Stop 11: Las Vegas, Nevada

Of all the places we’ve been, Las Vegas turned out to be the least picturesque. I didn’t take but one photo here.

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View from our room on the 26th floor of the Paris Hotel and Casino. 

What we did do was walk around, eat some decent sushi, drink, and win $19. Big time. It was fun, if not a bit overwhelming.

But I don’t have much to say about this place. Every casino is basically the same. It’s kind of like Gatlinburg. People push babies in strollers on the streets here, which seems crazy. The fountains at The Bellagio were very cool to watch, and we could see it all from our hotel room windows.

Tip: buy beer from the vendors with coolers on the street. So much cheaper.

I’m glad we visited, but I don’t see a reason for us to come back here. We certainly had fun, but they call it “Lost Wages” for a reason.

Next stop: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

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Stop 10: Monterey and Carmel Valley, California

As we left the Shochat’s house in Berkeley on Sunday morning, there was a dingy miasma of ash falling from the sky, remnants of the brush fire that burned in the Concord area, northeast of Berkeley. The smoke, combined with the fog and the ash, made the morning feel like a dystopian version of itself.

We drove to the city, across the Bay Bridge and towards Golden Gate. After having been in the area for the last couple of nights (and after spending an entire day in San Francisco), we still hadn’t seen the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, we crossed it twice this morning and I still have only seen the roadway and the lower portions of the cables. The air was too hazy to see much else. But we managed to get onto Highway 1 and headed south toward Monterey. We stopped for some coffee in Pacifica, and the morning fog slowly began to lift.

The coastline in this part of California is beautiful and rugged, lined with eroding cliffs, and jagged rocks. Waves hurl themselves at the coast here. Shorebirds congregate along with harbor seals and sea lions. The surf was filled with surfers and the few sandy strands of beaches were dotted with walkers and beachcombers, enjoying the last day of their weekend. We stopped repeatedly to take in views and snap photos. The further south we drove and the higher the sun got, the clearer the day became.

We finally made it to Monterey. John Steinbeck, one of my favorite writers, wrote of Monterey in his novel, Cannery Row:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”

It is not like this anymore, of course. As Steinbeck later acknowledges, now Cannery Row fishes for tourists. It is clean, orderly, welcoming, and pretty. Our main reason for visiting Monterey was to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. On the way to the aquarium, we stopped at the bust of Steinbeck on the waterfront and beheld the Pacific Biological Laboratories, workplace of the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, basis for Steinbeck’s character, Doc, in Cannery Row. We also saw the Bear Flag Restaurant that features prominently in the book.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is an amazing place. We entered about 40 minutes after it had opened, and while it was still crowded, we were able to see exhibits comfortably and at a reasonable pace. The aquarium sits right on the edge of the bay, so visitors can venture out the back of the facility to view the bay and spot seals, sea otters, and other marine creatures. The aquarium has two incredibly impressive exhibits. The first is a kelp forest with natural sunlight, currents, and diverse species of fish. It was like looking into the ocean through a thick plate of glass. The second is called The Open Sea. It is a massive tank with a viewing wall stretching 90 feet wide. The room is dark and soft, ambient music quietly plays in the background. The tank features a massive school of sardines, some yellowfin tuna, Pacific mackerel, hammerhead sharks, giant green sea turtles, a few huge stingrays, dolphin (the fish), a mola (sunfish), and more. It was mesmerizing to watch. Another of the other highlights of the aquarium is the sea otter exhibit. Otters are a favorite animal of mine, and these were adorable—they floated on their backs and groomed themselves with great care. I think they enjoyed being so popular. To make the day even more fun, I ran into a young woman who will be in my AP Literature class next year. Small world.

We left the aquarium and embarked on the 17-Mile Drive, a scenic tour of the Pebble Beach area. We got to stand a few feet from the 18th green of the iconic Pebble Beach golf course and watch a man flail wildly at his ball in the bunker. I think it took him three shots to get the ball out. He paid about $500 to play the course, so maybe he was just getting his money’s worth and staying on the course as long as possible.

Our next stop was to get some lunch, so we went to the In-N-Out Burger, a place I’ve wanted to visit because of its reputation for great burgers, but also because of The Big Lebowski. The burgers and fries were top notch, among the best fast food hamburgers I’ve ever eaten. It’s hard for me to rank food because I like all of it, but In-N-Out is in an elite category.

Then it was off to Carmel Valley to our Airbnb for the night. We have a private apartment attached to a house with outstanding views of the valley and a warm saltwater pool for relaxing. A couple of bottles of local Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and you’ve got a near perfect evening. Also, the bed is a TempurPedic.

This marks the end of our journey westward. Tomorrow, we’re headed back east. Thanks for reading.

Next stop: Las Vegas, Nevada.

Stop 9: Muir Woods National Monument – Point Reyes National Seashore – Berkeley – San Francisco, California

We left Yosemite and headed west toward Manteca. Our next stop was Muir Woods National Monument, and we were armed with parking reservations and a 30-minute window. We crossed the bay via the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which goes right by San Quentin prison. After winding through town and down through some canyon roads, we reached Muir Woods.

On this trip we have seen the largest living things in the world (giant sequoias), the oldest living things in the world (ancient bristlecones), and, at Muir Woods, the tallest living things in the world (coastal redwoods). Of course, all these living things are trees. Growing up in Kentucky, one’s experience with trees does not include standing next to a 330-foot tall tree, walking around a tree with a 40-foot diameter, or touching a tree that began growing almost 4,000 years ago. It is a surreal experience. Muir Woods was the last of these tree showcases we visited, but the experience was no less extraordinary.

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Walking through the groves of coastal redwoods was very different than experiencing a forest of giant sequoias. The redwood forest was shadier, lusher, greener. The floor of Muir Woods is blanketed with ferns and a type of sorrel. The sunlight is filtered through a canopy, giving the whole place a stained-glass-church kind of feel. We walked through the woods for about two hours. It is a tree lover’s paradise.

We left Muir Woods and headed to Point Reyes National Seashore. I had never seen the Pacific Ocean, and in a couple of hours we were standing by the Point Reyes lighthouse, looking out over a big and wild ocean. The wind was fierce, so we didn’t stay at the Point for long but headed to South Beach to more intimately see the sea and sand. The drive out and back to Point Reyes is so interesting for someone used to east coast beaches. The land at Point Reyes is filled with dairy farms, deer, and tall grasses. The surf at South Beach was tremendous and intimidating. Signs everywhere warn visitors not to go in the water—great white sharks, and more dangerously, rip currents and “sneaker” waves. We snapped a few photos, felt the weird west coast sand and the cold water of the Pacific between our toes. Our next stop was Berkeley.

We arrived at Berkeley an hour and a half later. We were graciously hosted by some wonderful, loving people (Ashley & Guy and Ivy & Alex & Ben) who made our stay comfortable, gave us suggestions for visiting San Francisco, and made us feel at home. Berkeley is a cool town where pedestrians have the right of way, good tacos are plentiful, public transportation is accessible, and you can fall asleep to the sounds of a mariachi band at a party down the street. My kind of town in many ways.

After some much-needed showers and laundry, we headed to San Francisco for our Saturday. We took the BART from Berkeley to San Francisco (a 25-minute train ride) and walked around the Ferry Building where a farmers’ market is held on Saturdays. The inside of the Ferry Building is also filled with fishmongers, cheesemongers, and other assorted mongers who sold doughnuts, coffee, beer, wine, meat, pastries, ice cream, etc. It was like a mall, but instead of stores that sell clothes no one can eat, it was filled with delicious gourmet food you most certainly should eat. Brunch was a Dungeness crabcake sandwich and a small beer.

We then moved on toward Fisherman’s Wharf to visit the Musée Mécanique, but before we got 300 yards from the Ferry Building, we’d already stopped for more food. This time we stopped at a place called Seaside where we spent just $40 and were given black mussels with basil puree, an amazing bowl of chowder made with littleneck clams, two mimosas, and a bloody mary. And they say San Francisco is expensive! After our second meal of the day, we made it over to the Musée Mécanique, which is a super weird collection of old arcade games, coin-operated automata, player pianos, zoetrope, mechanical fortune tellers, and more. It is free to enter, but you have to supply your own money for the machines. You can also just post up by the change machine, wait until a dad comes by with a $20 bill, and follow his family around. That way, the whole enterprise is free.

We also ate more chowder at the Wharf.

Next stop was Chinatown. We walked about 30-minutes to Chinatown and found a little dim sum house in an alley. You know a place is going to be good when it is in a basement and on the way to the front door you passed at least two rooms that looked like illegal gambling operations. It was good. Really good. Pot stickers, dumplings, egg and spring rolls, some insanely delicious chicken, a scallion pancake, sesame balls, and steamed pork buns. We ate it all and went back out to the alley. We walked to the Dragon’s Gate, saw a dragon dance, and then walked to Telegraph Hill in North Beach. The views from the hill were obscured by fog and smoke from a brush fire, but it was still beautiful—especially the views of the city. Unfortunately, there wasn’t food here.

San Francisco is easily the most unique big city I’ve ever visited. It is quirky and funky and weird. Way quirkier, funkier, and weirder than any place I can think of. I regret that we did not have more time to spend there, but I plan to return. The city itself has such interesting features—the bay, the hills, the layout of the streets, the architecture—and the people of the city are so incredibly diverse.

We got back to Berkeley a couple of hours later and played darts and drank beer with Ivy and Alex at this cool and funky joint called The Albatross Pub. Then we headed to Casa Latina for more food—tacos, namely. A perfect way to end our time here. It’s almost time for us to start heading back east. Thanks for following.

Next stop: Monterey – Carmel Valley, California

Stop 8: Yosemite National Park, California

We left Sequoia National Park and headed to Yosemite via Fresno. Yosemite is one of those places etched in the American consciousness. Ansel Adams to The North Face logo to Looney Tunes, Yosemite is everywhere. We were excited to visit the park, and our expectations were exceeded. Yosemite National Park is the most spectacular natural place I have ever had the privilege of visiting.

We arrived and set up our camp in Wawona, about a 45-minute drive to Yosemite Valley. Our first day was mostly spent strolling around Yosemite Valley and Village (we did see Lower Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls), but the Village reminded us of Disney World. We also did a lot of lazing about in our hammocks and catching up on good books. We found the campground in Wawona to be quiet and peaceful. Our site had a lot of space and the Merced River was just a short walk away. We planned to do some bigger drive/hikes the second and third days.

We woke up early on the second day and headed to Sentinel Dome. Sentinel Dome is a high, round, granite monolith that peeks up the valley across from Half Dome. The hike was pleasant, and after a steep walk up the back of the rock, you could see the gorgeous Yosemite Valley—the cliffs, the waterfalls, the rivers. We had the place mostly to ourselves. After we descended, we drove to Glacier Point. Glacier Point offers some of the most majestic views the park has to offer. It’s hard to top the views from Glacier Point. We read that when the valley was filled with glacial ice, the glacier reached heights of about 700 feet above Glacier Point. Insane.

The next day, we woke up even earlier, drove to the Valley and hit the trailhead for Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls: about a 5-mile hike, but with a 2,000-foot elevation gain. The hike to Vernal Falls was fun. A large amount of spray and mist hit us as we walked the granite steps to the top of the cliff. The views at the top were spectacular. We kept walking up, past Emerald Pool and to the top of Nevada Falls. This was the strenuous part of the hike—think lots of steep and tall steps and switchbacks. All on uneven, rocky ground. The top of Nevada Falls was part grandeur and sublimity and part terror. The sheer power of the melted snow rushing off the cliff is truly something to behold. We also saw a bear just off the trail on the way down. It made us a little sad, knowing that bear/human encounters usually are bad for the bear (and there were a lot of people on the trail), but it was a cool experience. We spent the rest of the afternoon cooling off in the beautiful and clear Merced River, just a short 3-minute walk from our tent. The sun was hot and the river was refreshing and cool and clear. It was a beautiful way to end our stay at Yosemite.

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Merced River near Wawona Campground. Perfect spot for post-hike therapy.

Next stop: Muir Woods National Monument – Point Reyes National Seashore – Berkeley and San Francisco, California

Stop 9: Berkeley & San Francisco, California

 

Stop 7: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Today we saw two of the biggest trees on the planet. The General Sherman and the General Grant. Both of these massive sequoias are impressive to say the least. But if you’re planning on visiting this park, skip the Sherman tree and go see the Grant tree instead. No one was at the Grant Grove while the Sherman tree was surrounded by dozens of people waiting in line to get a photo snapped. But I still can’t get over how enormous these trees are. It almost doesn’t seem real. Truly amazing. The highlight of this day, however, was not the giant trees.

We decided to make the long drive to the end of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. The drive, which takes you from the top of a stunningly deep canyon down alongside the rushing South Fork of the Kings River. This was easily the most beautiful river I have ever seen. I doubt the photos will do it justice, but the water was a bluish hue I haven’t seen outside of Pelican Point miniature golf in Myrtle Beach. The water tumbled and tore down the canyon, rushing over boulders, creating large rapids sections followed by strangely calm sections of deceptively still water. And there was no one there.

We saw two impressive waterfalls. Grizzly Falls was one of those high cascades where the water feathers and mists down the rock. The other, Roaring River Falls, shot out of an opening in the canyon like a spewing fire hydrant. Finally, we reached a place called Zumwalt Meadows. Here, the landscape turned lush, vibrant, and green. We were surrounded by tall grasses, ferns, and unmatched views of the big rocks lining the canyon, like the 8,500-foot-tall Grand Sentinel and the 8,700-foot-tall North Dome. The drive to and from Roads End was harrowing, but beautiful. One of the most amazing drives I’ve had the pleasure to experience.

We were surprised to see so few people in Kings Canyon. In fact, the most people we saw at this park were parked at Roads End, the gateway to a massive tract of wilderness in the park: no roads, just trails and a few well-placed ranger stations. We wished we had camped in Kings Canyon, but we’ll have to save it for next time.

This will be the only post for the next few days as our next stop is three nights. I’ll get back to you all then. Thanks for following our adventures

Next stop: Yosemite National Park, California

Stop 6: Sequoia National Forest, California

We drove south on California 395 back through Lone Pine and then north into the mountains toward the Sequoia National Forest. The first stop was the Trail of 100 Giants, a short loop trail featuring about 100 (although we did not count them) massive sequoia trees. It is our second day in a row looking at interesting trees, and the sequoias were just as enthralling to look at as the ancient bristlecones.

It is almost impossible to really show the scale of these trees in photographs. Our experience with trees (most of us, anyway) does not in any way prepare us for the sight and majesty that is a giant sequoia. Their tree tops reach dizzying heights; their trunks are immense; the branches above, the size of train cars or buses or houses. They also have tiny pinecones and the softest bark I’ve ever felt on a tree.

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One of the stops on the Trail of 100 Giants is a pair of giants that fell in 2011. They had grown together, which is not altogether unusual for these trees—in fact, we saw many that had grown this way—but to see them horizontally was to really appreciate their size: the long walk from end to end; the chaotic and enormous maze of roots, the diameter of the trunk. We wondered what it must have been like to see and hear those giants fall to the forest floor. Of course, it is not likely anyone saw or heard them fall, but it would have been a spectacle.

We grabbed lunch at a little place called Ponderosa, about 2 miles from our camp. The Ponderosa also sold beer and firewood, two other things for which we had use. Our campsite was in a campground called Quaking Aspen; our tent was framed by enormous conifers, easily 200 or 300 years old, but compared to the sequoias they looked like saplings.

Thanks for following!

Next stop: Sequoia – Kings Canyon National Park, California.

Stop 5: Death Valley National Park – Ancient Bristlecone Forest

This morning we slept at almost two miles above sea level. About 4 hours after we left Point Supreme Campground we had descended into Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in the United States. We parked our car at Mesquite Dunes and our car’s thermometer read a blazing 113 degrees.

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After a few steps in the sand, I could feel heat radiating off of every surface. The rocks, the sand, the few scrubby plants, the asphalt, the air. The surface of Death Valley can reach temperatures exceeding 200 degrees. It is a desolate and frightening place, and while it certainly possesses a beauty (the hazy mountains, the Joshua trees, the utter flatness of the valley floor), I was overcome with the power of the environment. Many of the places we’d visited to this point have been harsh and unforgiving landscapes, but Death Valley deserves its name. It certainly did not help to see signs warning of foot travel after 10 in the morning and the road sign imploring us to go without air conditioning on the climb out of the valley to help keep your car from overheating. I am glad I visited Death Valley, but I can’t see myself coming back .

We climbed our way out of the valley, down into another, and finally around another range of mountains and found ourselves in a town called Lone Pine, California, a small town in the Inyo Valley between the harsh desert mountains to the west of Death Valley and the towering, snow-capped Sierra Nevada range to the west. From the valley, the Sierra Nevada range looks like an impenetrable and impassable stone wall. We stopped and had lunch at the Totem Café and took off north toward the Inyo National Forest and our campground for the night.

The drive to Grandview Campground climbs high into the mountains, with lots of stunning views and switchbacks. The campground is at about 8,000 feet. We set up camp and headed 3,000 feet higher to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest.

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The Ancient Bristlecone Forest is home to trees that are over 4,000 years old. The oldest living things on the planet. Think of it this way: some of the trees in this forest starting growing about 3,500 years before William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, er the “Scottish Play.” And the Great Pyramid at Giza was a mere 500 years old. The experience of walking amongst these trees is hard to describe. I suppose one has to really consider the concept of time when looking at them. The trees made me think of how the entire span of modern human history has happened within the lifespan of those trees. It might make some people feel insignificant, but it just amazed me. And later in the day, as I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the narrator’s father described to him about moving one grain of Sahara sand one millimeter, explaining that even minute human actions can have large consequences. I thought of the trees again. I am glad they have survived humanity’s little foray into their lives.

Grandview Campground is one of the great places in the continental United States to see the night sky. Even though the stars had to compete with a waxing gibbous moon, it was pretty fantastic.

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Campsite at Grandview

Next stop: Quaking Aspen campground in the Sequoia National Forest.