Friday, March 31, 2017

Getting the Answers to Our Endless Questions

We are always interested about the weather and geological features as we explore a new part of this beautiful country of ours. Right now we are in the San Joaquin Valley of California, looking up into the foothills of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains. As we drove out of Sequoia National Park, we passed by Lake Kaweah, a beautiful mountain lake encircled by peaks.

We had just driven through snow and fog, wearing our biggest coats. Now we are suddenly in a valley with rows of citrus trees as far as we can see. There are oranges and lemons hanging on the trees, ready to harvest. We needed the answer to the burning question, "How can snow and citrus be just a few miles apart?"

We drove by miles of these almond trees, and finally parked beside an orchard to see if they had any almonds growing yet.

But we must be mistaken, because the tiny fruits on these trees had velvet skins just like the peaches we used to grow in our backyard. We had another question, "These had to be peach trees, right?"

We found some things blooming, but we had no ideas what these small trees were that we spotted on this country road side. We often take the "road less traveled" just to see the crops in an area. But we obviously need a ride-along horticulturist to explain what we were seeing and answer our endless questions in this agriculture-rich California central valley.

After seeing all the pistachio and almond trees around us, we were hoping to buy some of the local nut harvest. So we went to the "Naturally Nuts" store in Visalia. They did have a great selection of nut products, but our best find here was the manager.

A life-long farmer, John Oneto was happy to answer all our questions. He proudly pointed out that Tulare County is the #1 largest agricultural producing county in the United States. He answered our first question about those fuzzy things we saw on the trees. The reason they look so familiar is that the almond and peach are cousins. If you crack open a peach seed, you find a little almond-like nut inside. So that's why they look so similar on the tree when they are young. Interesting! John also pointed out this looks like a slim year for almonds, as they should be much closer together on the branch than this.

John also explained that the foothills are the prime location for the citrus trees, that must be protected from freezing temperatures. The mountains actually shield them from colder temperatures that will settle further away in the valley. We have seen the giant fans in these orchards, and wondered if they had heaters attached to them. John explained that the fans simply mix the warmer air that rises in the atmosphere with the colder air close to the ground. The farmers will also water the trees with the warm well water on cold nights to keep the fruit from freezing.

We talked about the netting we had seen over some of the citrus trees. This seemed a little extreme, but we assumed it was to protect the fruit from birds.  John explained that it was actually to protect the blossoms from bees. These trees produce seedless fruit, unless the bloom is visited by a bee. That pollination would cause certain seedless citrus to have seeds.

We have driven by many miles of grape orchards, but we were wondering why we saw no local wineries. John answered that burning question for us, because he knew that this area usually grows table grapes instead of wine grapes. 

The plants are just starting to turn green now, but we'll be buying these grapes in a couple months. Just a few miles north, they raise grapes for raisins. We drove through Selma, California, the raisin capitol of the world. In celebration, we bought some raisins. We didn't take a picture, however, because we "accidentally" bought the raisins that were covered with chocolate. So instead, our picture below is another of the grape orchards we passed.

On the topographical map that John showed us, the central valley of California actually looks like a bowl, with mountains surrounding it. Its proximity to the ocean and these mountains gives it the perfect conditions to grow the most agricultural products of any place in the world. They are watered by the melting snow from the surrounding mountains. Even through the recent drought, California has kept producing the fruits, vegetables, and nuts necessary to feed much of the world. John seemed as delighted to answer all of our endless agricultural questions as we were to finally get to ask them. Before we left his store, he gave us his card and phone number in case we had more questions. We bought some of his delicious products, and we can definitely recommend the Naturally Nuts store in Visalia.

John also talked about this region's dairies, since Tulare county produces more milk than any other county in the nation. We tried to visit the Rosa Brothers Dairy for one of their tours. But our timing was off, so we could only see their creamery. They were bottling milk the day we were visiting, and it was interesting to witness this small operation. They also give free samples, so we tried several products. We came out of there with a quart of root beer milk, and a small container of mint chocolate chip ice cream. No, we're not on diets. This was the largest sizes we could afford. With the $2 deposit for the glass bottle, a quart of milk costs $5. We bought the tiny size of ice cream, because one pint carton was $4.25. But Mark has been enjoying super-rich root beer floats made with the root beer milk and his cheap vanilla ice cream.

We got another agricultural lesson when we visited the International Agri-Center museum in Tulare. A group of school children had just left, but we also enjoyed watching the same films that the students watch on their tours. Seated on garden tractors, we could listen to questions posed in the educational films, then choose answers based on the buttons we pushed on our tractor dashboards.

They also had a museum featuring tractors and implements used in the Central Valley long ago. Denisa is dwarfed by a 1918 Avery 40 80 tractor, with its metal wheels.

Standing on her tip-toes, Denisa could barely see where she was driving. 

Mark is standing beside a 1895 Rumely steam engine, the oldest tractor in their collection. It was a complicated time to be a tractor-driver. These guys had to stoke the fire with fresh coal, monitor all the steam levels, and still find the time to steer the tractor where it needed to go.

We feel like we've made great strides this day in getting our endless agricultural questions answered. Now if we could get answers to our other questions like, "Why do I always remember the item I really need to buy right AFTER I get home from the store?"

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sequoia National Park Giants

We are camped in the town of Tulare, California. Again, we had to get lessons for how to pronounce our new home town. According to the locals, it sounds like "Two Larry." Our main reason for coming to Tulare was its vicinity to Sequoia National Park, and we headed to see the big Sequoia trees on our first full day here. There was a bit of a line at the entrance, as the ranger was giving each car the bad news--because of the snowfall last night, there are some sections of the park roads that will require tire chains. It is against California state law to enter these sections without chains in your vehicle. After hearing the speech, many of the entering vehicles (including us) made a U-turn in search of tire chains.

The ranger at the gate even provided a list of local businesses that sell or rent chains. We talked to several of them, and ended up buying this set available on Amazon for $19.99 for a mere $59. They might be taking advantage of a captive audience here in Three Rivers, California. We could rent them for the day for $39, but we decided to buy them. We intend to stay out of the snow in our travels, but sometimes you want to be where it is beautifully white in the winter.

With that detour taken care of, we finally got to head into the park. We picked this day because it had the best weather forecast for the time we were in the area. At our first stop at tunnel rock, we had to scoff at the possibility of needing tire chains on this beautiful day.

At these lower elevations, the lupines are growing in mounds the size of small cars.

We hiked down to the river that runs through the canyon in Sequoia National Park. We've heard all about the abundant winter rains that are making all of California greener than usual, and turning gentle rivers into white water.

You notice that Mark isn't even wearing a jacket. What was the fuss about inclement weather today?

We managed to hit the peak of the redbud tree blooms, whose bright purple buds can be seen up and down the valley.

We stopped in at Hospital Rock, to see the Native American petroglyphs left on some of the rocks nearby. This rock got its curious name because one of the early residents of this area came here in 1860 for medical help from the Potwisha Indians that wintered near the huge rock.

We took another hike, with a grand view of the river, the valley, and that touch of blue sky. Why did we spend $59 for snow chains on this beautiful weather day?

All of those activities were on the valley floor, and we found out the big trees we want to see don't grow down there.  So we headed straight up the side of these mountains on a narrow, winding road. To complicate this climb, we are headed right into a blanket of fog.

It's a good thing we were going slow when this deer stepped out of the trees beside the road. She was walking so slowly, it looked like she couldn't see either.

She stayed right beside us as we carefully passed between her and her companion meandering through the fog.

We stopped at the overlook spot. You know its going to be a great panorama shot when they post a sign with a silhouette of a camera, indicating it was the best view of the valley and mountains in the entire park. This was our view this day.

We sensed the trees were getting larger as we climbed higher, but we really couldn't see them. Then we drove through the four sequoia trees that signal you have made it into their turf--the  Four Guardsmen. We could actually see two of the four trees! Of course, there was barely enough room between the two to fit our one-laned road, so they were pretty hard to miss.

We were expecting to see snow over the road any time. When that happened we were ready to turn around. Mark was having to navigate up the road using only the lines on the side of the highway because the fog was too thick to see ahead. If those lines were covered with snow, it would just be too dangerous to continue in this fog. We were glad to safely make it to the Giant Forest Museum, with its signature Sequoia, "The Sentinel" standing steady for photo ops.

Normally there is a fence that keeps visitors away from the tree. But it was covered with snow, so we got our picture right at the base of this big boy. That is one huge tree!

Then we experienced our Sequoia miracle. The fog lifted, and we could suddenly see the road and the trees around us. What a view!

Even though the temperatures were hovering around freezing and there was new snow last night, the roads were clear for us to continue to our destination of the day.

We really had wanted to see the General Sherman tree, and we were blessed with a break in the clouds that gave us a bright picture of Denisa standing near its base.

It's almost impossible to get the entire tree into one picture, but we gave it a good try. Just a few minutes before, the top would have been shrouded in fog. But for this little window of time we are able to see all 275 feet of the world's largest tree in its entirety.

The General Sherman isn't the tallest tree, and it's not the widest tree in the world. But its combined height and girth together make it the biggest by volume. It is 102 feet in circumference at the ground. That's an awesome tree to stand beside!

After we had waited through the crowds for those pictures of General Sherman, we were ready to set out on a trail to find other examples of Sequoia royalty. The ranger at the museum explained that the Congress Trail was covered with snow, but he pointed out other trees that we might try to find. The path to these twin trees was well trampled.

The only way to take a picture of the twins is to use the panorama feature on the phone. The only problem is that it gives the twins a bit of a bow-legged curve.

As we walked through the snow-covered forest, we lost any semblance of the trail. The good news is we had this magnificent forest all to ourselves.

The bad news is that we might not find our way out of here until the spring thaw. We were making new tracks through the heaviest of the snow. Isn't it ironic that we snow skied in our shirt sleeves a few days ago, but today we needed our heaviest ski coats for this little hike in the forest?

We learned much about the life of these giants in the museum. For example, these trees are over 2,400 years old. Trees like this were being regularly chopped down before the national park protected them. The sad part is that sequoias usually splintered and broke when they hit the ground. They are not good timber trees, so many of these giants were made into pencils and orchard stakes for area grape vines.

Most of the trees have blackened areas along their base. Denisa is standing in front of one of those large black hollow spots. That's because they have survived many fires in the last 2,000 years. The mighty Sequoias can withstand fires around their toes and live to tell about it. Fires actually clean up the forest floor clutter and make it easier for them to grow even bigger.

Standing between . . .

and even inside these beautiful trees would be magical any day. But today in the snow was even better.

We've never considered ourselves to be "tree huggers" but today it seemed appropriate to hug one of these giants.

We have truly wandered into another of God's wonders, and we feel so blessed to be here!

The sun came out again, allowing us to take more pictures without that mysterious-looking fog. We even caught that sunshine streaming through those branches so far from the ground.

Mark is a tree climber from way back, but even he had to admit that the first branch was a little high off the ground. We also learned that this cinnamon-colored bark can be two feet thick on these old trees.

We really enjoyed this walk in the snow, wandering through the world's biggest trees all by ourselves.

In June we wouldn't have had to worry about fog or snow chains. But we would have encountered traffic jams and crowds on the trails.

We think our timing in March was just right!

After we had tramped through the snow among all those beautiful trees, it was finally time to come off this mountain high and head back to the real world. When we drove back down to the photo view point, we saw that the clouds had lifted enough that we could see the bottom half of the mountain, and the curvy road that we would take down to the valley.

It wasn't the blue-sky-clear-road day that we had envisioned in our mind. We think it was even better!