Category

Travel Stories

Like I said before, sometimes things don’t quite work out the way you planned, they work out better. This happened again a week ago.

Some of my ski buddies had organized a camping trip to the Sequoias, which I eagerly joined, especially since my last trip up there was canceled due to weather. Having never been there, I did not know what to expect, and to be honest, I was a little underwhelmed. Big trees? Check. Beautiful campsite under sequoias and by the creek? Check again. Good friends and great food? Absolutely. Still, no crazy good vistas or sights that blew my mind, and of course (it was the end of June), a lot of tourists.

So when I got home and perfunctorily went through my photos, I was surprised to end up with one of my favorite shots ever. It is not awe-inspiring. It is not spectacular. It is not grandiose. And yet, something about it keeps pulling me back in, and I am curious to know if anyone else feels the same.

(In the last episode, we left me at Rock Creek Lake, sleeping in my car and freezing through the night.)

When I got up the next morning for my coffee, I found Ken raring to go, but I was not. I had to explore one thing before leaving: the roiling creek next to our campsite. A lovely path had been carved out of sand and stones alongside it, so off I went. So many lovely shots were to be had, it was hard to pick one, which reminded me of a little Stephen King story. In his book about writing, he admonishes: “Kill Your Children”, by which he means simply that sometimes your favorite phrase/paragraph/chapter just has to go, even though you love it best, simply because it doesn’t fit in the overall picture. So when I look at my photos, I try to remember that. This, below, is one of the children that lived.

Ken was stomping a bit when I came back, so off we went to hike up to Kenneth Lake, which he was convinced had been named after him and was therefore his by rights. The trailhead was hidden behind a monstrous RV and its owner, parked in a camp chair next to it, but once we cleared that obstacle, we were good to go. Or I should say Ken was good to go. The man is a maniac. This, for him, was a meek little warm-up for his next day’s hike, an 18-miler with 8000 ft elevation, bagging two peaks. In case you’re not familiar with the lingo, peakbagging is a disease common among climbers and hikers, who constantly have to add to their list of conquered summits, Don Juans of the Mountains that they are.

But back to Kenneth: the trail got fairly steep right away and strewn with rocks and boulders, so no autopilot treading here – I really had to look where I put my feet, especially since I have a tendency to have my head in the clouds, which invariably causes me to trip and fall and break cameras and lenses and cause expensive stitching somewhere on my face. So now I pay attention. Before the first mile was out, I was huffing, puffing and heatstroking and I had to stop and recover a couple of times. Meanwhile, Ken was hopping up the mountain like a carefree goat, which really annoyed me, because when I was a kid, that was my nickname, “The Goat”, so keen was I on hopping ahead of everyone else on the mountains, and now…. 🙁

Eventually we made it to a plateau, which soon revealed the most beautiful meadow I had ever seen, at least since the last most beautiful meadow I had ever seen. The lake itself was hidden from the trail, and we had to look a bit to find it – but it was worth it! Sculptural and unusual stone formations dotted the still green waters, and a large grassy marsh bordered the other side.

We bushwhacked a bit to get around the far side of the lake and eventually found the trail to Dorothy Lake. Soon, again! there was the most beautiful meadow I had ever seen, really really this time, and except for having to get to it on foot, I was ready to build my summer cabin there. Dorothy Lake wasn’t bad either, and we mucked around it a bit, with Ken setting up timed release shots for himself, which meant he had to run up to the rock I sat on and pose, which he did three times while I wondered if I could ever get up again. Honestly! 7 miles and what, 1000 ft elevation, and I was this beat? Of course, I didn’t take into account the difference in altitude. Everything is SO much harder at 10’000 ft. Everything! And a lot!!

Suddenly it was time to go back. After half-a-mile or so, I sent Ken ahead, because I was feeling pretty pooped and not in the mood for a forced march. That was an inspired decision because I got back to my car a full hour and a half after he got to his. But first I got to see the most welcome sight ever: that of the emerald and turquoise Rock Creek Lake lovingly framed by trees! I was home!!! And like a horse smelling the stable, I felt a sudden burst of renewed energy and made it to the shore where I splashed my face with loads of cooling water. The last half mile was done dragging my knuckles to the ground and inwardly moaning and groaning, and yearning for a very cold gin and tonic at a dark bar nearby, of which, alas, there were none. Instead, I found the general store at Tom’s Place, where I purchased the necessary ingredients. As I left, a woman looked at my Uggs in the 105º heat and smirked: “Ready for winter?” No, lady, I wear them year-round, but mostly that’s all I have beside my hiking boots, so there. Aaaand there are few reliefs in life as intense as getting out of your hiking boots (or your ski boots) and slipping into a pair of comfy, warm, soft Uggs. Heaven.

So that’s it for my Lake Adventures for now, and until I get back from my trip to Sequoia this weekend and report on my fabulous new Teton 0º sleeping bag, I wish you gobs of fun and laughter. Cheers!

Sometimes, things don’t turn out the way you planned. They turn out much better, and that’s what happened to me this weekend. On Friday, I drove from L.A. to Rock Creek Lake, which sits about 9600 ft. altitude above Tom’s Place, very near Mammoth Lakes, in the Eastern Sierra Nevada of California. I was meeting my friend Ken, who had booked a campsite for us. I got there first, but alas, a large camper was parked in our spot, and the woman who owned it made it pretty clear that she wasn’t going to move. She suggested I go find the ranger and deal with it.

Ooooo-kay. So I did, and after a few misses, I found the right ranger. It turned out there had been a bit of a glitch in the reservation system; our reservation was there, but for the next day! The ranger felt pretty bad about it, and after giving it some thought, came up with an excellent solution: she’d give us a much bigger campsite that she’d saved for what she called “big rigs”, i.e. 30-40 ft RV’s, but it was past 7pm by then and none had shown up, so we got nicely upgraded.

To say it was a lucky stroke is an understatement. The first site was small, shrubby, arid and right at the entrance of the campground on the edge of the road. It was all that had been available when Ken made the booking. The new site was downright grandiose in comparison: practically large enough to build a house on it! and on the river!! in the middle of gorgeous pine trees!!! I was happy as a pig in mud.

Ken arrived at that moment and we broke open a bottle of chilled Pinot Grigio, and munched on Italian salami and some ciabatta, topped off by chocolate-stuffed cookies for dessert. Then he made a fire and I started setting up my tripod and camera. The image above is the “view from my tent”, although I confess that it’s more like the “view from my car”, because that’s where I ended up sleeping, as the temperature dipped quickly to the 30ies during the night, and since I am a camping rookie still, all I had was a 10º bag, which may sound warm enough to you, but I freeze as soon as the temp goes below 70º. I put on additional layers and threw everything in my duffel on top of the sleeping bag, and then covered the whole pile with a Mylar thermal blanket I found in my backpack. I did not realize I was supposed to wrap that thing around me… Oh, well. Next time! 🙂

I have now remedied that whole debacle of a sleeping conundrum. As soon as I got home Sunday night, I went on Amazon, and I am now the proud owner of a gigantic Teton 0º bag, which is such a Rolls Royce compared to my other bag that I’m tempted to wear it permanently.

In the next episode: we hike to Kenneth Lake and Dorothy Lake, and I barely make it back dragging my knuckles all the way. Until then, ta-ta!

(In the last episode, we left Ken at the intersection of the 14 and the road to Randsburg, which I now take to get to Trona.)

I crossed 100 miles of unpopulated California high desert, interrupted only by large gatherings of RVs and pickup trucks carrying ATVs and dirt bikes, each group sporting its own flags. They were clearly distinct groups, yet all within a quarter-mile of each other. I wondered why they didn’t all just get together in one place and forget the flags. Probably some old tribal instinct surfacing in this manner.

I had been warned about the road to Trona Pinnacles, and while it was nowhere near as awful as some had predicted, it was an exercise in patience. It took a long while, 45 minutes perhaps, to drive 5 miles on this washboard dirt road with occasional giant ruts and generally bad conditions. The worst part, near the end, had been coated with newly broken rocks, some of which were so sharp I loudly prayed for my Prius’ tires to be spared.

You could see the Pinnacles from the beginning of the road, and from there they looked like nothing much, odd growths from the earth, large erupting zits. Once you were up against them though, they had a compelling and powerful presence. I’d read the place was creepy at night and now I could see why. It was the closest thing I’d ever felt to being in another world, a sere, austere, hostile, forbidding, desolate, harsh world where nothing but tumbleweeds grow. It felt like the final ruins of a vanished world, and in fact that is exactly what it is: these tufa towers, now standing like sentinels guarding an indecipherable secret, once grew in a lake with over 600 feet of water above them.

The place did not invite, so I decided against setting up my tent and waiting for sunset. The temperature was a pleasant 76° and the wind nothing more than a light breeze, so I drove around the dirt roads surrounding the towers and shot what I could. The high-noon light was stark, perhaps appropriately so, but at least these photos were in focus, as I used a different lens:-)

The towers are spread out over a 14 square mile area, and the dirt road meandered around them with many branches, some of which I backtracked and took. From every angle, they looked like guards at the entrance of Hades, warning you against passing the threshold, and I now understand why this has been the backdrop for so many sci-fi movies: it’s a better set than most people could conceive, although I cannot not imagine the travails of driving a honeywagon to that location.

Photos will come later, as it always takes me an eternity to process what I shot. Meanwhile I’m already planning my next adventure. Ibex dunes may have to wait for fall due to the high temperatures, but I have a Memorial Day weekend trip to Sequoia, which I have not explored in earnest in the past, so I’m excited about that. To be continued 

(In the last episode, I tried my new little popup tent in my living room and now took it on the road to (I thought) the Trona Pinnacles and the Ibex sand dunes.)

So the little tent held up! Easy to put up, easy to take down, and back in the bag once again! Whewf. 😅

What went “wrongly”, or rather unexpectedly, was the wind factor. Kenneth Root, my co-adventurer on this outing, is a self-professed fairweather camper, and because it was extremely windy that day, he felt Trona Pinnacles would be a disastrous choice. Smart man. My first impulse was to do it anyway and deal with it when we got there, but I’m glad his voice of caution held me back, as it created a serendipitous discovery.

Ken was coming down from Lone Pine and I was coming up from LA, so we tried to think of a different place, where we would get some shelter from the winds and still have an opportunity for some good photography.

We ended up at Red Rocks Canyon, 30 minutes north of Mojave, which turned out to be spectacular. The campsites are right up against magnificent rock formations and open to a vast expanse punctuated by meandering washes and Joshua trees. There were no harsh winds there, although I’d heard they occasionally occurred. An astronomy buff was setting up his telescope there and told me his guywired and weighted canopy had once flown off 😕

Instead, we got a warm, peaceful dusk, had French bread and salami with a nice chilled rosé and a night full of stars. Ken lit up some wood in the fire pit, the flames of which projected a swiftly moving orange glow onto the rocks. He had some fun with lightpainting and got some wonderful shots. I was still getting set up, catching a shot here and there but feeling pretty tired, so I went to sleep, and instead of getting up at midnight to shoot the Milky Way as I had intended, I slept through the night.

At 5am Ken shook my tent as agreed so we could shoot at sunrise. Here is where something else went slightly wrong.

Sometime ago, I dropped my prized Nikon 14-24 lens on concrete, which caused the lens’ zoom to get stuck at 18 mm. I lived with that for a while, as the repair was so expensive that I kept hoping the lens would fix itself. Well, there won’t be any more deluding myself, because in the dark, I tripped over one of my tent’s guy wires and the camera flew out of my hands, with lens attached of course.

My camera, a Nikon D800 built like a tank, continued to work fine. What I didn’t realize until I got home and looked at the shots on my computer was that the lens’ focus mechanism got damaged in the drop, and half of my photos from Red Rocks were out of focus, but on the right side only! Time to get creative with cropping, and at worst, a perfect opportunity to go back to that beautiful location.

Once the sun was fully up, we stopped shooting and got ready to move on. Trona Pinnacles was the intended destination, but Ken still thought the wind would be too much of a negative factor, while I still wanted to go there no matter what, so we parted company and I drove on towards Trona (continued in next episode: “Onto The Trona Pinnacles”).

Little things make me happy. I just ordered an easy pop up tent from Amazon, it arrived, it took me all of two minutes to put it up in my living room, it’s a huge relief compared to my other tent which takes me 15 minutes to set up, and I’m so happy about that!!!

Rumor has it this tent is not waterproof, but it won’t matter where I’m going this weekend. I’ll have the other tent in my car just in case, and if worst comes to worst, I can sleep in my car, because it’s a Prius hatchback.

I’ve been preparing for this little trip all week, batteries are charged, camera cards are empty, I have my harness and the camera does fit on the tripod, my remotes are charged and functioning, I have my jet boil and my coffee and a sleeping bag – What could go wrong? Absolutely nothing.

To be continued, hopefully with great photos 🙂

PS: This is a picture of the tent, neatly ironed, blow-dried and put up by professionals.
Mine did not look like that, but I imagine they fulfill the same purpose.
PPS: Aaaaaand… I was able to put it back in the bag!!!