Stanford’s campus is lush and green, filled with 43,000 trees and 800 species of plants. For the typical student hailing from a big city, this is more than enough nature. But after seven weeks of living here, New Yorker Anna McNulty ’24, needed something more. She needed dirt.
Sitting at a coffee shop in Palo Alto on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, McNulty couldn’t keep her mind on her studies. Instead, it was somewhere else, in the Yosemite Valley, looking up at the looming Mountain Gods. She had never been to Yosemite before but consumed enough media — climbing documentaries and books and Ansel Adams photos — that she could fully imagine what the National Park would be like.
“What are you doing next Friday? Say, 6 am?” Lucian de Nevers ’24 received this text from McNulty that evening. De Nevers, from Syracuse, NY, has grown up hiking and camping often in the upstate region.
“Pretty sure I don’t have existing plans at 6 am,” de Nevers replied.
McNulty, who grew up in Manhattan, explained her idea — wake up early, drive the four hours to Yosemite, camp for the night and leave early enough the next morning to make it back for Stanford and Cal’s annual Big Game.
“Yeah, I could skip my section for that,” confirmed de Nevers, “very down.”
Next to join the group was Ethan Asher ’24. A native of Atlanta, Asher has been known around campus to wear jeans tucked into shiny red rain boots on wet days. He loves good conversation and trips; he was sold immediately.
The week before the trip featured planning sessions and text threads filled with exclamation marks, each day passing meant one day closer to the forest. Gear was rented from the Stanford Outdoor Center, campsites and permits were acquired, professors were emailed and marshmallows and poptarts were procured. On Thursday morning, the team met on Wilbur Field to practice assembling the large tent. Typically the most frustrating part of camping, the assembly of this tent took mere minutes. Asher snapped together the poles while McNulty threaded them through the crinkling fabric and de Nevers stopped by to admire the shelter when it was done. They were prepared.
At 10 o’clock that night, McNulty had another surprise. She barreled down the hallway of Twain North dragging her roommate, towheaded blonde Diana Baszucki ’24, behind her. Bazsucki bounced along with a soft smile on her lips, giggling. “Diana is coming!” McNulty exclaimed. The crew was assembled. Alarms were set. The adventure was queued to begin.
“It’s too early!” exclaimed McNulty as she appeared at 6 AM in the foggy purple dusk glow, lugging a Patagonia duffle over her right shoulder to load into the maroon Subaru Outback. Baszucki was shivering and shoving her backpack into the trunk. De Nevers’ guitar was wedged into place and Asher called shotgun. The aux cord was fought over, coffee was consumed and the crew hit the road towards Yosemite.
Three and a half hours later, Baszucki, who was behind the wheel, turned the Subaru Outback into a tiny parking lot. A wooden sign loomed with a painting depicting what they would soon see in real life — United States Department of the Interior National Park Service: Yosemite. A French man took a photo of the group next to it. After a pit stop with the Park Ranger, they obtained a map and were on their way. And then they were winding on a cliff side road, making their way into Yosemite Valley. Oh, Oh!
It was a gradual descent to the valley floor, but the change felt sudden when the car emerged from tree cover into the clearing, with ethereal mountains on either side. God mountains, cradling the people and the car and the road. Inside the car, it was silent, chatty friends reduced to amazed murmurs and gasps, until someone piped up — “Holy shit! That’s El Cap!”
The group spilled out of the car to stare at their surroundings. The mammoth granite rock face is almost vertical, and the angle makes it hard to comprehend how large the formation really is. After staring at the sheet of rock long enough, McNulty pointed out tiny specks high on the wall — rock climbers. They looked like spiders and were barely visible to the naked eye. “I feel childish… giddy,” said Asher, his eyes wide, focused on the rocks as he spoke. A waterfall erupted from one of the mountain walls, the mist catching in the light. White and fluffy, it looked like smoke.
They piled back into the car and made their way to the campsite. The tent went up in a matter of minutes. De Nevers sat on the picnic table and plucked guitar strings and McNulty circled with her film camera. The guitar case became a drum for Baszucki’s gloved hands.
“I feel like I’m living in a painting,” Baszucki noted.
“This is why people write poetry about nature,” Asher responded.
As the sun went down, the group returned to their campsite. De Nevers and Baszucki started a fire and then passed the guitar back and forth. Hot dogs were roasted and Annie’s mac and cheese was eaten from pilfered dining hall bowls. They drank from plastic applesauce containers and a cardboard Starbucks holiday cup. And then, s’mores and singing. They were all shocked at how early it was — the time passed slowly without distractions. It was dark by 5 pm, and their bodies were not used to operating based on the amount of sunlight. It was only today they woke with the sun and, thus, will go to bed with it too. Open, vulnerable conversation. The stars invited trust.
The morning brought revitalization. Yesterday was adventure while today is gratitude. Cleansing. They packed up the tent, packed up the trunk and packed into the car. “I feel more alive than I have in a while,” said de Nevers. The Subaru made its way back to El Cap, to see the sun rise on the wondrous rock formation, driving with Jack Johnson playing and sweatshirt hoods on sleepy heads. Only the top layer of the cliff was yellow with sunlight. The meadows were filled with mystically thick fog.
On the way out of the park, de Nevers, who was behind the wheel, swerved to the side one last time.
“Holy shit!” Asher shouted. On the side of the road, poking around with her paws, a small brown bear was looking up at the car, maybe 15 feet away. She stared and continued scrounging through the leaves with her nose. They watched the bear for 10 minutes until it was time to move on.
They drove back up the cliffside winding road, out of the park and eventually back to Stanford campus. After all, the Big Game was in a few hours. After the escape, it was time to shower and put on red and go back to being a college kid. A college kid who had been to Yosemite. A college kid who had formed connections around a campfire.