"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
--Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
Moro Rock and then hiked the harrowing two miles around the huge dome-shaped granite to the top.
So, what to do on Black Friday? Going to the movies the day after Thanksgiving was scrapped by our family, and the Mama didn't want us sitting around on our duffs all day, and I didn’t want to be hanging around in stores or malls (although we did make our annual post crazy-crush morning Walmart run -- no judging, please), so my idea this instead was to go to Grant Grove and the General Grant tree, named the "Nation's Christmas Tree" in the 1920s by President Calvin Coolidge. It’s also honored as a living national shrine in memory of Americans lost during wars by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I hadn't been there for decades, the last time my sister and I going with our grandparents. At that time they lived in the very small mountain community of Dunlap, just west of Kings Canyon National Park where Grant Grove is located.
We had gone to my sister's house for Thanksgiving again, but the day after she had to work on Black Friday, so it was just going to be the four of us. I mapped the way to the mountains on the computer and then my phone; there were two ways to get there, one a little faster than the other.
"We should go the faster way, Sweetie," the Mama said. "It's still going to be almost an hour and a half to get there."
I shook my head. "No, I want to go the way I know. It won't take that much longer."
The Mama shifted uncomfortably in her seat and looked out her window. I knew she wanted to go the shorter way; she always wants to go the shorter way.
"Okay," she said.
"Do we have enough gas?" I asked, now not sure about the drive. "There aren't any gas stations in the parks."
"The gauge says we've got enough miles left in the tank. Let's go for it."
"Right on, Mama."
“Are we there yet?” the girls asked.
Thirty minutes later we inched along the long line of cars to enter the park. Obviously, we weren't the only ones with the idea to head to the hills.
Our first stop was at Hospital Rock, a place I had been too many times over the years. But I was itching to get to the General Grant tree. I wanted to see the Nation’s Christmas tree. I had to see it. Be in its historic and emotive presence with my family by my side. But not in the snow. Because we’re not snow people. (Thankfully it was a balmy 65 degrees.) And then take a picture of it. Share the love on Instagram and Facebook. I felt like Clark Griswold on an obsessive mission to see America’s Merry friggin’ Christmas tree, and I wanted to get there now.
“Let’s hurry up, girls. Daddy wants to go see America’s Christmas tree.”
“No, we’re going to make stops along the way if we’re going this way,” the Mama said. “Especially now that the girls can get their Junior Ranger badges.”
“But I want to see America’s Christmas tree.”
“Yes, we get it, Sweetie. Do they even decorate the tree?”
I thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. Although it’s really pretty in the snow. Which we’ll never see, because we don’t do the snow.”
“Right. So, relax.”
“We’ll get there,” the Mama added.
“Yep, it’ll be a fun family adventure,” I said.
And as long as we get to that friggin’ tree, I thought.
Onward and upward we went – into Giant Forest, the smells of the high sierra coming in through the open windows, then past Moro Rock (the girls and I weren’t up for the heights of the hike), the General Sherman tree, Lodgepole, and finally a late lunch at the Wusachi Lodge. The thing you forget when you don’t drive in the mountains a lot is that it takes a lot longer to go from point A to point B – and the winding road can take its toll, which is why the Mama always has to drive on winding roads because she gets carsick. The girls must have her genes on that one because they were getting a little carsick, so the Mama emptied two plastic shops for vomiting just in case during one of our stops.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen and we made it to lunch. By that time the girls had finished their Junior Ranger workbooks, but we had to get to the Kings Canyon Visitor Center at Grant Grove Village by 4:00 PM for them to get their badges, and it was already after 3:00.
“We don’t have much time,” I said, knowing it would be close.
“It’s all right,” the Mama said. “If we make it, we make it. If not, then the girls will be fine. Completing the workbooks was fun enough for them and everything they saw.”
“Yep, a fun family adventure.”
“Exactly. We would have never done this otherwise.”
I winked. “I know, I haven’t been this way for decades. Not since my grandparents took my sister and me. And I get to see America’s Christmas tree!”
And then we were there with miles and miles to spare – making it in time to get the girls’ Junior Ranger badges and traverse our final loop hike to the General Grant tree, right as the sun was going down behind the mountains to fall into the sea where we live.
“Worth every minute,” I said.
“Yes, it was,” the Mama said.
“Did you have fun girls?”
“Yes,” they each answered, and then continued keeping each other company in the backseat.
As we drove back down into the foggy, smoggy Central Valley at sunset, I realized yet again what I’ve known for years: that even the road well-traveled, whether in our distant past or today's now, can make all the difference in this crazy-crush world. It's a matter of perspective, of seeing things again for the first time and with fresh nuance. These magical new experiences then imprint one after the other upon our cyclical consciousness. Many become lyrical and melodic, powerful memories that transcend time and stream on-demand like our favorite songs, anytime we want them, and anytime we need them.
As we drove deeper into the Great Valley dusk, my family holiday memories played all at once.