I had only just set up the tent when the heavens opened and all of Noah’s flood was upon us. The wife and kids took shelter in the car while I dodged hail and lightning to dig trenches with my camp shovel and drain the pooling water from around what would be our home for the next week. Amazingly, it worked. When the storm passed we found that the inside of the tent was still acceptably dry, nothing that a day of sunshine wouldn’t mop up.
Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite places. We’ve made a family tradition of our annual camping trip there. The meadows are about 8,600 feet above sea level and it takes a couple days to adjust to the thin air. The peaks framing the meadows reach elevations over 12,000 feet. When people think of Yosemite, they think of Yosemite Valley with its big granite cliffs and domes, but the valley accounts for only five percent of the park. The area around Tuolumne Meadows is wilder and less crowded.
An easy half-mile hike across the meadows brings you to Soda Springs, formerly a camping site of the park’s patron saint, John Muir. There are nice views of the Cathedral Range to the south and the Sierra Club maintains an old cabin here called Parson’s Lodge. Day hikers loiter inside examining maps, historical displays, and guides to the local flora and fauna.
At Parson’s Lodge a maybe twelve-year-old boy noticed my daughter’s butterfly net and asked if she’d caught any. She said she had. “Were they orange?” he asked. Yes, she said, they were orange and black. “Well then they were monarchs,” he said. My daughter knew this wasn’t right. She said that they were too small to be monarchs (in fact they were Pacific fritillaries). Sensing perhaps that he was in over his head, the boy discredited himself further by suggesting that “they were probably baby monarchs.”
He went on to ask my daughter what else she’d seen. She was looking for frogs, she said. “Frogs are reptiles, you know,” said the boy. Probably because he was a stranger, my daughter was gentler with her correction than she might otherwise have been. She explained that she was pretty well convinced that frogs were, in fact, amphibians. “Sure,” said the boy uncomfortably, “if you want to get technical about it. But a frog is a frog, if you ask me.”
We laughed a lot over this. My wife wondered if it weren’t a typically male trait, this need to be a know-it-all. The next day at Dog Lake we discovered a bird’s ground nest with three eggs in it. A paterfamilias who happened to be walking by with his brood declared the bird – which was bobbing and squawking to distract us from its eggs – a killdeer. It definitely was not, since it lacked the black bars across the breast which are typical of a killdeer. We later decided it was probably a spotted sandpiper.
The only book I brought to read while camping was John Glassie’s biography of Athanasius Kircher, A Man of Misconceptions. Kircher seems to have suffered from the “male” condition too. He knew, as far as he was concerned, an awful lot about everything, but in fact he got most of it wrong. For example, he boasted himself into a reputation for being able to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. He was called upon by popes and emperors to translate them. We know now that he was making it up as he went along, but no one else in Kircher’s day could actually read hieroglyphs and so he got away with it.
I don’t know if this desire to convince others of our own encyclopedic knowledge is a male trait, or simply a human trait. I do know that I sometimes overspeak. I’m trying to shake the habit, to unlearn things that I never really knew and embrace my rediscovered and probably invincible ignorance. This tree, for example. Is it a mountain hemlock or a lodgepole pine? How can you tell a dragonfly from a damselfly? And these little beetles with the iridescent backs – what are they called? I really have no idea.