El Capitan is painted in hues of pink, magenta and red during an October sunset… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
Everybody has a special place where time stands still and serendipity rules. Mine is a giant granite cathedral decorated with some of the tallest waterfalls in the world. Beneath the falls lies a magical valley decorated by fields of flowing grasses and wildflowers. The air is washed clean by pine trees and aromatic cedars. A mighty river flows through it, and a magical range of light illuminates all of its features. I'm talking about Yosemite National Park.
My love of and appreciation for the beauty of Yosemite began when I was very young. My father would work for days preparing the family car (a 1950-something Pontiac) for the annual summer trips to the park. With anticipation and excitement building, several suitcases would be roped-down to the roof of the car. A canvas water bag was slung over the front chrome bumper and radiator grill; coloring books and fresh crayons were stocked inside the car; sandwiches were packed until we finally left the smoggy confines of Whittier.
With no air conditioning or seat belts, the drive through Bakersfield and Fresno could be unbearably hot and torturous. Add to that equation that my sisters were prone to getting car sick at any time -- and often did. My parents loved to stop at all of those little roadside fruit and vegetable stands along the way, and I used to wonder whether we would ever make it to the park.
But at some point we did. From the backseat, the first time I saw the grand vista of Yosemite Valley, framed perfectly by the walls and ceiling of the Wawona Tunnel, I became a disciple for life. My dad's usual frown would turn to a smile; my mother, who taught me to appreciate art and beauty, would utter some sigh of relief; and the sisters had stopped barfing and seemed fine.
My vacation memories spent in Yosemite remain vivid: swimming in the ice-cold Merced River, hiking the Mist Trail around the waterfalls and rallying around the campfire during the nightly ranger talks. Where else could an asthmatic, dyslexic kid from the smoggy suburbs of L.A. lie down in a meadow to study wildflowers and contemplate the movements of bees and dragonflies? I had a place that seemed as if it was a million miles away from my bad math grades. Deer would wander past my canvas tent in Curry Village by day, and bears would forage by night. Indigo night skies were covered with a blanket of bright stars, and it seemed like every constellation, planet and celestial body was hovering overhead and close enough to touch.
But there's one memory that will forever remain my favorite. After the ranger talk would wind down in the evening, everyone would turn toward a cliff high above the valley floor. Forming megaphones with their hands cupped around their mouths, a string of men would begin to yell, "Fire fall! Fire fall! Fire fall!" Moments later a giant campfire that had been stoked for hours would be pushed over the side of Glacier Point, forming a perfect red, fiery cascade of embers that would leave the crowd in awe. How could this place get any better?
Through the years, my family returned to Yosemite less and less, but I would return to establish a new tradition with my own family. Over the past 33 years, my wife, sons and I have hiked, photographed and adventured through Yosemite. We have gathered with friends and family during all of the four seasons to celebrate birthdays, Christmas, even the wedding of a dear friend.
As a young photographer starting out in the newspaper business, I studied the works of the park's master photographer, Ansel Adams. I began photographing every rock, twig and pond I could find; Yosemite became my classroom and my obsession -- and it still is.
Understanding the light
Morning light changes from minute to minute and varies from season to season. The first rays of light start to appear behind Half Dome and gradually illuminate the granite features of the valley. It gracefully dances off the waters of Yosemite Falls, then the upper reaches of El Capitan begin to glow and shimmer. Times vary by season, but during the first hour of sun hitting the mist of Yosemite and Vernal falls, a rainbow usually encircles the base. The same effect can be seen in the later parts of the day about an hour before sunset at Bridalveil and Vernal falls, with rainbows shimmering off the mist.
Morning also is a great time to view wildlife. The low sunlight and cooler temperatures draw out grazing deer and a few of the wandering coyotes that eye them. Morning light filters gently through the trees and creates a dazzling image when it shines through the ground fog and low clouds that so frequently cover the meadows in the valley. The morning sun colors vary from warm yellow to bright orange and change, depending on things like cloud cover and the other conditions that are unique to Yosemite.