Western States Road Trip, Day 6, Santa Rosa, California to Juniper Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California – October 05, 2015

Juniper Lake, from the summit of Mount Harkness

Juniper Lake, from the summit of Mount Harkness

The celebration had come to an end last night as most of the family departed from my parents’ house in Santa Rosa to return to their own homes.  This morning the only people remaining were my parents, naturally, as well as myself and my sister-in-law’s parents.  Thus the morning was leisurely and placid.  We had a breakfast of left-overs, and I was yet satiated enough to decline offers of chocolate cake for my morning meal instead choosing a light dish of mixed fruit.

Breakfast being finished we all prepared to get along with our day.  There being plenty of food left over from the previous night, I made a couple of sandwiches to take along with me for my journey.  Pretty soon, I was the only guest remaining, and as I was feeling the urge to begin again my travels, I, too, made my farewells and began to travel.  Ah, the first to arrive and the last to depart!

Although not good for solving the drought crisis, the blue skies make for fine traveling weather and I was eager to get out onto the highway.  I made my way along Chanate Road to Montecito Boulevard.  This area was home to many of my friends during high school but since that time there has been a new high school built in the area and in this eastern part of the city students no longer attend what would be my school.

I had decided earlier that I would like to take an alternate route to get to Yellowstone National Park, my next destination.  The quickest and easiest way to get to the park would be to take Interstate 80 out through Nevada.  However, I decide that I would rather swing immediately north and into Oregon and then pass through central Idaho and into southwestern Montana, dropping into the park from the north.

So, instead of turning right at Calistoga Road and making my way to California 12, which would have led me to the interstate, I turned left and made my way over that winding road, climbing into the hills covered with golden grass and live oaks.  At Saint Helena Road, I turned right onto that narrower road and began to drive towards that summit of the ridge that is also the country line between Sonoma and Napa Counties.  The road follows the upper reaches of Mark West Creek, and is thus dark and wooded.  Some of boles are close enough to the road that the pavement must narrow to avoid them.

Passing the natural scenery along the way, I also drove by numerous vineyards.  There has been an large amount of acreage converted into vineyards to help satiate the appetite for the local wineries.  Of course, this hasn’t been done without a certain amount of controversy, especially with the onset of the drought.  Once I descended into the town of Saint Helena, I turned right onto California 29 & 128 and headed south.  Saint Helena is a vibrant town, full of tourists who come from the around the world to sample the wines.  Even on a Monday in October there are buses full of visitors and the traffic is heavy.

I continued along my way for a few miles until the routes separated.  California 29 continues south towards the Bay Area, but I turned left onto California 128 which would lead me to Winters and Davis.  This road is relatively lightly traveled, although it crosses some hilly country and is still a slow drive.  I pass Lake Berryessa, a major reservoir and recreation area, and I am thankful that I am driving on this road during a weekday rather than a weekend.

Soon after I pass the reservoir, I come upon an area below the dam that is called the Putah Creek State Wildlife Area.  Putah Creek, it seems, is the major drainage that both feeds and drains Lake Berryessa.  It doesn’t seem quite possible that it is already the noon hour, but it is and I am ready for a quick lunch.  There are picnic tables set up here and there near the road, so I choose a salubrious location and set down for a bite to eat under the canopy of a large live oak.  I take a short walk along a trail and am surprised at the large volume of water in the creek.  This is a nice place, despite some graffiti, and I could stay here for a bit except that I want to make mileage.

I continue on my way, driving down the highway and out of the Vaca Mountains and into the great Sacramento Valley.  The terrain behind me is surprisingly rugged.  Not especially tall, but with so many folds in the land as to produce numerous small valleys and ridges.  Now, suddenly, I am at the edge of the great valley that stretches across dozens of miles to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Range.  My view, previously hindered beyond a mile or two at most, is now expansive and the haze obscures the view before becoming topographically hindered.

The driving becomes less challenging, as the road goes from curvy to straight.  Traffic, however, increases significantly now that I am back in a well populated area.  I pass through Winters and continue on to Davis.  At the latter city I turn north onto California 113 and make my way over the freeway first and then later the two-lane road.  This area is intensively cultivated, and where there aren’t groves of fruit and nut trees there are open fields that have been plowed.  North of Davis, I stop to look around at the plowed fields that have groves of live oaks studded here and there.  I imagine what this area must have looked like hundreds of years ago as one, huge savanna teeming with open grasses and grazing wildlife.

At Knights Landing I turn north onto California 45, a narrow, rickety highway the traffic of which consists mainly of semis employed by the various agricultural interests.  This road more or less follows the west bank of the Sacramento River.  The large river is easily denoted by the foliage growing along its banks.  Groves of willow compete with cottonwood and other trees to form a dense mat of vegetation.  The river is now confined to its course by large dikes that line the banks.  Sometimes the highway or an old railroad grade make use of these dikes but just as often the road is below them and the view is obscured by the mound of earth.

I pass through Colusa, a small city that, on the surface, reminds me of Gunnison.  I continue north along California 45 and now pass through orchard after orchard of walnut trees.  It seems that the majority of the nation’s walnut production must be located here in Colusa and Glenn Counties.  Row after row of trees, in a never-ending march to the north.  I know that walnuts are grown elsewhere, but seeing the immense orchards here makes me think that there is no need for production in other locales.  It is harvest season, and everywhere I look there is activity and signs proclaiming the ability to process the crop of walnuts that must be measured by the ton.

I follow California 45 along its entire route and at the northern terminus with California 32 I turn to the east.  Crossing over the Sacramento River, I pause to reflect on its enormity, even during the drought.  I then pass through Chico, where the only real traffic backup is encountered.  This situation is caused, in my opinion, by a set of incredibly poorly timed traffic lights.  It is difficult to get a real feel for any place when merely driving through, and I can but scarcely get a glimpse of the medium sized city as I drive by.  There does seem to be a certain amount of vibrancy here, possibly due to the presence of the state university.

Continuing past Chico, I drive east on California 32.  Chico is located on the east side of the Sacramento Valley and almost as soon as I am out of the city limits the highway begins its long upward trek towards the mountains.  I use the generic term “mountains” here, because the region that the highway leads to is the “in-between-zone” where the Cascade Range to the north meets the Sierra Nevada Range from the south.  I am sure that there is much contention at where the exact boundary is between these two ranges, but I don’t really know except to say that it is somewhere in the vicinity.

The highway traverses the foothills, passing through grove after grove of live oak.  Here is where I really notice the drought, as these live oaks seem wilted and near death.  The trees seem ragged and forlorn, brown when they should be green.  The road climbs continuously and soon passes from the savanna and oak habitat into that which is dominated by conifer.  I drive and drive, and the afternoon is quickly changing into the evening and I must soon decide where I will bed down for the night.

Looking at the time remaining in the day, I decide that I would be able to spend a night in Lassen Volcanic National Park.  Coming to the end of California 32, I turn again to the east on California 36 & 89, deciding to eschew the more popular western areas of the park for a small campground on the eastern edge of the park.  California 89 diverges and leads south as I continue on California 36 to the east.  At the town of Chester, I fill up on gas and buy a bottle of beer for later this evening.  I drive up the road, unpaved for the last several miles, to Juniper Lake, where there is a small campground.

I am now in haste, as I would like to set up camp and take a small hike before the sun sets.  The Autumn weather is generally fantastic and Fall is perhaps my favorite season of the year, but I do forget how little daylight there is after the Autumnal equinox.  The campground has a few folks here and there but I am able to find a secluded campsite with a view of the lake.  I choose my location, but decide to head out immediately for a hike rather than take time to set up camp.

Since I hadn’t planned on stopping here, I had left my topographic map of the area back in Colorado.  Well, there isn’t time left in the day to do much except hike out a couple of miles and then return.  I decide that I would like to hike to the summit of Mount Harkness, a large cinder cone that allows fantastic views in nearly every direction.  For that reason, there is also a fire lookout on the summit.  No map, no problem, as the trail should be a fairly easy to follow as it is a well marked National Park Service trail.  I do not like hiking without a map, or compass, but am willing to forgo the former for this short hike.  Much to my pleasant surprise, there is a small topographic map posted at the trailhead located within the campground.  I am able to take a quick snapshot of this map before I begin to hike, and feel a bit better having at least this simple reference at my disposal.

Up and up I hike, making haste due to the rapidity of the setting sun.  I meet one soul coming down from the summit, and we share a quick word and he grins as I tell him that I want to see the sun set from the peak.  The forest here is especially thick, but soon enough I spy the summit, some twelve hundred feet above my starting point at the lake below.  Mount Harkness is part of the great volcanic field that makes up the geologic history of this realm.

Approaching the summit, I am suddenly out of the forest and can see Mount Lassen and the other great peaks of the area.  Far off to the north, I can even see Mount Shasta, that huge, lone peak that towers above everything else in this area.  Mount Shasta tops fourteen thousand feet in elevation in an area were most peaks top out below ten thousand feet.  As I approach the summit I am stricken by the red color of the soil and small cinders that make up this slope of the cone that is Mount Harkness.  This red color is beautifully contrasted with the light green of a small forb that is growing profusely.  The yellow shafted light from the low-angled sun combines with the green and red to produce a spectacular view of the area.  I almost think that I am on another planet!

Once on the summit, I take out and consume the other sandwich that I had prepared at my parents house in Santa Rosa this morning.  I have not been gone from there an entire day, yet already it seems like I have traveled for weeks on end, such is the diversity of the terrain that I have crossed this one day.  I sit and stare out at the vast vistas, amazed at the landscape laid below me.  Ridge after ridge, covered in conifer, stretching out to the horizon.  To my south is Lake Almanor and the northern end of the Sierra Nevada Range.  Dominating all is the fire lookout, a large stone structure that emits a certain feeling of by- gone days.  I believe it is still used, and if not used then maintained.  The outhouse on the south side must be one of the best views ever from such a venerable institution.

A doe deer pops out of the woods with her twin fawns.  They munch away, grazing the grass found here at the summit.  They don’t seen too concerned about my presence, and I sit and watch them from a respectable distance.  The sun continues on its inexorable path towards the horizon and I realize that I must begin my descent.  I start to hike and watch the sun sink below the horizon.  I know that I should have enough light to make the two miles back to camp, but must not dally.  So, hike I do, calling out ahead of me to ward off any bears that might have wandered onto the trail since I passed by earlier.

Walking down the trail, the light begins to fade, especially since I am on the east face of Mount Harkness, away from the western horizon and the light from the setting sun.  I continue on, darkness approaching rapidly.  I continue to clap and call out in advance to let any wildlife know that I am walking this way.  The last half a mile I hike in near darkness, but as I have long ago learned how to use my night vision, I have no need to strap on the headlamp that I have stowed in my backpack.  Finally, I arrive at camp just in time to see the first stars appearing in the sky overhead.

I hastily set up camp, simultaneously espying the night’s sky where I identify Polaris and thus gain a further firm grip on my directions.  I am happy to discover that I had more or less correctly deduced the main points of the compass from the local topography.  I then start a fire, once I am satisfied that camp and all other attendant chores are complete.  What is a fire good for in this modern age?  I didn’t particularly need it to keep warm nor for light, as modern conveniences can do both with less effort.  Yet, a fire is cheerful and takes a soul back to an era that is now looked at from afar with a romantic flair.  I sit up late into the night, slowly feeding the fire, keeping it small, as I consume my adult beverage, ruminating on the meaning of life and the strangeness of it all.

Nighttime finally engulfed my campsite as I let the last flames flicker out.  Even with no moon, even with the thick tree canopy overhead, there is still enough light filtering down from the numerous stars to provide a smidgen of light.  Just enough to give a hint of the location of various items, a slightly different tone of darkness.  I pick up the bucket that I had thoughtfully filled with water earlier and douse the coals.  The whole mess I stir with the shovel until I am satisfied that no spark remains.  I always feel a tinge of sadness when putting out the fire, even if naught but coals remain, but would feel a whole lot worse if a stray spark were to set the forest ablaze.

The fire out, not even the sound of hissing steam remaining, I take a look at the night’s sky, picking out all the constellations that I am familiar with.  The Milky Way is visible and at the southern tip of our galaxy, almost out of view, I can spot Sagittarius, its tea-pot shape appearing to emit the Milky Way from its spout like so much steam.  My simple look at the night sky continues until I begin to feel the chill of the night’s cold air.  I reluctantly head to bed, knowing that I have had a fine day of travel and that I will have another tomorrow.  But in order to do that, I need to get a good night’s sleep, so off to bed I go.  What a fine day I have had!

Western States Road Trip, Day 5, Santa Rosa, California – October 04, 2015

Hexem Avenue and Northwood Drive, Santa Rosa, California, scene of my early childhood.

Hexem Avenue and Northwood Drive, Santa Rosa, California, scene of my early childhood.

Today is a personal day involving family and friends in my hometown of Santa Rosa, California.  The sky is perfectly blue, making for fine weather but not helping with the drought.  Prior to my departing from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, I had been in contact with a childhood friend from the old neighborhood.  I hadn’t seen my friend in years and years, nor her mother.  Sadly, her father, a large figure in my youth, had recently passed away.

Prior to 1980, my family and I had lived in a house on Northwood Drive, and that location was the scene of many youthful bouts of hide-and-seek, sleep-overs, dodge ball and watching seemingly endless episodes of cartoons and CHiPs.  My family moved away from the neighborhood but not so far as to move out of the school district and we all visited each other throughout high school and afterwards.

My folks had done a more consistent job of keeping in touch over the years but I had let my contacts lag.  Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email from my old friend suggesting that we should get together for coffee during my next visit to Santa Rosa.  More being merrier, we decided to meet at her mom’s house where we could all talk and share memories and current events.

I don’t remember the last time I had visited with them at their house, but it must have been well over a decade ago.  Regardless, the moment I stepped into their front yard the old memories of walking atop the fence and eating the copious plums from their trees came alive as if they had just occurred the previous week.  It was somewhat surreal to visit here as an adult, and I had forgotten how important these folks were to me in my early years.  The bonds of friendship do remain strong despite the time and distance.

We talked and talked over coffee and biscuits, sharing our combined observations of life over the years as well as the recollections from the past.  Life, with all its challenges and rewards, spilled out of our souls and the stories swirled around, coming to life with our mutual enjoyment of each other’s company.  After a couple of hours, we said our farewells and exchanged our mutual hopes for the future.  I’m sure this conversation could have continued, but after a couple of hours I needed to return home to help prepare for my Dad’s eightieth birthday party.

I snapped a few images of the old neighborhood and was awed by the small mounds that, as a six year old child, had seemed immense.  These hills were so imposing and I distinctly remember having to walk my bike on the incline.  Now, after a adult lifetime spent wandering the mountains of Colorado, they would be but a insignificant impediment.  How our perspectives change!

Today was also the day when the family was to get together and congratulate my father on achieving the dawn of his ninth decade.  Family began to arrive in the early afternoon and we too had many stories to share.  There was much feasting and imbibing by all involved, and at the fete there was much regaling.  The day slipped away quickly with games and talk, and the sixteen people present ended the day satiated and content.

We cooked two boneless legs of lamb over a charcoal grill for the main course and then had a dessert of chocolate cake and ice cream.  This last item was a direct request from Dad, who is a huge fan of said confectionery.  It was a sad moment when the occasion was complete and all the guests departed, save my sister-in-law’s parents.  But, we had had a marvelous get together of the family, something that is increasingly rare as the children have all grown and gone their separate way.

All in all, it had been a fine day of visiting with people whom I have known nearly my entire life.  Seeing my childhood neighbors was, for me, a way of completing the circle of life, a way of reaffirming my own story and experiences.  Dad, turning eighty years old and celebrating that milestone also brought home the majesty of life and the stories that we, as human beings, all have to share.  I am glad to be alive in this world and feel good to have shared my life with these many fine people.

Western States Road Trip, Day 4, Mammoth Lakes, California to Santa Rosa, California – October 03, 2015

Roosevelt Lake, just within the Hoover Wilderness

Roosevelt Lake, just within the Hoover Wilderness

Back on the road!  I leave my hosts in Mammoth Lakes, California, after a sound night’s sleep.  The Autumnal mountain air is crisp and cool.  Cold may be the more accurate adjective as the swimsuit that I had left out to dry on the car roof has frozen solid overnight.  I say my farewells and fire up the Outback.  I have learned to keep the ice scraper in its traditional place year round, living as I do in a cold and snowy climate.  This morning it is handy to have it easily accessible and as the car warms up I scrape the frost from the windshield.

I drive down to California 203, the short state highway that feeds traffic from U.S. 395 to Mammoth Lakes.  Instead of turning east to retrace my steps I head westbound and drive to a road that is called the Mammoth Scenic Loop.  From what I can tell, it is neither that much more (or less) scenic than any other road in the immediate area nor is it a loop.  Rather, this road seems to operate as a back door from U.S. 395 to the north and Mammoth Lakes.  I drive along sedately, as there is little to no traffic on this early Saturday morning.

I reach U.S. 395 and turn north and begin driving on its four lanes.  The scenery is gorgeous throughout, filled with stately conifers, granite boulders and swaths of sagebrush.  I feel very much at home in this area and in this climate.  Everywhere I look is mountains and crests of ridges and mighty peaks.  I am in a state of awe as I drive along.  Before long, I turn off onto northbound California 158, a scenic detour that takes me through June Lake.  This pleasant area is full of glaciated lakes and is something like the smaller, quieter sibling to Mammoth Lakes larger and noisier relation.

I regret that I don’t spend more time here, but I am expected at my parents house in Santa Rosa this evening and therefore I don’t want to linger for too long.  The drive is instructive and fills me with ideas for future exploration.  I eagerly look forward to a return visit when I can spend more time along the lakes and under the golden aspen.  There are numerous small restaurants and resorts that look enticing, but the one that I stop in is so stuffed full of people that I decide to drive on until I find someplace with a bit shorter wait time.

So, I conclude my drive along California 158 at its northern terminus with U.S. 395.  I return to the major thoroughfare and again turn to the north.  The miles slide by easily as the scenic grandeur obliterates all concern about the hour.  Eventually, the road narrows from four lanes to two and I drive into Bridgeport, California, where I stop for gas and breakfast.  I have breakfast in a quaint, older hotel’s dining room.  The Bridgeport Inn, I believe it was called.  An interesting looking place and I feel at home in the broad valley that the town sits in.

I am soon continuing on my way and drive north to California 108.  This highway I will take to cross the crest of the Sierra Nevada Range, over Sonora Pass.  The first many miles the narrow highway parallels the West Walker River.  I am constantly amazed at how many different major drainages there are in these mountains.  Earlier, I had looked at some maps and decided that I could stop and hike along this river near the point where the river and highway diverge from each other.

Near the Leavitt Meadows Campground there is a trailhead that allows access to a trail that parallels the river.  This is one of those annoying trailheads that has numerous official and user made trails scattering in all directions and it took a bit of effort to finally find the right trail.  I cross the footbridge and begin to hike, happy to have this opportunity to stretch my legs and get out once again for a short hike in the eastern Sierras.

The valley is broad and the river, tracing a sinuous path through this valley, is lined with cottonwood trees in the midst of changing color from green to gold.  The skies are perfectly blue and the day as a whole is fine for a quick stroll.  The trail stays above the river, up out of the flood plain on the hillside above.  Ahead of me I spy the high peaks and ridges of the backbone of these mountains.  I continue on the warm and dusty trail, as the morning temperatures have risen from the frosty cold of the dawn.

I hike some two and a half miles and come to rest at Roosevelt Lake.  This small lake seems likely to be another remnant from the epoch of glaciation.  It is scenic and calm, nestled in its own small valley above the river.  The trail follows the west side and I choose to follow the east.  I eventually find a heap of granite that overlooks the lake and I sit under the warm sun, soaking up both the warmth and the salubrious nature of this setting.  I could stay here all day, I think to myself, but I am due to be at a certain place by a certain time, and this realization presses upon me until I am finally driven to stand up and hike back to the car.  First, however, I continue a short distance upstream and come upon the near shore of Lane Lake, which may be even more scenic that the previous.  Sigh, alas, I have no time to explore and return the way I came, via the trail.  The water level is diminished enough so that I decide to eschew the bridge and I take a shortcut back to the trailhead.  I am able to easily and nimbly hop across rocks strewn about the bed of the river.

Soon enough I have returned to the trailhead and begin again to drive along California State Highway 108.  The highway becomes narrow and extremely steep.  The warning sign posted way back near U.S. 395 gives notice that the grades may be as steep as twenty-six percent.  On some of the ascents to the summit, I must keep the car in low gear.  The scenery is grand and once again I find myself in awe of my surroundings.  The highway eventually crests the mountains and begins its long descent to the San Joaquin Valley below.  There are numerous picnic areas and campgrounds in the vicinity and I choose a promising location to stop for a quick break and eat a small snack.

There are large conifers everywhere.  I am enthralled with the mountains in this region, but am also ready to make haste to get to Santa Rosa by evening.  Nonetheless, I must stop again when regaled by signage that states an upcoming area of geological interest.  This turnout is called the Column of the Giants.  I park the car in the allotted space and begin a short hike to see another example of columnar basalt, similar to the Devils Postpile I had seen yesterday.  There is a footbridge across the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River and I hike the short distance to see the spectacle.

This example of columnar basalt isn’t quite as enticing as the Devils Postpile.  Mostly, this is because in those humanly ancient but geologically recent times another lava flow hardened atop the columnar basalt and thus there isn’t a view of the polygons seen from the top.  The columns are visible, though, and the hike through the conifer forest is pleasing to my senses.  The scent from the trees is strong and I feel blessed as I walk back to the car.

The highway continues its great western descent to the lowlands.  I follow California 108 until the town of Sonora where I then travel north along California 49.  Sonora itself is very crowded with Saturday tourist traffic.  I don’t stop, but the gold-rush-era town seems interesting, as do the others that I pass enroute.  My route north on California 49 takes me along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Range where much of the Gold Rush history is concentrated.  I continue this route of travel until I make the junction with California 12.  I begin to travel west and will follow this highway to Santa Rosa.

The road takes me down out of the foothills and into the San Joaquin Valley below.  This huge valley, superlatives can barely describe it, is filled with orchards and other signs of agriculture.  I am again reminded of the drought and all the challenges that we, as a society, are faced with when trying to balance the various needs of the many.  The highways becomes extremely congested after I pass through Lodi and the narrow two lanes can barely move the traffic.

I cross over the Sacramento River and the numerous draw bridges that carry the traffic over the various channels of that large river.  Onward I continue into a fierce headwind that begins to play on my nerves.  There is nothing to do now but continue on, steeling my frayed nerves against the wind and traffic.  I cross over Interstate 80 and continue to follow California 12 past Napa and Sonoma.  I am almost to my parents home and am eagerly looking forward to having the day’s driving done.  Past the rolling, brown hills studded with live oaks, past the vineyards and dairies and finally I reach the city limits.  The city of Santa Rosa has changed much since I was a child in the 1970’s and 80’s but there are still many familiar sights that I recognize.  The new sights mingle with the old familiarity and my memories come to life as I think of all the time that I spent growing up here.

Finally!  I reach my parents home and we share enthusiastic greetings and salutations.  I am relieved to be off the road, although my drive was generally scenic and full of wonder.  Tomorrow promises to be a big day, what with the family coming over to celebrate my Dad’s 80th birthday.  Tonight, my parents and I decide to have dinner at Hang Ah, a local and somewhat new Chinese restaurant that just happens to serve dim sum.  My family and I have been devotees of dim sum for many years, but until this restaurant opened up, we had to travel out of town to enjoy those delicacies.  The food is great and we all enjoy the meal.  Much to my surprise, my parents believe that this is the first time they have had dim sum for dinner.  I suppose that I had never thought about it before, but dim sum is generally served as a brunch or early lunch.  Well, I am glad that they are able to plate us up some fine, tasty treats this happy evening!

The evening ends with discussion of the morrow’s activities and I head to sleep in my old room, the one that I had during my late childhood.  Odd, to be here now, when so many memories crowd my mind.  Ah, Santa Rosa, my parents made a fine decision to move here and raise the family in this pleasant location.  The day has been long, but also diverse and filled with adventure, of a sort, and now I am rewarded with a fine homecoming!

Western States Road Trip, Day 3, Mammoth Lakes, California – October 02, 2015

Columnar basalt, polished by a glacier in Devil's Postpile National Monument

Columnar basalt, polished by a glacier in Devil’s Postpile National Monument

I wake up in Mammoth Lakes, California, on the eastern slope of the mighty Sierra Nevada Range.  I slept well the previous night.  The clouds that had brought a touch of rain to the area, including a bit of snow at the highest elevations, had dissipated by this morning.  The plan for today is that my host and I will drive out to Devils Postpile National Monument and lightly explore the odd rock before I hike back over Mammoth Pass and subsequently back to town.

This late in the year it is possible to drive the entire distance to the national monument.  Most of the time, taking a bus is mandatory due to the limited infrastructure otherwise being completely overwhelmed.  Because the monument is located on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, which drains the western side of the Sierra Nevada Range, we cross the dividing ridge to get there.  The road is narrow, steep and constantly winding around.  The granitic scenery is spectacular, especially combined with the green conifers.

The postpile that is referenced consists of columnar basalt.  This basalt is the result of slow and even cooling.  Once cooled, the rock consists of long columns that have a polygonic cross-section.  There is a section at the top of the formation that has been polished by glacial activity.  The marks in the rock clearly indicate the general direction that the ancient glacier had traveled.  The polish is remarkably smooth, it made me feel like I was walking across a well-endowed bank lobby.

The pieces of rock that had broken off from the columns and fallen to the talus below were particularly impressive, as they looked almost man-made, like either ancient Greek or Roman ruins or even, perhaps, the scraps from new construction.  Of course, the lava had been extruded from the Earth, and is a reminder of the ferocious tectonic forces that remain active in the region.

The first part of this hike takes me along the banks of the nearby river.  There is water, but not much, as I contemplate the results of the ongoing drought that has plagued the state for the last half-a-decade.  Regardless of the drought, there seems to have been good growth of some flower species and grass, judging by the browned-out remains from the past summer.  The conifers seem healthy, although I notice some initial signs of beetle infestation on some of the trees.

My host and I exchange salutations as we head our separate ways.  She returns to Mammoth Lakes via the automobile that she had earlier driven here while I begin to hike back towards town via the local trail network.  I begin walking, and am intrigued by the overall similarity to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  There are shades of differences, but I am left with the feeling of mountains!

I hike over to and through the Red Meadow Campground, maintained by Inyo National Forest.  I attempt to find a trail that leads up to the trail that crosses over Mammoth Pass, but I can’t seem to find it.  I am a bit discouraged but decide to bushwhack through the forest.  I’m a little bit peeved because if this trail isn’t here then what else that shows up on the map might not actually exist on the ground?  But my walk through the forest is more educational than trail hiking, as I see that much more of nature.  Soon enough, I find the trail that leads over the pass and I make my way along its path.

As I climb to the pass, I have a clear view of the Ritter Range, which separates the Middle and North Forks of the San Joaquin River.  Towards the north are the Minarets, towers and spires of granitic majesty.  As I climb, I note the Red Cones to my south.  These blow my mind a bit, to think that there are cinder cones sitting atop the granitic crags.  I am again reminded of the immense forces that have shapes this area, forces that emanate from beneath the Earth’s surface.

As I hike up to the pass, I can make out the structures from the ski area on the high ridge to my left.  This part of the main divide is called the Mammoth Crest, and the east side drains down to the Owens River.  I hike up to the summit of the pass and find an open space that allows expansive views to the west.  Here I sit, back up against a tree, and stare out at the wild world.  To my west is most of California, the broad valleys and busy highways.  To my east lies the Great Basin and its expansive desert.  I love major divides, and when I sit upon them I can use my imagination to trace the paths of the descending waterways.

This pass is also the boundary of the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  The trail drops down to McLeod Lake, which is a scenic alpine lake set under the granite outcroppings of Mammoth Crest.  Although outside of the designated wilderness area, it still retains most wilderness characteristics.  I find a place on the far shore, away from the trails and the one other person I see, who is fishing, where I can relax and stare at the serenity that is the still waters.

I rise from my repose and hike down to a trailhead and am startled to see a large swath of dead trees covering nearly twenty acres or more.  There are informative signs here that describe how carbon dioxide has percolated up from deep beneath the Earth’s surface, a byproduct of the volcanic forces that, though currently dormant, have repeatedly shaped this areas topography.

The remainder of the walk back to my host’s home is along paved road.  Normally annoying, the traffic is minimal and there is actually a paved bike and pedestrian path that runs parallel along the same route so I am able to avoid all but the noise of the passing vehicles.  This was a fine stroll through the woods.  I wish I could have hiked more in this area, but am happy to have had this day, at least.  This one taste has certainly whetted my appetite for more hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The evening is spent at a hot springs located near town.  The naturally heated water is yet another byproduct of the area’s volcanic activity.  The night’s sky is bright with star light.  I see a streaking shooting star, bright enough to leave a faint after-image in my eyes.  The water is a perfect temperature and very relaxing.  We stay a couple of hours and afterwards we return to Mammoth Lakes and eat dinner while watching more Game of Thrones.  It has been a fine day, and I am thankful for having great hosts and having had a fine hike.

Western States Road Trip, Day 2, Exit 73 on Interstate 70, Utah to Mammoth Lakes, California – October 01, 2015

Morning color along U.S. 6 & 50 near Notch Mountain in Utah

Morning color along U.S. 6 & 50 near Notch Mountain in Utah

I had driven into the night the previous evening and chosen a gravel lot just off Exit 73 of Interstate 70 in Utah to park for the night.  Lesson learned:  This exit has a commodious amount of semi traffic making use of this exit… all night long.  So, not only was I serenaded by the nominal passing of traffic on the nearby interstate highway but also by the trucks downshifting for this particular exit.  Their lights would light up the surrounding hillsides as well, making for a less than restful night.

I don’t have an easily accessible clock to tell me the time, but after awhile I feel awake and ready to make my way generally westward along the network of highways.  Fortunately, I had long ago learned how to keep track of time by observing the night sky.  From the position of the stars I had correctly guessed that I had spent nearly eight hours lying horizontally and when I turned on the car’s electrical system the clock told me it was half past four in the morning.  Perfect!

I let out the clutch after letting the engine warm for a minute or two and soon I am speeding my way down westbound Interstate 70 in Utah.  The traffic is exceedingly light at this time of morning and only a very few vehicles were sharing the road with me at this hour.  I pass through Salina, Utah, at an early hour as the town sleeps.  The only sign of life being the blinking red light warning of the downtown four-way stop.  Having left the freeway, two-lane U.S. 50 beckons and I continue on my way, wary of any stray deer that may attempt to cross the highway.

I reach Interstate 15 and head south, as if I were traveling towards Las Vegas or Los Angeles.  The few miles of U.S. 50 that is co-routed over the freeway is separated by a large hill that must be crossed.  I sail up one side, the engine registering the increased load with a low rumble, and then coast down the other before exiting to U.S. 50 westbound.  In another hour I pass through another town named Delta, it too being sleepy and quiet at this early hour.

After another half an hour of driving, I stop to watch the morning colors light up the distant horizon near Notch Mountain in western Utah.  This area is truly desert and the vegetation is sparse, to say the least.  Yet I always feel beguiled whenever passing through this area.  The vast amounts of open space call to me, their song of never-ending valleys and distant ridges causing me to sit in wonder and stare off to the horizons.  One more quick stop I make just before the state line.  I can’t help myself, the light is so beautiful at this early morning hour.  The winds are minimal, having not yet being stirred up the sun’s warmth. It is a good time to remove myself from the confines of the automobile and enjoy the outdoors, even if briefly.  But, the road calls… Onward!

I drive on, passing eventually into Nevada and Pacific Time.  There is scant traffic on this highway and although the driving itself is somewhat tedious it is also relaxing.  U.S. 50 is co-singed with U.S. 6 in this area and most of the road is narrow, with scant shoulders.  But the scenery is vast and grand, now that I am in basin and range country.  The geology here is fascinating, and although I am flying by at seventy miles and hour the topography is so grandly visible that I can take in all in.  Each range has been lifted by faulting and each basin has sunk by the same forces.  Up and down I go, crossing one pass or summit after another.  The mileage is vast, but I am never bored for long, as every thirty minutes or so the view has changed dramatically.

I drive by Great Basin National Park, failing, yet again, to stop and see some of the natural splendors found there.  West of the park, I stop to take in the sun as it peeks over the high ridge of Mount Wheeler.  In the valley below are row after row of enormous wind turbines.  These turbines weren’t there a few years ago, but are now seemingly entrenched as part of the landscape.  My first reaction when initially seeing these tall towers was one of indignation at the further divvying up of the natural world.  But, regardless of my feelings, I have come to admire the towers and their relatively small impact on the world around them.  They could easily be considered an eyesore, but there is also a stately grandeur to be found here as the gigantic blades, with the towers a spectacular white, slowly rotate.

I soon roll into the eastern Nevada town of Ely.  I am ready for a hot breakfast and stop to eat at the Silver State Restaurant.  Hungry, but not famished, I order a relatively light breakfast of two eggs, hash-browns, coffee and a scone.   Well, what they call a scone.  It is actually more akin to fry-bread, but call it what you will it is the perfect breakfast dessert.  I soon put Ely into the rearview mirror as I head out on U.S. 6, westbound for the eastern Sierra Nevada Range.  This is a somewhat unusual departure for me, as I generally continue on U.S 50 towards the Bay Area; but on this trip, I plan to stop in Mammoth Lakes, California for a couple of nights.

Over the years, U.S. 50 across Nevada has had the moniker of Loneliest Highway in America applied to it.  For the most part, that is true.. but not entirely.  Traffic is light on U.S. 50, but the true loneliest highway is U.S. 6 between Ely and Tonopah.  It is so lonely, in fact, that very few people ever cross it.  Thus it has remained unknown while U.S. 50 to the north has carried the relatively heavy traffic from the Bay Area heading east and has awed people with the vast, depopulated spaces.

I drive and drive, not stopping but admiring the scenery nonetheless.  The winds push against me as I charge along the two narrow lanes of blacktop.  I have only been over this particular stretch of highway maybe twice before, and never in this direction.  Up over one range and then down through the next, concomitant valley.  The Egan Range, White Pine Range, Pancake Range… Railroad Valley and other valleys the names of which are omitted from the road map.  Some of the ranges are surprisingly wooded but most of the time are heaps of rock covered in scrub brush.  The miles slip by regardless, as I keep my aim generally west.

Suddenly there are signs everywhere, placed by the Bureau of Land Management.  They indicate a small region of vulcanism.  I drive by, but then think to myself “If not now, then when?”  I turn around and drive out to the Black Rock Lava Flow.  I am surrounded by cinder cones, one of which had its wall breached.  This breaching resulted in the lava flow that I am standing in.  The signs don’t state the age of the flow, but I would guess that it has been somewhat recent, maybe a thousand or two years ago.  I am enthralled by the volcanic activity to be found here in the desert, and can’t help but walk around a bit.  Heaps of black, volcanic basalt surround me.  A sight I had not expected to see.

Someday, I must make a journey to this sparsely populated province and explore the wonders to be found here.  But now, I am expected in California this evening, and must make haste to reach my destination at a reasonable hour.  I continue on U.S. 6, only occasionally seeing another vehicle.  I drive by an abandoned hot springs resort.  In the past, I had poached this luxurious water but drive by this time around.  As I approach Tonopah, I can’t help but stop once again to explore some old airplane hangers.  They appear to be part of the complex that makes up the county airport.  The one I choose to stop at is fenced off, being a dilapidated hulk that some authorities have decided must be a menace to public health, but I walk around the outside perimeter a bit, staring at the enormity of this construct.  What is the history here?  I don’t have time to stop and make inquiries, but I would suspect that they date from World War Two.

Tonopah, an old mining town, is intriguing to me and I would love to visit here for a week or so and explore the ruins found nearby and in the surrounding mountains.  But today, I am only able to stop for lunch at a small Chinese restaurant named the Bamboo Kitchen.  It is located inside of a small casino and I am skeptical at first.  But once my Hong Kong noodles are served, I become a believer and was happy to have a break from the driving.

Tonopah is also on the route of U.S. 95, a major north-south highway between Las Vegas and Reno.  That reason alone might explain the presence of the Asian family sitting forlornly in the corner, underneath the television set.  At first, I thought that it was a group of employees taking their shifty, but they didn’t quite look the part.  Then I realized that they were travelers perhaps trying to find a comfortable reminder of home in this forsaken and lonely piece of the Nevada desert.

The highway junction in Tonopah is also were U.S. 6 merges with U.S. 95 for some thirty miles or so.  The traffic suddenly becomes busy and intense.  Tractor-trailers everywhere and now there is a potent thunderstorm brewing.  The winds are whipping crosswise across the highway, being pushed from the cell to the south.  The scenery, seen through the blur of the slanting rain, is fantastic as the various horizons are towering with high peaks.  The semi in front of me is leaning precariously.  Dust everywhere when not quelled by the rain.  The rear tires are at least a foot or two out of alignment from the front, such is the wind pushing that beast around.  The power and majesty of it all, travelling…  I back off a bit and put some room between me and the truck ahead.

Things are never quite the same.  After U.S. 6 leaves U.S. 95, the traffic congestion is alleviated, but there more vehicles on the road than between Tonopah and Ely.  But, now, the might Sierra Nevada Range is approaching.  I cross over into California, the state of my birth, after passing muster at the agricultural inspection station located on every major highway.  The high peaks of the White Mountains, the first independent range east of the Sierra Nevada Range, impresses me with it stark summits looming over the valley.  It is several thousand feet to the top. It doesn’t seem that far, but the numbers don’t seem to be telling me a lie.

My first view of the Sierras is shrouded by the low clouds that had produced the earlier thundershower.  I stop to savior the view regardless.  There are lava flows nearby, probably the result of all the fracturing that occurred when the mountains were raised out of the depths.  Savior, indeed… there is so much to take in during my brief sojourn away from the Rocky Mountains.  I wish I could stay longer than the two night I have planned, but I feel lucky to have two nights as it is.

I drive into Bishop, California, and head north on U.S. 395.  This road winds along the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevada Range and is a scenic wonder.  Towering ponderosa pine, enormous chunks of granite strewn about and then the main, dividing ridge or its spurs, looming above you at every moment.  My drive to Mammoth Lakes is nearly complete but every mile is a joy as the golden leaves of the aspen and cottonwood trees complement the green conifers and earth-toned rock.

I stop in Mammoth Lakes at the visitor center and ranger station to buy a map of the area that I intend to use tomorrow when I get out for a short hike.  I call my friend here who is hosting me and I get directions to her and her husband’s house.  I have crossed over a thousand miles of mostly desert to arrive in the mountains and am thrilled to be here.  Although Mammoth Lakes seems superficial much in the way many Rocky Mountain ski resorts do, it also shares the distinct advantage that those resorts have:  It is in the mountains, and I feel comfortable here.

My host makes a wonderful dinner and I am thrilled to get out of the car after all the traveling.  The evening is spent talking and then binge-watching the first half of season three of Game of Thrones.  A fine way to end such a long journey.  I sleep well this night.

Western States Road Trip, Day 1, Gunnison, Colorado to Exit 73 on Interstate 70, Utah – September 30, 2015

Westbound exit ramp for Exit 227 in eastern Utah on Interstate 70, sunset.

Westbound exit ramp for Exit 227 in eastern Utah on Interstate 70, sunset.

I am going to try something a bit different for the next few posts.  Generally, I have been using the past tense as I have done most of my writing some months if not years after the events had taken place.  My desire for this series of essays relating to my Western States Road Trip is to write in the present, as an experiment, because, although strictly in the past, the action is recent enough to narrate in the present tense.  We shall see how the results measure up.

Firstly, the events leading up to my departure were hectic and kept me in a state of never ending motion, whether it was due to my hiking or working.  The day before my leaving my home in Gunnison, Colorado, I worked my final summer-schedule shift at the restaurant in Crested Butte.  I had made some small headway packing and organizing for the trip but really didn’t have the ability to get much ready.

This morning, Wednesday, the Thirtieth of September, I am racing around the house like the proverbial whirling dervish, placing heaps of gears in piles denoting their respective uses.  The first order of business, however, is setting up the dogs for kenneling and that task in itself seems herculean.  I could wait until I am packed and ready to go, but my canine companions are savvy about when I am making haste for a trip and I have found it expedient to get them off to the kennel before I stow my gear.  Thus, they are unaware of my pending departure.

Time is moving rapidly, and I don’t seem able to get my stuff together.  I had hoped to leave by noon today, but those hopes are soon dashed as the municipal noon hour horn sounds out its daily reminder of the time.  I check my master list that I have used repeatedly for camping and road trips over the years and am checking it twice, at least.  Maps: Check! Clothing: Check! Sleeping Bag: Check!  But do what I can and the packing is still unfinished and the afternoon is slipping away.

Finally!  The last item is packed and I have locked the door behind me.  The mail is stopped for the next two weeks and the neighbors know that I am going to be gone.  The furnace is set to fifty-five degrees just in case there is a cold snap while I am gone; I would feel quite foolish were the pipes to freeze in early October, so having the heat on during my absence seems like good and cheap insurance.  Most likely, the furnace won’t have to cycle during my journey, anyhow.

OK! I am now sitting in the driver’s seat and I turn the ignition and the mechanical beast that is my ancient Subaru Outback fires up and idles at a soft purr.  I am off… for about three minutes and then realize that I have forgotten a hat.  Oh, drat.  Typically, once I’m off I just accept that whatever I have forgotten will have to remain at home but I really want my hat.  Sigh… I mumble a few curses and turn around at the western outskirts of Gunnison.

I return home, quickly reenter the house and grab my hat, sprint back out to the waiting automobile, blocking the alley since I am in too much haste to actually park, take off the brake and, just before shoving the transmission into first gear, take one last look at home… idyllic home, aspen leaves a pretty shade of yellow announcing Autumn’s ritual…and now I am off on this journey of mine that I have been scheming about for the past few months.  I am playing KBUT on the stereo, our local community radio station, and I as head out to Tomichi Avenue, the main street that doubles as transcontinental U.S. 50 in these parts, I take a left turn and join the mainstream of traffic.  My official departure time is quarter to three in the afternoon, fine and warm.

This portion of the two lane ribbon of U.S. 50 is well known to me and the miles slide by effortlessly.  I take a glance at the familiar rock formations and seas of sagebrush.  Along the shores of Blue Mesa Reservoir and over Blue Mesa Summit I travel, anxious to make time but also conscious of the sixty-five mile an hour speed limit.  KBUT begins to fade and I switch over to news and classical music.  I have barely traveled forty minutes when I make my first stop along the Cimarron River.  This pull-off, called East Cimarron, offers me a chance to relieve my coffee-filled bladder and walk briefly on the shores of the river where the cottonwoods have turned yellow and orange, reminding me once again that the fall season is upon us.

Soon, I pull back out onto the highway and cruise over Cerro Summit.   I am still in very familiar country as I drive down to Montrose, Colorado.  The valley of the Uncompahgre River is wide and long.  The uplift to the west rises gently to a great height but it is the serrated mountains to the south that grab most peoples’ attention.  I drive north to Delta, Colorado, where I stop at Don Gilberto for a lengua burrito and grab a treat from the Dairy Queen conveniently located next door.  Dairy Queens, just for the record, are one of my numerous guilty pleasures.

Food handy, I am now driving along U.S. 50 towards Grand Junction, Colorado, the tires humming out their road tune.  I pass many familiar sites, especially the Dominguez Canyon system where I have done much backpacking and exploring in the past.  The radio is on and I am taking in the events of the world via National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation.  Listening to all the negativity it occurs to me that I could just stop now and hike around this lovely desert country.  But, no, I strive onward and now truly join the mainstream as I press the accelerator down as I speed up the on-ramp to westbound Interstate 70 just west of Grand Junction.

Traffic is relatively light for an interstate highway but coming from my mountain fast it seems heavy as the semis vie with the other travelers for position.  The sad state of the world makes me wonder whether I really want to do this trip or not, but I also know that there is much beauty to be had despite other folks’ poor attitude towards enlightened humanity and compassion.  I pull over once again at Exit 2, just west of the Colorado-Utah state line, and stop for a moment to take in the desert scenery.  There is much to explore in this area, although most of it is open to motorized recreation and is consequently noisy and dusty.  There are dinosaur bones nearby and a well marked “Trail Through Time”, but having seen these somewhat recently, I decide to just sit beneath a rock and watch the traffic, a half mile distant, pass by on the freeway.

My legs having been stretched, I return to the car and fire it up to rejoin the conflicting monotony and thrill of interstate travel.  I am encouraged because this will be the only real freeway driving I will have to do on this entire journey.  Also, I do love this stretch of highway due to its expansive desert views of the Book Cliffs and the San Rafael Swell.   I cross the state line, decorated and demarcated with the usual clustered assortment of signs denoting a change in government and policies.  “You are leaving colorful Colorado” announces one sign as another, vividly painted orange, exclaims “Welcome to Utah”.  There are other signs familiar to those who often travel interstate, but soon there are large expanses of nothing but pavement and scenery.

Utah! The speed limit has actually increased from the fairly-common western states seventy-five miles an hour to eighty.  The endless white dashes separating the two lanes blink by, one after another in a ceaseless parade of the seemingly infinite.  The Book Cliffs loom to the north, their sedimentary layers telling a story tens of millions of years in the making.  I used to find this stretch of highway tiresome to say the least but have now come to appreciate the wide open spaces of this desert province.

I make one last stop as the sun sets on the western horizon.  The shades of light emanating from the low-angled sun cause the surrounding landscape to glow.  I attempt to capture that light after I pull off the interstate at Exit 227.  Despite the high-pitched shriek of the traffic passing by, the area seems supernaturally quiet.   But that is just my impression as I know that there is much resource extraction going on in this part of the world.  I don’t linger long, having many miles to travel.

I drive on, the blacktop passing beneath me effortlessly as I keep the RPMs at a steady 3500.  The sun has now set and I am driving in the darkness after the alpenglow recedes from the sky.  I prefer not to drive after dark for the simple reason that I hate to miss the scenery of places that I do not get to see that often.  I also believe that the stretch of Interstate 70 between Green River and Salina, Utah, is perhaps the most scenic one-hundred mile stretch of such highway in the country.  Thus, I am not entirely happy to be sailing by the sandstone sculptures while the stars are out but I am also anxious to make a few more miles before I stop for the night.  Fortunately, I have seen this area somewhat recently and can relive the moments in my mind as the formations pass by eclipsed by speed and darkness.

I stop at a rest area on top of a vast plateau and even in the darkness I can make out the distant ridges and canyons of this desert wonderland.  In some ways, the nightfall has made this area even more strange and surreal.  The knowledge that I am looking over this vast landscape, with nary an artificial light to be seen, is somewhat daunting.  I feel frail, an insignificant mote, as all the darkness presses in to this one lone ribbon of light and movement crossing the vast desert.  I am frail, but also relieved that there be such places as this yet in our modern world of ceaseless commotion.

I finally pull of at Exit 73.  It is only about half past eight, but I am ready to stop.  I want to rest so I can start early tomorrow morning.  Note to myself and others.  There is a some sort of huge mine near this exit and semi traffic coming and going is extensive.  It would be better next time to stop at another exit further east where it is quieter.  But, as this is all public lands, there are minimal restrictions for car camping in this region, and I prefer this, sleeping in car, to spending money on a motel room that I will only occupy for six or seven hours.

By now I have passed into the mountains that border the western extent of the Colorado Plateau.  I step out of the car to ready my bed for the evening and during a break in the traffic I hear an elk bugle.  How odd, to be serenaded by wildlife as I am nearly simultaneously serenaded by the highway.  I fall into a fitful sleep, woken every so often by a noisy truck, thinking about my canine friends who are hopefully well.  I peer out at the sky, the stars brilliant and serene.  So, here in the middle of Utah I set down for the night, the first night of many to come in this adventure of mine.