Friday, May 29, 2015

San Diego Road Trip By Way of the Eastern Sierras

In April we headed to San Diego for a memorial for my Uncle Larry. Uncle Larry was my dad's oldest brother. He was a really good guy, a sweet guy, a family guy. His daughter, Jo, who's my cousin who I live vicariously through because she continues to do theater work, which I gave up years ago (she writes too), organized this service for him, as well as many other family gatherings around San Diego. Because my uncle was such a good guy, his bountiful spirit brought forth all sorts of McElroys and McElroy friends and relations to converge on the magical burg of San Diego.

But before we could enjoy what turned out to be a really fantastic family reunion, we drove through the Eastern Sierras on our way south. And a freak snowstorm blew in the night before our journey, so I'm telling you, the weather patterns we experienced on this trip were off the charts. OFF THE CHARTS! Let's review—California's going through the worst drought in recorded time, and here we were, driving to Lake Tahoe in April, in the snow.


Keith is such a smart traveler. He checked multiple times before we left and thought to pack Jackson's sled. Look how happy Jackson is to be sledding in April during the worst recorded drought in California history.

Wheee! Take that, climate change!

This was the view of Lake Tahoe from the top of the lovely and informative Stateline Fire Lookout hike. It's up a basic, paved fire road and there's signage along a loop at the top about the geologic timeline that created this beautiful area.

Keep Tahoe Blue. And clear—I love Mark Twain's description of the clarity of Tahoe's water from his 1872 travelogue, Roughing It. Here's the passage describing his small-boat excursion around the lake. Though Twain was famous for his comic gift of exaggeration, this was an honest piece of reportage:
So singularly clear was the water, that where it was only twenty or thirty feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that the boat seemed floating in the air! Yes, where it was even eighty feet deep. Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every hand's- breadth of sand. Often, as we lay on our faces, a granite boulder, as large as a village church, would start out of the bottom apparently, and seem climbing up rapidly to the surface, till presently it threatened to touch our faces, and we could not resist the impulse to seize an oar and avert the danger. But the boat would float on, and the boulder descend again, and then we could see that when we had been exactly above it, it must still have been twenty or thirty feet below the surface. Down through the transparency of these great depths, the water was not merely transparent, but dazzlingly, brilliantly so. All objects seen through it had a bright, strong vividness, not only of outline, but of every minute detail, which they would not have had when seen simply through the same depth of atmosphere. So empty and airy did all spaces seem below us, and so strong was the sense of floating high aloft in mid-nothingness, that we called these boat-excursions "balloon-voyages."

If you're passing through downtown Truckee and need some grub, we recommend stopping at Burger Me—burgers, shakes, fries—simple fare, but so, so good. You won't be sorry! The milkshakes are HUGE.

On to BRIDGEPORT! I like Bridgeport. Look at the courthouse—cool.

There's a modern (ugly) building addition in the back for further courthouse functions, but that doesn't stop this original building from being one of the all-time great goldrush-era courthouses.

I should mention the temperatures we encountered on this trip. Due to the storm, it was seriously cold on this leg of the journey (and many restaurants and other summer-based businesses were still closed in Bridgeport). During our Bridgeport overnight stay, it was in the high-teens, temperature-wise. It hit 22°F in the morning. We layered up. This trip was a wardrobe challenge—I mean, the destination was San Diego in the spring—you can imagine...

The Bridgeport Community Church and its landscaping is so compelling to me that I shot it at two different angles, which I will share with you here.

Isn't this the most existential-looking church?

It's trying very hard in a hard land

We walked around the nearby Travertine Hot Springs but didn't partake. It's not a nude hot spring but that didn't stop the old sunburned guy wearing (only) a cowboy hat who was sitting on the edge of one of the tiny springs (there's three), apologizing for being nude while showing off his nudity. I told him I was a California native, so I could handle his nakedness. But Jackson kept muttering, "no way" as we weighed the pros and cons of the situation. There were two other small springs but they were pretty crowded. Another time.

The view from the springs (looking away from old naked cowboy-hat guy)

We headed down the 3-mile rattly bumpy rutted dirt road to Bodie State Historic Park for our second visit in two years and hiked a little higher up above town and over by the closed mine this time around. Most of my latest photos aren't that interesting, but here's the view from inside the schoolhouse once again, just to show that nothing changes in Bodie throughout the years—the layer of dust just thickens.

As we roamed around the dirt roads of the abandoned mining town, former home of working men and women, criminals, drunks, merchants, pimps and the occasional family unit, we came across this slightly well-appointed (for Bodie) home. A couple of the houses out of the 200 decaying buildings have curtains covering their windows and suspiciously sturdy steps leading up to their building-code compliant porches. Is this where the park ranger lives? we wondered as we studied the vintage junk left in the yard, oh so historically...

A quick inspection around the grounds revealed a satellite dish hidden behind a sturdy shed built from weathered reclaimed wood. And a discreet garbage bin, also hidden behind an old junky-looking structure. There was an outhouse too, but it was long abandoned, thankfully. I'm glad the rangers have some indoor plumbing going on (I'm assuming).

Sorry, rangers, if it was a little creepy for us to be stalking your home. We were just curious about where park workers function when the park shuts down for the night. We joked about calling the homeowners association to get this yard cleaned up. Chimneys look compliant though, so that's good.

Just look at this mess (also a little snow visible—temperature was in the low 40s)

Refreshed, we stopped by the Mono Lake Visitor's Center, which is a great educational resource to learn about the geology and natural history of this uncanny waterway. If you're looking to experience the incredible tufa formations, head to the State Natural Reserve, off of 395, south of Lee Vining. The Mono Lake Committee Information Center in downtown (heh) Lee Vining is also worth a visit. You could make a study of Mono Lake many times over and still learn something new the next time you visit.

The lake's water level is definitely dangerously low this year due to the drought. Los Angeles has agreed to allow more freshwater springs to flow into the lake to balance out its heavy alkaline levels. Los Angeles and Eastern Sierras water rights is an ongoing power/environmental/population struggle in California's timeline. See Roman Polanski's Chinatown for an artist's take on that story. Here's the Wikipedia entry on this never-ending struggle for water here in the west. 

A quick stop at teeny-tiny Lee Vining to visit the Upside-Down House. What's that, you ask? Why, it's a house, turned upside down! Let's read the plaque:

Ha ha! The plaque's upside down too (of course)! I could turn it right-side up in Photoshop, but it's more fun this way. Here's the gist:
A distinctive local landmark and nationally renowned tourist attraction. It was the creation of Nellie Bly O'Bryan (1893 - 1984), visionary, entrepreneur and long-time resident of the Mono Basin. [She was also a silent-film actress who worked with Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo - ed.] Originally located along US-395, North of the Tioga Lodge, it was inspired by two children's stories—"Upside Down Land" and "The Upsidedownians." [The second book sounds good - ed.] ... Although it's (sic) tenure as Mono County's first "man-made" tourist attraction was brief (1956 to 1968), it made a lasting contribution to the promotion and development of the Eastern Sierra.
Here it is, the Eastern Sierras' first tourist attraction, The Upside-Down House:

The Upside-Down House could use some skylights (floorlights...?). It's very difficult to see all the upside-down stuff inside when you peek in its tiny window. Here's my attempt—pretty dark and spooky for an attraction based on children's literature. Still, I get a hint of charm in the decor.

There's even an upside-down potted plant, for some nice upside-down fung shui.

Onward! A quick stop at the June Lake Loop for this lovely view of June Lake.

The view from State Route 158

Long car rides and a couple nights on hard motel beds gave us a hankerin' for a swim and a soak at Keough Hot Springs, just down the road from Bishop. With its warm mineral-water splashing swimmers from its ancient plumbing, this family-owned resort, though crumbling in a modern-ruin kind of way, may be the happiest place on earth. If it can just hold on for another hundred years, I'll know there's some good in this world.

Then on to that fabulous portal to Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental U.S. (not that we were going hiking up there—it's more than 14,000 feet tall—Jesus), Lone Pine. Here's downtown Lone Pine.

Who needs some moccasins?
Home of Margie's Merry-Go-Round

What's there to do in Lone Pine? Plenty, my friend. First, have a fine breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe. It's over there by the laundromat and full of nice people and good affordable grub.

After your delicious huevos rancheros, why not take a leisurely drive around the Alabama Hills? Stupidly named, but well-worth the short drive out of town. This is where so many western and sci-fi films were shot over the years, you'll think you see some gunslingers or lizard people come sweeping from 'round about that strange outcropping of rocks ov'r t'ere.

My photos don't do it justice—we did a quick drive and popped out of the car only a few times. A camera with a big fat lens to handle all the reflective sunlight is a must. The reddish-orangeish rock formations are so bizarre and near-cartoonish that your brain won't know what to make of what you're seeing all around you. And the Sierras loom in the background—the perfect backdrop for crazy wild-west adventures.

The rain from two nights before brought out these wildflowers

A delightful horsie lives on this ranch and neighed at us as we drove by

Don't forget to pack your golf clubs to try out the range at the Mt. Whitney Course, established 1959.

Golf is hard, but you know what's even harder? That's right, Death Valley. Keith wanted to revisit the biggest national park in the continental U.S. (damn you, Alaska with your even larger national parks!), to see one of its wonders that we missed last time: Darwin Falls. Falls, in Death Valley?!?! It's true, folks. Death Valley, the lowest, meanest, driest, hottest place on Earth (pretty much, give or take a few other worldwide desert regions), has a waterfall.

But first you have to drive through the park a bit to get to it. Here's what you see as you drive along Highway 190:

Father Crowley Vista - bleak but majestic too

The incredibly resilient flowering plants that appear after scarce rainfall

Daisy-like flowers survive against all odds

And then, here's more testimony to Keith's travel smarts (and all-around smarts, in general). Reading multiple sites and guidebooks for weeks on end paid off, because he knew to check our mileage from main highway junctions to find crucial and very obscure turn-offs in order to locate some of this stuff. The signage for the (dirt) road that leads to the 2-mile round-trip hike to the falls is a dirt-colored sign, a few feet off the ground, and it's not on the highway itself. Plus it looks like a homemade sign that someone scribbled in haste on their way out to grab some brewskies after a day of hiking (see nearby Panamint Springs Resort for those brewskies, and ice cream, etc.)

So travelers: heed your mileage. We were having a nice conversation in the car when Keith thought to look at the odometer and see if we were forty miles or so from our initial checkpoint. We were, so he yelled, "I think we were supposed to turn THERE!" I had already missed this barely visible turnoff, so I backed up on the highway for an eighth of a mile (hey, it's Death Valley—make your own rules), and we were off, down a twisty bumpy dusty dirt path toward a lot full of cars.

And this canyon:

Falls? What falls? I don't see any falls...

We trundled along (now wearing shorts and T-shirts—winter gear stashed away for good), noticing more greenery as we delved deeper into the canyon.

Until, finally—a stream! The recent storm made for a good little rush of water for the rest of the hike.

We hippity-hopped over some bends in the stream and climbed a few boulders near the end of the hike, until we reached it—Darwin Falls.

Here's a portrait view to show a bit of scale—not a towering behemoth of a fall by any means, but relative to where we were, pretty damn impressive. 

There's a super-long, leaky, ancient pipeline along the entire canyon hike, perhaps bringing much-need water to the nearby settlement of Darwin (population: 36). I think the more we visit Death Valley, the more we agree: it's a freaky place, on many levels.

After Death Valley, we made a pilgrimage to the Trona Pinnacles. The what? That's what I said. Keith said we should go, so we went, down yet another bumpy, dusty, twister, rutted dirt road to this:

It's a former lake bed that dried up completely 10,000 years ago, revealing 500 tufa. It's otherworldly yet of this world. If you're coming from Death Valley to Trona Pinnacles, you'll be heading through Trona, a dry lake-bed mining town (a different dry lake bed, full of minerals). Stop at Trails Drive In for your burgers, shakes and fries before visiting the Pinnacles. I had a strawberry shake with fresh strawberries and it was SO GOOD.

And on to San Diego. I love San Diego. Love, love, love San Diego. I love my family. I want my family to all go to San Diego to meet up again.

Downtown, San Diego, looking good

Jackson and his cousins Paris and Fayme with Aunt Kamber at Old Town schoolhouse

Balboa Park

Mission Beach

Cousins, Megan and Matt with their mom, my Aunt Linda (I just call her Linda)

My Mom & Dad with my cousin Marianne and three of her kids, Allie, Kristen and Sean (Kimmie's not in the photo, but she, like her cool siblings, was very present)

Farewell, Uncle Larry—you were here in spirit.

Larry's daugthers, Jo and Molly with Uncle Tom, their brother Mike, our friend, Father Dave and my Dad

My Dad with his arm around his youngest brother, Tom

I had never been to a military service. We first attended a church service, presided over by our family friend, Father Dave, and after the reception we headed out to the cemetery for a gun salute and flag-folding ceremony. It was quite moving. The young soldiers in formation, especially during their slow-motion march, are walking symbols of giving up individuality for the good of the whole.

Warrior culture is very cut off from day-to-day life in our Bay Area burg, but in San Diego, it's a huge part of city culture and industry. My Uncle didn't talk about his service much but it must have deeply affected him (I know he traveled far for the first time after he was drafted and joined the Marines) for him to request this kind of send-off. For such a kind, gentle guy, it was a dignified and very proper way to go. And beautiful and dramatic. Perfect.

I made a short video of the salute. Hat's off to these young soldiers.


Unknown said...

Thank you Miss Lisa! I loved hearing about your trip down to the most awesome memorial EVER! I was just thinking the other day about how I wish we could rewind and do it again now! Love you!!!!Marianne

Miss Lisa said...

Your beautiful family, Marianne! Such good hearts--what a special visit for us all. I just wish we could all have stayed longer. Memories and hope for a future meetup--yes! <3

jo senecal said...

Um, I'll let you know when I can watch this without bawling my butt off. Love you so so much, my dearest cousin Lisa. Love your heart. Your witty, kind, talented heart. With a touch of weird. You're perfect.