I believe many people today haven't heard of the nightly Firefall in Yosemite National Park. Seeing it was one of the joys of my childhood.
My family had a long history with early Yosemite starting in the 1920s. My grandfather ran the barbershop concession, and my grandmother worked in the lodge dining room. My mother and her siblings spent every summer there. Those were the days when Yosemite was a favorite spot for Hollywood actors and musicians.
Family stories told of my aunt at age 4 being bounced on the knee of a famous band leader. Another favorite story was of another aunt who was skiing a run adjacent to where a movie was being filmed. She took a long fall and screamed all the way down the slope. I was told that the movie studio paid for the use of the soundtrack of that scream in several horror films.
My mother continued the Yosemite tradition by taking our family for two-week vacations there every summer. This was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If you can imagine, reservations were not yet required. One would drive around looking for the best open campsite. We were partial to Camp 7, which was close to the Merced River.
I remember setting up camp, smelling the wonderful pervasive aroma of pine trees, hearing the roar of the river, and the sound of the wind high in the tall trees. It didn't take long for us kids to don bathing suits and run down to the river. If we went early in the summer, the water was icy cold and quite shocking until our bodies got used to it. We spent many hours swimming, fishing, riding the current on inner tubes, and sitting on the warm rocks with our feet in the water.
My mom wasn't a fan of camping and each year made our camp look more and more home-like. She put rugs on the floor of the tent and bedspreads on the cots much to our amusement. In the center of our camp was the campfire pit. It was great at night for singing, roasting marshmallows, and visiting with other campers. I remember my childhood impression of a warm sense of belonging and community. It always seemed so disappointing when we would return home to neighborhoods where people were isolated in their individual houses and yards. Lost was the great sense of connection and relationship of the campground.
In the evenings in Yosemite, the most spectacular event of all would occur: the Firefall.
Camp Curry was the center where there were little stores and a stage for musical entertainment. People would either go to the open meadows or to Camp Curry for a great view. A very impressive tall mountain named El Capitan rose abruptly from the valley floor behind Camp Curry. The lodge at the summit was Glacier Point. Every evening as darkness fell, we would sit raptly gazing up at the cliff above where a huge bonfire blazed.
The music would stop and anticipation grew. Finally, a man would cup his hands around his mouth and call, loudly, "Hello, Glacier!" We'd hear a faint return call "Hello, Curry!" Then our caller yelled out, "Let the Firefall!" Above on the cliff, burning embers were pushed over the edge. The embers cascaded down in the shape of a waterfall glowing bright orange. A woman would sing "The Indian Love Call" song until the last embers had fallen and the cliff again became dark. You can imagine what wonder this kindled in a child!
Many years later, when I married, I took my husband to camp in Yosemite. This was in the late 1960s. We went early to a meadow to get a good place to view the Firefall. I was confused when the crowds didn't appear. We asked where everyone was and found out that the Firefall had been discontinued in January 1968 due to environmental concerns. I felt a bit foolish but was sad at the loss of this amazing wonder.
Esther Halvorson-Hill is a member of the Jottings Group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.