A Night in Yosemite

by Joseph Sheeley

Back in the late 1990s I was a week away from moving out of California to a new job across the country. My wife and I had never been to Yosemite Park and decided now was the time while it was only four hours away. We would regularly camp in the Sierra Nevadas, so we decided to camp for this late September trip.

I called to reserve a campsite, but found all of those in the valley were taken. I found one at Toulumne Meadows, which is at more than 8500 feet elevation. It was a little distance from the valley, but I thought we could spend the day seeing the sights in the valley and then set up camp for the night.

Brandon Goldman/Getty Images

That weekend we loaded up the car and drove out to Yosemite, arriving a little before lunch time. Unfortunately, it was wet and drizzly the whole day. There were low clouds, covering all of the rock features like Half Dome. We were able to see things like the river and one of the waterfalls coming off a ridge, but everything else was covered in clouds. We ate lunch at a dining area near the falls, tried to stop at the general store in the valley but found it was too crowded to park, so we drove out and up to Toulumne Meadows.

We got to the campsite about an hour before sundown and setup my old two-man tent. For dinner we planned to eat out, which ended up being going to a food trailer and buying some hotdogs. After selling us our food they were close for the season. We would have gone to bed hungry if we’d been a little later.

Speaking of food, we’d been warned about the bears before we got there. Because they’ve been fed for so long, the bears will actually break into your car if you leave any food, toothpaste, or anything else that has a scent. Mother bears actually teach their cubs how to break into cars, destroying the cars in minutes. Everything had to go into special bear boxes. They let us know that even if you don’t see them, the bears were always watching and waiting.

Photo by Photo Collections on Pexels.com

That night there was a ranger lead campfire program. Everything was wet and cold, so we weren’t starting a campfire, so we were glad to sit by one made with some dry wood the rangers had stored. There we met many of the campers, discovering that we were the only ones in a tent. Everyone else had a camper.

That night we discovered why. It was the first snow of the season. By 1 AM there were several inches on the top of our tent and I needed to knock it off the roof to remove the sag. My wife had taken my zero-degree Marmont Mountain down sleeping bag and I was using her cheap summer bag. As I listened to the generators of the campers around us, I wondered if I’d freeze that night.

The next morning, we awoke to a winter wonderland. Everything was covered in snow. The park ranger said that late September wasn’t unusual for the first snow even though it took us totally by surprise. The memories of the cold night before disappeared as I walked around the beautiful area, glad that I got to see the first snow of the 1999-2000 season in the high Sierras.

I’ve probably been camping over 100 times and spent 150 nights or so out in the backcountry. There were a lot of times when the weather was absolutely beautiful, but I don’t remember much from those trips. They all sort of blend together. The ones I remember most are the ones like the Yosemite trip when we got blanketed in snow. Another memory is when a severe thunderstorm rolled through on Good Friday that produced hail on us and a tornado about 50 miles away. Don’t let worries about the weather keep you home. Be ready for the weather, whatever it is, and go anyway. Some of the best memories come under dark skies.

Gearing up for camping

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I thought I’d talk about some of the gear I use for camping. If you’re getting out of the RV, you’ll need the right gear to be comfortable. Here’s some of the stuff I use.

Marmont sleeping bags:

The down sleeping bag I have is from the 1980’s but still works great today. They cost a lot, but will also last your lifetime. They’ll also make you comfortable even when it drops below freezing outside of your tent.

Marmot Lithium

Wood burning stoves:

Most of the time I use a propane stove like the first one below or a liquid fuel stove, but the little wood burners like the second one shown are nice because you can fuel them with the little twigs you can find everywhere, even in the most picked-over campgrounds. My only dig is that they only burn for fifteen or twenty minutes, then you need to add wood and light them again (with a lot of blowing). They burn long enough to boil a couple of cups of water or cook a quick meal, but stop right about the time a larger pot of water is ready to boil.

MSR PocketRocket Ultralight Backpacking, Camping, and Travel Stove, PR 2: Ultra Compact Camping Stove Ohuhu Stainless Steel Backpacking Stove Portable Wood Burning Stoves for Picnic BBQ Camp Hiking with Grill Grid

Thermarest Ground Pads:

Whenever you’re camping in a tent, you need a ground pad. Not only does this little bit of air and material soften the ground a little, but it more importantly puts insulation between you and the ground. Without this you’ll be cold as the ground sucks out your heat. Thermarest is a great brand of ground pads.

Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout Self-Inflating Foam Camping Mat, WingLock Valve, Regular – 20 x 72 Inches

Kelty Tents:

A high-quality tent, if you dry it out when you get home and keep it clean, will last you for a decade or more. Spend a little more for a tent and it will last longer and be easier to use. Kelty makes great tents in the $150-$300 range. Always get a tent that is one person larger than the number of people you’ll have using it so that you’ll have a little room for gear. Note it will typically require one less people than the size of the tent to set up, so you’ll need at least three to setup a four-man tent, for example.

Kelty Late Start Backpacking Tent – 2 Person (2019 Model)

Camping with Accident Man

by Joseph Sheeley

During college in the 1990’s my girlfriend then, now wife and I would go camping about four or five times per year during the summers. It started in Arizona when we were still just dating. There I would drive up from Tucson where I was going to school to her school in Flagstaff, car loaded with camping gear, then we would go camp at a place near Flagstaff. Because it was well over 7000 feet elevation up there, it was a good 20 to 30 degrees colder than in Tucson, so the weather was beautiful in the summers with days in the 70s and maybe low 80s. It was even a touch on the cold side at nights sometimes.

For grad school we were in California and started camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which were about three or four hours from our apartment in the Bay Area. I would get a topo map of an area and look for areas on forest roads in National Forests where it looked relatively flat and ideally close to a little creek or some sort of water. These forest roads were small dirt roads used for logging and forest maintenance. Once we found a few good candidate spots, we would then drive out there, go down the road, and look for a spot with enough cleared area to park and set up camp. Often it would be 9 or 10 o’clock at night when we would finally get out there, having fought traffic to get out of town after work. So, it could be quite an adventure, driving around, trying to find a spot in the dark until about midnight. One time we ended up setting up in a spot for the night just because it was getting late, then moving to another spot down the road in the morning. There were usually a few people camped somewhere near us, but everyone was really spread out so you didn’t feel like you were crowded in at all. There was also plenty of wood for the fire, which you never found at a regular campsite.

After we found a good camping place, we would remember where it was and return. There was one spot near Boards Crossing Road that had a tiny stream running through it. We used it to cool some melons we brought with us.

We would sometimes bring friends along, especially a friend named John and his girlfriend, Rita. They had never been camping, so this was a new experience for them. I would give them my tent and my wife and I would sleep in our Ford Explorer for these trips with them.

Now, I had an enormous survival knife that I would take along. It was sharpened on both sides and had a large saw blade. I’ve had it since high school and numerous people have cut themselves on it (including my father the day I got it). It came to the point where I started to think the knife was cursed. (I also cut myself on it, but that was usually when I was trying to juggle it.)

On our second trip together, it was just John, his girlfriend, and I camping the first night. We had a third friend coming the second day and I needed to go to the highway (about 10 miles away) and find a payphone to call him and tell him where to find us. As I was leaving, he asked if he could use the survival knife while I was gone. I said, “Sure,” but warned him about all the problems I had had with it. He said, ” No problem,” or something similar, so I drove off and made the call.

I returned an hour later to find him with a bandage wrapped around his hand. He explained that he was just pulling my survival knife out of the case and cut his thumb on the back of the knife near the hilt. He remembered that I’d said the knife was sharp, but didn’t realize it was sharpened on the backside too. That was the first of several accidents for that day.

After we’d sat around camp for a while, we decided to drive back to the road and to a little store. We got back in my Explorer and headed out. About a mile from our camp the road crossed a little creek and there was a little waterfall area on the uphill side of the road. John asked if we could stop there and check it out.

After we had been there for about three minutes, John wanted to get his picture with his girlfriend on a big rock in the middle of the creek. They stood there and I took a picture with my digital camera (Maybe it was a film camera. This was way before smart phones).

After I took the first picture, John saw a second rock out on the stream. ” Get a picture of me jumping to that rock,” he said. I wasn’t sure how he was going to get back from the rock, but I agreed, he jumped, and I took the picture. Once he got there, he realized his predicament, looked at another, tall rock further across the stream, and tried to leap to it and hang on.

He fell in the water, which was about 8 inches deep, got pushed downstream a few feet by the current, then got up, soaking wet and without his glasses. We searched for them in vain – they were never to be found, at least by us. This was accident number two for the trip.

Luckily, I happened to have a bathing suit in the car, which he borrowed and we headed for the store. Once there we looked around, bought a few things for the campout, then went back to the Explorer. As I started to drive off, John shouted to stop the car. He jumped out and danced around. Lifting up the bottom of his (my) swimsuit, a wasp came flying out. This was accident number three.

We had been listening to the They Might Be Giants Song, Particle Man, on the way up. We decided at this point that his name should be “Accident Man,” and sang about him to the tune of Particle Man. This nickname stuck with him for many years.

That was the last accident for that trip. Javier, our friend, arrived with his girlfriend that evening and built a huge fire that put our fire from the previous night to shame. Each time that you could get within about five feet of it, Javier would declare that the fire was dying and throw more wood on it. Another inside joke from that campout, the “Javier Fire,” emerged.

We all camped together several more times while we were in school. Accident Man got better, only having one other accident that I remember on a campout. In that case, he was breaking a limb with his foot wearing sandals and a jagged piece of wood from one of the ends went into his foot. We got to find the clinic in a small mountain town nearby after that one.

John and I both still camp to this day. I’m glad that I was able to teach a friend how to do something from which he continues to get so much enjoyment. I’ll always look back fondly to my days camping with Accident Man and the good times we had.