Wait, stop. Before I actually begin, I have to make a few things clear. 1. I was six when this happened. If the writing sounds like someone who's six, that's why. 2. Since I was six, I may not remember every little detail exactly as it happened. I think most of it's pretty close (if not totally accurate) but if it isn't, I'm sorry. I tried. 3. The pictures are scans of slides, hence the not-so-good quality. Also, some may be backwards. Also, some may not be Yosemite. Again, um, I tried. 4. Due to a request from my brother, this post has been edited.
From the time I was six until I was about fourteen, my family took a two-week vacation every summer. Our first trip, twenty years ago this August, was to California and Nevada with a quick side trip to the Grand Canyon. One of the places we visited early in the trip was Yosemite National Park, an area of almost 1,200 square miles in the Sierra Nevada in California. My family didn't actually plan to stay in the park but in the nearby town of El Portal (funny that I should remember the name of the town); we drove into the park each day taking in famous sites like Yosemite Falls--but wait, I'll get to that. We'd return to our motel each evening to go swimming and eat dinner: I actually remember eating chicken fingers. Twenty years ago. So far, basically your average family vacation.
At the time of our visit, Yosemite was 1. very dry and 2. plagued by forest fires. In regard to how dry it was, I remember in particular visiting, as mentioned above, Yosemite Falls. In order to show what Yosemite Falls usually looks like, I would have to borrow a picture from some website. So, um, try Google. There are tons.
I think that's a stream. Now read the next paragraph. Please.
For me, walking to the falls involved walking by an almost dry stream bed and crossing a bridge with little water flowing beneath it. Close to the falls, signs offered warnings such as, "Beware: Dangerous Waterfall" (or, uh, something like that) and other similar words of caution. I remember that approach clearly, even seeing that rocky, dry terrain in my mind, right up to viewing that powerful, gushing waterfall.
See the waterfall? It's backwards, I think. On the left (should be right?)
Except that last part never happened. My short, six year-old self looked up, and up, and up, hoping to see the terrific force of nature of a thundering waterfall and instead seeing a small stream of water falling lazily over a rock. But the point of this post is not Yosemite Falls or even the lack of it. No, what I remember most about Yosemite involves the fires.
By reading about the 1990 fires at Yosemite I've learned that, as a park visitor, I was never in any actual danger. I wish someone had told me that then. Views of the park's famous mountains and valleys that summer often included an unexpected sight: there were apparently several large fires in addition to many smaller ones that announced their location with plumes of gray smoke. Although the fires were very real and obvious, the didn't ruin our trip. *In fact, my brother noticed and reported a fire which was a great thing to do and a definite positive memory. Way to go, my brother!* (Ah, that sounds silly. Oh well.)
I don't remember how many days we spent in Yosemite but I do remember driving in each morning and out each night, spending the days in a nature center and walking along trails. Well, that's how it was until our final (planned) day there. I think that last day was really only supposed to be half a day. In fact, my parents debated whether or not to go in that day at all. They decided that since we were there, we might as well make the most of it and go. Maybe that was a mistake.
I think my brother and I attended some kind of children's nature program that day. I know I spent some time coloring, only going out of the lines twice! In my (possibly not accurate) memory, that's where I was when I heard the news: all roads in and out of the park had been closed. All the people inside the park were stuck there.
What happened next is slightly blurry in my memory. I know my family split up; I went with my father to try to arrange some cot-sleeping situation for the night while my brother went with my mother with the hope of getting a room at The Ahwahnee Hotel*. More on that later.
Although I was an impatient six year-old at the time, I don't really remember the waiting that must have come next. Instead, my memory jumps forward to my father discussing some sort of lodging arrangement (I think cots, emergency style, or so I've been told) with someone official. It was at that moment that my brother ran up to us and told us not to bother with that: we had gotten a room at The Ahwahnee.
The Ahwahnee, in case you're not familiar with it, is Yosemite's very luxurious, very expensive hotel. Back then, rooms were about $200 per night (now they're about $500) which was, well, slightly more money and slightly more luxury than a family that often stayed at the Holiday Inn was used to. I think the available rooms were due to cancellations and, although staying there wasn't exactly the greatest experience ever, we were lucky to get the room. I just learned that the room-getting situation was a bit more complicated than that and made possible by a helpful stranger. Thanks, stranger, twenty years later.
Once again, my memory jumps forward a bit. Suddenly it was dinnertime and our option was the hotel's fancy restaurant. Thinking about it years later, I realize the restaurant's patrons probably weren't wearing tuxedos and ball gowns and we probably weren't the only family wearing jeans and t-shirts. And yet, I remember feeling awfully out of place--not to mention grubby--walking into that dining room.
Other than that, dinner is mostly a blur as is the evening. What I do remember is that there was a fruit basket in the room; I'd never seen that before (or since?) and, I don't know, I may have thought it was, like, for decoration or something. It wasn't. In my memory, that night didn't involve much sleep. For one thing, I was just a bit scared (I'm the scaredest of scaredy-cats) and I know I wasn't the only one.
As I mentioned before, the fires were numerous and I really didn't know that the people in the park weren't in any danger. At that point, I think I had only seen smoke and ash but there had been plenty. And we were literally stuck inside the park which made the whole fire situation seem even more dire. Additionally, we had seen the fires on TV which certainly didn't make being stuck in the park more pleasant!
When we went to bed that night, we didn't know how long we'd be stuck in the park. At about 6 the next morning, the phone rang and we found out: the park was being evacuated. I remember sitting in the backseat of the rental car as we inched our way out of the park in a long line of traffic. I think I was sitting on the right side, behind the passenger seat. There were brush fires and ash by the side of the road and, even though we were leaving the park, there was still an eerie feeling about the whole situation. I think parts of this story may have been embellished in the many tellings since it actually occurred; I don't know if there were really scarred and scared animals watching the cars leave or if there was just sympathy for all the creatures in danger.
Oddly enough, that's where my memory ends: driving out of Yosemite. I don't even remember exactly where we went next (Fresno?**) although I remember a whole lot more about that trip. But, again, we'll get there.
*The capitalization of "The" is theirs, not mine. I'm willing to go with it but I do think it looks a little weird.
**Confirmed. It was Fresno.