Carol West is dwarfed by towering forests and majestic landscapes on her road trip through California's interior.
"HEY, did you know we have a large Armenian population? Cherilyn Sarkisian, that's Cher but I still call her Cherilyn, dropped out of Fresno High at 16 and the writer William Saroyan was born here."
Stopping for a bottomless cup of coffee at a diner, an old-timer is drip-feeding me a bottomless pit of information about Fresno. Founded on the turn of a card about 1881, this sleepy town in California's fertile Central Valley was a magnet for miners, cowboys and hustlers. The Dalton brothers gang roamed unchecked and as I wander around in the torpor-inducing midday heat, it feels hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement.
One resident determined to escape Fresno's intense summers was Baldasare Forestiere known locally as the "human mole" and a fine example of one man's dream becoming his obsession. From the beginning of the 20th century, working alone and using only hand tools, it took him 40 years to excavate his underground home and gardens, which have become one of Fresno's major tourist attractions.
Fresno might be an unconventional starting point for a road trip but two of America's national parks are within striking distance and while we plan to head west to Sonoma and San Francisco, why travel in a straight line when there's time to meander? So we head east as the vast farming plains of California's fruit and vegetable bowl disappear into the towering Sierra Nevada. Quaint hamlets named Clovis and Orange Cove nestle by bare parchment hills that rise out of green gullies and between May and October, food festivals and agri-tours gear up when the orchards are pregnant with stone fruit. At Sanger, stocking up at Blossom Trail Fruit Stand, sinking my teeth into a just-picked peach unlocks intoxicating memories of fruit tastes.
Within two hours, Highway 180 delivers us at Giant Forest Village on the edge of Sequoia National Park. Long before trekking trails were carved into the landscape, conservationist John Muir explored and named Sequoia's Giant Forest. "When I entered this sublime wilderness the day was nearly done, the trees with rosy glowing countenances seemed to be hushed and thoughtful ... one naturally walked softly and awestricken among them," he wrote.
In this shady forest of superlatives, serious tree-huggers would be hard pressed to get their arms around the star attraction, the General Sherman, an arboreal monarch measuring a staggering 31 metres around its base. A prodigious grower, Sherman has been around for more than two millenniums, is 83 metres tall, its volume making it the largest tree on Earth.
A 20-minute loop walk through Grant's Grove takes us past General Grant, the park's second-largest sequoia. From their lofty heights, the two Generals appear to command regiments of trees marching across the landscape.
A loop path leads to the Congress Trail where grandly named Congress, Senate and Presidential trees, veiled in a white mist, metamorphose into an enchanted forest. Turning a corner and whoa! A black bear is on the ridge line just 15 metres away.
Our dinner is served with good old-fashioned hospitality at Wonder Valley, a ranch resort where we join other guests who are ready to give local yet universal issues (youth problems, health reform and politics) a lively airing across the dinner table.
Yosemite, the big daddy of America's 390 national parks, is a vast granite and pine wilderness about two hours north on Highway 41. Dynamic geology has shaped a visual feast of staggering proportions and majestic forms.
It might be wilderness but with 4 million visitors annually, it can be pretty damned busy, so to get an overview, we take a two-hour tour of the valley floor. At the west end, El Capitan's smooth rock face looms more than 1000 metres above. Scraped clean by aeons of ice and snow, this is one of the park's most popular climbs taking up to five days, unless you're in that elite (insane?) group of speed climbers. We're told that one virtually ran up it in just more than 2½ hours.
Tunnel View gives a rock-and-awe view of Yosemite Valley framed by El Capitan, Half Dome's sheer granite walls that vault to the sky and Bridalveil Fall. John Muir poetically described Bridalveil Fall as "the symphony of the Sierra" during spring's raging ice melts but by late summer, it's cascading gently into the valley.
A $20 seven-day pass buys access to more than 1200 kilometres of hiking trails, 20 kilometres of bike trails, peaks to climb and wildflower-carpeted meadows to meander. The easiest way to experience Yosemite is to hop on a free valley shuttle bus that links walks, picnic areas, lookouts and information points.
Hiking trails get busy about 9.30am so we set out on the Mist Trail at daybreak for the 4.8-kilometre "moderate" hike to Vernal Fall that tumbles 97 metres into Emerald Pool. A steep granite stairway of more than 600 steps climbs 366 metres to the head of the fall where a misty veil of water burbles over the river's smooth granite pebbles. Only the alarming whistles of the yellow-bellied marmot and my heaving breath disturbs the silence.
We're fortunate it is late summer as the Tioga Pass, one of the few roads crossing the Sierra Nevada, is still open so from Yosemite, we decide to go over the top for the five-hour trip north to Tahoe. At Olmsted Point, we linger to view Yosemite Valley's raw beauty, which photographer Ansel Adams captured so evocatively in nuanced black and white.
With ears popping and brake lights flaring, stupendous vistas distract as we climb to a height of 3000 metres on sweeping bends that corkscrew around towering peaks and vertiginous valleys. As the road plateaus, the desolate surrealism of Mono Lake coolly mirrors mountains and plains. At the small township of Lee Vining, we pull into Latte Da for organic coffee, home-made cake and a new set of nerves. It's late afternoon and a lowering sun dusts granite hills decorated with tufts of wild grass in a golden light.
Descending into South Lake Tahoe, we trace its topaz waters north past classic ski lodges. Heading west, our wheels chew up US Highway 50 accompanied by numerous trucks and rabid Republican shock jocks on the radio. In less than two hours, we're in California's state capital, Sacramento - set on the picturesque Sacramento River - and check into our digs, the paddle steamer Delta King, moored on the waterfront. Tourist business is brisk at charmingly re-created gold rush saloons and storefronts in Old Sac, while downtown Sacramento is a friendly city of parks and lavishly restored public buildings including the Capitol Building where we join a free guided tour.
Evocative displays depicting the clash of cultures enthrall me at the Indian Museum while the enormous Railway Museum's iron fenders, gleaming locomotives and polished carriages display a world of quiet luxury on wheels.
Continuing west to Sonoma County and only 100 kilometres north of the Golden Gate Bridge, we dip in and out of family-owned vineyards. Dog-friendly Mutt Lynch Winery hosts a monthly "Yappy Hour" for wine lovers and pooches - only in California - and we end up at Quivira Vineyards and Winery on Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg. Original owners Henry and Holly Wendt were cartographic collectors hence Quivira, the study of old maps.
I'm told that winemaker Steven Canter worked with Torbreck's David Powell and following the Rudolph Steiner philosophy of biodynamics, the winery became biodynamically certified in 2005.
I won't go into details but Canter tells me it involved cow dung, 100 cow horns, a cedar tower and clean water. After steeping like tea, what's sprayed on the Syrah vines is, he says, an instant pick-me-up.
Dropping down to San Francisco, we finally ditch the car. After all, this is one of the world's most environmentally responsible cities, so it's only natural to check into the top green-rated Orchard Garden Hotel before hitting the bar at Vesuvioin North Beach. Ordering a Jack Kerouac, we reminisce about doing it all again. Perhaps Cher summed it up best in her inimitable rock and awe style: "If I could turn back time ..."
The writer was the guest of California Tourism.
V Australia operate daily flights between Sydney and Los Angeles. vaustralia.com, 13 82 87. American and United Airlines operate regular one-hour flights from Los Angeles to Fresno. americanairlines.com.au, (07) 3329 6060; unitedairlines.com.au, 13 17 77.
Arrange a Fresno Airport pick-up through DriveAway, which have an excellent 24/7 online booking service. 1300 723 972, driveaway.com.au. Or try Alamo rentals, alamo.co.uk.
Wonder Valley Ranch Resort, 6450 Elwood Road, Sanger. Special offers include room, candlelit dinner, horse-drawn carriage ride and deluxe continental breakfast for $US250 ($230). +1 559 787 2551, wondervalley.com.
Yosemite's Curry Village has a range of accommodation including tent cabins for about $US115 containing one double and three single beds. +1 801 559 4884, yosemitepark.com.
Delta King, 1000 Front Street Sacramento. City view staterooms from $US145. +1 916 444 5464, deltaking.com.