There comes a time in every person’s life when lying face down on the beach ceases to be a productive way to spend large, hazily-defined portions of the day. For us, such a time came just as Week 8 lurched jauntily into view.
Our route was to take us through the agricultural heart of Southern California, crossing untold acres of farmland that string together small cities populated by people dreaming of LA. Here, the road seems to materialise before the van, out of the mirror blue sky and sun-licked grass, still grappling with the heat for some purchase on the horizon. Near a place called Cholame, we accidentally stopped for a roadside breath of fresh air at the intersection where James Dean drew his last.
From these sunny plains, the mountains of Sequoia seemed impossibly far-removed – this in part because, by the time we reached the National Park, we were in the clouds. So too were we enveloped by armies of the trees from which the park takes its name. Sequoias, among the largest trees in the world and only found on the western slopes of the Sierras, stand here stoic like buildings. To hike among them was to feed the imagination with scenes from a bygone era of American wilderness, one in which Spring flowers illuminated the woodland, and our sunburnt legs flashed like beacons in the cold mist.
Next, after a day spent lunching in King’s Canyon NP – one of the deepest canyons in these United States – it was on to the holy grail of Californian National Parks, Yosemite, for more mountainous mischief and hilly hijinks to sate our wolfish wants.
Little justice can here be done to the thrill which accompanied our first glimpse into Yosemite Valley – a vista whose beauty has been immortalised in eternal glory by artists and photographers like the great Ansel Adams. But suffice it to say that we felt an immediate and keen desire to prepare breakfast right there and then.
This decision proved beneficial in a number of ways – not least that it enabled us to loiter furtively at a place through which countless people come and go every minute, many locked in a vicious and unending battle for that ever-unassuming ticket to freedom: the parking space. For if there was one thing separating Yosemite from the other National Parks we’ve visited, it was the crowds. 5 million people journeyed to the Park in 2016, a new record up from the 4 million average of previous years (and a theme of Californian tourism if you caught last week’s post).
Though our trip fell outside of peak season, the sheer number of other visitors belied the Park’s year-round popularity. And though it is tempting to complain about the overcrowding, to long for the days when fewer people knew of or could access such wonders, it goes without saying that we too were part of the problem.
But even if these large numbers strain the Park’s services or muddy our experiences, must it not be a good thing that more of us than ever before are determined to soak up the outdoors?
It seems to me that whether we like it or not, jostling for parking spaces and sharing trails is to play a big part in the unfolding story of America’s National Parks, even of our basic interactions with the wilderness at large.
Next week, it’s back to the coast for more salty air and pavement pounding in the streets of San Francisco.