Driving from Merced to Yosemite, you go through a small town called Planada; interestingly enough, it's the last town before you leave the Central Valley. Most people who drive through it hardly take notice, including myself, unless getting gas or a taco from Ramon’s taco truck parked in the lot next to El Campo Market. I have driven through it hundreds of times, always curious about who lives here.

This past month, we had a couple of day trips with some youths from Planada, thanks to an introduction by our board member, Lamar Henderson. He introduced me to Martín Díaz and Francisco Mendoza who run a program at El Centro, a community center there.

Martín grew up in Huron, a community similar to Planada in many ways, and identifies with the kids as being similar to him. He went from there to UC Berkeley where some of his classes were larger than his high school. And after graduating from “Cal” , he came back to the Central Valley as a community organizer, and runs El Centro.

Francisco grew up in Merced, took lots of Advanced Placement courses at Merced High, and went to San Jose State to major in chemical engineering. But philosophy caught his interest, and he transferred to Fresno State where there is a strong philosophy program. He graduated from there and was planning to go to the Peace Corps to get some international experience. He found a job posting, though, with El Centro, and ended up taking that and, as he said, “I am doing Peace Corps work in my own back yard.”

The kids from Planada are really cool. Oscar, Joey and Eric are in 8th grade. Oswaldo and Daniel (Joey’s brother) are in 10th grade and attend high school in Le Grand (Planada is too small to have a high school). They are the core of the boys in the after-school program at El Centro that Martín and Francisco run. They are a really close unit, with activities after school that keep them occupied and out of trouble.

So, the Planada group has been up here with me twice on day trips – once in Yosemite Valley, and once in Tuolumne Meadows. And they love it for the opportunity to explore around in such beauty and find places that they didn't know existed.

We were in Tuolumne Meadows just last week, as the place was making its magical turn from fall to winter. Kenji came with us, so there were 9 of us. We met at the El Portal store, and went on to Tuolumne. On the way I showed them a secret spring that very few know about, right off the road. We all filled our bottles there and acknowledged how much life this spring was creating. Filling our quart bottles in mere seconds we tried to

calculate how many thousands of gallons were flowing by the minute, the hour and even the day; an interesting opportunity to work into our classroom of nature through observation and appreciation. Our next stop was the west side of Tenaya Lake. It was a partially overcast day, but that did not prevent the guys from wading out in the water to the first set of exposed rocks.

We then took a hike to the other end of the lake. Moving along the trail, in no rush at all, the boys continued to take notice of their surroundings, everything and anything that caught their attention. At one point, Oswaldo spotted an empty soda can on the water’s edge down a fairly steep gully, and he went down to pick it up. Further down the trail I pointed out a climb across the lake on Polly Dome that I had done early in my youth. It was on the last day of a class with the Yosemite Mountain School, and I have such great memories of what that climb meant to me. And I really appreciated the potential of what Yosemite could do for these guys.

We continued down the trail to the other end of the lake; it was windy and cold so we went on to my volunteer campsite at the Tuolumne Meadows campground, where we could enjoy the lunch that Kenji prepared and have a fire. At the campground we went about exploring the river, where some of the guys got in the water despite the chill in the air.

It was funto watch them and know that they could come back to the fire and warm up. Although it was already mid-afternoon, they were eager to keep going, so we hopped in our cars and went to Pothole Dome area and hiked along the river as it began its descent towards the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. All along the way there was a lot of excited chatter, fueled by enthusiasm that they were going to dive in the river where they had seen me in the movie, Return to Balance: A Climber's Journey.

They were also excited connecting with Kenji, asking him how to say all sorts of different things in Japanese. They were making all kinds of trilingual jokes between English, Spanish and Japanese, some not fit to print. As Kenji told me later, he appreciated one guy who said: “ It’s great to be bilingual and make these jokes. I really feel sorry for people who can’t appreciate bilingual jokes.”

We eventually made it down to the cascades. The sun was occasionally showing and there was a breeze that kept things cold. But, they all got in the river anyway. I marveled at their stoke to play in the water, despite the cool air and overcast day. Oscar’s exuberance could be heard throughout the area, maybe to the annoyance of a couple trying to enjoy the solitude – there really was no one around except for us and them. After a lot of shivering and drying off, we walked back as the sun got very low.

This time Martín, Francisco and I suggested we walk back in silence so that we could all listen to the sounds of nature. You could hear the water, the wind, and the crunching of footsteps. You could see the day’s last light hitting the peaks all around us.

We got to a point where the river turned right, opening back up to the meadow. Martín and Francisco handed the boys some notepads and pens, and asked if they would write and picture what they experienced that day. They spent quite a bit of time writing, until it was almost too dark to see. They then asked if they would share it with the group. Here are a few things that they wrote:

“I’ve learned a lot about nature. I heard the wind blowing, the birds chirping... and also got to experience a lot of new things. This is a one of the greatest place I’ve never been before… and going without technology for a while is not that bad…"

“I love when we walk in silence. You see everything in a whole other way. You pay attention to the things you could not hear before, because of a person talking. This Saturday I missed out on three parties, but I had forgotten all about them because of this wonderful place…I love the spring water Ron showed us…it’s so fresh, I can feel it going down my throat.”

“Today was another day without technology… I enjoyed all the peace and quietness... Just listening to nature talk, getting your mind off of every problem at home or at school. We picked up trash on our way, something good for nature.”

The next day, Kenji and I went on a hike out to Dewey Point to get a view of the Valley, and to reflect on our experience.

Some weather had moved in, so there was mist and occasional light rain. The forest along the meadow had different smells that got Kenji’s attention; some pungent, some sweet. We noticed some colorful-looking mushrooms popping out of the ground with markings that looked like something had taken a bite off the top. The moss was looking particularly vibrant and green. Our senses of smell and sight opened up into a youthful enthusiasm, reminding us of what the kids the day before were experiencing. We had a sense of freedom, and in freedom imagination can soar to infinite possibilities.

Arriving at the edge of the rim a few miles down, we encountered a view of the misty valley.

I was awestruck even with the familiarity that I had built over my many years, looking at the place from thousands of angles in all different weather conditions. The panoramic scenery that Yosemite offered at that moment stood in contrast to the microcosmic experiences that we had with the kids along pockets in the Tuolumne River the day before. Each carries a different kind of medicine, and teaches us about life.

What a different reality we had introduced to our Planada group, and what a lesson being in nature, and in particular being in Yosemite had taught us. We are all looking for healing in some way that allows us to balance ourselves. Anyone with an open mind can learn the lessons of nature, and my job is to facilitate and help in the opening of the imagination and senses. We also confirmed that we are really about building sustained relationships between the triangle of the kids, us and nature. So, our curriculum is nature, and nature is learned from the inside-out, not imposed from an outside authority. And our strategy is to enable the building of long-term relationships, not to provide a quick-fix experience. That is how simple it is, like I’ve always felt about climbing – it’s about learning the fundamentals to navigate your environment with respect, responsibility, while at the same time having serious fun.

Sacred Rok is grateful for the support of the California Endowment, through the Building Healthy Communities Collaborative in Merced, for funding to support the Planada trips.