A Half-Dome Parable
To climb a mountain is not only to ascend but to transcend. Heart, lungs, antigravity muscle mass, and mind - all are lifted to a higher plane. I have always found it to be so, and our hike to Half Dome was no exception. It is a beautiful trip up from the Yosemite Valley floor, following the Merced River past three spectacular falls, nearly one vertical mile up (and down!), and more than 16 ground miles round trip in all. The last thousand feet are quite stiff, with a long series of foot-high rock steps followed by a steel cable ladder ascent along the smooth backside hump of the granite dome. We were accompanied by Dr. Abel and his son Erik, friends of our friends who had organized a large group of some 60 campers at North Pines Campground. Leaving the Happy Isles Nature Center in the early hours of July 4th, we had no thought that only four days later a rockslide would destroy that building and cover our campsite with inches of fine powdered rock dust.
Doctor Abel is a big, well-built, athletic man with curly reddish hair and a slight accent which I couldn't place, perhaps German but not quite. He had been to the top of Half Dome several times and had a long habit of leaving the Bay Area for a day or two to go to the mountains and hike - not for fishing nor hunting, he explained, just to re-charge his physical and spiritual batteries. His son Erik was 10 years old and an outstanding student in a gifted children's program, full of bright banter, activity and enthusiasm. Dr. Abel had meticulously planned the hike so that he might introduce his child to the mountain world he so loved, culminating with an ascent to the great granite dome. I wistfully recalled similar first-time big hikes with my own children; they recall these simple outings with great fondness, and some pride. Now, because the mountains are part of their lives, they take me with them; now I gratefully allow them to carry the heavier packs.
Not the least of the beauty of such a hike is the useless but priceless conversation between child and parent or between friends. Among the many topics of idle conversation, the subject of government came up and I ventured the thought that, in a structured society, only the government can, and does, legally break the laws applied to its citizens. Dr. Abel expanded with a corollary example: a citizen of California can generally sue anyone excepting the State of California. That is illegal. Erik asked the question, "If that is so, then in wartime, would it be better to fight for one's own government or for the enemy?" Perhaps the enemy's government would abuse one less than his own? A shocking question, yet the doctor's response was,
"It depends on what country and what war. If one feels he/she is a citizen of God or of time/space/earth, maybe one's duty is just to survive as best possible."
I suggested that if one were Polish in WWII it might be necessary to work with the Russians or the Germans or with both just to survive, but added that my thoughts were pure conjecture because I have no personal knowledge of any such situation. But the Dr's father had; he was a Polish Jew during WWII. As a skilled mechanic, after the Soviet-German division of Poland, he was conscripted by the Russians to work on military motorized equipment. Then Hitler took the "Soviet half" of Poland, and 100,000 Jews were rounded up, forced to dig a large trench, and shot. Dr. Abel's father was one of only ten who feigned death and escaped in the following darkness. He fled to Russia, was arrested and sent to Siberia, where he worked until the end of the war when he was allowed to emigrate to the Middle East. He fought there, and later married the widow of another Polish Jew, who was, ironically, one of only ten killed in a battle near Jaifa. Considering the mathematical odds against any gamete becoming a human, Erik's birth was more mathematically impossible than most. Dr. Abel, raised and educated in Israel, later emigrated to the US.
From the outset we had made frequent rest stops, at Erik's insistence. As the morning grew shorter, our pace slowed even more, and it became apparent that we would not meet the time requirements set out by Dr. Abel. By 10:30, Dr. Abel also was having some difficulty keeping up a satisfactory pace, so that he himself required several rest stops each hour. A great-grandmother, accompanied by a group of her descendants, passed us. We met (ex governor) Jerry Brown near a marvelous air conditioned outhouse below Nevada Falls. (A solar collector operates an underground fan which pulls air down the hole, presumably venting the fumes towards Los Angeles. Sitting there with the clean fresh breeze whistling by, it's nice to know our taxes are sometimes used for great purposes. The energy- and ecology-correct solar privy was solidly built; I could picture one or two in those other-world size outdoor Sacramento parking lots (Arden or Sunrise). Finally the doctor suggested that he and Erik go at their own pace and the rest of us go on ahead, a recommendation we gladly accepted. Later, after pushing on quickly to reach the base of the last abrupt thousand-foot ascent, we rested and had a sandwich.
By this time some people were returning from the dome, or so it seemed, and we questioned them about the trail ahead. An impressive proportion of early returnees were father-and-son pairs who had not made the last part of the climb; usually this is because the cable portion is too frightening for the youngster or because the steep steps have been too demanding. Invariably, when father and son passed us on the way down there was an air of irritation and defeat, so they trudged down in a dejected silence, after responding to our greeting and questions with a hang-dog air. Redoubling our pace, we pushed on; at last, as if we had overcome a great obstacle, we passed the great grandmother and reached the top of Half Dome by noon..
Late in the day, back at Happy Isles Nature Center, we found Erik and his father waiting for us. Both seemed energized, animated, and exhilarated. Dr. Abel had completely recovered from his earlier exhaustion, and Erik told us of their day's adventures in luxury of detail. I have never climbed a mountain without perceiving some new and transcendent understanding of life. On that day, on that mountain, beside the Merced River, on the trail to Half Dome, my strongest and fondest memory is of that father and son, who, it seemed to me, offered us a living parable about family values.