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I spotted the Golden Gate Bridge beneath my plane’s window, as we approached San Francisco for a landing.

In early February I took a trip to Nevada to visit my cousin Debbie. She is one of my favourite people in the whole world and we had not seen each other for years. Several snowstorms were rolling through the region during that time and I became afraid that if I made the two-day journey by car, I would get trapped in one of those storms. Instead I made the one-day journey by plane for less than the cost of gas!

I arrived just before a storm hit. On our way home from the airport it started to get bad and we even had to re-route due to an accident on the highway. By the next morning, their neighborhood was a winter wonderland.

These hills are right outside my cousin’s neighborhood and I decided to hike up to them.

I had brought winter gear with me, so I bundled up and walked out the front door with my camera. We had not yet had any snow at home in Rainier, so this snow was the first snow of the winter for me!

I walked through the sagebrush and juniper and spotted a dozen rabbits bouncing through the fresh snow, leaving their tracks everywhere. I wanted so badly to capture them in photo, but as I tried in vain, I remembered the expression quick like a bunny.

My views of snow, sagebrush, rabbit tracks, and mountains as I plowed through the snow up the gradual slope.

Here I found a rabbit highway.

Sagebrush has a beautiful smell that rose up around me as I tromped through. I picked a few branches to take home with me.

I don’t know what this bush is, but it is also pretty.

Every now and then the sun would break through and light up the landscape.

We had been checking the road conditions online all morning, waiting to see if a particular pass would open up so we could head up to stay the night in a cabin we had reserved in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The overnight snowstorm had closed highways all over the place. Lines of trucks showed up on the traffic cameras, one line waiting to go East, and the other waiting to go West. Everything stopped in the middle due to 4-8 feet of freshly fallen snow.

We had decided earlier that if the roads weren’t open by 2pm, we would have to give up on the trip because we would need a couple hours of daylight to safely drive up as far as we could go, then snowshoe into the cabin, hauling our gear for the night, and dig the cabin door out of the snow so we could get in. It would not be a good idea to take any chances in this kind of adventure when temperatures drop quickly after dark and we would be in snow depths over our heads. I checked the time and saw that it was time to head back to make sure I was there by 2pm.

When I turned around, I saw the neighborhood at the bottom of the hill.

Snow can make even a mud puddle look pretty.

Highway 88 remained closed all day. The next morning Debbie and I were getting restless. We packed up for a road trip up there anyway, just to see all the snow. We brought our cameras, but it was hard to get many good photos. It was still snowing in the mountains, even though there was blue sky and sunshine in the valleys. We quickly crossed the Nevada/California border and spent most of the trip in the California Sierra. Roads were open as far as Kirkwood Mountain Resort, but just after the entrance into the parking lot, we could see the gate across Highway 88, where no traffic was allowed because the plows had not yet been able to clear the roads sufficiently.

At Kirkwood Mountain Ski Resort, the snow was absolutely appropriate.

Parking lots were packed with people excited to get onto the slopes buried in several feet of new snow.

This car had obviously been parked here yesterday, before the storm began. I had to chuckle that the owner was thoughtful enough to raise the wipers, but apparently had not planned on 4 feet of snow!!

Looking across the creek that runs through the center of the Kirkwood resort. You can see the ski slopes behind the buildings.

When we were done looking around at the ski resort, we then looked for places to take photos. That was a challenge because plows had only time to clear a path for cars, but not enough time for luxuries like clearing extra space on the side of the road to pull over, out of traffic. Deb and I could not find many safe places to stop.

Here is the wall of snow at one of the plowed pull-outs that we found.

A ray of light burst through snow showers.

In this one I was trying to highlight the icicle in the branches.

And then the sun blinked out and it was back to snow.

Down in the valley again, there was less snow but more sun.

My cousin Debbie is an accomplished photographer.

The road trip into the snow kept us from feeling the disappointment of not being able to stay in the cabin overnight. The next morning we all woke up early and Debbie took me back to the airport in Reno. My flight left on time, just ahead of another snow storm.

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Before the show starts is often the only time we are allowed to take photos.

Somehow, the culture people of Portland got my email address, and now I’m at their mercy. I get periodic emails that show up with special price offers at irritatingly convenient times, like Just In Time For Christmas Gifts!

I’ve mentioned before that Tara is crazy about Broadway shows. I sent them a text last Fall. “Hey, Finding Neverland or RENT?” The response was 19-year-old appropriate: “Duh.” I should have guessed that they would want the classic show inspired by La Boheme.

“Classic” sounds kind of funny, because I actually saw RENT not too long after it came out, and that wasn’t terribly long ago. Right? Ahem, the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour is what we went to see. Apparently, I’m old enough to be classic.

The first time I saw the show was in rural Arcata, California, in the late 90s. I remembered that the storyline addresses AIDS, which was still a national scare in those days. And racy for the time and location were the homosexual relationships on stage. Most of all, I remember Angel, the dynamic cross-dresser who was the voice of love and reason for the group of young, desperately poor New York singles.

Arcata is a college town, but most of the audience was made up of patrons of the arts in their 40s or older, who didn’t know the story. And don’t forget that I said “rural.” The audience first sees Angel dressed in masculine clothing, when he meets and falls in love with Tom Collins. But soon comes the big entrance as *Angel!* with glitz and glitter and makeup. Angel pranced out on stage in a white and silver skin-tight costume, ruffles, high heels, red lips, and a dazzling smile that lit up the theatre. She came right up to the edge of the stage – so close I had to tilt my head – and struck a pose.

You could hear a pin drop.

I think I could actually hear people snapping their mouths back shut when they realized they were gaping. There was no cheer, no laughter. Total paralyzed silence. Maybe a muffled sneeze in the back. I had been just about to give a “whoop!” but then realized something was wrong and held it in.

This time the show was different for a few reasons. Notably, I’m in Portland, which is like a baby San Francisco, for all the tolerance we’ve got. And furthermore (it’s apparently 20 years later, and) concepts like homosexual love, drug use, diseases that kill you, and breaking into empty buildings because you’re homeless are not as shocking to find on the stage anymore.

This audience was fully on board. No, not just on board, but cult followers or something. The scene when Angel comes out in drag was preceded by raucous cheers before I even knew what was happening. The outfit was different this time, but the people went crazy for it!

The production still uses telephone answering machines to bring in missing characters (like parents) and to make connections in the story line. And it still works. The difference is that the first time I didn’t pay it any mind, and this time, it caught my attention every time. Answering machines! I remember those!

The first time I saw RENT, there was one relationship that carried it for me. The interactions between Angel and Collins are lovely at every stage, from the joy in the beginning, to their successful negotiations to unite their friends in times of trouble, to the heartbreaking hospital scenes when Collins takes care of Angel. Their love is pure and immense – big enough for all of us.

This time the relationship that carried it for me was between Roger and Mimi. He’s a musician struggling to be true to his art. However, his bigger struggle is with self-worth. He doesn’t really believe he’s good enough to be a musician, so he never finishes a song. And then he and Mimi fall in love and he suspects he’s not deserving of her either, so they break up. She’s an addict and really really wants to quit, but just can’t admit to herself or to Roger that she is weak, and she wants to be loved and forgiven despite that. They wrench apart, and fall together, and wrench apart again.

It was just awful, watching their pain, and knowing we so often bring our pain upon ourselves like that. We are happy or satisfied or loved purely based on our perception of who we are. Arggh, humans!

The ending is sad and hopeful, and Tara and I were still wiping the backs of our hands across our cheeks when the actors bowed. I wonder if art is supposed to make its audience find a truth? Maybe that’s why the same story hit me two different ways at two times in my life. When the artists don’t use direct words, we have to give it our own meaning, and then, it has a distinctly personal message for the most dramatic impact. Oooh, those artists. So clever.

Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, Babe at Trees of Mystery in northern California

Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, Babe at Trees of Mystery in northern California

Arno and I take the opportunity every other holiday to have grown-up time, since every other holiday the kids are gone. His boys were with their mother, and Miss Tara was scheduled to be with her dad, so we planned to have Christmas at a Bed & Breakfast on the Oregon coast. Since it was somewhat close to Tara’s dad on the North Coast of California, we decided to take her south and then sightsee up the coast to our B&B.

Sunset over highway 199 between Grants Pass and Crescent City

Sunset over highway 199 between Grants Pass and Crescent City

It’s a beautiful drive and we were treated with views of Christmas lights all the way. Mother Nature didn’t want to be outdone and gave us a gorgeous sunset to drive through.

Fishing boats lit up off the northern California coast, called "the North Coast" by locals.

Fishing boats lit up off the northern California coast, called “the North Coast” and “the Lost Coast” by locals.

I couldn’t resist a vista stop once we reached the coast at Crescent City, and I was able to get a shot of the busy sea, filled with fishermen.

We delivered Tara safely to her dad’s house and found a hotel. The next morning we visited with my lovely friend Margaret, who met us for breakfast in Arcata. Then we took Highway 101 north and began our coast vacation.

Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center

Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center

Roosevelt Elk in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Roosevelt Elk in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

elk pose

elk pose

Yes, the elk might be at somewhat of a disadvantage if hunting were allowed here beside highway 101

Yes, the elk might be at somewhat of a disadvantage if hunting were allowed here beside highway 101

At Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center in Orick, CA, we talked with a Ranger and learned about a back road through  Jedediah Smith State Park. We realized that by taking scenic routes, we could get up close and personal with the trees, but not spend too much time hiking through the woods and make ourselves late for check in at the B&B. Before we reached the redwoods, however, we were distracted by a group of Roosevelt Elk grazing near the highway.

My Arno, the climber

My Arno, the climber, clambers up Big Tree. Well-named, this Coast Redwood is 304 feet tall and 21 feet in diameter.

First we took the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which is a portion of the old highway 101. We wandered a few trails and were aptly humbled by the immense redwood trees. The Coast Redwoods are narrower and a little taller than the Giant Sequoias found in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the California-Nevada border.

The trails allow visitors to experience this spectacular old-growth rainforest from the inside. Yes, rainforest! Some of these areas have an average of 100-150 inches of rain in a season. As you can see from the photos, even sunny days do not penetrate to the surface very well. Green growth carpets and drapes all things in the forest. We spotted mossy shelves hosting ferns and small huckleberry shrubs as much as twenty feet up the trunks of some of these trees. The trail is spongy from the layers below it. Step off the trail, and one sinks into the moss and lichens and fungus and – I must assume – millions of tiny insects. When a tree falls, or is burned by fire, the tree is not dead. Rather, it becomes the host of new trees. We saw many “smaller” trees growing from the enormous hulks of past giants. Smaller was in quotes, because the baby growth are often trees that would seem huge in my back yard, and only seem small because the others in the redwood forest are much larger.

The trail winds through old growth redwood rain forest

The trail winds through old growth redwood rain forest

Coast Redwoods soar up above the green forest floor

Coast Redwoods soar up above the green forest floor

We found our way next to Howland Hill Road. It is a narrow dirt road through the center of another section of old growth redwood forest. The trees growing snug up against the road bank dwarfed the Volvo wagon.

Itty bitty car in the trees along Howland Hill Road

Itty bitty car in the trees along Howland Hill Road

Arno inside the cut trunk of a tree beside the road.

Arno inside the cut trunk of a tree beside the road.

Once we left the forest it was time to stop dawdling. We were still in California, and our bed that evening was half way up the Oregon coast. So we focused on heading north, even though we took the time to stop at a few more beaches and breathe the sea air. Finally, the sky turned black, and it began to rain, and that was very helpful in keeping us inside the car, and traveling north. We checked in on time and were so tired we skipped dinner and went to bed.

Read about our adventures on Day two here.

This attractive gentleman stayed close, with the hopes that I would share my lunch with him.

This attractive gentleman stayed close, with the hopes that I would share my lunch with him.

Wind filled the air with mist and gave a dreamy quality to the seaside sunset

Wind filled the air with mist and gave a dreamy quality to the seaside sunset

did I mention that he likes to climb?

did I mention that he likes to climb?

Arno on top of a rock at a southern Oregon beach

Arno on top of a rock at a southern Oregon beach

 

Getting the fire going in Lassen National Forest

Getting the fire going in Lassen National Forest

Tucked at the base of a tufa pinnacle near Trona, California

Tucked at the base of a tufa pinnacle near Trona, California

This is a post dedicated just to our awesome campsites last week during our Spring Break road trip. Each and every stop was a delight for us, and I’m not just exaggerating. Each place we ended up for the night was pure jackpot, and it added so much to our experience.

Our first night camping was at the Trona Pinnacles. The best thing about Trona Pinnacles is that the setting is truly amazing. No, the best *best* thing is that we had been looking for a campground, and this is where we ended up, which is better than a campground.

Looking north toward the town of Trona.

Looking north toward the town of Trona.

The BLM website says this location supports what they call “primitive camping,” which means that there are limited facilities. Here, there was an information board at the beginning of the turn off road, and one vaulted toilet on one end of a very large area of pinnacles. And bleh, who wants to smell a stinky outhouse when you can simply dig your own hole? (Arno taught me that they are called “cat holes.”)  So I define “primitive” campsites as those more likely to have fewer campers and a higher percentage of the type of campers that I like. The camping here is free.

Our tent, beneath the Big Dipper, in Greenwater Valley

Our tent, beneath the Big Dipper, in Greenwater Valley

The next night we had planned to stay in a Death Valley National Park campground, but when we saw that the one at Stovepipe Wells was nothing more than RVs and tents jammed together in a section of gravel, we asked desperately at the Furnace Creek information center. The ranger suggested we venture into the “back country roads” and camp anywhere we wanted to off the side of the road.

That took us into a higher valley, which was cooler and had more vegetation, so I found it prettier. There were other campers, but within the 5th largest park in the United States, there was plenty of room for everyone! It was nice and flat, and easy to press the stakes into the ground, though I had been expecting it to be impossible. These campsites are not really campsites, so they were free, and zero facilities. Which is how we like it.

Our view of the Greenwater Valley in the morning, from the tent.

Our view of the Greenwater Valley in the morning, from the tent.

The next day we really hadn’t given any thought at all to camping until it was evening. Our main concern was to find a gas station. You know how it gets in a time like that, just sort of remaining anxious and focused on the miles clicking by. We gassed up, felt safe, and then realized it was late and we were tired. So we asked at the gas station for a  place to pitch a tent. We found out we were about a mile from a campground.

The campground stretches along the base of the hills, beneath those trees. You can see one of the toilets on the left.

The Big Pine Creek campground stretches along the base of the hills, beneath those trees. You can see one of the toilets on the left.

Our fatigue made us willing to really lower our standards at that point, so we were truly thrilled to find a stunningly beautiful, inexpensive ($10 a campsite per night), large campground right within Big Pine city limits. It was so large that all the campers had made an effort to keep away from the other campers, and we had plenty of privacy. And everyone was on the creek, under trees. There were a few nice vault toilets, so we used them. If you are ever in the neighborhood, I recommend Big Pine Creek Campground for hikers, car campers, or RVs.

Arno crouches to prepare the spot for our tent, between the two small branches of the creek.

Arno crouches to prepare the spot for our tent, between the two small branches of the creek.

The place we chose was at a spot where the creek split, and large stepping stones had been placed in the first branch, so we could hop across, carrying our gear, to the fire pit between the branches. Found a lovely flat and sandy place for the tent, and unpacked our wood for the first time. It was too windy for a fire at pinnacles, too hot at Death Valley, and just right here.

In the morning, Arno spotted a heron about six feet from the tent, on the hill side of the creeks. It was slowly stepping through the tall dead grasses, watching the water for a morning snack.

Our final night’s campsite was my favourite one of all, because it reminded me of the camping I am most familiar with. The kind of camp spot I might choose if I had been backpacking in the Trinity Alps, or home in Idaho. Again, we were just driving along, and realized we were tired, so we earnestly began looking for a place to stop. Once we got inside Lassen National Forest, we eyed every single road for it’s potential to lead us to a new campsite.

I turned down a road that was supposed to lead us to Bogard Campground, but the Spring had not yet thawed the snow from the road, and I had to stop after only about a mile. The place where I was forced to stop in the middle of the road was where we ended up! The main road was just a dirt road, and there was less of a road than that which intersected it. Being so early in the season, though, it was more like a long, narrow, flat area than a road. We found a section with no snow, and pitched the tent.

Our final campsite in the trees.

Our final campsite in the trees.

Someone had been before us, and built a great firepit with enormous rocks. (That’s me playing in the fire in the photo at the top of this post.) It was very cold that night, but I was so happy. The stars were astonishingly bright, and we got to listen to a fascinating bird call like a loon. We guessed the birds were likely water birds, on one of the many shallow marshy small lakes in the area.

That’s all I wanted to say: we had the best campsites during our road trip. It is very hard to choose a boring hotel bed over these places.

Sun on the Sierra above our camp

Sunny Sierra morning above our camp

The sun on the Sierra Nevada mountains this morning was stunning. My mouth dropped open and I ran for the camera. Part of the beauty could have been because the snowy peaks above the trees provided a different view than what we had been seeing in the rocky, prickly, dry parts of southern California. I am making an effort in daily life to pay less attention to how something came to be and more attention to simply addressing what is in front of me. So the important point here: gorgeous!

In the morning we treated ourselves to luxury and bought tokens to take showers in Big Pine. Then, all cleaned up to a no-longer-offensively-smelly level, we ate breakfast at an actual restaurant. Stuffed and happy, we hit the road for what would end up being a 330 mile drive.

I am enjoying the warmth at the water's edge, and thinking about pulling off my black fleece

I am enjoying the warmth at the water’s edge, and thinking about pulling off my black fleece

Ever since we camped at Trona Pinnacles State Park, we hoped to be able to stop at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve on our way home. The fascinating tufa formations revealed in both lakes once the water level dropped, are formed in the same way when mineral rich springs bubble up into an akaline lake. We wanted the benefit of being able to compare the 10,000 to 100,000 year old Trona pinnacles with the Mono pinnacles, which are younger and smaller.

tufa pinnacles reflect in the water at Mono Lake

tufa pinnacles reflect in the water at Mono Lake

an island of tufa

an island of tufa

The campaign to “save Mono Lake” seems to have effectively been stamped onto the public consciousness, because many people (myself included, prior to my visit) believe we need to save Mono Lake. What I found out was that the campaign was successful in reverting the damaging drain of water since 1941 from Mono’s sources. In 1994, an order to protect Mono Lake was issued, and the City of Los Angeles reduced its level of water diversion. Now we can wait for the lake to begin filling up again – not to pre-Los Angeles levels – but back up a few feet with no more danger of total evaporation because of people. So Mono Lake has been saved already – yay!

The water hosts life on many levels, to include plant life below the surface

The water hosts life on many levels, to include plant life below the surface

I was surprised at the numbers of birds there, assuming the water was somehow poisonous. But it’s not poisonous, just salty. Our morning had been a chilly one, and I pulled black fleece over my head to keep warm, but down at the south shore amongst the tufa towers, the sun quickly warmed us. We lounged and enjoyed the heat. And took photos.

A snowy egret perched atop a tufa spire

A snowy egret perched atop a tufa spire

A bird perches high atop a spire for a magnificent view

A bird perches high atop a spire for a magnificent view

Yellow grasses from last summer have not yet been replaced by this year's crop

Yellow grasses from last summer have not yet been replaced by this year’s crop

Looking west to the Sierra Nevada

Looking west to the Sierra Nevada

The solitary tube standing alone out there is a good illustration of how each tufa spire begins as a formation around a spring bubbling up from underground.

The solitary tube standing alone out there is a good illustration of how each tufa spire begins as a formation around a spring bubbling up from underground.

After that it was time to go. We had much driving ahead of us, and we had recently discovered that the iPod connection that Arno installed had stopped working. Best guess is that it got disconnected during all the back country roads we bounced over in the pickup. We were not able to listen to music or news or audiobooks. So I pulled the laptop from the back seat and read a few chapters to Arno from my Shemya book that has been about 10 years in the making. I will -I WILL- finish it someday. Sharing it with other people really does help me pressure myself to work on it more.

Since we’ve known each other, in fact since our very first date, Arno and I occasionally come across topics that are too big to discuss in the moment. Arno suggested on our first date, as we stood on the Troll Bridge, that perhaps it was a topic to bring up later over a glass of wine. In the meantime, we’ve had this come up often: a topic to be discussed over wine. If it’s a heavy-duty topic, we suggest it should be discussed later over whiskey, heh heh. In anticipation of the trip, I had done a subject search of all our old emails (I’ve kept them all) for the keyword “wine” and had a list ready of stuff we now had time to talk about. We were driving, so there was no wine, but that was ok.

Preoccupied with talking, we zoomed north through Carson City and Reno, barely noticing them. I did interrupt discussion to point at the Upper Air dome (the radar that tracks the instrument box attached to launched weather balloons) as we passed the Reno National Weather Service office. I bragged that when UA operations were moved from Winnemucca to Reno, I was the one who wrote the SOP and and trained the Reno staff on how to fill, launch, and track weather balloons.

Our camp beside the Lassen National Forest road

Our camp beside the Lassen National Forest road

In that way, we made it to Susanville and barely noticed the miles. It was getting late, and though a campground at Old Station had been recommended, we didn’t want to go that far. I was driving along Highway 44 when I saw a sign for Bogard Campground. I pulled off onto the red dirt road, and the truck got bogged a little bit in the mud. We came up over a hill and had to stop because the road was completely snow-covered. We were nowhere near the campground, but ready to stop anyhow, so we got out to take a look. When Arno found a fire pit, that sealed the deal. We found a dry-ish spot for the tent and settled in.

Yes, I am blogging by the campfire. In a skirt. And a down jacket.

Yes, I am blogging by the campfire. In a skirt. And a down jacket.

Well after dark, we heard a eerie bird call that was much like the Common Loons I had heard when living in New England. Perhaps they were Pacific Loons, I don’t know, but their call was so compelling I couldn’t bear to make a sound while I heard it. After the fire died and we went to bed, I turned up my face and was astonished to see a million gazillion stars! I forget! I forget how many there are, and how incredible it is to see them without light pollution.

The view of Death Valley from the southwest.

The view of Death Valley from the western approach on highway 190.

Sunrise view of the pinnacles surrounding our camp.

Sunrise view of the pinnacles surrounding our camp in the morning.

{Disclaimer: forgive the length! This is one of the times when I found it difficult to resist including lots of photos and descriptions.} Arno made us another fabulous breakfast while I took more photos of the stunning and surprising pinnacles. I even did some of my physical therapy exercises, trying to keep Jessica and Tyler from Therapeutic Associates happy.

Hey all my East-Coast friends: get a load of this highway. They don't make roads like this in New England!

Hey all my East-Coast friends: get a load of this highway. They don’t make roads like this in New England!

We drove along very straight and empty desert highways (so typical in the West), and finally made it into Death Valley National Park, the driest, hottest, lowest spot in the United States. One must drive miles into the place before coming to a park office that will allow an entrance fee to be paid.

Isn't this hilarious? We pulled over to take photos of the "Welcome to Death Valley" sign, and these shoes were begging to be photographed.

Isn’t this hilarious? We pulled over to take photos of the “Welcome to Death Valley” sign, and these shoes were begging to be photographed.

At the entrance to the park

At the entrance to the park

At Stovepipe Wells Village we saw our first park campground, which was basically pitching a tent on a gravel parking lot – bleh. Unacceptable. We pulled in at the visitor’s center and Arno headed for the door, while I headed out back because I had spotted a National Weather Service Cooperative Weather Observer (COOP) thermometer shelter. I popped off the latches and opened the door to see what equipment they had. Sadly, only max and min thermometers. Sometimes more interesting equipment will be housed in one of these, such as as barograph, or a thermograph. The shelter made me happy enough though, bringing back memories of my 11 years with NWS, often very active in the COOP program.

Arno bought the year pass for all the parks, hoping we would be able to use it later. I am really hoping to take advantage of that. We are frugal enough to go to a park just because we bought the pass, so it can be a bit of reverse psychology to force me into exploring our amazing United States. How truly fortunate we are to live in a country that wants to, and is able to, set aside humongous areas simply for public enjoyment. If we were a tiny Cyprus or Liechtenstein or Andorra, we could not afford this luxury.

Mesquite Flat sand dunes near the Stovepipe Wells Visitor's Center

Mesquite Flat sand dunes near the Stovepipe Wells Visitor’s Center

Along Harmony Borax Works interpretive trail

Along Harmony Borax Works interpretive trail

Near the office was access to a large area of sand dunes, so off we went across the dunes, and benefited from springtime blossoms to brighten up the view.

After that, we explored some remains of a Borax mining operation, with an old wagon famous for the days when borax was moved from the desert using the famous 20-mule teams. It was getting hot, but neither of us minded much, since desert heat had been part of our goal all along. As we walked through the ruins, I told the story of when I accidentally brushed my teeth with Borax. I come from a remarkable family in many ways, and yes, it turns out to be a family where a teenager could mistake a mason jar of borax for a mason jar of baking soda. I didn’t die, so that proves it wasn’t a poisonous substance, but I did complain to Mom that the soda tasted pretty bad that day. (turns out she had been cleaning, and left the jar of powder on the counter by the sink)

By that time we had finally reached the population center of the park, Furnace Creek. There is a small forest there (startlingly unexpected after all the dried out desolation), with a large visitor’s center and camping, and even a posh resort. Just beside all the touristy stuff is Timbisha Shosone lands, where native Americans continue to inhabit lands they have occupied for more than 10,000 years. At the center we got information on where to camp and not be on a gravel parking lot with hundreds of other tourists. At the general store, we bought ice cream and awesome Tilley hats to protect our skin from the sun.

In our new Tilley hats at the lowest point in the United States

In our new Tilley hats at the lowest point in the United States

The inset shows you what the sign says, high above our truck

The inset shows you what the sign says, high above our truck

Obviously (well, to me at least) the main attraction of Death Valley is the fact that one can stand on dry land below sea level. Moses ain’t got nuthin’ on southern California. So our next stop was to visit the place itself. We got lucky in the parking lot (no, not that kind of lucky…) when we turned around – away from the basin – and spotted a sign mounted waaaay up on the rock face at the point of sea level. It was helpful to understand just how far -282 feet really is.

The path out into Badwater Basin

The path out into Badwater Basin

From the basin, looking back toward the parking lot and the head of the trail

From the basin, looking back toward the parking lot and the head of the trail

Water! Liquid water in Death Valley

Water! Liquid water in Death Valley

New crystallization of the mineral rich environment

New crystallization of the mineral rich environment

We walked out into Badwater Basin and by that time we were suffering from the heat. The temp at the visitor’s center in Furnace Creek stated 91 degrees, but I’ll bet it was hotter than that out in the basin itself. Pedestrians had worn a wide, hard-packed path out away from the parking lot at the base of the mountains. Arno and I lamented that so much of the fascinating mineral formations had been crushed by millions of shoes. We tentatively approached the edges, careful not to crush anything new, and investigated crystalline formations at the edges. In places where people had crushed it flat, new lacy snowflakes were often forming again on top of the flat area. Nature proving that persistence rules. I was reminded of a blog acquaintance who is obsessed with fractals, one of my favourite examples of natural mathematical artistry.

Natural bridge a one-mile hike from the paved road

Natural bridge a one-mile hike from the paved road

Spectacular colours and shapes and drama embedded into the mountains along the Artist's Drive

Spectacular colours and shapes and drama embedded into the mountains along the Artist’s Drive

The wonderful one-lane Artist's Drive as it rodeos around the landscape

The wonderful one-lane Artist’s Drive as it rodeos around the landscape

We headed back toward Furnace Creek, and along the way stopped to hike a short trail to a natural bridge. Then we took a little paved detour called the Artist’s Drive, just to see what we could see. It offered us truly remarkable views of striations in mountain faces, and layers dripping over one another to look like a giant pile of melting ice cream. The road itself was a riot. It was a narrow one-laned twisty, curvy rollercoaster road that was like a theme park ride. Near the end, we passed several vehicles pulled over, and couples in lawn chairs up on the slopes, waiting and watching for the impending sunset. It reminded us to get a move on, since we were hoping to set up camp in daylight.

Our view of Orion as we ate our stir fry chicken and peppers with couscous, and Fetzer wine we had picked up in Lakeport earlier in the week.

Our view of Orion as we ate our stir fry chicken and peppers with couscous, and sipped the Fetzer wine we had picked up in Lakeport earlier in the week.

We had been told at the Visitor’s Center about dispersed camping along the backcountry roads (read: gravel or dirt) on the southeast side of the park. When we were almost to Furnace Creek, we turned right and went south into the Greenwater Valley. It was higher elevation, below Coffin Peak, and the temperature dropped into the 70s up there. MUCH more indicative of a good night’s sleep. And also, with the scattered plant life, a much more scenic valley than the Badwater Basin. We were not quick enough to set up camp in light, but we managed anyhow with headlamps. Arno cooked another in a series of mouthwateringly great meals while I set up the tent and inflated the mattresses  We ate, and watched the stars, and I couldn’t help but take some more night time photos before we were fully exhausted and dropped into our sleeping bags for the night.

So, from 1:30am to 3:30am, I chatted with M in her kitchen, eating delicious home made cheese-and-nut morsels and some Chardonnay. She also pulled out marinated prawns and rosemary crackers.

Drunk friends are fun.

View of the King Range, Fortuna, and the Pacific Ocean from M's deck

She was up before me though, and I heard water boiling for coffee and the TV spewing out news, so I showered and joined her. She baked me an awesome spinach soufflé for breakfast and delicious pressed coffee. Finally I was on the road at 10am.

A trail through the redwoods

My eensy beensy car

The rain was relentless. I had intended to stop in the redwoods on this trip. I didn’t yesterday because the rain was coming down in sheets. But today looked to be more of the same. Finally I pulled over in Weott and walked through the rain to get a few snapshots of the trees. After that, snow fell instead of rain.

North of Ukiah the snow turned back to rain, and I turned onto Highway 20 past Mendocino Lake and cut over to I-5 for some hardcore driving. Because of M, I was groggy by mid-morning, but I still intended to kick out as much of California as possible.

Another reason the rain was stressing me out is because my poor Dragon-Wagon is 14 years old and the windshield wipers are temperamental. For no discernible reason, they choose to run when I turn them off, or stop when I want them to go faster. Since it rained all day long, it was occasionally stressful fighting with my wipers.

California is a mighty large state. The Central Valley is about as uninspiring as scenery can be. Wow. Stunningly flat and at times, ghastly-smelling of liquid cow-poo. My god, what is that smell? I drove and drove and drove through pouring pouring rain all damned day long. I finally gave it up in Coalinga.

One of my many guises

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