Ready to know more about San Diego?


Go Stare at a Rock

Food critic Troy Johnson recounts seeing Yosemite’s El Capitan for the first time

By Troy Johnson

I am yet another person telling you to stare at rocks. The gazillionth person. Another person who stood there for an hour and stared at the most hyped rock in the Western Hemisphere, who muttered “but” and “I mean” and long, drawn-out expletives people use when they’re overwhelmed

or prohibitively stoned. Another person who bought the mug and ballcap because, despite a strong aversion to the entire souvenir industry, I needed something from this place. A token, a proof, a communion wafer of its somehow purer capitalism.

As a kid, I had a T-shirt that said, “Go Climb a Rock.” It was a soft hand-me-down from an unknown elder boy who’d stared at rocks before me. It would take 40 years before I obeyed that shirt. In my defense, California is quite large, as is my capacity for inertia. I finally visited Yosemite in 2019 for two reasons: because my wife and I took a road trip through the state for our honeymoon, and to release some of that nagging unvisited-national-park shame.

There is a moment when you descend into Yosemite Valley. The cliffy road is narrow and steep and winding and terrifying. Whomever you’re with will not be sure you’re a good-enough driver. My wife gripped the door handle hard enough to banish blood and hope from her hands, noting how she’d never expected that so much beef jerky would be present at her death. As the driver, you’re also not sure you can handle this.

Because at some point you make a turn and you see them.

Those aren’t rocks. They’re planets. Those are what killed the dinosaurs. You instantly become smaller than you’ve ever been. A speck of cosmic bone dust trying to drive a car.

Feeling infinitesimal is the kick in the pants Yosemite gave me. Being a modern adult often means exhaustingly asserting your existence. With multiple bios floating around and constant photo documentation of our lives, it’s pretty easy to buy into the weight of our own proclamations of self. El Capitan snaps that out-of-wackness back into perspective. “Go Climb a Rock” could also have been “Get Over Yourself.”

Before you go stare at El Cap, you must watch two horror movies: Free Solo and Dawn Wall. Films about how this geological Kraken hypnotized a few people into dedicating their lives to it. We stood at the bottom and looked up. I held up my phone and traced Alex Honnold’s path across the face—holding on by his fingertips to an eighth-of-an-inch outcropping on a 3,000-foot-tall granite wall. He didn’t have a rope.

One early morning during our trip, I told my wife I wanted to “go see bears.” I was determined to have a run-in with one of the black bears that roam the valley, looking to snack on abandoned protein bars or on city people who wanted to go see bears. We were alone on the trail, probably because it was late November and the cold air was as sharp and cleansing as acupuncture.

I was walking with purpose when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a panic-sized bear 50 feet away and immediately whipped around and started marching back to the hotel. My wife steeled my nerves, and we watched the bear rub himself against a tree for a bit. Most violent backrub I ever saw.

That’s when I realized I had a half-eaten granola bar in my pocket and bears have a fairly good sense of smell, so I seized on that moment and hurried my tiny self in the direction of a souvenir mug.

Go Stare at a Rock

Share this post

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA