This was the dream backpack trip, the eighth of annual one-week mountain treks with friends from college. We had been trying for permits for years, unsuccessfully, in the heart of Yosemite National Park. This year we landed the last six permits starting in Tuolumne Meadows at the end of July.
I snapped this photo as my husband, Jim Read, and I were deep in conversation at a fire, mere shadows of ourselves, at Middle Sunrise Lake. Fire out on the trail evokes for me what is primitive and also what makes us human. It brings us together in a perfect circle, nature’s strongest structure, close enough for physical warmth, keeping mosquitoes away, allowing us to stay up for the night sky on a cold evening.
Hiking on the trail, we are all business, each moving at his or her own pace in single file, watching the ground closely so as not to trip, getting from here to there. At the fire, untethered from our 30- to 40-pound packs, we’re ready to unwind and tell stories.
Our group included a farmer, a community organizer, a hedge fund owner, an environmental planner, a political theorist and me, a journalist. At this hearth gathering, we had a long, sometimes heated discussion about how social change occurs – and, more congenially, delved into family history, reinforcing the point that we are, indeed, a nation of mongrels (though those of Swedish descent were overrepresented).
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This fire stays with me, too, because the place and the day itself were so special.
We had climbed Mount Hoffman (10,850 feet), at the geographic center of the park, the day before. By now, we had gotten used to the heavy turtle shells on our backs, the aches and pains of the first two days behind us. Still, this was a hard day, trail dropping 1,200 feet down to Tenaya Lake, then slogging 1,200 feet back up. At one point, we trudged 1,000 feet of switchbacks in one mile, the hardest climb of the trip.
Hidden a quarter-mile off-trail, we came to Middle Sunrise Lake. We set up camp and swam out to two islands, washing away the fatigue of the day. At dusk, we took in the magic hour of trees and granite rock-face alight in yellows and pinks.
We climbed up a ridge to the west, sky glowing orange and purple, Mount Hoffman in the distance. As we dropped down glacier-polished granite to better see the valley, Half Dome appeared all mauve, magenta and violet before us – the valley to our right in blue and Cloud’s Rest to our left in aubergine. Another group also had gathered and were singing religious songs. The leader said they had been coming to that spot for 30 years.
As shadows fell, we made our way back to camp and gathered around the fire for conversation. Our spirits remain at Middle Sunrise Lake at that hearth, our favorite place on this rugged journey with old friends, who reconnect and forge new experiences together one week a year.