More people live in California than in all of Canada. For good reason. It is be-eautiful.
We were RVing our way home after spending two months in the Sonoran desert, which extends for 2,000 km from America’s southwest deep into Mexico.
We had seen it all: in Arizona, target golf through stands of saguaro cactuses; rugged mountain hikes in the Superstition Mountains.
In Mexico, quiet oceanfront campgrounds in quaint fishing villages where desert meets sea.
We hadn’t seen a cloud for two months. Nothing but blue sky. We were sick of sunshine.
So we chose a homeward route through the wet greenery of California springtime.
For five weeks we had driven Mexico’s roadways. Nobody yields to pedestrians in Mexico. If you did, there’d be a rear-end pileup from Mazatlan to Mexico City.
On my first day back driving in the United States, I cruised casually at 80 km/h through a crosswalk in El Centro, Calif. An elderly Hispanic American woman dove for cover, shaking her fist and shouting Spanish expletives at my rear view mirror. It took a few days to get re-accustomed to driving in civilization.
California is gorgeous but prohibitively expensive. Gas is $1 higher per gallon than in neighbouring states. Campgrounds charge up to $50 per night. They need the dough. California is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Apparently Arnold the Gubernator was otherwise occupied during his time in office.
California’s natural beauty is legend. One day, we stood on the precipice of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Pelicans flew in formation, framing surfers riding waves breaking on a beach far below.
The next day, we were snowshoeing 2,000 metres above sea level amongst ancient sequoia trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These primal giants — some over 2,000 years old — are the biggest trees on Earth.
Later that week, we were sipping chardonnay and pinot noir at a family winery in the Napa Valley, across the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco.
Don’t get me wrong. California is not small. It is nearly the size of Alberta; and Alberta is huge (unfortunately it is also mostly covered in muskeg). But the Golden State is laughably accessible. Its wonderful diversity of ocean, mountain, desert and rainforest can all be experienced during a short stay.
I pulled our RV into Yosemite National Park at 4:30 p.m. one Saturday afternoon of an American long weekend looking for a camp spot. The ranger at the entrance gate laughed when I said we were looking for a site “just for the night.”
“Most folk reserve their Yosemite campsite a year or more in advance,” he stated.
“So you’re full then?” asked I.
“Booked right up to Yosemite Sam’s nose,” he responded cleverly.
“Are there any other campgrounds in the vicinity?” I queried.
“There’s one back that-a-way ’bout fifty miles. They might have a spot.” He pointed in the direction from whence we had arrived. It had taken me two hours to negotiate that twisting, turning 80 km. I had no intention of retracing my tire tracks in the dark.
I have six brothers. We abhor lineups and advance planning of any kind.
Amongst the sisters-in-law this is known as “a Feehan thing.” And yet invariably things seem to work out.
“Thanks a lot,” I called back to the ranger as I headed into the park. His frown framed our departure.
The narrow two-lane highway wound through a cloudy sequoia forest and disappeared into a tunnel as we descended into Yosemite Valley. When we exited the dark passage, blinding daylight greeted us, reflecting off the steely granite face of El Capitan, Yosemite’s most iconic mountain.
We carried on to North Pines Campground in the heart of the valley as dusk arrived. I pulled in and asked the camp host if by chance there was a spot where we could sneak in for the night. I concealed my crossed fingers. The nearest alternate refuge was now over three hours away.
“Why you’re in luck,” she exclaimed. “We’ve just had a cancellation.”
She directed us to the most beautiful site you have ever set eyes upon. As I made camp, the sun’s last amber rays framed the famous Half-Dome, 1,000 metres above us. Trout were rising on the Yosemite River just outside my door. I grabbed my fly rod and cast contentedly into the failing light.
In the morning, we packed a lunch and hiked up to spectacular Vernal Falls. The trail to this waterfall is a steep difficult 300-vertical-metre climb.
We expected to enjoy a quiet repast in the company of a few other nature lovers and were unprepared for the throng that greeted us at the top. Hundreds of granola crunchers snapped pictures of each other peering over the treacherous cliff. A long line of humanity — clad in designer hiking gear — waited patiently for the right photo op. You know how I feel about lineups. We beat a hasty retreat.
Yosemite is so overrun with tourists that shuttle buses are mandatory on many of its roadways. But public transportation makes the short jaunt to a place of interest or restaurant cumbersome. Fortunately, we had our bicycles. We happily pedaled our way to dinner while plump Americans sat forlornly waiting for an overloaded bus to transport them to a nearby grazing station.
The next day, we enjoyed a final morning ride before departing Yosemite for the coast and three days of wine-tasting debauchery in California’s Napa valley. On a footbridge, an artist posed happily, dabbing brush to canvas, recording in oil the timeless beauty of Yosemite Falls.
Cycling back to our campsite, we passed a newspaper stand. The front page of the U.S. dailies shouted the news that Osama Bin Laden had shuffled off the mortal coil. I shan’t forget where I was when I witnessed this update on terrorism. It seemed incongruous to be confronted with such news while immersed in nature’s splendor.
The drive from Yosemite to the San Francisco Bay area is only about three hours (which explains the weekend crowds).
On arrival in Napa, we chanced upon an advertisement for a limousine-escorted wine tour. We booked for the next day — once again forgoing any kind of advance planning — and spent a pleasant afternoon in the company of four other couples, tasting sumptuous samples at wineries throughout the Napa Valley. We could have opted for a private tour but apparently my wife was looking for other human stimulation after spending two months in the daily company of her husband.
Sated by the grape we departed wine country and followed a circuitous route up Hwy 101 as it wound north along the fog-strewn Pacific coast through forests of massive redwoods. For two nights, we camped beneath a canopy of ancient titans that were well-rooted when the Egyptians were still building pyramids.
Summer had followed us north. It was time to get home and enjoy the long days of boreal sunlight. But we’ll be back to California before long. It is beautiful … and they need our money.
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.