Monday, May 31, 2010

Dead Horse Point State Park, UT

Another bluebird day with temperatures in the mid-80's mid day. We get an early start from camp on our bikes and then return for the hot hours to read, write, and otherwise rest until the early evening when we go out once again to scout for photographs. Life is good.

We have spent the past few days here in the high mesa country north of Moab. The landscape is dry and sparse, with each plant taking advantage of the recent late season snow melt to show it's colors and bloom. The trees are all pygmy sized, but these hearty desert survivors are no doubt old - some over a hundred years. We see dwarf pinion pine, juniper and in the shaded, well watered draws of canyon folds, relic Douglas fir - hold outs from a time when there was more water. The prickly pear are all in bloom as well as lupines, and some orange colored leggy flower we have not yet identified. The slick rock protrudes in rolls at the high points and is subverted by muddy sand in the low spots. Today while riding I am startled by a rattle snake moving across the trail.. Now, every stick I see gives me pause, and I slow down on the blind corners while riding. A few varieties of lizard dart back for cover as we peddle by, but some, seem to be more curious, and stay perched, doing push-ups on their sunny perches while we observe one another. Our riding improves and as gain confidence it's as if the bikes themselves are becoming more familiar with the type of terrain we encounter and we roll over sandstone drops, hop up onto small ledges, and let the full-suspension absorb the general unevenness of the single track slick rock and wash near the mesa's edge.

Yesterday we explored "Island in the sky" by foot, walking well over 10 miles along the mesa's rim. This part of Canyonlands National Park is aptly named because it is a high, rounded mesa surrounded on 360 degrees by canyon walls dropping down to both the Colorado and Green river gorges over 2,000 feet. The mesa is connected to the surrounding land mass by a single, 30 yard wide neck of land that has served to provide access to and control over these fertile lands as long they have been occupied by humans. In the early days, the Indians herded big horn sheep towards the neck, where they harvested what they needed before letting the others return to the mesa. Later, cattle men used the neck to collect open range grazers that had been at large and roaring freely for the feeding season. Now, there is a roadway across the neck, and tourists like us it to access the incredible views beyond. There is a hair raising dirt road here, that switchbacks down the canyon wall to the white rim elevation where it joins with the famous white rim trail (really a dirt road) that skirts the park and the canyon of the Colorado river at a fairly constant elevation for over 100 miles.

Hiking on the "island" I am reminded of the floating islands imagined in the movie"Avatar" where there is a self contained eco-system, floating suspended in the air. I practice walking meditation as we pass through this landscape, breathing in the dry and roasted desert air and letting it infuse me with calm and peace. I imagine myself floating over the surface, and somehow, my reptilian brain manages the logistics unconsciously of stepping up, over, around, on top of, and down the red rocks and sand. When I look out, above my immediate surroundings, the closest horizon is easily 20 miles away in the blue hazed snow covered La Sal mountains, and looking down from the crumbling mesa edge, as if on a mountaintop I see the dark brown, gray, red, and tan striations of the tortured and eroded mountainsides that have been shaped by the river's million year land shaping efforts and the sands of time carried by the strong local winds. Once away from the parking areas, it is quiet and peaceful, and very transformative as I mindfully pass through my surroundings. When sitting at the mesa's edge we soon begin to see the large bird community that call this special are home. The ravens seem to glide effortlessly by on the updrafts, with occasional flaps to adjust pitch and direction. When they pass close by, we can hear the wind on their wing tips as a deep whoosh. If they are flapping we can hear the whomp, whomp, whomp of the compressed pillow of air they force downwards with each stroke. The swallows and swifts on the other hand are moving at mach speed, required undoubtedly to catch the insects they subsist on. Their wings are swept back and their tails are sharp and forked, like a fighter jet and they literally seem to rip the air as they accelerate by, always turning, arcing, rolling, or diving - never seeming to fly straight and level. When they choose to come close to inspect us for hitchhiking bugs the sound we hear is more like a high pitched "zing" as they roll away just before impact. Perhaps our older ancestors attracted more of a colony of insects in their hair or clothes so the birds have learned to look at us for a take-out snack when we approached.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mill creek loop outside Moab.

We get up very early to beat the heat and also are treated to a very private experience. Route finding can be challenging with the poor trail descriptions we have and no topo maps. Next time, we'll definitely bring topos. The riding is fantastic. Any of you who are mtn. Bikers and like it a bit rough should get this place in your vacation queue.

Moab slick rock riding. This is like powder skiing for mtn. Bikes

Friday, May 28, 2010

Great bike shop in Moab

Lee Bridger helped us out with some bike parts and advise. Highly
recommended. Lee wrote a comprehensive guide to mountain biking around
Moab and has a great perspective. Being a transplant from SF we have
similar political views. If you are in Moab look Him up. He offers
guided bike rides and sells a US made line of mountain bikes.

Fisher Towers Moab UT

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mesa Verde Petraglyphs

Great hiking today by smaller cliff dwellings and other structures capped off by this great petroglyphs wall. The plants are all blooming so we see yucca, penstamin, Mormon tea, irises, paintbrush, and pygmy junipers. Doug Fir exist at the head of many canyons in the relic groves

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Canyon de Chelly - amazing experience despite the pounding sandstorm. Skin feels blasted. Eyes are gritty. Adds to the sense of power in the place.

Canyon de Chelly - Spider Rock Camping Ground

Sunday May 23, Canyon de Chelly hike with Indian Guide Benjamin

We meet Howard Smith, the Navajo owner of the campground and he introduces us to his nephew Benjamin who takes us on a five hour hiking tour down to White House ruin, then up canyon to Sliding House Ruin via Benjamin's family's land on the canyon bottom. Heard many stories of growing up in the Canyon, and changes he's seen since the mid 50's. Saw many petroglyphs (carved) and pictographs (painted) rock art on the canyon walls, and pottery shards 1,000's of year old - still holding their glaze and color. The wind continues to howl, but in the canyon most of the day we are protected from it's abuse. We see Benjamin's family goat herd, his two horses, and the land his family has cultivated continuously for generations(except for the period of the long walk and internment at Fort Sumner). Following our hike, we sight see to Spider Rock, a 1,000 free standing pillar at a bifurcation of the canyon. This pillar plays strongly in the Navajo spider woman story how weaving was brought to the people. We retreat back to the camping ground to escape the wind and the blowing sand and spend our evening "indoors" in the camper napping, reading, and reviewing photos.

I strongly recommend this campsite and this guide (Benjamin) for hiking, horse riding, jeep tours, and multi-day camping trips into the canyon. Make arrangements through:

Spider Rock Camping Ground
PO Box 3797
Chinle, AZ 86503

(Slideshow embedded below. Click on the black frame to expose the slide show controls, then press the play button at the bottom of the frame...)

May 22 - Canyon de Chelly

Saturday May 22, Canyon de Chelly

We leave Hovenweep National Monument this morning. The stunning stone towers of Little Ruin Canyon are astounding - guarding over the springs and narrow canyon access. The holes in the walls of the ruined towers are at many different angles and archeologists are not sure of they were viewing ports for spying intruders, for making astronomical observatories (to better anticipate the coming of the spring, summer, fall, and winter solstices, or to support some part of the interior architecture that has since collapsed.

This canyon sits within the larger Cajon Mesa, a sage strewn bit of high land over 5,000 feet above sea level and 500 square miles in bredth. The Mesa, in turn sits within the even larger Great Sage Plain that dominates the bulk of this part of the Navajo reservation. Over 700 years ago, this area had a thriving system of settlements all within a days walk of one another. But now, they are all deserted - except for the scattered Navajo family settlements up on the mesa tops where oil pumping, sheep, cattle, and horse ranching still occur in the open range land.

The wind had subsided briefly in the wee hours of the morning, but it has returned with some punch this morning. WE are hoping that below the rim of Canyon de Chelly we may find some relieve in a few hours.

We push southward through a driving sandstorm on weathered two-lane roads with rounded and crumbling shoulders across the reservation. No real "towns" per se here except for the occasional gas station at a cross roads.. People live primarily in scattered family groups, often multi-generational with one house structure per family, plus a shared hogan for ceremonial and healing purposes, a coral built from native materials and a scattering of abandoned locomotive technology. The road traverses open range land for horses, cows, and sheep. No one family "owns" the land they are using - the land is all owned by the Indian Corporation, but family groups have long standing territorial claims to the resources in one area or another and these are rarely challenged.

A strong win blows all day and kicks up a dust cloud that stretches from horizon to horizon. At times the roadway is completely obscured by the brown penetrating haze and we must slow to a crawl to continue forward progress. We fire up the emergency flashers and hope whomever is behind us is not so foolhardy as to pay any attention to the speed limit signs. Drifting sand begins to encroach on the roadway in places, seeping in from the shoulders and leaving residual wisps behind. The heavier gusts are not just felt by the sudden pressure on the side of the camper, but seen as well as a visual wave of sand races by - thicker and darker than the surrounding haze at 50 mph. The camper rocks and bucks, but ultimately keeps its feet well adhered to the roadway and we keep moving. At some point today the windshield cracks just below the windshield wipers under the withering disparate pressures of blazing heat, pumping air conditioning, and pounding pressure from the wind that at times must double our virtual velocity pressure. Yesterday a decorative plastic side panel 3' x 5' blew off as Diane was careening down a mountainside. I looked back and saw the part cart-wheeling backwards across the roadway before it came to a sliding halt in the middle of the road. We pulled over and recovered our severed payload imaging al the while where on earth we would stow it on board until we could determine what else to do. Now that side of the camper sports an ugly gash of black rubbery construction adhesive applied in sloppy bands where previously a sporty textured panel had been installed. We hop back inside, tossing the ungainly panel into the galley and slam the side door before more sand blows in, and keep moving.

At last we've reached Canyon de Chelly, the original stimulus for our entire journey. After watching the visitor center video (very informative), taking the south rim dirve and stopping a all the look-outs, and hiking down and back out again from the white house ruin, we have camped at a primitive site in the Spider Rock campground near the end of the south rim road. ($10 per night). Even tucked up tight along side of a sturdy spreading juniper tree on the windward side, our snug camper sings a variety of tunes depending on the wind strength. A fine patina of dust has settled on all the surfaces and underfoot and our skin and eyes feel gritty - like how you feel after a day at the beach. There is the general roar as gusts howl overhead and around the tree, and the hiss of wind of varying frequency as it passes over and around the galley vent - even though we have it snugged down to reduce dust intrusion at the moment.

The sky to windward is a brown haze but even now at 8:00 pm to leeward the sky is showing shades of blue - perhaps there is hope after all for tomorrow's excursions.

The campsite's office is a dirt floored covered porch attached to a ramshackle plywood structure that is the proprietor's house. A similarly unfinished structure sits adjacent and across the covered breezeway offering solar showers for $2.00. A marine style wind power generator is turning frantically in the wind, even though it's mast has fallen over and is tipped 45 degrees and leaning up against the house. A sign says $2.00 internet 6-9 pm and I see a computer on a small table in the corner of the room. We'll live without that for now.

A deeply tanned woman transplanted from Washington state in a sun-dress and flip-flops with matching ringed Navajo tattoos on each upper arm offers to help us as we wander about looking for the campground host. She gives us a brief orientation, tells us about a local Indian who will stop by in the morning and offer guide services to anyone interested. She apologizes for Howard, the campground's proprietor absence, and informs us he is preparing for a "sweat" just now and won't be out of the hogan for a few more hours. We retreat to our camp site behind the juniper tress and prepare a simple dinner.

We take shelter in the camper as if its raining outside to make a respite from the relentless wind and biting flying sand. The juniper sways with the gusts and the western sky turns bright yellow, then orange, then brown as the distant sun settles below the horizon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bike Riding - Monument Valley, AZ Surealistic landscape and reasonable temperatures. Every direction is otherworldly . Had to change flat tire on camper today. Tomorrow in search of a garage to fix flat.

(Slide show embedded below. Click on picture frame to display slide controls..)

May 20 - Monument Valley

Thursday May 20th, Monument Valley

We depart our isolated campsite on a 7,000 foot ridge covered with ancient pinion pine, juniper, and Mormon tea in Navajo National Monument and head for Monument Valley. Somewhere along the way, probably while crossing some unanticipated cattle grate we damage a tire and begin loosing air.. but that's a story for later.

We arrive and are astounded. When we return from the visitor center, formulating a plan for the remainder of the day, we find a note on our windshield alerting us to a rear tire low on air. Sure enough, one of our four sturdy tires looks like its in trouble and we begin to problem solve our way out of this dilemma. Diane calls AAA and they agree to come help us - albiet in about 1 1/2 hours as they need to dispatch from Blanding, 90 miles away and across the Utah state line.

We use the time for lunch, a brief siesta, and to catch up on reading and soon enough a SUV pulls up along side and we begin to protest, holding the space for our expected yellow and blue rescue truck, but the young mane emerging from the driver seat has on a blue uniform and a name tag, and he asks, "you the guys who called?". He struggles for a bit to find a jack in the back of his cramped truck beefy enough to handle the task of hoisting the rear end of our camper off it's damaged tire - that being no small feat with semi-full tanks for fresh water, grey water, black water, and the mountain of food, clothes, and equipment we have packed on board. We debate the finer points of the jacking point, referencing the instructions in our trusty manual, and comparing that to his years of experience lifting vehicles for this very purpose. But ultimately the task was completed and we were again sitting on an inflated spare tire, the damaged original bolted to our back door in the spare's place for transport to a tire shop tomorrow 60 miles away. We move the camper to an amazing camping spot on a bluff overlooking the monument valley proper, unrack the bikes and spend the remainder of the afternoon on a 17 mile loop ride around this end of the valley.

Here is a quote from M. Scott Momaday, author of the Pulitzer prize winning novel "House made of Dawn" describing Monument Valley:

"The valley is vast. When you look out over itm it does not occur to you that there is an end to it. You see the monoliths that stand away in space, and you imagine that you have come upon eternity. They do not appear to exist in time. You think: I see that time comes to an end on THIS end of the rock, but on the other side, there is nothing but forever. I believe that only in the dine bizard, the Navajo language, which is endless, can this place be properly described, or even indicated in its true character. Just there is the center of an intricate geology, a whole and unique landscape which include Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The most brilliant colors in the earth are ther, I believe, and the most beautiful and extraordinary land forms - and surely the coldest, clearest air, which is run through with pure light."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lower Antelope Canyon - cool place

Lower Antelope Canton - Navajo Nation near Page, AZ

May 19 - Antelope Canyon

Wednesday May 19th, Antelope Canyon, AZ

We start at a dirt lot in the high desert off highway 98 within spitting distance of the Navajo coal fired power plant, and after passing through a simple gate in the cattle fence, we walk 50 yards down a sandy trail and stop at a serpentine crack in the red brown sandstone earth. Looking up and down stream, the narrow opening with rounded edges heads off endlessly. I wonder, where is the canyon? Then, the indian guide simply motions downward and says "watch your step" and disappears down step by step into a crack no wider than his body - as if the earth just swallowed him up. When its my turn to descend, I just make out the narrow steel ladder that forms the entrance to Antelope Canyon.

To call it a canyon is misleading. It is a slot canyon to be specific. The bottom is formed by an off camber undulating sandy deck usually no wider than your two feet side by side - but sometimes narrower. From that narrow sandy wash, the walls rise up and swell outward in wavy patterns, never parallel, and rejoin again closer together overhead in a close embrace - as if in a delicate tango - teasing a touch, but never really connecting. The undulating and warm rose colored walls flow evenly from one bend to another, forming arches, tunnels, ridges, and bowls.

The bright sky overhead provides the soft light that has filtered down to where we stand, bouncing like a mad fuzzy pinball from one surface to another. As my watch hands rotate,at twice their normal speed, an occasional beam of direct hot white light flashes down and illuminates the floating sand particles that have been kicked up by our passage. They sparkle like diamonds - a temporal illusion, a translucent apparition, dissipating as gravity calls the wisp to earth, or a soft down slope breeze reorganizes everything as the sunbeam swings out of position.

The eyes, ears, skin, and brain are stimulated as an integrated organ while your consciousness tries to make sense of this magical place. Eyes scan around in any direction to gain a fundamental horizon and give up, left swirling like the sandstone layers. The harder and softer layers of stone have left signature lines that follow the wall's curve like topographic lines on a map. The ancient seabed gives up season by season of its story from wet years to dry years and the walls are painted with the pulverized remains of the eroded mountains upstream. The fingers touch canyon walls, often no more than shoulder length apart, first one side then the other as we tip toe down the narrow bottom of the canyon, performing some odd dance that only the river and winds of time could choreograph. Trying to use normal walking skills to navigate the terrain is useless so we resort to more of a crab-walk push-up, hop, skip, and slide maneuver to move around the sinuous path. The fine grit on the surface clings to our fingers as we first touch, then release the handholds.

It's quiet, except for a raven's nest of fledglings. This pair of imposing birds have chosen this section of the canyon for a nest. The twiggy perch is over our heads, but below the canyon rim above, affording protection from a predator coming from either direction. The chicks complain as the parent bird flaps once and lifts off their perch and seems to float effortlessly away into the light and blue and sky above.

In places the canyon widens, carved by a swirling eddy at the base of a now-dry falls, leaving an oddly symmetrical cylindrical chamber with more breathing room for us and a place to gather different types of reflected light. In one such chamber, a Navajo guide passes us walking downstream. He offers a simple greeting and then begins to sign a harmonious melody as soon as he rounds the next corner away from us. The tune fits right in, folding in and on itself and finding the harmonies we've so associated with native American music - a fluted tune that sounds as old as these rocks and one which throws us back in time 1,000 years and back again once it subsides. The singer and his music are swallowed by the canyon and both disappear in short order. Was he real? We never saw him again for the rest of our tour.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tuesday May 18 - Lake Powell

Today we had a long hike up Paria Canyon - a tributary to the mighty Colorado River, that joins the Colorado at Lee's Ferry. The hike involved many river crossings which we gladly did to keep our feet cool and comfortable. There is a trail that heads north here for 46 miles, so we just really scratched the surface on our out and back excursion. This river has carved a wide canyon with a flat fertile bottom. At this time of year there are many flowering plants - actually it seemed like EVERY plant was flowering in its own special way if you looked closely.

As the river swings from one side of the valley to the other we got chance to explore some interesting side canyons. One was especially nice as it started as a narrow slot and ended at a cylindrical tower 300 feet overhead. We lay in the flat sandy deposit at the base of the cylinder, and it seemed like we were in a multicolored sandstone barrel wave tipped on its side, with the sky and occasional soaring birds passing over the opening at one end. We sat quietly and listened to the canyon sounds as they percolated into this special grotto. A dove's call drifted in, then some sort of special cricket we had never heard before.

Along the river's bank, in the soft mud we could easily read the tracks of a multitude of desert creatures that must have come down to the water's edge at night for refreshment. As we hiked the bushes often rustled with the scurrying of a lizard.

On to Lake Powell and some canyons further north.

From Lake Powell

Lee's Ferry - Paria Canyon

( Side show embedded below. Click on the black border to expose the show controls, then click on the play button to view all photos..)

Camped by the shore of the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry. The river is running cold, and swift, and deep blue/green.  There is a small riffle here where the Paria River joins the Colorado and judging from the color of the river, it has not rained for many days.  Our plan had been to hike tomorrow up the Paria River canyon, but thunderstorms in the forecast may change all that.  We'll check with the ranger in the morning.

We left a cool 7,000 foot campsite this morning and drove east along the base of the Vermillian Cliffs National Monument on our way towards the Colorado River.  As we drove, and dropped elevation, the temperature rose so that by the time we stopped at the trailhead for the Cathedral Wash trail we had stripped our long pants, and jackets and were back ins shorts and tee, with big brimmed sunhats and plenty of water.  The wash starts as a dry gravel streambed below a culvert on the side of the road and quickly deepens into a meandering canyon with towering sandstone walls, layered in colors and textures/  Swallows dart overhead using the rounded natural hollows as nesting holes.  There are all sorts of flowering plants in the base of the wash.  Most of the hike is easy terrain, but in several places we need to resort to rock scrambling and ledge crawiling to find ways over  smooth eroded spill overs that offer no purchase for climbng either up or down.  There are minimal cairns that mark where the trail deviates from the streambed and climbs up one wall or another to surmount some downstream obstacle.  About half way down, a strong breeze picks up and we can smell the river. Around a few more bends and we can hear its' roar echoing off the tall walls that now crowd out the bright sky overhead. Within an 1.5 hours of leaving the car we have reached the banks of the Colorado river. It is about 200 feet wide here with a small sandy beach.  Across the river, a tall sandstone cliff rises over 1,000 feet and as we look both up and downstream things look about the same.  We both immediately wade right into the river without looking at each other and discussing a plan - our parched and dusty feet are crying for some relieve. 

The trip back up the canyon to our car was faster, since we deliberated less about the route, but by the time we got there, we were both exhausted from the oppressive heat which grabbed us like a vice once the breeze from the river subsided.  We had a "euro-snack" lunch of salami and hard cheese and moved the camper to our overnight spot at Lee's Ferry before taking a few hour siesta while we waited for the temperatures to drop.

The wind is up and it is warm, and invigorating, and seems to get into everything.  The skylight has pooped open on its own during one gust, so now I can see why all the campsites come with metal wind barriers near the tables.  I take the Yoga mat out and spend an hour meditating on the incredible landscape and the scents on the wind.  I enjoy the wind blowing at me as I hold a balanced pose with feet and toes gripping the rubber mat over the rough stone surface like a suction cup.  All I can hear is the wind, and the rushing of the river and as I scan around for a focus point for my breathing as my eyes bounce between the scuttling storm clouds and towering vermillian cliffs across the river gorge. I see a small lizard running between shading spots, I see yellow flowers atop spindly stalks buffeted by the swirling wind, I see the sparkling flakes in the multitude of colors of crushed rock that makes up the  rough surface of our campsite.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Death Valley

( Side show embedded below. Click on the black border to expose the show controls, then click on the play button to view all photos..)

Cathedral Wash - Glen Canyon National Park

(Slide show embedded below. Click once in the back border area, to expose the slide show control bar, then click the play button...)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Valley Of Fire State Park, NV

( Side show embedded below. Click on the black border to expose the show controls, then click on the play button to view all photos..)

We awake at 5:00 am to beat the anticipated heat, and leave camp as quietly as possible for a photo expedition to Rainbow Vista.  My mind was still foggy as we pulled up and I packed my camera gear, trudging off into the cool fine red sand in hopes of drama.  The sun had not yet made its appearance over the horizon, but the light was full and deep - yielding rich photographs.  I could not find the geometry I was really looking for, as the rocks along this trail seemed sharp and broken, as opposed to the water and wind eroded forms that draw my emotion.  I was enjoying the hike however in the cool air - even wearing a light jacket.  All along the trail in the unblemished sand were signs of animal traffic from the night before.   The flowering plants made the biggest impression on me, with numerous fine blossoms protruding on long slender stems from tough desert plants.  Nothing showy, but lots of small, fine flowers, some very aromatic and already swarming with insects.  In several places active fresh mounds were formed mid-train by a colony of red ants.  A close look at these tough combatants revealed an animal almost entirely made up of mandibles or large front facing claws.  They work as a team to gnaw apart any possible food stuffs they encounter and carry it in pieces back down the hole.  As I tore off a nearby leaf and dropped it in their midst, they immediately pounded on it ripping it to bits from the outer edges in.  Returning to the car two hours later, I made a large steaming cup of fresh coffee and tried to finish the waking up process. We still had this trailhead to ourselves, and the quiet was delectable.  We sat on nearby boulders and ate our breakfast, contemplating the changing colors on the nearby rocks as the sun finally rose and warmed them after reaching above the nearby canyon walls.  The temperature was rapidly climbing and by the time we visited another petraglyph site and explored one more short side hike, the temperature was in the mid-80's and the sun was burning holes in the top of my head.  We rigged the car for driving and continued our journey eastward across the remainder of Nevada, through a corned of Utah (via the Virgin river gorge on Rt. 15) and then into Arizona on a small two-lane road heading east towards Page. Along the way the temperature rises to the mid 90's and we are happy to be inside and still (while driving of course).  Now the road is climbing onto the Kiabab plateau and doug firs appear as the road reaches 5,000 feet.  The trees are widely spaced, but this plateau seems to go on forever in every direction.  I know from the map, that 40 miles to our south it drops off precipitously into the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, and to our north it climbs up onto the Grand Staircase.  Teddy Roosevelt used to come here for the hunting as as a result of his interest, and the growing National Park movement, this area has been preserved as undeveloped and unlogged.  We are told at the ranger station that backcountry camping is not particularly advised due to the bow and arrow hunting season for Turkey - which just opened.

We camp off a forest service road near Jacob Lake, forgoing the Forest Service campsite that was right along the highway.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Departing Oakland - Eastern Sierra

We stayed last night at Emigrant campsite, a 10 tent campground that is a throw back to the past's simplicity.  Mostly somewhat level rocky pads, scratched out of the sloping playa that leads to the bottom of Death Valley.  Still 1,000 feet above the valley floor, it provides a commanding view of the northern expanse of the valley, while being bracketed on east and west by brown, gold, gray, and red undulating hills wrapping behind one another over the horizon. There are just a few other tent campers sharing this isolated spot, no generators, no barking dogs, no kids on bikes, no trappings of any crowd at all.    At sunset and sunrise, I am joined by another photographer and we briefly exchange greetings before trying to stay out of each others shots as we attempt to capture the grandeur of the place. Short excursions into the brush beyond the cleared sites reveals evidence of previous occupation, some old building foundations, a fireplace hearth, and some stepping stones. This entire 10 mile wide slope is striped with different sized rivulets leading downhill.  Rocks of different sizes are distributed in each as if each is it's own little stream bed with the sparsely footed desert plants clinging to the bottoms of each one where some remnant of moisture can most likely be found.

The ground is noticeably sloping from the last pass leading into death valley all the way to the valley floor, with a constant slope of about 10 degrees.  This odd offset takes awhile for the sensibilities to adjust to, as neither the western or eastern vistas are really horizontal. After looking at either for some time, you accommodate to the tilt and internalize it as flat, then you look back to anything close at hand and that instead seems  tilted, even though it is indeed relatively flat.  Not too dissimilar an experience to that of watching a rushing river , then switching your focus to the shore and feeling that the shore is rushing backwards and the water is standing still.

There is a slight breeze blowing that carries the bird song long distances, yet I can see nothing on the wing. Suddenly, the sun bursts over the horizon and the temperature rises 10 degrees.  In the tents around us, I notice a stirring and then I know its time to return to the camper, brew some java and get the day going for a new adventure.

We make a leisurely auto tour crossing Death Valley - certainly something only a person of today's sensibilities can claim, considering the inhospitable terrain which we traverse.  The sun is high in the sky quickly, so shadows are short and the air temperature has risen to the 80's.  We stop at a few roadside attractions, the most interesting of which was the preserved remains of the old borax works on rt. 190 going south.  It's informative to note that the borax works shut down during warmer months, but when in operation during the winter employed many asian laborers living right out on the the edge of the dry lakebed and gathering raw material from the evaporated basin using  hand hauled carts, a large boiler and cascading vats of settlement and precipitation tanks to yield the crystalline borax that was eventually hauled over 150 miles by large 20-mule teams up and out of the valley to the nearest rail depot. The two actual payload wagons in any mule train were quite small, just taller than your average large sized SUV with 7 foot wooden wheels trailing a third set of wheels holding a large 500 gallon water tank for the mule's consumption during their journey.

By 2:00 pm we have arrived at an entirely different place - the Valley or Fire State Park, Nevada's oldest state park which was established in 1935 east and north of Las Vegas.  Here the brownish red sandstone formed by the slow and methodical hardening and erosion of 150 million year old sand dunes has left towers, monuments, beehives, and other terraced and sculpted ribs and ridges protruding from the creosote covered chaparral.  Tucked into two side canyons in the formations are some pleasant campsites - the nicest of which is the Arch Rock campsite because of the lack of RV hook-ups.  Once parked, we opened the awning to provide some relief from the penetrating sun, unfolded the lounge chairs beneath, and I, for one, fell into a bottomless siesta during the hot hours of the remainder of the afternoon dreaming of the prehistoric users of this place including the Basket Maker people and later the Anasazi Pueblo farmers.

Awakening a few hours later refreshed, but somewhat soggy, I rose as the whispy white mare's tails began to form in the deep blue sky overhead.  Fluorescent  green and pale blue lichen adorn the nearby red sandstone rocks and in places appear as if hyroglyphics left by some ancient civilization.  ( There are petroglyphs  down the road in the park which we hope to ride to later tonight) The desert marigold is blooming around our campsite with the numerous delicate orange blooms held aloft by flimsy stems. They seem such a contradiction here in the land of wind sculpted rocks and dry red/brown earth, but we are pleased to see them, knowing their blooming season is short and is soon to expire.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Figured out the bike rack problem

Took delivery on a unusual bike rack today - but it seems to solve lots of our bike management problems on the camper. Holds the tandem, plus two omountain bikes, swings out of the way so we can open the doors, uses the trailer hitch mount so we don't overload the door hinges.

It sways a bit when loaded and extends the length of our rig, so we'll have to see how it stands up to our abuse...

Here is the rack in the "down and out" position with the door open.

Here is the rack up and stowed, and ready to drive away showing the spare tire, the bike front tires and the tandem plus one mountain bike.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

East Side Sierras - Spring Skiing with Jeff, Tim, and Tucker

(Slide show runs automatically,, but if you wish to slow it down or study and individual photos just click on the center of the image and look for slide controls...)

All season we had been talking about and preparing for this week long ski bonanza on the east side of the Sierras. Here, the plowed and melted roads often end right at the beginning of the ski ascents and the peaks rise from a base of 7,000 up to and over 12,500 feet. We were camping out every night, albeit from the comfort of the camper (for our meals and social time) and each to his own vehicle for sleeping. Our days started early, getting on the skiis by 7:00am and getting off the steep pitches by 1:30 at the latest when the sun would invariably soften and weaken the snowpack to the point that wet slides would be easily triggered. As it was, we saw evidence of previous natural wet slides on many adjoining slopes.

We climbed and skied White peak and Dunderberg peak from the Virgina Lakes trailhead, (getting great views into Lundy Canyon from both), attempted Gilbert peak south face, and completed Mt. Hurd from the South Lake trailhead, and summited Carson Peak from the Fern Creek trailhead in the June Lake region. On all of these routes (except Carson Peak) we could ski or bootpaxck the entire approach on snow and could ski all the way down to the car.. For Carson Peak, we needed to hike in partially melted woods for about 20 minutes before hitting reliable snow.

While attempting Gilbert Peak, we picked a bad exposure and found ourselves struggling waist deep in bottomless wet snow high up on the south face. Rather than push ahead up and across some very steep slopes, we opted for safety and skied down from that stopping point - but needed to traverse some thinly covered rock bands on the way down. As expected, they were not great skiing and sloughed off snow as we crossed. Go for the north couloirs instead - or get an earlier start if you pick this peak this time of year.

Some remarkable memories from the trip were the incredible good humor of everyone, despite the hard work of the ascents. It seemed our pace adjusted almost magically as one or the other of us got tired. But in all cases we stuck together for comradery and safety.

There was that amazing icy traverse on a very steep and exposed slope on the way up Carson Peak. Jeff kicked very secure steps as the leader, carefully evaluating if the snow was going to stick or slide. Then Tim and I followed across (Tim, with no axe or whippet - just balanced on his toes with his gloved fingertips gingerly touching the ice slope level with his face). I followed last, and was a little stuck until Jeff reminded me to rely on my whippet (spiked ski pole handle) for hand balance. With that suggestion, I gingerly completed the five or six foot maneuvers to get across the void.

On the first day Jeff and I summited White peak and thought we had a great ski down from the top, until Tucker (who had skied Dunderberg peak across the valley at almost the same time) tried to reeducate us on what good corn snow really was. By the time we tried Dunderberg the following day to make a true comparison, some other skiers had already found the stash and had laid tracks all over the place. We'll never really know if Tucker was right.

Or how about the time Jeff used his monster jacked-up truck with oversized tires to evaluate a possible camping spot off the road and got stuck up the axles in soft deteriorating snow. We piled rocks under the wheels and pushed and rocked and got the thing out, but then it was making this god awful noise like a pinion on the universal joint was grinding off with each rotation of the tire. A tow truck lap down to Mammoth revealed just a bent tab on the gas tank rubbing on the drive shaft, so within a few hours Jeff was able to join us on the mountain again. Next time we'll send Tim and the all wheel drive mini-van in to scope out our camping sites first.

Then, there was the incredible and sustained grade A corn snow all the way down from the summit of Carson, culminating in a long "half-pipe" comfortably wide couloir dropping us at the tree line not far from the car.