July 2019

Road Trippin': Two adults, three kids, one giant RV. It’s the classic summer road trip survival story.

Author: Barry Kaufman

I’m still not sure whose idea it was to cram our entire family into an RV and cruise around the West Coast for our annual family vacation, but I haven’t ruled out Tom Selleck.

Selleck, as you may know, served as the pitchman for the “Go RVing” ad campaign a few years back in a series of wildly influential ads that led to literally no one but us RVing. In fact, when I used the hashtag #gorving on Instagram, my friend and colleague Justin Jarrett sagely asked how exactly one gorvs.

But because of Magnum P.I.’s mustachioed influence, my wife and I decided that we were going to put ourselves behind the wheel of a mobile apartment and send it careening down winding Pacific roads with all of our offspring inside. The trip would take us from the majestically sprawling farmland of Fresno up into the Yosemite Valley, home to some of nature’s most exhaustingly photographed waterfalls.

Since we weren’t about to drive an RV cross-country, getting to California meant embarking on the free-wheeling unpredictable joy ride that is flying out of the Savannah-Hilton Head-Ridgeland-Pritchardville International Airport.

Like most trips out of Savannah, our journey began with a delay and ended in disaster. In what could be the world’s first aerial game of hokey pokey, we loaded onto the plane before the captain realized he didn’t feel like flying just then. We all got off the plane for about 40 minutes while the co-pilot administered an FAA-regulation pep talk, which put us into Dallas just in time for the hailstorm that wiped out the entire American Airlines fleet.

Long story short, we spent 18 hours in the Dallas airport, wound up flying into Ontario (California, not Canada. I know, I was confused as well) and driving overnight up to Fresno. Having been up for 24 plus hours at that point, I was hallucinating vividly, but I got us there despite the fire-breathing dragons that hogged the passing lane the whole way.

And at last, after surviving the gauntlet of flying out of Savannah, we arrived.

Yosemite Park: America’s default screensaver image
In all seriousness, Yosemite National Park might just be the most beautiful place on this planet. Every step you take, you’re craning your eyes up to see lofty mountain peaks draped in wisps of cloud, roaring waterfalls whose sheer scale seem impossible to someone who has lived at sea level for 15 years, and animals casually wandering around, baffled by the behavior of these upright shaved apes taking their picture. It’s a stark reminder that we as humans are very small and very young compared to the forces that shaped this valley.

My wife was able to secure us a prime spot in the park’s North Pines campsite, right on the banks of Tenaya Creek, a small rivulet running down from Mirror Lake into the Merced River, whose current had carved the valley long before man walked the earth. As it rounded our campsite, the creek’s current ran swiftly with frigid waters of melting snow. Naturally, my kids dared me to swim in it. I met them halfway, walking into the current up to my knees, lying through my teeth that it wasn’t that bad in the hopes they’d follow me. Turns out they’re smarter than I thought they were.

We were there at an interesting time.

This was just after the Alt National Park Service movement had reached its peak, and the whole thing felt like the elephant in the room. At a small empty green space by the visitor’s center, a sign told us that these individuals were expressing their first amendment rights. The fact that there were no individuals behind or even anywhere near that sign spoke volumes.

We spent our days hiking, which is essentially why one goes to Yosemite. There are trails that take you to the edge of human endurance, scaling peaks like Half Dome Rock in treks that last for hours and offer little rest. Then there are the trails we went on, gently winding up the bunny slopes but still delivering stunning views.

Sometimes when you hit the trail, the trail hits back
It’s an interesting dynamic on these trails. On one stretch, you’ll be heading up rocky pathways hewn from the mountainside, and on another, you’re ascending tightly engineered stairs. You can set down your pack at one bend and gaze out across the treetops, feeling totally isolated from the rest of the world. Then when you stand up, a group of 50 or so might clamber by, speaking every language all at once. Over the course of our stay, we embarked on three of these journeys.

The first was Mist Trail, which comes by its name honestly. For most of the way, the trail is actually wheelchair-accessible, a wide earthen road that gently slopes upward past ravines and rivers. Then you hit the real Mist Trail, which angles sharply upward toward Vernal Fall, whose torrentssoak the air with fog. This pathway is almost always partially submerged, leading you to negotiate your way around ankle-deep puddles on the scattered rocks that make up the trail. My youngest and I wound up tapping out on this trip, finding a spot above the waterline in a cave while the rest of the group went on.

On our second day, we ventured up Tenaya Creek toward Mirror Lake. This was a much more relaxed hike, with little incline that we could notice. There were two paths that ran to Mirror Lake—the easier one, which followed a surprisingly busy road, and the harder one, which carried warnings that mountain lions were active in the area. Assured that after days without showering no mountain lion would come near us, we took the harder trail. I’m glad we did. The Mirror Lake Trail follows the creek closely, winding through gorgeous woodlands and sandy beaches before arriving at the lake itself, so named because of the mesmerizing reflection of Half Dome Rock on its surface.

On our third trip, we opted to brave the Lower Yosemite Falls trail, a rocky pathway that zigged and zagged up the eastern face of Eagle Peak toward the famed double waterfall. And here we see where the trail map is a filthy, filthy liar. According to the map, the trail winds upward across 14 switchbacks before settling into a gentle curve that takes you up to the viewing platform for the lower falls. After 200 or so switchbacks, we encountered a pair of young hikers coming back from the falls, who assured us there were only a few more to go. We made it through another 20 before we decided we’d been lied to once again.

But it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. What I didn’t mention is that on each of those switchbacks, we were able to look down on the valley below and amaze ourselves at how far we’d come. We could watch as eagles soared around the trees in the distance. We could sit a moment and listen to a stream babbling its way down the slope. We could pop fistfuls of Aleve, dulling the pain in muscles we were sure didn’t exist the day before. It was tremendous family time.

As far as vacations go, I’ve taken these kids everywhere. We’ve roamed the moors of Scotland, scaled glaciers in Iceland, planted trees in the Dominican Republic, and devoured turkey legs at Disney World. But on those nights after a long hike, sitting around a fire or playing cards in the RV, I don’t think we’ve ever had a vacation so focused on just us spending time together. These moments will get harder and harder to come by as, by degrees, they become sullen teenagers, detached young adults and eventually a voice on the phone or an extra place setting at holidays.

And if I have Tom Selleck to thank for this moment, well then so be it.

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