Serenity in the Midst of a Firestorm

Now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water.... --John Muir

So this time, we got a flood of fire. Muir would have loved it. The sky has turned the color of jaundiced skin and smoke is everywhere. You can stand on the valley floor and barely make out the ghostly profile of Half Dome. Here in Yosemite, the fire has created a season of its own, spooky and wonderful.

And the flames, which licked at the valley's gates but never reached inside, have achieved something historic. They have succeeded where legions of environmentalists have failed. In the middle of summer, Yosemite's prime time, the fire has shooed the tourists out of the valley. They are gone, totally gone, with their cars and their campers and their no-neck monster kids. Gone are the buses, as big as zeppelins, and the sweet diesel smog they created. Gone, all gone, for the duration.

Their mass departure has left the valley in a condition not seen in our lifetime. And maybe never again. Here, in high summer, you can sit at the base of Bridalveil Falls and have it all to yourself. Or you can stroll by the Merced River and be guaranteed, more or less, that no one will float by on a Day-Glo inner-tube.

The only people left in this valley world are the natives. I'm talking about the rangers and the motel maids and the horse wranglers, everyone who normally spends their days giving service to the tourists. They have remained, free to ramble around the empty valley like survivors after a war. For the time being, they own the place.

This temporary revision of the social equation seems to have inspired a new assertiveness on the part of the survivors, even those of the wildlife variety. The deer, in particular, have advanced much closer to their human counterparts.

Yesterday morning, for example, a male-female pair walked up to the back entrance of the supermarket, which remains open, and stood brazenly on the asphalt begging for handouts. After a while, a clerk emerged from the store, petted the male deer, and then hung a small sign around its neck. The sign said, "Will Work for Food."

As for the humans, they lost no time in claiming some of the turf formerly denied them. Yesterday, there was a party, a barbecue to celebrate the tourist evacuation. Everyone sprawled on the grass, munched potato chips and listened to Talking Heads albums. But this was not just any piece of grass. It was the back lawn of the Ahwahnee Hotel, where normally the tonier breed of tourist pays a couple hundred a night for the privilege of sprawling.

The natives munched and celebrated in their symbolic way for several hours and then left. Afterward, the old pile of a hotel turned completely silent and, in the smoky afternoon, looked like a ruin.

You might think this new sense of possession would lift spirits here. Oddly, that does not seem to be the case. In fact, the subject receiving most attention over the last two days is neither the raging holocaust nor the wonder of an empty valley. It's booze.

Throughout the valley, all bars have been closed for the duration. And at the supermarket liquor counter, a sign advises that only one six-pack of beer or bottle of wine will be sold "per I.D." These signs went up even as the tourists left, apparently reflecting the desire of the Yosemite Park & Curry Co. to keep its employees sober, or relatively so, during the hiatus.

Whether the system has succeeded remains a question. But it certainly has produced a nightly drama in the supermarket, where extraordinary I.D. maneuvers are countered by equally extraordinary vigilance on the part of the clerks. This test of wills and imagination has reached such heights that the company now calls the supermarket each morning to get the tally of wine bottles and six-packs sold the previous evening.

If nothing else, it keeps everyone occupied. One clerk said she enjoyed working the night shift just to see which side was winning. Thus far, she estimated, the drinkers have the momentum.

As we talked, it struck me that there was something reassuring about the booze fight. Perhaps the natives had been set adrift without the tourists who, after all, are simply the rest of us. Maybe they were filling the absence with liquor.

I asked the clerk about herself, and how the interregnum was going.

Oh, it's wonderful, she said, and then smiled sadly. There was not another customer in the store.

"I think," she said, "I can stand it for about three more days."

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