Road trip

A walk in the woods

Big Sur, June 20th

This morning I tried to find the Buzzard’s roost trailhead, and failed, but ended up having an amazing experience walking through the redwood groves of the deserted Pfeiffer State Park campground.

burnedtree

It was dreamy. Just me in the dim hush of the redwood giants. Writers are told to engage all the senses, and I realized how heavily biased I am in favor of sight. Smell can force it’s way into my consciousness if it’s extraordinarily good or bad. Same with touch. It’s mainly something I deal with if I’m uncomfortable. Sounds I’m definitely sensitive to but don’t retain the memories of very clearly.

fallentree

I really tried to get myself to slow down and think about where I was. It was hard to get myself to wander, not to keep to the road. It was really quiet aside from birds. Redwoods seem to absorb sound and the needles on the ground are a spongy carpet. I made myself touch the shaggy bark, and feel the burned charcoal of trees hollowed out by fire. I imagined how fun it would be to hang out in a tree-bottom cave during a rainstorm.

polished

Redwood bark is pretty rough. These fist-sized bits are near the entrance to a “cave” at the base of a burned redwood, and people have polished it as they climbed in.

I felt so lucky to be there with no people. This park has 186 campsites and I had it all to myself! I made my way to the river and tried to figure out how to describe the sound of of it to someone who’d never been near one. I’d need to be a musician to do that and I’m not. What I heard is many different sounds all at once, higher and lower that blend into each other to make the wooshing gurgling sound of water over rocks.

river

I got back to the room around 11:30–starving. R. was too, so we decided to lunch at “magical” “most delightful view in Big Sur” Nepenthe – a restaurant 3 miles south of our lodge. It was, of course, foggy again. We got there before it opened and the parking lot was already full of fancy cars. We got the last spot and barely fit. The restaurant was cute – big patio with plenty of room for social distancing. The menu said the building was designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students. It had an artsy cobbled-together feel, nothing I’d have paid attention to if not for the menu.

The beet salad was very good and the “famous” burger was perfectly fine. A faint view of the coastline came and went. There aren’t many places to eat in Big Sur so I think it’s fairly easy to get a reputation as amazing. By the time we left the parking lot and overflow parking lot on the road was a cluster f*ck.

I forgot my phone so I couldn’t take any pictures, which was fine. There’s no cell service anyway, and it helped me chill and enjoy myself.

After that we gave the coastal road one more try. The fog was higher and we could see further, but it wasn’t very inspiring. The beaches are generally inaccessible. The vista point of the beach with the waterfall that falls into the ocean from the cliffs was a jammed madhouse both times we passed, so we passed.

We stopped for gas and a cookie on the way back and I walked back to the campground and sat at a picnic table to work on the blog.

special-tree

Right near where I sat, a young bay tree is showered in light.

No one has any idea what poison oak is or what it looks like. It’s painful to watch. A kid went into the brush to get a stick and I was tempted to catch up to him and give him quick lesson but before I could he’d already run ahead. Now I’m watching a guy across the river, maybe 100 feet away, blazing a trail right through it. Ah well.

We found a great place for dinner – the Big Sur River Inn. I say great place because it was a nice setting but fairly average diner-type food. We ordered at a window and got food to go, and ate at a picnic table overlooking the river. The cocktails were excellent! Sadly, or luckily, they closed early and we headed back to the room for movie night. We brought our projector (there are no TVs there) and it worked great.

movie-night

Don’t judge.


The longest day of the year – literally

Big Sur, June 19th

It’s the summer solstice and I’ll be up for all of it. There’s a huge skylight in our room. At home I sleep in pitch black so whenever dawn was, that’s when I woke up. I tried putting a t shirt over my face which worked a bit but I had to stay still or it would fall off. Sigh.

bright room

Good morning! Not.

On the plus side – I was up in time to go for a hike before R. woke up. I took a shower in the sad plastic shower, then headed down to the lodge hoping for caffeine. A little café was open, thankfully (the lodge wasn’t fully operational after being shut for three months), and I got tea and went down to the Big Sur river, sat on a rock, and contemplated nature. Nature was good! The river was wide and shallow and flowing smoothly. Birds flew straight down it, just a foot above water, probably catching insects? It was pretty freaking idyllic and I was happy to be there. This is exactly what I wanted for the weekend, to see beauty and get out of my corona virus news-filled head.

big sur river day one

After that I took a hike up the Valley View trail. A very alarming sign posted at the entrance (along with the stay 6 feet apart sign) declared that mountain lions are very rarely seen here, but if you happen across one this is what you should do. Oh and don’t hike alone. Thanks for that! I found a billy-club sized stick and spent the entire hike playing out scenarios where I defended myself from a mountain lion. I also enjoyed the nature. Even if it was after me.

redwoods

The path was very well-maintained and pretty much straight up the entire time, and went from dark redwood forest to pretty oaks–and the day went from 54 degrees and cool to mid-60’s and sunny. At the trail end was a sturdy bench from which I could contemplate the valley all the way to the sea, which was still covered in fog. There is zero cell coverage on the valley floor but up here I had four bars, so I rested on the bench and instagrammed.

valleyview-2

I found a shortcut back to our cabin on the way down. R. was just getting out of the shower. Perfect timing! We drove a mile south to get to go lunch food from the highly-rated Big Sur Bakery, but they didn’t serve lunch until noon and it was 11:30, so we got deli sandwiches next door instead for our beach picnic.

pfeiffer beach 1

I’d read about Pfeiffer state beach – which is near us and down an unmarked road. Indeed, a “narrow road” sign was the only indication. While not extremely harrowing, it was still my least-favorite type of road. One-lane, blind corners, very few pullouts.

The beach was…foggy. Gray sky melding into gray ocean. I’d forgotten that when we went to the beach in Half Moon Bay when I was a kid, we’d use the towels as blankets not to dry off. There were dramatic rocks but everything was flat and dull. Here is where I always go wrong – I look at the idealized photos on the internet and think that’s what I will experience, and then I’m disappointed. I’m not sure what to do though. I hate to be pessimistic.

 

lumpyrock2

On the plus side, the sand was very nice–fine-grained, silky and warm despite the overcast. I’d read this was a purple sand beach and it did indeed have purple highlights. It’s kind of like the black magnetic sand on other beaches–a light dusting. It’s hard to tell from the photos so I won’t bother.

We ate our delicious sandwiches then hit the road, heading south to see the world’s most dramatic most beautiful most amazing stretch of coastline…and it looked like this.

grayday

Blah. After 10 miles or so we turned around. A nice surprise on the way back – the Henry Miller Memorial Library (bookstore to be more accurate). Henry Miller lived five miles down the road. This was his best friend’s house. Miller never wanted a memorial of any type, as you might guess from his philosophy of really living life, but when his friend died he left his house to honor Miller. It’s a fun, eclectic place with a burning man meets beat poet vibe and a very sturdy cat. I got a book by Brassai – a famous Parisian photographer who was good friends with Miller. I had no idea!

miller

Our lodge is in Pfeiffer state park, so we drove into the park proper when we got back. This part of the valley was sunny and warm. I had R. drop me off at the end of the road so I could walk back along the river. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate what isn’t happening or how things could be annoying. The very large campground that runs along the river is still closed (due to the virus) so I had the river essentially to myself–once I got down to it.

I have never seen such large, lush poison oak bushes. There is poison oak EVERYWHERE. I hope everyone had the girl scout training I had or there are going to be some very unhappy families this summer. The campsites all had small paths down to the river that were lined with exuberant poison oak. Ai yi yi.

swimminghole

The river was so idyllic it was hard to process. The crystal clear water burbled along, only knee deep in most places so I was able to stroll around it as if it were a wide path. I sat on a fallen tree and tried to take it in but most of my brain is still in city mode, and I was snapping pictures on my phone instead of letting it all in. Thankfully we have tomorrow as well so I will go back and try to relax more and just observe.

lovelyriver

When we checked in I discovered the Big Sur Lodge has a pool, so after the river hike I went swimming. It was just me. The hotel is open but I’ve seen very few guests. Fortunately there was a skimmer as I had to do a thorough removal of dozens of not-quite-dead bugs. The pool was heated to a really nice temperature and I floated around for an hour or so, watching vultures (?) and trying to relax. I did relax, and finally began to feel this was a real vacation and not just a desperate escape from captivity.

lonelypool


Anywhere but here – from San Francisco to Big Sur

June 18, 2020

We’ve been sheltering in place since March 16 and as travel-loving extrovert who’s been strictly following the rules I was really starting to go stir crazy. Thankfully, June 15th the rules eased. The powers that be didn’t say shelter in place is over, however all retail is now allowed to open up, including malls (with masks) and hotels are allowed to rent to non-essential people. Heh, that sounds sad. National parks also opened in a limited way. My dream trip was actually Yosemite. I swore the moment they let me out of the house I’d jump in a car and drive there, but unfortunately that was everyone else’s idea as well and when they opened the reservation system, the entire park was instantly booked until September.

I so crushed I cried. I then tried to book ANY house on the Russian River and there were none in all VRBO for the whole summer. Mt. Lassen campgrounds – booked up. I wracked my brain thinking of some beautiful nature place to go and recharge – and hit upon the idea of Big Sur. I’ve driven by but never stopped.

I was fortunate to get three nights at the Big Sur Lodge – today is the first day they’ve been open since the lockdown. It turns out my parents spent the night there on the day they were married–a very short honeymoon!

I worked half a day and we left at 1pm. It was gorgeous in San Francisco and I was really excited to take a mini road trip down highway 1. The drive from here to Big Sur makes many “Top 10 most beautiful” lists, and it looked like this was the perfect day to do it. First stop – after only half an hour – was lunch at Moss Beach Distillery. We got to go food (the only option) and ate on a railroad tie planter box by the parking lot. Not super glamorous, but at least we were out. It was the first time R. and I had dined out together since March.

halfmoonbay

Another first in three months (we’ve barely driven) – traffic. Beach traffic and the beaches were packed. On a Thursday. I was surprised but I guess school is out and 25% of people are unemployed.

I’d like to say the drive was amazing but we kept hitting thick patches of fog and the gorgeous coves I knew were right below me were obscured. Eh, I couldn’t be that mad. It was really just nice to be out of the house and driving. (I was still disappointed though.) Also – chagrin – this is literally a few hours away and we never do the drive.

foggybog

Foggy bog near Moss Landing

We stopped at numerous vista points and though they weren’t what I’d seen on blogs and travel sites, we did get a hint of the dramatic coastline we weren’t quite able to see.

monastery beach carmel

A break in the fog near Carmel. I’ve never seen it hang offshore like this.

bixby bridge

Looking north from Rocky Creek bridge

viewsouth

Looking south from Rocky Creek bridge

rocky creek bridge

The bridge itself. This is where all the cool social media influencers stand on clear days and take selfies with the bridge in the background. They don’t stay back of course!

Big Sur lodge is nestled in redwoods and…it’s okay. Little blocks of four room cabin-like structures scattered around. We’ve got a back deck one foot from the room next door to ours’ deck and the couple was out there drinking wine so we didn’t feel comfortable hanging out there. The room is fine. Good size. Nice high ceiling and a good bed but the rest of the furniture is mismatched and of varying quality. The shower is one of those all-one-iece plastic things.

big sur lodge

I admit to being underwhelmed when we got to our room – center door.

While the room wasn’t great – this guy came to greet us right away! We fed him some seeded crackers.

bluejay

We went to a general store a mile down the road and bought a bottle of wine, and then had a really nice dinner at the Fernwood Resort. It’s a cute place with campsites, tent cabins, etc. down by the river. The restaurant is above with a nice huge deck with redwood trees sticking out of it. It’s the first time I’ve eaten in a restaurant in three months! It felt great! I’d have stayed longer but it got cold after sunset.

fernwood resort

I love these handmade signs. We don’t have a lot of old-timey camps near me in the Bay Area so this was a real thrill. The MOTEL font is my favorite.

So far a really burning man/hippy vibe here. I need to not be annoyed that this room is $$$ and not very nice and just chill out and go be in nature like I intended. I’ll do that tomorrow. Now I’m full of pizza and really sleepy from a day in the car.

hippycar

Our next door neighbors car


Snoqualmie, Washington (pre-family reunion)

Monday, July 8, 2019

I’m sitting on a balcony at the Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie, Washington. It’s cloudy, and is either raining or else heavily misting so I’ve got an umbrella propped up on the table in a vain attempt to keep my computer dry. It’s the kind of rain that you really can’t hide from–it swirls and floats right under the umbrella. The waterfall below is doing its thing, which is to provide a pleasant and uniform white noise.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We are headed to Port Townsend, Washington for a family reunion. I know, I know, everyone tells me, “It’s beautiful there,” and I’m sure it will be, but I’ve got to kvetch a bit first, because it isn’t fair that I open with arriving there all awestruck by the lovely.

I love my extended family. I feel really lucky to be born into a family of interesting people who get along very well. Our only struggle is that we’ve got a lot of Type A’s and that sometimes leads to everyone trying to be the sheepdog and no one wanting to be a sheep, but that’s not so bad.

My complaint is that I’ve got a full time job and my vacation time is precious. When I take a week off it’s a big deal and I want to go somewhere I want to go. So you say “Family Reunion” and I say “in Hawaii! In Mexico! Somewhere in the southwest!” not – somewhere where it’s going to be 64 degrees, partly cloudy, and sometimes raining. Because that sounds a lot like a foggy day in San Francisco.

dairyfreeze

What’s worse is that if I wasn’t lazy and distracted by work, I probably could have found some great house in Hawaii and pitched it to the group and maybe I’d be in Hawaii right now, eating pineapple and getting ready to go snorkeling. So, it’s my own fault I did nothing and let someone else herd the cats.

Anyhow, Saturday we flew from San Francisco to Seattle. The brown haze covering the central valley gave way to clouds as we travelled north. The car rental place ran out of small cars so we ended up in a huge four-door Cadillac. We thought it might be fun, but it’s too big–we don’t know where we begin and end, but it does have great acceleration.

We came a few days early (the reunion for some reason runs Monday – Friday) to check out the Salish Lodge, aka the Great Northern hotel in Twin Peaks. The waterfall below me is the one featured in the opening credits, as is this hotel, perched on the cliff above it. (I was a big Twin Peaks fan back in the day, and R. only discovered it recently and is a current fan).

What’s odd is that Snoqualmie is kind of in the middle of nowhere and kind of not. It’s only 40 minutes from Seattle and when we sit in the restaurant all we see is trees forever, but it’s really just off the freeway.

When we arrived we were both kind of tired from the flight, which is silly because it was only an hour and a half, but the whole airport experience is always draining. R. laid down for a nap and I decided to walk into town, which is less than a mile away. I crossed a cool bridge, and in the pretty river below were the remnants of a collapsed bridge. Not too far past that, the Northwest Railway Museum has old train cars right along the road. Very nice!

oldtrainengine

The town itself is small with a few restaurants, an intriguing-looking bowling alley I didn’t go into, and a great hardware store that I did.

When I got back, R. and I went to the overlooks near the hotel to view the falls. It’s a very nice waterfall and I liked it, but it’s only a couple hundred feet. It’s hard to beat Yosemite Falls (which is over 2000 feet and you can stand right at the base of it.) Also, it was a total mob scene due to the long weekend, and we had to wait to get a spot at the railing.

thegreatnorthern

We ate at the casual restaurant, The Attic, at the hotel. The food was good, and went to bed early.

This is a very nice hotel. My only complaint is that there is no common area with a view. I like being able to bring my laptop to the lobby or café and get something to drink and write and people-watch. The lobby is nothing to speak of–a few chairs clearly meant only for waiting for the rest of your party to join you before you get the car. There is no separate bar area. The Attic is fairly small and people eat at the bar, and you certainly couldn’t set up a laptop there. Any spot with a view is reserved for private events. This balcony is nice, but the continuous hiss of the falls does get irritating after while, and there is no people watching.

Sunday morning we had a GREAT breakfast here in the fancy restaurant. Sadly I couldn’t finish it all, which is a crime. They have there own beehives here and do a fun thing where they dribble honey on a scone from three feet above it.

6

I coaxed R. into going into town on foot (past all the neat old train cars on the side of the road). We wanted to ride the historic train, which isn’t a historic train exactly but random historic train cars pulled by a modern diesel engine. We bought tickets online as we walked, which was lucky because it was sold out…because….Bollywood film crew!!

The conductor (very cute in his conductor outfit) let us know a Bollywood film crew would be filming on the train, and that they’d be in the center car. They let them on first. It seemed to be cast, crew, and their extended families. We got onto the front car to stay out of the fray, and because it had cool red velvet couches.

filmcrew

It turned out they were actually doing the filming in our car – which was really fun and made what would have been a pretty ridiculously short train ride a lot of fun. The train only goes a couple miles south to North Bend – which had more Twin Peaks buildings and really nice steep high mountains behind it (Mt. Si maybe?), and then reverses and goes back past the station it left from, and one more mile to the hydro electric museum and supposed views of the falls but you can’t actually see them because of land and trees. So, it’s a pretty silly ride. However – a few minutes in – after we opened and closed the windows to suit the women sitting next to us, the film crew came in with a huge camera, a boombox, and started filming the male star walking down the aisle, finding his love sitting alone on a seat, tapping her on the shoulder, then sitting next to her after which they hold hands and gleefully look out the window.

It was great fun to watch, and I loved that we didn’t have to sign releases and they probably didn’t have permits or anything. They did have super expensive equipment so I have no idea if this is a “real” movie or what. I liked that the main actress was not thin and she was nice and friendly and said hi when we stopped for half an hour at another part of the railroad museum.

historictraincar

Back at the hotel I napped for an hour (I had a terrible sleep Saturday night) and then took a walk to the base of the falls. The forest here is so beautiful. So many different types of trees and the ground so lush with a wild variety of plants. We don’t have that in California–it’s just too dry. All I could think though on the super steep walk down was “I’m going to have to walk back up this. It’s going to suck. OMG, all these little kids. They are going to have to be carried back up. What are the parents thinking? Oh those shoes! She’s going to break an ankle!”

I might walk a little way down again today and just sit on a bench and listen to the birds and stare at the plants and try to quiet my crazy mind. I think of myself as a pretty laid back person but when I get out to actual nature like this I realize I must be pretty wound up in the city because it’s really hard for me to stop analyzing and just look around and absorb.

The path didn’t get that close to the base of the falls and the view was just okay. The walk down was the pretty part.

We drove into town for Mexican food (so so) and watched the end of the final match of the Gold Cup soccer game. Back at the hotel we had a drink at the bar.

This morning, Monday, started cool and rainy and is now partly clearing, and warming up a bit. We ordered room service (always a fun treat) and split the enormous eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, scone breakfast meant for one. Mmmm. In an hour we check out and hit the road for Port Townsend! I’m so happy I don’t have to spell Snoqualmie ever again!

riverabovefalls


Beauty and Frustration in Yosemite Valley

I need to get out of town and away from screens and the internet. My day goes from ipad to laptop to iphone to TV or kindle. There’s glass between me and life and I need the cliché dose of nature to clear my head. I log onto the Yosemite reservation site, not really expecting to get anything at the last minute, but there are tent cabins available. I book one, sure that R. will be willing to go on a last minute trip.

The first glimpse of Yosemite valley literally stops traffic–people careen to the left and right turnouts when Half Dome and various waterfalls come into view. It really is jawdropping, but we’ve been in the car for longer than we’ve expected and just want to freaking get there. The 180 miles from San Francisco to the valley have stretched to a five-hour trip thanks to traffic and two-lane roads meandering through the stoplight-filled downtowns of the central valley.

It’s been a nice drive. No complaints other than the usual, which is that it is impossible to get in or out of the Bay Area anymore. We planned a Sunday–Tuesday trip specifically to avoid traffic and we still find ourselves shaking our fists and asking, “What are you all doing on this road?” The You All of course, being Us. We are part of the problem. So many people.

bridalveilfalls

We don’t pull over at first few pullouts, but when we get to the valley floor we can’t help it. It’s too much. Too pretty. Thank god we do because Bridal Veil Falls is magic. It’s a half a mile hike from the road and a complete change of climate. A cold mist fills the air before we get anywhere close to the bottom and I shiver in my tank top. I’m glad I keep going because when the falls hit the granite they make rainbows. Everyone is soaked and ecstatic.

Which makes our arrival at our lodging, Housekeeping Camp, all the worse. The Camp can’t help but be anything but a crushing disappointment after what we’ve just experienced but I’d swear someone actually tried to take our souls, pull them from our bodies, and grind them into the pine needles.

tentcabin

Housekeeping Camp looks more like a refugee camp when we arrive at sunset. A blue fog of smoke hangs over the forlorn canvas structures. The ground is bare dirt. “Park wherever you can,” the buffed, outdoorsy, 20-something dude at the reception desk tells me. My fellow guests have taken the “wherever” to heart and crammed their automobiles in and around the stones the separate the camp from the road. We squeeze into a space next to a giant pickup truck.

I chose a riverside tent which promised, I dunno, something about waking up and looking at Half Dome. What we got was a creepy, inland, poo-brown concrete block and canvas prison tent, surrounded by other prison tents and located next to our car/the road/the giant dumpster.

I’d warned R. that Housekeeping Camp was a nightmare. Thanks to me expertly managing his expectations, he is pleased by all the “space” we have. He’d pictured a seven by seven tent with no furniture, so what we go was an improvement. 8 x 15 (?) with a patched canvas roof, double bed, bunk bed, shelving unit, two outlets and an indoor and outdoor light. Woo hoo!

Never mind our plastic-covered double bed is littered with sand. The canvas roof and door filthy and held in place by black tape. The bear box opens with a shriek and groan no matter how slowly and carefully we let down the steel door. The fire pit littered with trash. We can’t see the river.

Deep breath. It’s okay. We’re here.

We brush the sand off the bed and unroll the sleeping bag. We put our food and lotions and toothpaste into the bear box as per regulations. We hurry to the store to buy firewood.

We’re good. We unpack. We get the Christmas lights in place despite bringing too short of an extension cord. The river isn’t that far away. The scenery is pretty in an August-in-Los Angeles kind of way. I read that housekeeping camp is the only place you can have a campfire in the valley and I understand why now. I’m bathed in smoke. I don’t know if it’s the wood or the nature of the valley but every fire creates a veil that drifts and swirls but doesn’t dissipate. We move left, right, we can’t escape.

smokeonthewater

We’ve got to create our own fire if we want to eat. We do, and add to the smoke. Our lukewarm sausages and buns are pretty good because we’re starving. Now what? The family next to us is already in bed. The group of friends across from us is drunk and raucous and we listen to their tales of socialism and home invasion. The long, one-act play is entertaining to a point. The only mom in the group is also an audience member, pacing the periphery, bouncing her cute, animal-costumed baby against her chest. Hopefully it won’t be eaten by a mountain lion. Seriously–there is a sign warning parents not to let children walk alone. This little one can’t walk so hopefully she is safe. Though if the mom was trying to camouflage the baby, dressing it as a bunny might not have been the best choice.

Eventually R. wants to go to bed. I’m determined to see the fire burn down. He does, and I don’t, because a camp ranger comes by to “remind” me that all campfires must be extinguished at 10pm. With water.

fire

Heavy sigh. I don’t have a bucket. I find a Taco Bell cup in the car and go back and forth to the bathroom faucet until I’ve put out the perfect-for-marshmellows embers.

Now I’m in bed at 10 p.m. instead of my normal midnight. R. is recovering from a cold so he’s okay with this. He’s snoring and I’m crammed next to him in a double bed (we’ve got a queen at home.) We spend the night wrestling in a non-sexy, exhausting way.

We wake at 6 a.m. to the grumble of a diesel truck and the beep beep beep of heavy equipment. The truck is delivering Pepsi to the store near us. The beeping comes from across the river. Something under construction. Seriously?? I can’t believe this. I thought last night was hell with all the smoke but this is too much.

I get up. R. stays in bed. His ability to sleep in is legendary. I open the bear box as quietly as I can and eat yogurt for breakfast.

Now – to hike! I’m groggy but excited. It’s a beautiful day. A sweet pine-scented, sun-drenched, high sierra dream. I cross the stone bridge near camp. The Merced river is high. It’s been reaching flood stage on and off all spring. What surprises me most about it is not the strange green color of the powerful, turbid water, but the variations in the sounds it makes. When I’ve listened to streams before, they sing a steady song, something along the lines of tinkle tinkle tinkle. This river is wild, roaring and hissing and swirling unpredictably. What’s happening upstream? Giant chunks of snow slipping down slopes, boulders tumbling when the ice that has held them all winter melts? Big things, to affect this volume of water.

moremeadow

I try to make my way to the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee. They had to change the name to the Majestic because when Delaware North lost its government contract to run the restaurants and hotels, they claimed they owned many of the famous names – including YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK. It’s basically extortion. While this goes through legal channels the park changed the names so the new company could take over the concessions without a problem.

I have a few moments of peaceful bliss before coming upon the road-working crew that woke me up. They are grading and paving a new road with the usual assortment of Cat equipment. A woman stops the motor grader to allow me to cross the fresh asphalt.

From here on, the hike is idyllic. Where are the hoards? I pass charming cabins, presumably to house staff, and spot the webcam with the view of a meadow and Half Dome I’ve been watching.

I find the trail to Mirror Lake and it’s just me, birds, oaks and pines, mosquitoes, and giant granite boulders. I love this landscape. I can’t believe the sheerness of the rock that surrounds me. I make my way to the bottom of a small waterfall I spotted from camp and stare straight up at the sheets of water cascading down. It’s amazing and I’ve got it all to myself. I need this nature time. The flora and fauna I see in San Francisco is ragweed and homeless people.

cascade

Mirror Lake is looking a little fetid these days. Turns out it was never a “real” lake. Entrepreneurs in the early 20th century (?) dug out the area to make a place for Half Dome to reflect perfectly. Now the prissy park department has decided to let it go back to being a meadow…I read on a fancy display sign next to the paved path. <– You get my drift? Fer god’s sake, it’s been a fake lake for 100 years. People love it. What is and isn’t “natural” in Yosemite is up for debate. Dredge the one acre and let people have a special moment. It’s famous!

After I get to Mirror Lake I really want to hop on a shuttle and go meet R. for lunch. I’m tired. But argh…turns out the shuttle is a mile away. I trudge on.

I wait at the shuttle stop with a bunch of other pink-faced tourists. Extreme hiking Dad is trying to convince his five-year old daughter–who’s sitting exhausted on the dirty ground–that they should walk to wherever it is they are going since he has no idea when the shuttle will show up. She resists and I support her. “It will be here soon,” I say. “I’ve been here 15 minutes and it comes every 20.”

Fortunately it does show up and the little girl is saved. : )

Lunch is pathetic. I’m sooooo hungry but I’ve got a choice of four greasy meat things on buns or pizza. All too heavy for a hot day with more walking ahead. I get pizza and only eat two slices and give the rest away to a family. I love when people take food from strangers! Humans are trusting – sometimes!

R. and I try to get on a bus to Yosemite Falls and are turned away from the first one. The buses are crammed. Standing room only squished like sardines crammed. We walk back a stop and wait on the other side because those buses seem emptier, and do manage to catch one, ending up on a 45-minute tour of the park. Which is pretty okay, but the bus is hot, and the driver angry from having to yell, “Move to the back of the bus! All the way back, not partway!” at every stop.

Looks like I had the trail to Mirror Lake to myself because everyone in the park is going to Yosemite Falls. I can see why. The approach is dramatic. We hundreds of tourists are tiny specks compared to the super-sized attractions around us. We try to ruin Yosemite but can’t, it is just too awesome.

Yosemitefallstrees

The falls are immense and like the river, wild and irregular, the huge plumes more like an avalanche than water. The spray is so thick that anyone who ventures out on the bridge over the river comes back soaked. I hide behind a log, prep my camera and jump up for a quick shot.

dramaticyosefalls

We decide to walk back to housekeeping camp from here, though we end up west of where we meant to cross the river in a beautiful, huge, spring-green meadow. The views are amazing…of everything. The scope of the place is astounding.

swimmers

On the other side of Swinging Bridge we find more great photo ops – the falls reflected in a still spot on the river.

prettyreflection

By the time we get back to camp we’re beat. We planned to eat dinner out but parking is awful (most lots are full) as is traffic, and we can’t face riding the bus for 45 minutes – if we manage to get space on one. We get beer and pretzels from the store and sit by the river to enjoy sunset on Half Dome, but it isn’t the most spectacular thing we’ve seen today. I’m embarrassed to admit I’m a bit bored. I should recognize this as a symptom of being overstimulated but I don’t. I miss my usual toys. I’m trying to have a tech-free few days and except for a few tweets and instagrams, I’ve kept off the internet and I don’t have my computer. I brought a good old-fashioned paper book to read but after seven pages I’m reciting the overwrought prose out loud to R., who isn’t interested. Neither am I.

I’ve had a great day and am ready to chill but no chill is to be had. Chill being a comfy couch and sushi delivered. The evening campfires are lit and smoke chokes the camp. It seems worse tonight. We both cough. We opt not to build our own fire and eat cold turkey sandwiches for dinner. It’s now 9 p.m. and we are completely unable to entertain ourselves. Pathetic? Maybe. We retreat to the forced snuggling of our double bed and listen to an audio book.

I wake pre-dawn, having to pee, which involves getting up and getting dressed. It’s 5am though I haven’t seen this hour in years, I feel pretty good. I’ve slept six hours and that seems to be enough. We leave today and I was worried I wouldn’t have time to hike, but I’ve now got loads!

burnedtrees

I’d like to be in the big green meadow for sunrise so I set off. All the service trucks are on the road, getting in before the gridlock, but overall it’s peaceful. I check the weather on my phone and find out the river is at flood stage right now. The first sign I see of this is a two-inch deep coating of water over a ten-foot length of the path I’m traveling. What to do? There is no way around it. Though I don’t want to get my feet wet this early, I’m wearing all terrain sandals, so I go ahead.

I make it to where the meadow should be and find a lake. The meadow is completely flooded. This doesn’t seem strange. I didn’t know the meadow well enough to miss it and the lake looks fine where it is.

I cross the bridge and shuffle through cold water to a grass island and watch the sunlight creep its way down what might be El Capitan…not sure what all the big masses of rock are called. I’m surrounded by birdsong, though I don’t see the birds themselves. As the light slowly approaches me, I acknowledge I’m not a sunrise person. Daybreak isn’t particularly glorious or amazing. I know what comes next–whereas sunset thrills me…the start of night…of mystery. The period at the end of the sentence that was the day. Sunrise is ellipses. Not a thing in itself but the start of everything else.

sunrise

The sun is up and it promises to be another beautiful day. I really want to see Yosemite falls again. We saw it in the afternoon and I know it will look completely different now. Every feature in Yosemite has a different golden hour. The problem being that the paved path that leads to it is also part of the lake, fast moving water rushing over the black asphalt. I can see the shore, near the lodge, and it isn’t that far. What the hell. My feet are already wet.

The water isn’t just cold, it’s ice cold. Freezing. By the time I’m halfway across I’m knee deep and my legs are burning. I wonder how long it takes to get frostbite but don’t bother to look it up. It takes only taken five minutes to cross but it feels like longer. I stumble out of the river lake, embarrassed because I’ve done something kind of stupid. Fortunately no one is there to chastise me because they are all SLEEPING. As they should be.

My legs are both numb and burning and I towel them off with my sweatshirt. I take the paved road by Yosemite Lodge instead of the nature path because I’m temporarily sick of nature. I can wiggle my toes if not feel them. I think they’ll make it.

The cafeteria at the lodge is open and I go in for two eggs scrambled and multigrain toast and a chance to thaw my feet. The population of the sunny room is split between dazed people such as myself, and sporty people wearing backpacks with too many straps and pockets.

yosefallsrainbow

When I’m fed and dry I head across the road to the falls and am rewarded by rainbows! Yosemite falls makes rainbows in the morning. I’m so glad I came. I people-watch from a mist-free location. It warms my heart to see adults completely in the moment, and so gleeful in the face of a thunderous and powerful and beautiful force. Thank god Yosemite is a clumsily-managed national park and not a for-profit venture. We don’t need zip lines and the Yosemite Under the Falls Experience. Okay now that I’m thinking about it, I do want that because it would be amazing. And that probably will happen, but back to my point. Watching my fellow humans “have a moment” is really nice. That woman could be a CEO or a waitress and she’d be making the same face. We stand together in awe. I guess that’s what keeps people coming to this place.

I take the long way back to camp, hiking a trail on the north side that puts me surprisingly high above the valley. On the map it’s just a fingernail from the road. I’m completely alone again, just me and the lizards and the birds. My analytic brain calculates the chances of me being raped and murdered and thrown in a crevasse and my creative brain says it’s zero. I’m sweaty and tired and safe and happy and very much living the moment, mosquitos and all. Success.

I needed a few days off the grid and in nature, and although I wasn’t technically off the grid and the nature was interrupted by the hideous structures in Housekeeping Camp, the nature still got me. Despite its awesome power and clear ability to smash and flood and eat unattended children, something in us wants to look up at a clear blue sky and impossibly vertical cliffs and gushing water and rainbows and smile at a stranger and proclaim, “Wow!”

Thanks, Yosemite.

meadowpano


A short, wet drive to a well-annotated town

I don’t usually write about one-day trips. This blog is for significant adventures. Then it occurred to me that most people will never visit Volcano. Most people will never visit California, or even the U.S. I thought about someone in a country I’ll never visit, maybe Poland, taking a weekend trip to a small town. Would I want to read about that? Yes. So here you go.

tovolcano copy

I wanted to take a tour of spring. For a few weeks each April the dry golden hills of California turn a crazy vibrant green and explode with wildflowers. I wanted to see the green, to lay in the green, to take pictures of the green, to find a field of wildflowers and bring back a big bouquet that would make me sneeze once it was confined to our tiny house.

It wasn’t supposed to rain. My dream trip was sunny. I’d prepaid the first night at the hotel with the expectation we’d arrive late after a long day of “car-hiking,” what we call it when we take back roads and stop often to take photos. Now the weather was shitty and we had to go anyway.

The problem with trying to take back roads in a rapidly-developing state like California is that that little squiggle on the map is now the main drag through a city. It took us longer than it should have to get out of the Bay Area because country was now suburb. Our car-hiking was past strip malls.

When we escaped from the sprawl of Concord I finally felt I was somewhere else. The Sacramento delta has an understated charm but the light was crappy and I wasn’t inspired to do much more than snap a few crappy photos from the car.

enroute

I cheered up when we got to Volcano. We’d discovered the town a few years ago when we were driving around the gold country and vowed to come back and stay overnight.

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All the gold rush towns along highway 49 are really cute, though most are sadly soul dead, any normal businesses long gone and replaced with antique shoppes and jewelry stores. Still, the buildings are preserved and if you squint your eyes you can pretend you are back in 1890. And 1890 is ancient history in California. That said, there are more authentic-feeling ruins around. Old mining equipment and such. So even if it is quite new compared to things in Europe or even the east coast, it is part of our history and thrilling to us natives.

Because – if you were wondering – in elementary school we spent about a week on world history and the whole rest of the year on California history. Making dioramas of log cabins  in shoeboxes, taking field trips to Sutter’s Mill to pan for gold, learning about the missions, writing reports on how to grind acorns…

Ai yi yi. As a kid I loved this, as an adult I’m not sure I got the best education. Was it good for me to study our rather unimportant history in so much detail instead of learning about the rest of the world? Would the rest of the world have been too abstract? I caught up later and love to travel so I guess it all worked out.

Anyway, Volcano. At two or three square blocks, Volcano is too small to ruin. There aren’t enough storefronts to attract tacky retail. It boasts two small hotels, two restaurants, a bar, a post office, a grocery store, and a theater. It’s off the beaten path.

Our hotel, the Union Inn, is lovely on the outside and slightly less so on inside, as if some HGTV contestants had $1000 and five hours to make the place “look like a BnB.” Boxes checked, barely.

We walked around town during a break in the rain. Every Single Building in town has in informational plaque. This is simultaneously educational and unnerving. It’s like, hi. You are a tourist. I’m a cute building. I used to be a jail. I’m adorable, aren’t I? Take a selfie with me. Don’t worry. No one will make fun of you. No one really lives here.

prison

Once it started raining in earnest we settled into the bar adjacent to the St. George hotel. And geeze that place works. I worry I’m being manipulated when I’m in a tourist town but the décor is great, the vibe is great and the bartender was an amazing kind soul who told us the history of the place as if he didn’t do that 20 times a day. He actually led me into the hotel lobby to show me a photo of Volcano in its heyday. Population 5000, wood shacks everywhere and a landscape destroyed by strip mining.

A lady from a group of drunks at the other end of the bar informed me that I was in charge of music and that the jukebox was free. I dutifully picked 10 songs. The bartender nodded “good choice” at one of them and I beamed.

I gathered, after a couple hours, that because this place is really close to Sacramento there are “regulars” who often come to Volcano for weekend getaways. We were befriended by a fascinating “May/December” couple. I don’t know if people even use that term anymore but it’s what my mom calls someone very young with someone much older. The man, in his early 70’s, struck up a conversation with us and after a few minutes of yelling he and his 20-something girlfriend moved a couple bar seats over to be closer to us.

I wasn’t sure they were a couple at first but the woman kept touching his arm whenever he got too loud and boisterous, which was all the time, and rolling her eyes at his outrageous statements, then telling us what he thought about related subjects–exasperated with him in that way that only a mate can be.

I’m familiar with the concept of older men with younger women, but only from magazines…Hugh Hefner with his newest bunny, the grizzled president of some South American country with his mistress. No one I know has ever dated someone 40 years their senior. Since it doesn’t seem to happen all that often I wondered how this relationship came about.

I liked them both. They were intense and opinionated and we had a great time discussing California politics, but I did sense some tension. I asked the woman if she’d heard of Roughing It, a book by Mark Twain about the gold and silver rush, and she replied, angrily, “Of course I’ve heard of it. All young people aren’t idiots.”

Oops. Someone has a chip on their shoulder!

After another glass of whiskey she began to high five me whenever I agreed with something she said, and then she’d nudge her boyfriend and say, “See, she understands.”

At some point they went out for a cigarette and smoked and cuddled on a bench in front of the window, then disappeared. I was relieved. They’d been acting something out for me, the audience, and I was confused and not eager to see how it ended.

After that, a bearded, red-faced man who looked like he’d arrived on one of those large, RV-style motorcycles asked if we were from San Francisco, because we looked like we were. I expected some good-natured ribbing when he found out he was right, but he lived in San Francisco back in the day, and pointed out a leather-clad man behind him. That guy’s daughter was the director of a play that was opening in the small theater that night–a soft open for friends and family so we couldn’t go. Too bad.

We had a good dinner back at our hotel and fell asleep early.

The next morning it was still raining. I was determined to get some photos, dammit, so I got the umbrella and my good camera and trudged up Church Street to the old cemetery. The gravestones listed birth and death dates as well as country of origin. People came from all over the world to Volcano to search for gold. What a crazy place it must have been in its heyday. And funny that people still come to California the strike it rich, this time with tech companies.

volcanocemetary

It was nearly impossible to keep my camera dry and absolutely impossible to avoid soaking my feet, so I gave up.

The inn only had four rooms and we were the last to breakfast. I’m not a fan of BnB’s for this specific reason. Breakfast is served from 8:00-10:30 but if you come down at 10:15 you’ll be greeted by a very impatient server. If we came down at 8 like everyone else, he could clean up the food and get on with his day. Not to fault the guy–he was super nice and friendly, just with an undercurrent of wanting us to hurry up and leave.

I’d discovered there was a cave right nearby, and I love caves. The owners of Black Chasm (it’s privately owned) had hand-painted a sign on the road in the style of official brown and yellow government signs declaring Black Chasm a National Landmark. Which I’m sorry to say turns out not be true…according the the NPS website.

helictites

Shrug. It was still a good cave. I liked it. And no rain down there!

firetruck

We had amazing pizza for lunch at Pizza Plus in Sutter Creek. The best sauce I’ve had maybe ever. Still too rainy to walk around, and my feet were still wet from my morning adventure.

We stopped for a few minutes in Locke, a town in the shadow of a levee in the Sacramento delta, built by Chinese workers in the early 20th century. The polar opposite of overly cute overly touristy Sutter Creek, poor Locke is sad and rundown and barely inhabited. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for these historic towns.

locke

We got home that evening and despite the cave, my overall feeling was that the trip was a disappointment. I barely took any pictures and saw almost no wildflowers. I didn’t get my spring fix.

ranchosecho

It took me a few weeks to realize that the only problem with that trip was that what I expected to happen didn’t happen, so even though a whole bunch of other things did, I couldn’t appreciate that right away. My expectations create a kind of haze over the real world, a transparent overlay, so that when things align, everything is super colored, super amazing. When things don’t work out, I’ve got this pesky vision of sunny skies overlaid on the gray clouds, fields of poppies on the walls of the dark bar and it’s hard to have a good time because of that.

Should I stop having expectations so I can be more flexible and adapt to the “real world?” Yes, I’d like to be more flexible, but I dunno. I like having expectations. It’s still spring in California so I’ll try again. There are still poppies out there.

Volcanowindow


Santa Fe roadtrip day 12: Flagstaff to Las Vegas and home

I felt a bit melancholy as we sat in a diner on Route 66 in Flagstaff this morning eating another greasy breakfast and watching the freight trains rumble slowly past. When we were heading out on the first day of this trip, crossing the Arizona border made me feel so far from home–the first step on a grand adventure. This morning, Arizona didn’t feel exotic at all, but instead like the beginning of a slippery slope leading to California. I wanted to back up and keep traveling. I had more national monuments to see! Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon were only miles from the motel!

Sometimes I’m homesick on these trips and ready to return, but not this time. I think it is because a friend of ours graciously offered to stay at our place, so I haven’t been plagued by worries about the cat, the yard and all that.

As we approached Nevada, we seemed to be driving straight into a thunderstorm. I was nervous about this thanks to our last southwest trip when I learned a German tourist was killed by lightning on the rim of Bryce Canyon. Fortunately, either the road skirted left or the storm moved right, so all we got was enough rain to wash the windshield free of smashed bugs.

thunderstorm

We stopped at the new Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge near Lake Mead. That’s a mouthful! Unfortunately we were *on* the bridge so we couldn’t see the bridge, but I gotta say, this is the most substantial shadow ever!

Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

The middle of somewhere…that is what I learned this trip. At first this made me a little sad. I like the idea of “the middle of nowhere.” On our last southwest road trip I was completely out of my element, the way burning man used to make me feel. I liked this.

This time I had enough dots to connect to make a picture. The towns weren’t isolated. Every lonely road was one that numerous people used to get to work every day. For instance, we took the road that goes northeast from 70 (below, right of center). That looks like a whole lot of nowhere, doesn’t it? Especially when you do a side by side comparison with a map of the Bay Area.

Yeah, we had very spotty cell coverage and drove through some amazing, seemingly untouched scenery, but this was not The Middle of Nowhere. We rounded a bend and there was a huge power plant.

I’m a romantic, but also a realist. Am I willing to trade my dream of a rugged, uninhabited southwest for one of small towns populated by people like me, sitting on the couch on a Thursday night watching Tivo and arguing over which designer should be cut from Project Runway? Reluctantly, yes. : ) Those people could be my neighbors.


Day 10: Santa Fe to Flagstaff

I’m eager to hit the road, but as soon as we do, I realize the magic spell is broken. We aren’t meandering, we are headed to Flagstaff–the first step towards home. What makes this feeling worse is me knowing it is all my own state of mind. I wish I had to power to compartmentalize this day and make it as special as any day on the trip out here. I try my best.

This route is along a very busy train corridor, and the skies, as usual, go on forever. I’m almost glad not to live here so I can’t get used to it.

A particularly large, red rock formation rising straight out of the valley floor is too much to resist, so we pull off and hike around Church Rock, New Mexico for a bit.

church rock new mexico

As we get closer to Flagstaff, the scenery changes to pine trees and flowers.

We get into Flagstaff and after driving for hours I’m not up for doing an archeological dig into the conflicting Yelp reviews of the two old-time hotels in town. Awesome! Sucks! Loved it! Hated it! Great room! Noisy!

Guiltily, we check into a down-at-the-heels Hampton Inn. We luck out with a quiet ground floor room with a nice view. We go to dinner at a brew pub and get an “our kinda town” feel from the waitstaff and clientele. Must be the nearby university. I imagine an alternative universe where I went to school here and had a good time.


Day 10: Kicking around Santa Fe

Everyone spent the day preparing for my parent’s anniversary party that evening. You can skip the rest of this post if you aren’t interested in rants about bad customer service. You should skip it! This is old news to all of us…the familiar problem of trying desperately to give a company money and they just won’t take it!

I’ve been trying for over two weeks to get a cake ordered from “the best bakery” in Santa Fe, according to Yelp. I went to the bakery website, found a cake I liked, and called the bakery.

“I’d like to order a cake.”

“Oh, lemme transfer you.”

I am put on hold for a long time. Minutes.

“Hello?”

“Hi. I’d like to order a cake.”

“Do you know what kind you want?”

I do, and I rattle off all the specs from the online menu they have…but this is where I ruin everything…”I’d like custom decoration. I’m looking at your website and I’d like it to look just like the one on your gallery page, second row, last cake.”

“Can you describe it?”

“Well, I’d rather have you look at it. Do you have a computer?”

No, the person on the phone did not have a computer and I’d have to call back and talk to the cake decorating lady who was not in right now. I ask if I can send an email with a picture of what I want. They say yes and I ask if the email address on the webpage I am looking at is correct. No – instead of emailing the bakery I have to email a gmail address.

Needless to say no one emails me back. I call a few days later to check in and the cake decorating lady is not in. A day or so later I get a voicemail message from her acknowledging my order and asking me to call to confirm and give my credit card number. I call back, she is not in.

Now we are on the road and it is hard for me to make calls during business hours. Cell service is really spotty. When I do manage to call, she is not in.

Screw it! When we arrive in Santa Fe I go to a nearby Whole Foods. The people at the bakery are super nice. The woman who does cake decorating is there and she comes out from behind the counter and looks at my computer and does a sketch based on my photo. She doesn’t want a down payment, and the price of the cake is (bizarrely) about half what the other bakery was going to charge me.

Today we pick up the cake and it is absolutely perfect. Just like the photo. (Sorry about the crummy photo *I* took. The restaurant was dark and a flash ruins everything.)

I want to patronize small businesses and time after time I hit a brick wall when I try to do so. Anyone at “the best bakery” could have helped me if they were willing to go beyond their job description but no one was.

Ironically, when I try to send a thank you letter to the manager of the Santa Fe Whole Foods, I discover the store has no email address online. : )


Santa Fe roadtrip day 9: Bandelier National Monument

Why have I never heard of this place? In fact, why is nearly every national monument I see on the map a complete mystery to me? I’m embarrassed to be so ignorant of the facts of our county, but on the other hand, I have a problem with getting overly excited about places and things I read about, so on this trip I’ve been trying to figure out what will be interesting without learning too much.

I’m predisposed to like Bandelier National Monument, if only because I really want to get out of Santa Fe. For nearly a week we’ve explored wide open spaces with skies that went on forever, and I’m feeling a little claustrophobic in the suburban sprawl. I can’t get my bearings. I’m eager to spend one whole day outdoors and on my feet. The scenery on the way there is fascinating. I’m ready to jump out of the car right now and explore!

mountains near Los Alamos

We arrive in Los Alamos, where we have to take a shuttle the last 20 minutes to the park. There was a flood a while back and…well as far as I can tell the shuttle was probably needed for a few months but now no one wants to fire the drivers, because I can see no reason we couldn’t have driven right in. Everything is fine.

Anyway, the park is way better than I expected. A pretty, 2-mile round trip totally level walk along a river canyon, with native American stone houses and cave dwellings.

bandelier national monument

This rock, if I remember correctly, is actually compressed ash from a volcano, and this lends itself to all the cool, naturally occurring caves and holes! You can see, on the photo I took when we were driving in, these holes are everywhere in this area. This seems like a good place to live in olden days. I like that you can still see evidence of wallpaper, aka plaster with decorations. The round holes are where the logs for the roofs were secured.

The best part is that, at the end of the trail, you can climb up a sheer cliff face on wooden ladders to get to a really big cave. I’m amazed this is legal in the U.S.! Wow! I hate to even write about this because I don’t want to bring this to the attention of the wrong person–who will start a campaign to get the ladders removed. None of my pictures can do this justice so I won’t bother posting them. Instead here is another neat scene. You can get an idea of the scale from the tall pine (?) tree up on top.

bandelier national monument

That night after dinner we met our friend Aneel–coincidentally also on a southwest road trip–at a nearby dive bar. I felt very out of place when we walked in. Everyone but us was dressed up in southwest style garb, well over 60, completely drunk, and dancing to an extremely loud cover band.

There was one thing I could do to fit in, and it wasn’t dance. After a few drinks I began to relax it all made more sense. These retirees were Getting Down! I haven’t seen such enthusiastic dancing in a long time. They spun, they waved their hands in the air,  they ground pelvises. After each song ended, the dance floor emptied as everyone collapsed into chairs for a breather, but once the band started they jumped up like jack in the boxes. They were having a blast!

It was an inspiration. I saw my future and I wasn’t sitting in my front room yelling at the hovering drones the pesky teenage kids were using to spy on me. I was in Santa Fe in a dive bar swing dancing with a cowboy. Yee haw!


Santa Fe Roadtrip Day 4: Black Canyon

We arrived in Montrose, Colorado last night after sunset, and, sick of driving, ate dinner at the restaurant across the street from our motel. This is when the internet feels like a curse. We knew in advance that the place was going to be mediocre. If we could have only mustered a little more energy, we could have had a good meal somewhere on the other side of this sprawling, suburban-feeling town. So, not only do we eat preformed, probably frozen hamburgers, we also feel like lazy asses.

The next morning, we visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It is only a short drive from our funky (more on that below) motel. Unfortunately, it was overcast and the dull, uniform light made for an underwhelming viewing experience. We couldn’t get a sense of scale, or see where one outcropping ended and the next began. After we did all the vista points, the sun began to peek out, and we revisited a few spots. The difference was amazing. Very pretty, steep and fairly dramatic. Still–not black like I expected. The rock is a middle gray, shot through with pink and white veins. This is worth a visit if you happen to be in the area, but I wouldn’t plan a trip around this.

We drove down a twisty, narrow road to the canyon floor and were rewarded with a pretty river view.

After that, we drove to Cimmaron, a historic narrow-gauge railroad town. How could I resist a place with a name like that? Well, Cimmaron was a town, but is now nothing more than a few old train cars and a visitor’s center that is “sometimes open” – the plaque on the wall actually says that. Our time was not totally wasted though, as a short drive down the road put us at the bottom of Morrow Point Dam, a dramatic slab of concrete rising in a steep sided canyon. Very cool! The rocks in this area are super sparkly (mica?) and I got a few samples.

That evening at the motel I saw an ad for the Star Drive-In. I hadn’t been to the drive-in since I was a kid so we decided we had to go. I mean, why not spend more time in the car?

To my surprise, there was a line of cars around the block waiting to get in. The place was packed. We arrived late and had to park in the second to last row. I didn’t care about the movie (animated, something about a circus), I wanted atmosphere and I got it. A hot night, the echoing of 100 out-of-synch speakers, the moon rising over an airstream parked in the back of the lot…

…the snack bar, all of it made me feel I was in a time warp.

We stayed at a cute, mom and pop motel in Montrose. You can see our oversized rental car parked directly in front of our room.

I fight an internal battle every time I have to decide whether to stay in a cute little place like this or a generic chain hotel.

Here are my main pain and pleasure points. First, I need a decent bed. After a day of driving and hiking, I’m worn out. Nothing is worse than sitting down on the bed and realizing it is one of those mushy, three-inch thick mattresses that sag in the middle like my grandmother’s “one-nighter” pull-out couch. A chain hotel will generally have a decent mattress. A little place like this? It is a gamble. In this particular case, the bed was bad, and for the first time ever, R. and I ended up sleeping in separate beds (we had 2 doubles that were touted as queens) due to the roll-to-the-middle phenomena.

However, with the small motel you get lots of charm, character, and quirk. It means a lot to me to have a unique experience. Nothing creeps me out more than arriving in a town I’ve never visited and checking into a hotel EXACTLY like the one I left in the dust 400 miles ago. In a small motel, you won’t be greeted by a smiling woman in a uniform reciting a canned speech. No! You’ll be greeted by the owner or a live-in manager and they might be a sweet Indian guy who steps away from dinner to check you in, or it may be a skinny, shaved-head white guy in a dirty T-shirt with blood-shot eyes who really wants to tell you all about the motel and the area and a whole bunch of other stuff as you politely nod and slowly shuffle towards the door and promise you will come back to the lobby soon to get more of his great advice. Seriously, I cannot tell you what the woman at the front desk at the Richfield hotel looked like, but I could draw you a picture of the dude in Montrose and his equally-emaciated, equally-friendly mullet-headed girlfriend.

There is other character besides the characters. Floor to ceiling wood paneling. Unique touches like this in the bathroom:

And the art! We stay in a Marriott in Austin for South by Southwest and every single room has the same poster and I swear, every time I see it, a tiny piece of my soul dies. It is a picture of a rowboat in some kind of murky, scum-filled body of water. It is out of focus. Not artsy, just badly done. The worst part, the kicker, is that the horizon is not straight. Argh, I hate that poster!

Compare that to this!

This is a signed print of a moose–in a basket! Next to this is a slice of a tree stump with a deer head inlaid in another type of wood, also signed.

When you put your real metal key into the lock and turn it, you have NO idea what you will find in that room. Or, how it will smell, how many holes will be in the carpet, whether or not the locks on the window work, or whether you will get more than two of the tiny, frayed bath towels.

It is an adventure, and one, I’ll admit, I’m sometimes up for, and sometimes not.