My Yosemite Ambassador Story
By John P. DeGrazio
2016 marks the Centennial Anniversary of the National Park Service. When I first learned of the Yosemite Ambassador program to celebrate this anniversary, I was highly impressed with the group of athletes, musicians, and local personalities who were selected. I was profoundly happy for my good friend Les Marsden who is the founder and conductor of the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra. There is no better representative of Yosemite than Les who has masterfully written symphonic poems celebrating the Yosemite Anniversaries that the symphony has been performing at free concerts throughout the Yosemite region.
Shortly after the first group of ambassadors were unveiled, I was approached by Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher to join this group and help represent Yosemite during the yearlong celebration. I was chosen as a result of my involvement in a volunteer group called the Yosemite Gateway Partners. My heart jumped, and so did I at the opportunity to foster goodwill in the place I love so deeply. One of my first duties as a Yosemite ambassador was to share a story about my connection to Yosemite. There were so many to choose from, but I decided to recall a recent adventure with my daughter Mia who wanted to hike to the top of Half Dome before her tenth birthday.
Mia spent much of her young life hiking the trails of Yosemite. Most of them were fairly easy. Relatively easy would be more accurate. Every time we would see Half Dome on one of our hikes, which was often, I would ask her if she ever want to hike to the summit with me. “No!”, “never!!”, and “no way!!!” were just some of her responses. But then, one day, there was a transformation in her attitude toward adventure. She was nine, and we were in Zion National Park. I brought her to Angels Landing for a morning challenge up the chains. She was excited but became frightened. I was able to coach her through that experience, and although she was never comfortable on the landing, her desire for adventure grew exponentially that day. On the hike down, she mentioned that she was interested in Half Dome. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing so I feigned excitement.
After a few training hikes that Mia successfully completed, we were ready for our big Half Dome hike together. We packed our gear the night before, and I was certain to include peaches and chocolate in our lunch. Peaches have played a significant role on just about every summit journey I have made ever since a 1997 climb of Mt. Rainier. I met a kind woman at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport who shared a story of her Rainier summit and the reward she chose. When she packed a can of peaches in her backpack, her guide immediately removed it for its weight. She later secretly repacked it and unveiled it on the peak for a shared treat whose sweetness outweighed any of the struggle to carry it to the top. That story has always resonated with me, and I live by her words every day. It’s also why I call this blog the Can O Peaches.
Mia and I began our journey in the predawn hours under a blood moon. We arrived at the John Muir Trail ready for our ultimate expedition. I have spent many trips standing by the Happy Isles Bridge preparing my groups for the Half Dome hike, but this was a unique opportunity I’ll never forget. She was attentive and ready to go. The photo above is proof of a successful journey, but the rest of this story is shared on my Official Yosemite Ambassador Page of the Yosemite National Park website.