Monday, January 08, 2007

Big trees and little aches

Xmas 06 009In which we visit snow and sequoia in the High Sierra

Lit out for a little road trip Christmas weekend to do a some cross country skiing and a little Olde West sightseein' on the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas. I headed North, up over the Tehachapis, to Highway 99 and down through the gray and drear San Joaquin Valley. I hung a hard right just south of Stockton and headed up Highway 4, a scenic two-way byway that winds gradually up from the Valley floor through the foothills and into the mountains.

Great horny toads!
At Angel's Camp I stopped for a little historical look-see. Mark Twain fans will remember Angel's Camp from his famed 1868 short, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The story is fiction, but it's based on a true event---the jumping frog contest that has happened Angel's Camp Jumping Frog Walk of Fameevery year in Angel's Camp since it was, well, nothing but an actual camp. Today the Jumping Frog Jubilee, held each May, is the town's primary attraction. Even so, as I strolled down the main drag, I was surprised to see a sort of Jumping Frog Walk of Fame of brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk, each reading the name of a famous frog, the name and home town of its owner and its record jump. "Tule Jim" jumped a whopping 15' 5 ½"in 1958. (By comparison, the world's record frog jump, set in 1986 by "Rosie the Ribeter," is 21’ 5 3/4”; the world's record for a human standing broad jump is just 11' 11", set by Johan Kristian Evang of Norway.)

I stopped into the local haunt for a bit of liquid refreshment. What few locals were around the afternoon of Christmas Eve were friendly and the tavern itself one of those places that serves as community hub, bank and post office all rolled into one. Most of the businesses and attractions were closed, however, so I continued up into the high country and Bear Valley, my first destination.

Cross country (and cross your legs)
Bear Valley Village stands at about 6,000' above sea level, and serves the Bear Valley Resort, a modest alpine ski and snowboard destination with a vertical drop of about 2000' and 67 trails. The village is also adjacent to Bear Valley Cross Country, which claims to have one of the largest x-country trail systems in the U.S.

I paid my day use fee ($25), strapped on my skis, took up poles and set off. Wow, am I out of practice. I hadn't gone more than 200 yards before the insides of my thighs were shrieking for mercy louder than heretic being racked by Torquemada. I didn't cross country ski last year, and the year before I was really just getting the hang of it. I could skate and turn and brake well enough back then. But this time my balance was all over the place, my knees were locking up, and I was cursing the damned skis to go the right direction on the down slopes, lest I make cozy with a tree trunk. I lasted about an hour-and-half out on the trails, which I have to say could have been better marked and groomed, before I decided to call it a day.

Not that Squaw Valley
Next morning I headed back down the 99 to my next destination, Sequoia National Forest. I still ached. At Fresno I hung a right onto Highway 180 climbed again up through the foothills and into the high country. Along the way I went through a place called Squaw Valley, not to be confused with its Tahoe-area cousin to the North. It's a place of rough beauty, where stone foundations jut up through the earth in great jagged boulders. The valley floor is orchards and vineyards while the surrounding hills are stone crags and grass. I've never seen a place quite like it. I'll keep it in mind as a site for my country house, ranch and winery.

Giant Sequoia

Totally big trees
Sequoia National Forest is home to the world's largest trees, as well as the world's largest grove of the world's largest trees, the giant Sequoias (hence the name). Having seen the world's oldest trees, the Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains above the Owens Valley, it seemed fitting to see the world's largest. (Sadly, while on my Bristlecone trek, I may well have seen the world's oldest tree itself, Methuselah (5,000 years old), but I can't know for sure because it's not marked due to fears of vandalism, probably from religious crackers who believe the world to be no more than 3,000 years old.)

Original lumberman's cabin, built in the 1870sOne can't help but describe these trees as "really, really big." They're not the tallest trees in the world---there are redwoods that are taller---but in terms of sheer mass, they're the biggest. Like their redwood cousins, Sequoias are a type of cypress tree. They can reach a height of more than 300 feet and can have bark more than a foot thick. They look strange, almost artificial, like great hewn columns topped with a fringe of green far above the forest floor. They look like trees crafted by the set designers at Wingnut Studios for the Elven Queen from "Lord of the Rings" to flit around in.

The largest living tree in the world is called the General Sherman. Although it is "only" 275 feet high, it has a base circumference of 103 feet. Its trunk, which boasts bark 31 inches think, is believed to weigh 1,385 tons. Each year the General puts on enough new wood to make a 60 foot tall tree. That's a lot a timber.

After picking up a new badge for my walking stick at the ranger station gift shop, I took the 198 Highway loop back down the hill. It's a treacherous route of up 7 percent grades but well worth it because of the splendid views. I'm a natural sucker for magnificent rock formations and was not disappointed.

Xmas 06 012Hardley Davidson
On my way through the southern end of Squaw Valley along the 198 I was slowed by a group of people on Harleys. I don't know why they were driving so slow, but I suspect it had to do with the fact that they were the fattest herd of motorcyclists I have ever had the misfortune to clap eyes on. Now, just buying a Harley is likely to cause at least 30 pounds of weight gain, from what I've seen. But these guys (and gals) were positively hefer-esque. Their re-enforced rebar-and-concrete bikes could barely hold them without crumpling. You could almost see the steel bending beneath their great, flabby folds of flesh, and the engines of their hard-laboring machines huffing and puffing to propel their immense carcasses at a mere 50 mile-per-hour clip.

I blame trans-fats. And television.

Angel's Camp
38°4′25″N, 120°32′57″W
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠ 1/2
Nice town with old west charm; friendly people; mostly closed on Christmas Eve

Bear Valley Cross Country
38°2'09"N, 120°29'50"W
Rating: ♠ ♠ 1/2
Among the largest x-country trail system in the U.S.; trails need to be better marked and groomed; views not that great; worth another go when I get my trail legs back

Sequoia National Monument and Forest
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Wow. Great history in a gorgeous high country setting.


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