February 3 2016

Full Circle Road Trip: Lassen Volcanic National Park


Day 15. 1/26/2016. Starting Odometer: 145222. Final Odometer: 145547. Mileage: 325. Total Mileage 3303.

I woke up early, and drove north, toward what would be my second-to-last National Park on this road trip. Lassen was barely open — having been buried in snow during the winter, and only one small parking lot and visitor center available to anyone this time of year. Crater Lake would possibly be more treacherous to get to, and with my time window closing rapidly, I decided it would be Lassen, then Redwood National Park (since it was almost on the way), and then home.

I had collected a passport stamp, a sticker, and a patch at every National Park I had been to. Just two more to go, and then no matter what anyone else could say about it, I would have accomplished quite a feat. My biggest worry was just in getting to Lassen before the day ended. It was quite some way, and I ran into construction delays on the route. Thus the early start, the hope in my heart, and the feeling of lightness and peace I had found when the floodgates of grief had opened the night before.


More so than any other place, the signs of heavy snow were abundant. Not dangerous, not yet, anyway. At one of the construction stops, I talked to a CalTrans worker, who said that a big storm had come through the area just days past, and another big one was due in the next day or two. I thanked my lucky stars, or whatever grace or fortune that had shielded me from bad weather for the entire trip.


Four miles out from the entrance of the park, the snow drifts on the side of the road were taller than the cab of my RV. The roads were still mostly dry, though, except for patches where snow had fallen from the boughs of nearby trees and deposited onto the surface of the highway in big icy piles. Then, the entrance of the park, and the tiny, snow-plowed path to the only open part: the visitor center parking lot.


As I suppose I should have expected, a lot like Great Basin National Park had been when I was there, the place was nearly deserted. I found one family that was making the best of it, bundling up their kids for winter snow play, and getting ready for a day of winter fun. Another man had decided he was going to camp right here in the parking lot.


I found a path to the totally-buried-in-snow visitor center had been dug, and put on my jacket, gloves, hiking boots, and stepped into the frigid, wintry air. All I needed was a stamp, patch, and sticker, and I could get to where the air and earth looked and felt a little more like cool California, instead of cold California. The path seemed daunting, but my spirits were high. Maybe as high as the wall of snow on either side of me.


And there, in the devastatingly cold, snowy, stark landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park, even this last effort to salvage a victory out of a broken road trip was thwarted.


And there it was.

It was time to go. Mission failed. Like my life. Like the marriage I was hoping to save. Like the life I was determined to rebuild. The first stop on my new path, and boom, failure, through no fault of my own, beyond not properly preparing enough for the trip to even call ahead and ask if they were going to be open. I grumbled to myself about how I was going to write to the National Park Service and beg for a stamp showing I’d been there on this day. But in the end, it didn’t even matter. I’d been here, and that was what counted. This was my life, my chance to remake myself, to get home, and start being the husband I needed to be, the father my kids needed me to be.

I could take a little something like a visitor center being closed. Hell, I’d taken worse things than that in my life. I’d gone through worse things than that in the previous two weeks.

I made a snow man. I called him Frustration.

I left him in the snowy wastes of Lassen National Park, and went on my way.


February 2 2016

Full Circle Road Trip: Yosemite National Park


Day 14. 1/25/2016. Starting Odometer: 145069. Final Odometer: 145222. Mileage: 153. Total Mileage 2978

If you ever go to one of those “people-searcher” apps to find out where various people live, and look up God, it will come back “Yosemite National Park.” It’s the most beautiful place on earth. It really is. I have been from coast-to-coast in this great nation, and yeah, we have some amazing locales, but none of them compare. Beyond that, though, Yosemite has a special place in my heart, a deep connection that I will never be able to break — even if a day came where I would want to break it.

As I drove into the park, I realized that this is what I imagine heaven will look like, and if I ever get back to speaking to God, and asking for his favor again, I imagine that this is what I will see the moment after I die. That was the topic of the first roadcast I made on this leg of the voyage.

You pass through the tunnel, into Yosemite Valley,  and you are greeted with the greatest granite formations on the earth.



I drove to Curry Village, I drove around the valley, I relished in the cool crispness of the air, and I realized why I was still crying.

This was the first time I had ever been to Yosemite National Park by myself.

The first time I went, it was for our sixth-grade field trip, with people who would end up being best friends, like Johnny Vaughn. Then, I would go up with my parents. When I married my first wife, LaWana, we went every year, and camped, for a week at a time, with our dogs Bear and Scooter.

LaWana was murdered, almost ten years ago. Bear died shortly afterward. My world came to an end, and nothing was ever the same again.

After she died, I came up a few times with Scooter, and we would just sit in the shadow of Half-Dome, trying to find solace, or peace, or whatever it is that passes for serenity when your soul has a nuclear blast-sized crater in the center of it.


Time passed, and I found new love. A new family. And that hole was still there. Melissa, my new wife, and our children came up to Yosemite, a few times, but it was only a matter of time before we moved to Oregon, and Scooter passed too, and I was left with just memories of my previous life, memories of Yosemite, memories, and a big fucking hole that I could never even hope to fill.

People who knew me before the murder said I changed. I became more selfish. I became more immoral, uncaring, and cruel. The world had dealt me the bitterest blow imaginable. What did I care if I hurt anyone else? What the hell would it matter? No one had ever been caught, prosecuted, or punished for LaWana’s death. Why should I care about what people thought about what I did, if the bastards who took her life had done so with impunity?


And so when I went insane and quit my job, spent all my savings on an RV, abandoned my new wife and family, was that any wonder? Wasn’t I just hoping to have an accident somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and die, abandoned, alone, and unloved, as I surely must have truly been?

Was it any surprise when I realized that what I had been doing now was so much more colossally evil than what had happened to myself? I had shattered my wife’s confidence in me, in my love for her, in her own self-worth as a wife and a mother, and for what? Because I had been too hurt to even know how to seek help for my grief. I had abandoned three children for no other reason than mortal fear that I would lose them just like I had lost LaWana. I had destroyed every promise I had ever made to myself, Melissa, my kids, and for what? Some crazy, insane belief that somehow I could recapture the life I had had? The life that had been so violently taken away from me?

I was an idiot. A grossly stupid, selfish man, afraid beyond reason, terrified beyond rationality.

And it had cost me everything.

So here I was, having realized on Catalina that I needed to be home. Having discovered in myself the capacity for healing, the capability for love, and a fierce, burning desire to rebuild all the bridges I had so heinously destroyed. Here I was, underneath the great wall of El Capitan, who had stood here for a million years, carved by centuries of glacial exertion. Here I was, still holding on to my hurt, the life I could never have again, my desperate need to make things right that could never be made right again.

I had to let go.

I said good bye to Yosemite. And when I did, I said good bye to LaWana, too. When I did, a flood-gate opened within me that hasn’t closed since. I cried for an hour, weeping until after the sun had set, and my last day in the Sierra Nevada was done. I left Yosemite behind, and with it, I left the guilt, the grief, and the grasp I had kept on the giant hole in my heart.

This entire trip had been about finding who I was, what the hell I was doing on this planet, and trying to reconcile why I was still here, and LaWana wasn’t, and it was so clear. I was here to be the husband of my new wife. I was here to be the father of my family. I was here to show that all the love, and hope and happiness that I had found with LaWana, in places like Yosemite, was not lost senselessly through stupid actions like quitting a job or abandoning the people who relied on me.

I said good bye to LaWana, told her that I would see her again one day, and then set my sights on home.

They are still set there today.



February 2 2016

Full Circle Road Trip: Kings Canyon National Park


Day 14. 1/25/2016. Starting Odometer: 144977. Final Odometer: 145069. Mileage: 92. Total Mileage 2825.


I woke up in Sequoia National Park with a mission: I wanted to see all three of California’s crown jewels on this day. My time was running short. My wife, my life, and my future were waiting in Portland. I had discovered that everything I wanted wasn’t going to be found on the road, it was back at home. But there was still something out there. Something I needed to find, something I needed to do. I felt like there was something I still needed to do. I hadn’t come all this way without seeing Yosemite.

So here I was, leaving Sequoia. Kings Canyon National Park was just (relatively speaking) down the road, and Yosemite was just a hop, skip, and winding road to the north. All three are a few hours apart from the central hub of Fresno, California, where I grew up. I stopped by the Sequoia National Park visitor’s center, talked to the Ranger about the King’s Highway — a mountain road that links Sequoia and Kings, and found out that not only was the road closed for the winter, but even if it was open, my rig was too long to be allowed on it to begin with.

I had to take the scenic route.

Before I left, I got a good glimpse of the Mercedes RV I had spotted in the middle of the night. That is one impressive zombie-apocalypse-wagon, if you know what I mean. A lot more “Utility” than your usual Sport Utility Vehicle can boast, that’s for sure.


I ended up taking a circuitous route around the outskirts of the Sierra Nevada, keeping the mountains to my right, and the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley on my left. With a storm coming in behind me, and a storm leaving ahead of me, the sky showed a cacophony of grays and whites as the sun fought to break through a varying cloud base.


Halfway between Sequoia and Kings Canyon I discovered something remarkable. I found myself near Hartland Christian Camp, where I had been a camper for two years, a counselor-in-training for two years, and a counselor for two years. I recorded my feelings about discovering it on video, which is here, in today’s Roadcast:

When I got to King’s Canyon, I went to one of the only parts of the park still open — the park was heavily snowed-in — Grant Grove, one of the biggest Giant Sequoia groves in the world, and home to General Grant, a huge freakin’ tree (General Sherman, the largest tree in the world, is in Sequoia). It was here that Baby Groot wanted to go, to talk to the trees of our world, and thank them for being allowed to go on this trip with me.

We found the grove undisturbed, exquisite in its beauty, breath-taking in its regalia.


Baby Groot was transfixed by the size of these trees.


He whispered to one of them, plaintitively, “I am Groot?”

And the tree answered.

With a bolt of lightning, Groot was restored. The sacrifice he had made for his friends had been rewarded. His faithfulness had been proven. Groot was back.


I realized, as I carried Groot from tree to tree, that it was time I started being faithful. It was time for me to make the sacrifices my family needed to survive. I had spent a month looking for myself, a month trying to figure out what made me tick, a month not doing the things I needed to do to restore my manhood, my self-respect, and my personal sense of Groot.

It was time to go home.

I had one more stop before day’s end.

I hoped I’d arrive on time.



February 2 2016

Full Circle Road Trip: Sequoia National Park


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.

I would meet these travelers again…|


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.

February 1 2016

Full Circle Road Trip: Pinnacles National Park


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.

Well, almost everyone.