14 August 2008

Like Wildfire

If it’s taken me a while to document my June trip to California, it is because I wanted the time and space to ponder this most unusual trip to a countryside normally so familiar. This most recent trip to California was like a journey to another country, an unfamiliar territory so altered is the entire state by the element of Fire.

My husband M and I define a typical week of vacation as time spent doing as much outdoors as we can possibly squeeze into ten days. We flew across the United States sardine between two rows of young children, one of which wailed almost the entire way. I had not slept well for several nights before the flight so needless to say the screaming child lungs made my brain want to dissolve. Plus, I was starving. I had been too tired to remember that gone are the days when meals are provided in-flight. Not even a lousy bag of peanuts anymore. Hah-rumph!

Descending into LAX we discovered a heat wave. Los Angeles was not on fire, but it felt like it at 107-degrees Fahrenheit M drove North into the arid San Joaquin Valley and I blissfully slept through the afternoon, California dreamin’.

When I awoke we were nearing the mid-sized town of Tulare and we stopped to grab a take-out sub for dinner. The radiant heat from the parking lot tarmac was nearly unbearable. But, I thought, It’s a dry heat. (Unlike the semi-tropical Maryland swamp from where I had just come.)

We woke up before the sun rose, still on East Coast time. We were happy to have the early start so that we could walk among the Giant Sequoias in relative peace and quiet before the tour buses arrived. The National Park was some distance from Tulare, so we drove through some of the smaller towns and out into the “salad bowl” region at their outskirts. I saw vast rows of vegetables, soaking up the solar glare, ripening for the mega-market grocers so that they might make it onto American’s dinner plates. Some nice bits of nostalgic Americana can be viewed as you near the park, like the ten-foot high, metal Steer-shaped roaster at a B-B-Q stand.

Soon the road began to wind out of the valley and into the rolling lowlands of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We were amazed just how much winding we were doing. It didn’t look so winding on the highway map. The vistas of foothill lakes and green hillsides were worth the twisting drive.

We entered Sequoia National Park at the crest of the Sierra. I’d seen photographs of the Sequoias since childhood, but none of the images could prepare you for standing at the foot of a tree that could be one of the oldest living beings on the plant. Walking in a grove of Sequoias might make you believe in J.R.R. Tolkein’s race of Ents or believe in tree spirits. They are so tall and so old; they embody the meaning of word “great” in every way.

For me this experience of touching the Sequoias’ greatness was awe-inspiring. What made the trip all the more poignant was that after we returned back down to the broiling Central Valley we found out on the TV news that 800 fires had been sparked throughout California . Many wildfires resulted from these first sparks, caused by the combination of a land already desperate with drought hit by a rash of dry thunder and lightning storms.

At the time I was watching the news in my safe hotel room, the concept of wildfires seemed somewhat distant. But little did I know that I would be learning more than I ever cared to about the threat of wildfire in California before the end of this vacation.