The year 2020 has been nothing short of a dumpster fire, so when the opportunity presented itself to visit Yosemite National Park, I was not going to back down.
I work in the commercial aviation industry and have been back to work since July, with long and funky early-morning and late-night hours. Even as a part-time seasonal employee, I pulled almost forty hours in just four days, and I needed a break to remind me why I work such crazy summer shifts.
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now…
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yosemite National Park implemented a reservation-only system for entry into the park. I happened to login to the website on Tuesday, September 1, and saw a park admission opening for Thursday, September 3. I looked at my calendar and saw a four day window starting Wednesday completely void of all obligations and bought a pass without any hesitation. Victory!
Then I started the search for rental cars, hotels, and campsites. Yuck. Unbeknownst to me at the time of my impulse buy was the fact of arriving on a busy holiday weekend where most reservations had already been in play for months in advance. The rental car alone was going to cost over $250, even with my airline discount.
I was bumming. Hard. Because way back in February, I had plans to meet up with a fellow adventure mom and her son in Yosemite. The day before I was supposed to leave, Ian broke his ankle in three places and was stuck in the hospital. He was in severe enough pain that I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave him behind to go play in the mountains. Now there I was, seven months later with another opportunity to see Yosemite for the first time since 2005, and it appeared that my plans would foil again.
I looked at dates later in the month, juxtaposing my work schedule, park entry openings, and campsite openings, only to become frustrated that the stars weren’t aligning. I gave up trying… until the next day when I spent Gavin’s entire nap time modifying departure dates and scouring the internet for an itinerary that could work for my budget, once again. And… Success! I planned to leave Thursday morning so I would arrive in Fresno in the early afternoon, drive to the campsite and set up our home for the night, take the 1.5 hour drive to Glacier Point for sunset, drive back to the campsite for dinner and sleep, then go into Yosemite Valley to do hiking on Friday, with plans to visit the Castle Aviation Museum Saturday morning before flying home Saturday afternoon. Foolproof, right?
You guys, let me preface something about knowing your own personal limits. Ahem. I know mine now. I’m laughing at myself for how overzealous those plans were. I’m not as young as I once was. I need much more sleep than I once did. While I lived to tell the tale, if only just barely, I strongly suggest starting your trip with an adequate amount of sleep.
Ian made plans to have dinner with friends the Wednesday evening prior to my early departure, which I didn’t think would be a big deal. Dinner is just a couple hours, right? That would’ve been good and dandy except that I hadn’t packed anything yet. Heck I had barely made the car reservation at that point. Knowing this would not only be Gavin and I’s first solo camping trip, but it would be our first solo camping trip nearly 1,200 miles from home, I anticipated the packing to take hours. And it did; three hours to be exact. I went to bed at 1:00 A.M. with my alarm set for a 4:30 A.M. wakeup call.
Rally. Rally. Rally.
I thought I was still dreaming when the alarm woke me up. I went full autopilot mode as I brushed my teeth and smoothed my frizzy hair, my eyes drooping and half closed. I rubbed my face, slapping my cheeks with my palms and giving my reflection in the mirror a pep talk. I got this. I kissed Ian goodbye and tip-toed downstairs to start loading our bags into the car. Mind you, this trip was only three days in total, but the camping and hiking gear for this was… plentiful. I had one large rolling duffle with all the camping gear, one XL expandable backpack with our clothing, one Osprey child carrier pack that I stuffed to the brim with diapers thanks to my notorious overpacking-of-diapers habit, one backpack as my carry-on chock full of snacks for the two of us, Gavin’s small rolling bag that he thankfully loves to carry all by himself through the airport that is full of his toys and games, one compact stroller, and one Tula carrier so I could wear Gavin while schlepping the bags through the airport by myself. Oh, and let’s not forget the carseat. Yes, I’m insane.
I came back inside the house after cramming my trunk full of supplies and I could hear Gavin awake in his room. Perfect timing, honestly. I opened the door and he instantly stood up in his crib shouting, “Airplane! Airport!” I kid you not. I changed his clothes, strapped on his shoes, and off we went on this grand and sleep-deprived adventure.
I parked in the overflow/employee lot, which is a gravel parking lot about 1/4 mile from the terminal. Maybe it’s not actually that far, but it felt at least that far with all those stupid bags. I wore Gavin in front of me with the Tula, used the compact stroller to carry the XL backpack, carry-on, and Gavin’s rolling bag, put the carseat on my back, and put the Osprey pack over the handle of the rolling duffle and rolled those two bags behind me. All those years carrying my groceries inside in one trip prepared me for that moment. I think I looked something like this:
We dropped off our checked bags, went through security, grabbed a breakfast sandwich en route to our gate, and waited for our row number to be called.
We flew FCA-DEN-FAT, landing in Fresno around 1:00 P.M. This was my first time visiting that airport and I was wildly impressed with the cleanliness, size, and layout. The lobby had beautiful faux sequoia trees, which Gavin adored, and the rental car counters were located directly across from baggage claim. The baggage attendant’s eyes only got bigger as I kept adding to my “little” pile of bags. “It looks worse than it actually is,” I said with a giggle. I let Gavin sit and play with his tablet while I was mere steps away at the rental car counter to pickup keys. We got a free upgrade to a Jeep Compass, which was two levels above what I paid for and would’ve cost me a couple hundred extra dollars, so thank you, Alamo! #notsponsoredbutmaybeoneday #winkwink
Gavin sat in the backseat in the A/C while I installed his carseat, organized our bags, and sweat through my shirt. We purchased camping fuel, food, and water at the local Wal Mart and Gavin took a really nice nap that lasted until we got to our campsite. We stayed at Forks Campground in Sierra National Forest, Site #19. We got checked in, familiarized ourself with the layout, and unloaded the camping bag to setup camp. I did tons of research on this campground and specifically picked this site because it was elevated and tucked in to its own corner for privacy.
The only thing Gavin loves more than playing in the tent is standing directly on top of it while I set it up. Honestly I could probably set up the tent in three minutes flat if it weren’t for the energized toddler. All I wanted was just a fraction of his energy because I was driving the struggle bus trying to keep my eyes opened. After snapping the tent together, I set up the sleeping mats and bags, which Gavin also took a liking to. He jumped and rolled around inside the tent, joyously exclaiming about the tent and the trees and the birds. The wonder and amazement in his eyes reminded me of why we take these trips in the first place.
The air began to turn and gave me a sense that evening was setting in, so back to the car we went for the 1.5 hour drive to Glacier Point. The drive was less than ideal, but that’s what I get for taking an impulsive trip right before a holiday weekend. This was the closest campground with vacancy that I found. As we drove around Bass Lake, Gavin asked to swim. I was way too tired to stop; I just had to get to Glacier Point so our hiking plans Friday wouldn’t be spoiled. We entered Yosemite around 6 P.M. with an hour to go until reaching Glacier Point. But with three hours of sleep, seven hours of airports and airplanes, and nearly three hours of driving, the exhaustion was really starting to hit me at this point. The roads were full of tight, winding curves that were practically begging me to close my eyes. Even Gavin, having taken two full naps, was starting to nod off to sleep. Sleep. Man, did that sound good.
As I watched the sky transform to pinks and oranges I couldn’t help but think, Why did I come on this trip? I’m too tired to even enjoy this! I turned into a pull off so I could take a power nap while Gavin dozed in his carseat, but as soon as I shifted into park, he was awake and babbling about wanting to swim. I rubbed my eyes and took a deep breath. I begrudgingly decided to turn around and head back to camp. I was simply too tired to drive all the way to Glacier Point and back safely. I felt like an idiot and a failure, fearing that I was just wasting my money and time being there at all.
We passed Bass Lake and Gavin asked to swim again. I couldn’t bring myself to say no despite how exhausted I felt. After all, these trips are for him too and I didn’t want to let him down. “Sure, buddy.” He held my hand as we balanced across the rocky shore to greet the water. He babbled about the boats and the rocks, throwing small handfuls of stones into the water and making rounds of applause for himself. I studied his face and his little hands and let the sound of his voice fill my dilapidated heart and soul. This. This is why we take these impulsive (sleep-deprived) trips. He may never remember these places, but I will always remember these moments; where the great big world that we love to explore feels as small as my backyard. Where one touch of him holding my hand reminds me how lucky we are to be alive and to share these experiences together. How lucky I am to be back to work at a job that rewards me with opportunities to take an open seat to anywhere with my son.
After playing on the shore for almost an hour, we made a pit stop at a local grocery store where Gavin found two toys he couldn’t live without: an A-10 airplane and a green car. I purchased them both because I’m wrapped around his finger and he knows it, and picked up some firewood. Back at camp, I mapped out a rough itinerary and made dinner while Gavin played in the dirt with his new toys. I studied him as his imagination unfolded and I felt so lucky and grateful to be there with my boy.
And then he fell off the bench of the picnic table and screamed bloody murder for about five inconsolable minutes. 😬
We cuddled together in the dirt while he drooled and sobbed into my neck. He said he wasn’t hurt, just scared, so we cuddled some more. I want my son to stay this sweet, little, curious boy who trusts me with everything forever. I want him to always want me, but I know he will inevitably grow up. I hope he always this feels safe and secure coming to me when he’s scared, no matter how big he gets, I thought. I’m always comforted knowing that he wants me around.
My sad attempt at starting a campfire was embarrassing (thankfully the weather was so warm that a fire wasn’t necessary) so we ate our dinner while admiring the stars in the glow of our LuminAID solar lights. We cleaned up camp, did a trash run, and made sure all of our food was stored in the vehicle before settling in to our tent for the night. He curled up on the sleeping mat clutching tightly to his new airplane and car as I set up the iPad for a movie night under the stars. “Bolt” began to play and I dozed off and on throughout the movie. When Gavin started rubbing his eyes, we traded the movie for the sounds of nature, cuddling and singing until he fell asleep. I’m happy to report that he slept for an entire seven hour stretch.
We awoke the next morning to warm summer air filling our lungs. Gavin’s first and immediate request was for his airplane and car. Perfect! He played outside the tent while I reorganized and packed away all of our camping gear, which took over an hour. We stopped at the water-refill station and flushable toilets at camp (talk about bougie) before starting back to Yosemite. I was feeling much more comfortable with the drive after a decent night of sleep, but I still felt like I was dragging an anvil everywhere I went.
We made it to Glacier Point around 11 A.M. and I was pleasantly surprised by how much parking was available. I’m used to Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, where the parking lot is full as early as 7:00 A.M. in the peak summer months, even with COVID restrictions in place. But it appeared that the Yosemite reservation system was working as it should, and the lot was still only half full by the time we left.
Gavin donned his sunglasses and walked up and down the sidewalk while I packed our bag full of snacks, water, camera, and diapers. This took at least another 30 minutes and confirmed that I need to be more diligent about using my packing cubes for keeping all our crap organized while traveling. Gavin said he wanted to walk, which surprised me, so I held one of his hands while he used a hiking pole in the other. We started walking towards Glacier Point when a tiny voice interrupted with, “Mommy, ride.”
Well, him walking didn’t last long.
We veered off the sidewalk so I could lift Gavin into the child carrier and buckle him in. He laughed as I counted, “1, 2, 3…” and hoisted the 35 pound pack over my shoulders. We started walking and talking, and I could hear his smile as he spoke. I couldn’t really understand much of what he said, but my heart was warm to its core knowing that he was so happy out here.
Glacier Point is a quick little 0.5 mile jaunt to an overlook above Yosemite Valley. Half Dome dominates the view as the valley floor sweeps across his shadows. I swear to you, when we reached the overlook, Gavin let out a, “Woooooow” in a hushed whisper full of awe. And again I was reminded of why we take these trips. Why I work weird hours. Why I love my job.
We followed the trail back and debated what portion of nearby trails to start. Knowing that I was not in a place mentally or physically to do a hike longer than three miles, we decided to take on a small section of the Four Mile Trail. We sat in the shade to have some snacks and soak in our last views of Half Dome before beginning the trek.
Gavin was anxious to walk again now, so off he went to blaze the established trail. Four Mile is very steep, losing 3,300 feet in just under five miles. Despite those stats, Gavin insisted on running. “Little steps,” I said, and off he went running in short little stubby steps down the trail, giggling like a maniac. I still haven’t recovered from how big he looked walking through the forest. He stretched out his arm, pointed up, and said, “Bridge!” With a confused gaze, I followed the path of his tiny index finger and looked up. The trees towered over us and intertwined in each other’s branches, building what did indeed look like a bridge. A bridge for squirrels, but a bridge nonetheless. I felt an even deeper love and admiration for my boy and these wild places in that moment. I wondered how differently I would view the world if only I could see it through the eyes of my child.
The day wore on and the temperature dramatically increased, so I decided we should turn around. The sun was unbearably hot and the nearby wildfires kept the heat index lingering somewhere around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. We didn’t get very far down the Four Mile trail, but I was satisfied with the ground we had covered. Gavin asked to ride again, so I put him in the pack and carried him back to the car.
“Swim?” Gavin asked as I buckled him in his carseat. I agreed that swimming was an excellent course of action, so off we went to Yosemite Valley. I schemed about going to Mirror Lake for a swim, given the hike is pegged as an easy two miles roundtrip, but not soon after I felt the pulse of an impending migraine. Having barely slept ten hours in two nights, my lack of sleep had really caught up to me. Cue more anger at myself.
I pulled over, conveniently at the foot of El Capitan and the Merced River, to chug water and take an Excedrin. I took deep breaths in sync with the pulsing and whispered to Gavin so he would whisper back. I felt the warm breeze pass between us as I changed his outfit on the sidewalk. Deep breaths. Keep going. We crossed the street, followed a dirt path, and found a nice spot on the water with plenty of shade.
The water was low enough that a current was nonexistent along the river’s edge, so that’s exactly where we played. Gavin studied and threw the rocks, completely amiss to the 3,000 foot granite monolith towering over us. He was just shy of four months old when we took him to see “Free Solo” for his first movie theatre experience ever. Watching him play in the water below El Cap was a surreal moment that somehow brought all of our experiences together full circle.
The afternoon wained on as Gavin played in the water. My fatigue was starting to settle in again, thankfully in a moment when my migraine had subsided and when Gavin was also ready to move on. We changed clothes in the Jeep and I looked at the clock. Nearly 4:00 P.M. I wrestled with what to do next. Keep playing in the park for a few more hours until sunset so I could take photos, or head back west towards our hotel reservation in Merced, California for a hot shower and the convenience of a microwave. On the one hand, I wanted to Carpe Diem and squeeze every last drop out of our day in Yosemite. On the other, I realized how miserable I would feel if we stayed, knowing how miserable my body already felt, with a nearly two hour drive still ahead. So I made the tough decision to head to Merced.
I felt as if choosing to go to Merced was choosing to give up. Again, I felt the pangs of disappointment in myself. I had so many more places I wanted to hike in the park, so many more places I just wanted to see, but I was nowhere near physically prepared. My body was completely exhausted. Perhaps if Gavin were older or if this was a solo trip, or if we were staying closer to the park, I could keep going and then have a roadside nap. But he’s still in a carseat and he’d honestly been in that thing long enough.
We stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank and our bellies, picking up caffeine for me and pepperonis for Gavin. Having a little snack went a long way in improving my mood and my outlook. I pumped the gas while Gavin sang to himself in the backseat, his voice melting my heart like a stick of cold butter in a cast-iron skillet. I breathed in harmony with the summer breeze and took in the landscape around me. Despite feeling like I had let myself and Gavin down by not seeing everything I wanted, I remained confident that this trip was worth our efforts.
I was so hard on myself and put unnecessary pressure on myself to see and do everything that my friends and followers recommended. I was so focused on what I wanted to accomplish that I neglected to see the real accomplishment of taking this trip: that Gavin learned far more valuable lessons out here than I could teach him at home. And wrapped in that sweet gift were some valuable lessons of my own that I will bring with me on all of our adventures to come.
Lower your expectations. Or better yet, have none at all. Driving to the airport on Thursday morning with only three hours of sleep, I made a commitment to myself that we were going to have fun and make memories no matter what happened. That very same day, mere hours later, I was beating myself up for being tired and not giving Gavin much of an adventure. Man, I can be the absolute worst at taking my own advice. Did we see everything I wanted? Nope. Did we have fun and make memories anyways? Yes, yes we did. By setting the bar too high, I’m setting myself up for failure and disappointment. But if I lower the bar, or take it away entirely, I gain more flexibility and patience throughout the journey because I’m not worried about a loftier-than-necessary goal. The goal, on every trip or wandering in the woods, is to have fun and make memories. Plain and simple. That’s it. Oh how quickly I forget that.
Slow down. Go his pace. This is the baby brother to lowering your expectations. When you aren’t distracted by the laundry list of places to see and things to do, your child becomes the guide of your time. I can accomplish just about anything faster than Gavin, but in the end, I don’t want him rushing through life. And that starts with not rushing through the mountains and the forests. When he bends down to look at a flower or pick up a stick, I take the time to bend down next to him and listen intently to his spilling gibberish. Even when something doesn’t actually pique my interest, I still nod in amazement, smiling, clapping, asking questions, and intentionally engaging with whatever curious thing has caught his attention. Toddlers are magical beings. I just want to live in the magic of Gavin’s toddlers years while they’re here and spend more of my time going his pace.
Be in the moment with your child. Be in his world and see it from his point of view. Gavin’s interpretation of the trees as bridges is something I could never come up with on my own. I love how he sees the world and interacts with it. And I love that he invites me in to experience the world with him. Back home, it’s so easy to rush through the day-to-day monotonies and to lose my own sparks of curiosity and infatuation with the world. But out here? I am amazed by what Gavin notices and in awe that he wants to share his findings with me. All those cliche sayings about “living in the moment” and “being in the now” are so, so true.
Okay, maybe one regret about not sleeping enough, but that’s besides the point. When we landed back in Kalispell on Saturday night, I felt just as accomplished as I did after I backpacked to Havasu solo. Pride surged through my body as I stepped off that airplane and realized that Gavin and I really can do these traveling/camping/hiking trips together. I did it; we did it. And despite how poorly I felt for being so exhausted, I was overjoyed to know that we actually did it. And my brain was spinning with ideas for all the other places we should go see and experience.
I wonder where we’ll go next….