When I was nine-years-old my dad had a lot of work in Washington D.C. and he would occasionally bring the family along on his trips. We would take a robber baron-dated Amtrak from New York to D.C. and stay at the pinnacle of luxury for a nine-year-old known as The Embassy Suites in Bethesda, Maryland. There were few things better in life as a nine-year-old than staying at the Embassy Suites.
When I stayed in the kind of tropical resort known as the Bethesda, Maryland Embassy Suites, there were few things I ever needed in life after that magical experience. I would say that Embassy Suites was a close second to Six Flags in terms of the potential for greatness that the human experience had to offer. Whether I was jumping on a bed covered in starchy sheets, revealing room service chicken tenders from beneath a metal saucer of a heat cover or sprinting laps around the perimeter hallways, I’m pretty sure it was the happiest I ever possible reached as a child. Forget about everything else, if I was nine and staying at an Embassy Suites I don’t think life got much better.
Twenty years later and my family’s annual roller coaster pilgrimages have been replaced by hunt to visit all 59 national parks in the country. When I realized that traveling to Northern California to see friends, family and Pinnacles National Park had the potential for an Embassy Suites stay, my life had gone full circle.
Pinnacles is located around two hours south of the San Jose airport and on first glance – like an Embassy Suites – it doesn’t seem all that special when you get your first glance from the parking lot. You have to really dive beneath the surface and explore both locations to find their truest majesty. Pinnacles looks like a bunch of really cool rock formations jutting out of a chaparral forest. The history behind the place has something to do with being the leftovers of an ancient volcano that moved a few hundred miles into the Central Valley because of the San Andreas Fault that will kill us all someday. But when you first look at the thing, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be as special as it is. You might be misled by the bland glass exterior of the Embassy Suites, but you really have to step inside to see what you’re missing.
There are two roads that lead to Pinnacles, one from the west off the 101 and one from the east that isn’t close to anything, except maybe San Jose, California, but I don’t think that counts. The roads don’t intersect within the park so you need a really trusty Uber driver who will go 60 miles out of his way if you want to do a one-way hike. The highlight on the drive was driving through Gilroy, California, which is the garlic capital of the country. In the same way that diabetics seize up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Gilroy’s garlic-scented air can proudly proclaim itself vampire-free. We entered Pinnacles from the east, parked at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and set out on the 5.3-mile loop along the High Peaks and Condor Gulch Trails.
Pinnacles National Park was one of those trips that was excellent because of the day we saw it. We went on an empty Wednesday in March with 60-degree weather, no crowds, green hills and rare wildlife sightings. We could’ve gone to the exact same place at the height of the drought and been miserable. Instead, we climbed along staircases carved out of the Pinnacles with nothing but a thin railing separating us from a vertical drop-off hundreds of feet below. We had to duck our heads to squeeze between boulders on the trail. We switchbacked up the rocks and had expansive views of both sides of the park with the snowcapped Sierras in the extreme distance. And that would’ve been cool enough but then we saw the condors.
We were at around 2700 feet of elevation when we crested another one of the staircase-carved boulders and saw four of the last-remaining California Condors in the world sitting sentry atop the mountain. Listed as extinct in 1987 (there were only 22 alive in the world at the time), the last handful were captured, nurtured and slowly reintroduced back into the wild. Today there are 128 California Condors flying over the state, each of them tagged and tracked like a kid with anxious parents, and we were lucky enough to see four of them. And then we got even more fortunate to see a glimpse into the future. We stumbled upon two soft-soften birdwatchers who were camped out all day to spot the birds. Basically, me in five years. They invited us to use their binoculars to see the birds up close.
These things were huge and vulture-like. They looked like they were wearing giant trench coats and when they flew overhead their nine-foot wing span let you know you were in trouble. California Condors are the largest North American land-birds. They are scavengers without any fur on their faces making them some of the least-attractive creatures in the animal kingdom but also some of the coolest. Their appearance is the last thing on your mind when you see them circling and you’re low on water. Seeing Pinnacles National Park was good. Hiking across the park and spotting the four condors was amazing. Seeing Pinnacles, spotting condors and then two nights later traveling up to Northern California for a stay at the Embassy Suites was everything I could ever want in life.
We extended the trip a couple extra days to see family and friends in the area. This involved a day trip to the Marin Headlands over the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods a little further north. The views were amazing and redwoods spectacular but both of them paled in comparison to coming full-circle in life with our stay at the Embassy Suites.
I was happy to report that nothing has changed since my residency as a nine-year-old connoisseur of the Embassy Suites. You still walk inside and get hit with the overpowering odor of chlorine from the swimming pool and fountains. The depressing koi still call the atrium pools home. The diluted sunlight filters through the greenhouse ceiling. The breakfast buffet is still all-you-can eat with a line of sticky children pushing their way to the hot chocolate machine. You can get the signature Embassy Suites headache from forgetting what actual sunlight feels like. Annoying kids continue sprinting laps around the atrium while the hum of the ice machine keeps you up all night.
If that sounds like a miserable night in a hotel, you’d be sorely mistaken. It was everything I hoped it would be. It was the anti-AirBnB. It was the absolute peak of mediocrity and you can’t manufacture that kind of comfort. It was like drinking the perfect glass of milk. Just like their counterpart – the California Condor – there are only hundreds of Embassy Suites left in the world. They were added to the endangered species list only a few years ago but we all have to do our part to nurture them back to the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, nacho cheese plate happy hour and fax machine business center greatness that we all know they can be. And that is what makes the National Park Service the bastion of protection that we are all thankful to have, both as Americans and as Ambassadors to the Embassy Suites and California Condors in the world. It was truly a majestic trip.
Three years ago, on the cusp of starting my first grown-up, full-time, real, corporate adult job, we threw a bunch of friends in a car and camped near Big Bear for two nights. It was billed The End of Freedom Camping Party, and has since become an annual tradition whether the other campers know it or not. This year had the even better occasion of an imminent lay-off, and got to mark The Return to Freedom Party. I booked a mid-sized group campground five hours north of L.A. and invited people who will be beneficial to job hunting.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are on the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas, about an hour south of Yosemite. They were founded 126 years ago in order to protect a bunch of really big trees. Basically, a bunch of loggers and prospectors chopped down some of the oldest and largest sequoias in the world to prove to East Coasters that they were real. This is what it took before Instagram. Everyone thought the enormous trunks were a hoax, so the loggers got back on the Oregon Trail, battled dysentery, chopped down a few more barks and lugged them back across the country. The cycle continued until the government asked people to knock it off with the tree chopping and proving that they were real so that I could celebrate my unemployment.
We booked a group campsite near General Grant Grove, home to the world’s second-largest tree, and hosted varying degrees of first-timers and seasoned campers to spend the weekend. After going through all the options for food, cooking, activities and attractions, Jen and I reasoned the easiest choice would be if we bought and cooked everything and planned the full weekend for the entire group. The other options with a group of eight people were to assign meals, have everyone fend for themselves, or open up the park to hunting. Seeing as deer traps are forbidden in the national park system, we opted to become the camp parents for all our friends.
There is a huge amount of responsibility that comes with being camp parents. It means that the entire weekend falls on your shoulders. The whole three days of rest and relaxation comes with the looming pressure that any mistake is entirely your fault. Burned the corn on the cobb? That’s on you. Three hours of driving for nothing? There’s only Camp Dad to blame. Any crankiness, screw-up and disappointment feels like it’s your burden that needs to be fixed. Like a defender in soccer, you can have a perfect match, but one giant mistake is your responsibility.
On top of being camp parents, we also had to deal with Camp Aunt and Uncle on our trip to apply some pressure as well. While we had to be the killjoys in the name of logistics, they got to load up their car with cornhole, a hammock, gadgets, devices, solar powered phone chargers, a football and booze so that they got to be the fun ones. And then when the other campers got hungry and tired after all the fun games, it was our responsibility again. And Camp Aunt and Uncle got to be like, “Not our problem, we were just kicking back,” while we’re stirring chili with one hand and yanking out splinters with the other while keeping temper tantrums at bay.
Being Camp Parents also means learning and embracing a tremendous amount of patience that doesn’t exist on solo trips. When you’re backpacking alone, you can do exactly what you want at any time of day. But being camp dad means you have to be perfectly fine with being ready to leave and then having someone say, “I have to go to the bathroom.” Then when that person gets back, someone else says, “Y’know what? I have to go to the bathroom too.” And so on, until everyone in the group has individually gone to the bathroom. By this point, you really have to go as well, but you need to hold it in the name of a fictional schedule on which you triangulated coordinates with your Garmin watch.
Day two was a two-mile drive down a dirt road to Redwood Mountain Grove. We made it a mile or so up the Sugar Bowl Trail, which was one of the best finds in the park. The trees in this part of Kings Canyon didn’t have the same reverence as their larger brethren, but the hidden turn-off and dirt road kept the tour buses away. If I’ve learned anything from this aimless goal of seeing every national park it’s that I’ll sacrifice beauty in the name of avoiding crowds. One foot of a giant sequoia is worth ten selfie sticks.
Any fantasies I had of being on the trail by eight to complete the six-mile loop before lunch were altered in the name of being the stupid, happy-go-lucky camp dad. One person has to stop at a tree to take a picture, and then everyone wants the same picture, and then, yeah, I kind of want the picture too. So eight pictures on eight cameras later, it was time to turn around because I wanted to show everyone Kings Canyon.
What I thought was a 30 minute drive to a beautiful and lush meadow stretched into a 90-minute winding slog through the barren and drought-stricken Sierras. With everyone ready for lunch, a more lenient camp dad would’ve stopped at the idyllic Hume Lake. Families were playing in the water, there was a well-stocked store and tables that overlooked the reflecting water on a warm mountain day. Instead I gunned it past the beautiful water because we had a schedule that needed adhering. I watched the temperature climb into the triple-digits as we descended the inferno of Kings Canyon and heard stomachs rumble as it ticked into the afternoon.
And as much as it looked like it was going to be a disaster, the best part about being camp dad is the stuff that doesn’t get planned. The meadow was too far away and the trails were too hot to hike, so we made our way into the river that runs through Kings Canyon and that was the afternoon. That was it. No plans, itinerary, schedule, maps. It was throw everyone in the water, and it was absolutely perfect. Obviously I’ll take all the credit for how well it went even though I never would’ve just sat in a river for two hours if it were a solo trip. And the best part was that it tuckered everyone out so that, being the camp parents, we could get some sleep that night.
We loaded back into cars and climbed three thousand feet of elevation back to the campground. We then tore each other to shreds and undid any feelings of goodwill by playing a round of a game called Avalon. This mafia-type exercise in lying and accusations generates all the nice feelings of a witch hunt, while also allowing you to destroy all your friendships. We declared a truce in a two-mile evening walk to the General Grant tree. A family of deer pranced along our route to pose for a couple of pictures before camp mom knocked some chili out of the park. Everyone passed out because I dragged them up and down some mountains in order to snap some pictures.
Our way out of the park took us along all the touristy sites through Sequoia National Park, which are great for a first visit and should be avoided thereafter. The General Sherman tree (largest in the world), Giant Forest and Moro Rock were swarmed with crowds who were shuttled along the excellent and free bus system the park set up. It’s a little surprising to find that one of the best public transportation systems I’ve ever seen is in Sequoia National Park. Everyone held their lunch together as we drove down the switchbacks from 7,000 feet of elevation down to the 108-degree foothills that are going to go up in flames any minute now. Four hours later, we were back in Los Angeles doing everything we could to remember the idyllic river from the previous day.
As terrified as I am about being an actual camp dad to real-life, tiny human beings at some point in the future, it’s nice to know that all I have to do is constantly worry about an army of people having a good time while dealing with any issue, injury, problem or surprise that’s going to spring up at any second. There is little reward, satisfaction and payoff that comes with the job. And compared to the freedom that comes with grabbing a backpack and heading off on a giant trail on your own schedule, it’s a completely different trip. So enjoy that leisurely bathroom break, refill the water bottle a few more times, sleep in a little late, and snap as many extra pictures as you want. But if I hear one more word of complaint, I am turning this car right around. Thanks for a great trip, everyone, and get off my lawn.
I can’t tell if the Sierra Nevadas are the most beautiful place on Earth or if it just feels that way because you arrive there via Fresno. Either way, there is a decent collection of mountains, lakes, rivers and volcanoes a few hours from L.A. and it never hurts to spend a weekend camping when Southern California is on fire.
Everyone told us Lassen was better than Yosemite, which I refused to believe. If Lassen was better than Yosemite then I would’ve heard of Lassen. There aren’t many poems and works of art about flying into Sacramento. But after this trip I can unconfidently say, yes, Lassen is better than Yosemite. In fact, out of all the national parks on this silly adventure to see them all, Lassen might be the best of the bunch.
That’s not to say it’s the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, it doesn’t come close. Zion and Yellowstone can smite down Lassen like a freshman trying to sit at the senior table. But it has all the beauty, scenery and relaxation of the best parks in the system without the tour buses. Lassen isn’t the most jaw-dropping national park in the country, but in terms of getting out of town and camping in paradise for a weekend, it’s hard to beat. When we crossed the Canadian Rockies, traversed Yosemite and Zion, we were racing motorcades of tour buses and getting elbowed by tourists and poked by selfie sticks. Lassen is a few hours away with a tenth of the visitors (400K to 4 million), even though we make up the deficit by hitting the car alarm button the middle of the night.
We started the trip with what’s becoming my latest national park pastime: dodging suicidal animals with an SUV in the dark. This time the West Texan bunnies were replaced by Northern California deer. The one-hour drive up the mountain at 9pm was spent slamming the brakes as antlers and eyes darted along the side of the road like an 80s arcade game. Sort of like a Grand Theft Auto version of the E.T. Ride.
Day two we lucked out with the Bumpass Hell trail by arriving on the first day it was open for the season due to snow and ice, which, I apologize for this, meant we got to throw snowballs in Hell. It was a three-mile hike to one of the largest thermal vents outside Yellowstone, which belched up steam like a Turkish bath. We took the King’s Falls trail along a creek that cut through some meadows. Then circled Manzanita Lake doing our best to hope that none of our tens of thousands of mosquito bites contained any Zika.
Per usual for any national park adventure, the largest group of visitors were from Germany. I have no idea why this is, but anywhere we go in the world – Vietnam, Australia, the furthest reaches of Texas and the Sierra Nevadas – we always encounter people on vacation from Bavaria. I have a feeling that if we were to spelunk down an ancient cave in Central America and push aside a hidden door to find Mayan ruins leading to an untouched palace, waiting for us would be a guy named Hans telling us about a great schnitzel place in Munich. I’m pretty sure there are no Germans in Germany, but rather roaming the world with a sensible supply of sunscreen and hiking poles.
On day three we took the long way back to the airport, driving north on the Volcanic Legacy trail with Mount Shasta 50 miles in front of us. It was a quarter-mile hike through the pitch black subway cave, which provided some excellent opportunities to scare the hell out of people (“What’s the date? No, the year. The year!!!”). Then one more hike at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park. The falls were around an hour north of Lassen and looked like someone took a small chunk of Brazil’s Iguazu falls, or the setting for a reality show date, and stuck it in Northern California.
But the best part of the morning was definitely admiring the small coalition of Pacific Crest Trail hikers we encountered. As they took down camp, filtered water and lifted 50 pounds on their backs in the midst of their 500-mile hike, I checked the tire pressure in my Avis rental and ensured we hadn’t lost our phone chargers. Pretty much equally badass.
All-in-all it’s way better to be underrated than overrated. You can do whatever you want, you’re never accused of selling out and you avoid the downfalls to fame and celebrity that comes with being overrated. The Grand Canyon is super sexy, but it’s dealing with the drug addiction, STDs and recklessness that accompanies fame. Meanwhile just a few hours away from L.A. and S.F. is a little indie rocker putting on an amazing show and couldn’t care less if you notice or not. Even if the only other people at the show are a group of loyal Germans who you see at every single show.
This shouldn’t be a nostalgia day. It’s a perfect seventy degrees in the Southland while NYC is getting knocked with those freezing water rain pelts (I think there is another word for this).
I was just thinking about how all the fun has been taken out of reading ever since I moved west. This is partly due to the fact that no one reads books on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, so you can’t really talk about anything you’ve read, and – most importantly – appear intelligent. I think the thing that’s missing most, though, is that I no longer have subway car doors to race when the end of the chapter is in sight.
This is much more exciting than it should be, yet with all the competing media to get my entertainment dollar, it’s freaking awesome. The drama starts a few stops before you get to where you’re going. Let’s say you turn the page and it’s a full block of text without any of those little dot things (again, probably a word for this) to break up the page. And no one wants to put their bookmark between two pages full of text. That’s insane. In-sane.
But then you turn the next page and see that the chapter is over in around seven paragraphs. Then the conductor says your stop is next, and IT. IS. ON.
This is Waiting for Superman times a thousand. We can get kids to read without having them get smarter or ditch their video game mentality. I never absorb a single word under this kind of pressure, but I sure as hell am going to have my eyes cross every single letter. That’s part of the game. There are no cheat codes when it comes to beating the subway doors to the end of the chapter.
Unfortunately, the closest equivalent to this in L.A. is trying to read without getting into a ten-car pile-up on the Santa Monica Freeway. While fun, the risk-reward ratio is obscene.
The bus isn’t the same. First, no one can read on a bus. L.A. is pot-holed enough, and the city decided to save money by not adding shock-absorbers to the Metro fleet. And things aren’t working out in your life well at all if you’re on the bus in the first place. You’e not going to sweep all those problems under the rug because you got your hands on the New York Times Bestseller List.
This is motivation in its own right to build the L.A. subway to parts of town where people live and want to go. Sure, you can read and race the L.A. subway doors, but there isn’t all that much drama when the train is going to the corner of Western and Normandie before you have to wait an hour for the next bus to get your unemployment check. At least on the bright side, after you have received your last explanation of benefits, you have something to peruse for the long ride home.