Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tioga Pass and beyond

We were in the mood for a road trip a week ago and decided to tackle Tioga Road and, consequently, Tioga Pass, last weekend. The idea was to go over to Mono Lake, turn around and come back, but it didn't work out that way, and aren't we lucky that it didn't.

First stop was Olmsted Point, named for Frederick Law Olmsted and his son, Frederick, Jr., when Tioga Road opened to car traffic in 1961. I'm kind of fascinated with Olmsted and when I saw the point on the map, I knew I had to see it. 

It can be said that Olmsted was a late bloomer, or to paraphrase Edison, he tried several ways to make a living that weren't going to work for him - among others, as a seaman, merchant, and farmer. He was more successful as a journalist: he traveled in England to visit and write about public gardens, and to the American South in the pre-Civil War years writing about his conclusions on economic and social conditions resulting from the institution of slavery.

He also served as Executive Secretary of the Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross, during the Civil War, helped to organize three African American regiments in New York, and raised one million dollars for the Sanitary Commission. He was a cofounder of the magazine, The Nation.

Along with his journalistic and Sanitary Commission work, he sidled into the competition to design New York's Central Park with architect Calvert Vaux. As Wikipedia subtly understates it, until then "Olmsted had never actually designed and executed a landscape design." They won, and between the two of them, the term and the profession of "landscape architect" was born.

Olmsted and his son, the Jr. mentioned above, who continued the tradition, ultimately designed hundreds of public parks and academic campuses from sea to shining sea. Olmsted's vision was founded on the principle of open access, of egalitarian design, of public spaces belonging, shockingly enough, to the public. In 1863 he came west to become manager of a mining estate in the Sierra Nevada, and that was his introduction to Yosemite. He ultimately was chair of the first commission to manage Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, and wrote a report recommending a policy for the care and protection of the park's scenery and wildlife. An excellent biography of Olmsted is Genius of place: the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, by Justin Martin. 

So that was a long wind up to the few photos I have from Olmsted Point. Here they are.

There's nothing spectacular about this except the mystery of bare scrapes of rock that somehow support life.

Abundant glaciated rocks, identifiable by their rounded edges - as opposed to sharp-edged rock-fall rocks - look like a giant has scattered birdseed. Tenaya Lake is just visible at the base of the mountains.

A closer look at the lake and the thousands of acres of trees that were just the beginning of what we saw. We saw limitless swaths of conifers that day, more than I'd ever seen in my life. Thankfully most of it is protected in designated Wilderness, Forest Service, and state land.

Tenaya Lake comes nearly to the edge of the road. It's at an elevation of about 8100 feet and while popular for winter sports, it may be too cold for all but the hardiest swimmers. The same glacier that carved it out also created Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.

As we passed the entrance station at the east end of the park we made the decision to go the long way around to get back home. There were probably 500 cars in another single, glacial line, just like the entrance station near us at this end. I have a suggestion, Park Service: when there are few cars leaving, establish a stop line in the outgoing lane back from the station and allow one car at a time, holders of park passes only, to enter in that lane. When someone shows up to leave, let them out and then bring another car over to enter. Get a volunteer to be the traffic director and it will cost nothing. 
It makes sense to me.

We drove through the town of Lee Vining and stopped at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center. The most interesting thing there to me were nests built under the eaves at the front of the building. I watched the birds swooping into and away from the nests for a long time and went back into the building to ask about them. They're cliff swallows and the nests are built one mudball at a time. It's a labor intensive process, building the thousand-pellet nests, so much so that a pair of birds can work at it only about three hours a day. The rest of the time is spent resting and feeding. Nevertheless, a nest is completed in a week.

According to the handout I got at the visitor center, observers have seen the birds scoop up mouthfuls of mud and hover over the puddle, seeming to test the weight, and then fly off with it to the nest, which can be used for several years. They're sometimes abandoned if pests such as mites invade the colony but once the invaders' numbers have decreased the birds will again populate the nests.

What looks like beige beaks peeking out is actually coloring on the forehead; the beak extends from the bottom of the triangle.

Shortly after the center was built nets were installed to prevent the birds from moving in. I think common sense prevailed in the end because the birds continue to make their condo-like homes under the sheltering overhang.

Just past the visitor center is Mono Lake, these days a relatively nondescript body of water, to me at least. Many years ago Voldemort and I took a long motorcycle trip from Washington state down through much of California, including  over Tioga Pass in Yosemite and past this lake, which was gorgeous to me at the time, to say the least. 

I hate to think that because of all the places I've traveled, because of all the majesty and breathtaking sights I've seen, that I'm getting used to beautiful places. That I'm becoming immune. That I'm becoming jaded. I would hate that so very much, but this lake did nothing for me this time around.

Below is a section of Mono Lake with some of its tufa formations exposed. I've seen some spectacular photos of the formations but the spectacularity wasn't on exhibit when HH and I went by. Check out the wikipedia article on tufa to see what I mean.

The road over Sonora Pass tops out at just over 9600 feet, less than Tioga Pass but much more challenging to drive and, in my opinion, more beautiful. It runs east-west north of Yosemite, through Stanislaus National Forest. There are endless S curves, switchbacks, hairpin turns, a grade of 26% in one place, and not a lot less in others. This is not a road for those tending to motion sickness, and I was very glad I was driving. As we approached the road we saw signs warning about travel trailers and other rigs over a certain length, and as I continued the drive I could easily see the folly of heaving a 6-ton trailer around those turns. I couldn't have done some of them and stayed in my lane.

It is a breathtaking drive. We stopped just a couple of times, one of them being at Donnell Vista, an overlook showcasing a reservoir snugged deep in the canyon.

The puddles in the rock below made me think of the acorn grinding rock I saw on the Merced River. I think it possible that was the use made of this rock as well, or it could be a remnant of glacial carving.

The clouds were moving in. As I turned to go back to the truck the peak of a nearby mesa was being obscured by what looked like low clouds but were probably at 8000 feet. This was another good image for black and white.

I was getting tired and still had many miles over winding roads to go, but it was a wonderful trip. While I was looking up facts about some of the places I mention here, I saw that we missed a lot of places where we should have stopped. There will be another road trip, maybe when the leaves are turning in the fall.

Thought of the day:

Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven. - Rabindranath Tagore

Friday, May 29, 2015


Last summer at the North Rim, and it's hard to believe it will be a year next week that we went there, we kept springing leaks in our sewer hose. Yes. Gross. They're not expensive, but they're also not free, and it bugged me that we had to replace a couple one right after another. We sprung for a heavier-duty one and it too developed holes, so back it went. (We, meaning HH, rinsed it out before boxing it up.) It took us a while, but we eventually concluded that it was ravens looking for water that were the culprit. I don't know that we ever saw any pecking away, but we nonetheless pinned it on them. They are smart animals, no doubt about it. The question then was, what were we going to do to keep them from continuing their bad behavior? 

Reluctantly I adopted a Sanford and Son approach, the only thing we could think of: we encircled the hose with lengths of aluminum stove pipe and resorted to zip-tying them on because, as I said, ravens are smart. It was pretty embarrassing to have a junkyard ambiance but that's what it took, and it worked.

Surprisingly, we had no problem with ravens at Death Valley despite less water there than at the North Rim, so fast forward to Yosemite. Here, I had to sign a paper saying I'd abide by the rules pertaining to animals, specifically bears. The saying is, A fed bear is a dead bear, and the stories abound. HH's son David told me about bears somehow learning that VW Beetles, known to humans for being airtight, could be popped open like a paper bag by jumping on them. Cheryl Koehler, in her book Touring the Sierra Nevada, says a Ranger told her that bears learn to recognize vehicle models that are easy to break into, and if one found food in a red car, that color car would be a target for weeks. Smart like a raven.

Signs at parking lots around the Valley say to leave just about everything out of sight, including baby wipe packages, coolers, and grocery bags, because bears have come to associate them with food found in vehicles. Hanging food from trees is no longer a solution in the backcountry; instead, a bulky and so far bear-proof canister must be used. The top is opened with a coin or something similar. And not just food has to be stored this way: toothpaste, deodorant, or scented anything has to be sealed away.
"Bear resistant food storage canister 1"
by Cullen328 Jim Heaphy - Own work. 

I saw a small sign in the building I work in about bears' diets in the wild versus the dangers of food items left around residential areas:

Dumpsters everywhere here have chutes that lock closed with clips. Throughout the park in parking lots, tent camping areas, some trailheads, and at the rear of our parking spot are heavy-duty steel food storage boxes with drop fronts that fasten closed with clips. They too have so far been bear-resistant. One of them holds our two small coolers. I had the large cat food bag in there too until I discovered that the boxes aren't insect-proof. Other items that need to go in, if we don't have room inside the house, even include canned goods because of odors from the packaging process that cling to them.

I didn't use them at first but got religion after an episode one night. We used the propane grill for a couple of steaks and I didn't store it when I finished with it. That night I heard a small aluminum table the grill was sitting on go over but I was drifting off to sleep and didn't get up. The next morning I found the grill strewn around. A jug of vinegar I'd left on the picnic table that I was going to use to descale some plumbing fittings was punctured and drained, and a plastic jug of cat litter that was sitting under the house had two big puncture holes in its side (but not tipped over; I'm still trying to picture how that happened).

One morning last weekend HH called to me to come quickly; there was a bear out the back window, just wandering the yard. I grabbed the camera only to remember that I had removed the card to transfer pictures to the computer, and I scrambled to pop another one in just in time to see the animal, tagged and collared, slowly moving away after cruising by the bear boxes. Our own personal bear paid us another visit in hopes we continued to disregard the rules. Not anymore. 

Later we noticed that the sewer hose was shredded. I wondered how desperate the bear could be if it needed to get into that nasty thing but then realized the kitchen sink also drains through it, carrying any small food particles that go out with the wash water. HH patched it up, pulled out the stove pipe from the storage compartment, and we now again look like Sanford and Son. I have no illusions that these flimsy sections of aluminum will deter this animal. They're not even zip tied on.


Thought of the day:


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Channeling Georgia

When I lived in Washington the first time, we had a house on almost four acres. A lot of it was fenced pasture, some of it was down a ravine, but close to the house was a collection of raised beds for vegetables and an open flower garden area. At that time I was working at a junior high school so I had summers off and I traded working with books in the school library for working with new favorite things - plants in my garden.

I was a city girl and had never had a garden like I made at that house. Maybe I'd plant a lilac here or there, but nothing ever on the scale of that property. I estimated that I spent more time outdoors the first summer we were there than I had all of my life until then. It was a full time job that I loved. The lengthening days filled me with an excitement to go to nurseries and into the garden.

A few weeks ago HH and I drove to Superstition Iris Farm. When I lived in Washington there were lavender, tulip, rhododendron, peony, and dahlia gardens and farms that I enjoyed visiting so I jumped at the chance when I saw iris were in bloom. Add to that the fact that HH had never experienced such a thing, which in itself is an event, and it was a done deal.

It really was gorgeous inside. I think we were there about mid-season, so some plants had already peaked and some were still in bud, but there was plenty to see and make me wistful that I still had a garden.

What color iris do you want? Yes, they have it whether it's a modern or heirloom variety.

These are all examples of bearded iris, so called because of the fuzzy strip at the base of the bloom.

Because I love flower close-ups, I've cropped my photos significantly. To my eye, angels, not the devil, are in the details. I share Georgia O'Keeffe's appreciation of an intimate view of a flower.

The spectrum of color is wide-ranging, from a deep purple that is almost black, to ivory, gold, or the frothiest pink.

The elegant petals of the bearded iris serve very practical purposes. The upright petals or standards act as colorful flags to attract pollinating insects.

The downward curving petals, or falls, function as a landing pad for pollinators.

Blotches and veining work like a map that directs the insect to the nectar.

And the distinctive, fuzzy beard attached to the falls helps the pollinators to hang on once there.

Back in the day I was a quilter and read somewhere that if you couldn't decide if colors "went together," consult with nature. 

Superstition Iris Farm has a catalog to order from, but there's nothing like seeing the flowers in bloom firsthand.

With thanks to the University of Minnesota Extension for help in describing the function of the flower parts.


Thought of the day:

If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for a moment. - Georgia O'Keeffe

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Yosemite in black and white

When someone who grew up in Michigan says there's been weird weather going on, rest assured she knows what she's talking about.

We've had sunny days in the upper 80s that drain my energy on the walk home from work and force us to turn on the air conditioner, followed by nights so chilly that turning on the heat in the morning is the only way I can psych myself into getting up in the cold.

Tioga Pass, on Highway 120 on the east side of the park, is the highest-elevation highway pass in California and the Sierra Nevada at more than 9,900 feet. It was opened earlier than normal this year because of the low snow pack, only to be closed twice since then, due to snow. It doesn't affect us at the lower elevations except for rain, which I never complain about because California can use the water but also because of the fantastical landscapes it can create.

When David, my HH's son, was here (doesn't it sound like he was here forever because of all the places we went?) we looped the road to Tunnel View several times to catch it in different light and hoped for some cloud drama. We hoped for it, and we got it.

El Capitan is on the left, banked with clouds. I love the low clouds caught in the trees in the valley as if snagged by their branches.

Over our shoulders the bare rocks and ascending trees were grayed with fog, both shrouded and silhouetted, making the snow on the ground that much brighter.

Back in the Valley was more of the same, the rock face slick and shiny, the tree shapes elusive, and everything just lovely.

I can only imagine visitors to Yosemite bemoaning the weather, but anyone can see the place under a sunny sky. It's pure luck and fortuity to see these fleeting viewscapes.


Thought of the day:

If the timing's right and the gods are with you, something special happens. - Rick Springfield

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Art? or vandalism? at Mirror Lake

When HH's son David was here last week he drove us around to places we hadn't yet been. David had been here before, for a shorter time than we've been, but saw much more. I have to say that because we don't live in the park and it takes at least a half-hour to get inside and to the Valley, we don't go all that often. It's just like living anywhere: I lived in northern Virginia, right outside Washington DC, for ten years and while I went a lot of places there were just as many I never saw. There, as here, it was a matter of horrendous traffic, lack of parking, and the idea that I had plenty of time that kept me from those places. It's an easy trap to fall into, especially the "plenty of time" idea.

So David played tour guide and nowhere he took us was a disappointment. One such place was Mirror Lake, which we had to get to early in the season before the water disappears and it becomes Mirror Meadow. It was much less crowded than I expected it to be, always a pleasant surprise.

It's a beautiful setting and the weather cooperated with little wind to disturb the lake. This is the view, the only perspective that provides the perfect reflection.

Across the trail from the lake is a hill of boulders, and peeking over the top is a cairn forest, like fairy monuments. The Park Service does not encourage them and will usually actively remove them from the landscape. I don't know why it hasn't been done here. While at Death Valley, my friend Deb saw a huge one built near a canyon. It was newly built and she remarked that it must have taken the builders all day to erect. She reported it and was given the go-ahead to break it down. We also saw some while hiking in canyons that supposedly helpful former hikers put up to direct the way to go on trailless hikes. I always wondered about the helpfulness, though, because who's to say what the cairn is really pointing to - maybe not the trail we were necessarily looking for, or even put there by someone deliberately trying to misdirect.

There are legitimate cairns, those that mark old mining claims or are Native American-built for various reasons, dating back to prehistoric time, so not every one should be destroyed. While discouraging their use, the Park Service also wants to be notified about them to determine if they're legitimate. That's why Deb reported the one she found, even though she knew it was brand new and had no business being there.

Death Valley has a Facebook post about what they call the Monkey See, Monkey Do activity of cairn building. Cairns are like written graffiti in that once one has marked the landscape, it becomes viral. I always thought that if my car had some body damage it should be repaired because the damage seemed to encourage further door dings or bumper scrapes. There's something about human nature that makes us want to join in or one-up someone else.

Last week I was able to go on a one-hour tour of the Valley, narrated by an Interpretation Ranger who is really good at his job. He started the tour by explaining the significance of the National Park Service badge.

The Service's mission is three-fold (I'm paraphrasing based on my memory of his narrative): to protect the nation's natural resources, as noted by the solitary tree, the forest, and the bison; to protect our cultural heritage, as represented by the arrowhead, and to provide for the enjoyment and recreation of visitors, as portrayed by the lake and mountain. It's a delicate balancing act. The more time I spend in our national parks, the more I understand and appreciate the difficulty of the job. People love their parks, and the parks are often loved to death.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk given by one of the people on the wilderness crew who illustrated the work that's been done to reclaim meadows that have had trails worn into them over the years. He explained their job is not to restore the meadows to their original condition, but to restore their functionality. Meadows, when they haven't been trampled to concrete, act as sponges for snowmelt from the mountains. They're basins, collecting water and holding it there until it seeps into the water table. When trails have been worn into the meadows, in some cases as much as knee-deep, their functionality as reservoirs is disrupted because water now runs off, not only not having time to percolate into the soil, but causing damaging erosion that further contributes to the problem. The differences in the before and after photos could be seen as miraculous if he hadn't shown that the crew's work is time-consuming and back-breaking, in many cases digging and hauling all by hand.

This is a round-about path that leads back to the cairns that follow. The issue is polarizing, with the Leave No Trace people staunchly on one side, and the What Harm Is There people firmly on the other. I understand both sides, having found that position the best one to take for sanity. 

So here's this fairyland of piled rocks. Some are astonishing feats of engineering. All are unauthorized. Somehow, as much of a rule-follower as I've always been, I'm lightening up in my old age and, on this issue, couldn't find anything to complain about. For one thing, they're confined to this one, small area. People were recreating with minimal impact. This isn't a wilderness area. There was a respectful, almost reverential hush about it. People walked gingerly among them. To me, the area was enchanting and charming.

Take a look at them and see what you think. Are they art, or are they a form of vandalism?

What do you think?

A last look at the Mirror Lake area is of the river that still flows, but not for long. Soon it will all be dry here - but the cairn builders will still come.


Thought of the day:

Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place. - Banksy, Wall and Piece

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Ahwahnee

As long as we've been here we hadn't yet gone to the Ahwahnee Hotel, but HH's son visited us from Albany this weekend, and we celebrated HH's and my birthdays and David's visit by breakfasting there yesterday morning. I've been to Yosemite twice before this stint as a volunteer but didn't go to the Ahwahnee then either, or don't remember going. It was a long time ago. But I would have felt outclassed and like I didn't belong or thought I would have been challenged and tossed out. If I think I have self-esteem issues now, hoo boy, back then was the dark ages.

Room rates there are in the $500 a night range and unless someone else is paying for it I won't be staying there in this lifetime, but breakfast is a drop in the bucket in comparison and now I can say I went.

The Ahwahnee opened in 1927 with a construction cost of $1.25 million. The site was chosen for its views of Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls (none of which appear in the photo below), as well as its exposure to the sun to take advantage of solar heating. The architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, also designed the lodges at Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon's North Rim. The Ahwahnee, according to Wikipedia, is a prime example of National Park Service rustic architecture, or "parkitecture." 

Original plans called for a dining room capable of seating 1,000 (what?!) but they were scaled back to room for 350. As the maitre'd was leading us to our table yesterday I asked about the full house I expected they would have today, Mother's Day. (Happy Mother's Day to all you moms!) He sighed wearily, a day ahead of the horde, and said they were expecting 1,000. HH and I were going to go again today for their Sunday brunch. When I went online last week to make a reservation, availability was down to 9:15 and 9:30 for a brunch session that lasts for at least six hours, but yesterday was enough. It has the kind of prices you'd expect for a $500-a-night hotel. There's a regular menu but the Sunday brunch buffet is $45. Each. I'd have to not eat for a couple of days to get my money's worth at a cost like that. That's the dangerous thing about buffets.

The hotel is a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register. I had no idea what the difference was so I looked it up. National Historic Landmarks are "historic buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts" that "possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States."  

The National Register is the "official list of the nation’s historic properties deemed worthy of preservation." There are over 90,000 of them, which is pretty funny because when I went on the road two years ago one ambition I had was to see all the places on the National Register. On the other hand, there are just over 2,500 Landmarks, which not only make them special but more likely to be crossed off my list.

The Great Lounge is the major public space in the hotel. It is 77 feet by 51 with 24-foot ceilings. There are fireplaces at both ends.

The other fireplace across the lounge:

Note the sign on the left side of the hearth, the same fireplace as above but a different view. It asks people not to dry their clothes by the fire. It's always amazing to me that people have to be instructed in basic manners...

...such as with this sign on the wall at the entrance to the lounge. What kind of behavior would necessitate a sign like this?

Ten floor-to-ceiling windows line the length of the room, each topped with a hand-stained, unique window. It's a shame they're blocked from the sun by an overhang, because their colors aren't as brilliant as they could be.

In 1943 the Ahwahnee was converted to a Naval Convalescent center. An improvement the Navy made was repainting the interior, covering the hand-painted designs of the original building.

This is one of the best examples I've seen of "parkitecture" blending seamlessly into its environment. 

This time around I wasn't overwhelmed or intimidated. I'm not one of those people who has to be told not to drape my wet clothes around the fireplace, or that I should behave appropriately. I wouldn't have had to be told back in 1977 or 1988, either. I suppose I was classy enough then after all.

I've been thinking about my friend Jane a lot this past week. The consistent theme of what people have said about her is her enthusiasm for life. I've said she went after it with heart and hands open; others said she lived her life full out, full of enjoyment; she was always of great spirit; still others remembered her laugh and her irreverent sense of humor. What a legacy to leave to those who love you. What a kind of life to live.

Thought of the day:

At the end of life, what really matters
is not what we bought but what we built;
not what we got but what we shared;
not our competence but our character;
and not our success, but our significance.
Live a life that matters. Live a life of love. - unknown