Day 13. 1/24/2016. Starting Odometer: 144806. Final Odometer: 144977. Mileage: 171. Total Mileage 2733.
After leaving Pinnacles, I booked it across the San Joaquin valley to Sequoia National Park, the first of the Sierra Nevada’s triple crown of National Parks. Because of the sudden deadline with the trip, I had no time to enjoy any of the parks, and set instead just a goal of seeing as many of them as quickly as I could. So after a morning enjoying Pinnacles, my next quest was to make it to Sequoia, see some sights, sleep in the campgrounds, then book it to the other parks the next day. Four National Parks in two days? Five in three days if you included Channel Islands? Six in four days if you included Joshua Tree? Seven in five if you included Death Valley? This was no longer a marathon. It was a madcap sprint!
Because it was winter, sunset struck before I entered the park. The visitor center had already closed. I found my campsite and settled in for a cold, cold night. For the first time since Great Basin National Park, snow! Finally, I had rediscovered winter!
The calming presence of the Sierra Nevada, the brisk weather, and the sound of a river babbling in the distance lent my spirit a jolt of energy, and I found it hard to sleep that night. I walked around the campground, marveling at the other campers in the park. There was some sort of German battle-cruiser-turned-RV that really got my attention. There was an Australian touring vehicle with crazy cavemen or something drawn on the sides. There was a station wagon parked at a site, the driver snuggled in a blanket in the front seat of the car. What a motley crew we were, we wintry adventurers.
All I ever wanted with this trip was to experience America’s best locations, meet people, see things I’d never seen before. I regretted the choices I made to get to where I was, and now I regretted making the choice to go home again. Would I ever be happy? Would I ever be content with the plate life served me? I listened to the river, murmuring in a language I could not decipher, and wondered what would come next.
Waiting for the fire to die, I asked baby Groot what I should do. I asked him who I was, who I should be, why I should be. The fire popped and crackled as he thought about it. Then he said simply, “I am Groot.” He was right, of course, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. Tomorrow would be Kings Canyon, and then my favorite National Park, Yosemite. I hoped that at least there, I would hear a river that could speak directly to me, and that I’d be able to listen.
Day 13. 1/24/2016. Starting Odometer: 144735. Final Odometer: 144806. Mileage: 71. Total Mileage 2562.
California gave me a great big “Good Morning” with the most gorgeous sunrise illuminating grassy green farmlands. I had never been to this corner of California, and would never have believed there was so green a place in a state with so bad of a drought problem.
In fact, once I passed King City, California gave way, and I found myself in the middle of the Shire. At any minute I expected I’d see four hobbits run of the road, trying to hide from me as they made their way toward Rivendell with a fateful package in tow.
And the weirdest thing. Have you ever seen a Jerry Bruckheimer movie? (Shut up. Yes, you have. All of you have.) His logo is a big bushy tree on the side of the road, being struck by lightning. About halfway between King City and the entrance to Pinnacles, I swear I drove by Jerry Bruckheimer’s tree. It looked a lot like this:
The idyllic pastoral setting gave way to the park’s entrance, and suddenly I was there.
I drove to the visitor’s center, got my patch and stamp, then got a map of the area, and things to do, because I’d never heard of this park before I’d started studying the road trip, and it fascinated me that there was a park nearly as close as the Big Three (Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia) had been to Fresno that was a complete unknown. I have to admit… the end result was a little bit of disappointment.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a wonderful park. The pinnacles themselves are very impressive, for what they are. But I must not have spent enough time here to fully appreciate it. Something just feels off about it.
See, one thing I’ve learned about the National Parks, is that each one specifically targets a **unique** geological attribute. Just from the ones I’d seen on this trip, or was going to see: Great Basin is “I’m in the desert. Holy Crap! There’s a forested mountain range in the middle of it. With caves!” Death Valley is the hottest, deepest, driest place in the nation. Joshua Tree is a collision of deserts. Kings Canyon and Sequoia, turns out, aren’t TOO terribly different — and that’s why the park has slowly started merging the two into just one (doesn’t hurt that they abut each other). Yosemite is Yosemite. Lassen is a giant volcanic playground. Crater Lake is the deepest volcano-lake in the world. Utah has like, 5 national parks all within spitting distance of each other, and they’re ALL uniquely different geologically.
Pinnacles never gave me that sense. The approach is too much like the approach to the Sierra Nevada parks. The pinnacles pale in comparison to El Capitan, Half Dome, or any of Yosemite’s granite marvels, just a valley or two away.
I wish I had had more time to explore here. Truth be told, the amazing farmlands outside the park awed me so much more than the park did itself. For a Fresno boy who’d been raised on grape vines and orange orchards, massive green fields of rolling hills was a revelation. I’m sorry, Pinnacles. It’s me, not you.
The day was still young, I still had items on the itinerary. For the first time on this trip, I was visiting two national parks in one day. I kicked it in gear, and made my way back through the Shire, thinking that every single person in California must be feeling as blessed as I was that the winter storms had turned the dry and dusty state into a green, lush paradise again.
Day 13. 1/23/2016. Starting Odometer: 144547. Final Odometer: 144735. Mileage: 188. Total Mileage 2562.
I have a ritual. Whenever I go to the ocean, I take a moment to walk out to the shore and sing to it. It’s stupid, maybe, but it’s what I do. I always sing the same tune, with no words, just “Oh-oh-oh-oh.” It sounds exactly like the bridge “oh-oh-oh-oh” at 3:15 into this very song right here:
I didn’t get the chance to do this in the morning of my trip to Channel Islands National Park, which bothered me. I figured I’d just have to do it when I got to Scorpion Landing on Santa Cruz Island, my destination for the day. It bothered me that this was only a day trip. I saw campers loading up their gear for multi-night stays, and I remembered when this was going to be a year-long road trip. Then I got even more grumpy when I remembered that only a few days past I’d agreed to cut the trip even shorter to take care of important business back home. So now it was just a day on the island, and that was that.
My song unsung, I boarded the boat and we headed out across the blue Pacific under a grey sky. In the distance, the lumbering giants that lurk on California’s coast watched us pass without a sound
Dolphins played near the boat. Spray from somewhat choppy waves splashed over the gunwales. Then we cleared the shallows and hit the open sea. The weather cleared, the sun came out to play, and the waves receded enough to allow us to take a skiff from our catamaran to the rocky shore. Finally, we were here!
Channel Islands National Park is one of several National Parks that are within the Continental United States but inaccessible by car. I had always known of Channel Islands, growing up in California, but as I had researched the road trip, I’d learned of the Dry Tortugas and Biscayne Bay in Florida, and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. All of these sounded exotic just by their virtue of being uncrowded and remote. Thirty miles off shore is pretty damn remote, if you ask me.
When we arrived, there was a steady wind, and it was slightly chilly, but nothing surprising for a day in late January. A storm had recently passed, and another was expected in a few days. This was an ideal day for a hike. I decided to take a trail that wound up the Scorpion Ranch property to a campground, and then up to a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean, and back down around the “front” (from my perspective) of the island to Scorpion Ranch again.
Again, as with Death Valley, I was impressed by the use of solar power generators. At this location, it seemed even more vital, because there was no other form of electricity here other than gasoline powered generators. It was a reminder of how people take what they know, and put it to best use when they’re challenged with adverse conditions.
I came to the campground, and it was gorgeous. Well-shaded and protected by tall trees, birds singing, as wonderful a spot for camping as ever there could be. I envied the people on my boat who’d soon be setting up camp. I wished I was them. Ah well. You can’t always get what you want, right?
I started the climb up the mountainside, my first real hiking on the trip, and I loved it immensely. I was winded, and I couldn’t keep the kind of pace the “kids” (that’s an ok thing to call 20-somethings, right?) did as others took the same trail and left me in their dust. It was ok. I had my trust Rocket Raccoon and Malcom Reynolds bobbleheads with me. I took breaks by shooting a new episode of their continuing adventures. I sat quietly and tried to catch a glimpse of the island fox, a cute little varmint that exists solely on the islands of this National Park. There are six subspecies of the fox, one for each island. Necessity taught them to each adapt to their own situations, and learn to love and appreciate their environments.
I saw cacti! I had no idea this was literally a desert isle. I mean, I thought that was just a saying, not a thing, you know?
When I got to the top, and saw the view, I fell in love with the ocean again, and I remembered my song, and I sang it to her on the top of the cliffs.
I remembered Legolas, upon seeing the sea for the first time when Aragorn’s company ambushed and overtook the black-sailed ships of the Corsairs of Umbar. He was so smitten by the sea he told Gimli that he could never love another thing in Middle Earth. I remembered why I wanted to take this trip. These were the things I wanted to see. The things I wanted to experience.
I spent some time trying to take pictures of tiny little sparrows that had homes in the cliffsides, but they were too wily for me. I laid down next to the cliffside edge, and let the wind blow over me. It was just me, the birds, the wind, and the ocean. What had it been like to live here in the days of the Chumash? This island offered very little, and at the same time, it offered everything it had, and for these people, that had been sufficient. Sometimes, even when you don’t get what you want, you find a way to survive — even thrive — with what you end up with.
As the path turned back toward Scorpion Island, I realized that my life’s path had turned too. I’d spent a month running away. With a request to come home early that I’d agreed to, I was now running home. Why?
Then I asked myself, why not?
At home was a woman who loved me so desperately, she was willing to sacrifice friendships, disregard her mother’s advice, and stick with me, even when I was being the shittiest, stingiest man on the planet. At home were three children who couldn’t understand why daddy wasn’t coming home every night anymore. At home was… well, my home. What the hell was I running from?
My first wife was taken from me. When she died, so did an entire lifetime of dreaming, scheming, planning, all the things couples and families do over the span of decades. Was I so afraid of having that happen again, I had been willing to destroy a relationship rather than risk losing it? Should I have waited even longer to remarry? Wait for the absolute perfect one? You know, that supermodel X-Games winner who plays video games, watches nerd movies, has a PhD in astronomy and can cook the perfect cherry pie at the drop of a hat? My current wife is sexy, beautiful, a wonderful mother, fabulous chef, devoted wife, smart as a tack, tenacious, funny, and all the things a man could ever want in a woman. What the hell else did I want?
As I walked down the trail back to Scorpion Island, I tried to sing my song to the sea again, but she wasn’t having it. The tune changed in my mind, I started singing another song.
I saw her today at the reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she would meet her connection
At her feet was a footloose man
You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need. What I needed was love, and she had it. What I needed was healing, and she offered it. What I needed was family, and connection, and a reason to keep living on this stupid fucking rock you people call earth. She gave it.
Of course I was heading home.
Where else would I go?
The boat came to get us. We made it home to a beautiful Southern California day. I said goodbye to the sea, and drove until I got tired. Tomorrow’s sun held newfound purpose and hope, and I couldn’t wait to see it.