About 20 years ago, my sister Melanie and I took a summer girls’ trip to California to enjoy swanky San Francisco, Napa Valley wineries, Calistoga mud baths, Universal Studios Hollywood and the great outdoors. The latter included hiking in Muir Woods National Monument with its massive redwood trees, whitewater rafting in Kings Canyon National Park and mountain climbing in Yosemite National Park in the awesome Sierra Nevada.
Fortunately, Mel was driving in these mountainous areas and I had my usual tasks as navigator and DJ. We listened to about 15 hours of music going from San Fran via stunning State Route 1 along the coast down to Universal City near Los Angeles to easterly national parks and back to San Fran. We also sang, bursting into spontaneous renditions of “I left my heart in San Francisco” in the style of my father’s former secretary, Gloria, who was famous for belting it out in a deep, guttural voice with bar bands at business conventions.
When we got to Yosemite, it was towards the end of our trip and we had just spent the night at a campsite in Kings Canyon. So we peacefully took in the park’s giant sequoias (the largest trees in the world), waterfalls, high mountains, meadows, lakes and granite domes. Late afternoon, we arrived at the hiking trail to Sentinel Dome, known for a lone pine tree at its peak.
“Mel, let’s hike up there for sunset,” I suggested. “The photos will be amazing!”
“Okay, as long as it’s not a long hike,” she said in her older sister tone.
Those were memorable last words as the top of the mountain was further away than it appeared. After hiking a few miles up with my large camera, dusk was upon us and I was hell-bent on making it up there by sunset. That called for running up the rest of the mountain.
“Come on, Mel! I exclaimed. “We’ve gotten this far; we can’t turn back now.”
She begrudgingly agreed and we burst into a run as well as we could on the rocky trail. I looked back several times and Mel was hanging in there so I picked up my pace for victory. I ran a race against the sun, which was rapidly lowering in the sky. Finally, I made it to the top just as the sun was setting. A purple, orange and yellow sunset was my reward.
The lone pine tree with its barren, curved branches stood like a sentinel on the dome. On one side of it was the stunning sunset and the other a full moon that was strikingly visible in the dark blue sky. As I expected, the scene was picture perfect. I took at least 20 photos.
When I was done photographing, I stood on the dome like a sentinel myself looking for Mel. She was nowhere in sight. A couple was smooching nearby but otherwise, there were no signs of life.
“Mel should have made it here by now,” I thought. “She wasn’t that far behind.”
I sat on a rock and waited. The sun fully set and the moon got brighter. The couple departed. Still, no Mel. This is when I realized I was five miles up a bear-laden mountain in the dark alone with no flashlight. It was just lone me and the lone tree.
“Oh my God, how am I going to see to get down the mountain?” I freaked inside. “What if Mel got hurt? What if a bear tries to eat me?”
Suddenly Gloria’s guttural voice came to mind with her famous tune but different lyrics: “I left my sis … in Yo-se-mi-te.” The song played in my head like a skipping record. I was panicked.
The full moon guided me safely off the top of the mountain but in the pine trees, it was pitch black. Without a flashlight, it was almost impossible to navigate. I started yelling out for people. Anyone. The risk of meeting a psycho killer in the dark seemed better than spending the night in the woods with bears.
“Hello? Hello? Is anybody here? I’m alone with no flashlight!” I yelled. My heart wasn’t left in San Francisco, it was stopped in Yosemite.
After about 15 minutes of frantically calling out in the dark, a nice, male voice responded.
“Hey! I’m alone, too. But I have a flashlight!”
“Hallelujah!” I rejoiced inside, not caring who this person was since he had a flashlight. Finally, I saw the light and then him.
“I lost my friend and have been looking for him for hours,” he said.
“Well I lost my sister and have no clue where she is either,” I replied.
We formed an instant search committee and made our way slowly down the mountain. Thankfully, my “light in shining armor” turned out to be a really nice guy, not a psychopath. (Sadly, we didn’t get married as it would have been a great story of how it all began.)
About halfway down, we heard a group of people singing. I prayed to God Mel was among them. Did I hear her melodious voice? As they were ahead of us, we didn’t find out until we got to the bottom. Sure enough, there was Mel.
“I’m going to kill you!” she exclaimed (case in point per my last post). “You totally ditched me running up the mountain. I couldn’t keep up and turned back after a few miles. I yelled out your name a million times, but you were too far ahead to hear.”
“I’m glad you’re still alive to kill me,” I laughed, relieved as all get-out to see her. “I’m soooooo sorry. I thought you were coming to the top at your own pace. On a positive note, I got amazzzzzzing photos!”
“I’m going to shove that camera up your …” Mel half-joked. “Fortunately, I ran into this fun group of people who had flashlights to walk down after sunset.”
“Lucky for me, too, I met this nice guy to escort me down,” I said, introducing my new best friend. “I never would have made it without him. You would not have had the chance to kill me!”
Mel soon got over it and my life was spared (once again).
When we reunited for Christmas that year, I was more than forgiven as two of my gifts to her were framed, gorgeous photos of the lone tree at sunset and moonrise on Sentinel Dome.
They were prominently placed in her home office. It appears she left her heart in Yosemite.