Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sequoias, the Majestic Hotel, Jelly Bellys, and Family: A National Park Odyssey Days 24-25

Yosemite National Park to Durham, CA via the Jelly Belly Factory 

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Kinley and Knox stand in front of one of Yosemite's giant sequoias.
For our last full day in Yosemite, we wanted to see some more sequoias.  We’d seen them in Kings Canyon and Sequoia, of course, but we needed another fix.  And since Yosemite has a three groves, we decided to take a ranger-guided hike into one.  The Mariposa Grove was closed to visitors while we were there and another one requires a significant hike, so we drove to the Tuolumne Grove for the 10:00 program. 

We hiked about a mile down a relatively steep old logging road to get to the grove where Ranger Sierra and a small group of other visitors were congregating in the shadow of some thousand-year-old sequoias.  It was then that I noticed for the first time that the leather hat band and leather belt on a park ranger’s uniform are both decorated with sequoia pine cones! 
Ranger Sierra began our ranger talk in a spot where sequoias in all stages of development were evident.
Hundreds of potential sequoias lie in these pine cones.

This was one of the best ranger talks we participated in during our entire summer. Ranger Sierra pointed out sequoias in all stages – as mere pinecones, as little baby seedlings, as “teenagers”, in the prime of their lives, and fallen ones. They were just as grand and awe-inspiring in Yosemite as they had been in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.  The forty-five minutes flew by as our group followed the ranger through the grove, and then it was time for the steep climb back out. 
Ranger Sierra kneels to point out baby sequoias.

This seedling could live for the next 1800 years.
Josh cranes his neck to see the top of one of the massive trees while Ranger Sierra talks.

Back at the visitors’ center, the kids got their Junior Ranger badges.  Yosemite requires each potential Junior Ranger to pick up a bag of trash, and the kids had done the nasty job of collecting theirs at Lower Yosemite Falls the day before.  Yosemite thoughtfully provides both the bag and a plastic glove for the kids to use, and you aren’t required to prove that you actually did it at all. We took pictures, of course, but the ranger took our word for it.
Kinley gets rid of her bag of collected trash.

Knox looks awfully chipper for someone holding bags full of other people's waste.

Another unique part of the Junior Ranger process at Yosemite is that every new Junior Ranger gets to sign a huge ledger listing all of the people who’ve completed the program.  Our kids have earned many Junior Ranger badges all over the US, and we’d never seen anything like this before.  The ranger told the kids that many of the people who’ve signed this book over the years are now Senators and Representatives and CEOs.
Kinley and Knox get sworn in.

They also added their names to the Yosemite book of Junior Rangers.

Badges in hand, we were up for one last hike.  The Vernal Falls Trail is a paved trail that leads first to a bridge overlooking the falls and then on up to the top of the falls.  A sign at the bottom let us know that we probably hadn’t brought enough water to make the trip all the way to the top, so we decided to go to the bridge and see how we felt.  The climb was steep and it was hot, so the bridge was as far as we made it.  Watching the force of the massive amount of water as it surged under us as we stood on the bridge was enough to keep us from wading at the water’s edge, but there was also a warning sign in case the sight of the water wasn’t convincing.
The Vernal Falls footbridge was a good place to turn around and head back.
We had dinner reservations at the Majestic Hotel dining room (formerly the Awahnee), and after an aborted attempt to walk that ended with us wandering cluelessly around a nearby campground with the Awahnee nowhere in sight, we took the shuttle to the historic hotel.  We had a little time to look around the lobby before we were escorted into the cavernous dining room that seats 300.  Imagine a rustic, Southwest-themed Hogwarts, and you get a pretty good idea of what the room looked like.  Candelabra hung from the 34-foot ceilings and adorned every table.  Massive pine timbers made up the tresses of the vaulted roofline.  Granite pillars were positioned between floor-to-ceiling windows that afforded views of the surrounding scenery.  The alcove of windows at the end of the room was built to perfectly frame Yosemite Falls.  It was magical.
The dining room of the historic Majestic Hotel was like a rustic Hogwarts.
The dining room was built in 1927, and was originally planned to seat 1000.  During construction, the decision was made to downsize, but the kitchen was already too complete to be changed.  Thus, the kitchen is actually larger than the dining room itself and could easily accommodate the staff and equipment needed to feed 1000.
The roasted cauliflower appetizer was our favorite.

Our favorite dish by far was the roasted cauliflower appetizer with curried yogurt sauce.  It was divine, and the addition of purple cauliflower made it appealing to look at as well as to eat.  We also ordered the grilled salmon with white bean ragout and the prime rib with caramelized onions and whipped potatoes while Knox got the kids’ ravioli.  We’ve tried to just order a kid’s menu item for Knox and then split two entrees among the rest of us when eating at nice places on this trip, and most of our servers haven’t seemed to get too irritated about it.  For dessert, we had the Majestic Skillet Cookie, a warm chocolate chip cookie cooked in a cast iron skillet and topped with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel sauce.  It was the perfect ending.

Before heading back to the shuttle, we stopped off in the sweet shop to grab some homemade doughnuts for the next morning’s breakfast.  As we left, I took a moment to dream about staying a night or two at this magical place with its lobby filled with Native American rugs, trophy bison, comfy leather sofas, massive fireplaces, and luxuriously rustic furniture.  And then headed back to our Cabin Without Bathroom, still dreaming all the way.

The next morning, (after hiking to the bath house), we packed up our gear to head to a family celebration in Durham, CA.  Josh’s aunt and uncle would be celebrating forty years of marriage, and we were excited to get to be there for the festivities.  On the way, we stopped in Fairfield at the Jelly Belly Factory for a tour.  We had stopped at this same factory in 2001 with baby Kinley on our way to visit Josh’s aunt and uncle, and we were anxious to share the experience with both kids.  The tour is free and includes a bag of Jelly Bellys and a hat (it is an actual factory, after all, so visitors have to cover their hair to meet regulations).
Jelly Bellys are the best!
Things we learned:
*The Jelly Belly company uses real fruit juices and purees in many of their beans.
*The mold used to form the beans isn’t a permanent mold.  It’s just a tray full of cornstarch with little bean-shaped indentations in it made by a machine. 
*Jelly Belly has a new factory in Thailand.
*Twelve pounds of Jelly Belly Belly Flops (the imperfect ones that they sell for a discount) is a reasonable purchase.
*The ratio of matcha-flavored beans to other flavors is far out of proportion in the bags of Belly Flops.  So if you love this flavor, we can hook you up.
*The three most popular flavors are buttered popcorn, very cherry, and black licorice.
*The blueberry Jelly Belly was created specifically for the second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan.  The company already made very cherry and coconut, but they needed a blue bean.
*President Reagan’s favorite Jelly Belly flavor was black licorice.
*President Reagan gave out crystal jars of the red, white, and blue beans all throughout his presidency as gifts.
*Jelly Belly employs a full-time artist-in-residence to create Jelly Belly art.
Millions of colorful Jelly Bellys rest before being packaged.

Before being added to variety packs, the Jelly Bellys are sorted onto this conveyor belt.

Knox poses next to a Jelly Belly portrait of the candy company's most famous fan.

A copy of a thank-you letter from The Gipper himself

Equipped with enough Belly Flops to feed an army, we continued on our way to meet up with family for dinner.  Josh’s Aunt Nancy and Uncle Larry own a huge almond orchard and were hosting us in their sprawling, art-filled ranch home for supper.  When we arrived, we were welcomed with hugs and an impressive spread of Southern-with-a-splash-of-Californian foods including ham, mac & cheese, salad, green beans, potatoes, and watermelon.  The food was delicious, but just being with family was the best part.  Later, the kids played in the sparkling pool while the rest of us talked and laughed. 
Family time around the pool
Let me just take a moment to gush about this home and Aunt Nancy’s impeccable taste.  This is easily my favorite ranch home on the planet, and I bask in its homey feel and beautiful décor each time we visit.  It is designed so that it wraps around the pool area, so both the master bedroom and guest room have lovely views and doors leading to the beautifully-landscaped garden and pool area.  A redwood grove stands sentinel over a shaded picnic area while fruit and almond trees beckon just outside the fence.  Inside, works by Calder, Picasso, and (my favorite) Wayne Thiebaud as well as countless other artists adorn the walls.  Exquisite pices of art glass by Orient & Flume and David Smallhouse perch precariously on tables and countertops, but the toddlers and preschoolers in the family play nearby, uninhibited, without ever touching a single precious piece.  I love it all and treasure each time that Aunt Nancy pulls me aside to tell me about a new piece in her collection.

After a pleasant evening, warmly embraced in familial love, we snuggled down in our comfy bed in the guest room, ready to visit park number 13 the next day.