The view from the top of Half Dome was just as spectacular as I knew it would be … and just as familiar. Kind of like coming home, really, to see the valley nearly 9,000 feet below, with its ancient glacial cut extending northeastward up Tenaya Canyon and El Capitan at the opposite end of the valley to the west; rolling mountaintops hiding fields and forests on the horizon opposite my granite perch. At 9:00 in the morning the sun warmed my back while I gazed into the distance, remembering Jossman Burrell and letting him know I’d finally made it. As I hoisted my backpack to pull out the notebook I felt the weight of the box containing his ashes. Two years Grampa Joss had been waiting for me to bring him back to this place that held his heart and soul. Given his deep affinity for the Dome, it seemed strange to me that he didn’t want his ashes to be released here, on this beloved and distinctive peak that dominated Yosemite’s skyline. He’d asked instead that his sooty remains be given to the grasses and soil of Tuolomne Meadows. But that was tomorrow’s task; for now he was just along for the ride.
I reached underneath the box and gently pulled out the precious notebook, lifting it away from the plastic bag and holding it tenderly, still enclosed in the cloth cover I’d improvised from an old pair of jeans. Gramps had carried one of many small, black notebooks with him each of the 765 days he’d served as a ranger in Yosemite Park. Sometimes he made notes in them but mostly he sketched with rigorous detail whatever caught his eye, from wide landscape views to the tiniest bit of lichen on a ponderosa pine, every page signed with his initials. This particular notebook detailed images of the 16-mile route to the top of Yosemite’s iconic dome, from the base of the trail at Vernal Falls to the very view in front of me. Its cover was an assemblage of scrapes and divots, its leaves frayed at the edges, the elastic cover band hanging limp with used-up stretch. I knew every page like the back of my hand. He’d left me his entire collection of Ranger Notes, as he called them, including the notebooks he’d kept here as well as the later set from his subsequent assignments in Mesa Verde and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks. Thirty years he’d worked in the Smokies, but they never pierced his spirit like this place did.
As a kid growing up in Knoxville, I always looked forward to visits from Gramps, until I got old enough to stay with him at the park for the occasional overnight or long weekend. Much as he loved the Smokies, when time came for our “evening visits,” after dinner and before bedtime, it was always the Yosemite notebooks he wanted to show me, this one his pride of them of all. I couldn’t hear his stories about climbing Half Dome too often, and got to know every mile of the trail from afar, gazing at the finely detailed sketches as he described the thrills and challenges of his many climbs. I remember when I asked him why he put his initials on each page, since he never ripped out any pages and never showed the notebooks to anyone but me?
“Always claim what’s yours, Two!” he pronounced. Having the same initials as his, he called me “JB2” as a youngster, but then he shortened it to just “Two,” a nickname only he got to call me. “Not to be selfish or greedy, but to be responsible for your place in the world. Both good and bad, and even the things no one else might ever know about. Be the owner of what’s yours. That includes the things you say and the dreams you dream, not just the books in your bookcase.” His gently rounded fingers turned the pages where he’d sketched scenes from the Little Yosemite, the part of the Half Dome trail that breaks away from the Merced River and traces the arc around the back side of the dome.
“Here’s where the trail comes the closest to Sunrise Creek,” he mused, while I nodded at the familiar images in anticipation of what was coming next. “It’s very important for hikers to stay on the trail in order to preserve the environment,” he said like a mantra, “…but as a park ranger I had my run of the place, and on a hot day Sunrise Creek was the best skinny dipping in the whole park.” He continued, turning the page with a conspiratorial giggle, “Right here, at this curve in the trail where it’s closest to the creek, I could leave the trail and walk about 15 yards further west to a massive log that had fallen over the creek. I came to think of that log as my own personal bridge, although I’d bet plenty of animals used it as well.”
As the next page came into view I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “And the huge, concave boulder at the other end of that log was like your own personal art studio, wasn’t it Gramps? And after you had a swim you’d sit with your back against the warm boulder and you’d sketch?”
“That’s exactly right, Two. That boulder curved around me like a cup scooped out exactly to match the shape of my shoulders. So, now what? You wanna tell the rest of the story?”
My memories were yanked back to the present moment, sitting there on the bare granite precipice, just me and a couple of marmots in the morning sunlight at 8,839 feet. I gazed in disbelief at the image on the page, an image I’d seen more times than I could count. As often as I had flipped through these pages, both growing up as Gramps grew old and in the two years it had taken me to save the money for this pilgrimage, I’d never seen it before. There, on the page where Gramps had so lovingly drawn the backrest boulder at the end of his own personal footbridge, were his initials, JB, just like on every page. But on this page there was a “2” next to the initials. “JB2,” it said. I only spent the briefest moment wondering if the “2” had always been there and I just hadn’t noticed it? Or had he added it late in life? He had added it, for sure. Not a shadow of doubt in my mind, this was a message he’d crafted just for me, probably in the last days before his cancer won the fight.
I stowed the notebook as carefully as my shaking hands could manage and quickly ate the protein bar I was counting on to fuel the next portion of my trek. Bidding farewell to the view, the marmots and the mountaintop, I descended the 400 feet of Half Dome’s infamous cables, with another 4,400 feet of downhill to cover before reaching the valley floor. First, though, an off-trail excursion. It was easy enough to find the trail’s closest meeting with Sunrise Creek. After looking in all directions to make sure no one saw me leave the trail, I headed up the creek, bushwhacking through the scrub as I searched for the Grampa’s personal footbridge. Worn and flaking on the top and outer edges, smooth and whole on the underside that received the creek’s splashes and steam, the log easily supported my weight and was amply wide enough for my hiking boots to find secure footing. I watched briefly as a water ouzel flipped and splashed among the streambed rocks, unfazed by the water’s rushing current. By the time I got all the way across the log I was holding my breath at the sight of the boulder, a mere marble left behind in the wake of the same glacier that had sliced the Dome in half. Stepping around to the south-facing side of the boulder, I could almost see Grampa’s shoulders resting against the boulder’s inner face, his knees drawn up as he sketched in the morning light.
The wind carried Grampa Joss’s voice straight into my ribs: “Claim what’s yours, Two.” Leaning into the concavity, I saw a crack in the lower left-hand edge of the boulder, just at the spot where the “2” had been added to the initials on the notebook sketch. A tiny metallic loop stuck out from the crack, barely discernible from the shadows it cast, rusted as it was with weather and time. But the brass key that emerged as I pulled it free from the crack had somehow escaped the effects of weathering. The number 1022 — JB2 — stood out in stark relief as the key flashed in the light reflected by the waters of Sunrise Creek.
The key accompanied me the next day to witness the release of Grampa’s ashes into the warm breeze blowing across Tuolumne Meadows. It held fast as I rode the return bus to Oakland and two planes to Knoxville. It trusted me, just like Gramps, to claim what was mine. The $20,000 check in the safe deposit box was chaperoned by a letter he’d written two years before, nearly to the day. “You know I’m not a man of means,” it said, “but you deserve as much as I can give you, beyond a collection of sketches and musings from a guy who loved trees and rocks nearly as much as he loved his granddaughter. I’ve been putting away $1,000 each year since you were born, plus all the interest that was earned by the time I write these words. No matter if it takes you a year or twenty to get this letter, what’s yours is yours, and I’m glad for you to have it. I love you. – Gramps.”