Arriving at Clark Point on a March afternoon in 1943, Yosemite’s Employment Manager Frank Ewing happened upon a solitary man seated on a rock on the side of the trail. Visitors were few to the park in 1943, and so the chance encounter was rare.
After saying hello, the two struck up a conversation. “This trip isn’t for me. It is for my son who is a sailor in the U.S. Navy, and has a furlough for a few days,” the man told Ewing, explaining that both his son and wife were hiking to the top of Nevada Falls while he waited below.
The couple’s other son had been killed on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and the father wanted to get his remaining son away from the war to be with his mother for a short while before heading back to the Pacific Theater.
In a memorandum on the encounter to NPS Director Drury days later, Frank Superintendent Kittredge stated, “If the trails of Yosemite National Park can help in the stabilizing of the mental condition of parents who have lost their sons in the war, or can help to give a clear perspective of the things worthwhile and the things worth fighting for, as in this case, the parks are serving a grand purpose.”
There is no record of the family’s name in Yosemite’s. We don’t know how long they stayed in the Valley, if the mother and son made it to the top of the falls. Or what they talked about on their hike? We can assume that they came from somewhere in northern California, wartime fuel rationing making any long trips virtually impossible by 1943.
Kittredge believed that Yosemite had a larger role to play in America’s war effort, asserting in a 1942 radio address, “In these [wilderness] areas, the mind finds some peace from the strife of the war-torn world; the body gains fresh vigor for renewed efforts in the fight to preserve the things for which America stands.” The park hosted over six thousand convalescing navy servicemen beginning in 1943, turning the Ahwahnee into a hospital until 1945.
Likewise, America’s favorite ski bum Warren Miller first discovered skiing while on leave from the navy at Yosemite’s Badger Pass in 1945, where he inadvertently set fire to the cabin he was staying in after setting the gasoline soak rags he had used to remove wax from the bases of his skis. “Flames, forty three feet high, were shooting out of my cabin chimney and had already set fire to three trees, a nearby house trailer, and the district rangers (sic) convertible, and I was standing there in my jockey shorts,” Miller humorously recalled in his 1958 memoir Wine, Women, Warren & Skis.
Yet, the tale of grieving family’s visit to Nevada Falls fit within Kittredge’s vision of Yosemite’s role both during and following the war – a place of quite solace, in which the nation could reflect upon Yosemite’s beauty and heal from the wounds of war. But such solace became increasingly hard to find in the postwar years as millions flocked to Yosemite. Visitor numbers in March 1946 rose 315 percent from the previous year. By 1954, that number exceeded 1 million. Roads, lodgings, campgrounds, trails, and concessions not upgraded since the 1930s proved woefully inadequate to accommodate the sudden surge in tourism. Yosemite’s popularity grew in part from growing national affluence and American’s strong desire to travel following the war, but also built upon a shared cultural sentimentality towards the solace of nature that stemmed from the late 19th century and early 20th century. While its easy to romanticize Yosemite during World War II, we should instead see the grieving family as a part of a continuum of cultural expectations of the park’s meaning and purpose.