Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Place of Unease

Death Valley's mountains are stunningly beautiful, intricate and dynamic. Their colors, shapes and shadows are mysterious and captivating.

So why am I feeling uneasy? I'm in awe at the beauty on the one hand, yet lost in the vastness on the other. My photography skills are not up to the challenge and my sketching attempts are abysmal failures. But, that's not why I feel uneasy. It's more an unease of place. This might be the most foreign place I've ever visited.

Artist's Drive was surreal, with the colors changing with the time of day, viewing angle and condition of the sky. The first day we visited Artist's Palette, it was overcast and the colors were rich. Our second visit was full sun, washing out the colors.

Artist's Palette, with too much sun to capture the beautiful colors

Getting into the more enclosed canyon areas, I feel more comfortable. The walls hug me and frame the sky in a way I find reasuring, like in the Natural Bridge Canyon.

Natural Bridge Canyon

Once a waterfall, reducing Ed to tiny!

Even Thistle looks tiny in 20 mule team canyon

I think I might need trees for comfort, but for beauty, Edward Abbey says it best:

"There is beauty, heartbreaking beauty, everywhere."

- Edward Abbey

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ash Meadows

Ash Meadows, Nevada

In conversation with other campers in Death Valley, the talk turned to nearby places to visit and up popped Ash Meadows. Ash Meadows is a National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, just east of Death Valley. It is made up of over 23,000 acres of alkaline upland desert and, as unlikely as this seems, spring-fed wetlands. The name Ash Meadows refers to the abundance of ash trees. Because Ash Meadows is such a unique ecosystem, it has been listed as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty of 154 countries.

Over 100 miles northeast of Ash Meadows, water enters a huge underwater aquifer. This water takes thousands of years to move through the ground, giving it the name fossil water. A geologic fault trapped the flow, forcing the water to the surface into seeps and springs. Reportedly over 10,000 gallons per minute flow year round, from seven major springs.

There are a number of endangered or threatened plants in Ash Meadow, including Zeltnera namophila (Blazingstar), Grindelia fraxino-pratensis (Gumplant), Zeltneraa namophila (Centaury), and Enceliopsis nudicaulis var. corrugata (Sunray). Unfortunately, spring has not arrived yet so there are no blooms or leaves yet.

We spotted a Phainopepla Flycatcher and what we think was an entire flock of Willow Flycatchers, all endangered. Plus, not endangered, but we saw scooting across the desert, a blacktail jackrabbit.

Peering down into this crystal clear water, we were able to see the endangered Amargosa pupfish, small like aquarium guppies, but slightly blue. The literature says the males get bluer during mating season.

The water in this spring was active with bubbling swirling motion, from the force of the flow from below.

And, on another note, on our way to Ash Meadows, look at what we found -- an opera house -- in a mostly boarded up town, no doubt soon to be a ghost town.


" We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one."

- Jocques Cousteau

Monday, February 23, 2015

Rain in Death Valley

See that little white rectangle at the center/top of the photograph? That is sea level.

Thistle 282' below sea level.

Today we mostly just hung out in camp. We wanted a do-nothing day, and that's what we indulged ourselves with. Short walks. Reading. Writing. Talking. Sketching. Eating. Lovely!!

By late afternoon we'd had enough of nothing, and set out to explore. We head for Badwater Basin. This basin is the lowest spot in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. We felt exceptional to be standing in a spot that much below sea level until we read that the Dead Sea, between Jordan and Israel is 1371 feet below sea level. Our exceptional bubble was burst wide open!

A salt river. From a distance it looks like people are walking on water.

Too much nothing made Ed a little crazy.

And Fran's cabin fever broke loose too

We dig for new facts to reestablish our feeling of exceptionalism. We found little tidbits to help us out. Such as, the Death Valley salt basin covers more than 200 square miles and is 40 miles long by 5 miles wide. And, it is the driest spot in North America at 1.5 inches of rainfall annually. Then, on our Badwater visit, it began to mist. As we drive to Artist's Palette if turns to serious rain. Rain! Ha! How exceptional is that? It continued raining long into the night. This morning there are puddles in camp and the mountains are white with snow.

Rain in Death Valley

We are left with high expectations for desert wildflower bloom.

"Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food,
and medicine to the mind."

- Luther Burbank

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dark, Quiet, Peaceful!

The sounds and smells of a campground ignite my childhood memories -- campfire smoke, bacon cooking, the soft music-like camper voices. Tonight the stars and a new moon are so close it feels like I can reach out and touch them. After boondocking the past few nights on isolated backroads, Death Valley provides us with a full campground experience. What's especially surprising and delightful is many of the campers are tent campers. There are tents everywhere -- Boy Scout troups, biking groups, family gatherings, and forest service worker gangs.

National Park service worker camp.

The few RVers have small rigs. No generators are allowed. There are no hookups. The quiet is powerful and soothing.

Texas Spring Campground, Death Valley, CA
We walk the hillsides before dinner
Long after the sun has set, it is warm outside. There's a soft breeze. We have just finished a delightfully tasty dinner. Campers' fires flicker with most other lights dimmed or out entirely. Camp contentment settles.

Our first night in Death Valley
Hiking in National Parks and the State Parks of California is problematic for us. Dogs are not allowed on the trails, even on leashes. It is too hot to leave them in cars, plus it is against the rules to leave them unattended. This pretty much means dog owners don't get to do back country exploration. Death Valley's deep canyons will remain out of our reach. Fortunately, Benton can go on any auto road, so the little, narrow, gravel car-traveling roads can be explored, both in Thistle and on foot, or perhaps on our bicycles. Tomorrow we will set out to see what we can see, despite the restrictions placed on our dog-owning, dog-loving , dog-traveling family.

We have been on the road for seven days and already the dates, days and times are fading into mulled confusion. Was it yesterday, or the day before that we biked or hiked or drove too many miles? Our biggest problem might be how to keep track of the time, the day, the month. Do we notch our belts? Or do we simply give up? Next you see us, will we not know the year?

Tonight's camping fee in Death Valley is $7.00, with our National Park senior discount. That, and the $22 we spent one night at a campground in Nevada, are our only camp costs to date. The $22 night included free hot showers, free dumping, and hookups to allow us to totally recharge Thistle and all our electronic gadgets. Seven days for $29, providing adventure and pleasure aplenty, is a bargain price!

Lake Topaz, Nevada

Midnight and we both wake up to the wind howling and our awning flapping. What looked like lightning, were flashlight flashes as other campers battened down their hatches. We hadn't anticipated this wind, despite the forecast for 30% rain. We both crawled out of our cozy "upstairs bedroom" to lower the awning and move the chairs inside, then back to bed to enjoy the breeze - the breeze that was a flat-out cyclone before securing our camp.


"Don't you wish you could take a single childhood memory and blow it up into a bubble and live inside it forever."

- Sarah Addison Allen

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Is This the New Normal?

"I'm scared", said Sam, a raspy voiced, well-weathered, trim man.  The topic was the weather, as it often is with get-to-know-one-another strangers. We were walking Benton on a bike trail when Sam stopped to chat.  "Fourth year of draught," he continued. "No snow to speak of and already the bees are out." And they were. Earlier we'd had to guide one out of Thistle's window. "Just last week we had our first wild fire. Just up the way. If you're headed south you'll see where it burned."

We had stopped in Bridgeport, a cute little town in California, with views of rugged sawtooth mountains.  We'd planned to use the laundromat, just to discover it was closed for the season. We took Benton for a walk instead and met Sam.

The town of Bridgeport is beautifully situated in the high desert along highway 395, where snow and cold are normal winter fare. It's where folks ski and ride snowmobiles and build snowmen every winter, without fail, at least until recent years. The draught and collapsed economy are hitting Bridgeport hard. According to Sam, businesses have shut down and many homes are for sale. He showed concern when he said, "I've never seen it so quiet."

After exhausting the weather and the economy, we moved on to Sam's real passion -- the outdoors. He works in the mountains, patrolling trails, for the National Forest Service. He suggested we camp at Twin Lakes. Toiyabe National Forest. "Just up the road a spell, in that draw," as he pointed to the mountains. We're so pleased we took Sam's suggestion as we not only camped in a lovely, completely deserted camp ground, surrounded by huge sugar pines, we unloaded our bikes for a ride on Twin Lakes Road.  

Throughout our journey we've seen many preparations for safe winter travel. Road crews have been busy putting up snow, ice, high wind and avalanche warning signs.  Snow poles are all along the roadways.  Chain up areas are well marked. Yet, on our drive through Washington, Oregon and now into California, we've seen no snow or ice on the roads, and only small amounts of snow in the mountains. In fact, we've enjoyed spring weather on our entire five days of travel. Nights are getting down to winter cold, but days are short-sleeve warm. The forecast is for more of the same.

Without rain and without snow pack, the remote areas in rural California are prime wild fire candidates. If the cause is global warming, we didn't discuss that with Sam, but it lingered, untouched. Is this the new normal?

Yesterday, it was hot enough, 66 degrees, to seek out shade for Thistle. No baked dog for us. Yet, last night it dropped to 21 degrees. In one hour this morning it has already gone from 21 degrees to 29 degrees. If we hang out in warm Thistle a bit longer we can avoid bundling up and go straight for sandals and short pants.

Our walk this morning was along the Twin Lakes Road. In 2012, when Brad hiked the PCT, we met him at Sonora Pass, just north of these mountains. Looking up at the peaks gave me proud-mom-twinges as I thought of Brad way up on this crest, hiking to Canada.


"The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators."

- Matthew Crawford

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thumpin' and swingin' down the road

We rocked down the road today, thumpin' and swingin' our feet, as Willie sang his heart out.

Our lunch stop, on highway 31, was Silver Lake. Population? Hum? Perhaps 50. We spent about 45 minutes lunching and stretching our legs, seeing only three people the entire time. A man in his pickup drove by and two others were talking across a fence. These little highway towns feel like ghost towns they are so quiet and deserted.

California or Bust! We arrive in California via highway 395. Our boondocking spot for the night in up Jess Canyon Road, just east of Likely. I'll let the name of this town, Likely, just sit with you for a spell.

 We're parked for the night on a back road, carved out by previous campers, not a proper road at all. We're surrounded by rolling hills, with sparce snow-touched mountains in the backdrop. We overlook Mudd lake. It is cold, 29 degrees, but we're warm inside Thistle. The sun is just beginning to warm the land and melt the frost. We know when we step out of Thistle's warm cocoon it will be hat and gloves time until about 9:00, with the 60 degree weather not settling in until a bit later.

The sky really is this blue...

On the road again

"Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway

We're the best of friends

Insisting that the world keep turning our way and our way"

- Willie Nelson

Posted with BlogsyPosted with Blogsy

Let's take this day for a ride...

It's our second day heading south, just putting on the miles.

As we rolled down highway 97, I blurt out, "Look Ed, St. John's Greek Bakery, Coffee & Gifts. Let's stop." We'd been on the lookout for a coffee shop earlier in the day, but abandoned the idea for lack of inspiration. Suddenly, in the most unlikely and remote location, 10 miles north of Goldendale, we find our inspiration. Ed brakes and turns around.

Inside, there's a small Greek restaurant, coffee shop and gift shop. Religious music is playing. It is peaceful, with a hand-full of other diners fillling the few tables available. When a table is vacated we settle in and order an expresso and gyro each. Absolutely devine! And, Devine is definitely the operative word, but in the true sense of the word, for this monastery-run shop. These clothed-in-full-nunnery-regalia sisters are the servers, bakers and gift store artists. In addition, they rise each morning at 2:00 a.m. to pray for the salvation of mankind. No photographs of the sisters are allowed, yet here they are, running a thriving business to support their monastic life.

The St. John Monastery business was established in 2002, the monastery itself in 1995. The young sister serving us looked very young, yet has been at the monastery for seven years. With advance notice, the monastery welcomes Orthodox Christian visitors for retreats. Tours of the holy grounds are allowed as well, so long as the guests follow the rules, including those of modest dress. After reading the conditions of "modest dress" I noted my attire. Gratefully, I had on long pants in a dark color and a long-sleeved, hooded black jacket. For the tour I would have needed a long black skirt, not pants, and I would have needed to pull up my hood to cover my head. We skipped the tour. No where in Thistle do I have a long black skirt.

The contrasts between the west side of the Cascades and the east always surprise me anew. Washington and Oregon's lush west side so suddently changes after crossing the mountains. The thick fir and cedar forests suddenly morph into pine forests with sparce understory, to miles of sage and juniper fields, followed by wheat fields, wind turbine fields, cattle and horse ranges, and back to pine forests.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Ready or not...

With interesting dual emotions, Ed and I are both anxious to begin our adventure, yet hesitant to drive away from Whidbey Island. The sweetness of our friends and family -- gifts, good cheer wishes, loving hugs, last dinners, earplugs for those difficult-nights-along-a-noisy-highway, beautiful messages, and thoughtful cards -- make for a very reluctant departure. We are so touched with emotion we want to linger for a spell, but depart we will. Sunday, February 15, 2015, we head east before heading south.

Thistle is packed to the brim with our life's necessities. OMG, what have we forgotten? OMG what have we set in motion. Our Langley home is well cared for. Our dog is with us. Our goodbyes are said. Our kids have been hugged. After a Sunday morning breakfast with Yessi and Brad, and after finishing up a few tasks, we tearfully drive away from what we hold dear.

Traffic everywhere on this sunny, gloriously warm, February three-day weekend day. There are people movin' in every direction. We wait in a ferry line, I-5 traffic all but comes to a stop, and I-90 traffic is heavy, but finally on 821, no traffic. Traveling along the raging Yakima River, beside a fast-moving train pulling hundreds of cars, we finally relax. We stop speeding -- not road speed speeding, but heart speed speeding. We sigh!

The sun is going down as we drive toward Yakima. We decide this is our first night to boondock. I'm sitting forward in my seat, peering into the semi-dark landscape, trying to find a likely place to pull over. I spot it, "Umtanum Recreation Site, Bureau of Land Management," I tell Ed, "Up ahead, to the right." He pulls off onto the side road and, to our surprise, there are several campsites, free because it's winter, but lovely, right on the edge of the river.

A quick walk for Benton. A tasty dinner of pasta with pesto, asparagus and green-beans, with candle light, for us. We settle in. It's so quiet we hear only the occasional train. Our blackout curtains are securely down making it cozy and private and warm inside, cocoon-like. Thistle's doors are locked against the world, the world we will explore in the morning, but lock out tonight. We are happy, yet sad to be putting miles between us and our cherished family and friends, but, despite the ripping at our hearts, content!

This first morning of our first full day on the road, we begin with a brisk walk along a beautiful bird-rich river. This "boondock" event is a jewel of prime bird viewing, amazing quiet, stunning beauty, and a perfect start for an adventure to the open doors of North America. There are nine raptor species nesting in this canyon, yet they are all sleeping in this morning. We see none.

Birch Grove

Our camp site had a few other over-night visitors, arriving after we were asleep. We didn't stir, totally unaware of their arrival -- tent campers, out of view; the camper truck in the photo; some folks sleeping in their car -- all a morning surprise.

"New day, new hopes, new life!!"

― Lailah Gifty Akita