Vacations Not What They Used to Be


Here is some humble advice for those of you planning out your summer vacations, and hoping to avoid the trappings of the city life: Never attempt to recreate a place from childhood--and never do it with three children, your mate and your parents in tow. Not even Ghandi would be up to the task.

Our adventure actually began several months ago, when I received a postcard from a friend. It was of Tuolomne Meadows, a wild-flower-filled stretch of earth above Yosemite Valley where my parents took my five siblings and me each year when we were children. We would pile our duffel bags in the back of the family's old red station wagon, my father maneuvering the car carefully up the one-lane road from Fresno.

Now children always think car trips are interminable. But in those days--as we honked around each corner to warn oncoming cars and stopped every few miles to rearrange the someone or something threatening my father's driving ability--the trip really was. By the time we headed up the road away from Yosemite Valley and pulled into the Tuolumne Meadows camp site, it would just be getting dark, with a sky silver and pink above the rising mounds of granite in the distance.

Only then did the vacation begin.

Perhaps there was some part of me that felt I owed it to my children to give them that same experience, that if I had lived to endure such a trip, they could too. But it has not exactly worked out that way.

My mate and I, along with my two children and a visiting 13-year-old relative spending the summer with us from Germany, piled the suitcases into the back of the car and headed up the same road I'd traveled years before. Of course, now it was different: Two well-paved lanes and no honking around corners. Only the children were the same, singing a medley of tunes ("A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall" and "Are We There Yet?" to the melody of "Frere Jacques").

For comfort's sake, we had decided to make our base camp in a cabin in the valley, and head up to Tuolumne during the day. My parents would be arriving the next day and stay a stone's throw away in another cabin.

But we had no way of knowing about the crazed gunman who would cause our plans to shift.

Before I get to the gunman, let me say a quick word about our accommodations. The tent cabins in Curry Village are packed together by the hundreds, with communal restrooms nearby. The canvas of the tents provides only the illusion of privacy, and seems to attract the Budweiser crowd--groups of bellowing voices that float out well past the mandatory 10 p.m. quiet time.

But on this particular night, the talk has shifted from such matters as the lack of fish to something that has pierced the sense of well-being that comes from having escaped the city.

Near Tuolumne Meadows, a man walking by the side of the road has shot a ranger and then fled into the darkness.

The roads in and out are sealed off. The 1,200 campers told to leave the area are searched, at least according to one woman I talked with, at gunpoint.

"One ranger aimed a rifle at the car while another searched it," she said to me. "I guess they needed to make certain he hadn't kidnaped people, but the kids were terrified."

My own kids didn't have to experience that, but when they explained to my newly arrived parents why we could not go to Tuolumne Mineral Springs, it was clear it had affected them anyway.

"There are bad people even in the mountains," my youngest said with a solemn look on his face.

No, this is not the Yosemite of my childhood, with its lodge and souvenir shops that serve the scores of tour buses that wind up daily. Tuolumne Meadows, the site in my mind's eye that epitomizes my childhood summers, obviously is not the same either.

And so I have come here, to a rocky ledge thousands of feet above the valley floor, where I now sit writing to you. The ponderosa pines are swaying gently behind me, the sheer slices of silver-black rock ring my vision with Half Dome rising majestically in the center. And there is the vast vista of river and waterfalls wherever my eyes rest.

The children are swimming in a pool down below, my parents fulfilling their grandparents' job of absorbing them for the day.

And for the first time since the trip has begun, it is quiet.

For the moment, I do not think that he is out there somewhere, a man with a gun who brings the city ever closer. There is the glory of an Ice Age before me and the steep trail I will walk down later. My feet will move lightly over the stones, like an unburdened Sisyphus dancing back down his hill.

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