Day 57 – Life and Death

I stopped for a late breakfast/early lunch at a country café in a nonexistent town outside Sequoia National Park.

The waiter/cook/bus boy carried the bill out to my booth like he was presenting me with some kind of small paper award.

“I don’t know if you are the gambling type,” he said, “but if I were you, I would go to Vegas today. It is February 7, of ’07, and your bill comes out to $7.77.”

“Not that I believe in that kind of stuff,” he added.

Well, it just so happened that I was heading to Vegas. I just had a couple of National Park stops to make on the way there.

Sequoia National Park is quick to point out that its trees are not, in fact, the tallest in the world. Nor are they the biggest in diameter, or the oldest.

They are simply the biggest.

The biggest living things on Earth, period, when measured by volume.

The biggest of the big is the General Sherman sequoia, at 275 feet tall and 103 feet in circumference. The wood in its trunk is estimated at 52,500 cubic feet of lumber, and it weighs a few thousand tons.

It is hard to describe what those dimensions look like in regular terms. I guess you could say that General Sherman is as big around as half of my house, and about 25 stories taller.

General Sherman is located in a grove of sequoias known as the Giant Forest. Sequoia National Park is not a place where you drive through a forest of supersized trees. The giant sequoias are scattered, or grow together in small groves. The Giant Forest is a grove near the road with several of the world’s largest trees.

I strolled around the Giant Forest, trying to take pictures of the giant trees. It was not as easy as I might have thought. The trees pose well, and they stand still for the camera with very little prompting. But they are just too big to fit in a photograph. To get a straight-on shot of a full tree, you had to stand several hundred feet away. And it was rare that you could get that far away from a tree without having another tree standing in your line of sight.

The notable exception was General Sherman, which had one viewpoint on the opposite side of the loop trail that showed the whole tree, relatively unobstructed. I walked around the loop to the base of the world’s largest living thing, a tree that has been on this Earth roughly 1,000 times longer than I have. It has seen so much, and yet it has seen absolutely nothing. It has no eyes, and no brain; no thoughts, and no motivation. It does not know or care that it is the largest living thing on the planet, #1 out of trillions. It just grows, and grows well.

One of the ever-informative park service signs near the giant tree explained that fast growth was the secret to General Sherman’s success. At around 2,500 years old, it is easy to imagine General Sherman as being a very slow-growing tree. However, the sign proclaimed it as being one of the world’s fastest-growing organisms. Every year, it adds the equivalent of a normal-sized yard tree to its mass.

As I walked around General Sherman, another man approached and looked up at the giant. After a few moments of silence, he spoke up and said exactly what I had been resisting the urge to say:

“That’s a big tree.”

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

Sometimes, the simplest explanations work the best.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains are a serious roadblock to traveling through central California. In the winter, when the Tioga Road through Yosemite is closed, they form a roughly 200-mile-long wall blocking east-west car travel. Though it was only about 40 miles as the crow flies from the Giant Forest to my destination road on the east side of the mountains, it is closer to 240 miles by road.

As I drove down out of the mountains south of Sequoia National Park, I came upon a construction flagger and a stopped line of cars. The flagger stood with his stop sign near the end of the line of cars, instead of at the head of the line, and many of the drivers were walking around the area instead of sitting in their cars.

I asked the construction worker if there was a long delay. “About 15 minutes,” he said.

I looked at my watch, which showed a quarter ‘till. “So, on the hour?”

“Yup,” he replied. “We let cars through once an hour, on the hour.”

Once an hour? This was still up in the mountains, with no side roads or alternate routes of any kind. I felt sorry for anyone who drove up to this stop at 5 minutes after the hour.

The wait did not bother me much, since I could use the time to edit photos on my laptop. The other drivers standing nearby seemed to also take the delay in stride. The car in front of me had Virginia plates, which I thought was interesting. I got out and walked over to some of the people standing in the middle of the road.

“Who here is from Virginia?” I asked.

“We are,” two girls about my own age replied.

“I’m quite a ways from any place I would call home myself, but Virginia—you are a very long way from home.”

The girls explained that one of them had taken a new job in California, and the other had come along on the move to make a vacation out of it. They noted that they had come through Oklahoma and Texas on their way out to California, though much more recently than I had. They had driven from Virginia to California in about 4 days, since their goal was to spend time seeing the sights in California. They had camped the night before in Death Valley, and had visited Sequoia on their way to Yosemite—basically, the same trip I was making through California, but in reverse. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they could have gone north and west out of Sequoia National Park, instead of backtracking towards the south.

We shared national park advice for our previous or next destinations. I wondered what there was to see in Death Valley, and if it was worthwhile to visit.

“I liked Death Valley,” said one girl, with a shrug. “Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I liked it,” replied her friend. “I thought it was real pretty.”

Pretty? Death Valley…pretty? Well, I guess that is worth checking out.

I stopped for supplies in Lake Isabella, California, at the end of the Sierra Nevada range. When crossing Death Valley, I figured it was a good idea to take along plenty of water and food.

The one grocery store in town was Vons, a chain in that part of the country that I had never heard of in Dallas. Though the prices seemed painfully high, most items were labeled on sale if you bought 2 or 3 of each. So, I went ahead and loaded up.

At the register, the cashier asked for my Vons card, which of course I did not have. She explained that the “buy 2, get 1 free” and other incentives only applied to people who have a Vons card. But, she said, I could sign up and get a card right then, for free.

It seems that all grocery stores, other than Wal-Mart and Target, want you to sign up for a card in order to get the “real” prices they sell food for. Up to that point, I had refused to get any such cards. If you are going to make me jump through hoops to shop at your place, I’m not going to do it. I don’t care if it is free or simple to get the card; I don’t want to carry 10 cards in my wallet, and I don’t want to get the junk mail associated with giving every business my home contact info. Wal-Mart’s non-card price is still cheaper than anyone else’s card price, and as much as I dislike Wal-Mart, they still do one very important thing right: they save me money.

Here, there was no Wal-Mart, and refusing to sign up for the card would cost me an additional $11 on a relatively small grocery bill.

So, for the first time, I gave in and signed up for a grocery chain card. I had to laugh at the pointlessness of it, though. Someone at Vons will look up the home address I wrote down, see that it is 1,200 miles from the nearest Vons location, and wonder why they would spend money to mail me coupons or try to track my shopping habits.

As I approached the turnoff for Death Valley, I saw a man walking along the shoulder.

He had a hiking backpack, bedroll, gym bag, walking stick, and a mountain-man beard. That looks like a man who has been walking for a while, I thought, as I drove by and turned onto the Death Valley road. That looks like a guy who could be a hiking version of Forrest Gump, on his third trip across the U.S. by foot.

That looks like a guy who would have a story to tell.

I debated turning around to go talk with him. That would be a crazy thing to do, I thought. To pull over on the side of the road, stop a stranger, and ask him for his story. How would that conversation even go? “Hi! Sorry to trouble you, but you look like someone who has been walking for a while.” Or, “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be a murderous psycho, would you? Oh, really? Same here!”

Still, I chided myself, what is the point of a random road trip if you can’t take the time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak?

I hit the brakes, did one of my patented middle-of-nowhere U-turns, and drove back the mile or so to where I had seen the hiker.

He was walking towards a couple of gas stations that bracketed the road out in the middle of the desert, so I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the right-hand station and stopped to wait for him.
“Howdy,” I said, when he got within easy speaking distance. “Sorry to trouble you, but you look like someone who has been walking for a while.”

“Well, hello! The name’s Lee,” he said, shifting his walking stick to his left hand so he could offer his right for a shake.

“Kevin. Where’re you from?”

“Oregon. I’m on my way to Death Valley.”

“Oh, really? Me too.”


And so it was, for the first time on the trip, that the Hitchhiker’s Guide actually picked up a hitchhiker.

Lee’s huge backpack and bag went in the back of the pickup, on top of my own pile of junk. He asked if I thought they could blow out while driving down the road. “Maybe,” I said. I don’t like to over-promise and under-deliver.

Lee explained that he was hiking to Death Valley to do some hiking in Death Valley. I asked if he had walked all the way from Oregon, and he said that the vast majority of the distance was covered by hitching rides with people like me. He had left Oregon only 3 days before, while I was in the San Francisco area. He had actually made better time hitchhiking than I did driving.

I asked him what he does for a living when he is not hiking around Death Valley.

“Manual labor,” Lee replied. “Odd jobs for my neighbors.”

Lee has a small trailer in Oregon, and basically spends his time hitchhiking and hiking around various national parks. He had once had a family, but his kids were grown and there was no longer a wife in the picture. His lifestyle does not require very much money. With almost no material possessions to support, his main expense is probably food. In this country today, if you forego having a car and a house and the other trappings of success, you can get by doing manual labor for a few hours here and there, and have the freedom to travel most of the time. The “trappings” of success are what trap you.

Lee had been living this lifestyle for years. He showed me his hand-carved walking stick, which looked like a little totem pole. “It used to be this long,” he said, indicating a length about 1 foot longer than the end of the stick. “That’s how much I’ve worn off of it.”

In addition to the stick, he carried with him a digital camera, a pen, and a piece of paper folded into a small square. The paper was jam-packed with notes written in very small handwriting. “I like to keep track of how far I’ve walked, and how far I’ve ridden, and who gave me rides, and how many bicyclists I see. Stuff like that.”

Bicyclists? Sure enough, we passed by some people riding bicycles on the shoulder. “Three,” muttered Lee, and wrote something on his paper square.

This was not Lee’s first time to Death Valley. He hiked regularly around southwestern national parks like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. He knew very well what to pack for such hikes, including what kinds of foods and drinks to bring along. He had just bought several bottles of orange juice, one of which he offered to me. “For potassium,” he said. “I know from experience that little things like that can be the difference between just surviving a hike, and really enjoying it.”

I dropped Lee off at the main visitor center, at Furnace Wells. He piled his belongings along the outside wall while he went inside to get whatever permits and maps he would need for hiking. I looked at Lee’s stuff. From what he had told me, this was probably most of what he owned in the world. This was a man who had figured out what he needs in life to be happy, and found it amounted mostly to electrolytes and potassium.

Only 40 miles lie between Sequoia National Park and Death Valley National Park. Such a small distance between the world’s largest living things and the literal valley of death. Adding to the contrast, Lee told me it is possible to see Mt. Whitney, California’s highest point, from below sea level in Death Valley.

Death Valley was rather pretty, by the way. It is composed mostly of dirt and rocks, but they are at least colorful dirt and rocks. The desert colors ranged from white to black, with red, yellow, and even a little green mixed in to the minerals.

The one spot to not miss in Death Valley is Zabriskie Point. It is simply a high point from which you can look around at some very colorful badlands. While there, I saw a woman dressed much too warmly for Death Valley posing as a crew of photographers took pictures. After they finished and packed up their stuff to leave, I asked one of the workers what the photo shoot was for. “A fashion magazine,” he said. “A German fashion magazine.”

Besides having world-famous scenic dirt, Death Valley was also the first national park I had been to that is decidedly better to visit in the winter. It was a sunny 70 degrees instead of the snowy cold of the mountains or the 120 degrees of summer. Death Valley in February was actually a rather pleasant place to visit. Just remember to bring your potassium.

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