By Kelsey Lahr
There is a covered bridge across the South Fork of the Merced River, in the south end of Yosemite National Park, where I live. Covered bridges are a rare sight in California; ours is one of only a small handful in the state. For hundreds of years, maybe thousands, the residents of this area crossed the South Fork on the bridges afforded them by logs and exposed rocks. It wasn’t until 1857 that the area’s first (and only) white inhabitant, Galen Clark, constructed a rough, uncovered bridge to serve the steadily increasing number of travelers passing through on their way to the famed Yosemite Valley, newly discovered by the outside world.
Clark built himself a cabin, where he intended to live out whatever was left of his short life. He had moved to the area to die. He came out to California in search of gold, and instead of striking it rich, contracted consumption in the dismal mining camp he briefly called home. He was told he had six months to live. So he moved to a meadow on the South Fork, raised up a rough cabin, and wandered loose through the hills, bareheaded and barefooted, praying for health and waiting to die. He learned the plants and the animals, the course of the river and the lay of the land. He drifted into the grove of giant sequoias that towered upmountain from his homestead, the first white man known for sure to have done so, and he bestowed upon it the name it still bears: the Mariposa Grove, after the mining town of Mariposa where Clark contracted his illness. Through all of this he took no chances; he dug his own grave down the road in Yosemite Valley. He carved his own headstone and planted some sequoia seeds around it and waited to die.
And while he was waiting to die, he began to write letters, suggesting that this grove of sequoias merited protection against the same human greed and stupidity that had driven him, along with some 300,000 other easterners and foreigners, out to the mountains of California in a haze of gold fever. He sent those letters to lawmakers in Washington, DC, to influential thinkers, to business magnates, to anyone he could find an address for. Back in Washington the newborn concept of preservation began to catch on.
In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln decided Galen Clark might have a point. He took a break from fighting the Civil War to sign the Yosemite Grant into law, setting aside the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and Yosemite Valley as a land grant to the state of California, to be preserved until the end of the earth—the first pieces of wild territory ever to be granted protection solely for their natural grandeur. Galen Clark breathed a little easier. He could go ahead and die, and the landscape would survive. It was all he could ask for, really.
When his cabin was finished he built the bridge, stopping to catch his ragged breath with each board he nailed into place. When that was done he began to add to his cabin, room by room, until it was an inn, shabby and low-slung, light streaming in through the cracks in the walls, but still a convenient and congenial stopover for Valley-bound tourists. He got to know the local Indians—the Nuchu, he called them. He began to develop a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable and hospitable men in the Sierras. And when protection was bestowed upon his beloved Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley, he celebrated.
Today, millions come to see Clark’s beloved sequoias every year, my family among them. “The Forever Trees,” my father calls them, on account of their longevity—giant sequoias can live almost 3,000 years. He loves these trees. He has been working here among them for most of my life. For nine months of the year he is just a regular school teacher, but then, like some kind of superhero stripping off his alter ego, he dons his ranger uniform, packs up his pickup, and heads to the mountains for his summer gig as a park ranger. When I was growing up my mother faithfully brought my sister and me to visit once or twice a summer.
I lived for our summer visits to my father in Yosemite, but those trips had to be earned by enduring another slog through the Mariposa Grove with Ranger Dad and his group of easily-impressed tourists. Long before I was big enough to keep up, he had perfected his guided hike through the Mariposa Grove, weaving together the most colorful moments of natural and human history and presenting them with the flair and timing of a masterful storyteller. I hated it. Those hikes were brutally hot, the fire-shaped landscape desolate to my sensibilities, and the giant sequoias just a bigger version of most other trees.
I never had a conversion moment; like most transformations, mine unfolded imperceptibly over the course of years. When I landed a summer ranger job of my own, affection for giant sequoias was pretty much required. By the time I had put together and polished my own version of the Mariposa Grove guided hike, I had become as awed by the trees as the most easily-impressed visitors. This I consider an unmerited blessing. That adulthood erased the familiarity-bred contempt I had harbored was a piece of pure grace, and one for which I am grateful every time I stop to admire the light on a sequoia I have seen thousands of times. And of course I am likewise grateful that an accident of birth made me the daughter of damn good ranger, and that an accident of death brought about the preservation of the Forever Trees that my father loves so much.
For death accidentally passed Galen Clark by, year after year, decades beyond his grim prognosis. He enjoyed nearly a half century of life near the giant sequoias he loved, all the way until1910, when he died just shy of his ninety-sixth birthday. He is buried in the grave he dug for himself in Yosemite Valley all those years before, and the seedling sequoias he had planted around it back then tower over 100 feet high today, a monument to all kinds of survival.
By the end of Clark’s life, things were changing fast around here. Homesteaders had arrived and laid claim to the land, followed by businessmen, stagecoaches, teams of horses, and stage drivers. The Indians fled at gunpoint. The streams that ran through the meadow were diverted and the land planted over with crops. Galen Clark sold out to some East Coast businessmen who promised to turn his sagging little inn into a full-fledged, first-rate hotel. Manifest Destiny had arrived on the South Fork.
The mortars and pounding rocks of the Indians lay abandoned and silent in the meadows and along the river, ghosts of the bustling gathering places they had been when the women assembled there early each morning to pound acorn and tell stories and compare notes on their husbands and families. But the area continued to be what they had always called it: Pallahchun—“a good place to stop.” The spot was now a frenzied transit site for the growing crowds of tourists stopping off on their way to visit the brand new Yosemite Grant.
As the nineteenth century barreled to a close, people came by the scores and then the hundreds and thousands, arriving by packed stagecoaches and staying the night at the new and sprawling Wawona Hotel before loading up the next morning for another full day’s jolting journey by stage to the Valley. And the men behind this rambling white beauty of a hotel, the easterners who had bought out Galen Clark, were a trio of brothers by the name of Washburn who had come to California from Vermont. And while these brothers were at it, they covered Galen Clark’s simple old footbridge, adding the walls and pitched roof that make it unique even today.
By all accounts, the Washburns were tenacious, successful, and charming. But they were still a long way from home. And this, they say, is the reason those brothers covered the bridge. Covered bridges are a common sight in Vermont, and like anyone a long way from home the Washburn brothers wanted a picture of where they had come from, a piece of the place they had left behind. The bridge, like the Yosemite Grant, endures miraculously to this day.
But to Galen Clark and the Washburns, today’s Yosemite might well be unrecognizable even if they found the bridge familiar. When the Yosemite Grant Act became law in 1864, a great number of the area’s original residents, now gone, still called the place home. Grizzly bears roamed all over, as did, of course, the Indians. The grizzlies, often weighing up to a ton and seen by the settlers as a calamitous threat to life and property, went first. Yosemite’s last grizzly was shot in 1895, and California’s last in the 1920s, in the foothills just south of the park. Today only the grizzly’s much smaller and more docile cousin, the American Black Bear, is found in Yosemite, and California’s only grizzly is found on the state flag.
The Indians of Yosemite must have been powerful—and restrained—hunters to have coexisted for all those millennia alongside the grizzly. It must surely have felt like a potent harbinger to watch as the bears were hunted to the point of extirpation. The Indians fared better, a little. They adapted in a way the grizzlies could not to the destruction of their homes, giving up hunting and gathering for jobs as hotel maids and cooks and cultural demonstrators, as the new economy of the settlers demanded. Today their descendents live outside of the park, and the only village that exists in Yosemite is a small replica that functions as a museum and is used only a few times a year for traditional gatherings.
All of this change, spurred on at gunpoint, is easily denigrated today, in an era when we understand that extinction is forever and that all people are born with basic rights, but in many ways Yosemite is the place it is because of all that bloody change of the nineteenth century. Imagine our four million visitors a year trying to squeeze into Yosemite Valley alongside a thriving grizzly bear population. Imagine them all cramming into the tribal home of an established people. Laughable. Tragic.
Which is why, perhaps, the covered bridge over the South Fork is so captivating. It was built and then covered in an age of dizzying changes, but remains unchanged. To cross it today feels, I’m certain, almost exactly the way it felt a century ago.
When you step onto that bridge, the world becomes muted. The sound of the South Fork below is muffled by the bridge’s walls, and defused light slants in through the cracks and knotholes in the timber, catching and turning to gold the dust of 150 years’ worth of travel that thickens the air still. Some summers you can make out a raven’s nest in the sturdy beams that support the antique New England pitch of the roof.
I sometimes imagine installing myself in this bridge, the only roof I would ever need over my head. It would be livable enough at first, to be lulled to sleep by the shush shushing of the South Fork just below, to write by the light that seeps in between the cracks in the walls, to cook dinner on a camp stove by lantern, whose flame would shine out through the knotholes and be reflected golden into the night by the water below. And then I imagine myself going slowly mad, driven over the edge by a lifetime spent suspended, between times and solidities, on a structure that was made to be crossed.
And yet, there is a feeling of home to that bridge that I cannot deny. I have walked across it nearly every year of my life. Even now I am still caught off guard sometimes by the feeling of familiarity that washes over me when I step onto it, evidence of the habits that have grown from an entire lifetime of involvement in this place. And herein lies the one thing I have in common with those boys from Vermont: for each of us, the covered bridge’s old dust and even older beams smell like home.
Kelsey Lahr has worked summers as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park since 2008. She holds a BA in Communication Studies from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, where she published several poems in the college’s annual literary magazine, The Phoenix. This fall she will begin a Master’s program in Communication at the University of Utah, where she plans to focus her research on environmental communication and the efficacy of environmental organizations.