Before college, I’d never heard the question before. It just didn’t come up. But when I showed up in Ithaca, New York for college, in August, the hottest, grossest place on the planet, I began hearing the question more and more. At first it didn’t bother me, but then it got old. It got old real fast. A question that was both necessary and annoying, mainly because the answer took so long and involved too many follow-up questions.
Where are you FROM?
The reason I’ve always hated this question is that it makes me feel like a weirdo. Because the answer is so hard to explain because the circumstances of my upbringing are pretty rare. This is how the conversation always goes:
Other: Where are you from?
Self: Yosemite Village, it’s in Yosemite National Park.
Other: That’s in Wyoming, right? With all the geysers?
Self: No it’s in Northern California, like four hours due east of San Francisco.
Other: Oh yeah Yosemite! Cool. I have a friend who’s from there. He lives in Fresno. Where are you from?
Self: I grew up in the park, like close to Yosemite Falls, near the visitor center.
Other: Yeah but what town was that?
Self: Yosemite Village.
Other: So wait you lived IN the park? I don’t get it. Were you raised by, like, wolves or something? [Uproarious laughter, as if I’ve never heard that one before].
Self: [Blank stare] No my dad was the park dentist and my mom was a teacher/administrator at the Yosemite School, where I went.
Other: But what if you, like, wanted to go to the mall and stuff?
Self: We had to drive far away, normally to San Francisco or Fresno or something.
Other: Oh. MYGOD. I would have died.
Self: I know.
As boring as that conversation was to read just now, imaging how boring it would get after you’ve had it 1000 times. Add to that the completely obnoxious pronunciation of my name (“OAR-LAWN-DOE”), my mixed racial heritage, and my gay face, and you have one complex, irritatingly Californian situation to explain. I know it sounds right now that I’m making myself sounds super special and unique. But that’s not the word I’d use for it. The words I’d use are “weird” and “annoying.”
My childhood in Yosemite was literally a Disney cartoon. Most of my afternoons were spent running all over the woods like “Pocahantas” and then singing until a bird landed on my fingertip like in “Snow White” (Newsflash: don’t do that, don’t touch animals, don’t feed them, or I’ll come to your house and murder you). Growing up here was magical. Like in the trite way that childhoods can be magical. There is something about the combination of wilderness, California, pine trees, campfires, sandy river beaches, clear cascading water, woodland forts, and gift store candy, that made Yosemite the best place in the world to be a kid.
I loved living in Yosemite until high school, when living here meant that I had to attend school in a terrible little town two hours away by bus called Mariposa where everyone wore cowboy hats and used the word “faggot” in an unironic way (Side note: “Fag,” used ironically, is one of my favorite words ever. But it’s kind of like the “n” word. Only fags and mega allies can use it). Mariposa was the closest town with a real high school, so it was kind of our only option aside from boarding school, which I couldn’t have done because when I was 14 I had the maturity of most 7 year olds. While the cool kids at school were drinking Budweiser at cowboy parties, my Friday nights were spent at my friends’ houses in PJs, wearing our retainers, watching TGIF. Seriously. I did this until I was 18 years old. I’m what you call a late bloomer. Maybe even a never bloomer (if such a thing exists)…
Once I was in high school, I started resenting where my family lived. Why couldn’t we just live in a normal place with a normal high school that wasn’t full of whackos? This is when I had my “ah-ha!” moment. When I realized that if I didn’t go to a fancy East Coast college I would forever be stuck in a town like Mariposa. It was at that point that I started working really hard to get the hell out of town. I joined every club and extracurricular activity possible, and did as many nerdy things as I could. I’d spend my weekends in Yosemite, working at the Ansel Adams Gallery and reading the Andy Warhol diaries, fantasizing about moving to New York upon graduating from high school. I’d move there and immediately be part of the downtown art scene. I’d be like “No thanks, I don’t need any of your cocaine this evening.” And all the cool drug addict artists would be like “Oh my god he’s so cool because he doesn’t even have to do drugs to be as cool as us.” And I, overhearing their exclamations, would be all “I know.”
My whole life was about New York when I was in high school. I was obsessed by Basquiat and the 80s. Just imagining the glamour of the Interview magazine (Sidenote: I interviewed to work there once; they were not impressed). I didn’t end up moving to Manhattan until I was out of college, but I always loved coming home to Yosemite from New York. In New York, I opted to live on the West Side. With its wider streets and mellower vibe, I like it more than the screechy East Village, full of NYU students yapping about whatever Long Island towns they grew up in. Also, the West Side was closest to California. When I lived in New York and people would ask me where I lived I’d say “On the West Coast of Manhattan, the closest thing to California this city has to offer.”
Getting to Yosemite from New York is kind of an ordeal: Cab to JFK, flight to SFO, four-hour drive to Yosemite, usually through snow and ice, and finally you’re here. But I always felt so glamourous on these trips. My New York life transitioned perfectly into my mountain life. A lot of people don’t recognize this, but for me there have always been a number of similarities between Yosemite and New York City. Firstly, the only type of people who live in these places are extremists. You have to be kind of a freak to want to live in such a crazy environment. Secondly, they are similar in scale. Manhattan is slightly larger than Yosemite Valley but I always found it comforting, when running around on those streets, that the big ol’ city wasn’t much larger than the “tiny town” where I grew up. And finally, both places are filled with tourists from all over the world. It’s common to hear ten different languages on a trip to the grocery store.
Yosemite has always been there for me to come home to. All those years on the East Coast, in college and grad school, and living in The City. It was always that place that I came home to. To me, Yosemite is such a symbol of California. Of untouched wilderness. Of idealism. Of moving West. Of glamourous, wild, outdoor space.
One of the main reasons I moved back to California from New York was Yosemite. I knew my parents would eventually retire from their jobs and have to move so I figured I may as well be out here, just a drive away, as long as they stayed in the park. A fact of life here is that it’s impossible to retire in Yosemite Village. All residences are for park employees, rented from the Federal Government while you work here. Thus, the minute you retire you have to go.
And speaking of the house I grew up in, it’s nothing to write home about. It’s a humble, small, rickety house. It was built in 1929, is sort of craftsmen style, has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and looks like a log cabin from the outside. Tourists often stopped me as I walked into my house, asking “Hey, you kid! How much to rent this charming little homeless cabin for the summer?” And I’d be like [eye roll] “No, SIGH, I live here.” Where I grew up wasn’t glamourous, at least to the naked eye. To me, it’s home. It’s a literal gingerbread house where I had my Disney cartoon of a childhood. But to most people it will look like what it is. Just an old park service house, painted brown to disguise it from airplanes, filled to the brim with my parents’ art and objects.
I always sort of resented the assumptions people made about me based on where I grew up. Most people assume that anyone who was raised in a rural place is dirt poor. This was untrue in my case, my parents both went to Berkeley, my mom was a school administrator and my father was a dentist. These misperceptions bothered me for a couple reasons. The most obvious one being that no superficial 19-year-old wants his college peers to think he’s poor, status is still important when you’re young and obnoxious (I was). The thing that annoyed me more, however, was the assumption that anyone with the financial freedom to decide where to live, anyone with substantial capital, would choose to live in a city or a suburb, that somehow living in the wilderness was something no one with full choice would choose and the only people who lived in the woods were yokels who just somehow ended up there randomly. Which was just so ridiculous to me if you think about history. Like what would our culture be like if Thoreau hadn’t explored the outdoors? Or John Muir? Or Teddy Roosevelt? Our history is littered with people who were obsessed with nature, who knew that preserving it was important to our collective spirit. These people contributed endlessly to literature and art. And what are cities without literature and art but big shopping malls?
I guess it’s the humility of my house and my hometown that I’ll miss the most. When I went to college, I remember feeling a little ashamed of my background. The majority of the kids I went to college with were upfront about their fancy prep school pedigrees. I couldn’t compete with that. Felt like there was something wrong with me that I grew up stacking wood, reading, staring out the window at snow, going on weekend trips to San Francisco. But at a certain point this shame turned to pride. Somehow, I’d gone from being this kid who grew up in the middle of the woods to someone who magically fit into my cutthroat, competitive college. Whose grizzled perspective could only come from growing up in an extreme place.
My parents are moving to a house that is, in most ways, an upgrade. It’s the suburban house I wanted when I was 15 and just wanted to live in a “normal” house and go to a “normal” school and live somewhere where we didn’t have to drive 4 hours to go to a real grocery store or the movies. Where there is a mall and other places that normal teenagers love to go. Their new house is lovely, a 1970s modern home tucked up on a hill overlooking Sonoma County, on a country road that leads to Calistoga. It’s also twice the size of the house I grew up in.
I spent the weekend at my parents house in Yosemite putting my childhood into boxes, looking at old pictures, and laughing at how gross and stupid I was as a child (I was really dumb, like in an amazing way that’s kind of hilarious). Talking about the difference between this house in Yosemite and the house she’s moving to in Sonoma County, my mother said “This house is somewhere, my new house is nowhere.”
There is a feeling when you are in Yosemite Valley, that you are somewhere. The giant granite cliffs are a reminder of how tiny you are. The only other place that makes me feel so small, so humble, is New York, where the skyscrapers do the job of the granite cliffs, reminding you that you’re just a tiny human. I’m sure someday my parents will feel that their new house is “somewhere.” But that will take a while.
As for me, the idea that I can never go “home” again is a sad one. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this, like anyone who will listen, just in order to hear their stories about their parents moving. Most people, when they hear about my parents moving, just say “Wow, that’s just, like, sad.” And indeed it is sad. As someone who loves home, who loves houses, who is a nester and a homebody. As someone whose career is based on the idea of home (what else is interior design but the creation of “home”?). The fact that I’ll no longer be able to return to the place that made me who I am, that I played in as a child, that I railed against as a teenager, that I came back to as a twenty something, that I loved and hated my whole life. That is sad to me. This house, which my parents moved into when I was five, is a member of our family. A family member who we will all miss incredibly, especially at times we are used to being here. Like Christmas, when we open presents and sit around the fire. Or the spring, when we come up to visit the roaring waterfalls and vibrant wildflowers. Or summer when we come up to lay on the sandy beach near Superintendents Bridge. Or autumn when we come up to see all the oak trees turn, as they have today, fluorescent yellow.
My parents house is the second “home” I’m saying goodbye to this year. The other one being my ex-boyfriend, whom I spent the entirety of the summer mourning, crying over, missing. To me, because we lived together, he was home. There were small moments that told me I was home. One of them is burned into my brain. We were sitting on the sofa, sunlight cascading through the windows and he looked at me and smiled, the warmest most loving smile I’ve ever seen, and I felt my heart come out of my chest and go directly into his eyes. I know that sounds ridiculous and crazy and obsessive, but maybe that’s because love itself is ridiculous and crazy and obsessive. And when you are in love with someone moments like that happen all the time. Those moments, collectively, are home.
We broke up in June, a few weeks before my birthday. I spent the whole summer being sad about him, wishing he would come back so that I could feel like a whole person again. My body just ached with loneliness and sorrow and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. Should I move back to New York just to jolt myself out of this depression? Should I move to San Francisco? Should I do something crazy and change careers? There was no way to get over it.
Except time. One day a few weeks ago I was walking through the airport when I realized my body no longer hurt from missing him so hard. My chemistry had reset. And since then, little snippets of myself, snippets I’d lost because my whole life had been about him and how much I loved him, started to come back to me. “Oh,” I thought, “I can be funny sometimes.” “Wow. My whole life is not worthless.” “Exciting things are happening for me. I have great people in my life. People that care about me a lot. I can be kind of smart sometimes.” All of these things I’d forgotten about myself came flooding back. And that’s when life started to get good again. Because when you see the good in yourself, it allows you to see the good in other people, how wonderful your friends and family are. You are finally free to be as excited about the world as you should be. Finally, I could enter my apartment, formerly “our” apartment, without feeling this giant, oppressive void, the loud, lingering ghost of a happiness that no longer existed.
When you lose one home, one that you are used to and in love with, it takes a while to develop a relationship with a new one. No one in my family is excited about my parents moving. But eventually I know we will all be fine. That we will start to create new traditions in their new house. We will go to new places we haven’t been before. We will share new experiences, different from the traditions we’ve had the past 25 years in Yosemite. And in this I think we will find that we learn more about each other and ourselves than we expect. That it will bring out new, unexpected parts of our personalities.
So as I sit here at the dining table I grew up eating at, surrounded by stacks of boxes that reach the ceiling, stacks of boxes that contain my family’s history, I can feel this version of home slipping away. The comfortable, eclectic house I grew up in is already gone, taken down, packaged up. And when the moving van comes on Wednesday, it’ll be gone forever.
PS: If you are curious about what my childhood home and neighborhood look like, check out the Google Street View here. Look for the house with the silver Volvo station wagon out front (speaking of things I was sad to say goodbye to). Don’t forget to look up. Yosemite Falls is right up there!