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Friday, January 17, 2014

Picture This: Yosemite Camping Then and Now

I don't know exactly what draws me to some photos. I could make up all sorts of fancy reasons why (cue the snooty voice); the composition of the frame intrigues me, the subject matter juxtaposed with the organic nature of the piece is stunning, drawing the eye to the infinite reality of the universe as a whole...

In reality, I just know what I like.  A lot of the time it has more to do with the era it was taken, or the good memories it conjures up while I look at it. I'm sure all of you have a photo that is the polar opposite of "art" but you proudly keep it on your mantel (or as the screen shot on your iPhone) anyway. Out of focus, off kilter, bad composition--it doesn't matter, it's a keeper. Because you like it.

This is one of those for me:

Yosemite Camping circa 1950's: (Photo Credit: William Miller)

I wasn't even there when this was taken: Heck, Mark and I weren't even alive when this was taken. It's a shot of Mark's family's campsite in Yosemite, probably sometime in the 50s. If you look closely you can see a play pen set up for one of Mark's uncles, and all the towels (both dish and swim) were strung up on the line between the pine trees. The family is gathered around the picnic table (playing Yahtzee, if my experience with that side of the family is any guide) and chatting it up. Mark's extended family went to Yosemite every summer and spent a week playing in the river and walking around the valley. That tradition has continued to this day: our Yosemite trip every summer is an extension of that when we join Mark's sister, cousins, mother, aunts, uncles and all the kids that have cropped up over the years for a week of swimming in the river, walking around the valley and eating popsicles whenever we can get away with it.

Mark's grandfather was a photography enthusiast, taking photos on vacations and bringing the film(!) back to his house in San Francisco to develop in his basement. Those were the good old days when you could have all those nasty chemicals laying around (come on in kids! I'll show you how to process film. Nah, you won't need gloves...) He probably dumped those same chemicals down the drain when he was through too. Things were simpler, if not more dangerous, back when we didn't know any better. Of course, Grandpa lived well into his nineties, so maybe there's something to this living dangerously thing. Hmmm...

Anyway, I really like this photo because for me it symbolizes the essence of camping. When I look at it I like to imagine camping in Yosemite before it was overrun and over-regulated. Even then it was hard to get a campsite--my mother-in-law tells me her father used to send her ahead of the family car to ask each family if they were leaving that day and could we have your site?--but it was still possible to get one the day you showed up.  None of this logging in from three computers five months in advance, frantically pressing the refresh button as you watch all the available campsites disappear before your eyes.

I like the way the photo is dark, and a little smoky. And I really appreciate the way you can barely make out any other campers in the background; the sites seemed more spaced out then or perhaps so much foliage has been trampled and ripped up now that there's nothing to shield you from your fellow campers anymore. It looks like you could walk to the end of the road and find yourself alone in the forest.

For comparison's sake, here's a photo of our campsite last summer in Yosemite:

Yosemite's Upper Pines Campground, 2013

Sure, it's a little less smoky--the park has put a moratorium on campfires in the daylight hours--but you could hardly call it secluded. A concrete pad with a picnic table and a bear bin to call your own, the invisible barriers known only to the seasoned campers to hold your place in the dirt. Of course, Yosemite is full of un-seasoned campers, so expect people of all nationalities to traipse right through your site at any moment. Privacy is not an option so it's best to just roll with it.

Even with the crowds though, I will never tire of Yosemite. It's one of those special places that cannot be compared to anywhere else on earth. It works to our advantage that most people don't have the time or the energy to get much past the turnouts and overlooks. If you're willing to go a bit farther, you can find yourself alone in some of the most spectacular scenery you will ever see in your lifetime.

So I will continue to press the refresh button madly (while reciting a few choice words) five months in advance of our next trip. Not because I enjoy it, but because I have to. To skip a year would be a shame and an early morning marathon session at the computer is worth a week in paradise, as crowded and overrun as it is. The family tradition has to carry on and it takes a concerted effort to bring everyone together for a week; Mark's sister gets on the phone a year and a day before the selected timeframe and keeps calling until she gets a reservation in the housekeeping units. When I start to wonder why we bother, I just look at that photo again and it helps me to remember.

And every year during all of this, somewhere up there Grandpa is looking down and smiling to himself:

"Sure didn't seem all that hard when I was doing it."