YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - Everybody gathers around Joe, the guy who seems to have all the answers. Only he doesn't.
He's worked in Yosemite National Park for about 30 years, and is trying to advise anxious guests about what's open, what's closed as the government shutdown enters its second day. If they want to see the valley floor, he says, they'd better get in their cars and drive now, before more of the roads are closed. They probably won't find an open restroom along the way, but the food court in Yosemite Village might be - for now. Then again, they might get turned away. Who knows? It's hour by hour now.
I never intended to get a firsthand look at the closure of a national park. I knew before I left Chicago that it was a possibility, but held out hope. Now here I am, trying to figure out what to do in my third day in the park, when some of the wonders I'd come to see are inaccessible.
My friend Barb and I got here last Monday, not exactly regretting the night we spent in San Francisco, which was nice, but eager to get to the wilderness. That first day, we tried to drive to, or get a glimpse of, as many of the iconic attractions as possible - Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls - and got out to do short hikes and, in my case, take hundreds of photos. We marveled that they were some of the same ones that Ansel Adams photographed so long ago.
By Tuesday morning, everyone awoke to learn that the government, indeed, had shut down. But the park hadn't quite yet. Those with reservations in the park would have 48 hours to get out. We decided to make the most of it and drive to Glacier Point and do a long hike. But too late: The road to Glacier Point already was closed. Cars pulled in and stopped. People got out and started talking to each other.
Two from Belgium were on the last stop of a three-week tour of the American West. They'd seen Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon and now they wanted to see Yosemite. A young girl from South Korea told me she'd come with her mother and aunt, getting up at 5 a.m. and driving all the way from San Francisco on Tuesday morning. She wasn't supposed to get into the park, but she said nobody stopped them at the entrance. They made a short loop around the valley floor, then were heading back out - bitterly disappointed.
"This is crazy," says the girl, Songyi Cho. "How can a whole government shut down?"
We drove on, determined to hike. Some cars were funneling out of the valley, toward the exits, but many still were determined to eke out as much time as possible. We pulled off the road at the trailhead to Glacier Point and loaded up our daypacks. Three hours later, after climbing up switchbacks and encountering about 20 people along the way when there otherwise might have been hundreds, we saw what we came for - Half Dome towering in the distance, the valley floor spread out below us.
That's where we stayed for about 45 minutes, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, taking in the majestic view and listening to the wind and woodpeckers. Then it was time to head back and drive to Mariposa Grove to see the giant redwoods. Too late again. That road was closed.
Wednesday morning, we got up, determined to hike to the grove. We were supposed to go to Sequoia National Park on Thursday but knew this could be our last chance to see the giant trees. Desperate, we ask a young guy who works here as a mule wrangler what would happen if we drove back there anyway. Then you'd get a ticket he says. We ponder for a second: How much are the tickets?
But I learn that my disappointment pales in comparison to his. His mother, who hasn't seen him since Christmas, has come all the way from Georgia to visit, but the hotel where she and her sister are staying closed Thursday afternoon. By the end of the day, she and everyone else still in the park have to get out.
"Will you take our picture together?" she asks me.