There is Unrest in the Forest

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Actually there isn’t.  There is no trouble with the trees.  Sequoia National Park suffers from zero maple v. oak issues — the sequoias dominate, unopposed.  The unrest is probably limited to Canadian forests.

While you cringe and attempt to recover from that severely nerdy reference, let me describe the drive to Three Rivers, just outside of the park, where we spent the next few days.  As it happens, I was correct to be concerned about the grade in our escape from Death Valley.  Here’s the picture of our route.

 

DV to Seq

The section in purple is a long, steep upslope.  It takes you from -200’ to just about 5000’ in about 20 miles.  That was tough, but manageable at 20-30 mph or so and in low gear.  The section in yellow is a very steep downslope.  In about 12 miles you lose a good bit of that elevation again, at a 9% grade.  For some perspective, 6% is the highest grade allowed on interstate highways.  So if you think about infamous stretches of highway with runaway truck ramps and the smell of angry brakes, you’re likely thinking of 6%.  There are small sections of steeper grades on tiny roads in hilly urban or mountainous areas, but this was my first brush with 12 miles straight of 9%.  It was not enjoyable.  Not at all.  You want to stay in the lowest gear you can manage in order to let your engine tackle as much of the slowing down as possible, but with this kind of slope I had no choice but to get on the brakes repeatedly.  Once brakes heat up enough they start to “fade,” i.e. lose effectiveness, until they have no ability to do their job at all.  I don’t know at what temperature this happens, but I was in no mood to perform experiments.  I did learn that Davista will in fact upshift automatically when the RPMs get so high that engine/transmission damage becomes a possibility.  This happens at about 5500 RPM (= a screaming engine), and causes a very abrupt and uncomfortable speed increase.  Sweating profusely about halfway down the hill, the brakes smell hit us strongly.  A few seconds of wondering what it would feel like to push the pedal and NOT SLOW DOWN convinced me to urgently seek and subsequently spot a turnoff on the opposite side of the road, into which I guided us to let the brakes cool.  In an A320 we have brake fans and a brake temperature gauge to help with such things – not so in Davista.  We sat there on the side of the desert road, me with my fancy IR thermometer taking readings I wasn’t sure I understood, for a good half hour before I was satisfied that they had cooled enough to take us the last 5 miles or so.  Luckily by that point it was more or less a straight shot – if nothing else I could scream into the valley at 100 mph and let the next uphill section dissipate our energy.  (Not really… I think Davista would shake and shudder herself into oblivion at about 85)

Disaster averted and lesson learned, we pressed on through the desert past some really rough little near-ghost-towns and then over the Tehachapi Pass into California’s fertile Central Valley again.  Though we stopped in Bakersfield for the night, it was a short and non-noteworthy, so I’m considering this just a two day drive to Sequoia.

Sequoia is the southernmost of California’s three national parks in the Sierras, and shares a border (and a Junior Ranger badge) with Kings Canyon national park.  It is, of course, most famous for its trees, but it also contains some of California’s most remote wilderness and extreme terrain, to include Mt. Whitney, the continental US’s highest point.  We stayed at a relatively low elevation just outside the park, along a stream feeding the Kaweah River.  Great call, as not only was it one of the best private campgrounds we’ve visited, but here’s the road up into Sequoia.

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Davista would not have liked that at all.  Even our Subaru didn’t like it.  Our campsite, however, was right on the stream and hammock friendly, as well as spacious and populated with enough kids to allow our own to throw together a nerf gun battle or two.

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Our original plan was to drive up to Sequoia and do a bit of hiking the first day and then do a second drive on day two past the sequoia groves and into Kings Canyon.  Nixing that plan became very easy after that first day of driving.  Though technically not very far, driving through Sequoia into Kings Canyon would have entailed a solid 4 hours on the road, through torturous switchbacks.  Nah.  Fortunately the girls were able to bag their Junior Ranger badge for both parks while only visiting one.

The hike through the sequoias was predictably spectacular.  Though not quite as tall as the giant redwoods, sequoias are more girthy and therefore massive.

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We’ve found that as a family we have some of our best conversations while hiking; this time some of our more interesting conversational meanderings took us to the things that were happening in the world when these trees were young.  One feature I found especially interesting about sequoias is the degree to which they’re scarred.  Every one of the older trees sports heavily blackened areas, from forest fires and/or lightning strikes.  Evidently they are able to survive forest fires quite well, and when you’re around a few thousand years, you’re going to see a few of those.

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That idea of extreme longevity spurred me to take Keeper with me on a conversational tangent about this interesting podcast I heard in which they were discussing how, if all diseases were curable and aging effects were stoppable, we would essentially all die of accidents, and what the graph of age vs number of people alive would look like.  He may have found it less interesting than I.  He stuck with me though.

The reverent vibe that we had previously sensed in among the redwoods was definitely present here among the sequoias as well, though there are significant differences between the biomes – redwoods are low in elevation, sequoias are high, and redwood forests felt more lush and dense, whereas the sequoias seem to be more or less the only vegetation within their groves.

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IMG_0165It proved an ideal place to sit and answer Junior Ranger questions.

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We rounded the General Sherman tree at the last bit of our hike; it’s the largest (by volume) living single stem tree on Earth, and looks it.

Tree hike complete, we braved the curvy road again, but opted to stop at Moro Rock just before sunset.  Moro Rock sits like a sentinel at the top of the Kaweah River canyon and commands stunning 360 degree views.  Great place for a sunset.  Unfortunately that translates to crowds, which don’t mix well with precarious trails that cling to steep rocks.  On top of that, these crowds were speaking very little English and seemed to have different ideas than we did about what constitutes personal space, making the whole endeavor a little dicey.

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Keeper was not amused – first Angel’s Landing and then this?  “You do know I’m not kidding about the agoraphobia thing right??” Sorry man…

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The views though!

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Having decided not to make the drive up the mountain again the following day, we spent it relaxing in the campground, followed by a short drive down to Slick Rock Recreation Area, at the eastern/upstream side of Lake Kaweah, where the river empties into the reservoir over a series of smooth rocks.  With the lake level quite low, there were quite a few rocks on which to play, though visiting just before Thanksgiving was a mixed blessing – no crowds, but no crowds because the air and that water is cold!  Fortunately our kids, especially Keeper, don’t mind cold water.  Check him out being the great big brother and carrying his sisters out to the middle of the river…

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IMG_0204Later he opted for some full immersion swimming on the condition that I videoed him doing so.  “Pics or it didn’t happen” indeed.

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One of the more interesting occurrences on that day was meeting, for the first time this trip, another family doing more or less the same thing as we were.  (!!)  Leave it to Firebolt to make the introduction.  She still sees herself as “shy,” but will find and introduce herself to just about any kid her age and will be playing as if they’ve been friends for years within 15 minutes.  I don’t think she realizes what “shy” means.

The family hailed from North Carolina, and had settled for the winter right there at Slick Rock Recreation Area as “camp hosts.”  This is an amazingly good deal which I wish we had previously researched and considered.  Essentially you stay for free at the nicest spot in the camp (and may even get a small stipend?) in exchange for minimal duties.  For them it was collecting the fee envelopes from the box each day and ensuring things were reasonably clean and that people weren’t doing prohibited things.  Not taxing during the very slow winter season.  What was interesting about this particular gig was that Slick Rock wasn’t even a campground… in fact theirs was the only site, and was well-appointed.  So essentially they had the entire park to themselves, and they told us about how they had dialed themselves in with the Three Rivers community, and had been brought into the town’s fold immediately.

While this was no longer any sort of option for us, I did note it for future reference, and scold myself slightly for not researching such options prior to our trip.  They seemed to be a fun family; I wish we could’ve hung around a bit more, but alas, the sun was setting and we were leaving the following morning, so we said our goodbyes.  The following day would bring a drive up to Grass Valley in the northern Sierra foothills to park in my sister’s in-laws’ driveway in preparation for a full on extended family Thanksgiving, which was something we had been able to do last year (minus the motorhome) and were greatly looking forward to.

We set our park-Davista-and-return-to-Maryland day as December 7th (a day that will live in infamy).  We’ve got strongly mixed feelings about bringing this period of travel to a close.  The sense of not wanting to stop is deepening.  We still don’t have a destination, but the itinerant lifestyle, or at least this version of it, has become very easy and almost natural.  Breaking that rhythm doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, yet we haven’t come up with a viable alternative.

In the meantime some Big Family time will do us good.

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