As I drove inland on Highway 180 in my old sauna-like Camry last weekend, I reminded myself of what a friend once told me about making bad decisions: “If you make enough bad choices, people stop expecting anything from you at all. It’s liberating.”
In this case, the bad decision I’d made was to agree to meet a friend and her pal in Kings Canyon National Park at a specific time without actually figuring out how far the drive was from Santa Barbara-and I’d naturally compounded that bad decision by choosing to have a long leisurely breakfast before hitting the road, and then to make numerous pit stops for such essentials as iced coffee, a milkshake, a tamale, and more iced coffee.
So, six hours after I left my house-and an hour and a half past our agreed meeting time-I pulled into the park entrance drenched in sweat, where I was told it would take me another hour to get to the Cedar Grove Visitor’s Center, where Lauren and I had decided to meet. (Fortunately, she had the forethought to remind me of this five minutes before I lost cell phone service.) I hoped that Lauren and I were at the point in our friendship in which she had seen me make so many bad choices that she no longer expected anything at all from me.
But within five minutes of winding down Highway 180 inside the park, I was pretty sure Lauren and Keri didn’t care when I arrived, or if I ever got there at all. I had known, in a cerebral way, that the park covers over 460,000 acres in the Southern Sierra Nevada. I knew it was similar in grandeur and landscape to Yosemite, as the roads into both wind along mountain and canyon formations carved out of massive glaciers during the last Ice Age. (But unlike Yosemite, Kings Canyon had several campgrounds that were far less than full on the last weekend in June.) But I’d never been to the Sierras; I’d never been to Yosemite. I actually couldn’t stop crying, I was that shocked by the gigantic beauty of it all. It was embarrassing. “So not only am I going to show up nearly three hours late, but I’ll have to explain why I’m blubbering like a little baby,” I thought. (As it turned out, they seemed glad to see me, after I followed their message board note to the campsite they’d picked, but entirely unconcerned with my late arrival, as they happily basked in the shade of giant sequoias.)
We had intentionally decided on a meeting spot just a few miles from Roads End in hopes of avoiding the throngs of weekend travelers more likely to set up camp near the park entrance. The extra drive proved well worth it in terms of quiet, and I much preferred being within easy soaking distance of the river in the canyon than at one of the higher elevation campgrounds overlooking the water.
From backpacking to private campgrounds to lodges and hotels, the park offers an outdoor experience of pretty much any caliber. Out of curiosity, I stopped into Kings Canyon Lodge, which offered quaint huts and diner food with a side of patriotic paraphernalia-and also sold gas for half the market value of my car. Personally, though, it’s hard for me to imagine coming to a place like the Sequoia National Forest, particularly in the warm spring and summer months, and choosing not to sleep outside.
After I finished unloading my car-which amounted to tossing my pad and sleeping bag on the ground, taking the cooler out of my backseat, and opening up a Tecate-Lauren quipped, “And as usual we have more beer than water.”
“There’s a whole river down there,” I said. “We can always boil some.”
In fact, no sooner had we shared a cold beer and picnic-without any discussion of food, I’d brought hummus, they pita bread; me, an obscenely large knife, they a large quantity of sliceable vegetables-than we were scrambling our way down to the rushing river. By this time in the year, the icy mountain runoff has warmed enough that river soaking is an entirely pleasurable shock.
“Do you think it’s okay if we go naked?” I asked before I turned around to see Keri happily stripping down to the buff. We never found out if skinnydipping was the norm or not, since we didn’t encounter but one couple, who were quietly fishing, the whole time we were down there. (Sadly, my fears of sunburning the ah, more delicate, segments of my skin proved founded. But it was a small price to pay.)
Splashing in an icy river instantly brought me back to carefree childhood summers in Vermont. In fact, the entire landscape reminded me of idyllic New England scenes, except supersized. Even the squirrels were larger-I first mistook one for a small fox-as if in direct proportion to the 300-foot-tall trees.
On our way back from the river, we gathered pinecones and-awkwardly large-sticks for a fire. We even hauled a log that was so big it eventually fell out of the pit entirely as it burned, wreaking some mild chaos on our marshmallow roasting as I beat out the flames on the ground, while Keri and Lauren foisted the smoldering log back into the pit.
During our after-dinner walk, all three of us were struck by how two-dimensional the backdrop of mountains illuminated by the gradually rising full moon appeared, like an oil painting or the scenery for a play. “It looks like flimsy cardboard, like we could kick it and knock it over,” Lauren said. “Or carve a hole in it and stick our heads through.” With nighttime temperatures in the 60s, we slept comfortably under the stars to the sounds of the roaring river a few feet below.
The next morning, we headed up the strenuous Don Cecil trail, pausing to rest at the Sheep’s Crossing footbridge, which lay over gurgling water sliding over moss-covered rocks. “This is so idyllic it’s obscene,” I said. It really was almost too much, like a baby dressed in a puppy suit. With 90-plus degrees of sweltering sun on our backs, I was uncharacteristically relieved that we didn’t have time for the full 13-mile day hike. After about three, I couldn’t think of anything better than immersing our dirt-caked feet and sweaty bodies in the river. On our way back down, we passed a pair of hikers who looked like they were in search of the new frontier. Maybe it was the khaki pants that converted to shorts with the simple tug of a zipper, the sun hats with a two-foot radius they had securely fastened under their chins, or the gi-normous binoculars they carried around their necks. In any case, I was grateful when they pointed out a couple of bucks no more than ten feet off the trail, but so calmly blended into the chaparral we would never have noticed them were it not for Lewis and Clark here.
Near the base of the trail, Lauren announced that her only goal for the weekend was to bring home a pinecone the size of an opossum. “Good idea,” said Keri. “I could make a lamp out of it.” Never much of a gatherer myself, I crawled atop a giant boulder and lay on my back. The giant sequoias and pines towered over me in a circle, their green leaves swaying so gently against the bright blue sky that I felt like a queen being fanned by palm fronds. After they had each found an embarrassingly large pinecone, we headed back to play in the river.
Although Kings Canyon also offers cave tours, horseback riding, and endless trails to explore, somehow I didn’t feel I was missing out on anything during the hour-or two or three-we spend just lying half in the sun, half in the river. I felt like Henry Miller sunbathing on the rocks in Greece. “For hours at a stretch I would lie in the sun, doing nothing, thinking of nothing,” he writes in Colossus of Maroussi. “To keep the mind empty is a feat, a very healthy feat too:.To be:thoroughly and completely lazy:is the finest medicine a man can give himself.” The naked-river-soaking brand of laziness-blissful immobility, not watching TV out of boredom-is productive in that it encourages self-forgetfulness, loosening your grip on the world you’re convinced you want.
Of course there were moments when I wondered about the work and cleaning waiting for me at home, if I should have stayed put and been swift and industrious, until I turned my attention to the heat of the sun-soaked rocks on my belly and the cool pull of the river swirling around my feet and it was impossible to be lost in that other world of the mind’s creation.
After another hodgepodge picnic of poor man’s guacamole, cheese, and pita chips (cooking, I’ve always thought, is best left to times in life when one has access to a kitchen), we bid farewell and hit our respective roads. I was glad to be alone, so I could pause as long and frequently as I liked on the long drive out of the park. I sat on a rock and listened to Grizzly Falls crashing into the pool below. I stopped at every vista point and ate plums and cheetos as my mind internally combusted from the enormity of the panoramas. I pulled over for a quick dip in the river whenever my air condition-less car become too unbearably hot. I followed a sign to Hume Lake and came upon a scene straight off of a Poland Springs bottle: an 87-acre lake surrounded by towering pines. Unfortunately, this picture-perfect natural setting was also the site of Lake Hume Christian Camps, which meant there was a loud, crowded chlorinated pool a few feet from crystal clear, warm freshwater, and self-conscious teenagers roaming in packs of blow-dried hair and skintight jeans. But soon after driving past the bustling camps en route to a more secluded swimming area, I came upon a little spot called Sandy Cove, whose appellation did not disappoint.
Along my leisurely drive out of the park, I couldn’t help considering the inevitable tug of war between the importance of allowing humans to access and fall in love with nature on the one hand, and the thousands of us driving through it in small polluting machines on the other. I was glad to learn that the park has recently introduced a shuttle bus system, which allows visitors to either park their cars at the City of Visalia just before the park and bus in for $10, or park their cars once in the park and use the bus to travel around the park for free.
It was at least an hour after exiting the park before the landscape became blase. Best of all, the road was lined with homemade signs advertising such luxuries as “Miniature pony parties!” and “KING-OH mushrooms-1,000 feet!” As I wondered just what exactly the “party” component of “miniature pony party” would entail, I realized that those signs weren’t painted pink; no, they were bathed in twilight’s pastel light. Naturally.