Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9
We awake to hear the news of the Dallas massacre. It appears that instead of subsiding, the violence in the U.S. is only getting worse. Since revenge is a basic human emotion, you know that there will be retribution, then more violence—all facilitated by elected officials, owned by the NRA, which encourages a culture where there are more lethal weapons than people. The rest of the world thinks we are nuts.
Today we begin the National Parks leg. We have reached our farthest western point, Santa Barbara, just under 4,000 miles and 23 days on the road, and are heading back East. The first park on the list is Sequoia, about a six hour drive, which we wisely decide to split up into two days. Route 101, the old Coastal Highway, will take you all the way to San Francisco, but we bail out at San Luis Obispo, a quaint, touristy town exactly halfway between L.A. and San Francisco. This highway could well be the most scenic highway in the country with golden hills, punctuated by occasional wineries and cattle fields. Perhaps most remarkable, except for the brief periods when you drive through villages and towns, there are no billboards and no advertising. I conclude that the state of California must have figured out how to accomplish what is so tragically rare in most of the rest of the U.S.
The hotel in San Luis Obispo is a 25 room, bed and breakfast, with gas burning fireplaces, and large, tastefully decorated rooms with a Great Britain theme. (Ours was “The Devonshire.”) and probably the nicest hotel so far. The trip the next day, Saturday, July 9, took us first over the Coastal Range and then down 2,000 feet to the vast, flat, irrigated fields of the San Fernando Valley. Here fields are measured in square miles, not acres. Canals provide water. Where irrigation is not provided, there is only bone dry dirt. I can’t help wondering how long it will be before water becomes the scarce resource oil is now. If the canals and irrigation cease, we who depend on this rich valley for food—and that is just about everyone in the U.S.– will be in deep trouble.
We see few houses but a surprisingly large number of “Another Farmer for Trump” signs.
After a couple of hours of speeding along at 70 miles an hour on a two-lane, almost deserted highway, we start to climb again and the golden hills we saw on Route 101 start to reappear. The hills get larger, becoming small mountains and then in the distance we see the silhouettes of the towering Sierra Nevada. It is not before we reach an altitude of around 4,000 feet that the gray sage and arid conditions suddenly and miraculously give way to pines and firs, which every few hundred yards of steep incline seem to add 10 feet in height. A deep valley is to our right with giant mountains upwards of 13,000 feet visible on the other side.
One troubling part of this part of the trip is the number of dead and dying trees. Their demise is due to a blight caused by the mountain pine beetle infestation, which tends to occur every 40 or 50 years but this time is much worse due the five-year drought affecting most of California. Hundreds of thousands trees must be affected in this park alone. Another sign of global warming?
It is not far beyond the 4,000 foot mark that we enter Sequoia National Park and then sharply start to climb to what will be 7,200 feet. This is about the altitude of Santa Fe and Flagstaff but it surely feels different. The narrow two-lane road curves back and forth with one hairpin curve after another. Since it is late in the afternoon, you would think people leaving the park would have been well on their way by now, but this is not the case. Cars are almost bumper to bumper going up the mountain and down, creeping around the hairpin curves and trying to stay on the road while not running into another car and still catching brief glimpses of steep valleys and giant mountains when you can. It is a driver’s nightmare. When we finally arrive on the top of the mountain at 7:00, we are both completely exhausted, and I am a nervous wreck. Even though our nerves are worn thin, we can’t miss gawking at the beauty of the forest and at the size and height of the Giant Sequoias. They are the largest trees in the world and are found only on the Western slopes of the Sierras. Many are over two thousand years old, some as high as 25 story buildings. I remember being here before twice—once when I was around 13 with my parents and once when we took our own kids here when they were youngsters. It is puzzling that I can’t remember many of the details but that allows me to experience this again as if it were the first time.
We find our lodge—very basic, but comfortable—and check in. Too tired to walk down to the main building, for dinner we decide to finish off the three pieces of cold pizza, which we boxed up from our meal in San Luis Obispo, which Embry immediately proceeds to drop on the floor, face down. No problem. She carefully picks up the mushrooms and pepperoni and places them back on the crust, then searches for a hire dryer, which she finds and is surprisingly efficient in warming them up.
What permitted this from being a complete disaster was the extended happy hour, which began after we removed all perishable items, “including all alcoholic beverages” from our car. When you check into the lodge you are provided all sorts of information about the park including the bears, who are apparently so smart and so skilled that if you have anything that can be eaten or consumed in your car, the next morning the eatable and drinkable items will be gone. For some reason the items that must be removed are alcoholic beverages–even if the bottles have not been opened.
The only conclusion that I can draw is that there is something special about bears and booze. The image of a black bear walking up to your car and examining its contents through the window and spotting a bottle of Tanqueray gin must drive them crazy. They will do anything to get in, break your car window, and you will walk out the next morning to your car to find a 500-pound black bear, passed out on your hood with a smile on his face.
We dutifully avoid such an encounter, rewarding ourselves for finally making it here, one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.