Yosemite Series: Day Eleven

Day 11: Friday Finale, Milkweed Beetles, & Food Upcycling

Today’s forecasted high is 103 degrees. It is the last day of work for the volunteer crew. Two other times in the past, I’ve participated in the picnic table building, so I remember certain things quite well. The vice grips used by one person to hold the head of a stripped bolt, while a power drill is used by another to unscrew the nut from the other side. Moving wood planks and metal hardware into position, placing nuts and hitting them with the power drills. Recharging the drills. Painting the wood planks. Lifting, flipping, and carrying the finished tables.

This year I don’t do any of that. It’s Randy and the other eleven volunteers who pile into the van each morning and drive over to Lower Pines campground, near the amphitheater, to do this work. Despite some delays due to staffing and administrative issues, the crew manages to complete over sixty new picnic tables for the campgrounds. Suzy from Yosemite Conservancy reminds us on Thursday evening that memories are made around those tables for thousands of families each year. And that our work as volunteers has contributed to the enhancement of those families’ memories for years to come. A nice way to frame things as time well spent.

I have found my perfect volunteer position as assistant cook. I don’t mind the early rise in the morning. I love having a crew of dish washers after each meal. Prep and cooking don’t feel like work to me out here. I get the entire day to cruise around, make art, and make my own schedule. And each meal is like a little performance for an appreciative and attentive audience. I am an artist and performer, after all.

One of the new skills I’ve learned and practiced under Mary Lou’s guidance is what I’ll call “food upcycling”. I rarely have leftovers when I cook at home, and this is by choice. I like to start fresh each day, and showcase the freshest possible ingredients in each meal.

But here in the campground, we like to make more than enough, so there are leftovers. My three favorite “food upcycling” maneuvers were as follows: first, turning the leftover hash browns from breakfast into potato latkes for dinner, served with the lime crema (sour cream with lime juice and zest) leftover from fish taco night. Second, making risotto cakes for breakfast from the leftover mushroom risotto, and serving them with chimichurri sauce. A great accompaniment to scrambled eggs. Third, the one we do this final Friday breakfast, is poaching eggs in the leftover ratatouille from flank steak dinner on Tuesday. We serve the eggs over toasted English muffins. It is a great finale breakfast.

Since there is no volunteer work happening the next week, our group is responsible for breaking down the entire campground, including three pop-up tents, two propane three-burner stoves, an entire kitchen utensil and cookware setup, folding tables, tablecloths, dishwashing and hand washing stations. Using an outdated diagram pinned to the inside wall of the trailer where we have stored our food all week, we are to pack all these items into the trailer and lock the door before we leave on Saturday morning.

Mary Lou rounds up the crew and they begin to strategize. Who has done this before? A couple of the guys have. Who is willing to help? Everyone. When can we do this? After dinner on Friday. Is everyone OK with going out to breakfast on Saturday morning instead of having it cooked here? A resounding YES.

The graciousness and willingness to help with any task, big or small, is what impresses me most about the long-time volunteer crew members. I always come home from these weeks wondering, “How can we bring more of the volunteer culture and spirit into our everyday lives, into our communities, and into our workplaces?”. When there is something that needs to be done, everyone pitches in, everyone sees what need to be done, and each does something within their ability to move the project to completion. No one is getting paid. In fact, everyone has paid something in order to be here. There is no direct personal benefit in the traditional sense of the word. But what I see is the benefit of being part of a willing, gracious, dedicated group working on something we all love. This is priceless. And it seems like this spirit would be a valuable foundation for more of our society’s activities.

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Today, it is already hot before 9am. I can feel it on my bike ride heading out of the campground. By the time I reach the same place in the meadow where I had witnessed the stunning light on Yosemite Falls yesterday, it is almost too uncomfortable to sit for very long. I continue to the pedestrian bridge that crosses the river from “Chapel Meadow” to Cook’s Meadow. I park my bike here and I am alone. Most campers are just finishing breakfast, and cars from day visitors haven’t arrived yet. I enjoy the peace and solitude and begin to sketch some vignettes.

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Morning vignettes from the pedestrian bridge near Yosemite Chapel.

I want to get the chapel in one of my vignettes, as well as the reflection of the backlit trees on the Merced River. As I am painting, a couple approaches me from the direction of the Chapel and the Valley Loop road. The woman, wearing a fluorescent runner’s outfit, sunglasses, and hat, says, “You look like you know this place well…maybe you can help us.”

I smile and think to myself, Why yes, I suppose I do know this place well…but do I look like I do? Is it the way I have parked myself in the middle of this bridge, at this hour of the morning, to paint? Or the fact that the lower third of both of my legs are stained semi-permanently the color of dirt? There may even be dirt on my face right now, but I wouldn’t know, since I haven’t looked in a mirror in over a week.

She wants to know where the “boardwalk trail” is, which has a “great view of Yosemite Falls”. That was easy. I tell her to continue walking across the bridge we are on, and bear right, where she will be on that boardwalk in Cook’s Meadow, looking at Yosemite Falls. I’m wondering if she sees it through the single stand of trees, just over my left shoulder.

“Thank you so much!” she says, and they both continue across the bridge.

Just on the other side of the bridge is a cluster of milkweeds. Two years ago, there were many more. One of our pre-twilight activities after dinner was to come out on our bikes and watch the milkweed beetles, stacked one on top of another, decorating the leaves of the milkweeds like blue-black lights on a Christmas tree. Some would be stacked as high as four. They were mating, of course.

I mentioned to Ranger Karen on our walk through the meadow on Tuesday that there seem to be so few milkweed, and beetles, this year. What gives? She says it is the evolution of the meadow, and there have been fewer milkweeds every single year for the past decade or so. The milkweed beetles are her favorite insect. And she likes it when kids on her tours ask why they are giving each other “piggyback rides”.

“Yeah, the same kind of piggyback ride your mother and father gave each other before they had you!”, Ranger Karen would say.

I am determined to find and sketch the milkweeds and the milkweed beetles before I leave Yosemite. So that would be today.

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Merced River from pedestrian bridge across from Yosemite Chapel.

But my spot on the bridge is so inviting. Especially the trees on the island and the river and the rocks in the background. It is the Valley’s equivalent of Tuolumne Meadow. I simply must sketch it. I do more than a sketch. I actually might call this a painting, even though it is on a page in my sketchbook.

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Merced River with Cathedral Rocks and Three Brothers in background.

It is now 9:30am and already hot. I have promised myself I will stop by the milkweed beetles and draw them. I do, but I cannot sit for another minute in the sun to add color to the ink outlines. I close my book on this page when it still only black lines. I add color when I get home.

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Milkweed beetles and their piggyback rides.

I give myself permission to move slowly and do nothing for the remainder of the day. I stop by the Yosemite Visitor Center with the intention of finding out the names of the bridges and meadows I have been crisscrossing all week long. The volunteer stationed in the foyer directs me to the bookstore, which she thinks might have a map with the names I am looking for. I don’t find a map, but I do find a book called Permanent Vacation. It’s an anthology of twenty writers who have lived and worked for significant periods of time in National Parks in the western United States. Yellowstone. Denali. Yosemite. Glacier. Grand Teton. The big kahunas, in my opinion. I buy the book, as it reflects my current mood: I want to live this way. I want to have purposeful, fun work as service. To be surrounded by people with enthusiasm and willingness to contribute. To live outside. To not have any thought of looking in a physical mirror, but rather to be immersed in the three hundred sixty degree mirror of nature and wildness. To be someone who knows a place, and also to be a constant stranger in many ways. These writers each hold stories that I want to hear. How did they create lives that enabled them to live, work, play, and write about their adventures?

When I return to camp, I pack up a small tote bag with a bag of potato chips, a can of coconut water, and my newly purchased book. I put my bathing suit on, a skirt and a long-sleeve shirt, and my hat. I tuck my inflatable mattress under one arm and make my way – with slow sherpa steps – toward the river. There is exactly one shady spot near the water. A fallen tree trunk sits under another smaller tree, and the riverbank is sandy, not pebbly. I set down my bag and head further down the bank to the water. I sit, I dip, I swim, I float, I lie back on the floating mattress. I tip my hat so it covers my face, shielding my eyes from the blazing sun. Just contacting the cold water is the sensation I am after. I have no need to get anywhere.

For our final dinner, Mary Lou will make her pasta puttanesca, with Italian sausage she found at the Village Store. I am following her grilled eggplant salad recipe, which sounds delicious. Thinly sliced eggplant are pan-grilled in a bit of olive oil until golden brown. They cool, and then I top them with a mixture of cherry tomatoes, cucumber, cilantro, feta cheese, lemon juice and olive oil. Another perfect accompaniment to a hot summer day.

The final dessert – and la pièce de résistance – is inspired by trifle, made from layers of angel food cake pieces, fresh strawberries and blackberry jam, topped with whipped cream. We enjoy our sweets and then we begin the process of washing and drying dishes, disassembling the stoves, packing pots, pans, bowls, utensils, and other cookware into large plastic totes, taking down the pop-up tents, folding up the tables, bringing the last of the trash and recycling to the bins located about an eighth of a mile down the road. Randy is the lead on fitting everything in – Tetris style – to the rectangular confines of the trailer. The coolers stay out of the trailer and go into the bear lockers overnight, since they will be transported separately to the Yosemite Conservancy office in the morning.

With a crew of ten people — two mysteriously begin playing a game of backgammon just as the work is beginning — moving constantly, the job is done in less than an hour. The sun sets just as we close the doors on the trailer.

Randy has brought his guitar on this trip. Two years ago, we both brought our instruments and gave an impromptu campfire concert, which was even filmed by one of the other volunteers. Because of our week of backpacking, I elect not to bring my violin and have it bake inside the car. I bring a djembe drum and a melodica, my go-to camping instrument for creating melodies and sustained tones like I would with my violin. We give a short “concert” for a small gathering of fellow volunteers who brave the mosquitos and the rapidly fading light with us.

The rhythm of each week we come to volunteer is unique. Shaped by the particular dynamic of the group, the administrative capacity of the Park volunteer program and the Conservancy, the weather, and other energies, there is always a combination of the familiar and the new.

I fall asleep deeply satisfied with the cooking I have done, the art I have made, the stories I have collected, and the additional layers of awareness I have uncovered in my quest to live in closer harmony with the rhythms of the earth, to be more consistently active outdoors, and to serve some purpose in the stewardship of the most precious places on our planet.

I close my eyes and wonder, How can I live more of my life in the way I’ve lived these past two weeks? These are the visions I carry with me all the way home.

FINAL DAY #12 posts on Monday! Have a great weekend!

See the entire Yosemite sketch and story series here.


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