The Old Lady of Tuolumne by Alexa Flower

Feb 13 • Uncategorized • 2078 Views • No Comments on The Old Lady of Tuolumne by Alexa Flower

I guess you could call it a town. It’s open three or four months per year. Driving east, hues of dark green, azure, and gold flicker along the extended cracks on the windshield. A serpentine road curves through pine forests and atop steep inclines, tracing edges of valleys, the rim of the lake.

by Alexa Flowerby (spoiler alert this piece is an excerpt from Volume 8, The Old School Issue. Banner photo by Tristan Greszko)

Mountains kiss the skyline, whether gazing forward or backward. Some are green, some gray, some bare of foliage, and some with ringed snowcaps. Blue-and-gray granite domes dot the scenery—giants frozen in a timeless slumber, unchanged as eons tick by like seconds on a clock. Soon the town center emerges into view. A wooden cabin, the outdoor shop hides behind two gas pumps. Beige canvas cloths drape over aluminum and wood sidings, comprising the grill, grocery store, post office, and the second half of the town’s commercial buildings. The nearest town, with Internet and a semblance of civilization, is thirty minutes farther east.

Cathedral Peak, Tuolumne Meadows. Photo: Tristan Greszko.

Across from these buildings lies a perpetual balance of khaki, olive, avocado, and sea. Other meadows have dried up, starved from another dry summer. Frequent dry spells veil the land, and all that’s ephemeral submits to its fate. Somehow this one holds its footing. This one remains wild with florae and clusters of grass. Deer rest in its squelchy earth near the river. At sundown, coyotes stroll in the distance beneath the layered sky.

Beyond this meadow and all around are other meadows, trees, granite domes, and peaks. The sky is closer here. The air is more delicate.

I arrived two summers before, fleeing up the high stone walls. I’d come from a monochrome world of concrete and glass, where days passed within a monitor’s droning buzz, the shrill ring of an office phone. My coworkers and I existed in an air-conditioned box, silence only being broken by designer heels prancing the hallways. Always inside looking out. I remembered a friend’s words from years before: People place themselves in boxes. I had succumbed, locked my own chains, and was desperately aware of it.

In the meadow, the grass tickles my bare legs. I watch each blade resisting all but the wind. I remember shock jolting through every inch of my body when plunging in a river that is a direct extension of the highest peaks. How it feels to fit my hand in a granite crack, the rope flying in the wind below me, a companions encouraging call. So I stayed.

She’s been here a lot longer than I have.

“You climbers ruined the snake’s rock,” she says. I stare into her reddened eyes. They bore into me, piercing with a childlike fervor. An instant defensiveness awakens inside as I absorb her accusation. Her lips betray decayed teeth and swollen gums.

She has been here a lot longer than I, and for years, I watched her stooped frame stagger to and from the meadow in an ungainly determination. Her dark, leathery skin and surrendered eyes reveal a life spent outdoors in direct sun, beneath the waning moon. She shuffles around under a giant camouflage jacket and wool hat, masking her frail form. With one small puff of wind, I imagine her blowing away.

Each day last summer, she entered the grill asking for coffee. “Please, let me give you a new cup,” I would offer. Her cup was filthy. Each day she would refuse.

“The snakes don’t come out anymore. They don’t bathe in the sun anymore.”

“You ruined their rock, you climbers!” She points a broken finger at me. Her knuckle resembles the gnarled limb of an old oak.

“Where? Where is the snake’s rock?”

But I have never heard of the place she tells me.

“You climbers rename all of the domes and mountains! You rename all different parts of the domes and the peaks!”

An older fellow in gray curly hair gazes back in his glasses, a distant face. He sips his coffee. “I named one mountain,” he says. “Just one, long ago.” I hope to hear his tales, a memoir soon forlorn, but I see her turn and leave.

As she walks away from me into the meadow, I take a trifling step forward. I want to stop her. I want to tell her No! It’s not me! I love the snakes. I love the snakes and the birds and the domes and the mountains. This place is my home. I belong here. Instead, I let her go. She limps back through the meadow, blending into the tufts of grass and knotted bark on the trees. Her labored steps turn to gentle movement, passing each swaying conifer. I squint and can barely make out her soft outline in the distance. She doesn’t look back.

We leave to go climbing. I walk on the trail beneath pines; her words burn a fire in my gut. My mind roams with conflictions. The snakes, deer, coyotes, and bears. The creatures dashing from fern to fern. Do I deserve to be here as much as they do? All remains unspoken amidst thousands of visitors passing through to be refilled. How much can one place give before its cup turns up dry?

We continue through the woods, and her words crumble to dust. They disappear.

A steep hand crack interrupts golden knobs and gleaming crystals. I jam the crack and stem on the knobs. My body and mind connect. My breath and ribs are an accordion, and my heartbeat is a drum. My mind follows a path of transcendence, a nimble rhythm. Soon the granite slope drops. The summit lies below our feet. The mountains stretch to infinity, silent deities only demanding intimacy from those who seek it.

We head down in high spirits, good-hearted laughs and tall tales. Clarity engulfs me. This is where I belong.

At the edge of the forest floor, a snake rests on the slabs thirty feet ahead. Stripes of red, yellow, and black emanate from the granite. He notices me the instant I notice him. I halt and stiffen. My breathing stops. With certainty, he turns and slinks away with equal sharpness as our encounter. I feel the burning in the pit of my stomach.

Wait! I’m sorry, please come back! I want to say. I take a step forward.

You can have this dome, and I’ll go to that one. I won’t come here again.

It is too late. He continues along his way, contrary to mine. I watch through throbbing eyes, my lips parting. He doesn’t falter. He doesn’t look back. I watch him leave, and his striking colors fade with the tawny grass and swaying pines. I turn away to continue on my own. Looking up one last time, squinting, I see a soft contour in the distance—her willowy frame about to blow away—blur and disappear.

 That night I fall asleep as familiar conflictions resurface. Is it not enough to quietly admire and revel in the landscape? Do I belong here too? Somewhere among the pastoral valleys, the crisp alpine lakes, the domes and granite pinnacles, in the sodden earth rooting chartreuse forests and wild flowers, I see a reflection of my own spirit. I dream entire civilizations lined with concrete land and buildings, destroying all nature but an implanted tree behind each white picket fence, are illusions, and the heartbreaking beauty surrounding me is all that is real.

I don’t see her again that summer.

Fall disappears with the first snow. Trees, meadows, domes, and peaks are blanketed in white. Snowflakes settle on my tongue, kiss my lashes, each one unique—an elusive spectacle of where they have been, who they are. The same uniqueness in all that exists on Earth, alive or eternally dormant. The town closes. The outdoor shop shuts down and the grill, grocery store, and post office are stripped to their metal framing. For eight months, the lone road closes, and silence flows in. Snow brings healing to this high Eden, like a peak emerging from the mist, the drying of a tear.

I leave and head east along the serpentine road. Granite domes and conifers blur my periphery, brief and fleeting. Hues of dark green, azure, and gold flicker in the rearview mirror. I continue to look back. Through the sting, I know that, with my absence, the snakes will come out, and the meadows will nourish. All that brought me here remains. And I belong.

Alexa Flower spends her winters as a ski patroller in Breckenridge, Colorado, and summers in Yosemite, last year working as a Climber Steward for the Park Service. 

This piece is an excerpt from Volume 8 (now out of print). 

Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published six books: The Desert,  Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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