YOSEMITE — The massive tree mortality in the central Sierra and Yosemite National Park is something locals are always well aware of but, for two visitors from Sacramento, the reality hit home in a big way last week.
Having spent the day exploring Yosemite National Park on Sunday, July 7, visitors Mike and Debbie Sanchez suddenly found themselves in the position of taking home a souvenir they didn’t want when parts of a tree came down on their Jeep.
“There was an explosion and a crashing sound and we were enveloped in darkness,” Mike said the next day.
“I couldn’t see, so I slammed on brakes and was skidding all over the place. I must have been skidding on top of branches and leaves and I couldn’t stop the car.
“That’s when I realized something had dropped on us; we’d been hit. We sat there for a minute and realized we were okay, but Debbie was concerned other cars would come crashing into us from behind. We were afraid to move.”
The couple, residents of Sacramento, say they had been driving about 20 miles per hour back through El Portal at about 3 p.m., heading toward Wawona and Highway 41. They had a reservation for the night at the Best Western Gateway Inn in Oakhurst.
The morning after the incident, Debbie said, she could still hear the booming sound of the tree limbs coming down in her head.
“It sounded like a meteor hit us.”
Meanwhile, back inside the 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee on the day of the incident, Mike and Debbie turned around to look behind them and saw about 40 cars had come to a stop because there was now a big oak tree across the road.
A woman approached their vehicle saying, “We heard a loud crack and you got whacked by a tree branch.”
This was more than a branch. Soon enough, people began to rally and move debris out of the road 40-50 feet behind where Mike had started skidding when the tree first struck the Jeep. The debris spread across both lanes of traffic and was about 3 – 4 feet high, Mike estimates.
Shocked by the turn of events, Mike and Debbie wanted to get out of the way of traffic, go to a quiet spot and assess the damage to their car. It turned out to be extensive — including front and rear end damage, busted out lights and mirrors, a big gouge out of the windshield and dents all over, they say — but they were able to drive away. Fortunately, they had just closed the moon roof before the tree hit the Jeep.
“We were not severely injured,” Mike explained later to his insurance company, “mostly bruised up from slamming on the brakes and being jarred badly by impact and seat belts. The car swerved sharply toward the left shoulder, but I braked to a stop immediately to regain control.”
They made contact with a campground attendant who gave the couple a phone number to call to report the incident. Because it was a weekend, Mike ultimately filed a report with the Desk Office at Yosemite as well as a descriptive email to his insurance company. The cost to repair the vehicle has now been estimated in excess of $12,000, according to the couple.
Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman says Park Rangers can take a report on incidents such as the one experienced by this couple, in order to establish insurance claims. He also says the “Desk Office” in Yosemite Valley, staffed by volunteers who take reports like that each day, is a good place to go following an incident.
The tale of Mike and Debbie is a good reminder to all travelers in the area to be mindful of the potential need for supplies should a vehicle become disabled — or even if you wind up stuck behind another vehicle that’s disabled by accident or disrepair. Water, snacks, blanket, first aid kit, fire extinguisher and shovel are all useful items to carry on the road. In this case, the visitors didn’t need any of those items — but they did stop by El Cid for a margarita at the end of their long and surprising day.
The thing is — Mike and Debbie never let this ruin their plans. They were headed back into the park on Monday for a night at Housekeeping Camp (that’s another story) before returning to Sacramento from whence they came and, at their core, were grateful their experience wasn’t much worse, as they know it could have been.
“We came into the valley to see the beautiful trees, the beautiful Merced River, the wildlife and all its beauty and glory,” says Debbie. “Unfortunately, while driving to Wawona we had the unfortunate luck of driving under an oak tree just as it cracked and came tumbling down on our car. We did not let that deter us from enjoying the park for the next two days and it sure did make for a conversation piece in all our journeys in and around Yosemite.
“To sum it up, we were very thankful and blessed that we didn’t get injured or anyone around us get injured. And the support from the visitors that ran to see if we were fine and clear the road immediately was very heartwarming and makes me very proud to be an American.”
Photos courtesy Mike and Debbie Sanchez