Saturday, August 21, 2010

Stories from the Road -- Tuolumne Meadows

Tioga Road is an amazing drive in an area of spectacular natural beauty. Everyone talks about Yosemite Valley at the much beloved Yosemite National Park. I wonder why we don't hear about Tioga Road as much. In many ways, I find this part of the park more beautiful, at times even breathtaking.

Tuolumne Meadows is a flatter section of Tioga Road just west of the pass and astounding Ellery Lake. The meadows are a natural "breather", a way of calming down after the jaw-dropping scenery in the Sierras. If I had been there only a couple weeks later, the swampy snowmelt would have been replaced by vibrant wildflowers and an assortment of hungry wildlife.

Instead, remnant brown shrubs and grass underneath puddles of frigid water cover the landscape. In fact, the road had been opened merely days before we drove through it. The snowbanks on the side of the road just before the meadows were a clear signal of that.

The sun was close to setting by this time, giving the land a goldish brown glow. The mountains and granite rocks reflected the sunlight as if they were on fire. In many ways, it was just as beautiful as the mountains we had just driven through.

What I've noticed about the mountains is that you can't appreciate them without the flat land surrounding them or intermixing with them. A land full of mountains is gorgeous, for sure, but my eyes often are caught up on the abrupt shifts in the slope of terrain. Beautiful valleys among two ridges are just as beautiful. A large plateau with the hazy peaks in the background -- stunning. The Tuolumne Meadows are much the same -- a natural flatbed underneath the distant snow-covered peaks. Nature provides its own auditorium -- and the mountains are the stage.

My mother was with me on this trip, and I honestly can't remember a word being spoken during our drive on this road. I think I was in too much shock. When you're in places this beautiful, nature does the talking. And I -- well, I listen.

Places like this also make me think about how short our time is with nature. If we're lucky, we see only a small glimpse of a place. We don't see how a place changes through the day, month, year, years. I know that the meadows will fill with flowers for a couple months, wildlife swarming the area, eating everything that smells good for miles. Then, the flowers will slowly disappear, clouds will reappear, and snow will begin to fall again. The ground becomes brown, and the snow soon piles up. The cycle of life in the meadows has to be astounding to see, and yet I only saw a few moments of one day.

Often, that leaves me a little dissatisfied. I mean, how awesome would it be to watch this annual cycle of life -- even once. What you have to remember as a traveler is that a place that you visit will never look exactly the same ever again. The world is full of "fingerprint moments". Think of how lucky you are to see that fingerprint, to have it. No one else will. That is the ultimate traveling souvenir. These photos are merely a reminder of that fingerprint -- but are worthy enough of sharing.

Ellery Lake
Tuolumne Meadows