Common sense healing in the Yosemite Valley

Yosemite National Park overwhelms you. Driving up toward the south entrance on California Highway 41, I thought I would be ready for the experience. I had seen all the Ansel Adams pictures and rock climbing movies. Heck, my screen saver is an iconic shot of half dome!

I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t ready.

Making my way along a winding mountain road where you wouldn’t want to drive over 25 and just inches from a sheer drop for most of the journey, I was so focused on the road ahead of me I wasn’t prepared for the entrance into the Yosemite Valley, Tunnel View. An apt description. You drive through a tunnel hewn from mountain and when you emerge, well, let’s just say the heavens reveal themselves.

From Tunnel View the Yosemite Valley and all its splendor is revealed, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, a glimmer of Half Dome in the distance. You cannot believe it is real, the immensity and beauty is intoxicating. As I drove down from this perch to the valley floor and drew near the shadow of El Capitan I thought, “people climb that?” and more than once, “how crazy was the first person to climb that”. Over 3,200 from floor to the top, it is hard to fathom climbing over ten football fields of sheer, almost straight up rock.

In spite of the beauty, I wasn’t there for the beauty. I was in Yosemite to speak to the National Park Service staff and employees. The first day was primarily park rangers and fire fighters, most of whom wear many different hats – law enforcement, fire, EMT, search and rescue, and anything else needed in a park that is almost 1,200 square miles, the size of Rhode Island! Day two was a mix of park employees from all different job descriptions and backgrounds, including seasonal staff, the folks that make the place run.

Going up on the Half Dome cables on a summer day; Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite might be the most beautiful place on earth, but even paradise is not immune to the traumas and stressors of life. Not surprisingly with all the rock climbing and waterfalls, death is fairly common (10 or more during the busy season) along with all the issues that come when six million people a year from around the world visit and congregate. The staff of Yosemite must execute a very precarious juggling act that they do remarkably well, protect the park while making sure visitors have a good safe time.

While work challenges did come up, as I usually find wherever I speak and teach, life itself is the most powerful challenge we all face – marriage, parenthood, death, meaning, purpose, finances, etc. – those are the things people struggle to stay on top of as we navigate life. Yosemite is not immune. Most of the concerns individuals spoke to me about are shared by people everywhere of every demographic.

A few days after my visit I received a poignant message from one of the participants, a Park Ranger, a man of many responsibilities. But like all of us, someone looking for real steps forward when life gets tough.

“Silouan…you actually gave ideas and outlines for what a peer support program should be. Gave examples of different actions and thoughts that may or may not work. That to me made the program valuable.

Thank you for being the first person I have heard put some common sense and actionable items on the back half.”

That’s why I speak. To equip people to better take care of themselves and each other.

Isolation kills, community and a pro-active response to the challenges of service save lives. Whether your agency protects and serves Yosemite National Park, a small town, a large city, or something in-between, those that work for you are the best of us. Prepare them for the traumas and trials of service and life just as you would their professional skills, physical fitness, and other career development. We are stronger when we help each other live complete lives that are balanced. Peer Support and Suicide Prevention that only kicks in after an incident misses the point. What we do everyday determines how we will respond to the life events that can alter any of us.