The Siren Song of Highway 395 and the Eastern Sierra - vahep

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July 19, 2014

It had been just over two months that I’d slipped away from the daily routine to pursue my passion for landscape photography. And so, with every other member of my family away from home, I packed my bags once again for Highway 395 and the Eastern Sierras. This road often reminds me of the first few minutes of a strenuous workout or an especially steep ascent. Just as you’re unsure whether you’ll make it through and hit your stride, the first 150 miles of the trip, up to Red Rock Canyon, tend to stifle one in boredom and to question if this was a good idea or not.

My goal on this day was to reach Lone Pine around noon, not to stop, but as a signpost on the road that would soon swerve to the right and climb into the White Mountains. Well equipped with water and trail mix, my first and only stop on this road was at Gus’ Fresh Jerky, a mainstay of my journeys along the spine of California.

The Eastern Sierras were especially picturesque today, with white clouds streaked in light and dark grays graced their peaks. There were many opportunities to stop, but the most poignant was the one place on this road where my heart sinks, when thought turns not to art and creativity, but to man’s inhumanity to man. Manzanar, just north of Lone Pine and south of Independence, is where 10,000 Japanese-Americans were unjustly detained from 1942 till the end of World War II in what can only be described as a concentration camp. One can only imagine the harsh conditions under which these men, women, and children lived... The windswept and hot Owens Valley, already sucked dry by the insatiate thirst of Los Angeles, would not have made for an easy life, and I thought of an additional torture I’d have been subjected to had I been amongst the denizens of Manzanar… To wake up in full view of the majestic Sierras, with Mt. Williamson reigning over the camp, but not to be able to touch, photograph, or explore the peaks would be perhaps too much to bear…

Less than an hour later, I was parked in front of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest visitor center ad the Schulman Grove, home of Methuselah, one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. On this occasion, the stop was only to reassure me that my Camry, my new road trip companion, would survive the dirt road to the Patriarch Grove that I’d be visiting for the very first time. “Surviving” this road should have a giant asterisk next to it, as one’s experience depends strongly on one’s willingness to emulate a bat out of hell on a road that is a best hard packed dirt, but more often resembles a class 2 bouldering adventure. Ancient bristlecones began to tease the road almost immediately from the outset, growing in ones and twos, until the road entered a broad valley, with the aptly named White Mountains dead ahead.

At the Schulman Grove, whether one goes on the short scenic hike, or embarks on the four-mile Methuselah trail, one is skirting at the lower boundary of a rather large grove of ancient bristlecone pines hugging the slope for added protection from the incessant wind. At the Patriarch Grove, though, the bristlecones are scattered all about, and even the overlook trail is sparsely populated by these ages-old wonders. Here, past the easily-missed signpost indicating that you’ve arrived at 11,000 ft altitude, the grove is fully revealed.

Bristlecones stripped bare by the wind stretched their dark limbs skyward as I approached the parking lot. Even the short hike required effort, as the air was perhaps only dense enough for beings that have patiently witnessed thousands and thousands of sunrises and sunsets high atop this hill. There was a chance of thunderstorms near Mono Lake that afternoon, and the clouds en route to this imminent conflagration briefly served as excellent backdrops to the weathered trees of the Patriarch Grove as I slowly traversed the overlook trail, photographed some of the unusual trees of the grove, then returned to my car.

My descent from the grove was eve more rapid, made a bit less so by the sudden realization that I could easily burn through a couple of sets of brake pads and rotors on the 36-mile plunge back to Highway 395. I stopped only twice: once when a solitary jeffrey pine clinging on to a steep slope of volcanic scree caught my eye, and again only long enough to dismiss the possibility of photographing the jagged peaks of the Eastern Sierra from the Owens Valley overlook just past the Schulman Grove Visitor Center.

Gorging myself on a heady mixture of trail mix, sweet & spicy beef jerky, and ice-cold water, I drove on, troubled by the prediction of incessant thunder showers for the next two days at Mono Lake, my ultimate destination that evening.

I have crested the rise just past the June Lake junction on many occasions to behold Mono Lake in its splendor, but nothing could prepare me for the sight of the lake today, beaten to a frothy light green by the wind that battered me from the moment I stepped out of the car at South Tufa. Sunset was still an hour away, and there was no need for haste as I carefully approached the lake’s tufa-adorned shore. The wind was generating foot-high waves that crashed, one after another, on the tufa formations and deposited a ring of white foam on the shoreline.

The frothy and salty wind battered those who dared walk the shoreline, and those, myself included, stupid enough to subject our camera gear to the harsh pre-dusk elements. I knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed, and so sacrificed a filter to protect my lens and carried on. It was tempting (and easier) to capture the waves in their glory, but stubborn as I was, I chose to slow things down and, hanging on to my tripod to prevent any shaking, as I once had in 70 mph winds in Alaska, dared exposures as long as 20 seconds. I’d almost given up on the sunset itself when the storm clouds began to disperse and the thick blanket covering and casting a pall on the lake was replaced by gorgeous wisps of cloud and the remnants of the storm glowing in the last, golden light of the day.

Sunset was late enough that only one restaurant in Lee Vining, Bodie Mike’s Barbecue, still served food when I returned. I could hardly stop myself from processing my photos in Lightroom and Photoshop during dinner, so I decided to order ribs, effectively preventing myself from doing so. This was the first hot food I’d had all day, and it was most welcome.


July 20, 2014

Dawn found me at South Tufa again, though the calm waters of the lake gave no hint of the turbulence in their recent past. While sunset at the lake had been a battle with the elements, dawn had a calming effect on me. The sun seemed to take forever to crest the hills to the east, but then rose quickly, at the same time sinking the quality of light. It was finally time for breakfast. As I didn’t plan to eat lunch on the trail later that day, I treated myself to eggs benedict, done surprisingly well by Nicely Café.

An hour later, with my breakfast still warming my belly, and a large coffee in my car’s cup holder, I began the twelve mile climb up Highway 120 to the eastern gate of Yosemite National Park. The choice I’d made over breakfast was to ascend into Yosemite for a third time this year, and to hike up to Cathedral Lakes. I have very fond memories of hikes with friends to May Lake, Glen Aulin, Sunrise Lakes, and Upper Cathedral Lake, including an incident with eggs being protected from bears and of lending a park ranger a camp stove as he’d forgotten his. My photographs of Cathedral Peak, taken more than ten years ago, suffered from the choice of using a polarizer at high altitude and the paucity of clouds on that day, and I’d vowed to return, to photograph the enigmatic peak in better light.

As I drove through Tuolumne Meadows, I wondered if I’d have better luck today as there were hardly any clouds in the sky. Since yesterday, I’d wondered if my phone’s weather app actually had readings from a separate station for Tuolumne Meadows, as what it showed was identical to Lee Vining, twelve miles and a couple of thousand feet below my present location, as thunderstorms were forecast to begin an hour ago. I packed my rain shell as an afterthought, refusing to believe the forecast.

The first part of the Cathedral Lakes hike is a grueling series of switchbacks that I would have had a more difficult time with had I not trained for a Mt. Whitney ascent this summer. I slowly trudged up the trail, I reminisced about previous trips here and remembered the brook I crossed, the view of Lambert Dome spied between tall conifers, and the tree-filled meadow beyond that signaled the end of the first phase of the ascent. A sudden and loud peal of thunder jarred me from my reverie as clouds poured in from the east like an onrushing army of black-clad warriors, and the first drops of rain gave hints of things to come. Twenty minutes later, still far from midway in my ascent, a steady rain began to fall and thunder roared far too often for comfort.

Ahead, the trail forked to the right, and half a mile later, I was at Lower Cathedral Lake, or so I thought. A sinewy brook led into the meadow, and I followed it into the shelter of several trees growing beside a pond. This was the first real break during my hike, and I stood there for a while, camera in hand, captivated by Cathedral Peak, in full view for the first time. Cathedral peak is an enigmatic crag with a sharp spire that affords the viewer a distinctive profile from each side. From my present vantage point, a single, off-center peak appeared, sharp on the right, sloping gracefully to the left.

As the rain lessened and I ventured out from the trees, I realized that Lower Cathedral Lake was actually just beyond a low rise. The lake was calm even on this stormy day, its surface reflecting cloud and rock alike. I’d dallied here too long, I realized, and the last minute decision to add “powerberries” covered in chocolate to my trail mix, all of which had now melted, made my snack break less palatable.

Back on the trail, I had to first climb out of the Lower Cathedral Lake meadow, then rejoin the trail that led to Sunrise Lakes and beyond. Large, flat sheets of granite that were extensions of Cathedral Peak encroached on the trail, which was marked more and more by double rows of rocks. I stopped briefly as mule train carrying a family of four and their gear passed by. For the next five minutes, head tilted down as the downpour strengthened, I was forced to analyze the perfectly ovoid shapes of horse manure on the trail, noting their color and texture as they “aged.” The rain intensified their odor as well, something I definitely wasn’t happy about. The intense rain was punctuated more and more frequently by peals of thunder and I was soon soaked to the bone, unable to zip my rain shell as it covered mostly my backpack and camera gear.

The manure trail veered right and I realized that the thunder and rain had chased the horse-borne family and their guide into the trees, where the attention was on the clearly frightened horses. Perhaps I should have taken shelter as well, but I was too wet and too close to my goal to stop.

Upper Cathedral Lake was as gorgeous as I remembered it from years ago, small peninsulas capped with stunted, lone pines along its coast, one of which pinpointed where we had briefly jumped into the frigid lake on an overnight trip last time I was here. Huddled under the sheltering boughs of a small grove of trees, I shivered for the next twenty minutes, finally able to zip up my jacket, debating all the while if I should turn back. Every five minutes or so, I’d leave my shelter and venture out, looking hopefully at the unrelenting sky. Then, it happened, as I hoped it would. The roars of thunder grew distant, and an improbable patch of blue sky appeared to the right of Cathedral Peak. From that moment on, all thought of return disappeared as my mind was focused on egging on the patch of blue to grow larger and migrate westward, towards the peak.

For the next hour, I circumwalked (a word I came up with as my feet sank into the narrow trail circling the lake) the lake, almost brought to my knees on several occasions in awe of the magical light that bathed this high-altitude wonderland. Cathedral Peak was now perfectly reflected in the lake, its summit a lobster’s claw extended skyward. At last, it was time to get back, as I had a nearly 400-mile drive back home in my immediate future. I was so energized by the experience that I was within half a mile of Tioga Road when I realized I hadn’t even stopped to rest yet. Soon after, I was back at my car and completely dry, and mulled whether I should eat something at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill , or to power on. I made the latter choice not once, but countless more times as I stopped briefly to photograph, but not to eat, first at the Tioga Pass Mobil station, near Lee Vining, near Mammoth Lakes, then again just north of Independence.

The most memorable of these stops was the vista point on Highway 120, accessed through the gas station, overlooking Mono Lake, still embroiled in the thundershowers that had so thoroughly bathed me on my hike. Negit Island caught my eye, a black submarine breaching the once again turbulent surface of Mono Lake.

The Eastern Sierra is usually breathtaking, more so when a storm is breaking on its heights. As I drove south, clouds clashed with the jagged peaks flanking the road, first on the western side, just past the downslope from Mammoth Lakes, then with the less majestic peaks of the Inyo range on the eastern side of the road. As I neared Lone Pine, though, all thoughts of yet another delay in nourishment disappeared. Mt. Whitney was engulfed by clouds, and all hopes of even seeing the setting sun vanished. I ate dinner in peace, and the ostrich burger I’d ordered at Whitney Café really hit the spot, one last indulgence on a road trip that would end with the long trudge home, leaving me reminiscences of the clearing storm at Cathedral Peak and the angry waves at Mono Lake for days and weeks to come.




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