Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

Along Asphalt Trails (the rest of the story)

My essay, entitled “Along Asphalt Trails,” appears in the Fall 2008 issue of National Parks magazine, published by the National Parks Conservation Association. My piece describes and reflects upon a few of my experiences with people and animals at Yosemite National Park and at Grand Canyon National Park. You can read the published essay online here.

There is a bit more to the story. The editor of National Parks magazine declined to publish one section of my essay, because of concern that it would encourage Park visitors to ignore posted warning signs! So I’m posting that section below. Enjoy.

Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, Yosemite National Park

Before we even see it, we can hear fresh water crashing, thousands of gallons at a time, down skyscrapers of rock. It’s an intense, hissing sound, yet also inviting, like a chaotic and joyous village song. We’re making our way steadily toward it, up a gently sloping asphalt trail. Other people pass us, going both directions. Most smile and nod or say hello.

As we reach a certain elevation, we see the falls — a lacy white deluge, carving a huge notch in the mountaintop, hurtling downward, thundering against granite. We’ve arrived at a wide, flat area with a wood-fence railing facing the falls. It’s an official viewpoint, so designated by the National Park Service. This spot provides a vista both beautiful and grand, and strangely old-fashioned, with the quality of a Bierstadt painting.

But other hikers are still passing us by, headed for even sweeter views. They trudge right by the carved sign that has stopped us — a red circle and bar canceling out the universal wheelchair access symbol. We’re tempted to defy this wooden warning, to follow the other hikers up the hill. It looks a bit steep, but do-able, as far as we can see — yet who knows what’s up around that shrub-obscured bend?

We started planning this day of hiking yesterday, using a small stack of brochures we picked up at the visitors’ center. Now we check our map again. Sure enough, the solid blue line indicating access dissolves into a dotted line, meaning inaccessible.

Robin doesn’t typically follow rules without questioning them, demanding justification for them, and then investigating the data for herself. “Let’s try it,” she says.

“Wait!” I call after her. But she’s already sped ahead. I watch as she navigates around a huge rock, turns a corner, and disappears behind some bushes.

Our attendant, Carrie, rolls her eyes and says, “There she goes!”

An older man walking downhill from that direction keeps casting his eyes back in Robin’s direction. As he passes me he says, “You shouldn’t try that.”

A couple of minutes later Robin reappears. When she sees us she stops, and with her index finger she motions for us to come. “Oh my god,” Carrie says. “She’s crazy.”

“Let’s go,” I say. Robin’s rarely led me wrong before.

Carrie sighs, but gets behind my chair to help push and steady it when the trail gets steep. “It’s your decision,” she says skeptically.

The first section of trail climbs gently, and mostly smoothly, except where it narrows and slants to curve around that enormous rock. With Carrie’s help, though, I get over that patch pretty easily. Then we see the next part of the path, pitching upward crazily for the next 25 feet or so. Above that, Robin sits waiting on a level spot. “No way!” I yell at her.

“Come on!” she yells back. “It’s fine after this part.”

“I’ll wait here!”

“You can get right up near the lower falls! It’s easy!” Then she runs out of patience, and turns back up the path, leaving me to decide.

I wait a few minutes. The trail here is narrow, and more crowded. People keep having to maneuver around me. Some squeeze past me with a look of annoyance; I’m just another obstacle on their way to the next scenic point. Others smile at me sympathetically, or murmur things like, “Not very wheelchair-friendly here, is it?”

The whole situation is getting on my nerves, so I say, “Carrie, I think we can do it, don’t you?”

“No,” she replies. “But whatever.”

“Seriously, if you just hold on to my handlebars to make sure I don’t tip backwards, I think I’ve got enough power to make it.” By that I mean that my chair has enough power.

“Seriously, I think you’re nuts. But it’s up to you.”

I look up the hill again. “Yeah,” I say, “we can do it. Ready?”

I rev my motor, and Carrie grunts as she launches her strength into the effort. We actually gain some elevation fairly rapidly, but complicating the challenge of the steep grade are the people. On a grade like this, I have to move steadily forward; if I stop, I risk slipping back. But occasionally someone in front of me will stop, either to wait for a straggling family member, or to look at a wildflower or a squirrel, and I have to shout, “Excuse me, please!” at point-blank range, loud enough to alarm them into moving quickly to one side so I can keep going.

Triumphantly we reach the top of the hill. The rest of the way to the lower falls alternates between level ground and slight inclines.

Soon, I’m pulling up next to Robin on a raw plank bridge over the river. My mouth opens wide, as I take in this view of both the upper and lower falls. We’re close enough to the latter for the spray to cool my hot skin, and to dampen my hair and clothes. Robin extends her left arm and hand toward the spectacle, as if introducing a special guest performer. “I know,” I say, smiling appreciatively. “It’s amazing.”

Then I add, “I’m glad we didn’t believe that sign.”


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