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Yosemite hamlet finds a sense of community in a taco

EL PORTAL -- It's late summer in this hamlet just outside the western border of Yosemite National Park.

The party is dwindling down, or just getting started, depending on how you look at it.

The 200 or so "seasonals" -- park employees and interns who swell El Portal's numbers to around 800 during peak season -- have mostly left. Summer concerts are over. Now it's down to basics: a tight-knit group of year-round residents and their time-honored, twice-a-month, taco night tradition.

Every other Thursday, Sal's Taco Truck makes the climb from Mariposa to El Portal. The drive on Highway 140 along the Merced River is less than 30 miles but takes more than an hour in a taco truck. Turns are tight amid hills denuded by the latest wildfire; the narrow canyon is cut into jumbled, angular rocks stacked like dominoes askew.

There's a flashing stop sign at the one-lane detour around the spot where 90,000 cubic yards of those granite dominoes came crashing down in 2006. The sign says to be prepared for 15-minute waits -- it makes the five minutes (when traffic is light) feel short.

Sal Gonzalez didn't take his taco truck to El Portal for three months after the rockslide, while the highway was closed.

When he returned, the Yosemite Marching Band -- "one of the best high-altitude marching bands in the country. We might not be good musicians but we're the best climbing, skiing, snowshoeing bands you'll find," says band leader Paul Amstutz -- met the taco truck and triumphantly marched it to the community center.

"I don't know if they know how to play instruments or not, but they were hiking in front of me and around me and making loud noise," Gonzalez recalls. "I felt happy and special. My face was red. People in El Portal show that they want you there."

It's not that there isn't anything to do in El Portal.

You can run down to one of the swimming holes for a dip.

"There's nudity involved. Makes it more interesting," says Robbie Borchard, 23. "Of course, for safety reasons, we always wait an hour after eating to go swimming."

Residents say El Portal is tolerant of the sort of recreational pursuits often celebrated in rock anthems from the '70s.

El Portal is not isolated -- tourists are always passing through -- but it is remote. There are only a couple of hilltops where cell phones get more than two bars of reception.

The community's only market burned down in April after longtime owner Hugh Carter retired.

"Hugh worked that market for 30 years. He'd open the store late at night, at any hour, if somebody needed medicine," says Gail Dreifus, one of two teachers at El Portal's high school, which currently has four students ("I'm the English, social science and art department. We fight over who gets to be the football coach and guidance counselor," she says.).

Most residents are construction workers, hotel staffers and park employees whose "real" identities are climbers, kayakers and travelers.

"People work long hours and lots of different jobs, because the priority is living in El Portal. The goal is to be next to Yosemite," says Amstutz, the marching band's bass drum player and the high school's math and science department.

"In this town, there are a lot of people who are always game for adventure. I bet we have the highest per-capita number of climbers, trail builders and people who have been to the Himalayas."

But while living next to Yosemite offers unparalleled opportunities for outdoor adventure, night life is limited.

So, when Sal's Taco Truck pulls into El Portal, it is a community event.

White lights are strung above a grassy courtyard. People eat their tacos and burritos at rows of picnic tables. Children and dogs roam at will.

A Labrador-mix rests companionably on the foot of 29-year-old Jason Schroeder, who is eating and chatting with friends.

"It's not my dog. Haven't met him before," says Schroeder, who works at the Ansel Adams gallery in Yosemite. "But he belongs around here somewhere."

Four-year-old Jackson Wolfert plants himself in front of a woman he's never met.

"Hi. I'm Jackson. I like taco night," he says. "I play and eat."

His father, Scott Wolfert, scurries over and confirms Jackson's affection for the event.

"He woke up this morning and said, 'Dad, it's Taco Thursday.' He says it every Thursday. Half the time he's right."

The taco truck stays open until everyone is fed, sometimes serving past midnight. On this night at 9 p.m. there's still a long line, and some are people coming back for second orders.

"Where does all the meat come from? How do they never run out?" shouts a 27-year-old bleached-blond musician, throwing out his arms with exaggerated drama.

Another man in line chimes in:

"Yes, how do they do it?! It's like the miracle of bread and the fishes, uh fish."

The musician, Sky Harris, grew up in El Portal and says he's just back from a Norwegian tour with his band.

"Hi, Sky," says Shea Bennett, Gonzalez's longtime girlfriend and partner, who takes the orders at the taco truck. She knows more than the names of all her customers.

"She baby-sat me when I was little," Harris says.

"And his parents baby-sat me," Bennett says.

The tie between Sal's Taco Truck and El Portal came after the floods of 1997 when the Merced River, swollen with weeks of rain and snowmelt, jumped its banks.

"We couldn't get out at all. Helicopters were bringing in Red Cross food," Harris says. "But it wasn't, like, grim or morose. It brought people closer."

For months, the road was only open in the daytime, and only for caravans of cars led by the California Highway Patrol.

Someone from El Portal -- Gonzalez can't recall who made the first call -- phoned him in Mariposa.

"They said, 'We need you here. There's not much going on. We need a taco night. We need to get everybody together.' I thought it would be for just a few months."

CHP officers led the truck up and then back down the debris-cluttered mountain road.

"After so many times, the CHP guys said, 'Well, Sal, you know the roads,' and they let me go on my own," Gonzalez says.

He has continued to make the drive, even in heavy rain.

"As long as the road is open, I go. They stand in line with umbrellas. They don't mind."

One of the last customers on this night is Sean Jones, 38, a climber sponsored by the Marmot outdoor gear company.

He's moving to the East Coast after living 18 years in El Portal. His wife, Maggie, and three daughters, India, M'so and Lilly, are already settled in their new town. He stayed behind to finish things up around the house they are selling.

While he waits for his tacos, people sock him on the arm, hug him and say, "How are the kids?"

"There's so many other things I should be doing. My head is spinning. Lately, I've been bouncing like a ping-pong across the country," he says. "But I had to come down here tonight."

At the height of the season, taco night has been known to swell to four or five hundred people.

"It gets epic," Jones says. "But the way it is tonight -- just the people who live here and their kids and their dogs -- is what this place is about. It's got that familiar feeling."

Because in El Portal, rocks may slide, the river may flood, the only market can burn down and people might be juggling two or three different jobs while planning a trip to the Himalayas. But every other Thursday, Sal's Taco Truck arrives and everyone comes together.

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