Recreation & Destinations

Janine’s Journal: Things That Last

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After a trip to beautiful Yosemite National Park, I’m inspired by the majestic scenery all around me.

Yosemite National Park. (Gary Pumilia photo)

I love to travel, but I’m always glad to return home. No place enchants me more than our Midwest, with its geometric cornfields stretching to infinity.

A few places come close, though. 

I was reminded of this recently when hubby Gary and I traveled to Reno, Nev., to attend our nephew’s wedding. We went a week early to spend several days at Hunewill Ranch, near Bridgeport, Calif., and to visit Yosemite National Park. We also stopped by Bodie, Calif., a ghost town in the high desert. Each of these places was uniquely Western.

I’ve long grumbled that the Midwest just doesn’t have an historic sense of identity in the same way as The South, New England and The West. WHY IS THAT? The history of the Old Northwest Territory is as colorful and exciting as it gets. If I had nine lives, like my cat Daphne does, I’d spend one trying to change that. As it is, I was just happy to spend a whole week with my sweetheart exploring the West.

Established in 1861 by Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill, (pronounced Honeywell), Hunewill Ranch is the oldest working guest ranch in California. Despite their ancestor’s pretentious name, fifth-generation Hunewills are hardworking folks with a deep respect for their land, livestock, ancestry, freedoms and simple pleasures. We explored 5,000 cattle-filled acres from the backs of our Hunewill horses, Emma and Fooler. Gary moved cattle like a real cowboy; I learned to “lope” and ride through “rivers.” (Small creeks, by Midwest standards.)

Evenings were spent chatting and singing near campfires, or marveling at the ink-black sky thick with stars. There were no TVs, radios or working cell phones. There was cowboy poetry, a tradition that evolved during long nights out on the range. Some poems were poignant, others hilarious, but all were recited by heart and conveyed a love for life in the West.

The most ardent horse lovers among us arose at dawn, grabbed a cup of joe and gravitated to an enormous back pasture to watch two very earnest little dogs – one a corgi whose short legs barely cleared the puddles – herd dozens of horses to the barn paddock. It was a strangely stirring experience to watch the magnificent animals gallop across the pasture, the snow-capped Sawtooth mountain range backlit behind them. Some horses, like Gary’s Fooler, were wild-born mustangs captured by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. On our last morning at the ranch, as we watched them thunder by, I thought to myself: “I’ll never forget this moment.”

I had the same thought a few nights later, deep inside Yosemite National Park. Completely by chance, we arrived during a full moon – in fact a blue moon (the second full moon in one month). After touring the major park sites on the valley floor by day, we took a special late-night tour and soaked up the grandeur of Yosemite by moonlight. Slippery blue shadows clung to long crevices, even as the unique shapes of Half Dome and its companions glowed milky white, their smooth granite complexions massive and motionless. “We were here long before you came and we’ll be here long after you’re gone,” they seemed to whisper.

Gazing up at the shadowy flanks of El Capitan, we saw tiny dots of flashlight-flicker. Climbers had settled into their precarious perches for the night, cots tacked to the cliff face. The allure of this escapes me.

The next day we ate lunch at historic Ahwahnee Hotel, where tame deer grazed outside our windows. Animals on the Yosemite Valley floor clearly are accustomed to their 4 million annual human visitors. The day before, we’d seen a bear lounging in a shallow stream, cooling himself, unfazed by people walking up and down the stream banks a few yards away.

Filmmaker Ken Burns calls our national parks “America’s Best Idea.” Constitution and Bill of Rights notwithstanding, I think I agree. And guess who helped make them happen? Two guys from Illinois. Technically speaking, Yellowstone was signed into law by President U.S. Grant in 1872 as the very first “national park.” But eight years earlier, before that term was used, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that set aside Yosemite “for preservation and public use.” He did this on June 20, 1864, as the Civil War raged, having never seen the West. He would never get the chance.

Lincoln’s action was a worldwide game changer.

“Never before had any government in the world set aside a parcel of land to be preserved for all time,” a park ranger proudly told us. 

Like most of American history, the stories of Yosemite are both tragic and inspiring. Native people were ruthlessly killed. Greedy exploiters lost no time commercializing the park and decimating natural wonders, stripping whole mountaintops of ancient redwoods. But, miraculously, those who fought hard to protect this one-of-a-kind place for us – and for wildlife – prevailed. Today, each of us owns a share of Yosemite and 57 other national parks. I think that’s a marvelous use of federal tax money. It’s just one more reason I don’t want my government made “small enough to drown in the bathtub.”

Between Yosemite and Reno, in Mono County, Calif., is the authentic ghost town of Bodie, now Bodie Historic Park (nearly shut down in 2010 due to California’s budget crisis.) This eerie collection of 110 structures with original possessions still inside, as if inhabitants had simply vanished, stands just as time left it.

In 1879, about 10,000 people lived in this gold boomtown, “and it was second to none for wickedness, badmen and the worst climate out of doors,” reads a brochure. Murder was a daily event in Bodie, which was home to 65 saloons. Robberies, stage holdups and street fights were all part of the gold fever lifestyle. A fire decimated much of the town in 1932 and almost no residents remained by 1942, when the last mine, deemed non-essential to the World War II effort, closed.

Travel makes me think about the things that matter and the things that don’t; the ways that people before us spent and mis-spent their lives, and how their choices still impact us; how our choices will impact those who follow us. We spend the precious hours and days and years of our lives in search of gold, in search of meaning, in search of love. And along the way, we gather perfect moments we’ll never forget.

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