Where solitude is served daily
While buried in rush hour on an L.A. freeway, I noticed the most sucker-punch piece of advertising in the city. It stretches across a storefront awning on Pico Boulevard, just high enough to be read by any hapless commuter sitting it out with the other convulsing tailpipes. The sign belongs to Adventure 16, an outdoor and travel outfitter. In large letters it reads NEED SOLITUDE?, and it faces northbound traffic on one of the most dreaded highways in the country. Drivers who see it will no doubt spend a few extra minutes that day assessing their lives. If traffic is really heavy, they might even pull off at the next exit for a closer look.
Flipping through a catalog of guided wilderness trips at A-16, I noticed that the store had plenty of solitude in stock. The soonest available was a four-day trek through the High Sierra in Sequoia National Park, a trip ranked as 'rigorous.' For the experienced backpacker, it promised heaps of pristine alpine terrain and, of course, bountiful solitude. For the less experienced, the catalog pointed to some shorter, easier trips that were decidedly leaner on solitude. I quietly signed up for the rigorous trip, and then sat through a few in-class sessions with a group of apt hikers discussing freeze-dried menus and the precise magnetic north declination at Sequoia's Wolverton trailhead.
Soon enough I'm carpooling up Interstate 5 with my new classmates and a trunkload of gear. We head northeast, past Bakersfield and the manurelands of California's central basin to the General's Highway, winding our way into the western Sierra Nevada and the gates of Yosemite's much quieter neighbor to the south. After Yellowstone, Sequoia is the oldest national park in the country, a 604-square-mile tract of canyons, forests, rivers and looming granite peaks. It's also home to the largest living thing on the planet, the behemoth sequoia named the General Sherman Tree. It resides in what the Scottish-born naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir called the Giant Forest when he surveyed the area more than a century ago. Muir had stumbled upon scattered groves of the most unimaginably large trees he'd ever laid eyes on. The giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), as they came to be known, are in fact the biggest trees in the world by volume, and some of the oldest. At age 2,700, General Sherman is still a giant among giants, a tree that could turn a blue whale into a smelt. I plan to pay my respects on the way out.
The next morning our group of ten hikers and two guides gathers at the ranger station, where I notice some photos on the wall. One catches my eye-a shot of a mangled sedan sitting in a forest parking lot with its windows smashed and the passenger door dangling like a mutilated limb. 'Don't leave anything with a scent in your car,' explains a serious young park ranger wearing two badges. 'The bears are extremely active around here, and with winter coming, they're getting really desperate.' She then hands us a permit and tells us to have fun. Hoisting my 50-pound pack and stepping onto the trail, I suddenly remember the tin of Altoid mints in my glove compartment. Too late. For a moment I picture the ranger updating her photo gallery with a DOA shot of my Honda. But soon enough that's all forgotten.
It's hard to worry about anything for very long while walking in Sequoia on a perfect fall day. At the trailhead we're already about 7,000 feet higher than the L.A. freeways, and I sense my ties to the world below swiftly loosening. The feeling continues as we dissolve into the park's conifer kingdom of stately yellow pines and ponderosas, Douglas fir, spruce and incense cedar. Above us hangs a rich sky with some stray, benign clouds. Three mule deer having a bite glance at us nonchalantly while a cool breeze wafts through. Whatever excess baggage you bring to Sequoia doesn't last long here. It's replaced by an odd mix of sensations. A big weight lifts off your soul while another one digs into your shoulders and back.
After a few miles we hit a fork in the trail. 'The path to the right is pretty much uphill all the way to Heather Lake,' beams our guide Cory, as a cheery solo hiker descends from this very route with an enormous bloodstained bandage covering most of his leg. 'That's one long hill,' he chirps. 'Slippery on some of the rocks, but real beautiful.' We push on, passing Heather Lake and Aster Lakes, a pair of polished pools nestled in the Sierra woods like granite-framed mirrors. 'I could stay right here forever,' blurts a beefy guy from the L.A. 'burbs named Mike. 'I don't care, man. I'll eat berries for the rest of my life.'
Mike reiterates this when we round the trail to our first campsite at Emerald Lake, an amphitheater encased in silver peaks that rise about a thousand feet skyward. Muir penned volumes of ecstatic prose about his beloved Sierra, believing it to be the world's most benign spot. The euphoric conservationist climbed a 100-foot pine tree in a raging thunderstorm just to get closer to it all. It's a hard mindset to fully relate to, but easiest when lying under a full moon in Muirland. A dozen quiet silhouettes gaze up at this dreamy canopy, probably thinking similar thoughts. Shards of moonlight hit Emerald Lake like bits of diamond runoff. Marmots call from the cliffs like squeaky doors. There's not a bear in sight. 'I could eat berries,' whines Mike.
We plod on, into Sequoia's treeless Tablelands, up a quick 500 feet without looking down. 'Trust your boots,' advises Cory, glancing in my general direction, 'and try turning sideways a bit and putting one foot over the other. This is called the French step,' she says, casually demonstrating the move like a dance instructor on a very inconvenient floor. The grade eases a bit as we French-step our way up, over a quartz- and-mica-studded saddle, into a barren, lunar landscape of glacier-gouged gray matter shaped by the tonnage of ice that once covered it. Unless you're John Muir, I'm thinking, you'll be hard-pressed to enjoy an electrical storm up here.
Then we hit the biggest payoff yet. Sprawling over the edge of a ridge far above the 10,000-foot mark is a vast alpine Eden. Four hundred feet below us stretch the serene waters of Moose Lake, an unpeopled oasis backdropped by the misty peaks of the Great Western Divide and the yawning slope of Buck Creek Canyon. 'Here's your solitude,' says Cory, and she's right. If only it could be stuffed into a glove compartment for the ride back.
Leaving Sequoia, my consolation prize is a meeting with General Sherman himself. It's hard to describe an inconceivably large tree, one that's 100 times your age and 17,000 times your weight. It's huge. It's the world's largest living thing. It's older than Julius Caesar. It's about 2.7 million pounds, 275 feet high, with a ground circumference of 103 feet. One of its branches is bigger than most really big trees. The amount of wood in its trunk could build 40 five-room houses. It's surrounded by its own fence, and people come from everywhere to admire it. So should you. And then treat yourself to a good long walk up there, where solitude is served daily.
Contact: Adventure 16 headquarters, (619) 283-2362, www.adventure16.com