At the first light of dawn, I jumped up and began to take down the tent. It’s a wonder I’d managed to get it set up in the first place. It was its first time out of the box. The design was pretty simple. Two crossing poles provided the frame. The tent clipped onto those. Putting the tent stakes in was like trying to pound nails into concrete, however. Then the cord for the rain cover had gotten so knotted I’d almost pitched a fit.
In the light of day, I took a few breaths and managed to get it unsnarled. The tent was never going to fit back in the little bag it had come in. I just folded it up like a sheet and laid it in on top of everything else in the trunk.
Passing through Three Rivers, on my way back to the park, I took a picture of a totem pole and drove up to a museum. There was a redwood sculpture of Paul Bunyan, America’s legendary lumberjack, as well as a timeline that gave his birthdate as 1511 and had him moving to Porterville and opening a restaurant in 1962. Other, less notable, dates on it included the first Punic War, the fall of Rome, the discovery of California, the Civil War, and World War 1.
Back at the park entrance, there was a young guy on duty. He inspected the park pass I’d bought the previous day and had me sign the back of it. I asked him about the reservation system for the campsites. He gave me a website I’d need to reserve sites on if I wanted to camp at any National Park in the future. What was left of the land of the free when even camping was becoming a Ticketmaster event?
It took a bit of driving to reach the Giant Forest. When I did and had the road to myself it was like traveling back to a prehistoric age. Sequoia Trees live up to three thousand years and are some of the oldest organisms on earth. They can reach three hundred feet tall and almost a hundred feet around. Some of them were breaching the crest of the forest as I approached the visitor center and parked beside the Three Sisters. Sunlight was streaming down through the branches. The damp air smelled like pine needles.
A large sequoia known as the Sentinel was standing watch out front of the visitor center. Here, I discovered that the museum was closed, due to COVID, yet the gift shop was open, one of those paradoxes surrounding the pandemic that has yet to be explained. The implication seems to be that safety always comes first, unless there are large amounts of money involved. Even then, it can no longer be cash money. We have reached the living end.
What I really wanted was to get to the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world, not by height or even circumference, but by volume. I had been to the park before. I’d seen it more than once. Still, I needed to visit it again. It’s a celebrity among trees. Your trip to the park is not complete unless you make it to the General Sherman and get your picture taken in front of it. I continued up the Generals Highway until I reached the parking lot for the tree. Here there were more visitors, certainly not enough to fill all the campgrounds, but the greatest concentration of them, by far. I got out, already impatient, and made my way down the trail.
My mind was racing, leaping, and skipping down the road ahead of me, thinking of all I wanted to see on the trip, wandering how far I could drive that day. Once I reached the General Sherman I decided to try to slow down and sit and meditate in front of it. If my goal was to be in the moment, I was far from reaching it. My inclination was to run around the tree, run back up to the car, and just keep driving. No one else seemed to be of the same persuasion. They were taking their time, reading every sign, leisurely strolling, stopping for pictures.
The General Sherman is a big tree all right. There were a few benches in front of it. I sat down and tried to compose myself, drawing a few deep breaths. Then I shut my eyes. There was a group of senior citizens with a guide gathered around the sign in front of the tree. The guide was offering to take pictures. He knew everything about the history of the park. Did they know a socialist group of loggers called the Kaweah Colony had lived there in the 1890s and named the tree after Karl Marx? It was the Buffalo soldiers who came after them, employed by the park service, that renamed the most prominent trees for Civil War generals. My eyes fluttered open to put a face to this loud lecturer. Then I clamped them shut again.
A bug started buzzing in my ear. Loud wings flapped overhead. Some shoes came scuffling down the trail. Then there was the sound of wheels on a stroller – a couple telling their baby all about the big tree in front of them. The bug called for reinforcements. They began to dive bomb me in an attempt to shatter my serenity. My eyes cracked open again. A Chinese tour group was about to replace the first one. The senior citizens came shuffling past me. One man with a cane nodded and boomed out a greeting. Couldn’t he see that I was in my zone?
The General Sherman is the biggest tree on the planet, but bigger trees have come before. Perhaps, bigger trees will come after. In the grand scheme of things, three thousand years is not that long, but it’s still a small eternity compared to the life span of a human. Who was I sitting beneath the tree, growing older by the second? Where was my consciousness coming from? I couldn’t pin it down.
After completing my breath cycle, I jumped up and hurried back towards the car. On the way, I passed the senior citizens. They were pacing themselves, stopping to rest on benches along the way. The man with the cane recognized me and warned that the trail was all uphill from there. When I responded that it was just like life then, he laughed and agreed that there was a lot of truth to that.