Lately I’ve been feeling a little static. We’ve certainly been hiking, but at a slower and less frequent rate. So I wanted to just burn through a trail today just to see how fast I could hike it. I had switched my days with a coworker this week and so Lindsay and I didn’t have identical days off together. This left me free to do a solo hike at whatever pace I wished.
I woke up late with Lindsay and dilly dallied around the trailer for a couple of hours before leaving. It was a long drive across the park to the east side where my trailhead awaited me and to be quite honest I was strangely less than enthused when I started. A large group of boy scouts served as a blockade and forced me to kick my stride into high gear and pass them going up hill. I wanted a day of solitude and so I kept up the pace as long as my wincing lungs would allow.
It’s easy to burn yourself out when you’re hiking at an incline and before long my lungs burned and my head started to ache. It was not the meditative walk I had hoped it would be. I quickly lost moral and questioned if I had another ten miles left in my tank. But then the trail leveled out and I found my second wind. I actually took to running short stretches for the pure joy and silliness of it. When I reached the first juncture in the trail and the sign that confirmed I had completed 1/4 of my planned route my spirits lifted.
And now the wonderful, irregular cadence of my feet pounding the trail lulled my mind into the pristine trance of a single strain of uninterrupted, uncluttered thought. A portion of my brain set about navigating the challenging terrain and the other half took the remaining capacity and set it to the wandering pondering of pseudo intellectual, pseudo philosophical thought. I’m not an expert in anything. In fact I consider myself a failure at most that is factual. I have a terrible memory and while I have spent years pursuing random whims of self-education were you test me on my retention I would probably come off looking like an imbecile.
I tend to function best at critical thinking and pragmatism. For example I love discussing philosophical questions, but I couldn’t provide you with any historical figures, quotes or teachings. I could only offer my own personal thoughts on any given matter. These I will ponder and pine over for weeks, months and in some cases years, but I will rarely crack a book to look into what others have come up with. It’s a shortcoming I’ve simply never been able to overcome.
But back to the trail. My mind swam through the stormy sea of thoughts as I stomped through the dust. Through the forest, through the meadow, through another forest, and another meadow. I took in the views when they were offered, but only for a few short minutes. Today for some reason my prerogative was agility. I wanted to wear myself thin. I wanted to set myself on fire and burn the last remaining embers of everything that was within me.
I passed a basin of lakes, but they couldn’t stop me. I passed a cliff side of beautiful views, but today I would not be stopped. I just kept hiking. Before I knew it the trail had run its course and I was done. It was not the done I had wished for. There was still fuel in the tank, but not enough of a spark of will upstairs to push myself further on another trail. I really need to get back into running. Hiking miles take a lot of time and their slow burn only whittles away sluggishly at your core. Running miles are like napalm and require much less time to eat through you and spit you out. Sometimes I just want to feel worn through. Even empty. Like I have given all that is within me. It gives me a rare moment of solace and freedom from the nagging intentions I have requested from myself and yet continually neglect. When you’re physically drained down to nothing that is the purest excuse for procrastination.
I suppose the Four Point Six Mile Trail didn’t have as nice of a ring to it as the Four Mile Trail, but considering it’s closer to five miles and it’s all up hill at a steep grade so it feels like seven miles they could have went with the Five Mile Trail or the Stairway to Heaven Trail. This trail ascends from the valley floor to Glacier Point. We have been avoiding it like the plague because it’s in the valley where massive congregations of visitors gather daily to dawdle, waddle and snap the occasional photo in between acts of terrible driving, littering, and spending money on souvenirs and overpriced food. But we had to pick up a fellow ranger this evening who was coming in from San Francisco on a bus so we made an exception.
We were in no hurry to get down there though and so we casually ate breakfast and readied ourselves before departing. With great patience I navigated us past the car choked parking lot nearest to the trailhead and found a place just down the road to park. It was almost lunch time by then and so we had a little bit of leftover stir fry before we left the truck and started our hike.
The sun was high in the sky, radiating down at full strength, but we were saved from its wearing affects by the protective shade of the trees which lined the trail. There was also a pleasant wind that at times turned strong enough to make a grab for my hat, but never cold enough to cause a chill. At first we saw very few people on the trail. Initially we passed a couple at the trailhead who seemed to be considering their options and along the way we crossed the occasional solo trekker, but for the most part the trail was surprisingly peaceful.
As we gained ground and elevation the views of the valley below grew more and more stunning. We soon spotted the Merced River slowly snaking its way through a series of drastic bends before straightening out for a very long stretch. The cars and busses gradually reduced in scale until they were just grains of sand rolling along a pencil line far below. Unfortunately these faint markers are not the only things that denoted our intrusive impact on this pristine valley. Parking lots, large hotels and their bright blue swimming pools also made their presence know from our high perch.
It may seem as though I’d wish to banish all others from this valley and greedily keep it all to myself. This is not the case, but I do see the terrible affects of heavy use daily. And it’s not every visitor, but the kind of visitor certain facilities facilitate for. When the place their visiting resembles a small city or an amusement park that’s how they will treat it. With concessionaires and shops every where you look selling everything you could possibly ever want it’s no wonder the valley floor is covered in litter. And these types of visitors require these comforts and the comforts of fine dining, swimming pools, golf courses and cushy beds cooled within temperature controlled rooms in order to survive a visit into the “wilderness”. Take away all these comforts and replace them with primitive camping and you rid yourself of the ever increasing wear of misuse.
But back to our trail. These feelings were awash in the middle where I was free from the attack of such thoughts and my mind was floating in the quiet tranquility of the trail. It was a wonderful trail carefully crafted long ago using the simplest of surveying tools. Its staircase-like nature carried hikers right up the steep side of the valley and the views were almost constant and constantly awe-inspiring. Along the way we made plans to re-hike this trail next spring when Yosemite Falls would be more than a wet stain on a large wall of rock—as it was now.
As we approached the summit the hoards who had driven up to Glacier Point descended upon us from above and the quiet trail became crowded. At one point an overweight lady with an American Flag t-shirt wobbled by with a small, white dog in tow. This was over a mile down from the top and it seemed unlikely that either would make the trek back up to the top. This irresponsibility and blatant disregard for the clearly posted rules regarding dogs on trails angered us, but not enough to say something. Out of uniform we doubted the affect we would have and so we passed on content in the fact that the way back up would be a major struggle for her.
When we made it to the top we joined the crowd for a brief moment and then promptly found a place a little off the paved path to eat our lunch. The rock squirrels—who have adapted to the visitors wasteful and foolish ways—mistook us for people who might feed them or drop something and were literally charging us from every direction even as we shook Lindsay’s hiking stick at them and tried to shoo them away. After eating we stretched out on the rock and took in the stunning view from Glacier Point. With Half Dome towering just a short distance away and Nevada and Vernal Falls still dropping pure white streams of water from their precipices the view is unimaginably beautiful.
After soaking in the sun and taking in the view we started back down the trail and back to the valley floor. It’s a lot easier on the lungs and heart going down, but harder on the feet and knees. But at nine miles it was an easy jaunt for us. We’ve gradually built up a tolerance to the trail and now a ten to fifteen mile hike is our average day hike. I’m not attempting to brag, but I am very proud of our abilities. I know others are more capable, but we have worked hard to get to this point and we’ll continue to put in the miles based on our pure love of the trail.
When we made our way to the bottom there was still a little time to kill before we had to pick up our friend and so we went for a refreshing dip in the Merced and idly watched the sun slowly set with our feet in the water, sat upon its boulder lined shore.
I let Lindsay sleep in a little this morning so we got a less than early start. We had no definitive plans for the day and so there was really no need to rush. We slowly packed things up and said goodbye to our temporary home. We had noticed on the map a place called Obsidian Dome and Lindsay is slightly obsessed with volcanic rock so we took a turn off the highway and down a dirt road. A few miles in we found the dome.
It was substantially massive with a deep pile loose obsidian at its base and hulking masses of it touring higher up. We took to the piles like children hunting for Easter eggs. Each specimen was unique and worthy of at least a brief study. We lost ourselves while aimlessly wandering the side of the dome. The large pieces higher up showed signs of their metamorphic natural, the movement of the once liquid flow of rock now frozen in time in waves of black glass. If I could have hauled—without guilt or fine—one of these beautiful pieces back to the truck I certainly would have. But we settled for a few small fragments that we had carefully culled from a larger collection.
From this wondrous place we headed back down into the arid desert—that was already slowly collecting heat from an unhindered sun—towards a mythic cluster of hot springs . Driving down desolate, lifeless roads rekindled thoughts of the previous year we spent in Arizona. Lindsay’s of a different opinion, but I find the desert to be a very inhospitable place. It’s beautiful, but there’s a danger to the beauty. For me it’s a place to visit, but not a place to live. After turning off of the main highway on one of the few roads that cut east further into the desert we passed a creepy, old, green church, then a public pool strategically placed in the middle of nowhere and then there was nothing. Sand and sage brush. A few cattle grate crossings and miles later we turned down an unmarked, gravel road which we followed for a little over a mile.
No signs, nothing to identify this area as a destination and not a lonely place to die of thirst and then suddenly out of the nondescript, mostly flat land popped a small parking lot. Well not a lot, but really just a circle of gravel where traffic had gradually won the battle against the landscapes hearty plant life. But there were other cars and a small boardwalk – things that acknowledged we were at least in a place where there was something to see. People were coming and going, families coming in for the day with children and hippies stumbling out. The later’s evening must have been pretty eventful considering there were all sorts of articles of clothing strewn about and abandoned. They appeared as though they hadn’t slept and this was likely the case.
We joined the small clusters of kids and moms and dads, wandering down the rickety, old boardwalk towards a hidden oasis. When we arrived the families quickly occupied the larger pool—which was cooler in temperature—and we attempted to submerge our feet in the nearby—and much hotter—small pool. It was simply too hot. I couldn’t stand it at a depth any deeper than my ankle and so we joined the crowd in the more tolerable pool. Thankfully the family didn’t dawdle and was quickly on their way to their next destination.
We were left to share the pool with a middle-aged couple who kept to themselves for the most part. Unfortunately the horseflies in the area were not as courteous and constantly invaded our space, even biting us a few times and drawing blood. It was too hot to spend more than ten minutes fully submerged in the spring—I timed myself—and the flies were too numerous and aggressive to spend a few moments outside of the pool, and so we after a few sweaty soaks we exited and continued on our day.
Another hot spot was just off of our route back and so we stopped off at Hot Creek. Here a seemingly normal creek intersects with a couple of natural hot springs. The pools here are heated well beyond the temperature limits of our bodies and so you aren’t allowed near them. This didn’t stop people from getting as close as they could, which required them to step over the fence and ignore the half dozen large signs which state such actions are not allowed. We enjoyed them properly from a distance. The two pools were ashen white around the rim and a vibrant, light blue in their centers. The waters bubbled and boiling, and apparently at times—not this time—they will shoot geysers up into the air. The creek itself ran along side these pools and was heated by their run off to the point of steaming.
It was now past noon and the sun down in the flat, shadeless desert was beginning to roast our skin so we made one last stop at Silver Lake to have lunch and cool down. As you’ll remember from yesterday Silver Lake is a neighbor of June and Grant Lakes. The steep, jagged mountains that wall this lake in are a stunning backdrop to the lake itself. Their were several others out enjoying the waters, but not too many. We found a nice little spot and ate our leftovers from the Thai restaurant, then I went for a swim and we skipped some stones before leaving. It was a relaxing end to another wonderful weekend.
We are becoming very accustomed to sleeping on the ground, most often in a tiny tent that is technically built for one. Car camping last night—as opposed to backpacking—allowed us the luxury of sleeping in a small—but not tiny—two person tent. It felt huge. None of my appendages were touching any of the walls! And I wasn’t bumping into Lindsay every time I moved. It’s amazing what you can get used to. We went from large apartments to a tiny trailer and then we went from a reasonably sized tent to the smallest tent we could possibly both squeeze into. And I don’t mind any of it. Our lives revolve around the outdoors now. There’s no lazy Sundays spent watching TV because there’s no couch and there’s no TV!
So while I slept like a baby—or at least like a man who could spread out a little in his tent and breath in the cool, fresh, mountain air—I was still up early. As soon as I sense any noticeable change in brightness I’m too curious about the world outside to sleep. I might be missing a beautiful sunrise, but the rainfly of my tent is obstructing my view. This morning my watch confirmed that it was no time to sleep. Once I can read the numbers by the light of approaching dawn it’s time to bear the cold and slip out of my cozy abode for a peek.
And boy was I glad that I did. The glow of daybreak was just beginning to paint the craggy mountains that surround June Lake in the rich colors and deep shadows of sunrise. I took it in for a short while before stepping over to the truck and grabbing Lindsay’s camera in a hopeless attempt to capture and save the moment. I really had no clue what I was doing and so my picture were complete and utter failures. I decided to rouse Lindsay and hopefully her efforts will provide some better results.
After sitting for some time and taking in the splendor of morning we had some cold soaked oatmeal and were on our way. First we did a brief drive through the June Lake area, skirting the banks of Silver Lake and Grant Lake—two lakes that lack any resemble whatsoever besides their containment of water. Just a couple of miles apart Silver Lake is much like June lake – cool, blue, rock lined, surrounded by trees and towering forms of jagged granite. But Grant lake is more desert-like. It almost looks like a reservoir because it seems so out of place. Confined by slopes of barren, loose, red rock with little to no vegetation to speak of, it’s a little ugly to be honest. It kind of reminded us of Lake Mead. The water looks like it’s been pumped in and could evaporate in the coarse of days. The whole scene kind of casted a spell of unease over me. It would not be a place I’d wish to camp or to even spend the afternoon.
Next it we were off to Mammoth Lakes to visit Devil’s Postpile—a geological wonder—as well as tour a brewery, eat out, and find a place to camp. First stop – Devil’s Postpile National Monument. We had to thread our way through a massive cluster of a vacation town choked with overpriced restaurants, shops and vacation homes of varying sizes from your mini mansions all the way up to places that looked as though they were plucked from Vail. It was all quite overwhelming and a little nauseating to me. I have spent the summer amongst the uncontested beauty of nature’s slow, but skillful hand and here in the middle of it a group of investors and speculators took a break from worshipping their piles of riches to take a shit composed of glorified strip malls and extreme sports shops that allow visitors to spend vast amounts of money doing everything, but enjoying their natural surroundings. Why hike up that mountain and take in the view when you can strap on a helmet and googles and fly down it at forty miles an hour? Why enjoy the free and bountiful offerings of nature when you could be in a shop purchasing goods of all kinds with reproductions and artists interpretations of nature plastered all over them?
Yeah I’m getting old and curmudgeonly, but maybe these sentiments just require time – both in long and short form. Time in years, that accumulate and lift the naivete of youth that allows us to be so easily misled. And time in months, the time I’ve spent away from the misguided masses and the crusading drone of the media. I’ll be an old kook someday. Just give me a little time. But for now I’ll get off my high horse—actually a squat donkey dressed up as a horse—and back to the day’s events.
We made our way through my waking nightmare and to the parking area where visitors are forced to take a shuttle to the monument. This was not what I had expected. Again the area screamed “BUY SOMETHING!, NOW!” There were plastic climbing walls, trampolines and other “outdoor” related activities. Mountain bikers were darting this way and that, coming off of mountains sides carved with ruts from their knobby tires. Restaurants and shops blared music and pumped the scents of fried foods completing the attack on our senses. There were mountains, but they were not to be enjoyed. They were to be shred by extreme sport junkies and people pretending to be extreme fort junkies.
But I held my simmering agoraphobia—which has only escalated living in such an isolated area. Somehow despite my daily encounters at work with hundreds and sometimes thousands of visitors I have been able to compartmentalize things and without my uniform I am defenseless against the aggressive anxiety brought on by hoards of people. The bus was crowded with listless vacationers looking to see something different and take a picture of it. Some seemed honestly enthused while others just looked confused as to why they had ever left their TV.
Getting off the bus we made a run for it, ahead of the pack of the ambling mass and we were able to experience a short window of solitude before hitting the wall of people who had stepped off the previous bus. In no time we were at Devil’s Postpile peering up along with the rest of the crowd at the strange geological formation before us. Long, tall columns of hexagon shaped rock stood in a massive cluster that had melted over partially slumped on one side like a petrified wave. It was one of the strangest things I have ever seen. A product of volcanic activity that apparently oozed out of the earth millions of years ago and when it cooled the hexagon was the sturdiest shape it could take. It doesn’t look real. It’s far to uniform. And the explanation seemed a little odd, but I took their word for it.
After we viewed it from the bottom we headed up to the top and here we observed the uniformity of the hexagons. From this view point it looked as though we were standing on a piece of a giant, rock soccer ball. The whole of it even had a spherical shape to it.
Having only walked a mile we wanted to stretch our legs a little more so we continued down the trail to Rainbow Falls. Again we were accompanied by hoards of people and a surprising number of dogs. In Yosemite dogs are not allowed on 99% of the trails, but here they’re allowed just about anywhere. Even on the shuttle bus. I’m totally a dog person, but it seemed ridiculous to haul your dog out on this hot, exposed trail in the middle of the afternoon. Most dogs don’t do well with heat or long distances, but I guess nowadays most people don’t do well without their dogs.
When we arrived at the falls it was crowded to say the least and it’s experiences like this that keep me out of Yosemite Valley in the peak season. You’re robbing yourself of the true wilderness experience if this is the only manner in which you see the sights. The falls itself was absolutely stunning, pouring thousands of gallons of water over a sheer, wide edge and down into a pool, the misty result producing a very vivid rainbow—I suppose hence the name. I waded in a ways towards the falls and stood in the mist knee deep in the pool below. The roar of the water and a bit of forced tunnel vision allowed me to take a moment to myself and forget that fifty people crowded the shores behind me and fifty more peered down from above.
I wouldn’t hurry back to Devil’s Postpile, but despite all my bickering I’m really glad we went. Next task, find a campsite. This proved to be a little difficult, but with perseverance and a little luck we snatched up the last site at a Forest Service campground near Lake Mary. We quickly set up and paid and were off to Mammoth Brewery.
Since arriving in California it has been hard to find the wealth of microbrews we’ve grown accustomed to back in Wisco. But some of the best we’ve tasted yet have been the beers we’ve had from Mammoth Brewing Co. And so needless to say we were very excited to taste some of their other concoctions. After seeing the commercialized monstrosity of a town we were in I all but expected we’d be sampling beers in some faux log cabin building where everything is meant to look old, but is coated in thick varnish and emits the characterless shine of a passing fad.
I was pleasantly surprising to turn down a nondescript road and pull up to a pole shed that not only housed the brewery, but also a t-shirt printing shop. The garage door was open and when we walked in we were greeted by a couple of busy bartenders bouncing from customer to customer with small pours of beer. The bar was rough cut wood planks stacked on kegs and with very little money or effort it had more character than most of the breweries I’ve been to.
For $11 we were treated—and I do mean treated—to seven year round beers and four seasonals as well as a swig of their root beer and complimentary pretzels. We had tried half of their year round beers already, but straight from the barrel they were even better. The ones we hadn’t tried were even more amazing. Their Hefe tasted like banana which was weird and awesome. They had a really great Amber and the IPA I hadn’t tried before was off the hook, with sage and juniper adding a complexity to the bitterness of an IPA that I still drool thinking about. Then their was the seasonals, how does a coffee infused ale sound? Amazing right? Now add wood chips soaked in Tequila. I’ve tasted a lot of beers in my days. I’m no stranger to the wealth of creative possibilities out there, but their beer was on another level completely. Five of their beers were like nothing I’ve ever washed over my taste buds before. The complexity and tones were inventive and successful. So successful that I plan to buy a barrel of it for my birthday.
After all the delicious beer was thoughtfully tasted and enjoyed the root beer was placed before us and the little that was left of our blown minds was blasted to smithereens. “Bark’s has bite.” Bullshit. Bark’s ain’t got shit. This was the best I’ve ever had. And it was all in the bite.
Our taste buds were beat, but there was still one more stop on the tour of Taste Town. We had to eat out since we were in the “big” city and so we headed over to a Thai food joint called Thai’d Up. The dining area was tiny. Five or six tables, most of which were just two seaters, but the food was great! Fresh herbs took the standard curry I ordered to an elevated level. By the time we walked out we could hardly walk. I’m sure between the beer and the food we probably consumed 3000 calories each.
When we got back to the campground we took a walk and almost ran right into a bear. Out the corner of my eye I saw a dark figure lumbering out of the woods and towards the road we were on. And sure enough it was a big, old bear. Mostly black with random patches of cinnamon. It wasn’t more than fifty feet away from us when it crossed the road we were on and crunched into the forest on the other side, heading towards the lake. After our walk we saw it again in the campground, right by our site. I must be getting a little too comfortable around our furry neighbors because an encounter like that a year or two ago would have had me sleeping in the truck instead of our tent, but until I just recalled the experience I hadn’t given him or her even a second thought. I slept perfectly fine in our tent. My belly still engorged with curry and brew.
About 60 miles from our doorstep there’s another world in which we’ve only scratched the surface. A landscape of abundant variety from ragged peaks, to the barren flat desert. From crystal clear rock bottomed lakes to the saline sea of Mono Lake. There are natural hot springs just miles away from mountain sides that are still dotted with hearty patches of snow. It is a place full of adventure, and in some spots—as we would soon see—a wealth of people.
We started out late. We hadn’t slept in for months, the wretched beeping of the alarm has been awaking us for work or the trail ever since we arrived so we decided to spend the morning in bed, lazily drifting in and out of sleep until the appealing thought of fresh baked biscuits drew us out of our comfy slumber.
After breakfast, packing and lunch we loaded up the truck and departed. Even though it’s only 60 miles across the park it takes about an hour and a half, depending on traffic. But the drive is one of the most breathtaking commutes imaginable so there’s really no need to hurry.
Once we were across we excited our beloved home and entered the Inyo National Forest, making our way down to Mono Lake after a quick stop for the essentials – bread and beer. It was early in the evening, but the mountains massive mountains west of the lake were already drooling in anticipation of swallowing the sun. A warm yellow glow began to slowly flow over the strange, geological features that stand guard over the isolated ecosystem that is Mono Lake.
The guards are essentially pillars of calcium and salt. Cracks deep in the earth send these minerals upward and as they slowly ooze forth the combination quickly solidifies into a lumpy, white pillar that resembles very large stands of coral. While some of these pillars are very old most are surprisingly young – just a couple hundred years old. We took a guided tour and learned all about their formation and even observed an experiment of sorts in which our guide combined the two active ingredients in a jar and sure enough a white, viscid substance formed.
Our guide also went on to explain the history of the lake – Los Angles basically robbed it of it’s tributaries for decades and lowered the lake level substantially. Which in turn increased the alkaline and salt concentrations in the water. With great pains and much effort on behalf of volunteers and conservationists an agreement has been reached and surprisingly simple solutions like lo-flow toilets and showers half reduced the cities demand for water and the lake is slowly returning to a more proper level.
Then there’s the creatures of Mono Lake. It once was the temporary home to immense flocks of migrating birds before the low water levels presented new dangers when predators could safely cross to once isolated islands that now were connected to the shore by shallow land bridges. The birds are still coming though. Osprey, ?????, and the California Gull to name just a few. We learned a few interesting things about gulls from our guide: 1) there is no such thing as a seagull, what we commonly refer to as seagulls are actually California Gulls and 2) the California Gull is the state bird of Utah and there’s actually a statue in Salt Lake City to honor them. Apparently the gulls once saved parts of Utah from a plague of locusts.
Now all these birds—hundreds, maybe thousands at any given time—require a lot of food and a saline lake is not overly conducive to fish or any animal for that matter. But the lake is filled with tiny, tenacious life in the form of the Alkali Fly and the Brine Shrimp—otherwise more commonly know as Sea Monkeys. There is such bountiful supply of Alkali Flies that the native tribe actually sustained themselves on their larva with it constituting a substantial portion of their diet. And as for the Brine Shrimp these impressive little creatures look like flakes of green algae floating around in the water until you take a closer look. They have tiny black beads for eyes that are smaller than a grain of sand and their sides are a series of hair like tentacles.
The tour was very informative to say the least and the time was optimal for just as it finished the sun said goodnight and the fiery orange of sunset painted the landscape in the last warm tones of day.It was time to move on and find our home for the night. So we headed over to June Lake and the nearest Forest Service campground. Here we found a nice site right that provided us with a view from above June Lake and it’s surrounding peaks. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day. We had some pasta and beans along with a few brews and a tiny little campfire of collected brush.
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