Amelia Earhart Peak. Photo by Neven Mrgan.
Rime ice has encrusted my sneakers when I reach for them at 4:30 a.m. I had forgotten to tuck them under my sleeping bag the night before. I pull them on anyway, cursing softly in the darkness. Roughly 50 yards from the Star Pad (the exposed rock where I sleep most nights this final summer in Yosemite) stands the stone kitchen, warmed just enough by the pilot lights of its old propane stoves.
Being alone there with the battery-powered radio picking up San Francisco’s KQED before anyone else in camp has woken is nearly enough to make up for the cold, dark, terrible earliness.
At the base of a 11,400-foot peak and eight miles from the nearest road, I make breakfast for the 50 or so guests of Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, plus the eight employees who are around that day, then pack myself a bag lunch. It’s my fifth summer in Yosemite National Park. I’d lived there for a full year when I first left Florida to take some time off school, and I’d returned every summer until I finished college.
To other misguided youths, I cannot recommend this course of action enough. It allowed me the time and space for the important work of one’s early twenties — namely, having adventures of self-discovery — without racking up excess student loan debt, as I no doubt would have had I instead stayed in school, stumbling from one major to another.
Living and working in Yosemite National Park at the age I did feels a lot like college anyway — without the courses. The majority of employees are young, everyone has a roommate, and a communal bathroom serves you and your co-workers. Of course, it’s much cheaper than dorm life, and can be conducive to saving money, if your idea of fun is to hike and backpack or rock-climb.
The author sits across from her visiting boyfriend and future husband, Neven Mrgan.
Though I’d had a job of some kind or another since I was 16, the Yosemite lifestyle helped me really learn about the value of money, while still being fairly “safe.” It’s like training wheels for adulthood in a way that going off to college should be but often isn’t.
When you’re an employee of DNC (formally, the Delaware North Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, an NPS-authorized concessioner), rent is deducted from your paycheck, and you have the option of being “on meals,” another way that working there mimics campus life.
Unlike in college, you can’t blow off “class” — in this case, work — whenever you feel like it; but as long as you show up and do your job, you’re guaranteed a roof over your head. It also underscores the need to have some kind of marketable skill set, as you get a taste of life as an unskilled laborer.
It tastes like leftover enchiladas.
School of hard knocks
Before my year in Yosemite, I’d found myself studying humanities at the University of South Florida in Tampa, not far from where I was raised. My parents’ incomes nudged us into the middle class, but they’d neither planned nor saved for their children’s college educations. Yet it was expected that we would somehow go to college. Never mind the high cost of tuition and the subsequent burden of student loans, or how an education might (or in many more cases, might not) later facilitate a career.
“Just go to school or be doomed to failure.” That more than a few of my friends — who majored in things like women’s studies and English — now work as baristas, servers, and secretaries can attest to this being a mantra in middle-class American households. Not much can be done with an undergraduate degree in humanities, aside from attending grad school or making an incredibly expensive paper airplane.
The time in the park gave me the perspective I needed to decide what I really wanted to study when I returned to school with California residency, in-state tuition, and Pell Grants. It was in Yosemite, either on a mountaintop or in a kitchen, that I decided my work had to be creative and engaging, and involve making something that could have a lasting impact on others as well as fulfilling in its own right. When I returned to school, I majored in film production and minored in graphic design.
“But that’s not practical at all!” I can still hear my mother wail. She preferred the humanities route, picturing me as a tweed-clad college professor. But I loved film and saw it as an industry that would continue to thrive. I figured I’d get some technical chops while doing creative work in school. It was a blast; I even ran my school’s film festival one year.
Remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
Breakfast comprises a kind of frittata and blueberry “scones” — nothing I baked ever turned out quite right at that altitude — eaten with the crew after the last of the guests has finished eating and they have filed out of the metal-framed, canvas-covered dining tent. In the High Sierra Camps, where everything arrives and leaves via pack-mule train, organic waste must be kept separate from dry trash and recyclables, so I dutifully scrape my leftovers into the ORG bucket, but leave the camp helpers to clean the kitchen. Another consolation of being the cook and getting up far too early is that other people are on clean-up duty.
My friend/roommate/boss Ellie is drinking matcha and going through paperwork in the corner of the dining tent that serves as the camp check-in and our meager general store. I tell her, “I’m gonna bag Amelia Earhart Peak; I’ll be back around 2:30 to start dinner. It’s enchilada night!”
“Leftover enchilada fiesta!” she says, raising her mug.
Vogelsang sits well above the tree line, and the walk to the base of Amelia Earhart is an easy stroll of a couple of miles along the faint, neglected trail to Ireland Lake. Very few among the millions of people who visit Yosemite even make it out of the valley, let alone this far into the backcountry. That day, no one else was in sight. I love solo hikes, but a friend had recently taken a bad fall, which made us all a bit more cautious, and careful to let others know our plans before setting out.
My friend Colin, due to join us at Vogelsang that summer, fell nearly 200 feet off the face of Mount Hoffman just a month before. He’d been on a day hike much like this one. Thanks to the quick response of his hiking companions as well as that of the long-time manager of May Lake (a wilderness first responder), he survived. He’d been in a coma for three weeks, and we’d just received word he was showing signs of waking.
As Sierra peaks go, the north side of Amelia Earhart has a fairly gradual slope, but there’s a place about three-quarters of the way up where massive slabs of granite overlap steeply, like thick slices of bread arranged in a basket. There are sheer drop-offs on either side. Avoiding the glacier-polished areas I know to be slick, I make my way along and over the slabs one at a time. Leveraging myself up a pile of scattered boulders, I step on a large rock and feel it lurch beneath me. I lose my footing and fall backward onto my butt, sliding a few feet. I catch myself and breathe hard. Pebbles skitter over the edge of the slab and disappear.
It’s not a big fall, really; just a slip. It wouldn’t even have registered on my personal list of close calls — which includes a broken wrist and nearly falling off the top of a waterfall — but I am briefly struck by the full knowledge of my mortality. Had I gone the way of the pebbles, my friends would’ve at least known where to look for me, but if I’d sustained life-threatening injuries, no one would’ve made it in time. So I sit, waiting for the waves of adrenaline to pass, and sing “The Galaxy Song” by Eric Idle (my closest approximation to prayer).
Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Photo by Neven Mrgan
I scramble up the rest of the peak without incident. Like many of its Sierra siblings, Amelia Earhart’s top portion resembles the rock collection of a particularly careless giant, massive boulders piled up haphazardly. I find the summit register, a little metal box tucked into a space between rocks, and pull out the pen and log book within. It is filled with names, quotes, descriptions of sunsets. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, just that it was about brevity and included a shout-out to Colin.
I stay up there for a while, eating my sandwich and taking in the panorama that will be “my summer backyard” for the very last summer, knowing the season will pass all too quickly. Later, the enchiladas are well received. We make our nightly announcements about bear-safe food and toiletry storage and not burning found wood, and we eat after the guests have left the now-chilly dining tent.
I say my goodnights and wash up, then slide into my sleeping bag on the Star Pad, remembering to tuck my sneakers beneath it. I stare up at the Milky Way and feel intensely sad to know I’ll eventually leave that place; it has never left me. I’d do it all again, and hope my daughter Olive does it, too. Unless she gets into Harvard.
Christa designs quality audio software for Rogue Amoeba, where she also occasionally blogs. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, daughter, son, and cat, and is pretty smug about it. Her interests include eating kale chips and playing the banjo non-ironically.