Yosemite Slam

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It takes a long time to get into Yosemite, but what a beautiful place that valley is. You do have to take some lengthy twisty roads with terrifying drops down into deep gorges just one swerve away, and then when you finally reach the environs of the park and the rocks start changing from a dusty ochre to a stern granite grey you see the line of cars going in at geological speed and start wondering about Fast Passes like at theme parks, and then you realize the drop to the valley floor, that is the Fast Pass. We arrived in the afternoon on a holiday weekend, therefore specifically requesting trouble on the form. You need a reservation to get into Yosemite these days to, ahem, stem the crowds. We had one, as we were staying at the Lodge in the middle of the park. You could see cars going the other direction and you just know they had shown up without one. It took the best part of two hours to get in, and it was hot. When we got in, we had planned to do the Mist Trail hike first and then go to the Lodge, but you couldn’t park anywhere near the Mist Trail. We found a spot about two miles or so away and then walked in, backpacks with hydration packs on, stopping to take photos of the amazing views, admire the immense rock walls of the valley, and also to question What The Hell. It was packed. It was hot. By the time we finally reached the start of the trail we were hiked out. The trail itself was fairly steep and a bit narrow, but mostly just jam-packed with people. I know why they call it the Mist Trail, it’s not the spray from the waterfalls but the clouds of other peoples’ sweat you have to walk through. I made it as far as the first bridge by a waterfall and we headed back. Massive headache. On the way back though, we saw a bear cub! I’ve never seen a bear in the wild. Not that I wanted to get too close to one, it was on the other side of the road, just minding its own business, I think it was in the collecting food business. Then I heard a very loud whistle. It wasn’t mama bear because they can’t whistle. It was some tall American dude in shorts and a big stupid hat, getting out of his big stupid car and approaching the bear like it owed him money, or honey, whatever. He was whistling to get its attention, while also exclaiming “do you see the bear!” to passers by. “Yeah leave it be, mate” I said. The bear disappeared into the bushes. The man looked like he was going to follow it in to try to get a photo on his phone up close. I mean, I don’t wish anyone’s face to be eaten by a bear for being stupid, but seriously, you don’t follow a bear into the bushes. Big Stupid Man in Hat then turned round and went back to his big stupid car still exclaiming “did you see the bear” to everyone who had been distracted by his ridiculous whistling. I’m pretty sure you can be fined a lot of honey for approaching the wild animals in Yosemite like that, at the very least his picnic basket should have been confiscated. Anyway now I had something to write about on my postcards, we got back to the Lodge. Our room smelled as if someone had been smoking in it, which was pretty unbearable (I see what you did there), so we opened up the windows and ran all the fans. I did insist we close the windows at night though Because Bears. They love to sniff out the food, they famously break into cars, I saw a documentary about it, Gone In 60 Seconds I think it was. Or maybe the Fast and the Furriest. Anyway, well fed and showered, and well rested, and safe from bears, I got up very early next day and headed out into the park before the heat, while the family still slept, and sketched the magnificent Yosemite Falls, above. It was not super busy yet, and this was the start of the trails leading up to the Lower Falls. Stunning sight though, and the absolute drama of the scenery is hard to describe, and not easy to draw either.

     

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This was our third National Park this year (after Arches and Canyonlands). The colour scheme was quite different; before the Utah trip I did actually do lots of practice sketching so that I knew how I would like to draw once I got there, what colour palette I would use, even what style of sketching would work best for quickest effect. I didn’t do that this time; I wish I had in a way, but then the greens and blues are always tricky bedfellows in my paint set. The Yosemite light is overwhelming, like I felt there was no way to capture the sheer epic-ness of it, but even on the hot day I stopped and gave it a go. The one above was very quick and done with pencil and watercolour, and I was pleased with it. As we walked through Yosemite Village I happened upon a familiar face, Robert Dvorak, a Sacramento artist and art teacher who has joined us many times on our sketchcrawls in Davis. I hadn’t seen him since a sketchcrawl just before  the pandemic, but I recognized his distinctive hat, he was teaching a small workshop on sketching. He was surprised to see me, and showed his students my sketchbook. I left and got the Yosemite National Park stamps in my sketchbook, and we continued exploring. The sketch below was drawn while standing on the Swinging Bridge (it didn’t swing, but I guess there were lots of 1960s British hip fashion-followers there at some point. I wanted to catch the colour of the Merced River and the silent giants behind it; I did the paint first and then pen over the top, which I never really like doing, and I can tell as it feels a bit awkward from about the riverbanks up. My green paints feel a bit dry as well. Still as a quick sketch drawn while balanced on a bridge with people passing by behind me, hoping not to accidentally drop my sketchbook and paints into the river, I still like it. It was a hot day, we explored the non-uphill parts of the valley, took a lot of photos, and headed back to the car for a drive up to Glacier Point. 

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Glacier Point (where I did the sketch below) is about an hour’s drive uphill from the Yosemite Valley floor. It is an overlook with a phenomenal view of the whole valley. The way up was a little depressing, as much of the landscape had been affected by big fires in recent years. In anticipation of this unusually hot holiday weekend there had been a controlled burn on the valley floor, we had passed the smouldering logs on the way in, but this was more of a sad beaten wasteland. Still, despite the fact that the past few years have been worse than anyone here has ever known, exacerbated by the rise in global temperatures, in the California wilderness fire is the way of things, nature’s way of renewing the forests. Still, it’s hard to see. It was another twisting rollercoaster of a road up. We have been to Glacier Point before; when we married in 2004 we came to Yosemite for our honeymoon, and we have photos of us looking much younger looking out at the view which is dominated by the otherworldly Half Dome, which resembles the cowl of a massive stone ghost. We could just about make out people on the top, tiny atoms in colourful hiking gear. It’s a dizzying view. There were a good number of people up there, but not as packed as the Mist Trail. I took a little time to do a quick sketch of the scene, but this one I did not fill in the gaps later at home, I just left it as it was. At this time of year the waterfalls are gushing and plentiful; in the western US we are in the midst of a potentially catastrophic drought though, so I expect that by the middle of the summer those will be trickles, if even that. When we were here in September 2004 Bridalveil Falls was not even running; this time that bride was running like she had just discovered her new in-laws were all death eaters or Hannity fans or something. It would be nice to come back slightly earlier in the year when it’s not already so hot, and the rivers are still booming, but even just a fortnight before there had been snow around here so it’s hard to predict. Maybe just when there are fewer people, not on a holiday weekend, it might be more fun to hike the trails. It just takes so long to get here. It’s worth it though, this Yosemite scenery is some of the best on the planet. We took a lot of photos of amazing backdrops, and the light always seemed to be just perfect.  

Glacier Point panorama I didn’t draw El Capitan, and it’s not in this panorama, but that was another geological marvel we passed by in awe. El Capitan is really massive. When we got home we watched the documentary film Free Solo, about the bloke who likes to climb up rocks with no ropes or harnesses or anything. They call that “free soloing”. “Freeing Solo” is when you dress up as a masked bounty hunter with a thermal detonator and sneak around Jabba’s palace at night looking for your carbonite-imprisoned boyfriend, just so you can ask him “what do you mean “I know”?” (Seriously Leia, when Han asked “Who are you” you should have said “Someone who knows you” and slapped him one.). So the Free Solo guy (Alex Honnold) was pretty bloody amazing. The movie was so good, and it detailed his journey to becoming the first – and so far only – person to scale the sheer face of El Capitan free solo, bottom to top, no ropes or nothing. Incredible film I recommend you watch it. (I also recommend the Return of the Jedi “Leia Says I Know First” special edition cut). It made me think, we all have goals, some people’s goals might be something huge like climbing a gigantic cliff with your bare hands, others it might be just drawing a picture of those cliffs and it turning out alright, but it’s an inspiration to see someone work on their goal, have setbacks here and there, but not give up, to really do it. No matter how big or small your goal, go for it. The only thing I didn’t like about the movie was the song that played over the end credits, which had a chorus that went ‘Gravity’s a Fragile Thing”. I mean, it’s literally not. Gravity is definitely the thing you can rely on not breaking. It will break you. Those lyrics were a pretty fragile thing. Still, the film reminded me of when I went rock climbing when I was 17, I went about 25 or 30 feet maybe, with ropes, and was absolutely terrified. I felt that Gravity pulling me down, and I was myself a very fragile thing at the time weighing about half a stone dripping wet, so it juts blows my mind to see someone achieve a feat like that. Mind Blown. 

And that was Yosemite. It was a long and winding drive back to Davis, and when we got home we decided against long road journeys for a while. We had 17 years between visits to Yosemite, and this was the first time since we moved to America. It’s a pretty long way, but it’s worth it.

Utah 4: Devil’s Garden

Landscape Arch sketchOn the third day in Moab we returned to Arches and this time started our day by exploring the popular Devil’s Garden area. This place is packed with arches, and I’m glad we got there early because before long it was packed with hikers too. People like to do the Devil’s Garden loop, a seven mile or so hike that includes some tricky scrambles over rocks but gives some amazing postcard views. We didn’t do that whole thing, but just went part of the way in. The walk to the long and fragile Landscape Arch was really pleasant, a well-worn path through some short narrow canyons, easy to get to. My son had done a state project on Utah at elementary school a couple of years ago, the main reason we wanted to come and explore Arches with him, as he had made a model of Landscape Arch and wheeled it around the playground in the “parade of states”, this is a popular thing kids learn about at American schools. This particular arch used to have a bit more to it, and the trail would pass underneath it, but then about thirty years ago a large chunk of it fell off, so now you can only get so close, in case more comes down. I overheard a geologist say to his kids while I was there, “hey kids,” (I might be paraphrasing) “he kids, I’m a geologist and I think that more of that rock might come down. All it needs is an earthquake, maybe even a bit of wind, and that rock’s gonna tumble like a lizard in a blizzard,” (Yes I am definitely misremembering what he actually said, I think the Wild West scenery probably clouded my memory a bit). Below, that’s me sketching the Landscape Arch.

sketching at arches national park

We didn’t go a great deal further along this trail, because it reached a spot with a very steep and narrow rock that needed scaling, and we weren’t feeling that brave. We watched some other people bounce up the rocks, and a few others scale cautiously, while others also sat that one out and there was a group of people in what I thought of as the ‘waiting room’ while their family members hiked on the higher grounds. I gave it a go; first time I wasn’t feeling brave enough, but after a little bit of time I thought, ah why not, and I made the climb. It was only a short climb but the drops were quite rocky, but I made it up top and went bounding around for a little bit to look for the Navajo Arch and the picturesque Partition Arch. I didn’t stop to draw as the family were still in the waiting room below, and I didn’t march off to the Double O Arch, so I’m saving the rest of the Devil’s Garden for next time. We had plenty of other arches to explore.

 

 

We went and looked at Pine Tree Arch, before doing the sandy trail between the narrow slot canyons around Sand Dune arch. That was a huge sandpit full of kids playing, while others bounced about the rocks. We then walked across a plain of cacti and desert brush to reach the magnificent Broken Arch. That one isn’t actually broken at all, but was definitely one of the more impressive arches we saw. There were a number of people there making large echoes boom through the arch but when they left the silence was grand. A good time to stop and rest up the feet; a good time to sketch. This was one of my favourite ones to draw.

Broken Arch

(Interjection – can I just say I really hate this current WordPress editor with all these clunky blocks? The old editor was much cleaner and easier)

After this arch we were getting tired, so we made only one more stop, and what a stop. The Park Avenue trail is short but looks exactly like the backdrop of a Western. I walked into the valley for a bit before heading to the giftshop and back to the hotel for a rest. Arches was well worth the effort, and now that we are officially hikers we’ll be back some day. 

Park Avenue, Arches

 

Utah 3: Island in the Sky

Mesa Arch

On our second day in southern Utah we drove to a much larger National Park, Canyonlands. The elevation was a bit higher than Arches, and it was a cooler day with more cloud, so we even had a few flurries of snow as we made our way out to the Mesa Arch overlook. While Delicate Arch is the place to watch the sunset, Mesa Arch is the sunrise spot for people who like being around lots of people watching the sky go from a bit dark to a bit light. We went well after breakfast when the sun was already up, so it wasn’t too crowded. Canyonlands is so big it is divided into three sections that aren’t easily connected (there are literally massive canyons in between them): the Maze, the Needles and the Island in the Sky. They sounds a little like Marvel comics prisons or Dharma stations from Lost. We went to Island in the Sky, and it’s easy to see how it got its name. The plateau floats about a network of enormous canyons that seem impossible to believe, like you are inside an enormous IMAX cinema or looking at a vast painting. I have been to the Grand Canyon years ago and the impact is similar. Well it’s the same river, the Colorado, just further upstream. Canyonlands is where the Colorado meets the Green river, making all kinds of fun patterns on the planet surface. Out at Mesa Arch the family bundled up beneath a blanket while I spent a few minutes drawing, as best I could, and various people took photos inside the opening that looks out onto another world. I had decided that I would probably not attempt to draw any canyons, they would be a little bit beyond me, as someone who typically draws fire hydrants and pubs. I wanted to catch some of the colours I saw, but I also wanted to just stop and stare, and take in the vastness without thinking about how to translate that into scratches and splotches on a sketchbook. Below, a couple of photos, looking out toward Mesa Arch, another looking out at the Candlestick, and another of the strange and otherwordly Upheaval Dome, where we hiked to next.

Upheaval Dome was a place of some mystery, a large crater filled with rocks of a very different colour from those around it, like the remains of a large green asteroid. I hiked as far up on the overlook as I could, but there is a much longer and arduous primitive trail that runs around the entire thing and can be quite a challenge. Not a challenge we were up for. The second day was going to one of shorter hikes with massive views, so once we were done with Upheaval Dome we drove down to the Grand View Point for a really impressive ‘Grand Canyon’ moment. I can’t really get over how spectacular the southwestern United States is, and that the National Parks do such a great jo of maintaining them so that we can enjoy them respectfully. I spent a fair bit of time in the park shop that morning getting souvenirs and what not, including metal pains, so now I want to start some collection of those whenever I go to a new one, seriously, great idea but what am I going to wear them? Grand View Point was stunning. There is a massive maze of canyons that looks like a galactic animal footprint from above. We walked along the trail going along the rim, until the family could bear no longer to be on the edge of the cliff and went back to the car. I stayed out and hiked a bit further, before heading back to the Point and deciding, sure why not let’s have a quick sketch. So I got out the Moleskine and a pencil and started just quickly drawing as much as I could see. Around me I heard as many American accents as license plates in the parking lot. It’s interesting to actually hear other North American accents in person, living in California where the accent gets homogenized into TV American, the only time you really hear different US accents with any strength is in TV stereotypes. I added in some paint and then finished off later; it was snowing, though very lightly. I was pleased with the result though, this isn’t a type of landscape I would ever get much chance to experience. Click on it to see it in more detail.

Canyonlands view from Grand Point  

We had planned to swing by Dead Horse Point state park after our day in Canyonlands, but decided that would be a ‘next time’ visit. We had our fill of amazing views, and the park experience was so different from Arches, so we drove back to Moab for dinner and rest. We had one more day in Arches to come before our long journey back home, and the next day we would be hiking some of the Devil’s Garden.  

Utah 2: Delicate Arch

Sketching Delicate Arch

When I was growing up I had this book on my bookshelf called “The Atlas of Natural Wonders”. It was one of those hardback books you get from mail-order book clubs, my dad got a lot of those for a while, so my bedroom bookshelf was always full of interesting things to read before bed. I had two massive books about Mammals; a huge book all about the settling of the western U.S. called “The West” (which I still have); books about Britain’s Haunted Heritage or Strange and Mysterious Things like the Beast of Exmoor and the Cottingley Fairies; books about ancient European legends of Magic and Wizards; two amazing books about old Horror movies which I would devour cover to cover, scaring myself with images of Lon Cheney, skeletons in big hats or hands coming out of an open grave; and I even had this massive dusty and utterly boring book about the Soviet Manned Space Program, though I think that might have been a library book that was never returned (or even read, but was pottering about the house for decades). But best of all was The Atlas of Natural Wonders”. It wasn’t an atlas at all but a book (in no particular order) about forty or fifty of the most stunning places of natural beauty in the world. I don’t know what criteria meant a place did or didn’t make the list, but to me the list was absolutely gospel, these were, as far as my young mind was concerned, The Best Places On The Planet. I resolved as a kid that I would go to every single one. It included places like Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon, Iguaçu Falls, Badlands, the Ürgüp Cones, the Great Barrier Reef and loads of other places. Right there on the cover (and thinking back, it probably wasn’t on the cover, but it imprinted in my mind more than anything else in the book) was the Delicate Arch, in Utah. I knew I wouldn’t make it to every place in the book, but at some point in my life I had to go there.

And now I have!   

Delicate Arch

We had to psych ourselves up for the Delicate Arch trail. We watched some videos on YouTube and there is one particular bit where you walk along a ledge next to a big drop that I knew would be a bit of an ask, but we did it. The hike is described in the guidebook as a ‘moderate-strenuous’ 3-mile roundtrip, with a pretty big elevation up some slickrock; while it was more testing than most hikes we’ve ever done, I get the feeling that it’s more of a schlepp on hotter days. We had sunshine but no desert heat, perfect conditions really. We made it up to the scary ledge part, taking that easy, not looking at the big massive drop next to us, hugging the rock face, but we made it alright. I was more concerned it would be massively crowded, and while there were a good number of people up there it wasn’t as bad as it gets for sunset. I climbed up a little bit more for some good views but chickened out while scaling around the rim of the bowl to get a closer view. We were fine where we were, we sat and look, I drew on a little perch out of the way, we took some photos and geared up for the journey back down. There was some brave fool doing handstands on the edge of the cliff inside the arch itself, showing off, while up at our spot we had to wait a while to take a quick family selfie while a classic stereotype mother-from-hell with a massive camera and a compliant grandpa or someone holding up a special light took about a thousand photos of her two twin boys (Tarquin and Timmy they were called, though I didn’t hear their names being said) in their matching outfits. Other groups settled in to stake their spots for the sunset later on, like people waiting for the parade at Disneyland.  It was a stunning view. The colours of the landscape were otherworldly. After we got our selfie and had our fill of the arch, we made our way along the Ledge of Certain Doom and back to safer paths, back down to our car. 

Sketching Delicate Arch

Come to think of it, the chapter about Delicate Arch might have been titled “Rainbow Arch”, which is a different arch at a different park, but this one was definitely pictured. This is my memory reaching back over thirty years. I can’t remember all of the places in “the Atlas of Natural Wonders” any more, but at a push I could probably recall most of them. Those places I have been to already in my lifetime include: The Grand Canyon, the San Andreas Fault, Cheddar Gorge, the Gorge du Verdon, and… dammit, I think that might be it. I need to get a move on.

Utah 1: Arches!

sketching at Arches National Park

A couple of weeks ago, we took a Spring Break road trip to Utah. It took two days to drive from California across the mountains and high desert of norther Nevada (which is a much wider state than I thought; you look on the map, there’s a town or two but a lot of nothing, but in reality there’s a lot of grand scenery) (plus a few prisons; we saw signs for ‘no hitchhiking’) We stopped off in the Elko for the night, which seems to be a popular place for sleepovers when travelling across the country. I-80 goes from coast to coast, even through Davis. We passed into Utah the next day, crossing the expansive Great Salt Lake Desert, followed by a lunch of Belgian waffles and frites in Salt Lake City, before crossing snowy passes and sandy valleys to reach Moab, in southern Utah. I feel like I’ve seen a bit of America now, outside of the Sacramento valley. If we’d have flown, we’d have missed all of that. (But next time we will fly). Moab is the gateway town to the two national parks of Canyonlands and Arches, and there are even more amazing parks in southern Utah to explore, such as Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, not to mention various state parks. Now that we are officially hikers (we have the boots to prove it) we plan to explore more of these parks some day. On this trip, we started with Arches. We got into the park early, as all the videos say to do, and headed for the Windows section. That’s me above sketching one of them. My plan was that alongside our hiking and exploring I would stop occasionally to do quick pencil and watercolour sketches of the arches, taking no more than 10-15 minutes. This worked out well, so that we could have good rest stops. I practiced a lot of quick sketches before our trip, trying to find the right palette, the right approach, because this isn’t the same as drawing buildings at UC Davis. I started off with a quick sketch of the ‘Turret Arch’: Turret Arch

Next I sketched the ‘North Window’. There are two big arches next to each other, ‘North’ and ‘South’ windows, with incredible views over the plateau that makes up arches National Park. We learned a lot about how the arches were formed, that there was once a great sea here, and as the face of the planet shifted it was lost, but the salty waters evaporated to create a vast bed of salt, that for millions of years lay below the layers of rock, before it eventually evaporated causing the landscape to collapse into a world of arches and unusual rock formations. This is roughly what I remember. I want to study geology a lot more, looking at the rocks was illuminating. We are indeed fleeting specks in the lifetime of the planet; but what specks we are. I’m glad the National Parks exist to help protect these landscapes. They call the National Parks “America’s Best Idea” and I can’t really disagree there. It’s right up there with democracy, s’mores and having Diana Ross take a penalty at the 1994 World Cup opening ceremony. The Windows section was a good way to get oriented with the park, do some fairly easy short hikes, and take in the breathtaking landscape of red rocks and petrified dunes.

North Window Arch

 

We then walked over to the nearby Double Arch. There were a lot more people in the park by this point, and the parking lots were filling up. We looked at a site that showed us the busiest times of day for each parking lot and planned accordingly, I’d say we couldn’t have planned it better. The Double Arch (not to be confused with the “Double O” Arch on the Devil’s Garden trail) was one that I had practiced sketching, but of course being there in person the real thing raises the heart rate. I felt like Anakin Skywalker would come whizzing through them in his podracer, chasing down that slimo Sebulba. I drew this in pen (the only one I did in pen). There was a family from India we spoke to, some of the kids went into the arches and played some music to make big echo sounds. The acoustics were surreal. I didn’t climb far into these arches myself, but could have spent all day looking at them , drawing and cacthing the light as it evolved through the day. But we had many more arches to see. I’ll write about Delicate Arch in the next post, that is the one everyone knows.

Double Arch