Me, My dad and The Queen

Seeing Queen Elizabeth II in Yosemite National Park in 1983 was magical. But not everyone was sure.

In March of 1983, I was living in Yosemite National Park when Queen Elizabeth II came through on a tour. The Queen came to California as one of her regular jaunts around the globe to meet dignitaries, see sights and spread good will. In this case, she’d been personally invited by Ronald Reagan, and she and Prince Phillip traveled about with the President and Nancy and met several other government leaders as well as a few major Hollywood stars.

That my father and I were anywhere near this extravaganza was a massive coincidence. We were guests in California ourselves. Dad was working as a park ranger during a six-month sabbatical from his job teaching forestry on the Oregon Coast. To work for the National Park Service was a long-held dream that he’d finally fulfilled. By day, my father worked as a ranger naturalist in the interpretive center in Yosemite Valley, leading visitors on tours of the park and educating them about the natural world that he held so dear. As for me, I enrolled as a student in the one-room Yosemite Valley School, as the school’s only sixth grader. My mother and sister were back at home. It was just Dad and me, leading a surreal, utterly new existence surrounded by insane natural beauty.

As if this wasn’t fairy tale enough, along came a magical plot twist: enter, the Queen. Because my father was a park ranger, he had access to Elizabeth II’s itinerary on the day she visited Yosemite, as well as permission to be present at one of her stops. Because he was my dad, he brought me, his twelve-year-old daughter, along with him.

Early March mornings were wintery cold in Yosemite Valley, and that spring California was experiencing weather so lousy that even the Queen herself would comment on its dreariness. Dad drove his old Toyota away from our government issue house at the break of day, and we followed the narrow, bending road to the center of the national park. With plenty of time to spare, we arrived at the century-old Yosemite Valley Chapel and took our place behind a temporary cordon. The Valley was in mist, the kind of cold fog that sinks into your clothes and seeps into your bones and makes you want to leap about to stay warm. Yet I stood still, so very quietly, and waited.

And then there she was, walking towards the chapel in an understated grey suit. Elizabeth II was a small person, but her presence and poise loomed large. I do not remember her towering husband, the Prince. I do not remember the security detail, or any other face in the crowd. In my memory, it was just me and my dad and the Queen of England, an arm’s length away.

After her majesty’s entrance to the chapel, she was served breakfast. On the table at which she dined, there was a vase with a single rose. Once she’d moved on with her day, my dad lifted the rose and brought it home. He pressed the flower and commissioned a glass artist to design a custom frame. Engraved in the glass reads, “Queen Elizabeth, Yosemite 1983.” Dad gifted the framed rose to me.

Three years later, my mother took her own sabbatical from her Oregon Coast teaching job. That time, she and my sister and I moved to England for six months. Again, I went to a very different kind of school, this one with uniforms and A levels and a solid distaste for American culture. On that journey, we traveled all over England, but I didn’t get anywhere near the Queen. Not even close. How would I have even known where she was?

Once or twice during my British residency, I ventured aloud: I saw the Queen in Yosemite. My English schoolmates dismissed my story outright. American bluster, they believed — some twisted ploy of mine to convince them that I mattered, that in some way I could ever belong here amongst the Brits. Regular people didn’t get that close to the Queen. To witness her majesty glide gracefully by, mere feet away, in the shadow of majestical Half Dome in Yosemite Valley on a misty dreamy California morning — that was ridiculous. That story was obviously made up.

I couldn’t show my classmates the rose; the glass memento was back home in Oregon, as was my father. This was long before digital photography or google. We hadn’t even captured film photos; to do so would’ve felt crass. Anyway, I didn’t really care if they believed me. Soon I would I return to the United States, never to set foot in England again. Nor, it turned out, would the Queen ever return to the West Coast of the United States.

I’ve lost touch with my British schoolmates, and my one-room-schoolhouse friends from Yosemite Valley, too. My beloved father died five years ago. And then Elizabeth II — that marvelous force of a Queen — died, too. But I still have the rose. It hangs on the wall in my office, reminding me that magic really does exist.

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Kim Cooper Findling

Fifth-generation Oregonian and writer, editor, publisher, author, mother. Essay is my favorite form. Beach is my favorite place. kimcooperfindling.com