Mountain-Climbing, California Caving, and a Natural Waterslide: One Day on Our Road Trip

Above: We don’t have wine up in these here hills, but we do have Jim Beam and Los Angeles challah, so Rebecca and I had the world’s worst (i.e. most Reform) Shabbos possible.

The following post was written on 6/24/17, when we were still in Sequoia National Forest; I’m posting it now because I just got Internet again. this first part was written at like 7 AM.

The first thing you notice about our campsite is that it’s never really quiet. The Grand Canyon, when it fell silent, was silent; there were birds and insects and things, but the lack of human-caused noise and our position on the canyon’s rim meant that when people went to bed, so did the background chatter. Here, the Kern River is constantly roaring quietly in the background, audible whenever the conversation ends and the people fall silent.

The road we’re on wouldn’t exist if not for the River. Over God-knows-how-many years, it cut a trail down from the tops of these mountains, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. We followed it all the way up from the San Joaquin Valley, hugging the wall of the canyon it carved. I always find it so striking how geography determines civilization here. The few towns and campsites that we found coming up into the mountains—Wofford Heights, Kernville, and the like—are all right on the river, in whatever flat places allotted them by the mountain range.

We’re at Hospital Flats, about halfway up the canyon, deep into the Sequoia National Forest. It turns out, moreover, that there’s a more-than-semantic difference between Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest. The Park apparently has the sequoia trees that we came here to see, and the Forest, despite the name, does not. At least not at Hospital Flats—there’s plenty of trees here, including several that considerately shade our campsite, but nothing over twenty or thirty feet high. Except, of course, the gigantic mountains that surround us on three sides. They’re all big and brown, or big and green, or studded with reddish scarps; some have trees silhouetted at the top, tiny shapes against the sky, that you know for damn sure are seventy feet tall.

For a flatlander like me—raised in Milwaukee, lived in Ohio and Louisiana and New York and D.C.—it is awe-inspiring to see mountains wherever you go; in the hazy distance when you’re driving on the plains, in the background of the city you’re in, or range after range on the road north from Los Angeles. There was a Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin, as Spaceman Spiff, is exploring an alien planet whose mountains and valleys turn out to be nothing more than the wrinkles in the blankets of a giant alien bed. After driving through the northern L.A. mountains, I now understand that; those mountains look like nothing more than the wrinkles and folds of the world’s largest bedsheets.

So. We have been in Los Angeles for the past six days or so, and I haven’t written about it because we haven’t done much worth writing about; Rebecca was sick for most of the trip, so she hardly made it out of her cousin’s house (shout-out to our latest kind hosts, Natasha and Michael), and I only made a couple of short trips. One was to the Natural History Museum, which is always a should-see when I visit a new city. Another was to my cousin Leota’s play, which was billed as a mixture of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and turned out to be exactly that; and to see my Grandpa, Aunt Val, and Uncle Larry, an hour and a half east of where we were staying. (I have to admit, I’m wavering on my never-getting-a-smartphone stance. I have now gotten lost twice in two trips in L.A. when I had to navigate by handwritten directions alone.)

Now we’re up in the rather-misnamed Forest, and will probably spend two days here. There are a bunch of companies that offer to take you whitewater rafting, which I would love to do, and presumably there must be trails into these mountains someplace. My goal is to climb at least one of these mountains while I’m here. Unfortunately, there are no maps of nearby trails in our campsite, so I’ll try to get one when I get into town.

Rebecca has just lurched out of the tent and in the direction of the car, so I am going to finish writing for now. Further bulletins as events warrant.

 

and then the events of the day happened

chronicled below

 

Update from a darkened tent: serendipity wins!

One of the nice things about this trip is the unpredictability. When we come to a new city or a new national park, outside of seeing people we know, pretty much everything is unplanned—we just go places, see things, hike trails, etc. We don’t do a lot of research beforehand, we just let things happen as they may. Today, when the park ranger came around to check everyone’s tent in the morning, I asked him for maps and he handed me a pamphlet, and let me take a photo of a pencil sketch to a waterslide (????) somewhere way up in the canyon. I told him we were looking for someplace to hike today, and he recommended Saddleback Baclesack Sackbaddle Packsaddle Cave. So right away our day was decided: do the trail, all the way to the cave, then find that waterslide!

Man, I may not finish this today—I have so much to write about and it’s already almost 11 PM, which is really late by camping standards. Rebecca and I were talking about this today—being in bed by 10 PM is about standard. Getting up is another story. Early birds rise with the sun, which is usually around 5:30 or 6. 7:00 is usually when I stop ignoring the sun and crawl out of the tent in search of breakfast. 8 AM is like, all right, c’mon, let’s go sleepyhead. 10 AM is inconceivable sloth.

That’s campsite life. We have a pretty big plot of land where we pitched the tent; it has a rudimentary fire-pit, a picnic table, a lot of huge rocks (there are huge rocks everywhere) and a couple of trees that Rebecca strung a hammock between. We’re right next to the pit toilets (oh, joy) and the water pump (GENUINE JOY), and there’s an access road right nearby. The river is maybe thirty feet away, and the whitewater is so loud that you can’t hear the other person inside our own tent if your head is turned away from them.

So we walked outside the gates of Paris left this morning with our hiking bags packed, this including four water bottles, beef jerky, almonds, Ritz crackers, peanut butter, trail mix, carrots, and lots of little trail things—chapstick, sunscreen, handkerchiefs, a knife, my camera, and other odds and ends—and headed north, up the canyon. After quite a bit of driving around and a stop at a bed-and-breakfast helmed by a saint named Eddie who gave us directions and Rebecca coffee, thus breathing life into her like Trinity reinvigorating Neo, we found Packsaddle Trail opposite Fairview Campground. We got out of our cars, found our sun-hats, sunscreened up, crossed the road and began to hike.

The trail goes up a mountain. It’s called Mountain 99 on the mile-markers. I don’t have the map handy to tell me its proper name, but while we were on it it was called oh my God we’re climbing this fucking mountain. The trail guide said it was 2.3 miles and that we would gain 900 feet in elevation. Bull-shit. It took us two and a half hours to make it to the cave, and that’s probably because we started by climbing Mountain 99, which I think was over 900 feet by itself! It was hot; we started around 10, and we took shade breaks whenever possible, but it was still upwards of 94 degrees while we were there. The path was beautiful, lined with all sorts of weird plants—bushes with red flowers that held all their leaves strictly vertical, dead vines with heart-sized spiny fruit that had burst open and dried up, cloudy white flowers in great green bushes that attracted bumblebees by the half-dozen, ghostly white dead trees with long slender limbs that stood starkly above the green vegetation, little sonofabitch sticker-prickers that wormed their way into your socks and gnawed at your ankles, and a dozen other varieties.

We walked at first up rocks that had been laid down atop the trail, then on dirt among the rocks, and then just dirt, red-orange dirt shading gradually to brown. We passed naked red rock jutting out of the mountainside, and rested in the shade of green skyscraping bushes. Flies buzzed around our ears. Bumblebees doodled around our knees (the biggest of them, the size of thumb-joints, were nicknamed Rumblebee and Thunderbee). The trail bends in such a way that you can’t really see more than the next turn in front of you, so we were stuck dogging it all the way up Mountain 99. We were on there for an hour, and it was a long hour, and we were resting near the summit when some hikers coming back told us that we were at best halfway there. We were too tired to even grumble.

At last we topped the mountain and began walking down the other side. The trail just kept going. Beyond the mountains we could see from the road was an entire second range, with its own gorges and pricker-bushes and a path winding down the back of Mountain 99. Blessed Downhill, our savior be! We walked down the side of the mountain, and at length it became clear that our path led into the valley snaking between two mountains straight ahead, the left one with striking slopes that were almost entirely covered with low, brown, dead plants, except for the odd tree and one slope that was green and vegetated, perhaps in some kind of rain or wind shadow in the lea. A ribbon of bright green trees ran in the valley between the mountains, and I may be a rube from NOLA whose idea of getting in touch with nature is noodling around in City Park, but I know running water when I see what grows next to it.

We stopped to rest in the cool shade beneath those trees, listening to the stream chuckling merrily past us and watching water-striders step delicately from bank to bank. We wet washcloths and bound them around our heads or crammed them beneath our hats. I had the idea of getting walking-sticks, and soon each of us had a long (dead) staff, more or less straight and properly debranched. On we went. We crossed the stream a second time, and then a third, getting higher and higher into the cleft between the two mountains; we each acquired second walking sticks, which I have to tell you, are the hiking-friendliest invention since someone figured out how to enclose water in a container. They make uphills bearable and downhills downright simple. Following the footprints through underbrush, over a fallen tree the size of a transatlantic cable, through mud and over stone, we arrived at last at a turnoff to go up the brown-sided mountain on the left. We were low on water, in “Let’s walk ten more minutes and see” territory, and I had given up almost on finding the damn cave—I had seen a couple of giant boulders that looked cave-mouth-ish and been disappointed—and then as we were trekking up the side of this yet another mountain, I followed the path with my eyes forward to another rocky scarp and yelled “There it is!!” A black hole in the side of the cliff. We barely felt the last few hundred feet as scrambled to the mouth of the cave and looked inside.

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That cave was worth every step, every bug in your face, every time we had to fight through undergrowth that overgrowthed the trail. It was vast. It must have extended at least a hundred feet into the mountain (Rebecca guessed 150), so far back that you could get to where no light from the doorway was visible—no light at all—and still have another two or three chambers beyond there to explore. Ten steps in from the mouth, the temperature dropped at least thirty degrees. Little crystals glistened in the light from our lamps. Weird pillars and mushroomy rocks, stalactites, grottoes, hidden chambers, holes in the rock that led to other spaces. The last chamber was too narrow to enter on our feet, so of course we crouched down and duck-walked as far in as we could, shining the lights on every available surface and occasionally uttering “Oh, wow” or “Look at this!”. There was graffiti on the walls, not too destructively, just names and places—and dates, going back more than a century, some carved in pencil with old-fashioned handwriting. I told Rebecca this was one of the many ways in which the wilderness makes me feel small. Here we are, two ants scrabbling around in this cavernous space with all this rock above our head, and the cave is almost all the way up the mountain; only the tiniest bit of the peak, seventy or eighty feet, lay above us, and yet it dwarfed us with its inconceivable weight.

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It’s getting late here so I’m going to wrap this up shortly. We explored the cave to our hearts’ content. We rested there for maybe an hour, ate, drank, then packed up at length and headed downslope. The journey back didn’t take that much less time than its cousin—maybe two hours and a quarter on the first, an hour and a half for the second—but it felt like we were motoring. The walking sticks were absolutely invaluable assistants. We went back down Brown Mountain, past the creek, past the creek, past the creek, up the side of Mountain 99 (while we were just past the crest, Rebecca informed me that we’d been going for an hour, which, what?!) and down the other side. I’ve never been so glad to see our car, or a water pump. We stumbled to the nearby campsite, plopped our butts in the shade of the outhouse, and drank as much water as we could physically hold.

Although Rebecca was dead tired, I talked her into/drove the car up even farther into the mountains, following a memory of a paper map, to the waterslide. We drove around a beautiful mountain road with rocks on our right, majestic, reddened, steep-sided cliffs, and plunging valleys between tall, gruff mountains marching to our left. We made it to the correct place on the first try, parked, walked the last 0.8 miles uphill (and let me tell you that is a very long distance when you hiked up and down several mountains), and found… an extremely flat rocky patch with a swift-flowing stream and tiny waterfall; the stream rushes downslope with such force that it can propel passengers into the pool below the falls.

Of course I had to do it. The stream must have been fifty degrees, if not forty, and after some time acclimating myself to it, I sat down in the stream in my bathing suit. At first, I didn’t move, and so I pushed forward with my hands and started to go… and then a little more… and all of a sudden I was going down into the little bowl that formed right before the falls, and was propelled out of it in a froth of white water and SPLASH into the pool, which was like being flung into the frozen lake from the Caves of Fire and Ice. Good God was it cold. Rebecca said something on the lines of “No fucking way am I doing that.” So of course I did it four more times, the last in the “express lane” where the water runs even faster than in the main stream, and which flung me bodily downfall in a much more expeditious way. It was an incredible rush, and upon seeing a family of three show up and start doing it, Rebecca finally went along and did it also—and was promptly flung down the river and into the pool, squawking involuntarily all the way.

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We dried off, swatted flies, hiked back to the car, drove down through the vistas to our campsite, attempted to cook dinner, learned that the camp stove was not working, defiantly ate bagged salad instead, played dominos (Rebecca’s teaching me), did dishes, went to the tent, discovered it had hundreds of ants on it for no known reason, shrugged, did what we could to disrupt their scent trails and make their lives miserable, and went to bed, after I read Rebecca the remainder of the first half of “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”, which she had fallen asleep to the night before.

And that was that. Pardon me while I BED.

 

 

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