Kindness of strangers warms hearts in the outdoors

If you think Lee Vining to Tuolumne Meadows makes for a slow and windy drive, try it in winter on cross country skis sometime. The 17-mile trek over Yosemite’s Tioga Pass climbs more than 5,000 feet, taking my brother and me 10 hours on a cold December day. Completely spent, we arrived at Tuolumne Ski Hut at dusk, finding two other visitors already there.

“Welcome. Want a beer?” asked one new hut mate as the other tended a warm and comforting fire. We gladly accepted, and a cold brew never tasted better.

Those who frequent the outdoors can tell you that such kindness occurs more often than you might expect. I encounter it frequently, and in honor of Thanksgiving, I compiled the following list to express my gratitude.

I’m grateful for the strangers who gave my buddies and me more free beers at Mount Whitney, Camp 4 and Ostrander Ski Hut.

Thanks to the backpackers who gave my companion and I water when we were hot and thirsty on the Pacific Crest Trail. On the same trek, multiple groups of Trail Angels gave us hot meals and cold drinks.

Lots of friendly motorists have given me lifts back to my car after hikes, sometimes for more than 100 miles. I’ve even hitched rides from a park ranger and sheriff’s deputy.

When my climbing partner dropped an expensive piece of gear from a popular Yosemite route, a fellow climber returned it instead of keeping it like he easily could have. In fact, I’ve never met a climber who failed to help out someone in need on the rock.

On multiple occasions when campgrounds were full, campers invited companions and me to share their sites; it doesn’t hurt to bring a six-pack when you ask. Once when a friend and I were camping near a fishing cabin, its owners arrived, invited us to stay inside, fed us and even lent us fishing gear!

After I helped a hiker ascend Yosemite’s Vogelsang Peak, she bought me a delicious and pricey dinner at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Other hikers have invited companions and me to dinner in the High Sierra and the Grand Canyon.

I hypothesize that the farther you go from a paved road, the nicer people become. Here’s proof: When I lost my GPS device deep in the backcountry, another backpacker picked it up, found my “home” waymark, determined my address from it and mailed it back, refusing my offer to compensate him for his trouble.

I hope I’ve given as much back. I give food and water to backpackers, give directions to anyone who needs them, pick up hitchhikers whenever I can, and let campers share my site when others are full.

No one can promise that every outdoors encounter will be a good one, of course, but experiences I’ve enjoyed could bolster one’s faith in human nature, providing yet another reason to get out there.

Trail snacks: Here’s good news and a chance to help for those who love giant sequoias. Owners of the world’s largest privately-owned grove of the ancient trees have agreed to sell their 530-acre lot to a conservation group. Save the Redwoods League is raising $15.6 million to buy the area known as Alder Creek, which includes 483 of the majestic giants. The group hopes to eventually transfer the land to the Forest Service for inclusion in the surrounding Giant Sequoia National Monument. Those who wish to contribute can learn more at savetherewoods.org.

Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and Badger Pass have returned to Yosemite. They never left, of course, but the park has restored their names following a four-year trademark dispute with former park concessionaire Delaware North. The National Park Service paid $12 million to the company to settle the dispute but at least the resolution should quell the outrage caused by the landmarks’ temporary renaming.

Those shopping for outdoors lovers this holiday season could do a lot worse than the new photo book “Ansel Adams’ Yosemite,” a 160-page volume of the famed photographer’s best images from one of the world’s most treasured national parks. The book beautifully captures Adams’ work depicting not just well-known landmarks like Half Dome and El Capitan, but other scenic wonders like Cathedral Rocks, Merced River and Lyell Canyon.

Matt Johanson is author of the new guidebook, “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”

Matt Johanson

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