Saturday, May 10, 2014

High Trees and Low Gears

I was a little tired when I landed in Los Angeles. The push to complete all unfinished business and move out of my seasonal abode at Wind Cave National Park had been intense and exhausting. The stress of recurring cross-state moves is frequently cited as a reason people abandon the life of a seasonal ranger, perhaps second only to a need for health insurance. (Although I, for one, now have Obamacare.) In the end, having borne the weight of a complicated game of packing, and condensing my belongings to play the final game of car tetris, making last-minute edits to my comics for the park newspaper, preparing for and conducting the final Adventures-in-Nature children's program of the season, and facing many dreaded pages of background investigation paperwork for my next job, I drove 630 miles in a period of 24 hours, with one short night's sleep in a motel along the way. (Yes, many of my readers have some gonzo story of the time you drove from Miami to Seattle in two nonstop days and nights or something like that; perhaps I don't qualify as American with a captial A.) Having pushed myself to the outer limits, I was spaced and disoriented by the road outside the LA airport, when a toyota sedan with a familiar pretty face in the passenger-side window arrived to collect me.

Raven has been a great friend of mine since the summer of 2007, when I found that I wasn't the only seasonal ranger at Crater Lake who wrote and drew poetics. Raven has since moved on to other professions, currently preschool teaching, while I have returned to the Park Service, and moved on to other National Parks.

Raven and her ladyfriend Solana and I attended a celebration of the Jewish holiday of the Seder, hosted by her friends and coworkers. (I even made a rare beard-less appearance, then promptly decided to grow it back.) My previous familiarity with Judaism was mainly in knowing that so many of the pioneers of the comic book medium are from Jewish lineage and tradition (and so is Raven.) This guest appearance stimulated my academic interests in mythology and ritual—which I could only sustain for so long, over my exhaustion. After listening to long-winded speeches and dissertations on the significance and history of the passover and exodus story from our host, and partaking in an impressive feast of seder-approved foods, I was permitted to fall asleep on the couch, after wowing the diners by telling them I was a park ranger. Naturally, like most Americans, they thought this meant free-reigning lord of all National Parks, and were surprised to learn that during the government shutdown of 2013, I was as forbidden as they were to climb El Capitan.

Even with the rest on the couch, it was yet another long night, added to all the others. And I still had more preparations for Timpanogos Cave by computer, and so we only got on the road at all the next day thanks to Raven's persistent urging. (Bless her, I was not meant for LA.) Although I was a little distracted through all the trip-planning process, I did have the last-minute forethought to make sure we acquired a paper map of California on the way out of town. And as we wizzed through LA, I was dissapointed to learn that there was not a special monument to the place in the city where Metalllica had formed.

We originally planned to go to Yosemite, but only made it to Red Rock Canyon State Park before it was time to set up camp. I chose this destination because I saw it on the map, seeming to be on the way to Yosemite. In the desert beyond Los Angeles and its suburbs and exurbs, Raven's smart phone GPS lost its signal. The paper map became our essential guide.

We pushed to setup our tents and layed out our bedding before dark, and heated our soups by whisperlite stove after dark. We had only one flashlight (actually a flashlight app on a smartphone) between us for a while, as the other lights were either missing or had eaten their batteries, but we endured.

Red Rock Canyon looked a little like Mars. But it was the familiar single moon of Earth which rose in the east, made its nightly trek across the heavens, and set behind canyon walls in the west. Strong winds swept through our campsite and rattled our tents, all night long. On a walk about at dusk, I took to observing the moon in the azure sky over the gray cliffs, beyond our trusted sedan. I took intrigue at the diagonal layers of the canyon walls, evidently stacks of rock which uplifted, at some point in the past. Luckily, this alien world had plentiful life, in the form of small Joshua trees, cacti (some in bloom), and some thorny shrub with pretty purple flowers, which I have not yet identified.

After Solana drove up and joined us for a walk and contemplative sit in the Canyon, wherein we observed broken glass which had melted under the sun's onslaught, she headed back south towards work, and Raven and I continued our northward push. (Actually we had to backtrack a bit before going north, to aim for a Yosemite entrance that was actually open at this time of year.) In the end, Yosemite proved a bit too far, and so, by discussion and examinations of that remarkably handy paper map, Raven and I decided to make Sequoia, land of the giant trees, our destination.

I tolerated Raven's country music soundtrack for most of the ride. She has become a fan of the genre in recent years. Astutely, Raven has observed that while most rock songs describe emotional states and events in generalized terms, most country songs describe a very specific place and time, and how it looks, sounds, feels, and smells, thereby creating a vivid fantasy scene to which one can escape. Although I will choose rock over country any day, I must admit that Raven has a point. Yes, I too can think of rock and heavy rock songs which are exceptions to these general observations, and do create vivid and specific scenes. Iron Maiden's musical interpretation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner will always be a favorite of mine.

One of Raven's current favorite country songs is “Automatic” by Miranda Lambert. In it, the artist expresses nostalgia for some former golden age of manual transmission vehicles, postal mail, corded telephones with answering machines, long drives at 55 miles per hour guided by paper maps, and entrapment in unhappy marriages. While I don't connect much with these specific examples, the chorus lines of “Hey, whatever happened to waiting your turn/ doing it all by hand/ cause when everything is handed to you/it's only worth as much as the time you put in/ It all just seems so good the way we had it/ back before everything became automatic.” has a bit of resonance even for me. In a similar vein, I must remember the line from Gary Panter's comics hero Jimbo (Jimbo's Adventures in Paradise), “I used to want to be a delivery man, but now everything is automatically delivered.” Or perhaps the farmers and homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing said it best in their book Living the Good Life: “A customer with a ten dollar bill can get wonderful results in a department store. But put the same person in the backwoods with a problem to be solved and an inadequate supply of materials and tools. Their money is useless. Instead, ingenuity, skill, patience, and persistence are the coin current.”

As an overall trend since the industrial revolution, each successive generation has been born into a more 'automatic' world, an economy demanding more money and fewer do-it-yourself skills. Although convenience is nice, a meal or a shelter which one had to work for always tastes or feels better, and more rewarding. And this is still one of the joys of camping. Beyond that, it is one of the joys of Homesteading. And even as the world becomes more 'automatic', there is a noteable countercurrent: interest in camping, homesteading, permaculture, survival skills, knitting, letterpress cards, and hand-drawn comics has increased. Some of this interest must stem from a simple desire to see physical results to physical efforts, and some of it arises from the knowledge that our automatic world is built on tenuous foundations—with Hurricane Katrina as a loud wakeup call. In varying degrees, I have sought the thrill of drawing by hand, writing a postcard, going camping, making a fire with a bowdrill, growing a garden, making a pie from hand-gathered apples, splitting firewood with a maul, and raising chickens. Friends have joined me for all of these pursuits. With skill, one can strike a balance between the easy benefits of the 'automatic' world, and the earned rewards of a world made by hand. And I rather appreciate the plethora of how-to articles and videos on survival and homesteading skills which the internet provides. We should take wisdom from these sources while we can, because future extreme weather events caused by global climate change caused by people may take out our electrical grid, and disable our computers and smart phones. We can thank Les Stroud and Cody Lundin for their imparted wisdom, before we strike out on our own.

On a down-to-earth level, I first learned to drive on automatic transmission vehicles, even though I am slightly older than Miss Lambert. I learned to drive manual during my not-so-fondly-remembered time in Galveston, Texas in 2008. I am still a bit jerky with the gears and clutch, enough to provoke the ire of my friend Lesley when I drive her old and trusty Toyota.

Throughout our expedition, Raven explored new frontiers and acquired new skills, including the full use of her automatic-transmission Toyota, which is named The Lone Pine. She had not done much driving on the freeway before, and suddenly discovered her ability to zoom around and between giant semi-trucks, at a faster speed than I would be comfortable with. She proclaimed that I am a good driving instructor, and allowed her to discover her own skills and approach, in contrast with most friends who have attempted to impose their specific way of driving upon her. She noted I could seek employment as a driving instructor. I note that it probably pays better than my ranger efforts, but has fewer natural perks.

After an afternoon highway push, we decided to set Sequoia as our destination, being that Yosemite was up to three hours further down the road, and we preferred not to setup camp in the dark, and sought not to spend the entire trip driving. The ranger at the entrance station of Sequoia thanked me for the great many hours of volunteering required to obtain my volunteer pass, and recommended that we go to Buckeye Flat Campground. To reach said campground, we traversed a winding single-lane road on the mountain side—another new challenge for Raven, which she deftly conquered. We setup our tents and fired up the whisperlite stove. I made some pasta with cheese and tomatoes, and Raven had some pre-made soup of quinoa and varied vegetables, having made her own wheat-free menu for the time of passover. Raven became frightened by a tick in her tent, and took it upon herself to vacate all arthropods from the enclosure. Undubitably, ticks and the diseases they can carry are worthy of concern.

Sleep was easier in the cool forest, and it was less windy, thanks to the cover of small trees. Raven heard a dog explore outside her tent at night, or so she thought. In the morning, we found skat, which seemed to contain varied plant materials, and so may have been from a small bear, perhaps a yearling. She was less concerned about this animal than about the tick, and rightfully so. As long as all food (and other “smellables” such as duct tape and toothpaste) remained safely stowed in the metal bear-proof box, a bear will move on to greener pastures.

As we stood at the trailhead of Paradise Creek trail, Raven expressed concern about ticks. I explained what a tick does—hangs on to a blade of grass with its rear sets of legs, and waits with forelegs waving in the air for a mammal to walk by. Then it grabs on to the unsuspecting walker, climbs up their leg, and finds a good place to sink its jaws in and fill up on blood. I suggested various methods to reduce tick danger, and was in the process of tucking my pant-legs into my socks when a park ranger (maintenance employee) came walking down the trail. He had a toolbox under his arm, evidently making rounds to upkeep the signs and restrooms of these grand foothills. He asked if we were concerned about ticks and explained that our best tool for keeping them away was our eyes—check each other periodically, and remove the eight-legged crawlers. He then explained the ways of the tick, and described the same scene as I had, using almost identical words. This prompted Raven to joke with me as we walked “You rangers are all alike, what, do you all go to the same school?” (We go to different schools, but all who work as officially sanctioned interpreters partake in training, where all National Parks share the gospels according to Freeman Tilden and Sam Ham.)

Raven soon overcame her apprehensions about ticks and became immersed in the world of the foothills. The landscape was resplendent with canyon live oak and blue oak, with pink globe lilies and California Indian pinks in bloom. A tapestry of shrubs and short trees surrounded the waterfalls that rushed and crashed. A small butterfly landed on Raven's hand, and she took awe at its delicate form. She turned the camera upon her own beautiful figure in the landscape, and later took out her journal, and composed poetics on the beauty and life and death that surrounded her.

Raven would have been content to remain in the foothills for the rest of the trip, but she knew that I sought the big trees. She noted my bent towards masculine landscapes, like the giant trees, giant chasms, and giant volcanoes. She describes such landscapes, commonly associated with the large and famous National Parks, as macho to our perceptions, provoking a sense of awe at the size, power, and violence of earth and sky.

She described the foothills, in contrast, as more feminine, with their many subtle layers of beauty, and their nurturing of so much life. Her gendered distinction of landscapes may have some historical precedent. The National Park Service was slow to embrace feminism, especially for the giant landscapes, which were staffed exclusively by men for many years. Luckily, things have changed dramatically and increasingly since the 1970's, with women working all roles, from rangers to Regional Directors to the Secretary of the Interior!

Whatever the genders of the environments, I had many formative experiences in the worlds of subtle beauty in Vermont, Ohio, and West Virginia, but often seek the grand power landscapes for a vacationer's “wow.” And so we went to the mighty trees. We began at the Giant Forest Museum, and with some guidance and a purchased map from the natural history association person inside (solicited by Raven), we commenced a hike to the General Sherman tree, approximately three miles there, and three miles back. General Sherman is the largest tree in the world, by total volume of wood, by official calculations.  Raven predicted that General Sherman would not be dramatically different from the other trees, but took up the hike anyway, with humor.

It was good to be reminded of how small I am, when dwarfed by trees as tall as 26-story buildings, wider than city streets, heavier than battleships, and armored with craggy bark. The felt trees, with their splayed roots many times as wide and tall as myself. I felt like a character from the Twilight Zone, or from an early 1960's Marvel comic book, one of those would-be conquerers of another planet who lands and discovers he is only two inches tall, when compared with the locals. I felt like I had entered a Swamp Thing graphic novel and now stood before the Parliament of Trees, the ancient guardians of Earth, awaiting judgement of whether I was worthy to walk in their prescence.

The giant forest was much dryer than the foothills, and had fewer wildflowers. It was eerily quiet, and reminded me of the mountain hemlock forests found at Crater Lake National Park. Wildlife was here, but most of it stayed hidden. We encountered a group of deer, resting at trailside, who slowly rose and trotted off as we passed by. We encountered Douglas squirrels, and some of the common corvid birds, ravens and Stellar's jays. We encountered more tourists. After our trek through the deep woods, we reunited with our own species, which meant that there were cars nearby. Also nearby was General Sherman—like most big wonders of National Parks, one could drive almost right to his doorstep, with a short walk on a paved path at the end. 

Raven's prediction came true. She bears no relation to Nostradamus, only a keen perception to the workings of the human mind. General Sherman was a great tree and a wonder, but so was the entire forest. I wasn't convinced that he was bigger than the other trees, being that I felt so small next to his brothers and sisters. Raven jokingly speculated that the National Park Service simply chose one tree to be the largest, rather than basing their claims on measurements. Despite these observations, I had been a fan of The Guiness Book of World Records as a youngster, and never fully lost the human fascination with superlatives. I was proud to stand, in real life and in living color, before the world's largest tree. Singularly and unequivocally, the biggest.

Downhill, on the way back to the campsite, Raven made especial use of the car's lower gears, labeled as “2” and “L” on the Toyota. Trained to drive in Los Angeles, Raven had never known what the lower gears were for, and neither had Solana. Until this trip. I taught her the ways of the lower gears, as my parents had taught me, in the hilly country of West Virginia. Despite the warnings in the Sequoia park newspaper, despite the brown sign which adorns an especially treacherous part of the mountain highway, depicting a gear-shift, and highlighting the lower gears--many Americans have forgotten that even an automatic transmission vehicle offers a choice of gears. And yet, we are wise to learn to use them. The park newspaper said it well: “Frequent braking causes overheating and brake failure. Instead, always down shift when going downhill. In automatic vehicles, put the gear shift on 1, 2 or L. The engine gets louder, but it will save your brakes.” Maybe Miranda Lambert was premature in mourning the loss of gear-shifting. There are contemplative worlds where one can escape the automatic and digitized frenzy. Some of these places are National and State Parks.

Painting of eruption of Mt. Mazama (which became Crater Lake) by Paul Rockwood, public domain. Hulk and Thor artwork copyrighted to Marvel Comics, low-resolution reproduction used here for educational purposes only. Solo photo of Ross by Raven Shade Brookner. All other images by yours truly.

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