What does a van dweller get his girlfriend for her birthday? Good question. A special coffee table book? Nope, no coffee table. A new sweater? He could, but then she would need to get rid of an old one (new in, old out). A foldable jewelry holder to help her stay better organized in the car? Talk about being in the doghouse. I’m pretty sure that would result in an invitation to sleep on the couch (aka the driver seat) for a week. No…with me and Brittany sharing just 35 square feet of living space in the Element I’d have to get creative. No stuff for her birthday, but an experience, an adventure, a life changing story in a magical place. No, not Disneyland…Yosemite.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Birthday in Yosemite

We left Santa Barbara after work on Friday and kicked off her birthday weekend with dinner in Paso Robles and a romantic walk around the town square.  We decided that we want to return to Paso soon for a date weekend, but for now we had places to be. Since we wouldn’t get to Yosemite until after dark I planned to sleep in Oakhurst that night.  Saturday we’d wake up before dawn and drive into Yosemite to watch the sunrise from the Tunnel Viewpoint on Wawona Road. We stealth camp in Santa Barbara every night, how hard could it be to stealth camp in Oakhurst? I would soon find out.

I pulled into Oakhurst, a sleepy mountain town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and ventured off the main road to find a side street to park on. To my surprise, there are no side streets. All I found were business parking lots with no overnight parking and houses with private driveways. I drove back and forth, circled, and after more than an hour I finally stumbled upon an apartment complex just off the main drag. It was the type with 40 or 50 units and parking spaces between them. It was one of the quietest places we’ve stayed and I learned that apartment complexes (without security) are good places for urban stealth camping.

Early Saturday morning my alarm went off, I grabbed coffee at the gas station, and Brittany snoozed while I drove the long winding road into Yosemite Valley. We passed through the tunnel as the first hints of grey light were being cast over the valley floor. Photographers lined the lookout like paparazzi waiting for someone famous to step out of a restaurant, but this was going to be more epic than any Hollywood sighting, this would be the Yosemite sunrise on Brittany’s birthday. We bundled up and joined the onlookers, witnessing the changing pastel colors of the mountain walls before us while I excitedly pointed out where we’d be camping, hiking, and exploring over the next two days.  This was better than any birthday card from Hallmark.  It was the living, breathing earth in action, the sun kissing the mountains, water falling to the valley, trees blowing in the breeze, all bidding a Happy Birthday to my baby.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Yosemite Paparazzi

Paparazzi waiting for the sunrise in Yosemite

After Brittany’s birthday sunrise we drove through to the valley and stopped at the Yosemite Lodge for omelets and beer (yeah, I know it was early and we were going hiking, but it was Brittany’s birthday!).  We toasted to a magical weekend while tourists eyed us funny for drinking beer before brunch.  We didn’t care, we were here to celebrate!

We started up the Yosemite Falls trail by mid-morning and Brittany stopped at nearly every switchback to take a photo of the scenery. Soon she realized that pretty much everything that we’d see would be breathtaking and she didn’t need to photograph it all.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Chris & Brittany Yosemite Creek

Exploring Yosemite Creek above Yosemite Falls

The trail was busy with large groups of tourists but we pushed our pace and reached Upper Yosemite Falls before the mad rush. We ate snacks, explored the falls, crossed the bridge and hiked up to Yosemite Point for a better view of the backcountry and Half Dome. We even found a little snow and Brittany sat down for an Indiana winter photo op.  We scrambled across the steep granite slopes, exploring rocks and trees, eventually retracing our steps to find the trail.  We’d had our fill and were ready to return to the valley, it was still Brittany’s birthday and she was looking forward to some good wine and a campfire.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Brittany Tree Hugger Yosemite

My girlfriend is such a tree hugger, she even hugs dead trees!

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Chris & Brittany Yosemite Point

With my birthday girl on top of Yosemite Point

We grabbed pub food at the Mountain Room Lounge and celebrated our hike with good cold beer. We picked up firewood and we headed to Upper Pines, the only campground open in Yosemite Valley. During the winter it is walk-in registration only, so I wasn’t able to make reservations, but over the past 2 months we had been walking into campgrounds all over Southern California and I didn’t’ think we would have a problem in Yosemite.

“I love this campground Brittany. Every time I come here it just feels like home. I seriously can’t wait for you to see this place, we’ll set up camp, start a fire, and enjoy the…”

A sign loomed ahead of us, CAMPGROUND FULL. Crap.

I tried Lower Pines, closed. North Pines, closed. We drove to the Yosemite Lodge, no vacancy. I knew that Camp Four was open, but we live full time in our car and neither one of us was excited to set up a tent with a chance of rain in the forecast, we wanted to sleep in our own bed, in our own home. The visitor’s center said that all other campgrounds in and around the park were closed for the season. Crap.

Time for plan B, or C, or heck, plan A since we typically don’t even have a plan.  We drove back toward Curry Village and pulled off at the El Capitan viewing area, put the tailgate down, and celebrated Brittany’s birthday with a bottle of wine, sans campfire, sitting alone in the pitch black valley looking up at the twinkling stars and sporadic headlamps from climbers camping on the face the 3,000 foot tall El Cap wall. It was not part of the original plan, but it was pure magic, the universe putting us in the right place at the right time.

Later we drove the Honda to Curry Village, circled the parking lot that said “no overnight camping”, found a quiet space next to someone obviously sleeping in their camper and went to bed. In the morning we crawled out of the car to see the massive granite walls around us, thankful for the opportunity to wake up in such an incredible place. Saturday was actually Brittany’s birthday day, but we were celebrating her birthday weekend, and I had another surprise.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Yosemite Light BeamsBrittany had not been to the Ahwahnee Hotel yet, and I knew about the special Sunday Brunch that is hosted in their magnificent dining room. We walked in with no reservation and were not only seated, but at a table for two next to one of the large windows at the head of the room. The service and staff in the Ahwahnee were amazing. They wished Brittany a happy birthday and gave us more suggestions of places to visit in the Sierra Nevada. Brittany and I enjoyed the buffet of fine cheeses, fish, fruits, meats, omelets, and pastries. We lingered drinking coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice, talking about life and what it will look like when she celebrates her next birthday. We discussed dreams, ambitions, and adventures we wanted to do next. I paid the bill on what might be the most expensive breakfast that we will ever eat, but incredibly grateful to be able to treat my girlfriend to such an amazing experience in a magical place.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Chris & Brittany Ahwahnee

Brittany’s birthday brunch at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite

After breakfast we drove back to the Curry Village parking lot, filled our packs, and hiked to the trailhead for the Mist Trail and Nevada and Vernal falls. The forecast had called for rain and snow but so far we had stayed dry. It was a cold hike as dark gray clouds loomed overhead and the trail was not as busy as the previous day.  We got a little wet on the Mist Trail, passed Vernal Falls, and headed up to Nevada Falls.  Every turn in the trail was more gorgeous and we crested the top of Nevada Falls as light snow flurries began falling around us, a sort of “It’s a Wonderful Life” scene in the mountains.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Chris & Brittany on Mist Trail

Hiking up the Mist Trail with my beautiful girlfriend

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Chris & Brittany Vernal Falls

At the top of Vernal Falls

A ranger stopped and chatted with us, he said he had heard reports of tire chains being required on the road back to Oakhurst and 1 to 2 inches of snow falling just to the north, but so far the valley itself had stayed clear. We started back toward the valley and stopped along the way to play in nature, doing yoga poses, taking photos, and putting a tree branch in Brittany’s hair to prove that she really is a tree hugger. We jogged back down to the parking lot, partly to run, but mostly to stay warm. We were both wearing Luna Sandals and our toes were a bit chilly!

When we reached the Element we changed into warmer clothes and headed out of the valley. Wawona Road was busy with visitors leaving the park and as we neared the top of the mountain road the green trees turned white with snow and we drove through a high elevation winter wonderland.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Chris & Brittany at Tunnel View

Clouds over Yosemite from Tunnel Viewpoint

Before heading back to Santa Barbara we had one last thing to do, see the big trees of the Mariposa Grove. Brittany, ever the tree hugger, wanted to walk among the giants. We didn’t have enough daylight to do the full 6 mile trail, but we snapped photos of the Grizzly Giant, walked through the California Tunnel Tree, and kissed in front of the Faithful Couple. Brittany was amazed at the size of these living beings. The Mariposa Grove is definitely on our list of places to return to and explore.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Faithful Couple Kiss

The Faithful Couple Kiss

As we left Yosemite it was bittersweet. We had a magical weekend celebrating Brittany’s birthday, but it was too short. We needed more time…like a full year, to really get to know Yosmite and all of it’s grandeur. We will return. We had dinner at the Yosemite Falls Cafe in Frenso and set our sights on Paso Robles to stealth camp. Unfortunately I got tired and we stopped instead in Kettleman City along I-5 and slept between semi-trucks behind the In-N-Out Burger, not glamorous, but free.

Early Monday morning I woke up and started driving. I had to get back to work and we were still 3 hours from home. We stopped briefly at Cholame to see the James Dean memorial near the intersection where he died in a car accident in 1955. James Dean was another Hoosier, having graduated from high school just miles from where both Brittany and I grew up.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - James Dean MemorialBy 9:00 AM on Monday morning I was pulling into the office parking lot. It was not just another adventure weekend, it was my baby’s birthday, and what a birthday celebration it was. I couldn’t think of a better place to be for my girlfriend’s birthday, not to mention that I can’t think of a better person to call my girlfriend. We were both sad that we didn’t get to spend more time in Yosemite, but we know that we’ll be heading back to the Sierra Nevada soon. Brittany told me it had been the best birthday of her life. I felt a sense of accomplishment swell within me, until I realized that next year I will have to attempt outdo this birthday adventure. That’s okay, I have 364 days to get the plan together, and something tells me that as long as we are adventuring, in the mountains, hugging trees, and sharing good wine, Brittany May will be happy camper.