I spent Easter Weekend with my parents hiking through snowy trails and avoiding fist fights for sparse parking spaces inside Yosemite National Park (but that's another story).
After breakfast Friday morning, we bid farewell to the trolleys of San Francisco and set onward to the giant sequoias and towering rock formations that beckoned us. It is incredible that within three hours we escaped entirely from the race of the city to the lethargic still of untouched nature. The transition was somewhat gradual- slowly the towns shrink in size, their frequency diminishes and the population begins to disappear as the roads slink around the Sierras surrounding Yosemite.
Once inside the park, we paused at the visitor's center to browse the exhibits, take a break from the chill of the brisk spring air and watch a video detailing the formation and preservation of Yosemite as a national park. Yosemite was commissioned as a national park in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln. Even during the chaos of the Civil War, Galen Clark was able to catch the ear of the president and sway him on the importance of preserving this unique collection of natural, North American history. Shortly thereafter, influential California naturalist John Muir visited the park and Mariposa Grove and was left enamored. Although Muir's tenure in the park began in the late 1800s, he described the prowess of the surroundings to allow visitors to escape from the stress and chaos of daily life.
After the video, my mom remarked on how strange it was that Muir had lamented the stress of life back in the mid-1800s. She wondered, "what stress could he have had?" alluding to the vacancy of internet, cars and other high-speed indications of modern life. Muir didn't have TV, kids growing up too fast, gas prices skyrocketing, families torn apart by scandal and money; life moved at a much slower pace... it must have been much simpler. What was Muir trying to escape?
After leaving the park that day, we trudged back through winding hills to our tiny motel room in Mariposa, a town with just over 1,200 inhabitants. The town itself stretches no more than one mile and falls 40 minutes from the next town with a sizable population. The town had a tattoo parlor, a few restaurants, a bar, a couple florists, a toy shop and an inn. Mariposa is a time capsul of the wild west- the only street in town is flanked with building architecture reminiscent of the gold rush. With a small population, isolation from the "outside" world and no cell phone reception, life in Mariposa appeared to be in line with what Muir had sought: a release from the daily ritual and the stress that accompanies it. Or was it?
The idea got me to thinking about stress. What is the base of all our strains comprised of? When I think of the things I stress about, nothing about modern life really tends to play a factor: I worry about money, the future, family, love... all things inherent to life, regardless of the decade or era. Even though Mariposa is small in size, it's still just a microcosm of the world I live in. The stress of paying bills, missing loved ones and the mystery of the future aren't any clearer just because they fight for parking in a town of 1,200 people while I duke it out with 800,000 people.
Even though Muir probably never felt the pressure to send out a public statement within one hour of an event's occurrence or balancing communications on twitter, facebook, gmail, texts, work phone, cell phone, etc... the core of what he was escaping from is the same as that which we scorn today. Maybe Muir wasn't so off with the ability to get away from it in places like Yosemite. It's simple. It's natural and so captivatingly beautiful that you forget the worries that usually consume your thoughts and instead marvel at the age and immensity of the giant redwoods flanking the hiking paths.
It seems ironic that even on the brink of industrialization Muir yearned for an alternate. A couple decades earlier, Thoreau took up camp in Walden pond. The idea that life was always simpler doesn't seem to hold true. Each year we progress in ways to "simplify" life: dishwashers, netbooks, iPods, smart phones, vaccines, but we also find ways to make it more complicated. The plight of humanity to perfect living wages on, and fortunately for fore thinkers like Muir, we can take weekend vacations to regroup, re-center and evade the daily grind.