Tuesday
Sep112012

« The 36 and a Half Dome Tour, Tuesday's Return »

A funny thing happened this morning. The first plan to leave for home would be the obvious, which would be to plan to travel about seven hours on the route which brought us to Yosemite. Bo-ring!!! The Central Valley of California is a pretty damned boring place unless you're taking notes on things agriculture related, or counting gas stations and chain restaurants and maybe cracks in the concrete road surface. There's really nothing to see if you're not in the foothills of the Sierras. And by that I mean, there's nothing to see between there and San Diego! So we resolved to get up and take the Tioga road, out the northeast part of the park over to the town of Lee Vining on the shore of Mono Lake, and then to drive down the US-395 all the way to Victorville and then burn it home. To my knowledge, I'd never done the upper half of that, and there was a chunk of 395 that I hadn't done. There was a part between Lone Pine/Manzanar and the CA-178 that Kelli and I had done twice on our Death Valley trips. The second of which was done at night, but hey...

Thinking we'd maybe get up at 8 and make the drive, we didn't anticipate that I'd get up at about 4ish in the morning, walk out to the bathroom for a whizz, and then upon my return and attempt at sleep, realize that maybe we ought to just leave as early as we could, even if that meant that we just make a break for it now. Around 4:30 Kelli stirred. I made the suggestion we just wake up and get out. After some hemming and hawing, we did just that. With nothing but a couple lights to gather our stuff from the bear locker and the tent, we packed up and didn't mess around. Checked out and got on the road by about 5:40. It takes a good 15 minutes to just get out of the valley and to start making the climb out the western side.

The move was a good one. The distance was nominally more than the straight shot down to Fresno and through the valley, but from the get go, in the pre-dawn darkness, this felt mystical and fascinating. The canopy of trees in the valley made for some serious darkness. Typically not living in a place or time that knows real nature and the darkness of the forest, it's easy to see how old myths and stories could be launched, and how the forest commands a place of respect when it's that dark and mysterious.

We got out of the valley just as the day started to break. Winding around the western side of the park and up to the eastbound Tioga Pass road was indeed a thing of wonder. The altitude along that road gets up to 9500' and more. The surrounding low areas were covered in mist. It hadn't been too cold down in the valley, but we found that the car's thermometer read 42 degrees. I just happened to be wearing a T shirt, shorts, and sandals and it was when we got out to gas up and more so as we gained altitude that I noticed it was a wee bit chilly. It prompted me to put on a light coat. Since we hurried out of camp, Kelli didn't get her precious coffee, and even a couple hours later, I was only half way through hearing about it. At one point we turned into another camping area that purported to have a general store. The place was closed up tight but the detour off the main road brought us to a meadow where the icy mists were heavy and low to the ground and again, were one of those stupendously beautiful things to behold. At a few points, we saw deer, even multiples. A time or two, we turned a corner only to find one smack in the middle of the road, at once commanding our attention and reverence. Got a few pictures of the elusive creatures but none so well captured in the camera's eye as our own when all of a sudden there it was, before us.

One notable stop along the Tioga Road was Olmstead Point, a place where one sits at or above the level of Half Dome, now several miles down the valley but a fiercely amazing sight from the opposite side of what one sees while in the valley or at Glacier point. A quarter mile hike gets one to the best viewing location with no obstructions. There is a lot of pronounced glacial history on the rocks that make up the Olmstead lookout. Polished granite surfaces, randomly deposited boulders sitting upon larger boulders and rock formations... The view from the top of the Tenaya valley down into Yosemite valley was mighty. It has to be one of the most beautiful sights I've put eyes upon. We hiked out and got several pictures. All this before about 8:30 in the morning.

The entire road was amazing, and one lovely sight was Tenaya Lake that is just a bit east of Olmstead. We didn't have time to investigate but it was a treat for the eyes. Just a shimmering mountain lake that speaks of all things good and pure. Then onward down the road we got to Toulumne Meadows, also a lovely place that we only paid lip service to (except that here was where we found the coffee that would finally switch Kelli on for the day). I've only been to Yosemite a couple times, but I think that Toulumne Meadows was a place I'd been before. I had a vague memory of a daytrip up there while at one of the old man's motorcycle rally events in the 80s. I recall it being quite cold, even in May, and also high altitude (8600'). Seeing that there are just a few roads up in Yosemite, I guess this was the second time I was there.

It would make sense why that was the end of the line for that day trip back then. I didn't realize that Toulumne was so close to the edge of the park and that the geography changed rather notably in just a few miles. After a last ascent through some lovely areas east of Toulumne, we saw the landscape changing to more jagged surfaces, fewer trees, and a range of other colors. In no time we were at the gate, exiting Yosemite at the Tioga Pass, 9,943' up. Not long after that we were on our way down the hill in a really big way. At one point before the major descent, a newly constructed bridge spans a relatively short distance just alongside the nearly perfectly vertical mountainside that was blasted away. I had never actually seen such a mountainside up close before. I went and got some pictures of the bored out holes where the dynamite was lodged in the rock, and then the rather artistic but stark fractured rock that radiates like abstract spokes from the blast hole. Some gawking at the valley below and a contemplation of the CalTrans plaque that explains the treachery of the entire Tioga Road and we had to see ourselves off.

The road was a glorious one, descending pretty quickly down to Lee Vining, the town that forms the junction point of the Tioga Road and US-395. It's also situated at Mono Lake. We stopped at the visitor center there and did a rather hurried run through the outdoor path. It would have been a mile or so down to the actual coastline to see the tufa formations. We were planning on taking in some extra sights on the way home so everything was going to have to be quick. The morning cool gave way to a rather hot sun at the lower elevation, in the high desert, still at some elevation even after coming down from nearly 10,000'. I had originally hoped to get to Mono Lake to spend a bit more time as a side trip during a full day in Yosemite. I was cautioned against it because of the 90 miles we just drove being something too nice to take in in a hurry. Okay, I see what was meant by that. And then of course, just turning around and doing it in reverse would be too tempting to stop for other pictures under different light. So this time Mono got short schrift in favor of a logical route. I can't quite tell if there was anything else I'd be interested in there, except to take it in the sublime beauty under different light, or to enjoy the funky little town of Lee Vining.

At least at the visitor center we were able to ask if there was any logic in trying to get down to the Devil's Postpile Monument, something that only appeared on the map as we did the early Tioga drive. It looked tempting but it was situated about 25 miles off 395 down some dead end mountain road. Was it worth a couple hours' detour? Uh... not this time, though we left that decision till we actually came up on the turnoff and then declined.

What started as a dark early morning drive from a warm valley into the high and nippy Sierra mountains, with clear skies, and then progressed to a very hot desert at the other side of the mountains became yet one more atmospheric adventure. As we drove south along 395 the clouds amassed at the mountain tops. And then lower elevations. The sky was simply astoundingly beautiful as we passed through the area around Mammoth. At points we got some heavy rain, but then drove out of it just as quickly. This was still part of the trip that neither of us had made before so the whole thing exploded in wonder for us. It would be a hundred miles or so before we got to familiar territory down at Lone Pine.

In the mean time, just making the pass through Bishop or racing past the sign to the White Mountains (where the ancient Bristlecone pine trees stand) caused us sparks of "oohs" and "ahhs" signifying that it might be a place to return to as we chip away at California's varied destinations and points in between. I have enjoyed the hamlets along the 395 in the Owens Valley; they seem like the places that time forgot. They have their mid 20th century charm about them, but are usually in some kind of decay, if not seemingly deserted. Oh, a place like Bishop was loaded up with a rather decent complement of the same names I'd see here but it wasn't as big a town and so it didn't feel oppressively ugly like I find things can get in the city. There's a more or less distinct "in" and "out" of the town—and not too far apart, either.

One rather tiny town, Independence, looked like someplace you'd expect from the movie Brokeback Mountain (situated in Montana). Small town in a big expanse of land and sky. Not a lot of activity, even on a Tuesday at two in the afternoon or so. We were pretty hungry by then and sought out someplace with about as much local color as possible. A place called Jenny's was a restaurant that used the old Freemason hall. If it weren't in eastern California, it could easily by in Iowa. I got a Rueben sandwich. I was actually surprised that the meat was, well, authentic. The fries too were actually made from potatoes too. Hmmm. You know how some of those off-main kinds of places can be, and of course, living in San Diego's foodiest neighborhood for a while started to spoil us. This food was actually worth eating. I mean, it ran rings around the utter garbage that was peddled in the Phoenix SkyHarbor airport Fox Sports Grill.

Next to the Masons' hall was the courthouse, a stately building with columns aspiring to architectural greatness in search of a city to wrap around it. Yes it was on the main drag through town, but there was so little else that commanded attention like that. At least not in a positive way. I strolled down the main road for a few blocks, camera in hand, and found a handful of things. The post office was one of those wimpy attempts at architecture from the mid 20th century. Just enough to get the job done. But it was white with red and blue bands that reinforce the national colors, particularly in a town called Independence. 

I think I was more interested in the derelict side of the town, as made evident by the Pines Cafe, Mair's Market (not sure if I got the name right), and the Foreign Legion hall. Boarded up. Painted over windows and signage. Rotten wood. Spider webs. Trash collecting in doorways. I didn't see any WalMarts, and the nearest one (or anything like it) could only be in Bishop. It's a sad thing to see such a place seemingly gutted of its modest vitality. To see the places boarded up, you can only imagine what the places were like before the mid 90s or when they served the hard working locals and the mountaineering adventurers and other folks who demonstrated the grit it took to live or sport in that landscape in the high desert or into the mountains.

Even smaller than Independence, or even than Lone Pine where we'd stayed before is a tiny place called Olancha. Even calling it a place is rather generous. It's one of those locations where you have to wonder if there is any there there. It's really just a little outcropping at the junction of 395 and CA-190, the gateway to Death Valley. Now there's a claim to fame! Olancha is a place that once served as a piss stop on a motorcycle trip my old man and I made in February 1988. It was on that trip that I had the distinct misfortune of forgetting to pack a toothbrush for the trip. By the end of the three day weekend, my mouth felt awful. I had braces during that period so there was probably even more funkiness going on than I care to remember. Anyhow, that brief piss break following the amazing road out of Death Valley (that 1988 trip being the first time I saw the 190's sights) has lodged itself in my mind. But even in the quarter century since that trek through the area, Olancha seemed even more dead. Maybe it's because the gas station has been closed and boarded up for seemingly most of that time. Still, I got out and took some pictures. Those post-oil kinds of relics just call for my attention.

But by far the tumultuous sky playing over the forested mountains was the thing to remember for this trip home. At various points along the way we got fierce rain for a few feet, and then none, and then some more. The clouds were very impressive as they masked the Sierra mountain tops. It had a very awe inspiring "biblical" kind of look and feel. Since this is just the late summer, it was still rather hot, and the clouds made it rather muggy, not cold and brisk.

Eventually, the Owens Valley gives way to landscape that just isn't as charming, down near the lower end of the Sierras, as one approaches Ridgecrest. We decided that for the adventure, we'd drive the whole length of the 395 down to Victorville where it joins the 15. The timing would be such that it would be the end of the scenic driving and then we'd hit the freeway not too far north of the Cajon Pass. To drive the freeway in the desert is efficient but misses a bunch of local flavor. The deserts are just filled with some of the oddest shit. Only in the past two years have Kelli and I unleashed a latent interest in exploring the state we've called home nearly all our lives (she lived in Florida for seven years and Vermont for a semester). The smaller roads that usually got ignored as seeming too insignificant might still be insignificant, but for once, our trips of late have tried to take in more of them. What have we been missing when we take the same old roads that seem uninteresting at 80 miles per hour? And why do smaller roads seem more interesting even if the speed limit is quite lower?

It is sad to say though that the places that look like smallish cities and towns on a map often turn out to be filled with the dreck we sought to escape. Places that seem off the beaten path are getting a bit harder to find. Show me to the place devoid of Loew's, WalMart, Home Depot, Carl's Jr.; even passing them on the freeway is a soul-sucking experience. Even as we had a pretty good distance of relatively empty desert to cross, when you can't go for even two hours' drive without seeing a piece of what writer and critic James Howard Kunstler calls "the Geography of Nowhere," it's hard not to feel like you've gone so far, only to be surrounded with the stuff you left. In Southern California, most specifically in the San Diego area, it's nearly necessary to get at least 130 miles away to get away from things. If San Diego was the static point in a compass' radial sweep around the region, it becomes evident that one must try to escape the gravitational pull of the oppressive ugliness of our manmade landscape.

And then, there are times when the sheer ugliness of the manmade landscape is part of the fun. The desert affords both the natural beauty and the obscenity of human ambition and wastefulness. With all that space and the fierce climate, there's little incentive to do things to keep things beautiful. No incentive to do much to create order. No incentive to even clean up or tear down old structures. And no real protection against vandals, looters, or others into making mischief. So the landscape is often littered not just with the kinds of junk you'd expect on a roadside: cans and bottles, fast food, occasional busted furniture. Nope, it's just home to old buildings that are caved in. Boarded up. Blown out from amateur explosives or meth production. Who knows. And then, you might have to admit that even the places that are still lived in are pretty much eyesores. 

When we passed through Adelanto, a town closing in on Victorville, we saw the imposing tail fins of commercial aircraft, but it didn't make sense why there'd be an airport out there. Was it military? A boneyard of old decommissioned craft? It turns out, it's neither. But that made it more interesting, if not a bit disturbing. It's a "logistics airport" —a term I'd never heard of. It turns out to be an ultracommercial hub of shipping activity in the age of globalized trade. It's got massive land to spread out upon yet is still fairly close to the greater Los Angeles area, and by extension the entire west coast.

After Victorville's merging of the 395 with the 15 freeway, it was literally and figuratively all downhill from there. Just about two hours more of burning down the 215 and 15 in the twilight and then the dark, and the trip was over. Living in Escondido now means that we're essentially 30 miles closer to any destination up that way. Hardly much to get excited about but a half hour's a half hour. We got back and chatted with Lois, our friend who was nice enough to come to the house and stay to keep Buber Dog company. And now, what do I do with another 700 pictures? Yikes. I still haven't done anything with all the other pictures of the other trips! 

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