Day 6: Do It For The Cheeseburgers!
“Do it for the cheeseburgers!” is our mantra for the last day’s hike from Indian Ridge to our car on Tioga Road. We have adapted it from our biking mantra for the 40-mile round trip ride from our home in Half Moon Bay to Duarte’s in Pescadero, where we “Do it for the pie!”. Olallieberry pie, to be exact. A la mode. After the artichoke-green chili soup and warm sourdough bread with butter.
Having a goal in mind helps on the steep uphill climbs. When the idea of “conquering” a hill is just not enough to get the legs going, doing it for the pie sometimes will.
In this case, it is the thought of a cheeseburger from the Tuolumne Meadows grill, another twenty miles or so down Tioga Road from where our car is parked.
But first, there is the climb.
For breakfast, we eat all of the remaining food left in the bear canisters: the equivalent of six scrambled eggs made from Ova Easy dehydrated egg powder, and one package each of Crème Brûlée and Cinnamon Apple Oats & Quinoa from Backpackers’ Pantry.
I get to watch the sun rise from behind Clouds Rest. It reminds me of the Full Moon rise on our first night in the way just a segment peeks out from behind the rock before becoming an entire orb of light.
We leave our campsite before eight o’clock. The sun is already beginning to heat up the granite, and our first climb is over Indian Ridge. No one has made it this far out from Tioga Road this early in the morning. We pass our first pair of day hikers at the junction for Indian Rock, a little over a mile into our four-and-a-half mile hike out.
There is a flat traverse through forest, meadows, and creeks, and then the final mile or so is all uphill. Not steep, but steady. There’s something about the final stretch – the tease – that makes us think, “Just one more turn, and we’ll be done.”
The last quarter mile or so is on asphalt. It is an old fire road. The clicking of my hiking poles on the road sounds so anticlimactic after all that granite we’ve been on.
When we finally reach our car and retrieve our cooler from the bear locker, the first things I reach for are a bottle of Gatorade, still somewhat cold from the cooler, and a piece of prepackaged Tillamook cheddar cheese. Never has a piece of cheese tasted so good to me. Next I start eating corn tortilla chips that are in a half-eaten bag that was also stored in the bear locker. Again, these chips are epic.
I am eating even before I take off my shoes and savor the feeling of my bare feet in flip flops. That comes next. These are some of the singular joys of ending a backpacking trip.
And now for the cheeseburgers.
We actually find a parking spot in the lot in front of Tuolumne Meadows Grill. The line is already out the door and it is just before 11:30 am. I notice something different about the lettering on the menu, but I can’t place it. Then I look at the workers’ uniforms. They are wearing baseball caps and aprons that say, “Yosemite National Park.” Then I remember. The employee hats and shirts used to say “DNC,” but Delaware North Corporation is no longer the concessioner at Yosemite. It is now an unnamed entity (which I later learn is Aramark) that brands itself “Yosemite National Park”. Clever.
Luckily, they still sell cheeseburgers. And fries. Or what they call “potato wedges”. I must have fries.
The intensity of the eating is such that it is done in silence. The body is just doing its thing, absorbing these textures that have been missing in the mostly liquid or stew-like dinners we have been having for the last five nights. We have not been deprived of calories. But there is nothing quite like the first cheeseburger at the end of a backpacking trip.
On our way out of Tuolumne Meadow, we stop to visit “our garden”. Four years ago, in September 2012, our first Yosemite Conservancy volunteer project was a Tuolumne Meadow restoration. We replanted grasses to repair a “social trail” that had formed from visitors crossing the meadow instead of using the designated trail around the border of it. Our project involved decompacting the soil on the social trail with spades and shovels, hauling dirt in wheelbarrows from the side of the road all the way across the meadow, about an eighth of a mile each way, and filling in the creek bed with gravel hauled in buckets. The final stage was replanting some of the baby lodgepole pines in the area just in front of the roadside parking. One grouping of these baby trees we named “Randy and Lisa’s Garden.”
Our destination is Yosemite Valley Yellow Pines campground, where we will report for our Volunteer Work Week. It is a perfect summer day on Tioga Road, with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-eighties. It is easy to forget that in Yosemite Valley, it will be fifteen to twenty degrees hotter.
Around Foresta, we can start to feel the blasts of hot air coming into our car. The density of cars also starts to pick up. It is just after twelve noon on a Sunday. Traffic is still moving at this point.
We arrive at Yellow Pines before one, and we are surprised to see that there are already several tents set up in Campground B. Even more surprising is the first face I see being a fellow Half Moon Bay resident! Ann is on our work crew for the week. We worked together earlier this year on Coastal Wildflower Day & Earth Day Festival, a volunteer-led community event at Half Moon Bay State Beach.
I wander over toward the kitchen area, and I see Mary Lou and her sister, Abby, walking towards me. “I’m your assistant!!” I shout from halfway across the campground. “What!” she screams.
“This is going to be GREAT!”
I find out she has not heard the news that we read in our email on top of Indian Ridge last night. She thought she was going to have to do without a helper, or have Abby step in. She tells me she is going to the volunteer office to find out where the food is, and we’ll meet up later when it’s time to prepare for dinner.
While our first thought is that we will take showers at Curry Village, we end up unpacking our backpacks and setting up our tent for the week. It is a sudden transition from the backcountry to car camping.
There is no one at the campground to greet us like there has been on Sundays in the past. I want to make sure I am officially reporting for duty to someone. I call the office, and they tell me Mary Lou is headed back to camp now, and I am to help her with picking up food. There has been some kind of miscommunication and we are behind schedule already.
Mary Lou and Abby arrive back at camp around 3. Mary Lou and I immediately leave in the Conservancy van, heading to Yosemite Lodge to pick up our food supplies for the first three days. We have three empty coolers ready to be filled with ice.
To get from Yellow Pines campground to Yosemite Lodge, we need to go halfway around the Yosemite Valley loop. There is one lane for cars, and one lane for the shuttle buses. The cars don’t like this concept, so a horse-mounted ranger is coming the opposite direction in the shuttle bus lane, forcing cars to stay in the one lane. It is like Los Angeles traffic in the Valley: gridlocked. It takes us fifteen minutes to get to the Lodge, which isn’t bad at all, considering. But on the way back, taking the turn in front of El Capitan back to the Valley loop, there is no movement at all. I have never experienced traffic like this in Yosemite.
We are discussing the menu for tonight’s dinner. Mary Lou is making a last-minute adjustment, switching tomorrow night’s menu for tonight’s. Instead of fish tacos, we are having chicken in orange raisin sauce, and a green salad. I am in charge of the salad. “Good,” I say. If I were to write a cookbook, it would be called Salad Snob. I don’t say that out loud.
The van is filled with milk crates full of miscellaneous food ingredients, from vegetables and fruits to spices, bread, milk, cheese, butter, cold cuts, and eggs. Somehow we manage to stuff all the perishable items into coolers with big bags of ice that we have filled, scoop by scoop, from the ice machines in the kitchen at Yosemite Lodge. From the industrial-sized containers at the Lodge, I have dispensed small ziplock sandwich bags with one-ounce portions of turmeric, ginger, celery salt, whole celery seed, allspice, cayenne pepper, and cajun seasoning. We even have a small bag of saffron.
We have squeeze bottles full of lemon and lime juices, an industrial tin of olive oil, a case of cherry tomatoes, a three-pound bag of spring green mix, and an assortment of fresh herbs. I make my first salad of the week with the greens, scallions, fresh basil, carrots, and cherry tomatoes. I create a simple dressing out of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic powder, salt and pepper.
Mary Lou sautés the seasoned chicken breasts and just before serving, simmers them in the orange raisin sauce. Dinner is served by 6 o’clock.
My first surprise comes when Archie, one of the volunteers, asks me for the recipe for the salad dressing. I am amused, since I think it’s so simple there is no “recipe”. I just made it up, I think to myself. So I tell him what’s in it. He wants me to slow down, as he is taking notes and tapping it into his phone. Was it that good? I think to myself. But he is serious. He wants to know how it is done. So I tell him what I did. But I can’t tell him the amounts of things, because I don’t measure when I cook.
I also tell him that the fresh basil and the scallions in the salad may have something to do with what he is tasting.
This kind of conversation – with people asking how to make the things we are serving for dinner – will continue throughout the week. Mary Lou and I take pride in our creations.
NOTE: Day 7 will be posted on MONDAY! Have a great weekend!
See the entire Yosemite sketch and story series here.