After a bird-themed Christmas, waffles, a game involving trains (a recurring activity this holiday season, apparently), and hiking in the mud with Aaron I took leave of Ma & Pa’s house and returned to the road. Today’s stop was at the Cosumnes River Preserve, home to (literally) tens of thousands of geese and numerous other feathered critters. Having flocks of thousands of geese and the occasional sandhill crane passing overhead as the sun set was not a bad way to finish the day.
Last night was spent sleeping in the back of the car on the side of the road. It felt good to be a vagabond again.
Today’s adventure was a tour of several wildlife refuges to scout possible locations for the sandhill crane picture that has eluded me for so long. While the birds were again uncooperative, there’s hope. The morning’s first visit was to Merced National Wildlife Refuge, home to a ridiculous number of cranes and the new number one contender on the crane photography list. Arrival was too late for good light, but this is a place that will be re-visited.
The second planned stop was the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, but Apple’s new map tool calculated a route that went from sketchy country road to potholed mess to muddy quagmire. I was skidding all over the place, tearing up clay, doing my best to avoid sliding into the irrigation ditch next to the road without reducing speed to the point where I’d get trapped in the muck. When eventually I found a place wide enough to turn around I was absolutely positive that the car would get stuck, but a Christmas miracle occurred and the Suby dug its way out and I escaped without a call to AAA. After this mini adventure there were disconcerting squealing noises coming from the front of the vehicle, so I headed to the nearest town where it took a full twelve minutes of power washing to get all of the clay/mud out of the wheel wells and axles.
After finding a new route that followed actual roads I arrived at San Luis NWR, which was scenic, as was the day’s final stop at the Isenberg Crane Reserve. However, Merced NWR was clearly the winner and a spot that will see another visit on the post-Christmas trip. In the interim the plan calls for spending a couple of days at Ma & Pa’s for the annual family Christmas, feasting, and misadventures with my brother.
While the bed was a good thing last night, air quality in Kern County is ridiculously poor – dust, smog and huge cattle feedlots make for a stinky, hazy landscape, and whether due to the air, a bad meal, or flu, I got up at 5AM this morning to refund my dinner – twice. Return to the wildlife refuge was delayed a bit as a result, but once there the cranes were found in abundance. Sadly the birds were ridiculously wary, so the sandhill crane remains a photograph on the “most wanted” list.
The trip came to an end by midday with a return to Culver City. A week of time off from work remains, with the plan being to spend time on side projects and visit some local attractions with Audrey. Additionally, I need to figure out the score card on my 2011 predictions (it doesn’t look good), and come up with some highly questionable picks for 2012.
Ryan is in a hotel tonight. For the first time in four nights a bed, a shower, and a change of clothes are coming, and happiness and joy shall follow.
Last night was again spent car camping, allowing the trip to resume from Yosemite Valley with an early morning view of the valley from Tunnel View as the payoff. A trip to the Mariposa giant sequoia grove followed – the trees are beyond impressive, and after finding a quiet trail to escape from the surprisingly large and loud crowds the trees worked their magic on this normally office-bound traveler, helping to restore some order to the universe.
After leaving the park I scanned the map for green dots along SR-99, and stumbled on the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge. A late day arrival at the refuge allowed for a short hike, but aside from a few hawks and waterbirds the animals seemed to be in hiding. That is, they were hiding until sunset, at which point all hell suddenly broke loose. Hundreds upon hundreds of sandhill cranes started calling out while flying overhead, a pack of coyotes began howling in an adjacent field, and I accidentally spooked an owl who flew out of a tree next to me and began hunting the fields nearby. What had been a moderately interesting stop suddenly morphed into a reason to spend the night in Kern County, and the plan is to return, camera in hand, to see if the wildlife chaos continues at dawn.
Last night’s bed time was 8:00 PM – writing this entry tonight at 7:35 is clearly pushing my current limits. The adventure for the day began just before six and led through Yosemite’s high country along Tioga Road, a path that closes with the first snow each winter but remains open this year due to one of the driest Decembers on record. God was obviously feeling manly when he created this part of the world, and it was a fun outing amongst the rocky crags, with plenty of quiet time available to ensure that things were right with the world.
Tioga road ends at Highway 395 and Mono Lake, and while the latest version of the plan called for spending the remainder of the trip going south along the Eastern Sierra, a sudden change of mind resulted in a brief visit to the lake and then a return through Yosemite. A hike up Pothole Dome near Tuolumne Meadows finished off the afternoon, and the evening will again be spent camping in Yosemite Valley with tomorrow’s plans somewhat uncertain.
I slept in a rest area next to I-5 last night because that’s obviously what well-adjusted, successful, 36 year old IT professionals do. Pulling into the parking spot two dozen pairs of eyes reflected back in the headlights – I’ve never seen so many rabbits in such a small area, although later in the evening a screaming kid and two dogs put an end to the Watership Down reunion. Wake up this morning at six-ish allowed plenty of time to amble along towards Yosemite, and the day was spent roaming some of the non-knee-breaking trails in Yosemite Valley. Past trips to the park have intentionally avoided the really touristy spots, but given the knee issues and the smaller crowds it seemed like a good time to finally visit places like Lower Yosemite Falls and the Ahwanhee Hotel. Tonight will be spent car camping in the park’s main campground, and tomorrow it’s off at sunrise for a day-trip through the high country.
Day one of what Audrey has dubbed the “man trip” – luckily the girl recognizes that sometimes the boy needs time alone to, as she calls it, “sleep in the dirt”.
After waking up at 6:30 in the Holliday family compound the Subaru and I set off in soup-like fog towards Bodega Bay. A detour at the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge resulted in some quality bird time, including an egret who was impressively unafraid. The fog finally broke around 10AM, and Bodega Bay yielded a massive number of seabirds, hawks, vultures, sea lions, and two grey whales, although (surprisingly) not a single photo. For future reference: December/January and March/April are whale migration times, and unless today was unusual they travel extremely close to shore. After some hiking and a ginormous seafood lunch the few remaining daylight hours were spent heading south through Point Reyes and along Highway One, aka the most scenic road in the USA.
The current plan is to go to Yosemite tomorrow, but given past precedent a betting man would not be unwise to take odds on that plan being derailed by an unforeseen side-trip. However, with Tioga Pass apparently still snow free the chance to see Yosemite’s high country in late December seems like an opportunity not to be missed.
Day three of the post-Christmas adventure started with a hike up to the Mount Whitney trailhead through snow, ice, and some impressive scenery. After spending four hours adding to yesterday’s blister count I returned to the Suby and took off south with no real destination in mind. California is one of those unique places where a random highway can lead to truly bizarre sights, and while today’s find can’t compare to the weirdness that is the Salton Sea, finding myself on a road between a Naval Weapons station and a massive RV/ATV gathering in the middle of the desert was unusual enough to make the day a success.
Christmas this year was again spent at Ma & Pa’s house in the Bay Area. Aaron was given the gift of Cavs tickets and an Anderson Varejao wig, the Skipper got a cookbook for curry (he cooks now), and Ma got enough pedicure gift certificates to keep her toes pretty for months. In a surprise move, rather than the usual gifts of sweaters and bizarre neck massagers mom also put together a really awesome album with copies of the family Christmas cards and letters going back about twenty years; Aaron and I were expecting the worst when she told us to “close our eyes”, so this gift was a pleasant surprise.
This year’s holiday miracle came in the form of a visit from Roto-Rooter after Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo took up residence in the downstairs bathrooms. Combining blocked toilets with the holidays brings out the best in everyone, and despite Sally’s initial dismay and Aaron’s dry-heaving it ended up being a fairly amusing (if expensive) event.
Tonight I’m camped out in a closed forest service campground in the Eastern Sierra near the base of Mount Whitney. After driving through gold country and up to Tahoe yesterday I spent the night in Carson City before heading south today. Hiking and photography at Mono Lake went well, although the silver dollar-sized blisters on my insteps indicate that the afternoon’s attempt at cross-country skiing was less successful. The interesting fact of the day comes from Mono Lake, which apparently lost forty feet in depth (and a signficant amount of surface area) due to diversion of streams by the city of Los Angeles starting in 1941. As of 1994 a lawsuit requires LA to restore twenty of the lost forty feet to the lake level to provide improved habitat for the two million birds that visit the lake each year, although at present the lake has risen only about eleven feet from its low point. Along with the restoration of the Lower Owens River, returning Mono Lake to a healthier state could have a huge impact on the wildlife that migrates through the Eastern Sierra each year, thus making me the slightest bit more optimistic that people may actually make the world a bit better during the remaining decades of my lifetime.
The forecast twenty degree temperatures never materialized, and it was a balmy thirty-one degrees when I awoke at 3:45 AM with something very, very wrong in my neck. As near as I can tell at some point during the evening my body rolled but my head didn’t get the message, and my neck bore the brunt of this miscommunication. In any case, after a short drive this morning I turned up the Mount Whitney Portal Road in Lone Pine, and then made a hike of the last few miles of road, past ice and rockfalls that were obviously the source of the “road closed” signs posted below. This route is the homestretch of the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, and it was with a renewed respect for those athletes that I huffed and puffed my way over the short distance and 2,000 foot elevation change to the trailhead.
From that point all paths led homeward, and after a brief stop for a burrito (yum) and a car wash I was home and scrubbing mightily to remove the many layers of dirt that had accumulated over the past few days. Now it’s one day of rest before heading back to work, and another six months before the great Iceland adventure brings more fodder for journal entries.
Twenty-three degrees at sunrise this morning. Not warm – invigorating is probably the term that puts the best spin on it, although it’s also probably most accurate – when your breath is the first thing you see after opening your eyes in the morning it makes you feel just a bit more alive. I walked around Mono Lake and snapped photos for about an hour after sunrise before continuing south along the Eastern Sierra. The Sierras rise gently from the west but drop abruptly on the eastern side, so I was looking straight up at snow-covered 13,000 foot peaks as the road descended from 8,000 feet down to 4,000 feet.
After an early lunch in Mammoth I moved on to the Owens Valley, passed a few more lakes, some incredible mountains, and a herd of about fifty elk before turning off the highway and heading up an interesting-looking but rough dirt road that eventually led to the Taboose Pass trailhead. I had no plans of going all the way up to the pass, which I imagine must be an ordeal similar to what Frodo and Sam undertook to get into Mordor. Instead I went only a short way, but given that any trail around here heads more-or-less straight up it was tiring enough, and after returning I’m now camped out for the night with a forecast for an evening low of twenty degrees, guaranteeing that my breath will again be my first sight in the morning. Luckily an additional advantage of the cold air is that, combined with the lack of city lights, the stars stand out prominently, so in addition to struggling to keep my core temperature above freezing I’ll also be gazing at the depths of the Milky Way as I head to sleep.
It’s usually a good day when you see a “bear crossing” sign; today was such a day. After five days of holiday cheer, super chicken burritos, and golfing I left the homestead late last night and spent the evening sleeping in the Subaru as snow fell along I-80 near Truckee. The morning took me to Lake Tahoe, and by afternoon I was wandering down Highway 395 on the eastern side of the Sierras. Tonight the Subaru is parked along the shores of Mono Lake, next to an array of weird volcanic formations that the lake is apparently famous for.
After several false starts throughout the night due to sleepiness, limited mental capacity, and confusing the full moon for the morning sun, I finally got going as the sun was rising this morning and headed off to see the seals. In a world where habitat loss, global warming and other threats are pushing species to the brink the elephants seals are a nice change, with a population that was once threatened now expanding onto new beaches – Piedras Blancas had no seals only a few years ago, but today I saw hundreds.
In addition to the seals the trip up Highway One yielded tons of birds, a coyote, sea lions at Monterey, and a new find north of Monterey – Elkhorn Slough is a salt marsh that is being restored to its natural state, and today it was home to a harbor seal, at least five sea otters, thousands of birds, and one animal that I tentatively identified (from a distance) as a bulldog riding in a kayak and wearing a life jacket.