It turns out that this part of the trip is all about the many regions of California. We went from Palmdale, in the desert hills outside of the Los Angeles basin, to Three Rivers, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas this weekend.
Our last two days in Palmdale were two days of driving for me. The RV driving instructor showed up promptly at nine am, and we pulled out shortly thereafter, leaving J to work by the pool with the cats in their carriers. At four hours a session, it wasn’t too long for any of them, and the cats were quite entertained by the birds near the pool area (J was entertained watching the cats.) I drove steadily, turning and turning and turning again (left, left, left, left, right, right, right..) and stopping and starting and going uphill and down as directed, guided with a constant stream of instruction all over the Palmdale area. We went by the Lockheed Skunkworks and past the display of military planes at the museum near the airbase. We went through the downtowns of several towns and over the hills and through construction zones, and when the ambulance went by and I had to pull over he laughed and said “right on time!”
I was amazed that it didn’t take long at all until I was comfortable enough at the wheel to be driving one-handed, chatting and gesturing with the other. The instructor was great! The tips on using simple reference points to make turns that let the trailer clear easily, judging heights of obstructions, driving hills, driving on the freeway, backing straight and in a turn, are exactly what I wanted to learn. He said that he didn’t need to teach me about holding a lane; I said that I’d driven the truck a lot and worked out my reference points (there’s that concept again.) He was impressed with my backing up: one practice with him guiding me as I backed along the cones and I did it solo the second time, coming just a little closer to that line of cones, as is my preference. We stopped backing practice at that point. Apparently people don’t usually get it right the first time. He professed his surprise, and I told him that over a year of getting J into campsites all over the country made a big difference. When J and I pulled out on Saturday I drove the first part of the trip and it was much, much less stressful than ever before, even including pulling in to the gas station to get diesel.
Coming down Tehachapi pass on route 58 into Bakersfield we noticed that the trailer brakes weren’t releasing completely, a Very Bad Thing with several more downhill miles to go. A handy turnoff gave us a wide place in the road to stop and check everything. We let the cats loose in the trailer for an early break, got ourselves a snack, let everyone and everything cool down, and carefully cleaned the contacts where the trailer plugs into the truck electrical system. That did the trick; we used contact cleaner to scrub off some corrosion from the connection and a can of air to blow it clear of the recess, and the brakes behaved themselves perfectly. Our detour came with an alternate route; we stayed on the minor highway we had turned onto and drove down the last bit of the hills into the start of the central valley.
It was beautiful, looking down from the tawny grass slopes into the verdant flatland. A much lovelier route than the one we’d intended. Down on the wide valley floor we drove past fields and fields of carrots, onions and the like, gradually changing over to citrus, olives and, surprisingly – we stopped to check what the vivid red dots in the trees were – pomegranates in bloom. Then it was back into new hills suddenly rising from the flatland, sparse stunted trees and golden grass and, off a side road next to a stream, our campground.
The creeks here in the hills are frothing and white with spring runoff. We got in late Saturday afternoon after a hot sticky drive and immediately headed over to the big feature for this campground, a swimming hole. Big rocks downstream from a sandy bank make a nice deep pool complete with a gently sloped boulder for basking on the far side of the stream. Swimming over to said rock immediately took care of any residual stickiness. The water is breath-stealing cold. I swam, almost dog-paddling to keep my head out of water, over to the boulder. The current runs strong in the center of the pond. Only once I was safely ensconced in the shallows upstream of the boulder did I splash water over my face and head; splash, gasp for breath, splash, gasp. We alternated sunning ourselves and eating huge sweet oranges bought for a dollar a bag with cooling off in the icy water.
Later that evening we went for dinner at a restaurant recommended by the local sheriff -- we’d stopped and asked when we saw his car (I’ve never had a boring meal going by the locals’ recommendation.) It was built almost overhanging another stream, and we managed to finagle a table overlooking the rushing water. Submerged bushes and small trees showed just how high the water was. Fascinating to watch, and the food was good too. I took the last of the tiramisu home and had it for breakfast.
Sunday morning we woke up early and headed out into the mountains. Up and up and up, climbing into the steep valley and switchbacking up the side of the mountain. The river was far below as we climbed into greener slopes and larger trees, then we lost sight of it as the evergreens began to outnumber the oaks. Patches of snow started to appear among the trees. Giant white flowering spikes of yucca plants were everywhere at the lower elevations, replaced higher up with wildflowers, yellow and purple. The road got narrow enough that we folded in our mirrors, and finally we reached our first stop at the Sentinel tree and a grove of sequoias around a small mountain meadow. We walked and marveled. There were few people at this stop; we had the grove almost to ourselves. I heard birdsong and rushing water and the stillness of the pines. I’ve never seen anything like the sequoias, huge thick trees with deeply furrowed reddish bark and branches starting miles up the trunk. Their bases are splayed and knobby which seems as it should be from their great weight pressing down. I pressed my hand to the bark and found it soft, flaking and shredding to show the red under-bark.
Our second stop was the General Sherman tree, supposedly the largest living thing currently known. The crowds were thicker here; we parked out a bit and walked over snowpack to reach the main trail down to the tree. We walked down a long path, stopping at the halfway mark to see the upper branches of the great tree, then continuing on to the path around the roots. I stood at a carefully contrived photographer’s vantage point and frankly gaped. It was awe-some, to be precise. It seemed like a magic trick, to climb from the fertile valley into scrubland, pass through the dark woods, and emerge into dappled sunlight among enormous and stately trees, like the huge pillars of a cathedral.
The road out of the park climbed above the zone where sequoias can grow and into the tall pines, then swooped and curved gently down into the valley again. We found a quirky café in a tiny town and had a very nice lunch, then wended our way back over to Three Rivers and our campsite. Sadly we can’t stay here as long as we’d planned. No internet service and no cell service (AT&T works fine, say all the locals) means we can’t spend workdays here. So we’ll be off on Monday, most likely, to see another of California’s many faces.