California: From ‘Frisco to Endor (With Some Sequoias and Beaches in between)

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SIGH. Finally, it’s California! A state so big (physically, spiritually and culturally) that even though we stole some days from other states to give it more breathing room, we still only saw a fraction of this massive place. But what we did do was so, so good. In the (somewhat dubious) words of Kanye, “This is EVERYTHING”. We had ourselves some forest, desert, valley, ocean and city. In a state known for its orange groves and the age of Aquarius, we drove hundreds of miles through yellow farm valleys and took Highway 1 up the sun-kissed coast. We lay on foggy beaches and gazed up from the forest floor at the giant Sequoias and Redwood treetops. We visited with friends and family and felt, for a little while at least, almost whole again.

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We drove in through Death Valley National Park. In true Death Valley fashion, it was a sweltering 105 degrees, and we almost melted the brakes going down a long, steady downhill for several miles.

After taking in the dreamy desert landscape, we were in for a rude awakening when we typed Sequoia National Park into the GPS. We’d originally planned our California route by eyeballing a map and determining that Death Valley and Sequoia were close to each other. It turns out that there’s no direct route from one to the other through the Sierras, and we had to take the long way around! D’oh.

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We drove for hours through small towns and farms to get back up into the mountains. California is full of farms- most of the US’s fruits, vegetables and nuts are grown in the Golden State. We stopped for tacos and Mexican popsicles in Fresno, and ate them under a plastic tent that baked in the midday sunshine.

Several podcasts and audiobooks later, we finally arrived at Sequoia (adjacent to another National Park, King’s Canyon- the NPS considers them as essentially one unit). Carl had visited this park as a kid, and remembered the towering magic of some of the biggest trees in the world. We decided that we had to hit it on this trip.

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Upon entering the Giant Forest, we felt like elves, dwarfed by the massive trees. It’s hard to describe the gravity and scale of these furry giants. It never got old to point at a tree and say, “Oh, that one. That one’s REALLY, especially big.” Because they were ALL so, especially big, each one inspiring its own sense of wonder.

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This is inside of a hollow Sequoia!

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The bark is full of soft fibers; it looks & feels like animal skin.

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We were surprised to see that all of the giant trees had burn damage- we hadn’t thought of this before, but if a tree makes it to over a thousand years old, it must have survived multiple forest fires (and many of the trees in the park are that and much older, several are over 3,000 years old.) The burn damage in some seems so dramatic that it’s funny to see the rest of the tree growing above it, going strong, balancing on what looks like several cubic feet of destruction. Sequioas are particularly impervious to fire due to the tannin in their bark, which protects them from succumbing to hot fires and insects.

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General Sherman is the biggest tree in the world!

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This is the footprint of General Sherman (as of 15 years ago- so it’s even bigger now!)

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We are trying to go to as many National Parks as possible this year, and no list would be complete without Yosemite (“Yose-might” to children who, cough *like me* cough, never put 2-and-2 together). We headed there next. Camping in California in peak season is, by all accounts, a chaotic practice in making your reservations over a year in advance. We made our reservations several months out, but still had to settle for an RV campground just outside of the park.

Our timing was a little unfortunate- we arrived just shy of when the east-west road through the park would open for the season, limiting us to the popular valley area. This was a bummer, since it seemed that the crowds at the park had only one place to go, making for an overpopulated space. Cars were parked dangerously near (and sometimes in) the main road, and crossing the highway proved treacherous.

That said, the park’s epic beauty didn’t let us down. It’s clear why Yosemite is one of the most popular National Parks in the entire system.

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Dang! You pretty, valley.

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The “Mist” hike was actually very misty! Smarter folks brought rain jackets. We got soaked!

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This teensy snowman showed lots of pluck.

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Then it was on to Big Sur- land of hippie dreams and beatniks. We met my cousin Sara here (who was nice enough to make the drive up from LA)- and camped at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. We spent our days hiking, sitting on the (extremely foggy) beach, and eating sandwiches in the sunshine. It was so good to catch up with family and see this fabled part of the country. We marveled at the untouched shoreline and rolling hills edging the ocean. It made sense later when a friend told us that a few celebrities had bought up land in Big Sur back in the 50’s and 60’s, preventing it from becoming more commercially developed.

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Carl’s good friend Justin has been doing a fellowship at Stanford University over the past year, and we went to see him next. A few more of Carl’s friends came out to join us for a weekend in the city. After exploring the Stanford campus, we stuffed ourselves with Dim Sum and Mission burritos, and walked about a million miles across San Francisco.

Typically, when we’re visiting with friends, we try to limit our camera use to instead focus on spending time and catching up. This seems a little counterintuitive but it helps us to concentrate on the experience (which, to us, is more important than the documentation of said experience.) So you’ll have to take our word for it that we lived it up in the city! There were streetcars, piercing parlors, cages and even naked people involved. Intrigued?

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Shopping for air plants and natural oddities at Paxton Gate

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If you consider yourself a true friend, you will buy me one of these taxidermy mice one day.

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We’re gonna miss these dudes something fierce!

Finally, it was time to pay for all of this stolen time. Oregon wasn’t a state we wanted to shortchange, so we had to hightail it up there fast. We said goodbye to our dear friends and tore up the coast, making one last stop at the Redwoods.

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We loved that this forest felt so different from Sequoia and King’s Canyon- at sea level, ferns and other types of plants grow on the Redwood forest floor. It felt as though an ewok could appear around any corner, since, fittingly, they used these areas as a location for the Endor scenes in Return of the Jedi. And the Redwood trees, like the Sequoias, tower hundreds of feet overhead.

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We are already plotting our next trip to California so that we can visit everything we missed in SoCal! More next on our time in Oregon!

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US Anywhere is a year-long, cross-country documentary project by newlyweds Carl and Anna. They are taking the 52 weeks of 2016 and are using them to travel the country and make short films about all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.). The project will seek to illuminate the states and the hugely diverse urban and natural landscapes of the US. They hope to inspire others to dream, travel, explore, and connect with the United States.

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