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Yosemite's Glacier Point and the people who come there

Point of view

To say that backpackers stand before this view in state of awe and reverence would not define their attitude precisely enough. They look at the scene as if, in some small measure, they had participated in creating it.
  • To say that backpackers stand before this view in state of awe and reverence would not define their attitude precisely enough. They look at the scene as if, in some small measure, they had participated in creating it.
  • Image by Lance Jordan

"The View from Glacier Point" is not the title of a painting by Bierstadt or a novel by John O’Hara. I am referring to the real thing, that grand prospect over Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra from the famous view point on the south rim of the Valley. It would not be wrong to think of this view as a work of art, however. It exhibits the aesthetic elements that characterize paintings, poems, pieces of music, theatrical productions; it has structure, meaning, "point of view" (in various senses), and an audience. I have just seen it, and I propose to review it.

There are two main themes in the structure of this landscape: the receptive, feminine theme of Yosemite Valley, far beneath us and stretching to the west, and the aggressive, masculine theme of Half Dome, thrusting itself majestically into the sky at the Valley's east end. It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic contrast than that between the long, narrow, U-shaped Valley, its flat floor covered with rich green ponderosa pine and incense cedar, and the isolated mass of granite, so steep, so barren, so inhospitable to life that it has the appearance of an intrusion from the moon. The entire nature of the view is determined by this contrast; Half Dome without the Valley, or Valley without Half Dome, would constitute an entirety different work of art, with a radically different effect.

The theme of the Valley and the theme of the Dome achieve their most intense expression in these two specific parts of the scene, but — as in any well-structured work of art — the two themes are repeated and varied in less prominent elements of the composition. The Valley on our left is echoed by the Little Yosemite Valley on our right, the two connected by the course of the Merced River and divided by the giant upthrust of Half Dome. To the left of Half Dome, and burrowing, away from us towards the northeast, is another variant of the theme: Tenaya Canyon, narrower than Yosemite Valley, V-shaped rather than U-shaped, tight and wild rather than spacious and friendly.

The theme of the Dome is similarly echoed. The most distinguishing characteristic of Yosemite Valley is the sheerness and the bareness of the granite cliffs that surround the green Valley floor, and from Glacier Point we can see the entire north wall of the Valley as far as El Capitan at the west end, every part of it showing a different variation of the same sheerness, bareness, stoniness, and utter verticality. This is one way granite manifests itself in the scene; the other way is the dome, narrow and pinnacle or steeply rounded, and the view from Glacier Point presents us with several variations of this form as well — the Three Brothers, on the opposite wall of the Valley, and North Dome and Basket Dome receding up Tenaya Canyon. The bare granite wall and the bare granite dome are joined and fused in Half Dome, which is the most triumphant example of both; on its southeast side, a bare, steep, rounded dome of rock, with its northwest face a sheer vertical cliff two thousand feet in height. rising out of a rocky apron sloping another twenty-five hundred feet to the Valley floor. All the other statements of the theme are partial, idiosyncratic, fanciful, varied; here the theme is stated in its full grandeur and purity, like a great fanfare of unison brass, surrounded by silence.

These are the major themes and their echoes and variants. There are also subsidiary themes whose repetition and contrast serve to unify the scene aesthetically. In the background, range upon range fading into the atmospheric distance, there is the Yosemite high country, its furthest peaks scarcely distinguishable from the sky; in the foreground, down below, a fundamental contrast is provided by the habitations of Man — Yosemite Village, with its grocery store, garage, and gift shop, Yosemite Lodge, Camp Carry, the luxurious splendor of the Ahwahnee Hotel, and the continual sinuous movement of cars and shuttle buses. Endless natural wilderness and the enclosed comforts of civilization — and they are tied together by another theme, inevitably associated with Yosemite Valley: the waterfall. Directly behind Yosemite Lodge, with its pleasant rooms, modern plumbing, and busy restaurant and cafeteria, Yosemite Falls plunges savagely down the bare rock wall, in two tumultuous leaps. And even this theme finds its echo into the scene, for to balance the two-step Yosemite Falls to the west of Half Dome the view shows us Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, one above the other, in Little Yosemite Valley to the east. Balance, symmetry, parallelism, contrast, climax, variation within unity — the view from Glacier point has the compositional intelligence and inventiveness of a canvas by Brueghel, or a Beethoven symphony, or Proust's seven-volume novel.

 Like all works of art. it also has a "point of view" — a center of perception from which all the compositional elements were assembled and understood and endowed with meaning. In the present case, the point of view is — precisely — Glacier Point. It is centrally placed on the Valley's south wall so that all the symmetries of the scene are visible (Yosemite Valley with Yosemite Falls to the left, Little Yosemite with Vernal and Nevada Falls to the right, and Half Dome between them); it is high enough (some seven thousand feet) so that it both overlooks the Valley and has a perspective on the High Sierra peaks beyond; and it is connected with the scene before it in numerous intricate ways. A major theme of what we are looking at is the bare, vertical, granite cliff; but as we perceive this theme in its objective fullness and variety, we are at the same time taking part in it, for our vantage point is itself at the brink of just such a sheer cliff. When you look over the edge at Glacier Point, you are looking straight down for twelve hundred giddy feet, before the cliff’s apron begins its sloping descent. Another theme is the contrast between wilderness and civilization, and while in the view the two elements are separated (civilization on the Valley floor, wilderness in the distant High Sierra ranges), here they are brought together in ironic proximity. Glacier Point is part of the wilderness, with its rocky overlook emerging from the thick forests of red fir and sugar pine, but it is also an outpost of civilization, with restrooms, gift shop, and railings bedded in the rock to keep the audience from leaving the point of view and inadvertently becoming features of the landscape.

Above all Glacier Point makes sense of the scene before us by embracing it within a palpable vastness of shape, space that is living and mobile, filling the valleys, rebounding from the walls, circulating around the domes, and flooding towards the horizon in a great wave of transparent light. This is not merely an assemblage of domes and valleys, trees and granite, waterfalls, hotels, and untrodden mountain range: it is an organism whose lifeblood is space — but we can make this discovery only when we are suspended, as we are at Glacier Point, in the living stream itself.

This spaciousness is not only a characteristic of the view; it is also one of its meanings. The view from Glacier Point means the vastness of space, and the tininess of the people crowded along the railing to perceive that vastness. It also means the vastness of time that has gone into the formation of the scene, as set against the brevity of our stay at the Point, and the virtually identical brevity of our ephemeral little lives. The granite these great cliffs are made of solidified some eighty million years ago; for scores of millions of years the Merced River has been carving its way through the granite, producing the valleys we see below us; the great rise of the land that resulted in these lofty altitudes began perhaps twelve million years ago and may have lasted five million years or more, and for another five million years huge glaciers, more than a mile deep, ground their way through this landscape, deepening the valley, polishing the great granite cliffs, crushing the peaks into their present jagged conformations, and shaping the domes and canyons with their deliberate and relentless movement. Three-quarters of a million years ago the entire scene before us now was hidden by the meeting of stupendous glaciers from the Merced and Tenaya Canyons; Yosemite Valley was filled to the brim with moving ice; only the top seven hundred feet of Half Dome rose above the ice-pack, like a truncated island; and there was no view from Glacier Point (even had there been someone to look at it), for the Point itself was buried under a thousand feet of glacier. When Yosemite began its long progress towards its present shape, dinosaurs dominated the earth, and even the lowest of our primate ancestors did not yet exist. If these cliffs had a consciousness and could look back at us as we observe them from Glacier Point, would we be visible to them at all? Or would we flicker by so fast, to their immensely slow thinking processes, that Glacier Point would seem as empty of human life today as it was a hundred thousand years ago?

This contrast between the vastness of Yosemite’s time and the brevity of ours is paralleled by another of the scene’s meanings: the contrast between the living and the nonliving. There are forests on the Valley floor and on the less precipitous slopes; there are deer and bears, raccoons and squirrels, hawks and bluejays; there are people form New York and San Diego and Stockholm and Tokyo, mailing letters to Yosemite Village, hiking to the top of Half Dome, looking at the view from Glacier Point. But all these are on the surfaces of things. Wipe them away, as a point might do with one swipe of a turpentine soaked rag, and the structure of Yosemite would remain; the cliffs, the domes, the peaks, the river, the waterfalls, the space. Beneath the scurrying softness of life is the hard gray granite. The question posed by the view form Glacier Point — and it is a question so consummately dramatic that it serves as the central issue in all serious works of art — is “Which of these will have the last say?”

A final meaning of this view is power. The great granite cliffs — and particularly the tremendous erect solidarity of Half Dome — function aesthetically as symbols of power, but in fact the power is really present in a physical sense. The power that raised this whole landscape to this Alpine height is still there, as potential energy, turned to stone and waiting. The patient, abrasive power of flowing water, eating away at the rocks, is still being exerted in the channel of the Merced and in the waterfalls — all of them violent torrents spring and early summer. And the power of the glaciers — their enormous weight and pressure and kinetic force — has been absorbed by the Valley, the cliffs, and the mountains, every shape ruthlessly sculpted by those ineluctable masses of ice seems to radiate the power that made it what it is. This is not a passive landscape. It is the result of millions of years of violence, and all the violence is still in it, imprisoned in the granite.

Violence and passivity are also terms useful in describing the audience of this grand work of art. There are two main classes of visitor to Glacier Point, and of these the more prominent and numerous is the class of tourists who have driven up the Glacier Point Road in their own cars or in tourist buses. Among these are a few quiet and respectful Swedes and Japanese, but a large majority of tourists (most of them Americans) are raucous, fretful, impatient, and sarcastic. Their loud voices grate through the clear, clean, seven-thousand-foot air, like the jabbering of a bunch of vulgar television comedians in a sitcom; they snap pictures of each other smirking against the background of Half Dome and hundreds of square miles of the Sierra high country; they make comments like “It’s o.k., but I like Coney Island better” or “When are we gonna have lunch?” or “What’s the bus drive making us stay here an hour for? He must get some rake-off from the gift shop.” The noise, the sarcasm, the continual cheap jokes, the insensitivity, the pettiness — these are, in their way, as astounding a phenomenon as Yosemite itself.

Why do so many of the tourists at Glacier Point behave in such a manner? Some of the may be inherently incapable of anything else. They are members of the human species who — while no doubt often good and kind people — are exclusively interested in food, sex, family, status, and survival. No other aspects of life have ever touched them, and in a sense they are the most natural human beings in the area, since there is basically little difference between them and the local wildlife. But most of these amateur Morks and Mindys are actually quite unlike badgers, foxes, and marmots, whatever the superficial resemblances, both physical and moral. If their behavior seems childish and pre-human, that is in part because this giant, violent, petrified interlacement of male and female principles naturally reduces the stunned observer to the status of an infant, coming unaware upon some amazing vision he maybe have guessed at but has never fully believed to be real. Their reactions can also be explained by the fact that the meanings of the view from Glacier Point — the vastness of space, the vastness of time, the smallness, transitoriness and weakness of human beings, the battle between life and non life, and the ubiquitous presence of limitless power — are essentially religious meanings. This work of art has all the qualities of a hierography, a manifestation of the sacred. It is as if something beyond space and time, something that is in itself the principle of life and the conqueror of non life, something that is the source and definition of power, were forcing its way through the landscape and skyscape, reaching out violently and inexorably to he onlookers to tempt them toward the abyss. A frightening experience, probably the most frightening experience it is possible to conceive. No wonder if many people protect themselves from this threat by denying it, and by trying to reduce the view to their own size rather than face the possibility of being overwhelmed by it. In its own way, their reaction is a tribute to the work of art they are confronted with. If they did not intuit the immense, explosive, overflowing meaning in this scene, they would not have to erect such crude and vigorous defenses.

There is another class of people at Glacier Point, mixed among the automotive tourists. They are silent, unobtrusive, scarcely noticeable, but beside their quiet realty the others seem to flit about like transparent ghosts. These are the backpackers, who have hiked the trail from the valley floor (a climb of 3400 feet in four and a half miles), or have come from even further away. There is no point in romanticizing the Yosemite backpacker; one of the reasons they are silent is that they are exhausted form the climb. But it is also undeniable that they react to the view from Glacier Point in a way very different for that of the noisy comedians on wheels. For most of those tourists, the view is just another entertainment offered up to their passive senses, another TV program — or at least they would like to convince themselves that that is what it is: immediately afterwards, there will be drama about detectives and then the six o’clock news. They nibble a bit at the view and flick it carelessly away, just as they toss their still-smoking cigarette butts all over Glacier Point. The backpackers are of a different race. To say that they stand before this view in state of awe and reverence would not define their attitude precisely enough. They look at the scene as if, in some small measure, they had participated in creating it.

A similar sense of natural harmony, reverent yet unsentimental, must have been felt by the Ahwahnechee Indians, who a little more than a hundred years ago lived in the Valley and the surrounding country. The industrious white man, whose descendants are now busily clicking shutters and complaining about the long wait for the restrooms, killed some of the Ahwahnechee and exiled the rest to a reservation near Fresno, where death, intermarriage, and cultural despair soon caused them to vanish as a people. They have left their name only to the elegant first-class resort hotel in the Valley, with its golf course, tennis courts, cocktail lounge, disco dancing, seven-course meals, and room rates of sixty dollars a day. This, perhaps, is another of the meanings a critic may find in the view from Glacier Point.

The view, for those of you who would like to see it, is available without fee during daylight hours for the next million years.

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