The story of a 30-day winter exploration through California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range

Day 16: Yosemite — Nature’s most precious mountain mansion

benje williams
My First Winter in the Sierra
11 min readDec 1, 2022

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At first, I think the eruption is a gunshot. An explosion. A semi-truck collision. But it’s the middle of the night. What could possibly be this loud? Then I recognize the unmistakable cry of the wind, like an unleashed floodgate, an invisible chariot of horses, galloping across the moonlit forest canopy. The ponderosa pine needles are quivering. The incense cedar branches are shuddering. The sugar pine cones are thumping to the soft ground. The cover on my tent is ripped into the air and thrown against my car.

Another explosion, this one louder, possibly closer. This too shall pass, I think. But it doesn’t. Instead, the wind slaps the side of my tent into suspended bewilderment every time I’m about to fall back asleep. Retreat to the car or wake up 200 feet in the air? I retreat to the car. But not before tying the tent to the picnic table, throwing as much extra weight into it as possible, and praying everything will be there in the morning. Including my laptop and my passport — the thought comes to me slowly, and without the strength to get out of the car and rescue them.

Miraculously, it’s all there in the morning. Including the chariots of wind, which haven’t retreated. And when I pull up to the Yosemite front gate, the electronic sign says PARK CLOSED FOR WIND.

“This park never closes, especially not for this shit. It’s barely even windy,” the guy in a red muscle tee says, standing in front of the closed visitor center. I nod my head, like I come here all the time. He looks at me and I glance out at his car, which is from Maryland, parked next to mine, which is from New York.

“I mean, guys, I came all the way from Philly,” a dude smoking a cigarette with his brother says. “What do you want me to do, just drive home and come back tomorrow?” I’m laughing but only because I don’t know what else to say.

I ask him about the explosions but he doesn’t know either. It might be trees, he says, but I’ve heard trees falling before, I say, and they didn’t sound like that. Violent. Angry.

The Philly brothers decide they’re going to kill some time and try the park again later. “It’s supposed to stop by 10,” red muscle tee says.

I drive around, trying a different entrance on the side of the park, leading to Hetch Hetchy. But the gate is sealed and the black and white sign says ROAD CLOSED. I retreat to a hiking trail I saw outside of the main Yosemite gate. It’s inside the Stanislaus National Forest, which is a 900,000 acre landscape that’s managed, like all of the 150-plus national forests, by the US Forest Service, and, therefore, not under the same weather restrictions as the National Park.

I’m walking up to the trailhead when I see the Philly bros coming down the path. “Looks like you found some adventure,” I say, happy and surprised to see them out here, in the wild.

“Yeah, a little too much,” the taller brother says. He’s wearing a thin beanie and sweatshirt, even though it’s below freezing. And he’s still smoking a cigarette. “It’s a minefield out there, man. We heard at least a dozen explosions. Like dynamite during goldrush.”

“I guess the park actually is closed for a reason,” the shorter brother says, and claims the explosions really are collapsing trees.

I’m still not sure, and they say they didn’t actually see any trees fall. “But we definitely heard them.”

I look at the shorter brother’s wife, who rolls her eyes. “They’re just afraid to go on,” she says.

I think about inviting her to join me, but sense the joke wouldn’t go over well and instead say that I totally get it. Even though it’s obvious I don’t, given I’m heading in the direction they’re running away from.

“Be safe out there,” the younger brother says. He’s standing in front of a massive charcoaled-black cedar log now, still holding his cigarette.

The fire starts around 11am.

I’m halfway into the hike — where the Tuolumne River cascades over glaciated granite cliffs — and have no idea the forest is burning. Or where the explosions, which have mostly stopped, really came from.

I see the smoke back in the car. Black billows of ashes plumming above the ridge I’d driven towards before the hike, at the gate of Hetch Hetchy. How was that possible, that everything was fine one hour and fully ablaze the next?

The woman working at the campground market has some ideas: “Some tourist couldn’t get into the National Park, went wandering around the national forest, started a fire, and this is what happens. What do you expect? This is mother nature.”

Not helpful, borderline patronizing, cool cool cool — All the things I want to say back to her. But I kinda get it. And, to be honest, I’m not even thinking about the Philly bro and his cigarettes. And I still kinda get it. In 2013, the Rim Fire was one of the largest fires California had ever seen. It burned over 200,000 acres. Of this woman’s mountain. Of her forest. Her birds and deer and bears. Her home. I can see dead standing trees behind her cash register, outside the market window. People can’t just move on from that. Especially when it follows you. When every year, the fires around you get bigger and bigger. 229,000 acres in the Carr Fire. 379,000 in the Creek Fire. 1,032,000 in the Complex Fire.

“1 million acres, how do you process that?” Marcus, the ranger back at my campsite says. “It’s like taking all the shit that happened here and multiplying it by five.” He says that during the Creek Fire, earlier this summer, down in the Sierra National Forest, the sky in Yosemite was red for days, maybe weeks. “Ash buried people’s cars like it was fresh snow,” he says, showing me a picture he saved on his phone.

I ask him about last night’s explosions and if he knows how the Hetch Hetchy fire started. He says he hasn’t gotten the official word, but he’s sure it has to do with last night’s wind. He was in his RV and couldn’t sleep either: “I got two baby daughters. I was scared shitless.” It must have been up to a hundred miles per hour, he says. “We haven’t had wind like that in probably 20 years.” He looks around the grounds. The campground host is ahead of us, driving a golf cart. A family is unloading groceries into their RV. A work truck loaded with timber is driving towards the adjacent campground, which is being rebuilt after burning down in the Rim Fire.

Back in the car, I continue to search for answers. Several CAL FIRE trucks speed past. Two dudes in lowered Honda Civics. Seven or eight white utility trucks with blue logos that I can’t make out.

I follow Cherry Lake road towards the smoke. It’s coming from the top of the ridge as I wind down the canyon, towards the Tuolumne River, just beyond the Hetch Hetchy Power station, where I park my car. There’s a path along the river, and with each step, I’m getting closer to the fire, and the fire is getting closer to me. From down here, it looks like a volcano is erupting above me, smoke exploding from the mountain’s edge, like clouds that have fallen from their heavenly grace, too dark and heavy for the perfection of paradise.

The threat of danger is constantly in my mind. But as I hike further along the river, the color begins to turn, into softer and lighter shades of hope — as if the fire is trying to surrender, to hold up the colors of its white flag. But the white flag is heavy, and there are thousands of forest skeletons silhouetted against that shade of hope — a cemetery of dead standing trees lined along the ridge, like the wicks of melted candles, as a memorial of all that was lost in 2013’s Rim Fire.

Is it ever that easy? Are our doings ever undone? I’m not asking the questions, but the giant cedar corpses lying across my path seem to be answering them. The fresh black stumps of ancient white pines seem to be answering. The blood red sunset filtering through the floating ash of Douglas fir seem to be answering. And when I finally make it to the edge of the fire, back in my car, the fire chief seems to be answering. “It’s still not under control,” he says, “at least 200 acres so far.” It’s nearly dark now, and I can see the orange flames dotting the ridge behind him.

“The Rim Fire helped, in a way, because there’s just not much left to burn. But it’s still…” his voice fades out, like he doesn’t have the energy to say the unnecessary. He’s slumped in the driver’s seat of his Tahoe. It’s going to be a long night. An even longer future. “We don’t even call it fire season anymore,” a forest ranger once told me, “we just call it a fire year.” And every year is a fire year.

I wish him luck and turn my car around. There are a dozen other questions I want to ask, but it’s not the time. There is one, though, I can’t not ask. “Any idea how it started?”

Without realizing it, I’m bracing myself for him to say some guy from Philly. But he doesn’t. “Power lines. Taken out by a tree.”

“PG&E?” I ask.

“Nope, not PG&E,” he says. A silence fills the space between our cars, and I don’t have the heart to ask him whose they were.

Back at the campsite, the electricity is completely out. I walk around and find Marcus, who answers the question the police officer didn’t answer: the power lines and the electricity are from Hetch Hetchy Power.

Hetch Hetchy hasn’t always been a dam or a power plant, a cheap source of energy for the city of San Francisco. Before any of that, John Muir wrote about the beauty found here. It is the most wonderful and most important feature of the great park… one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain mansions. He pleaded with the public to save the Tuolumne from being dammed, to save the valley and the canyon from being flooded. Dam Hetch-Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

But they didn’t listen. And the temple was destroyed. The dam was built in 1923, to provide water and power to the people of San Francisco. And, as a consolation, to the handful of people who eventually lived around Yosemite.

But the infrastructure is weak, Marcus says, over the distant roaring of a generator. “We lose power every time something happens.” Last time, during a snowstorm, it was for ten days. Who knows how long it’ll be this time.

As he’s talking, I realize that all the white trucks I saw with blue logos were Hetch Hetchy Power vehicles. Not the National Park Service or US Forest Service.

“Unbelievable.” I shake my head in disgust. Or in helpless anger. “But where the hell is the Forest Service,” I say. Why aren’t they removing the trees near the power line? The dead standing trees, just waiting to be pushed over. Why aren’t they doing more to manage this forest? I’ve been looking for them for two days, to ask questions about the national forest, the types of challenges and opportunities they’re facing, and the ways the nonprofit I’m setting up, Understory, can help. But I haven’t seen a single trace of them. Not even at their office, which I’ve been to twice.

Is it because the Forest Service is underfunded? Is it because the national forest has been deprioritized, behind the national park. Or so few people live here? Or the people that do are not affluent? Influential? Important? The questions fall out in a fury and Marcus says maybe. “We’re just a bunch of white trash hillbillies no one gives a shit about.”

Even as my anger rises, I know it’s not fair to blame the Forest Service, for being understaffed. Or the administration, for decreasing the Forest Service’s funding. Or the National Park Service, for focusing on Yosemite. Or Hetch Hetchy Power, for destroying nature’s perfection. Or the Philly guy, smoking cigarettes inside a forest matchbox. But we always need someone to blame. Someone to point the finger at. To direct our anger towards. So we don’t have to point it at ourselves.

That night, the wind is quiet, as if mourning the devastation it had created. Will you listen now? the silence seems to be asking. I’m sleeping back in my tent, but the air is cold, the night is long, and the morning comes slowly.

Back at Yosemite, the park is still closed, and I talk to the ranger in front of the gate, asking him the question I already know the answer to. About the explosions. “Oh yeah, it was trees alright.” Probably over a thousand, in the park alone. Some shattered from halfway up the trunk. Some from the very root. Some collapsed as other trees collapsed into them. Healthy trees, but also many unhealthy — weakened from drought, wildfire, and bark beetle. During the drought of 2011 to 2016, bark beetle helped kill over 150 million trees, the largest mass die-off recorded. In Sierra National Forest, just below us, nearly 70% of ponderosa pines have died.

It’s hard out there for the trees, the ranger is saying. And although he confirms the national parks have a lot more financial resources than national forests, it’s hard out there for the Park Service: the felled trees in Yosemite demolished several buildings, vehicles, bridges. They started another wildfire, inside the park. They barricaded nearly all the roads. “We’ll be closed for at least a week,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

John Muir, who helped establish this very place as America’s second National Park, warned about this. Over 150 years ago. The great wilds of our country once held to be boundless and inexhaustible are being rapidly invaded and overrun in every direction, and everything destructible in them is being destroyed. How far destruction may go is not easy to guess.

The earth is fighting back. We have poisoned it for too long, and in doing so, we have poisoned ourselves. For are we not the earth. And are we not, then, fighting ourselves. How long will the destruction continue? How much longer can we survive ourselves?

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benje williams
My First Winter in the Sierra

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || nature novel in progress || recent writing at benjewilliams.org