For the sixth time in as many years, I'm headed to a special spot in the Sierra of eastern California to enjoy a few days of wandering, chatting, and relaxation with my Dad. Having found this place more than 30 years ago, it's now the only place he camps anymore.
If you recognize any of the places shown in the photos, please help to keep them special by not mentioning their names or locations.
This year - like all the others - would be wonderful even if all we did was hang around camp and enjoy the world around us. In fact, for the last five years, that's been exactly what Pops has done, a hip hindering his ability to cover the ground he once could.
But this time - for the first time since 2018 - Pops was headed a little further out of camp. A hip replacement last fall meant that he was feeling ten years younger. As a good son, I was quick to remind him that he still looked a year older, he reminded me that on a percentage basis, I'm only getting closer to his age.
At any rate, after setting a rendezvous time - that I'd somehow miss by an hour - at my favorite restaurant in the world, we both rolled in hungry for a Mexican feast.
The quesadilla supreme with chile verde, guac, rice and beans always hits the spot.
From there, we headed south - towards a road that would climb more than 6,000 feet into the heart of the Sierra National Forest - eager to see how the area had changed in the last 12 months, some three years after being decimated by the Creek Fire.
Plenty of ground cover was returning, and some areas still had a reasonable number of living trees.
Stripes of green and entire hillsides of gray.
Our approach to the camp site wasn't without a bit of excitement. The main road - which has been closed due to burned bridges the last couple of years - was still signed as such, but the US Forest Service has finally bladed a detour that afforded us easier access than was previously available.
Hopefully a closed road bodes well for our camp site being unoccupied!
An hour later, it was smiles all around as Pops pulled into his personal parking space, the camp site not only unoccupied, but seemingly unvisited since we'd left the previous summer! Not too much of a surprise given the charred landscape, but still, always a bit nerve wracking after making such a long journey!
No one else around, perhaps due to a lack of shade.
Half a dozen or more trees had fallen into the periphery and kitchen area of the camp site since our last visit. Hoping they'd deter other campers, we let them lay.
As usual, I set up on the edge. I'd question the intelligence of my decision before the end of our adventure.
By the time our sleeping, sitting, and eating arrangements - relaxation clearly low on our list of goals for this outing - were just so, it was nonother than dinner time. Soon, spaghetti and meatballs with a side of peas were bubbling away on the stove as I gathered a few fixings for the evening entertainment.
Short(-ish) exposure and long. (1/4 and 4 seconds)
I wasn't sure I'd be able to eat dinner after plowing through my favorite Mexican meal - along with two baskets of chips and the most delicious cabbage salsa - but it's hard to turn down spaghetti when you're Italian, and before I knew it my plate was wiped clean.
Chit chat followed, but not for long. I'd left home at 9:00pm the previous evening, and after 36 sleepless hours, I was ready to find a nice horizontal position in which to read one sentence of my Kindle before zonking out for at least two full nights of sleep.
Naturally, however, upon making my way down to the Tacoma, nature had other ideas. With no moon in they sky - and one of my favorite views in the world to the south - the Milky Way cascaded down from the heavens, its stream of stars suspended in space over the Sierra.
I couldn't help but spend a half hour dorking around with the camera. And those damn LEDs that Mike @mk5 introduced me to.
In the end, I think I actually liked this natural lighting the most.
The Following Morning...
I didn't quite make it to daylight before I had to get up and go to the bathroom. Actually, I didn't realize it at the time, but it was 5:30am when I climbed down the ladder to a half moon illuminating the forest around me. Once again, I couldn't resist the lights in the sky, and before climbing back up to my cozy nest for another three hours of shut-eye, I hauled out the tripod for a few more 8-second exposures.
No more Milky Way in this part of the sky, but the moonlight made it look like day.
I found you Milky Way, hiding in the other direction.
I didn't open my eyes again until just before 9:00am, well after Pops had been up and about for some time. Wandering from my sleeping arrangements to camp, we picked up where we left off, discussing this and that, marveling at our surroundings, and of course, chatting about whether this would be the day.
You see, a ritual of any visit to this special place would be the trek up Lost Knife Knoll. Unfortunately for Dad, a bum hip for the last four years meant that I'd been the only one heading up the hill since it'd been scorched by flames - a situation he hoped to remedy this year, having finally heeded my advice: the sooner you get a new hip, the longer you can enjoy it!
Soon, I was making turkey sandwiches that we'd take with us to the Knoll, because today *was* the day!
Underway, after a four-year hiatus.
Our gateway to wilderness.
On the right track.
As usual, our progress was not quick. I assure you that this was due solely to our ability to quickly distract ourselves with the world around us, and most certainly had nothing to do with one of us nursing a new hip, or either of us being the least bit out of shape. That's right, it was definitely neither of those.
One of the last columbine, gleaming in the mid-day sun.
This White-Lined Sphinx Moth was fluttering around on the ground, not long for this world.
A mile or two later, Dad got his first encounter with an old friend - the landmark we used to veer off the trail and up to Lost Knife Knoll - after being burned in the Creek Fire. I think he didn't realize it at first - wondering why I - leading the way - wasn't following the trail, but he soon realized and we spent several minutes paused in the shade of a nearby pine, taking in the changes that define our world.
Quickly returning to the earth.
The same tree, in 2018 (left) and in 2021 (right), a few months after burning down.
Up we go, some 500 feet of elevation between us and our lunch.
Enjoying the view of the watershed from a saddle just below our summit.
It was here that another landmark presented itself. On my first trip to this place - with Pops and one of his buddies, John - we'd reached a rocky ledge covered in manzanita. Looking at each other with a gleam in their eyes, one of the regulars pulled out a pair of pruning shears. "Get to work," they told me, "We've been waiting for someone a little younger to widen the path here for years."
If I'd only known at the time - a mere 10 months later, there'd be no shrub to prune.
A sooty skeleton, nicely trimmed by yours truly.
Nearly there, familiar sights in the distance.
Reaching the namesake of this wonderful place, Pops was giddy to say the least. To have missed it for so many years - after enjoying it for so many more - he immediately pulled out his phone to find an email he'd sent me a week or two earlier. An email written by his brother, on one of their trips decades before.
The one place with cell service.
Should you find yourself on The Dome we all know,
There's lies nearby a blade neatly stowed.
Yes, to the south you must drift on Lost Knife Knoll.
For this is the place where the knife lies cold.
Watch for the pine with no brethren of greater size,
Then look for the squaw and find the balloon so high.
Now it is time to take a careful aim,
Back up the hill till the tree bisects the same.
Find now the spot of the highest loft,
Where the Domes are both visible and the branches are not.
So, now, standing high on your lofty perch,
And facing the pine in your granite church.
Spread your arms and let your spirit fly high,
Then drop your left arm and point at your rock-covered prize.
It was the first time I'd seen the poem, and our smiles grew as we read through each verse, each one so perfectly describing a place we knew so well. In the end, it couldn't have been more perfect, Pops left arm left pointing at that special rock that he'd been anxious to see for so many years.
You may have a new hip Pops, but we both know who really lifted that rock.
There. It. Is.
Still in great shape.
And back in place for the next time we visit!
By this time - nearly 1:30pm - we were both hungry. Glad to have the turkey sandwiches I'd assembled a couple hours earlier, Pops pulled them out of his backpack while I set up a new toy I'd brought along for its maiden trip. Of course, even with the excitement of flying cameras, food comes first, and we were soon chomping our way through turkey, pickles, and home-grown sungold tomatoes as we gazed out at the glory around us.
After eating, a new - "higher" - perspective on a familiar scene.
I wonder what this button does?
I hesitate to call whatever the camera was doing as "flying" - or at the very least, I take no credit for its staying aloft - but we had a great time watching the little thing soar one way, then the other, hovering in place for photos and easily landing itself exactly where it'd risen from the ground at the press of a button.
And, with that, it was time to head back.
A final look north, plenty of snow still clinging to the southern faces this year.
As we picked our way down the decomposing granite hillside, we noticed this unusually shaped tree that - after two years of struggle - finally lost its battle with the fire last winter.
A Painted Lady was enjoying the late summer bounty.
High above, two Osprey thumped through a sea of blue.
As is often the case, down went faster than up, and before long we were crossing the bridge for the final climb from the creek to our camp site. It wasn't quite time for dinner, but it was definitely time for a bit of relaxation.
This river - and a glacier before it - have been hard at work for a long time.
For nearly the remainder of our trip, the days followed a familiar pattern. We'd wander here and there around camp, eat turkey sandwiches and chips, or simply move our chairs to follow the shade - nearly an exercise in futility with so many of the trees no longer contributing to the effort - until the sun began to drop below the rise to our west.
That - of course - was the cue for us to transition to our evening activities: more sitting around, more eating, and of course, flames.
A few flames and a bit of white light made for an interesting foreground; the sky provided its own illumination.
The Final Morning...
The final morning started only a couple hours after midnight. As pitter-patter of rain woke me from my blissful sleep, I happened to glance through the tent door towards my west. All of a sudden - no more than 200 feet away - sparks, a streak of white light and a simultaneous boom were enough to make me wonder if I'd made the last mistake of my life, parking out on the edge of a granite dome, my tent poles either acting as a faraday cage or an attractant to the super-charged clouds.
From that point on, sleep came in fits and starts - closely correlated to the stormy waves passing overhead. By 7:00am - sunrise - Pops was bringing me the chair I'd left in camp - it was time to head home!
Sunrise over Lost Knife Knoll, through a downpour.
A ghostly dome in the distance.
Even through it all, the camp site came out looking pretty good.
Never fun to put the tent away when it's *actively raining*!
It was a few minutes before 8:00am when we climbed into the trucks and showed ourselves out, the rain continuing to pound down for the first several hours of our journey home. It was only as we found ourselves a few miles from my favorite Mexican restaurant that we clawed our way out from under the clouds - a perfect excuse to stop for more cabbage salsa and a bit of chile verde for the road!
"You go first in case my Jeep needs a winch up." --Every Jeep owner when a Tacoma is around
The sunny view we'd gotten on the way in was a little different than the rainy one we got on the way out.
With all the rain, we forgot to take the traditional photo before leaving camp, so we took one once we got home, in the driveway.