Sunday, January 31, 2010
I had a little false start on my drive into Yosemite. Here’s a good rule of thumb for anyone driving through the mountains in the winter. If you know that some roads are closed for the winter, you should definitely map out your route and actually use that route instead of relying on a GPS. Otherwise you may find that you’ve added 2 hrs onto your trip when you hit a road that says “snow tires only”.
Eventually I reached Mariposa, CA (which is a bit further from the park than I thought). I stayed there and took the bus in each day (2 days) to avoid camping in the cold weather without the security blanket of my car (and literally the extra blankets in the car). One highlight on the bus was riding across the isle from Shelton John. For those who have seen the Ken Burn’s documentary on the national parks Shelton John is the philosophical park ranger who likes to compare the confluence of geological forces to music, the concept of responsibility in relation to national and state parks, etc. I did not talk to him on the bus because he was either sleeping or praying. Its hard to tell the difference sometimes. However, I did talk to him at the visitor center. He said that people don’t normally recognize him. He postulated that this is because people don’t expect to see people from TV in real life. He said tons of famous people like Harrison Ford come to Yosemite and hardly anyone notices them. This is a valid point, there is a lot of evidence that we completely fail to notice things that we don’t expect to see and further evidence that we fill in gaps of our memory with things we do expect to see. Its been pretty well documented in court studies that visual memory is very unreliable (though it remains the most convincing type of evidence to a jury). Another park ranger noted that when Brooks and Robin Lopez came everyone noticed them, however this could be because it is hard not to notice someone that is 7 feet tall, famous or not.
Yosemite Valley was really cool. Completely surrounded by some amazing mountain formations (that I believe were carved by glaciers). The waterfalls were moving pretty well, apparently they dry up in September, but start moving again in January because the area gets a good bit of snow, but its still warm enough for it to melt. I spent the whole first day in the valley area. I tried to walk all the way to the top of Yosemite Falls. There were a bunch of kids also doing the walk with the Yosemite Institute that does outdoor education. They kids were from San Jose. Their leaders told me I probably wouldn’t get to go past the view point that was on level with the bottom of the upper falls (there are 3 falls upper, middle, and lower that combine to be over 600ft). About a hundred yards after the viewpoint I fell into about 5 feet of snow. I decided they were right, dug myself out of my snow hole, and walked back down. PS: walking up and down a mountain in the snow is relatively easy on your joints but super hard on your muscles, which I guess is a good thing, but it made me very tired. I also saw bride veil falls and vernal falls while I was in Yosemite.
Me at the viewpoint (only upper falls is shown here)
At the visitor center I was informed that I had to put away my bear spray. Bear spray is not allowed in Yosemite. Its not all that necessary because the area only has black bears. I like to compare black bears to my parent’s yellow lab Bratton. If a hamster stood on its hind legs and hissed Bratton would run away scared, despite the fact that she outweighs a hamster by 40 lbs, is no slower than a hamster, and has a much more vicious bite. Bratton is convinced that almost anything can defeat her in a fight. Black bears are pretty similar, they really only attack humans when they get frightened. If you make noise as you walk they’ll run away, all you have to do is avoid sneaking up on them. Apparently instead of just making noise a lot of people from the Bay Area would take out their bear spray and shoot at the bear who was a good 50 ft away and upwind. Bear spray only shoots about 15 ft so. This means that this shot is not only ineffective, but that is also is likely to blow back at the shooter, possibly causing long term damage. Other characters tried spraying their tents or clothes as a way of preventing a bear attack. This is about the worst thing you do with bear spray, short of spraying yourself in the face. After a few of these incidents they outlawed bear spray in Yosemite.
The second day I went up to Badger Pass, where I had a couple of hours to ski. Badger Pass is the only downhill ski area in a national park. It was a good bit of fun and not crowded at all. There were maybe 50 people there (which is not much for a mountain with 4 lifts). A man I had seen on the park bus a few times and was playing the game “gay or European” with (not quite as fun as the game “daughter or girlfriend” but still a good game) thought I was a ski instructor and asked me about lessons. I took this as a major complement to my skiing, I think I’ve gotten a lot better this year. The gay or European guy talked with a slight lisp, carried around a small dog which he called “my baby”, and may have been with another man wearing some pimped out rings and a large fur coat. Fur coat pimp guy was from Charlotte so that’s cool. Never found out where gay or European guy was from, but I’m kind of thinking he is both gay and European.
After Badger Pass I took the bus out to Nevada and Vernal Falls. The trail was closed after Bernal Falls, but that was ok because it was starting to get dark anyways. The bus driver taking me back to the visitor center told me that they are thinking about restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. Hetch Hetchy was damed a while back to provide water and electricity to San Francisco. This was the first real environmental v. development battle in the US. Its also the famous battle between Muir and Pinchot and one of the major historical battles during the progressive era of Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. The environmentalists eventually lost when the Wilson administration decided to dam the valley. Apparently its not that useful to San Francisco anymore so there is discussion about restoring it. Of course there is a new potential battle within the park community. One group wants to restore the valley but not put in buildings in, leave it essentially off limits to all but backpackers. I kind of like this, in the sense that a valley surrounded totally by mountains is really cool with no buildings in the way. But at the same time there is something to the idea of making the best features of the park accessible to everyone. Yosemite is after all a national park and not a national forest. The group that wants to keep out buildings isn’t really worried about accesability (or my views for that matter). Its main concern is making the area “natural” again. Now I’m not exactly sure what “natural” is, but I’m probably with the group that thinks it’s a relatively meaningless word that people use to promote things they like. Keeping out buildings in Yosemite for this group, keeping birth control out of the phillipeans for Catholics, preventing gay marriage for Pat Roberson, etc. I think it’s a sham. We think of “nature” or “natural” as being good so people try to claim that certain things are “natural” and that other things aren’t. But isn’t creating buildings part of our human nature, isn’t that natural. Isn’t trying to alter our social surroundings and constantly changing social conditions also a part of our “nature”.
Me and the John Muir Statue
I thought about a some similar things in ethics (because we definitely try to make this pitch that “nature” is ethical). What is justice? That’s a tough question right. You can come at it from so many angles: egalitarian, utilitarian, virtues, de-ontological, Kantian, etc. How do you decide. Recently a new brand of utilitarianism has swept the world and its rather enticing. John Rawls said that a just society would be the one we would create if we had to make it from behind a veil of ignorance (not knowing what our place in that society would be). But, Rawls added that we can’t be completely ignorant. We need a concept of economics, otherwise how will we know how to build the society (I would add that we might also need a concept of psychology and an understanding of happiness). But this creates a new problem. What kind of economic model do we use. We could go Chicago school, neo-classical, Marxist, Keynesian, etc. And of course the kind of economic theory you choose is going to have a lot to do with your current economic status, historical, cultural status. There’s no objective way of knowing what to pick and so we’re already infected with an inability to get behind this veil of ignorance. So what is justice really? Maybe the inarticulate Thrasymachus of Plato's Republic was on to something. Maybe justice really is just an argument based on obscure undefined buzz words like nature, good, fair, etc intended to advance the agenda of whoever is talking.