Monthly Archives: July 2014


“It was my good fortune to know John Muir. He had written me, even before I met him personally, expressing his regret that when Emerson came to see the Yosemite, his (Emerson’s) friends would not allow him to accept John Muir’s invitation to spend two or three days camping with him, so as to see the giant grandeur of the place under surroundings more congenial than those of a hotel piazza or a seat on a coach. I had answered him that if ever I got in his neighborhood I should claim from him the treatment that he had wished to accord Emerson. Later, when as President I visited the Yosemite, John Muir fulfilled the promise he had at that time made to me. He met me with a couple of pack mules, as well as with riding mules for himself and myself, and a first-class packer and cook, and I spent a delightful three days and two nights with him.”

Theodore Roosevelt

So it was in May 1903 that at a time when Yosemite Valley was overrun with saw mills, sheep herding, saloons, brothels and filth there was one influential man who saw it for what it was, one of the world’s greatest mountain temples. John Muir successfully convinced the president that Yosemite Valley must be protected by the United States. This Three day horse packing trip that Roosevelt was talking about is still considered the most important camping trip in the history of conservation.

Now in May of 2014 Michelle brought Jacob and Elias to see a play in Yosemite Valley, The Tramp and the Roughrider, where this was to be re-enacted and celebrated. Jacob described the premise of the play; “It’s the last evening of the camping trip that Roosevelt and Muir went on together. They had to actually get away from all of the commissioners that currently ran the Valley. They were making great profits from the saloons and businesses and you could tell that t they didn’t want the status of the Valley to change. Most of the time Roosevelt told stories of his personal adventures but you could tell John Muir was working really hard to get the conversation back to the Valley. As the end of their last camping evening approached, John Muir pressed Roosevelt reminding him that they needed to discuss the transfer of the Valley from California to the national government. Finally Muir got Roosevelt to promise to add the valley to the National Park system and they ended the play. I was able to get a great feel for both John Muir and Roosevelt as the actors did a great job portraying them. “

While Michelle had a date with the boys, I had a date with Ila. We took a short walk up to the base of the most awesome wall of rock in the United States, El Capitan. We laid down on our backs, with our hands behind our heads and gazed up. Then Ila began, “What’s that daddy, what’s that?”

“That’s El Capitan.”

“Oh” pause….”What’s that daddy, what’s that?”

“That’s El Capitan.”

“Oh” pause….”but what’s that daddy, what’s that?” Ila continued pointing up at the seemingly endless swath of perfect granite.

This continued back and forth for a bit and finally I struck a deal. “I tell you what Ila. In 12 years you and I will climb that together…..OK?”

“OK”, Ila agreed.

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This promise was based on the fact that the day before I had taken my fast growing, double hamburger eating 12 year old son up Half Dome’s Snake Dike. Nothing quite so big and mighty as El Cap but with 18 miles round trip, 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and a total of 800 feet of rock climbing, I saw that in just two more years El Capitan as a reasonable goal for any well adapted 14 year old.

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In November of 1958 a man named Warren Harding after a year and half of effort topped out on The Nose of El Capitan and made history. Not only was he and his two other comrades Wayne Merry and George Whitmore the first people to ever climb the “unclimbable” wall and not only did the efforts that lead to this monumental climb concoct a stream of innovation in climbing equipment to a level never seen before, but Warren Harding transcended the ages when at the top of the climb a reporter asked, “What does it feel like to have conquered El Capitan?” and Warren responds, “Well, it seems to me that El Capitan is in a lot better shape than I am right now”. With that one comment the culture and stigma around climbing shifted to the timeless fact that the mountain shapes us. And what better place to be forged than on the strikingly beautiful walls of Yosemite Valley?

I have always been careful not to push this stuff on the kids. It’s important that they want to climb in their own right to insure the level of motivation that’s required for such huge climbs. It was in this sentiment that Elias was instantly motivated to go climbing with dad when he watched Jacob soaking in his post mountain adventure high, actually it would have been cruel and unusual punishment not to take him climbing. As promised, Elias and I went to climb several three pitch climbs on the beautiful apron of rock below Glacier point.

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In 1993 our society once again received enlightenment from El Capitan when Lynne Hill “free climbed” the entire route. She was not the first woman to free climb The Nose of El Cap rather she was the first person to free climb the Nose of El Capitan. That feat was on par to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. To climb El Cap with my daughter at any age would be a dream come true…If she wants to.

When Ila and I were done with our date we went to the theater to meet Michelle and the boys and eat ice cream. Sticky ice cream drenched her hands and face when we greeted the gang as they walked out of the theater beaming with smiles. “That was the coolest play I’ve ever seen.” Jacob said in a daze.

Teaching our kids about these great characters and their role in protecting our dignity and land is important to us. We had no idea it would be this easy for them to understand. Really all we needed to do was show up. Just like singer, song writer Greg Brown says:

“John Muir walked away into the mountains. In his old overcoat a crust of bread in his pocket. We have no knowledge and so we have stuff and stuff with no knowledge is never enough to get you there. It just won’t get you there……Two Little Feet to get you across the mountain.”

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Our Sierra camp was in the southern end of the Great Basin Desert. Sage brush is the common tree here, a shrub really, with plentiful sage green leaves that are small and soft as you wrap your hand around a branch. It’s virtually impossible to resist the temptation to snap off a piece of sage and smell it. Fresh and soothing and difficult to put down, we collected the sage, keeping it in short bundles to freshen our car and relax.

Now we head south leaving the Great Basin and into the Mojave desert. Low and dry we continue through Mojave creosote flats. Finally we turn to the West heading up and over the Southern ridges of the Sierra. Joshua Trees are the signature plant of the Mojave Desert, a Yucca, yes, but like no other. Close by, J-trees grow in thick forests on the southeast slopes of the Sierra with trunks as big as I’ve seen them anywhere, some more than a foot in diameter. Growing upward like a tree and branching out in all directions in comical and chaotic ways, the green tufts of sharp and pointy yucca leaves disguise the thickness of the branches then continue down the branches giving way to dead leaves of yellowish and then black color.

When I say growing upward “like” a tree, I say that because although they resemble trees, they are not tree. Trees are what we need right now. When I see communities living in these barren lands, living with tree like cactus and giant branching yuccas I am fascinated, but not envious. “How do you live without trees?” I can’t help wonder. A good tree soothes the soul like a mother’s embrace and eases the spirit like a much needed rain. After months of desert living, our little family is in need of trees.

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Up and over the first few ridges we arrive in Kernville. These shrubby and grassy hillsides will not do. We do our laundry, buy groceries and head onward, up the Kern River and higher into winding mountain roads. The hills are mostly covered by an increasing number of short shrubby green that gives the steep mountainsides an elegant luxurious texture with increasing numbers of clustered pine groves as we head higher and…..hupla! We head over a final defining ridge and into a thick forest, familiar, with thick green shade provided by fir and cedar, grassy and moist understory with water loving plants everywhere.
“Trees!” Ila yells out.

We were in a mysterious mist. Our curiosity spiked when we finally stopped. With no other people around we hop out of our cars excited for a little stroll in an ancient forest. We walk slowly and carefully through the casual trail flushed with big smiles and wonder, the kind that comes with new discoveries and affirmations….that the world is in fact as mysterious as you had always hoped. Our big wild ride takes us all the way back to when even us grownups were small children, a time when our imaginations were the main lens in which we viewed the world through, when we believed in dragons and fairies and magic and mysterious enormous trees that move around when nobody was there to watch. The trees where so big that there was surely a door somewhere on the back side that leads into a well furnished home. Walking through the trail of 100 giants we explore each and every giant sequoia we came to searching for the hidden secrets.

These are the largest trees on earth. Some say the largest living things. They are also older than is easy to imagine. The lives of these trees were being played out here in this forest while the entire story of Ancient, Classical, Medieval, Renaissance and Modern world history was being played out. Some of these living trees that we were walking amongst were born at the time of Jesus Christ, while others were saplings before Rome was an empire and Alexander the Great was pushing into India. But, the biggest and oldest of these trees, trees towering above us right now, towering higher than we can properly gauge were alive when our oldest written stories of the old Testament and of Homer’s Iliad were being played out in real life. “How is that even possible?” I think to myself as I look around at the tiny new Sequoias in the forest and wonder about 3,000 years into the future. To think that time is only accelerating now, our lives changing by the day, my computer updating every five seconds. “Do we even let things live that long anymore?”

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We hop back in the car and head to our camp near the small community of Nelson. This entire area is protected as a National Monument otherwise none of these trees would stand a chance. Some of the largest remaining old growth groves of Sequoias are found here in this low key National Monument. Three days we camp and explore the forest. We are visiting on the off season and there are no other visitors, just green forests. On the third day we pack up and head down in the Valley.

Heading into California’s central valley from the higher forest is to undertake yet another ecological journey. Down into the Oak Groves, at first steep forested mountainsides turn from conifers to varieties of deciduous and live oaks and then as the steep mountain-scapes turn to rolling hills the forests turn to woodlands and then prairie. The prairie quickly shifts to citrus fields, then busy and crowded farm land. We drive north for about 30 minutes through the most heavily cultivated land in the west. We set up camp in Visalia California poised to head up to Sequoia National Park, but first we need to resupply, shower and wait out a big much needed rain. A cool Pacific storm drops a half inch of rain on the valley and we hear rumors of snow up high. Back towards the mountains now we watch the reverse again: citrus, prairie, oak woodlands and then forests. We set up camp in the Oak forests of Sequoia National Park.

Of all of the trees the Oaks are my favorite. These Oak forests are teaming with life and the trees overflowing with character. At night we heard the scream of a mountain lion and the hoots of owls. In the middle of the day Jacob and Elias shockingly watched a Bob Cat take down and devour a squirrel. On one hike the trails were literally littered with huge bright red salamanders from 4 to 8 inches in length, at one point we had to run and jump over an immense pile of bees. Every moment we spent here was rich and green.

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These are the Foothill, or Blue Oak but there are also the large Valley Oaks with large luscious leaves and far reaching canopy. Among these forest are many other hardwoods such as Ash and Maple and Walnut but the Oaks are the most abundant and coolest. With their thick trunk leaving the ground there is no way to know which way an oak tree will grow. They twist and turn without a hint of reason other than pure joy of tree poetry as they grow. They are the best trees to climb or hang a swing from or just lacksidazicly relax beneath as we create, draw, color and write. But our time in the oaks would not last forever, we wanted to go up higher and see the giant forest in a way we had not seen before, all covered in snow.

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Cloaked in white, the Giant Sequoias carry that distinct feeling of ancient nobility and strength like nothing else. Timeless as they seem, I can’t help but wonder, how much snow can they hold before this giant falls over? I reflect on deep winters back at home. There was one particular ski tour in our old growth Hemlock and Cedars in North West Washington, impossible amounts of snow spraying all around me with every turn down the steeply forested mountain side. The heavenly winter feeling was sharply interrupted by a huge rumbling fear. I heard and then saw mass destruction through the forest as I watched 500 year old trees not as much as half the size of these Sequoias giving way under the suppressing tonnage of snow, trees big and small being crushed all around and I could not ski fast enough back to the car. But these Sequoias won’t fall under this snow. There will be heavier snows that come and go, there will be fires as well. Fire is required for a Sequoia to release the seeds to continue the cycle of life. These fortress like trees seem timeless and in the white coat completely unreal and indestructible.

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One single lifetime of these Sequoias is difficult enough to fathom, but what’s even harder to conceive of is how long the species has been around. These few groves found mainly here in the National Park and further south in the National Monument are some of the last remnants of trees abundant over 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. The last ice age destroyed most of them isolating them to just a few specific areas. Fortunately their logging was stopped and the land they are on protected before they were completely wiped out. There are only three subspecies left and two are found in California. The Coast Redwoods, the Sequoia and the Dawn Redwoods in SW China are all that’s left. We can’t help but wonder how much longer they’ll be around, millions of years? Thousands? Hundreds? Decades? What matters most to us right now is not the past or future but spending this time right now together amongst these trees as they are now imprinted on our minds forever.

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Breakfast in the Sierras

“Hey Jacob you ready?” Elias yells enthusiastically

“Yea, let’s go!” Jacob answers.

Through the sound of a rushing creek I slowly awoke realizing the boys were off again on another adventure. My mind stirred and I remembered drifting to sleep the night before while watching Ila and Michelle’s eyes reflecting the bright white light of infinite stars above. I stretch big but not to disturb the girls since they’re still dreaming of stars, put on my blue shorts my blue T-shirt and greet the big sloping sage brush plain and the Sierra’s, aaaah, heaven.

“Coffee is ready hun!” I say after I hear Michelle starting to stir.
Both burners on the trusted Coleman stove are frying breakfast now. Michelle and I sip coffee together and deeply enjoy discussing nothing important.


“I guess Ben is down in Prescott by now” I say. I am reflecting on the first day we arrived here – four days ago. We met up with Ben and Ruth, our friends who recently moved from Prescott to Mammoth Lakes, two hours to the North. Together we went on a hike after connecting that morning, up sage brush slopes with snow capped peaks towering way above. Big horn sheep ran on distant hillsides and wild flowers were in bloom as we hiked up a trail with no goal other than catching up. Ila attached their dogs leash to Ben coaxing him down the trail. We shared dinner, drinks, stories and soccer that night.

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“Pancakes and eggs are ready” I yell loud enough to make sure the boys can hear  as they play out in the sage near the creek. Do they really need to come now? No, Michelle and I can enjoy breakfast quietly, they’ll eat later.  They pretend they didn’t hear me regardless and keep playing.

This is more or less how we greeted the last five days, completely surrendered to the comfortable and spectacular scenery. Every morning soaking it up, letting it inspire us all over again and then diving into the next adventure.

On our third day here, we went up to the great craggy and snowy mountains that stand high above camp. Mount Whitney is the tallest of these peaks. It sits at just around fourteen and a half thousand feet in elevation higher than all of the mountain in the contiguous US. Although the mountains are high and craggy, this year they remained snow free for over 2,000 feet of our hike taking us to over 10,000 feet of elevation into the snow. Jacob and Elias were entranced by the seriousness of the mountains as they ran way ahead up the dry trails, telling each other stories. Michelle and I tried to keep up with Ila. Living in the desert for weeks without big mountain strolles made this hike all the more appealing.

“What a beautiful hike that was” I say while flipping one of the classic pancakes I’ve been making on a regular basis since we left Bellingham last year – about 4 inches in diameter and cooked deeply in butter. Not complete without eggs and really nothing is better when you’re hungry.

“Super fun,” Michelle agrees. “Still not enough to wear out the boys though,”  she adds.

It’s true that over the last month we’ve noticed a big jump in their fitness.  The way they were jogging up those switch backs was an incredible affirmation that this year of athletic family adventure is above and beyond what they would ever receive during a conventional year at home.  The mental and physical health benefits will reverberate through their entire lives.


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On the second morning I woke up to Jacob and Elias going on their morning adventure but this time it sounded like the adventure was taking place closer by.   A rush of panic hit me as I remembered it was Easter Sunday. “Darn – did the Easter Bunny do its job” I thought to myself.  Ahhh… I remembered that yes indeed, the Easter Bunny did do its job….almost. In the end it mistakenly gave Ila, Jacob’s treats and Jacob, Ila’s treat but I decide to forgive the bunny this time. I imagine the delivery rabbit was a cousin of the Easter Bunny anyway, the Desert Long Eared Jack Rabbit. Regardless, the boys found chocolates eggs, rabbits and other delights throughout the sage brush that morning. They also woke up to a basket stuffed full of treasures and dutifully helped their sister discover the magic as well.

“I wish we could stay here forever.” I say

Michelle knowing what I loved most of all agreed, “We should just load up one of those rocks in to our roof rack and take it with us.” She was talking about yesterday when we went rock climbing!

The basin that we are camped above is not just a sage brush plain but just below us there is a series of craggy broken hills called the Alabama Hills. The famous granite outcrops with a spell binding mountain back drop has been viewed by millions of people throughout the world as a classic western scene for dozens of big Hollywood productions. The gritty granite usually tops out on super cool 40 to 100 foot block of granite. The landscape of rocky climbs has no defined end to it.

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“Not even two months left on our trip.” Michelle says in a solemn tone.

“Ya”, I answer. “I miss it already.” We both know what I’ll miss, the same thing we’ll both miss, the mystery, the adventure, all of the excitement when planning the next stage, the endless time together just enjoying each others company. I wonder if we’ll do this back home. I wonder if the boys will continue to be so excited to see each other in the morning and go off to play indefinitely like they are now. I wonder if I’ll get the time and if they’ll get the time to go on one of these big adventures. We’ll still do this stuff I know, but not like this. Not every day.

“I wonder where we’ll live back in Bellingham.” She questions the universe out loud.

I shudder at the idea of going back to the day to day, but shoo the glimpse of it and my mind takes me back to the sage blowing on the breeze, the sound of rushing water and the two brothers out there absorbed in a close friendship. Then my mind moves on to where we are going.

“Can you believe that there are over 30 million people on the other side of that mountain range?” I inquire. It was hard to fathom considering how absolutely barren our current landscape was, but in that still moment it hit me. That single mountain barrier is holding back one of the most densely populated regions of our country.

“I’m excited about tomorrow.” I say

“Me too” Michelle answers with a mutual understanding. We are referring to something other than lots of people that lies on the other side of that mighty ridge line. Something else that we haven’t seen very much of for quite some time and I know we all miss quite dearly:


Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel, California, Camping, Family camping, Family Climbing, Homeschooling, Mt. Whitney, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Sierra Nevada Mountains | 1 Comment

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