Whenever I fall asleep, my mind takes me to the Sequoia National Forest along the Tule River. I’ve been there so many times, I’ve memorized the route: Take Interstate 5 north to the northbound 99 to the 65 north, then head east on the 190 past Porterville and meet the Tule. It runs through the southern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, down from the upper Sequoia National Forest and into Lake Success. It’s a countryside wilderness, with the sun shining through the canopy of trees onto fields of gold grass and the emerald river. Grab your fishing poles, beer, weed, an extra pair of chonis and head to the woods!
Slip past Lake Success and through the cow pastures of Springville into the mountains. The narrow road etched into elevating hillsides is not for the faint of heart, the carsick-prone, shitty cars or terrible drivers. The only roadside guardrails you’ll find are beautiful manzanita and pine; 12-year-old me would stare out the window in awe as the waterfalls and rapids became visible to my right. The river, streams and creek beds of the mighty Tule proved the perfect training grounds for my father to teach me fishing and how to camp like an OG.
Pull off the road once you see the sign indicating you’ve reached Coffee Camp Campground. You don’t need a reservation; pay just $10 per car and cross your fingers that no one took all the camping spots. It’s here where you can soak in the beauty of the river and valley, complete with granite monoliths covered in trees like a lion’s mane and a river filled with boulders perfect to cast your line off. Jump off the small waterfalls into the swimming holes, but stay away when the Tule is rough; the unforgiving current beneath the river’s beauty has killed five since April. If the river is wild, head back on the main road toward the streams.
Farther east is Wishon Campground, which is far enough from the road so you feel like you’re actually in the wilderness. It’s perfect for hiking, with trails leading in all directions. The power of the moonlight at this campground allows for eerie walks through the illuminated forest and late-night drinking even after the fire dies down. Stare in wonder at the blanket of stars while you smoke blunts with friends and talk about aliens.
Take a tab of LSD here, and you can sense the life flowing from the wildflowers in the soil to the birds chirping in the tall pines. Passing butterflies and flying ladybugs are enough to remind you of what it felt like as a kid to be surrounded by bubbles. The sirens and helicopter blades of Orange County are replaced with the sounds of wind passing through leaves and water steadily flowing downhill. I recently caught my dad sitting with his hands resting on his belly, his head back and a smile on his face, as he said, “You hear that? That’s all I’ve been waiting for.”
If true calm is what you seek, head back to the main road and further up into the mountains. At Coy Flat Campground by Camp Nelson, you’ll find smooth creeks and sequoia groves. Everything is covered in moss, with fresh air and water so cold and fresh you can drink it. These mountain woods provided the perfect backdrop to my uncle’s stories of the jungles of Vietnam, and I can still hear him scraping chorizo y papa onto my plate as we sat beside a crackling fire. The sequoias standing nearby are the true giants of the forest, and we once caught a man hugging one in a warm embrace.
As much as I love OC, we all need to step away from the concrete jungle now and again. Turn your cellphone off, put your watch away and escape your reality, even for just a moment. Pack a lunch, walk off the beaten path and get lost for a while.