled with hikers. I notice a uniformed ranger walking along the river with a “civilian” companion. They are rubbing leaves between their fingers, smelling, squatting down to look at rocks, and talking. I remember this ranger’s face from four years ago at the Tuolumne Visitor Center. She is Chinese-American. I remember thinking at that time, “Wow! An Asian Park Ranger! How cool!”. I wanted to know her story then, and I still do now. But just as she passes in front of me, I also encounter a woman who says to me, “Are you with the Conservancy?”

I wonder how she knows, and then remember that the T-shirt I am wearing, which I bought in the bookstore yesterday, has the Yosemite Conservancy logo on the sleeve — the right sleeve, which is the side she is passing me on.

“Yes! I’m here for a Work Week.”

“Oh really! I’m a Month Long.”

“Cool!” I’ve always wanted to talk to one of the Month Long Volunteers, to find out more about the program, how it all works, and how I might do it someday. Now is my chance. She is finishing up her July volunteering. We talk about the food situation (vouchers for Yosemite Lodge). Whether or not she was here for Obama’s visit (the answer is regrettably no). How she picked July (it’s hotter and there are more visitors, but the days are longer and so there is more time to play after work). How she found out about it (a friend had been doing it for years, and convinced her to sign up as soon as she retired, which was this past year). What kind of work she did (answering questions at the Information Desk in Yosemite Village). Whether she liked it (it’s repetitive, answering very basic questions most of the time, but great meeting people from all over the world). Any stories she had (seeing a mother with two toddlers playing in the river near Happy Isles, where the current is strong and rocks are slippery. Speaking up to the mother, out of concern for the kids’ safety. Feeling powerless, with only a Volunteer T-shirt as her credentials).

I share my story of being surprised and delighted to be Assistant Cook, after a half-year on the waiting list. She expresses overall relief that no one had to cook, do dishes, or store food during her month. I wonder if she has any idea what we are eating back at our campground.

By the time I find a shaded rock to sit on, it is almost noon. The sun is moving high over the river, and my shade will soon disappear. But I still enjoy the feeling of putting my bare feet in the water. There are families, large groups of people about twenty-five feet away, splashing and moving through the water. At one point, they take turns climbing up a huge boulder (probably fifty feet high) and jumping into a small open pool of water in the river. I imagine it must look like a postage stamp sized opening from up there. They hesitate, step back, reconsider. But each of them — three total in the time I am sitting there — does it.

Before 10am - Thursday
Today, Before 10am. On the Merced River.

I do my daily journal page first, remembering my encounter with the German man. And then I look for my vignettes. It is getting to be intolerably hot on this rock already. So instead of six squares, I make four. Slightly bigger windows to look through. I notice the bark on the trees – one a cedar, the other a Ponderosa pine. I notice the green on the rocks at the bottom of the river. I notice the source, somewhere beyond my imagination, over my left shoulder, high in the mountains, one of the snowy peaks we saw while backpacking. From that infinite place, this water flows. I dip my water brush into the river to refill it. It requires me to find a place where the small plastic vessel can break the surface tension and create flow. It takes a few tries. But finally each of my water brushes is filled with water from the source, this Merced River that eventually meets the San Joaquin. So much depends upon this water. So many battles have been and will be fought for this water. And here I sit, noticing.

Vignettes, Merced River.
Vignettes, Merced River.

I am sweating by the time I finish my page, and hungry too. I take out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and bag of chips. Surprising how nourishing this simple lunch can be when just pure calories are required.

A mother of two girls and a boy comes up and says, “I can’t help but notice your drawings. They are so nice…my daughter loves to paint and draw. What is the brush you are using?” I get a lot of questions about the water brush, which was a life-changer when my friend Grace introduced me to it. I am generous with sharing anything anyone asks about my tools and process, because it is the generosity of other artists that enabled me to teach myself.

I bike back in the roasting mid-afternoon sun, grateful for the breeze created by my bike’s motion. I arrive back at camp just before two, and the effort of walking down to the river does not seem worth the exposure to more sun and heat. I sit in my low camp chair next to my tent, and take a mini power nap.

Tonight is the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, where traditionally Heather, the Head of Volunteer Programs for Yosemite National Park, and Suzy, the Head of Volunteer Programs for Yosemite Conservancy, come to have dinner with us, answer questions around the campfire, and hand out recognition certificates, bandannas, and pins. It was at one of these evening programs three years ago that we were humbled to learn how many of our fellow volunteers have multiple decades of service under their belts! The dedication and shared love of this place are inspiring and contagious.

Our dinner menu is barbecued chicken breasts with buns, Mary Lou’s chopped salad and quinoa salad, and stovetop apple crisp for dessert. I am charged with making Mary Lou’s chopped salad out of any ingredients I can find in the coolers. I use cherry tomatoes, celery, carrots, cilantro, red onion, lemon, and olive oil. The quinoa salad is Mary Lou’s own favorite. The key is a honey vinaigrette dressing, which she substitutes with maple syrup. Chopped kale, quinoa, blueberries and walnuts are tossed with the sweet vinaigrette. It is a refreshing meal after a hot summer day.

Heather always entertains with her inside scoop on the long-term developments within the Park. Our discussion spans from traffic concerns (this year’s park attendance is up at least twenty percent over last year, or eight hundred thousand more visitors so far), to parking lot relocations, to ongoing plans for a pedestrian underpass near Lower Yosemite Falls Trail and Yosemite Lodge, to the lawsuit pending over the renaming of the hotels, to the renaming of LeConte Memorial Lodge, to her upcoming trip with her parents to the Rio Olympics. We pass the ceremonial container filled with home-baked, gluten-free desserts that Heather brings for each of her volunteer group appreciation visits. Tonight we get brownies, which are surprisingly good for being gluten-free.

The heat seems to have an effect on everyone’s stamina. The group heads off to their own tents immediately after Heather’s presentation ends around eight. In years past, there have been campfires and talks late into the night. Even an impromptu music concert by Randy and me. But this year, bedtimes have been early, and the thought of adding any more heat with a campfire hasn’t even crossed our minds.

There is one more day of work ahead of us. We sleep soundly.


See the entire Yosemite sketch and story series here.

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