Back in the fall of 2009, a friend of mine was getting married in San Diego. Somehow I talked his old roommate and my close friend, Daniel, into flying up to Reno, just to drive back down to San Diego. After our last one-day epic marathon drive from Truckee to San Diego down the east side in December, he didn’t need too much convincing.
Sitting in the pick-up parking lot at Reno International, I look up from my iPod to see Daniel swaggering down the sidewalk, wearing a yellow adventure-racing pack stuffed to the gills, a full-sized pillow as big as the pack strapped to it. I shake my head, laughing, and spin the keys in the ignition. We have three days before we need to be back in San Diego; Daniel is in the rehearsal dinner. I ‘m doing something I had a hard time doing – traveling without a plan. Sure, I’d looked up places I wanted to see: Convict Lake, Rock Creek, the ancient bristlecone pines. But where we were going to sleep each night? That’s up to where the wind blows us, an uncertainty I’m not altogether comfortable with.
395 stops and starts through Reno and Carson City, as if it’s unsure of its highway status. Daniel and I don’t see each other often, and as we head deeper into disparate adult lives, we speak on the phone less frequently. So with nothing more concrete than 600 miles of road spooled out in front of us, our conversation flows free and fast. He talks about obscure liquors I’d never heard of, and I’d consider myself a learned student on the subject. I talk about living in the mountains, a topic I’d grown infatuated with. Together we recount past adventures; the three-day backpacking trip in Point Reyes during a squall, another New Years road trip down the California coast.
“Remember the elephant seals?” I said, recalling that trip.
“Yeah, and the bull,” Daniel retorted
“You guys didn’t believe me when we drove by, you said it was a rock, and Danny said it was a bull.”
“Yeah. We ran past a bull. That was smart.”
“But we got some great pictures of you Vanna White-ing with elephant seals lying in the grass.”
“What did you call me?”
Highway 88 peals off of 395 in Gardnerville, Nevada, running for the hills and out of the Carson Valley. We snake slowly up into sagebrush and browning mules ears, and then into the pine forests of higher elevation.
Gravel pops under the tires of my Honda Element and clicks inside the wheel wells as I pull onto the shoulder at Monitor Pass, where highway 89 tops out. Clusters of golden-orange aspen are already losing there leaves here about at 8,000 feet, huddled together in depressions in an otherwise baron landscape where they can collect pooling snow melt. We take pictures, pee on stunted, wind-gnarled trees, and I point the nose of my car downwards as we head towards Topaz Lake, where we’ll reconnect with Highway 395.
Down again in the high desert, the first ripples of the White Mountains start to appear to the left, like bleached and stained bones. The road dips into the folds of the Walker River Canyon, running slow, low and clear this time of year. Daniel looks at the crumbling volcanic cliff faces around us, and sensibly inquires about rock slides. With the confidence of a mountain man I dismiss this concern.
“These rocks have been here millions of years, the cracks don’t mean anything,” I say with a smirk.
Sure enough, we round the next bend to sprouting orange traffic cones and a pile of scree encroaching on the side of the road, sure signs of a recent slide. He didn’t let me here the end of that one for the rest of the trip.
Our next stop is in the ranching valley of Bridgeport under the first truly dramatic peaks of the eastern Sierra: the Sawtooth Range. the last time I was here the valley was green and verdant, with song birds darting about the grass. The time before it was white, brown and austere. I looked up at the Sawtooths through eyes of chipped granite, again the with cocksure attitude of the mountain man I’d like to fancy myself.
“See the big one on the left?” I ask Daniel, pointing, with a sniff. “That’s Matterhorn Peak. I climbed up it and skied it last March.”
This was an accomplishment I was proud of. Never mind I didn’t make it to the top, that I was beat after 3,000 feet of climbing (on admittedly harrowing ice-hard snow after a pre-dawn start). It was still a fair accomplishment, and by Daniel’s raised eyebrow, I could see he wasn’t altogether unimpressed.
395 climbs again over Conway Summit, the brown, sage covered hills opening up to a birds-eye view of the alkali Mono Lake, pale blue under the western sky. Gulls swarm the bathtub-ringed shores as we drive down towards Lee Vining, the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park.
It’s mid afternoon – too late to make the $20 entrance fee to the park worth it, but we head up Tioga Pass Road for the scenery, planning to turn away at the Ranger Station. Like always, driving up Tioga Pass Road my chest is pressed against the steering wheel, eyes craned upward at the surrounding cliffs and the Dana Plateau ahead.
At the Ranger Station we stop to stretch, and a fellow dirtbag-in-a-Subaru-type stops, holding his park entrance ticket out the window towards me. I hesitate, but he gives it an insistent wave. The Ranger, only 20-some feet away, doesn’t even blink (I’ve since procured a National Park yearly pass for just such an occasion, for those judging me). So we head into the park. Tuolumne Meadows is dry and brown, but the ox-bowed headwaters are still running on snow and glacial melt.
The first piece of iconic Yosemite granite looms up to the right like a fossil wave in a pitched sea, ramping up to near-vertical above us. We get out and Daniel immediately turns straight up the slab. It’s the Lembert Dome, we later learn.
I get the brilliant idea, standing at nearly 9,000 feet, that I ought to try and run straight up it as far as I can. I live at about 6,000 feet, after all, so this is like running at only 3,000 feet, right? Less than 100 yards later pitched up less than 30 degrees, and I think I’m going to pass out. The granite spins and temporarily goes bright-white. Daniel staggers up behind me, and we take a picture.
The setting sun casts long shadows on the cracked cliffs as we start back down Tioga Pass Road toward Lee Vining, and I’m nervous again about finding a place to camp for the night.
We eat at Nicely’s Diner, buy a six-pack of Mammoth Brewing Company Beer from the Tioga Gas Mart, and watch the sun set over the mountains as we speed past the June Lakes Loop, bugs splattering on the windshield.
Dust wafts up like smoke in my headlights as we pull onto a dirt road into a free Forest Service Campground I’d found earlier that summer. I slow to a crawl when slab-sided RVs and trailers appear out of the darkness, awnings deployed and generators humming. We squeeze between them and into a sliver of dirt next to a pick-nick table, where we sit and get four deep into the six pack. I’m relieved we’ve found a spot for the night, but nervous about how well I’ll sleep with both of us in the little Element, so I’m uncharacteristically ahead of Daniel in bottle count.
We’ve still got enough old war stories to relive and new experiences to share that our conversation doesn’t skip a beat, and I don’t even notice the temperature drop.
When Daniel starts involuntarily bouncing around from the cold, we fold down the seats and lay out our sleeping bags.
I try to convince Daniel to leave the windows open, but as always, Daniel answers: “What about creepy crawlies?”
“We’re in the high-desert, creepy crawlies don’t live up here,” I lie.
“Mountain lions!” he quickly spits back, and with that, I give up and role the windows up to a sliver.
I wake up with the light of the rising sun filtering through the trees at about 6:30, but Daniel, accustomed to bartender’s hours, takes some prodding.
“Waky waky hands of snaky,” I say, throwing a flying elbow drop into Daniel’s back.
We back-track temporarily through the June Lakes Loop to the north, winding along the crystaline lakes and popping out on 395 near Mono Lake again. Pointed back in the right direction, we stop at a little bagel and coffee place in Mammoth Lake, scrubbing our hands and faces in the bathroom sink, availing ourselves on the availability of hand soap and paper towels.
Next detour from our north-south path is to Convict Lake, an oft-photographed and filmed body of water butted up against red and silver granite cliffs. We stand at the waters edge, then tentatively with our feet in the cold water. Then knee deep. The grubby feeling of camping contrasted with the pure fresh water overpowers the pucker factor, and we jump in, involuntarily convulsing from the shock. But it leaves us awake and invigorated, a power of mountain lakes I’ve observed many times.
Highway 395 continues to unravel in front of us, the granitic, alpine Sierra to the right, the stark White Mountains to the left, and red, coral-like volcanic rock along the roadway. At Tom’s Place, we take another detour, this time up Rock Creek Road. The pavement climbs up to 10,000 feet, and the dark green swaths of pine are striped by bright-yellow aspen, shimmering in the breeze. The color show changes by elevation, each stand of aspen from top to bottom touched off like fireworks by cold air flowing down from the high peaks like slow-moving streams. We walk around, snapping photos, wishing we had more time here. But the open road beckons.
Back on 395, the highway splits and drops down towards Bishop, paralleling the Owens River Gorge – a narrow slot canyon cut in the earth. We turn east into the White Mountains for the first time south of Big Pine. Daniel also volunteers to drive for the first time, a decision I regret with nails dug into the upholstery as the road turns quickly into a roller coaster track. Our aim is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest – one of the few places inhospitable enough for the multi-thousand-year-old twisted trees. The oldest one lives somewhere up here, above 10,000 feet, but they won’t tell the public where it is for fear of damage. Understandable when these trees normally die because the dirt around their roots has all eroded away.
A shockingly-attractive woman is the sole custodian of the trailer-turned-ranger-station, and we linger longer than we need to over the brochures before taking a mile-long loop through the forest of living fossils. We walk hushed through the trees, like you would in a museum, and I notice the handful of other visitors are equally studious. Some have argued that cloning species are older, but seeing a living thing in front of you, the same living thing that’s been here for 4,000 years, is much more impressive.
I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but back on Highway 395, Daniel spots a sign for wildlife viewing at what looks like suspiciously like an agricultural field.
“What are we viewing, cows?” Daniel asks quizzically.
I pulled into the turnoff anyway, and click my long lens onto my Camera just in case.
“Those aren’t cows, those are elk!” I say, startled, snapping off a few pictures in the mid-day heat.
One of the few places we stopped on our first 12-hour trip down 395 the winter before was the Whitney Portal Ranger Station in Lone Pine, looking up at the shark-toothed Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48, at the intersection of the road leading into Death Valley. We stop here again, looking for advice on a place to camp for the night. It’s hot here at 4,000 feet – the lowest elevation of our trip so far, and we’re both a bit beat. I’d researched a campground called Diaz Lake, but it didn’t sound all that thrilling, and cost $20.
The ranger behind the desk explained two words to me that opened up a world of possibilities: dispersed camping. The rules very from place to place, National Forest to National Forest, but the gist was this: drive down a dirt road far enough and camp anywhere you aren’t doing any damage. We stop in a grocery store for the night’s dinner supplies, then turn up Whitney Portal Road heading west. Before the road pitches upward into the Sierra, we turn off onto a dirt road called Movie Road, named for the dozens of westerns, and now middle-eastern war movies filmed there. Jumbles of rounded boulders and hoodoos called the Alabama Hills loom out of the desert, the apparent tips of another mountain range at the foot of the eastern Sierra. I turn the car up a short spur, parking between the rocks, and we dig into our food.
Daniel takes to the rocks like a spider monkey, but I’m feeling lethargic after two long days behind the wheel.
After a better night’s sleep (exhaustion is great for insomnia) we take our last side trip upwards into the Sierra.
Whitney Portal Road climbs steeply, switch-backing up the eastern escarpment below the 14,000-plus foot peaks. Forest envelops us and the air gets cold, rushing down the canyon like an invisible stream. The backpacker’s campground is buzzing with aspiring climbers, and abundant bear-lockers highlights the number of human-megafauna interactions in the area. The climb is so popular you need permits to even hike it a day, but we can’t help but take a few steps up the storied path. We linger in the shadows of the mountains for a while, but then decide its time to finish our trip south.
The dramatic spine of the Sierra peters out into a mostly-featureless desert punctuated by the occasional Joshua tree. Soon we find our selves on the ragged edges of the Los Angeles super sprawl, and power through to our first taste of salt air in San Diego, Ready for desperately-needed showers.