Failing Upward

August 13, 2005
Filed under Travel

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What I remembered from my childhood visit to Sequoia National Park were giant reddish trees

whose “shaggy bark” made my young mind think the trees were growing their hair out. I had

had a similar anthropomorphic assessment a couple years earlier when I’d seen three

Dalmations and declared, “Look, those dogs have pimples!” Of these naive observations, I am

neither proud nor ashamed, but I was reminded of the “long-haired trees” recently as I

walked among them for the first time as an adult. It is amazing how much our perspectives

can change. As a kid, the shaggy sequoia trees proved to be both fine objects to hide

behind and good slalom poles to run around. Oh, yeah — and they were tall, too. But the

world’s largest living creatures — the giant sequoia, or Sequoiadendron giganteum –

seemed to take on far more significance as I walked along the Congress Trail in the heart

of the park, a three-square-mile area called Giant Forest. Perhaps my recent 40th birthday

had something to do with my freighted outlook; the trip to Sequoia was my first trip since

the onset of my fifth decade, and there seemed like no better place to mull big-picture

stuff than Sequoia. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I have a bad back that doesn’t

prevent me from participating in most athletic pursuits, but certainly does cut activities

short once it shouts “hello!” The most bizarre aspect of the bad back is leg pain that only

occurs when I’m walking or running downhill. Since I used to love to hike, and since I miss

high-country backpacking, I didn’t consider the gentle slopes of the Congress Trail very

challenging. A hike, in my mind, cannot occur on a paved surface. So I veered onto the more

demanding Trail of the Sequoias, a 5.1-mile loop that has a moderate degree of difficulty.

Upward I headed, the spongy soil giving slightly beneath my boots. Sunlight slanted through

gaps in the ever-so-high canopy, and shadows that stretched to forever seemed to lie across

the forest floor. I saw two deer feeding silently. I was hoping against hope that my

downhill return trip would not be painful. But as I sat on a boulder and looked across a

beautiful valley, I knew in my tendons that the route back would hurt. I was right. No more

than 100 yards from my snack stop, my leg started acting up. But since I did manage to

shuffle my way back to the parking lot, I decided the pain was worth the payoff. Hiking

would no longer be a smiling gambol through the woods, but I enjoyed the outdoors and the

exertion too much to abandon the pursuit. That night by the campfire, as I listened to the

rustlings of the other campers in Lodgepole Campground, I read about Moro Rock, the giant

granite monolith I had seen in publicity shots of the park. To ascend it required a climb

– not a rambling, sometimes-level hike — since those who would perch upon Moro Rock’s

summit succeed only by surmounting about 400 steps cut into the granite. The vertical gain

was only about 300 feet, but the trip sounded a little like climbing a ladder. I wasn’t

worried about the ascent. I decided the next morning to pretend I had no choice but to

climb Moro Rock, to act as though my life depended on me getting up and down safely, to

conceive of no other possibility but success. I don’t know if the two dozen other climbers

I saw milling about in the parking lot had blackmailed themselves with similar delusions,

but I fell in line with them and soon began to climb. Up we went, a huffing procession of

young and old. From the languages and accents I heard hikers heading down speak, and the

breathless words those step-step-stepping upward with me emitted, I sounded like the only

American. A few extremely fit Germans zipped up, saw what they needed to and passed me

again before I reached the summit. The granite trough, with hand rails and man-made steps,

has small landings occasionally, and on one of them an Englishwoman tried to convince her

man that she really was afraid of heights — she had just never realized it until then. The

best part about the hike, I think, is that it seems dangerously exposed, as though

conquerors of the route should possess supreme mountaineering skills even to contemplate

such a feat. This, of course, is entirely untrue. On the summit, where I heard a few

Europeans declare that they’d never seen such spectacular views, I stood gawking with a

10-year-old boy and a couple of octogenarians with canes. This was definitely not Everest.

It was, however, beautiful and life-affirming.

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