There is no place like Yosemite. I first visited there in 2011. I had just finished a photography class at UCLA and decided to drive up to the famous park and test out my newly acquired skills. I entered the Valley on Highway 120 and was immediately awestruck by the golden granite cliffs and sparkling waterfalls that poured into the lush U-shaped valley. I pulled over to take a photo of Yosemite Falls. I had seen pictures of it, but they didn’t really capture the sheer scale and power of millions of gallons of water plummeting over two thousand feet to the valley floor. As I was dialing in my aperture I turned to my left. A young woman was staring at the falls, her mouth agape, openly weeping at its beauty. (Or at least that’s how I interpreted it. Maybe she just found out she couldn’t get cell phone reception.)
The trip was fun. I took a ridiculous amount of photographs, but because I was staying at a hotel eighty minutes from the Valley, I never felt totally connected to the park. I felt more like a photographer on an assignment with a tight deadline. A few years later I came across a listing for a Yosemite volunteer vacation sponsored by Conservation VIP. The trip promised work on a trail maintenance crew and camping in the heart of the valley. It sounded like an adventure, so I signed up.
On a Sunday afternoon in May I arrived at the Yosemite Volunteer Campground, ideally located below Sentinel Falls but away from the throngs of tourists. The other volunteers, who came from all over, were warm, friendly, and enthusiastic about the trip. Conservation VIP made us dinner — the first of many excellent meals they prepared. Afterwards we nestled in our tents to sleep.
The next morning wasn’t quite as idyllic. We awoke to a steady rain with temperatures in the forties. After breakfast we were driven to our trailhead where we met our supervisors. They handed us each a rake, a spade, a set of hedge clippers, a reflective vest, and a hard hat before showing us how to clear the trail of debris, provide drainage, and make the trial safe for hikers.
We formed a single file line and made our way down the trail like members of a chain gain fantasy camp. The gear was kinda heavy and awkward to carry. The work wasn’t exactly backbreaking, but it wasn’t easy either and in the cold rain my hands were getting numb. I started to question my decision to volunteer for this trip. I can’t believe I paid money for this, I thought.
But as we went along the work warmed me up and I felt a camaraderie with my fellow volunteers. We were making a difference, however small, so others could enjoy this magical setting. By the end of the day everyone was in a good mood despite the weather. We dried our gear by the campfire, drank beer, ate s’mores, and shared stories.
The next morning, I awoke delighted to see it had snowed and horrified to discover that I had contracted poison oak on my back. No one else got it. I was just lucky, I guess. Poison oak and mosquitoes had always loved me, and true love will not be denied. I wondered what calamity lay in store for me on day three.
But things got better as they usually do. As the week went on my poison oak cleared up and the sun came out. We finished our section of the trail, hiked in our spare time, and enjoyed each other’s company. The trip had bonded me to this sacred land in a way that my first visit as a tourist did not. And just as importantly it made me appreciate everyone who had worked so hard to preserve it.
I would return as a volunteer two more times. Each trip would bring its own wonders — from a bear unzipping my neighbors tent and stealing his toiletry bag, to spotting bobcat, peregrine falcons and the rarest of all sightings: the world famous rock climber Alex Honnold, who thanked us for our work as he walked past us on the trail.
But it was always the work that gave me the most joy. The sense of giving back to a place that had given so much to me and all who were fortunate enough to discover it.
Or maybe I was just happy because I couldn’t get cell receptio