*above photo of the mature Sequoia at the beginning of Big Stump Trail at Sequoia National Park
I originally posted this long story on Patreon, back when I was trying to use that platform to host Flying with the Falcon. It’s been nearly a year since we went to Sequoia and Death Valley, a trip we took in May of 2017, and I am still beyond ecstatic that Michael planned the trip in secret because he knew how much I wanted to see the giant trees. Honestly, I had been dreaming about seeing the Sequoias since I was a little girl, and saw pictures of those immense trees in a magazine. Michael kept dropping hints about where we were going, but I made him tell me our destination once he said I needed to bring clothes for temperatures ranging from 30-100 degrees. I really hate surprises anyway, and planning for that kind of unknown was just too much. In any case, I pared back some of the original blog post to share the most interesting parts of the trip, and I hope you enjoy riding along with me as I take a drive through a glorious, life-changing experience in my memory….
We just dropped the dogs at a local kennel on Friday morning of May 19th, 2017, the truck loaded with gear for our trip through Nevada from Ely to the large system of connected parks on the Eastern side of California. Oddly enough, I was looking up park information about Sequoia only a day prior, thinking that it might be fun to try going there in between Michael’s contracts if we had the time. Well, no need to plan. Michael had thoughtfully taken care of all the arrangements.
Our first destination: Death Valley. Even though neither of us really felt excited about Death Valley, Michael figured since it was right on the way we might as well check that park off our list. He planned on spending a night there at a campground to break up the nine-hour trek to California and Sequoia. This meant five hours of driving across the high desert of Nevada before we would arrive at the park, trundling across the wide-open spaces between the stony mountain chains. One drives for often an hour or two between the rises, miles and miles of sage-dappled, hard-packed sand which stretches flat as a board in wide valleys empty of anything other than the brush, and the very occasional building standing lonely and odd in the midst of all the muted earth tones. As much as I feel a certain familiarity with the high desert now that I have done so much hiking there, the landscape is too drab for me. I really miss trees and the green of the Northeast.
Much of the morning went by without interest, but then the creeping sensation of a burning itch began to spread across my face. As soon as I pulled down the visor to peer into the mirror, I knew what was happening. I had made the mistake of using a new sunscreen that morning without testing it on a small patch of skin first. My skin tends to be sensitive to new lotions, soaps, and fragrances, so using sunscreen without testing it first was a foolish choice. The itching became so uncomfortable I had to stop by the side of the road to wash my face lest it turn me into a blowfish. Fortunately we had soap and water in preparation for camping that night, and I cleaned off the sunscreen to reveal a blotchy, red irritation which persisted for several more hours. Thankfully washing it off made this a relatively harmless annoyance, but this event foreshadowed the remainder of my day.
Hours of relentless and uninterrupted olives and browns were finally relieved by a little town at the edge of Death Valley, a “last chance saloon” of sorts to get final supplies before entering the vast emptiness of the hottest and lowest place on the North American continent. Michael bought a couple of gallons of water to supplement the full Camelback bladders we brought for hiking, we picked up some new sunscreen (to which I would not be allergic), and with my face still red and splotchy, into the park we went. At first, the park started out looking much the same as the rest of the desert. Once we got past the mountain chain at the edge of the eastern entrance, the landscape began to look different. We started to see lots and lots of feathery yellow flowers alongside the road, spreading upward into the hills. Soon other colors began to appear in amongst the yellow stalks: bright orange, red, and purple blooms peeked out from between the olive tufts of brushy plants. After quite a bit of driving to even get to the edge of the park from the village, it took at least an hour to get to the visitor’s center after we stopped to purchase tickets at a self-serve station. Since we needed a park map, and we wanted to purchase year-long passes to National Parks (knowing we plan to visit as many as possible on this coast while we’re here), we chose to stop at the visitor’s center before heading off toward the campground. I discovered that Michael really had not planned any stops other than the campground in Death Valley. It was still relatively early in the afternoon, so I thought we should see at least one thing in the park while we were there. Off we went to Mosaic Canyon.
When we first arrived in the parking lot of the canyon, it didn’t look like it would amount to much, but the hike in the canyon is only a couple of miles. We decided that we could always turn around and go back if we didn’t find anything of interest, so we donned our Camelbacks and headed onto the trail. Almost immediately you get to see lovely rock formations, the first of which actually reminded both of us of a petrified tree because of the pattern of the layering of rock. The stone had been scoured smooth from all the years of wind and sand blowing along its flanks, and to run your hand along its walls is as lovely as the surface of a fine stone countertop. Though beige and cream were the predominant colors of the stone, it still had a lovely marbling effect revealed in striated patterns, with an artistic rounded shaping of the stone along the walls and floor of the canyon. At first it starts quite narrowly, squeezing down to a space which allows for just one person at a time, then opening up into a wonderland of slippery polished stone which could serve as an amusing place to play if one enjoys sliding. It was rather treacherous to get up the incline, so wear good hiking shoes with gripping soles to avoid falling if you hike there.
Beyond that first portion of the canyon, we hiked a little farther to see a mixture of the same beige stone layered with a gravel-like stone which resembled a modern cement treatment. For a short time it kept us walking, but then we came to a few bends in the canyon which led to a rather Martian landscape devoid of much more than crumbling red and gray stone. Rather than keep hiking in the 90-degree heat which seemed to be sapping both of us of energy rapidly, we chose to head back to the car and start working our way toward the campground. I was surprised by how long it takes to get from one site to another, as I had no idea how big Death Valley actually is. As we drove to the campground, we stopped to take pictures a few times when we saw things like dunes of beachy sand gathered in the valley, or a particularly stunning vista of rock layers within the mountains scoured of plant life. I also had to take the time to photograph a few of the incredible blooms we saw across the desert, as spring brought a wealth of brilliant yellow, fluorescent orange, pale lavender, and fiery red. The desert, rather than being a wasteland, turned out to be a living microcosm of “the tenacity of life,” as Michael called it.
The drive to the campground Michael chose from an online map was unexpectedly rugged. Our truck didn’t care, but we had to drive at a snail’s pace because of all the rocks in the dirt road. When we arrived no one else was there, so we got our pick of campsites. Michael immediately got started on pulling out the camping gear to locate the tent, and then I was going to get started on heating up dinner…except that Michael didn’t bring any fuel. Which meant no coffee in the morning. Which meant starting my day with a headache that wouldn’t go away until I could find coffee. In Death Valley. Ugh. Already exhausted from an early morning to get on the road combined with two sleepless nights in a row, I felt like I was beginning to unravel. No hot food for dinner, I sat in the truck and ate cold chicken and vegetables. No hot tea to warm up before bed, no coffee in morning, no running water at the campground, which also meant no shower or washing anything. We didn’t bring enough water to both wash and drink, a factor I did not realize until our arrival at the camp. On top of not having a very good day due to general exhaustion, then having an allergic reaction to take my energy level down a few more notches, and then having waited too long to eat food, my body just gave up. I couldn’t stay awake anymore. I tried to help Michael locate pine cones and dead branches on the ground around the camp so we could build a fire in the morning at least, but I just couldn’t hold out any longer. I got cold as the sun began to slip toward the horizon (it gets below freezing at night in Death Valley, despite temps above 90 degrees during the day–bundle up!), so I climbed into the truck and pulled Michael’s down jacket over me to get warm, and then I fell asleep in the front seat.
Michael found me in there and tried to coax me out a couple of times, but exhaustion had me in its grip. I couldn’t manage anything else, yet I still needed to get my contact lenses out and at least try to brush my teeth. My patient husband tried to help me, but I was beyond frustrated and simply needed to be left alone. All I could do was get into the bed and try to get some rest, but while I was trying to get myself there a couple showed up and started setting up camp, and then another pair of cars came, and before we knew it the campground was full and bustling and after my short nap in the car I laid awake while the campers nearby banged their pots and chatted around their fires. My body wanted desperately to sleep, but instead I laid there tense and crabby and miserable and unable to fall asleep again. After several hours of that, finally the noise settled down and I got to sleep, only to wake up to my rear end being poked by sharp stones. My mattress had lost air while I was sleeping.
I tried to blow it back up again with Michael’s help (again, he patiently managed me while I temperamentally attempted to do it myself), only to once again be wide awake after only a few hours’ sleep. Michael managed to pass out again, and I continued to lie there in discomfort. I began to wish for the sun to rise so I could just get out of bed and leave. I wanted coffee and hot water and flushing toilets. Car camping is supposed to be just mildly uncomfortable, but you have the comforts at least of running water, showers, and toilets. Not in Death Valley. If you don’t like backcountry camping, don’t spend the night at a camp there. Honestly, I have backpacked and dealt with much worse, but not being prepared for this kind of camping was a death knell for my mood. I hate being unprepared. I do not roll with that at all. I have tried to get over it, but the only answer for me…is preparation with as few surprises as possible. Sigh.
In any case, though I got up grumpier than ever I was thrilled that my wonderful husband managed to heat water for coffee on the fire he got going, and left enough hot water for me to at least wash my hair and face. While he did that, I took care of the bedding in the tent, our usual ritual from backcountry camping. It took us longer than I would have liked to get going, but I think I was just so sleep-deprived by then that I couldn’t put two thoughts together to function normally. I kept forgetting where I put things, having to walk back and forth umpteen times for supplies in a stupor of zombie-like stumbling. Eventually we got on the road, but not before I thanked my husband for his thoughtful planning to take me to a place I have wanted to go since I was a little girl. And then I also told him that in the future he should stop surprising me with trips so I can plan properly in order to enjoy myself. As ever, my husband lovingly accepts my quirks, and he very kindly did so again. Back on the road, he promised me that we could get to a nearby gas station to fuel up, get water, and more coffee. Yay.
Another four hours on the road through California. For those not in the know, when traveling to the National Parks and Forests which make up Yosemite at the top all the way down to Sequoia at the bottom, if traveling from the East, you will find you must drive around the parks to enter on the West side throughout most of the year. The mountains are typically snowed in through most months right up until June or July, and then snow falls again in October or November. When planning a trip to these parks, prep for entering on the West side, which means hours of driving to get around them. Also, prep for jacked up prices at most hotels in the area. The motel Michael found was not terribly nice, but it was the price I would expect to pay for a fairly nice hotel in a city. Even though it was dated and slightly shabby, it had running water, a shower, and a toilet. And electricity to plug in the electric kettle for coffee. Hip-hip-hooray!
Once we checked in it was already midday, but we still had half the day to hit the park. Really, even if it was nearly dark I would have insisted on going to see the Sequoias. I mean, I’ve been dreaming about seeing those trees for decades. No way was I waiting, so we headed out again for another hour-plus drive to the park (and we stayed at a motel fairly close to the park entrance). Of course, the minute we arrived we took a picture near the sign wearing our “Resist” shirts featuring Smoky the Bear with his fist in the air, and then we hit the gift shop so I could get myself a Sequoia National Park shirt (tee shirts are my favorite souvenir, since one actually uses a tee shirt, and knick-knacks in an Airstream? No.). We also took the time to ask a park ranger (they are gems) about the best places to see with limited time. Always ask the rangers where to go when visiting the National Parks; they know all the best park secrets. Once again, we drive some more, a lot longer than I expected (are you sensing a theme here?). The road to get to the top of the park where the Sequoias grow is long and winding, and one side of the road often falls away in a sheer drop. It’s not a road to take at a fast speed, but if driving during the day the passengers will get to enjoy the gorgeous view of the valley below, and then the mountains above. It astonished me to see how utterly beautiful the green looked to me in that verdant mountain valley. How I missed the green!
It felt like a dog’s age before we finally reached the portion of the park where we might see the Sequoias, and then suddenly Michael said he could see some of the trees. I actually screamed and squealed like a little girl, according to my husband, but honestly, what else does one do when fulfilling a childhood dream? As soon as I saw them, I felt utterly overcome. Flabbergasted. Beside myself with glee. They were more enormous than I could ever imagine, regardless of those photos I saw when I was little, even though people stood next to them and cars drove through them. Nothing prepares you for the moment when you see a tree as immense as a Sequoia. It’s like if you ran into an elephant at a park. You can imagine an elephant, but until you actually see one in front of you it’s hard to wrap your head around how big one actually is. So I freak out and hop in my seat until Michael finds a pull-off alongside the road (there really isn’t anywhere to pull over on that slender ribbon of road winding up the mountainside), and then I practically fly to the first tree I see across the road, camera in hand. Completely bespelled, I put my hands on its loamy cinnamon-colored bark and look up the height of the tree to its branches far, far above my head. This tree must still have been young, as perhaps three people could probably stand around the tree and link hands, but its size still boggles the mind. Sequoias live for millennia, not just hundreds of years. They have weathered thousands of years on our planet, and there I was with my hands on its precious bark, looking up into the sunlit needles hundreds of feet above.
Eventually I took a picture of myself beneath the tree and got back in the truck so we could go see more of the trees without having to worry about stopping traffic. I freaked out every time I saw another one of the Sequoias emerging from amidst the forest, their trunks utterly massive and acutely visible against the rest of the pines. Once we finally found a spot to park, I walked in complete awe of the trees, the altitude at which they grow, the disturbingly small number of them next to the proliferation of other species, and the absolutely stunning beauty of the park. Sequoia National Park hits all my favorite things about being outdoors: creeks rushing over rocks, mountain views that go on for miles, lots of sunshine, enormous rocks to climb, paths to follow into the woods, and trees…lots and lots of trees. Dogwoods bloomed below the height of the canopy, their creamy white blossoms reminding me of a Japanese painting. Birds sang and fluttered, deer wandered, chipmunks twitched. This park is utterly alive with plants and animals flourishing. As we walked along the paths, I could not help but feel overcome and astonished at my very good fortune. There I was, under the shelter of the world’s largest living things, a dream come true. Since we were offered advice about places to stop when we went to the visitor’s center, we followed the ranger’s options. Our plan was eventually to get to the General Sherman tree, the largest living thing on earth, but a few stops along the way pulled us to see other things as well.
Already my memory has faded as to the order of events because I was truly running on adrenaline at that point in the day. Exhaustion could not hold me back from feeling the excitement of being with the Sequoias, but now the facts are somewhat jumbled. Needless to say, we saw the “Auto log” which is a fallen Sequoia made into a tourist trap many years ago. The tree was carved to make a platform onto which people could drive their cars and get their picture taken. Now it serves only as a historic site. We climbed on the massive tree and took our own pictures, and then moved on to other things. Hanging rock was on the way to Moro rock, so we walked the short path to have a mind-boggling view open up for us. I felt overwhelmed even by that beauty, and had to sit down for a few minutes to enjoy the scenery. When we got to Moro rock trail, I took a detour to see the Rockefeller tree, feeling somewhat unsettled by how few Sequoias were in the forest thus far. We walked the rest of the trail to Moro rock and I started up the four hundred steps to the top of the rock, but about two thirds of the way up I got cold feet and didn’t want to continue. Being so tired and overwhelmed with emotion, I just couldn’t face my terror of heights that day. On many occasions of the past I have challenged my fear of heights, as it is quite intense, but that day I just didn’t want to do that to myself. I was there to see trees, not do self-inflicted therapy. Instead, Michael went up the rest of the climb while I waited on a bench carved into the granite. Another woman with the same fear of heights joined me shortly, and we got to talking about hiking, the Appalachian Trail, and other outdoor things.
Once Michael finally returned, he confirmed that I would have had a very hard time on the climb, indeed. Apparently when it got higher, the metal handrails dropped to knee height, and at some points were not there at all. Atop the rock fin which clings to the side of the mountain 7,000 feet high, no thanks. Glad I didn’t go. After our enjoyment of the view, we got back in the truck and drove to the General Sherman tree area, a veritable wonderland of paths in the woods, bridges over water, fallen trees carved into tunnels, and Sequoias everywhere you looked. Finally, we could see the grandeur of a forest where Sequoias grew more plentifully. First we followed a quick path around the Crescent Meadow, a lovely spot to view both trees and wildlife. We saw a marmot, a pair of deer, and quite a collection of birds. Then we headed down the path to see General Sherman, the star of the day’s show. Down, down, down we walked, hither and yon pointing out the enormity of the trees in this portion of the forest, dumbstruck by the sheer volume of their size. After a few minutes of walking, we come to the platform into which a life-sized outline of General Sherman’s trunk is laid into the pavement, accompanied by the first view of the famous tree. We stopped and stared and remarked and shook our heads. The tree defies all imagining. You simply cannot conjure in your mind the actual possibility of such a wonder. There General Sherman stands, immense, grand, and silent. If only trees could talk. I wonder what that tree would say, what stories it could tell about things it has seen in its thousands of years of life.
Thus entranced, we finish the downward trek to the area where the tree stands, encircled by fencing to discourage people from disturbing it in any way. Though I approve of saving these trees for future generations, it was still disappointing to have to stand so far away for a photo. I wanted desperately to touch the bark, lean against its trunk, and look up into its sunlit needles. Alas, we must follow the rules and preserve the life that is left in these marvelous organisms. And so I stood under the tree for a picture taken by my wonderful husband, and then did the same for him, after which we wandered over to inspect the fallen branch left by the park officials, an example of the tree’s actual size. The fallen branch is larger than most normal trees. A branch. Larger than a full-grown oak after a few hundred years. Unbelievable. We wandered for a few more minutes on those paths, continuing to be amazed by all the trees, but the sun began to glow along the horizon, and the pinks and oranges of sunset gleamed from behind the trees. The time had come to leave for the day, and I was very, very grateful that we still had the next whole day to spend there. Satisfied, we got in the truck and Michael dutifully drove us back to the motel so I could stare and gawk, and also not have a heart attack whilst driving next to the long drops only inches from the asphalt of the road. Thank goodness for chivalry. How deeply I appreciate my husband’s kindness to me on a constant basis, I can never put into words.
If you plan to hike at Sequoia, even the slightest uphill hike can seem very exhausting if you are not used to the elevation. The Sequoias grow above the elevation of 6,000 feet, and for people who live at sea level, this is a big change. You may need to take the time to get used to it by sleeping at a slightly lower elevation for at least one night prior to trying to hike. Michael and I had months of living at Ely, which is 6,500 feet, and when hiking there it took us at least six weeks to truly adjust to the elevation. Plan extra time to catch your breath when needing to hike uphill, as you will need to do if you visit the General Sherman tree. Also make sure you stay well-hydrated, particularly in summer months, as this will make a big difference in your energy level.
Rather than bore readers with the minutiae of our evening at the motel, I can easily say Michael practically passed out the minute he laid down, which meant we didn’t discuss anything about what we would be doing the next day. In the morning we got up at a reasonable hour, though I felt as though I could have used several hours more sleep after going without rest for so many days. I did feel better, though, since I slept like a rock all night, which is unusual for me. We got ourselves up and dressed and fed, stopped at a store on the way (where prices were very gougy) for lunch makings, and then back to the park. Because we hadn’t discussed anything, Michael began driving toward the same entrance we used the day before, and because I was still groggy I hadn’t paid attention. I had intended to request that we drive up to the General Grant entrance so we could spend the day in that region of the park, but by the time I realized what he was doing, it was too late. It worked out well, though, as I hadn’t really felt like we spent as much time as I would have liked exploring the General Sherman area, since there are a lot of trails through the woods there. Passing through that area again, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to stop there for a walk along the Congress Trail.
The mistake turned out to be the best part of our time in the park for me. Once we skipped through the portion of the trail we had been through yesterday, we had a whole new adventure of casually wandering amongst the Sequoias. In this portion of the park the Sequoias grow much more profusely, and it was fulfilling to see so many along the trail. We stopped frequently to enjoy the view of the valley peeking between trees, observe animals, take photos, and just to stare in wonder at the improbability of such living beings. At one point, Michael was taking my picture while I posed inside of a large nook in one of the trees, and I could hear gnawing behind me. While Michael fooled around with the camera to get the photo right, I could hear the unknown creature behind me, and I eventually had to hurry Michael so I could turn around to see what was chewing on the tree from within. I actually captured a photo of a marmot curled inside the base of the tree as it gnawed away happily, completely unafraid of my presence there. We snapped our photos, and then pointed out the marmot to a family walking past so they could see it, too. It was incredible to note how unconcerned all the animals seemed in the presence of humans. Undoubtedly, they know they are safe there, as hunting is not allowed in the parks. I got very close to deer a couple of times, and they were completely unafraid, too, and I felt that if I dared I could probably walk up and touch them if I was quiet and careful. I did not try it (nor should anyone, as these are still wild animals), but felt somehow happy at the thought that the animals realize they are safe and live without the fear of human interference in their lives.
For a couple of hours we slowly meandered through the woods along the Congress Trail, capturing some photos of the famous groupings of trees named for the House and Senate, and finally we moved on to take the long drive northward to the General Grant area. Somehow the afternoon had already blown by, and now it would be another race to see what we wanted to see before the sun went down. Driving through the park ended up being a lovely accident, though. We got to see a spectacular view of King’s Canyon, a park located between Sequoia National Forest (which is north of Sequoia National Park) and bordered by the General Grant park and Yosemite. I really had no idea that so many parks were located in the same region, all of which border each other in a vast protected wilderness of trees, mountains, canyons, rivers, and animal life. When we stopped briefly at the King’s Canyon overlook, the snow-capped mountains which host a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail stood sentry in the distance, and a deep canyon of lush green fell undulating downward in crest after crest of forested land. From there, we drove up to the area where we could see the second-largest tree in the world: General Grant. We arrived there fairly late in the afternoon, but still with enough time to make a stop in the visitor’s center (always stop at the visitor’s center!), and then off to the trail.
The trail to General Grant is a scant half mile loop through the woods, and it features a few interesting things to see. On the paved trail, one can look at a lodge once used by the first settlers of the forest (well, the first white people), and one can also walk through a fallen Sequoia which is hollow, and was also once used as a sort of makeshift shelter in an early European settlement. More fun than that, in my opinion, was a little secret stair I discovered off the beaten path. A large rock near the path to view the fire-scarring on General Grant’s trunk will offer a fun view of the General Grant area, and if one ventures around the back side of that large rock, one finds a secret stair leading to the top of the rock. It most likely is part of an old trail from long-gone days of the park, but the stair still exists and is easy to climb. We had fun rock climbing for a bit, taking pictures with the magnificent General, admiring the size and foliage so close to the sky, and then after our bit of exploring I read about a large stump left behind by loggers. On one of the informational placards it stated that in the late 1800s there was a brief attempt to log the Sequoias, and one of the trees logged was actually named after Mark Twain, the famous author. The picture taken of said loggers shows an astonishingly large tree, even by Sequoia standards, and something about that photo made me want to see the stump. Michael agreed to my wish, and off we went in search of the Big Stump trail.
[I will offer a brief aside here that while we travel across the country, I keep running into Mark Twain everywhere we go. It’s been a funny little side story which makes me laugh, as if somewhere Mark Twain is chuckling to himself when he appears in various and unexpected places. It all started when I went on a trip to Elmira, NY with Michael when he had to attend a training for work, and we saw Mark Twain’s summer cottage there. After that, we started seeing Mark Twain plaques, statues, stories, and other sorts of evidence of his having passed through a place we were visiting…nearly everywhere we went. He even made an appearance as a character in a book I was reading while in Nevada–so strange! That man has been in lots of places across the US, and I’m starting to think I might need to research his travels and write something about it one day….]
It took a little doing to find the trail, as the park map provided did not very clearly delineate where one might locate the trail head. I have noticed this about other park maps, too, and for those planning a trip to a National Park, you might want to Google a better map and print it out before you leave home. We have had a tough time locating things when using the maps provided, as the sites they list can often be located on dirt roads which are not well-marked, and it can be difficult to ascertain the true location of sites in relation to landmarks on the maps. Just be aware that park maps are not all-inclusive, either, as we passed several things in the parks which were not on the map at all. In any case, it took some turning around and hard looking to find the Big Stump trail, but we eventually found it off the parking lot of the Big Stump picnic area, if you care to find it yourself. This is not stated on the map anywhere that we found. Once we found the trail, it was also impossible to tell where the stump is located on the loop, as that is not indicated on the map, either. Regardless, we took off at a good clip so we might have time to hike in to see the stump before running out of daylight.
One of the first things you will see on the trail is a lone Sequoia, quite mature. Now rather more used to seeing these immense trees, I thought little of its presence there. Little did I know that this would be the only mature Sequoia on this particular trail. As we walked, we came upon a stump of a Sequoia, which I wondered aloud whether or not it was meant to be the destination. Michael and I climbed on it, and because of its appearance alone we determined it could not be the stump in question. On we went, deeper into the woods. Another stump along the trail revealed itself from the brush, and another, and another. Eventually we came upon a clearing littered with the detritus of dead trees and stumps of Sequoias encircling the entire meadow. Michael said aloud that it looked like a graveyard, which were my exact thoughts in that sad moment. I felt deeply distraught by the remains of what the logging company left in its wake, a vast number of trees felled for nothing more than money. My heart heavy, we walked on past the site of the old mill, long since taken down, and fortune had it that just around the other side of the mill site was the location of the former Mark Twain tree. The stump is indeed massive, and it defies logic that a tree named after such a beloved American author could be chosen for destruction for the sake of a cross-section slab to be displayed at the American Museum of Natural History. Such an establishment ought to know better, I thought to myself. Pictures of the tree while still living exist, and one was taken with a wealthy family standing proudly in front of the tree, the whole family of at least six standing in a group which was dwarfed by the width of the trunk.
As I looked upon the pictures and read the story, I felt little comfort in knowing that once the cross-section was sent to the museum, it became a standard for protecting the Sequoias from further logging. That is a somewhat heartening tale in reference to the sacrifice of its life, but it does not bring back the tree, nor did it particularly assuage my distress at knowing that humans once again chose money over the sanctity of a living thing. It takes well over half a millennia to see a Sequoia begin to show its size in maturity, and even though dozens of Sequoias have been either planted or seeded on their own in that very forest by Big Stump, it doesn’t change the loss of such grandeur. I can only imagine what the forest must have looked like before it was so ruthlessly destroyed. New growth has taken over, and the land is full of plants, even large trees, once again, but the stumps stand as a reminder of what was lost. While walking the trail I felt it was unfortunate that this had to be our last walk in the forest of my dreams, but then I realized having this last look at what humans had wrought, I felt this might give me more motivation to help keep them safe from further harm. In our current political climate, so many protections for the ecosystems of our country are now under threat, once again for the sake of income. Money can never replace lost habitats in the wild, lost species, lost mountains sheered away in mining country, or lost old growth forests. We might be able to plant new forests, but they will never be the same in our lifetimes. We can never be too concerned about our water, air, and soil, as they are what keep us alive and well, and we must take all precautions to keep safe the preciousness of what the wilderness, farmland, and oceans have to offer us.
These were my thoughts as I left the forest, patting the trunk of the lone Sequoia left standing. Both Michael and I wondered why that particular tree had been untouched, but I am grateful it was. It also stands as a stark reminder of what could have been if humans had not interfered. I also felt somewhat mollified by the fact that after only a few years of logging, the mills went out of business because the Sequoias did not prove to be good lumber. Apparently their structure is too soft, most likely because of the rapid rate of growth, and does not make for good building. Interestingly enough, the trees, once fallen to the forest floor, seem to last for well over a thousand years, as their lumber resists rot. We found this irony rather amusing, and it made me feel better to know that even if laws cannot keep the Sequoias safe, lumber companies will not wish to bankrupt themselves on their lumber. Of course, there are enough people who wish to protect the trees now, just as there were back when they were first discovered by the Europeans, who would not allow them to come to harm. All these thoughts helped to cast a comforting last image over the forest I have loved my whole life without even being able to set foot there until middle age. Now that I have, I feel even more fiercely protective of these vast giants of the plant kingdom, the kings of all living things.