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It's A Great Life: 47 - Way Out West

Jack Merewood recalled a splendid holiday in California.

In August 1958 we had a couple of weeks' holiday, so we headed west in our new Dodge. The next city of any size going west from Denver is Salt Lake, over the mountains then across Colorado and Utah. You can cover the 520-mile drive quite
comfortably in a day. After one night in Salt Lake City it was across the salt flats and the Nevada desert en route to Reno.
Sheila had passed her driving test and when we had a long journey I'd drive in the morning, she'd take over in the afternoon, then back to me in the evening. Back home just a few years ago we were looking for bakehouses for sale. Now here we were as free as the wind in our Dodge, Sheila driving as we sped across the seemingly limitless Nevada desert and I in the back seat taking a movie of her. We could hardly believe that this was happening to us.

A night in Reno, where in Harold's Club I once again hit a nickel jackpot, then south to Lake Tahoe. The border between the states of Nevada and California runs down the middle of the lake, and at the southern end is the Cal/Neva Hotel; not for us but frequented by many of the famous film stars. Frank Sinatra was a regular visitor and I believe at one time he owned, or part-owned, the hotel. Lake Tahoe is a beautiful stretch of blue water, twenty-two miles long by twelve miles wide with a maximum depth of 1,645 feet and all around its seventy-two mile shoreline are resort areas, and of course on the Nevada side many casinos. We took some good movies on the shore of the lake.

Driving from Lake Tahoe on the way to San Francisco we passed through the Californian state capital of Sacramento. We didn't stay, but were impressed by the beauty of the flowers and palm trees in the gardens surrounding the Capitol building. Then, after another seventy miles or so, we were in San Francisco. We had approached the Golden Gate Bridge in bright sunshine, then suddenly a heavy mist came in from the sea, almost obscuring our view of the prison island of Alcaraz.

We found ourselves among an amazing network of roads, some piled high on bridges one above the other, and with traffic hurtling all over the place. I was thankful for Sheila's expert map reading. Most daunting were the five miles of the Oakland Bridge. Eventually we made our way to the comparative calm of Fisherman's Wharf, though there we made the mistake of staying too late. Because of the frantic bustle of San Francisco we decided to drive out of the city before finding a place to stay; so we headed east, our destination Yosemite National Park.

It was getting dark when we left Fisherman's Wharf, but we found the road we needed, an extremely busy highway. We were caught unawares, however, by a fork in the road, chose left instead of right on the spur of the moment, tried to rejoin the correct motorway - and got lost. Eventually, more by luck than management, we found ourselves back on our motorway, but by now it was well after midnight and we were frustrated and tired. After driving for miles it was with a feeling of great
relief that we saw a town ahead of us, Tracy, and there was a motel. It was now 2 a.m. and the motel was in darkness. We
knocked on the door and a man appeared in his dressing gown. We apologised for getting him out of bed at this hour, but he was very nice about it, said he didn't mind and, best of all, he had a room for us. It felt like heaven, and in no time we
were in bed and asleep.

Next morning we had about a 100-mile drive to the entrance of Yosemite National Park, which is an area of 1,182 square miles covered with spectacular granite peaks, rivers and waterfalls. The largest of the peaks are El Capitan and Half Dome. The massive El Capitan stands 3,593 feet from base to summit. Apparently rock climbers come from all over the world to climb this mighty rock face - or rather, as they describe it, 'conquer' it. I wonder why people want to conquer nature. They really never do.

There are many many more of these granite mountains. Then there are the waterfalls. Bridal Veil Falls are spectacular as the
water spills down from the rocky heights, and we watched as the wind fanned it out like a veil, with, caught in the veil, a
rainbow. Bridal Veil Falls are the height of a sixty-two-storey building, but dwarfing them for height are Yosemite Falls,
tumbling down from 2,425 feet, the fifth highest waterfall in the world. These and many other falls empty into the Merced
River, one of the main rivers flowing through the six-mile-long Yosemite Valley. I took a movie of Sheila sitting by the river, and to add to the effect three ducks flew along and settled on the river just in front of her. It was a very hot day and we decided to take a dip in the river. There was a sign advising people not to dive in, and we immediately realised why, for the water was absolutely freezing, having fallen from such a high elevation. It was so cold it took our breath away - and in no time we had cooled down!

We didn't see all of Yosemite, how could we in a day; to see Yosemite properly one would need to spend a holiday there and do some backpacking. There is only one road that runs through the centre of the Park. A holiday for very hardy souls but we were very impressed by what we had seen.

Now we retraced our steps to the town of Merced and drove down the fruit-growing valley towards Fresno. There are miles and miles of orchards. Signs tell you that here are the Del Monte peaches and figs. The air was oppressive and heavy with the smell of fruit. We came to vineyards, with grapes growing right up to the roadside. We pulled over and got out and I was taking a picture of Sheila with her hands round a huge bunch of grapes when we saw a pickup being driven furiously towards us. The man jumped out, and we started to apologise and tell him we were only taking pictures. He laughed and asked 'Would you like that bunch?' Before we could answer he cut it off and another one too, and gave them both to us. They were delicious - but it took us at least the next three days to eat our way through them. At nights we filled the motel washbasins with cold water and laid the grapes in there to keep them fresh.

We drove on to Fresno and stayed there the night, but it was a poor night. There were a lot of mosquitoes, the atmosphere was hot and sultry, and the motel wasn't one of the best. The air conditioner in our room made so much noise that we found it hard to sleep. So we were glad to be up early next morning and soon on our way to King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, homes of the sequoia trees in the Sierra Nevada mountains. These trees grow nowhere else in the world except on the western slopes of the Sierras. In the High Sierras is Mount Whitney, at 14,495 feet the highest mountain in the USA, except for Alaska. King's Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park, to the south of it, are home to the giant sequoias. There are groves of these enormous trees in what is the main attraction of Sequoia National Park - the Giant Forest.
When this part of the North American continent was being colonised, the early settlers couldn't believe their luck when they saw all this timber, and with no thought of what they were doing, began to cut down trees that were often thousands of years old.

They could build whole villages from one tree. Mercifully, the Government became aware of this wanton destruction and passed a law to protect the remaining trees.

The biggest sequoia of all is in the Giant Forest is the General Sherman, 272 feet in height. It's age is estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,000 years. Over the years many trees have been scarred by lightning, but have suffered no real damage. There are the scars of forest fires too, but the trees withstand these, and apparently even welcome them, as they clear the ground of small trees around them. It appears that the only time these trees die is when they fall over, because their weight becomes too much for the ground on which they are standing. There are some fallen trees about, one actually spans the road which runs underneath it; and we ran the car lengthwise on to another fallen giant and parked there!

These wonderful sequoias were a sight not to be missed.
From Sequoia we took the steep and very spectacular road down Ash Mountain, going south through Bakersfield - which has the reputation of being one of the hottest towns in the USA - on our way to Los Angeles where we decided to stay a couple of days. We found a comfortable motel in Santa Monica overlooking the sea. We went in the sea but found that though it was very warm the beach sloped down steeply and the waves were quite big. Exciting, but not so much for Sheila as at that time she couldn't swim.


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