The land time forgot

Here’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from this road trip. If you’ve grown tired of today’s world, if you’re drowning in the digital flood, twisting in the social-media tendrils, overcrowded and over stressed, you might be happy living in the far-northwestern stretches of California (where we spent the five days from Saturday to Tuesday). It felt like we got there in a time machine, rather than our aging Chrysler van. We passed through stretches in which we were more informationally isolated than we were in the Congo, earlier this year. No (T-Mobile) cell phone service; wi-fi that simply didn’t work, even though it was supposed to. We walked Dilly down sections of Highway 101 — the main road connecting the coastline to the rest of the world — when no cars passed us for minutes at a time. Town signs often reported populations in the hundreds; five-digit ones were rare. Buildings in the centers of these villages remind me of those from my childhood. Or maybe my grandparents’ childhood.The coastal vistas were as beautiful and empty as any I’ve seen anywhere.

Why don’t more people live here?!” I asked Steve, several times. (I had trouble retaining his answer. It made sense but at the same time seemed incredible.) It’s hard to get to these parts, he pointed out. The rugged Klamath mountains cram right up to the coast. Carving roads through them (then maintaining them), looks to be a brutal task. Nor is it easy to make any kind of a living. Even pot-growing, once the economic engine in these parts, reportedly isn’t what it used to be since legalization. Tsunamis can strike at any time and wreck havoc. Then there’s the weather — gray, sodden, and dreary for much of the year. In the height of summer, we enjoyed some sunny spells, but the daytime highs rarely surpassed 60. Nights, the temperatures dipped into the 40s.

For all those reasons, I wouldn’t relocate here. But none of those factors dampened our pleasure in visiting. They in no way interfered with the great thrill accessible here: the chance to spend time with old-growth redwood trees.

Redwoods can be found all the way from Santa Cruz north to the southern reaches of Oregon. Many of them look stately, tall, impressive. But the vast majority — something like 95% —are relatively young specimens that reached for the sky only after the woodchoppers plundered their forebears. To the loggers who found their way to California in the wake of the Forty-Niners, the massive old redwoods were as good as any gold. Did those guys realize they were destroying arboreal gods that were already massive when the last Roman bastions fell? Did they reflect that what they sawed and chopped and floated out to sea to become house frames and fence posts was standing, shading, exhaling oxygen when Jesus was newborn?

I have no idea. But in California’s far northwest corner, in Redwoods National Park, the last few ancient redwoods still thrive. These are trees as tall as a football field is long; too wide in diameter to be spanned by a couple of adult humans. They’re the tallest trees on the planet, and while only half the age of the bristlecone pines, they still feel older than God.

We hiked at their feet, and I couldn’t stop exclaiming childishly, inarticulately: “Wow.” The forests are cool and shady. The ground underneath is springy and soft. The path ahead of us invariably looked shorter than the trees were tall. The scented air invigorated me, and the sculpted shapes surrounding us often stopped us in our tracks.It’s a landscape that competes with the most breathtaking anywhere, I think, and yet it rarely shows up on lists of the natural wonders of the world.

Steve and Dilly and I spent two nights in a cabin in Klamath, then three more in another isolated redwood grove in Mendocino. We didn’t exclusively hike in the redwoods. We found a path to a eerie solitary beach. We spent an afternoon exploring a canyon whose walls are coated with ferns. We got close to wild elk. Another morning we hiked up the mouth of the Big River.We resisted paying to drive through one of the touristic tree wonders.But we drove the Avenue of the Giants, where the huge trees crowd so close to the road people put reflectors on them as a warning.

Then Tuesday we headed south along Highway 1, skirting thrilling precipices (no shoulder! No guard rails!)……until we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and were back in Civilization. We slept in Santa Cruz last night and will spend our final night on the road in Santa Barbara. All that will be anticlimactic. Those hikes through the otherworldly, timeless woods were the climax.

A hot time on the old ranch

This summer marks my 30th anniversary as a home-exchanger. It was 30 years ago that Steve and I first traded our house in San Diego, that time for a spacious ground-floor apartment in a cool stone building in the most chic neighborhood in Paris. It had a private garden that opened onto a larger shared green space. After that we were hooked. Since then we’ve done almost 20 exchanges all over the planet.

When our sons no longer wanted to accompany us, we started traveling in places where home-exchanging didn’t work as well (e.g. much of South America and Africa). But I got interested again for part of our travels last fall in New Zealand. For this current road trip, I also looked for promising trading partners.

Over the years, I’ve developed a sense of when it’s worth gambling on a house trade. When I saw the listing for the place where we’re staying now, my sensors tingled. The photos on homeexchange.com suggested the house would be impressive, and it was located on what was described as a 75-acre ranch near Cottonwood, in the far northern section of the Sacramento River Valley. I corresponded with the owners, and we reached an agreement: They would stay in our house for a week, while we occupied their ranch house for five days.

Some house-trading partners are like me, compiling bulging guides to their homes and neighborhoods and cities. The ranch owners fell at the opposite end of that scale. I finally pressed the wife for a few crumbs of information, like, would they be wanting us to take care of any animals? She replied that if we would feed their two resident horses, she and her husband would appreciate that.

When I told friends about our upcoming trade, one or two warned that the temperatures in mid-July in this part of the state were certain to be blistering, and as we left Reno, I quailed a bit at the forecast: highs of more than 100 degrees every day.

The forecasts have proven accurate. When we reached the ranch gate around 5:30 Saturday afternoon and opened our van doors to key in the code, the heat smacked me with a brutal force.

True, it’s a dry heat. But it’s so hot the dryness doesn’t seem to help much.

Stepping outside every afternoon and early evening since then has felt like walking into a boiler room. Happily, thanks to two key strategies, this hasn’t dampened the intense pleasure we’ve experienced in being here.

The first has been to escape to some of the higher realms nearby. At Lassen Volcanic National Park (where we spent Saturday afternoon), it was warm but pleasant. We passed all of Monday near frosty Mt. Shasta and in the cool mists of the McCloud River and Burney waterfalls.

One view of hulking Mt. Shasta, from the ranch property

The second strategy has been to engage in most of our outdoor activities during the cool, pleasant mornings. Every day, Steve and Dilly and I have fed hay and a scoop full of pellets to Madonna and Bingo, the two horses.

Madonna, the sorrel mare, is the mother of mischievous young Bingo. He lives in a corral, but she gets to roam the property.

Although she feeds herself on the property’s grass, she comes around for a scoop of pellets.

Steve grabs a “flake” of hay.
Then he puts it in Bingo’s feeding trough.

After doling out this breakfast, with the temperatures still in the 70s, we’ve hiked along the Jeep trails that lace through the property.It’s a magical place filled with oak trees…manzanita……and other native flora. Near the house, we can there’s a pond ringed with emerald grass.On the afternoons when we decided not to venture out, we’ve hung out in the sprawling, baronial manor house. A swamp cooler protects the interior from the heat. (To my surprise, this system works as well as any air-conditioning unit and apparently costs a fraction of the price to run.)

The entrance is impressive. All of it is.
Here’s just a part of the enormous grassy lawn behind the house.

We’ve caught up on email; taken naps. I’ve written two blog posts.

I’ve reflected on the fact that never before in my life have I felt so removed from other people. Other ranches adjoin this property, but the house is situated far from any section of the perimeter. You have to walk for several minutes to reach the closest part. A gate and electrified fences guard the entire boundary of the property; I could take off all my clothes and hike the hillsides naked, feeling secure that I’d enjoy as much privacy as I do in my bedroom back at home. This thought shocks me.

We’re packing up now. In an hour or two we will drive off to the redwoods on California’s chilly northernmost coast. I couldn’t find a trading partner there, and if I had, it probably would not have been amazing. But over the years, several, like that first Paris apartment, have been. We’ve lived in a 300-year-old apartment in Venice just a short stroll from the Rialto Bridge. We’ve lived in a suburban American-style house in Tokyo just blocks from the insane electric crowds in Shibuya plaza. We’ve occupied a country house surrounded by its own stream and forest smack in the middle of Ireland. Our time on this sweltering ranch is totally different from any of them, but it will rank on that most delicious list.

On the Mop-Up Tour

Steve and I are now deep into what we have come to think of as our Mop-Up Tour of California. Cut off by corona-restrictions from doing any foreign travel, we’re using this three-week road trip as an opportunity to at last see some of the sights we’ve managed to miss over the last 46 years. For me this includes pretty much everything north of the Napa and Sonoma wine country; I’d never before laid eyes on about half my state.

As mentioned in my last post, we started with a five-day stay in Mammoth in a townhouse we exchanged for our home in San Diego. We had passed through the area years ago but never spent much time there. For this visit, the weather was perfect, and the cozy townhouse made a great base for some excellent day hikes, as well as our excursion to the ancient bristlecone pine forest.

We left Mammoth last Wednesday (July 8), and since then the touristic highlights have included the following.

— A visit to Bodie.

As ghost towns go, Bodie is more than respectable. In the late 1870s, it was a bustling gold-mining center, home to more than 10,000 fortune-seekers and the tradespeople who served them. It continued to be a functional mining center into the 1940s, when the feds shut it down (something about needing copper for the war effort.)

About 13 miles down empty, partly dirt roads off Highway 395 southeast of the town of Bridgeport, it appears beyond a bend in the road, a vision of the Wild Western past. Except that there’s an entrance booth manned by a state historic park ranger…

…dutifully wearing a proper antiviral mask. We had to pay him $21 to get in.

As in the bristlecone forest, the elevation softened the mid-summer heat, so it wasn’t unpleasant to stroll past the dozens of abandoned buildings. Even in non-pandemic times, visitors can enter only three or four of them. At the moment, they’re all closed, even the little gift shop. So a visit to Bodie is a strikingly non-commercial experience. All there is to do is wander the dirt byways and peer into various windows that reveal the dusty remains of a former world. Still, that’s not a bad way to spend an hour or two.

— Hiking to the monkey’s head above Lake Tahoe.

Our destination after Mammoth was Reno, home to our son Michael and his family (girlfriend Stephanie, her son Nicolas, and their standoffish corgi, Felina.) On Thursday, all of us (except Felina) drove to Lake Tahoe to hike. This wasn’t our first visit to Tahoe. But for me every visit feels new; I never seem to be able to remember that so much beauty can be concentrated into one location.

Folks refer to this as the monkey head trail, but that stone formation sure looks a lot more like a gorilla to me.

— Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Our next destination was another home-exchange in the far-northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley. On the way, we stopped at this national park, established in 1916 (shortly after the mountain last erupted.) The park headquarters building was coronavirally shuttered, but Steve was still able to get a sticker for our national park book in the little gift shop and a map from the temporarily outdoor ranger station.

Considering that we only had the afternoon, we saw and did a lot, including…

…picknicking at and then hiking around Manzanita Lake, with its lovely views of Mt. Lassen in the distance.

…and making the hour-long drive from the park’s north entrance to the southern one.

Along the way Dilly (our current CCI puppy, who is accompanying us on this odyssey) got his first introduction to glacial snow.
And his first smell of sulphurous bubbling mud.

— Mt. Shasta and the headwaters of the Sacramento River.

You can see Mt. Shasta from where we’re staying (about 70 miles to the south of it). It towers over the landscape, so dramatic that a pilgrimage seems mandatory. Not that we had any interest in climbing it. Crampons and ice picks are recommended even in mid-summer.

Instead we drove to the town at its foot, where locals tout the Headwaters of the Sacramento River as one of their touristic highlights. I’m a sucker for riverine starting points, having previously visited those of the Mississippi River, the Colorado River, and (sort of) the Nile. We parked in the Mt. Shasta City Park and made our way to this spot:

A public sign shattered some of the romance, explaining that actually the Sacramento River has many sources, so others arguably share the Headwaters title. Still, we enjoyed gazing at this humble pond. The park also provides a time warp back to the Sixties, being filled (at least during our visit) with psychedelically painted buses and folks wearing vintage Hippie wear, most of whom appeared to be chemically altering their consciousness.

— Waterfall country.

If you love waterfalls, the section of roads southeast of Mt. Shasta should be on your bucket list. Steve and Dilly and I first stopped at a trail on the McCloud River that led us up past three beautiful cascades.

We hiked past lower…
…middle…
… and upper-level waterfalls.

Beautiful as they are, Burney Falls outdoes them. Gushing out of the rock walls of this canyon, exuding cool mists, this is a place to linger in for more time than we gave it.

— The Sundial Bridge in the town of Redding.

The house where we’re staying is about a half hour outside the town of Redding. This morning we drove to Redding’s 16-year-old Sundial suspension bridge. Famed both for its construction materials (largely glass) and striking design, I can now report that as a sundial, it seems pretty useless. But it’s well worth strolling across.

Only, however, in the morning at this time of year. As I type this (in the late afternoon,) the thermometer outside our back door reads 102. The weather app on my phone claims the temperature will reach 109 tomorrow (our last day here). In my next post I hope to explain how we’ve been having a marvelous time here anyway.

Not your run-of-the-mill walk in the woods

I got to meet the oldest living things on Earth the other day. It exceeded my expectations.

Of all the millions of species on land and sea, the very oldest among them are a type of bristlecone pine known as Pinus longaeva. These trees live in a couple of places in the West, including one cluster in the White Mountains about 45 minutes east of Big Pine, California. Traveling up and down Highway 395 over the years, Steve and I have passed through Big Pine many times. But it was only late in 2018 that we driving through, once again too short of time to stop, that we resolved to make time to see these amazing plants as soon as possible.

That took us to this past May, when we were planning our itinerary for the road trip we started on last Friday. We figured we’d make a day trip to the bristlecones from the condo in Mammoth Lakes where we’d be staying for the first five nights (a trade for our house in San Diego). But once we settled into the condo, I began to harbor doubts about the side trip. We would have to backtrack down 395 to get to Big Pine from Mammoth. The condo turned out to be idyllic, overlooking a stream that adjoins a beautiful meadow and rugged, tree-dense mountains.

The view from our balcony.

The stream just out our back door

The weather was sublime, nippy in the morning but warming to the mid-70s in the afternoons. I began to dread the thought of leaving this paradise for a multi-hour drive that might end in some blistering hell-hole where we wouldn’t feel like leaving our air-conditioned van. Probably all the visitor’s centers would be closed, due to Covid-19. Maybe we should defer the outing yet again, I suggested.

But Steve’s heart was set on the adventure, so we set off a little after 9 Monday. Ominously, both the visitor’s centers that we stopped at in Bishop were shuttered. We continued south to Big Pine, where some informational posters suggested we would find a dedicated bristlecone pine visitor’s center at the Schulman Grove, about 24 miles off the highway. So we pressed on, driving along a two-lane road so empty it reinforced the fact we were entering a true wilderness. We climbed higher and higher, eventually passing a sign announcing the elevation to be 10,000 feet. As we ascended, the air grew cooler, and by the time we reached the large, well-maintained parking lot at the Schulman Grove, the weather was as pleasant as it had been in Mammoth.

A dozen or so cars were in the parking lot, and at the far end of it, the visitor’s center promised to be impressive. But sadly, it too was closed for the pandemic. Still a host of clear, informative outdoor signs told us a lot about the amazing trees. Some of the tall, straight ones near the visitor’s center looked not so different from ordinary pines, albeit ones with distinctive thick needles and resinous little cones that felt like pin-cushions.

From the signs, however, we learned that these particular specimens, living in relatively nutrient-rich soil, were markedly weaker and shorter-lived than their cousins just up the hill, rooted in a barren, inhospitable soil known as dolomite. Those were the ancient bristlecones; we wanted to get closer to those. Three hiking trails start near the visitor’s center. We chose the mile-long Discovery Trail. It led us to the section where in 1953 a dendrochronologist named Avery Schulman learned one night that he had just cut a core out of a tree whose rings indicated it was more than 4000 years old.

The wood of these ancient trees is incredibly dense and resinous — qualities that protect it from insects, fire, and other tree hazards. Over the millennia the bristlecone pine wood twists into weird sinuous forms, many of which are bare of vegetation. But green branches cluster low to the ground. They make it clear that, though the trees may look half dead, they’re still very much alive. When Nero was burning Rome, some of these very specimens were already more than two thousand years old.

We took our time, ogling and admiring them, though I forgot to wrap my arms around a section of one, something I now regret. The trail was only a mile long, but it took us up through a couple hundred more feet of altitude gain, so by the time we completed the loop, it was almost 2, too late to head down one of the other trails.

One of them is a four-mile loop that leads to the Methuselah Tree, the very oldest bristlecone known to exist. It’s thought to be more than 5000 years old. I’d like to return some day to visit it. It takes two to four hours to hike that loop. Maybe we’d come in a vehicle that could also safely take us the 12 miles further down a twisty dirt road to reach the Patriarch Grove, home to largest bristlecone pine on earth. I’m not sure I ever will make it back. But if I do, I won’t forget that tree hug.

California dream drive

California’s Pacific Coast Highway, aka Highway 1, shows up often on lists of the most scenic drives in the US, even the world, but it’s not the most practical way to get from Southern California to the Bay Area. Planes fly from San Diego to San Francisco in just 90 minutes. Google Maps says the drive up Interstate 5 can be covered (at least theoretically) in 7 to 9 hours. Going up the coast road adds a minimum of 4-5 hours to the journey, but you trade the hot, flat, dusty Central Valley panoramas for sublime seascapes.

I’ve lived in California for more than 45 years but had only traveled Highway 1 once. In the summer of 1995, Steve and I incorporated the famous drive into a family road trip to San Francisco, where we had arranged a house trade. To be honest, my memories of the glorious views out the front windshield commingle with those of the awful traffic that bogged us down in some stretches and the complaints from our sons, then just 11 and 6. So when we decided to drive up to Palo Alto for a high-school reunion to be held in the fall of 2017, I agreed it was time we took the high, slow road again.

Then came the heavy rains in early 2017. They weakened the cliffs, and a huge landslide on May 20 (2017) wiped out a bridge and closed several sections of the road. Throughout the summer, we assumed we’d be able to find local back roads that would enable us to slip around the blocked parts. But when October rolled around, we had to face the grim reality that the impassable sections still were well and truly impassable. Sadly, we headed north instead on Highway 101, a pretty road. But no Highway 1.

This year another reason to visit the Bay Area materialized.And to our delight, we heard at the end of July that — after 18 months — Highway 1 was once again open to travelers. On August 15, we drove from San Diego to San Simeon, spending the night in a little hotel set a few blocks from the ocean.

We took our current service-dog trainee with us, another reason it made sense to drive.

North of Morro Bay (about a half hour south of San Simeon), the landscape changes dramatically. Most of the development disappears, and the scenery gets more rugged and arresting. But the road north from San Simeon is even more wondrous. Here are a few of the highlights we encountered.

About 4 miles past Hearst Castle, we stopped to see the colony of Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. They’re so much more huge than our local seals and sea lions; they astonished and delighted us.

Continuing north, some of the road looked pristine, but some sections, though passable, were clearly works in progress.

In Big Sur, we noted the presence of the legendary Esalen Institute…

…then we stopped for a brief hike to McWay Falls, one of the few waterfalls on earth that flows directly into the ocean.

We wound up with lunch at Nepenthe, where Steve remembered his folks taking him as a kid.

The day was misty, and we missed seeing some of the archetypal views. I wouldn’t mind going back sooner than in another few dozen years.