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Often I am taken back to the one and only backpacking trip I organized.

My friend May and I had this idea, and, naturally, as soon as we had it, we decided that we must realize it. The idea was simple: take a few of our closest friends for a three-day backpacking trip to King’s Canyon National Park. So, we started calling and talking, and it soon became clear that some of our closest friends were dubious of our plans, having never done anything like this before. We revised our call list and started reaching out further, to old friends from high school, to people who were only loosely called acquaintances. Eventually, we pieced together our team: an old buddy from high school whom we hadn’t seen or talked to in several years, a city-dwelling SoCal friend from LA whose idea of being out in nature was grilling burgers in the back yard, an outdoorsy, socially-awkward gothic pyromaniac in a complicated friendship with my sister Liza, the said sister, May’s good friend Lei, athletic and energetic and willing to give us the benefit of the doubt for a couple of days, May and I.

In our group, there was not a single person who knew all of the other people.

May and I tried to think of everything that we might need on the trip. Before our departure, I helicoptered around each participant, making sure they had their sleeping bags, tooth brushes, warm socks, water canteens, and floss. We also had to avoid any aromatic soap or lotion, because there were bears in those parts of the Sierra Nevadas, and bears like smelly things. By the time we packed in the cars and headed towards the mountains, it seemed we were set.

The first night, after throwing all of our sleeping gear into the one large tent and sitting around the fire, soaking in the last bit of warmth before the deep and cold high-elevation night descended upon us, we discovered what was missing. In all of the hustle, I had forgotten my own sleeping bag. Following the groans and all inevitable remarks, we had to come up with a solution. The only thing we came up with, besides abandoning the trip altogether, was for me to sleep together with Liza in her bag. We could only fit into the bag if we both lay sideways, so Liza climbed in first, I squeezed myself next to her and then we had to zip the bag up. For this, we had to take in a deep breath and not exhale until it was zipped. On the count of three, we would inhale sharply, Liza would command, “Zip!” and I would try to pull up on the zipper. We figured out that actually, we take up less space with our lungs empty, so then we would exhale and Zip! It was very funny, shouting Zip! in the dark. We also had a few other commands worked out, like “Flip!” and “Rotate!”

The fact that eventually our whole group was giggling and snorting didn’t help our dire situation. Surprisingly, eventually we managed to encapsulate ourselves and actually fall asleep.

The first full day of backpacking was mostly uneventful. We stopped by the Visitors Center and picked up several large, brown barrels where we were to store all of our food items to protect them from the bears. This was mandatory for everyone entering the park for back-country camping. Despite the minor anxiety over the scratches and teeth marks on the barrels, morale was overall high and the adventurers were mostly normal. Towards night, we broke camp on a gorgeous outcropping overlooking the rugged valley of the park, with steeps peaks snow-capped in the distance, and a gurgling creek terminating in a spectacular waterfall 20 feet from our tent. We joked around about not sleep walking on this cliff, and attempted to settle for the night.

Well, more Zipit! silliness ensued, followed by complaints that we set the tent up on quite a steep incline, as a result of which, at every movement, the people uphill slid towards the people downhill. The tent wasn’t that big in the first place, and with seven of us already packed in like sardines, people started slipping on top of each other. At one point in the night Liza and I woke up after another failed iteration of “flip!”, and found the other five campers piled on top of us, all bunched up together in the lowest part of the tent, snoring and sighing in their sleep. Shoving sleeping people in the dark up the hill of our tent floor was another adventure altogether.

Later that night, when everyone was back to wheezing peacefully, a piercing “Die, vermin, die!!!!!” jolted us awake. The pyromaniac goth, with his uncharacteristic expression of emotion, jumped out of his sleeping bag and rushed outside. The sleepy sister, who crawled out a bit later to inquire, found him sitting on the edge of the cliff, a lighter in one hand and a tick in the other. Apparently, the tick had nuzzled into his back during the night, and now it was time for sweet revenge.

The following morning, as we packed up and headed further along the trail hugging the cliffs, I could sense a sort of unraveling happening. May and Lei were perfectly happy and oblivious, while our friend from high school and our friend from LA were showing the first symptoms of civilization withdrawal. They were anxious about toilet paper and surprised that the only thing on our agenda for the day was to walk some more and enjoy mother nature. After his explosion during the night, the goth friend was back to his sullen self, but more withdrawn than usual, Liza was suffering from deep mis-communications and drama that was mostly in her head, and I was concerned about the bears.

Another eventful night and the next day brought an end to our exotic adventure. I think we were all more than a little relieved. Looking back, though, memories tint the trip many different colors. I took away the breathtaking grandeur of Kings Canyon and the wonder of how people we seemingly know can be transformed in unfamiliar settings. May remembers the silliness. Liza remembers the turmoil and brands the experience as the worst backpacking trip of her life. Jason remembers the interesting guy from my high school and how his legs hurt after hiking for five hours straight with a backpack. I don’t know what the guy from high school remembers, because we never saw him again. The pyromaniac we saw many times, and Liza kept in touch with him over the many years that elapsed. But what he thought about the trip will go down to the grave with him, because he isn’t much of a talker.

We drive through golden, sun-washed hills dotted with thick dabs of green – vineyard, orange trees, olives and corn. This is what Italy must look like, I murmur in awe…either that or the African savanna. Outcroppings of rock add more texture to this lush landscape. But as we ooh and aahh at the scenery unfolding around every turn, there is a quiet anticipation between us of something yet unseen. Soon we are to reach the great sequoias, the biggest and oldest living creatures on Earth, yet nothing in our view even hints at the presence of these gentle giants.

As we pass through the entrance to Sequoia National Park and start the steep climb up the Sierra Nevadas, our puzzlement mounts with every 100 feet. How can the giant, thousand-old trees be living anywhere near here, when there is not a single conifer in sight, and the vegetation hugs the contours of the earth. We climb to 3000 feet, then to 4000. And then right around another bend in the road the low-lying shrubbery gives way to a thick, pine-green forest, with firs and cedars scratching the clouds, and prehistoric ferns carpeting the forest floor. I half expect to see a brontosaurs strolling through.

Instead we see the monarch sequoia. Its trunk is like a woolly mammoth leg walking in a meadow (which is the wood). The size of its trunk cannot be overestimated – it is colossal. But it is also elegant and almost refined. While the bark of other coniferous trees is hard and cracked, the bark of this creature is fuzzy, furry. It hangs in reddish-ochre strands around the circumference of the tree, all 100 feet of it, and crawls up the trunk 200-250 feet, where the crown decorates the top. At some point we park and take a trolley the rest of the way up. The bus negotiates an impossibly curvy road, we look out the window and see the trunks of various trees flashing by. But every time we pass a sequoia, its size takes up the entire window, almost the whole stretch of the bus.

As we come out and are able to finally approach the trees themselves, we realize that the closer you get, the more suspicious you feel about the thing in front of you being a tree. Within arms reach, we find that we can comfortably nuzzle in the nooks and crannies of its bark, walk easily through trees cracked at the bottom, and take a five-minute stroll around the trunk. Greg, with his 6’8” frame, is visibly dwarfed by the dimensions of the tree. Now he is officially a lilliput. Another step – and he is an ant.

Curiously, nature has chosen a very modest cone to house the tiny seeds which contain the genetic code for the monarch sequoia. Greg alludes to the size of the tree and jokingly wonders how so much genetic information can fit into such a small seed. I reply that there doesn’t have to be much – there needs to be only one bit of genetic instruction, from seedling to giant: grow. Grow. And grow.

The giant sequoia grows constantly, annually adding the total mass of a large-sized tree. Its baby-fist sized cones fall to the ground and sometimes lay dormant ten to twenty years. Regular controlled fires performed all across Sequoia National Park create a fertile ash soil and force the cones to open up sooner, thereby filling the ground with seeds and speeding up the reproductive cycle of the sequoia. As a friend enthusiastically explained to us before we set out to the park, these prescribed fires do not harm the giants. Their bark is so thick that the fire burns itself out before doing any real damage. In the same way, drought does not threaten them, nor bark-eating insects, nor anything else, for that matter. Left to their own devices, these trees live to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old.

This fact is perhaps even more astounding than the size. Imagine, as the tree stands in a sunlit meadow, the Roman empire blossoms, Jesus Christ is born, killed, resurrected, the barbaric wars take thousands of lives and the tree just looks on. As a sped-up video life unfolds all around: generations come and go, native tribes roam the forests, the Dark Ages consume Europe, the Arabic revival follows in its wake. Leonardo paints the Virgin of the Rocks, an apple falls on Isaac Newton’s head, Cabrillo sails up along the Pacific Coast discovering California while the giant sequoia lazily stretches its limbs. Greg tells me of a science fiction story where earthlings land on a seemingly uninhabited planet and find only two gigantic statues made of a strange, soft substance. Later they discover that these “sculptures” are actually living beings whose speed of life is just much slower. So slow, in fact, that to a human eye it is unperceptable. I remember this story as I look up at the trees, and wonder what else they’ll see in their life, long after my children’s children are back in the ground where they came from…

(All photographs by Gregory Khasin)

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