A Summer to Remember:
“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” – Giuseppe Verdi
You usually don’t have to look very far down any “Top 10 Travel Destinations in the World” list to see that Italy often ranks pretty high up. From the birthplace of the Renaissance to Italy’s love of food, music, and art, there’s a reason why so many people (especially Verdi) love this Mediterranean country. But how good is Italy, really? For Abby and I, being classical musicians, people that appreciate fine cuisine, and the offspring of two artist mothers, visiting Italy has always been a dream destination that we figured we’d get to later in life. However, while perusing vacation packages earlier this year, we came across a great deal that allowed us to travel to Italy, see some amazing places, and still not break the bank. We hoped that we could -if only to barely whet our appetites- see for ourselves just how incredible Italy is, once and for all.
All Photographs by James Cassell
| DAY 1-3
Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast
We began our journey at an ungodly hour of the morning, and despite smooth flights, by the time we arrived at the Sacramento airport at around 1 PM PT, we were competely exhausted. There was no rest for the weary, as we shuttled off to get our rental car, and embark on a four-hour drive to our home for the next four evenings. The drive was tedious, and by the time we made it onto the road that we knew would wind up at the Park (about two and a half hours into the drive), we were hungry, and cranky, and second guessing our decision to spend our rare vacation time in such a manner. We soldiered on, and as we continued, the view began to become less side-of-highway and more “is this Heaven?” until we, at last, made it to the park entrance.
“The sheer exhaustion of the day did not dampen the incredible surroundings one bit.”
I, being the more impatient one in the relationship, was eager to drive straight to our lodging and set up camp- we had a few days to explore, and I don’t think I’ve ever wanted a glass of wine more in my life. Elan, in typical fashion, regularly suggested stopping to take photos. I won. We made it to Half Dome Village, a community composed of hundreds of white canvas tents with shared resources like bathrooms, showers, and a restaurant nestled directly underneath Half Dome itself. Everywhere we looked, we thought it was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen (well, with the exception of the shared restrooms, which all had “Caution: Plague” warning signs on the doors). We tossed our stuff down, and walked to the pizza restaurant in the middle of the grounds. You have not lived until you’ve eaten pizza while listening to roaring waterfalls and staring at some brazen deer wandering just in front of you. The sheer exhaustion of the day did not dampen the incredible surroundings one bit. We already knew the months of planning were worth it, and we hadn’t yet even stepped foot on a trail.
| DAY 4
The first night in a new place, I never sleep well. The sounds and smells and unfamiliar bed makes for a restless evening. Toss in a three hour time change, and that meant we were awake well before sunrise. Since the cafe that serves coffee didn’t open until 6 AM, and our watches told us it wasn’t yet 4, we decided to toss some clothes on and head over to the famous Tunnel View to watch the sunrise. We knew from pouring over YouTube videos and blogs in advance of our trip that there wasn’t one perfect place to watch a sunrise in Yosemite (it’s more of a sunset kinda place), but we were awake, and we (okay, I) hate crowds, so we thought – why not?
When we arrived, it was pretty much pitch dark, except for the ocassional glimmer of headlamps on what would turn out to be El Capitan once the sun came up enough to see. It was us, and a camper van of likely #vanlife bloggers. The only sound was the rush of the distant waterfalls. It was peaceful, and cold, and, once the sun began to rise – breathtakingly beautiful. All of the peaks that make Yosemite Valley such a memorable place were lit with a pink glow.
When the sunrise was sufficiently ended, and Elan had taken all of the photographs he wanted (actually, probably not, I’m sure if I wasn’t there telling him I was cold and hungry, we would have stayed there for hours), we piled back in the rental car and made our way back towards Half Dome Village for breakfast and the beginning of our hiking adventures. Since it was now light, the views we hadn’t been able to see on the drive to Tunnel View were now making themselves known, and we stopped alongside the Merced River (which was officially in flood stage due to extreme amounts of snow over the winter that were just now beginning to thaw) for Elan to try and capture the rush, and to make me hug a tree (because that is what life is like being married to a photographer). We eventually made it back to the Village to inhale some coffee and breakfast, and gear up for our very first hike.
“Do not hike Half Dome,” he warned, “you will die.”
When we had arrived at the Village, we asked a park ranger for a suggestion for a relatively easy day hike we could take on our first day, since we intended on taking it a little slower on Day 1 in preparation for a more intense hike the following day.
“Do not hike Half Dome,” he warned, “you will die.”
Okay, well, that seemed reasonable. The cables weren’t up, and while we’ve both hiked before, ascending a cable-less monolith like Half Dome was decidedly not on our agenda. He then proceeded to suggest we take the path leading from the campground to Happly Isles, which, if we felt good, would then connect to the Mist Trail, which would take us to Vernal Fall footbridge. If we continued to feel fine, we could continue up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls, and then, if desired, up to Nevada Falls, and return down the John Muir Trail. We both had read enough about the trails to know that this was one of the most popular trails in the entire Park (and, as I’ve mentioned before – I hate crowds), but since we got such an early start (well before 7 AM), we began our journey. Of course we got lost almost immediately trying to find the initial path out of the campground, but once that was resolved, we were well on our way.
We made it to Happy Isles (probably less than a mile hike), and checked out the scenery. Big trees? Check. Waterfall views? Check. Rushing river? Check. We kept going. We were almost alone on the hike, which as far as we could tell is pretty unprecedented for the Mist Trail–especially the Mist Trail in peak Waterfall season. We hiked with our jaws wide open. Surely, nothing could
be more stunning than everything we were seeing from the trail. Snow-capped mountains, rivers, waterfalls, rainbows- it was like Nature was showing off, and it was all for us, the lone hikers on the most popular trail in Yosemite.
We made it to the Vernal Fall footbridge, with the Merced roaring underneath. There were warning signs on both sides cautioning against attempting to swim or even wade in the water. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would consider such a thing, but was reminded that the river is usually not as roaring and obviously dangerous as it was during our visit. I didn’t even trust the (obviously stable) footbridge to hold up under the rushing water, and almost ran across it to the safety of the other side. Elan, naturally, stayed on it to take pictures. I couldn’t look, positive that if I did, he’d get swept right off and I’d be leaving the Park a river widow.
Despite the fact that the sun was now beginning to heat up, we figured we might as well continue up to the top of Vernal Fall. It seemed too providential that so few other people were on the trail, and we both had plenty of energy in our legs after a day spent mostly on planes and in cars. And so began the single scariest part of the entire trip – the hike up the completely drenched Mist Trail to Vernal Fall.
“The titular Mist from the Falls soaks you to the bone as you climb”
I should probably tell you now that I am petrified of heights. Climbing up hundreds of slippery, rock steps hovering over a completely deranged river was so terrifying to me that it felt like I would probably throw up if I opened my mouth. Technically, it’s not a challenging hike. It’s steps. They’re slippery, yes, but if you watch your step and take it slow, it’s really not a problem. The titular Mist from the Falls soaks you to the bone as you climb, but everybody has climbed stairs before. It should have been easy, and, physically, it was. Mentally- I was shaken. By the time we got to the top of the fall, I could feel my heart beating in my throat, and welcomed the brief respite from the drenching mist and treacherous steps. Since our return, at least one person has fallen off of those steps and lost their life to the river. I’m glad I wasn’t aware of that while we were climbing.
I was so relieved to survive that climb, that we decided to continue up to Nevada Falls. This portion of the hike was much less terrifying, even if it was a little more exhausting. The trail was mostly dry and almost desert-like (we saw so many lizards!), and when we reached the top, we were greeted by magnificent views of the Valley and beyond. I was also greeted by a bee, who seemed to latch on to my brightly-colored shirt, and chased me around as Elan laughed at me.
“A chain of horses and Teddy Roosevelt would fall off of a mountain”
After taking in the sights, we began our descent, this time down the John Muir Trail. Very quickly, we realized that this would be a bit of a damp journey, as well. As we slogged through a stream before the true descent began, a German hiker making his way up the other way looked at us with a smile and said “Good luck!” We thought he meant the next little stream crossing, which was just behind him. We soon learned that he, in fact, meant a brief ledge along the trail where a straight-up full waterfall was cascading directly on top of hikers, pooling in a foot-deep of water on the trail, before pouring off of the side and down into the void below.
We had no choice. We covered ourselves with our raincoats as best as we were able, and stepped cautiously into the waterfall. The water, as one would expect from snow melt, was lose-your-breath freezing, and the force was strong. Elan made it through with little issues, but I had a bit more of a struggle- possibly because I’m more cautious (ie terrified) and possibly because I’m just smaller. Still, we made it through, only to be immediately met by what had to have been Teddy Roosevelt’s twin heading up the trail on a packhorse pulling SEVERAL OTHER packhorses behind him.
“Get against the wall!” he instructed, and we did, because if we didn’t either we, or a chain of horses and Teddy Roosevelt would fall off of a mountain. As we plastered ourselves against the rock wall, this giant chain of horses went along and under the waterfall like it was just a regular Tuesday. And maybe for them it was. I’m mostly surprised I didn’t pee my pants.
The rest of the descent was easy. We got the scary parts done with right off the bat, and simply walking down the mountain seemed like a breeze after that. When we made it to the part where the Muir connects with the Mist (at the Vernal footbridge), throngs and throngs of people were just beginning their ascents. We felt smug. “You have no idea what you’re in for,” and also relieved, because the temperature was now well into the 80s. When we returned to Half Dome Village, it was lunch time. We had done the entire hike in less than five hours, about ten miles. Our “easy hike” day had been a bit more exciting and strenuous than anticipated, but we still had a whole half of a day left to explore. And by “explore,” I mostly mean walk around the immediately surrounding area, and then drink beer. It was, in fact, the perfect day.
| DAY 5
Leaving Sorrento, Visiting Pompeii, & traveling to Rome
Our second morning waking up in Yosemite, we successfully managed to sleep until a little bit closer to a regular time. We were still first in line when the coffee shop opened at 6, but this time, we were already dressed and ready for our “hard” day of hiking. When we were originally planning out our days, Elan wanted to do the Snow Creek trail more than anything- mostly because he had read it was the most challenging, and partly because the guy who sold him his hiking shoes at EMS told him it was his favorite. When we got to Yosemite, however, it was snowier than anticipated for May, and many of the trails were either closed or required crampons or snowshoes to successfully complete, and Snow Creek was one of them. For our “hard” day, we decided to do the one that was most often compared with Snow Creek – the hike along Yosemite Upper Falls to Yosemite Point.
“I lost track of the amount of times we said “Isn’t this incredible?””
We took the free Valley Loop shuttle bus to the trail entrance, sharing it with an older man who came to Yosemite regularly to do solo hikes, and a young man who toted around his bouldering mat (I had no idea what bouldering was until this bus ride, and I’m still not sure I really understand, if I’m being honest). Our bus driver spent the drive complaining about how many people come to the Park, and how bad traffic gets in the summer. We had to agree, even though we were basically the people she was complaining about.
Much like our fairly solitary experience hiking the popular Mist Trail the previous day, our early start meant that we were among only a handful of eager hikers taking on the trail at that time. Again, we got to marvel at how this supposedly crowded Yosemite had been so peaceful for us. We each had our 32 oz Nalgene bottles (LL Bean branded because we’re from New England, of course), and backpacks filled with jerky, bread, and almond butter to make for a picnic at the top. The first bit of the trail was fully in the woods. Damp, loose rocks abounded, making it a little tricky not to stumble, but keeping the trail cool (a relief, since it was certainly a much steeper ascent than the previous day). As the trek continued, we made it out of the woods (and yes, you best believe we sang Taylor Swift’s chorus “Are we out of the woods yet?” about ten billion times), and into a more arid, lizard-prone area (I was almost positive I’d see a rattlesnake, but fortunately, lizards and birds were about as exciting as it got).
Occasionally, the heat would be broken by the mist from Yosemite Falls in the distance. Every switchback (and there were many, many switchbacks) provided an opportunity to stare directly at the majestic falls, and I lost track of the amount of times we said “Isn’t this incredible?” It was probably ten thousand.
Our occasional companion on the trail was the same older gentleman from the bus. While we flew past him in the ascent, we were probably a little more astonished by the photo opportunities and the views, and his even pace meant he caught up to us each time we stopped, even occasionally passing us. It was hard not to be impressed (and just a bit embarrassed that we were being surpassed by someone older than our combined age).
It was hot, and it was dry- particularly after being used to Massachusetts spring (which this year was particularly wet and cool). When we reached the top of Yosemite Falls (but not the Point), there were small patches of snow, which we took full advantage of- sticking in our hats, resting our water bottles in them (with astonishingly little amounts of water left), and full on face planting into.
The river feeding the falls was, of course, wild. Again a footbridge. Again, I rushed across in fear as Elan took pictures. Two men who had made the climb ahead of us were sitting down by the river, their feet dipping in. I no longer wondered what kind of idiots would dare to touch the clearly hostile water, because I was looking right at them.
The path from the top of the Falls to Yosemite Point was covered in snow—at times, feet-deep. Fortunately, the heat and melt had packed it down, making it slippery, but not impossible to traverse without snowshoes. It was probably one of the most fun moments on the trail- trying to find footprints to follow to lead to the top, and trampling around in snow while simultaneously sweating from the heat. This portion of the trail was not along any sheer drop offs, so there was no fear that a fall would lead to something catastrophic. We made a few wrong turns, but eventually made it to the peak.
The top of Yosemite Point, one of the most visited peaks among hikers, only had one other couple, and one group of young men who had set up a hammock looking over the edge. The 360 degree view was the most spectacular one so far. It was so outrageously beautiful that it didn’t look like it could be real. It wasn’t even eleven in the morning, but after a few carefully-taken photos along the edge (which weren’t even vaguely close to the edge because I am so afraid of falling off), we sat down to eat our piecemeal lunch.
Not long after, the older gentleman from the bus made his way up. We congratulated him, and he said “I would have been here sooner, but I got lost in the snow.” Again we are humbled. He stretched himself out under one of the few trees and took a nap. Most people I know his age also take naps, but generally speaking, they are not at thousands of feet elevation.
While we were there, a young man in regular, non-hiking clothes ascended. He had a selfie stick and leaned just about as far as humanly possible over the one (very tenuous) guardrail to take a photo. My hands started sweating and I couldn’t look at him. I enjoy my ascents best when I know I will stay alive.
Almost to Yosemite Point
We finished our 10 AM lunch, and began our descent. There is no other way down than the same way we came up, so we prepared ourselves for sore knees and intense heat, and went forth. We ran out of water about ¼ of the way down, a pretty amateur move (especially for me, since I drink about five Nalgene bottles worth of water a day just sitting at my desk at work). As we descended, we tried not to think about our parched mouths (a monumental task, given how we could hear and/or see waterfalls every moment along the way). We passed hiker after hiker after hiker who were just beginning the ascent. Many of them asked us, breathlessly, how far they had to go until the top. Some of them turned around when we told them. We were, once again, grateful for our early start.
When we finally made it to the bottom, knees throbbing, and tongues completely dry, we wandered over to a nearby lodge to see if we could find a place to refill our water bottles. We were pointed to a lodge dining hall, and, as it was just around lunch time for normal people, we pushed our way through the noisy crowds (mostly children and older people) directly to the water fountain, and found sweet, sweet relief. I didn’t even care that a child spilled lemonade on me as I walked through. That water tasted like heaven.
When we boarded the shuttle bus back to the Village, a group of older women from Texas were having a ride to see the sights. They asked us where we had been, and when we told them, they thought we were the most accomplished people on planet earth. Imagine what they would have done if that solo older gentleman had also boarded (he would have been eaten alive)?
We made it back to the Village by 2 PM. We showered for the first time since our departure a couple days earlier (the showers, by the way, were probably more disgusting than a high school wrestling team’s locker room showers), and then returned to our new routine of early afternoon beers sitting on the central common lodge’s porch. We ate our dinner, walked around a bit, and went to bed.
DAY 4 |
Our third and final full day in the park, we knew we wanted to give our legs a bit of a rest after hiking well over 20 miles in the previous two days, but we still wanted to see all of the more tourist-y spots in the Valley. That’s where bikes came in! There was a bike rental stand inside Half Dome Village, where it cost us about $50 to rent two cruisers for the full day. Elan is a serious cyclist, and regularly races and rides and rushes about going 20+ mph on the windy roads of Massachusetts. I have an old cruiser that’s sitting in the garage that I haven’t ridden in three years. Fortunately, Elan was kind enough to let me keep up (mostly), and we took to the roads and bike trails.
We rode to Mirror Lake, dismounted, and walked around. It looked like a lake! Very pretty, crowded, and not quite as mirror-y as advertised (the river feeding it was flood stage, as mentioned, so it was a bit more churned up than usual). We rode all along the bike trails throughout the Valley, many of which were actually under water from the overflowing Merced, and caused us to get a little creative with our routes.
We explored the small museum honoring the indigenous Yosemite Valley dwellers, and picked out a few postcards to mail from the truly adorable post office. We finally came upon a charming red chapel in the middle of the Valley, staring at Yosemite Falls. We parked our bikes, found a bench, and ate our (now familiar) lunch of almond butter on bread and some chicken jerky. The meals didn’t matter when the views were straight out of a dream.
Our final “park the bike” moment came when we decided to visit Lower Yosemite Falls. This was our first taste of the true Yosemite crowds. Since the trail to the Lower Falls footbridge is short, and either paved and/or wooden-covered, it is perfect for people who have small children in strollers, or who have other sorts of mobility issues. It is also short enough for busses to drop people off, wait, and let them board right back- ie for the day tourists.
We’ve established by now that I don’t like crowds, so by the time we made it to the bridge where Lower falls are viewed, I was about ready to straight-up run off the path and into the woods. Elan took a photo from the bridge while I stood just off to the side, and we made the mutual decision to high tail it back to our bikes and freedom from the mayhem.
That was when it happened. A group of about a dozen Asian tourists, not speaking English, were walking at an almost glacial pace in front of us. They were of mixed age, and I believe were trying to accommodate the older folks in their pack. When they didn’t respond to a simple “excuse me,” (language barrier, I’m sure, it wasn’t intentionally rude), we thought “Okay, they’ll have to eventually move to one side because they realize other people are around them, or because they want to look at something.” Sure enough, they did leave a small opening just wide enough to pass through after a few moments, and we seized the opportunity. We began to pass through, when they did what can only be described as the sort of thing you normally watch under a microscope in biology class, and they returned to their taking-up-the-whole-width-of-the-trail shape while we were in their midst, assimilating us into their group. We looked at each other, “Well, I guess we’re one of them now.”
“It was a day tinged with sadness, since we knew we were leaving in the morning.”
Eventually, someone with a stroller came along the other direction and forced the group to dissipate just enough for us to break free and practically sprint the way back to our bikes. We spent the rest of the afternoon puttering around the bikes, breaking free occasionally to check out the sights or watch a snake slither across the road, or simply marvel at where we were. It was a day tinged with sadness, since we knew we were leaving in the morning.
We took our dinners out to a meadow that night. We ate while watching deer graze, and staring up at the mountains. We finished the evening at the small bar in the Village, watching two Park employees flirt with each other while drinking inexpensive margaritas. We went to bed, this time in a new tent, since when we booked, there was no single tent available for all four nights, causing us to split our reservation. This time, we had twin beds. Honestly, it was kind of amazing and I get why it worked for Ricky and Lucy Ricardo.
DAY 5 |
We woke up early, to check out, since we had a seven-hour drive to our next destination. It was almost heart breaking to leave it all behind. We stopped at Tunnel View one last time on our way out, and Elan took his favorite picture from the entire trip.
Yosemite cannot be described in words, and it cannot be captured adequately in pictures (although if anyone could, it would be Elan). Whenever I think of God now, I imagine Yosemite. It wore us out and renewed our spirits simultaneously. We’ll be back.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike” – John Muir