***You walk into my office. It’s dark, but you can see my outline through the gloom. I’m sitting with my back to you, the slatted blinds casting thin slivers of moonlight over me. My face is lost to shadow. A cigarette smoulders in the ashtray on my desk next to a tumbler of some brown liquor. You say my name and I turn my head. I bring a bottle to my lips and laugh a bitter, gurgling laugh. I ask you what you want. You tell me you want to know what really happened, that summer day in Yosemite. I turn sour, I tell you to get out of my office. I stand up out of my seat and slam the bottle down on the table, spilling liquor over a stack of old newspaper cuttings. Get out, I tell you, but you stand firm. You whisper a name. I pause. I pick up the cigarette and draw it deep into my lungs.
“Samsung S3 Mini?” I murmur, as the smoke curls out of my mouth and the embers reflect in my eyes. “I haven’t heard that name in years…”***
I visited Yosemite National Park in late June, 2014. I’d left San Francisco the day before, after having met and briefly got to know the other 11 backpackers I would be driving across the States with over the next 3 weeks. We were all crammed into a tiny people carrier thing, all sitting on top of each other.
We arrived at the national park in the morning. There was a forest fire the day we went, far away in the valley, and so huge chunks of the road on the drive up into the park were obscured by thick smoke. Fire engines periodically flew past and disappeared ahead in the yellow smog. This is normal, apparently. We didn’t turn back at any rate, and the smoke cleared the higher we climbed, winding through empty roads.
The woods that cover Yosemite are so pristine, untouched, vast and tranquil that you kind of wonder what the hell they’re doing here. Things shouldn’t be allowed to be that pretty. We drove past clearings in the woods, where the towering pines gave way to peaceful expanses of grass, peppered with delicate white flowers and grazing animals. Think of Bambi and Thumper wondering through the wood, back when the film is nice, before Bambi’s mum gets filled full of lead.
The woods are so pretty, in fact, that it looks like a video game. I know this is an incredibly nerdy thing to say, but shut up, bear with me. In a video game, every single plant, tree, hillock, deer, is placed there with fanatical precision by some neckbeard-strapped dork swigging a can of Monster. Yosemite’s foliage is so perfect, it feels artificial. To put my amazement at this wood into context, I’m English. Yes, we have nature and national parks here too, but when you take the dog for a walk in the local woods, you’re always prepared to take a drifting plastic bag full in the face, or stumble across a mossy suitcase full of faded porn mags. Or body parts.
Every photo I took came out perfect. I was going wild with my phone camera, grinning like a buffoon with my nose pressed against the window. We eventually parked up at a national park centre thing, and it was time for hiking. We had two options, a 4 hour hike or a 45 minute one. The majority of us took the long one, because, well, why the bloody hell wouldn’t you. A few Welsh girls took the short trek because they couldn’t be bothered. A resounding ‘meh’ to them.
We set out on the hike in good spirits, enjoying getting to know each other, telling silly stories and navigating various paths across cliff tops, waterfalls, and streams. After an hour, we reached an astonishing viewpoint. We emerged from a close patch of woods onto a rocky cliff top, and the whole of Yosemite opened up before us. The forest floor stretched out into the distance hundreds of metres below, wavy in the heat. I stood a couple of metres back from the edge and took some photos, blubbering at the beauty and making vague awkward noises like ‘tsch… phwoar… aaah’.
I crouched low for a better shot, then put my phone back into the pocket of my shorts (which were actually swimming trunks because… I don’t know. I was just randomly wearing swimming trunks and the inner netting was chafing me to kingdom come). I stood up, hands on hips, admiring the view, feeling like the King of Nature, Lord of the Earth. Then I heard a plasticky rattle. I looked down. At my feet was my phone. A Samsung S3 Mini. Not the most expensive phone, but it had a thousand photos of my travels on it. My entire previous month’s adventures in New Zealand were encapsulated on that phone. Not on Facebook. Nowhere else. I had been in a 5 year relationship that had just ended. All the photographs from the relationship were on that phone. Songs I’d written were on it. Lyrics. Videos. Years of memories. Bloody everything was on that phone.
Now, I was watching the little bit of plastic slowly slide on the smooth stone toward oblivion. I didn’t even have time to speak. A single thought flashed through my head: should I try to grab it? Thankfully, my survival instincts told me that this would probably end with me silently spiralling through the air to my doom three hundred feet below. So I did nothing, just watched the little phone bounce toward the edge, time ticking past agonisingly slowly yet completely inevitably, like a lead weight sinking into a tank of treacle. My phone reached the brink, and, with a deafening silence and utter nonchalance from my phone, popped over the edge and into the void.
I stood there, statuesque, mouth open. Maybe it would… come back up? Maybe it might have bopped a passing eagle on the head and had its fall cushioned? Maybe there would be a hidden ledge and I would peer over and find my phone desperately clinging on to an exposed tree root, and I could heroically heave it back up to safety, like when Obi Wan randomly falls into that massive random pit at the end of the Phantom Menace before randomly jumping back up and murdering Darth Maul. God that film was rubbish. Jesus.
I lay down and peered over the cliff edge. Nope. Just air. Lots of air. I scurried around the cliff edge for a better view, or maybe to find a way down the 300 foot sheer rock face. Nothing. Not a snowball’s chance in hell. My new backpacker friends asked if I was okay, and I didn’t want to let on how absolutely fucking beyond devastated I was.
“Me? What? Haha! I’m fine! Worse things happen at sea, don’t they! Haha! Only a phone! Only some photographs, haha! Who needs those? Not I, that’s for sure. Not I. Shall we carry on with the walk then? Come on everyone!”
In my head it was a different story. Ever seen Castaway? Wilson? Yeah. Fucking Wilson. I’m sorry, Wilson. I marched away down the path, disappearing into the pines like a merry park ranger, with the baffled troupe of backpackers following me, swapping concerned glances.
After a couple of miles, I’d calmed down, somewhat. I still had a disposable camera. Yes, I now only had 23 or so photos for 3 weeks of adventures, but maybe that would make it better. Plus, I kept a diary in New Zealand, and I’d sent the very best photos to my mum, who would hopefully still have them. All was not completely lost.
Lower in the valley, we came to a shallow, but very wide, stream. Maybe 20 metres across, knee deep at its deepest. There was a bridge across further downstream, but we stopped to fill our water bottles up first in the beautiful clear water. I plunged my bottle under. The current took it instantly. Yes, I fucking know, I’m a moron.
My group watched me stand up slowly, deprived of the only two possessions I brought on the sodding hike, and one of them fearfully asked if I was okay. I croaked that I was fine, just fine, while thermonuclear war was raging between my ears. FUCK YOU YOSEMITE. FUCK OFF. GOD. FUCK. DICK HEAD. DIIIIIICK. HEEEEEEAD.
Looking back, my mind may have snapped at this point. Before the others could stop me, I had taken my shoes and socks off and thrust them into the arms of the nearest person, and was clambering hastily over the wet rocks on all fours. I had become Gollum, crawling and gibbering and bonkers. I stood in the stream and began to wade down after my bottle. The layout is difficult to describe. Basically, maybe 20 metres further downstream, there was a natural kind of waterslide. The pebble floor of the river dipped away, turning instead into one long, smooth, mossy, slippery slide. The water was cascading down this slide and crashing into a shallow pool at the bottom. Beyond that, huge boulders lay shattered in the stream, breaking the current. My bottle had gone over the slide and got stuck halfway down it, jostling in the current between two rocks. Bobbing slowly. Taunting me.
I padded to the top of the natural slide and looked down it. I called to my increasingly concerned group of backpackers at the side of the stream and asked how I should stop myself at the bottom. They didn’t know. I should also add, at this point, that we were still a hundred feet or so above the valley floor, and that beyond the slide, the pool and the boulders, there was a waterfall. Yeah. But, by God, Yosemite had robbed me of 2 years’ worth of memories. It was not going to claim my water bottle as well.
I sat on my bum and pushed off. I built speed instantly, careening wildly down the slick mossy rock, trying and failing to steer with my hands, smacking my ankles, bum, balls and wrists against outcrops of rock on the way down. I whizzed down the slide, twisting uncontrollably, water spraying in my face. I couldn’t see anything.
ASIDE: It’s important to bear in mind that I am a biased story teller. To me, this event was crazy intense. To those watching from the sidelines, it probably looked like me being gently floated down a mild incline and getting a bit damp. You don’t know, man. You weren’t there.
So there I was, being hurled like a rag doll in the thrashing torrent of water, blind and battered, breathless but filled with ice cold rage, defying the elements, defying the very essence of nature, the physical embodiment of man’s great struggle, of the eternal battle of man to find his place in this inhospitable universe. I hurtled past the water bottle, I reached out desperately, time and space throbbing around me with the intensity of the moment and… I felt plastic. I squeezed tightly, and as I finally hit the awaiting pool below, I ducked beneath the water, the cold taking my breath away. I paddled to the side and heaved myself out onto the rocks, away from the pull of the waterfall. I emerged triumphant, bottle held aloft, sun shining on me as if to say “Daniel Hackett, you are God’s Own Son, you are Lord of Yosemite, I submit to Thee”.
I climbed out of the water and was handed my shoes and socks. I filled my bottle and we carried on the walk. I don’t know where that bottle is now. It cost about 50 cents. I think I threw it away when we got back to camp. But it was never about the bottle.
***I stub the cigarette out, and swig the last of the whiskey. I sit down. Telling the story has exhausted me. You take my arm and help me into my chair. You ask if I know what happened to the Samsung S3 Mini. I chuckle softly and shake my head.
“My phone? It’s still there, two and a half years later, somewhere in the depths of Yosemite. Maybe one day in a thousand years some scientists’ll find it. Maybe they’ll look at the memory card. If they do, maybe they will finally make a Facebook album of the pictures of me absolutely off my tits in New Zealand. Maybe then, I will finally be at peace.”***