travelog 28

From Giant Trees To Summer Snow...

After being on the road for such a long time we know by now that summer is the best time to quietly retreat to a hidden place and wait patiently for the American holiday season to be over.

But if you venture into a National Park and go among the people, for heaven's sake, don't do it on a weekend. On our way from San Luis Obispo to a condominium at Lake Huntington in the Sierra Nevada that friends of ours have kindly put at our disposal, we visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. From the hot and yellow-scorched "Valley" the road runs along clear mountain streams with flowering Yucca whippley and through original sparse oak forests slowly into the Sierra Nevada. Suddenly the road gets narrower and finally climbs as a fantastic zigzag mountain road steeply up the mountains. The vegetation changes quickly and soon the smell of resin from all the conifers (Martins favorites) surrounds us. At about 4800 ft., where there is a strong possibility for snow during winter, we come upon orange flowering clusters of Dudleya cymosa ssp. cymosa that grow in damp rock walls. The many other flowers are also spectacular: blue lupines, red Indian paintbrush, yellow sunflowers. In addition, there are many views deep into the hazy "Valley".

Soon the road snakes its way through the first giant Sequoia trees. When we saw the Coast Redwoods in northern California, we thought that they were gigantic and that in comparison to them our rolling little house looked like a small snail. But the trees here surpass anything we have seen before! Admittedly the Coast Redwoods are often taller but there's no other living thing on our planet that can compare with the Sequoias for mass. The largest living thing on earth, the General Sherman Tree, grows right here in the park. "He" is 275 ft. tall and has a circumference of 103 ft. (!) at the base. "His" estimated age is about 2400 years and "he" weights about 1385 tons. If you walk beneath these giants you feel like a gnome in a fairyland forest. Sequoias (Sequoiadendron gigantum) don't die of old age, and have an extremely thick bark that cannot be penetrated by fire. However, the giants have a very shallow root system that suddenly can give in if the tree gets too heavy and unstable. Then those trees provide an excellent base for young vegetation to grow.

We are so lucky to admire the Sequoias on the first day in glorious sunny weather with all the many inevitable co-tourists. Next, we also experience the gigantic trees on a totally rainy day. The crowds don't dare crawl out of their tents or simply hold out in their warm and dry beds in their RV's. We are the only people out and about and the whole forest is ours. Ghostly swathes of mist pass among the trunks, rain drips and drizzles from the trees, the rust-colored bark of the Sequoias shimmers beautifully, ferns and grasses gleam green, and the Dogwood tree (Cornus nuttallii) provides some color with its big white flowers. Again and again we find an even thicker and more impressive tree that causes us to take a picture in order to compare its size to earlier ones.

Just before the weekend starts and the campgrounds are getting filled, we leave for Lake Huntington. The drive takes us on so-called "back roads" (the other way would be too simple, we suppose!) through natural California with blue-leaved oak forests, small streams, and secluded farmhouses. You can practically imagine yourself back in the time of the pioneers, and you can really understand why Indians and later European immigrants chose this area as their homeland. We are accompanied by rain all day long and the higher we get the thicker and denser the raindrops get. It's mid-June and we both begin to think about snow. The rain actually does change to driving snow, and soon we are driving through a heavy snowstorm. In a small store where we stock up on the last-minute groceries the lady assures us that this isn't normal at all for this time of the year. Reassured, we continue our way. We don't feel very comfortable on the slippery road with our 12-ton vehicle, but soon we spot the first snowplow. The coniferous forests are covered with a thick white layer of snow, and the forest floor is "sugared". The view of Lake Huntington and the surrounding mountains is enshrouded up in fog.

First of all we start the heating system in the borrowed vacation house and wear thick sweaters. Shortly before sunset the clouds break up, the fog disappears, and we enjoy the views from our terrace onto Lake Huntington and the many snow-covered peaks. The next morning the supernatural manifestation is over and only the highest peaks wear a cap of snow. In no time our two weeks of being gloriously idle here pass! Every day we take a short walk through the woods to stay in shape. We enjoy life in a sturdy house, the huge bed, the spacious shower, and of course the real kitchen where we bake our own bread. Blue Jays are visiting the terrace, and red and green shimmering hummingbirds regale themselves with the hummingbird feeder. Our office consists of two small wooden tables. After the long lean period in Mexico, emailing and surfing the Internet every day is a real treat! At night we watch one of the many videos here or leaf through old National Geographic magazines, accompanied by a glass of wine of course.

When the owners of our borrowed home visit we even get the chance for our first trip in a canoe. After that we clearly know that we like (if at all) paddling in a kayak more than the canoe thing. Admittedly there is more room for the legs in a canoe but the paddling is something else. Again and again we turn the craft in directions where we actually don't want to go. Of course we each pin the blame for it onto the other. On the way back we are very fortunate and are carried along by the wind and the waves, which makes the paddling and steering a little bit easier. Afterwards, we go on drive deep into the Sierra Nevada, to Mono Hot Springs. We don't do this because of the hot pools but because of the plants. Sandy and Val are also enthusiastic hobby botanists and after every yell Val manages to find parking along the one-lane road.

Sandy and Val are enthusiastic hobby botanists too and Val finds a parking spot along the road whenever he hears us mention a plant. First it's the blooming Azaleas (Rhododendron occidentale) that exude a wonderful and intense smell. Next, we are fascinated by Sedum obtusatum that covers the rocky ground with a carpet of flowers. In wet meadows we find purple flowering "Shooting Stars" (Dodecatheon pulchellum), and in the dark forest bright red "Snow Plants" (Sarcodes sanguinea) catch our eyes. At Mono Hot Springs we find many yellow-orange flowering columbines (Aquilegia formosa), and in another wet meadow we enjoy countless "Tiger Lilies" (Lilium columbianum). In the far distance the high rocky peaks of the Sierra Nevada tower into the sky. But those places are only reached per pedes apostulorum.

After two weeks of pure relaxation, we feel prepared for our next challenge: house and cat sitting near San Francisco. But we'll tell you about this later...

July 2000

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen