By Valerie Lemke
As another milestone birthday started to loom around the corner, I began to have the realization that I was feeling somewhat detached to myself and my direction in life. I decided that this would be my year to explore. There were many things I hadn’t done in life both personally and career wise. I spent a lot of time setting limits on what I felt I should or shouldn’t do. Was this midlife crisis setting in?
I’m a writer and a photographer by profession and by nature. But, I had put this on the back burner and decided to get a “real job” instead. That so-called “real job” wasn’t actually real for me, and I started to lose myself in the process.
I not only needed a break to reshape my plan, but I needed perspective. I had been on far too many trips over my lifetime that were over-planned and followed a strict agenda with a set schedule. But, what if there was no plan? It was summer and I had a few days off, so why not? There is something so powerful in letting go of the reins.
I headed out the following week from Santa Cruz, CA to Yosemite National Park, a place I’d been to many times before. Unlike the other times, I was leaving the details up to chance. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had a place to sleep for two nights in a comfortable yurt at a local campground outside of the park.
My only real concrete plan was to spend a day making my way slowly over Tioga Pass, a part of Highway 120 that takes you through the Yosemite backcountry and over the eastern slopes of the Sierra Mountains to a piece of California’s high desert. It didn’t matter how far I went or where I ended up, there was no set end destination point other than where I started. The destination was the journey itself.
I left the yurt that hot morning dressed in summer clothes. I brought a few extra jackets and a change of clothes just in case. Lunch and snack supplies were packed in the back, and I was ready for whatever was in store.
A fact about Yosemite: You must always be prepared for the weather. Temperatures could drop 40 degrees in a matter of minutes, especially with altitude changes. It also isn’t unusual for a storm to make a sudden appearance. This day was no exception to that rule.
I stopped the car at Olmstead point along Tioga Pass to take some side view photos of Half Dome, which is not the usual view and is a site not to be missed. I stood there for a while on a slab of granite overlooking the view and began to notice that the sky had changed drastically from the time I left had the yurt not more than half an hour before.
Within minutes, lightning bolts began touching down on the rocky slopes, and the rumbling of distant thunder turned to loud claps overhead. The storm moved in quickly as the torrential rain began to pummel my body, and I scrambled quickly back to the car. The downpour had soaked through my clothes in a matter of about two seconds, and I was chilled to the bone.
The rain hammered down on the car as I continued my drive. Traffic had slowed to an understandable crawl. A river of mud and rocks began streaming down the road in front of me and under the cars ahead. Pulling over was not an option, as the road had rushing streams on both sides. There was no doubt about it; I was caught in a flash flood.
Several cars began to slide around and they had to pull over. My little SUV kicked into four-wheel drive as I moved ahead cautiously with the other cars that were now crawling through the storm. Like me, the other drivers were probably hoping to find a safe place to pull off and wait out the storm.
Though it was a bit scary, I must admit, it was also more than a bit thrilling. What can I say? I wanted adventure, so adventure is what I got.
I watched the grassy meadows next to the road fill up with dozens of flowing streams and full ponds that had surely not been there only a few minutes before. As I drove along, the rain started to ease up a bit and I saw a parking lot ahead. Pulling into the lot was a relief, and within a few minutes, the rain had almost stopped completely. I got out of the car to make myself a sandwich and take a much-needed break from the storm. I was cold, and my clothes were still soaked through. The temperature had dropped into the upper 40s. As I looked through the back of the car, I realized my change of clothes never made it into my bag. It was going to be a cold and soggy afternoon. Luckily, I had brought the extra jackets.
The flash floods and thunderstorms were behind me now, and I would soon be approaching the Tioga Pass park entrance that led out of the park. Before I reached the gate, the sun started to break out over Dana Meadows, a very picturesque piece of the park that boasted lush meadows and rocky peaks along the high elevation at the alpine line. The view turned from a rainy and gray blur to a scene of breathtaking beauty. Right in front of my eyes the view opened up before me, and I saw lush green velvety meadows that spanned out to the foothills of Mammoth Peak and Mt. Dana. It was as if I had no choice at all. I had to pull over then and there.
As I scoped out the countryside from my car, the meadow revealed a hidden treasure in the landscape. I noticed a very small, circular pool in the middle of the field. I felt the urge. I had to walk out to it. The scene was so inviting that I yearned to be standing on the edge of that tiny lake, soaking it all in.
It truly looked like a painting, untouchable and I felt that I could only look at this from afar. This made me wonder…how many times had I seen a view like this and not taken the opportunity to explore it, to be part of it?
I realized something else at this point. It was completely and totally quiet. There was not one other car on the road, parked or moving. There was not another human to be seen. Could I really be there all alone? It dawned on me that the road had probably been closed behind me as well as at the gate in front of me, not allowing visitors into the park due to the hazardous road conditions. I was alone in one little section of Yosemite National Park for a moment in time.
I got out of the car and walked to the peaceful meadow. Each step on the grassy meadow was like I was walking in a place never touched by humankind. The ground was covered in many different kinds of flora and fauna, grasses and wildflowers sprouting after the thaws that didn’t happen up here until early summer.
Even though my clothes were soaking wet and the temperature was still in the upper 40s, I was too excited to be cold. Today, Mother Nature was entirely showing off all she had to offer and was beckoning me to explore. My focus was on putting myself into this beautiful scene and going to that pool and experiencing what it felt like to be standing there.
I stopped to look around at the panoramic view all around me. I felt an odd sensation inside of me that was beyond compare. I walked straight out to that little pool in the meadow and stood in front of it. The feeling was surreal, yet I’d never felt so present in my entire life.
Glancing back at the car, I thought about how I had been sitting there wishing I could just walk out to that pool and experience it and how I felt like something was holding me back. Then it hit me like a lighting bolt. This was actually how I had been living my life lately. I had taken a window seat. But, the reality was that nothing was stopping me but myself. At this moment, I felt like I actually stepped into the picture. It was not only a mind shift… it was an epic shift.
As I drove back to the yurt, the sun began to set where the clouds had cleared, and all the colors of the terrain became vivid, exposing a scene that was purely magical.
Was this midlife crisis? No. Nothing about it was a crisis. Whoever called it a crisis had it all wrong. It was an awakening. On that day, I not only stepped into the picture, but I also stepped back into my own life.