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ADVENTURE 22: Hug a Tree, Rescue a Foreigner (Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP)

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools -- only Uncle Sam can do that. - John Muir

You know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at? - Ronald Reagan

Thursday, 4 August 2022, Pinnacles NP

I left Fresno by 7:00 (before the temperatures soared!) to tackle the drive on CA-180 a final time. Once I entered the park 90 minutes later, I turned right on Generals Highway - toward Sequoia and away from Grant Grove and the canyon. As the undulating road angled south, I stopped at the final overlook into Kings Canyon - and the sight stunned me: Cairns!

Dozens (well over a hundred) of cairns covered the open space next to the pullout, serving as counterpoint to the canyon vista.

Cairns with 3-4 stones, cairns with a dozen. Cairns several feet tall. Cairns with twin spires, or bridging a gap. Cairns everywhere.

I looked for a sign that could enlighten me as to why this spot hosted the rock towers, but I could find nothing. The other people wandering around couldn't educate me. No one could give me an answer. Could this be improvisational? Added to by passers-by? A portal to another dimension?

The highway (named after General Grant and General Sherman trees) led me south, out of Kings Canyon NP, through NFS land, to Lodgepole Village in the middle of Sequoia NP. Let's take a ranger-guided hike here, I thought. The Visitor Center should list what's scheduled. To my surprise, a big CLOSED sign hung in the door. Asking at the store, I heard that it's been closed since Covid hit in 2020. (I also asked about the cairns conundrum, but no one had any idea.)

On my way back to the car, I stopped to warn a staff member emptying trash cans on the plaza. "The trash can near the Visitor Center? Someone must have left the bear-proof lid unlatched."

He thanked me, and promised to clean up the mess.

Have you ever been on a hike, drank half the water in your bottle while at a high elevation (or while on an airplane flight), screwed the lid closed - and then noticed how the higher pressure back at your car (or int airport) squeezed the bottle? Guess what - the opposite reaction can also happen. Back at the car, I grabbed my daypack with two water bottles in the side pockets, put it on, leaned down to grab my hiking stick - and felt water splashing against my elbow and onto the door handle. I straightened up, noticing that one water bottle had no cap on it.

Now how could that be? I wondered. No way I didn't put the cap on. Ahhh, the bane of being an engineer - things have to make sense! I quickly figured it out: I had left some air in the bottle when I filled up in Fresno, 6400' lower in elevation - and must not have screwed the cap on tight. With a much lower air pressure in the park, the high pressure air in the bottle expanded in the only direction available - up the neck, loosening the cap until it just barely rested on the bottle. When I picked the pack up, the cap fell off. Which means the cap should be ... there it is, where it rolled under the car! Mystery solved. Now if I could only figure out the cairns.

The General Sherman Tree lay a short distance down Generals Highway, so I headed down to check out the World's Largest Tree.

From the parking lot, a paved trail takes you down to a path ringing the tree. Tourists abounded here, gaping at the massive tree soaring into the sky. Numerous interpretive signs informed the public about the tree, and Sequoias in general. Regarding the trees' longevity, one sign mentioned how tannins in the tree repel insects and prevent decay, while the bark lacks any flammable sap to make the trees more impervious to fire.

Just as with the General Grant tree, one sign provided a silly stat: if the tree was filled with water instead of wood, you would have enough water to take a bath every day for the next 27 years! Grab my rubber duckie! or better yet, I could take several really loooooooong showers instead.

Other signs talked about the Sequoia life cycle. The big trees need fire to start a new generation! Other, less sturdy trees will die in a blaze, reducing the competition for nutrients in the soil, and opening the canopy for the seedling to receive light. The heat of the fire causes the cones to drop the seeds, which now land on a soft bed of ashes - tree food!

But climate change threatens that cycle. The new fires burn much hotter, harming existing trees and burning or sterilizing the ground. In the fires of 2020-2021, an estimated 10-14 thousand large giant Sequoias died - 13-19% of all known sequoias. How long can they survive that culling?

A volunteer ranger wandered about the Sherman Tree, so I asked her about the curious cairns. She professed no knowledge of them.

My car lay a half-mile uphill walk away from Mr. Big Tree. However, the park runs free shuttles across the park, including one from the tree to the parking lot. A ten-minute wait earned me a private bus ride back up the hill. Of course, that gave the chance to ask the driver about the perplexing cairns. Again, no answer was forthcoming.

The park does feature more than just big trees - it also offers hikes beside meadows. Crescent Meadow pulls in many visitors, attracted by a tree you can climb in, and another in which an early settler built a house.

I had seen that on one of my annual trips with my singles club in the 80s, so Long Meadow appealed to me as something new. The Wolverton parking lot and trailhead was right around the corner.

The map showed this as a loop trip. I picked the first trailhead I saw and headed out. Immediately after the Long Meadow Loop branched from the back-country trail, the path got wispy. Uh-oh, another trail where 'hardly anyone ever goes there'? When it reached a tiny brook feeding the meadow, I thought the trail had disappeared - but then I saw a more-defined path across the brook. A boulder provided a stepping stone over the water, and I continued on my way.

The scenery from the trail kept me engaged.

Several spots afforded a view into the meadow, lush with greenery. The woods that the path pierced kept the temperature cool.

I did notice that the trail looked less maintained than most - have to make sure I don't miss a turn!

Eventually the trail reached the far end of the meadow.

A few yards later, the trail branched - just what the map promised. Now more confident, I took the left branch to head back along the meadow.

That confidence wavered as I moved along. A downed tree blocked the path, requiring me to climb over it. I told myself it had recently fallen, and that trail crews hadn't got around to cutting it yet. Overhead, clouds slowly covered the sky, and rumbles of thunder echoed in the distance.

The trail grew more beautiful. I caught views through the trees of a river of white flowers flowing down the meadows, offsetting the green of the grasses.

Spindly flowers blossomed by the trail side, tiny white blooms like baby's breath.

The trail moved into an open area near the meadow's head, running between the meadow and a rock outcropping. The spindly flowers covered the area. The trail shrunk until it was no longer visible in front of me. Hmmm... the map said it would connect to the road just before it reached the parking lot. I could see my starting point across the meadow, with no trail to get me there.

I scoured the area dead ahead of me, but thick underbrush blocked any progress. I climbed to the top of the rocks, but no trail appeared. I walked back along the trail, but could find no trail junction that I missed. For ten minutes I looked, to no avail.

With the clouds getting darker, I considered my options. Taking the trail all the way back to where I started would take another hour, likely in the rain. Instead, I chose to traipse straight across the meadow.

As I expected, halfway across the ground got marshy, and I had to pick my steps. Luckily it didn't last long, and soon I reached the far side without my boots getting too wet.

On this far side, I saw a distinct path angling toward the meadow, so I followed it to see if I had simply missed a connection. No - that trail enters a copse of trees and disappears, with another spur ending at the meadow. Satisfied I hadn't missed anything, I headed back toward my car. When I hit the parking lot, I noticed a family of four disgorged from the shuttle bus that now headed down that same dead-end trail. I considered ignoring them, but my goody-two-shoes conscience said, Why let them get frustrated like you were - or even lost? So I headed down to give them the benefit of my experience.

I caught up with them as they started out into the meadow. "If you're looking for the Long Meadow Loop Trail, I don't think you're on it." They listened as I explained what I found out there. "Don't misunderstand me - it's a beautiful trail. It just doesn't appear to get much traffic... and it disappears right across the meadow."

They thanked me and said they appreciated my warning. With the clouds and thunder looking and sounding ominous, they decided to take the next bus back to a better-marked trail. I asked where they were visiting from, and the daughter said, "France! Near Paris." Do I get extra credit by doing a good deed for foreigners?

Continuing south, I stopped at the Giant Forest Museum for my passport stamp, and to get knowledged-up about Sequoias. Once again, I asked a ranger about the cryptic cairns; once again, they didn't know.

From there, a trail took me to the Meadow of Big Trees.

This meadow is ringed by Sequoias - the soil is too wet in the meadow for the trees to grow, but they thrive off the water seeping past them into the open area. Displays mentioned that the trees need only 3' of soil to put down roots, and in this area, bedrock lies just over 3' deep. Most other trees require more soil, so they provide no competition for the big trees.

Interesting trees abounded here. Two trees that took root so close that they grew together were named Ned and Ed by early visitors.

Another one stood as a shell, hollowed out by fire.

I chose one tree at random and gave it a big hug. (Yeah, I'm a tree-hugger.) The bark felt leathery, not stiff and coarse like other trees. When I clapped my hand to it, I felt a thump, like it was hollow inside.

A sign near one tree mentioned that the top had died - the tree would get no taller. However, it would continue to grow for the rest of its life, increasing its girth each year. (I'd heard that the same thing can happen to humans. Someone called it Dunlop's Disease - "That's when your belly dun lops over your belt."

Okay, so my comedy skills are no better than my work as a detective or my navigational prowess. Maybe I'll stick to travel blogging.

By now, the sprinkles had started. People scurried about under umbrellas, hurrying to their cars. I had a long drive ahead of me, but since I'd parked near Beetle Rock, I had to check it out. This perch certainly gave a sweeping vista, looking over the alleys of the rumpled mountains.

I admired the view for several minutes before grudgingly returning to the car.

Now for the long drive to Pinnacles. I had visited Sequoia several times in the 80s with my singles group - and 40 years later still retained memories of the park - but I did NOT recall the horrendous drive down from Giant Forest. For up to 15 miles, my car labored in 1st or 2nd gear, squeezing around switchbacks - and even then I still needed to brake on occasion. Once I dropped over 5000'of elevation, the highway straightened out and turned into a freeway to cross the Central Valley. On the far side, the road 'treated' me to more sloppy driving, up and down roller-coaster hills with hairpin blind turns rated at 25-35 mph. Turning north on CA-25 didn't improve things - the hairpin turns continued, with the added hassle of being blinded by the setting sun.

Finally I made it to the park campground, where a tent cabin awaited me. The sun began setting as I reached the park, so I took advantage of capturing some colors in the clouds - with a guest appearance by the moon.

When time came to drag my bags into the cabin, I grabbed the food bags from the back seat and left the door open while I carried them inside. By the time I returned to the car, one of the resident raccoons had already jumped into the car looking for goodies. Scat, you varmint!

As the sun set, it painted the clouds with pastel colors - nice to see another sunset show. Later, as the campground quieted down and lights went out, I laid on my site's picnic table and looked at the panoply of stars sweeping across the skies. With no city close by, no light pollution diminished the astral glory. As I soaked it all in, wondering about the mysteries out there for which we have no answers (even more mysterious than cairns!), an old movie quote popped into my mind. In the move If..., Roddy MacDowell's character looks up at the sky and muses, "When I think of all the billions of stars out there, and of how many have planets, I realize it's a mathematical certainty that someone - something - out there right this instant is ordering a pepperoni pizza with extra cheese."

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