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Awooni – (a Yosemite love story)

Rolling over hills spotted with dead trees and inked rocks, you’d never know you’re on your way to a realm of beauty and majesty.

That’s part of why I adore her so. She’s bashful and meek, not flaunting her beauty for the whole world to see—hidden from the busy eye that seeks instant gratification. Only those who seek her find her beauty. And only those who seek her and respect her beauty discover her esoteric magic.

As I roll over these hills layered with yellow grass, black rocks, and mangy trees that resemble burnt skeletons, my heart races in my chest. It knows what it’s about to see. I turn up my folk music, a smile spreads across my face, and a giddy feeling swells within my chest—a common scene for when I’m headed towards freedom, even if it’s only for a weekend.

Then, as if taking a cold drink of water after a hot run, the scene changes. Yellow turns to green and black turns to grey. Bent and frail turn to straight and towering. Thick and heavy turn to light and crisp. The dead turns to living.

I roll down my windows and the sweet air rushes into my lungs exhilarating my excitement to a new level. It’s becoming real.

The rolling hills now turn into winding roads that steadily climb in altitude like a staircase to the heavens. And instead of cruising at a comfortable speed, I now have to slow down considerably to handle each winding turn. As if she is forcing me to take my time and admire her beauty that grows with each passing turn. Up and up I climb as the motor of my 2002 4runner hums like a bear. Like a bear climbing a mountain towards his secret fishing spot—hungry, determined, anxious.

The trees grow thicker and larger as I progress. What was once a small pine is now a towering red-infused ponderosa with an intrinsic beauty that can draw the eyes attention for hours. I try not to lose focus of the road as my eyes wander across the new landscape.

With each passing turn, the swelling in my chest grows—it’s coming.

The climb levels out and slowly turns into a downhill race towards her heart: the valley. Now I really have to pay attention as my car lurches forward and picks up a new sense of purpose. Down the hill I fly, pressing hard on the brakes at every turn trying not to hit a real bear which are found as frequently as deer in a normal park.

As the road levels out again at the base, rivers begin forming on the side of me, joining me in the race to her center like veins pumping blood to her heart. The landscape changes again and her signature beauty begins revealing itself: rocks.

Molten lava that has cooled and solidified through the passing seasons resulting in small crystals that make up granite, quartz monzonite, and quartz monzodiorite—all forms of the plutonic rock that guard her domain. She starts off small, teasing me with her smaller formations that could crush a house. They dot the landscape but quickly begin closing in on the road and forming a wall as if they are escorting me to the royal court.

Then I see it…the tunnel. The great doorway into the world of giants. My eyes grow wider and my heart pumps faster as I unconsciously push down on the petal. My car picks up speed, faster and faster until it finally shoots into the tunnel like a bullet and everything is black. The air grows cold and damp and a feeling of mystery and suspense fill the atmosphere.

Light penetrates the engulfing darkness and I race towards it. Brighter and bigger it grows, higher and higher my excitement climbs, and quicker and quicker my breath becomes until finally…

I burst into light and my eyes widen as the hurry to adjust. Then I see it… the wondrous world of giants.

Time slows and my breath is nearly taken away as I look up and up and up to the summit of each giant, thousands of feet above the valley of the great Awooni. Each monstrous mountain towers above her like a knight valiantly guarding her preciousness.

But these aren’t in fact mountains at all. They’re boulders. One compact, solid stone towering thousands of feet above the ground that only the hand of God could pick up and place in such an artistic manner.

I catch myself in a daze and quickly draw my consciousness out of this extraterrestrial gaze and back onto the road—I’m still mortal and can die. I continue driving deeper into her valley in a wide-eyed daze, barely able to stay on the road. Luckily my attention draws back to the road as my vantage point of the valley disappears as I enter back into the oasis of the ponderosas.

My path continues along the gushing river that swells around boulders and crosses under fallen pines and a new sense of life fills the air. As if all my worries, doubts, and ambitions dissipate and wonder, curiosity and peace fill their places. I’m no longer an entrepreneur, marketer, or citizen of the US. I’m just an admirer of the great creation that surrounds me. I’m free.

As I make a turn out of the thickness of the pines and into a wide meadow, I see him. The chief, To-to-kon oo-lah,—the King. Face to face we stand like David and Goliath. My eyes wander from his base up his grandeur all the way to his peak 3,000 ft above the valley floor. Feared and respected by all creatures of the land, from the birds who dance around his summit to the ones who dare and defy gravity by ascending his face in a pact of wondrous triumph or merciless death.

Immediately my eyes begin scanning the face looking for some adventurous souls. About 2,000 feet up I spot two little specs. Ants on a massive boulder. My heart flutters and my palms get sweaty… some day… some day.

My eyes now wander in search for her… the Mother, Tis-sa-ack—The Queen. About four miles east I find her.

A colossal boulder big enough to crush an entire village towering over the valley like a protective mother guarding her child. But it’s not just any round boulder. Half of it is missing—well, that’s how it would appear. As if God took a giant knife and cut it down the middle like a hard boiled egg and what’s left is a sheer face rising 4,730 ft above the valley floor—making it both a dream and a crucible for any serious climber. To say it’s intimidating would do it an injustice. It’s intimidating, exhilarating, majestic, artistic, eerie and humbling all in one. When standing on her summit looking down her spine-chilling face to the valley thousands of feet below, one experiences a feeling that can only be described as ‘out of body’. As if you lose all sense of who you are and where you are. Staring death right in the face and accepting the crushing weight of fear instead of running from it. Some say that’s where you really find yourself. Some say you’re crazy.

I pull my car into my campground and jump out like an anxious kid who just arrived at his favorite toy store. So much to see, so much to explore—so little time! I turn on my heel and spin around looking at the magical world I’ve come into. I can only imagine the enchantment and adventure John Muir felt when he stumbled upon it—no wonder he dedicated his life to writing about her beauties. When one feels the magic of a place like this, you just wish you could capture a fraction of its true essence and share it with others. But I guess that’s what makes it truly beautiful—you can’t. It’s not something you can experience from your couch, from your phone, or even from a piece of writing. It’s a hidden treasure and a secret magic uncovered through adventure. A piece of heaven itself if seen through unfiltered eyes.