Day 19: Sequoia — Climbing towards the world’s largest tree
I follow the smoke across the mountain, towards the Great Central Valley, scaling down the side of the Sierra, along Highway 49, through Bullion Knob and Indian Mountain, Bear Valley and Ponderosa Basin. The sky is grey and the San Joaquin tributary river is flowing humbly between it all, its ancient horizontal marks layered up and down the mountain’s face like aquatic tree rings — a record of its former heights and glory, a witness of how far it has fallen.
The orange trees appear along the valley floor. Then the almonds. Then the walnuts. Eventually, I begin the climb towards Sequoia National Park, back in to the shadows of the Sierra, and the search for the Giant Sequoia begins.
At 800 feet, the golden eagle sits perched on top of the cottonwood branch, scouring for rainbow trout in the Kaweah River below. Her nest is pedestaled in the barren canopy behind her, and the chaparral barricade underneath her prevents me from getting any closer. Still she regards me. I regard her. We stand together in the cold air for a few magical minutes, until she leaps from the branch, spreading wings that are longer than my entire body, and soars over the Kaweah.
At 1,500 feet, the wild turkey family are picking at grains buried in the grass, as the morning sun breaks through the ridge and warms the hard ground. The windows in the blue guest house behind them are still, and there is no smoke rising out of the chimney. The breakfast is apparently too satisfying, or perhaps their hunger is too great, for the flock to notice me. Until the sound of my automatic engine unexpectedly rumbles, startling one of the birds, who looks like the leader, with a bright red head wrap and a long beard-like flap hanging from his chin. He billows out a sudden yell, and the entire flock responds together, like a Sunday morning choir or a late night cry of war. I can’t decide which one, but soon they are back to their breakfast and I’m back on the road.
At 1,700 feet, the National Park ranger tells me it hasn’t snowed in over three weeks, and it’s already the end of January. “Imagine the ecosystem impact,” she says, looking around at the green and brown colors surrounding us. “This should all be covered.” Her name is Miriam Lagunas. She studied archeology and environment science from the same school I went to, and worked for the National Forest before joining the National Park. I want to ask her about the lack of women in either agency, why she’s the first person of color I’ve met in months. But I don’t know how. Or maybe I already know the answer, and it’s not an easy one.
Instead, I ask her about funding. “I would say the park definitely has more resources. At the national forest, we sometimes didn’t even have funds to hire seasonals. Or contractuals. Which meant a lot of work simply wouldn’t get done.” She tells me about a multi-year settlement the Sierra National Forest gets from PG&E: a million dollars each year because of the fire their power lines started. But next year is the last year, and she’s not sure what they’ll do after that. How they’ll cover their costs. At the park, she says, they have SPC, the Sequoia Park Conservancy, which does a lot of fundraising for them. And also manages the gift centers, which is another revenue source. “We also have revenue from visitors like you,” she says, smiling: up to 1.5 million a year, each paying $35 per car.
She says that Kings Canyon National Park, which is just above us, actually shares some of their admission revenue with Sequoia National Forest, because part of the national forest land is within the national park. But it’s the only park she knows that’s like that.
Eventually I ask her how I should spend my time in the park. “You obviously have to see General Sherman,” she says, “the biggest tree in the world.” I nod my head and she shows me a long, 15 mile hike I can string together, if there’s enough daylight. I look at the map she hands me, with General Sherman circled towards the center. He’s just below 7,000 feet.
At 3,000 feet, the oak trees are still holding on to their finger-sized leaves, green feasts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. Rock formations bigger than Half Dome are jutting out of the mountain, on top of every ridge and around every bend — glacial monuments erected across the heart of the Sierra Nevada.
At 4,000 feet, cedar begins to emerge. Then ponderosa pine. The rock formations are now standing guard along the road, solemn and formidable. The oaks still cling stubbornly to their green leaf life. A John Muir enthusiasm is echoing in my voice as I dictate all that I’m seeing into my phone. The road switchbacks and zigzags through glacial sculptures, carved alongside walls of granite that cling on to history and the mountain and themselves.
At 5,000 feet, I turn the corner into a valley view so grand I feel vertigo. Elevation sickness. We are 5,000 feet above sea level. It’s not that it’s that high. But how easily I’ve reached it. How easily each thousand feet were gained. Distances that would have taken hours on foot. Millennium by ice. Achieved in mere minutes, through the power of human advancement. But at what cost? Still there is no snow. Still my windows are down, and the air is cold but not freezing. Still the oak is holding on to some of their leaves. I look around to confirm. Could these really be oaks, at this elevation?
But the question remains unanswered: instead of the humble oak, the queen of the Sierra begins to step on to the land. The Giant Sequoia. At first only briefly — young, shy, a family of six or seven siblings, quiet and timid without a mother standing as protection over them.
But then, around the corner, even the mother appears. Bright. Red. In a gown that only she is old enough to wear. Unintentionally diverting all the attention to her. Standing indifferent, willing to be seen and discussed. Too preoccupied with the heavenly clouds that surround her to say hello, or welcome, or I’m glad you came.
At 6,000 feet, the elevation continues to climb and so do the giants, as if they know that to stand out at such an elevation requires more. The pine and cedar, majestic royalty of the valleys and the foothills, look like humble garden ornaments underneath the sequoia. The oak have all but retreated, as if knowing they would become mere chaparral on the forest floor of the giant.
The sign says General Sherman 2 miles. The sequoia stand silently and still, as if preparing me for what’s to come. I want to look at the map, to try to make sense of it all. But who could take their eyes off of the grandness, even if only for a second? Instead, I pass the General Sherman turn off, perhaps subconsciously knowing that I’m not ready. Perhaps subconsciously knowing that I need to first sit and be still, underneath the miracle of it all.
At 7,000 feet, the temperature finally drops below freezing. The brown path is hard as I leave the car and walk up the trail. Sequoia cones are scattered across the sandstone path. Black fire scars girdle around the base of each massive trunk, like a story of all the trees have endured. The forest is quiet. I hear a robin or a warbler above me. A family chattering in Spanish behind me. The faint sound of the wind in the canopy above. The dirt of the path crunching underneath my boots. And, as I climb the final stairs, I hear snow softly landing on my hood, then falling into my open palms, then landing silently at the feet of General Sherman, standing quietly in front of me, the very grandest of the world’s trillions of trees.