With Joshua Tree having had such a profound effect on my psyche, my journey beyond the California Desert took on a different pace, a different feel, a cloud of zen following wherever I went. My drive to push myself to my limits evaporated; I was content simply experiencing, seeing, moving, letting my mind and body and stamina rest whenever needed.
Arriving in San Diego later that day, I drove straight to the Pacific Ocean, parking Rousseau and dropping my pack and shedding clothing as I walked across the sandy shores to its crisp blue waters. Waves lapping at my feet, I continued marching forward, washing away the dust of an entire continent, the worries of an entire life, in that salty sea. The experience, the realization that I had actually made it from one coast to the other on nothing more than a scooter and a dream was beyond words, beyond thought, and so I quietly stood there, submerged to my neck, staring in a meditative trance out to the horizon, staring until my fingers pruned and my eyes burned and my skin grew flushed.
I dried my body lying on the sand, and after some time, I worked my way back to San Diego proper to shower and regroup at an international hostel. Bunked with two girls from England, we passed the night at a nearby pub, discussing our respective travel plans and making it to bed in the early hours of the morning. The next day, I said goodbye to San Diego and followed the coast northward, bringing a close to the westerly chapter of my journey, and arrived in Los Angeles by mid-afternoon.
While in Los Angeles, I stayed with old friends from back home, Megan and Phil, who had relocated to the west coast about a year earlier. Fellow travelers like myself, I felt privileged to enjoy a look at the city through the eyes of the knowledgeable couple, who kindly brought me from place to place showing off the very best LA had to offer. After a mid-afternoon taco snack at a local establishment, a few glasses of wine in the park, and a rewarding hike up the Hollywood Hills, we enjoyed a great dinner at a vegan eatery and a post-dinner dip in the hottub, getting some rest before waking the next morning for more adventure. With Phil at work, Megan and I took off to the Getty Museum, an absolutely fantastic art gallery with a stunning collection of paintings, sculptures, photography, illuminated manuscripts, and more, all set in the most picturesque of locations, a lovely architectural wonder with heaps of open-air seating, a lively garden, and marvelous views of the city.
Passing most of the day at the Getty, Megan and I returned downtown by early evening, meeting up with Phil and collectively preparing a delicious homemade chili dinner. Cocktails and conversation made quick work of the time, and with each of us having an early morning destination planned, Phil to work, Megan to race sailboats, and me to central California, we took off for bed.
The following morning, I parted ways with my gracious hosts, sad to be leaving so soon, and begrudgingly rode the bumpy, crowded interstate some hundred miles north of the city, but not before following the Pacific Coast Highway out to Malibu for a final sojourn with the ocean before working my way inland to the national parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic, not to see those waters again until far north of San Francisco.
Once sufficiently inland, I turned off the interstate and onto a serene two-lane byway of golden hills and grassy groves, stopping along the way to pick up a few ripe oranges from beneath the prosperous trees of unfenced ranches. I continued on, sweet citrus stinging my lips, up and over the foothills of the Sierra where the streets have no name beyond "Avenue 204" and "Road 396," on to where I encountered the strangest of skies, a stratosphere blanketed in rust, red-brown meeting cerulean above my very head. A forest fire, it turned out, was the cause of the putrid sky, snowflakes of ash raining down onto my visor. The rust cloud stretched for miles, letting up only on the outskirts of Sequoia National Park, the next destination on my journey.
Entering Sequoia, I began a rapid, winding ascent up the west ridge of the Sierra, twisting and turning around blind corners with the sweet smell of pine all around me. Left and right and left and right I steered up precipitous switchbacks. Then, some 3,000 feet up, I turned a corner and there, right in front of me, a bear! I pumped hard on my brakes and came to a halt about ten feet from the stocky black bear, ambling about on all fours in the middle of the road. In the distance, a pickup truck stalled, equally surprised by this unexpected jaywalker. Thankfully, the bear seems just as confused as the two of us, wandering back and forth, a few steps toward the truck, a few steps toward me, a few steps toward tree cover on the side of the road, and then back again.
Rousseau, of course, lacked the ability to drive away in reverse, and I gathered that small steps of retreat unassisted by motor would be inferred as weakness, surrender, an invitation for the black bear to command the turf. This I did not want, and so I simply stayed, steadfast and immovable, pulling myself up off my seat to appear taller and more imposing in the bears eyes. And eventually, not from fear but growing boredom, it seemed, he skirted away past the truck and around the corner, and I cautiously, very cautiously, followed around the corner until I was sure he was nowhere in site, and then off I went, adrenal glands reeling.
The sequoia trees of the western Sierra, sequoiadendron giganteum, are the largest of the redwood family; in fact, they are the largest trees anywhere in the world, arguably the largest living things in the world, and they grow nowhere except the western ridge of the Sierra in central California. Approaching the Giant Forest at 6,000 feet, home to five of the planet's ten largest trees including the very largest, I felt prepared for its sheer coniferous magnitude, seemingly readied by all of the facts and figures and trivia of volume and height and superlative greatness of those giant sequoia trunks. But it wasn't enough.
I fear I lack the poetic faculty to fully illustrate the feeling one gets when first dwarfed by a sequoiadendron giganteum, Lilliputian wonder perhaps best captured not in my words, but in those of Steinbeck in his reflections of the great redwoods:
"The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time. They have the mystery of ferns that disappeared a million years ago into the coal of the carboniferous era. They carry their own light and shade. The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect. Respect—that’s the word. One feels the need to bow to unquestioned sovereigns."
What is most impressive about the sequoia is not its height, for the coastal redwood stands even taller, though I should note that the sequoia's three-hundred-foot height is undeniably mind-boggling, but its remarkable volume, trunks with circumference of over one hundred feet around. Indeed, driving into the Giant Forest, one is greeted by hundreds of slender spires stemming from cliffs below and lunging toward sky above, and my first impression of these was fascination, admiration at what I thought to be sequoias, making the first true sequoia I saw, waxy red bark and thirty-foot diameter, volume easily ten times its spindly neighbors, doubly spellbinding.
Data here, I have noted, is meaningless, but I find it difficult not to state that, for instance, the bark of those trees is, in itself, three feet thick. Or that sequoias don't die from old age; they simply keep growing in perpetuity. Or that, fire-resistant three-foot bark and natural immortality combined, the redwoods are among Earth's oldest living organisms, many of the largest sequoias over two thousand years old.
Over the course of those millennia, the sequoias have survived against tremendous odds. Blazing wildfires have scorched most, even killed some, and many of the tallest bare twenty-foot burn scars at their base. Some have even hollowed out, vicious flames finding a weak spot in otherwise impervious bark and burning away from within, but still those redwoods stand on little but bark alone. It is a grave shame, then, that those unquestioned sovereigns have finally met their match in the face of humanity, equipped with the evolutionary prowess to survive the eons but not to withstand a serrated saw and a capitalist spirit.
For in the nineteenth century, when the European first laid eyes on those ambassadors from another time, his aims were not those of diplomacy or detente. No, where those before him saw beauty, the white man saw profit, and out came the lumberjacks. The tallest of sequoias, the Mark Twain Tree and the Mother of the Forest, were felled and cut to pieces, or skinned alive for bark, slabs of cross-section sent east as exhibits in freak shows, "World's Largest Tree, Step Right Up!" the cruel fate of those peaceful giants. Others were routinely milled for cheap wood, the yield from a single sequoia many times over that of an ordinary conifer. Fortunately, someone had the good sense in the early twentieth century to protect this dwindling species from shortsighted exploitation, and eventually, better late than never, the fledgling National Park Service stepped in to protect those precious groves.
While at Sequoia, I paid my respects at the Big Stump Grove, where the bases of slaughtered redwood remained, and hiked in awe through the Giant Forest Grove, past the General Sherman Tree, largest tree in the world, and its younger brothers, no less impressive in size and splendor. When night fell, I took off for the nearest campground, and was pleased to find both an open site and a ranger on duty, my very first legitimate check-in of the journey! After setting up my campsite, I made a quick trek to the general store, spending a small fortune on food and firewood, my last campfire, on account of fire prohibitions in most of the arid Southwest, having been far back east in Mississippi.
Once back at camp, I quickly set my fire ring ablaze, roasting hot dog buns and enjoying a lovely dinner of peanut butter and toast, hummus and toast, hummus and potato chips, and raspberry wheat beer. I slept early and soundly, satiated and warm, and lazily packed my things the following morning, enjoying another fire at sunrise on which to toast more bread for my hummus. Slowly I drove myself out of Sequoia National Park, stopping along the way for more short hikes among the sequoias, and I followed this leisurely pace through Sequoia's adjacent Kings Canyon National Park, home to another handful of magnificent redwood groves.
Then it was off to Yosemite, cutting back west toward Fresno and working my way north from there, arriving some hours later through that park's south entrance. At the first visitors' center I passed, I stopped to obtain a wilderness permit, another first for my trip. Permits in short supply throughout the Yosemite Valley, I was fortunate to obtain one a bit off the beaten path, which granted me a peaceful trek through the woods along the valley's south rim. And so I parked several miles further north at a designated trailhead, lightened my load as much as possible, which wasn't much, and took off into the Yosemite wilderness for an overnight hike.
Yosemite National Park is truly a wonderful place, so much natural variety every which way one turns. Along my lengthy uphill journey, I passed through dense forest, serene meadow, rocky cliff, and pleasant grove, and all throughout, the sound of nature tickled my eardrums: birds singing, psithurism of wind and tree, branches cracking under the weight of a bear or a mule deer off in the distance. About three miles in, another sound caught my attention, a dull roar, incessant and mighty, and I was pleased to come upon a clearing some time later with a marvelous view of the Yosemite Valley below, miniature in all its splendor, and across the way, off to the north, the source of the rumble: Yosemite Falls, highest waterfall in North America, unspeakably gorgeous from my vantage point high above it.
Onward I climbed, continuing along the ridge, carefully balancing my way across logs downed over creeks, creeks which became falls just yards ahead at the cliff's edge, making it to Glacier Point, the conclusion of the hike and perhaps the most spectacular view of the valley from anywhere in the park, by dusk. Tired, calves burning, I spotted a bus stop, but I recalled reading that shuttle service ceased at 6PM and resumed not until nine the following morning, so I resolved to retreat back to the trail and camp there, returning to the Point to shuttle back to Rousseau in the light of day.
I slept, and with the sun's early glow the next morning, made for the bus stop, which I arrived at over an hour early, but no matter, I thought, for I had a good book and warmth on my side. I passed the time reading, checking my watch and 9, 9:30, 10, and growing increasingly curious, not impatient but simply curious, as to where the shuttle might be.
Around 10:15, a bus pulled around, "Yosemite" emblazoned on the side, and I greeted the driver with a nod and stood to the side of the hydraulic door while passengers unloaded. The driver followed them out, and I bid him good morning, and he did the same, and suspecting that I might be suspecting him to give me a ride back down the road, he cleared his throat and asked, "Are you trying to get back down the road?"
"I am," I replied, "down to the McGurk trailhead."
His lips hinted at a slight frown. "On this bus, that'll be twenty-five dollars."
I smiled at his joke. His continued frown made it clear it wasn't a joke.
"Oh? I thought all of the shuttles in Yosemite were free?"
"This isn't a shuttle," he explained, "it's a tour bus. The only shuttles are in the valley; there are none on this road."
Now, I returned his frown. "Hmm," I muttered, "well, thanks."
I walked away, annoyed by my lack of proper planning. Had I known Glacier Point was not serviced by shuttles, I would have left for a return hike hours earlier; I could have been back to the trailhead by this time! But there I was, almost midday, and still high up and miles from my bike. No matter, I reassured myself, the road only leads out, back to Rousseau, and surely I could find a friendly face to give me a ride those few short miles.
Book still in hand, I headed over to the sidewalk and stopped the first friendly face I saw, admittedly letting a few less friendly faces walk by, this one belonging to a woman, some mid-thirties in age, and accompanied by an older woman, her mother perhaps, some twenty-five years older. "Excuse me," I called politely as they passed, "are you heading down the road?"
The pair stopped and the younger woman nodded.
"Any chance I could hitch a ride with you just a few miles to the McGurk trailhead?"
The younger woman, calm and seemingly okay with the idea, turned to her mother, behind her and a little off to the left. They spoke softly to each other, her mother's eyes widening in displeasure. "Tell him we're not going that way," she whispered to her daughter.
"There's only one way out of here. This is a dead end," daughter whispered back, eyes darting nervously in my direction.
"Then tell him that we, uh, have bags in the back seat. Yes, back seat is full."
I, now leaned against the bus stop signpost, was entertained by the pair's belief that their sidebar was indeed secret, with me just feet away. The younger woman turned back to me, shoulders raised in a shrug. "Uh, sorry, we have bags in the back, y'know? It's very crowded in there, and we don't have any room. Because of the bags. The bags, you see."
I smiled and winked. "Got it. The bags. No worries," I smiled, chuckling inside too heartily to be annoyed. I watched them disappear into the parking lot and, a few minutes later, determined the mouth of the lot would be a more appropriate spot from which to hitchhike. So I moved in that direction, sitting on the curb by which all cars left, and returned to reading my paperback, left hand raised, fingers curled, thumb outstretched, lost in my chapters until I heard tire wheels crunch to a halt to my left. A smiling gentleman rolled down his window. "Where you headed?"
I returned his smile. "Just down to McGurk."
"That's exactly where I'm going! Hop in."
I popped up, rounded the car and clambered inside, thanking the man, Craig from South Carolina, I learned, for his generosity. During the short drive, Craig and I spoke about out respective travels, me on my coast-to-coast road trip and Craig on his week-long expedition of Yosemite. When we arrived at the trailhead parking area, I pointed Craig in the direction of the trailhead and said goodbye to the fellow traveler. I then boarded Rousseau and drove off, off into the Yosemite Valley herself.
Entering the valley is a dramatic experience. On one end of a tunnel rests lovely but routine forest, and then comes the tunnel, a half-mile of darkness carved into the mountainside, and then out the other end you go, and everywhere there is life and grandeur and something to look at. Enormous granite monoliths, Half Dome and El Capitan, tower in the distance, the Nevada Falls and Yosemite Falls raining down the sides of the rim, and at the valley floor, terrific meadows and ponds and creeks all over. On the drive through the valley, I detoured to Bridalveil Falls, aptly named for the way its torrents fall to the earth, not torrents really, but splendid curtains billowing in the wind, sheets of water spraying about, misting everything and everyone in their radius. I ventured on, to the end of the valley, where I stopped for lunch, and then, after a few short walks to some points of interest, returned the way I came, out from the valley and then back around, along its north rim, up Tioga Road to the highest points of Yosemite National Park.
Climbing from the valley floor to 9,000 feet, the air quickly cooled and thinned, but the scenery was no less spectacular. Everywhere were lakes and meadows and alpine wonder, domes and mountains and snow-capped peaks. On my way out of the park, I stopped at a particularly lovely lake, Teyana, and sat on the earth, leaned against Rousseau's side, where I had a snack of avocado and orange and finished my Vonnegut paperback. Off in the distance, I spied a dark cloud, but I thought little of it until it drew nearer, now looking more menacing, and knowing better than to remain on a summit with an approaching storm, I rose to my feet, momentarily dizzied at that altitude, and took off for the Tioga Pass, my route through the Sierra.
Moments after crossing the pass, it became evident that the stormcloud was nearing my path, me headed due east and the cloud, from the north, steering southeast. I knew I had just another ten miles to go before meeting route 395, at which point I'd turn fully south, and determined that if I could just beat it to that point, I'd have no trouble outrunning it in a southward direction. And so we raced, cloud nearing, destined to cut me off, but not if I could make it just a little further ...
Splat. I looked down to find a weighty droplet on my right forearm, a warning shot from the cloud above. Undeterred, I raced on, and the nimbus formation fired back with a smattering of raindrops. Just a few miles further, I thought, but the cloud would have none of it, and switched to its heavy artillery, lobbing no longer rain, but pellets of sleet and snow, onto my unprotected body, shorts and t-shirt doing little to cushion the blow from that vicious assault. My neck, especially vulnerable, felt bruised, stinging against the chill of the icy snow, battered against the force of its impact at my 70MPH speed, and finally, begrudgingly, I surrendered, pulling into the next lot I came across.
I ran for cover under a gazebo and was joined shortly thereafter by two fellow bikers, Brian and Megan, a father-daughter pair, who were coming down from nearby Lake Tahoe. We passed the time talking about the lovely Sierra, the magic of the mountains, and when the rain let up, we took off together, swatting away droplets until the skies cleared, honking goodbyes at the 395 junction where I veered right and they hooked left, and south I rode until coming to Bishop, a nice little town on the outskirts of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, my next destination, where I quickly found a room at a motel, took a short walk down Main Street for some sushi and beer, and then returned to the room to, after a fair bit of shuffling and rigging, enjoy a warm bath while watching a movie, sushi and beer to my side, and it was wonderful, limitless comfort after several consecutive days of strenuous hiking and solid camping.
I will, I'm sure, be duly criticized for my short time in Yosemite, as I have been for my overall expeditious pace of my trip, and I will discuss this more later, but for now, let me just say that I was, surprisingly, not overly impressed by Yosemite. The park is, indeed, gorgeous, a natural wonder in every right, with accessible sites for the day tourist and expansive backcountry trails for the more seasoned naturalist. It has nearly everything one could hope for in a national park, in any swath of nature, and yet, I felt as though my hundred-mile drive and my ten-mile hike and my shorter walking loops were enough for me, and I grew bored, perhaps overwhelmed, by it all, or perhaps simply jaded by a full month of nothing but jawdropping vistas and unimaginable beauty, and so I left, with appreciation, but not regret for having stayed another few days.
But more on all that later.