Down on the Farm: California dreamin'
For all the congestion in its populated areas, the bulk of California's land area is wilderness, some of the most spectacular wilderness in the lower forty-eight states.
The Big Sur, a rugged 120-mile stretch of coast between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, will give you enough seaside drama for a lifetime as huge waves crash incessantly against the battered base of the coastal range.
A short hike into a forest of redwoods fires the imagination. What wondrous behemoths! Some of the venerable giants are over two thousand years old.
The massive sequoias, a bit higher up in the mountains and more endangeredrthan the Redwoods, are now protected. Sad that thousands were cut down, as the lumber of such large specimens is useless.
We forget that the largest natural feature in the state of California is the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range 400 miles long and 75 miles across.
From downtown Los Angeles, you can see the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra on a rare clear winter's day, as you can from downtown Sacramento, 400 miles north. However, due to cloudiness and the very gradual rise of the Sierras, the millions in California seldom see their mountains in their full grandeur.
In fact, the best view of the range is from the opposite side, in central Nevada, a perspective seen mostly by jackrabbits and antelope. In a scenic oddity, the massive Sierras are made famous by where they aren't: A relatively tiny notch carved out of the mountain chain by a glacier.
Yosemite Valley was popularized by photographer Ansel Adams. However, Adams' photographs celebrate the texture of the massive granite walls more than their sheer size, which no picture can capture.
Rising straight up 3,000-4,500 feet off the floor of the little valley, the granite cliffs defy belief. On a clear day, there is really no way to put them in perspective and understand how large they really are.
However, this past week I was lucky to hit Yosemite Park on a day when it was raining in the lower elevations and snowing higher up. The swirling mists added depth to the scene. Tire chains weren't required on the valley floor, but 200 feet up the side of the cliffs, it was clearly below freezing and snowy.
With the precipitation, the waterfalls which thunder down the valley's cliffs were in full throttle. Some of the mist turned to snow on the way down, creating a massive pile at the bottom.
Yosemite Valley has the feel of an eerie gothic cathedral. The rain, mist and fog, made the experience more ghostly and ethereal. In an additional bonus, the miserable but dramatic weather kept the throngs of tourists at bay.
During summer, Yosemite is overrun by people from all over the world. Even during winter, the tour buses can clog up the relatively tiny valley. But on this sleety, misty, mystical day, Yosemite Valley was pleasantly empty. It was 33 degrees and sopping wet in the John Muir meadow where we stood. I snapped some pictures, but the real pleasure was in just absorbing the scene.
After Yosemite Valley was reached by road, it became commercialized in the 1920s. Large lodges sprang up. A steam boat was launched on the lake. Plans were for it to be a tourist mecca.
One can imagine Yosemite Valley could have turned into the Wisconsin Dells: A touristy place people travel to with little idea what natural feature actually drew them there!
Ansel Adams, who had a studio in the valley, led the charge to get rid of some of the buildings, limit access and keep Yosemite Valley from being completely overrun. In the end, the true lover of wilderness majesty might prefer King's Canyon, an equally beautiful but much less-traveled glacial notch in the mighty Sierras. But one trip to Yosemite should be on everybody's bucket list.
Some places have a little of everything. California, which is really a country onto itself, has an excess of everything.
From the sooty sixteen-lane freeways of Los Angeles, to the Redwoods, to the elusive Sierras, to the dramatic glacial valleys of Yosemite and King's Canyon, to the dunes of Death Valley, to the bountiful Central Valley, to the whales of San Diego, to the stars on the red carpet in Hollywood, everything about California is bigger than life.
It is a place everybody should see once.