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Year in Yosemite: Into the Park

Last May, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, Jamie Simons and her family stumbled across the public school on the Valley floor. As her daughter made a beeline for the slide, Jamie turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Easier said than done if you don't work for the park. But Jamie is persistent and so today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse. While Jamie writes, her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the sights and sounds of the city.

This is Jamie's first weekly post. Please welcome her!

-- Tioga Jenny

I'm standing on top of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park. Below me thunder the waters of Yosemite and Nevada Falls. Directly to my right is Half Dome, to my left, El Capitan and the Three Brothers. My head feels light, whether from the altitude or the view, I can't say. I only know that I feel like the luckiest person alive. For this year, at least, Yosemite is my home.

We moved into the park in mid-August so our daughter could attend one of the park's public schools. She's eight, and as hard as it is for the adult in me to believe that second grade can be grueling, for her it was. It wasn’t that she couldn't keep up (her grades were fine), it's that her natural exuberance and confident nature were being undermined. Now she goes to a one-room schoolhouse with only seven other students. As the only third grader, there is no one with whom to compare herself, nobody who can do third-grade math faster or spell better or read more books. There is no chart up on the classroom door reminding her that everyone is doing better on their timed math tests than she is. With only one teacher, and kids ranging in age from 5 to 10, it’s imperative that she is self-motivated and responsible and she's blossoming under the challenge.

So am I. This summer, once we knew a move to the park was imminent, I kept saying to my L.A. friends (Los Angeles has been our home for over three decades), “I don't know what to expect and that absolutely thrills me.” I loved not knowing what this year would bring. I loved the thought of going somewhere completely different than L.A. I loved not knowing anyone. I loved the idea of having total control of my day. Like my daughter at her new school, the quality of my experience is completely up to me. Now that I'm here, that still thrills me.

Yesterday morning, while talking on the phone, I saw a family of deer run by. My daughter spends hours in the forest that surrounds our home, building forts and stone sculptures. We live in a town so tiny it is the living embodiment of a village raising a child—everyone watches out for each other and for each other's children.

It's not perfect. With winter setting in, you realize that without tasks and hobbies and interests, one could lose one's mind. The nearest groceries are an hour-round-trip on a curvy mountain road. In winter, that same drive, with the added challenges of black ice and snow, can take twice as long. Every once in a while I'll find myself with two or three hours with absolutely nothing to do. Coming from L.A., where it is easy to fill every moment of every day with runs to the store, gabbing or meeting friends, working or running one's kid to endless classes, I find my reaction to the quiet and solitude is panic.

Then the magic of Yosemite takes hold again. I'll go for a walk. Or a hike. Or simply look out the window to see the sun hitting the fall leaves, making them look like a shower of golden coins raining from the trees. On a daily basis, the park surprises and fascinates me: like the Hassidic man standing in Pioneer Village talking on his cell phone or the Germans who stopped to ask me if there is anything worth seeing in Yosemite Valley or the way parents here will drive two hours just to take their kids to school or soccer practice or martial arts. I'm fascinated by the inner workings of the park service and the tourist board and the concessionaire and the homeowners, each with their own agenda and way of perceiving the park. Then there are the visitors, four million of them every year, each with their own experience.

I intend to spend my time in the park getting to know my new home better. Yes, the trails and the hikes and the secret places only the locals know. But I also want to understand just how this place works. Who runs it? How? What does each group bring to the table? I remember years ago (back when Californians actually smoked), picking up a book of matches from Yosemite Lodge. On the front was a picture of Half Dome covered in snow. On the other side were the words “Yosemite. Open all year.” It made me laugh to think that anyone had the chutzpah to think they would or could shut down nature. Of course, Yosemite is open all year—whether any of us are here or not. That is the Yosemite I want to understand as well as the one controlled by man, the one that takes this wild creation of nature and deems it a tourist destination. I hope you'll come along for the walk.

-- Jamie Simons

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