The morning was crisp and clear when we left Fresno, driving past the flickering rows of orchards. An early snow was in the forecast higher up, but the pleasant weather in the valley had deceived our first impressions. Sure enough, at the ranger station we were told to make a u-turn and come back with the right equipment… as if Gulf-Coast swamp-dwellers would know what to do with snow chains!
This foray in to the snowy High Sierra was the start of a siblings road trip. Once the initial confusion of covid had settled into a social distancing routine, the pandemic offered a good opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty of the country. So we decided to fly out to California, where one of my sisters was living, and attempt to socially-distance from the state’s forty million people.
Eventually we had the gear – and some help – and were on the road again. With each altitude marker, the scenery transformed dramatically. From the lush, irrigated orchards, we climbed through the parched foothills and then through a spectrum of larger and larger trees. As we passed into the clouds, our view was obscured by falling snow and the massive tree trunks beside the road.
There was a traffic slowdown at six thousand feet, and we moved to the right for some oncoming cars. But then our own car refused to go, instead spinning its wheels on the thick layer of ice that had gathered on the road. My sister hit the gas again; nothing. The rearview mirror revealed the problem – the chain had fallen off. Closer inspection revealed a second problem – the chain was broken. Suddenly ‘sunny California’ seemed not so sunny anymore.
So we were stranded in the snow halfway up a mountain waiting for assistance. But, we were in the presence of some of the world’s largest trees, some dozens of feet in diameter with their tops penetrating straight through the cloud cover. This is what we had come to see! Being stranded wasn’t the worst that could happen, I figured. Not all in the car shared my optimism, though, and eventually my brother-in-law had had enough waiting for a ranger and managed to finagle the broken rental chain into a workable position and we resumed our crawl up the mountain.
Warmed up and fed at the lodge, we were greeted in the morning by the clearest of days. The storm was gone, the peaks were shimmering white above us and the trees were shaking off their snow blankets. The trail lay untrod beneath a foot of fresh powder, waiting for the first unsuspecting hikers to come stamp it back into existence. The hiking was slow and our route took much longer than planned, but surrounded by such incredible scenery, the inconvenience seems trivial.
By the time we left Sequoia National Park, both the car troubles and the most strenuous hiking were behind us. The snowstorm had closed the pass into neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, so instead we detoured around until we came through a tunnel and emerged over Yosemite Valley.
The green strip of the valley floor ringed on all sides by soaring rock faces give the impression that a dinosaur might emerge at any moment from the treetops. Judging by first impressions, it’s no wonder Yosemite is one of the most popular national parks. But upon descending into the trees ourselves, we entered into a well-developed web of infrastructure. During normal times, I could imagine humans being the main form of wildlife, but with covid restrictions in place and winter fast approaching… well, it was still pretty busy, but we enjoyed a few nice hikes.
Tourism overcrowding aside, there are other factors that contribute to Yosemite not being the pristine dinosaur-filled oasis it may seem to be. I was surprised to learn that it actually looked very different under the care of its native Miwok people. Back then, the valley was a complex system of wetlands and meadows that sustained the Miwok’s subsistence livelihood. Mismanagement of the wetlands and meadows completely transformed the ecosystem, and by the early twentieth-century, it was covered in forest and completely unrecognizable to the displaced Miwok.
Heading back west through the orchards, we turned up a remote narrow valley, a string of ranches lined with brown mountains and lacking in cell reception. Here, shielded from both the ocean to the west and the central valley to the east, Pinnacles National Park is the opposite of an oasis – a desert surrounded by abundance. With only an afternoon to spend, we opted for the signature trail that loops up through the namesake clusters of volcanic rock pillars rising between the three fault lines that cross the park. The attractions were not just around us but also circling overhead, in the form of the extremely rare California condors that are slowly but surely recovering from near extinction.
Rounding the bend to the seaward side of the mountains, we arrived in Monterey and joined Highway 1 south through yet another of California’s nearby-yet-remote regions called Big Sur. In places, the sheer cliffs rise straight out of the ocean, crowned with red and green succulent slopes. Where the cliffs recede from the shore, wide stretches of swirling tide-pools fill the gap, each one teeming with fish waiting to be liberated by the incoming sea. From distant rocky outcrops, colonies of sea lions were throwing wild parties that echoed loudly back onto the shore, successfully flouting all of California’s covid restrictions.
Big Sur, remote and rugged on the Pacific coast, was the natural endpoint of our road trip. From there, the coastal road continues south to Los Angeles, and north to the San Francisco Bay. In keeping with the spirit of social distancing – and returning my sister to her home at the time – we turned back east among the citrus orchards and pistachio trees and returned to Fresno.