When you don’t know where you’re going, you leave a lot of room for surprises. Right until the last minute, I wasn’t even sure what direction I’d be heading on my six-week road trip. I had a vague idea about driving through as many Indian reservations as I could, but that was it. There was a powwow in North Dakota happening in a few days, but heading straight there would mean a lot of backtracking at a later date, and I’d still miss the opening ceremonies.
The more logical route was to drive up the West Coast and then cut across the country from there. Unfortunately, there was a heat wave going on and most of the national forests in Northern California had just been closed on account of wildfires. Sequoia National Park was still open, so I decided to head there first, which proved to be a fortunate choice since the highway running through it would be shut down only a few days later.
Since I’d been living in a pop-up camper for a year and a half, there wasn’t much I needed to invest in, outside of a tent, which I picked up at Big-5 for forty dollars. I threw it in the trunk along with a sleeping bag, a few blankets, two pillows, a yoga mat to use as a pad, a small suitcase and my ukelele. In front, I had an Atlas, a few books about Indian tribes and wildlife, two notebooks, a lantern, a flashlight, and a blue cloth cooler.
The plan was to fly, to hit the road and not stop driving until it was time to return the car. It was the perfect time of the year to be hitting the road, heatwave, and wildfires aside. The days were still relatively long and the weather across most of the country would be mild. Just looking at the blue Kia made me happy. God could have not designed a better vehicle for my journey. I could almost see the wings sprouting from its sides.
At around 10:30, assuming by now that the worst of rush hour had passed, I said goodbye to my mother and hopped in the car, racing up to PCH, and then taking it north to Seal Beach Boulevard, passing the beaches and blue waves of Huntington and Bolsa Chica, where I’d spent much of the pandemic surfing.
There is a story about a Chinese farmer who owns a beautiful horse. One day the horse runs away. The neighbors say, oh, how unfortunate, but the farmer refuses to acknowledge any event as being truly good or bad, because no one can know how things will work out in the end. Later, the horse returns with a dozen wild horses. Oh, how fortunate. Then the son of the farmer tries to mount one and breaks his leg. Oh, how unfortunate. Lastly, the soldiers of the king come by conscripting all the young men for a war that the son is forced to sit out because of his broken leg. Again, how fortunate. Really, in the end who can say what is good and what is bad?
That is a little like how the pandemic played out for me. I’d gotten a job in Vietnam that I needed to evacuate from. Then I had a seizure and lost my driver’s license. I moved into a popup camper behind my mother’s cottage. There was no chance of finding a job or making money. I had no option but to start surfing. After time, however, I got my license back. Then I started getting unemployment money. Before too long I’d paid off my debts. Now I was off on this road trip. Who can say what is good and bad? Who can truly say?
From Seal Beach Boulevard, I got on the 405 heading north, and the traffic was flowing, even up around LAX where it usually jams up regardless of the hour. I passed Washington and Venice and the apartment where’d I’d lived with my brother for seven years. Those had been good times. Someday soon I’d need to stop in at the Cinema Bar and say hello. In addition to being one of the smallest honky-tonks out west, it’s also one of the best.
I needed to slow down a bit when I got to the 10, but then things sped up again and I flew past the Getty, merging onto the 5 and racing past Santa Clarita and Magic Mountain. Before long I was climbing up the Grapevine, the yellow hills burnt black as toast by recent wildfires. Then I was descending down the other side and getting into the far-right lane to take the 99 towards Bakersfield. What a stretch of road that is; flat, desolate, hazardous, only occasional stretches of fruit trees to break up the monotony.
Bakersfield approached like a blight on the horizon, trapped somewhere between being a small city and a dirty suburb. There is country music history there. Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace. Merle Haggard Way. Outside of that, not much, until you get up to the Kern River and start heading west towards Lake Isabella.
I’d been diverted to the 65, perhaps preemptively, by signs pointing to Sequoia Park. That led me through fields of oil derricks, pumping away at the land like black waterbirds. Those eventually gave way to orchards. The gas gauge on the Kia was already down to half and had me worried, but when I stopped at a gas station to top it off, found that twenty dollars was more than enough. Relief. Relief. Things could be much worse. A LOT worse. I grabbed a sandwich and Monster energy drink and kept driving.
After passing Exeter, I got on the 198, and knew I was getting off the beaten path when I came across a large redwood sculpture of the head of John Muir and another of two Indians and a buffalo, staring out of the same stump. These were around Lemon Cove, in the vicinity of The Big Orange, which was a fruit stand, selling grapefruit, peaches, honey, olives, and jelly. I got out and took pictures then continued on to Lake Kaweah, which sat in a low valley, surrounded by parched hills. Good thing I would soon be setting up my tent beneath a canopy of sequoias, or so I thought.
After passing through Three Rivers, it was just a few miles to the entrance of Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks. There was a young woman working the gate who had two surprises for me. The first was that due to COVID they no longer accepted cash. I had to use a credit card for the Park Pass, which was still a good deal for eighty dollars, especially since it cost thirty dollars for each park, and I planned on visiting all of them I could.
The second surprise, which was harder to swallow, was that I had to have a reservation to camp in one of the campgrounds. I couldn’t just drive in and claim any site that was open, as I’d always done up until now. A sign claimed that all of the campgrounds were full, which struck me as suspicious, having seen no cars on the road or at the entrance when I arrived. I’d have to turn around and head back to Lake Kaweah. There’d been plenty of open spots there.
The campground at Lake Kaweah looked like a construction site, with the hot sun perched up on the hills, still casting a blinding light. There was no one else there. The best spot I could find was beneath a leafless tree on hard-packed mud. It wasn’t until I got my tent set up and took a long walk that the sun began to set and the day cooled off.
One tool I’d used to survive the pandemic was meditation, or my own version of it. I’d never been able to rid my mind of thoughts but had created a regimented breathing pattern that I added some relevant prayers to. If I could make it through those, I could sit still. Without any structure, my eyes would pop open, and I’d just jump up and start doing something else. One goal of the trip was to find new settings to sit and be still in. If I couldn’t stop my thoughts, I’d at least try to tune it to what was happening in the moment.
The first evening then, after setting up camp and walking off the last of my restless energy, I sat down on the picnic table by my tent and began to breathe. Who was I? Where was I? Birds chirped all around. A beating of wings came rushing by. From a distance, I could hear a car approaching. It pulled into the campground. Gravel crunched beneath its tires. It had seen enough. It was backing up. A crow began to caw. Some bird was drumming on a branch. Insects were whirring all around my face. They were trying to mess with my plan, fly up my nose. I sat rigid and resisted.
Around the time I was ready to wrap things up, a bird began screeching over my left shoulder. I opened my eyes and turned in time to get a glimpse of it, a blue upper body, grey below, a black beak and bands around its eyes. I’d brought an Audubon guide to the flora and fauna of California, so turned to the section on birds and identified my new friend as a scrub jay.
On the same page was another bird, bluer than the first, that I immediately took a liking to. The mountain bluebird. It was as blue as my blue Kia. The Kia needed a road name. It became the Mountain Bluebird. I saw us flying over the mountain ranges and plains of America together. We would fly like a storm cloud, like a bolt of lightning, all around the country, faster than the wind.
After the sun went down, the stars came down from the sky and hovered over the dark landscape like clusters of celestial grapes. I’d done some amateur stargazing during the pandemic, but now could hardly pick out a reference star. The sky was too thick with them. I was laying on my back, looking up into the heavens, when I heard some heavy boots approaching on the pavement. It was a ranger, wondering if I’d paid my fee for the night. At Lake Kaweah there were no reservations required. He saw the pay stub fastened to the site post and wished me a goodnight.
Before he left, I asked if he could direct me to the Big Dipper. He strained his eyes upward for a good long while, but eventually had to admit defeat. That was OK. I was just asking, not testing him.