Saturday, April 25, 2015

Random wanderings

When we decided to come to Yosemite for the summer, we learned of a detour that we'd have to take to get to El Portal, where we're now parked. There are only a few entrances to Yosemite and one, over Tioga Pass, is still under snow, and the GPS warned us off another because of low clearance. Our last option was the road with the detour. Highway 140 enters the park from the west, through Mariposa, travels along the Merced River for a long, mesmerizing distance, and then is routed across a bridge or two. There's a length limit of 45 feet, but my boss at Death Valley, who used to live and work at Yosemite, told me we'd have no problem getting the house across the bridge. It's not the bridge that's the problem, anyway; it's the turns we had to make to zig-zag around and through.

In 2006 there was an 800,000-ton rockslide that buried 600 feet of Highway 140. Work to clear the slide didn't start until a few weeks ago. I couldn't understand what took so long until I saw the damage, and learned that the slide wasn't a one-time avalanche but continued over a couple of months.

Traffic from Mariposa was blocked, and employees who lived there had a two-hour, one-way commute to get to work. The slide also had a significant impact on the local economy. A bridge was erected to open access to the park, but it limited vehicles to 28 feet. Two years later, another bridge went up to allow up to 45 feet. 

The solution, which isn't expected to be completed until 2020, is a 750-foot rock shed, only the second in the state, the other being in Big Sur which is only 300 feet.

There's no parking along the highway, so I can't show photos of the entire slide, or of the helicopter we watched while caught at a light, waiting to cross the bridge. The helicopter was carrying immense rolls of wire mesh from the undamaged side of the river to the debris side. Back and forth, back and forth. Then, another day, when we were going to Mariposa and were caught at the light again - the light allows one-way traffic to cross - we saw what has to be a good-sized machine on the side of the hill, scooping rock, swinging around, and dropping it on the other side. It looked to be a Sisyphean task, moving a mountain a teaspoon at a time.

That's it, that spidery blue machine in the middle of the photo, clinging to the slope, like a climber on El Capitan without ropes. It was positioned below the wire mesh that was laid down and anchored in place, to prevent loose rock from bouncing down, is my guess.

A closer view shows the machine better with someone, maybe the rock-watcher, standing at its side. If ever a job deserved hazardous duty pay, this is it.

We haven't seen it on the slope again. It's at the bottom and HH is convinced it slid down.

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Last weekend we drove through the Valley on our way to Nelder Grove (more on that in a bit), when clouds and fog were being dramatic. A boardwalk crosses a meadow, pointing the way to Yosemite Falls.

I got back in the truck and drove about 10 feet when I saw the lower falls, which I hadn't seen before.

This is from the other side of the road that rings the valley.

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My first job here is to clean up the Resource Management library. Among the documents I handled a couple of weeks ago was an account of native women gathering to grind acorns into flour. They had their favorite location, their favorite rock, even their favorite hole, called a mortar, in the rock, one they'd spent years using and wearing down just right. One day at lunch I walked down the road that parallels the Merced River a short distance and found this rock below. Wow is about all I could say. This wasn't brought in as a tourist attraction; at least I like to think it was used, here, in this spot. Here is an 1893 account of acorn collection and preparation. It's interesting.

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A couple of weeks ago we drove across the park to Hetch Hetchy, the location of the O'Shaughnessy Dam and the cause of a bitter controversy at the turn of the last century.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 showed the inadequacy of the city's water supply. Even though interest in Hetch Hetchy as a water source went back to the 1850s, it took the 1906 disaster to prompt the city to lobby for the rights to develop the Tuolomne River. They got those rights in 1908 and the fight was on, with the Sierra Club and John Muir on one side, arguing that the beauty of the valley rivaled that of Yosemite Valley, and seemingly everyone else on the other side. Of course the city got the rights and work began in 1914. Today all the water going to San Francisco comes from the reservoir behind the dam. Even today, San Francisco is not required to filter its water because of its quality. 

Swimming and boating are prohibited, although fishing is allowed.

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Last weekend we went to Merced and stopped at the Merced County Courthouse Museum. They don't allow photos inside. I never understand that, and because we had a docent giving us a tour, I couldn't sneak any.

The building is the best example of the Italian Renaissance revival remaining between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was built in 1875 and served as the county courthouse for 100 years. Upon its retirement it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The docent told us that the architect, Albert Bennett, believed that justice is not blind, so his figure at the cupola shows her without a blindfold. Its collection is related to the history of Merced County, and is arranged among 8500 square feet. It's one of the nicest local museums I've been in, and has free admission.

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When HH and I started reading about the area we learned of Nelder Grove, supposedly the smart person's alternative to Mariposa Grove, Yosemite's area of giant Sequoias. Just as good, none of the crowds. Having experienced the crowds, even this early in the season, I was all in favor of getting away from them.

The directions were a little vague and we did a lot of scenic route-ing before finding someone who directed us to the right road. I started out on the one-mile loop, full of anticipation of seeing these gigantic marvels. I walked. And walked. No giant trees. OK, I thought maybe at the apex of the loop the grove would open out into a vast forest of big trees. I crested the apex and when I began the homeward-bound section of the trail, I realized I'd been had. Instead of calling it the Nelder Grove, it should have been called the Nelder Stump-Field, or the Nelder Forest of Dead and Dying Tall Trees and Dead Trees Lying on the Ground.

Seriously, the reviews painted a transcendent experience, bonding with nature, an experience of a lifetime. What forest where they in?

Yes, indeed, the trees were tall, but giant, no.

Among the tall trees is what I noticed more of than anything: stumps. Someone had gotten to the really big ones a long time ago.

One interesting thing was this log, looking as though felled by axes, not chain saws. I wonder why it wasn't good enough to haul off.
The reviews said it was likely you'd find yourself alone in the grove, communing with nature in peace and quiet, far from the madding crowd. I was alone for the most part except when I came across a group of bicyclists from Venezuela. I really hoped they didn't think these trees were a good representation of what America has to offer.

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On our way to the grove we stopped at Tunnel View, still in Yosemite. Silly me, I thought the spot was where we could get some unusual view of the tunnel that cuts through rock, along the road that leads to the south entrance. No, it was a view of a different tunnel, one that looks forever across trees and mountain tops, all the way to endless blue.

There was a massive scrum of visitors all around me, jockeying for position, taking selfies, walking into everyone's photos, yet this view almost made me feel as if I were alone, bringing peaceful calm. Isn't it lovely? 


Thought of the day:

The clearest way to the Universe is through a forest wilderness. - John Muir, John of the Mountains

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sweet land of liberty

On Sunday I went on my first Yosemite hike, me and 500 friends, to the top of Vernal Fall. I went in early just as the sun was lighting the Valley, and as much as I wanted to get going on the trail so I could avoid the crowds, I couldn't pass by the views I was seeing for the first time.

That's Yosemite Falls, looking as if it's fed by the contrail above it. Didn't I plan that well?

There's a hike to the top of Yosemite Falls but it's not for me. My hiking book says it's 3.6 miles up, with an elevation gain of 2700 feet. I will admire from afar. There's another hike I want to look into, though, simply because I'm tickled by its name. It's supposed to be a steep one but it might be worth the misery to be able to say I hiked the Poopenaut Valley trail.

This was down the road a little, where the sun hadn't yet made an appearance. There were contrails across the sky all day. 

There's about a one-mile walk from the parking lot to the beginning of the trail, crossing a bridge and looking up- and down-canyon.

The trail was uphill right from the start.  It's 1.5 miles to the top with an elevation gain of 1000 feet. I knew that ahead of time. I knew there were steps involved, and knew there were more than 600 of them, but didn't know that they all occurred within 3/10 of a mile from the top. Here they begin, and as I started up I found myself counting 1, 2, 3, and had gotten to about 40 when I asked myself if I was crazy. Did I really want to keep track?

The beginning of the stairs was actually pretty easy; they were shallow and dry. The higher the climb, though, the steeper they got, and it's not called the Mist Trail for nothing. Most of the way there's no railing, even with a drop almost straight down, but where it's wettest and steepest a railing has been installed and I clung to it like a lifeline.

And that is the end of the photos I have approaching the fall, or even being on top. Really. I had some, but what they showed was a river falling off the edge. I couldn't see down the fall. It was beautiful up there but oddly enough, not very photogenic.

I wasn't looking forward to the descent, especially because more and more people were coming up and crowding the steps. Luckily, a woman told me about continuing past the fall to connect with the John Muir Trail, a stairless, dry way to go back to the Valley. 

I looked at a map and saw a series of switchbacks. I know switchbacks and thought how nice they would be to my knees, which are acting their age recently. What the woman didn't say, and what the map didn't show, is that the switchbacks continue up the mountain.

Yes, this is the trail. The photo isn't crooked. Some poor crew, maybe the CCC, laid rocks on end to level the path a bit and to mark the way.

But it was lovely up there. To the right of Liberty Cap is Nevada Fall. I had considered and discarded the idea of continuing to Nevada Fall because it involved more climbing. Ha! Look at where I am in relation to the top of the fall. I shoulda gone.

Here is Vernal Fall, my destination for the day, from the trail I was supposed to be descending on. To the right of the fall is a more or less level area surrounded by a railing which some people consider merely an impediment to getting a great selfie by the fall. And have fallen the 317 feet to the bottom.

That's Nevada Fall again on the right, with Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick, and Half Dome. The only way I could get them all in one photo was using the panorama feature on the camera, the first time I've used it.

The John Muir Trail was nice to be on because not many others were using it for most of the way. I poked along, looking for wildflowers, listening to the rush of the river far below, and enjoying the sunshine.

While I was lounging around the top of Vernal Fall a group (also known as a band, a cast, a party, or a scold) of Stellers jays was creating a racket in the trees. I love these birds. We had them in Washington, where I fed them peanuts in the shell. They're noisy, brash, and in-your-face birds, and smart as can be. One settled just long enough for me to get his portrait.

Another jay lives here too, a scrub jay. They're not as flamboyant but they have the same attitude.

P.S. We are happy, happy people: AT&T installed DSL internet at the house today, 250 Gb a month. It feels like we've been emancipated. The world is wide open. We can stream! 

I may never leave.


Thought of the day:

Now there is more to a bluejay than any other animal. He has got more different kinds of feeling. Whatever a bluejay feels he can put into language, and not mere commonplace language, but straight out and out book talk, and there is such a command of language. You never saw a bluejay get stuck for a word. He is a vocabularized geyser. - Mark Twain, What Stumped the Blue Jay

Friday, April 10, 2015

Out of the frying pan and into the freezer

We had to leave Death Valley because of the heat. It had topped 100° several days and was in the upper 90s other days. Of course, after we left it dropped to the 80s but there you go. It wasn't going to stay there, anyway.

We arrived at El Portal, about 30 minutes outside the park and where our trailer site is, on Monday and set up the house in a light rain, knowing the forecast was for more rain at lower elevations and up to a couple of feet of snow in the mountains. California can use all the rain it can get so HH and I were rooting along with everyone else for the forecast to be accurate. I don't know what the recorded precipitation was but the sky was trying very hard on Tuesday, when we drove into the park to have a look around.

We stopped at the fee station in the rain so I could wave my volunteer annual pass to get in free. The ranger looked at the truck, asked if it was 4-wheel drive, and said we'd have a chance to use it up ahead. Cool!

For a long way we had only rain, and the right kind of rain if a place in in drought; it was steady but not overwhelming. We kept gaining elevation and before long the rain drops got wetter and bigger, changing into fat flakes. The Merced River snakes its way along the road, providing accident-causing views. What a beautiful, rocky, rushing river! The park has many pullouts along the way where visitors stopped to enjoy the view and the lucky circumstance of being there in April snow.

It was almost surreal, having been in the desert three days before under full-bore air conditioning.

Low clouds = dreamy landscape.

The higher we went, the thicker the snow fell.

What luck to be here and see this.

HH took some photos through the windshield while I drove in 4-wheel drive, until I realized I didn't need it. I grew up in Detroit and lived in the Upper Peninsula, for heaven's sake! I think I know how to drive in snow.

I know it's not much fun when winter goes on forever but it was a real treat for us to be snug inside, not having to shovel anything or tote firewood, and just enjoy the view.

If not for needing something at the Village store, which they didn't have, we probably wouldn't have gone in. I'm thankful for our unproductive shopping trip.

For now, I can walk to work to a building in El Portal. I have a choice of two routes so I go one way and come home the other, but both follow the river, flowing just a little faster since the rain.

I have been graced with being in love with every park I've worked in; each has its own temptations and treasures. Yosemite, even early in the game, already slips into its slot seamlessly. 


Thought of the day:

The snow is melting into music. -  John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir; edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe, 1938

Note: I left my camera at home so I used HH's iPhone 6 for these images. Incredible!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Goodbye, Death Valley!

We're on the road to Yosemite, having already spent two nights outside Bakersfield and tonight in Fresno. If it weren't for today being Easter and therefore Costco's not open, we would be at El Portal today, but will go tomorrow - after my Costco fix.

I can't believe I got Yosemite on my own, without help from my friend Richard at Petrified Forest, or anybody else. It's an iconic park and I'm still somewhat a lot shocked that I got a place there. A couple of months ago I sent out cold-call emails to North Cascades, Glacier, Mount Rainier, Grand Teton, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, telling each one what I'd done at each of the parks I've volunteered at, and started getting nervous because I got no response. I also emailed the volunteer coordinator at the Grand Canyon because he'd put up a posting for a librarian. This time the job would be on the South Rim. He responded that the job was removed from right at the time I emailed him, but asked that I fill out (yet another) volunteer application and he'd pass it along to the park librarian.

I was getting nervouser and nervouser. Then I got an email from a park that will not be named, saying they'd love to have me come but had no RV site for me; however, there is a private park down the road but I'd have to pay for it myself. I wrote back saying I have a policy, which I do, that as much as I'd love to spend time at any particular park, I don't volunteer my professional services and pay for my site myself. I heard nothing else from them.

Then the floodgates opened a crack. Grand Teton's superintendent is on detail assignment at Death Valley and I had a chance meeting with her, whereupon I told her I'd sent an email about volunteering but hadn't heard back. She told me to pay her a visit if another few days went by without word and she'd resend my email from her park account. Good news.

Almost immediately after that I got an email from Yosemite's librarian, asking me to call her. Instant friend! She's another Drifting Grace person. She's new on the job and has started a list of projects she wants done. Yes, I can do them, any of them.

Then I got an email from Mount Rainier. Then an email from the "image guy" I did all the scans for last summer at Grand Canyon. He, like the curator at Mount Rainier, dangled tantalizing projects in front of my nose. After I nailed down with big spikes a confirmation from Yosemite that I indeed was going there, I had to turn Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier down. Not that I don't want to go to Yosemite - who wouldn't?! - but it would be great if I could have gone to both of them and Grand Teton as well. So many parks, so little time.

So, in order to start at a new park, blog-wise, I thought I'd post a last one from Death Valley, at least until we return next winter. I'm not done with that place yet.

Here, in no particular order, are random photos from my explorations around the park. 

Here is is bighorn sheep skull and vertebrae that a few of us found when we were crossing an alluvial fan on our way into a canyon. I've also felt like lying down and never getting up when going across those fans, so I totally get this sheep.

A butterfly that rested for the longest time. It must also have just crossed a fan.

Radial spines on a cactus and below it, a close up of one of them, looking remarkably like a sea urchin shell.

Charcoal kilns at the Wildrose Trailhead. It's the only trail I've had to bail on. It starts at about 5000 feet and ends four miles later at 9000 feet or so. I just couldn't do it and headed back down at a little past the halfway point. When I topped a rise, saw an immense mountain ahead of me, and realized that the incline I'd just slogged up was nothing compared to what lay ahead, that was it. Quits for me.

I skulked back to the truck with my tail between my legs and just about freaked out when I saw this in the next car over. It was my penance for weenie-ing out on the hike, I know it.

Here is a chuckwalla scoping out danger.

Here is the same chuckwalla in an unthreatened pose. When threatened, they puff up their bellies and wedge themselves between rocks. The Timbisha Shoshone have a sharpened stone tool that they use to pierce the puff, so to speak, to pull the critter out.

My friend Deb. She left a week before we did and was the place lonely without her.

This series, below, was and remains an amazement to me. It comes from a short hike, the Gnome's Workshop, that I saw described on a website called Panamint City. It's more of a nondescript stroll, not a hike, through hills and valleys of salt deposits, and with not a lot to recommend it:

Then I started noticing stones and rocks cleaved like slices of bread.

I thought this phenomenon might have been caused by heat and pressure but I'm no expert so I looked on Google. A quick search produced a book, Desert Geomorphology, by Cooke, Warren, and Goudie, where they describe the rocks' appearance as "sliced-bread weathering," and say these split rocks have been described in most deserts. They're a fascinating geological scavenger hunt.

Another hike, to find Little Bridge Canyon, which resulted in a lot of wandering around, choosing routes based on eenie-meenie-miney-moe, but no Little Bridge, did lead a few of us to some neat-o fossils. Once again, I'm no expert, so I have no idea what they are.

Some kind of nautilus thing?

Also some interesting rocks,

and a gorgeous view of Mesquite Sand Dunes in afternoon light.

More Death Valley survivors from various hikes: an unidentified lizard. Love the blue-green!

I call this one Kermit the Lizard.

A few of us were slogging over a fan and saw a rabbit run like a, well, rabbit, streaking away from us. This one remained and did not move. I cautiously circled around at a distance to get a better photo and this is the result. We think this one stayed to mind a nest and the other one ran to distract us.

During our orientation we were shown some photos of vandalism of cultural resources in the park, including this one that a couple of us later found by accident while exploring a canyon a few weeks ago. Someone tried to chisel it out of the rock but luckily gave up before destroying the bighorn sheep petroglyph.

Ubehebe is a volcanic crater 600 feet deep and a half-mile across, possibly only 300 or so years old.

Last time I showed a trumpet flower, the one that has inflatum in its name. This is what it looks like a year later, even better than when it's green.

New wildflowers:
Desert tobacco, Nicotiana obtusifolia.

Unknown. Maybe a gilia.

A kind of paintbrush.

The buds look like shredded evening primrose, but the flowers say it's not. They look like pinwheels.

Zabriskie Point is one of the most popular places in the park. It's on the main road coming into the park from Pahrump, is an easy walk to the viewing point, and is just plain gorgeous. It was closed for repairs when we got here and wasn't scheduled to reopen until the end of March, but the project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. You don't hear of that kind of thing anymore.

These next four are scenes from Zabriskie.

A view of Gower Gulch, an unlovely name but a spectacular view.

Finally, the sky.

I left work one day to find the sun sending streaks of light through the clouds to spotlight the hills and fans of the nearby Panamint Mountains.

Rain in the desert is welcome anytime.

Low clouds and fog add fantastic depth to the mountains.

A brilliant sunset, unusual even with the dust that's frequently blown around and suspended in the air.

One last tower of clouds to say so long to Death Valley. I was so very lucky to spend time here.


Thought of the day:

It's time to say goodbye, but I think goodbyes are sad and I'd much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure. - Ernie Harwell, legendary announcer for the Detroit Tigers for more than 40 years