Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Bridalveil Falls

First stop of the trip was Bridalveil Falls. The parking lot is a short drive from the park entrance, and the vista point just is a short walk from the parking lot. It is the perfect spot for those who want to get their feet wet for Yosemite valley.

It was relatively late in the year, and the water was not at its fullest. We decided not to climb up onto the rocks to get to the pool at the base of the falls. They say if you can stare into the mist for more than a minute, you will get married within a year. There wasn't any mist where we were standing, so did not have a chance to test that.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Yosemite Autumn

I always wanted to see autumn colors. One of the trips on my short list is to do New England in the fall. It's still on my short list, and I can never seem to find the right time to do it.

As a backup plan, I decided to do Yosemite in the fall. The logic was simple. It snows in Yosemite in the winter. There are trees there. Therefore, I should be able to see the leaves on those trees turn red and gold and orange before the snow starts falling.

So, one weekend two years ago, Doreen and I hopped into the car, and started driving east, towards the Sierras.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sand Dunes

Our final stop in the Valley was the sand dunes close to Stovepipe Wells. These sand dunes take up only a very small portion of the entire valley, and I found myself wondering how all this sand converged to this spot instead of being scattered to the four corners of the park. From certain angles, the dunes frame the desert in its most stereotypical pose – miles of pure golden sand. Walking across the dunes took a little getting used to. I expected it to be like a stroll on the beach, but the sand here was less packed and much more likely to give way under your feet. It was more like walking in snow. I felt that every footstep I made on the dunes was a blemish to this picture perfect scene, and I found comfort only in the thought that they will be gone and forgotten with the next gale.

The sun was just about starting to set as we approached the dunes, bathing the sands in just the right hue. I exclaimed in wonder, and snapped away delightedly with my camera. From the top of our dune, we also saw a few other people, each on the top of their respective dunes, trying to capture the moment.

“This makes it all worth it”, Paul said simply.

I nodded, and we left the Valley with its pristine dunes and its rugged mountains, its untamed winds and its salt covered terrain, its awe-inspiring panoramas and last but not least, its proud magnificent desolation.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Ubehebe Crater

Aside from the castle, the other major sight in that region was the Ubehebe Crater. This was one gigantic hole in the ground, and reminds me a lot of the Sarlacc Pit in Return of the Jedi. At first, I imagined this was caused by some ancient meteor bouncing off the Earth like a huge space-faring billiard ball. The information board at the site tells us otherwise, though. This in fact is what you get when you add magma to an underground lake. The immediate region all around the crater was covered with black ash and sand, very much like what you see on the beaches of Santorini, another volcanically active spot.

One place in the Valley that I really would have liked to visit was the Racetrack. This was accessible by a gravel road branching off from the paved one to the Ubehebe Crater. Since we didn’t want to subject Paul’s poor car to God knows how many miles of bumping around, we had to leave this out of our itinerary. Why am I so interested in this Racetrack place then? Because rocks move here, and nobody knows why. That’s right. They move, in strange unpredictable paths, leaving trails in the dried mud. Sometimes a few will move together, and sometimes one decides to simply take off on its own. And the mysterious thing is, no one has ever seen them move! How friggin’ cool is that? Next time I come, I’m renting a four wheel drive.

Scotty's castle

Our first stop on Sunday was Scotty’s castle. Built by insurance magnate Albert Johnson, the castle bears the name of his caretaker, Walter Scott. When the castle was built, Scott bragged to reporters that he was the once who actually built the castle, financing it with his private gold mine. Albert Johnson played along with the charade, and it eventually became known as Scotty’s Castle. I supposed Albert must really be a nice guy to allow his castle to be named after his caretaker.

We chose not to join the tour into the castle, and spent our time walking up a small uprising to where Death Valley Scotty was buried. From the top, the view was quite pleasant, and there was a plaque with a quote by Scotty, “I got four things to live by: Don’t say nothing that will hurt anybody. Don’t give advice, nobody will take it anyway. Don’t complain. Don’t explain.”

To give an idea of how large Death Valley is, Scotty’s Castle is 53 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. That is roughly the distance between San Jose and San Francisco. It didn’t seem that far when we were in the Valley, though. I guess the size and scope of the entire region really do affect your perceptions.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

No rooms available

When we arrived at the tiny town of Beatty, it was immediately obvious that this place existed mostly to serve the traffic coming in and out of Death Valley. There were a few cheap looking motels, the obligatory restaurants and gas stations, even a ritzy casino. We were just looking forward to a comfortable night’s rest when we were told by a receptionist that “every room from here till the California border has been booked for the long weekend.” I was momentarily stunned, and instantly started to chide myself for not making reservations. The horde has arrived, and we were in the midst of it. We ignored the omens, disregarded the signals, and grossly underestimated the number of people traveling on this day. As a result, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere with no available hotel room within a hundred mile radius.

“Let’s drive to Las Vegas”, said Paul.

“You gotta be kidding. Vegas is two hours from here”

“What other choice do we have?”

He had a point. With the zillion hotels in Vegas, there’s got to be one with an available room, right? So, we hopped back into the car, and headed south. Two hours later, we were scouring the Strip asking for a hotel room. After about 15 phone calls, I decided that it was time to grab something to eat and resign ourselves to sleeping in the car. That was definitely a novel experience for me, and I slept surprisingly well.

Until, of course, 5:30 in the morning when the security guys shone a light into the car and politely and firmly told us that we are not allowed to sleep here, chums. “Ok, sorry”, we replied, which actually translates to “You think we have any choice? Fxck you.”

So we got up and decided to see if the breakfast buffet at Bellagio was going to be open anytime soon. It didn’t start till eight, so I sat down at a blackjack table and squandered forty bucks in ten minutes before heading back to the car to catch another hour’s worth of sleep. The Bellagio parking lot was much more comfortable, and no security guys showed up this time.

We debated a little about our plans for the day over a hearty brunch. Should we make the two-and a half hour trip back to the Death Valley? Should we stick around Vegas and check things out? Should I try to win back my forty bucks? Where will we spend the night? Bakerfield, as planned? Why not in Vegas? In the end, we came to a compromise – go back to the Valley, and spend the night in Bakersfield. That would cut the return journey by half on Monday since Vegas to SF would have been a ten hour drive

Badwater Basin

The next stop on our itinerary was Badwater Basin. According to legend, one of the early prospectors came across this small body of water and couldn’t get his mule to drink from it. Thus, he called this “bad water” and the name stuck. The water, it seems, is not poisonous, but simply undrinkable due to the mineral deposits.

Stark beauty aside, Badwater is pretty much a godforsaken place. In addition to that slight problem with the water, it is 280 feet below sea level, there is no vegetation whatsoever, and the temperature routinely eclipses 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Taking all that into consideration, I would have expected any sensible living thing to avoid this area at all costs. This brings me to two conclusions - 1) tourists are crazy. 2) There are crazier things than tourists, and they are called Badwater Snails. These little critters actually live in the brine of Badwater Basin. Talk about resilience, strength of character, standing up in the face of adversity, and being stuck in a really, really, really lousy situation.

Like the Devil’s Golf Course, and probably a large portion of the Valley, the floor of Badwater Basin was covered with the white stuff that we now recognized as crystallized salts. Over time, the steady stream of visitors have trudged a white-colored path heading into the basin away from the parking lot. We followed the path and wandered around. A member of the Green Tortoise tour group that was also visiting the Basin at that time suddenly pointed up to the side of the mountain and said “What’s that sign up there on the mountain?”

I looked up, even though he obviously wasn’t talking to me. The sign, about 200 feet above where I was standing, had two large words – “SEA LEVEL”. Yep. There you have it, folks.

This is the lowest spot in the entire western hemisphere. Incidentally, the highest point in the 48 contiguous states is Mt. Whitney, no more than a hundred miles away from here.

As the sun started to set, we drove out to of the park to the nearby Beatty to find a place to spend the night. Nested in its own crib of mountains, the Valley is truly isolated from the rest of civilization. Stars usually hidden by light pollution began to appear one after another, high above in the night sky. I believe it was Bessie Johnson who said, “You may have cities and electric lights, movies, dancing parties, and surging crowds; but, for a thrill, an emotion, a sense of peace, and a confidence in a God who cares, give me moonlight in the Desert.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Devil's Golf Course

A few miles down the road from Golden Canyon was the Devil’s Golf Course. To get to the vista point, we had to turn into an unpaved road which had its share of bumps and dips. Many of the roads in the Valley were unpaved, and I have yet to figure out whether this is because of the relatively small number of visitors compared to the other national parks in the region, or because of the huge size of the Valley itself.

“This is terrible! Oh! My car!” Needless to say, Paul was really feeling for his car as we vroomed onwards. “Drive slower.. please. Ouch ouch ouch ouch.” I wondered how much fun the new Honda Civic couple was having just about now. But then again, maybe they were still parked at the pump.

The Devil’s Golf Course was the remnants of an ancient lake. Believe it or not, back in the good old days thousands and thousands of years ago, this entire place was filled with water. But time passed, and even climates change. The lake dried up, leaving behind the crystallized minerals on the Valley floor as a silent memorial to the days long gone.

At the vista point, we were surrounded by miles upon miles of craggy terrain covered with white crystallized salt. The unique feature of the Devil’s Golf Course was the gnarled lumpy formations that lent an unreal, extra-terrestrial quality to the region. All you needed now was a spaceship, and buckets of goo to smear onto the lumpy formations. Wait till nightfall, and you’d be expecting to see Ripley running around spraying the badass Queen-mother Alien with napalm. We didn’t wait till nightfall, so we had to settle for trying to make out the sound of billions of salt crystals cracking in the afternoon sun.

Golden Canyon

Our first stop after Furnace Creek was the Golden Canyon hiking trail. It wasn’t really on our itinerary, but we stopped to take a look to see why all the cars were parked by the road, and decided to walk off our lunch. The name Golden Canyon sounds rather inspirational too.

The afternoon sun was really starting to turn up the heat, and soon after setting off from the trailhead, I was drinking lots of water and wearing only a T-shirt. The trail was only a little over a mile long, but by the time we got there, we were doing everything we could to walk in the shade. The walls on both sides of the canyon were a lighter shade than the mountains that surround the Valley, almost golden under the sunlight.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Entering the Desert

Saturday was Valentine’s Day. Somehow, driving around with another guy in the middle of the desert didn’t feel very Valentinely to me. So, we sort of forgot about the occasion. It dawned on me that a plausible explanation to why our negotiations broke down with the other potential participants of the trip was because Valentine’s Day was not the type of quality time you want to spend with two other guys, no matter what your situation was.

Coming back to driving through the desert, we did that for a few hours before we finally came to the entrance of the park. There really wasn’t anything that marked it as an entrance, just a looming mountain range, and a line on the map in my hand. We had less than half a tank of gas left, and we fretted a little about running out before the next gas station.

At first glance, the valley does not seem to be any more impressive than much of the scenery along the arduous roads that lead to it from Los Angeles, Bakersfield, or Las Vegas. The land was dry and covered with coarse pebbles. All the smaller components such as soil and dirt had been blown away by the wind due to the minimal vegetation cover. Occasionally, a drunken tumbleweed would decide to cross the road without a thought of its own safety. Every direction we look, the brown mountains were always in the background, barren and imposing. As we stopped at Stonewell Pipes to fill up on gas, we were somewhat relieved see that there were many other visitors to the park – bikers in leather, retirees in RVs, and even that one couple that decided that it would be a good idea to park their brand new Honda Civic at the gas pump.

Of course, the first stop on our itinerary was the Furnace Creek Visitor Center smack in the middle of the park. Always visit the Visitor Center in the National Parks. They give out really cool glossy high-quality maps, and the rangers, as always, were extremely helpful in telling us where to visit and how to get there.

President's Day in the Death Valley

Death Valley has always struck me as a place of mystery and wonder. Designated as a National Park in 1994, this is the largest park outside of Alaska. Although it lacks the beautiful perfection of Yosemite, or the unbelievable grandeur of the Grand Canyon, there are still many secrets to be unearthed here in this isolated corner of the world.

On the President’s Day long weekend of 2004, Paul and I decided to take a road trip to check this place out. Everyone else seemed to be busy and unwilling to commit for 3 whole days, so after all negotiations broke down with the others, we decided to stake it out on our own.

From Yahoo Maps, the drive to the Valley was a little over seven hours. Since driving long distances has never been a favorite hobby of mine, I proposed that we break up the journey by spending Friday and Sunday nights in Bakersfield. Reason prevailed, and the plan was set. At sunset, we set out from the Bay Area, jauntily heading south in Paul’s ‘95 Nissan Sentra.

As we pulled into Bakersfield at around midnight, the first motel that we tried was fully booked. We thought nothing more of it, moved on to the motel next door, and even managed to bargain a $10 discount for one of the two remaining rooms. Little did we suspect that we were witnessing the ominous effects of what was to come. The next day, the first day of the long weekend, millions of Americans will get out of bed, into their SUVs, and head off towards some faraway destination. Our little incident with the rooms signaled the approach of the vanguard of this inevitable horde, like water seeping through cracks before the dyke finally gives way with a thunderous burst, and the river comes crashing down on the landscape, including the little Dutch boy with his finger stuck in the wall.