Blog Pile

Notes from the Road: Under the Big Sierra Peaks

Barely relevant to the rest of this blog, what follows are the collections of thoughts that brewed, frothed, fermented, distilled during a weeken of travel. On the heels of a trip to Columbus for the NLII Focus Session on Learning Objects, I actually returned home to Phoenix, but weirdly enough did not exit with baggage to my car to go home as normal.

Nope, the trip was not over, it was a plane change for a flight to Reno, Nevada, on route to a friend’s wedding Saturday in Mammoth Lakes, California.

I did not try very hard, but I struggle to find much of any redeeming value in the casino atmosphere. It hits you as soon as you exit the plane, blinking, singing slot machines in the freaking airport. There is something palatably pungent with this environment, re-inforced on the ride to my downtown hotel, ensconced with shameless yellow neon. Unlike most hotels where you enter to a lobby, here you are pitched right into the carnival of a casino, and must actually search for the check in desk on the second floor.

I am not here to drink, not to toss nickles into slot machines, not to watch tacky shows or washed up entertainers. Nope, just to sleep long enough to wake up, grab a rental car and leave,

Here is what it is in Nevada. It is crass, it is without class, it is tacky. However I am thankful for the existence of places like this, and tonight, I found the appropriate metaphor. Places like this are like a bug zapper in my back yard, all the light and noise designed to attract all of the pests and nuisances I do not want in my yard. I can go to the mountains, the streams, the grand vistas, and not be bothered by the sweaty flies and gnats that have flocked to the bright light.

It is humorous to overhear the tales of people having “luck” and coming out “ahead” in their petty gambling. Why humor? Because places like Reno, Vegas are systemically engineered, designed, mathematically calculated to take more of its visitors than it pays back. It is a lock, a sure thing for them. There is no luck at play here, but cold calculated statistics that would make P.T. Barnum feverishly nod.

I am south bound ASAP, along US 395 which skirts the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, the mighty range of California, in whose shadow casts the high plain desert. It is a slow crawl through Carson City, the proud capital of Nevada, about 5 miles of 25 miles per hour and your basic suburban commercial developments wrapped around a stale inner core. Funny signs: “Marriage licenses, left 6 blocks” point to ne of the consistent Las Vegas industries, Quickus Nuptialius.

Stopping for some water and snacks at a mini-mart, I am waiting in line to pay my share. A non de script gruff fellow in front thrusts his 10 dollar bill at the woman behind the counter and utters one word, “Three.” The woman, Ruth her name badge says, wears a face full of history its wrinkles as corrugated as the Nevada Basin and Range, no sign of smile for 100 miles. Ruth replies, “Seven”. Then before the man can eve reply, she adds, “Nine…. Five… Two…” The guy shakes his head, pushes the money even harder and says even louder, “PUMP Three!” and storms out. Ruth’s colleague giggles and I break out in a grin and say, “The world needs a random number generator,” not even thinking where I was tossing out a geeky statement. Ruth, still not breaking her grim face, replies, “Maybe he’s be less random and say please to the next cashier.” It is sad we have to take such small pleasures in our day to day interaction, but I was laughing for miles.

Peel off more miles, more small towns, Minden, Coleman, Walker… I am looking for that point where towns are small enough that they have not been commercialized, neoned, plasticized, where there are places with original names, “Mike’s Towing”, “Corny Art”, “General Store.” I wonder where actually America is sometimes, as more and more of what is unique about our culture becomes a chain outlet of a franchise based in New York.

Drop off the mountain to a surprising blue Topaz Lake, squatting on the Nevada, California border. Bide my time in one lane highway stuck behind a laboring Winnebago (why must people schlep their living room and kitchen with them as opposed to a sleeping bag and camp stove?). Past a rushing Walker Creek winding its way through Toyabe Notional Forest. Bridgeport- far from a bridge and a port. Finally laboring to the top of Conway Summit at 8300 feet, where a nice stop provides a sweeping view the sharp naked peeks skirted with yellow aspen at their autumn prime.

Drop back down to Mono Lake, with its weird white pillars of tufa, and its distant black volcanic cone. [View image]

And finally, the big Sierra Nevada peaks show their stuff, their jagged ragged peaks, far above tree line, tiny clinging remnants of last year’s snow clinging to the shadows.

I am headed for Mammoth Lakes, where later the afternoon a friend’s wedding takes place. Mammoth is one of those attractive scenic spots that wrestles with our attraction, hemmed in by mountains, trees, craggy not so old volcanoes, it’s snow is a magnet for those with money who can pay to play– the town reeks of new money, new resorts, new fashion outlets, trendy restaurants. There must be an underside somewhere.

I had just enough time to grab sandwich from a local shop and drive up to Minaret Vista, a million mile view across the San Joaquin river to some of the most awesome Sierran peaks. Ritter, Banner, Dana, and about 18 more. [View image]

The wedding spot take your breath away, on the edge of the lowest of the towns legendary strings of lakes, Twin Lakes. We cross a small bridge over the cool blue water [View image] to reach a small outdoor altar [View image] and seating made from cut pines, nestled below a towering cliff. It is as peaceful, tranquil, and fitting for the wedding of these two friends. We toss handfuls of aspen leaves in lieu of rice. Birds sing, the aspen leaves flutter. Perfect.

Unfortunately, no notes were made of the evening festivities, and some unexplained fog hangs over this writer’s neurons. Speculations are forthcoming.

The next day was set to get some hiking in. I drove to Devil’s Postpile National Monument, named for the interesting outcrop of volcanic lava that has weathered to a characteristic 6 sided columnar outcrops, a case of where nature produces regualr patterns for good reaons (maximize stress of cooling, shrinking lava). [View image]

The road is deserted at 8:00 am for good reason- it is damned early and about 30 degrees. But that means the place is mine.

I take the short hike to the “Postpile”, noting the worthy venture to the top of the outcrop to see the pavement of hexagons at the top. [View image]

Then it was on to the Rainbow Falls trail a bit over a mile through the naked remnants of forest burned in a 1992 fire. [View image]

One might think it is a sad, deplorable thing to see a forest of burned, leaf-less trees, shattered, their tops knocked off, but knowing a bit about forests, I see it as the necessary steps to keep them healthy. Where healthy, the large Jeffrey Pines here, with their bark that smells of sweat vanilla, are mostly so large you cannot hug them, and they are spaced wide apart, This is quite a contrast to the Ponderosa Pine forests in Arizona, cousins of these California kings, where the “management” has resulted in overcrowded forests with too many thin, small trees, fighting for insufficient water, and succumbing to beetle damage. But that is another story.

Rainbow Falls is no surprise as a water fall, a sheer drop of maybe 100 feet of rushing river water. [View image]

I also made a little streaming QuickTime movie if you want to hear the sound of the falls. [View movie]

I am told the fish that are down below are ones that have made the trip down the falls the quick (and hard way), and that at least the respectable fisherman will catch and release them, to let some of the trout die of old age. I manage to go to the lower falls, which is not as spectacular a drop, but is actually a more tranquil spot. Walking out, I pass a parade of fishermen, couples, kids, dogs, giggly gangly teens, and bless myself for getting an early spot. I like taking my wilderness alone, please.

By the return trip it is decidedly hot in the rising sun of mid-day, and I am thankfully for a quick trip back. This is as far as I go on this trip, from here on it is a return home. Not much to report on the drive back, but a nice diversion through the June Lake Loop, a road past a series of lakes that are abnormally fed by rivers that flow towards the base of the Sierra Nevada rather than away (a result of plunking down of large clots of glacial debris) including the aptly named “Reverse Creek”. The aspen in this valley are at their ecstatic peak of golden yellow color.

Everything one the return trip is a blur, a task, to be done to get back home. Nothing worth reporting but the finish line.

Nothing re-energizes the soul like a deep immersion, or any immersion, in wilderness.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.