Saturday, July 16, 2011

Chilnualna Falls and the Car Chronicles

My car breaks down just outside Wawona. The tow truck driver is actually a rock climber from Yosemite, moonlighting at the local garage for extra cash. We spend an hour or so chatting about the Sierras while he thumbs through the owner's manual, looks some stuff up on-line, and then sends me to a near-by grocery store for some distilled water. After he's done what he can to fix the immediate problem, he charges me $26 dollars and refuses my offer of a tip.

Next morning as dawn is breaking I tiptoe out of the cabin and walk quickly along the dusty road to the Chilnualna Falls trailhead. In the soft grey light the river is thundering down the gorge, the scent of wet granite achingly familiar from summers long past.

The trail climbs steeply away from the gorge, then opens up into a mysterious forest of manzanita, the ferny undergrowth of chamaebatia giving up it's musky, resinous scent as I brush by.

Wildflowers are thick along the trail; dusty pink penstemon, mariposa lily - but even these fade away to bare granite steps as I approach the falls. The volume of water is astonishing - I can feel the vibration of the falls long before I actually see them leaping away from the water darkened granite cliffs.

Above the falls the trail splits - then descends steeply to a tributary of the Chilnualna River. A well worn log lies across the stream - I test it carefully and it seems steady enough - but midway across it suddenly rolls, pitching me into the icy water. Gasping, I stagger to my feet and wade awkwardly across to the opposite bank. Incredibly, my first thought is a shamefaced "Hopefully nobody saw that...." the second thought is for cell phone and camera - both unscathed.

On the far side of the stream, the trail climbs steeply again, through moss covered pines, ferns and wild azaleas thick along the forest floor. Footfalls make no sound at all on the soft, spongy trail.

I turn back when I reach the dry, scree covered slopes at the crest of the ravine - the pull of the trail is still strong - but an equally strong pull at my heart has me bounding back down the trail to home.

The car breaks down again just outside Fish Camp. An hour's wait for a tow truck, then six more hours in a hellishly hot garage near Oakhurst, leafing through ancient copies of "Car & Driver" and equally ancient religious tracts emblazoned "Repent, the End is Nigh".

The diagnosis is not good. The car must be abandoned - at least temporarily - but there are no rental cars in the entire area. No buses, no trains, no taxis. The owner of the garage, seeing my desperation, offers to rent me a souped up Toyota that belongs to his son - and as fast as I possibly can I'm throwing everything into the trunk of that car and heading blessedly south on highway 41.