Updated: Aug 24, 2020
There is something that comes over me every time a vast, unspoiled wilderness unfolds before my eyes. Reaching the roads zenith, pavement dropping out beneath the wheels, plummeting into the expansive utopia, the dizzying whirl of the ever-changing world bears down heavily upon me. Awestruck in the flooded wash, the rays of today's first light shine over the holy unfathomable plain. Blankets of impenetrable, dark forest sit on the flanks of ragged peaks and are perfectly etched on the horizon.
A recurring emotion sweeps over me, lifting my spirit to unearthly heights; a feeling of reverence locked in primitive impulse and desire. My palms begin to sweat at the thought of the daunting wild unfolding before us. It was about a month ago when I first was overcome by this emotion - this wholesome benevolence that seemed to change everything around me. The light slanted on the western slope, softening the glare of harsh reality; the paved road trickled to sand that soothed my aching feet and the calm, collected demeanor of my fellow traveler settled in the stillness.
The voice of Brandon Flowers bit into the air as we sputtered east toward the mountains. The driving pulse of "The Killers" was behind us. Kolby and I both sang out unabashedly he doesn't look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman, for the rush of the cool evening wind masked the off-pitched sing-along. The road was free of traffic and our minds full of questions; what's the fastest way to Visalia? Did you remember to bring the stove? Where should we camp tonight? Think there'll be cute chicks at Buckeye? A litany of inquiries overcame us, one falling after the other like dominoes on a winding plank. We had driven off into the night, away from the lights of the LA basin into the southernmost margin of the Sierra Nevada. Around one in the morning, the twisted road brought in the sights and smells of the foothills: dampened echoes of whitewater and the subtle sweetness of pine, pollen, and cedar. Rounding a bend we slowed to a stop when a phantom stirred the foggy air collecting in front of our headlights. An elegant gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) pranced off into the gnarled blue oak savanna and all that remained in the faint shadows were the spires of the whipple's yucca (Yucca whipplei) standing tall and proud.
A California tree poppy (Romneya coulteri) on a farm outside the boundaries of Sequoia National Park. Native to southern California, the tree poppy is a popular ornamental plan, kept for its large showy flowers
We pitched our tents somewhere along the road outside of Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks. In the morning, we quickly broke down camp, gathered our gear and set out for Sequoia National Park. Along the way, we stopped to eat a hearty breakfast and check out some hiking trails on the topo map.
Later that morning we crossed into the National Park and began climbing up into the Sierra Nevadas. The forest seemed to be made of incense, sitting on dense, swollen mats of fragrant cedar. Then, in a flattened grove above 6,000 feet, several giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) trees loomed above us in an imposing yet gentle magnificence. We rounded another bend in the emerald forest and saw another grove of quiet giants. The four citadels lined up across a forked road - two on each side and two on a dividing island - like illustrious knights on the gates of a fortress. No man-made entry sign, however regal, could trump the outspoken beauty of these four relics. They were like the heralding trumpets of Sequoia National Park.
A golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) warms up in the morning sunshine
This fallen giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was cut in half to reveal a cross-section of the trunk and its many annual growth rings. Some giant sequoias can live to be 3,000 years old
As we made our way high into the forest, the trees began to grow in size and number. I opened the sunroof and turned my head to the sky in awe at the sheer volume of each tree. The cerulean blue sky defined each lancing needle amid their knobby clusters and I could tell the world up there was different. From below, the trees took on an ethereal glow, basking in the filtered light from above. The bark is unlike that of any other tree I have encountered. It is a lightly whiskered red amber that feels no different than the cork of a wine bottle. It is almost friendly, inviting one's hand to land softly upon it, drawing one into timeless conversation.
I laid down next to a big tree in the Congress Stand and gazed up into its massive canopy. A few moments had passed when I noticed I had begun to breathe a little easier and think a little clearer. I could feel the living presence of this behemoth and most vividly recount its 1300 year history and growth from a seed no larger than a grain of barley. Beyond the brilliant contrast of Pacific dogwoods (Cornus nuttalli), I stared into a charred hollow at the mighty tree's base and wondered when it would ever topple. These trees are virtually indestructible and fall only at the mercy of their own weight. Signs of fire, like this charred hollow, and lightning high in robust limbs are ubiquitous.
John Muir wrote that "but of all living things the sequoia is perhaps the only one able to wait long enough to make sure of being struck by lightning" (Muir 1901).
The sun illuminates a Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttalli) under the watchful guise of a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
It is no secret that these pillars have stood the test of time. Some have been dated as far back as 3,000 years, a time when the Mayan empire was at its height. Sadly, there is evidence that many of these trees are slowly dying (Lahr 2020). It can't be said for sure what is causing the slow die off, but climate change is a leading suspect.
A common blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus) spreads its wings in the sunshine of an open meadow I rest my head against the mossy ground and think about the tree's roots in the soil below. They are shallow and lack the strong foundation a central taproot provides other trees. Hence, when the tree reaches a certain volume, it is no longer able to support itself.
I asked Kolby if he would stand in front of what is known as the General Sherman Tree so I could get a photograph with a reference point. This 275 foot tall, 2200 year old monster has a remarkable 37 foot diameter base! It was named after the American Civil War General William Sherman and is the only living memorial in this country. This tree's claim to fame is that it is the biggest tree in the world by volume. Many coastal redwoods (Sequoiadendron sempivirens) supersede this tree in height but no other tree in the world can attest to its overall volume. Every year, the General Sherman Tree puts on the equivalent volume of the average full grown, 60 foot oak!
The top of General Sherman, the world's largest tree by volume. It is 275 feet tall and 37 feet in diameter at its base. The diameter of the giant sequoia remains wide high up on the tree. At 60 feet above the base, the General Sherman tree is 17.5 in diameter
Feeling small and insignificant at the foot of the giants in the middle of the Giant Forest stand in Sequoia National Park
Rushing rapids of the Marble Fork Kaweah River
Kolby stood at the bottom, straining his neck to look up into the thick branches of the canopy. He snapped several pictures looking up at the beast from below and then reminded me of the time. It was nearing five in the afternoon and we still hadn't purchased our permits to get into the backcountry. It was time to head to the ranger station.
The next two days spelled out a fantastic experience, albeit my first, in the backcountry. Our starting point put us at the head of the High Sierra Trail in a pristine montane meadow surrounded by sequoias. We sat in the shadows of the surrounding forest and watched a mother black bear (Ursus americana) lumber across a rotting log with her two frisky cubs close behind. Making their way across the meadow, they headed towards where we were sitting in a covey of fir. We cautiously kept our ground, moving farther away at every advancement, but it was still the closest I have ever been to a wild bear. California tortoiseshell butterflies (Nymphalis californica) fluttered about in a gentle breeze, douglas squirrels (Tamiasciurus douglasii) chattered noisily among unseen hollows and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) browsed in thickets dappled in afternoon sunlight.
A mother black bear (Ursus arctos) is followed closely by her two cubs over a log in a montane meadow
This is a terrible photo (I know), but it shows how close the bears got to us. They did not seem to be bothered by people even in the slightest bit. We kept our distance (this photo was taken with a 50x zoom lens), but it was still a bit unnerving
A California tortoiseshell butterfly (Nymphalis californica) rests on a dry log in the understory
A douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) makes an appearance on a downed log in the middle of a sequoia grove. These squirrels are dependent on old growth and mature second-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. John Muir described this species as "by far the most interesting and influential of the California Sciuridae"
A mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) crosses in front of us unabashedly. The black-tipped tail and the giant mule-like ears are a good indicator this is a mule deer
Our bags were packed and blue skies summoned us into the unknown. Along the trail were countless vistas of the snowy sierras and multitudes of wildflowers in bright pinks, oranges, blues, purples and reds. Lizards of different types skirted across the trails: the hyperactive western skink (Eumeces skiltonianus), a basking side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana), and my favorite, a northern alligator lizard (Elgaria coerulea) . The raspy cry of the steller's jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) rang out in serene groves of pine while mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli), dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), and California towhees (Pipilo crissalis) darted in and out of California redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and various manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp). It was here that I saw my very first western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) and we admired the ephemeral flash of a white-headed woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus).
Mountain Pride (Penstemon newberryi) is a bushy, mat-forming sub-shrub that grows on talus slopes high in the mountains of California, Nevada, and Oregon. This was John Muir's favorite flower (Lucas 2020)
Whiskerbrush (Leptosiphon ciliatus) is an annual in the phlox family with clumps of needle-like leaves
The western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) belongs to the mustard family (Brassicaceae). Plants in this family are easy to recognize. Look for four petals and four sepals, 6 stamens (4 long and 2 short), and seed pods that form radially along the stalk
Cardinal catchfly (Silene laciniata) is in the Carnation or Pink family (Caryophyllacea). Its common name refers to the sticky hair glands on the stems and leaves that sometimes trap tiny insects. It is still not clear whether this contributes nutrients to the plant
Bi-colored lupine (Lupinus striversii) is also known as harlequin lupine. It is named after the Army physician Dr. Charles Austin Stivers, who first collected it in 1862 near Yosemite
A northern alligator lizard (Elgaria coerulea) perches atop a woody bush. Alligator lizards have wide heads, stubby legs, and long tails. There are three kinds of alligator lizards found in California: the northern, southern, and panamint. Notice the dark eye of this northern alligator lizard. This field mark can be used to differentiate it from the southern alligator lizard that has a yellow eye
The hush of evening fell sooner than expected. The shadows cast by conifers grew heavy on the land and it was time to find a spot to set up camp. A grove of white fir (Abies concolor) looked pleasantly hospitable, for there were several soft, flattened areas where we could pitch our tents and an old fire-pit told us the site had been used before.
Kolby stores our food in an on-site bear canister
Enjoying a beer while soaking my aching feet in the river
Kolby tended to the fire while I headed down to the nearest stream to get water for drinking and cooking. The light had grown dim and I had donned an elastic head lamp to keep my hands free for collecting water. An hour earlier we had overshot the campsite by a good half mile and I remembered crossing a stream not too far beyond the fir grove. Turning my headlamp on, I hiked back up a hill I hadn't remembered coming down. In the distance, I could hear a subtle booming, a rich-bodied, repetitious drumming with a deep resonance and warm timbre. It started softly and slowly, growing louder and faster and resided back into the soft, slow drumming, like a heartbeat thumping in the crepuscular glow. It didn't occur to me until after the bottles were filled and iodine tablets were administered that the mysterious booming had come from a male blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus). These grouse are sometimes referred to as "hooters" because of the deep, resonating hoots that have been heard up to a mile away. Males use these hoots as a means to call females into their territory. Blue grouse won't tolerate anything other than pristine montane habitat where humans are merely visitors and if anything matched this description it was the forest we were in. As far as the eye could see there was coniferous forest, rock and snow. The only demolition sites were young meadows at the bottom of avalanche chutes and the purple skeletons of blight-ridden trees. I was happy I could hear the gurgle of the creek, the incessant hooting of the randy grouse, and feel the shining presence of the first evening star. A sudden euphoria washed over me and that feeling of true being was present yet again.
A common bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) fiddlehead prepares to unravel its fronds
Brown-eyed wolf lichen (Letharia columbiana) has brown-eyed fruiting bodies that produce fungal spores which are used to reproduce with the algal partner. Wolf lichen (Letharia vulpina), another commonly seen fruticose lichen, lacks the brown eyes and does not reproduce sexually
Back at the campsite we boiled water and added two packaged meals to the pot. I quickly changed out of my boots and stinking socks into my warm smart-wool socks and moccasins. I threw on an old worn sweatshirt over a comfortable long sleeve for the temperature was dropping rapidly. Kolby pointed up through the dead lower branches of the firs in front of us and wondered whether the moon was falling or rising.
"Well, it must be rising," I said. "Doesn't the moon always rise at nightfall?" "Actually, no" responded Kolby. "I'm pretty sure it varies. Here, I'll take this stick and place it here at the edge of the moon's shadow. If the shadow moves to the right of the stick the moon is setting and if it moves to the left of the stick it is rising." Kolby got up to place a stick over the shadow. Ten minutes later, the shadow had moved slightly to the right, an indication that the moon was setting.
The moon sets over a stand of giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
We voraciously scarfed down the hot stew and proceeded to rinse our pots with water and put them in a bear bag along with the rest of our food. At this point it was well into the evening and we still had yet to find an adequate tree limb to hang the bag from. For the next half hour (a thirty minutes that felt like an eternity) we stumbled through the uneven terrain looking for the best place to hang the bear sack. Over by the rushing brook I had collected water from earlier we finally found a tree that worked nicely. I crouched down on the far end with one end of the string (the anchor) and Kolby stood on the other end with the thirty pound sack in his hands. Then, we counted to three and heaved the sack high up above the rickety branch. To our surprise, the sack hung neatly over the withered bough without the slightest sign of it snapping. The bear bag was secured at a height of twenty feet well out beyond the trunk where a bear could possibly reach it. We sluggishly lumbered back to the campsite and turned into the warmth of our tents. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * A light wind blows in from the west up a serpentine corridor formed by the Kaweah River. To the east stretches the interminable barrier of the Great Western Divide, a series of ragged peaks cloaked in the riches of a warming alpenglow. I fight off the encroaching whims of vertigo for I stand on the brink of a 1200 foot precipice known as Moro Rock. It is a monolith of sorts, jutting out incongruously from the surrounding landscape like a lone boulder in a hayfield.
Atop this exfoliated chunk of granite, I look out at the vast surrounding landscape and admire the gallantry of that big ball of fire setting in the west, bathing the sky in red like a blood-strewn battlefield. A rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) busily buzzes over the listless bunches of penstemon clinging to the cliff side. White-throated swifts Aeronautes saxatalis sing their loud, insect-like melodies as they whirl, dive and soar, dancing in the evening wind gusts. I dig my nails into the lichen growing on the rock beneath me, and like some child completely out of tune with reality, hope that the bustling frenzy of these birds doesn't send me head over heals into the engulfing canyon below.
It was only the next day when we heard the same song again - he doesn't look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman. The Killers had served as our soundscape for our first retreat into the sequoias and now, after our long trek into the backcountry, the song blared once again through our brazen speakers. All the mental pictures we had taken in Sequoia National Park now flashed brightly in our minds. We had talked about refraining from looking at our collection of photographs until several days after returning from the mountains. This would allow us to develop memories untainted by the results of tangible photographs. What really mattered was the memories our minds could strike up spontaneously without the aid of pictures. Regardless, all of the images that had fixed themselves on our minds would perpetually return us to the serenity we found in the groves of the giant trees.
Lahr, Kelsey. 2020. Watching the Giant Sequoias Die. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://slate.com/technology/2020/04/climate-change-giant-sequoias.html
Lucas, David. 2020. Sierra alpine wildflowers. Accessed July 26, 2020. https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/1620/sierra-alpine-wildflowers/
Muir, John. 1901. Our National Parks. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Boston and New York.