A California diary… A group of six on tour in 2007
8 days in northern California… day five
Yosemite… the Grand Tour


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Two: California.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on April 2, 2008. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

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Day five, Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I’m not very religious. Call me a skeptic if you want… I don’t know how to categorize it myself… but we can try to sum it up, without defined labels, as simply by saying that I have my doubts. And yet, every so often I find a moment or an experience that makes me scratch my head.

This morning I wander out the door to pick up some ice, look up at the still dark, early morning but definitely night sky, and see a shooting star. The sight of it fills me with one of those satisfying senses of a moment where everything is right. Explain the feeling… I can’t. But there’s something so mind-smashingly perfect about it. I know immediately that it’s going to be a good day.

We pack up the van, check out of the hotel, and set off in the direction of the entrance to the park. And as the sun rises… I have a second moment… and for this one I’ll be kicking myself later.

In front of me, I see Australia.

A rock formation through the trees is reminding me of the Three Sisters, which Terry and I had visited with the boys, my sister, and her family during the summer of 2003. The formation is located in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. I later learn that here it was almost definitely the Three Brothers that I am speaking about… and our guides had no clue about the Australian location. Opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean… brothers and sisters… in formation.

But with so many winding roads to navigate, a breakfast to eat before the day’s tour, and us eventually leaving the park by a different path… do you think I got a picture? Of course not.

We’ve decided to start our day with a meal in the park at the Yosemite Lodge Food Court. Numerous phone calls had been made to figure out where to stay… what tours to consider… what “must dos” must be done. We had debated considerations of possible snow fall. We had decided not to sleep in a three-sided cabin or use a tent with bear-boxes to store our food. (Bear boxes for food. Mike? Are you paying attention to this? They rip open cars for food! Stop offering them pizza.)

We had settled on the Grand Tour for our day in the park… for which check-in was at the Yosemite Lodge. A few people I spoke with said the Food Court was a decent place to stop and grab breakfast before our day began. And it was here that we would meet the current crowned-queen of line cooks… named, using another Seinfeld connection, in honor of this experience… The Pancake Nazi.

Her true name was Inna. (Inna? Was it? Who cares? The Pancake Nazi is far more accurate. Heck, she woke Snappy Snapperson up before 8am… and that takes some serious talent.) I’ll never do the story justice… and Terry and Richard, who experienced more of it, will likely be offering corrections and additions. But hell… since their comments will almost certainly come out in the “Best of…” efforts, it’s worth a shot. (Understand, this version is edited to make it shorter, but none of it is embellished. Everything noted did happen as I know the story or experienced it. The parts I’m not certain about are the parts I cut.)

The Food Court is set up cafeteria-style. It is counter service and divided into areas for things like cereals, hot food, drinks and a cashier’s station. (You know the drill… we’ve all be in places like it.) We all took off in different directions to get a feeling of what they had and what we wanted.

Most of us picked pancakes.

I know I did.


I get up to the grill to place my order and fall in line behind Richard and Terry. It’s obvious to me they’re both agitated for some reason, but Terry won’t say exactly why. “Just watch… just watch…” is her whispered comment for the moment.

Nothing amazing is going on at the grill. In fact, nothing is going on at all. It’s not like it’s busy or anything, although there are four of us waiting right now. About two minutes later, when I find out that Richard and Terry haven’t even ordered -- numbers two and three of the four of us in line -- I’m a bit surprised.

The Pancake Nazi isn’t making eye contact with any of us.

Apparently Richard and Terry should have known that they needed to speak up or something, because when she lifts her head and requests their orders, there is a look of exasperation and frustration in her eyes that defies all other explanations. For some incredible reason, she seemed perturbed with us. (I can only guess that she woke up earlier than she hoped. You know… a story like her boss supplying her with an actual alarm clock in her room just in case, because there might be people at the pancake station in the morning, and it made her wake up early to be prepared to serve us. You could read “like she didn’t want to deal with serving customers” for “perturbed” and it would work.)

And with that thought shared with you, enough time has passed since Richard and Terry ordered that she finally has stared me down with the good morning evil eye, and I add get to my request to the list.

The Pancake Nazi returns her stare to the grill where… well… where seemingly our orders don’t exist because she is playing with the utensils and scraping off the surface and doing everything except putting down a little butter or whatever and some pancake batter. I’m beginning to understand more of Terry’s cryptic message. It’s not just the attitude. It’s the amount of nothing that is accompanying the attitude. Apparently taking orders is part of prep work, and prep work is still going on, so actually making pancakes for the customers in line that have ordered already… well… the world that is the Yosemite Lodge Food Court grill area this morning is not ready for that just yet.

Mike arrives.

He saw the waffle maker. He’s getting excited.



But first he needs to order a set of plain pancakes for Louise. He’s now behind me in line… and hasn’t been there long enough to experience the drain of all hope or the vague feeling that if we turned around, we’d see Jerry Seinfeld standing behind us with Rod Serling.

Meanwhile, Richard, Terry and I… and now Mike… are watching across the grill as the Pancake Nazi starts spreading batter on a dry grill. All of us are thinking some form of the same thing, which quickly exchanged glances confirmed: “Dry grill? Well that’s not going to work. Or, is it us?”

She looks up at Mike and takes his order for plain pancakes and a waffle. She then turns back to the grill and adds blueberry pancakes to the surface. All over. Blueberries and blueberries and more blueberries and then still more blueberries -- as far as grill space allowed.

Sure looked like more blueberry pancakes being made than blueberry pancakes ordered.

In fact, let’s trace the step-by-step.

First, there was a pouring of blueberry pancake batter, with more than enough on the grill to serve up all four orders of blueberry pancakes. Second, there was a pause, a putting aside of the blueberry pancake materials container, and a shift to Mike’s order. A waffle was started. And then third, there was the return to the grill, the lifting of the container, and the pouring of more blueberry pancakes on the grill.

So Mike stops her.

He mentions his order was for plain pancakes… and does this quite politely.

The Pancake Nazi has had enough of us… she looks up at Mike, sneers, and informs him that she knows quite well what his order was, and for his information she isn’t working on his order, and… in words other than this but clearly and fully expressed… would appreciate him shutting the hell up and minding his own business. There is… of course… a line of people… and she’d like him to know that he’s not at the front of that just yet, and the Yosemite Lodge Food Court grill area world is not revolving around him.

So there.

Have you ever heard the ideas expressed of deafening silence and cutting the air with a knife? Sure you have. Well… the quiet atmosphere around the grill was getting thick.

A few moments later, after another similar exchange, Snappy Snapperson moves closer to the grill, and…

She informs the Pancake Nazi that her attitude isn’t appreciated. When an aghast and insulted Pancake Nazi tries to ask Snappy what attitude she might be referring to, the answer is quickly offered… “That attitude. Right there. Lose it.” She goes on to explain a few of the finer points of customer service and how it appears to be lacking here. Snappy is on a roll.

And then… nothing.

Silence… tension beyond evident… still waiting for pancakes.

The Pancake Nazi returns her stare to the grill where the pancakes aren’t flipping over. They’re sticking.

(Pancakes sticking to the grill? The dry grill? None of us saw that coming.)

They’re sticking to the grill and burning. She starts putting down more batter. First guy in line slams his plate and walks away. Richard gets the first batch of overcooked delights that weren’t chucked.

In a small… a very small way… at this particular moment I felt sorry for the Pancake Nazi. Oh… she got what she deserved, and probably should have been blasted a bit more. Letters and phone calls should have rained down upon her supervisor for this experience of ours. But at this particular time, she was living one of those hideously humiliating moments we’ve all experienced in some form. (Though I know you and I were far less deserving of them, and that karma itself has brought this one around.) All she possibly could have been hoping for was to get the damn pancakes off of the grill and get this particular group of people away from her so her bad morning could move on.

But there’s this guy named “Murphy” that insists on taking part in moments like this. And when things go bad… they can always get worse. The clock stops. The world drags… and all you can do is stand there with your pants around your ankles. (No Mike… expression… the Pancake Nazi was not cooking with her pants around her ankles.) She was wrong, very wrong… she was called on it, justifiably… and now the damn pancakes on the grill were sticking and burning.

Here’s where I luck out.

What had been way too many pancakes was turning into a dwindling supply as she kept tossing scraps into the trash. By throwing away so many pancakes, she had to reload the grill, and I wound up with a fresh batch that were added after some oil (or whatever was in that container that she didn’t use earlier).

When I arrive, the talk at the table is centered on the Pancake Nazi.

“These pancakes are awful,” Richard explains. Of course, he’s also so hungry that he’s saying it while scooping them into his mouth and quickly devouring the entire serving. “Just awful.” Pause… another bite. “Worst I’ve ever had.” Pause… another bite.

Ellen and Snappy are discussing giving her a lesson in manners.

“…have the nerve to question me about thinking she has an attitude with an attitude like that while telling Mike she knows what a blueberry is and it isn’t his turn why I’ll take that spatula and grease the pancakes right up her…”

Louise is trying to catch up. Her pancakes are fine and she was never introduced to the Pancake Nazi. Mike is enjoying his waffle. I’m eating and keeping quiet.

“…because I know what customer service is about and she could take a lesson or two just to get up to being horrendous and that first guy did you see him just walk away because he did and she didn’t even notice just went right on scraping the grill…”

As I finish my pancakes, I’ve got a problem. How do I explain that to date, it’s been the best breakfast for me? Hot and fresh and delicious. Great pancakes. If I hadn’t seen the troubles in the kitchen -- so to speak -- the meal would have been considered a sparkling success. Still… as Terry continues to vent and I sweep the last bite across the remaining syrup, it has been a thoroughly entertaining scene. Maybe I’ll write it off as a combination of a meal and a show.

Eventually we turn our attention to the lunch menu for our tour. The Grand Tour is a day-long assembly of three popular Yosemite tours that will bring us out along the Valley Floor, up to Glacier Point, and then to the Mariposa Grove. Part of the tour is a stop for lunch at the Wawona Hotel dining room, and we need to make our selections before the tour leaves this morning so it will all be ready when we arrive.

Decisions made, we head over to meet our bus, and, ultimately, Karen (our guide) and Roger (our driver). The foliage is simply gorgeous. It was a great year for New England fall colors that were just hitting a peak while we were flying out west. And seeing the area out here seems like an unexpected treat.

The first stop was at El Capitan (notes list a height of 3,598-feet), where we saw some climbers near the Zodiac on the wall. We passed some deer while seeing the Cathedral during the drive across the Valley Floor, and had our first view of the Bridalveil Falls. Karen explained a legend of the Ahwahneechee tribe about a demon spirit called Pohono that protects the Valley Floor. This legend goes into the blowing winds around the falls, and even turns into one about getting married.

Leaving the area and beginning a climb, we were able to glimpse the Tunnel View behind us as we crossed into the Wawona Tunnel… a location we would return to later in the day. (Interesting note about the tunnel… it was built from the lower end by digging up to allow the use of gravity for clearing the material being removed.)

Our destination was the Glacier Point area. The stop brought us to an elevation of 7,214-feet, where we were able to see the Half Dome and the Valley Floor. (And… bonus… we played with a squirrel. Karen used our description to identify it as a “ground squirrel”… which I didn’t research much, but from what I have been able to find puts it in the family of a prairie dog.)

After about an hour of walking around, we are on the bus with the count off by one.

Sure it is… Mike.

Back on the bus, Karen mentions the Three Brothers… which immediately triggers my thoughts from the morning about the formation in the Blue Mountains of Australia. Considering all of the native and tribal stories she has mentioned, I find myself making lots of notes to investigate any possible connections between the two that might be found. (So far… none. But I did find something about a three sisters formation in Oregon.)

As we traveled back down, Karen discussed prescribed burns… a process of controlled fires used in the park. Once aware of this, we began to see several smoking logs and slash piles. We also continue to notice wildlife, with a red-tailed hawk flying past the bus and landing nearby.

Lunch was held in the dining room of the Wawona Hotel. Wawona translates as “big tree,” and we are preparing to head in to see some of the largest trees in the world. We’re at an elevation of roughly 4,000-feet now.

The lunch?


And the area around the hotel? Consistent with the entire day… beautiful, different, and interesting. Actually… fascinating would be a good word to use as well.

After eating we took a short walk to a nearby covered bridge, and used it to cross over a stream and into a small village. (I use the word “village” here a bit loosely. I can’t find any details in my notes about the bridge’s name or the exact buildings we found.)

I’m finding myself spellbound by a neon green moss on the trees -- Karen tells me it’s a stag horn moss, which apparently only grows in places with exceptional air quality. (I apologize for saying “moss”… that’s not what Karen said… but I haven’t been able to find any true spelling that works for lycin… since that’s what is spelled in my notes and not lichen. Though it does appear that staghorn lichen may be a proper spelling and name.)

We’re back on the bus and seeing more wildlife… ravens this time… with the next stop the Big Trees Tram, which took us through the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. It was explained that the coastal redwoods are taller (think Muir Woods… day two of this adventure), but the sequoias are larger… primarily wider. From the starting point of this tour to the back portion, the elevation changes by almost 1,000-feet. (Beginning at roughly 6,000-feet and ending around 6,800-feet.) Some of the named trees that we passed…

  • The Fallen Monarch
  • The Bachelor and Three Graces
  • The Grizzly Giant (one branch on this tree is 6-feet thick)
  • The California Tunnel Tree
  • The Faithful Couple
  • The Clothespin Tree
  • The Galen Tree
  • The Fallen Tunnel Tree
  • The Telescope Tree

We watched four deer in one clearing, saw a chipmunk, and when we stopped at the Mariposa Grove Museum along the trail, we saw even more deer and a raven. The tram made a few stops… in addition to the museum, on the way back we spent some time near the Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree. I have a note at the end of the tram section that mentions the 290-foot Columbia Tree… which is supposedly the tallest sequoia in the park.

We’re back on the bus… and I’m about to get heckled. The roads are winding all over, and at times odd things happen just off the actual road. Incredible drops just sort of appear… as do hills and, for lack of a better word, cliffs. We’re coming around a bend, with about a twenty-foot wall on my side… the passenger side… of the bus. There is no shoulder on either side of the road. On the top of the cliff I see a bear cub. I swear it… a bear cub… but for all of three to five seconds. I mean literally, as soon as it connects in my mind what I’m looking at, I say “bear” and point but the bus has already moved along the bend to the right and the visible section of the top of the cliff is gone.

Roger can’t go back… there’s no place to turn around or pull over. But that doesn’t stop Karen, who decides to pick on me for not speaking up more quickly. Before long, we reach our final stop of the tour, to look at the Tunnel View. A terrific end for the tour portion of our visit.

We spend some time in the gift shop, and I try to get a couple of quick pictures of Seemore. Mi Luv U was programmed to take us home… and led us along a different route than we used to head out on Tuesday. During the drive, we spot a deer about five feet off of the road and at the edge of a clearing. Mike gets excited about it, deciding that he must be at least an eight-point buck.

A stop was made for dinner at In-N-Out Burger. Norm had helped us out by explaining that there is a secret menu. We’re ordering things “animal” style (grilled onions, cheese and sauce) and thinking about 3x3s and 4x4s (we don’t go that far though). We also chicken out on a request for the “burger dance”… but now wish we hadn’t.

The San Mateo Bridge is used getting home. (We’re on it at night, so Louise is fine.)

Oh yeah… Mi Luv U is simply awesome.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com