Here’s a neat travel tip about Yosemite National Park: It contains a multitude of tall mountains. Its ribbon-thin two-lane roads wind around tall mountains, climb tall mountains and then, having basically reached space, plunge back down tall mountains at angles that cause the brakes of your rental van to smoke in petulant protest. Every time you drive 30 yards, you go up or down about 14,000 feet. I am from Indiana, where to achieve that degree of elevation change, one generally has to be wearing a jetpack. (Mellencamp sells them.)
I don’t have a fear of heights, necessarily, but I do have a fear of slipping on pebbles, tumbling over ledges and kissing hard ground at 35,000 mph, so, in conclusion, I have a fear of heights. (I also have a fear of brakes that spontaneously burst into flames, but I feel like that’s fairly universal.) This sets me apart from my relatively fearless children, who didn’t inherit my self-preservation instincts, and by “self-preservation instincts” I mean nerves of silky gossamer. They press their faces against the windows of skyscraper observation decks, they leap into dark ocean water, they purposely ride in hot-air balloons. Do you know how to control hot-air balloons? No. No one does. They just float down, like three states away, whenever they feel like it. You just bring a magazine and wait.
Anyway, this heights thing becomes a problem when we visit places like the top of Yosemite’s Lembert Dome, where a marginally strenuous trail ends in a flat rocky plain the size of several football fields. It’s pretty high, the sort of place that gives the impression that the ledges in all directions overlook a 16-mile drop straight into the valley.
But it’s not the highest place around. That would be the separate little mountain atop Lembert Dome, a hike of a bonus couple hundred feet that leads up to an incredible vista from which you can look down on the insane swoop of Yosemite, the impossible-to-fathom scale below you on all sides. At least, that’s what my family told me. There was no way I was going up there, good God, are you kidding, I could barely look at it without pausing for an energy bar and a panic attack.
This was not the case for my family, which, I have learned, is full of people who are pathologically insane. My wife is a brave sort, outdoorsy and adventurous by nature, while my older son is a gangly 14-year-old in the thick of adolescence whose arms and legs move in a manner that suggests they’ve never actually contained bones. Despite being largely unable to walk from the kitchen to the living room without bumping into at least three chairs, he jumps at the opportunity for danger.
Then there’s the 6-year-old, who is 6, and also — this part is important — 6. It’s hard to convey the scope of this extra peak, but I believe that in park-ranger lingo it’s what’s known as Incredibly Stupidly Forehead-Slappingly High. It also — this part is also important — lacked a well-defined walkway, so my first view of it included a number of people shinnying their way along a little rocky trail that wound its way up.
Obviously, I told my wife, the 6-year-old would not be going to the top.
Obviously, she told me back, well I couldn’t actually hear what she said because they were already halfway up.
Wait, you’re saying, so you stayed behind, while your much braver family went on to finish the job? The answer is yes, I think? I don’t actually know what happened because I couldn’t watch. Do you think I watched? Sweet raisin Danish, I didn’t watch. I paced in the opposite direction and took 4,000 pictures and pretended to be inspecting the integrity of my shoelaces whenever foreign tourists walked by. When I did turn around to see them at the summit, these three little ants skittering atop a distant goal, I felt something I’d never felt before: an overpowering, incredible urge to tell them how proud I was of their bravery and adventurous nature, and a complete inability to move my torso.
Happily, they didn’t inherit that part of me. They see the mountain and climb it, while I stay behind, where it’s safer.
When they came down, my 6-year-old breathlessly reported the following: “It was awesome and terrifying.” Then he went and ran around the open space, oblivious to me yelling about all the edges.
The 14-year-old also admitted that it frightened the rocky bejesus out of him, “but I didn’t want to be so scared that I didn’t do it.”
While I waited below, he went up and found a way to learn the most important lesson there is to learn. Got it from his mom, obviously.
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