The granite walls that rise more than a thousand feet above me seem to be holding up the sky. I’m standing in a meadow that is already at elevation, four thousand feet above sea level in the Yosemite Valley. Dawn has broken, but the sun will not climb above these walls for another hour. This place is full of dichotomies. I’m walking in a valley in the sky, but I can’t see the sun over its high rock walls.
Seeing walls like this one makes me understand rock climbers. This granite wall makes me want to climb: not so much to conquer the mountain as to commune with it. I want to be one with the mountain, to depend on it to hold me, to contemplate it by the act of climbing. Summiting this mountain would be exhilarating, but I am more interested in being on the face of it, slowly making progress and imperceptibly transforming myself in the act of climbing.
At the base of the Yosemite falls, visitors clamber over giant, slippery boulders to get closer to the mighty spray. Like them, I want to get closer to the mountains. I want to wade barefoot and alone into the freezing waters of the river that the falls drive downstream. Seeing the water of these falls hurtling from a thousand feet above and breaking into a fine mist before regrouping to thunder against the boulders below brings one suddenly and intimately face to face with the clouds themselves.
The falls also bring into focus the hydrologic cycle in its entirety. The hundreds of thousands of gallons that pour over this cliff are the product of a melting snowpack. This waterfall is made of snowflakes. How many billions of them fell on this mountain to produce such a spectacle?
In a month or two, the falls will have stopped flowing. The snowpack will be depleted and the boulders at the base of the cliff will be bone dry. What will become of this water? Some of it will remain in Yosemite for a while, drawn up by the roots of the mighty sequoias in the Mariposa grove. Inside the trees, the water will travel to dizzying heights, making its way towards the clouds again.
On a hot day far downstream, some of the water will be energized by a sunbeam and reenter the atmosphere as vapor. It may travel westward to crash against the Rocky Mountains as rainfall, and never return to this valley. Or, depending on the vagaries of wind and weather, it may find itself here again and again. If it does return, it will be different. Water itself is constantly changing.
In solution, oxygen atoms continually pass hydrogen atoms to one another in an endless dance. In this sense, every water droplet – like every snowflake that created this waterfall – is unique and fleeting. It exists only until it rejoins the river, or the clouds, or a living organism.
This impermanence seems to be in stark contrast to the mountains, which appear to have existed forever and seemingly will never change. Yosemite’s Half Dome stood before humans ever laid eyes on it or gave it a name, and it will stand when we are long gone. The granite walls are unyielding and the sequoias are ancient. This place seems to be cut from an eternal fabric.
Yet the Valley itself was carved from these mountains by a glacier. With pressure and time, a vast sheet of frozen water slowly and imperceptibly transformed them into this. Thrown into space by the waterfalls, it becomes an ephemeral mist. It could also transform these eternal walls, push massive boulders miles downstream, and carve a valley in the sky.
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” -John Muir (1838-1914)