The Freedom of Solo Travel
By Deborah Burst
Many believe the backbone of America’s beauty lies west in the majestic valleys and forests of California. Environmental greats John Muir and Ansel Adams worked tirelessly to preserve and protect its stunning landscapes, hiking the trails, morning and night, sharing the unabashed wilderness in their ever-present prose and photographs.
After years of studying these wooded wonders, I poured my passion for trees and nature’s calling into my book, The Magical World of Trees. It was then I discovered the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park in California.
So began a solo adventure like none other—a woman, a journalist, a photographer, past the age of 60, embarking on a cross-country adventure. One of the safest and most scenic forms of travel is by train, and so I chose to journey across a network of America’s finest: the Rockies, Ruby Canyon, and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The beauty was invigorating; every moment of wonder and discovery fed my mind. In complete control with no strict schedule, I moved freely, especially in the sleeper car. Like a nostalgic lullaby, the gentle rocking of the rails soothed my soul, and soon the inked sky exploded with tiny specks of light.
A haven for solo travelers, the observation car invited a cast of characters from across the world. There I met a young Austrian bicycling his way across the continents. We chatted for a good while, and I continue to follow his travels online.
Pulling into the train station in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, my journey moved from train to car. On the road to Cambria, an ocean-side hamlet, waves of cliffs topped with blankets of scarlet flowers joined windswept cedars and fields of golden blooms bowing down to the sandy shore and turquoise waters.
As the day ticked away, I spied the Hearst Ranch Winery in Paso Robles and pulled over to stock up on wine and a good dose of dark chocolate. After a white-knuckle journey climbing the narrow roads to my Sequoia cabin, it was time for dinner and a cocktail, but nowhere to eat.
Next door, a couple from France was equally famished, so I asked them to join me for a red wine/chocolate dinner. We had the most engaging conversation sitting outside on a picnic table while the sun set, its only competition a small candle. We talked late into the night about American politics and the future of the Sequoias.
Waking up to a new day, I was a bit nervous to tackle the mountain’s hairpin turns, but the fear quickly disappeared as the giants cast their magic spell. Thousands of years old, they are lords of their castle, an empire of deep green needles piercing the clouds. But they are more than a pretty picture, for they work in unison with those who worship them, filtering the polluted ozone layer, our lifeline to clean air.
My first stop was the General Grant Tree Trail. In early May, the chill is real, but the beauty is so bold that you forget the cold. Suddenly, the giants called out to me, begging me to pull over. There it was, a most exquisite spectacle reaching high into the clouds. My head was spinning, but I wasn’t the only one. A group of young men standing nearby shared my awe. They turned and looked at me pointing toward the heavens and gasping with the delight of schoolchildren. I waved back, wiping the tears, bewildered, almost paralyzed, trying to capture the moment.
I left the best for last—the giant sequoias in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. On my last day, as I wandered about, waiting to get a token shot of me in front of the General Sherman tree, a young man in line asked about my camera. His broken English heavily accented, he was a German traveling across America and taking photos along the way.
He then offered to take a photo of me standing in front of the enormous tree. I handed him my cell phone, and a two-hour friendship commenced. I don’t recall his name, but I remember his naivety, his politeness, and most of all, his hunger for conversation. Wearing a worn jacket and a wrinkled flannel shirt, his backpack seemed almost glued to his back, but he knew his way around a camera and photography.
Walking along the hiking trail, chatting was limited until we noticed a divine shot. Like a hunter stalking its prey, we pointed at the scene, changing angles, looking for the best lighting. Then came silence, except for the clicking of the cameras. After the shot, we grinned and re-holstered our cameras, our common bond coming into even sharper focus.
Making our way to the end of the trail, we came upon a steep incline. I couldn’t keep up with him; both the hike and the thin air were foreign to this New Orleans gal. Bent over, gasping for air, smiling, I motioned him to go on, but he stayed with me. Such a gentleman.
As we reached the parking lot, we exchanged pleasantries, pointing to the skies, the birds, the people, and we both knew it was time to say our good-byes. It was a delightful journey, albeit little conversation, but one that deserved more than a good-bye wave. After all, we both had just completed our lifetime dream to take photos of these wooded giants.
And then it hit me. Why not let the trees do the talking? Focused on the azure sky covered with treetops, I pointed to the heavens and wrapped my arms across my chest. A big grin covered his face, and he repeated the same gesture, offering his good-byes to both the Sequoias and to me.