Wanderings: California

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Growing up in Texas, I never thought much about California.  I knew it had heat and deserts, oceans and hippies, traffic and urban sprawl, and I had all of those things already, while the things we didn’t have, like mountains and movie stars and earthquakes, didn’t interest me much.  The east coast was what gripped my childhood imagination.  I longed for dense cities, noise, snow, apple cider, seasons, and sweaters, and for the last seven years they’ve been mine all mine.


And yet, 18-months ago, we got the opportunity to spend a lot of time in California, and being the people we are, leapt at the chance to explore a new place in depth.  We visited deserts and mountains, oceans and orange groves, vineyards and ancient forests.  We biked across the foggy coast, visited old missions, kayaked with sea lions, ate ridiculous amounts of fish tacos and roasted artichokes, and listened to the waves crash against the coast again and again.  I’m not sure when California crept into my heart, but slowly I fell for her, hard and unexpectedly.


Now our travels there have finally come to an end, and I’m sad and mournful for California in a way I’ve never been for a place.  I miss the slower speed of life, the dry heat of the desert, and the cool damp of the coast.  I long to drive through eucalyptus groves with the windows down and to smell the strawberries in the air as we pass through the Salinas Valley.  I want to buy giant bags of oranges at roadside stands and I want half the radio stations to be in Spanish.  I miss the mountains and the colors and the Pacific ocean and the palm trees.  Mostly I just want to go back, not for short vacations, but for long stretches of time, maybe forever, and I can’t figure out how to do it.  Someday, maybe I will, but for now, here’s a travelogue of our time on the west coast, my love letter to you, California.

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Monterey

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Carmel-by-the-sea

Santa Cruz

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Drives and Hikes

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Los Angeles

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Sonoma Valley

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Big Sur

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Joshua Tree National Park

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Yosemite National Park

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Sequoia National Park

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Orange groves

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I would gladly spend every weekend wandering around my own orange grove, the smell of blossoms thick in the air, intoxicating both me and the thousands of bees buzzing from blossom to blossom.

California.  March 2015.

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California wildflowers

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There are days we live as if death were nowhere
in the background;
from joy to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
-Li-Young Lee
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Farewell, Carmel

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Over the last eighteen months, we’ve spent a lot of time in Carmel-by-the-Sea, eating at great restaurants, admiring all the tiny charming houses, but most of all, loving the beach, with its twisted cypress trees, white sands, and blue-green waters.  At this point, I don’t know when we’ll be able to come back again.  Not too terribly long, I hope. To say goodbye, we gathered a few of our dear ones and enjoyed one last bottle of wine, watching the sun set and listening to the crash of the waves.

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Moro Rock

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A last minute and unexpectedly delightful stop, the climb up Moro Rock was heart-pounding, and the sheer drops over the side of the rock made my knees wobbly if I looked down too long.  At 6,700 ft, the views were stunning, shifting and opening-up again and again as you zigzagged your way up the rock.  It was lovely to look out over the expanse of forest and valley, and to have a last glimpse at the Sierra Nevadas in the distance.

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The giant forest

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One of the more magical afternoons we’ve had in California was spent hiking in a quiet forest of glowing giants.  The air was crisp and the light was golden, and every time we came upon another giant copse of sequoia, it was all I could do not to lie down on the springy pads of pine needles at their feet, and, surrounded by my fortress of giants, stare up at the treetops until I drifted off to sleep

Sequoia National Park, California.  March 2015.

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Girl in the grove

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Sequoia National Park, California.  March 2015.

Roots

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Sequoia National Park, California.  March 2015.

Fallen giants

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King’s Canyon National Park, California.  March 2015.

I don’t fear the light

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Sequoia National Park, California.  March 2015.

Wanderings: Sequoia National Park

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For our final visit to California (where the Mister is finishing up a graduate degree), we decided to travel in a couple days early so we could visit Sequoia National Park.  Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few redwood groves, but had never seen their giant cousins, the ancient sequoias, and couldn’t miss this last opportunity.  Driving into the mountains, you expect the trees to grow gradually larger as you ascend, but instead, they suddenly double and triple in size just past the park entrance, and we exclaimed and pointed loudly again and again as we made our way to our lodge.  Later we’d find ourselves in awed silence again as we encountered trees bigger than we could have imagined.  As someone who often communicates memory and experience through photographs, I found myself struggling to find ways to capture the scale and grandeur of this wonderful place, and finally gave up on that as I got lost in the way the magical, golden light bounced off the reddish bark of the trees, setting the ancient forest aglow.

Tips for your visit:

  • In general, this is the best resource I found for deciding which hikes to take and what to expect when you take them.
  • While nearly everyone in California seems to tell you to visit in summer, I’ve loved all our off-season visits.  You often feel like you have the place to yourself, especially if you set off on your hike first thing in the morning.
  • However, if you come before mid-May, it’s likely that the road to nearby King’s Canyon National Park will be closed.  Keep that in mind when planning your visit.
  • There are very few places to eat or buy food in the park, and those places that do, close on the early side.  Consider coming prepared with hiking snacks.
  • In the winter, gas can also be hard to come by in the park.  We were able to refill at the Hume Lake Christian Camp gas station, which is located north of the John Muir Lodge.
  • When visiting the General Sherman tree, be sure to save a couple of hours to leisurely explore the nearby Congress Trail, a lovely and not too strenuous loop that starts nearby.  This walk is much quieter than visiting the big Sherman and Grant trees, but passes by dozens of other impressively large sequoia including several gorgeous clusters of these towering giants.
  • The Grant grove is an hour drive northwest of the Sherman tree and the Giant Forest area, but its lovely and worth the drive if you have some extra time, especially to see and even walk through the remains of several fallen beauties.
  • Moro Rock is a steep and vertigo-inducing climb, but the constantly shifting views over Sequoia and King’s Canyon are worth every step.
  • Tunnel Tree is as touristy as it gets, but too much fun to skip.  You’ll get the best photo if you have your driver/passengers lean out the window as they pause under the log.  The Auto Log, however, was far less interesting.  Feel free to pass on by.
  • If you are very lucky, and a quiet walker, you may run across a few adorable marmots lurking in the lower hollows of the trees.

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We will know it’s coming to an end

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Today we are heading to California for the last of our scheduled trips, and already, I find myself emotional and mildly panicked at the thought that this part of our lives is nearly over.  I never expected to like California very much, and, as it turns out, I’ve fallen very much in love.  With the mountains and the deserts, the forests and the fertile valleys, the classic cars on every road, the lush vineyards, the speed of life, the unending battle between the sunshine and the foggy marine layer, and the cold wild Pacific Coast, all of which have already begun to haunt my dreams.   I’ve spent years listening to love songs written to California; how foolish to think that this place wouldn’t get at my heart, too.  All week long I’ve been listening to sad songs, reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, looking at photos, and getting a little weepy.  California, I’m not ready to let you go.

Photo from Yosemite, California. January 2015.

Pacifica, her siren song

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The west coast is calling my name.  Soon, California.  Soon.

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Carmel-by-the-sea, California.  January 2015.

The devil’s resting place

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While we were in California last month, we made a couple of spooky drives through Pacheco Pass, a somewhat dangerous stretch of highway in the Diablo Range that is rumored to be haunted.  Not surprising with all the lonesome, twisted trees dotting the landscape.  One afternoon, as we wove through the twists and turns of the highway, I thought I caught a glimpse of a robed figure standing by a creek along the side of the road.  We were around another bend before I could get a better look, but thinking about it now still gives me a delicious little chill.

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Touch the sky

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Having fun with reflections in the water on a short hike out to Mirror Lake.

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Skiing at Badger Pass

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We couldn’t have asked for a lovelier day to spend on the snowy slopes of Badger Pass.  I’m new to skiing and it was a bit icy out that day, so after sliding around on the little hills for a while, I retreated to the decks of the day lodge to enjoy the sunshine and the views.  While sipping on hot chocolates, it was relaxing to watch the other skiers speed down the mountains, especially the Mister, who’s been skiing since he was very young.  Every few minutes I’d spot his bright red jacket hurtling down the slope, and when he’d reach the bottom, he’d give me a little wave before happily hopping on another lift to head back up the slopes.

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Underneath my California stars

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The dark dark skies of Yosemite were perfect for practicing our star photography, and so on a few frosty nights, we ventured out to the open meadows with my camera and a tripod, our hearts racing as we tried not to think too hard about mountain lions, coyotes, and bears.

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Yosemite Falls

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There are so many breathtaking sights in Yosemite National Park, but the one that looms most in my memory is Yosemite Falls.  At nearly 2,500 feet, Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America and the seventh highest in the world, an impressive spectacle located just above the cozy lodge in which we stayed.  The falls were the first thing we saw when we opened our door in the morning, they loomed over us as we ate our meals at the lodge restaurant and had drinks in the lounge, and even in the pitch black of night, we could hear the roar of their waters crashing down over the granite mountainside.  One frosty morning, we made our way up the Yosemite Falls Trail, a grueling hike of rocky switchbacks and sheer drops that I’ve heard equated to climbing the stairwells of two Empire State Buildings.  In the winter, if you leave early enough, the trail is quiet and lonely, and its easy to imagine you are alone with the mountains and the valley.  The hike affords beautiful views of the snow pile left at the base of the upper falls where the sunlight pulls rainbows out of the misty air, and when the rocky switchbacks break into flat trail, there are often stunning views of the valley and Half-Dome, often along cliff-sides so high up that my knees went wobbly every time I looked out on the valley spread out below.

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Winter Scenes

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El Capitan

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We felt very lucky to be staying in Yosemite during the final week of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s historic free climb of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, a smooth, steep rockface that is considered by many to be the longest and most difficult free climb anywhere.  In fact, they finished on the final day of our visit.

El Cap’s 3000-ft face is a challenging favorite among climbers, though the smooth expanse of the eastern-facing Dawn Wall had never been successfully free climbed (utilizing only hands and feet, with ropes attached merely as a safety precaution in the event of a fall) until Caldwell and Jorgeson’s 19-day effort.  It was fun to be in the Valley as it buzzed with excitement over the climb, and we enjoyed overhearing the climbing chatter everywhere from the Valley shuttle to the hiking paths, at dinner at the Alwahnee and over drinks at the Mountain Room Lounge, as well as seeing dozens of media trucks gathered in a meadow near El Cap on the final day of the climb.  One afternoon, we hiked over to the base of El Capitan to get a closer view of the climbers camp halfway up the mountain and were thrilled to see the tiny figure of Tommy Caldwell working his way up the wall for that evening’s ascent (he is visible as a tiny yellow form in the left-center photo, two shots down.)  Here are a couple of great articles from National Geographic, if you’d like to read more:

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Wanderings: Yosemite

DSC_1593You come to love places in different ways.  Some places reveal themselves slowly, rooting their way bit-by-bit into your heart, until you find you’ve fallen in love.  Other places dazzle you and grip your heart from the first moment, leaving you breathless and at a loss for words.  Yosemite was the latter.  Driving there, you twist and turn around mountainside curves, which are perfectly lovely, but then suddenly the valley opens up before you and your heart is gone along with your ability to find adequate words.


Over the days we spent in Yosemite Valley, I often found myself standing in a meadow, staring up at the mountains that seem to rise up straight out of the valley floor, and wondering how there was still enough space for the sky to seem so big.

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