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Goodbye?

September 1, 2017

I honestly don’t know if there will be another road trip next year. Together, the Hamster and I have been to all 50 states, including 27 state capitols. We’ve been to 23 National Parks, 20 ballparks, and countless shady motels. Frankly, we’re running out of places to go. We’ve been kicking around a couple of ideas for next summer (the Canadian Rockies, or some parts of Texas we haven’t visited), but they both have flaws and challenges.

This year’s trip was very different from the rest of our trips in certain ways (flying and length, for example), but if indeed this was our last road trip, it was a pretty great one to end with. We looked out from high above Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and from 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley. We had one rafting trip canceled and another take us by surprise. We hiked until it hurt, and we walked aimlessly in natural serenity. We visited places we’ve been dying to see and we had a great time there.

All of our trips have been pretty extraordinary, each in its own way. We’ve driven almost 30,000 miles, and in the process we’ve learned a tremendous amount about this country, its treasures, and the people and places within it. We’ve also learned a lot about each other, and about ourselves. These trips have brought us closer than I ever thought possible, and have kept us bound and grounded throughout all the times during the rest of the year when we butt heads and frustrate each other.

They say that travel brings people together, and I always thought that meant the bridging of cultures as people from different places interact. These road trips have helped me see that the people travel brings together are also the people in the car.

Giants of San Francisco

September 1, 2017

Our second day in San Francisco was also the last day of the road trip, and we were determined to go out with a bang.

When planning these trips I almost always try to pick destinations and activities that we both enjoy, skipping over things that I would appreciate but Sam wouldn’t. I say “almost always” because there are exceptions now and then, and our first stop was one of those.

City Lights Booksellers

City Lights Booksellers and Publishers is legendary not just in San Francisco but throughout the country and perhaps even the world. It was founded by Peter D. Martin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the original Beat poets, when mainstream publishers refused to publish the works of Beat writers like Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Ferlinghetti himself because they were judged to be obscene.

64 years later, the bookstore retains much of the antiestablishment spirit of the founders, stocking only thoughtful, antiestablishment writers past and present, and decorated with all sorts of handwritten signs about the importance of poetry, writing, and reading (or sometimes just self-promotion).

City Lights Booksellers

I wanted to buy something, not merely visit, but nothing jumped out at me and I didn’t want to take too long because Sam started running out of patience pretty quickly. I know it’s cheesy, but I ended up buying copies of Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road, as well as a book on the process and craft of writing by Ferlinghetti. (I’m not sure why, exactly, but Burroughs never really excited me.) Cheesy or not, I was pretty excited to be buying books by the original Beat writers in the bookstore that published them and helped start the whole movement. I don’t agree with very much of what they had to say but damn, they were talented writers.

Sam had a small amount of appreciation for the history and significance but he was pretty relieved when we finally left. Further improving his mood was the news that we were finally going to ride a cable car.

I always like to ride public transportation whenever I travel because it enables me to experience the city like a local even when I’m mostly going to tourist sites. What I quickly learned about San Francisco was that locals don’t really take the cable cars because the busses and BART are much cheaper and faster and cover more of the city. (At $7 per ride, a cable car is almost as expensive as a cab but slower and less convenient.) Because the cable cars are loaded mostly with tourists, they tend to fill up at the beginning of the line and empty out at the end, with very few people getting on and off at any of the stops in the middle. However, the ends of each line are in major tourist hubs, which means parking is difficult and expensive. So Sam and I took our chances in the middle of the historic Powell & Mason line, and we easily found parking a block away from one of the stops. One completely full cable car passed us by, but the next one had room for us and we hopped aboard.

San Francisco Cable Car

We didn’t get to ride on the running boards like we wanted to because those spots were already taken, but we were happy just to be on board as straphangers.

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Satisfied, we got off two stops later and walked back to the car. Now it was time to head out of town–sort of.

Sam’s final requirement for San Francisco was to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. I didn’t want to just drive back and forth with no purpose, so I planned a day trip to Muir Woods, a large, dense grove of California Redwoods just north of the city. The only reasonable way to get there and back is the Golden Gate; two birds, one stone.

Sam and I love bridges. We marvel at their structure and the incredibly difficult building process, and although they aren’t all beautiful, even most of the ugly ones have a certain majesty to them. The Golden Gate is not really golden (it’s more of a rusty copper) but it’s definitely one of the prettier bridges, especially the way it’s situated with the bay on one side and the open ocean on the other. Not surprisingly, Sam loved driving over the bridge, and as we reached the north side we pulled off into Vista Point (a large parking lot with a great view of the bridge) so we could take a slower look.

Golden Gate Bridge

Having now seen one towering giant of San Francisco, it was time for some even taller giants: the redwoods.

The beauty of the bridge was nothing compared to what was waiting for us in Muir Woods. It’s named for John Muir, a naturalist whose writings advocating for the protection of American wilderness are still read widely today and helped convince Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Parks Service. He also founded the Sierra Club and basically spend his life championing the conservation of the country’s (and world’s) natural beauty. He had little in common with the Beat poets except for the fact that he, too, was a damn good writer.

His namesake Woods are a perfect tribute: there’s really nothing to do there except walk around and appreciate the extraordinary scenery. One main hiking path snakes through the redwoods in the form of a boardwalk that’s almost a mile long, and a handful of more demanding hiking paths branch off of the boardwalk to bring travelers to denser or higher points in the forest. The vast majority of visitors stick to the main path, and that’s basically what Sam and I did, although when we got to the end we chose a slightly more secluded path back to the park’s entrance.

I can’t even call what we did hiking, because the word “hike” implies a destination. We simply took a walk in the forest. A couple of minutes into our walk, Sam realized that we were walking through Endor, the forest moon inhabited by Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. The Endor scenes in the movie were actually shot in a redwood forest a bit further north, but the look and feel were the same.

Muir Woods

The whole experience was beautiful and peaceful and serene in a way I can’t fully describe but made both of us intensely happy and appreciative of the very fact that we were there. In fact I’m going to shut up for a minute and just show you.

Muir Woods

Muir Woods

These two redwoods are in love

Muir Woods

Muir Woods

The trees are so tall that the sunlight has to fight its way through to the ground, sometimes appearing only in thin, individual shafts

I took a 10-second video of the babbling brook that runs through the forest, but I’m having trouble posting it here. I’m keeping it on my phone, though, so that every time I get stressed out I can watch it and feel better instantly.

The only imperfection during our walk through the woods was the obnoxious behavior of some of the other people there. Have I mentioned that people suck?

First there was this guy:

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Notice the yellow paint on the ground that says, “VANS ONLY” and the sign right in front of his car that says, “COMMERCIAL CARRIERS ONLY.” Grrrr.

Then there was this sign at the café near the park’s entrance:

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About 20 steps from the sign, Sam and I almost stepped on a bunch of ketchup packets and napkins that somebody had left on the ground.

And maybe most infuriating was people’s behavior near this sign:

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Moments after we read this sign, a group of three women came by having an extremely loud conversation about their experiences with rental cars. Seconds later, a couple in their 20s came through talking very loudly about the price of real estate in San Francisco.

Muir Woods was so gorgeous that even the jerks inside it could not ruin our experience. I was in such a good mood when we left that, as we drove back across the Golden Gate Bridge, I even sang along to the Full House theme song when Sam played it on his phone.

After a long drive to Oakland to pick up dinner at a kosher deli/grocery there, we headed to the very final stop of the road trip. After driving across a giant bridge and walking among giant trees, it was finally time to see the actual San Francisco Giants.

AT&T Park

AT&T Park has an awful name but it’s one of the nicest ballparks in the country. The exterior is not only beautiful but pays homage to the team’s history by naming entry gates after a handful of Giants greats and displaying life-size statues of others.

Juan Marichal Statue AT&T Park

The inside is great too, with roomy seats, quirky dimensions, an enormous variety of both classic and creative food and drink, and a pretty view of the bay right behind the right field wall.

I’ve been here before but this was Sam’s first time, so after the first few innings we left our seats to go wander around the ballpark. We ended up watching an inning from the seats on top of that right field wall, which is a great place to watch a game. Behind us was the bay and a handful of guys in kayaks hoping to retrieve home run balls.

McCovey Cove

In front of us the game was unfolding. Below us was Cardinals right fielder Randal Grichuk. And next to us was a drunk Giants fan who was heckling Grichuk rather creatively, with lines like, “Randal, your mother’s brisket is delicious!”

We had to leave the game a little early to catch our red-eye flight home. About half an hour later we pulled into the rental car return area, gave back our very blue Toyota Camry, and the road trip was officially over. After 1,700 miles of adventure, it was time to get on the plane and let someone else take me home.

You Got It, Dude!

August 31, 2017

I’ve been to San Francisco a couple of times, albeit many years ago, and it’s definitely a fun town. But a big part of the magic of these road trips is seeing new things, doing new things, and going to new places, so as much as I like San Francisco I was not nearly as excited to get here as Sam was. I gave him a lot of control over our itinerary here, but he really insisted on only four things: driving down Lombard Street, riding in a cable car, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, and seeing a Giants game. I added a few activities I thought he’d enjoy, but even so that left us with a pretty loose couple of days here.

As soon as we arrived, I drove straight to Lombard Street. San Francisco is known for its steep hills, and Lombard is one of the steepest streets in the city. Specifically, the block between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street is so steep that it weaves back and forth several times. With eight hairpin turns, this one block claims to be “the crookedest street in the world.”

Lombard Street

This sign shows only two hairpin turns, and is thus a major understatement.

Lombard Street

Here’s our view from the bottom.

It’s also a major destination for tourists, to the point where driving down the block takes several extra minutes because the stupidest of the tourists walk out into the middle of traffic to take photos, and then stay there taking more photos. Here’s a video of our drive down the crookedest street in the world; it’s a full two minutes long because we kept having to stop along the way while cars in front of us waited for people to scurry out of the way.

Lombard Street

This brings me to a rant that’s been brewing inside me for several days. In short, people suck. National Parks and other major tourist destinations attract many wonderful, well-behaved, considerate people, but they also attract everyone else. And everyone else is a jerk. The bottom of Lombard Street has a sign posted asking people in very polite terms to not be jerks. Mere steps away from this sign, and miles away from common sense, people wandered out into traffic to take photos or just gawk, completely ignoring the cars that were coming from all directions. Here, take a look:

Lombard Street Tourists

See all those people standing in the middle of the crosswalk taking photos? There are cars right behind them, and right in front of them, and they don’t even know that.

This is one of dozens of examples we’ve witnessed over the past week. In Death Valley Sam was taking a panoramic photo of the salt flats at Badwater Basin, and even though there were only a few other people there, one of them managed to completely ruin the shot by almost walking right through it and almost into Sam. At Yosemite we saw people smoking near No Smoking signs, people yelling to each other continuously in otherwise silent settings, and people who had a drone with them despite many signs making it clear that drones are not allowed in the park. In Sequoia there was a guy who got out of his car at a scenic overlook and left the door open with the keys still in the ignition the entire time, so that everyone looking at the serene scenery had to listen to his car go “ding ding ding” interminably. We also saw people walking right past countless “stay on the path” signs to take shortcuts off the path, through exactly the wild terrain that the signs specifically asked them to help protect. And we watched a video about a bear that had to be killed because he got too aggressive and dangerous after someone in the park fed him despite the 900 signs throughout the park begging people to not feed the animals and to specifically keep food away from bears SO THAT THEY DON’T DIE. At the Grand Canyon one guy had a Bluetooth speaker in his backpack and left it on at full volume throughout his hike, and his trip to the bathroom, and as he sat waiting for the shuttle bus. And the litter! We’ve seen litter at every National Park, including the packaging from a SIM card, which somebody left on the ground at Tunnel View yesterday. People’s selfishness and thoughtlessness literally ruins the thing they came to see.

OK, rant over. On the way to Lombard Street Sam called an audible and asked if we could visit the house from Full House. My answer: you got it, dude!

Even as a child I immediately recognized that Full House was not only schmaltzy but absolutely insipid, with terrible acting and even worse writing that insults the intelligence of every viewer. Whoever is reading this, I know you probably watched the show, and I know you probably love it, and that’s fine with me, as long as you understand and acknowledge that Full House was an obviously terrible show that you love despite its stupidity.

Thanks to Netflix, YouTube, and other modern miracles, my son’s generation has, at their fingertips, every TV show that currently exists and has ever existed, and yet somehow they have latched on to Full House as if it is actually worth watching. Nonetheless, I took Sam to see the house, and he was thrilled.

Full House house

Hey, what’s that big white sign on the bottom left? I wonder what it says …

Full House Sign

See? I told you people suck. You can’t even visit Danny Tanner’s house without people acting like jerks.

Our next stop was Fisherman’s Wharf, at my suggestion. I normally dislike phony tourist traps like this and their overpriced T-shirt shops and their soulless Bubba Gump restaurants and Hard Rock Cafes, and we’ve been to some version of Fisherman’s Wharf in a whole bunch of different cities (Los Angeles’s Santa Monica Pier, Chicago’s Navy Pier, New York’s South Street Seaport, and on and on). But there’s one thing at Fisherman’s Wharf that I knew Sam would love and can’t see anywhere else: an underwater aquarium.

Aquarium by the Bay is not a very good aquarium by most standards, as it’s very small and has only a small fraction of the variety of aquatic species you see at a typical aquarium. But if you take the elevator down a couple of stories you get to walk through a Plexiglas tunnel surrounded on all sides by sharks, stingrays, and other fish, and that alone is worth a visit.

Aquarium by the Bay

The best part is when the fish swim directly above you and give you a truly unique view.

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You may have noticed that Sam is wearing a sweatshirt in the photo above. After we grappled with oppressive heat for eight days, San Francisco’s 67 degrees and its stiff breezes took us by surprise, and we both had to bundle up a bit when we got to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Sam was underwhelmed by the aquarium but he did very much enjoy the underwater tunnels. He also loved the aquarium’s two otters, Shasta and Tahoe. You may have assumed that the Hamster’s spirit animal is a hamster, but you’d be wrong. Sam says he identifies with the otter because it’s soft and cuddly and playful, but if you get it angry it will bite you. These two otters were especially playful, and we spent almost 20 minutes watching them chase each other, wrestle, and groom each other.

Otters

After the aquarium we wandered around Fisherman’s Wharf, which actually has a few interesting shops sprinkled among the souvenir shops, including a robust candy store where we bought Pez and a fun sock store where Sam and I picked out a few pairs. The Wharf also has great views of Alcatraz, and a resident population of seals that sunbathe on the floating docks like big, lazy dogs.

Alcatraz

Fisherman's Wharf Seals

Sadly, that’s about as close to Alcatraz as we’ll be getting on this trip. Sam badly wanted to take the tour, but tickets need to be purchased months in advance, and we were late to the party and got sold out.

By the time we left Fisherman’s Wharf it was late afternoon, but we still had time for a little more sightseeing before dinner. We checked into tonight’s seedy motel and dropped our stuff off in our room before heading out again to see more of the city. First I took Sam for a drive through Haight-Ashbury. I gave him a brief overview of the neighborhood’s historic importance, and we drove around gawking at the dab bars, hooka shops, and stoners for a couple of minutes before moving on.

Less than a mile from the corner of Haight and Ashbury is another San Francisco icon known as the Painted Ladies. “Painted lady” is a nickname for any old Victorian house whose exterior is painted at least three colors to highlight the various architectural details. With so many old Victorian row houses, San Francisco has many painted ladies scattered about, but the most famous are a row of seven consecutive painted ladies on a block that borders Alamo Square Park. Ordinarily Sam wouldn’t care much about any of this, but Alamo Square Park is the park where the Tanner family is having a picnic in the opening credits to Full House, and the Painted Ladies appear behind them.

Full House Picnic Alamo Square Park

Sam was very excited to see the park and the real-life view of the houses, and even appreciated the beauty of the architecture. We were happy, and we were hungry, and it was finally time for dinner.

The only kosher restaurant in San Francisco serves Israeli food and is located, oddly, just inside the official entry to San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s a little pricey but it’s the only game in town, and the food is good, and its odd location gave us an opportunity to see a bit of the country’s most famous Chinatown.

We have a lot more to do and see tomorrow, but so far Sam is really enjoying San Francisco, especially the quirkiness of its various neighborhoods. It’s hard to believe there’s only one more day of this road trip. Tomorrow night we fly home, leaving the land of Full House behind as we make our house full again.

Yosemite Hamster

August 30, 2017

The Hamster and I had been looking forward to visiting Yosemite National Park for about a year, and today was finally the day.

Yosemite is consistently rated among the 10 best National Parks, and the Hamster and I love National Parks. It’s mostly known for its many impressive waterfalls, and the Hamster and I love waterfalls. And the Hamster would finally have the opportunity to be Yosemite Sam.

Almost all of the most popular sights in the park are centrally located in an area called Yosemite Valley, so named because it is literally a huge, relatively flat, rectangular valley bordered by massive granite cliffs. Outside of Yosemite Valley there are millions of acres of mountains and forest of impressive beauty, including a couple of sequoia groves and several waterfalls, but the vast majority of visitors to Yosemite focus almost exclusively on the valley. From the south entrance, where we were staying, it takes almost 1.5 hours of driving just to reach Yosemite Valley, so even though we were staying only a few miles outside the park entrance, we knew we had a long drive ahead of us.

We woke up early, raring to go. Before we even got inside the park, though, we got some pretty disappointing news. Our first planned stop was Glacier Point, a long road just south of Yosemite Valley that leads to a short hike that leads to a scenic overlook of some of Yosemite Valley’s most iconic scenery. Just outside the park’s entrance was a sign announcing that the road to Glacier Point was closed. We asked about it at the entrance and were told that it was closed due to wildfires and would probably remain closed all day.

We were disappointed, of course, but we shook it off and headed straight for Yosemite Valley. Cars enter Yosemite Valley through a long tunnel, and the view waiting for you the moment you exit the tunnel might be the best view in the entire park. You’ve certainly seen pictures of it; in fact some computers come with a photo of the aptly named Tunnel View as the desktop background. This is what it usually looks like:

Tunnel View Desktop Wallpaper

I didn’t take this photo; this is the desktop wallpaper version

Let’s deconstruct this into its individual components for a second. The trees comprising the bottom half of the photo are Yosemite Valley. The huge granite cliff on the left side is El Capitan, one of Yosemite’s most recognizable features. The two connected peaks on the right side are the Cathedral Rocks. The white vertical stripe below the Cathedral Rocks is Bridalveil Fall, a 620-foot waterfall that is one of the park’s most visited waterfalls. And far in the distance, jutting up into the cloud right in the middle of the photo, is Half Dome, maybe the park’s most iconic geological feature.

This view was by far Sam’s most anticipated moment of the entire day, his main goal for our visit to Yosemite. But smoke from that wildfire that closed Glacier Point Road had spread for miles, covering the entire valley with a thick smog. This was the Tunnel View we got as we entered Yosemite Valley:

Tunnel View

We could make out only the outlines of the biggest cliffs, and we couldn’t see the waterfall or Half Dome at all. It’s still kind of majestic in it’s own way, but it’s far short of the original.

We wanted to get to the Visitor Center as early as possible so that we could get a parking spot before the park and its parking lots filled up, but on the way there we had to stop off at Bridalveil Fall so we could see up close the waterfall that we couldn’t see from afar. It didn’t disappoint.

Bridalveil Fall

I should mention that late August is a lousy time to see Yosemite’s waterfalls. Peak waterfall season is in Spring, when snowmelt contributes to the flow of water and makes the falls nice and full. By this time of year, some of the park’s waterfalls have already dried up, and those that still flow have diminished considerably over the past month or so. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the short hike to the falls, and the pretty view once we got there.

On our way to the Visitors Center we stopped off once more to catch a better view of Half Dome and to see the massive Yosemite Falls. The smog definitely diminished the views somewhat, but they were still much better than what we saw at Tunnel View.

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls has two parts, the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. The much larger Upper Falls is seen here as a thin white stripe coming down from the top of the granite cliff a bit to the right of center. The dark shading around it shows how wide it is when it is at its fullest in Spring. Lower Falls is tougher to spot; it’s a short white line just above the trees, a little bit left of center.

Half Dome

I took this photo while standing on Sentinel Bridge, a spot known for its stunning view of Half Dome, both above the trees and reflected in the very calm waters of Merced River. The smog makes it much less striking, but you can still make out Half Dome’s outline here, both in the sky and the water.

When we finally got to the Visitors Center, we noticed something we haven’t seen at all on this road trip before today: humidity. We’ve had plenty of intensely hot days but, as they say, it’s a dry heat. Today the smog and clouds kept the temperature down in the 80s for most of the day, but the humidity steadily increased, becoming pretty unbearable by midday.

If I can digress for just a second, the area where the Visitors Center is located is called Yosemite Village, and it’s exactly that. There’s a deli, a post office, an art gallery, a museum, a general store, and even a cemetery. When we saw signs for the cemetery, Sam and I wondered what kinds of people might be buried there (Park Rangers? Idiots who die in the park doing reckless things like feeding bears?), and Sam was appalled that the park’s management missed the opportunity to call it “Yosemetery.”

Anyway, back in the Visitors Center, a Park Ranger helped us plan a robust itinerary for the rest of the day that included two hikes and a rafting trip, leaving room for a trip to Glacier Point at the end of the day if the road ever opened up. (Spoiler: it didn’t.)

Our first hike was the shorter of the two, an easy half-hour loop to get a close-up view of Lower Yosemite Falls. We had stopped off at a CVS the previous night to buy a knee strap for Sam so he’d be able to hike without pain, and it worked. My blister, meanwhile, was still a little painful even bandaged up, but I was so excited to make the most of our visit to Yosemite that I didn’t mind the pain.

I was a little cranky as we walked to the waterfall, partly because of the smoke’s effect on our day but mostly because of our visit to the general store. You know when you’re in a very crowded store for much too long, and the combination of crowding and time use up all your patience and make you a little crazy and anxious and claustrophobic? That’s what happened to me today. So I needed to decompress as we left the store and headed toward the waterfall, but the humidity and the continued crowds were making it difficult. But then Sam turned to me at one point and suddenly exclaimed, “YAY!” with such a huge, excited grin that I couldn’t help but feel better. For the rest of the day, Sam would yell “YAY!” at random points here and there, just to express how excited he was to be there and how much fun he was having. And every time, I answered his “YAY!” with a “YAY” of my own.

The Lower Falls, meanwhile, turned out to be worth the trip.

Lower Yosemite Falls

From there we took one of the park’s free shuttles to a different part of the Village in hopes that a longshot would pan out. When I woke up this morning I had a message waiting for me from my friend Heather, who visited Yosemite earlier this summer. She recommended renting a raft, which I didn’t even know was a thing. It turns out that, for $30 per person, you can steer an inflatable raft for three miles down the Merced River, which runs through the middle of Yosemite Valley. But the rafts get snatched up quickly, so I wasn’t confident we’d be able to get one. This time, luck was on our side. Not only did we procure a raft, but we were able to have one all to ourselves. (They normally put four people in each raft when they’re busier, but crowds were a bit smaller than usual today.)

As we got our raft orientation, the humidity reached a truly oppressive level and I was wondering if we were making a big mistake. Then we had to carry our raft about 200 yards to the riverbank, and I was sure we were making a mistake. But as we got onto the water Sam and I looked around and immediately realized how incredible it was. We drifted slowly down the calm, glassy river, surrounded on all sides by landscapes so extraordinary that we couldn’t even find words to express our wonderment. Behind us was Half Dome, in front of us was a stately stone bridge, to our left were towering pine trees, to our right were constantly changing views of Yosemite Falls, and visiting us now and then were the cutest, most playful ducks I’ve ever seen. Dipping feet and hands in the cold river now and then did a lot to alleviate the heat, and as we paddled down the river the smoke finally started to lift and the sky began to clear. Without question, the rafting trip was the highlight of the entire day.

Half Dome

Yosemite National Park

Merced River

 

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“YAY!”

 

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Yosemite Falls

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The only negative of our rafting trip was that, because the water levels are low this time of year, there were a few spots were the river was so shallow that we had to get out of the raft and pull it several yards until the water got deeper again. We did this barefoot, and Sam ended up scraping up the bottoms of his feet a bit in the process. That, in turn, necessitated the canceling of our final hike, a one-hour hike that would get us close to Half Dome for a supposedly great vantage point. Sam felt bad about causing us to miss out, and apologized heartily. But by this point we had gotten clear views of Half Dome from so many different angles that I wasn’t terribly disappointed about missing out on the hike.

That left us time to right the most important wrong of the day. Now that the sky was finally clear, instead of heading straight out of the park I took a slight detour. Exiting Yosemite Valley, I zig-zagged a little and got us back to the parking lot at Tunnel View. As I had hoped, the view was much better. In fact, it was downright desktop wallpaper worthy.

Tunnel View

It was a perfect way to end an incredible day. We got back into the car and headed out of the park absolutely beaming. As we approached the park’s exit, we found a secluded picnic area that was a perfect place to have dinner. To celebrate our day we grilled the steaks I bought in Las Vegas, and as we ate them we watched the sun inch lower through a grove of fragrant pine trees.

Yosemite sunset

Hours later, I’m still smiling.

General Sherman and the Three Bears

August 29, 2017

The upside of the ridiculous amount of driving I did on Sunday was that we woke up Monday morning just a few miles outside of the south entrance to Sequoia National Park.

As usual, we started at the Visitors Center. But unfortunately we got some bad news right away. Our plan was to drive north to the middle of the park (stopping along the way to see the main sights and do a bit of hiking) then head west and make our way out of the park.

We were hoping to do all this by 4 p.m. so that we could visit Cat Haven, a sanctuary for wild cats that’s also sort of a petting zoo. Cat Haven is just outside Sequoia NP to the west, but their last tour is at 4, so we had to hurry. I asked the Park Ranger for help planning our day under these particular constraints, and she immediately delivered the bad news: wildfires just outside the park’s west entrance had shut down that road, and if it wasn’t reopened, we’d be unable to reach Cat Haven at all, let alone by 4. In fact, when we were done touring the park we’d have to turn back around and exit the way we came in, which would not only be annoying, it would add an extra two hours to our evening drive to Fresno.

This was not the way we were hoping to start the day.

With less time pressure, we planned our stops and figured we would check in with a different Visitors Center that’s more centrally located once we got to that section of the park later in the day. By then, maybe the road would be clear and everything would fall back into place.

Almost as we got back in the car, we started encountering exactly the kind of natural beauty for which National Parks are best known, as well as some of the park’s namesake sequoia trees, and we spent quite a bit of time pulling over to appreciate the sights.

Sequoia National Park

Tunnel Rock

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Auto Tree

Eventually we made our first planned stop, which was at Tunnel Tree, a massive sequoia that fell over decades ago. It’s called Tunnel Tree because a tunnel has been carved through the enormous horizontal trunk, allowing cars to drive right through. We did, of course.

Tunnel Tree

Tunnel Tree

If you’re wondering, these two photos were taken by Sam, who got out of the car to do so just before I drove through the tree. While he was taking the first photo (from behind the car), someone called to him to let him know that he was standing right next to a bear.

The park is home to several hundred black bears, and Sam had almost backed right into a baby black bear and its mama. Luckily, Sam was more bothered by the encounter than they were, and came running back into the car unharmed.

When we finished driving through the tree we circled back around to try to catch a glimpse of the bears (from a safe distance this time). We did more than that: the baby bear turned out to have two other young siblings, and for several minutes we got to watch all three play. And they were adorable!

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It’s hard to follow a show like that. Fortunately, our next stop was a showstopper in its own right: Moro Rock, a large, roundish rock that juts out a bit from a perch high above a picturesque valley. There’s a thin, winding path to the top that includes almost 400 stairs, but the breathtaking views from the top easily make the exhausting climb worthwhile.

Moro Rock

Moro Rock, as seen from far below

Moro Rock

The view from the top

Moro Rock

The Park Ranger we met earlier had recommended that we visit Crescent Meadow, so that’s where we went next. A stream runs along one side of the meadow, and the other three sides are surrounded by a sequoia grove. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

Crescent Meadow

The Ranger said that park wildlife can often be seen grazing there. Unfortunately, the only wildlife we saw there were a couple of squirrels and a very hungry woodpecker.

Woodpecker

Also, poor signage in the parking lot near the meadow led us to believe that, rather than just picking one vantage point, we were best off walking the relatively short path that loops around the meadow. This turned out to be false in the sense that the loop path is more than 2 miles long, and we could have simply observed the meadow from a couple of easily accessible spots near the parking lot and then moved on.

On the bright side, the path took us through the sequoia grove, and we got to see some impressive trees up close without any of the crowds that flow through the more popular hiking paths. To give you a sense of the size of the trees, look for us in each photo:

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Chimney Tree

That last tree is called Chimney Tree because, if you walk through that hole Sam is standing in, you can stand in the center of the tree, which is hollow, and look straight up to the sky:

Chimney Tree

These, by the way, are not even such big sequoias. The biggest trees in the park get named, and they have well-trodden hiking trails taking people right to them. We were planning on taking one of those trails next (specifically, the very creatively named Big Tree Trail). But after climbing 400 stairs to the top of Moro Rock and then walking more than 2 miles around the meadow, I was developing a blister and Sam’s knee was throbbing.

(Sam, who has been going through a bit of a growth spurt this summer, has started having occasional knee pain while the various parts of his body catch up with each other. I had the exact same problem at his age, and the solution is simply to wear a knee strap. Sam left his at home because his knee had been feeling fine, but our National Park hiking has caused him some trouble.)

I was able to bandage my blister easily but Sam had no remedy for his knee, so I agreed to skip Big Tree Trail and Congress Trail, which is a 2-mile loop past many of the park’s named trees.

One thing I refused to skip, though, was General Sherman, which is not merely the biggest tree in the park but is the biggest tree (by volume) in the world. It’s the most popular spot in the entire park, and hundreds of people were already there when we showed up.

General Sherman

Again, for scale, find the tiny people by the base of the tree

Getting to General Sherman requires a relatively easy walk down a paved half-mile slope, and then back up, which would be no big deal if Sam’s knee weren’t bothering him. But he soldiered through, and after waiting on line, we finally got our photo op.

General Sherman

General Sherman

In case you’re wondering, General Sherman is 275 feet tall, and its base measures 36.5 feet across and 103 feet around. Its thickest branch is 6.8 feet across, and the whole tree weighs 1,385 tons.

After hiking back up to our car, we headed for the Visitors Center. There we learned that, yes, the wildfire had been contained and the road we needed was now reopen.  This was great news, except that it was already 3 p.m., and it would take us approximately 1.5 hours to reach Cat Haven, so we were going to miss it anyway.

Oh well. At least we’d have a relatively direct drive to Fresno before heading north toward Yosemite for our next adventure.

With less time pressure, we stayed at the Visitors Center a little longer to shop for souvenirs and watch a movie about the bears that live in the park. Inspired by the video, Sam declared as we got back in the car that he wants to be the head of the National Parks Service someday, so that he can take better care of the bears and all the other plants and animals throughout the country. On our way out of the park, we spent much of the drive game planning the career path that would get him to such a position.

We stopped only once more, this time to admire a scenic overlook of Kings Canyon once we had crossed into its namesake National Park, which abuts Sequoia NP and features similar sequoia groves and scenic vistas.

Kings Canyon National Park

Driving from one National Park to the next means smaller highways with no rest stops, and today we had to be creative about finding a place to grill dinner. (To give you an idea of the smallness of these roads, today we drove through the town of Merkins, CA. Population: 8.) Back in New York, Sarah came to the rescue, finding us Al Radka Park, a small public park in Fresno that has a beautiful baseball field, a small playground, and, most important to us, a picnic area. The park, of course, is named for the late, great Fresno radio personality Al Radka, but you already knew that.

One of the perks of visiting a park that features giant trees is that there’s shade almost everywhere. Yesterday we stood in 124-degree sun, but today stayed mostly in the high 80s–at least until we got to Al Radka Park. Apparently Fresno is going through a heatwave, and we sweated through dinner in 105-degree heat, even as the sun was setting. We spent the day gazing at trees, and as it ended, we needed one more than ever.

 

 

Burning Men

August 28, 2017

Death Valley National Park

We thought it was hot in Las Vegas. Vegas was nothing.

Sunday morning started with a quick trip to the airport to drop of Sarah so she could fly home and get back to real life.

Down to only two road-trippers, we rearranged the car to make things more accessible, and headed out into the desert.

Two hours later, we had crossed into California and entered Death Valley National Park.

When Sam and I first started planning this trip, the idea of driving across Death Valley was pretty vague. We didn’t even know it was a National Park, and we certainly didn’t know that there was so much to see there. In my mind, I pictured myself spending a couple of hours driving across this:

Death Valley Racetrack

I learned today that the area in the photo is a dry riverbed called the Racetrack. But nobody’s allowed to drive on it, and even getting close enough to see it requires a 4×4 and several hours of driving, followed by some hiking.

We did, in fact, drive across Death Valley, entering from the east (as most people do) and exiting several hours later on the opposite side. But in between we saw some pretty extraordinary things.

Our first stop was Dante’s View, a scenic mountaintop view of the salt flats below.

Dante's View

It is named, of course, after the Italian poet Dante Alligheri, whose poem The Inferno describes a descent through the nine circles of hell, the lowest level offering the most unbearable punishments for only the most despicable sinners. From this mountaintop in Death Valley, one looks down into one of the hottest, lowest, and unforgiving places on Earth. The metaphor of a descent into hell is not the most cheerful of welcomes to the park, but it’s kind of fitting.

In case you’re wondering, it was about 10:30 a.m., and roughly 110 degrees.

From there we took a quick detour to Zabriskie Point, another scenic viewpoint, this one requiring a five-minute walk up a paved hill, which is pretty easy in two-digit temperatures but noticeably less fun in today’s conditions. Nonetheless we made the short climb and enjoyed the view, especially the color striping in the rock formations.

Zabriskie Point

Up next was the Visitors Center, which has a big digital thermometer outside just for fun (and photo ops).

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Inside, we watched a short movie about Death Valley. A helpful Park Ranger customized an itinerary for us that would include four more sites. He also told me that they were expecting the temperature to climb into the 120s and asked if we had enough water in the car (we did). Then he warned me that the road I’d be taking out of the park included a steep decline for about 20 miles; he suggested that I use low gear on this decline instead of my brakes, because sometimes when people use their brakes the whole way down, their cars burst into flames.

Wait, what?!

Yeah. Anyway, after we had a quick lunch in the car (while it was idling, so we didn’t die of heatstroke), we backtracked a bit and headed toward Badwater Basin, a salt flat that is the lowest point in North America.

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Even cooler is that you can walk right out onto the salt.

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Some people walked out pretty far, but Sam and I chose to stay relatively close. We were only out of the car for a few minutes, but that was enough to drench us with sweat. And with the exception of the covered parking at the Visitors Center, all parking areas are in direct sunlight. Even a nice, air-conditioned car heats up pretty quickly when you park it in 120-degree sunlight.

Our next stop was another salt field a few miles away. This one is called the Devil’s Golf Course, because the salt here is crystallized, creating a rocky, jagged landscape where you can barely walk, let alone play golf.

The Devil's Golf Course

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The real fun of the Devil’s Golf Course is the popping sounds. On especially hot days, the salt crystals get so hot that some of them explode, making a tiny popping sound kind of like a bowl of Rice Krispies. It was hot enough today, but we had trouble hearing the pops because the handful of other people and cars that were there were making too much noise. Eventually enough people left that I was able to hear a few pops, but Sam never did.

As we drove, we noticed that we could literally see the heat. You know how the air kind of wiggles right above a hot BBQ grill or above very hot sand at the beach? The air was wiggled everywhere we looked. It was mostly cool, and a little terrifying.

Up next was a one-way road called Artist’s Drive because it takes you past multicolored rocks that look like they’ve been painted but in fact come by their colors naturally. It was extraordinary, partly because of the rocks, and partly because the winding road kept surprising us with new views as we never knew what was waiting around the next bend. (It was also nice to be able to view things without leaving the car.)

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Our final stop within the park was going to be the massive Mesquite Sand Dunes. Our route took us back past the Visitors Center again, and by now the thermometer had moved considerably.

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By the time we got to the sand dunes, it was so hot out that Sam refused to get out of the car. Part of me wanted to hike across the dunes to the top of the tallest one, but that part of me melted in the sun and I took only a few steps onto the sand before retreating to the relative comfort of the car.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

Surprisingly, Death Valley is the largest National Park in terms of acreage, and getting out of the park required almost two more hours of driving. Happily, some of that driving was over the kind of steamy, stark roads I had imagined the entire park to be.

Death Valley National Park

The car, to my surprise, was doing fine at this point, and when we finally got to that long downhill section I made sure to take the Ranger’s advice about downshifting. I am happy to report that my car did not burst into flames. Not even once.

Including Death Valley, Sam and I have now been to 20 National Parks together (plus lots of National Monuments, National Historic Parks, National Recreation Areas, etc.). It was definitely a memorable milestone.

Unfortunately, unlike most other National Parks, we didn’t get out of the car much, which meant I had done hours of driving even though we had really only gone to one place all day. And even once we escaped from Death Valley, we still had hours of driving through deserts to grapple with. We’re going to be spending Monday in Sequoia National Park, and there’s no direct way to get there from Death Valley. After leaving the park, I spent almost five hours driving down one- and two-lane “highways” with traffic lights, random intersections, and shockingly few signs of civilization. I was exhausted.

It was on one of these desert highways, by the way, that a hungry coyote was wandering as he looked for something to eat. Lucky for him and for us, it was broad daylight and I saw him in plenty of time to swerve around him. But our sudden spate of animals on the road has reached disturbing levels.

Meanwhile, we normally have dinner at highway rest stops, but these highways were much too minor for such amenities, and I started getting a bit nervous about finding a place to make dinner. Luck was on our side, though, as our route took us directly through a state park at just about 6 p.m., which was not only a good time for dinner but also let me get out of the car for about 40 minutes at a time when I badly needed to. As we pulled up to the empty picnic area, we noticed a few adorable bunnies resting in the sand. They scurried off when they saw us, but we had a nice dinner of hot dogs and string beans. About an hour later we finally emerged from the desert to see the temperature drop as grass and trees began covering the landscape, followed soon by farms.

All told, I drove about 500 miles today for a total of about 9 hours. But we made it to our motel by about 9:30, a Comfort Inn that is not very nice but totally serviceable and, more important, just 15 minutes from Sequoia.

As I collapsed on the bed, I checked the weather forecast for Sequoia: it’s going to be a mere 110 on Monday. Good thing we’ve got plenty of water.

Joshua

August 28, 2017

Joshua Tree

As we drove through various desert landscapes today, we passed hundreds of Joshua trees. I was happy to see them, as the Joshua tree is my favorite tree.

It is easy to look at the Joshua tree’s craggy bark, gnarled branches, and spiky flowers, and come to the conclusion that it is ugly. Most people reach this conclusion.

This is the wrong conclusion.

The Joshua tree is the most beautiful of all the trees. Its beauty does not come from impressive size or attractive colors or distinctive leaves or pretty flowers. It provides little shade, bears no edible fruit, and its wood is of little use.

Its beauty does not come from its outward appearance or its utility. Its beauty comes from its struggle.

The Joshua tree grows where no other tree could. It grows in the harshest of conditions–extreme heat, punishing winds, prolonged drought. But these hardships do not shake its determination. It reaches defiantly toward the harsh sun and the dry, withholding sky. In conditions where most plants cannot even exist, the Joshua tree thrives.

Every spike is there to fend off predators and soak up what little moisture can be found. Every kink in its branches is there because it got pushed around but did not give up.

The more twisted and gnarly it is, the harder it has struggled and the more it has overcome. Its perseverance is an inspiration. If it can overcome such punishment and survive here, surely we can persevere (and even thrive) despite our own hardships.

The Joshua tree is beautiful because it is ugly.