When the mountains and ocean call, one should listen. I’ve had a California trip in the back of my mind for about four years now, romanticizing how it might play out during those times when I work too much, or when I just have an urge to get away. Well, within a 72 hour timeframe I made it happen, and in many ways the trip turned out better than I ever expected.
After finishing a big work project in September, I needed a break so I researched flights and quick getaways. The night of September 27 I found a last minute flight deal to Los Angeles. Two days later I boarded a plane with my backpacking gear and camera, and no reservations besides a rental car. I’ve long been a fan of Volkswagens, and knew it was going to be a good trip when I was given keys to a 2017 Passat R-Line sports model. She hugged the mountain roads like a champ, and was a joy to cruise around California in.
Part 1: Humbled in Sequoia
I had never looked at Sequoia National Park until this trip. Being on the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and only three and a half hours from Los Angeles, logistically it made sense to stop there. This would allow me to not only see the largest trees in the world, but to also enter the notoriously busy Yosemite on a Sunday when the weekenders were leaving.
I set out from my aunt’s house in the Los Angeles suburbs early Saturday morning, driving directly into the bright California sun that scorched the dry and yellow hills surrounding town after town. A few hours later I was north of Bakersfield, seeing orange and lemon groves that stood green in the otherwise burnt and poor looking countryside. I was prepared for the cool mountains, but not the heat of the southern Sierras. It was a hot morning that approached 90 degrees.
When I arrived at Sequoia National Park, I was told that it was National Park Day and I had free entry. That made me smile, as did mountain views that soon followed. As I meandered the mountain roads and gained elevation, the parched earth speckled with gnarled oaks and shrubs gave way to tall pines and picturesque landscapes. Having no reservations, I was lucky to have found a campsite right away at Buckeye Flats in the foothills of the park before it filled. After making camp, I drove up to 7000 feet and spent the afternoon hiking the Giant Forest Trail in awe of the massive sequoia trees. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the feeling of walking beneath the largest trees on earth was both humbling and peaceful, even with crowds in some areas. I read that sequoias have very shallow root systems, but I couldn’t help but feel they were connected to something deep within this earth.
I arrived back at camp after sunset and wasn’t able to have a fire due to restrictions. I made dinner, read a little, and plotted out a plan for the next day. For some moments, an overwhelming sense of loneliness set in but I pushed it off and stared up at the three-quarters waxing moon and the stars that shined bright. The next day I was up before sunrise and on my way to Yosemite with a stop in Fresno for supplies. The further north I drove, the greener the landscape became which was a welcoming site. Just before I entered Yosemite near Fish Camp, the pine forest was burned black by recent fires however. It wouldn’t be the last time I saw the results of forest fires in Yosemite.
Part 2: Adventures in Yosemite with new friends
I purchased a seven day pass and the park ranger who helped me seemed just as excited as I was for my first adventures in Yosemite National Park. In fact, I was so thrilled to finally be there that I rolled the windows down, cranked up a Grateful Dead recording, and howled in ecstasy as I cruised the mountain roads. An hour later I entered the famous tunnel that leads to one of the most epic scenes in all of Yosemite Valley. I couldn’t believe my eyes as the valley view was far more grandiose in person than I ever imagined, and so I howled some more! I regret not stopping to take a few photographs however. It was approaching noon and there were tourists everywhere with limited areas to park, so I kept moving, knowing that all of the valley campgrounds were full and I needed to find a camp site as soon as possible. But that view will stick with me forever.
Trying to find campground information with help at the main Visitor’s Center proved to be a challenge. I couldn’t even get a parking spot after going in circles for ten minutes so I drove out of the valley as soon as possible, and headed up Tioga road and into the mountains to test my luck. Tamarac Flat campground had some sites available, and I took one nestled next to huge rocks and a massive pine by the entrance. Later that day I hiked up to May lake and spent a few hours there, before driving to Tenaya Lake at sunset.
I found sleeping in 20 degrees to be tolerable, and the next morning I had a nice breakfast with hot coffee and smoked salmon and hard cheese before setting off to spend the day hiking the Yosemite Creek trail. To my surprise, no one else was on the trail and as I followed it through Yosemite Creek Campground, I felt like the last man alive on earth. The sprawling campground has 75 sites but it was already closed for the season. It was desolate and slightly eerie, and the late morning sun made me cast a long shadow when I was not walking beneath the pines. I checked out some of the sites and stopped by the creek, oftentimes hearing the noise of the kids and campers of the summer in my imagination. I followed the long entrance road out before finding the intersection back into the forest.
The weather couldn’t have been any nicer for hiking at 7000 feet. Sunny and in the mid-fifties, I followed the trail for a couple more hours before stopping at an incredible open view and having lunch. The remaining two miles of the hike dropped down steeply to the top of the tallest waterfall in North America. Knowing that the creek was very low and waterfall was barely moving, I enjoyed my stellar view with the company of some beautiful juvenile sequoias for another hour before hiking the six miles back.
I returned to camp and enjoyed a cold California IPA in the late afternoon and thought about where to go for sunset. I had a map laid out on the trunk of the Passat and that’s when I met a friendly fellow named Jonathan who was out scavenging for downed firewood. We chatted a bit, and it turned out he was also a photographer who has spent the last six months on the road traveling. Naturally, I offered an invitation to go and shoot the sunset, and we became fast friends.
Just outside of the campground, a black bear crossed in front of us as we drove down towards the valley. The night was clear and the light was not ideal for dynamic photography, but Yosemite Valley is so stunning that it was hard not to enjoy. The large moon lit up the sky over Half Dome, and we took a few photos from an open grassy meadow before returning back. That night we told tales around the campfire and spoke of the girls we’ve dated, and what was waiting for us back home, while enjoying several local ales as stars sparkled through the tall pines above.
Since Jonathan had already paid for two nights, I moved camp the next day to his site to save money and we drove down to the valley to resupply our coolers with beer and fresh food at the general store. Leaving the store, we sat in traffic far too long and decided it was best to adventure outside of the valley on this day and go back into the mountains. On our way past El Capitan, a massive plume of grey-white dust billowed out over the road that was so thick I couldn’t see through it. We had just missed the third rockfall in a week at El Capitan and thankfully the road was free of debris.
A forest fire engulfed a large area of the steep mountainside next to us on the road up to Glacier Point. There were trees with flames moving up them, and the air was very thick with smoke. Soon after as we drove higher, the snow flurries started. When we finally reached Glacier Point, I was happy to be out of the car and the expansive view of the valley, peaks, and waterfalls was godly and incredible. We spent a few hours there, sometimes trekking down below the viewpoints on hidden trails to the edge of the mountains. The forest fire smoke blanketed the sky at times, and it snowed lightly for a good while. I was so enthralled with the view that I took my time to soak it all in.
The snow came harder just before sunset and we drove through it all the way back to the valley before stopping at the one closed fuel station in Yosemite so Jonathon could fill his water jugs. While there, a man who was probably in his eighties stood outside his car with a frightened stare. He had driven through an ice storm on the far easterly end of Tioga Road which stood over 10,000 feet, before making it to the valley where we were. He was lost and only had a copy of a map from a book. Jonathan took action, opening up his map and showing the elderly man exactly how to get to his hotel. He reiterated the instructions several times to the confused man before giving him his map. The man called us “scholars and gentlemen” before leaving in his sedan.
I told Jonathan, “You were an angel to that man, you know that?” Little did we know, that karma would be instantly redeemed. We turned the corner up Tioga Road towards camp and the Park Rangers had the road blocked due to icy conditions on the far end. They were not going to let us pass. But after thorough questioning that was the oddest encounter I’ve ever had with law enforcement, we were instructed to go directly to Tamarac Flats and not drive anywhere else until the morning. We obliged.
That night we stoked a large pine fire and let it die down before grilling seasoned steaks with beans, peppers and onions on the side. Along with the California Cabernet I purchased, it was one of the best camp meals of my life. Lots of laughs were had well into the night, and the next day after several cups of coffee and a hug good-bye to my new friend, I reluctantly left Yosemite National Park and headed straight west towards Steinbeck country. When I had a phone signal again, a friend told me the horrible news about the Las Vegas shooting and Tom Petty’s untimely death. It made me want to go back into the mountains.
Part 3: Visiting the home of John Steinbeck
Salinas is a blue-collar agricultural town eight miles from the Pacific Ocean in the southeast corner of Monterey Bay. American author John Steinbeck grew up there, and all of his stories were heavily influenced by the area. Being a Steinbeck fan for many years, I’ve long been curious to know if Salinas and Monterey still held any of the feelings Steinbeck wrote about. I can say that Salinas in particular, still does, even if it is now a much larger town now than the early 1900s when Steinbeck was a young boy.
I arrived late in the afternoon just before sunset, and got a motel room to get cleaned up. That night I drove down to main street, and stopped by a corner tavern for food and a beer before returning back to get to sleep early. After four straight nights in my tent, the bed didn’t feel right and I tossed and turned most of the night before being woken up by Hispanic maids outside early in the morning.
Later that morning, I drove downtown to the home that John Steinbeck grew up in. It is a classic Victorian that was built in 1897 and now serves as a restaurant that is run entirely by volunteers. It was another sunny and warm California day, and I stopped outside the home and took a few photographs. A gentleman named David who is retired and works there saw me outside and asked if I was a Steinbeck fan. I told him that Steinbeck was one of my very favorite authors, and although the restaurant was closed, David asked if I would like a tour.
Nearly every room was left in tact, with photographs of the family and oil paintings on the walls, and original furniture throughout. Although the upstairs is off-limits to the public, David allowed me to go up there and I was able to see John’s bedroom and all the other rooms. The generosity David showed towards me was heartfelt and on more than one occasion I held back tears. He told me stories of each room, and we talked about some of Steinbeck’s work before I left to drive to Monterey. When I got to the car I needed several minutes to gather myself before moving on.
On my way to Monterey, I stopped by Steinbeck’s grave at Garden of Memories Memorial Park and gave thanks. A control fire was burning in the hills outside of town, and as I drove a long line of smoke stretched out over the horizon to the north. When I reached Monterey I was happy to see the ocean again, but I found the town itself to be far too touristy. After walking down Cannery Row to the Monterey Docks, I drove north through small agricultural towns on the bay and up towards Santa Cruz.
Part 4: I sat by the ocean
I had plans to meet up with an old friend in Santa Cruz, but unfortunately they fell through. So instead, I set up camp at Sunset State Beach in the heart of Monterey Bay, and enjoyed a gorgeous afternoon by the ocean. I spent the day walking the beach barefoot with my Levi’s rolled up, sometimes taking a break and sitting down while seagulls moved around in large groups pulling food that washed in from the high tide. It was quiet and the waves were calming. Sometimes a few surfers were out, but there were surprisingly very few people around and I liked studying the footprints in the sand as I walked about leisurely.
There was a time a few years ago when I felt the call of the ocean powerfully. I thought it would wash away some of the stresses I was going through at the time, but I never made it out to the coast then. So now, sitting and staring at large waves that washed in, I realized those stresses were gone. They had long been healed and I had no negative connotations about that time of my life. The sun was high above in the clear blue sky and I felt at peace, but I also longed for some company.
Like so many of the nights before this one, the sunset was flat and not good for photography. I watched it set across the ocean, and was surprised at the speed in which it dropped. I returned to the campground and read some of Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat by headlamp, before falling asleep under the full moon. I slept well that night hearing the waves crash lightly in the distance.
The next day I was packed up just after sunrise, and I headed south down Highway 101 to Paso Robles and the stunning wine country of the central coast. It was an absolutely gorgeous drive through rolling hills and fruit groves. Since Highway 1 near Big Sur was closed due to a massive landslide last spring, I hit the coast near Cambria and followed the highway north to Ragged Point on the south side of Big Sur. There were huge ocean waves in areas, and I passed a beach full of seals before stopping near Ragged Point to take some photos and to enjoy the spectacular view.
I followed Highway 1 back down the coast through the beautiful mountainous seaside towns of Cayucos and Morro Bay before finally making it to San Luis Obispo and back to Highway 101. As I sat stuck in traffic somewhere outside of Santa Barbara, Tom Petty’s album Wildflowers played for the second time that day and I thought about the trip. I thought about the true connections I made with people, and the spiritual connections I made to places. I thought about the generosity and friendly smiles I encountered along the way. I thought about how important it is to follow my heart, and how my intuition is so strong and always leads me to where I need to be. I thought about how lonely I felt at times, and how exhilarated I was other times while alone in nature. I thought about the things I want to change in my life.
Tom Petty’s song “Wake Up Time” was playing in the background and it came into focus and seemed to speak directly to me. A mix of emotions boiled over and tears fell for so many reasons. Mostly I was just happy though, and my heart was overflowing with gratitude.