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Entries in travel (44)

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! 

Monday
Sep102012

The 36 and a Half Dome Tour, Monday

Our last full day in the park was to be an excellent day of sightseeing, more or less along one road to the absolutely stellar Glacier Point, a lookout over the valley some 3000 feet below. (It also happened to be Kelli's birthday.)

We hit the road about 9:15. The drive through the valley is lush and beautiful but it gets a bit repetitive since it is essentially a one way loop that one must go around to get anywhere. Even to get on the southbound CA-41 road toward the Glacier Point turnoff, half the loop must be driven, even swinging back around toward the campsite part way, and then peeling off in another direction. And then the 41 is a low speed road, mostly at about 35mph. Yesterday's drive to the Mariposa Grove took about an hour to get those same 35 miles. This turned out to be about the same, but with a left turn involved about half way to Mariposa Grove.

Considering the road was light of traffic and it was a Monday morning when we expected all the families with kids were gone, it seemed for a while that we might not have so many tourists. That was proven wrong at the first hiking stop we made—Sentinel Dome. Not being avid hikers, we didn't really plan to do much more than rubberneck, so we departed the car with too little water and without any real breakfast in us. The hike was about a mile out and supposedly terminated in a fantastic view but with no food either in us or on us, and just a bit of water, we backed out and made our way for the car, deciding to go only about 1/3 of the roundtrip distance.

We headed out on the last stretch of the road and came to the dead end loop at Glacier Point. Okay, if we hadn't found our tourists before, they were all here. Or enough of them were, anyway. It was noon and therefore rather hot too. Not my favorite mix. It's always these gorgeous places that attract the noisiest people, the kids, the swarms of either foreigners or worse, Americans. There are so many who want to get exactly the same photos at the same location, and with every permutation of their family or party in the frame. Okay, we're the same too, but we like to go and be reverent and we speak in modest tones that don't call attention and just fill the air with noise.

Being among the last days of summer proper, it was pretty hot by the time we were there. The concessions stand was pretty welcoming after we saw people milling around with ice cream bars in their mouths. We surely tracked that place down and had one before going into the scenic areas. The shaded area outside the store was welcome but taken mostly. Still, it was a nice respite from being in the sun before we went out and did our own gawking at the scenic points.

There are two parts of Glacier point, and both tell close to the same story, but one part, a bit south and east of the more commercial part, feels more like it's tied to earth. Both feature the most kick ass views of Half Dome from a level nearly equivalent to Half Dome's 8000' elevation. We were at about 7200' and while that doesn't seem like much, the fact that there is a valley floor that is as low as 3000' below is pretty damned remarkable. We're talking about a straight drop. Sick!

If I had a serious camera and was prepared to really make the best possible shots, these places would hold even more appeal. And of course, if there were either fewer tourists or at least the silent and reverent ones I wish for, then it would make the experience even nicer still if all there was to do was to sit and take it in. But as such they aren't and I haven't so I do the best I can with either my tripod, getting some pictures of Kelli and I together, or for this trip, the a new gadget was employed to get some shots. It's just the upper section of an old tripod I had from years back, shorn of legs, and amounting to an 18" extension of my arm with the camera at the end. It's good enough to get a solo snapshot or some shots of the two of us with the timer enabled. It also is a lot less to carry and of course requires nothing much in setup and positioning. It proved invaluable for shooting while driving down the road, helping to steady shots while going at any speed. Not to mention, when doing road shooting, two hands on the camera rig is a safer bet so nothing drops onto the road, never to be seen again.

Since this was our last full day in the park, we started on our way out of Glacier Point, stopping again at the concessions stand for another couple ice creams and a last look out over the amazing valley network carved by glaciers over eons of time.

On the road back we stopped at Bridalveil Falls for that relatively short hike under the forest canopy. While on that path toward the rather thin-flowing falls, we spotted a climber high up on the sheer cliff face. It was hard to tell if he was moving at all, even in the half hour we were there. Being as hot as it was, it baffled us how someone would want to be in such a spot, seemingly unable to do such a thing as change into or out of a shirt. Oh well, the world's big enough for people of all interests. We got to the uppermost part of the trail where the signs emphatically cautioned not to climb on the slick rocks in the area near the bottom of the falls. They cautioned that serious injury or death is a regular occurrence. The rocks were clearly tough to navigate, not just in their random placement and jagged edges, but in the fact that the smooth surfaces could cause a slip at any moment, even when they were dry. Still, even in our few minutes there, some dumbfuck was trying to impress his girlfriend and without even gaining on the falls, went and proved himself worthy of the Darwin Awards, slipping into a gap and giving himself a good knock, but not getting injured.

Then after Bridalveil came my favorite part of the trip. It was the quietest, most unassuming part. On driving back to the campsite, we stopped at the river like we had on our initial arrival a couple days before. This time it was pretty sparsely attended. By this point, it was time to put the camera down, not fret about getting the clothing a bit wet, and just going in and savoring the river's absolutely mellowing effect. After all the tourists at every other place—and even at this same place a few days earlier—this was what I felt I came for. It started off feeling cold. Even in the summer, it is still mountain runoff and pretty cold that close to the source, but after being immersed in it for a few minutes, it started to feel quite bearable. The afternoon sun was sinking behind trees, and then ultimately behind the towering El Capitan. There were just a few folks around, but all quiet and seemingly in tune with the splendor all around. The water was mostly shallow, but it was welcoming to come up most of the way up my legs, and to let the mountain's bounty flow around me. This was hands down my favorite part so far. I wish there was more than just about a half hour to enjoy it.

This being Kelli's birthday, we got back to the village with our wet feet and pants and got some groceries and a pizza that we took back to the campsite for our final night. We had to be sure to finish off the 1.5 liter bottle of wine before we left, and this was the fine excuse to do so. While at the campsite we found our night's neighbors were a couple of Swiss girls who were touring California and trying to sample a bunch of things in the west. They had some naive ideas of traveling Route 66, and that led to some correction that they'd need to cruise a couple thousand miles one way, and that only a few places could be reached in the few days they had left, and that plenty of the kitchy, nostalgic spots are dribbled all about but not all were that interesting. It got us into some talk about southwestern bucket list destinations. We pitched them Death Valley, having fallen in love with the place on our two trips there. Eventually we retreated to our respective dinners and later on Kelli and I went for our final showers before we would leave the campsite. We got some things packed up and decided to leave some for morning.

Sunday
Sep092012

The 36 and a Half Dome Tour, Sunday

Sunday had that Saturday feel, actually. Waking up in that tent at the Housekeeping Camp was done to the sounds of kids out playing and yelling. It was eight in the fuggin' morning. Give it a rest, you monkeys! But alas, I realized that if it was Sunday morning, they were probably all on their way out in time for checkout and were getting some last kicks in before the check out time and ultimately, before school started the next day, maybe bringing their summers to a close if they had not been in school for the week prior.

Kelli and I made our way about a half mile over to Yosemite Village where the most familiar kinds of facilities were: restaurants, store, services, and among all that, things like the Ansel Adams photography gallery and the visitor's center with the interpretive displays demonstrating what the park has to offer. We milled around there and then availed ourselves of the free shuttle that works the path around the valley destinations and campsites. I had camera in hand and got a few snapshots.

Our big destination for the day was the Mariposa Grove of the supersized sequoia trees. There was a very scenic drive that is only about 30 miles along a very winding path on CA-41. It is very serpentine and scales a few thousand feed so it actually takes about an hour to do the relatively short path. As the road climbs out of the valley there is a gorgeous vista point that looks back on the valley. At the time we thought it was cool but we had yet to do the drive to Glacier Point: the destination for Monday, nor had we done the Tioga Road. But on the way to the Mariposa Grove, this was quite a sample of what we were in store for.

Despite going on the weekend AFTER Labor Day, the place was still rather busy for my taste. Of course I realize that even my being there is part of the problem. Arriving at the Mariposa Grove, able to take the humbling place among the largest of the living things upon the Earth, there were some moments of powerful emotions. Getting to the grove at just before 3 pm, and finding it a very hilly place we could never cover in the next three hours of daylight, we opted to take the tram at $18 apiece. The vehicle itself was a natural gas burning tractor truck (sort of like a drinking water truck) with an open air passenger trailer. It had a pretty good PA system with narration of the tour and comments from historians, botanists, park rangers, and the like. All the trees along the path had railing around them. There was no pavement, only a dirt path for the shuttle route and then other foot paths with railings along them.

You see, the completely amazing thing about these trees is that even though they are the largest living things, standing nearly 300' tall, they have a fragile, shallow root system. They spread out pretty wide, at about 100' around, but never very deep. We're talking about 6' or less for these towering giants. All the fences attempt to keep people from trampling that fragile root system, but it's probably too little since it's not really possible to cultivate a love for these trees by keeping people 100' away, especially where there are some trees that are close together along the path. While you can stand at a distance and marvel, the real powerful experiences come from standing at the bases of these magnificent, almost sentient beings, craning your neck to look up. One particular tree, the Grizzly Giant, looks almost grotesquely huge. A relatively short example at just 209', it has a ginormous trunk diameter of 28', and its primary branch has a diameter of 6' (with a staggering 96' circumference!) —larger than many trees most of us would commonly see.

It's an amazing thing, even taking the cursory two hours or so in the grove. It doesn't seem like that could possibly be enough. But I was ever aware that it's probably too much. For the trees, I mean. Too much for those trees to have hordes of humans stomping and driving around in a place that only the lightly-treading native population and just a scant few Westerners ever saw in its completely natural state. The park services are in an odd place, making these precious groves open to so many people. Even though the place naturally provokes reverence, anything being done up there is by definition a disruption of things. It's easy to look about the parking lot and to see just two hours' worth of crowds and to imagine this going on all day every day for a couple seasons a year could not be beneficial. And that is today's reality with a generally progressive conservation effort going on. Seeing what constituted tourism in the days of old could be rather disturbing. The one remaining tree with a car-sized path cut through its trunk is one such case. Yes, it's novel and exhilarating to stand within the core of a tree like this. But really, it's uncalled for to have paths cut through them. It just seems like a barbaric and unenlightened thing to do. But in 1895 when the cut was made, it must have made some sense. (This was the second giant tree we'd visited in our California tours. The first was during our honeymoon tour, stopping at the Chandelier Tree in Leggett over in the Redwoods up near Fort Bragg. That time we did drive our PT Cruiser rental car through it.)

Kelli had a rather peculiar experience that afternoon in the Mariposa Grove. A week or so before, a beloved and personally supportive member of her church (formerly mine too) had died. We'd not be able to get to the memorial which coincidentally happened about the same time as we got to the grove of the giants. Kelli, a bit sour that this great trip caused her to miss the memorial, blogged that she had an epiphany that she belonged among the trees that day:

I had already planned to be out-of-town the day that was scheduled for Antonia’s memorial service, so I did not get to share the impact she had on my life with her family at that time. I was in a grove of grand Sequoia trees at the time of her memorial. Minutes after I expected her service was over I felt the undeniable feeling of her hug surrounding me and I knew I had made the right choice in not changing my plans–that I needed to be surrounded by trees that were growing when Jesus walked the earth to continue my path of ministry. She knew this and knew right where I’d be.

The great wilderness can do that to a person.

Alas, all we had was about two and a half hours and we had a half cooked plan to bail on the grove and head out, up the road to the turnoff to get to Glacier Point. It was 5 pm as we were leaving the Sequoias, and with the forest being tall and dense, it looked later still since the sunlight didn't permeate the canopy. As we got onto the road, we did the math and had to admit that with the miles to the turnoff and then 16 more miles of this curvy and speed-controlling road, we'd get there but too late to see much of to take pictures. Just as well. There was tomorrow too, and it was getting time to take it easy. Not being avid hikers and hoping for some down time while on vacation, we opted to get back to the valley and get some dinner.

On the way down we were able to snap a few more pictures at the touristy vista point that we visited on the way up. It was more touristy, as everyone and his brother were there with cameras, ready for shooting all during the sunset period, with Half Dome and its peers bathed in the orange glow. We got our snapshots and bailed.

We stopped in at the little old wooden church in the valley, not too far from our campsite, and to our surprise, there was a small service in there. It was sunday night after 6 pm and there were about six people in there when we sneaked in like, well, church mice. Inside, the construction was quite nice for what amounted to a country church. The preacher was dressed casually and the few who were there even more so. The preacher man had his guitar laid over its case which in turn was laid upon the piano. That was the worship music, I guess. It was pretty casual. We were unimpressed in the five minutes or so we sat there. Preacher man was hopscotching his way through this text or that and doing some weird associations that didn't suit us. So we ducked out and headed to the campsite, but not before spying a few deer in the meadow near the church.

We retreated to our campsite after stopping in at the store and getting some fresh food. After the road snack kinds of food we'd been having, a salad was as refreshing a treat as the mist that we wish we'd been able to have upon us at one of the falls. Fresh fruit too. We had along with a 1.5 liter bottle of wine that we'd tackle a bit each night but to be honest, the drowsiness from the wine was uncalled for since those days, with altitude, heat, and walking around, were enough to make a person tired. For as primitive as the accommodations were, the beds, dressed in our own blankets and pillows, were comfy enough to put us to sleep. Sunday night was far quieter after all the families left. The opposite half of the concrete/tent structure was empty that night and the campground was also with many vacancies. The lack of noise and smoke suggested this wasn't such a bad place to be after all. It hadn't seemed that way on the first night, but now it was turning out to be okay.

Saturday
Sep082012

The 36 and a Half Dome Tour, Saturday

There weren't any morning prayers but the nun was there at the counter at 8:45 when we went down for our modest motel style breakfast of fresh waffle and a bowl of cereal. For $40 covering both of us, there's no sense in whining. The fact that they can afford to put a bed and AC unit in there for that price is kind of amazing. At Yosemite, we were looking at $96 a night to stay in a concrete shell with two tent tarps stretched over the top with some more flaps forming a doorway, with beds and a picnic table out in the little porch space. The bear-proof box does not have a parallel in any hotel or motel I've ever been in!

Getting on the road, we had to right ourselves after the last minute detour out of Bakersfield. We found ourselves just west of that town and found that the road outside the motel would take us straight over to the 99 freeway. Not too bad. That took 20 minutes and then we were off and running by about 9:30.

The central valley of California is a pretty forgettable place. It's known as America's Salad Bowl because it is such an agriculturally productive region. But on the roads, it's trucks, trashed freeways and mile after mile of farms. There is enough dust and particulate matter combining with the humidity in that huge valley that there is not a lot of visibility. In the summer, it's pretty hot and since it's so far inland, there's no cool refreshing breeze or anything. It's an oppressive place that just sort of needs to be endured on the way to one end of the state or another, or to get to places like Yosemite, Tahoe, and Mono Lake.

But since this day was one when we thought we'd relax and enjoy the route some, it was okay for Kelli to spark a quick drivethrough detour into Kingsburg, a town south of Fresno founded by Swedish immigrants, and that has that kind of small town charm that you can barely connect with in places like San Diego that are surrounded by more cities on all sides, all grown into one another. This was just a quick pass but it was enough to make me think there might be some charming places along these roadways that I have pretty much written off.

Today wasn't the day for investigating the valley though. We were here to get to the mountains and to check in to our funky concrete and canvas yurt at the Yosemite Valley Housekeeping camp. The one town I did want to check out was Mariposa, a place in the foothills some miles before Yosemite's gates. It is a town where I used to visit annually for most years in the 80s when it was the venue for a BMW motorcycle rally that my old man used to take me and (for a couple years of overlap) my step mom to. We always went there on Memorial Day weekend and from year to year I got to see familiar faces and did some day trips to Yosemite. But I doubt I went even in 1989, and if I went in 1988, I have forgotten about it. But from 1981 onward, I think it was an annual ride. The rally was held at the fairgrounds just outside of town, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that Kelli and I could drive into the grounds and just give her an idea of how those old days went for me.

We headed out to the town and stopped to walk around for an hour or so, taking in the old Gold Rush era town. It's kind of like our local mount tourist town Julian, but about 40 years older. We were able to meander our way up and down the two blocks or so of viable town, checking in at a few shops, taking a bathroom break, and stopping in the Yosemite visitor center to get our park pass. I didn't expect much, but it was nice to connect with the town again after over two decades.

All that lay ahead was forty four miles of winding roads, following the Merced river for many miles, upstream into the park. The river just below the road was crystal clear and shimmering in the mid afternoon sun. We came upon the one lane road that has a stop sign at each end of the half mile or so path that navigates a single lane bridge that crosses the river. The signs say it could take 15 minutes to wait out the other direction's traffic, but we got through in less than five. At the boundary of the park there was a gas station to provide the last minute opportunity before entering the valley where there were no stations for miles. It was priced accordingly: $5.01 for the cheap stuff.

The Yosemite Valley is a long and narrow place that is totally shrouded in trees and lined with the granite walls and giant boulders that define the park. The road is primarily a loop with one way lanes running all the way out and back and a few crossing points along the way to make shorter loops. Now having taken my seat as a passenger I was able to shoot the camera at anything and everything. On the one side, the enormous wall of granite, El Capitan, stood like a sentry watching over the valley. Ahead of us, the mighty Half Dome. To the right, Bridalveil Falls, rather sparse in this late season, compounded by drought, but impressive nonetheless. Beside us in the valley, the river and alternating patches of meadows and forest.

We stopped at the Swinging Bridge and enjoyed the water on our feet. It was cold at first, first fruits of the glacial icepacks that birthed it, but it got to feeling quite comfortable after a few minutes. Camera in tow, I was a bit timid about getting too far into the water but it was clear we'd have to get into the river a bit. Kelli watched in wonder and amusement as a duck sailed up right near her like she was an old friend.

After a day of driving what was really about a four hour drive, we decided to get to camp and get established before the store closed at 6. There were lights in the tent and patio but we were wondering if we needed a lantern. Decided against it and also decided against getting a box of firewood. That was a good thing. On the Saturday night before everyone made their sunday trips back home, it was noisy and smoky as everyone had their firepits going. It rather offended my respiratory system, compounding the shift already brought on by the 4000' elevation. I got a headache and found myself rather tired and depleted. But not before a pleasant walk down to the river just a short way from our tent.

The river was shallow and rather calm. It was flowing but not with any force. The valley is deep and the sun is eclipsed from sight about an hour before sunset everywhere else. With the trees everywhere, the effect is that it is getting dark rather early. But look to a higher point—Half Dome—and the sun is all over it, turning it harvest gold and orange. As we walked along the river, following its contour that provided a natural boundary to the campsite, people were out on the sandy shores, watching the sun set on Half Dome. Kelli and I walked along the pebbly beach up to another bridge. Realizing how fine the dust was in the campsite and knowing it would be hopeless to try to keep clean this weekend, we walked into the water again and at least chilled our heels. It was just as easy to kick at the sand some and to go rinse off again. Sweet. Eventually we got back to the tent and had dinner and some of the 1.5 liter bottle of wine we had along for the weekend. I barely needed that to feel totally out of it. Kelli read me something from a book and I dozed off on one of the beds. Needing to take care of the nightly routine stuff, I had to get up and make some effort. But then I was out. Nevermind trying to stay up till my normal 4 am. This was over with by 11 or so.

Stay tuned for more.

Saturday
Sep082012

The 36 and a Half Dome Tour, preparation

Kelli has been saying for a long time that she wanted to go to Yosemite park for one of our road trips. We've done Death Valley a couple times (with passes through the Kern River valley), Joshua Tree, Big Bear area, San Jacinto Forest via the Palm Springs Tram, Salton Sea, and for our honeymoon in late 2004, a run up the California coast to points up near Eureka. On our last Death Valley trip over Thanksgiving 2011, we did make a try at seeing some Sequoia trees in the Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park but were thwarted by snow.

This time I was more anxious about embarking on a trip since I have lost my unemployment insurance and therefore have no money coming in. Since it was Kelli's birthday weekend last weekend, there was really no way she was going to be dissuaded so she booked the campsite in Yosemite Valley. The housekeeping camp was described to me as being semi-primitive concrete boxes with canvas ceilings but with a store, bathrooms and shower/laundry facilities nearby. To tell the truth, it didn't really matter much because just three weeks before I was up at a campsite near Shaver Lake, not too far south from Yosemite park. I was at a men's spirituality weekend and spent the night outside in the woods with nothing more than a blanket and camping mattress pad and a pillow. As you'd expect, that wasn't comfortable but it did make Yosemite's modest accommodations seem rather plush. I worried the bugs would be a problem as they were at Shaver Lake but it turned out to be a non-issue.

Having a new car was a luxury to us that we haven't enjoyed except once when we rented a PT Cruiser for our honeymoon trip. For all the trips we've made since 2010 when all this California travel kicked off with a vengeance, we've driven my Toyota truck, a rugged little ride with no shell to keep stuff secure, so as we make stops in that ride, we have to move stuff into the cab and then set it back into the bed upon return. With our curious stops at various roadside monuments, trailheads, and other places that draw our attention, that could be an inconvenient thing to do whenever we thought we'd be out of sight of the truck. Now we went like normal people! And to have a CD player was also a first since the honeymoon trip. My truck just has a stock radio in it.

We planned to stay three nights in the Yosemite tents and knew we'd need to put our food into steel bear lockers. We decided to do what is now a fairly common move: escape Southern California the night before the ultimate destination so we don't have to lose at least four hours just getting through the stuff we've already seen and kinda hate to see again. All that stuff from here to Grapevine on the I-5 is just 195 miles of tedium. Kelli booked a room in "Bakersfield" and said she sent me the confirmation notice but I never got it. Being rather prone to distraction and a bit depressed of late, I procrastinated any trip prep until about the day before we left. I usually do some research on what I might like to see, map out the route and all, but took a real casual approach. We found out how casual when we got into the car. But more on that later.

Buber the Dog was ably taken care of by our friend Lois from MHUCC. She was willing to come up and stay for the four days and nights to look after the pup. She had taken care of him before when it was an easy drive across Hillcrest to our house, and when it was something where multiple people could help out in shifts. But now we're kind of far away and no one would just drive up, and it seems like no one is able to take him either, so it went to Lois who was flexible enough to stay here for the weekend.

The food situation was cause for some wonder. We aren't very well equipped for camping, particularly since there are such forceful bear-related demands in Yosemite. I borrowed a trunk of camping cookware and a burner from Lee Van Ham and then we packed up a bunch of the stuff that would make road food so that we wouldn't have to stop at McDogfood's a couple times in each direction. Without a cooler, we did what we could. At least there were some food options in Yosemite, albeit at some elevated expense. We hit the Costco for some road grub but would have to get the fresher stuff as needed. I made a bunch of sandwiches though we found we had no cheese. All was well though; they were made with Dudley's awesome breads like sundried tomato and jalapeno cheddar.

Lois came by at about 7:15 on Friday night and we showed her what she needed to know about and small talked while packing to go. Finally we set out at 8:30, got the gas and were leaving Escondido. There was some indecision about whether to go up the 15 or the 5 (thereby hitting any Friday night LA traffic which I have come to expect would suck). Good thing about the indecision. That's when we found out that Kelli's supposed hotel confirmation email never came to my desk, and therefore we had nothing to work with. Not only that, I had no idea where it was, nor did Kelli! It was in "Bakersfield" and with that, I presumed it was on the CA-99 because B-field doesn't really reach the I-5 which splits off from the 99 a few miles south. So we found we needed to return to get that printout. And then we could start our 3.5 hour drive in earnest.

We tried a new route up north, using the 15 up to the 91 for a few miles over to the 71 and on up to the 210 which then rendezvoused with the 5 again. Kelli had her work phone along so we were able to navigate on the fly as I drove. It was a bit clumsy since she wasn't used to using it for that and of course she was describing a path I had never thought of. We got through the greater LA area, slashing across it diagonally, but upon getting to the 5/14 split, somehow I missed that while blasting some Peter Gabriel and then found it necessary to do the night's second backtrack. As I say though, "I never get lost. I just don't always make the right turn first." Or, another one is like this, "I made a wrong turn by going straight." I never get worked up about such stuff. There are roads enough to work things out. But historically, when I drove for Mike Keneally's tour, Bryan Beller would get in a panic and go nuts about a time or two when I missed a turn. Jeeze. Anyhow, driving the Grapevine was a breeze in this car, made all the more smooth by the tunes that we could pump for the first time since 2004.

So we got closer to Bakersfield and it was time to look up the exit we'd take for the motel. We knew the name, but there was no sign of it on the 99. As I said, I just drove up the 99, not even thinking it might be on the 5. I confirmed it was in Bakersfield, right? That means it's on the 5. Uh... Kelli wasn't sure. She got on the Google map and found it was actually on the 5, now about 20 miles away. So it took a detour or two to get onto the detour we actually needed. This took us across the CA-119, a rural section of road between southern B-field and the 5. Our noses detected it was rural before our eyes did. I mean, does anything signal that like the sudden onset of industrial-grade cow operations? Oh, it was foul, foul, foul! I had to give Kelli credit for this one. She took down the address but not the Google map directions. If we had just taken the 5, we'd have missed this. To add a little more to this bit of navigational nonsense, she got on the phone with the motel and found that since it was just the Vagabond Inn, we could as easily stay in the B-field location, not this other one. But what the hell did it matter now? We were 3/4 there!

We got to the 5 and rode up a short way before we found our exit and then it all made sense and was just a thing to chuckle about. It was 12:30 am now. Kelli was amused beyond belief when she went into the lobby and found a nun at the counter. Upon getting to her room, she resolved to go down and half-snarkily ask if there were morning prayers she might join in on. She signed her name "Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas" and noticed a look on the nun's face, a look of some surprise and bewilderment. As for us, we too were bewildered what in the world a nun was doing running the desk at this two bit motel on the outskirts of Bakersfield, CA.

With the car's trunk it's so much nicer not having to move everything into the motel room. Amen, sister! We didn't have a plan for what time to depart in the morning, so getting to bed at 1:30 am wasn't a problem. We just knew that the next day would be more scenic since the worst of the driving was behind us and we could just get up and sightsee as we went by places. There was some more valley time to do before breaking off toward the hills at Fresno, but the day ahead was to be enjoyed.

Saturday
Jul142012

Rückkehr nach Deutschland +20

...Continued from yesterday. But the story picks up a year later.

Not content with that Munich parting of the ways a year and a day earlier, I touched down in Germany once again and promptly kissed the airport floor. You read right. I did really kiss the stone tile floor at the Munich airport terminal on July 14th, 1992. The time between was a sandwich filler of, well, sandwich making at Subway, and a lot of filler time surrounding what little my life had been during that time of alienation and estrangement and frustration and even a legal matter that I came out the loser for. During the later part of that yearlong period, two things emerged that saved it from a complete writeoff of a life: the increased activity with Matt Zuniga, my fellow exiled drummer boy/death metal screamer, and the start of a new relationship just two weeks before I was due to fly off to Germany.

Pathetic Life

In the grand scheme of things, I had it good. But since it's a little like a fish not knowing what water is, my pathetic little life of broken hearts, work strife, the old man having a new girlfriend (and then just as quickly losing her) and adjustments after high school seemed to be the stuff of existential angst at times. Getting all the way through high school without a girlfriend does make one prone to panic or worry. Having your imaginary girlfriend send all your letters back after a misunderstanding over $4.20 loan for a sandwich did put me on edge during a period when so many things were new and unfamiliar. Hardly a one of my high school era contacts (from school) were durable personalities that remained in the picture that first year out. I was in an ambivalent period toward church. I began to let work dominate my life, with the sustaining community of church folk being pushed aside for the independence that work seemed to allow. The hours were pushing hard against church hours, and eventually I just stopped going. Meeting Matt at Subway was more of a shock than a salve to me then. But in that weird way, he did prove to be the leading buddy for that era, the guy with whom I spent time. I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel like a step backwards in those early days. Matt and Steve could not be two more different people. What a new thing, pondering that both had their place in my life. Sooner or later though, there has to be someone to help a guy discover porn!

With my return to Germany being about the only thing of any meaning to me that year, everything was just a hurdle or a pothole or other obstacle it seemed. It felt like I'd die if I didn't get back to Germany to see a friend. Maybe I invested too heavily that way, and maybe it would be a miserable failure or who knows what. But the trip was all that mattered. I had hardly any plan for how to live a meaningful life after it though. The late breaking developments with Melissa changed that — in my journal from July 13, 1992, I asked why that day had the extraordinary ability to make people sad (last year leaving Steve and this year leaving Melissa). But prior to starting up with Melissa, there was some hope of doing more exiled drumming with Matt, and a semester to return to at school.

(All you people should be happy that I'm telling you what a hard time I was having. That has been a longer thread in my life anyway, always having some existential discontent at work. I tell you this because if you were offered my sappy ass journals from the first months with Melissa — well, let me not even dwell there. I cringe at it. I'm a bit stunned by how fast my fretting about getting to Germany turned to the most saccharine and sappy fluff. Girls!)

The Teutonic Toil Trade-off

I'd also have to look for work. Having gotten fired from Subway in April, I guess I asked around for work for a little while, but probably didn't expect much, knowing that I'd be leaving soon and I'd be in an odd place to either explain that yes I was interested in the job but would need to leave for the summer. Or it would be a deal breaker to stay quiet and then make an announcement that I was leaving. More awkward still would be any request that my job be held while I was gone. At less than six weeks prior to takeoff, I pretty much gave up looking until my return in August. In June, local drummer Craig Zarkos was the first ever to ask me to be his drum tech, though his work involved trips to Los Angeles. I turned him down because I had other plans for the summer, and why the hell would I want to be a drum tech? The coming job search was gleefully delayed until my return to my default San Diego life, but even upon my return, it took most of four months to land a gig — at fucking Jackin' The Box. I do have to say though that by that time — December 18, 1992 — I was having my first real existential depression and suicidal ideation. Even getting the gig at JIB was cause to start to see life a little differently. It did just enough of that before the rather unfortunate e. coli scare nearly shut them down, causing dudes like me to get put "on call" for a month or so while all that got ironed out. Of course, I did not get called. Skeleton crew was good enough for them.

The miracle of getting to Germany was made all the more poignant because of the timing of the purchase of my flight ticket. I bought that on April 7, 1992 for something like $960 or so, but then was fired from Subway just under one week later on the 12th. When faced with a coincidence like that, the only thing to do is to take a breath and proclaim that Subway served its purpose. After that initial and financially bruising commitment to the trip, the next thing to do was to get a new camera that I would not be troubled by, and that would be automatically advancing and which would not let me do something so stupid as to rewind my film as I shot it! Maybe I had forgotten how hot it was the year before, and maybe I had no idea how hot it would be this summer, particularly since this trip would be nearly three times as long. Having not worn shorts for about seven years, I did not entertain the idea. Not long after getting there, it would become pretty apparent that my apparel was appallingly antithetical to the arduously antagonistic temperatures. I finally broke one day and some shorts were offered to me before the bunch of us headed down to the Alz river not far from Steve's house. Aside from all that, I was amply prepared to enjoy my time.

Fly Day

I had spent much of the Sunday before my flight with Melissa, and for part of the day, with Matt in a few hours of Rhythmic Catharsis jamming. I had this habit of making a note of how many hours Melissa and I spent each time we got together. This quantification didn't serve any real purpose except to make me a slave to stuff that never should have been. I guess it did have some use to a horny 18 year old guy who frankly got a little anxious about time slipping away outside of any relationship. Nonetheless, the record shows that on July 12, 1992, we spent 13 hours together. Understandable, considering it would be the last we'd see of each other for nearly six weeks. She had her mom bring her down for a special final send off that was documented as lasting 20 minutes on the day, just before I finally got in the car with my old man and drove off to Los Angeles. He had a few errands to run while in LA and my flight was not set to leave until 7:40pm and apparently it left an hour and a half later. We left sometime around noon, I guess.

I was impressed by the late setting of the sun in Europe. After all, the latitude is higher there and the summer daylight was just past its solstice peak. Getting to Munich at 9pm was still partially lit up. I was met by Steve, brother Christoph, their friend Werner, and most surprisingly, Steve's new girlfriend Ina. This whole girl thing threw us both off, compared to the experience of 1991. I think he'd gone out with her for a while but of course for me, Melissa was just a two week experience for me. Shelby, worth a mention because she was settling in a a friend after we made up following the nightmarish experience of her sending my letters back to me by USPS, was nowhere near the figure that she was the year before. While Steve and I have never been more than buddies who had some far-reaching conversations, of course, having girlfriends does sort of change the dynamic, and I think I must have felt something of a loss that after all those 52 weeks, things would not just be he and I. Of course, I did anticipate that I'd be immersed in his life among friends for half the trip or so, and then we'd go out for a two week road trip that was just the two of us. I don't recall having raised the issue. It would have only been stressful. 

Once I landed and kissed the airport floor, the whole crew of us somehow got to an outdoor carnival kind of event, probably in Waldkraiburg where Ina lived. I might have enjoyed it more if I were rested. Eventually we cut that short and were on our way to the Rau haus in Garching a. d. Alz.

My journal entry from the travel day (spanning perhaps more than 15 hours) was surprisingly short for such a momentous time, and also considering how long I was on the flights from Los Angeles to Geneva, then on to Zurich, and finally to Munich. In a lot of ways it was a total throwaway entry but there is a note to myself to refer to a microcassette tape that I anticipated would be my journal for the trip. I doubt I got more than a couple nights into that project before it lost its appeal. I think I still have the tape but no machine. I wonder what that kid would say to me if I were to play it now? I do still recall sitting in the Rau living room that first night, up until midnight or afterward, jet lagged and tired, but so bleepin' happy to be on German soil again.


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Friday
Jul132012

Auf Wiedersehn, Deutschland +21

Since about 2009, I've written a lot about what happened "twenty years ago‚" maybe to preserve memory or to finally take advantage of the richness of expression that the web allows. Today I'd like to push past that some. I'd like to tell about an experience 21 years ago. I sort of dropped the ball last summer by not reporting on my first trip to Europe. I was busy and of course, a trip of that sort is too tall a tale to tell in one post, or even a few.

I can't think of a time when a male friend ever evoked this feeling in me upon parting ways. Had I ever cried at such a time? Oh, I recall the summer of 1985 when my 5th-6th grade school pal Michael Lane moved to Porterville, CA (a place I first drove to only last year on Thanksgiving Day) after we got free of Longfellow Elementary. I missed the toilet jokes and playing with Transformers and whatever else, even a fondness for Garfield the cat. I do remember moping around when Michael was gone. I was about to enter 7th grade, with the sense of unfamiliarity that that could bring, even as I anticipated many of my peers there would be people I already knew from my time at Hawthorne elementary from K-4.

The lineup shot of four of us goofing off the day before graduationThe day before graduation: Trudi (exchange student from Germany, my prom date and Shelby's friend at school); Shelby; Steve; and me.

1991 Personal Zeitgeist

Years later—this time in 1991 after the next six year block of institutional brainwashing—I stood at a train station in Munich, Germany and had several months' experience come to a rather emotional close. This time, just weeks after graduating from high school, the future did indeed seem wide open again, and maybe too wide. What would fill the gap? Who was I in this new context? Was this the end of things? I didn't have any idea about a life after high school. I was only focused enough to anticipate the summer ahead with an incredibly twitterpated crush on my non-girlfriend girl-friend Shelby Duncan. She was due to return from her trip to Russia one week after this day that I am about to recall for you. And my heart was about to explode out of my chest all that time she was gone. But all that, as all you TAPKAE.com readers no doubt already know, was a rather futile form of masochism that I subjected myself to for some years.

Steve at the last dinner before graduation and his departure from San Diego

As the saying goes, it's better to have a bird in hand than two in the bush. On this day 21 years ago, that was really the case, though agonizingly so. The Shelby thing was already in decline by the end of high school. Most of the script was written by about a year or so before when it was made "clear" to me that she'd never really be interested in me, at least that way. Things had evolved somewhat, but never enough to really turn things around. But that didn't stop me from going to Europe and etching the various bits of lovestruck grafitti into park benches, trees, and even Alpine snow banks. I didn't let that history dissuade me from my imagination-run-amok. With Shelby, I had two birds in the bush.

With my German friend Stephan (Steve) Rau, I sort of had my bird in hand. Only it wasn't a literal "in hand" because we were just good pals in that second semester of my senior year. We had met in the first days of that special year, placed as we were in the Government/Economics class taught by Harry Steinmetz, the man who I still hold up as the model teacher in a school setting. (His father, Harry Steinmetz, Sr., is in the history books and was clearly an influence on the man I studied under on three occasions in high school and years later at Mesa College.) In that class Steve and I were in contact and had gotten to find some common interests and could enjoy having some lunch together in the courtyard with some others. But it wasn't until January when we finally spent any time outside of school. There was something to that. He did live about six miles away, which, when you consider the geography of San Diego from my house to his host family's place, was a bit of a challenge on a bike. Eventually, the spirit of carpe diem seized me and we went out to see one of the laser light shows at the Fleet IMAX theater in Balboa Park. It's amazing how fast a semester goes, and there it was, gone. I started to feel a bit like I could be a better host to show him a bit of my town.

Like Father, Like Son. Sort of.

In another universe, and for many years prior to senior year, my old man had regaled me with tales of his first trip to Europe—when he was 17 and fresh out of high school in 1963. Back in my own life, I had taken two years of German language classes in 10th and 11th grade. A lot of my interest in language was sparked that summer of 1988 just before entering 10th grade. I excelled at German in the controlled conditions of the classroom, and knowing something of German (the mother tongue from which English arose) helped my English understanding. For those couple years, I read up or otherwise was intrigued by German culture and history. Because those years were still in the Cold War era, there was still an East and West Germany. The old man, reading properly that I was interested in this of my own accord, fed my enthusiasm with trips to one or two of the German theme villages in Southern California. And then it started... he started suggesting that I could go to Europe after I graduated high school. After all, I had the money now. And then when he realized Steve and I were getting to be buddies, he stepped it up. I wasn't that interested in going to Europe. I mean, that money was for something else. A car maybe? More cowbells to complete my drum kit?

I rejected it at first. Not because I didn't think it neat to have a new buddy. Not long after the laser show, we found ourselves doing some weekend trips to local sights (including one day trip including Shelby that lived on for years later), but one day in February I stayed over at his host family's place, watching Monty Python movies (Life of Bryan, Meaning of Life) and probably listening to a lot of music, and most importantly, having a talk that really set the tone for a quality of relationship that I think we both were stunned by. Some conversations just put new marker pins on the map of life. This was one of those. But it still didn't really make me wish to go to Europe that summer.

My bank book with the deposit record of checks from my mom up until the trip in 1991.My bank book with the record of deposits leading up to the trip.

By April, the flow of events had brought Steve and I into more regular time spent together and getting to know each other, and the nudging persisted until finally I bought the plane ticket and started to anticipate the trip. Back then it was a simple thing to anticipate, and of course as things developed with my new friendship, the emotional investment in it developed too. Oddly, it was not a "gift" from him to me. At least not out of his pocket. You see, this is where the family stuff has to sour the story. Long story short, that $3700 in the bank was "mine" in an account bearing my name but that was not able to be drawn from until my 18th birthday in October 1991. What didn't really become clear until many years later was exactly how crookedly how that money came to have my name on it.

The Trip

Finally, graduation time came and the glory days of senior year were turning into history. The time we had together in San Diego was winding down and then finally ran out. Steve's father Gerhard flew in to watch the graduation in person and to have dinner with us the night before. Shortly afterward they took off to do a couple weeks of touring in the Southwestern areas. My travel plans were to leave on June 27 and to return on July 13th. But the trip would be essentially two experiences: the tour with the old man and at the end of it all, the four days at Steve's place in Garching an der Alz, a town in the southeast of what was then West Germany. It is about 60 miles from Munich.

The trip with the old man was primarily a tour of parts of Switzerland, including a couple days in Geneva (my first jet lag), a couple in Zermatt at the base of the Matterhorn, and a few other places that echoed his 1963 trip. The tour took us through miniscule corners of Italy, France (in the shadow of Mont Blanc), and a short half day pass through Innsbruck, Austria. By those little detours can I say that I've been to those countries, but I can't really say I've seen France or Italy or even much of Austria. By far, the feature attraction for me was getting to Garching and seeing what Steve's world was like. Of course, my four days there would pale in comparison to his school year in San Diego. We'd do what we could. The old man, my driver and tour manager to that point, stayed one night in Garching (where he regaled everyone with his tales from his 1963 trip and another to Berlin in 1989-90 just as the Berlin Wall was coming down) then went out and amused himself for a few days and left me and Steve to our youthful pursuits. We'd rendezvous in Munich on the 12th and fly home early on the 13th.

Since Steve had not been seen there in about ten months, there was plenty of social life for him to get back into. Family to reconnect with and games to play. Friends to see, places to go. Errands to run in towns like Muhldorf, Altoetting, Neuotting, and Burghausen. It gave an easy opportunity to bring me along to some of it. I had my first 35mm camera with me but knew nothing about it. I wish I had because then I wouldn't have unintentionally rewound the film after every shot. I went to one photo developer in Garching and found to my horror that most of my pictures while there were wasted! In some cases, Steve and I drove back to locations and shot some more, and others were just lost. The journal I kept each day told something of the story but doesn't age well, being filled with so many of the little in jokes and comic references that were the currency of the banter between Steve and I at the time, but has since lost its charm for me, and is therefore hard to read without cringing.

Drinking age there is 16 so for this 17 year old, I wasn't out of the loop when it came time to hang out and shoot pool, or to go to dinner with Steve and his father and brother Christoph. Christoph himself was preparing to go to the US for an exchange year in Utah, so he was inquisitive about the USA. We all liked music and were talking about it and even took an hour or two and jammed some—Steve on piano, Christoph on sax, and me on whatever I could find. I think my drumset was a music stand and coffee can or something. (When in town, we hit music stores as often as possible. I was in search of Jethro Tull bootlegs.) Their place was a generously sized house on a lot that seemed chateau like, and that extended some way back into the woods and that had a river (the Alz) just down an embankment. There was farmland everwhere, broken up by the forests that had not yet been cleared. It was a bit tedious a landscape but beautiful nonetheless because it was still respected and towns were not the anchors of sprawl that we expect here.

It was hot, hot, hot, and on top of that, it was humid. Being so far inland was a new thing for me, and I guess I never expected Europe to be so hot. My journal reflects that we were just trying to stay cool and relaxed unless there was somewhere to go. We biked down to the river and hung out in the water, but it would be a year before I would enter that river in shorts. Nope, my years-long exclusive pants-wearing personal habit would not be broken at home. I had to go to Germany in 1992 to find the heat so miserable that I donned shorts for the first time in seven years, and was subjected to ridicule for it! Those hot times made for a nice outdoor grilling experience. The food was always good, and I was able perhaps for the first time to eat a diet of "real" food. You know, full power butter and cream; fresh fruit and old world cheeses, meats, breads, and other delicacies. And Nutella! I ate and ate and ate like there was no tomorrow because it was like it was the first time I was really eating. The beers and brats of course were delightful on those hot days. I'd barely had any beer before getting to Germany so I had little reference, but there I learned to enjoy a good Pilsner as part of a meal.

Trains

Four days isn't long to take in and try to wrap up a friendship that developed over nearly a year. The time in Germany was spent doing a lot of things that were new and exciting and didn't really leave us the chance to talk at length like we had in the states. Maybe we didn't need to. Or maybe it was too hard to face the facts. Who knew when or if we'd see each other again? Finally the day came when Steve and I were off to Munich on the train. It would be the last half day to spend together. He had to get back and I had to fly home the next morning. The powerful emotions of the day were hard to push away, and it was clear that July 12th was a day when we both fought back the salties. A day of quiet as the morning breakfast goes about in near silence except for the goodbyes and deep thanks I had to say to Gerhard and the brothers' grandfather Heinrich, a 90 year old gentleman who spoke little and with whom I could barely communicate except through gestures and smiles. Christoph must have been in school still or had other business so Steve and I had to brave it alone and make the most of a day that made us both sore. Maybe this was the end of this trip, but I was starting to feel drawn to the idea of coming over again next year.

The train ride was mostly silent and awkward. I think I dozed off and was found with a bit of that loose jaw drool starting when I jumped to and caught Steve snickering some. We got to Munich, a mighty city of stone and people, of art and commerce, of ideas and history. And of music stores. We hit one giant store in the Viktualienmarkt where I hunted for some more Tull and Fairport Convention. We had to rendezvous with the old man on arrival so I could offload my travel bags at his hotel room, but I seem to remember being alone with Steve after that, getting lunch, sitting at a cafe, and sort of trying not to lock eyes because, well, that would make us all sappy.

nasty letter from the old man in the early days of my 3rd period with mom. he likes to try to remind me of the good old days and things he did for me, including the first europe trip that she paid for only by his manipulations of the law.Enlarge to read the manipulative language my old man uses to justify some nasty behavior. He loves to cite this train station experience as his handiwork and successful parenting.

The big moment eventually came about mid afternoon. We three were at the train station, and for probably half an hour before the train left, there was hardly a word passing between Steve and me. Getting out onto the waiting area near the train stop pushed all the salt water in me to just behind my eyelids. The old man, no doubt beaming in pride at the results of this rather carefully orchestrated idea that spanned many years of planning and arm-twisting, waited at a bit of a distance. He saw it all. Steve and I finally had to do that last handshake, that last hug and a muttered message of my intent to try to come back the next year, and his final exit onto the train. That's when the flood of emotion washed over me. This clearly was no Michael Lane moving to Porterville. Porterville, even at 300 miles from home, felt close, as if a day trip would suffice to see a distant friend. Even without knowing the kinds of dirty tricks that resulted in the money for this trip, it seemed a huge task to raise new money for a second trip and to plan the trip for next year. I had no idea how that would go. With no job and only about half as much money, it was a dream.

The face of a friend in the window of a train car moving the other direction is indeed rather like the movies make it out to be. I was dazed. It was small comfort to be milling around in Munich with my old man for the rest of the day. I might as well jump on a plane and go home to my imaginary girlfriend Shelby and pretend this never happened. But that flight would come soon enough even though it would be an agonizing week of suspense and heart acrobatics for me while waiting for Shelby to come home to San Diego after her sojourn in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sure, I had a little something to look forward to: I'd have school to go to in the fall, starting classes at Mesa College, but my heart was with Shelby and Steve. And, as said above, I realized Shelby was a long shot and that things could very well not work out no matter how far my heart would leap out of my chest. So that left me with that feeling surrounding the knowledge that really Steve was the biggest loss since he'd been the biggest gain up till now. I was anticipating the long distance phone bill and the awkwardly scheduled talks we'd have, spanning eight time zones. I was also anticipating passing music back and forth with (get this...) cassette tapes. Before leaving Munich, I'd bought a couple packages of tapes at what was then a very satisfactory exchange rate of 1.78DM : 1USD.

Afterward: Yeah, Whatever

It was hot that day. Humid, and the clouds were building for a storm. Me and the old man did some walking around town and took in some lunch and a tasty Lowenbrau on the Hofgarten, the giant area where the Oktoberfests are held in the Bavarian capitol. Eventually we had to settle in for the night. The day ahead was one of travel from early in the German morning into late in the San Diego evening. Because I was not part of the original reservation at his hotel, and because he's a wily fellow, the hotel staff did not recognize me yet seemed quite interested in my status there. Steve and I had gone in earlier to drop my bags and were looked past as "assistants." I got in at night okay.

Sometime in the middle of the night I was woken by the most insane thunderstorm I'd ever experienced. Outrageously loud and bright. It seemed like it was directly overhead. The dense layout of the old city, and the stone construction of the buildings all led to it being explosive sounding. It was nearly scary. It kept the trip from ending on anything like a normal note, if that was possible. I probably lost some sleep. The next morning, we had to escape the hotel. I grabbed my things and did a dash past the woman at the counter who shouted out at me, trying to get me to come back, or at least to find out what my room number was. We just raced past her and out to the train station, bound for the airport.

To be continued in 1992...

Sunday
Jan012012

Mileage for 2011

toyota odometer at 220,992 to start 2012

I didn't keep such a detailed monthly, quarterly, or even semi annual tally this year. It's a bit ridiculous, and I figured that I wasn't going to beat the 1,546 mile record from 2009. And I didn't beat last year's tally either. I wasn't really trying to. And there is also the matter of the two rather extensive trips I made during 2011. Having decided to do even the first one, I realized I was simply not in the running for much of any prize this year. The New Mexico journey was good for about 1,807 miles on its own. Death Valley with Kelli was a bit like the year prior but longer at 1,326 miles. Another smaller trip to Big Bear and Palm Springs didn't add too much at 507 miles, but was no help in reducing the overall count.

Total mileage says I backslid a good deal, but take away the major trips and once again I was pretty disciplined with my daily driving. So what was the mileage breakdown for 2011?

I started at 215,401 and ended at 220,992. That's 5,591 miles for the year. It's still rather reduced compared to if I had a commute. Take away the trips and their 3,640 miles and you have 1,951 miles of general use travel. Still pretty respectable.

Not working much of the year, I was doing a lot of computer based work from home. So in a lot of ways, I barely left the house. I didn't bike much since I was without a commute, and in some ways I was in retreat from certain social things or obligations at church for example. I got rather sedentary, and I'm not happy to report on that. I feel it. Other transportation was by carpooling with Kelli, or sometimes with someone from church or others already on their way to some shared experience. There is some walking, but that isn't so much in the name of getting things done but for local errands.

Now, the absurdity of Kelli's commute and general day's driving probably nullifies any gains I might have made. But she's the breadwinner now, so that's legit, and her work requires a great deal of criss-crossing the territory. Having two such jobs multiplies that somewhat. She's had a good year in the "opportunity" department, and two jobs is nothing to laugh at in this economy.

Wednesday
Nov302011

Into the Valley of Death, redux

Ubehebe Crater

I have no idea what I will do with the 900+ pix that I shot on the trip Kelli and I just took for the entire Thanksgiving weekend. I hope I can get them into a gallery here, but I like to do some color correction and stuff. So it will take some whittling down before I even attempt that. And you can forget about captions. Last year's trip to Death Valley resulted in about 750 pix and I think I pruned about 250 outright.

This year we took an extra day since Kelli didn't have to work, so we bailed town on Wednesday night and returned late on Sunday. Sandwiched in between was a night in Bakersfield that set us up for a Sequoia/Sierra drive that got diverted due to ice, but was nice nonetheless. It had its surprises as we drove toward Lone Pine via Lake Isabella. A night in Lone Pine on Thanksgiving was a quiet one that set us up for a drive part way up the Whitney Portal. (the closed roads led us to want to call our tour the "Road Closed Tour" but later on with the wild swings in elevation, we called it the "Up and Down Tour.") Then we headed eastward into Death Valley for a bit of late afternoon sights on the way to Beatty, Nevada where we stayed two nights and made our base for a couple days. Saturday was a day full of new adventures as we drove the magnificent Titus Canyon and then saw Scotty's castle and the Ubehebe crater. Sunday was a pass by Rhyolite, a ghost town in Nevada near the border, and then a reprise of our favorite spots from last year: Zabriskie Point, Badwater, Artist's Drive.

The White Donkey at the threshold of the Titus Canyon drive's intense sectionWe really like Death Valley. This time around as we were combing the map for points we might get to, we realized how much there is, particularly off the paved roads. My truck is fit for some of it, but we're already anticipating the right way to see this is to rent a 4x4 truck for a trip and get into it. We were hoping to get to the Racetrack, the totally mysterious place where rocks seem to glide across the lakebed over time, and no science so far has been able to really explain exactly what is happening. Various voices encouraged the drive in my truck, and others not, so we erred on the side of caution and instead took the stellar and challenging Titus Canyon drive—a sometimes harrowing, usually washboarded serpentine drive that is 24 miles long and has just one lane going in one direction. I let Kelli drive some of it but all the way was fearing my street tires were not up to the job of this drive. But we got through. It was amazing.

Badwater

Friday
Mar182011

Gonna Miss My Girl

Fifteen days is a long time to go away. So far we've only been apart for about twelve days. But this is some kind of pilgrimage I've felt I've needed to make most certainly for about five years, but in its earliest form for about 18 years. With the exception of my trip to Germany in 1992, into a world that I only vaguely knew, this is a bit more of an adventure. Particularly so because I am going alone, driving my own vehicle, and going to a place where I have done little more than read about, and will be among people I never met before... Other of my trips have been in the comfort of planes (Alaska 1994-5, Hawaii 2000 and more) or with travel partners who did the planning and hard work (Kelli on our three main trips, work trips, Keneally tour), or with a familiar host to greet me and give me a place (Steve in Germany, Shelby in Alaska). With the exception of the rites last year, I rarely drive my truck past the 150 mile mark—scarcely to the north side of the greater LA area and much farther than El Centro. But this trip is far more elaborate, making a swing through Arizona to New Mexico and a few sites within that state, and back. I guess it is the kind of youthful solo trek I felt tugging on me as early as mid 1993 when I dropped out of my community college plans between semesters, only to return ten years later, having made inner journeys but not much of the actual solo travel outer journeys. 

The layers of significance are many. The one time I know (from heresay from people with their respective axes to grind) I was in Albuquerque was the time when my mother fled California to not comply with a court order that I guess favored the old man to keep me as an infant of about a year or so. I am hazy on the details, but this was a time when she pretty much screwed her prospects for keeping me when she fled with me, out of state, to try to hide. It all didn't go so well so the law caught up and had me collected back from her. The story that was told me says that it was a messy, upsetting affair of prying mother from child. I guess it is back there in the cobwebs of my soul. I won't say it isn't operating at some level. I can imagine that such a thing is a scar that doesn't heal. If that one day isn't the cause, then the permanent fracture in my family unit certainly kept it alive. I just can't say for certain. But that was the last time I was in Albuquerque. Let's say it was a time of trials and brokenness.

I am not going back to specifically address that. There isn't anything I know that could help me retrace steps. No walking the scene of the crime or anything. But time and again in the last couple years, there has been a repeated call to get to New Mexico. It wasn't always so; other times I expected I'd dash up to the pacific northwest or to Canada, or to Steinbeck country or something. New Mexico was hardly on my radar until the Center for Action and Contemplation came onto my radar. Being based there seemed a natural fit. So I am following the bread trail from one of their programs to another. But I have had compelling narratives from two other sources that have led me to want to see what New Mexico is about.

I thought I was going to do this sort of on the cheap. Being that it is a work camp, I got in for nothing on the room and just $200 for two weeks of food. I calculated about $300 in gas at this absurd rate, and minimal road food since I really only had four travel days—breaking up the drive at Phoenix where a friend of Kelli's will let me crash in each direction if I want. I actually have not driven 12 hours at any time, so that seems reasonable. Part of what I want to do is enjoy the road and scenery. What I didn't really bargain for was that I'd sink about $700 on the truck, replacing radiator, water pump and some oil seals. All of a sudden, I got kind of dizzy last Monday when I had to pony up. On the other hand, that is relatively cheap compared to a blown radiator and a tow from the middle of nowhere. Even with all this, the travel is comparable to train or flight, but with the intended benefits of being silent and alone, and being flexible with routing, and not needing to make other arrangements for rental car or any of that.

This is spiritual liminal space, where I want to chance to let this stuff do its magic. Come what may. That is the prevailing spirit on this trip. Openness. It is the season of Lent now, and in the absence of a specific practice of denial or a new practice, this is my project—to see what the road has to say, what the pantheon of rocks and mesas and desert plains has to say, to see what working with sheep has to say. I want to stand in the field where the Very Large Array stands, spread out by many kilometers in three directions, receiving the sounds of the universe. It is a holy site, hopefully with a holy aim. It is something I've pondered since 1999 when Mike Keneally named my CD Receiving, and almost immediately I had the image of the Very Large Array dishes come to mind. I even want to see what the Trinity test site has to say about our human power to destroy ourselves, and the life we hold dear. All the more so now that at this very moment in history, Japan again fears the split atom.

Both my fathers, Lee Van Ham and Richard Rohr, talk about nature being the first bible, the first revelation of God. Rohr says that nature is the one thing that can get a man to take his right place in the order of things. Nothing else seems to effect the needed shift of attitude in the same, whole way. As much of this trip as I can dedicate to being in nature, I plan to. The plan is to be at the ranch from late 3/20 to the morning of 4/1, and then to spend Friday the 1st in Albuquerque where the CAC is based, see their operation, kick around town some, and then stay the night at their facility where I can start off and head to Trinity and the VLA, each being about 100 miles from the previous spot. I'd like to stay at the VLA until dusk if the sky is exciting to look at and photograph. And then, I'll burn it back to Phoenix to camp for the night. 

So I expect to take some pictures. Probably thousands. This will be interesting. I'll be off the grid for a while but will probably have plenty of pix to put me back in this very chair for a while, using my new Photoshop CS5! But the big stuff will be written on my heart. New scenery, new people, new experiences—all some kind of adventure I know I've needed for years and years but have only now found a right fit, and had the sense to heed the call.

But I'll miss my Kelligirl.