Caught by the River


27th July 2023

William Henry Searle’s ‘Elowen’ — a story of loss, reconnection and love — is just-published by Little Toller. Read an extract below.

Snow falls across Tuolumne Meadows in Sierra Nevada, at 8,600 feet, inside the Yosemite National Park. The snow is blown in flocks that melt against the windows of the car. Up here, in the high Sierra, it’s winter. The drastic change in geography and temperature from the heat and dryness of the Badwater Basin this morning is beguiling. I look around, mystified by the winter scene. 

Lying on the hotel bed, after a quick dinner in the restaurant (ignoring families with babies, but not running away from them), then playing shuffleboard and table football (Amy always wins), I am excited to be back in Yosemite after that first trip a decade ago. I think of this place often, picturing the Merced River sparkling beneath the granite tower of El Capitan. Visiting Yosemite, like all the other stopping-places on this journey, is an attempt to create a new map that reconnects our present selves with the past, to remember or re-imagine a life without grief. Coming here again feels like settling unfinished business, joining my eyes now to my eyes back then, seeing how I see things now. But also to make those memories come back to life, give them lasting allocation, resurgence, in the present. Can it really be done? Soon I fall asleep, curled against Amy, thinking of the granite, the trees, the waterfalls. 

In the morning, on our way back up to Tuolumne Meadows, leaving the hotel shortly after breakfast, with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches packed into my rucksack, we pull over at Tenaya Lake. A chill wind skitters off the surface, bright waves break on a sandy shoreline. All around is a lofty stadium of absolute granite. The sky is the bluest of blues. The Lake is beautiful. Although I’m eager to get back to the high meadows, we linger here, walking among the fir and spruce trees that sigh in the wind. 

The road climbs higher, the temperature drops, and at 8,619 feet we arrive at Tuolumne. Snow from yesterday evening clings to the grasses, and drips as the sun warms in the sky. The air is crisp and clear, the scent of high, fresh waters, and the pulse of rock. It’s early October, and the small timber cabin that is the visitor centre is shut for the season. Soon the mountain pass will be impassable by snow which will not relent until spring, when the flowers break through, and ice loosens from the rivers. I breathe and breathe again, picking up the same walking trail, the Soda Springs trail, that we hiked all those years ago, me wearing my Tuolumne Meadows T-shirt, newly bought from the visitor centre. Are they gone forever, those two people, unhurt by trauma, unscathed by loss? What would I tell them now? I envy them. And I pity them for what’s to come. I follow them, with a full nine years between us. 

At Soda Springs, around which a small cabin is built, we watch mineral water burst and bubble up out of the earth, then spill and run into the surrounding grassland, painting a small wetland that branches out like an outstretched hand. I remember this place as clear as water. The memory and the water itself is a tonic. 

On the banks of the Tuolumne River, we write Elowen into the grey sand. Amy takes a photo of her name. The sky darkens under high clouds. It was here, on a warmer and brighter day, that we once watched a line of wild horses cross the river. Chestnut, bay, white and black gleaming in the Sierra sun. Once across the river, bolting across the meadows, we could hear the thud of their drumming hooves long after they were gone. 

At the hotel, we look back through our photos of the day and at old photos of when we first came to Yosemite, photos Amy had uploaded onto her phone before our trip. I can’t believe how young we looked. Yosemite looks unchanged, of course. And there, towards the end of our photos, are Amy and I sat on the very same bank of the Tuolumne River. Now Elowen’s name is up there at 9,000 feet, most likely being covered in snow. 


‘Elowen’ is out now and available here (£17.10).