Between its iconic granite towers which prehistorically graced this Earth as magma, Yosemite’s rivers flow at once violently and coolly in breath-taking waterfalls, meandering streams, and turbulent whitewater deathtraps. Just shy of Rhode Island’s square mileage, everything about this National Park signifies constant change.
Snow-capped mountains slowly bald during the summer, quenching the park’s insatiable thirst, until the water falls no more to the chagrin of many a late tourist. Wildfires chew up acres of forest providing fertile soil for future plant life. Food and hospitality companies employ and house transient college students while making their own mark on what had once been complete wilderness.
Before even hearing the rivers, an approaching hiker can feel the air chill into a brisk breeze. This may be the only similarity between Arizona and Yosemite, besides some of the college students.
Darby Moran, an Arizona State University senior studying biology, sits with her sticker-plastered water bottle in Phoenix’s arid heat with a slight smile, offering few hints she had just returned from California’s temperate paradise.
“Even if I wasn’t taking advances in my career, it was the best summer I’ve ever had,” says Moran, donning a blank tank top with the words ‘I only know beastmode’ written across the chest.
Moran worked in Yosemite Valley for two months before quitting to hike the John Muir Trail, a 210-mile grind through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. She says both experiences enriched her life, mostly due to the employee community.
“I was only there for two-and-a-half, three months, and I met some people that I’m closer with than people I’ve known for years,” Moran says.
But, just as Yosemite is in constant flow, so too are its inhabitants.
“I was dreading coming back (to ASU),” Moran says. “I thought it would be so hard to get used to school again… so the drive home I was super bummed, but once school started...seeing my friends that I hadn’t seen in three months, things have been pretty good. And I think part of that has been the positive attitude that I gained this summer. So far so good.”
Moran says she has gained more than just a positive attitude from her adventures in Yosemite.
“It probably did open me up a lot,” Moran says. “I’m more open to tagging along with people I don’t know and going on a hike. It just puts you in a happy mood that people are so open there. I’m just trying to bring that other places.”
Emily Pawlik, who graduated from ASU last May with a degree in sustainable tourism and management, frantically answers ringing telephones in a slightly cramped corner of Yosemite’s Majestic Hotel.
“Going to Yosemite was a really cool experience in and of itself, but also working at the front desk of a hotel was a really cool experience too because it’s totally related to my major,” says Pawlik, her wide blue eyes reflecting the spreadsheet on her computer screen in crescent glints. “I think it definitely made me more excited to be here, knowing that I was going to be working in something having to do with my major.”
Yet, the work isn’t what originally prompted Pawlik to live in Yosemite.
“I was probably more excited for Yosemite just from being in the Outdoors Club at school,” Pawlik says.
Pawlik, who eventually became the vice president of ASU’s Outdoors Club, says she first became enamored with Yosemite’s gushing waterfalls and sleek rock walls when she visited with the club during her sophomore year. During her time in the park, she has continued pursuing the activities that first brought her to the park, including rock climbing, swimming, outdoor yoga and hiking.
“I have definitely learned a lot more about myself from being here,” Pawlik says. “The confidence and skill you need to have for certain outdoor activities really translates into personal growth and personal strength.”
Levi Whitehead, a Grand Canyon University student studying advertising and marketing, also says he has personally developed in Yosemite, but for different reasons.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to be selfless living in crazy close environments with people, and sharing groceries and supplies,” Whitehead says. “It’s crazy.”
Yosemite employee housing is a veritable tent village, the largest of which is called HUFF — Housing Under Firefall. The tents house three people each and consist of white tarp, a sparse wooden skeleton and heater. The doors often swing open for seemingly no reason and all food must be stored in bear boxes, locked metal containers kept outside each tent in order to dissuade animals from visiting the housing.
Even then, raccoons mingle with human life every night, often scoring half-eaten candy, unfinished beer and whatever other scraps the denizens of HUFF leave about. There are only six refrigerators in the entirety of the village. The internet is even more limited.
“It’s taught me a lot of patience trying to write an essay on the slowest wifi in the world,” says Whitehead, who took an online course over the summer.
Whitehead says the social environment there is unlike any he had ever experienced.
“I thought it would be scary being a Christian in a community of hippies,” Whitehead says. “But I’ve gotten to meet people who believe so many different things and so many things that I would think are so obscure. Honestly, it’s been pretty healthy for me being able to get out of my little box of religion and see that there are so many other world beliefs out there and to coexist.”
Whitehead takes a moment to reflect on his quickly ending summer before one of his friends asks us to hurry up with the interview. There is going to be a meteor shower tonight.
He seems excited, mature but still with an essence of childlike wonder. Although he says this summer has forced him to become an adult in dealing with his finances and work, he does not feel as though he has been acting like one.
“I’ve also just been able to be a kid again out here,” Whitehead says. “I’ve gotten to experience life again, not really start over, but live on a fresh whim.”
Nothing in Yosemite stands as firmly as its glassy granite structures, reaching as far as the eye can see. The park’s constant metamorphosis is even reflected in the name of one of its giant sequoia groves — Mariposa, which means butterfly. Nobody, Whitehead included, can escape its grasp.
“I haven’t grown strong as a Christian here, but I have grown stronger as an open-minded human being,” says Whitehead before leaving to see the meteor shower, not unlike God taking a box of matches and striking them against the black, star-studded atmosphere.
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