In Yosemite Valley, there are many trails for walking and hiking. The most popular ones lead to the bases of waterfalls; Bridalveil Fall and Lower Yosemite Fall in particular. They are wide, paved, and lined with trees.
The paths are engineered in such a way that builds anticipation: first you hear the roar of the water; then you catch a glimpse of the falls through the trees; finally, the trees open up, and you are presented with the full majesty of some of the world's highest waterfalls.
For the most part, these are trails with a purpose, and that purpose is to bring visitors to the falls. On these trails, it's all about the destination. The point of walking on these trails is to reach that destination, and see the waterfalls up-close.
The waterfalls are indeed beautiful, even in winter when their flow is diminished by cold temperatures that keep much of the water frozen solid. However, there is another trail that does not lead to a waterfall. By myself, I walked this trail Sunday afternoon, after we had worshiped at the Yosemite Valley Chapel, in a window of time before the late afternoon ice skating session in Curry Village, where we were staying.
I began this walk at the historic Awahnee Hotel, and headed east, away from the waterfalls. Near the meadow's edge, I saw some deer grazing. The trail disappeared into a pine forest, where the brown earth was interrupted by a few small patches of ice and puddles.
For me, this trail was not all about reaching a destination. Some people did walk this trail to get to Mirror Lake, but that was not my destination. My purpose was not to arrive somewhere, but to be somewhere, to notice where I was as I walked, and not worry so much about where I was going.
A few squirrels scampered about. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse through the trees of a massive rock wall to my left. I enjoyed the smell of the pine trees, made noticeable even on this winter day by the mild, damp air. I breathed in the silence of this secluded part of the valley.
The trail crossed a creek, and brought me into a campground that was closed for the winter. I felt a few sprinkles of rain (not snow) on my face. With no umbrella, I quickened my pace, worried that I might get wet if I did not get to Curry Village quickly enough. In fact, "worried" is an understatement. A wave of anxiety swept over me, as I remembered all my admonitions to be prepared, and yet here I was without a rain jacket or umbrella. If these sprinkles became an actual rain shower ... I would get wet.
Suddenly, I unexpectedly laughed out loud. So what if I get wet? I get wet every day when I shower, don't I? I wasn't so far away from civilization that there was any danger. I wasn't in the backcountry. If it rained, I would get wet. So what? I could dry off and warm up when I reached the cabin.
I slowed down, and began to enjoy the feel of the tiny drops on my skin, each one tickling ever so slightly. I forgot about where I was going, and went back to noticing where I was. As it turned out, the real rain didn't start until long after my walk had ended.
I didn't realize why this particular walk was so meaningful to me until I got home and started reading Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World, in which she talks about noticing the world around us--and how most of us are too busy to. She asks about Moses: what if he had been too busy to notice the burning bush, or too focused on his destination to pause and investigate this strange thing he saw? If he hadn't stopped and noticed, then he wouldn't be Moses.
Barbara Brown Taylor quotes Shug Avery, one of the "wise women" in Alice Walker's book The Color Purple: "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it."
The walks to the waterfalls are wonderful. No trip to Yosemite Valley is complete without them. But for most people, they are not that different from most of the other walks we take in life, which really aren't walks at all: walking across the parking lot to the grocery store, walking through the lobby of an office building, walking from the living room to the bathroom. We just want to get there. If we could instantly beam ourselves from one place to another as in Star Trek--and do away with the walk completely--we would. If we could get to the base of the waterfall without five or ten minutes of walking, most of us probably would.
Which is why walks that don't lead anywhere are so important. In this sense, walking the path through the pine trees was like walking a labrynth. The focus was on now, on noticing. The focus was on breathing in everything around me.