California, USA, September 2011

When I arrived in California in September 2011, I first stayed in San Francisco for a couple of days to sleep off my jet lag and settle in. But as much as I love the place, I couldn’t wait till I would make it to Yosemite and get lost in the woods


San Francisco: Architectural mashup off Market Street.


One day I took the ferry to Sausalito, then walked to the Golden Gate Bridge and all the way back to the city. I like this view on the bridge, towering over those tiny cars like a huge robotic machine standing on two legs with its head up in the clouds. Majestic.


Less traffic, more cattle: The bus took me from San Francisco to Merced, then on to the Yosemite Bug Hostel, just a couple of minutes by bus from Yosemite National Park. I refrained from renting a car because I didn’t want to be responsible for it – I love travelling light and with empty hands, mostly. Not so easy while steering a car.


Set on a plateau up a hill in the woods, Yosemite Bug Hostel is a wonderful place, just some 20 minutes or so by bus or car from the entrance to Yosemite National Park. The hostel is attached to a resort so you get the cozy restaurant and the amazing location for a fraction of the price. If you’d like to have a bit more convenience than bunk beds in dorm rooms, you also find cabins and luxury tents there – and a health spa which may bring a nice reward after a long day hiking in the mountains. It’s one of my favourite hostels ever.


The restaurant of Yosemite Bug Hostel is more like a comfortable living room with leather sofas, a fireplace and some wild animals keeping an eye on things.


They even got a nice claret from the vinery of Francis Ford Coppola, not too bad.


The lobby is part of the restaurant, built against the slope of a hill so you feel like sitting amidst the tree tops. Bliss.


The day after my arrival I got up early to make my hike towards Half Dome through Yosemite National Park.


Half Dome, for many hikers the ultimate thrill, pleasure and reward of Yosemite National Park. Even climbing up is spectacular: See those tiny guys on the left working up the rails? Rangers install the handrails arbound May and keep them there till October or so. Climbing up in winter is unthinkable and it’s challenging enough in summer: The rise is really steep and I strongly suggest that you start some workout and aerobic exercise about four weeks before you start your trip. You can see the wooden bars that give your feet some hold, but in the gaps between bars, you just pull yourself along with the power of your hands. (There’s a box with sturdy gloves at the bottom of the rail which you can borrow for your climb. Take some.) Challenging as it is, climbing up Half Dome is very popular so there has been something like a rush hour on the rail in the past which is why you need a permit these days. You can book a permit online on the website of the park, they are quickly booked in summer so apply early, best as soon as you know when you’re going to come over. One last word of caution: Half Dome is as slippery as a huge block of ice when it rains so please don’t even think about climbing up when it’s wet. Please don’t. These things said, the climb is really worth the trip and the view from up there is spectacular. So be careful but enjoy it. It’s awesome.


Here’s one proud bastard for you: Not on top of the world but on top of Half Dome. Felt pretty much the same.


The view from Half Dome: When did my eyes ever see that far? Someone had told me that for the First Nations, everything in nature was divine. I was beginning to feel why.


Should I stay or should I vertigo?


I moved on from Yosemite to Sequoia National Park and stayed one night in Visalia, a small town some 80 miles south of Yosemite. When I got up early to catch my Greyhound bus to Sequoia, I got this beautiful sunrise over the Sierra Nevada as a reward.


I had bought my first tent ever at a REI store in San Francisco, and didn’t I pitch it right? I found out later that being 6’7″, a tent for two persons is actually too small for me, I had to sleep diagonally to fit in at all. Still, it was cozy enough, and you have to start somewhere, don’t you?


Black bears are active in wide areas in California, they usually don’t mess with humans but they love our food. (And toiletries like toothpaste, lotions and moisturisers.) That’s why every lot on camping grounds in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and around Lake Tahoe has a bear box: It takes all your belongings including big rucksacks so bears won’t be marauding through your tent searching for your Oreos. This is not just for your own protection, it’s also best for the bears. They are shy by nature and don’t care much about us, but they can get quite used to the tasty stuff humans leave in tents or on camping tables. They then lose that shyness and can get a bit miffed if they don’t find any delicatessen some day, especially in times of draught when there is little natural food for them – eventually black bears may then even attack humans which can make it necessary for park rangers to shoot them.


My first bear ever! I was on a path with other travellers when it strolled along, it got a bit grumpy as it wanted to cross the path with us blocking it so it pretended a very faint charge, more like a growl with one paw lunging through the air. Still, that was enough to scare the group so we all backed down a couple of steps and let it pass, disappearing in the woods in quest of a snack. Note to present and future hikers: As I said, black bears don’t pose much of a risk for humans – it’s a completley different matter with grizzly bears who may quite well attack you. If you think you might meet some grizzlies on your next trip, the Bear Safety page of Yellowstone National Park may give you an impression of what could be coming up. The most important piece of advice seems to be this one: DO. NOT. RUN. It triggers a bear’s predatory instincts – if it runs away, it must be prey. (Accidental rhyme.) Don’t.


My second bear ever! Just a cub actually, poking around in the ground for insects or so and not giving a s___ about those silly mammals that walk on two legs and got detachable fur (aka clothes).


Sequoia trees are some of the largest plants on earth, they can get several meters high and very old – some of the trees in Sequoia National Park are estimated to be about 2,000 years old. Walking between them gives you an amazing feeling of space, your feel like a tiny bug, and that’s actually quite uplifting. No walls, no crowded rooms, just mute giants, rooted deep in the soil you walk on and lifting their heads high up into the air. Between them: Just sunlight and silence.


In the mood for a proper cardio workout? Some 400 steps lead you up to the top of Moro Rock, a dome-like structure that gives you a spectacular view over Sequoia National Park.


Moving on to Lake Tahoe, my next and last stop on this trip.


It was late September when I moved on to Lake Tahoe, camping sites were really quiet and most of the lots were empty. I was travelling on my own and I seemed to be the only tourist who didn’t come with an RV but just a tent –  when I returned to my nylon home at night, most of the camping ground was pitch black and seemed deserted. All in all, camping like this was still a marvellous idea if you are willing to ignore the fact that it sometimes scared the s___ out of me.


But Lake Tahoe rewarded me during the day with the most beautiful views over sandy beaches  and snowy mountains. With a shoreline of some 72 miles and a depth of around 1,000 feet Lake Tahoe is huge, and you can enjoy yourself here all year: Swimming, sailing or water skiing in summer, snowboarding or skiing in the near mountains in winter, hiking whenever you like. Tahoe South is the town at the south end of the lake and seems to be a bit more busy with bigger hotels and some skiing lifts, I stayed in North Lake Tahoe which I found very cosy and easy going. If you want to feel the vibe of North Lake Tahoe before getting settled, maybe you’d like to take a walk around town and then have dinner at the Fat Cat Bar & Grill. Friendly place with good food, sometimes live music.


Flying back home – well, or not. I had flown from San Francisco to Newark and boarded a plane to Hamburg, we also had started from Newark and had been up in the air for half an hour or so when the plane returned: Water leaked from one of the toilets which is not optimal for a flying device full of electric cables so the pilot guessed it would be safer to bring the wheels down back in Newark. We arrived late at night, some of us heading to a near hotel, others not caring for the hassle and taking a nap at the airport. The airline gave us some vouchers for food and drinks so I strolled around, munching fries and sipping a Seven Up or so. Apart from the restaurants, most of the airport was empty and I was fascinated to see the long aisles and stores, silent and clean, void of hectic humand scuttling to their gates. I flew back in the early morning, feeling tired, excited and happy after an amazing trip.

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