Wandering the West – Part 1: Hitting the road to Yosemite

The idea began rather spontaneously – I was at lunch with colleagues on a Monday and was lamenting, in more rather than less words, both the lack of a good bookstore in the local area as well as the desert summer weather being miserable compared to a Seattle summer. Someone, probably tired of my rant, suggested I take a few days off and drive up to Seattle if that was where I would rather be. 3 days later I did.

Due to a slow period at work and an excess of comp time, I had no set dates of needing to be there or back and decided that though the primary point of the trip was a pilgrimage to Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, I might just as well make a western road trip out of the journey instead of simply taking I-5 the whole way. It would give me both the excuse I had been looking for to turn the minivan into a camper as well as get me to some of those places which were just a bit too far away to be a day trip from places I had been.

After sending out a blanket message to several friends in the Seattle area to get an idea of what might be the best days to be up there in terms of catching up with them, I shifted focus to trying to figure out when I would leave. I decided that Yosemite would be a good end point for day 1, so I checked campsite availability and found that in the entire park they only had 1 spot open on that Thursday night, and no spots anywhere for weeks after. I booked the spot then and there.

My first priority now that money had been spent on the trip was to turn a basic 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan from a run of the mill minivan into a semi-functional single person camper. The first task was to get a bed of some sort, so I pulled my queen size airbed out of the closet and inflated it in the van. It very neatly expanded into the available space, but clearly was too big. A basic twin size air mattress ended up being the better choice and also left space around the edge for clothes, hiking gear, etc.. I debated building a sleeping platform, but in the end I didn’t have a sheet of plywood on hand that was large enough for the job and decided to go with the air mattress straight on the floor. Next on the list was how to block the windows for sleeping, and after considering various ideas for curtain rods or rigid screens I opted to take some black fleece fabric I had and cut pieces slightly larger than each window, install 3 half inch tarp grommets at the top of each, and then hang them direct on the windows using suction cup hooks which I bought at a dollar store for $1 a 9 pack. Inexpensive, quick to make, easy to install, and easy to remove.

With the basics of sleeping space defined, it was easy enough to fill the remaining areas with clothes, food, water, bedding, backcountry atlases for California and Oregon, a repair kit, and all the other odds and ends which end up on a camping and a road trip. I used folding crates and fabric boxes as much as possible so that things had at least an opportunity to stay halfway organized and, in particular, made sure that my food supply was in an easily removable container since I knew that several campgrounds in bear country required food be stored in special bear-proof lockers and not in the vehicle.

As far as food went, I opted for simplicity and a no-refrigeration / no-cooking selection. The main contents of the food box were ramen noodles (which I often crumble up and eat dry), a resealable package of flour gorditas, a variety of ready-to-eat curries, and baked “energy bars” (basically dense whole grain muffins with dried fruit and nuts baked in). By selecting the curry of the day in the morning and then putting the package where it was exposed to the sun all day, by evening it was nicely warmed through with no need for additional heating.

On the Thursday morning I started the day as if it was any other workday, but instead of turning left to work I headed right on I-15 to Barstow, then west through the Mojave on highway 58 before picking up US 395. I stopped off in Ridgecrest to top off at the last reasonably priced gas station I’d encounter for hours, then slowly crawled up the length of the Owens valley and traded the wide open vistas of the northern reaches of the Mojave desert for the increasingly dramatic “specimen” landscape of the southern fringe of the eastern Sierra.

To understand this, it’s helpful to have a bit of background in the geology of the area. The “classical” approach to the Sierra Nevada is from the population centers of the west coast travelling east. It’s a land of foothills rising from California’s central valley to a jagged ridgeline in the distance occasionally glimpsed through gaps in the forest. Coming from the east, however, the Sierra Nevada presents itself as a sheer wall of rock jutting up from the Owens valley floor. This is the western edge of the basin and range landform heavily shaped by volcanic activity and plate dynamics, and I’ve read that if the Owens river had an equivalent flow to the Colorado the Owens valley would be deeper than the Grand Canyon relative to the peaks of the Sierra just a few miles to the west. Accordingly, driving up the Owens valley the view is ever changing between the jutting peaks of the mountains, the ancient streambed of the (mostly dry) river, and countless reminders of the fairly recent volcanic activity – small and large cinder cones which have yet to collect / generate enough soil for even small plants to grow, and which look for all the world like oversized anthills spotting the valley.

Shortly after passing the specter of Owens (dry) Lake, I made my first real stop of the trip at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine. The primary point of the stop was to buy an annual interagency pass ($80 and covers entrance fees for all federal lands including National Parks) in case the east entrance to Yosemite did not sell them, but it was also a good spot for a rest break. I found the exhibit on Owens Lake to be fairly well done, highlighting not only the incredible and devastating environmental impact the decision to drain the lake to supply LA with water had, but also an attempt to explain the situation in which it was done. The aspect I had not encountered before was that the plan fully knew that they would irreparably disrupt the environment, but it was a knowing trade at the time to do so. The Lone Pine visitor center is also the site of the daily lottery for permits to climb Mt. Whitney, and unfortunately for me that was going on when I stopped. After waiting in line for several minutes, when I tried to buy the pass I had stopped for the young lady at the register informed me that only the ranger could sell them, and he would be tied up with the permits for several more hours. She suggested I go to the next visitor center up the road in Bishop and get one there.

Owens Lakebed and Whitney Portal Road from the air

Back on the road, I came upon a sign for the Manzanar National Historic Site, which I had planned on stopping at. Given the amount of time I had spent at the Lone Pine Visitor Center, the need to stop in Bishop, and my interest in getting to Yosemite with enough time to enjoy it, I opted not to turn in. Shortly after I could see one of the guard towers at the site from the road, and it chillingly brought back memories from earlier visits to Buchenwald. It felt a disservice not to have stopped, but I wasn’t in the proper mindset to give it appropriate attention at the time.

One of the more interesting sights on the road between Lone Pine and Bishop were several trucks ferrying beehives to better foraging sites. To someone not familiar with bees the cargo could have easily passed as plain wooden crates, but having more than a passing interest in bees I spotted them a mile away. Watching them turn off the highway onto dirt tracks disappearing into side canyons spotted with wildflowers made me feel quite bad about leaving my bees to fend for themselves in a flowerless desert.

The situation at the visitor center in Bishop was similar to what I encountered at Lone Pine with two overworked rangers swamped by an office full of people seeking backcountry permits. After 10 minutes of standing in line I gave up and decided I’d be better served taking my chances at the Yosemite entrance gate then spending at least an hour standing in line in an office on the side of the highway.

From Bishop, US 395 quickly turns from a monotonous high desert road into an enjoyable mountain highway as it climbs 4,000 feet in 50 miles to top out around 8,000 feet elevation near the Mammoth Mountain ski area before descending into the Mono basin. Despite the stops en-route, I decided it was still early enough in the day that I could swing a short stop off at one of the Mono Lake tufa viewing areas and followed the signs to it. Unfortunately, it was a pay and display site and, as I had been unable to purchase my interagency pass earlier in the day and didn’t feel like spending more money for a short walk when it would have been included on the pass, I opted for a quick shot or two from the parking lot before turning back to 395 and, shortly after, picking up highway 120 to Yosemite.

Mono Lake Tufa

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