Sunday, July 31, 2011

Here On This Mountainside

As I began the second half of my journey, instead of focusing on geographic and geologic features, today was almost entirely about life. Specifically, the largest life forms the earth has ever known. There is a reverence that comes from walking among the giant sequoias. Even without fully comprehending their sheer immensity, it is plainly obvious to anyone who visits them that they are enormous and nearly indestructible, and that our presence among them is possible only but for their grace. Should one choose to shed even a small limb while crowds are gathered beneath, there would be nothing we could do to save ourselves. We are lucky that these are peaceful and hospitable giants.

Gentle and peaceful, yes. Easily accessible, no. Scouting out the route for months, I knew that my car would need some extra pep to make it up this, the greatest challenge I would throw its way in all the 9,000 miles of this trip. An oil change and car wash for it, followed by a breakfast at IHOP for me, and we were both ready to go.

This could get interesting...
The Generals Highway, the main road through both Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, named for the General Sherman and General Grant trees that are the signature of the respective parks, winds its way from the San Joaquin Valley (yet another name for the Fuzzy Hills) to an elevation of over 7,700 feet in less than 20 miles. The lower course of the road traverses the upper reaches of the valley and features the scrubby plant life also found in the Central / Golden / San Joaquin / Fuzzy Hills / Valley.

Rising above 5,000 feet, the scenery changes suddenly into a dense, soaring, coniferous forest dotted with the occasional sequoia (easily discernable due to their cinnamon bark and their enormous girth). Upon entering the Giant Forest (named by John Muir after discovering it on a stroll one summer), the frequency of the sequoias jumps to the point where it feels like this is the sequoias’ house and the other trees are just guests. Whereas Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove contained over 200 mature examples of the species, the Giant Forest contained over 2,100. And it wasn’t the largest grove in the park.

After marveling at the number and size of the sequoias just in the parking lot, I had to take a geographic / geologic detour before spending the rest of the day gawking at the trees. Moro Rock, a 500-foot granite dome perched on the eastern slope of the Giant Grove, was advertised as having “spectacular” views of the eastern Sierra, requiring only a short quarter-mile hike up a set of 400 stairs carved into the dome. Who could say no to that?

Well, 400 steps is a lot of steps. Not more than I could handle, but more than I’d call a leisurely stroll. I certainly handled it better than the middle-aged British couple behind me, who looked like they were able to keel over. At least they had a sense of humor about it, though. See the nice thing that can happen when you come to this country and can converse with us natives? I’m talking to you, large obnoxious Greek family who climbed Moro Rock with no socks, and who complained (I assume it was complaining) loudly in Greek the entire way up.

At the top, I was a little disappointed with the spectacularity of the vistas. Coming from Yosemite, which had its share of pollution but still boasted dozens of miles of visibility, earlier in the week, the visibility at Sequoia was abysmal. Last summer, in the Great Smokies, the air quality was poor but still gave the illusion that you could see forever. Not the case here.

I can see for yards and yards...
Unfortunately, the only way for Sequoia to fix the problem is to get every major city on the California coast to drastically lower their emissions. I’m not holding my breath for that one.

After Moro Rock and a small adventure trying to get the shuttle to take me where I wanted to go, I finally made it to the trailhead for General Sherman, the world’s largest tree. It’s not the tallest or the widest but it has the most total wood in its trunk. Looking at it, I didn’t really care that some other tree out there outpaced it in one dimension – this thing is absolutely gigantic.

About 5 years ago, a limb fell off under the weight of heavy snow. That limb alone is larger than any single tree east of the Mississippi River. Still lying on the ground next to General Sherman, the impact destroyed the sidewalk under it. Today it takes a bit of a climb to get to the top of just that limb. The tree itself is off limits these days. The fence around it allows you to come within a few feet of the base of the trunk – plenty close enough to get a sense of the size of this thing. Had the fence not been there, I would have gotten a picture of me trying to hug the tree, and I would have been able to get about one 1/35 of the way around it.

The only problem I had with the Sherman tree wasn’t the crowds – after all it’s the Giant Forest, so it was plenty large to have some space to yourself – it was the elevation. To get from the parking lot to the tree required a descent of several hundred feet, which was wonderful. The problem was getting back up those hundreds of feet to get back to the car before all your food was eaten by bears. However, this one problem didn’t come up at the other stand of sequoias I visited this afternoon – the Grant Grove.

Named for the General Grant tree, the widest and second largest tree in the world, the Grant Grove was relatively flat, so a pleasant stroll from start to finish. It also seemed to me to have a higher concentration of mature sequoias, giving the feeling that you were in a forest cathedral with towering 300-foot red walls.

The Grant Grove also had signs along the trail in front of nearly every named tree as well as several other interesting forest features that did a great job of anticipating my questions and answering them for me. The icing on the Grant Grove cake (mmm… woody) was that, since I got there around 6:30, only a few small groups of quiet visitors were there. With all this considered, Grant Grove was definitely my favorite part of the parks today.

General Grant
Leaving the parks, I glanced at the clock and at the sky and realized that, if I found a spot with a decent view, this could be a good night to catch a sunset. Just outside the park, but still within the national forest, I found a roadside turnout with a path no more than 100 feet long, down to a clearing where I could see as far towards the horizon as the smog would allow. In fact, it was that smog that caught the sun’s strongly-refracted light, giving the scene even more color.

Driving away, it occurred to me that, before this adventure, I don’t think I’d ever watched a sunset from start to finish. After getting home, I’ll definitely have to find time to do it more often, because whenever there are some late afternoon clouds or wherever there’s a decent view, it’s just as entertaining as anything else that might be happening around 7pm, and is certainly more inspiring. You walk away after a striking sunset with the same sense of euphoria that you take with you after a concert or a particularly satisfying movie. And this one’s free.

Following the sunset, the twilight descent through the Sierra foothills was, to me, the classic California drive. Coasting downhill on a 2-lane winding road in a cool summer evening, flanked by towering cliffs above me on one side and wild brush on spilling over the curb on the other, with the road all to myself, and with the iPod deciding on some Matchbox 20, this is what I had always pictured California to be like. And to think, I didn’t even have to venture anywhere near L.A. to find it.

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