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California Awakening : Santa Cruz to Yosemite and back

Is it just me or is life just exploding back every which way after the pandemic?

Or maybe it's the rain-soaked earth of California after years of severe drought?

It seems like everything and anything that managed to survive the struggles of the past several years is bursting forth with new growths. I feel as if the world around me is undergoing a Great Awakening.

Our office has just been packed with new and old patients coming back, scheduling their physicals and checkups after years of making do with telehealth services. This grand re-opening comes with so many ups and down.

On the downside, many private practices and specialists in the central San Fernando Valley are no longer in business. With the rising rent and wages, the drop in reimbursement from Medicare, and the loss of office procedures of the past few years, the rheumatologists and endocrinologist groups next door to us have closed up shop. On the upside, some of the doctors and patients are joining our practice, keeping us even more busy.

Personally, on the upside, I finally got to meet in person many patients that I've been caring for the past several years via telehealth. And on the downside, diagnosing 2 breast cancer cases, and 1 rectal cancer in the past month after 3 years of mammogram and colon cancer screening delays.

And of course, Spring, as a symbol for the resurrection of all lives on Earth after a cold and wet Winter, is simply spectacular this year due to the excessive rain and snow that California has received from all the atmospheric rivers rolling in from the Pacific Ocean throughout December, January, February and March. Even though parts of our state are still under flood conditions and the threat of more flooding from the coming epic snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the rest of California is breathing a great sigh of relief from our severe and extreme drought of the past decade. Thus, everything is just growing and blooming everywhere, like that movie title "Everything, everywhere, all at once".

On the home front, I have spent the past 3 weekends just weeding the backyard and planting succulents. Californians have been told for years to not water their lawn due to the drought so we have allowed our entire yard front and back lawn to dry up and die. Then, the continuous rain of the past 3 months just moisturized the heck out of the earth and our yard is now filled with crabgrass, clovers, dandelions, wood sorrels, purslane, and weeds of all shapes and sizes.

An ugly backyard was fine during the pandemic since we have had no visitors anyway. But now that we are opening up, and friends and relatives are coming by, we probably should clean up our yard a little bit. Hence all the weed-pulling and succulent-planting of the past month.

On the travel front, after years of parched drought where vast tracts of land just dried up in California, there are green hills and bright flowers everywhere we drive. Although there are still so many hills and valleys filled with dead oak trees as far as the eye can see, if you look closely, a few of them are starting to have fresh green buds at the tips of their stems. Or so the optimist in me hopes.

Our family had scheduled a few days in Yosemite during the kids' spring break this year.

Unfortunately, due to the massive amount of precipitations from January to March of this year, 21 inches of rain and 15 feet of snow, Yosemite had 22 rockslides and slopes failures along all roads in and out of the park and thus, was closed to the public for much of February and March. I know of 2 families that had to cancel their Yosemite trips due to the closure.

We held our breath and tentatively planned to spend our spring break amongst the wildflower spring blooms of Anza-Borrego State Park, but did not cancel our reservations for the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Lucky for us, the park opened 6 days before our reservations with the warning that chains are required for cars and that hiking on snow-covered trails is not recommended unless we have snow shoes. So we stocked up on rain gear, snow gear, boots, snow shoes, and car chains and headed up the mountain.

Normally we drive from Los Angeles to Yosemite via Bakersfield and Fresno and up the 41 north route, so our first view of Yosemite is when we come out of the Wawona tunnel, where you get this view of the Valley itself, with El Capitan and Bridal Veil falls in the foreground and Half Dome way in the distance.

A couple of years ago, we drove North from Death Valley to Mono Lake on the 395 and entered Yosemite via the Tioga Pass. That's where you get this view of the Eastern side of the Park upon entry.

But this year, we drove north to Santa Cruz to pick up our son at UCSC, cut across Central California via Gilroy, and took the 152 to the 140 to the El Portal entrance of Yosemite. Thus our first view of Yosemite this year is this. I guess that's why they called it El Portal, the door.

On the way in and out of the valley on the 140 and the 120, there were waterfalls everywhere. Around every corner, coming out of each tunnel, and crossing over each bridge, there are small waterfalls, big waterfalls, and in the upper elevations, even frozen waterfalls. On the other side of the river, sometimes you can see 3 or 4 waterfalls running down the rock face, all along the drive. Driving the 140 in Yosemite this year felt like driving the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier national park in Montana. I'll bet the 120 is even more amazing, for those coming from northern California.

Camping had not been allowed back yet and only some of the trails were open, so the park felt almost empty when we drove in. The sun was setting when we checked into a quiet Yosemite Valley Lodge. We were able to have dinner at the Mountain Club without needing a reservation and walked back to our rooms in the indigo night, all the while having the view of the Upper Falls pouring down the frozen rock face.

The next day was sunny and clear. We explored the valley, walked to Lower Yosemite Falls, and checked out the museum, gift shops, and general store. Went back and had dinner at the Mountain Room again since this was the night we had made reservations. The steak, burger, chicken, pork chops, and salmon were good. The trout was fantastic, and the tofu was terrible. There is a reason why Asians never fry tofu without batter.

The next morning the skies had turned cloudy with rain and snow forecasted but we went ahead and drove to Tuolumne Grove for some snow hiking. The snow and ice in that elevation were still solid. The roads were cleared but many of the road signs were buried. The bathroom at the trailhead was just a tunnel under the snow. By the time we strapped on our snow shoes, the snow had started to fall. The trails were pristine but unmarked (or maybe the markers were all underneath the snowpack), but we were willing to go on until the wind picked up, the snow started falling sideways and the fog rolled in. So we drove back down to the valley, had dinner at Degnan's Deli in front of the fireplace, and went to bed since the cable TV at the lodge had gone out.

It rained then snowed all night and we woke up to a white Yosemite valley, with crystal frost covering bare branches. The kids didn't want to get up and about for breakfast so we picked up some breakfast burritos for them at the Base Camp Eatery, then we headed out for a winter wonderland tour of El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls, then a long hike along the river to Mirror Lake. The upper end of Mirror Lake is still a bit frosty and as pretty as a painting.

The dining room at the Ahwahnee Hotel was only open for hotel guests only but we were able to have dinner at the Ahwahnee Bar on our last night in Yosemite. The food was excellent even though 2 of our kids opted only for bean chili and clam chowder after a cold wet day of hiking.

On the drive back out of Yosemite towards Gilroy the next morning, beyond the multitudes of waterfalls and landslides in the mountains, we saw bands of deer crossing the roads, and herds of cows munching on endless hills of green grass. The Real Cheese of California should be pretty tasty this year with all those happy cows producing happy cheeses. :) I wondered if our butter will taste as good as Irish butter this year.

We stopped in at the Longhouse Restaurant in Gilroy for a taste of the garlic capital of the world. The plate of garlic cheese bread that we ordered was almost emptied before I could pull out my camera for a picture. It was scrumptious !! I had the Garlic steak salad, Bruce had the Garlic Salmon salad, Alison had the chopped steak platter, Cameron had the chicken fried steak, and Eric, of course, ordered his liver and onion. They were all delicious, loaded with garlic, and very reasonable in prices.

We then drove across the mountain to Santa Cruz, stopping by the Seacliff State beach to watch them demolish the last of the defunct pier, leaving the broken World War 1-era historic cement ship lying sadly, gathering barnacles. I ran into an old-timer on the cliff who recounted the days when the ship had a restaurant, a ballroom, and a swimming pool. Even after the ship broke in half in a storm a long time ago, kids used to come out to play on the partly sunk half of the ship, accessed via the pier.

Santa Cruz is one of the few towns in California that literally has 1 foot in the ocean and one foot in the mountains. It can appease both the Water Spirits and the Mountain Spirits in my family. Some of us have always heard the call of the mountain and some of us, the sea. For a fun read on the legend of the Mountain and Ocean spirit, see this site .

If you ever have time to spend in Santa Cruz, you should visit the Henry Cowell Redwood State Park, just up the mountain from the town of Santa Cruz, practically hikable from the north UCSC campus. You can walk among the giant groves, then take a steam train ride back in time to an old western town complete with a working post office, restaurant/saloon, and general store. When we were there, the opera house and dance hall had been booked as a wedding venue. So all the guests were arriving by train, some in period costumes. It looked like fun and we were sorely tempted to crash the wedding.

In the morning, we went to see the boardwalk and the wharf in downtown Santa Cruz. It was pretty and generally relaxing but nothing special compared to most other beach towns, even counting the colony of barking sea lions living at the end of the pier.

Then in the afternoon, we were given a tour of the UC Santa Cruz Coastal Campus by our son who is majoring in Marine Biology. It was just north of downtown Santa Cruz, next to the Natural Bridges State Beach. Most of the buildings were classrooms and research centers for the study of marine biology, ecology, veterinary, aquaculture, and fisheries. But there was an aquarium and discovery center open to the public. We took a tour of the place and met some of the "teachers" there: 2 dolphins, a Hawaiian monk seal, and some very loud birds. Since the facility was a teaching institution and not licensed as an entertainment center, we were asked not to take pictures of the live animals there.

After dropping off Eric at school, we drove back to Los Angeles, stopping by Paso Robles for dinner. I had a hankering for taco lingua or tongue tacos, and I find that Paso Robles has some of the most authentic Mexican restaurants in California. We had tried Taco Roco last time so opted for Papi's this visit. Both of them were great. Maybe we'll try Orale Taqueria next time.

That was our spring break, bisecting California from Santa Cruz to Yosemite and back. Now it's a return to the super hectic, crazy busy life of Los Angeles during the reopening. If you find the pace of life to be a little too much during this Great Awaking, find some time to sit and stare at something beautiful and peaceful. For me, mentally vegging out is a form of meditation, allowing the mind to relax, recuperate, and recover.

Here are 90 seconds of peace that I carried back from my time on the mountain. Enjoy.

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