Trips to the Past: Yosemite, Olivia

During lockdown, with the prospect of travel seeming further away than ever before, a lot of us will be feeling an extra strong sense of wanderlust and nostalgia for our past trips and adventures. G You is happy to present a series of travel writings reminiscing on our community’s favourite and most meaningful trips to remind ourselves of the joys and growth travel can bring. Our next ‘Trip To The Past’ is on a Gap Year in Yosemite, by Olivia Swarthout.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” is what I tell people about my choice to take a gap year. After all, who could regret the choice to spend four months interning in Yosemite National Park, one of of the most beautiful places on planet earth? What better place to spend your spring than living among 3000-foot granite cliffs, towering sequoias, rippling fields of orange poppies? The park offered endless possibilities for excitement, and living with five other women in employee housing, in a tight-knit community that drew nature lovers from across the country, I was never without company for my next adventure – whether it was cross-country skiing or midnight hiking or jumping into icy rivers.

It sounds nice, doesn’t it?

It sounds nice to me too, two years on – so nice that I have to remember to temper my nostalgia and yearning for that time of my life with the recognition that things were not always so perfect as they seem in the pictures on Facebook and the stories I tell people.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have an incredible time in Yosemite. I did all the things I described and more – jumped into rivers, played Dungeons and Dragons with a group of wildland firefighters, watched sunsets from the tops of mountains, shared dinners and brunches and mid-hike sandwiches with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met – and I’ll cherish those memories forever. But now, two years on, my reflections back on that period of my life tend to exclude the ups and downs of my considerably less glamorous, not-seen-on-instagram day-to-day living.

I tend to fondly think back on the brunches I’d share with my friends, not on the fear I felt about food and the body issues that often made me think more about my own appearance than the astonishing beauty around me. I can no longer idealise the Park Service as an unproblematic institution that serves a higher cause when racism, harassment, and discrimination still often go unchallenged among visitors and employees. I rave about how wonderful it was to be disconnected from the internet and social media, but my inability and unwillingness to properly communicate put immense pressure on my relationship with my boyfriend, already strained by the 9,000 kilometers my travels had put between us.

Though my weekends were filled with all manner of characteristic mountain-frolicking and forest-adventuring under the California sun, my weekdays were spent under the cold glow of fluorescent office lighting in the Yosemite National Park Archives, a windowless, climate-controlled room that sometimes felt far-removed from the history and natural beauty it existed to preserve. My job as an archives technician gave me incredible insights into the history of the park, and the collections were an endless source of fascination in the form of artifacts, photos, and documents that told the story of the park from an angle few people had the privilege to experience. From the literally priceless paintings to the tailfin of Yosemite’s infamous “weed plane” (look it up), I was surrounded by centuries of history given physical form. But I had been hired mainly to work on the ongoing digitization of Yosemite’s collection of 20,000 photos, which meant countless hours of scanning and typing into spreadsheets: the torpor and repetition of days spent in front of a computer began to wear on me.

Without a car and 45 minutes away from both the park itself and the nearest town (Mariposa, population 2,000), in a house with no cell phone service and only intermittent wifi, by late April a two-hour road trip to Fresno to see ​Avengers: Age of Ultron ​and eat at a restaurant that wasn’t terrible felt like as much of a treat as the stunning natural beauty of the Sierra Nevada.

I’m not trying to cast my time in Yosemite in a negative light, of course. On the contrary, I still consider myself beyond lucky to have spent that spring in California, to have made the friends I made and seen the things I saw. It was wonderful. But knee-deep in stress, maths homework, and exhaustion, as I’ve so often been over the past two years of university, it’s tempting to think that if I could just get away from my current life, displace myself geographically, return to that perfect past, all my problems would fade away – forgetting that even then, my life was characterized by worry and struggle.

I’m writing this to remind myself that when I’m halfway through the semester browsing cheap last-minute flights to places I’ve never been, dreaming of how my stress will melt away as I step off the plane, I’m still going to be the same person with the same problems when I get there, and I’m certainly going to be when I get back. Though travel is healthy and beneficial for so many reasons, it’s important not to see my problems as symptoms of my current circumstances and location. In truth, the tools I need for self-improvement are always within me, and my journey is just a matter of learning to use them rather than avoid my issues altogether or hope they go away.

I don’t live in the mountains any more. I don’t run through waterfalls and fields of flowers every weekend. I don’t live in a house with animal bones and flowers and foot-long sugar pine cones adorning the walls. In fact, it may shock you to hear that my life has gotten considerably more boring over the past several months. But I like to think that I’m more stable, more mature, less argumentative, less selfish, more self-aware and better-equipped to handle my problems than I was two years ago, and maybe that’s more important.

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