Sequoia, Yosemite, and Points North

Friday, 05 July 2013 15:30
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seq leadLots of trees, lots of Datsun fans, lots of heat, and lots of fun.

I spent the night in Buttonwillow after the race, largely because I wanted to get a shower and get a little more organized before venturing off into the wilderness for the next part of the trip. I stopped in Bakersfield en route to the Sequoia/Kings Canyon area for lots of water, food that didn't need to be refrigerated, maps that didn't need the internet to function, and to top off the fuel in the car. I wasn't really going on one of my "I'm vanishing into the Nevada desert for a while" trips, since the Datsun isn't exactly what you'd call and off-road vehicle, but I wasn't going to be 50 yards from the nearest strip mall either, so I figured it'd be better to just be prepared. 

The ride out of Bakersfield toward Lake Isabella was actually quite a bit better than I expected. Route 178 runs alongside the Kern River, so it's fun and twisty and scenic, plus I got to partake in my now-common activity of jumping into whatever clean body of water is nearby for a few minutes when the heat in the car becomes unbearable. So far, I've got the Colorado, the Pacific (in several locations), the Kern (in a couple spots), and the Merced on the list of "bodies of water I have swum in during this trip". I have to say that in my lifetime I have yet to encounter a more refreshing feeling than jumping into a cool-but-not-too-cool running river pool after being dirty and gritty in 100+ degree car for a few hours. 

I know I was in danger of spontaneously combusting anyway Where your almonds come from, in case anybody was wondering The Kern River, at one of my spots for a dip

On the way to Lake Isabella, I changed my second tire of the trip (neither of which were mine) when I stopped to help a guy with a pretty toasted trailer tire. He was having a hard time getting the tire off, but luckily I'm carrying a breaker bar, so we managed to take care of it. Turns out that the guy was also a former roadster owner; he had a '70 2000 that he got in 1974 and owned unil 1989. "Seeing you pull up was the best thing that's happened all day" he said. "Partly because it's been so long since I've seen one of these cars, but the help was good too." We got his new tire on, we chatted for a bit, I gave him a couple bottles of water, and then I was on my way to Lake Isabella.

Lake Isabella, like most of the lakes I've come across so far on the trip, is an artificial lake formed by damming the local river, in this case the Kern River using a very large earthen dam. There were signs all over the place pointing out the direction of the Dam Failure Evacuation Route, which seems like  an odd thing to have to live with. I topped up at the local gas station with fuel, ice, and Gatorade struck up a conversation with Oksana, the girl who was minding the store, after I correctly identified her Ukrainian accent. I told her that I had been to Ukraine several times, and that Oksana was also the name of the wife of a good friend of mine. She was originally from Kiev, and moved to the US about 10 years ago when she married a guy from Los Angeles. He moved to Lake Isabella for work (which seemed a little odd, as Lake Isabella didn't look like it was very far from becoming a ghost town) and took her along, then they got divorced, and now she was working at the gas station there figuring out her next move. I wished her luck, and jumped back in the car. 

From Lake Isabella, I drove north to the southern part of the Sequoia National Forest, driving along the Kern River most of the way.  I was originally planning on going all the way in to the main groves, but that was going to involve a lot of backtracking later, as the only nearby route over to the east side of the Sierras was back down in Lake Isabella. I settled for the relatively nearby "Trail of 100 Giants" to get my sequoia fix; I'd already been to the main park several years back and had seen the main groves, so I figured I could skip that part this time around. 

John Steinbeck wrote something to the effect that nobody had ever taken a good photo or made a good painting of any of the really big trees (redwoods specifically, although these were giant sequoias), and I have to say that he's got a point. I tried taking some photos with the widest lens I've got with me, and while I've got the whole tree in the frame, there's just something about the size of these things that you really can't grasp unless you're standing right in front of one. They are just massive--everything about them is big; the height, the diameter of the trunk, even the texture and thickness of the bark. It feels like "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", and you're one of the kids. It was a nice hike through a few different groves of sequoias, although I'm pretty sure there weren't 100 of them on that trail. 

The little red dot in the lower right is a person Trying to provide a little scale in front of one of the smaller trees You really can't take a good picture of these things

After the hike, I headed back south toward Kernville and Lake Isabella, with the intention of camping along the river someplace and then making the drive to the east side of the Sierras and up to Big Pine in the morning while it was cool. On the way back down that direction, there was a high bridge over the river with a little turnout for people to park, so on the spur of the moment I pulled over for a look. It was a pretty spot--not really spectacular, but just a nice calm spot along the river. Some folks who'd spent their day down on the shores below the bridge came over and started chatting with me about the car. They were employees of Nissan corporate, and they had never seen a roadster in the flesh before. We went all over the car, I showed them the motor and the general layout of things, and they said they'd seen pictures of them in the employee materials they got when they were hired, but that it was a much better looking car in person than in the brochures.

As they pulled out and I was putting my camera away, a woman standing next to the Prius parked next to me asked me if I was there for the fishing, and if I was, whether I had any barbless hooks. Apparently this spot is a specially controlled fishing area, where you're only allowed to take two trout, and even then you have to use artificial lures or flies (no live or organic bait), and then those have to have hooks without barbs. The fish are still at a disadvantage, but it at least levels the playing field a little. Her name was Jessika; she was there fishing with her son and his friend, and she had an outstanding sense of fair play, as she was prepared to go elsewhere if she couldn't comply with those rules. They were OK on the lures; Jessika had a spinner, and the boys had a couple different types of jigs, but they all had normal barbed hooks. Once again, I dove back into the trunk of the car for the tool kit I'm carrying with me, and pulled out a file and a pair of pliers. Jessika didn't need any more of an invitation than that, and within a couple minutes she'd filed all the barbs off of their hooks and they were ready to fish. She invited me to tag along, and since a) I hadn't been fishing in forever, and b) I had no particular place to be or any particular time to be there, I hiked down to the river with them and watched them fish for a while. There were a few bites, and one of the boys had one on pretty solid, but those barbless hooks can be tricky, so it managed to get away. Fish: 1, Jessika and Co.: 0.

The anglers at work Jessika working on getting closer to the fish The boys contemplating their strategy

Watching them fish and talk about fishing and just generally be focused on that one thing--finding some fish to catch--reminded me a lot of when I was a kid. They were driving around the area looking for good fishing spots, and they were willing to give pretty much any wide spot in the river a chance. I remember riding around South Jersey with my parents as a kid and passing numerous ponds and lakes and streams, and my first thought was never "that's pretty" or "I wonder what that one is called", it was always "I wonder if there's any fish in there", followed immediately by "I wonder if this is too far away for me to ride my bike here." There was a wonderful simplicity to their pursuit, and actually some remarkable character and integrity for them to play by the rules or not play at all, where most people would have just fished with whatever tackle they had on hand, barbs and all. It was really relaxing and refreshing to watch them go about their angling, and I left feeling very calm and happy. 

I located a good spot to camp on the river about 5 miles south of there--sandy ground, babbling river in the background, and a good spot to park the car within a reasonable distance. I got the tent pitched just as night was falling, and had some dinner via flashlight along with some of the leftover chardonnay from Paso Robles that I'd put in the river to cool down while I was setting up. I slept like a rock...everybody should have a running river ten feet from where they're sleeping; it does wonders for your ability to pass out. I did get up briefly to take a couple pictures of the stars and the Milky Way, but that was about it. 

First campsite of the trip; not too shabby The view in the evening

Even though I got up early, it was already hot in the morning, as I was still on the tail end of the crazy heat wave that's been sitting on the Southwest for the past week and a half. I had the last of my farm market oranges for breakfast, and then headed south east to cross the Sierras. 

The drive was hot, but otherwise uneventful, and in a little while I made it to Big Pine where the turnoff for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is located. Those trees are the oldest living single organisms on earth, and I was going to go check them out. Interestingly, I was only 80 miles or so from Goldfield, NV at that point, which is a spot that I drive out to from Vegas to do some stargazing from time to time, which meant that I was only about three hours from home. I briefly considered taking the detour to do some laundry, but thought better of it and headed up to the Bristlecones instead. 

Those crazy trees like to grow at elevations between 7,000 and 12,000 feet, and the grove that I ended up hiking around was just over 10,000 feet up. That was great for the trees, but not so great for the Datsun. Unlike all your newfangled modern vehicles, there's no computer in the Datsun to compensate and adjust the fuel and air ratios for the lower amounts of oxygen available for combustion at those elevations, and the car was not particularly happy about being up there. It never actually stopped running or anything, but it was tuned for Vegas (about 2000 feet elevation), and at 10,000 feet it was starving for oxygen. I'm guessing it was down about 25HP or so from "normal", or at least it felt like that anyway. The road itself is fantastic; I recommend it to anybody who's in the area and looking for a brisk scenic drive. 

Some knarly old trees Closeup of a trunk You can see some soil erosion at the bases of these Lone pine. Started growing around the time of the Roman Empire.
It's alive; the lack of bark is due to physical erosion A lovely day for a hike, although a little low on oxygen Local geology. Ice freezing in cracks breaks the rocks up over time. Really, really, really old.

I got up to the visitor center at the Schulman grove, and happened across Sasha, a very helpful park ranger in the midst of enjoying her lunch. She called out to me as I was wandering around and asked if I had any questions she could answer, so I sat down at the table and asked a few geology questions about formations I'd seen on the drive up. She knew her stuff, and after that, she recommended the "Discovery Trail" as a short day hike, with the trailhead about 100 yards from where we were sitting. It was about a 90 minute hike that wound up the mountain with about another 1000' in elevation gain and made its was past trees that were over 4000 years old and still growing. The trees themselves were fascinating...they grew in very dry, chalky soil, which meant there  were very few competitors for resources (like weeds, other trees, etc.) since there's basically no resources to compete for. They grew incredibly slowly; even the 'big' ones were no more than 40' tall or so. And their biggest problems are not with bugs or disease or drought or any of the normal 'tree problems'--they're with erosion because the tree grows so slowly and lives so long. The erosion happens at both ends--at the bottom end, the soil erodes out from around their roots in some locations, de-stabilizing the tree and allowing some to topple over, and at the top end, the wind and weather erode the living tree itself. Those pictures you see of Bristlecones with no bark and weirdly pointed and stunted branches aren't pictures of dead or dying trees, they're pictures of trees that have been physically eroded by the weather. They're still fine and growing, just incredibly slowly and slightly naked. 

I timed my departure from the Bristlecone forest to get to Mono Lake at roughly sunset. Mono Lake is famous for its tufas, which are calcium/limestone 'towers' that were deposited slowly over time by springs bubbling up from below. The lake itself is very saline, saltier than the ocean, and the tufas and surrounding landscape make the place look like a Jules Verne version of the moon, so it's a very surreal landscape. I got some neat photos of the formations as the sun was setting, then drove up a few miles north of the lake into the Inyo National Forest to camp out there.

The moonscape of Mono Lake It was nice to catch them at sunset Maybe a Star Trek long as I'm not the redshirt There are even more below the surface

The whole Yosemite region of the Sierras (including the lake) is geologically bizarre. Mammoth Mountain (where they ski in the winter and mountain bike in the summer) is actually a volcano, and Mono Lake is surrounded by the Mono Craters, which are old volcanic areas. The tufas in the lake are another offshoot of the weird geologic activity in the area. I had camped right at the base of one of the craters, and as the sun set and the rocks on the side cooled and contracted a little, there were a few small ones that rolled down the side. They made some pretty funny 'clinking' noises as they came down, so when I got up in the morning, I hiked up the side toward the top and discovered that practically the whole thing was made of obsidian (aka volcanic glass), hence the clinking noises. There were some enormous pieces of solid obsidian scattered everywhere, and I later found that one of the 'mountains' nearby (Obsidian Dome) is basically a solid glass mountain. 

Camp site south of Mono Lake One of the Mono Craters A couple of solid obsidian boulders about the size of minivans Obsidian glass

Once I had camp broken down and packed up, I drove a few miles toward Lee Vining and the east entrance to Yosemite. I stopped at the visitors center and finally bought a National Park annual pass, as I figure I'll be visiting more than a few national parks in the coming months. The drive up was beautiful--waterfalls, clear lakes (with more jumping in said lakes to cool off), giant monollithic granite domes, the works. As usual, everywhere I stopped, people wanted to talk about the car, and I got to meet some great people on the way in to the main part of the park. I met one gentleman about 10 miles in at a turnout, Hans from Hamburg, who was definitely a car buff. He told me that the early Datsuns had been very popular around Hamburg when they first came out, but that they had some reliability issues that turned a lot of people off to them, and he commended me for getting this one in good shape. His son took pictures of the car, and Hans just sort of looked at it and grinned for a while, then turned to me and said "This, this is better than a Lamborghini. It is special because you can't just go buy one now, and you have made this one work, and you are driving it here. This makes me happy." That was nice to hear; spreading happiness via Datsun resurrection wherever I go. 

A few stops later in, I was taking photos of a waterfall, and Jim, an older gentleman from Massachusetts, approached me and complimented me on the car. "I always liked these," he said, "but I've always sort of been an Alfa Romeo guy. I had two GTVs and a Spyder. Always wanted to find a GTA, but those things are getting expensive. Is it dual carbs on your Datsun?" And then we popped the hood and went into the finer points of attempting to tune and synchronize dual SU carburetors, and how the car was running at this altitude, and how the mechanical fuel injection system on his GTV was a piece of crap but he still loved it, and so on. A larger group of Jim's friends then wandered over, and it turned out that they were birders, and had been working their way through the park spotting the various avian inhabitants. They spotted a White-Breasted Nuthatch on a nearby tree, and I took a look at it though the long lens on my camera. Thanks to years of David Attenborough and the BBC, I was then able to shift conversationally from SU carburetors to having an intelligent discussion on how the beak of the Nuthatch had evolved to extract grubs and bugs of the thick bark of various conifers around the area, and from there I was in--the birders took me under their wing (hah) for the next half hour or so, and let me look at many different birds through their spotting scope. "Sorry we couldn't get you an eagle," said Jim, "but good luck on the rest of your travels." It's amazing how trivial knowledge that you think will never, ever come up in real life conversation can sometimes open doors and make friends. 

Some Yosemite scenery coming into the park One of many spots I put my feet up at One of the valleys I think I see one over there on the right

I continued on my way into the Yosemite Valley, where all the 'postcard' sites at Yosemite are--El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and lots of others. However, where it was nicely cool and crisp at 6000' and up, the valley was much lower, and thus much hotter. It got to the point where the lack of a breeze from travelling at those slow inside-the-national-park speeds plus the 100+ temperatures got to be too much, and I pulled over next to the Merced River, grabbed my towel and a little lunch, and jumped into one of Mother Nature's lovely, cool whirlpool baths. For the next couple of hours, I alternated between sitting in the river currents and laying in the sun on a big, flat rock, nibbling on lunch, and reading a book. On the list of "Nice Ways to Spend an Afternoon", that's got to be in the top three. 

Chillin' in my own personal whirlpool bath Vernal Falls The Merced river The pool above the falls

Once I was cooled off, I proceeded to get seriously hot and sticky again by hiking the section of the Muir Trail that goes up from the camping areas and around Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and then loops back down to the valley. Very pretty, but very steep, with lots of sections resorting to primitive staircases cut into the trail to handle the incline. I got thunderstormed on pretty heavily near the top of the trail which was actually pretty great (I'd remembered to bring a plastic bag to cover the camera), and also nicely refreshing. 

Yosemite Falls The slide into the stilling pool above Vernal Falls They don't call it "El Capitan" for nothing Taking advantage of another nearby river

Overall, I spent less time in both Sequoia and Yosemite than I had planned to. There's plenty of great backcountry available in both places, but I was not equipped for a backcountry hike, and the main areas of each park are very much slanted toward trailer totin' tourists. While I'm sure they are all very nice people, that wasn't really the experience that I was after for camping in a national park, so I bailed out after a day in each, and didn't camp in Yosemite at all as there were no campsites available and I didn't have the means to get to the sites that were more remote. I know that all sounds like I didn't have a good time in either place, but that's not the case--both were truly epic in both sights and proportion, and they both proved out Steinbeck's assertion in that you can't really capture either of them in a photograph. Ansel Adams probably came closest, and even if you're familiar with those photos, they don't really prepare you for the sight of El Capitan or Yosemite Falls. Considering that practically the entire Sierra range is within a days drive of where I live, I don't feel too bad about cutting those trips a little short. Central and Northern Nevada plus the Sierras really deserve a dedicated trip of their own where I'm equipped to handle the terrain a bit better, so maybe that'll be first on the list once I finish this one. 

I had originally planned to cut across California back to the coast at Santa Cruz, then work my way up along Highway 1 to my sister's house in Occidental, but once I got a good taste of actually going somewhere I'd never been for the first time on this trip, I wanted more. I'd already done that coastal drive between Santa Cruz and Occidental, and while there are plenty of interesting things I've missed, I have definitely caught a lot of the good ones aready. Again, this whole area is a half day's drive from Vegas, so it's an easy shot for future exploration. 

After some brief consultation with my nieces, I altered my travel plans to shoot straight for Occidental on the 4th of July and then hang out with them for the holiday. For the evening of the 3rd though, I booked a room at an old 19th century inn in Jamestown, a small former mining town on the west side of the Sierras. The place was wonderfully quaint, with a small Main Street with a lot of original 19th century buildings on it, some neat shops and restaurants, and a really friendly populace. It also had a great railroad museum, where they still operate and service a few of the original steam engines and cars for people to ride on some of the old rail routes. I didn't have time for the train ride if I was going to make it to Occidental in time for fireworks, but I did spend some time walking around the roundhouse and chatting with the guys in the machine shop, which was still running off the old overhead belt drive power distribution system. "We have a modern CNC shop a piece up the road for when we need to make parts from scratch," said the shop foreman, "but we do still run these machines for some basic repairs from time to time. They still run good, and "pretty round" and "pretty flat" is usually good enough tolerance for most of these old steam parts."

Downtown Jamestown, CA The old hotel I stayed in. Nicer on the inside than the outside. It was the 4th of July, so I was obligated to get the special for breakfast The train station was all decked out for the 4th The train was decked out, too
The old overhead belt drive system in the machine shop An old mill with some cylinder heads clamped up...note the fresh chips Number 28 in the roundhouse for some service One of the still-functional service cars Old vertical lathe for boring out the train wheels

I made the drive up through a bunch of small old mining towns on Route 49 (a number designation that can't be a coincidence), and all of them were decked out with flags and bunting and fairs and most of the good old Fourth of July festivity preparations. It was step back in time. It was also a step back into the heat, and the thermometer in the car was pushing 119 as I approached Lodi. Staying with the theme of celebration and tradition, I treated myself to a nice, cooling root beer float at a little roadside stand called "Websters" ('Celebrating Our 50th Year'), which was great--it's a simple recipe, but really good root beer and really good ice cream make for a really good float. 

As I started getting closer to the bay area, the temperature dropped almost 25 degrees, and I was back at sea level again, which meant that the car was pretty much transformed--where at altitude it responded to the throttle like a hung over 6th grader trying to wake up early on a Saturday morning, down here  giving it a big lungful of cool, dense air made it respond more like a puppy going after a stick. It was a much happier car, and the ride up to my sister's was definitely a lot more fun. 

I spent the 4th with my sister and her husband and the nieces at a cookout at their friend's place, and we got to watch some fireworks off in the distance. It was  nice, laid back holiday, and it was good to spend it with family. The next day, I took advantage of my two woman pit crew to chase down an annoying squeak in the left rear brake drum, and to give the car a good bath after all those dirt roads, and as a reward we went down to the Occidental farmer's market that evening for some great paella. The girls also got a full flight of honey tasting at the honey vendor, including orange, clover, thistle, wildflower, raw honeycomb, and a variety of others. 

Nikole doing a brake job for me All that, plus a full service car wash Giant paella pans at dinner. That's not all for us.
Some of the little plums on offer at the farmer's market The girls, sampling the many varieties of honey Time for s'mores

That evening, intrigued by the fact that I had a tent with me, they elected that we should camp out in the back yard for the evening. We made a campfire, cooked s'mores, pitched our tents, and relaxed under the stars mere yards from a perfectly servicable house with, you know, beds and showers and air conditioning and all that. It was a lot of fun. 

I will probably take advantage of a little down time here to handle some 'life' stuff like paying bills and responding to emails and figuring out where my mail is and whatnot, and I'll also take a shot at a rough plan of attack for the next month or so in order to see what and where I need to get anyting booked in advance (or at least more in advance). There's also another Datsun roadster meet up at Mount Shasta in about a week and a half, so I may try to get my travel calendar to coincide with that. We'll see how it all shakes out soon.


#1 TravelDuoAD 2013-07-06 15:59
The photo of the Roadster with the starry, starry night is wondrous.
#2 Mom 2013-07-07 11:27
This was so interesting to read and see, you are certainly meeting some interesting folks. Loved the Jessika story, and the pit crew from Occidental !!
#3 sk8rchk 2013-07-08 20:55
Glad you decided to appear in a few pictures!
And thanks for the nature lesson.
#4 lectacave 2013-07-09 07:32
Love the Jules Verne reference! The Caves and Legrands are all enjoying this fantastic post here in Baton Rouge. Great to see your face!

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