On the Road (Part 1)

Even after their long honeymoon trip to Mexico and Central America, Daddy wasn’t satisfied to stay at home on weekends. I guess he was restless or bored because he was always planning and scheming to try something new or go somewhere he’d never been before or revisit places he especially liked.

Daddy had lived at Yosemite National Park, high in the Sierra Nevada, for a couple of years when he was a boy. He and Mommy met there in 1937, right after they graduated from college. But it had been more than six years since they’d been to the park, and he was anxious to see it again. Sitting at the breakfast table only a few weeks after Christmas, he announced: “What say we head up to Yosemite for a few days?”

“But we just—”

“We can take Mike Bradley along too. That way, maybe the Bradleys will take care of the mutt while we’re gone.”

Mommy and Daddy had taken Eleanor to the snow at Big Bear before I was born, but I had never even seen snow except in picture books or on Christmas cards. I was so excited that I didn’t mind leaving Rusty with the Bradleys or leaving my new bike hidden under a towel behind the boxes piled in the garage.

A few days later, we all bundled up—jackets, boots, plaid woolen scarves and knitted mittens—piled into our Plymouth four-door sedan, and headed for the mountains. The car was equipped with a heater but no radio, so, as Daddy drove along, he began singing, our newest family tradition. Eleanor and I already knew all the verses to “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain,” “My Darling Clementine,” and dozens of others, but our hands-down favorite was now “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” the first Army song Daddy taught us after he came home from the Philippines. Before long Mike Bradley got over his shyness and joined in, too, and people in other cars on the highway smiled and waved because we were having so much fun.

Several hours later, not long after we passed through Merced, small patches of snow began appearing on both sides of the road. As soon as he came to a turnout, Daddy pulled over so I could touch it and taste it for myself. It tasted kind of yucky, like dirt, but I didn’t care. I wanted to have a snowball fight; the rest wanted to hurry up and get there. Every mile we drove, the snow grew deeper and the mountains bigger and more beautiful, sparkling in the sunshine.

“I wish I could live in Yosemite,” I said.

“Maybe someday you will.”

“Maybe someday I will.”

When we entered the park, Daddy drove straight to Camp Curry at the base of Glacier Peak—the same place he’d lived when he was twelve—disappeared into the office for a few minutes, and then came bounding out again, grinning from ear to ear, his hand high in the air, waving a key. “It pays to have friends in high places,” he crowed.

Our tent cabin had a wooden floor and wooden walls that went up six feet; from there up, it was canvas, just like a regular tent. Inside, wooden bunks and some chairs and a table lined the walls, and a black kerosene stove provided heat. “It’s not exactly the Ahwahnee Hotel,” Daddy said with a wink, “but if I lived all winter long in one of these things, I guess we’ll survive for a couple of nights.”

Mike and Eleanor and I wasted no time. The snowplow had pushed up a huge mountain of snow at the edge of the parking lot, and already other kids had smoothed out a sled run. At first we just stood and watched, but pretty soon they gave us a turn. In between runs down the snow hill, we threw snowballs and made a snowman and had a fine time.

Later in the day, we all piled in the car again and went for a drive to see some of the biggest trees in the world. “Sequoias,” Daddy called them. One, called the “Wawona Tree,” was so big we could drive our car right through it, like a tunnel.

Then Daddy asked, “Wanna go on a bear hunt?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” we all chimed in, all except Mommy, who was trying not to laugh.

Daddy drove a few miles to a place where all the hotels and campgrounds in Yosemite dumped their trash and food scraps. He parked as close as he could. Sure enough, a dozen bears were pawing through piles of garbage about fifty yards away. We begged to get closer, but Daddy wouldn’t let us get out of the car. That was a good thing because two of the biggest bears got in a fight and stood up on their back legs and snarled and bit at each other’s faces.

Cooking wasn’t allowed inside the tent cabins at Camp Curry, so we ate all our meals at the Lodge. As we gobbled hamburgers and potato chips, Daddy told us what it had been like when he was young.

“Each afternoon in the summertime, outside the hotel up on top of Glacier Peak, employees built a huge bonfire, and each evening, down here at Camp Curry, the park rangers put on a wonderful program of songs and stories for the guests. As the finale of the program, when it was completely dark—usually around nine—one of the rangers used a bull horn to holler up to the men far above: ‘Let the F-i-i-i-e-r F-a-a-l-l-l!’ In response, the men on top pushed the rest of the fire right over the side of the mountain, creating a trail of fiery red coals and sparks all the way down. Everyone sat mesmerized, the only sound the plaintive recorded voices of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy singing ‘Indian Love Call.’ When I was a kid, I never missed the Fire Fall. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world.”

“How did they think that one up?” Mike wanted to know.

“Glacier Peak was too far away to haul their garbage down to the dump every day, so in the beginning they did it just to get rid of the coals and ashes left after burning the hotel’s debris. But people down here in the valley could see it and began to look forward to the spectacle. Eventually the rangers built their entire story program around it. It became a tradition. The word spread, and people now come from all over the world to see Yosemite’s beautiful mountains and waterfalls, but they also come for the Fire Fall,” Daddy said. “They’ve been doing it now for more than fifty years.”

              The Fire Fall at Camp Curry

“Can we see it tonight, Daddy? Can we? P-u-l-e-e-e-s-e?”

Not this trip, Trish. They don’t have the Fire Fall in the winter, but I promise someday I’ll bring you girls back in the summertime so you can see it for yourselves.”

“Can I come too,” Mike pleaded.

“Of course you can. Maybe our two families can come up together.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”