Billy Sherman was a likable, roly-poly boxman when I dealt craps at the Las Vegas Golden Nugget (September 1982 until January 1984). Specifically on November 15, 1982, in the middle of the Nugget's metamorphosis from a grinding, saw dust joint into an international destination, he and I were still on a nodding basis. Until we crossed paths on a break and the giggly five-footer said, "Wanna see something funny?" Amid the omnipresence of dust clouds and to the unsynchronized beat of hammering, drilling and sawing, I followed him through the labyrinth of plastic protective sheathing that cascaded from the ceiling between the gambling tables.
At an obscure men's room near the hotel lobby he said, "It's in here." I had some doubts going in but my trepidation soared when he motioned me into a stall. If there weren't other people around, I would never have stepped further. Billy then pointed to the graffiti above the toilet paper dispenser. The gist of the message was a joke, in poor taste, regarding prize-fighter Duk-Koo Kim who was at that moment clinging to life in a local hospital. Unfortunately, two days later, Mr. Kim died from the results of injuries sustained in a boxing match at Caesar's Palace. But this joke at his expense, established my friendship with, "Little Big Man."
Little Big Man loved to travel. Over the next few months, he told me of his many adventures on a limited time and money budget. After I told him where I had been, he calculated Yosemite National Park as the number-one place I never saw...that was in driving distance. In August 1983, for the price of a 49c Golden Gate Casino breakfast, he met my future wife Sue and I and mapped out our trip.
In late September, Sue and I headed north at dawn through the Nevada desert, on Highway-95. On the long ride through the wilderness, during a lull in our conversation, I got lost in my thoughts. The New Yorker in me was digging the wide open spaces of the American west. Then I thought of the bigger picture. Out there, when you go long periods without seeing anything man-made, it's humbling to think that you're looking at something that hadn't changed in tens of thousands of years.
Just north of Scotty's Junction and below the town of Goldfield, we connected with Highway-266 west. Through the rough and barren terrain of Esmeralda County, we crossed into California's equally desolate, Inyo County. We had lunch in a speck of civilization called Bishop before continuing to the winter ski resort, Mammoth Lakes.
Lush and beautiful, Mammoth Lakes was a stark change from the empty landscape we considered fascinating. We got a motel room and hiked that afternoon in the nearby mountains. At dusk, we wanted to window shop through the quaint town to the restaurant we selected. But we didn't get far before Sue went back to the room for a jacket. Her move proved to be smart because after dinner, the temperature dropped twenty degrees. We froze all the way back to the motel and cranked up the heater.
In the magnificent morning, we got to the east gate of Yosemite before 10:00AM. From the moment you pay the entrance fee, you are magically transported upward, into ever-improving levels of beauty. Up, up, up, higher and higher each rock formation on the twisty two-lane roadway is more inspiring. But when we got stuck behind an RV, semi or any other slow vehicle, the marvelous ride became bogged down and tedious. Even on a stretch of road that didn't have hairpin turns, the stupidest person in the world would never consider passing anyone. Luckily on the right, there were occasional extra-wide shoulders for the slow-pokes to pull into.
Inside the park, this unique and splendid seventy-mile trek came to an awing exclamation point when we took the last turn and entered the Yosemite Valley. From our first peek at the "Tunnel View," we knew we were looking at heaven on earth.
IT'S TOO BAD I'M RUINING THIS SHOT. THE PROMINENT GRANITE CLIFF (left) IS "EL CAPITAN." ON MY RIGHT, THAT'S ONE OF THE PARK'S MANY WATERFALLS. FOR PROFESSIONAL PHOTOS, GOOGLE "YOSEMITE IMAGES."
Hidden in the park's grandeur, is the visitor center. Way ahead of its time, they had a computer room for all the hotels in Yosemite. Our bubble was burst when we were told that they were sold-out. And that it is suggested that accommodations get booked a year in advance. The representative added, "However, you can rent an unheated tent." Sue said, "No way!" Her memory of freezing the night before in Mammoth Lakes was still fresh...plus, we just drove seventy miles higher up. The rep also said, "There are no other options in the park. But I can get you read-out of lodging outside the park." When I whined, "We just drove seventy miles from the gate just to get here." She said, "Well, the west gate is only six miles away." The first of the eight places on her list was the El Portal Motel. When I called, they said they just had their second cancellation of the entire season. It was kismet! We were saved. (PLEASE NOTE - ALL THREE NIGHTS UP THERE WERE UNCOMFORTABLY WARM...GO FIGURE).
Armed with a map of Yosemite, we learned that most major attractions were a short drive.WHEN SUE TAKES A PICTURE WITH AN INSTA-MATIC YOU GET THIS, (THE FAMOUS "HALF DOME," IS DIRECTLY BEHIND MY RIGHT SHOULDER).
BUT WHEN A PRO PHOTOGRAPHS THE SAME THING AT SUNSET...FROM THE PROPER ANGLE...YOU GET THIS.
We mixed in plenty of hiking and brought our bikes too. We didn't see any bears but we did see deer, elk and mule deer. I showed Sue an odd-looking squirrel and a stranger informed me that it was a marmot. At night, we heard the howl of distant wolves, but we thought that was cool, (from inside our room).
THE ONLY THING BETTER THAN TAKING PICTURES OF THIS TREASURE, IS SEEING IT FOR YOURSELF.
The giant Sequoia trees in the Mariposa Groves section of the park were my favorite. One of the forest rangers pointed out a tree named, "THE GENERAL." He said that it was not only 2,700+ years old but that it was the oldest living thing on the planet, (it is my understanding that since 1983, the General has died).
IN THE LATE 1800's, IT WAS FASHIONABLE FOR THE WEALTHY, TO TAKE A SIGHTSEEING STAGECOACH TO YOSEMITE FROM SAN FRANCISCO. THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE EXCURSION WAS BEING DRIVEN THROUGH A TREE.
When I picked up an acorn, (see my right hand), a ranger reminded me that the balance of nature would be upset if too many such souvenirs were taken out of the park. In case I didn't understand, he also mentioned that violators will be arrested. That's when I dropped the acorn.
IT'S HARD TO CONCEIVE JUST HOW BIG SOME OF THESE BABIES ARE.
The General was too far off to get a decent picture.
THIS TREE IS NOT THE GENERAL. BUT IF YOU SQUINT, YOU CAN SEE THE PEOPLE AT THE BOTTOM AND GAIN SOME PROSPECTIVE OF EXACTLY HOW ENORMOUS THE SEQUOIAS CAN BE.
Our stay ended too fast. We milked the last day and had an early dinner in the park. Yosemite is right up there as the most beautiful place I ever visited. I recommend it highly but in a small way, I left disappointed because I didn't experience the high adventure that Little Big Man described. But, there was still time.
The sun was setting quickly as we saluted El Capitan, took our last look at the Tunnel View and left Yosemite Valley. I projected that the seventy-mile ride to the east gate would go faster, downhill.
Similar to the way up, the trip down was a continuous series of incredible sights. On the left was the dull wall of the mountain. On the other side, every now and then, through a rusted, barbed wire retaining fence, you caught sight of a chasm that gave a straight-down view of the far off desert floor. On one occasion, I was so taken by this spectacular that I unwittingly swerved into oncoming traffic. I came so close to side-swiping a convertible that I heard the driver curse as he avoided the collision by scooting into a well-placed, extra-wide shoulder.
Luckily, the ultimate lesson wasn't taught the hard way. After that wake-up call, I coasted as much as I could and kept my foot lightly on the brake. This plan worked well until the constant friction caused my brakes to smoke...and stink.
I thought I found a happy speed median until I once again became enthralled with the sheer drop and the vista below. This time Sue warned me before I crossed into the other lane. But a new problem cropped up as the vastly shaded road gave way to pockets of blinding glare from the low sun.
The whole nerve racking drive down came to an intense pinnacle shortly after the sun was no longer a factor. That's when a coyote, in an apparent suicide attempt, sauntered out into the road and defiantly stopped in my path. I crushed down on the brake, grasped the steering wheel with all my strength and skidded towards the moronic beast. In retrospect, I should have gone straight at him. Instead, in an attempt to spare his life, I endangered ours.
At my split-second moment of decision, I wasn't going to test fate a third time by veering into the oncoming lane. I aimed to his right. I never lost control but we didn't need the up close and personal view of the cliff's edge. To make matters worse, for some reason, Wyle E. Coyote...the super genius, had a last second change of heart and decided to happily scamper away...presumably to retry one of his Acme devices, to snare the Roadrunner.FOR THE REST OF THE RIDE DOWN, MY MIND FIXATED ON OLD "B" MOVIES FEATURING CARS PLOWING THROUGH GUARD RAILS AND TAKING A PLUNGE INTO A CANYON. I COULDN'T GET PAST THE IDEA OF OUR CRASH, EXPLOSION AND FIERY PYRE BEING THE ONLY MAN-MADE OBJECT FOR MILES AROUND.
If you thought my brakes were burnt-out from this little episode, you should have seen me. By the time we passed the east gate and returned to flat ground, I was a wreck. I pulled over and with my heart racing, I told Sue, she had to drive. She didn't wanted to. I said we only have to make one turn in about a mile. Then its a straight drive, on the open road to Tonopah, where we connect with Highway-95. She was an inexperienced driver and made some awful excuses, like not wanting to drive in the dark.
I was a shell of my former self and was still shaking and breathing heavy. But I gently shamed her into taking the wheel. The poor kid was sobbing even before we made the one turn onto Highway-6. I took on the role of coach and soothingly guided her along. She was doing fine. The roadway was vacant and like the "yellow brick road," the reflective, painted lines helped her see what was ahead for miles. I had enough confidence in her that I allowed myself the luxury to look into the void of the moonless night and appreciate the wide open spaces of the American west, again.
We had just passed a sign that read; Nevada State-Line - 5, when we caught up to a moving van with an extra wide load. He was creeping along so I told Sue to pass him. She would not. I explained that it was safe because you could see that there weren't any oncoming headlights for miles. Still she refused. I tried every bit of encouragement I could muster but we toddled along at 35MPH when we should have been doing eighty.
To mask my frustration, I turned my attention on the truck driver. I wondered why he didn't pull onto the shoulder. This bit of courtesy was so common in Yosemite and doing it, couldn't have inconvenienced him much.
We were seconds from Nevada when I told Sue to hit the horn. She wouldn't do it. Then in the middle of nowhere, at the precise moment that we passed a sign for Lida Junction, I saw one building coming up on the right. It resembled a beat-up motel and had some gaudy neon signage. Then one inch into Nevada, miraculously, the moving van's directional cut-on and he pulled-off towards this unimpressive hovel. When I read the sign and saw the huge, well-manicured, empty parking lot, I immediately figured out the mystery. It wasn't a gas station, country store or even a weigh station...it was a legal whorehouse, the now-defunct Cottontail Ranch.
If I'm any judge of speed, if we would have stayed behind that truck all the way to Las Vegas, I would have been late for my first day back at work. Ironically, Little Big Man did mention that he visited a brothel on his way back from Yosemite too. So indirectly, I shared in that aspect of his adventure after all.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Before I ever used my glasses to read the back of the current California commemorative quarter, I thought the man pictured was a random, gold-mining, forty-niner. I was wrong! It is in fact a very specific person, John Muir. THE FIRST BIG-TIME TREE-HUGGER, JOHN MUIR (1838-1914), WAS QUOTING SHAKESPEARE WHEN HE SAID, "ONE TOUCH OF NATURE...MAKES ALL THE WORLD KIN."
It was Muir and to a lesser extent Theodore Roosevelt as well as several others, who led the movement that eventually preserved and protected Yosemite and other parks under federal jurisdiction, until they were declared National Parks. Please help me by thanking them. Visit the parks and support their upkeep.