Thursday, December 29, 2016

Yosemite's Red Headed Step-Cousins

Everyone's heard of Yosemite.  You got your Half Dome.  You got your El Capitan.  You got your Matterhorn.  Wait a minute.  That's in Disneyland.  Which is ironic, because that's what Yosemite is like, a Magic Kingdom, in a natural sort of way.  But I'm not here to talk about Yosemite, I'm here to talk about those other two magical kingdoms just south of there, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

I have lived in the Golden State for 62 years, which is sort of dating myself.  But if I was really doing that I'd have to take myself to dinner.  Which means I'd have to put on a dress, high heels and lipstick and why am I telling you this?  Where was I anyway?

Kings Canyon.  Sequoia.  National parks.  Sixty-two years.  I had never been there before.  I've been to Yosemite several times, but then we're not talking about Yosemite.  Why the heck had I never been just south of there to the adjoining natural wonders?

From a perspective point of view, we met a couple from Singapore at Kings Canyon after finishing our hike.  It was their first visit to this glorious state.  Where did they go after landing in San Francisco?  Lake Tahoe.  Yosemite.  Kings Canyon/Sequoia.  From there to visit a college friend in Monterey and then back to Singapore.  They hadn't even been in the state a week and went to Kings Canyon.  It took me sixty-two years.

Kings Canyon National Park is roughly due East from Fresno, Ca.  Sequoia adjoins and is directly south.  Good old Yosemite is directly north, but we're not talking about Yosemite.  There are two roads in to Kings Canyon from the west, there are no roads in from the east.  Big granite mountains with sheer granite cliffs make that kinda difficult.

We took Highway 99 south from Sacramento to Fresno, and then took Highway 180 East.  Fresno sure seemed bigger than I could have imagined.  The interchange to go from south to east, which looked like a simple two road intersection on a ten year old map, was actually worthy of any Southern California mystical highway maze.  Holy cow.

But once we were out of highway boulevard metropolis land, the road narrowed down to two handsome lanes.  Soon it became "The Orange Blossom Trail", which was a logical name.  We began passing through beautiful, bountiful, and perfectly aligned orange groves on either side of the highway as we cruised into the foothills from the valley floor.

It's only forty-five miles from Fresno to the park's entrance, but it's a world away.  $30 to get in and stay and play for seven days.  What a bargain.  We Americans need to get out and explore and support our national parks more.  They are treasures.  The rest of the world certainly knows this.

When we arrived at the Visitor Center ten minutes later we quickly discovered we, as Americans, were the minority.  I felt like I was in Paris or Southeast Asia.  Or an elevator in San Francisco.  There were foreign speaking European and Asian tourists everywhere.  Well, not everywhere.  There were about twelve cars in a parking lot that could hold a hundred.  High season was certainly behind us.

Besides the very informative visitor center, there was also a gift shop and general store in the vicinity.  Around the corner and up the bend a couple hundred yards sat the John Muir Lodge, our quarters for the next two nights.

There were only two places still open in the park where you spend the night, unless you wanted to sleep in your ice box refrigerator car.  The Muir Lodge was one, the Wuksachi Lodge the other.  All the campgrounds were closed for the winter, and there were plenty of those.  I would imagine the park is a  human freaking zoo in the summer.

The location of the Muir Lodge was perfect for our ramblings.  We were going to drive down into the canyon the next day and do some hiking.  The following day we'd head south through Sequoia Park and then out through the south entrance to parts unknown.  We had two days and nights before a very important dinner engagement with the kids in Oakland.  Babysitting payback.  That's our price.  More quality family time.  On their dime.

The ambiance of the lodge is like rustic meets Denny's.  The lobby, cafe and wifi chill area are all in the same wide open place.  There is a high ceiling with huge, rough hewn beams, a large rock fire place and wrought iron chandeliers.  There's also a few overstuffed leather type arm chairs with Navajo type blankets.

Then there's about fifteen standard cafe type melmac and metal tables with K-Mart chairs.  A couple glass door fridges also graced the cafeteria where you could grab a sandwich or salad to go.  Then there were a couple more candy and soda vending machines leading down the hall towards the lodge's rooms.

The lodge cafeteria boasted an extremely limited menu.  I think there were seven items on it.  The food was also prepared in attached trailer.  There was park signage calling something somewhere a "food court", but it was a lot more like a selection you might find, say, at a Topeka trailer trash pot luck.

In fairness, apparently in summer there were food trailers out in the parking area that offered varied fare.  There was also a new food court/restaurant that was under construction and should be available for consumption in 2017.  Which is good, because the seven item menu lacked, well, variety.  Substance.  Flavor. 

The first night I had a burger, which was palatable, but not even close to an In & Out.  My lovely wife had beef stew, which included two or three bites of beef.  The second night we both had a chicken Caesar salad.  They were OK, except I saw the chef that morning retrieving the unsold salads from the day before from the glass fridge in the lobby.  I'm going to assume some of that lettuce, a bit wilted and brown, made it into our salads that night.

He probably did it on instructions from the Delaware North Corporation, the company that runs the concessions at many, if not all our national parks.  Sorry guys, you get, like a "D" for food service.  And the only reason you get that is because the marinated chicken was good.

What was much better than the food though was the human ambiance factor.  It seemed like everyone dining was dressed in outdoor and/or mountaineering gear.  Except for one European malcontent in sweats.  He could have been anywhere in America the way he was attired, like a Wal-Mart hot dog stand for instance.

I got the feeling we were at a high sierra base camp getting ready for some fantastic mountaineering conquest the following day.  Folks were talking about the current day's exploits, or they were pouring over maps of the gargantuan park planning the next day's assault.  We were all on the verge of something great.  I knew then my lovely wife and I would easily conquer the highway the following day in our sedan as we motored through the glorious scenery.  With snacks and drinks.  We had this.  Piece of cake.

When we initially checked in, the front desk clerk informed us that there was going to be a constellation viewing that night with a park ranger.  Everyone interested was to meet in the lobby at 7:30 PM.

Sounded good to us.  I mean, at our age you can only have so much motel sex before the batteries need recharging.

After dinner we returned to our room and continued planning the next day's assault.  Then we left the room at 07:25 and walked the forty-five steps to the lobby, arriving at 7:25:42.  It was more of a stroll I guess, plus I lingered a couple seconds in front of the candy machine planning that evening's assault of a Butterfinger bar.

There were still a few folks in the cafeteria and there was also another couple sitting in two of the over-stuffed arm chairs.  The foreigner in sweats and his girlfriend were still in the wifi area playing with their phones.  A few folks filtered in and out of the double glass doors.  A party of five young, strapping German lads waltzed into the room.  Rock climbers I presumed.  They bought some candy and disappeared down the hall. 

We sat in the other two over-stuffed arm chairs and patiently awaited the ranger.  We sat there quite politely for ten minutes or so, figuring the ranger had run into Yogi Bear.  Or Boo-Boo.  Then the front desk whiz kid hospitality jack of all trades walked by and asked how we were doing.  We said fine, and informed him we were waiting for the ranger for the constellation show.  He said they had already left.

"Um, what?" I inquired, looking around quickly while trying to ascertain if I had missed something as obvious as a park ranger with tourists in tow.  Three feet away.  Maybe he didn't have his ranger hat on...     

"Yeah, he rounded up five people and left a few minutes early.  He asked if there were any others coming."

And so I pose this question to anybody willing to listen: Without a sign-up sheet ANYWHERE, how is a complete stranger going to know if another complete stranger is going to show up?  And why the hell have a meeting time if you're going to leave before the appointed time?

I checked my watch.  It's a Swiss Army Watch, man.  It's accurate.  It has a toothpick and everything.  Plus our room was about twenty seconds from the meeting spot.  We were on time, actually early.  Man.

The next morning we took the couple mile drive to the view point where the constellation show was the night before.  We didn't see any stars, but found the view vast and enormous.  Majestically supreme.  Granite walls and mountain peaks stretching our forever.  The last range in the distance included a few of the 14,000 foot peaks close to Mt. Whitney, the tallest point in the continental US at 14,491. 

From there we took the incredibly impressive thirty-six mile Kings Canyon Scenic Byway drive down and through the eventually towering granite faced Kings Valley.  Whew.  Everywhere you looked the views were magnificent.

As you might imagine, there are a few twists and turns as the road winds its way down into the canyon.  It's fine for a sedan or just about any four wheel vehicle.  The signs say it's also fine for trucks with trailers, but some of those curves around some of those mountain ridges would be too tight for my comfort.  Not to mention the hundreds of foot fall if one of those tires skid off the lane.

They surely used some dynamite when they cut that road along some of those sheer granite cliffs.  The drive is not for the faint of heart, but eventually it levels out on the canyon floor and then follows the south fork of the Kings River all the way to Road's End.  That's where, well, the road ends.

Campgrounds abound once you hit the river, there's even a lodge down there.  But all of that closes up for winter, as a matter of fact the road we were on was closing entirely the Monday after we would be there.

Autumn is a glorious time to visit the Sierras.  Colors abound and, incidentally, humans don't.  There were five cars at Road's End when we arrived.  The parking lot could hold fifty.  And there were probably fifty different hikes you could take from that location.  From six minutes to six days.

We chose one that was somewhere in between.  It ended up being six miles.  It was nothing short of magical, better than Disneyland and a whole lot quieter.  The route was mostly level, heading upstream first and then back downstream, in a long oval.  The path wound through a hundred foot wide forest surrounded by sheer, several hundred foot tall granite cliffs.  The river ran through the middle.  Foot bridges allowed us to ford the stream at both ends.

Every single view along the river was a post card.  I kept imagining the area encased in snow, the white, clear beauty captured in enraptured silence.  Not a human soul around.

When we arrived back at the parking lot and began unloading our gear, I noticed a young Asian couple holding a map and making a beeline towards us.  She was pretty frantic, he was a little less so but still quite concerned.  They were both just a little bit lost.  Fortunately I knew exactly where we were and exactly where they had left their car.   As a matter of fact it was our next stop, so we gladly gave them a ride.

They both spoke very good English, however a few adjectives haven't quite made it into their far east vocabulary.

When they said they were from Singapore, my lovely wife, ever polite, enthusiastically responded, "Oh, I hear your city is awesome!"

"Why, what have you heard?" responded the husband, mortified and taken aback.

It was then we assured him "awesome" is good.  We chatted briefly, wished each other well and continued on our separate ways.

After the young Singapore couple put Monterey in my head, that evening we decided we'd go from the Sierras to the Sea the following day.  The mileage wasn't that large and we hadn't really been back to Monterey since we lived there in 2005.  What the hell. 

Before we could go to Monterey the next day though, we had to drive by and see some really, really big trees.  I'm talking massive here.  We had already seen the "General Grant" when we first got into the park, it was only a couple miles from the lodge.

The General Grant, the second-largest sequoia in the world, is a 3,000-year-old wonder and the centerpiece of Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.  A massive specimen of Sequoiadendron giganteum, General Grant measures almost 270 feet tall and 107 feet around at its base. The tree was named in 1867 to honor Ulysses S. Grant, and was coined the “Nation's Christmas Tree” by President Calvin Coolidge. It is one of the biggest attractions in the entire national park system.

Yeah, we'd visited Grant, but we had to see the undisputed king, General Sherman.  The King of the Giant Forest, the General Sherman tree is not only the largest living tree in the world, but the largest living organism, by volume, on the planet. General Sherman is:
~ 2,100 years old
~ 2.7 million pounds
~ 275 feet tall
~ 100 feet around at its trunk

And all around the Sherman tree are other incomprehensibly giant trees, all hundreds if not thousands of years old.  Imagine the stories they could tell.  

Once again we ended up being about the fourth car in a parking lot that could hold a hundred.  And once again we two Americans were the minority.  There were a half dozen foreigners at the tree when we arrived.  How do I know they were foreign?  Conversation sounded like an elevator in San Francisco, only, you know, quieter.

As we drove through both parks both days I noticed there were quite a few dead and dying pines.  Besides  the drought casualties, a wild fire had blown through portions of the park a few years back. 

Which begs the question: If a tree falls in the forest and you get squished do squirrels even care?

The road heading south out of the park is not for the faint of heart either.  Or long vehicles.  As a matter of fact, trailers are prohibited that way.  Hell, it's about 10 MPH in a sedan.  Hairpin does not even begin to describe some of the turns.  It reminded me of Lombard Street in San Francisco.  Or my driveway.

Eventually we wound our way out of the park and we were off to the sea, taking the mostly two lane Highway 198 all the way across the state. 

It had been a while since we'd gone a stretch on a road that wasn't a freeway though.  We were getting close to needing gas and we were discovering it was hard to come by.  Freeway's are easy.  Gas is everywhere.  Two lane highways, at least this portion of 198, not so much.

The scenery was gorgeous though.  We were passing through beautiful farm land throughout the middle of the state and having a grand time looking at all the old farm houses that were dotted amid the crops and orchards.  I kept my eye on the gas gauge and figured we should be able to make it to the next town which was about forty miles away.  But it would be do or die.  If there was no station I was going to have to siphon some from somewhere.

Ever have gasoline burps?  You think taco, sauerkraut and beer burps are bad?  Try huffing on a hose stuck in a gas tank and just getting your lips off in the nick of time.  But before you get to that glorious moment you've already inhaled a helium balloon or two of gas fumes.  So not only are you talking weird but you've got gas vapor coming up out of your esophagus.  There's not enough beer in the world to quell that noxious swell, folks.  Not enough beer in the world.

And then, as if by miracle, an oasis appeared before us, sparing me the awful potential of regurgitating gasoline.

It was where Highway 198 intersected with Interstate 5, the main north/south artery in the state.  Speaking of freeways.  We hadn't just stumbled into an oasis though, we hit the Motherlode!  There were no less than three gas stations and seven eateries.  Epicurean gold.  McDonald's, Taco Bell, Subway, Denny's, Baja Fresh, Burger King and Carl's Jr.  There was even a Motel 6 just in case you ate too much and needed a nap.

Sound bite quote of the day, "It was an honorable conclusion to the ending of the completion of the project at hand."  Spoken by a redundant repeater on the TV news that morning.  Must've been a politician.

We gassed up, my lovely wife got a taco and we were on our way.  Another hour or so and we hit Highway 101 North to Salinas, then over Highway 68 Westward Ho past Laguna Seca Raceway to Monterey.
Pardon me.  I guess it's now called Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.  Whatever. 

I had finagled a great deal on the motel the night before on Priceline, $90 for a regular $160 four star room.  We checked in, refreshed ourselves and then moseyed over to the Monterey Fish House for dinnerIt's where the locals goThe hell with the wharf and Cannery Row.  There's always a gazillion tourists over there.

The Fish House is on Del Monte Avenue and is located well away from those tourist traps.  There's an oyster bar and the ambiance is boisterous.  Boisterous fine dining.  It reminded me of Le Petite Colbert in Paris.  We arrived at 5:30 and got the last table, almost shoulder to shoulder with the couple next to us.  A minute later another couple ventured in.  Thirty minute wait.

We had a sumptuous meal, then played tourist and drove down to the wharf.  There we smelled caramel corn and sea urchins and I bought my lovely wife a John Steinbeck coffee mug.  He's one of my well read lovely wife's favorite authors.  So am I, or so she says. 

The last day of our short trip was spent in Oakland with our wonderful kids and grandchildren.  And then that night was our dinner out with our daughter and son-in-law.  At the Cliff House in San Francisco.  It was a wonderful choice, and would have been better if I didn't have to drive in Daytona 500 traffic across the damn Bay Bridge at 6:00 PM on a Saturday night.  Ah chi mama.  Good thing I don't drink anymore.

The Cliff House is a very notable, distinguished and posh San Francisco restaurant.  It's, like, famous even.  It deserves, you know, reasonable attire.  I was not sporting a tie, but I was sporting a coat.  Slacks.  Shiny black shoes.  Son in law the same, sans the coat.  My lovely wife and fabulous daughter were in cocktail dresses.  Our table was entirely respectable and appropriately attired.  There were also several gentlemen in the restaurant sporting ties.

Most folks were presentably attired.  Except for the nimrod in cargo shorts, t shirt and tennis shoes.  I mean, he could have gotten away with that at the John Muir Lodge in Kings Canyon Park, but he would have been cold.  What's wrong with people anymore?

Sigh.  The dinner was splendid and it is always simply marvelous spending time with your grown up children.  It was a fine fitting end for a five day getaway.  The drive back across the bridge was much tamer, and the drive back up to the foothills the following morning was a breeze.

The old homestead was just as we left her, thanks to our pet sitter extraordinaire, Amber.  I'd recommend her but I don't think she can take any new clients, she's that good!  Here's a plug anyway: Pet, Plant & Home., just in case she has an opening.  Amber makes leaving easy.

All the chickens and kitties were fine.  Well, until the big bad but entirely beautiful bobcat showed up.
Stay tuned.

I hope you all enjoyed a splendid Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever you celebrate and I hope we all have a safe and joyous New Year.